It’s a damn fine time…

Today I’m emerging briefly from book cave to spread the word about the shiny new Polytheist.com site!

Polytheist.com is the brainchild of my dear friend and co-conspirator Theanos Thrax, known to many in our communities as the Anomalous Thracian. He’s bringing together a gorgeously diverse array of writers (with more to come) representing a range of polytheistic traditions and streams of practice, to create a curated, intellectually and spiritually rich set of columns on Polytheist theology, practice and experience.

I am in full support of this project. I was honored with an invitation to write for Polytheist.com myself, and in the not-too-distant future, I will be doing so. The reason you aren’t yet seeing anything from me there is, of course, the demands of my book-writing schedule (and accompanying obligations to my book backers) – which I have come to affectionately refer to as being in “Book Jail”. In the meantime, however, Polytheist.com has hit the ground running with a fine array of columns and articles from a stellar batch of authors.

Here’s the thing: Polytheism needs this space because – whether or not any given Polytheist does or does not also identify as Pagan – the experience of a devotional Polytheist is unique to itself and thus to have a space dedicated to exploring, teaching, learning, and supporting those experiences is a huge service to us. To encounter the Gods as real beings with agency and consequence impacts our being and our lives in particular and profound ways that are often quite distinct from experiences of other Pagans oriented toward archetypes as prisms of the soul, or toward non-personal universal forces, etc. Polytheist.com exists to provide a dedicated space for community and exchange around those distinct needs and experiences.

Here’s a quote from the site about its purpose:

In a “manifold” universe populated by myriad entities, autonomies, consciousnesses and willed layers-upon-layers of complex relations, animist sensibilities, and at times adamantly ancestral engagements, it is important to not only acknowledge the many gods and goddesses and Their sacred agency, but also the agency of the many cultic communities, devotional disciplines and worshipful fellowships, war-bands, sects and circles. We are not all of us called by the same gods or to the same task, but for those who place central life importance in answering, navigating, and honoring the very state of being called by Them in the first place, this place is for you. Safe. Protected. Dedicated.

– “About” Polytheist.com

There’s also a fine piece in the Wild Hunt this morning with more perspective from the Thracian and from Hunt writer Terence P. Ward on the site launch.

As my friend the Thracian iconically says, “It’s a damn fine time to be a polytheist!”

Now, back into the book-writing cave with me!

Polytheism: How hard do you like it?

I suppose it’s time I got around to a proper theology post. I’ve been talking with lots of folks about belief and practice, about polytheist ritual that assumes the Gods are real, and on like that. Polytheism, hard or soft… a subject of much debate in the Pagan world right now. (For anyone reading this who hasn’t yet been introduced to the question: Here’s a book excerpt with an overview of the terms.) And because I insist that to me, the Gods are undeniably real, living beings with personhood and agency, it’s been assumed that I’m making claims about other aspects of Their natures (e.g. that they are local, discrete, individual, anthropomorphic, etc). I’m not sure I’ve ever said, in this blog, where I stand on this theological question.

So. Polytheism: how hard do you take it? Well, it depends on my mood, see.

OK, not quite. But I think there’s something missing from a lot of the dialogue about polytheism, and that thing profoundly influences my perspective on the Gods. That thing is ecology.

A lot of my college study was in ecology and life science. The ecological paradigm informs pretty much all of my thinking about spiritual realities and theology. And coming from that perspective, the whole question of hard versus soft polytheism keeps looking to me like a false dichotomy. Because ecological thinking is all about relationships, and which relationships you see or don’t see depends on what scale you’re looking at. And if the Gods are in any way real, then They are necessarily part of nature (just as we are), and we can use the same lens to look at them.

So the natural world is this matrix of beings and forces interacting at different scales. You can look at one scale and see individual creatures which appear to be separate and discrete, interacting with one another. Look at another scale and you see populations, separable from one another and interacting with other populations. Look at another scale and you see huge, global forces that subsume the individual into great ecologies of energy and life force. Which scale is the correct lens? Which perception is true?

At one scale, we might see a tree. It’s easily identifiable as an individual of its species – we can measure its DBH, canopy, height, age. We can take the same measurements of the tree next to it and get a different set of data. They’re clearly individual beings with separate identities. If we looked at their DNA that would be identifiable too. And no question, it’s a different species from the mushrooms growing over its roots. The soil isn’t even an organism, it’s just a matrix to hold the tree’s roots.

So now we go underground, and it turns out that the forest is made up of all these trees, but their roots form a network that isn’t just intertwined, but in fact the roots merge underground. And it also turns out that the mushrooms don’t just feed the trees by feeding the soil, but in fact make up a mycelial web that is integrated into the soil AND the root network of the trees, and they are all bonded into each other at the cellular level. And suddenly at this scale, what’s real and identifiable as a functioning organism, a being, is the forest. At this scale, the tree is just an organ of the forest. Which scale is correct?

The forest interacts with other ecologies. It creeps forward, shrinking the grassland. Or desert pushes it back. They dance, wrestle, collide. At the continental scale, we just see vast interactions measured in energy, oxygen, carbon, water vapor. The biosphere breathes its oxygen from the great forested lungs. They pour down carbon from the air to the surface. Day heats the oceans and moisture shifts on oceanic currents. The being breathes in, out, in, out. We’ve seen it from space. It’s clearly a distinct, identifiable individual with obvious boundaries, glowing blue and green against the black. Surely this being is the real one. Surely its identity is the clearest we could look for.

At another scale, we can watch the sweep of planets clinging round the gravitational core of a sun, like organelles of a cell membrane-held to its nucleus, swimming in the solar wind that carves their magnetospheres. Is this an organism, an individual? At another scale, we can watch interactions between galaxies, each with their own shape, composition, gravitational force, rotation speed and trajectory. This one has a black hole in its core, that one has a concentration of dark matter. They’re unique, beautiful, evocative, nameable. Is this an individual being? Is this the correct scale?

This is our universe as we are able to know it. Where in these scales do the Gods live and operate? I cannot see why we would assume that They exist at only one of these scales. The universe is full of structures that live, act, and function on every level, from the atomic to the multiversal. Why, my friends, would we think the same is not true of the Gods?

So when someone asks if the Gods are cosmic and universal or if They are local and individual, I want to say YES OF COURSE. Or, “Which ones do you mean?” I want to say, “I don’t know, and you don’t either! Who can have lived long enough to have met Them all?” I think that if we have any awareness of the multi-scaled infinitude of the universe we live in, if nothing else we have to maintain some humility about the scope of what we know, and ever can know. And I think it strongly suggests that the Gods include ALL OF THE ABOVE. Local spirits-of-place Gods, like the tiny endemic population of this-kind-of-poppy-with-the-spot-on-its-petals which has only ever been found on one mountain in one county in one land. Gods of landscapes: this river, this mountain, this desert. Gods of natural forces and structures. Thunder Gods, snow-and-winter Gods, wildfire Gods, moon Gods. Cultural Gods: the Gods of the Celts, the Saxons, the Nubians, the Saami, the Maya. Gods of cycles and systems: of spring, the tides, the night. Gods of human patterns and motive forces: civilizing Gods, Gods of love and war, of justice and sovereignty and truth. Gods of cosmic forces: decay, death, rebirth, time, eternity, space.  Gods who are mysterious intersections of multiple forms of power. Gods who are simply Themselves and show up in whatever milieux and culture They feel like tomorrow. Gods with no face. Gods who are nothing but the endless omnipotent life force endlessly taking shape in all things.

I ask you, who are we, any of us, to say that we know which of these many kinds of Gods are real and which of them can’t possibly exist?

Here’s the thing – and this is where it comes back home. There is so much we can never know. What we can know is the evidence of our senses. That is all we have, folks. Everything else, and I mean everything, is a story we spin, individually or collectively, to weave together the evidence of our senses into a picture that makes sense to us. That means ALL of our interactions with the Gods are embedded in the context of being human. But it doesn’t mean we should be confused into thinking we’re all there is, or that our perceptions are absolute. Our perceptions are and will always be anthropocentric. Our values, and the stories we weave to interpret those perceptions, shouldn’t be.

I call myself a polytheist Pagan, and not a monist or archetypalist or anything else, not because I am sure that I know the nature of the Gods, and certainly not because I want to get stuck looking at Them at only one scale. I call myself a polytheist because what matters in religious practice is not the ultimate-cosmic-objective-truth which I have no way of ever verifiably knowing. What matters in religious practice is the level on which we as beings inhabiting bodies are able to sense and interact with all the worlds. Thus, while I acknowledge that it is possible that the Gods I know are merely reflections of some great unified cosmic God-force that is beyond identities, it is kind of irrelevant to me. Because when I do my ritual practice, They show up with faces (sometimes) and identities (usually) and They engage with me as persons. Multiple identifiable God-like persons. Thus, poly-theist.

In other words, I speak to Them in the language of human ritual, human hospitality, and I-thou relationship in recognition of Their agency as beings. Whether Their agency is more like the agency of a free-willed thinking human-like entity, the agency of a cat, or the agency of a supermassive black hole (which also, I’m thinking, doesn’t answer to orders very well) ends up being a bit of an angels-on-a-pin question for me. Because the part of Them that I can interact with is the part that translates into human-Other relations, and is therefore detectable and relatable to my senses. In practice, this means for me a religious and ritual practice that is human-shaped and leans toward historical traditions for my particular Gods, and those traditions model ways of relating to Them that are human-shaped. This approach yields fruit for me.

So there you go: I like my polytheist ritual good and hard because it gets me there. But I like my ontology nimble and pliable.

Gods with Agency: Ritual theory for polytheists

Here and there I’ve been part of an ongoing conversation about ritual theory for Pagans. It’s got me thinking about some patterns I observe in many Pagan rituals, and I ended up coming back around to another conversation thread, the one about polytheism and humanism and whether or not we think the Gods are objectively real, or archetypal constructs, or whatever.

Here’s the question that keeps coming up in my mind when I’m following these discussions:

How would you do ritual if the Gods were real to you?

Because I am a polytheist, and the Gods are quite real to me. And as a result it becomes jarring to me when I’m seeing a ritual that is obviously built around the people in the room rather than the Gods that were named, and where things were clearly proceeding without reference to whether or not the Gods actually showed up. Some of them are mistakes I’ve made myself in my learning process.

So here are my thoughts and observations about this.

Deity flavor-of-the-month.

OK, you’ve decided to have a ritual in which you’re going to call upon a particular God or Goddess, because Their sphere of influence makes sense for your ritual purpose, and you want Their help, or you just figure invoking a God is part of your ritual structure so you’re supposed to pick one. So you dig up some ideas about what They like, and you call Them on in. Assuming that because this is Their sphere of influence, They’re going to help you, even if you’ve never contacted Them before. Assuming that because you’ve brought an offering that the books say They like, that They’re going to accept your offering and work for you. I know, this is 101 stuff, but it still goes on and I’ve seen it recently enough to still feel annoyed by it. It would be analogous to deciding that you want to publish a novel, and it would be really cool if Neil Gaiman would help you accomplish that, because hey, that’s what he does, so you call him up on the phone and invite him over to your house and expect him to not only show up, but knuckle right down to help you with your novel. And then saying, “And we’re serving your favorite kind of pie!” as if that seals the deal. Never mind that he’s never heard of you, and you might need to do a little more preparatory work to, you know, establish a rapport with him, maybe have coffee together or something before you expect him to be showing up at your house to hang out with you and fix your problems.

Friends, this is what devotional work is for. Do that first. Privately. When the deity is showing up for you regularly and engaging with you, that’s when it might be appropriate to invoke them in a public ritual.

Invocations.

This might be the big one. I have been to so many rituals in which the invocation is given, and then the ritual just proceeds immediately forward as though nothing had happened (or as though something is assumed to have happened). Someone speaks some poetic words, but always of a comfortable length so that nobody starts to get fidgety. Or maybe a chant is used, and a few rounds are sung, enough to get everybody comfortable with the words and singing, and then the chant is brought to an end safely before anybody might start to get bored, and the ritual moves on to its next planned action. As though it can just be assumed that once we’ve given the invocation, the Gods are there and on board. I can’t help thinking people who conduct ritual this way aren’t really looking for an Other presence to enter the room – what they are really looking to do is to conjure the image and idea of the deity in the minds of the human participants. And I think what that means is the Gods aren’t real to them.

What would we do in our invocations if the Gods were real to us? We wouldn’t just be performing the invocation, we would be at the same time actively feeling, sensing, and listening for the Gods to arrive. We would keep singing, keep speaking, keep calling to Them for as long as it took to bring Them in. We would build our ritual skills toward facilitating passion in participants for this kind of calling, rather than letting the energy die down after one peak when it naturally wants to, and letting that be our cue to end the invocation. We would train our senses to be able to recognize when They have in fact arrived, and that would be our cue to move to the next stage of the rite, inviting Them along with us. We would be orienting our action in ritual at least as much toward communication with the Presences we’re trying to conjure and work with, as toward the human participants. As a community, we would study focus and patience, would be willing to keep the magic rolling instead of getting bored if it doesn’t progress on the same time scale as the plot of a 40-minute TV show. Have you had a look at some indigenous devotional ritual? A lot of those people are willing to sing and dance all night long if they have to. In my experience, if you’re good at your job (and if you did your devotional prep work; see above), it’s not usually going to take all night. But it might take longer than half a dozen rounds of your chant, and if you think the Gods are real you shouldn’t hang up the phone until they answer.

Hospitality

When we call a God into our rite, are we treating Them like a living being we’ve just invited into our house? Offering them hospitality, comfort, respect? I have seen so many rituals where the next step after the invocation is immediately to direct the attention of the deity and the participants to the working of the rite. To me this is the equivalent of inviting someone over, and as soon as they walk in the door, saying, “Great, you’re here. Now get to work.”

What do we do when we have a respected guest in our house? We talk to them. We take their coat, offer them a space to become comfortable. We say “It’s great to see you. Can I get you anything? What’s happening in your world?” before pushing ahead to the business at hand. We should be making the religious equivalent of this a standard part of our rituals. In terms of ritual theory, this means a few things. It means giving offerings when They arrive, as an act of hospitality, not one of propitiation or request. It means making space in your ritual for Them to communicate with you, not just for you to communicate with Them. And making space for that communication to be what They want it to be, not one that you have scripted.

If you’re invoking the God or Goddess into a priest, for all that is holy, don’t give them a script to recite. Let. Them. Speak. Yes, this means needing to be able to rely on the skill of that priest at being able to carry the God and channel Their voice. (Don’t call the Gods into priests who haven’t been taught to do this, and practiced it.) Yes, this means the unexpected may happen. The Gods might decide to take your ritual on a detour to unplanned places. You might have to roll with it, do some priesting-on-the-fly, carefully weaving whatever the Gods brought you back into the ritual. You might have to think on your feet, responding to and engaging with the God that is present with you, instead of the static one in your ritual script. If that idea is terrifying to you, if you are unwilling to allow for the possibility of your ritual changing in the hands of the Gods, then what you’re doing isn’t religion and isn’t magic, but is in fact just theater.

A lot of practitioners don’t do invocation into human vessels. Some for exactly those reasons – fear of the unexpected. Some don’t do it because they don’t have access to appropriately trained priests who can handle doing that. Some don’t do it out of concern that it is dangerous to the priest acting as vessel (it is). Or because they believe that invocation into a human vessel inherently diminishes, filters and humanizes the presence and consciousness of the Gods (it does). These are valid reasons. Polytheist ritual can work just as well without giving the Gods a human voice to speak through. But you still need to let Them speak. You still need to write space into your ritual for the Presences you’ve called in to communicate with you and with your participants, and you need to actively facilitate that communication. You still need to treat Them like an honored guest, tend to Their needs and interests, and make Them at home before you ask Them to work for you.

Reciprocity

I’ve touched on this already, but I think it bears expanding on. Reciprocity is fundamental to all functional relationships, devotional ones included. I think that this idea is fairly common knowledge. But I often see it misunderstood.

A common mistake is to treat devotional offerings as transactional. I offer this God wine and flowers, and in return I get to ask for favors. I’m not saying this doesn’t work at all – it does, to a limited extent. If you don’t mind hanging out in the shallow end of the pool magically and devotionally, you can get by just fine with that. But consider that framing  your offerings in a transactional way tends to commodify devotion. Would that feel good to you? How deeply would you hold your connection with someone who only did something for you if they had a favor to ask? How meaningful would a gift from this person ever be to you? How hard would you run to have their back if they were in trouble?

Try this. Decouple your offerings from work you want to do with the Gods’ help. Make offerings as a regular devotional practice, apart from major rituals. Do some rituals that are solely devotional in nature – just for purposes of communion and worship. Let these practices deepen your relationship with the Gods. Then see what unfolds when the time comes that you do have a need to ask for help with something. Be that friend who was always there, always giving, whose commitment and care is clear and rock-solid, and for whom you would do anything. Be that kind of friend to your Gods. Find deep reciprocity, instead of transactional reciprocity.

Gods with Agency

If I had to boil it down to a core concept, it would be this: if your Gods are real to you, treat Them like beings with agency. Agency: the capacity of an entity to act. In magical terms, agency is something like will.

If our Gods are real, They have agency. We don’t get to order Them around. We don’t command Them; instead we invite. We don’t dismiss Them when we’re ready to move on; instead we say thank you and goodbye.

If our Gods are real, They don’t disappear outside of ritual space. Relationship with the Gods doesn’t begin with casting a circle (or laying a medicine wheel, or marking the Hammer Rite, or whatever you use to define ritual space). If our Gods are real, and They have agency, They are making a choice whether or not to respond to our calls. They are making a choice whether or not to engage, to help us, to be present. We can’t be treating them like a tool you put back on a shelf when you don’t need it, and then expecting Them to come and wield Their agency for our benefit!

What would you do if the Gods were real to you?

Polytheism: The Light in the Window

First, I wish all a blessed Solstice, and may your fires burn brightly and true.

Over the last few weeks, several friends have nudged me to comment on the recent shitstorm debate in the Pagan blogosphere regarding polytheism, archetypalism and humanism in Pagan theology. Up to now, I have not. Not because I don’t have strong opinions, but because frankly I am too busy doing the work of Pagan polytheist priesthood to have time to argue with people about it on the internet – an activity that should always come second in priority to actual religious practice, in my opinion. Honestly, I don’t have enough time to read even a fraction of the heated volumes that have been written about it in just the last month. But I’ll try to add something of value to the conversation.

To start with, I feel there’s a distinction that needs to be made: polytheism is a religious framework, whereas Paganism (as the term is used in modernity to refer to the Pagan movement) is better understood as an ethos or worldview. One of the best definitions of Paganism I’ve heard comes from my friend Jonathan Korman, who wrote in his blog:

The pagan sensibility sees the divine in the material world … and so regards the human as sacred. The pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces … and honors all of those forces.

Thus, one can be Pagan and polytheist; Pagan and humanist; or even Pagan and atheist. Because Paganism is not a theism – it is not a statement of religious doctrine on the existence of Gods per se. It is a broadly spiritual worldview in which the cosmos is alive with powers with which we can interact. Theisms involve the recognition of those forces specifically in the form of Gods. Incidentally, operating from this understanding of Paganism, I tend to see reconstructionists and polytheists of most sorts as inherently Pagan, even if they prefer to distance themselves from the Pagan movement for social reasons.

So that being said, here is my statement of position: I am a Pagan polytheist Witch, a dedicant and priestess of the Morrígan, and a worshipper of other Gods as well. Priesthood is, above all other things, service to the Gods, and you cannot serve something which is an abstract idea or archetype, because abstracts do not have needs. Thus, priesthood inherently contains a recognition of the reality of the Gods as living beings. This is true for me: in my experience, the Gods are real, living beings, every bit as real as I am, though primarily discarnate in their form of existence (which, incidentally, makes them more powerful, not less so).

And I’ll ask you to notice what I’m not saying here – I’m not saying “I believe in the Gods.” For me, it is not a matter of belief. It is a matter of lived experience. I did not treat the Gods as real until I had experienced them. Nor do I expect anyone else to treat them as real, if they have not had experience of them. I recognize that to know the reality of the Gods requires that we trust our sense experiences, including those of our subtle senses – something that many people in modernity find very challenging to do. I suspect this is a big factor in the recent shift toward treating the Gods as useful figments of the collective unconscious. We have a culture that teaches us to mistrust the evidence of our own senses unless it is corroborated overwhelmingly by the observations of other people or of instruments. We also have a culture filled with media images in which the presence of the Gods, or the action of magic, are announced by spectacular displays of supernatural phenomena, which have trained our perception toward the coarse and obvious, and to miss the subtle.  The most powerful and helpful aspect of my training in Witchcraft may be this – it helped me to unlearn this cultural programming, to deeply observe and honor the evidence of all my senses.

This training also taught me that all people can only act from the experiences that they have. We polytheists cannot expect anyone who has not experienced the reality of the Gods to act from true knowledge of their presence. We can, of course, expect our practices and our theology to be treated with respect.

There’s something more I want to say about the Gods, and about polytheism. That is, while it is important for us to trust the evidence of our senses, it is also important to recognize the limits of our sensory frame of reference. This is a matter of fine discernment: the key is to recognize that our sensory experiences of the Gods are not the Gods themselves, because they are inherently greater than our capacity to experience them. Thus, the Gods as we know them are in fact processes of encounter, more than fixed shapes. To quote my friend Jonathan again, “The gods are what happen when the forces of the cosmos interact with human consciousness.” That is to say, what we experience is always a mask or form of the God shaped in such a way as to translate into our consciousness and frame of reference.

This is, I think, where the confusion sometimes arises between Gods as living beings and Gods as examples of archetypes. Those masks or forms can be archetypes, and they do exist as images within the collective consciousness of our species. The difference between the archetypalist perspective and the polytheist one, is that that from a polytheist perspective, those forces taking form as Gods are real, exist independently of us, and can act upon us up to and including physical effects, whether or not we believe that they are real. We don’t, and can’t, create them. In conversation about this recently, I used the metaphor of a stained glass church window, containing an image which is lit and brought to life by sunlight pouring through it from outside. The image in glass is the archetype – it is an image, a symbol, but not in itself alive or exerting force in the world. The Gods are the sun. The church is the human mind. Thus, the experience we have as a consciousness trapped inside the walls of the body is that of an image which comes to life within our experience. It takes the form and shape given it by this inert picture in glass made by the human hand, but its life is real and comes from beyond us; we can feel its warmth on our skin if we stand in the beam. That sun was not made by our hands or minds, nor is its existence dependent on our awareness of it. But without leaving the church (or at least opening a window), what we can know from this about the true nature of the sun is limited.

That last point is important. And it is not the same as skepticism. It is not necessary to question the reality of our sense experiences – we feel what we feel, we see what we see, and those experiences have primacy. But it’s important to practice discernment about how we shape those experiences into a story about the nature of the Gods. It is important to remember that what we have is always and only the nature of our own encounter, filtered through the membrane that separates the full reality of these powers from our embodied experience. It is in this way that we can be both rational and authentic in our relationship with the Gods.

I would like to see the polytheist camp practice this kind of discernment more fully, and I think it would help us in being better understood by the more rationalist/archetypalist folk in the community. Why do I care? Because infighting between Pagans is not only an embarrassing waste of our time, it’s also self-destructive to all of us. While the polytheists and archetypalists are each accusing the other camp of dominionist thinking, there are real Dominionists out there actively working to delegitimize and limit our freedom of religion, and they do not care which camp you’re in. So yes, let us have this conversation about the differences in our theology, and let us bring both our passion and discernment to the table, but let us keep our kinship in mind.