A Test

Quoting John Beckett:

Tests can confirm your commitment to the Gods. My experience with the Gods – or at least, with the handful I’m familiar with – has been very straightforward. They ask people They think can help Them to do the things They want done. Show you can handle that and They’ll keep giving you more. Tell them “no” and They’ll move on to someone else. Tell them “yes” and then don’t keep your word and things will get unpleasant. But in all this, I’ve never been told “first prove you’re worthy.”

I have been thinking about this topic lately. Some years ago, maybe about 6 or so, I decided to take my polytheism more seriously. I had daily impromptu prayers and regular rituals, and by way of magic attempted to incorporate the Gods more actively in my daily life. I gave worshipful oblations to various Deities of my “pantheon”, including the Allfather, and told Them I wanted to serve. I asked: what is it You would have me do?

I did not get an answer.

I decided that this problem was due to my inexperience and lack of “listening skills”. I thought that perhaps I was rushing forward too much (especially after a couple attempts at more complex rituals resulted in bad luck and poor omens). I decided to focus not just on my skill set, but on developing a closer devotional relationship to the Gods. This meant regular practice of pure worship, acts with no purpose but to honor the glory of the Gods, and an attempt to sharpen the clarity of Their messages. I also learned new styles of divination, including taking some “formal” training, specifically to channel Their voice. Sometimes, perhaps twice a year, I would petition Them again: I want to serve. What is it you would have me do?

I got an answer now. It was the same answer every time I asked. It stayed the same for many years. It was: “Not now. Maybe later.”

I tried not to be disappointed with this answer, and it’s perfectly reasonable to think in retrospect that the Gods could see I was headed for a rough patch of life in terms of my health, my finances, and certain future-altering decision (like my return to college). I kept going anyway, partly because I felt it was the right thing to do, partly because their answers said I should keep going and be patient, but also because it seemed to be a test. I needed to prove my dedication to Them, my reliability, before They would trust me with anything more. If I put in the leg work to get close to Them, then They would, one day, give me direction in life.

(You can maybe picture me gritting my teeth here, though.)

I began to languish. It is near impossible to continue to do work while feeling isolated and alone. I do not really have a Heathen group I can go to during the fallow times, or whatever it is else that other folks have which sustains them. But more importantly, I did not feel wanted or needed by the Gods. I wasn’t asking for any special boon, but I just wanted to feel Them, to know They are there for me. Why do we worship Them if They do not offer us this emotional refuge? It’s the same as desiring recognition for your work as opposed to expecting reward for it. How can a person work day after day without any end in sight, and not even warrant a “thank you”? If I was willing to serve for so long, trying to hone my patience for Them, how was it that I had not yet “passed the test”? It means either I had failed, or was unwanted. You cannot stay in a relationship without love. My worship just wasn’t good enough.

As I stagnated, I began to get slightly different divinatory readings, which should have energized me perhaps, but they just lead to frustration. I even consulted with outside diviners for second opinion. They essentially seemed to say that I no longer should continue on with the same repetition of the last few years, and should instead do…something. Someone wanted me to do something. So I asked Who. I asked What. I asked How. I asked to be pointed in some kind of direction, anything, just so I could know what it was to do next.

None of these questions were ever answered. Even the other diviners only got glimmers of this Someone wanting Something.

Then I had a vision.

campfire at nightCampfire at night. I couldn’t find who made this image, apologies. 

I’m going to break the narrative here a moment, because I want to caution my gentle readers: this story doesn’t end how you might be thinking. Actually, it doesn’t even end at all. I feel like this should all be leading to some tidy wrap-up, some pious lesson, or mystical revelation, or a kind of warning, or at least a “wow relatable!” kind of post. But really, I’m just documenting this series of events so that maybe someone somewhere will make some sense of it and give me some insight. Because there is no cherry on top, poisoned or otherwise.

As I mentioned a post or two ago (I think?) my spiritual practice really died off over the last year. Some of it was due to health and mundane matters, but my frustration with “no answers and no help” extended to Gods and mortals alike. If the Gods really just wanted basic, respectful worship out of me for the rest of my life, and nothing more, that would be fine — if They said so. But I got nothing, nothing, nothing for years, and when I finally did, it came with no reassurances, no direction, no assistance, no support. I thought I didn’t believe the Gods gave “tests”, but I also couldn’t see how it could possibly be Them “mistreating” me. So I blamed myself.

Now I’m supposed to put the lesson here, something about self-compassion, or about trust. Or something. I don’t have that lesson, sorry.

In one of my now-rather-rare big rituals, I laid out a welcome offering, inviting the Gods to join me in hospitality, and sat down to do some meditation, as part of my (now lax) skill building of sensing Their presence. I had one of the more vivid visions I’ve experienced, one where I felt I was being lead, as opposed to just intentionally visualizing (i.e. imagining) stuff. A God — I’m still not sure if it’s the original God in question — met me by a crackling nighttime campfire, wrapped in cloaks and skins. Surrounding us in the blackness swirled a violent, impenetrable snow storm. He told me, if I needed Him, I could come to the fire at any time. I actually wept with happiness. That was all I wanted in the first place.

But, after that, it never happened again. I could not go back.

After multiple attempts, the excitement from this one event was not enough to get me to keep trying to obtain it again. Ephemeral. If I ask about practical mundane matters I still get extremely accurate tarot results, as I always did. But I continue to get the same vague answers when I ask about anything related to the Gods or spiritual matters.

I don’t know how to feel or what to do. Part of me feels like I’ve been lied to. A small part of me reminds me of the possibility that the Gods aren’t even real and this is all some convoluted self-trickery. But part of me blames myself for not trying hard enough and failing. I have the tendency to presume most readers would do so as well (if not to my face, then to themselves). After all, most people’s spiritual failures are generally their own fault, right? I gave up when the going got tough, right? And yet I demand the Gods just give me stuff, even after I have the gall to consider blaming Them? I’m an uppity bigmouth, or something. Whatever.

Worship feels very hollow right now. I gaze at it from afar, feeling the same longing, wishing I could participate. But the Gods are on pause for now.

Beckett’s quote at the top of the article struck me today, because while I agreed with it, it’s very clear that I’ve felt I was being “tested” by Them for many, many years. In my defense, I did try to shift this perspective, to believe the Gods weren’t testing but were rather pushing me to deepen my practice and develop my skills, for my benefit. But unfortunately, I’ve also never believed in power-for-power’s-sake, and so I suppose I defaulted to “it’s a test”. But Beckett’s experience here also causes me a deep disquiet, because this entire time, I was never really given a yes/no choice because I was never given a Task in the first place. I always had to make up tasks myself. And when I would ask for something — not even asking for a task, but simply a hint of direction to go in — I was given answers that sounded an awful lot like being tested. “Be patient” is a test.  Because if you can’t be patient, well, the Gods don’t want you.

It didn’t occur to me to blame my mundane problems on my lack of worship, because I’d actually been quite good/regular just prior to the latest health spiral. I can certainly see how others might view it as “punishment” though. I don’t believe in divine punishment like that, only in cause-and-effect. But without any positive response or regard from Them, when the going go tough in the mundane, I no longer had the emotional resources to continue all alone.

The Hermit by Reinhard SchmidDer Eremit (The Hermit) by German artist Reinhard Schmid. I’m still considering dressing like this every day, btw. 

So what’s the conclusion to all this gibberish? Well, I don’t know. I continue to scratch my beard and dabble in my many plans and devotional projects — the written prayers, the art pieces, the articles and posts, the shrine decorations, the divination sessions, the devotional collections (ha!). I work on them because I maintain the sliver of hope that I’ll again feel the Divine Touch and find the inspiration to continue. I keep working because the work interests me. But, part of me struggles to justify the energy spent, both physical and emotional, on something that seems useless to both me and the Gods, especially when I have so little energy left to spend.

If I ever complete anything, after the Gods, my ever-patient readers with be the next to know.

I’m probably going to make another attempt at daily meditation again; I already do zazen most days as well as a basic yoga routine. I would like to do a nighttime show of hospitality to the Gods (and the ancestors and wights). But I don’t really know what else to do, since “continue plodding on” hasn’t really been working for me for, like, ages. I’d be grateful if anyone has any suggestions for connecting to and understanding Them.

 

 


A general note on mundane matters: some of my most pressing financial issues have been temporarily taken care of by my generous family. My health, both physical and mental, are in the continued (and frequent) care of professionals, so hopefully those will continue to make headway. My various infections are gone and I’m back to being as functional as I ever was. Due to my high GPA and good record, the school situation is resolving much better than anticipated, and I am still enrolled and pressing on. I am still extremely busy with appointments and chores and paperwork and job-searching and everything. The fact that I could even make this post is small evidence that at least some aspects of my situation have improved a bit. May the Gods protect me from more mishaps and misfortunes.

Thank you to my readers for your sincere prayers and kind words.

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Dead Zone

Hello folks, it has been a long time since I’ve posted. Life is not going well. I wanted to give an update for the record. This is a woe-filled list of complaints, so feel free to skip it if you’re bored. I’m mostly just screaming into the wind, here.

Since last summer, I have been sliding down into a severe depressive episode which has impacted my productivity. As I mentioned last time, I had been seeking treatment for a mysterious autoimmune disorder for about 10 years now; if you know anything about autoimmunity, the tests are often strange, cyclical, and difficult to diagnose clearly. The conclusion is I have undifferentiated autoimmunity — but this was described to me as being “not sick enough” to have Lupus, and that therefore I cannot get treatment for it, or even any sort of recognition.

It is hard to say whether my “depression” was instigated by an increase of autoimmune systems, the “bad news” about their treatment, or if it simply came back all on its own. Neither here nor there at this point, of course. At the request of my primary care doc, I am back in therapy now but it will be at least a month before I can see a psychiatrist.

(I am bitter about therapy. I have never found talk therapy particularly useful. But more importantly, I have been denied access to mental health care in the past, so I am not best pleased about being “forced” to go now.)

Coincidentally, I had a transgender-related surgery schedules at the end of March, which was incredibly poor timing. While I’m mostly pleased with having had it, everything post-surgery has not gone well at all. Opiates are terrible and I don’t tolerate them well, and I basically didn’t eat for a week. Two days after surgery I was in agony, and had severe back-spasms which tore at my stitches. They only gave me enough for about 2.5 days, so I had to request more (I switched to Tylanol as soon as I could). About a week after, I developed a pus-filled infection and fever and did an antibiotic round. That meant more weeks of being basically bedridden.

In the middle of that, my next school term started. Most people are recovered enough at that point to continue non-strenuous activities, but clearly I was not. I registered at the school to have accommodations made, which should have been enough. But….

This week I’ve developed another (the same?) infection, as well as some kind of chest cold or bronchitis. Since I am leaking pus from an incision that’s supposed to be healed, the nurse help-line sent me to urgent care. It’s not too bad (yet) but I’m on a new round of different antibiotics, and feel like overall crap.

On top of these things, for the past year I have struggled to find work. Out of 50 job applications, I have received 4 return calls to say “no”, the others I never heard from again. I am baffled as to why. It’s been suggested to me that one of my references is badmouthing me, but there’s no way I can confirm. Even without that, there are a lot of obstacles for “suitable” work that allows for my school schedule, transportation needs, and health. I don’t qualify for most forms of public assistance, due to being a (non-working) student. I was given an emergency grant for one of my rents, and have borrowed the rest from family more than once this year. But the pool is drying up. And of course, with my more “emergency” status of health since the surgery I haven’t been able to do school let alone work on top of it.

All of that means that I am going to have to quit school. No school means no income. I will have to find a temp job for a while, despite my poor health and search difficulties. But getting a temporary job with the idea of returning to school will also likely mean no more health insurance. It is simply not physically possible for me to work full time AND go to school; I wasn’t capable of that even when I was physically and mentally at my peak last year.

And finally, my partner and I are filing for divorce. I haven’t gone into my relationship situation before, I think, because it compromises his privacy. But yeah.

The divorce, the infection, the bronchitis, and starting the process of withdrawing from school have all just been in the last 5 days.

I don’t really know what I’m going to do or what’s going to happen to me. None of the choices I have are good.

I don’t know what this means in relation to the Gods. I think it’s human self-righteousness to say “bad things happen to you as punishment”; the divine isn’t spiteful. But I fail to see how a life of repeated poverty, declining health, and severe isolation are pushing my soul towards greatness. My soul is very, very tired.

Not Feeling Well

As the title states. I have been dealing with chronic health issues which come and go as they please, and they’ve taken a downturn the last six months. I’ve had a battery of tests recently, and my doctor (with less-than tactful bedside manner) has basically told me if nothing comes up, not only can there be no treatment, there will be no way to access even basic life accommodations without an on-paper diagnosis (and no sympathy either, apparently). Without going into the details, this is basically a strong threat of homelessness. Safe to say I’m “rather upset”.

I confess I am also not feeling well about the “community”, currently, or at least my place in it. I think I mentioned before, but I have a very difficult time connecting to people in groups, and paganism is one area I’ve really struggled in, for decades. I’ve rarely found a pagan/heathen group I feel I can identify closely with….and recently, the more I read (blogs and pagan news and such), the more alienated I feel. I seem to have a very different view on theology and ideology than, well, most everyone. While theological debate is certainly going to happen within an active, living religion, when an entire community seems to have very different goals for their choices, it is hard to stay engaged.

I’m extremely turned off by the increased politicization of many groups over the years as well. No, this is not saying politics are unimportant. But religion for me is a refuge, a place to collect oneself, to give pause, to re-grow, to knit the wounds of daily battle so that one may strongly face another. Muscles weaken and fail when they are not given time to heal between exertion. The strongest know that time to step away is a necessity, not a cowardice. But this does not seem to be the purpose of religion or religious groups for others. It seems that majority of people just want the aesthetics of a badass Viking, and attempt to claim ownership of that image via ethnic or cultural heritage, with no greater purpose than to summarily declare oneself righteous.

I’m turned off by the Identity Games. Everyone, no matter their political bent, seems to be using Heathenism/Paganism as an ego-prop or costume, something that makes them feel good because it validates their sense of in-group belonging. This is an extremely different religious goal than mine, where “belonging” is a nice benefit  In any religion the majority will always consist of “C&E Christians” (folks who only show up on holidays) and “Once-a-weekers” (folks who claim membership but aren’t very deeply interested)…. and that is fine, because that is clearly the role religion needs to fill for most humans. But this is creating two problems, particularly in Heathenry but also related Paganisms. First, I feel these people are having too much…clout. They being swayed by our culture’s “identity politics” issue, and are now chiming in enthusiastically…but without a deep level of investment, meaning they are shaping something which doesn’t impact anything more than their image. Second, and worse, is that people who are invested, who are educated, and do have clout, are falling for this identity imagery as well. I see copious posts about political views, and next to nothing that deepens the practice. I’m seeing that same 90’s “wicca” thing, where there are a thousand discussions on Pagan 101, a daily debate on proving who is and who isn’t racist, and nothing else. What is the purpose of addressing political issues to defend a religion with no substance?

I’m turned off by the lack of education — real education. Most of the individuals and groups I follow do a lot of respectful work, both academically and in terms of the mundane. But, I see an increased amount of political bias in this work  which is affecting its quality….essentially, there is what I’d call “academic dishonesty” where people are leaving out facts which are inconvenient to their political positions. I have an in-progress post about the history of Runic studies which confronts this issue. I also want to craft a rebuttal to a response on certain Iðunn interpretations, from an otherwise well-researched essay which rightfully addressed misinformation, but which (intentionally?)  misrepresented the original argument by leaving out the central piece of evidence completely. I also wanted to chime in on the yearly Ēostre debate, though I doubt I’ll be timely with that. And so on. However, I’m already very tired in the mundane sense, so I don’t have a lot of energy for screaming into the wind (or maybe it’s pissing into the sea?) when I’m disheartened. Though I realize some of these issues can’t easily be put to rest, I feel that the only time they’re even being addressed is when a writer finds it useful to push a political view. (Or occasionally when it’s just a mundane misinfo-correction , which I definitely don’t mind, but it always falls short of examining what that info means theologically or spiritually.)

lingadhyaksha-shiva-behind-shivling But really, all these issues return to the differences in religious goals. The reason I started this blog was two-fold: to perhaps connect to like minds (a partial success), and to help create some kind of religious structure that I find lacking in current Western polytheism. That is, I wanted to create a structure for myself, and offer it up, in the hopes that others would find it valuable. But that structure is entirely based on what I feel are the goals of religion, particularly for a serious-minded person. And unfortunately, I see few individuals with similar views. It is confusing, frustrating, and disappointing.

Engaging with religion as a group participant leaves me tired. I get the most out of daily, solitary practice. But something feels missing, as ever. My soul feels stuck in a rut. Is it merely depression blinding me to the joy of the Gods? Or is it a failure of my practice? I fear it will turn out to be the latter.

 

(Lord Shiva has been on my mind lately, due to some Religions class reading. No other reason for His image here really. Hail the Lord of Peace and Destruction, may He bless us with His compassion.)

I salute that Shiva, who burns the sorrow of poverty,
Who is the lord of the universe,
Who helps us to cross the sea of hell

—Expert of a prayer by the great sage Vasishtha, translated by P. R. Ramachander, source

The Locked Doors

The Hávamál has long been a source of practical wisdom for we Heathens, an excellent piece to refer back to regularly, to remind us of Odin’s wisdom.

A witless man, when he meets with men,
Had best in silence abide;
For no one shall find that nothing he knows,
If his mouth is not open too much.
(But a man knows not, if nothing he knows,
When his mouth has been open too much.)

⊕ “Hávamál”, Codex Regius (Poetic Edda), ln 27.

Hail to the Allfather, Lord of Mysteries. His lessons are His blessing on us.

(This is a facetious post. I haven’t posted in ages because I locked myself out of my blog accidentally. I have many words to spew forth in the near future.)

Positive Asceticism

I am a very distractible person. I tend to huff at the general overuse of ADHD, but if you know me IRL then you know I am a constantly shifting tide, physically and mentally. So in my draft blog writing I’ve been hopping around, because I don’t have an established writing practice (working on it). So, I’m once again jumping topics, because this one happened to be what I finished first. Apologies for being abrupt and out of sequence.

A theme I’m going to explore, probably regularly, is the concept of “polytheist monasticism”. I am part of a loose network of pagans (etc) with this interest, and I am certainly not the first. (More on the concept and on established groups in another post.) This post is somewhat of a an off-shoot of that topic.

~

For reasons I only half understand, there is an active undercurrent against “asceticism” withing pagan and polytheist discussion. Typically verbalized as “paganism is about embracing life!”, it is a reaction generally to what practices are perceived as toxic leftovers of Christianity. Asceticism is viewed as a denial of reality, a rejection of the natural body, and therefore of the natural spiritual body and one’s place on Earth — a foolish, often elitist self-view born of the idea that humans are superior to “animals”. This goes against what is arguably the core tenet of (neo-)paganism, which is the reverence for “Nature”. Additionally, this Christian-based image of ascetic practice-as-denial smacks of servitude and slavery, self-flagellation, and shame-filled suffering, done in order to punish oneself as commanded by the superior Deity for one’s Sin. Sin has a greater weight to it than simply a failure, mistake, or inferiority; it has a connotation of disease, malignancy, a deformity of one’s very soul. Applying a moral toxicity to the natural body and natural world goes against what is considered healthy and “right” to most everyone in the pagan-umbrella, and often plays a part in those who “leave” Christianity, and certainly is anathema to most people raised in pagan families.

The view of asceticism as a negative ideology/practice seems to me to stem partly from a lack of understanding or experience with ascetic practices, and partly from an internalization of our Western culture’s materialistic values, which are so ubiquitously promoted. Indeed in the US, consumerism is considered a “national trait”, in a positive sense, and even those who verbally deride it actively participate in its mores without awareness. We are taught that our possessions speak for us, represent us, reflect our core selves – and so materialism is no just the norm, it is almost a necessity. For pagans, it seems to be an overwhelming idea that asceticism is always an expression of the Christian self-abuse seen above, an extreme — or even essential — practice of denial of the natural body.

What is asceticism? Here’s a general description from Wikipedia:

Asceticism…is a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from worldly pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals. Ascetics may withdraw from the world for their practices or continue to be part of their society, but typically adopt a frugal lifestyle, characterised by the renunciation of material possessions and physical pleasures, and time spent fasting while concentrating on the practice of religion or reflection upon spiritual matters.

It goes on to quote Wimbush and Valantasis, who describe ascetic practices in two categories “natural” and “unnatural”. The former is a “lifestyle” based on a minimalization of materialism. The latter “is defined as a practice that involves body mortification and self infliction of pain”. I think this distinction is interesting, because it reveals a flaw in the thinking of the “embrace life!” pagans of the first paragraph; clearly their intent is not necessarily to promote hedonism, and in fact a brief glance at pagan lives will clearly show that many practices in the “natural asceticism” category are frequent. These include things like morally-guided dietary restrictions, meditation, and a rejection of many materialist aspects of modern-day life which non-pagans, including the majority of Christians, consider “necessities”. While I do think there is a pagan push against minimalism in the general idealistic sense (part of natural asceticism here defined), it’s very clear that the rejection of “asceticism” is targeted to those practices loosely defined as “unnatural”.

What are some “unnatural” ascetic practices? I am not so sure this line between natural/unnatural is so easily drawn. I doubt that the average pagan (if there is an average) would consider meditation or occasional fasting to be extreme or unnatural, however I’d presume they think hours-long meditation/prayer and lengthy starvation-level fasting certainly is. (Note that I’ve also seen people say that any sort of fasting perused for the purpose of spirituality, rather than health, is unacceptably unnatural.) Chastity and celibacy are usually denounced outright by pagan, as they are believed to be prudishly antiquated, or morally anti-sex. While many pagans wear symbols of their faith, few have religious-based restrictions on their clothing like modesty or even theme (1). (Discounting those folks who are also vegan and avoid animal products, which is sometimes morally driven but not religious per se.) Other practices are “self-imposed poverty, sleep deprivation, and secluding oneself in the wilderness”, and also taboos or commitments such as nonviolence, standing while eating, avoiding medical procedures, sleeping uncomfortably, exposing oneself to the elements, and so on.

Very, very few pagans pursue “body mortification” and intentionally self-inflicted pain, and those that do are considered fringe whack-jobs by the mainstream pagan community; the word “cult” has been seen applied here. However, lesser forms of asceticism are still regarded as “fringe”, particularly the idea that one would spend the majority of one’s daily life focused on one’s spirituality. For the majority of pagans (and witches and polytheists and heathens, et al), spirituality is only one aspect of their lives, and while it may be an important part, it is not the dominant focus of their lives.

310px-EmaciatedBuddha[Image: Gautama Buddha during his ascetic period,
emaciated from starvation. Would you like a sandwich?]

Religion is used by most people as an enhancement on life, not as the driving force of their lifestyle. In the United States, and basically most of the Western world, the idea of dedication of one’s life to religious pursuit is, frankly, sneered at. You don’t want to be too religious: that means you’re either old-fashioned and “backwards”, unenlightened by superior modern civilization — or you’re just nuts. We have a view of über-religious types as generally goofballs, and conjure up images of certain antisocial Baptist protesters, nefarious megachurch televangelists, starry-eyed New Age hippies waiting for the Space Brothers….and of course the weeping self-tortured monk whipping his own back with thorns. (To be extreme is considered pathetic and scornful in our society; the same reaction is given to other counter-cultural practices, too.) Religion, somewhat rightfully, is associated with the shittiest parts of human behavior, and in the US it is intrinsically linked with bigotry and violence of all kinds, as well as individual psychological repression.

And so as pagans in general are reactionary against this effect that Abrahamic Monotheism and religious essentialism has had on our culture (we can note that pagans almost to a one will tell you there is no One Right Way or One True Religion), while still recognizing the need for a spiritual dimension in human life. But again I ask: where is the line drawn? How much meditation or fasting is “right”? How much religion is “too much”? Perhaps it is more important to analyze how we draw the line between natural/unnatural, because in general I do not think most people do so with a critical eye; after all, it’s already seen that some ascetic practices are perfectly accepted by pagans, their benefits recognized. I think this paradoxical rejection of some ascetic practices as “unnatural” stems directly from a push-back against (toxic) Christianity, and indirectly from our cultural socialization to be anti-religious.

A brief interlude….I confess that asceticism has always interested me. I am a type of person who desires to have some “goal” in life, some sort of guiding philosophy which encompasses all of my daily actions. As such monasticism and asceticism are attractive to me, because I perceive them as specific work done to achieve concrete result, as opposed to just “life”, which is a meandering aimlessly. This is clearly just a personal part of my psychology, and I expect some others with interest in such thinks feel similarly. I do find it frustrating that this life-view, which I don’t impose on anyone else, is so derided and sneered at. But separate from my personal feelings, I think the automatic assumption of asceticism as negative is false and ill-informed. 

maxresdefault[Image: Hotei, the Laughing Buddha. This fellow seems much
more level-headed. But he wandered around with an empty bag.]

Perhaps it is because I’m more aware of Eastern philosophies, but I think ascetic practices can be applicable to us (speaking as a polytheist). Properly used (de-Christianized) asceticism is not self-punishment or self-denial. These acts are intended to increase spiritual awareness and strengthen one’s connection to the Powers.  They can be a means of showing devotion and dedication. They can be methods of putting oneself into “headspace” or trance, to open oneself to Divine communication. They can be a way to disconnect from the toxic aspects of material culture, at least temporarily, so one can shift their viewpoint towards better spiritual understanding. Asceticism, even much of the painful bits, is not some way to create a suffering believed to be deserved, but a way to create an experience that enhances.

Almost every very devoted person engages in some of this: purity rituals, exhausting prayers, excruciating writing projects (ahem), and so on. I suggest that for people who feel they are “missing something” in their paganism/polytheism, one option to explore is the use of ascetic practices. Positive Asceticism can be seen if one steps away from the stereotyped images of flagellating friars. For complex reasons, self-discipline is much maligned in the West recently, confusingly totally backwards to the ideal of “American Independence”, I think…but it probably stems from the “speed” of our society, the fact that almost everything it a click away. Self-discipline isn’t self-punishment. It is skill building. Specifically, self-discipline is a form of repetitious practice to build the emotional skill of handling frustration, which is what makes accomplishing long-term goals possible. It is the same for spirituality: the only way to reach the depths and heights are long-term dedicated practice. Some (most?) people will not get there by merely baking on Yule and wearing a necklace.

And yes – some people don’t want that depth. There are lots of ways of worship and they are all valid. But if you do want depth, as people interested in monasticism presumably are, then you might consider re-thinking your view on asceticism.

As mentioned, there will be concrete evidence that such acts as self-imposed poverty or strict “rules” are actually beneficial to the individual, in terms of their psychological health. We do not picture the chanting Japanese priest standing under the frigid waterfall to afterward return to the monastery in a depressed, self-hating state. Rather, he is improved, strengthened, more open to compassion for the world, more connected to nature and to his own body, and more connected to his Gods. Isn’t that what we, as pagans and polytheists, aim to achieve?

Misogi[Image: a man praying and chanting beneath a
winter waterfall. I think I need a warm shower now.]

While all this is probably rhetorical for folks with no interest in monasticism, for those of us interested in creating and maintaining polytheistic Orders, I think the understanding of ascetic value is essential. In fact, I would argue it’s the entire point of monasticism. You’re right, self-punishment and denial of the body have no place in a pagan space. But the reason a person creates/joins a monastery or becomes clergy is because they want to dedicate the majority of their time and energy to religious practice. This will automatically mean a reduction of “worldly” things — they take up too much time. As a group, following the same rules and schedules and modes of dress are to create a sense of group identity, which in turn enhances the ability to stay in a spiritually-focused state. When your life is devoted to simplicity, it removes the need to spend huge amounts of personal energy into material-based decision making (what to wear, what to eat, what to buy, etc). It helps self-identity too, because there is no worrying about fashion trends, social standing, body-image, and so on. You are solidly who you are: a Dedicant.

Similarly, I think the awareness of what more seemingly-hard practices can do should be examined and put to use for monastic-minded polytheists. Experiencing harshness and pain does not have to be a denial of Nature. Tattoos hurt – are you “suffering” when you get one? Are you denying nature or your body? Unlikely. Spirituality is no different. In fact, am of the personal view that asceticism, and excess, are flip sides of the same coin. You can be obsessively excessively ascetic, which will result in unhealthy pathology (there is a clear difference between religious fasting and Anorexia Nervosa). I believe that some ascetic practices can actually be an embracing of the body and of Nature, that testing the limits of the body, and experiencing extreme conditions of Nature, creates a greater understanding of one’s place as a part of the natural world.

Overall I think the false and unnecessary rejection of ascetic practices is a knee-jerk reaction against Christianity, not a critical analysis (3). I do not think this rejection holds with history (for those of us who are historically based or inspired) — and I also do not think that any practice is automatically “unnatural”, because the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and it will be apparent in an individual whether “extreme” asceticism is having a positive or negative effect on them. Asceticism is not a rejection of the Natural; rejection of the Natural can take many forms. And so can the embracement of life.

In an up-coming post I delve into polytheistic monasticism, which certainly incorporates some level of (“natural”) ascetic lifestyle. I want to talk on a more personal level about how I practice my own form of “polytheist monk life”. And other topics, including the 15 drafts I have going….

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(1) There are increasing numbers of polytheists practicing religious clothing restrictions. I like this and have been working to include this practice myself; however I watch this behavior with some trepidation because, in my experience, it seems to be predominantly practiced by women. If the practice of, for example, headcovering or hair-wearing is limited only to one gender, it runs the risk of reinforcing systematic sexism which has direct impact on people’s lives. We need to encourage non-gendered and universal forms of polytheistic symbols, particularly among men. (I tend to feel that the Amish, for example, are far less sexist in this specific area, since while the clothing itself is gendered due to tradition, modesty of dress is universal.)

(2) Perhaps you noticed that I used non-Christian and non-pagan images in this post??? The Christo-centric and European focus we have in our discussions is very noticeable, sometimes, and I think it skews our viewpoints, even when the topic is itself ethnocentric. Asceticism has been practiced all over the world, of course. I think we can learn a lot about the practical and healthy applications of some of these practices by comparison to other models besides just Christianity. 

(3) But I’ll also note, there are plenty examples of positive asceticism in Christianity as well. This post isn’t intended as Christian-bashing, merely critical analysis of toxic elements of Christianity.

 

Divination Issues

I’m having some difficulty writing the next post for this blog, because it’s giving me an uneasy feeling – not content-wise but responsibility wise. The short story is that I had a rather confusing divination session recently, and I haven’t decided what to do about it. It’s sort of put my spiritual life on hold (of which the blog is a part), because, while my daily practices are the same, I don’t know how to proceed with my future growth. (I might honestly end up sharing it here, I’m so dumbfounded. At the very least I’m going to contact a friend or two and maybe a pro.)

I have like 20 drafts in progress on topics of my Gods and how I worship Them, on holidays, ethics and natural harmony, monasticism and service. I’m also reading a book (read: lengthy academic tome) which is not pagan per se, but involves the Celtic Revival and reconnecting to one’s lost heritage. While I am reading it for non-religious reasons, I immediately recognized the tie to myself individually, and it is coincidentally highly relevant, I think, to certain political issues in the US currently. So I want to do a big review of it, specifically in a polytheist context, because I hope it can provide maybe a new level of insight on the “sociology” of connecting to the Ancestors, as well as practical suggestions.

My Pantheon: Hardness, Density, and the Nature of the Gods

Every post I’m going to make on this silly blog is probably going to start with a lengthy disclaimer, which is somewhat unfortunate. But with the current social environment, both under the pagan umbrella and larger society, it seems a lot of derailing comes from semantic arguments, a huge hindrance to any depth to discussion. I think frequent clarification is going to be part-and-parcel for polytheist blogging in my case. The disclaimer for this post is two-fold:

  1. First, these views are my own hypotheses. I am not asserting them as fact. I am not preaching or proselytizing these ideas as “right”. I don’t care a whit if you view the Gods differently – because neither of us has any irrefutable proof of fact on the true Nature of Gods.
  2. Second, as I recognize and readily admit that I don’t always have all the facts on the known universe, I might change my mind. Gasp. It’s a good and logical thing to update one’s viewpoints when presented with new information, despite the (Christian-based?) American view that changing one’s mind is a signifier of weak-mindedness. Perhaps my future practice will lead me to other conclusions…but this post is what I feel for now.

Usually I’ve found Polytheists to be a-okay with the sort of “fuzziness” I’m talking about here, but, who knows. Am I being grumpy again?

What’s a God? The Nature of Deity

In some ways, this is a “Pagan 101” post, but the Nature of Deity is also central to the theology of any religion. Deity is something no religion agrees on, but it is often the origin-point for choices about mundane social behavior – how do we choose to live, if we know our God is the Only Real One? Or if Deity is inherent in everything? Or if our Gods are omniscient and omnipresent – or not?

I do not believe my Gods (or the polytheistic gods in general) are “Creator-gods” in the Monotheistic sense. I don’t believe in creator-gods at all. There was no supernatural dude, or powers, who consciously created everything with his magicness. Not all polytheists agree with my belief, and many folks in world religions believe all creation stems from the power of the Gods. (And that’s fine. We can get along. No worries.)

Personally, I view the Gods as natural beings like all beings, creations of natural phenomenon. I suspect They are inherently linked to our planet and are not necessarily Universal (though similar beings might be elsewhere). I think the “species” of Gods has something similar in function to us, like all sentient spirit-havers, but I believe our limited perception through our physical senses makes it difficult for us to perceive and interact with Them. They are Spirit Beings, sharing our world, who have been with our ancestors for a very very long time. I also think They are “enlightened” beings, and with Their vast knowledge and compassion They are positively inclined to help Humans develop and advance their Spirit aspects. (Side note: I also view Them as either Dharma Protectors or Bodhisattvas, but that’s another talk.) While They can influence the physical world, I don’t think They have ultimate power over it in ways that conflict with natural law.

I think I’m interacting with a variety of Gods who responded to my call based on ancestral (or similar) link. Which is to say, some distant part of my ancestry “knew” Them, and like meeting the nephew of an old friend, I am already familiar to Them. I don’t mean there needs to be some direct blood-connection at all to some group or pantheon, but simply a network of communication, the same as people and other sentient animals have. I didn’t find Them through living people. When I went looking for Gods, They were already there.

How Poly is Polytheist? Hardness and Syncretism

I typically use the word “pantheon” with a lowercase “p”, for its colloquial sense. (1) Sometimes people misinterpret the word pantheon and read more into it than I’m intending…I have a network of gods that are a clan, or work together, or something. They’re the group I interact with on the regular. While I do believe They form a perfect union, the word “pantheon” sometimes makes people think of…I don’t know, a cast of characters specifically designed for a story. It’s not so structured for me. (Any Gods can, in theory, form a perfect union…because They’re Gods.)

Here’s the last shoe to drop, the One Thing I keep meaning to address on this blog, but I’ve been wishy-washy about: I struggle with the nature of ‘syncretism’ and the ‘solidness’ of my deities. I’m very reluctant to declare my Gods as The God, especially since some of Them have very…unclear identities to me. I feel embarrassed about this. However, from reading tentative talks from other polytheists, I have the feeling it’s not uncommon at all.Once you get to talking to polytheists you see it’s pretty typical that the same Gods appear rather differently to each individual, only linked by a common theme. One person, for example, might receive the Goddess Hera in a Queenly aspect, while another in a Maternal aspect. When we talk to the Gods, we’re only perceiving a sliver of Their personalities, so this makes sense.

Unfortunately I’m also nervous since I am not convinced my Gods are even the same Gods whose names I use. Oops! Yes. My practice has a mostly-Norse “gloss”, which I pursue due to my interest in my ancestral heritage, as well as respect for continuing the traditions of my ancestral cultures. But some of the Deities are noticeably lacking in some areas of lore…or my experiences of Them differs quite a bit from the main story. I tend to believe I’ve got a variety of Gods who’ve teamed up for me (Norse, Baltic, Gaulish, and Celt), or that perhaps all of my Gods were standard Northern European or PIE gods known by many names, some of whom lost favor/info over the centuries, as we know sadly happens. So, I know the “psychic imprint” of the Deities in my pantheon, and I have a general idea of who each of Them are, and They in turn seem okay with using the name and “mask” I put on them. A few of them, though, are still frustratingly unclear.

I deal with this by referring to my Personal Deities as epithets/titles. When I worship, I call my Gods by Their titles, not names. This is important to me, partly for psychological reasons: my brain doesn’t need to go in useless circles trying to explain the nature of the Gods pointlessly, since both They and I know who I’m referring to. However it’s worth noting that a huge number of PIE-descended Gods have “names” that originally seemed to be titles anyway. I feel it’s historically justified.(2) My Personal Deities are not the same as the more general/universal deity, but rather the Aspects/masks/rays/parts of the Deity I deal with directly. Does that make sense? If I was invited, for example, to a ritual for the God Odin, I would treat that separately than I would a personal appeal to my God the All-Seer, even though I think They are one and the same. In some ways this is a matter of “spiritual politeness”.

It also keeps me sane so I don’t fall down the “comparative research” hole, which is bottomless. I’m the type of person who wants to Categorize Everything in that Crowleyan 777 way. You don’t get to know a person by reading their Facebook profile any more than you can know a God from Wikipedia, or even the Eddas. The tales we have show an aspect of the Deity’s personality, so we can get a sense of Them, so we can understand something about Their nature – but They are not Their stories just as the land is not the map. My answers aren’t to be found in the intellect alone, unfortunately.

Some pagans/heathens/polytheists are sneering towards syncretism, but I feel it is also historically justified. In polytheistic Europe the reality of gods was just taken for granted; but that doesn’t mean our ancestors all had the same views of Their nature. We know the Romans believed that all Gods were aspects of their own, who appeared a bit different to other cultures. We know the Greeks had “new” Gods join them after being carried to their city-states by believers. It is thought that Baltic peoples believed that the Gods were all emanations of a central Deity (or did they?). The Egyptians regularly syncretized their own Gods, those Deities combining by Their Power and Will into new necessary Gods. And so on.

So you, dear Reader, might recognize some of my Gods, and perhaps are dealing with the same ones. Or we’re dealing with different aspects, or perhaps syncretisms. Or maybe you think I’m full of shit and only you’ve got the Real Thor or whatever. Have at it. I kind of go back-and-forth with what I believe and the “hardness” of my polytheism, or who They even are, but having talked to a handful of much more experienced polytheists they have all agreed that my approach (home: my mess, outside: individuals) is right and respectful. It’s what I would suggest to others were they similarly confused.

Who Are the Gods? My Pantheon

Finally at the heart of the matter! Who cares about all that boring philosophical schlock? What Gods do I actually worship?

Oh dear, I don’t really want to answer this question. I feel it’s invasive. It also feels false to me to make a tidy list out of these great Beings. I’m literally wringing my hands and getting up for more coffee so I can think about it before typing. I’m going to be talking about the gods anyway, so why not just say so?

I’m going to go half-way and share with you those Gods that are the main Gods of my heart. This is not a complete list. There are Others I honor regularly, with dedicated space on my shrines. But these are perhaps the ones deal with most directly, and will likely be mentioned frequently here.

  • The Dark Mother is the most amorphous and is missing from Norse lore, but She has been with me for decades. I call her Ragana. She is a Witch-Queen and the Goddess of Toads, the healer-poisoner mystic.
  • The Bear Mistress has been with me just as long. She may be an aspect of Skaði, but perhaps Artio and/or Mielikki. She has not deigned to tell me. She is the Huntress through wild moonlit forests, who destroys weakness.
  • The Gold Lady and the Good King are Iðunn and Bragi. She is the Rosy Dawn and the Renewal of Spring and the Gods’ End. (She is fantastic!) He is, of course, the most honest of Speakers and and Protector of Wyrd.

Gosh, that list seems so short! But these three Goddesses (plus Consort!) are Those who receive my primary attention and after whom I model my spiritual journey. I am devoted to Them, though not in a sworn-capital-D way. I will definitely be exploring Them, along with the rest of Their cohort, as this blog plods on.

I also keep an ancestor shrine with photos and heirlooms, and one to the Vaettir, animal, and plant spirits.

(1) Somewhat recently PSVL talked about this on Pantheons as the Battleground of Syncretism, and goes into some other related polytheistic experiences.
(2) After writing this page, I saw that Marc on Lārhūs Fyrnsida talks about this in Prayer in a Heathen Context. Happy to see I was already incorporating some of these elements!


Phew! I am so glad that’s over with! Now I can get on with actually talking about what I do with these Spirit-Folks. My next post is going to go a little bit into the orthopraxy-orthodoxy framework, and how I think it can be applied practically.

Small note: I finished this post on 2/2, but tried to set it to post 2/8, to spread it out from my brief Imbolc post. It didn’t post because I fail at WordPress, oops – but it’s okay because I got to revise it a little. From now on, I am going to try to work on this blog/the shrines on Thursdays (my day of rest) with the goal that I’ll at least get one post per month.