Odin’s Path: Connection

I read somewhere that Odin’s wisdom is found in the ability to make plans that are successful – in other words, his wisdom is found in strategy. I don’t dispute this, as he is a war god and therefore needs the ability to think strategically, but I don’t think it fully captures his wisdom (and I’m not sure it’s possible to do so).

Strategy and making plans – those are both very important skills, but I think there’s more to wisdom than that. To make good plans, you have to understand people at a very deep level, and to understand other people requires a lot of patience and the ability to listen. It also requires the ability to trust in a person’s own experience of the world without feeling the need to negate it based on the experiences you’ve had yourself.

In my experience, understanding another person necessitates the suspension of disbelief. Each person we meet, no matter how crazy or far-fetched the story may sound to us, has their own story to tell, and we all believe in our own stories. They are, after all, what we are comprised of. They are the world we are made of – our stories define us in a way nothing else can.

To deny another person their story is to deny them their identity – it isn’t simply a case of whether or not we believe that the story that they tell us is a true one. That’s where understanding gets lost. People are worlds in themselves, and each world has its own unique set of rules. What those rules are vary from world to world, from person to person, and there is nothing more wrong or right about any particular set of rules that govern these worlds, these people.

This is the type of thinking that shamans must master in order to find the connections that link worlds, that link people, together. It is in these connections that we find the commonalities, the threads that tie us to one another and to the gods. If someone asked me for a definition of shaman, I don’t know if I would have had a proper answer even a year ago – it took me awhile to realize that the work I’ve always done as an empath has always been the work of a shaman. In some ways, they are the same, as the shamanism I practice is inherently empathic in nature (this is, of course, not true of all shamans nor is it true of all empaths).

Now, I would define my shamanism as the empathy required to forge links between worlds – knowing as I do now that every person is their own world. What people don’t understand – or at least don’t like to believe – is that I connect with gods as easily as I do people, and I have ever since I started to comprehend them as having agency in their own right, as having their own type of personhood. The links between gods and humans are a little bit different, a little more slippery, but they do exist – they always have.

It is because of these links that I tell people, when they ask me which deities they should try to work with (and believe me, I get this question quite often), that the deities they need to look towards first are those that most resemble them in personality. Not the deities they admire the most or the ones they think will be most beneficial – the deities with personalities that echo the personalities of the humans who ask me this question.

Because those are the deities that we can connect with most easily – those threads are most accessible to us. Odin is my patron, I am sworn to his path, and yet he is not a deity I converse with easily. Nor is he a deity whom I consult often – the relationship I have with Odin is a very complex one, and it is in the complexity of his personality and the complexity of my own that we meet. It is not a relationship I could ever hope to properly explain to someone else, but I trust in the relationship we share despite the oddness of its shape.

Loki is also my patron, and I am one of his priests. Unlike Odin, however, I converse easily with Loki. Among the gods I work with, he is one of my best friends. On the surface, he can seem irresponsible and whimsical, but there is a depth of emotional maturity to him that most don’t see in him because they don’t look past the surface. I understand on a very real level what it is like to be seen by others without truly being seen by them, and it is on this understanding that the link between me and Loki is founded.

I honor and work with many other deities, and all of those relationships are founded on different commonalities, different threads that link the world of who I am to the world of that particular deity. With Tyr, it is the understanding of stepping forward into responsibility when no one else will. With Freyja, it is the understanding that female and weak aren’t equal terms, that there is a depth of strength in femininity that is vastly different than the strength found in masculinity. With Sigyn, it is the understanding of the depth of love a person must feel for another to stand loyally by them despite the pain they endure. With Mani, it is a depth of compassion. With Ullr, it is a love of competition. With Freyr, it is an understanding of what nobility truly means. With Bragi, it is a love of words.

With all the gods – with all humans as well – there are links of understanding. It is upon those links that relationships may be best forged. Think about the friends you cherish – what first made you friends? What link of understanding does that friendship center around? And how many of your friends are your friends for the same reason? Because I know the relationships I share with my friends are defined very differently from person to person, from god to god. No relationship is the same as another – for good reason, as that would teach us nothing and also be incredibly boring.

I started writing this because I wanted to talk about how Odin’s wisdom encompasses so much more than simply the ability to make plans – he is the penultimate shaman. He sacrificed his eye to gain wisdom, and he sacrificed himself to gain the knowledge of the runes. His path is a path of sacrifice, and one of the biggest sacrifices I’ve found myself making is setting aside my own sight to pick up the sight of another.

That means suspending disbelief, keeping your own prejudices and default biases under wraps as you listen to the stories of the people around you. I have heard stories that most would view as beyond the realm of belief because I have taken the time to set aside my doubts and trust that a person’s story, when they tell it to me, is true enough for them.

Favor of the Gods and/or Divine Entitlement

I read a Facebook post today – which, to be fair, is almost always enough to make a person question their sanity, considering how much sheer stupidity is displayed on Facebook every day. Just today, I’ve read about people who pretend to be incarnations of deities, people who claim to channel deities to advance their own agendas, and, of course, the comment that has led me to write this post.

(Note: For ethical reasons, I’m not providing the name of the group or the names of the members who made these comments).

In one of the Facebook groups I’m part of, someone mentioned how he was walking home when it started hailing, and he decided to go to a shop that was past his house. As he started towards the shop, however, 3-4 bolts of lightning laced through the sky and thunder roared overhead. This continued for a solid minute before he decided to turn around, and thirty seconds after he decided to turn around, the hailing stopped completely. He said it made him feel like Thor was watching over him, like Thor had struck his hammer as hard as he could to get the guy to turn back from the shop.

Now, this story? This is amazing, and I have no problems with stories like this. In fact, it is very possible that Thor has taken an interest in this guy and was warning him about the storm. Sometimes, when the gods try to get our attention, they yell – and sometimes we listen, and we reap the benefits from paying attention.

In the comments was where I found the problem. One guy said: “If one believes that metaphysical forces and beings have a particular and personal interest in one’s welfare and fortunes, it can lead to narcissism and a tendency towards magical thinking and ‘divine entitlement.’ The Aesir, from my study of the texts, don’t operate that way. They don’t give gifts and personal protection. They provide examples for us to follow.”

There are so many things wrong with this comment that it’s hard to know where to start. The whole “but the books don’t say that” mentality – well, that smacks of monotheistic thinking that hasn’t been shaken. The gods can’t be confined to the books they are found within – the description of a god is a description, not the god in full.

And the whole thing about the gods not giving gifts and personal protection? Uh, I think this person may want to take another look at the lore – the gods gave humans the first gifts. For someone who is sticking to the lore, he sure missed the part where Odin and co. gave humans “soul, sense, and heat/goodly hue” according to the Bellows translation of the Poetic Edda. There are stories within the Sagas about gods who grant personal protection to particular people – so this person contradicts himself by first mentioning the texts and then stating the gods don’t do something they can be seen to be doing throughout the lore.

He salvages a little bit when he says “They [the gods] provide examples for us to follow” because that stands on its own. Our gods don’t give us edicts, but we honor them the best when we mimic them. Mimicry is truly the highest form of flattery, so acting as we believe the gods would act in certain situations can help us figure ways out of situations – it allows us to retain our independence from the gods, which is an irony that bears further consideration.

However, the other thing that this guy said is also not quite wrong – believing in the personal protection of metaphysical forces and gods can lend itself to narcissism, and, in extreme cases, what he calls ‘divine entitlement.’ I touched on this concept a bit, in my post about action and gratitude. The gods can be our friends, they can be close companions, and they can be our benefactors. But they are never beholden to us. We make offerings so that they may grant us their favor in return – may does not imply must.

Entitlement is entitlement, whether there is a human on the other end of your expectations or a god. For the most part, we all possess (gods and humans alike) agency and autonomy. Because autonomy plays a role in every agreement we make (gods and humans both), there is no external force applied to ensure that every agreement is kept in truth. If a friend asks me to help him clear out his garage and I agree to do so, I can decide that it is no longer in my best interest to help him clear out his garage and back out of the agreement. This might make him angry, and it might impact our relationship to some degree, but he is not entitled to my help. No one is entitled to another person’s autonomy, and, as I mentioned recently, the gods are a people of their own – we aren’t entitled to their help, either.

But we’ve all met those people who tend to assume that the first time you help them means that you’ll always be available to help them, and pretty soon, the only time that person is contacting you is when they need something from you. None of us likes this – we hate being treated like tools, and it makes us feel like we’re being taken advantage of. I can’t imagine that the gods feel much different when the only time someone calls on them is to help them with a problem. That’d annoy all of us – why do people think it wouldn’t annoy the gods?

In some ways, then, the comment actually has some good advice – it’s just been twisted in a way that makes it hard to glean that advice. The gods do offer friendship, personal protection, and gifts to humans – when those humans are respectful and treat the relationships like relationships and treat the gods like they are more than just a tool for human convenience. Relationships aren’t built out of a sense of the way you can use the other person, but out of a sense of mutual trust and respect. If you’re using a god…well, I’m just going to err on the side of caution here and say the outcome will probably end in the god’s favor.

Many Vs. One – Crucial Paradigms

I had a conversation with a Christian today that didn’t devolve into an argument. I understand enough about Christianity and monotheism in general that I understand that the gods within those systems tend to work with a supremacy clause – either:I am the only god in existence” or “I am the only god worthy of worship” or a combination of the two. For all the Abrahamic faiths, I’d say it’s generally a combination.

Anyway, she was attempting to understand my views and beliefs – after telling me that she didn’t view my religion as a religion at all – which is such a knee-jerk, commonplace reaction that I no longer get angry, but I still roll my eyes at it (if I got angry every time it happened, I’d be perpetually angry, and, as I said to a friend recently, I refuse to invest in anger). She said that she understood that people used to believe in there being gods for everything, that they saw the moon as a god, the sun as a god, the wind as a god, etc. And I give her credit – she was trying so hard to understand, but she was doing so from a monotheistic worldview.

Polytheism is difficult, at best, for even us, as polytheists, to articulate. Because it comes in so many flavors, so many varieties – for some polytheists, maybe the moon is a god. For some of us, there are multiple gods who are associated and/or responsible for the moon. For others, there may only be a single moon god – who knows? The possibilities, the varieties, are endless. To explain those varieties to a monotheist who clings to the Bible as the literal truth (that was expressed during the conversation) is virtually impossible.

The most interesting part of the conversation, however, happened when she asked about the concept of sin. And I tried to explain that sin doesn’t really exist – I mean, there are technically two “sins” in the Norse framework (oath-breaking and kin-killing), but there is no concept of humanity being inherently flawed. I’m not sure that there is a concept of sin at all in the Hellenistic world – I think the closest one comes is in accumulating an overabundance of miasma, but that can be cleansed. And I honestly just don’t know if the concept of sin exists outside of Abrahamic religions at all – which made that a difficult topic. I guess it’s an area I need to do more research in, so that when Christians ask that question, I can properly answer it. I just wasn’t expecting such an in-depth inquiry.

And then we got to a question that illustrates one of the fundamental differences between Abrahamic faiths and polytheistic faiths. She asked, “So what do your gods tell you to do?” Like she expected me to list out a set of edicts and commands that the gods had set forth to be followed. Maybe the gods of monotheism want their followers to do everything to the letter, to be perfect little soldiers, but those aren’t the gods I know. And I wouldn’t – and don’t – follow gods that demand perfect obedience from me.

The gods I honor have never demanded perfect obedience from me. In fact, they have never demanded my loyalty, my friendship, or the sacrifices I make for them. Everything I have done for the gods – and continue to do for them – is done because I made a choice. Odin didn’t ask me to swear an oath to him, to become one of his warriors – he made an offer, and I accepted it. I swore fealty to him on my own, bound myself to him of my own volition. It was never a command.

I didn’t become Loki’s priest because he commanded me to do so. He asked me if I wanted to do it, and I chose. I stepped into the opportunity he offered – I made the decision on my own. I was never forced into the position. Loki would never force anyone into anything – that’s just not who he is.

I have never done anything for the gods I call friends, whom I honor with my offerings, prayers, libations, and rituals, against my will. I have never been presented with an ultimatum from any of them. I have been offered hard choices, and I have always been told that the path I choose to walk is my own.

Perhaps, in this, my Celtic ancestry shows through. I am loyal to the gods who have never attempted to command it, in the same way Celtic warriors were loyal only to the men who proved themselves worthy of the title of warlord. Those men never demanded loyalty from their warriors – they simply earned it. That reflects the way that I have come to know the Norse gods. I’m not loyal to them because they demand it – I am loyal to them because they have inspired me to it.

But to explain that to a Christian who views the Bible as the literal truth, other religions (and therefore other gods) as falsehoods, and cannot envision a god who doesn’t command – well, there’s the crux of the problem. We don’t have gods who lead us through our lives with laid-out commands or promise us impossible rewards. We have gods who will throw us out of nests to teach us to fly and show us that the benefits in life can be reaped only after the ordeals we endure.

To be a polytheist is to embrace a multitude of experience, of perspectives, and of the way life itself is lived. Monotheists can’t think that way – their religions promote a singular truth, a single perspective, a single experience. Tunnel vision is a problem only monotheists have – there’s truth to the statement that polytheism can easily incorporate monotheism, but monotheism leaves no room for anything but itself. Because of that, finding acceptance in the monotheistic society we live within may prove to be close to impossible, but that’s one battle I refuse to stop fighting. That’s the mistake the polytheists of old made, and it’s one I won’t repeat – our polytheistic religions are valid. And I will not back down from any monotheist who tries to convince me that I am somehow less human than them because I’m not like them. If there’s any cause in the world I’ll raise a banner for, it’s for polytheists.

 

Requesting Quotes of a Polytheistic Nature

One of my guilty pleasures is browsing Pinterest for quotes, but there is a decided lack of quotes about Polytheism that are positive rather than calling us all primitive and backwards. I’m determined to put together a collection of quotes around Polytheism in an imgur album so that I can then upload them to Pinterest.

You can find the album here: http://imgur.com/gallery/ghXDb

I’m looking for quotes about Polytheism, about being a Polytheist, and quotes that come from the Gods via various literature sources. Anything/everything that deals with the multiplicity of the Gods – that’s what I’m looking to put in this album.

I’m sick and tired of being told that my beliefs are backwards/primitive because I happen to honor multiple gods, and I’m sure there are other polytheists who are sick of it, too. There’s only so much that social media can do to promote the intellectual rigor of polytheism, but every little bit helps.

So comment with your favorite quotes from your gods, about your gods, or about polytheism in general. Let’s get some more positive vibes going in the social media arena.

Approaching Deity

The Gods have personhood – by which I mean they have agency of their own. They are people in their own right. We often mistake the word people as being synonymous with human, as humanity is the only race on this planet that has been ascribed a level of personhood.

The Gods are of a different race than us, and they don’t normally reside in this world – though I’m sure there are a few who choose to live among us. Because the Gods don’t typically reside here, it is easy to see how people may form the impression that personhood implies being human.

Personhood, however, simply implies having agency. It implies having a mind of one’s own, and thus implies the ability to make one’s own decisions – autonomy is guaranteed. With this in mind, it becomes easier to see that the Gods are people, too. They are a different race of people, to be sure, but they are people.

That is what makes it so important that we don’t approach the Gods using the God Faucet or thinking of the Gods as the Great Vending Machine in the Sky (See Sources). These are two ways of approaching the Gods that have become commonplace, especially among those who are new to Paganism.

The God Faucet is essentially saying, “I need a god that rules x domain, so I will arbitrarily pick a name from a hat and approach that god.” The reason that this is problematic, when dealing with the Gods, is that it ignores the personhood of the Gods. We don’t approach other humans this way – why are there Pagans who believe it’s okay to approach Gods in this way? The Gods are greater than us by their very nature, yet there are Pagans who approach the Gods almost as if they are made for the convenience of humanity. Perhaps it is because we live in such a convenience-based society, as there seem to be among us those who have forgotten that everyone deserves to be treated with respect. Everyone includes the Gods.

To put this in perspective, imagine that you have just gone shopping and are carrying several bags of heavy items, and you have to walk a mile back to your apartment. Let’s pretend you just moved in, so everyone you walk by by to get back to your apartment is a stranger. No one offers to help you, but you don’t expect help from those you don’t know. You certainly don’t turn to one of the strangers you walk by and ask them to help you  – you already understand there is no reason for them to help you, so you don’t ask to begin with.

Now, the next day, you’re walking down the same street, but this time, your hands are empty. You’re simply exploring. You get ready to go into a particular shop when you catch sight of someone staring into the window with a wistful expression, and you decide to strike up a conversation. The two of you start talking, find out you have a lot in common, trade names – maybe numbers – and maybe even make arrangements to hang out in the future. You’ve established a relationship.

The next time you go shopping, you happen to run into each other and start talking. However, this time, you have an established relationship. Perhaps help is offered or asked for, and help is received or denied based on the circumstances of everyone involved in the situation.

This is the way relationships between all people are formed, whether the relationship in question is between two humans, two Gods, a human and a God, two spirits, a human and a spirit, or between a spirit and a God. All relationships require an origin. Even if the only relationship you want with a God is that of patron-client, patrons are often far more willing to help those clients who make an effort to understand the patron than they are those clients who expect everything to go their way.

The God Faucet is picking out a deity and saying, “Hey, do this thing for me even though I have no pre-established relationship.” The Vending Machine works in a similar vein, although it takes it a step further by insisting that the Gods are only around for human convenience. “If I make an offering, then you have to do this for me.”

That’s not the primary purpose of offerings. The primary reason we give offerings to the Gods is so that They may give in return. May does not imply must. We offer prayer, libations, and ritual – among other things – to the Gods in order to celebrate the relationships we share with the Gods. They are the way that we hang out with deity, the same way we go to restaurants, movies, and other venues to hang out with friends. To know the Gods, you must treat them as if they are people in their own right. Not convenient shop-owners who can provide you with what you want when you give them the right coin.

Alongside being asked by newer Pagans how to know that the Gods are communicating, I also often get asked how to approach deity. The question has a simple answer, yet people seem to dislike the answer. If you want to know deity, you have to approach the Gods the way they want to be approached. They converse with us through the means they have told us to use, means that we have known about for centuries. Pray. Offer libations. Participate in ritual. If you want to know the Gods, get to know the Gods through the means they have provided for us to get to know them. If doing so makes you uncomfortable, either get over it or get used to not knowing deity.

This is one area where there’s no real alternative, though there are multiple ways that we can approach the offerings we give to the Gods. But to know deity, we have to make an effort. All human relationships take effort. Why should relationships with the Gods be any different?

 

Sources 

Kin’ani. http://tessdawson.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-god-faucet.html  Explains the idea of the God Faucet.

Kirk Thomas. “Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods.” In one of the later chapters in the books, the idea of the Great Vending Machine in the Sky is addressed.

Communicating with the Gods

The question I get asked most frequently by other Pagans is “How do you know if the Gods are speaking to you or whether you’re making it all up in your head?”

This is always an interesting question to get because the answer isn’t one many Pagans like to hear. The answer is one word: faith.

And most Pagans don’t like to hear that word because Pagan traditions are inherently orthopraxic. They rely on right practice, not right belief, so why does faith have anything to do with it?

While Pagan traditions do rely on practice – mostly through ritual – it is through those rituals that orthodoxy develops. Practice begets belief. Experience yields to faith. In turn, that faith becomes a deeper commitment to practice, and eventually, devotion to the Gods becomes second nature.

That, at least, has been my experience.

Not everyone experiences the Gods the same way, and that seems to confound a lot of people. But it’s not so confusing when you consider the fact that no one interacts with another person the same way as anyone else. Our relationships with other human beings are 100% unique. We may arrive at similar conclusions about another person’s behaviors and motivations, but we do so through different modes of thinking, and we may only generally agree with a conclusion rather than accept it completely.

If we are like that with our own species, unable to form a clear picture of anyone else that everyone else around us shares, then why should we expect the Gods to come across any clearer?

Relationships are unique. Among people, among Gods, and betwixt Gods and humans.

That’s the way that I attempt to develop relationships with the Gods. I treat them as individual beings in their own right. I look at lore as a way to get to know them, to get to see aspects of beings it is impossible for me to fully comprehend. And I respect the fact that I will never have a complete picture of a single deity, the same way I respect the fact I will never have a complete picture of another human being. It is impossible to fully comprehend the depth of anyone else – hell, we have trouble comprehending the depth of our own unique selves.

I can look at my own lack of knowledge, lack of comprehension, and not only accept it but be comfortable with it. And it is in being comfortable with that lack of knowledge that I can find the faith required to believe that the Gods are speaking to me when they seem to be doing so. Even if I sometimes feel that I’m making it all up in my head, how do I know that isn’t a method the Gods use to communicate? Why would I deny myself that potential conduit of connection? That potential avenue to develop a relationship?

I refuse to discredit any potential forms of connection, any potential conduits for the information the Gods wish to pass on to me. My goal is to listen, to understand as much as I am able, the messages that they wish to share. Because if there is anything that connects Gods and humans, it is the desire to have someone who is willing to listen.

In a world where we have become spiritually numb, spiritually blind and spiritually deaf, it is not surprising that we have become particularly inept at trusting in the spiritual messages we receive.

In answer to the question I normally receive, I don’t typically say “faith” because I know how few people listen to that answer. I’m aware of how easily people turn off their hearing when the words coming out of my mouth aren’t the ones they want to hear. Instead, I tell them that if they are hearing messages after performing a ritual for a deity, then it is highly probable that the message is coming from the deity in question. I’m saying the same thing, but removing the word “faith” makes the message somewhat more palatable.

However, it is faith that allows the communication to begin. Faith in possibilities, in potentialities, in different worlds. Faith doesn’t mean blind belief; it means keeping an open mind. Being open to the world of the Gods, to the potential existence of more than we can ever hope to understand, and being willing to listen to the messages coming from beyond our current understanding. It is the suspension of disbelief, the ultimate acceptance of personal gnosis, and the refusal to let anyone else determine the lens through which you view the world.

After all, if we can’t understand our own depths nor the depths of another person, then none of us have any business trying to determine what is the right or wrong path – spiritual or otherwise – for anyone else. And if we are all ultimately responsible for the lens through which we view the world, then we are all ultimately responsible for the development of the personal relationships we share with the Gods.

When it comes to how we communicate with the Gods and how we can be certain that the messages are coming from them and not our own psyche, this means that we have to find and/or develop means of communication that we trust to come from outside ourselves.

For many, that means of communication comes through work with different types of divination. Casting runes, reading tarot, using pendulums – all of these are methods of communication with the divine realms. Rituals also allow us to connect. These are perhaps the most readily accessible ways to communicate with the Gods. Learning to trust in the messages received through a medium can act as a stepping stone to learning to trust in the messages received mentally.

All it really takes is a desire to really listen. To truly hear. Even if the message isn’t the one you want to hear, even if it’s the last thing you want to hear…the willingness to be wrong, the willingness to be open to the potential of anything. That’s how I trust in my connection to the Gods.

And it is in that willingness to be open that I have found myself speaking to the Gods as friends, trusting in them without hesitation, and doing the things they ask of me when I am capable of doing so. That doesn’t mean I do the work without asking questions – the Gods I work with would never accept blind obedience or fawning devotion. Respect, yes. Dedication, yes. But unquestioning and unhesitating obedience? Absolutely not.

Other Gods may ask that of their followers, but I’d never work with a God that did. That is the right I have – to work with the Gods I choose. To develop relationships with the Gods I choose. Just as I reserve the right to become friends with certain types of people, I reserve the same right to become friends with certain types of Gods. We become friends most easily with those who are like us in some way, and that is a truth I’ve found that holds for both human and divine relationships.

Polytheistic Voices: Interview with Dr. Edward Butler

Gangleri's Grove

s200_edward.butler

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and colleague Dr. Edward Butler. Edward has been doing crucial work in reclaiming our philosophical traditions as specifically polytheistic traditions. He’s a specialist in the Neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus and also one of the editors of Walking the Worlds Journal. Thank you, Edward, for taking the time to answer these questions.

GK: Please introduce yourself, Edward. I’ve known you for years and I’m familiar with your work, but I”ll bet a lot of my readers aren’t. What is it you do as a philosopher?

Edward Butler: When I first began to study philosophy in graduate school, I’d already been a practicing polytheist for a number of years. I had a notion of the need for defending and articulating polytheism, but I was by no means certain whether my work in philosophy would serve this function directly or only in a…

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On the Nature of the Norse Gods

I’ve mentioned before how the Norse Pantheon is comprised of war gods – there isn’t a single deity that cannot be connected, in some way, to war. I’ve just started reading Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion by Edward P. Butler, and it already has me thinking – a sign that it is an excellent book.

He mentions using Sallustius’s five models of interpretations for myth with a heavy focus on the theological interpretation. The five models are theological, physical, psychical, material, and mixed. What is meant by the theological interpretation is the way that the very essence of the gods can be considered. Butler states, “The total body of myths belonging to a culture forms a comprehensive paradigm of the cosmos as expressed within that cultural sphere.”

I wrote awhile ago on the avenues I personally feel need to be explored in order to fully comprehend a polytheistic tradition, which you can read here, and one of the avenues I mentioned is cosmogony.

I’ve been thinking about the Norse creation myth recently, and as I was reading through part of Butler’s work, I made connections that I wasn’t really expecting to make but which made sense upon reflection.

As I said, the Norse gods are gods of war, and that nature can be seen within the creation myth itself. Life emerges from conflict, from the meeting of elements of opposite natures. Fire and ice merge to create life, which is ironic as both elements are more than capable of destroying life as well. Both are so powerful in their own right that they cannot retain their own forms in the presence of the other, so they are forever altered by the interaction, and life comes forth in the shape of an asexual giant.

In some ways, Ymir can be viewed as the personification of the force of ice, as he is the first frost giant ever born. Audhumla comes forth as well, and she nourishes Ymir. She provides him with the sustenance to sustain his life. While doing so, she uncovers the first god in the ice, bringing him forth into being. She is able to melt the ice, and so it may be possible to view her as the personification of the force of fire. The two primeval beings created from the two primeval elements after coming into contact with one another. Buri, the first of the gods, may represent the first combination of the two elements in a single form. He is born of both fire and ice – encased in ice, frozen in time, he is given life by Audhumla’s actions, making him the first being to be created from a combination of elements.

Of course, while Audhumla is freeing Buri from the ice, Ymir is busy asexually reproducing more frost giants. The giants born from him are, like him, born entirely of ice. We aren’t told that Audhumla frees anyone else from the ice, so there’s no way to know for sure if Buri is the only god that she brings to life this way. What is noted next is that Buri has a son Bor (whose origin is never mentioned) and that Bor marries a giant named Bestla and the two of them give birth to Odin, Vili, and Ve.

Whether Buri has Bor through procreation or asexual reproduction is never mentioned, so it is hard to make any inferences from the fact that Bor is Buri’s son. On the other hand, we know that Bor marries Bestla – a god with a giant – and that’s that first real indication we have of the mixing of gods and giants. Bestla, as a giant, most likely came into existence through Ymir’s asexual reproductive habits, and it can be presumed that she, like all other frost giants at the time, is representative of the primeval power of the element of ice. At the same time, Bor has a mixture of both fire and ice within him, as he is the son of Buri who is also of mixed elements. Through the introduction of the mixed elements of fire and ice into the giant’s gene pool, the Aesir gods are born.

The fire within Bor introduced to Bestla ran contrary to her nature – as a being of pure ice, any form of fire should not have been able to take hold. And yet it did. And through that conflict, the Aesir gods come into being. They are birthed through the conflict of primeval elements at war with one another.

A conflict which continues with the problem that Odin, Vili, and Ve have with Ymir that results in his death. I’ve read a couple of theories as to why Ymir was seen as a threat. One theory is that he was overpopulating the world with frost giants with his asexual reproduction and needed to be stopped. Another theory is that he became so greedy for the sustenance Audhumla provided him that he killed her, and the gods killed him in revenge. The first seems more plausible to me, as I can’t fathom why anyone would kill their only source of sustenance – it’d be counter to the survival instinct.

Either theory can be viewed in the light of a conflict between the two creative/destructive elements of ice and fire. The gods, who have the power of creation and thus represent an embodiment of fire, have a power of creation very different from that of the frost giants. Ymir’s asexual reproduction can be seen as a type of creative power that was quickly spiraling out of control and becoming destructive,if utilizing the theory that the Aesir trio killed him because of the overpopulation of the world. The creative power the Aesir have is much more controlled, which can be seen in the way they carefully craft the earth out of Ymir’s remnants after they slay him. Nothing goes to waste – everything is re-purposed.

If, however, we view the myth from the angle that Ymir becomes so greedy he cannot control himself and kills Audhumla, we also see the destructive power of ice. The Aesir trio may have killed him to avenge Audhumla, but it is more likely that they killed him to prevent any further destruction. In this case, as well, we see the creative power of the element of ice being overtaken by its destructive power.

The Aesir are able to halt the destruction because they have both fire and ice elements within them. For that reason, they can slow the destructive nature of the primeval ice world that flows within their veins, and they can use the power of fire to restructure the world. Fire is a crafting power when used creatively, but it also has the ability to overwhelm its creative power through its destructive power. It is through the mix of the two elements that the gods are able to stay the destructive powers of both elements and utilize the constructive powers of each.

And they use those powers to craft worlds out of Ymir’s remains. Ymir’s blood floods the world, and only two giants are able to escape the aftermath. A sign, perhaps, that the primordial element of ice cannot be entirely eliminated from the world, especially as it was one of the elements that helped create the world. The gods use every piece of Ymir to create Midgard, letting nothing go to waste. Out of the conflict they had with him, they create something new. Out of conflict and destruction, creation and construction emerge.

Through all of this, of course, there’s a backdrop – the Ginnungagap. The Void. The Nothingness of Non-Existence through which the elements of both Muspellheim and Niflheim must pass in order to come into contact with one another to allow for life to take shape at all. It is the Unknowable Mystery, and the concept of such a Non-Existence is impenetrable, as our minds slide around it as we try to grasp it. Trying to do so, in actuality, might drive someone insane. Because it is not possible to know non-existence, as non-existence, in our reality, does not exist, and, therefore, the concept of it is not easily (or ever) grasped.

But it is this concept that the gods are intimately familiar with, as they originally live within the Ginnungagap. It is to the center of this place that they take Ymir’s body and use his remains to create Midgard. It is from this Non-Existence that physical reality emerges, the place from which Midgard comes forth. There is an inherent contradiction there that is not possible to resolve because it is a concept that we cannot grasp – that existence comes from non-existence, and that non-existence itself in some form exists. Our minds aren’t readily made to deal with such concepts…if they were, then the contemplation of the existence of non-existence wouldn’t have the potential to drive us mad.

For the gods, however, they existed within the Ginnungagap at the beginning. They dealt with the conflict between the two primordial worlds of fire and ice and saw the results of having the two elements mixed. They were born into a world of conflict, a world at war with itself, and it seems natural that they became deities of war because of that. In some ways, it could perhaps be argued that the Norse gods are gods at war with themselves, as they possess the inherent properties of the creative and destructive nature of fire, ice, and non-existence. It is a testament to how complex the nature of the gods are that it is so difficult to get a firm grasp on what may be the essence that defines them, the essence that sets them apart from us and makes them gods instead of men.

I find it fascinating to find such a connection to the Aesir as gods of war through the cosmogony of the Norse tradition, and I enjoy analyzing myths from multiple vantage points. I will not say that this is the only interpretation of this myth that is plausible, nor that it defines the nature of the gods. This is only one of my own interpretations – I don’t limit myself to a singular interpretation of any myth (notice, I even explored two different theories in this one about Ymir) – and it is not meant to be reflective of anyone else’s experiences, practices, or beliefs.

A Book List for Polytheists

The following list of books are the only ones I know of that deal with Polytheism in a theological/philosophical way. There aren’t a lot of books available on the subject, and there may be more that I just haven’t stumbled across as of yet.

The Deities are Many: A Polytheist Theology by Jordan Paper

A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism by John Michael Greer

Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods by Kirk S. Thomas

Walking with the Gods by W.D. Wilkerson

Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion by Edward P. Butler

The books above are ones that I personally own. Notice that most of these titles deal with Polytheism as a whole, rather than through the lens of a particular tradition. Due to the nature of Polytheism, it is much more difficult to find books written about Polytheism from a philosophical/theological position than it is to find books written about particular traditions or about particular deities.

If there are other titles that you think I should add to this list, please let me know. It’d be awesome to have a much longer list than this!

Venturing Beyond the Solitary Path

As most of you know, I’ve been a solitary practitioner for about seventeen years. While my practice is still primarily solitary, in the last year, I have been venturing out into the small local Pagan community. At my university, there is a Pagan Student Association (PSA), a school club that I attend every week. It is primarily an educational club, and there aren’t many rituals performed. In fact, the only rituals done are those done outside of PSA meeting hours and by a select group of individuals.

Ironically, the libations we do outside of PSA hours are open to anyone to attend and are announced each week. The same small group of 5-6 shows up regularly, and those individuals are all adherents of traditional polytheist paths. We have done libations to Egyptian, Aztec, Norse, and Greek deities, as well as to some spirits associated with the Voodoo tradition. It is a very eclectic mix of practices, and we are all very respectful of each other’s paths.

What is interesting is that I feel much more comfortable in this eclectic mix of practices – the rituals are all kept within their appropriate cultural context – than I can ever imagine myself feeling if I were to attend an Asatru ritual where only Asatruar were present. In a way, it is far easier to respect the others in the small group I’m part of because we all come from such varied backgrounds. None of us are trying to tell each other what we are doing wrong or right – our focus is on our own practice and our own gods.

I don’t have to worry that one of them will tell me that Loki is unwelcome or that personal gnosis isn’t a valid way of relating to my gods. We all walk very different paths, but the one thing we have in common is that we view the relationships we have with our gods as sacred. The one thing we struggle to come to terms with is how so many people within PSA never come to the libations, and it is hard to understand how people can call themselves pagan without practicing the religion they adhere to.

I know some of the other members of PSA don’t come to libation because they view their relationships with the deities they work with as private, and I respect that. But there are others who play at practicing – when someone who has claimed to be Wiccan for over a year does not understand that the two candles on a Wiccan altar are meant to represent the God and Goddess, it is hard to accept the claim that they are serious about their practice.

I think this is where the divide in the Pagan and Polytheist communities is really seen – there are those of us who practice and then there are those who don’t. Participating in a libation once a week – and libations take about 15 minutes – is usually not a hardship. Some people do libations every day – that’s not something everyone can do. Once a week isn’t asking much, and once a month is asking even less. I think that participating in some form of ritual is necessary, at a minimum, at least once a month. Otherwise, you risk losing sight of the fact that pagan traditions are meant to be experienced. The practice makes the faith – that is what it means when we say that orthopraxis is central to pagan traditions.

Venturing out of my solitary practice to also engage in small group practice has been an interesting experience. There are far more people who call themselves Pagan than actually engage in Pagan rituals and practices, and I am starting to understand why there is such an exasperated undercurrent running through the words of the more renowned devotional polytheists. While I don’t think that splitting polytheists into hard and soft camps is effective, as division within a community rarely does anything but create more problems, I am starting to understand the root of that division. And it is, primarily, the difficulty polytheists who practice face when confronted by polytheists who don’t.

Don’t get me wrong – practice is unique for each polytheist. But there are clear lines between those who practice and those who don’t. A Wiccan who practices is going to understand what the placement of candles on an altar means, is going to understand the relevance and importance of calling the corners, and is going to know how to open and close a circle. And not only is this Wiccan going to understand these things theoretically but also through experience. Research may be enough to give a Wiccan the basic information, but the understanding – the real, deep, comprehension… the wisdom of the ritual – comes only from the ritual itself.

The same could be said for any other tradition – I use Wicca as an example because it is the most accessible. I’ve never participated in a Wiccan ritual, as I’m not Wiccan. I don’t know what Wiccans get out of their rituals. I know what some of the tools are, what they are used for, and what some of the symbols mean. But because I don’t participate in Wiccan rituals, I cannot say that I understand the power behind the use of those tools when they are at play in a ritual setting. The dynamic of ritual is different than the dynamic of study. There comes a point when the knowledge gathered cannot be furthered except through experience.

That is the point when ritual becomes crucial, and that is why ritual is so crucial to polytheistic traditions. I can read about a god and learn a lot – I can learn their stories, their lore, their personality characteristics, their attributes, etc – but to do only this… I can liken it fairly readily to someone who idolizes a rock star. A person who reads about the rock star’s life, knows everything about that person to the point of obsession, but never actually meets the person. And, as we are all aware, people who become obsessed with a rock star (or any other celebrity of your choice) typically idolize them, put them on a pedestal, and completely change the truth of the rock star’s personality to fit the mold they have designed for them.

That is why ritual practice is so crucial – it is only through ritual that a god can truly be known. That is the only way to know if the personality, lore, and everything else you glean from the research you do is in any way reflective of the god in question. You can read pages upon pages of academic articles that paint Loki as the equivalent of a Norse Satan, but it takes ritual experience of him to understand that he is not Satanic at all, to understand how deeply he cares about those he calls friend, how compassionate he is, how fiery his temper can be, how quirky he can be (vending machine weirdness and socks disappearing), or how hard he can push you to face the darkest and deepest parts of yourself. That’s not something you can get without experiencing him through ritual. It is in ritual that we come into relationship with the gods. It is through ritual that we develop friendships with them. To avoid ritual is to avoid the gods. And to avoid the gods runs counter to the core of polytheism, considering that core is the relationships we share with the gods.

I suspect there is also the idea floating around that the only rituals in existence are libations and bigger group rituals. But almost anything can be ritualized. Creating a piece of devotional jewelry for a particular deity is ritual. Meditating for a certain period of time on a particular deity is ritual. Writing a poem, a song, a blog post, a journal, a book for a particular deity is ritual. Making a video, a film, or creating a play for a particular deity is ritual. Doing service or volunteer work dedicated to a particular deity is ritual. There are millions of ways to do ritual, just as there are millions of ways to celebrate the friendships we have with other people. Ritual is a celebration of the friendships we have with the gods, and I think there is a misunderstanding of this that creates Pagans and Polytheists alike who are often afraid to engage in ritual.

There is a great fear that doing a ritual wrong is not permitted. That making a mistake is unrecoverable. But we do rituals for fallible gods and spirits, entities who make mistakes in their own right. We can make mistakes – in fact, we will. That doesn’t mean we can’t brush ourselves off, get back up, and try again. We aren’t perfect, but that’s okay – neither are our gods. Neither are our friends. When we can all think of the gods as the most respected and admired friends we hold, then ritual will become second-nature. Until then, I guess we will keep arguing amongst each other as to who has the right view of the gods. Because proving each other wrong – that certainly matters more than the relationships we hold with our gods. Or, at least, that’s the way it seems.

For that reason alone, I’ve kept to my solitary practice. I’m comfortable in the small group I have joined now because it isn’t a group of one path. It isn’t a named group, it’s just a group of friends who happen to share a respect for the gods meeting and performing ritual. It is a very informal group, with decently formalized rituals, and that is the reason I find it comfortable. I don’t feel like I have to defend my practices or my beliefs to my friends – I can walk my own path, secure in the knowledge that those around me are walking theirs and that all of us are respecting each other. This small group is a perfect example of what inclusive polytheistic practice looks like, and it is something I would love to see spread throughout the Pagan community. Because, from my standpoint, one of the biggest lies in the community is that Paganism is an inclusive faith. It is what brought me to Paganism originally, but it has taken me seventeen years to find even a small group of people who really understand what inclusiveness even looks like.