Polytheistic Voices: Interview with Dr. Edward Butler

Gangleri's Grove


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.

Action and Gratitude

When you work as closely with deities as I do, you start treating them like close, but respected, friends. And you usually don’t think too hard about asking friends for favors. In the case of deities, of course, you request favors via prayer.

In a society predominantly Christian, it can be easy to backslide into the mentality of expecting things to happen. And then, when things don’t go accordingly, it’s easy to get upset with the gods.

Backsliding happens to everyone, whether you’re willing to own up to it or not. It’s hard to constantly live in a polytheistic paradigm when the world around you is shouting monotheism at the top of its lungs.

Still, prayers to deities that consist of specific requests can only come to fruition if, once you have asked, you do absolutely everything in your own power to make it happen. The gods come in and add an extra umph at the end, but if you don’t even start, then why should they do the work for you?

It’s the same with spellwork. If you do a spell to get a new job, then refuse to put it in any work to find a new job, you’re not going to land a new job very easily. Intent matters, both in spell and prayer – in my experience, prayer and spell are basically synonyms. Spellwork is just a little more elaborate.

And, after you’ve done everything in your power to accomplish what you asked for – whether it’s money, a new job, or help finding a partner – it’s important to remember to do a ritual of gratitude. It’s the equivalent of sending a thank you note to someone for their effort, especially when that person (or deity, as the case may be) was never obligated to helping you or granting you any favors.

The Havamal tells us “A gift for a gift” and it also emphasizes hospitality, where a gracious manner is essential. The gods have given us so much already – when we ask for more, it’s only right that we work as hard as we can to accomplish what we can on our own and then offer our gratitude when they come in and lend a hand to cross us over the finish line, so to speak.

These are things that are very easy to forget…and yet, these are the things that are at the very heart of Pagan faiths. Action and gratitude. That’s all it takes.

Tyr’s Path: Need for Balance

First post of the new year, and I’m thinking a lot about balance. What it means, how to find it. How to structure my life without overwhelming myself and also leaving enough room in it for spontaneity. It’s a very Tyrian way of thinking, as Tyr is the deity that presides over cosmic balance.

Most paint him as the deity that presides over justice. In the Norse pantheon, that is actually Forseti, and he is the one to call on for courtly disputes. Tyr does work with justice, but on a cosmic level. As the ultimate balancing agent. He is the peacekeeper who will wage war to bring about harmony. He does what is needed in order to keep the worlds from colliding.

I’ve read a lot of posts lately about how the Otherworld is leaking through into ours, how the veils between this world and the next are shredded. But I’m not quite sure shredded is the right word. Thinner, perhaps, but I’m not sure that’s a negative . Yes, I had to deal with more otherwordly encounters last year than before, but I can’t view that as being a bad thing.

Others are concerned…I guess I’m a little concerned myself, but it’s more a concern about what it is I need to know in order to face whatever ends up in this world. Science can’t explain a lot about the spiritual phenomena we encounter every day, and that may always be true. While I don’t believe science and magic are incompatible, a balance between the two has yet to be properly struck.

Anyway, it’s not just in the greater schemata of the universe that I am sensing a need for balance. There’s also a bit of a deficit of it in my own life. That’s not really too surprising, since I work with both Odin and Loki (extreme order, extreme chaos). It’s hard to seesaw back and forth between the two of them without someone else to help balance out those two very strong forces, and that’s where I find it necessary to turn to Tyr.

Very little is known about Tyr, aside from the bravery he showed when he did what was necessary to keep the peace in the realms by binding Fenrir and losing his hand in the process. it’s not as clear-cut as saying the ends justify the means, but rather that the right ends (namely, peace and frith between the worlds) justify the means, even if those means happens to require the betrayal of a great friend. It becomes a study in how sacrificing one for the sake of the many can be done, and, sometimes, how it should be done. One life versus one hundred. One realm versus nine. There are no easy answers. But the questions must be posed, and it is only in weighing the odds that balance is found.


Loki’s Path – the Non-Binary World

When most people think non-binary, they think gender. Because the LGBTQ+ community (of which I am a proud member) has done a wonderful job of promoting gender awareness. The community has spread awareness that there are more genders than just male and female – there’s a difference between biological sex and gender, which is, of course, a social construct.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about non-binary gender identity because I realized a few days ago that I don’t really have a gender identity. Yes, I was born female – biologically, that’s my sex. But I don’t identify as a woman insomuch as society tells me I am one because there’s still this confusion between sex and gender. I also don’t identify as a male, nor do I identify as trans… it took me awhile to realize that my gender identity is agender – I don’t identify with any gender at all.

To be fair, the last time I was proactively engaged in the LGBTQ+ community was in high school – over ten years ago – and after I graduated high school, I got too busy with work, figuring out my religion, and relationship dramas to really engage in the community. I was too busy with life to worry or care about what my sexuality or gender identities might be.

I mean, yes, in high school, I came out as bisexual. But I did that almost by accident. I wrote a letter to a friend asking her what she thought about homosexuality and got back a four page response accusing me of being a lesbian and telling me that we could no longer be friends because I was going to go to hell for being a terrible sinner. I was shocked at the reaction a simple question had provoked, but I let her spread the rumor that I was a lesbian without disputing it unless someone asked (upon which I said I was bisexual). I honestly didn’t care what people thought about my sexuality. I never have. My sexuality isn’t anyone’s business but mine, yet it caused my high school to react with a high dramatic flair. I had two girls follow me around my freshman year, taunting me about how I was going to hell, only to have those self-same girls come up to me my senior year and ask me what it was like to be with a girl. People are fickle. That’s what I learned.

Prior to this year of university, my engagement with the LGBTQ+ community was via friends I had who were also part of the community, talking to people online, and reading news stories. That was all the exposure I had. Until this year, I didn’t realize how large the local LGBTQ+ community really is, and I had very little experience with non-binary gender identities. I knew I’d never have a problem with transgender – that was the only one I’d even heard of before – because I can easily understand why someone born as one sex can feel like the opposite gender than the gender they were assigned at birth. That never confused me. I’ve never felt uncomfortable being in the body of a woman, but I’ve never really felt like a woman. It just happens to be the sex I was born as.

I’d never heard of gender neutral pronouns until about a year ago when I first met someone who used the they/them/their pronouns. It was a little weird to get used to using the pronouns as singular rather than plural – especially as a writer – but I’ve always been an advocate of supporting the way that others identify themselves. Now, if I know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns and a friend slips up when talking about said person, I immediately correct my friend. I understand the disconnect from the binary.

And, for the first time since high school, I took the exploration of my own sexual and gender orientation off the back-burner and really started considering it. I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t bisexual, I was pansexual. There’s not a single gender that I’m averse to – a person is much more than their gender. In some ways, that makes me gender blind, but in others… I understand that gender is a very important part of who they are, and I’d never downplay someone else’s gender identification.

But figuring out my own gender – that was more difficult. I already knew that gender was a social construct. I’ve taken enough psychology courses to know that. When it came to figuring out my gender, however, I just shrugged it off. I didn’t know there were more genders to choose from than just male, female, and transgender. I thought those were the only three. I’ve since done a lot more research – I’m pretty quick to correct gaps in my knowledge when I feel the need – and I realized pretty quickly that I identify most strongly with the agender identification. I still use feminine pronouns because I genuinely don’t care how others view my gender. I don’t identify as any gender, so why would I care? Others who identify as agender may care – that’s fine. I don’t, and I can only speak for myself.

Now,  you may be wondering what all of this has to do with Loki, but honestly, it should be fairly obvious. Loki is, perhaps, the most gender fluid of all the Norse deities. Loki shows up as female, as male, and anything/everything in-between. He also takes on animal forms. He has no qualms showing up in whatever form suits him.

On top of that, he is also the deity who pushes the hardest for those who honor him to embrace every aspect of themselves. No matter how hard it is, Loki says “Face yourself. Figure out who you are. Embrace yourself.” There’s a reason Loki is often the patron of those within the LGBTQ+ community. Of all the deities in the Norse pantheon, he may be the least non-judgmental.

In the Heathen community as a whole, being part of it while also being queer? That’s not an easy thing to do, especially when there’s tons of essays and books written about proper feminine and masculine roles within old Norse societies. If I have one major complaint about the behaviors of those in the Heathen community, then it’s directed at those who insist that traditional roles need to be upheld because Heathenry is a “family-oriented faith.” But you know something? When you identify a family unit as headed by a husband-wife couple, you are perpetuating a binary. You are saying the world is black and white -you are creating a world where family can’t be two women at the helm, two men at the helm, two trans at the helm, etc… you are invalidating a ton of diverse family units, and for what?

For some distorted notion of what family should be?

But when you do that, when you insist on a single type of family unit, you’re doing the same thing that monotheists do when they insist on a single type of deity. We’re polytheists. We honor many deities. We shift perspectives on a daily basis because we have to. So why do I see so many polytheists stuck in this binary of what a family can and can’t be? Of what gender is and isn’t? Of whether Loki deserves to be honored or not? Why can’t we just make room for it all?

After all – that’s what polytheists of old did. They made room. They included. So stop dividing, stop creating lines to create divisions just for the sake of having sides to stand on. And start paying attention to the humanity of the person standing next to you.Try appreciating the things that make you different rather than dismissing them.

If you don’t understand why anyone would honor Loki – that’s okay. No one is asking you to honor him. All we’re asking is that you stand aside and let us honor him instead of condemning us for our spiritual practices.

Over the years, even on the outskirts of the Heathen community, I have felt a sense of exclusion. Because I don’t fit the mold. I don’t adhere to rigid reconstructionist lines. I incorporate other practices outside of Heathenry. I work with druidic and shamanic practices, too. I’m not bound by these imaginary lines that the community has drawn because community? That’s something I can create for myself.

There’s this mistaken idea in all societies that in order to be an accepted part of a community, you have to obey all the social norms. Toe the line. Do the exactly expected thing. Never step out of the box. If you do, you become outcast. And nothing’s worse than being cast out. At least, that’s what the community says.

But take some time – read the Poetic Edda. Read Odin’s words. He never says “Conform.” None of the deities ever say “Conform.” And while Loki may have done quite a few mischievous things, in general, the other gods trusted him at their side (barring the myth of Balder, which is controversial for a lot of reasons). Loki broke social norms all the time. He broke the binary. He said, “Look, there are other ways to do things than the way they have always been done.” And the other gods, when they had a problem, turned to Loki and asked, “How do we solve this?” Because they trusted him to think outside the binary. They trusted his ability to find new ways to view the world and to come up with solutions that worked, however unorthodox those solutions might be.

So, if you need a reason for why I work with Loki – that’s the best one I have to give. Loki pushes me to be a better person, to be the best version of me that I can be, and he pushes me to accept myself, no matter what truths I find. And he says it’s okay to be outside the norm, outside the binary. Loki doesn’t make me choose – none of the gods do. The only ones who keep telling me to decide between this or that, between one thing and another – the ones who keep telling me to embrace binary spectrums – are humans. The gods don’t care.

And community? Community isn’t found with just those who share your faith. That’s just another binary world, and I reject it out of hand. Because I don’t live in a binary world. To me, that’s an incredibly boring place to live. If I wanted binary, I’d have stuck with monotheism. I’d have stuck with atheism. I’d have chosen an either-or path. But that’s not what I chose. That’s not what spoke to me, not what called me home. No, polytheism spoke to me. The myriad, the plentiful – the non-binary – world of thousands upon thousands of deities. Why would I choose anything else?

Polytheistic Theology: Avenue of Avenues

When we think of theology, we typically think of monotheistic theology, especially the structures found within Abrahamic faiths. But theology itself is not inherently monotheistic – in fact, theology is simply the study of deity. Because most polytheistic faiths are inherently pluralistic, it is safe to say that it is impossible to identify a single theology that unifies polytheistic belief. That’s part of what makes polytheistic faiths so beautiful.

It’s easy to prove how impossible it is to identify a single theology for polytheistic faiths. Take Hinduism, for example, and examine the way many sects of Hinduism base their faith around the idea of a unified plurality – there are multiple deities, but those deities are all aspects of the greater whole. Then take another polytheistic faith, like Asatru, that bases faith around the concept of multiple distinct deities, all separate and completely unique from one another. While there are certainly connections between polytheistic faiths like Hinduism and Asatru, the way that deity is approached is distinct between them.

Because of that distinction, a singular approach to theology – the study of deity – is impossible. However, I do think that it is possible, within each polytheistic faith, to approach deity through multiple strands of exploration. That is what I propose is the best way to approach the study of deity through polytheistic faiths, and I am proposing a framework for a polytheist to use in their own study of deity within their own religions, rather than proposing that deity can be understood the same way through all polytheistic faiths.

Note: When I say deity, I mean the essence of deity or what makes a god a god (what makes gods gods).

I believe the following components can be explored through all polytheistic faiths:

  • Cosmogony
  • Cosmology
  • Theogony
  • Sacred Calendars, Rites, and Practices
  • Eschatology
  • Axiology
  • Pneumatology
  • Psychology
  • Semiotics & Symbology
  • Sexology
  • Sophology
  • Occultology

Cosmogony is the study of the creation of the universe (or multiverse). Studying how the cosmos originated in accordance with a particular polytheistic tradition through myths and legends allows us to begin to develop a framework with which to approach deity through our respective faiths.

Cosmology is the study of the universe (or multiverse). Different faiths propose different models of the world. For example, in many shamanistic traditions, there are three worlds while in the Norse view, there are nine worlds. Understanding the cosmos is a necessary foundation before exploring what deity actually is can really get underway.

Theogony refers to the lineage of the gods. Every pantheon has a unique structure and hierarchy (though it can be argued that some pantheons aren’t hierarchal). It seems self-evident that the pursuit of theology requires the understanding of theogony.

Sacred Calendars, Rites, and Practices. This particular component is really three-in-one, but every polytheistic faith has a calendar of sacred rites and practices. Since most (if not all) polytheistic faiths are orthopraxic (focused on right practice), this is the most direct route of exploring theology – again, when I say theology here, I mean the pursuit of the understanding of deity.

Eschatology is the study of death, judgment, and final destination. In essence, it is the study of the afterlife. Every faith has an idea of what happens to a person after they pass from this world. Not all polytheistic faiths believe in a final judgment, but some do. This is an area where the greatest discrepancies between faiths exist, and it may also be an area where the greatest insights into the nature of deity can be found.

Axiology is the study of values and ethics. In other words, the study of morality. At first glance, it may not be obvious what this has to do with theology. However, the myths and legends of each tradition shape the morality of the people who follow those traditions. Understanding the ethics held by a particular culture can enhance the pursuit of theology.

Pneumatology is the study of spiritual beings and phenomena. Beliefs about mythical creatures like dragons, sirens, mermaids, brownies, kelpies, the Fae, ghosts, landvaettir, etc. This is where understanding the cosmology of a polytheistic faith comes into play as well, as some traditions have worlds set aside specifically for certain types of entities.

Psychology is the study of the soul, and it is the closest term I could find to describe what I actually mean. When I say psychology here, I don’t mean the traditional Western version of the study of the human psyche. I wish there were a better term (so if someone has an idea for one, I’m all for suggestions). What I mean is the study of the constructs of the soul-the parts of the soul. Many polytheistic traditions propose that the soul is not a singularity but a plurality, constructed of a myriad of parts that are meant for particular purposes. Understanding the way in which the soul is viewed is vital in the pursuit of theology, as the soul is the expression of the most inherent divinity a living being has in its possession.

Semiotics & Symbology is the study of signs, symbols, and their interpretations and uses. This includes things like the study of divination and omens. While some symbols are fairly universal – like the serpent that represents wisdom – others are not as clear-cut. Understanding the way that a particular tradition utilizes semiotics & symbology helps create a clearer path towards the understanding of deity.

Sexology is the study of sex. Each religion approaches sex in different ways, and in many traditions, the act of sex is one the most powerful ways to experience divinity. There aren’t many polytheistic faiths that view sex in a negative light, and I say that simply because there may be a few that do – I do not proclaim to be an expert on all the polytheistic faiths that exist, and I do not wish to potentially exclude even one.

Sophology is the study of wisdom. Defining wisdom is a very difficult thing to do, as it is a very abstract concept. Generally speaking, it is the ability to take acquired knowledge and put it to good use. In many polytheistic traditions, the study of wisdom is equated with the study of the myths and the cultures with which the traditions started. But because wisdom relies on application, it assumes that a person will take the myths and cultural learning they have developed and will incorporate it into their own practices. Applying the knowledge gained of deity through the myths is, perhaps, one of the most direct ways to approach theology, although it is by no means the only way.

Occultology is the study of the occult, meaning mystery or secret. It is generally associated with magic, and there are several polytheistic traditions that incorporate magic into their practice. There are many different types of magic, but the one that deals most directly with deity is Theurgy, which is magic done with the aid of deity.

Many of these components, on their own, require extensive research, and many of them weave in and out of one another. These are the strands that I see throughout every polytheistic faith – though each faith has its own unique set of these strands.

I’ve read multiple books on polytheistic theology, and every time, I see the same problem arise – there is no unified set of principles that underlie every polytheistic tradition. Some polytheistic traditions venerate ancestors, others don’t. Some believe in pluralistic deities, others in unified plurality.

So this is my attempt to address that issue – rather than looking for underlying principles that exist in all polytheistic traditions, I decided to look for the categories of principles that weave through all polytheistic traditions. Sometimes, to simplify, you have to complicate, and looking at categories instead of principles isn’t an obvious thing to do. The stark truth is that we still live in a predominantly monotheistic culture, and we all often fall into the trap of trying to collapse things down into smaller parts.

As polytheists, we need to work on expanding outward, breaking things into larger pieces rather than collapsing things down into smaller ones. So what I have done here is propose a framework, an avenue of avenues of exploration for those who are interested in the pursuit of theology from a polytheistic perspective.

Polytheism and Perspective: Some Thoughts

I’ve found myself thinking about perspectives lately, and how, as a polytheist, I must constantly shift between them. In some ways, there is never a good way to describe my path to someone else because I walk a manifold path. I work with multiple deities, and each of those deities asks of me different things.

I think that’s the biggest challenge of being a polytheist, honestly. Looking at situations and then figuring out which perspective to use to approach the situation. I personally believe that people are drawn to the deities who they are most similar to in temperament, and those deities, in a way, are exemplars for the way the person who approaches them should attempt to approach life.

In other words, gods are meant to be imitated – at least to a degree. For me, this comes from an understanding that the myths read are more than just the stories they tell. They provide insights into the world and also into the personalities of the gods, but the events in the myths may not have actually happened, or they may have happened in ways that we don’t understand because deities and humans are a separate species.

And that’s kind of how I think about deity – as a separate species from humans with their own lives and problems to contend with who are infinitely more complex than humans in the same way that humans, say, are infinitely more complex than cats. That isn’t to say cats aren’t complex – just that humans are a degree more complex than cats. So, with that said, humans aren’t simple – we just aren’t as complex as deity. And, considering how difficult a time we have understanding our own complexity, it stands to reason that our ability to comprehend the complex nature of deity is incredibly limited.

I also believe in a living spirituality, so I interact more directly with deity than others who may rely almost entirely on human sources for their information about deity. I don’t know – I guess I find it a little absurd to read the Poetic Edda, for example, and take every word as holy writ when the man who compiled the Edda was Christian. I find it absurd in the same way I would find it absurd to think that a friend’s version of a situation she only heard about it secondhand was more accurate than the version of the same situation from the viewpoint of the people involved in the situation. Perspective matters.

So, when I say I believe in a living spirituality, it means that I prefer to go straight to the deities I honor for information first, then consult source material second. It’s interesting to me that most of the UPG I experience I have seen confirmed by others who honor the same deities, that my understanding of the deities I work with is very similar to the understanding developed by those who have interacted more with source material than with what I can only describe as shamanic insight.

Coming back to perspective, each deity I work with approaches the same situation in different ways. The best way to explain this is to give an example:

Suppose a man, Marcus, is yelling at a woman, Tina, in the middle of a grocery store. Tina is hunched over, defensive, her arms cradled around an infant in her arms, and she is trying to quite the babe through her own tears. Marcus is yelling terrible things at Tina, calling her a liar, a slut, and all sorts of nasty names.

Now, imagine you’re the bystander. What’s your knee-jerk reaction?

Let me guess – you’re horrified and appalled by the behavior you’re witnessing. Why would someone be yelling at a woman with a baby in tow? What possible justification could exist for that?

But that’s just one perspective, given a very small piece of information.

What if you knew that the reason Marcus was so upset was that he just got a call from a paternity clinic informing him that the babe Tina is holding is not his son, even though the two of them have been married for two years and she’s never exhibited any of the classic signs of cheating?

That changes things. I mean, yeah, you may still find it ridiculous that he’s yelling at her in the middle of a grocery store, but at least you can understand where he’s coming from. You can understand his reasoning. Maybe even feel a little sorry for him.

But wait. What about Tina? If the babe isn’t Marcus’s son, then she has cheated on him and even withheld the truth from him about his son. Doesn’t that make her the bad person? I mean, yeah, the yelling sucks, but didn’t she do the wrong thing by cheating on Marcus?

Well, what if you now have the understanding that the reason Tina cheated on Marcus is because Marcus works around the clock and she rarely ever sees him except one night a week. She works from home, so it’s not like she goes out to meet people. But a new neighbor moves in, and he’s attractive, and Marcus is never around, and she gets lonely -after all, she’s only human.

And I’ll stop there.

What I’m trying to get at is that our knee-jerk reactions may not be the best thing to base our beliefs and opinions on. A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction to Loki because they don’t understand Him or where He’s coming from.

And that’s why I think polytheism is a lot like learning how to stop those knee-jerk reactions so that you can pause and shift perspectives. Each person approaches life in a different way, as does each deity. It’s important to know the story of the person in question before issuing judgment. The same is true with deity (although, really, judging deity strikes me as incredibly arrogant and rude…)

Learning about the gods through the myths and the lore allows us to understand their personality, to understand where they are coming from. But every time we read the lore, it’s important that we shift our perspective to each player’s role in the myth so that we can appreciate each deity for who they are, rather than play favorites and refuse to see the myth through more than a single lens.

Anyway, just some food for thought.



A Lokean Type of Courage

One of the biggest groups of people who tend to find themselves interacting with Loki are those who have been abused in some way. The ones who have lost themselves and need to be guided back – who need to learn who they are again. Loki teaches us that it’s okay to not be okay. He teaches us that it’s okay to be wounded and feel the wound so that it can heal properly.

Until Loki came into my life, I had pushed the abuse that I dealt with growing up to the back of my mind. Learned to suppress it, to minimize it, to rationalize it into being less bad than it actually was. To some extent, I still do that. Because there’s the fear that follows me around that people are going to think less of me if they understand what I went through. That they are going to think me weak because I didn’t stop it, that they won’t understand that I couldn’t stop it.

It’s easy to tell people that I grew up in an alcoholic home and let them draw their own conclusions from there. It’s harder to explain the stark terror that I felt when my mother started drinking. The more alcohol consumed, the more violent and unreasonable she became. She would yell terrible things at me, telling me that no one would ever love me, that I was the reason she drank, that I could do nothing right. And I took that all to heart.

Because when my mother started drinking, I was eight years old. Up until that point, my mother had been the most incredible, doting mother that a child could ask for. She taught me how to read. She waited with me in the freezing cold for the bus to school. She made me snacks for when I got home from school. There was no one in the world that I loved more.

And then, like someone had flipped a switch, she became someone I didn’t know. Someone who terrified me because I couldn’t understand where my mother had gone. My life became a pursuit of escaping the terror she inflicted in me. I wanted to be anywhere but near her. Because I took what she said about her drinking being my fault to heart – I believed that I had caused the change.

So I did everything I could to be the perfect child. I performed well academically. I did my chores without complaining. I wanted my mother to be proud of me because I had this idea in my head that if I just did enough well enough that I could fix her. And I wanted to fix her because I missed the woman who had spent hours teaching me to read. Who had cared enough about me to stand beside me in the winter to make sure I got to school okay.

Occasionally, there would be flashes. Moments of sobriety where I would see her. In those moments, she taught me how to keep from being bullied. She taught me how to spot potential threats and how to guard against them. She also taught me how to deal with my empathic gift. And I loved her during those moments because that was the woman who I recognized as my mother. There was her, and then there was the woman she became when she drank.

She became domineering – everything was micromanaged. I had to fetch her drinks and fix them perfectly – eight ice cubes in each glass of water. I had to bring her glasses full of vodka. To this day, I cannot stomach the smell of pure vodka. If it’s in a mixed drink, I can always taste it. I told one of my ex-boyfriends this. He didn’t believe me, made a drink without telling me what he put in it, and I took one sip and handed it back to him. There was less than a thimbleful of vodka in the glass. The reason I can always taste it – the first time I ever tasted vodka, my mother forced it down my throat. I was twelve years old.

When I didn’t do something to her satisfaction, her favorite method of discipline was to use the handle of a broom as a cane. Compliance is pretty much guaranteed when you know that disobedience results in that level of pain. Because of that threat, as well as the continuous emotional abuse she threw at me, I lived in perpetual fear. I learned how to keep my head down and my mouth shut. I didn’t want to risk her ire – it was a matter of survival.

I constantly felt pulled in two directions – I loved her and I hated her. I wanted her to die, I wanted her to be better. She was in and out of the hospital up until I turned fifteen, when she passed away. With her death, my entire world fell apart. I blamed myself because I had occasionally wished for it to happen. I was tormented by guilt, feeling responsible for her death as well as feeling guilty for feeling relieved because she was gone. My beloved tormenter was gone forever.

What I didn’t realize until years later was that she had left me with incredible emotional scars. I couldn’t trust people properly – I went into relationships expecting them to fail. I was defensive, scared that people could see the me underneath – the broken, flawed me. The one who felt like she was falling apart. I pushed people away in a twisted effort to test their ability to handle my brokenness. No matter how successful I was at what I did, no matter what accomplishments I laid claim to, I always felt hollow. Empty. Because being successful meant nothing to me if I wasn’t the most successful. My mother succeeded in turning me into a perfectionist, incapable of appreciating my own success without feeling inferior for not being the best. And I hated it because I knew that other people would be happy doing the things I’d done. They would appreciate them. And all I had was this bitterness towards not being the best, about failing to win the best and most impressive awards.

To say that I don’t still contend with these feelings today would be dishonest. I still struggle with maladaptive perfectionism. I still struggle with the double-bind thinking that was dumped on me by my alcoholic mother. And I still sometimes feel that I will never be good enough. Not for myself, not for other people. But now, rather than have them define my life, they are just the bad days. The ones that fall in-between the mostly good ones.

Because Loki, when he came into my life, he made me face my past. He made me own up to myself. He forced me to stop minimizing the damage that had been done because wounds left untreated tend to fester. Facing my past wasn’t an easy thing to do. Learning to trust wasn’t an easy thing to do, especially because I had to learn to trust the world again. I learned to distrust it as soon as my mother started drinking. Started being afraid that everything I saw and felt wasn’t real, that there was an illusion separating truth from fiction because in no real world would my mother become what she became. I stopped trusting myself.

And self-trust is the first step in self-knowledge. How can you know yourself if you can’t trust yourself to distinguish reality from illusion, truth from deceit? I still struggle to trust myself. I may always struggle with that, but that’s okay. I’ve learned that it’s okay not to be perfect. That it’s okay to have wounds, as long as you are actively seeking to close them (festering wounds do no one any good), and I have learned that there’s a strength in me that few people can match because I had to go through hell to get to where I am today.

So when I say that the biggest group of people who are drawn to Loki’s path are those who have been abused, please understand that I say this with the understanding of someone who has gone through hell and come out the other side. You can’t come out unscathed – you come out scarred and battle-hardened. Lokeans are some of the fiercest people, some of the hardiest warriors, on the face of the planet because we’ve all lived through our share of wars.

When other people point to Loki and make claims that he isn’t a god, that he’s a Norse devil, or that he only finds purchase among the weirdest and fluffiest of people, it infuriates me. Because I’m not a fluffy person – no one who goes through what I’ve been through comes out of it and becomes the happy-go-lucky rainbows-and-unicorns kind of person that “fluffy” implies – and none of the Lokeans I know are very fluffy either. Scared, yes. Vulnerable, sometimes. But being willing and able to admit to fear and vulnerability isn’t a weakness – it’s one of the greatest strengths that we possess because being honest about fear? There’s no greater courage.