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.

Fidelity: My Interpretation

Here’s the 4th of my essays on the 9 Noble Virtues.

Fidelity 

To me, fidelity is loyalty. Loyalty to family, to friends, to the Gods I follow. I don’t always agree with my friends or family, and I don’t get along with all the Gods. But disagreements are common in all families, whether those families are blood families, friend families, or god families. And when I disagree with someone in any of my families, I still always acknowledge that my ties to them, my loyalty to them, is more important than the argument.

I’ve never understood how families can estrange themselves. How parents can disown their children or how children can refuse to talk to their parents for years. Perhaps that’s because I lost my mother when I was 15. Perhaps her loss taught me just how much family matters. Because even though there were things I hated about her, like her alcoholism, I still loved her. She was still my mother.

I’ve had friends, over the years, who were estranged from their parents for various reasons, and I always tried to encourage them to eliminate that distance without blatantly interfering. It’s not my place to decide which path another person walks, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to properly wrap my head around complete estrangement from family.

Family is incredibly important to me, despite the difficulties I’ve faced throughout my life that are directly tied to my family. But those difficulties aren’t the only things that define my relationship with my family. There is a lot more than that, but I don’t know how to express the depth or complexity of my family dynamics without writing a book, and I’m not sure I’m ready to write a book about my life just yet – even though my grandmother keeps urging me to write one.

But I have more ties than just familial ones. There are also the ties I have to my friends. I have a lot of acquaintances, but my real friends are like family to me. If they need me, I’m there, even if I’m in the middle of my own problems. My friends are the people who have seen me at my worst and at my best and have stuck around. To me, that is what defines loyalty. Not a lack of disagreements, but the ability to compromise and move past them. And I have three incredibly close friends, despite the fact we all live incredibly far away from one another, that I trust completely. I’m reminded of the verse in the Havamal that reads:

“Crooked and far | is the way to a foe,

Though his house on the highway be;

But wide and straight | is the way to a friend,

Though far away he fare.”

That’s verse 34 of the Havamal and it comes from the Henry Adams Bellows translation, which happens to be my preferred translation of the Poetic Edda. And I agree with the sentiment, since two of my closest friends live in different countries, and the third lives 18 hours away from me. The distance doesn’t matter, though, as the four of us have been close for five years. Distance, time – all those things are relative.

As well as family and friends, my loyalty to the Gods is an important aspect of my life. I can and will discuss my faith with anyone, even when doing so is a little bit scary. A couple weeks ago, at work, a man came in and started basically going on and on about Jesus – a total zealot. I listened to him patiently for about 30 minutes because he just talked on and on without giving anyone a chance to say anything. But when I found an opening, I told him that I have a lot of respect for people who are dedicated to their own path, but that I wasn’t Christian. When I told him I was pagan, he turned around and left, but I didn’t hide it. One of my co-workers, who was standing beside me and heard the whole thing, told me she was glad that I spoke up about my beliefs. It was an interesting experience, to say the least.

And I’ve had other interesting encounters. At one of my previous jobs, I was reading a book on the history of the Vikings, and a co-worker came up to me and asked why I was reading the book. I told her that I was reading it because it pertained to my faith, and I explained what my faith was. She instantly started trying to witness to me, but it stopped her cold when I told her that I’d read the Bible all the way through, and that Christianity didn’t appeal to me. She was incredulous that I’d read the Bible and wasn’t Christian, and she kept trying to push the faith on me, until I finally asked her if she had read the book. When she said no, I told her that if she wanted to continue the conversation, she needed to go read the Bible herself before trying to witness to me. Later that day, I found out that she had never met someone who wasn’t either Christian or an atheist before, and it really shook up her worldview. I was pretty amused when I found that out, of course, because by being honest, I acted as a catalyst for her to realize the world wasn’t as black and white as she thought.

And that’s what I try to do – I try to behave in ways I feel emulate the Gods I follow. I see Odin as a warrior scholar, so I do a lot of research and I also have firm opinions. I’m willing to defend myself if I ever have need to, and I do defend myself when the need arises – even if the battle is just one of wits. I see Loki as a catalyst for change and the seeker of buried truths, so I keep my mind as open as possible, trying to look at things from every perspective without allowing other people’s opinions or beliefs to define my own. Tyr I see as a noble warrior who mediates without flinching if his own well-being comes into the process. And these are the three paths I mainly attempt to walk, though I am slowly learning other paths as well. That’s the truly difficult part of being a polytheist – there’s no way to walk a single path, not when the path of each God is different.

So fidelity, for me, is walking the paths the Gods have set before me, staying true to my friends, and staying true to my family. In my mind, this is probably the simplest of the nine virtues, but loyalty, to spite its seeming simplicity, is actually incredibly complex. Because it’s not always easy to stay loyal to your friends, your family, or the Gods you follow. No wonder, then, that oaths, once made, are so heavily weighed.