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.

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Defining Polytheism

 

Polytheism is, at its core, the belief in and worship of multiple deities. The word “polytheist” comes from the Greek poly, meaning “many,” and the Greek theos, meaning “god.” Essentially, the word “polytheist” can be understood to mean “many gods.” Polytheism can be difficult to explain to others due to the multiplicity inherent in its practice. Because of that, the first thing to be aware of about polytheists is that no two polytheists believe in the exact same gods or explore their faith in the exact same way. That is where the difficulty of explaining polytheism originates.

While it may be easy for a monotheist to explain to others that they believe in a single unifying supreme deity, that ease comes from the fact that a monotheist’s belief is singular in nature. Monotheism includes all of the Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. While there are other monotheistic faiths, the Abrahamic faiths are the most well-known and the most wide-spread.

Because of the prevalence of monotheistic faiths, it is not a surprise that polytheism is rarely encountered and that people living in monotheistic cultures lack the ability to truly comprehend the various types of belief systems found within polytheistic religions. The reason for that lack of comprehension stems from the inability to understand that there is no unifying practice that ties all polytheists together. A monotheist who encounters another monotheist – a Christian meeting a Muslim, for example – can exchange their understanding of the singular deity they share and acknowledge that, while the names they use are different, the faiths are remarkably similar in execution.

In contrast, a monotheist who encounters a polytheist can’t exchange spiritual knowledge of that nature, due to the contradiction inherent in the belief in one god versus the belief in many. This encounter doesn’t provide two opposing viewpoints – no, it provides two opposing worldviews. A monotheist cannot understand a polytheist because of this. And a true monotheist will never be able to properly comprehend a polytheistic worldview.

However, a polytheist IS capable of understanding the worldview of a monotheist because a polytheist’s faith, in general, consists of multiple worldviews that often contrast with one another. Switching worldviews is a way of life for most polytheists, so it is far, far easier for a polytheist to find ways to explain the complex nature of polytheism in a simple enough way for monotheists to understand.

The easiest way to explain polytheism to a monotheist is to use the polymorphism approach. Hinduism is a prime example of a polytheistic religion that utilizes this type of polytheism. Polymorphism, in and of itself, is the belief of one God with many different names and forms. In essence, it is the belief that a single divine being has multiple aspects. In modern-day polytheism, this type of polytheism is also known as soft polytheism. Polymorphism, is, however, the proper terminology.

Because polymorphism incorporates multiple aspects of a deity into one supreme being, it is the easiest way to explain polytheism to a monotheist. A common ground can be created using this approach, and further spiritual discussions can be held. Some polytheists may argue that a monotheist should work harder to try and understand the more complex forms of polytheism, but that is a failure to understand the different levels of complexity inherent in following a polytheistic faith in comparison to following a monotheistic faith.

In science, we expect our experts to condense the knowledge they have gleaned in multiple subject matters down to a point where laymen can understand it. A good scientist is capable of making even the most complicated theory one that we can all understand, and I would argue that a polytheist must be capable of simplifying the complex in order to facilitate discussion amongst peers.

We need to face the reality that we live in a world that is predominantly monotheist. Rather than railing against how unfair or how prejudiced the world is against polytheism, we need to be the ones taking control of the conversation so that we can explain, tirelessly if need be, why polytheism is as valid a spirituality as monotheism. To do that, we need patience, understanding, and a thick skin.

To make monotheists aware that polytheism is a valid path will take a lot of time and a lot of energy. Most polytheists probably don’t care enough to try and have that conversation. But I would argue that it is one of the most vital conversations to start because polytheistic faiths are gaining in adherents. More and more people are turning to faiths that are polytheistic in nature.

Which is great, but there’s one huge problem – most people turning to polytheistic faiths are doing so after growing up being steeped in a monotheistic culture. Monotheistic thinking does not work with polytheism, yet many new polytheists attempt to bring bits and pieces of their old worldview with them when they turn to polytheism. There are no primers for aspiring polytheists, and there are few polytheists willing to explain what it means to live a life rife with multiplicity.

Part of the reason polytheists lack that willingness to explain is because of how difficult such a task is. It is impossible to sum up all polytheistic faiths because there are vastly different approaches taken in each one. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t a few common threads that run between many polytheistic faiths (but not all). Teasing out those threads is an important part of furthering the conversation amongst other polytheists as well as important for the growth of polytheism as a whole.

So far, what I have managed to piece together as being representative of many polytheistic faiths (again, not all!) is as follows:

  • Belief in/worship of multiple (fallible) Gods: Generally, the Gods aren’t omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. They can make mistakes. Many pantheons consist of immortal Gods, but there are also many pantheons that consist of mortal Gods.
  • Offerings/Sacrifices to the Gods: Generally, offerings are made to the Gods in order to establish the link between the human world and the divine world. This is also the primary way in which the Gods are honored.
  • Ancestor Veneration: Offerings are made to ancestors in order to establish the link between the past generations and the current ones. Generally, polytheists focus more on ancestor veneration than on direct veneration of the Gods. Ancestral spirits, being more directly connected to the practitioner, are better able to help than the Gods.
  • Multiverse Cosmology: The belief in multiple worlds or planes. While generally threefold in nature, there are cosmologies that incorporate a larger number of worlds.
  • Sacral Nature: The belief that nature is sacred and should be treated with respect.
  • Orthopraxy: Literally, “Right Practice.” Polytheistic faiths are focused on practicing faiths through rites and offerings instead of being focused on orthodoxy, or “right thought.” Polytheistic faiths require active participation.

Note: Not all of these threads can be found within all polytheistic faiths, and each polytheist may define each thread in a different way than I have described them here.

Types of Polytheism include:

  • Traditional Polytheism: Also known as “hard polytheism;” the belief in/worship of multiple gods believed to be separate, distinct deities
    • Shinto, Hellenistic Paganism, Asatru/Heathenry, Kemetism, Druidism, etc.
  • Polymorphism: Also known as “soft polytheism;” the belief in/worship of multiple gods believed to be part of a greater singular deity
    • Hinduism, Wicca (some traditions), etc.
  • Henotheism: devotion to a single deity while acknowledging the existence of other gods that are worthy of worship
    • Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, etc.
  • Monolatrism: belief in the existence of multiple deities while asserting that only one god is worthy of worship
    • Atenism, Hinduism, etc.
  • Kathenotheism: belief in many gods, but only one god should be worshipped at a time
    • Smarta Tradition of Hinduism, etc.
  • Duotheism: the belief in two equally powerful gods, often with complementary properties and in contrast opposition
    • Wicca, Dvaita Vedanta Tradition of Hinduism, Druidism, etc.

I found the types here.

 I’m certain I didn’t mention every polytheistic faith or type of polytheism – there is essentially the same number of polytheistic faiths as there are polytheists. A general overview is all we can really hope for, and I hope I’ve done a decent job with what I have put together here.

As for my polytheism, I am a traditional polytheist, and the six threads I feel run through most polytheistic faiths run through mine as well. I may have missed something or included something unnecessarily, so please feel free to respond and expand this conversation. I think this is where we need to start, if we are to ever have meaningful philosophical discussions that incorporate polytheistic worldviews.

 

The Importance of Sacrifice

In general, those of us who follow a Pagan faith (whether that faith be Wicca, Asatru, Religio Romana, Kemetism, Hellenism, etc) embrace orthopraxy as part of our spirituality. Which means that we participate in making sacrifices to the Gods we honor by offering alcoholic beverages, food, trinkets, and so on.

Yet it has come to my attention in the last couple of years that there are a lot of people who “sort of” follow Pagan paths rather than fully committing. And that’s fine – up until you ask a deity to interfere in your personal affairs and that deity chooses to respond favorably.

Exchange and sacrifice are an inherent understanding of Pagan faiths. When a deity acts for you, it stands to reason that there is a need to respond in kind – to acknowledge the favor the Gods have bestowed upon you.

I can’t speak for the Gods of other pantheons, but the Norse Gods seem to take a failure to offer a token of appreciation as a great insult. Especially Odin, and it’s generally not wise to offend Him, considering He is one of the darker Gods of the Norse pantheon. Interestingly enough, Odin is far more widely honored in modern times than He was in the pre-Christian era.

Anyway, in the first example – a High Priestess swore an oath to Odin. He upheld his end of the oath made, and she failed to come through. Instead of paying her debt, she did everything she could to exorcise His presence. In order to assure the debt was paid, Odin started to “haunt” the woman’s best friend until she came to me for help, wondering why this sinister, faceless man kept appearing to her on the nights she would visit her friend. Eventually, we put the story together. I don’t know if the High Priestess ever paid her debt – I was tasked only with communicating the message, not resolving the issue.

And communicating that message seems to be part and parcel of the oath I swore dedicating myself to Odin. I don’t speak of this often because I tend to assume people understand what I mean when I say I have dedicated myself to Odin, but perhaps I need to specify what I mean. When I say I am dedicated to Odin, I mean I wear the Valknut, the symbol often called the “Knot of the Slain,” and it essentially marks me as one of Odin’s chosen warriors, which means He can call me to the other side without warning.

In any case, the other example I have of a person who failed to properly appease Odin I actually learned of today – again, I was acting as His messenger. I learned that a woman’s husband had – half-jokingly – addressed one of the numerous crows we have in this area as Odin and asked Odin for help in curing his son’s illness (the boy, 3 years old, was in the hospital on a ventilator due to pneumonia, with little prognosis of getting better anytime soon). Two days after the request, the boy was off the ventilator and growing healthier each day. The woman told me that there had been increasing amounts of crows at her house – so many it has become impossible to walk out the door without seeing an entire murder of them. I asked her if she or her husband had offered a token of appreciation, and she said her husband decided to give up smoking pot for a month but wasn’t sure he had actually dedicated that sacrifice to Odin.

Granted, my knee-jerk reaction (which I avoided actually voicing) was that giving up pot for a month didn’t really seem like much of a sacrifice for a life saved. But I don’t know the woman’s husband, don’t know the hardship that giving up pot would cause him (if any), and I think it’s important to consider that each person comes to a sacrifice in a different way. If the deity to whom the sacrifice is being made accepts the offering, then the sacrifice is valid. If, however, the deity doesn’t accept the offering, something else is required. Figuring out whether the offering has or hasn’t been accepted can be difficult, but I would suggest that if you start seeing a murder of crows outside your house after offering something to Odin, then that sacrifice has most likely not been accepted.

I’m not sure if there’s an irony to the reason Odin is rarely present in my life or if it is to be expected because He in essence can call on me whenever He likes (and so rarely sees the need to do so), but every time He does show up, it always seems to be to communicate a message similar to this one.

I feel like there are a lot of Pagans out there, Heathens included (since some Heathens try to separate themselves from that umbrella) who look at the Gods as kind and benevolent figures who would never threaten or harm Their followers. While that’s a pretty ideal, it is one that completely disregards reality. The Gods are complex. They are kind, but They are also cruel. It does no one good to forget that truth.

If you’re looking for a TL:DR version (which I rarely ever offer), then this would be the catchphrase: If you ask the Gods for a favor and They grant it, pay Them back. 

 

 

Trading with Tyr

I feel that the relationships I have with all the Gods are interesting, but I have to admit that my experience with Tyr today was fairly intriguing. Usually when one of the Gods wants something from me, I get a feeling about what offering they would like. Loki likes sweets. Odin seems fairly impartial, but he does like an occasional drink. Freyja likes candles. In any case, all of the Gods like different things. When one of the Gods wants something from me, I try to acquiesce with their desires.

Today was the first time Tyr really asked me for anything. As I was leaving school today, I got this sense that Tyr really wanted me to stop at the Mexican restaurant where one of my friends works. He wanted Mexican food, so I went in and sat down. My friend was working and she came up to me and asked what I wanted. I had no idea what Tyr wanted, so I decided to leave it up to Him by telling my friend to order whatever she thought was best. I ended up with a chicken chimicanga with rice and guacamole salad. Tyr didn’t want the chimichanga, but He did want the rice and salad along with the tortilla chips that come as an appetizer.

As I ate my portion of the meal, my friend came and sat with me and asked me if I would go by Wal-Mart and get her some queso fresco because she hadn’t eaten all day and she really wanted some queso fresco. I told her I would, and she said that she would give me the chimichanga meal in return. When she asked me, I wasn’t expecting a trade of any sort – she suggested it, and I realized that Tyr was making His presence felt through the trade. Finding a balance is what He does best, after all.

So I finished eating and boxed up what Tyr wanted to bring Him as an offering when I got home, then went to Wal-Mart and bought my friend her queso fresco. When I got home, I found a tree and laid the food out beside the tree, then covered it with the leaves that surrounded it. That is how I normally leave food offerings because I feel it honors both the Gods and the land spirits where I live when I do so. Tyr was happy with that, so I felt fulfilled. I don’t know about other people, but when I leave offerings that are accepted, I get this sense of what is almost bliss.

Anyway, I started thinking about what I had to go through in order to obtain Tyr’s food, and I think that part of the offering itself was the trade that was enacted between me and my friend. I do find it interesting, though, that Tyr wanted Mexican food but didn’t just ask me to pick Him something up the way the other Gods might. It makes me wonder if all of the offerings I end up giving Him are going to be preceded by some sort of barter like the one that occurred between me and my friend. I’m okay with the answer to that question being yes because the experience was another one confirming the very real presence of the Gods in my life, and I count all such experiences as blessings.