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.

Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy

Many definitions exist for both the term “Orthopraxy” and the term “Orthodoxy.”

Orthopraxy can be defined as “right living, right practice, right action, right path.”

Orthodoxy can be defined as “right doctrine, right thought, right worship, right honor, right knowledge, right belief.”

The two are generally seen as being opposites of one another, and these are words that get people of all faiths – polytheistic and monotheistic – arguing amongst one another.

I’ve been reading about Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy through various sources, some Pagan, some Christian, some Jewish – there is the same debate in every religion: which is more important? Right thought or right practice?

Most Pagans (but not all) will say Orthopraxy is more important than Orthodoxy, making them more stubborn than the monotheists out there, which is kind of an ironic twist to me.

The Jews and Christians seem to have come to the conclusion that Orthopraxy without Orthodoxy is a hollow practice, and that to perform rituals without understanding the underlying beliefs or reasons for those rituals is to fail to connect with the Divine, and thus that turns the Othropraxic behavior into sinful behavior.

There was one long definition of Orthopraxy I found here that I found interesting: “The application of orthodox beliefs in the form of rituals and customs.”

There are some Pagans out there who seem to take offense with anything a Christian says, on the principle that anything a Christian says must be invalid simply because that person is Christian.

To be honest, I dislike Christianity as a religion as a whole – I dislike all monotheistic faiths because I think their doctrine is poisonous to the world – but I can still see the value in the points that are made and I can translate those points across faiths.

There are also some Pagans, some Heathens especially, who think that anything that echoes Christianity in some way is anti-Heathen or anti-Pagan, which is, frankly speaking, ridiculous. I’ll get on my soapbox about cultural and religious appropriation in a later post.

To get back on topic, I found this statement on a Jewish blog, here: “The Orthoprax will do good works, but those are socially useful and divorced from any sense of divine worship.” The author goes on to discuss how going through the motions doesn’t allow a person to connect to the divine, and there is a hollowness to the faith when a person only engages in correct practices.

In another blog, this time a Pagan one, I found this statement: “If religion is only concerned with correct practice, an outward form, without concern for some kind of belief or understanding, using ordinary logic one can see that such a religion would be based on a shell, a façade. It is what is concealed within the outside that must be important, the very heart of it, for there to be intrinsic value in a religion.”

In a Methodist blog, I found this: ” What we see in many of the Eastern religions is not an emphasis upon verbal orthodoxy, but instead upon practices and lifestyles that, if you do them ,end up changing your consciousness.”

Here, I found this: “Orthopraxis was identified as a key component in Indian religions, the character of which is not proclaim a system of knowledge but rather a precise system of salvific ritual acts embracing the whole of life. Modern understandings of orthopraxis, on the other hand, tend to exclude from their understanding the authentic Indian concept of religious ritual, reducing it to a matter of ethics or political criticism.”

In other words, there tends to be an agreement between all faiths that Orthopraxy without Orthodoxy is hollow. Unlike monotheistic faiths, however, Pagan faiths do have to contend with the fact that there is very little doctrine for us to use to base our practices upon.

Because of that, there is an increased focus on reconstruction, and to me, it seems almost a desperate struggle to revive the practices of an ancient faith where the framework of thought for the ancient peoples isn’t really understood.

No matter how many artifacts we unearth and how much educated guesswork we do, the fact remains that we will never understand the thought patterns of the ancient peoples whose religion we attempt to reconstruct.

For monotheistic faiths, the argument will always be which is more important – adhering to the doctrine laid down in their holy books, or doing the work of their God in the way He asks, even when what He asks violates what their doctrine says.

For Pagans, the truth is, we don’t have a doctrine. None of our Gods have books that we can consult when we feel lost. Many Heathens will contest this and say that we have the Poetic and Prose Eddas, but those books aren’t doctrines.

At best, the Eddas are stories. Histories and myths that have been preserved, and preserved through the eyes of the monotheistic man who recorded them. The Eddas and the Sagas are stories. They show us hints of what life was like for the ancient Norse, but they don’t give us a solid framework for their thoughts and beliefs.

The closest we have to the doctrine of one of our Gods is the Havamal, the words of Odin. At best, that book is a book of proverbs, of advice, of suggestions.

The truth is, we do not have the tools we need to be an Orthodox-focused religion, and we never will. Each Heathen, each Pagan, is tasked with the formidable challenge of developing their own Orthodoxy through their use of Orthopraxy.

While monotheists can focus on what is more important in their religion, we do not have that luxury. Because of the Catholic conquest of the ancient world, most – if not all – of the doctrines of our Gods have been destroyed and are forever lost to us.

That is why we must be willing to look to other polytheistic faiths whose doctrines are still in-tact in order to learn what a polytheistic framework of thought actually looks like.

While we can base our practices on the archaeological evidence that has been found and on the practices we find in the Eddas and Sagas, the truth is that those practices may never feel as fulfilling as we wish because we don’t have an understanding of the underpinning beliefs of the ancient peoples whose religions we keep trying to reconstruct.

What we need to do is study religions like Hinduism and Shinto to understand the way the oldest polytheistic religions in the world view the relationship between humans and Gods. I’m not saying that we need to adopt their practices, but if we can research those faiths so that we can understand more fully what it means to be polytheists, that will give us a firmer ground to stand on as we work on discovering the doctrines of our Gods.

The truth is, each of the Gods has a different perspective on how things should be done and what is expected. That can be discovered through ritual practice, but it takes time, and it takes patience, and a lot of people don’t have the type of patience it takes. On top of that, a lot of people don’t understand how to interpret the messages the Gods send them.

Until you are open to seeing the influences of each of the Gods in the realms they inhabit, connecting ritual practice (orthopraxy) to belief (orthodoxy) may forever be out of your reach. Orthopraxy flows into Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy flows back into Orthopraxy, and when you can see the beauty of the way that works, what you are really seeing is the influence of the God of balance and harmony, which, in the Norse pantheon, is Tyr.

In my next post, I’ll discuss cultural appropriation and stir up some real controversy (and if you can’t see Loki in that statement, you’re really not paying attention!).