What Polytheist Priests Should Provide

One of John Beckett’s latest posts, Am I Hearing a God or Am I Going Crazy? brings up some pretty interesting points. I’m reminded a little about the post I wrote about Communicating with the Gods as it can be difficult for people to tell the difference.

Beckett makes a point to differentiate between mental health and divine communication, which I respect. In a world where everyday interaction with the gods isn’t commonplace, it’s easy to understand how sudden divine communication could be seen as a sudden bout of insanity instead. That’s generally not how mental health works, which is a good thing to know.

As someone who communicates with the divine on a regular basis, I’m highly aware of how easily it would be for someone to take the experiences I share with them and twist them around to use as an effort to prove that I’m crazy. Because our society really does not have the cultural context needed to understand what direct interaction with deity entails.

I’ve been a practicing polytheist for so long now I don’t remember what it’s like to not expect the gods to just show up on a whim. I had no cultural context for it when it started happening, and it was unnerving and unsettling mostly because I had no one to turn to, no one to rely on, no one to understand what was happening. I had to figure all of that out on my own. Well, on my own and with the help of the gods. In a way, as the gods were showing up to the point I felt like I might be losing my mind, they were also showing me how to understand them — the gods helped me understand what a polytheistic framework looks like.

I can’t say that I don’t still find it unsettling sometimes when the gods drop in, especially when the god in question is one I don’t know. But I don’t find it impossible the way I might have before I started to understand what the world looks like through the eyes of a polytheist. I have met gods in human form, seen gods channel themselves through friends who are open to the experience, held conversations with gods in dreams, and communicated with gods in rituals. They are everywhere, and they take human form when they feel the need to do so. It’s weird to talk about the experiences I’ve had with gods who choose to come to me wearing a human form, as I know I’m going to deal with people thinking I’m making things up or going crazy.

But I deal with the gods on a regular basis – that’s part of what it means to be a polytheist priest. Loki and Freyr may be the ones for whom I do the most work, but once the gods know you are willing to do work, they know they can come to you for help, and they aren’t very shy about it. I view my role as a polytheist priest as one of facilitation – helping people find the gods that are trying to find them. Forging relationships. Creating friendships. In a way, I view my role to be one of networking gods to humans, humans to gods. Considering the gods I do the most work for, that role makes sense – Loki and Freyr are both very social deities, though they tend to run in different circles. The friendship between them connects them, thus creating an expansive network. It is through the work I do as their priest that allows those aspects of the gods to echo through me and throughout the Pagan and Polytheist communities.

Because I view my role as a priest to be one of networking gods and humans and vice versa, I take the communications I receive from the gods very seriously – though sometimes they can be rather confusing and/or exasperating. I’m open about the experiences I have with the gods so that I can let people know that someone will take them seriously, even when the rest of the world is telling them they’re crazy. And I’m open so that people know that they can approach me with deity-related problems and know that I will do the best I can to help them find the way to the answers they are seeking (as I don’t believe I hold the answers – I just know how to nudge people into asking the questions they are overlooking).

Take, for example, the latest direct interaction I had with a deity. I was having lunch with a friend, and we were minding our own business, talking about different pantheons of gods (what else do polytheists talk about? :p) when a person approaches our table. As he approaches, I’m already on high alert, my shoulder blades are tensed, and I’m feeling a very strong aura of “this person is not what he appears to be” which is an energetic aura that I generally only ever feel with deities using flesh form.

He starts having a conversation with us, asks us what we’re having for lunch, and I get this nudge from Freyr to buy the person lunch. So, I give him money to get lunch, he gives me a hug, and he sits down and starts talking to us in-depth about literature. My friend was reading some Shakespeare for class, and the person goes “He was alright” and tells us he prefers a French collection of poetry called Les Fleurs de Mal, which is about Satan dreaming.

After this conversation ends, I get out my phone and instantly start doing research because by this point I’ve realized I’m dealing with a deity, and I feel a strong need to know which one (I’m fairly certain the gods aren’t allowed to give their names to humans when they show up in human form. I’m not sure why, but uh… well, the effect Jesus had when he did that may play a role). Anyway, I look up this French poetry collection, learn that the version of Satan mentioned in the poems is actually Hermes Trismegistus…which is the Greek form of the Egyptian god Tehuti (also known as Thoth).

Now, while I’ve had some run-ins with Egyptian gods (namely Bast), I’d never even met Tehuti. The friend who was with me at lunch is Kemetic, but she doesn’t do a lot for Tehuti. I tell this story to another one of my friends who is also Kemetic (and does work for Tehuti), and she confirms for me that the actions the person took were pretty much exactly how Tehuti typically behaves. Gods, like humans, have personalities, so I take her word for this. The gods do whatever they have to when they need to be noticed.

A couple days after this encounter, one of my other friends, a Hellenistic polytheist, randomly texts me about how to make proper offerings to Odin. She has apparently decided to create a business contract with Odin in order to determine where she stands with the Greek pantheon, since Odin has so much knowledge of other gods. It was an interesting direction to take, but I was curious as to why she wasn’t asking the Greek gods since she already has ties there. The answer I got was that she had asked Hermes what kind of relationship they would have, and the response she got was a lot of chaotic events – traffic tickets, small accidents, etc. She felt that it was the equivalent of being told to work for Hermes while he did everything to mess up her life.

I then explained to her that sometimes the gods don’t understand human affairs – some gods are closer to humans than others. I told her that considering Hermes Trismegistus was coming to me, in person, it was fairly obvious that Hermes wanted to work with her…and perhaps was worried that she was going to turn away from that relationship and didn’t know what to do about it.

As a polytheist priest, this is normal. This is what it means to live within a polytheist framework. Sometimes, the gods stay distant and communicate only via dreams and within specific religious contexts. Other times, they drop in to have lunch wearing a human suit. Both are perfectly natural occurrences – the gods do what they want when they want. They are everywhere – it’s only that our society has forgotten what it means to live close to the gods. Because the monotheistic bent to our world has convinced people that it is impossible to stand next to a god. Impossible to have a conversation with a god in a flesh-based form. Impossible to hear a god.

But it isn’t. The gods are very real, very present, and very willing to interact with us. We just have to learn how to interact with them again. They never forgot us – we’re the ones who forgot them. And it is up to polytheists, especially the polytheist priests, to teach people how to hear the gods again, as well as how to recognize them when they choose to walk among us (and they do this often). The gods want to be heard as much as we want to hear – but first, we have to recognize that we have the ability to hear. We have to stop convincing ourselves we’re crazy when we’re receiving a legitimate message from the gods. We have to create a framework where we can talk to the gods and the gods can talk to us without constant fear of insanity making it so people who experience the gods in direct ways have no one to turn to.

The gods are real. The experiences we have of the gods are real. Learning to live with gods who change, grow, adapt, and are fluid is perhaps the hardest part of being a polytheist. Because the gods? They don’t fit in the nice, neat boxes we call lore. They don’t fit into the character sketches we make of them from the myths we read. They don’t fit into archetypes. They are complex, sovereign beings with agency of their own – and until that understanding is reached, communicating with the gods may always cause a person to reach for the question “Am I Hearing a God or Am I Going Crazy?”

So, thank you, Beckett, for pointing out one of the glaring foundational lapses of modern-day polytheism. That is something that needs to be addressed directly instead of whispered about being closed doors. The gods are real. Your experiences are real. And there are people out there who will take you at your word and offer you the understanding you need. Polytheist priests are rare, but we do exist. And I will always make myself available for any person who finds themselves at a loss for what to do when the gods drop in without warning. That is the bare minimum of what it means to be a priest. Because being a priest – yes, it is about serving the gods. But it is also about helping people. It is a calling to both the gods and to those who honor them. Let’s not forget to help the people in our eagerness to serve the gods.

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Priesthood, Change, and Differences

I’m hugging the line that runs between doubt and self-confidence because I think I feel ready to take on the burden of responsibility that being priest to the Gods entails. I have the rationale to know that I understand enough to impart the wisdom of the Gods to those who need help hearing Them, but I am also fearful that I will misrepresent one of the Gods or not make the messages clear enough. I think that is part and parcel of the responsibility  I’ve decided to carry.

There are those who will criticize me for even daring to refer to myself as a priest (if I’m being P.C. priestess, but priest has always sounded like a gender-neutral word to me, so I’m going to use priest instead). They will criticize me because I am not part of a kindred, I didn’t go through a traditional apprenticeship, and I’m not very involved in the larger Pagan community because of where I currently live. There will be those who say that a priest is granted the power to impart the wisdom of the Gods by the community around them, but I disagree. The power to impart the wisdom of the Gods is granted by the Gods Themselves.

Now, I will agree that it is far easier for those already part of a community to be seen as more of an authority figure than someone who is on the fringes of that community. I will agree with that only insofar as the central community goes. But the people on the fringes of a community see the parts of the community where the rifts really exist, while those in the community who sit in its center can ignore the needs of the ones that just barely fall within the lines of that community.

That’s where I fall. It’s not that I don’t care about the central Pagan and Heathen communities; it’s that the central communities already have the authorities they need. There are High Priests/Priestesses and Godhi/Godha within the central communities doing wonderful work. The resources are plentiful.

But out here on the fringe where solitaries hang out, where Lokeans tend to gather, where those who just don’t seem to fit anywhere else, there are precious few resources available. Every time I find a new book on Loki, I devour it because there are so few. I can barely think of five books that do Loki justice, and I know there are hundreds of Lokeans out there who have to bear the same frustrations that I do.

Even in a community that is supposed to be inclusive – the Pagan community as a whole – there are outsiders. People whose beliefs just don’t quite mesh with the rest. And I’m no exception to that. In fact, when it comes to being someone who doesn’t quite mesh, I’d say I could be the poster-girl.

I’m an aggressive woman with next to no ability to be submissive – I chafe under the hierarchies imposed upon me because I hate being told what to do. I’m pansexual, though I usually stick to the bisexual identifier when people ask because most people at least understand what that means. I spent my years from 12 – 22 being an eclectic Pagan before I came to Heathenry, and I am now 28. I’ve never sought out a coven, never belonged to a kindred, and I’ve never felt the need to seek a teacher. The only teachers I’ve ever had, in regards to my faith, are the books I’ve read and the wisdom the Gods themselves have imparted to me.

I have everything I need to be a priest to the Gods, but I can’t say for certain that I have everything I need to be a good one. I will always strive to be the best that it is possible for me to be, and hope that I won’t be found lacking. There will be those who say that I lack the fundamental aspect of priesthood – a community to preach to. But I don’t think that matters as much as others like to say it does.

The primary responsibility of being a priest is to be a living example of the wisdom that the Gods choose to impart. There is the responsibility to be a voice among all the other voices saying, “This path, too, is valid.” Not better, not preferred, but valid. To be able to stand up and tell other solitary Pagans, especially solitary Heathens, that it is okay to be solitary. That it isn’t necessary to be part of a community to walk with the Gods. That it’s okay to believe differently than the people around you.

I don’t need to be a priest for the mainstream Pagan community; there are enough there already. I’m interested in the fringe groups, the people who have been told that the way they worship is wrong, that the practices they indulge in aren’t acceptable within their faith, that the Gods they honor can’t be honored at communal events. These are the people who are the dearest to me because these are the only people who can cause change.

My soul is sworn to Odin, but my heart is sworn to Loki. The relationship between Odin and Loki is so grossly misunderstood that correcting those misconceptions will take many lifetimes. Especially when there are Heathens out there equating Loki with Satan and trying to banish Him from community events. Where Loki is banished, nothing can change. Nothing new can occur. Loki is where change comes from. He is where hamingja comes from. I’ve discussed hamingja before, so I won’t go into it here, but Loki’s role is pivotal.

The problem we currently face on the fringes of Paganism and Heathenry is the stagnation of it. There are a lot of people who start down Pagan pathways only to turn back to Christianity a few years later because Paganism is too hard a faith to follow. We have to acknowledge that we live in a society that values convenience over conscience, and we live in a world where self-accountability has become all but obsolete.

Introductory Paganism books fail to disclose to the readers that Pagan paths require a huge sacrifice from the start. I’m not talking about sacrifices to the Gods; those are different. No, what I am talking about is the sacrifice that comes when you have to give up the concept of finding an easy faith to follow. The sacrifice that comes from accepting that the only person that can be held accountable for the actions you make is yourself. That’s a huge sacrifice in a world that is more interested in placing blame than accepting responsibility. There is little wonder that people turn away from Paganism when they realize that easy answers can’t be found.

That’s just one of the problems, and that is a problem those in the more central Pagan communities need to address. What I need to address – what the fringe groups need to address – is our lack of contribution. I don’t mean getting involved in the bigger groups – I mean individual contribution.

There are thousands of solitary practitioners, but few of us lend a voice to the debates going on in the mainstream Pagan community. And why should we? Those debates, in the end, don’t matter to us. After all, we’re solitary, so we do things our own way. That’s the mentality I’m talking about.

Because most of us aren’t disinterested in the bigger issues. Most of us would love to lend a voice, but we’ve been shot down and ignored and told that what we believe is wrong so often that we just tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter. We sit back and we let the mainstream communities tell us that the way we practice is wrong, that we can’t call ourselves certain things because we don’t meet certain requirements. And, instead of arguing with the force of the mainstream, we withdraw from the arguments entirely. We say that we don’t want to deal with the drama.

But that isn’t really true. What we don’t want to deal with is the emotional fallout. We don’t want to be told, over and over and over that our beliefs are wrong. We don’t want to be forced to question our own beliefs because the mainstream disagrees with the way we do things. So we just keep our beliefs and practices to ourselves because we can at least avoid a fight that way. We can keep ourselves from feeling belittled and we can keep from getting hurt.

And that’s fine – no one wants to be hurt. No one likes to to be told that what they believe is invalid. But the truth is, none of us want to truly BE solitary. We want other people to understand what we believe and have them be okay with it. We don’t need covens. We don’t need kindreds. All we need is the acceptance of our differences.

As a Lokean, I know how tiresome it is to get on a discussion board and find the threads discussing how Loki isn’t really a God after all, and it’s irksome to read through the posts because they are so disrespectful towards Loki without understanding His character at all. It’s enough to make me want to punch someone, so I understand the desire to stay away from the mainstream.

At the same time, however, if we keep allowing others to tell us that our beliefs are wrong, and we just withdraw, aren’t we letting them win? Aren’t we telling them that they’re right, after all, and our beliefs aren’t as valid as theirs? I know Loki wouldn’t stand by if someone was treating Him that way – He does not tolerate disrespect. That’s shown, quite clearly, in the Lokasenna, where he intrudes on a feast He wasn’t invited to (and it’s clear that He should have been offered an invitation) and makes everyone pay for the slight by mocking them intensely.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all go out and start mocking those who insult us, but I am saying that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be so easily defeated. Why do we let other people make us feel bad about the way we honor the Gods? The Gods don’t care how we honor Them – most of Them don’t even care if we honor Them. If the Gods don’t care, then why do we allow ourselves to become complacent in defending the way we choose to believe and live?

The people on the fringes of any community are the backbone of the community. We’re the ones who forge new tools, who create new paths. We’re the ones who know how to look at things differently. It is our responsibility to develop the true potential of the Pagan and Heathen communities. The mainstream can’t do it – they’ve become too blinded by their need to criticize the way we believe to see that we are the lungs of the community.

So, going back to what I said before – I’m ready to assume the mantle of priesthood. All I can do is impart the wisdom the Gods give me to share; it is your decision how you use that knowledge. The truth is, I’m only the catalyst, the one that carries the messages. If my help is needed, then I offer that freely. I’m not going to try to force anyone to see me as an authority figure; my purpose in life is to guide, not to coerce. I will ask hard questions, and I will raise issues that are difficult to address, but no one ever has to agree with me. I respect differences. In fact, I encourage them.