Hierarchies and Devotions

When people first start establishing a devotional practice they often focus on actions they can take, such as extending hospitality, planning major holidays and festivals, and building altars and shrines.

How we think doesn’t usually rate a second glance until much later.

Here’s the thing, though. The hierarchies we carry around in our heads can completely derail our devotional work before any of those actions are even a blip on the radar. Even once we’ve got something established, those hierarchies can still spring out like a possessed jack-in-the-box and catch us unawares.

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I looked for a pic of a jack-in-the-box but creeped myself out. I figured I’d let you imagine your own horrors instead. YOU’RE WELCOME. 🙂

What’s a hierarchy? 

Hierarchies are the systems we use to rank things by status or authority. We rank everything: jobs, physical attractiveness, workplace chain-of-command, preferred handbag brands, etc.

We learn the importance of hierarchies as soon as we learn that our parents have authority over us. As we grow we add on to and refine that initial ranking system until we have an entire series of hierarchies, all nested together in our heads.

And we automatically use them to compare ourselves to other people.

high-school-social-hierarchy

Here’s an example of a high school popularity hierarchy. Did you automatically look for where you’d have ranked on this when you were in high school? I did.

It’s a pretty simple process. We rank a bunch of things from worst to best, or least desirable to most desirable, figure out where we fit in that ranking system, and then use that as a basis for how we feel about ourselves. The higher we are in rank the better we are as people.

Given how much we rely on these hierarchies to navigate our lives, is it really a surprise that we use tend to use them for our spiritual practice, too?

That makes sense. Why is it a problem, though?

For one, it’s dead easy to start ranking the ways different people practice according to some arbitrary scale we make up, compare ourselves to that ranking, and then start drawing conclusions based on whatever we come up with.

In other words, we either think our practice is lacking because someone else out there is doing “better” or we think our practice rocks because someone else out there is doing “worse”. That’s of course a completely ridiculous comparison to make, but people do it anyway.

Lots of people have talked about that particular issue, though. A more serious problem, to my mind, happens when we start comparing ourselves to the Powers.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, too. Once we start thinking of the Powers as individuals with Their own agendas and personalities, it’s really tempting to put Them on a hierarchy just like we do everyone else. Again, it’s just habit. And since They’re always at the top of whatever hierarchy we’re working with, we’re always beneath Them.

Some folks may feel so far beneath Them that they’re too intimidated to interact with Them at all. How can we have a relationship with Them if we can’t even talk?

It’s the exact same thing that happens when we’re attracted to someone at a bar.

girl

Maybe this girl? I dunno, go with me here.

We see someone who pushes all our buttons, who seems like the most amazing person ever. We look at them longingly from across the room. We ask the bartender about them, maybe, or see if our friends know anything about them. We fantasize about saying something hilarious to make them laugh, having a good time, maybe even getting their number.

Then the comparisons start, and our inner monologue runs amuck. “Should I say hi? Naw, they’re outta my league. Who needs that kind of humiliation? I need to find someone attainable.” We psych ourselves out before we make a move and let our internalized feelings of inferiority hold us back.

Or maybe we see a favorite author/musician/celebrity around town and want to gush about how meaningful their work has been in our lives. Once again we fantasize about what interacting with them would be like, once again we compare their place on our internal hierarchy to our own, and once again we psych ourselves out before making a move.

If we’re inhibited by a perceived distance between ourselves and other people, how much more inhibited might we be by a perceived distance between ourselves and the Powers? And how much more likely are we to avoid interacting with Them because of it?

It takes a different form with devotional work, of course, but it’s the same idea. The self-talk sounds similar, too. “I’m a mess right now. I’m sure the Powers are busy and have better things to do than talk to me anyway. If all relationships are reciprocal, what could I possibly bring to the table that would interest Them? I’m just human! I’m not going to ask Them for help. After all, if I was as together as They deserve or expect me to be I wouldn’t even need Their help. I’ll reach out when I’m not so embarrassed. When I’m not so scattered. When I’ve got a better offering for Them. When I’ve studied more. When I’ve accomplished more. When I know what I’m doing. When I’ve sacrificed enough to earn Their attention. When I’m better. When I’m deserving. When I matter.”

It’s a vicious cycle. We feel lesser, we feel intimidated, we avoid interaction. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Avoiding interactions with Them doesn’t exactly help our devotional practice flourish.

So how can we fix that? 

The answer is an easy concept with difficult implementation, but the more we do it the easier it is to keep doing it. Momentum is our friend.

Human hierarchies tend to be based on the things we can easily see and assess (socioeconomic level, appearance, accomplishments, etc). But we have to remember that the Powers aren’t human. Why would They use human-based hierarchies?

The hierarchies on which the Powers rely (at least in my experience) rank traits, or virtues, and judge off of that instead. The harder we try to meet the standards by which They want us to live, the higher the regard in which the Powers hold us. Our effort makes us worthy, not our perfection.

But what exactly do They look for? 

That depends on the Powers you follow. In my experience this is loosely answered on a pantheon basis – for instance, most of the Greek deities tend to value the same set of traits, and the Norse another set – but individual Powers within that pantheon may rank those traits differently.

As usual I’d ask Them first. What do They tell you?

Beyond that, I’d suggest consulting source documents or, if possible, living traditions. Most faiths with written records have some sort of “right actions” guideline to follow, whether it be explicit or inferred. That’s a fantastic place to start sorting things out.

For instance, as someone on a more Celtic path, I do my best to use a hierarchy based on a system of Celtic values (and wow does this need to be a post all on its own!). Wiccans and Wiccan-flavored Pagans often use the Wiccan Rede or Rule of Three the same way. Those on an Asatru-type path might prefer to work with the Nine Noble Virtues, while Egyptian/Kemetic folks might look to the Forty-Two Negative Confessions.

anubis-and-maat

After death, Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased against a single feather of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of law and morality. If the heart is the same weight or lighter than the feather, it proves the deceased led a virtuous life and so deserves a reward. If it’s heavier… well, there are consequences for that too.

Outside of all that I can’t think of any Power offhand that doesn’t value Authenticity, Integrity, and Hospitality in some form or fashion. If nothing else start there and see what comes to you.

Make those right actions the basis of your life, and then assess yourself accordingly. Are you keeping your word? Are you working hard to meet your goals? Are you treating yourself, other people, and the Powers with respect? Are you living authentically? That’s where you need to focus your attention. The rest is just noise.

The beauty of this system is that even missteps and mistakes are ok because we show honor by handling them appropriately. Every single choice we make allows us to demonstrate right action, and thus further right relationships with the Powers. They bring us closer together instead of pushing us further away.

Once we’ve sorted this whole issue out we can then engage the Powers from a place of security and strength, making the devotional work we do even more meaningful and effective.

On Apples and Trees: Original Sin and Inherited Debt

A redheaded woman with bare shoulders holding up a bitten apple.

I come from a very fundamentalist family. My aunt and I in particular discuss religion fairly often when we’re together. As a Christian she tries to convert me, and as a Polytheist I reject those attempts, but there is still plenty of discussion outside of that.

During our last conversation we talked about the nature of belief, and faith vs. works, and a whole host of other things. But it’s when the idea of Original Sin came up that I realized I had some processing to do.

Original Sin

This is perhaps the most fundamental problem I’ve had with Christianity as a faith.

The Doctrine of Original Sin holds that the first sin committed – Eve eating apples from the Tree of Knowledge against God’s command – taints every human after her.

eve-apple

For some folks that means we’re all unclean from birth. Others interpret it to mean that we’re all “ethically debilitated”, meaning we’re simply more prone to sin than we would have been if Eve hadn’t fallen from God’s grace. Either way, though, only belief in Jesus can redeem us.

I could never buy that logic as a kid, much less as an adult. Judging someone by the actions of their forefathers made no sense. Sins of the fathers are not passed to the sons. I’m not going to blame someone with the misfortune to be born to a criminal for that criminal’s crimes. Much less a crime that occurred thousands of years ago, in an unverifiable myth, in a way that felt like a setup from the start.

To my mind, ditching Original Sin as a concept meant dismissing Christianity as a whole. After all, if there was no Original Sin to be forgiven, why did we as a people need Jesus in the first place? According to Christian doctrine H/he came to earth and died to forgive us for the Fall, and all the sins stemming from it. That was H/his whole purpose. No Original Sin? No need for Jesus.

I dusted my hands of the whole thing and moved on.

Inherited Debt

Years later, as my Pagan practice grew into something closer to true Polytheism, I encountered the idea of inherited debt and had to reassess some of my previous opinions.

The basic idea of inherited debt is that, due to either actions of our Ancestors or things we did in past lives, we have incurred karmic/spiritual debt that needs to be worked out or paid off. For example, those who abandoned their traditional Gods/Ancestors/Land back in the day bear a debt for those broken oaths, and that debt is passed down through the generations until it is paid by a descendant and the situation is righted.

Even beyond those types of transgressions, though, I didn’t just spontaneously spring from the ooze into an unformed world. My Gods and Ancestors worked hard to bring me here. I stand on the backs of all of those who came before me, who shaped the world I live in, and I owe them for that.

debt

Incalculable.

Thing is, that debt is never paid in full because there’s no way one lifetime is enough to do it. I am indebted deeper than I can ever pay it off. That debt is the price I pay to be a human, to have a corporeal body, to learn the lessons this go-round that I’m supposed to learn.

I began seeing this debt as an extension of Hospitality, because it arises from and is entwined with relationships between myself and the Gods/Ancestors/Land. Once that concept clicked for me I started incorporating the honoring of that debt into my personal practice.

Racial Justice and Privilege

A few years later I dated a woman who was (and still is) very involved in racial justice. It was a new thing for me to think about as a white girl, and even with my college background in gender studies I didn’t really get it. She was approaching it from an academic angle, and that’s not how I learn this kind of thing. I need stories, experiences. I need the people element to connect.

It was on her recommendation that I started following various Facebook feeds, like Son of Baldwin and The Root. I still follow them. I don’t talk, but I listen with intent. It’s not up to POCs to educate me, but their stories are the only way I can learn. So I expose myself to their experiences and perspectives, research what confuses me, and learn as much as I can.

Through all of that I came across two articles that helped.

The first was Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person by Gina Crosley-Corcoran. It explained privilege to me in a way that my ex couldn’t. Finally I had some concepts to work with!

As the article explains, “privilege” is a collective term for all the ways I benefit from society by default. I don’t have to do anything to get those benefits, I can openly say I don’t want them, and yet I get them anyway. Those benefits are just as much a part of my heritage as hair and eye color, because I’m benefiting from a system of oppression created and enforced by my Ancestors for generations.

Denial-is-so-White-by-Ampersand

The second article, The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, approaches white privilege from the other direction. These were ideas I had to grapple with, hard, because Coates makes some damned good points in that article. I’m still processing some of them.

The whole thing comes down to this: If I directly benefit from a system of oppression established by my Ancestors that still shapes life in America today, then aren’t those punished under that same system owed some sort of recompense to balance the scales?

This is an inherited debt that’s even more tangible than the others I’ve already mentioned, because it’s about relationships in the here-and-now. This isn’t a spiritual thing I accept on faith or through woo-woo experiences. I can look around me and see the effects of this system on the evening news.

The more I considered it the larger the debt became. I do my best to be a true ally in the fight for racial equality, but it never feels like enough. Everything I do is a drop in a bottomless bucket. I don’t feel guilty about it on a personal level, but I do feel a sense of obligation or responsibility about it. If I get the bennies I bear part of the burden. That only makes sense.

Like the price I pay for being human, this too is an inherited indebtedness that can’t be quantified, grows ever larger, and can never be paid.

Rethinking Original Sin

Interpretations of what the whole story with Eve in the Garden really means are too many to count. There are debates about whether or not there was a Garden at all, or an apple, or a snake. Some people think the apples conferred not knowledge but the desire to be independent, or desire in the sexual sense.

I’m starting to think that Eve’s theft of the apple represents something else entirely. Eve took an apple that God did not want to give her. She forcibly took something from another. She created a debt. And every generation that came after her just added to that debt. Then actions taken by different lineages made that burden even heavier, the debt greater, the obligations harder to meet.

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The story of Eve in the Garden comes to us through Judaism, a faith that ritualizes the meeting of these obligations. The halakhah – Jewish Law, or literally “the path that one walks” – is a set of codified behaviors that reinforce and honor the relationship not just between the individual and God, but between the individual and the entire Jewish community. And yes, there are some of these for Ancestors as well. From what I can tell, their actions essentially make payments on their debts, with the understanding that they are never fully paid. They’ll follow those rituals until they die.

According to Christians, Jesus’s death on the cross ended all those obligations. It put paid to all debts that came before and would come after. All you had to do to have your share of the debt forgiven was believe that Jesus paid it, and as long as you truly believed your slate was clean.

I can certainly see the appeal of that perspective. These burdens are heavy, and meeting these obligations can seem overwhelming. Why not jump at the chance to pass that burden off to another who wants it enough to die for it?

I don’t think I buy it though. With this interpretation my disbelief is shifting away from the whole concept of Original Sin and towards the ease of forgiveness of it. I think there’s more to it than that, and Gods know my approach is more similar to the Jewish one than the Christian one.

Honestly I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore, or if this whole train of thought is even valid, or where to go from here. I don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle yet, so I’m not sure what the picture will look like when it’s all together.

I think that all I can do is study, and listen, and try to understand. Hopefully I’ll accumulate some knowledge on my own, without needing to steal an apple from a tree in a garden. But just in case… where’s a helpful snake when you need one?

Concepts of Modern Polytheism – Piety

Piety is an incredibly contentious idea. It’s an important topic, and I’m glad people are discussing it, but sometimes the discussions can seem frustratingly theoretical.

For those new to the concept, or new to considering how piety might manifest in day-to-day life, I thought I’d wade into these turbulent waters and toss my two cents in. As per usual this is by no means meant to be a definitive anything. It’s simply my breakdown of the subject.

Disclaimers out of the way? Awesome.

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The Blues Brothers. Still classic.

What is piety, anyway?

The basic definition of piety is “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations”.

Leaving the monotheistic bias of the definition aside, on the surface this seems simple enough. Applying it is a whole different thing, though.

That’s ok. This definition is a decent enough place to start. We just need to unpack it a bit.

There are three aspects to this definition we need to wrangle if we’re going to clear up some of the confusion around this whole “piety” thing: reverence, religious obligations, and devout fulfillment.

Reverence

Reverence is “a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe”, in this case towards the Powers. And really, if we don’t respect the Powers and feel at least a little in awe of Them, then why the hell are we all here?

Reverence is the feeling that makes us talk quietly or whisper in sacred places. It’s why simply lighting a candle on an altar can feel like a deeply significant, if not overwhelming, thing to do. Reverence causes us to dither over what we’re going to wear to a solitary ritual and spend hours writing out exactly what we’re going to say when we pray. It pushes us to make our shrines beautiful and the incense sweet.

Experiencing reverence, or wanting to, is what draws many of us to religion in the first place. That makes it a very big deal.

That being said, though, telling someone to “feel reverence” is like telling someone to “fall in love”. We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face, but until someone feels it for themselves they’re simply not going to get it.

So, just like with discussions of love, when we talk about reverence we most often talk about how it’s shown.

And that brings us to religious obligations.

Religious Obligations

Showing our reverence involves a bunch of different actions we collectively call “religious obligations”. The exact activities can differ from person to person, Power to Power, and/or Tradition to Tradition, but all together these things form the core of our religious practice.

And while the activities may differ, they all serve the same general functions.

For those who don’t feel reverence yet, Doing the Things will help create a frame of reference for it. It’s like helping someone appreciate roses by teaching them how to garden. It may seem a bit convoluted, but it can be very effective.

roses

For roses to bloom in the spring we have to prune the bushes in the fall. Here’s how we do that…

Once we do feel reverence, Doing the Things helps us express the reverence we feel.

Think about that overwhelming awkwardness we all occasionally suffer through when talking to a crush, or someone we perceive to be of higher status than ourselves. Sure, we’re all suave and together when we imagine those conversations in our heads, but when the moment actually comes we’re more likely to stammer and blush than sound like James Bond.

Crush

Seriously, who can’t relate to this?

That awkwardness can happen when working with the Powers, too. We might not know what to say, or what to do with our hands. Do we talk or stay silent? Kneel, or curtsy, or bow, or stand tall? Do we wear clothes at our altars, or do we approach them naked?

Our religious obligations, whatever they may be, make interactions with the Powers easier to navigate. They help us avoid feeling awkward by providing us with at least a baseline for acceptable behavior. And the more comfortable we are with the actions we’re taking, the more we can focus on the interaction itself, instead of all the other questions that can confuse or block the experience.

That’s just the surface, though. It goes deeper. Expressing our reverence by Doing the Things actually leads to us feeling more reverence. It’s a classic feedback loop.

Feedback Loop

How cool is that?

As wonderful as all that is, though, we can’t talk about religious obligations without acknowledging that these Things We Do are obligations. “Obligation” is another word for “requirement”. Doing the Things is something the Powers require from us.

It’s not just for our benefit, either. Like damn near everything else in polytheism, reciprocity is at work here too. Which means They get just as much out of these activities as we do. What that value might be is up for debate, but the value itself is definitely there.

By fulfilling these obligations we’re not just improving things on our end, but Theirs too. It’s doubly important to fulfill these obligations because it’s for E/everyone involved.

How we go about doing that brings us to the next point.

Devout Fulfillment

This idea is present in every religion I can think of, and modern polytheism is no exception. No matter what our religious obligations happen to be, we should do them with sincerity and focus. We have to be fully engaged in what we’re doing, and committed to doing it the best way we know how.

This can hit a number of different points.

  • Do it for the Powers. Don’t do it because you think it’ll make you look good to other people, or even other polytheists. It’s not about them, and they’re not your intended audience. If they are you’re going about this for completely the wrong reasons.
  • Do it with joy. Or at least satisfaction. Don’t just suffer through. There are times we feel a little less engaged than others, but if you feel like a put-upon martyr every time you approach your altar you might want to reassess things.
  • Focus not just on what you’re doing but on the meaning behind it. Don’t let yourself be rushed or distracted. I’m sure I’ll get people who disagree with me here, but I think it’s better to postpone your religious activities entirely if the only other option is half-assing them. Don’t make it a habit or anything, but life happens. We have to be able to roll with that, and short-changing your religious activities isn’t helpful.

I could keep going here, but I’m sure y’all get the point. Do what you mean, and mean what you do. It really is just that simple.

Putting it Back Together

Now that we’ve dismantled the definition of “piety”, let’s reassemble it more clearly.

How about this? “Fulfilling our religious obligations with focus and intent expresses the respect we feel for the Powers, leads to greater connection with Them, and serves Them too.”

I personally find that definition to be much better!

There is one very important question this definition leaves hanging, though: What specifically are these activities we’re supposed to practice, these religious obligations we’re supposed to so devotedly fulfill?

Approaches to Piety

Answering that question involves quite a bit of trial-and-error. And while I sincerely believe there are no universally correct answers here, I’ve found three useful approaches that can help us figure out our personal answers: community-based learning, relying on our existing connections with the Powers to guide us, and/or consulting the historical record.

Community-Based Learning

The community-based learning approach focuses on the perspectives and experiences of other modern polytheists. Information can come from in-person conversations and instruction, blogs like this one, forums and websites, and books written by other polytheists for other polytheists.

On the one hand these resources can be incredibly helpful. They can certainly jump-start our practice! Consulting others who have already figured out their approach gets tools that work into our hands faster, allowing us to avoid all kinds of frustration and hassles as we start finding our own way.

Zelda

Even if swords aren’t the first tools most of us need.

Notice I said “their approach” and “finding our own way”. The biggest problem with community-based learning happens when people confuse learning from others with essentially cheating off their test.

When we’re lost in math class we get to a point when we just want to get the answers, right? We cease caring about why the answers are the answers, we just want to get credit and move on. Hopefully to something that makes a bit more sense.

That happens with polytheism just as much as anything else, especially when we’re just getting started. It’s fairly easy to do, too, thanks to the internet. We simply find another polytheist who seems pretty connected to the Powers and take their path as our own – or, even worse, as the only valid path there is. There’s no true understanding of what we’re doing or why, no meaning behind it we can see, just rote gestures we make with the vague hope that if we do them long enough some ephemeral something will happen.

cheating

Like this, but with more candles and incense.

And that right there is the problem.

What we’re rotely copying when we do this are what the polytheist in question considers their religious obligations, right? Their obligations to the Powers with whom they work. And those obligations are both their frame of reference for and an expression of the reverence they feel for those Powers.

That being the case, copying their obligations without understanding is an attempt to copy their reverence. And reverence can’t be copied. It’s a feeling. Copying techniques might help in the short term, by giving us some place to start, but eventually rote copying becomes both ineffective and inauthentic.

As long as we keep things to learning instead of copying, though, community-based learning can be incredibly helpful to us as we go.

Relying on Existing Connections

When we talk about forming/deepening connections with the Powers, one thing that really stands out about polytheism in particular is that we interact with Them. We talk to the Powers and fully expect Them to respond.

For many of us, what we hear directly from the Powers is the be-all and end-all of our devotional work. We figure that if They want us to do something in particular, or step it up in general, then They’ll just tell us. We assume that if They’re not complaining then everything’s ok.

That’s a seductive viewpoint, no question. But there are some problems with it.

For one, our signal clarity might simply suck. There’s no shame in that. It happens to all of us occasionally, and if we’re new to this we might still be working on establishing a signal at all. There are lots of reasons we might not hear Them when They speak to us, and that means we could easily miss important things.

low-signal-mobile-phone-020615

Frustrating on BOTH ends of the line!

Even if our signal clarity is at five bars, our personal bullshit can still clog up the works. We all have prejudices, biases, distractions, egos, conflicting priorities, and bouts of sheer laziness. Filtering the messages we receive through all that noise might lead to us either hearing only what we want to, or closing out Their voices until it’s convenient for us to listen. That is less than optimal at the best of times, but especially if They’re our only source for information!

This whole approach can also be a bit insulting to Them. If They have to complain to get what They need from us, and have to keep complaining to get us to pay attention, eventually They’ll get tired of it. They’ll feel disregarded and disrespected.

We don’t want our friends to feel that way, do we? So why should that be ok for the Powers? It’s not. Unhealthy relationship habits are unhealthy relationship habits, regardless of the relationship in question.

Keeping our relationships with Them healthy and balanced involves truly reciprocating with Them. We need to try to meet Them halfway. As long as we do that, relying on the Powers to guide us can be a really useful approach.

Consulting the Historical Record

The third and last approach to piety is looking at what other people did before us. All of the Powers with which we engage came from somewhere, right? And we’re certainly not the first people to interact with Them! Checking out what might have been written about Them back when honoring Them was commonplace seems like a no-brainer.

Like the other methods, though, this approach has some pros and cons.

On the plus side, if we’re lucky enough to work with a culture that kept written records, or a Power that came from one, then YAY! That’s a huge head start. Those records can tell us not only what a particular Power considered religious obligations back in the day, but how They expected those obligations to be fulfilled.

PWI95057

The Weighing of the Heart, a detail from a page of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead is basically a guide to the Egyptian afterlife that was left in tombs, and gives LOTS of info about the Egyptian Powers.

Archaeology can be quite informative even when there aren’t written records. Comparisons to other cultures from the same general area and time period can be illuminating as well. The more fragmentary the records the harder we have to work to get anything useful out of them, but anything is better than nothing. Right?

Eh. I might be in the minority, but I tend to find that written sources can easily become more hindrance than help. Especially for those of us raised in the shadow of Modernity.

Modernity places a high value on that which is written, and considers the written word inviolate and unquestionable. Considering where Modernity comes from that’s pretty understandable. By the time we’re adults it’s almost instinctive for us to look to books to answer all of our questions. And why would we ever question what we find there? It’s in a book!

Modern polytheists don’t escape that inherent bias. When we start reaching out to the Powers and wanting to understand Them better, we reach for books without even really thinking about it. It’s just what we do. And once we’ve got “official documentation” in hand it’s all too easy for those of us looking at it to rely on it exclusively, without question and without accepting the possibility of change.

We start treating the lore, or scholarly interpretations of it, as if it is in itself sacred.

In America today it’s fairly common to see folks go all One True Way with whatever written material they’ve chosen to base their lives on. We see it with evangelical Christians who do it with the Bible, but it pops up in politics too. The Constitution is so revered (notice the word usage there?) that for some folks questioning it or changing it becomes absolutely unthinkable.

amendment

Substitute “gun control” with “health care”, “immigration reform”, “gay marriage”…

One True Wayism isn’t a good thing regardless of who’s doing it. I think it’s particularly sad when polytheists do it, though, because that often runs counter to the traditions we’re trying to revive.

Polytheistic traditions that predate Modernity didn’t rely on books. Many of them didn’t keep records at all. These were living traditions, and a large part of what gave them life was the fact that they were orally transmitted. That kept them flexible, enabling both the lore and the people to adapt to changing times and circumstances.

Even the cultures that did write things down didn’t write down everything. Why would they? We’re not finding children’s religious primers in the archaeological record. For the most part the writings that have survived reflect one person’s observations about whatever topic they were writing about at the time of the writing. They’re snapshots, each one a single frame taken from a movie reel, one perspective of one moment of time frozen in words.

swdel-scene-yoda-training

If this one frame was the only one you saw from the whole Star Wars trilogy, how much would you know about the rest of the saga?

We can’t base our entire understanding of a Power or culture solely on what remains in the historical record. The more records we’ve got the more clear our understanding can be, but there is always a margin for error. As long as that margin of error is accounted for all is well. However, it’s way too easy for us to forget about that.

Balancing Approaches

There are significant problems with all of the above approaches when it comes to figuring out the religious obligations of a pious life. So what do we do?

We synthesize them. We don’t rely exclusively on one approach, we do them all together.

By all means, follow the blogs and social media of polytheists you think are “doing it right” or have an approach that speaks to you. Read all the books written by other polytheists you can find. Their voices and perspectives can teach you a lot. But remember that no one is The One and Only Voice of the Powers, so don’t blindly follow anyone as if they are. And occasionally remember to pop in and check out what people you don’t agree with have to say too. Questioning what they say helps us remember to question what we say.

Yes, talk to the Powers. Converse with Them. Interact with Them. If you hear Them speak to you, heed what They say. Use divination techniques to clarify what that might be when you’re unsure. But remember to practice self-awareness to make sure your own voice isn’t overriding Theirs. Always question what you think you heard.

Certainly look to the historical record for inspiration and guidance. Visit the sacred sites and learn about the culture. Study the lore. But remember that the records don’t tell the whole story and aren’t always reliable. Also remember that most of these cultures are gone, the world has changed, and had they survived those cultures would have had to change with it.

The key to remember with all of these approaches, I think, is to always question what we think we know and stay open to change. Those two things will assure we’re living an authentically pious life more than anything else.

A Starter Guide

Any approach to piety has to start somewhere.

ring

Drowning? This section is for you.

I’ve collected some links to things I personally think are useful to people trying to figure out their own approach to piety in a modern polytheistic practice. This kind of thing is never complete, though, and if you have sources you’d like to add please mention them in the comments!

Beginning Polytheism

There really isn’t a whole lot out there for brand-new beginners. Most resources seem to assume at least a little background information, which to my mind makes assumptions that might not be true. There are some that manage to avoid that, though. Here’s what I recommend.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

I guess first I’ll mention my own writing. Out of everything I’ve written I’d most recommend starting with The Southern Girl’s Guide to Hospitality, and from there progressing through the Growing Devotions series. Together these provide a decent starting place when it comes to establishing an effective religious practice. They’re also simple, use references we know, and are careful not to overwhelm the beginner with too much at once.

Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology by Raven Kaldera

I tend to enjoy Kaldera’s tone and approach, and this book is no exception. At 135 pages it’s short, but honestly I think beginner books should be short. We need a chance to absorb what we’ve read before moving on to longer or more challenging material, and I think this book does that well. It gives us a good idea of what’s going on without getting overly technical. Available here.

Devotional Polytheism: An Introduction by Galina Krasskova

This is another great intro. I think my only quibble with it is that it’s 200 pages long, and those pages are dense. There’s a lot here, and that might feel a little overwhelming. If you just take it slow, and go into it with the idea that this book is full of ideas rather than mandates, I think you’ll find it very useful. Available here.

A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism by John Michael Greer

This book is written from a “polytheism is a part of Paganism” perspective, which I don’t agree with (and should probably explain in a later post too). That aside, though, it’s useful for beginners who want a more idea-based approach to polytheism. Instead of going into how to be a polytheist, it examines some of the ideas and themes that support it. This might be especially useful to those transitioning from soft polytheism to hard polytheism. Available here.

Intermediate Books

Once you’ve gone through the above resources you’ll have enough background to easily understand the following. They assume you know what polytheism is and some of the basic ideas, but they don’t assume too much past that.

Walking with the Gods: Modern People Talk About Deities, Faith, and Recreating Ancient Traditions by W.D. Wilkerson

In many ways this feels like a polytheist’s version of Margot Alder’s Drawing Down the Moon. It is more academic than other books on this list, but that’s because this book is an academic study. The author interviewed 120 different modern polytheists, from all types of practice, and drew out the similarities and differences in what they said. If you want to explore some of the many paths within modern polytheism I highly recommend this book. Available here.

Weaving Memory: A Guide to Honoring the Ancestors by Laura Patsouris

There’s plenty out there about working with Gods, but not a whole lot specifically addressing how to work with other Powers. This one focuses on Ancestors and is the book I started with on the subject. It was written with the beginner in mind, or at least the beginner to Ancestor work, but personally I’d recommend it for those who know basic polytheism fundamentals already. There’s a lot of information in this one! Available here.

The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices by Claude Lecouteux

This book talks about Land Spirits, specifically those around hearth and home. I personally loved it, but it’s got a more academic tone so be warned. It wasn’t a difficult read, but it does require you to pay attention or you’ll lose some of the threads the author is working with. This is another book I’d recommend tackling once you’ve got a good grasp of general polytheism. Not so much because you need it to understand the material, but so that you’ve got an existing framework in which to place it and with which to use it. Available here.

For more about working directly with Gods I’d recommend any of the devotionals published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina. I’ve consistently found them to be both useful and beautiful, and recommend them highly. These all focus on either one God or a small group of Gods and offer stories, prayers, devotional activities, and essays to help you understand and work with Them. Asphodel Press offers some beautiful devotionals as well, and their offerings tend to skew towards Norse deities if that’s what draws your interest.

There are also a metric ton of blogs out there with different perspectives and types of practice. Once you feel comfortable exploring they can be incredibly useful too.

Concepts of Modern Polytheism – Post Round Up

The “Concepts of Modern Polytheism” series is dedicated to making complex ideas more accessible to those unfamiliar with them. While the series is new, breaking down complexity is something I’ve focused on for awhile now.

That being so, I thought it might be helpful to provide links to previous posts that do that too. If nothing else it gets all the relevant posts corralled into one place.

The first two links especially are ones I reference quite a bit. Completely new to the whole idea of polytheism? Hospitality and Devotions are an excellent place to start!

A Southern Girl’s Guide to Hospitality

Hospitality is a foundational concept in modern polytheism. However, people talking about it may assume a base level of knowledge that simply isn’t there. Not all of us grew up with a model of Hospitality we can follow, after all, and those who did might not know how to apply the core ideas to working with the Powers. Here’s a quick guide to help you get started. (Note: This post uses the term “Kindred” in the place of “Power”. I’ve since stopped doing that.)

Growing Devotions

Once we understand Hospitality we can use it to develop a regular devotional practice. This six-part series covers the idea of devotions, the reasons they’re a good idea, introduces the three main types of Powers with which we engage, discusses different ways of engaging with Them, and goes into the need for discernment.

Six Rules for Safer Pagan Sex: A Guide

Most of us grew up with the idea that sexual repression was virtuous and morally superior to sexual permissiveness. Coming into the more sex-positive Pagan and polytheist communities can leave people foundering, unsure of how to navigate these new situations. This post tackles that, with a focus on consent and enforcing personal boundaries.

Fleur De Lis – A Symbol of Sexual Boundaries

Six Rules for Safer Pagan Sex talks about enforcing our personal boundaries in community settings. But what if we don’t know what those personal boundaries are? Establishing them for ourselves can be challenging, especially if we’ve been relying on rules provided to us by other people or systems. This post provides a framework to help us figure all of that out for ourselves, and can be applied in a wide variety of situations.

The Roles Filled by Clergy, Explained

What is clergy, really? What do they actually do? And, especially, how do those roles manifest in groups? Here’s my breakdown.

Envelopes, Labels, and Gods

There are a lot of different Powers out there. Sometimes, to make that number easier to deal with, Powers are lumped together into different categories. This post talks about why that can be a bad idea, with a focus on Archetypes.

I hope you find these posts helpful!

 

 

Concepts in Modern Polytheism – Antiquity vs. Modernity

"The Roman Festivals of the Colosseum", by Pablo Salinas.

*Note: This post is very Euro-centric, because that’s what I know and that’s the viewpoint of most of my readers. Circumstances were/are different in other places, especially when we’re talking about living traditions, so while some of this can be extrapolated for those it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Keep that in mind when reading. I am also so not an expert with all of this, so if you find any mistakes please feel free to PM me and let me know!

“Antiquity” and “Modernity” are concepts at the core of quite a few debates in modern polytheism. That makes unwrapping them a great start to this “Concepts of Modern Polytheism” series!

To begin, I guess the first thing to understand is that Antiquity and Modernity don’t refer to time periods. That’s the obvious place our brains go, and where a lot of these discussions seem to founder, but it’s not strictly accurate. The distinction between the two is less about a timeline and more about worldviews.

What’s a worldview?

Essentially a worldview is the frame of reference we use when figuring out the relationships between aspects of our lives, ourselves, our relationships, and our world. It helps us put all of these things in their proper places and figure out what to do when things happen to disrupt that order.

All of us have a worldview, and it covers pretty much everything in our lives. It’s how we determine the difference between “good” and “bad” behaviors, between “right” and “wrong”. It’s how we recognize obligations we have to T/those around us, or that T/they have to us. It’s our worldview that shapes our sense of identity and provides the basis for how we figure out what fulfills and completes us.

worldview

It’s a big deal. And for the large majority of us all these determinations are made on a completely subconscious level.

That can be problematic, because every single worldview out there has inherent biases. Worldviews are biased by their very nature. When our worldview tells us something is good and something else is bad, that’s a value judgment being made right then and there. Not being aware of the biases in our own worldview means we could be making choices we’d never consciously make, simply because we’re not aware enough to know we’re making them.

How does that relate to polytheism?

When most people discuss polytheism they focus on the “multiple gods” part and pretty much drop the discussion there.

That’s incredibly simplistic, though. It changes the Power being recognized from one to many while completely missing the implications stemming from that change, and how those implications can change our worldviews. And that’s a shame, because if we’re ever going to truly restore or revive these ancient polytheistic traditions to something resembling what they once were we absolutely have to delve deeper. Those implications matter.

Since they’re so important we need to really understand them. That requires us to look at some world history, though. Stick with me through the end and it’ll all come together, I promise!

Antiquity

Let’s take our minds back to the time before monotheism became the dominant religious paradigm in the West. Specifically, let’s look at 30 BCE.

Map Pre-Christian Europe

Europe, 30 BCE. Here we can see the Roman Empire before it took over the whole continent.

We can see from this map that the Roman Empire was in control of a huge chunk of territory, stretching through Europe, around the Mediterranean through the Near East, and into Egypt. That was quite a feat, especially considering that there were multiple cultures living peacefully under the Roman banner.

How did they do it?

We could talk about things like their excellent roads, or their standing armies, or their educational standards. And they all played their part. But one of the things that made the Roman Empire what it was is that government, religion, and morality were seen as distinctly separate things.

Wait… huh? How does that even work?

Pretty well, actually.

Here in the US we’re used to the idea of separating political and religious life. That’s the “Separation of Church and State” concept we’re all familiar with (even if those lines seem to blur with alarming regularity).

separation church state

See, like this.

But separating religion and morality? For the most part that’s completely outside of our realm of experience.

For the Romans, though, it was the only way to go.

So let’s take each of those ideas individually, shall we?

Affairs of the State

Not every Roman was considered a citizen, and that was especially true of those new to Roman rule. However, if you were willing to play ball with Rome you could maybe become one. And that idea – that people could get a stake in the new system and even improve their status within it – became one of the most effective ways Rome ensured loyalty in the populace.

The rights and responsibilities of a Roman citizen varied depending on a multitude of factors, but at no point was religion or morality a part of the equation. Citizens didn’t have to honor specific gods, engage in (or refrain from) specific behaviors, any of that. They simply had to follow the law and not try to overthrow the government.

citizens

Classes of Roman citizens.

That being said, it was expected that citizens be involved in their government at whatever level they could. Rome had public assemblies, for instance, where people could state their views and vote, and citizens could run for public office. Financial contributions to the community were also expected of those with the means to make them.

Religious Life

Polytheism reigned supreme during this time period. There were literally hundreds of Powers openly honored within the borders of the Roman Empire alone, and absolutely no one was bothered by this. Why would they be? There was a core Roman pantheon, yeah, but the Romans operated under the idea of “the more the merrier”.

That made all kinds of practical sense, especially for an expanding Empire. Just accepting whatever Powers and spiritual traditions belonged to these new Roman citizens simplified their assimilation into Roman society enormously.

At the end of the day the Empire was much more concerned with consolidating military, economic, and political power than they were with enforcing some kind of homogeneous religious practice. That kind of thinking wasn’t even on the radar. There were some public rituals that everyone was required to attend, and they liked it if a local area added the official Roman Gods to their honoring/devotional practices, but for the most part they left local traditions completely intact.

Pablo_Salinas_-_The_Roman_Festivals_of_the_Colosseum_-_Google_Art_Project

The Roman Festivals of the Colosseum, by Pablo Salinas.

That was huge. Writing anything down wasn’t something the majority of these people did, and religious practices didn’t often get written about even when writing happened. Instead, these traditions were passed down orally and by demonstration. People didn’t read a book to figure out how to throw a festival, they did it the way their parents did it, and their parents before them. Religious rites and rituals existed in a lineage extending back hundreds if not thousands of years, and their relationships with the Powers they honored extended that far back too.

These were vibrant, living traditions. Some were more devout, some less. Some had intricate religious traditions, and some were rather simple by comparison. Regardless of the distinctions between them, though, the Roman Empire let them continue on as they always had. Hell, some of the most influential thinkers of the day opted out of polytheism entirely, claiming everything from pantheism to atheism, and that was ok too.

Morality and the Social Fabric

Because there were so many Powers honored across the breadth of the Empire, and because They were honored in so many different ways, Roman religion as a whole had no morality clauses (aside from some basic warnings against hubris and the like).

Local areas might have held their own behavioral standards, based on those living traditions mentioned earlier, and those of course changed depending on where you were. But for the Empire as a whole? Nada. There were no blanket taboos, no religiously-sourced rules everyone had to follow or else. There weren’t even widespread devotional requirements outside of the the aforementioned public events.

And really, how could there be? They had hundreds of different Powers who all had individual preferences and wanted different things from Their people. The Empire didn’t even try to regulate that.

The only interests the State had in personal morality were focused on community concerns, like outlawing murder and theft. As long as citizens participated in the public worship ceremonies – which had political and social components in addition to the religious ones – they were golden.

Individual behavior wasn’t mandated by the Gods or enforced by the State.

There was still a society to bind together, though, and a largely shared moral code is perhaps the strongest way to do that. So where did Roman morality come from if not religion?

Philosophy.

We study Roman philosophy to this day, and the Greek philosophy that came before it, because the philosophers were the ones asking and answering the questions we’re now used to priests covering. Not “why are there seasons” or “why was the world made” – those questions were answered by myths, just like they were/are in almost every culture up to the modern era. They focused instead on questions of more direct utility, like “what qualities are possessed by an upright person” and “what makes a good life”.

Zeno

Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. He was Greek, but his philosophy was hugely influential in Rome too. He was a pantheist.

Roman morality – or, if you want to get technical, the Roman ethical system – was rational, not religious. There were a handful of philosophical schools that dominated Roman society, and it’s with those philosophical stances that the social fabric was maintained.

Those three aspects of ancient Roman life – good citizenship, religious freedom with living traditions to draw on, and a philosophically-based morality – were balanced against each other, with each one being seen as important. Together they make up the Antiquity worldview.

Transition

I didn’t pick 30 BCE out of a hat when I chose the map pictured at the beginning of all of this. That’s around the same time that Rome took over a little province called Judea, in what we now consider Israel/Palestine.

That’s also when we get the first seeds of the Modernity worldview.

Judea

In the sea of Antiquity Rome Judea stuck out like a sore thumb.

First_century_Iudaea_province

Here’s a close-up. The city of Jerusalem is just above and a little to the right of the “Judaea” label.

And it wasn’t even because the Jews who lived there were monotheists. It was odd for Rome, sure, but it really wasn’t a deal. Monotheism was considered just one more religious weirdness encountered by the Empire as it expanded. Remember, Rome had everything from devout polytheists to strict atheists within its borders. Monotheists were just another thing.

In fact, before everything went to hell in 66 CE Rome treated the Jews like they treated everyone else. Even more tolerantly in some ways. Not only did they not try to force the Jews to honor any additional Gods, they gave the Jews a pass on religious observances required in other cities. The Jews actually burned offerings in the Temple of Jerusalem for the Emperor of Rome in appreciation of his tolerance!

Monotheism in and of itself wasn’t the problem. It was all the stuff stemming from monotheism that started to gum up the works.

The Romans separated governance, religion, and morality, right? They pretty much had to, considering the number of Powers and perspectives within their borders. And it’s that separation that allowed them to so easily accept the Jewish monotheism.

The Jews didn’t separate those things, though. They couldn’t. For the Jews those three concepts were inextricably linked, with both governance and morality stemming from and supporting their religion. Not only that, but all of those things were codified in written records maintained by the Temple and faithfully followed to the letter, with no room for deviation and precious little room for growth.

One of the biggest problem areas was that the Romans and the Jews had completely different ideas about the role of the State. For the Romans the government was all about working towards the common good, with freedom for political activity within that. The Jews saw the law as the enforcement arm of their God more than anything else.

pilate

Pilate washing his hands – a kind of spiritual cleansing – after the Jewish crowd voted to crucify Jesus. An example of Jews using the law for religious purposes, and how uncomfortable the Romans were with that perspective.

The Jews, because of their religiously-backed morality code, were almost required to live in separate enclaves from the Romans around them. Not because the Romans required it, but because the Jews did. Their distinct culture made them incredibly insular.

That did not endear them to their neighbors. It also completely prevented them from assimilating into larger Roman culture. The well-oiled machine that was “expansion of the Roman Empire” had no avenues to work with when it came to the Jews.

Add in the fact that the Emperor claimed divine lineage, which the Jews didn’t accept, and you had a tenuous situation. The cessation of honoring the Emperor at the Temple of Jerusalem in 66 CE was just more fuel for the fire.

Of course, that’s also when war broke out and the Romans burned the Temple of Jerusalem to the ground. Whatever small chance there had been for Jewish assimilation into the Roman Empire died along with the flames.

temple_burning

The Burning of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Judaism provided the seeds for the Modernity worldview, but it was a Roman Emperor that planted it and another religion entirely that helped it sprout.

Conversion

Christianity was a splinter sect of Judaism with pretty inauspicious beginnings. Between the crucifixion of Jesus around 33 CE and 312 CE it was mostly an underground sect. The direct opposition of Christians to the values held by Antiquity Rome made them seem dangerous to the unity of the Empire and, unlike most other religions they encountered, the Romans actively persecuted them because of it.

Then, in 312 CE, Emperor Constantine turned his back on Rome’s long polytheistic history and state religion and converted to Christianity.

Constantine’s conversion changed things. Drastically. Christianity likely wouldn’t have amounted to much of anything without powerful support, but with the Empire behind it Christianity was given teeth and considered a unifying force.

That is what birthed the Modernity worldview.

Modernity

Remember me saying that when the Roman Empire of Antiquity conquered a new area, they enforced governmental authority but not religious authority? That they left that to the people? And that the people were free to live their lives by whatever moral code they chose, separate of their faith?

Yeah, Modernity tossed that attitude out the window.

Instead of the careful separation of the Antiquity worldview, Modernity followed the Jewish and later Christian pattern by knotting all those elements together.

gordianknot

We’ll even call it a Gordian Knot, a la Alexander the Great. I’m so funny. 🙂

The government and the moral code both came from and supported the Christian faith, which was of paramount importance.

Obviously, of course, monotheism accepts belief in only one God. That might not have been a problem on its own, but knotting everything together led to the idea that the Christian Emperor drew his authority from that one God. He was Emperor only because the one God said he was.

Because of that, acknowledging other Powers or standing against the Emperor was seen as a challenge to both the Church and the State, since they were both considered facets of the same thing.

That logic carried over into personal behavior, too. Not behaving in accordance with Biblically-based morality rules equaled rebellion against God, which equaled rebellion against the State. Acting in an immoral fashion became not a philosophical matter but the breaking of a religious mandate and a challenge to the authority of the Emperor.

In many ways the changing moral landscape was the most subversive part of all this. True belief and devotion are impossible to police, and treasonous intent can be difficult to prove without a weapon in-hand, but behavior? That’s always on display. It’s how you’re judged by your peers. And at a time when a good reputation really could mean the difference between life and death, acting in a morally upright way (as defined by these new rules) became a matter of basic survival.

All of this didn’t just apply within the Empire’s borders, either. Expansion, once fueled by a desire for military and economic dominance, became a matter of spiritual dominance as well. And as the Empire spread, so too did Christianity.

spread_of_christianity

It didn’t happen all at once. It was a gradual thing.

All Roman citizens were required to turn away from the hundreds of Powers they had previously honored and follow only the Christian god. All newly conquered peoples were required to become Christian too, and those who resisted were converted on threat of execution.

Those who did convert, however, were granted privileges by the conquerors that stubbornly polytheistic people were not.

q-donkey-carrot-stick

A concept mastered during early conversions.

The peasants out in the fields, most closely tied to the land and outside of direct Roman supervision, were able to hold on to aspects of their original religions the longest. Eventually, though, they too converted and their polytheistic traditions were lost.

By around 800 CE the Modernity worldview was fully realized in Europe. And it dominates the West to this day.

Bringin’ it Home

Monolithic Christianity has taken some blows since then, no question. More and more people are leaving the Christian faith every day, and many of those who claim Christianity as their faith are not devout. Progressive Christianity is on the scene now, too, providing room for more tolerance within the faith. Overall we’re slowly growing more accustomed to separating out politics from religion, despite occasional regressions and setbacks.

While all of these things are helping us moderate the worst effects of Modernity, the worldview itself is still going strong. And no matter how self-aware we think we are, Modernity is so embedded in our culture that it’s hard to see it unless we start looking for it.

But once we do? Boy howdy. We can see it all around us.

It’s in our political processes, when the faith followed by a political candidate becomes a pivotal point of their campaign.

Cruz

It’s in our society, when behavior is judged by religious standards.

slut-shaming-preacher-1413246658465

And it’s in evangelical Christian churches across the country, when anyone and everything not falling within Christian guidelines is blasted as being demon-spawn.

It’s not just Christians doing it, either. We get more of that here, but terrorists overseas are using the exact same logic – albeit in a different Power’s name – to do the exact same thing.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

Choosing Our Worldview

And that brings us to why this whole Antiquity vs. Modernity discussion even matters.

Like I said earlier, we all have a worldview. As products of the modern age we all received the Modernity worldview by default. Once we start grappling with these ideas, though, once we start seeing how far apart the Antiquity and Modernity worldviews are, we can no longer claim ignorance. We have to/get to make a conscious choice about which worldview we want to use, every day, and we have to live with the consequences of that choice.

woman-weighing-options

We can of course choose to keep using the Modernity worldview we’ve already got. It’s easy, and comfortable, and requires very little work from us to maintain. It’s also the worldview used by our culture at large, and sharing it helps us better relate to the people around us. However, choosing this road means we’re accepting that our polytheism, however it manifests and however fulfilling we may find it, will never balance out in a way similar to the balance maintained by those who trod this path before us.

Some of us are perfectly ok with that. It works, right? Some of us aren’t, though, and want another option.

Choosing to switch to the Antiquity worldview is the harder choice. It requires a self-awareness that can be both challenging and exhausting. The Modernity worldview is so engrained in our psyches that the effort required to root it out is constant. We have to pick apart the political/religious/moral knot in our heads at every opportunity, painstakingly separating those threads out into something we can use to support a new paradigm. It also requires study and contemplation, because unlike those who came before us we modern polytheists don’t have living traditions on which to draw (unless you do, in which case carry on). It also puts us out-of-step with the people around us who still use the Modernity worldview, which can be both frustrating and isolating.

In exchange for all our hard work, however, we get to live with a perspective that’s much closer to one the Powers with which we work recognize, and one that’s closer to the one held by polytheists before the rise of Modernity.

Whichever way you choose, choose with intent.

Concepts of Modern Polytheism

Earlier this week a conversation exploded on my Facebook around a couple of recently-published blogposts, one from Gangleri’s Grove and the other from Rock of Eye.

The conversation was rapid-fire and stimulating, inspiring tons of thinky-thoughts. As I read I found several points I wanted to blog about myself.

However, I got a private message during the whole thing from someone who was completely lost. They were fascinated by the debate, but they needed some clarification to follow it. They didn’t have the background the speakers had and couldn’t keep up.

What

Precisely!

That made me rethink how I wanted to approach my responses. My goal with this blog is to help make polytheism more accessible, and jumping right into the fray without breaking it down a bit isn’t going to help anyone.

And so this series was born. It’ll be ongoing and somewhat sporadic, and that’s part of the plan. Hopefully I’ll be able to address some of the ideas popping up in the polytheism blogosphere in a way that doesn’t intimidate or overwhelm people new to them.

Keep watch on this blog – the first piece will be out in a day or three!

Have a topic you want me to tackle? Feel free to comment here or email me at mystiknomad AT gmail DOT com and I’ll see what I can do!

The Roles Filled by Clergy, Explained

I interviewed a prospective student recently and asked her what her goal was with training. What did she eventually want to do with information I taught her? She said she wanted to become a High Priestess. I asked her what she meant by that, and she couldn’t explain it to me.

I’m not surprised. It seems like such a simple concept, but there’s more to it than many of us think. Breaking down the different roles filled by a High Priestess – or really any clergy member – isn’t exactly a regular conversational topic, and it’s not covered in the intro books either.

Why not?

We Pagans and Polytheists are reinventing the wheel in several areas. It’s part and parcel of trying to simultaneously revive ancient practices, meld those practices into modern life, and create something that will endure into the future.

Thing is, there’s so much assumption going on that figuring out what kinds of roles clergy can fill is sometimes complicated. We don’t have the old definitions (or support structures) to fall back on, and we’re not as yet organized enough as a whole to have new ones.

So let’s take this apart and look at it. What are the different roles filled by clergy?

The Roles

I’m not claiming to speak for anyone else here – this is my personal classification system, based on my own experience. I’ve separated out the roles filled by clergy into five different categories (and associated them with different elemental correspondences, because I can): Visionary, Lore-Tender, Ritual Facilitator, Pastoral Care-Giver, and Administrator.

Visionary (associated with Spirit)

The Visionary is the one who sees possibilities – either with their own eyes or with the help of the Powers – and works to bring them about. Their calling is helping to birth What May Be from What Is, to guide their vision from potential to manifestation. They have new concepts about or ways of relating to the Powers or other people, and they devote themselves to sharing those ideas with others.

The most obvious Visionaries are those who are intentionally creating new traditions from the ground up. These days they often share their visions through publishing books or blogs, but in times past it involved word-of-mouth and directly recruiting followers.

Sermon on the Mount, by Carl Bloch. One of the more well-known instances of sharing a vision with the general public.

Sermon on the Mount, by Carl Bloch. One of the more well-known instances of sharing a vision with the general public.

The Visionaries dedicated to reform are often harder to peg, especially during their lifetime. They are working within established tradition, and the changes they suggest might happen so slowly that they never see the fruits of their labors. It’s only after they pass that the scope of their reforms either shape the tradition they worked within or grow into something brand-new.

Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha were all Visionaries. So were John Smith and Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson). Gerald Gardner, Starhawk, Raven Kaldera, and Galina Krasskova are more moden Pagan Visionaries. Some people already consider the current Pope to be a Visionary of the reformer variety. It’s not the size of the vision, or its success or failure, but the dedication of the Visionary to the vision that sets this category of clergy apart.

Lore-Tender (associated with Air)

A Sunday class for a Unitarian Universalist group in Maryland.

A Sunday class for a Unitarian Universalist group in Maryland.

Once a tradition is established, it’s the Lore-Tender role of clergy that sustains it beyond the founder. The Lore-Tender is the teacher, the guide, the one who maintains the records and keeps the tradition as close to the founder’s vision as possible. They’re also the ones who allow an established tradition to grow with the times by interpreting and applying old precedent to new situations.

Lore-Tenders are teachers and judges, historians and story-tellers. The best ones have both the authority of their traditions and the ability to temper that authority with compassion, mercy, and humility. The Visionary often sees things in broad swatches and bright colors. It’s the Lore-Tender that breaks down the vision down into something that can be understood by other people and used every day in real life.

An obvious example for this are the Jewish rabbis who debate the Talmud. Many Pagan Lore-Tenders can be found in more Reconstructionist paths, as they interpret ancient manuscripts for a modern age, but anyone who shares what they know with other people is filling this role too. Those handling the religious education for children – Sunday School teachers and the like – also fall under this classification.

Ritual Facilitator (associated with Fire)

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary leading a Lammas bonfire ritual.

Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary leading a Lammas bonfire ritual.

In many ways this is the role that comes to mind first when people think about clergy. Ritual Facilitators conduct the rituals and liturgy of a given tradition. Their job is to create experiences designed to bring others into liminal space, guide them through a transformative experience, and bring them home again.

While technically this title could be used by a solitary (“I facilitate my own rituals”), this really only applies when referring to someone guiding at least one other person.

Rituals include (but are not limited to) regular services, holidays, rites of passage, and Ordeal rituals.

Pastoral Care-Giver (associated with Water)

The Oracle of Delphi, who spoke prophecy from the Gods to the ancient Greeks.

The Oracle of Delphi, who spoke prophecy from the Gods to the ancient Greeks.

Whenever you have a group, you have people who need support and guidance. Pastoral care covers all the things clergy does to care for group members on an individual level. For the most part, I’ve found that the bulk of this tends to be counseling services.

While we might think at first that counseling would only be about specifically spiritual topics, it usually sprawls far beyond that. The more traumatic an event is, and the more someone wants the assistance/guidance of the Powers, the more likely clergy is to be called. However, calling on clergy for counseling services is certainly not limited to crisis situations. I’ve provided pastoral care for topics ranging from dream interpretation to interpersonal problems to employment concerns.

In addition to the counseling aspects, pastoral care includes doing magick or divination for others, hospital visitations, community building efforts, and regular check-ins. Classes on non-spiritual topics that might benefit members of the group – like budgeting workshops, for instance – would also count as pastoral care.

It’s important to note that while establishing and maintaining boundaries in general is essential for the sanity of clergy people, pastoral care is the area that is hardest to manage. Those drawn to this type of work are naturally compassionate and helpful, and taking a night off from pastoral concerns to play WoW or go on a date probably seems pretty trivial when someone needs help.

This “off time” is critical, though, especially for Pagan clergy. Recent studies indicate that US clergy from all traditions are more at risk than the general population of a number of health problems, including hypertension and depression. A likely explanation of this is “lack of time off from the job, driven perhaps by a sense of duty to both God and humanity to answer every call for help from anybody”. The only exception? Roman Catholic priests, who are required by canon law to take four weeks a year of vacation and attend a spiritual retreat. And that’s when being clergy is their only job and they have other clergy with whom to share the burden. Since Pagan clergy usually have paying jobs in addition to the work they do for their group, and often don’t have anyone with whom they can share the burden, that time off is essential to their health and well-being.

Administrator (associated with Earth)

Every group requires behind-the-scenes work to function. That’s where Administrators come in.

The amount and type of work handled by Administrators varies depending on the group. If a group is more like a casual study circle this is minimal. Once money becomes involved, or the group becomes more established, this escalates. And once property is acquired and/or a group is officially registered as a church the demand for this role jumps dramatically.

Administrators are the unsung heroes of the clergy. They do all the incredibly necessary work that no one notices. It’s the Administrator who files required paperwork, tends the finances, mows the lawn and organizes the candles. They support the work of other clergy too – they stock tissues for the Pastoral Care-Givers, gather supplies and publicize events for the Ritual Facilitators, track and categorize the libraries used by the Lore-Tenders, and make sure the Visionaries remember to eat every now and then.

If only I’d known being clergy was THIS fancy!

If only I’d known being clergy was THIS fancy!

You might have noticed that few of these tasks are skilled labor. Anyone can stock toilet paper, and you don’t have to be a member of the clergy to do the accounting. That’s very true. Most traditions spread that work out to laypeople, allowing their clergy to focus on the tasks only clergy can do.

Pagan groups rarely have that luxury. I think our biggest hurdle here is that our groups are simply too small. When a congregation numbers in the hundreds, it’s easy to either find a few volunteers for these kinds of tasks or gather enough money to hire someone else to do it. Many Pagan groups can count their members on one hand, though, and even groups with their own property number in the tens far more often than the hundreds. Even larger groups are often too physically scattered to make traveling long distances to do housekeeping tasks a viable option.

This is where many groups stumble and fall. Administrative work is not glamorous. It’s not all woo-woo, it’s not showy, and there’s very little praise to be had here. Rewards tend to be limited to a personal sense of satisfaction found in doing a job well. There is no end-date, no resting on laurels, and no vacation. The grass grows even if no one’s doing anything, the accounting needs to be handled even between Sabbat rituals, and toilet paper needs to be stocked regardless of the type of event happening at the time. Even the most well-intentioned groups fall apart when these aspects are neglected.

When these tasks start slipping, nine times out of ten it’s the clergy for the group that steps in and tries to hold everything together. Acknowledging this trend as an aspect of Pagan clergy work is just realistic.

While Pastoral Care-Giving usually requires the firmest boundaries, it is the Administrative area of clergy work that seems to lead to the most burnout.

That’s a lot to do!

It is, no question. Once it’s all laid out like this it’s pretty obvious why established traditions often pay their clergy. It really is a full-time job, and in many cases a clergy person is on-call 24/7 to boot. Requiring them to have a full 9-5 on top of that makes everything that much harder. It requires a ton of training, commitment, care, and time to fill any of these roles in a way that does honor to both the Powers and the group, much less all of them.

I wrote this as if all the roles were filled by separate people, but in real life Pagan groups one person often has to fill all of them (hopefully with at least some occasional help!). However, keep in mind that each clergy person will find themselves more comfortable in some roles than they are in others, and the comfort areas are the ones they’ll naturally focus on. The Visionary might have a hard time staying on top of inventory, someone who excels at the one-on-one required in a counseling session might freeze up when facilitating a ritual, and someone who loves to teach what’s been established might have a hard time reforming what they teach.

That’s ok. It’s a bit much to expect one person to do all of these different things. However, seeing it all laid out makes it easier to find people to fill the roles best suited to their natures, and doing that will allow our groups to grow and flourish now and into the future.