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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.