Life as Video Game and the Necessity for Polytheistic Practice

In my recent post I stated that “the movement [towards polytheism and paganism] is necessary for so very many reasons”. A reader commented and asked me to unpack that. Why is this shift so needed? And furthermore, why is this something we need to live instead of study? This is my answer. As always, YMMV.

Polytheism and its revival are necessary if we’re going to survive and thrive as a species. Which is somewhat dramatic, I’ll admit, but the sentiment stands. What we are doing now to build our world and support people isn’t working, and polytheism (and Paganism, to a lesser extent) contain the tools we need to do a better job of it. Methods may differ, but Pagan and polytheistic practices almost always reflect these core ideas: We are all in this together, and “All” is made up of more than you might think.

  1. We are in this together.

Most people base their lives on the idea of hierarchy. Our value as a person is based on our place on the hierarchy, and the only way to figure out where we are on that hierarchy is to compare ourselves to other people.

Think of it as a video game. To progress to the next level we have to unlock specific achievements. In a game this is usually done by killing a certain number of enemies or beating a level in a specified amount of time. In life, though, the achievements range from “makes 100k+ a year” and “owns (insert high-priced item here)” to “has a wonderful spouse” and “meets certain attractiveness requirements”. With each level we beat the difficulty goes up, there are more and different achievements to unlock, and you’re always on the bottom of the level’s hierarchy because the only opinions that really matter are those of the people above you. There are an infinite number of levels, so you can’t ever really win, but you’ve only got one shot even so. You’re pretty much locked into one path – which means you can move along, mill around aimlessly until you figure out how to unlock the next thing, or die before you progress further. To make it even more challenging the way to unlock the achievements is constantly changing and there aren’t enough achievements to go around.

It’s not that life is seen as a video game that’s a problem, necessarily. It’s that life is seen as a multiplayer First Person Shooter pitting you against every other person on Earth – and your value as a person is solely based on your current position on the Leaderboard.

This view puts us in a state of constant war: with ourselves for not “winning” and thus not earning worth/dignity, with every other person playing the game for taking what we need to get to the next level, and with the game developers – Society, God, Patriarchy, any “-ism”, the vague amorphous “Them” – who keep changing the rules.

Pagans and polytheists don’t just play the game differently, we play a completely different game. It’s not a First Person Shooter with infinite levels, it’s a sprawling RPG world with infinite quests. We’re not playing Call of Duty, we’re playing Darkfall or Rift. That changes everything.

We know that every person on the planet has inherent worth/dignity – it’s not something we need to earn – so we earn experience instead of achievements and stories instead of Leaderboard standing. Instead of being locked into one path by the developers and resenting them for it, we know the Devs by name and they can help us change the game based on our feedback. They’re not screwing with us for the thrill, they’re trying to help us develop as players and create a better gameplay experience for everyone. Since we’re all working our own quests there are an infinite number of achievements and goals, so we don’t have to fight over them. Other players are fellow travelers on their own grand adventure, and as long as they’re not going out of their way to screw with our quest whatever they decide to do is cool. Even more than that, just like in a RPG helping fellow travelers out can often help us complete our own quests. By helping each other we all benefit.

In short, we know that we’re all creating a world together, and by helping each other out we make our own world a better and happier place. Changing the viewpoint – changing the game – makes it possible for us to conceive of cooperation instead of opposition, and that is critical if we’re going to avoid living in some sort of post-apocalyptic hellscape 50 years from now.

  1. “All” is made up of more than you might think.

I touched on this above when I mentioned Devs, simply because this point is so wrapped up with the “We’re all in this together” idea. There are more “people” to consider than just humans when we make our choices and live our lives, and those following earth-based faiths know that.

To continue the video game metaphor, we humans are all playing the game. The Land is the hardware we play with, the Ancestors represent everyone who has ever and will ever play the game, then the Gods are the ones who continue to develop that game by making us better players.

At a base level we recognize that we can’t live on the earth if we just consider humanity. There are other species that live on the earth too, and we’re connected to all of them. All the people, all the animals, all the plants, the very dirt and water and air. All of it. This web of interconnection is often summed up as “Land” or “Earth”. When Pagans/polytheists use “earth-based” as a catch-all, we’re referring to that interconnectedness. We have to balance our lives and needs and priorities against that of the rest of the species that share the planet with us, because all of us are dependent on each other. In this age, when we seem to fetishize the idea of the individual above all, the idea that we could possibly be dependent on others is one we often try to ignore. We can’t continue to do that and survive.

The Ancestors are a tangible reminder of time. It’s a collective term for everyone who has ever lived, who has ever played the game. It’s the Ancestors who contribute to and moderate the forums, helping newbies like us out with difficult monsters or rough patches on the quest. We who are currently playing this game are not the be-all and end-all of humanity. We came from somewhere, inheriting our social structure as much as our eye color. We will also eventually pass, leaving a legacy to our descendants. Nothing is static, and that includes us. How will the past inform our present, and how will our present shape the future? Simply acknowledging the Ancestors means that Pagans and polytheists are always learning better ways to balance living in the now with what has worked in the past and how it could work in the future. Without that kind of long view we’re screwed before we start.

The gods are the game’s developers, working together (and sometimes against each other, according to who you talk to) to create the game that we all play. They are also the ones who give us maps by which we navigate and NPC’s to help us along our personal quests. They share their vision with us, and we share our game experiences with Them. We help each other build a better world. Whether that alone is the goal, or it’s something beyond even that, I couldn’t say. I’m eager to find out, though!

Those two ideas are why I say that the movement towards Paganism and polytheism is so critical. We need these ideas, and we need to live them every day. Because, looking around? The world we’re living in could be so much better, if we started cooperating with each other and including E/everyone in the process.

Syrian Martyrs and Wake Up Calls

Today on The Wild Hunt I learned about Yana, a Syrian Pagan tortured and killed for her faith.

For so long now we modern Pagans and polytheists have been somewhat sheltered. The move to revitalize the faiths our Ancestors followed before Christianity systematically destroyed them started in the First World. The more-secular-than-ever First World. There has been harassment and prejudice, and isolated instances of violence, but nothing systemic in the way of faith-based violence aimed against us.

But modern practitioners are no longer isolated in the First World. People all over are hearing the call, and many “lost” traditions are being found.

It is a cause for rejoicing. It is a cause of sorrow. Because while the movement is necessary for so many reasons, those hearing the call in places like Syria are not in the First World, and they have no protections.

Yana was publicly tortured, raped, and killed for her faith. She is one of the first of a new – and likely growing – wave of Pagan and polytheistic martyrs.

I worry that the location of Yana’s death – the Middle East – will make people in the US briefly acknowledge her passing and move on. Will allow people to tell themselves that “it couldn’t possibly happen here” without thinking it through.

It could happen here. Fundamentalists Christians hold a lot of power in the US, often they equate the worship of pre-Christian gods with Satanism, and they are not adverse to discrimination or even violence in pursuit of their viewpoints.

I admit to some bias here. I’ve seen anti-Pagan violence first hand, escalating from dead animals left in the mailbox and ending with the utter destruction of my group’s Covenstead in Louisiana. That’s hard to get past.

However, this viewpoint has also manifested in other ways against Americans, leading to everything from retaliation against serving Pagan soldiers and the destruction of their temple (here and here) to forbidding Pagan students from wearing symbols of their faith to school.

I think we are incredibly conscious of how much of a minority we really are. We just keep our heads down, trying to not make waves, preferring to simply live our lives and consider these blatant acts of discrimination and violence isolated events. We feel that being American entitles us to a life without fear, and for the most part we as a group have actively avoided anything that could threaten that view.

I was recently introduced to a monograph written by a Sgt. Major in the US Army about the need to consider Christian extremism here in the United States a genuine domestic terrorist threat that continues to grow unchecked. These are the people who bombed the Olympics in an anti-abortion protest – do you think they would be shy about attacking individuals who hold spiritual/religious beliefs they consider demonic and anathema? Putting our heads in the sand is no longer a viable option.

As the faith-based discrimination and violence grows along with our numbers, our protections are shrinking every day. In Kentucky it is illegal to not believe in one almighty God, and while the 2006 law is aimed at atheists it could easily be aimed at those of us who follow many gods instead of none. The Christian ethical code is being placed in front of courthouses in Florida and Oklahoma. Alabama has once again re-elected a judge who openly uses his Christian faith to make legal decisions on the bench, up to and including granting custody to an abusive father because he felt that was a better situation for a child than trusting a lesbian mother to parent. Do you think the “justice” would have been any different if the mother had been a straight Pagan? Absolutely not.

Yana died for her faith. We cannot dismiss this as happening “over there”, and above all we cannot be complacent. This is something we in the First World have to prepare for, for as long as there is a push within our society to turn the US into a theocracy like the one that killed Yana.

Politics in the US seem to be teetering on a knife’s edge. No matter which way it goes we have to be prepared. Should the Christian-based political groups gain control we can expect to see more school boards forbidding the wearing of pentacles, more judges ruling as if the US were a theocracy, and more of a struggle even within the government itself for rights and recognitions for Pagan and polytheists. Should the Progressives begin exerting more control in government, extremist groups who already consider us demonic and begin to feel disenfranchised could easily decide to target those of us who live publicly.

Yana is one of the first of a new wave of Pagan martyrs. However, I cannot help but feel that she will not be the last. I sincerely hope that what happened to her is taken to heart by everyone, even here, because her fate could be ours if we don’t wake up, connect the dots, and make our voices heard.

Envelopes, Labels, and Gods

People have wondered at the appeal of the Twilight Saga. Especially since Bella doesn’t really have a character. She’s got some blurry qualities, but her personality is amazingly bland (if you leave aside a complete lack of common sense with safety issues). Yet the books and movies have become worldwide beststellers even with a main character who has the personality of a stupid potato.

I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes Bella such a compelling character is her lack of character. She is an envelope into which any fan can slip herself. So the story is, invariably, about someone just like them. Readers aren’t watching her life, they’re vicariously living it. It makes them a part of the story. That’s the draw.

That same appeal, I think, is what makes the concept of archetypes so enduring and compelling. It’s also what makes them so potentially awful.

On the one hand an archetype is dead easy for everyone to relate to. We can see how the Maiden manifests in our lives, or when we’ve set forth on a new journey like the Fool, or fought like the Warrior. Stories and myths using these archetypes are accessible to each of us in different ways, allowing us to relate to the stories individually while still sharing the communal story experience. That can only serve to build community and give us a common language.

But Pagans have taken that a step further. Some actually have shrines to a given archetype on their altar, or hold rituals for them. Even more common, especially in group work, is to invite “all the Mother goddesses!” to a Circle followed by a damn roll call. The archetype concept is used to simultaneously categorize and impose labels on the Divine. Personally, as a polytheist it alternately creeps me out and pisses me the hell off.

No one I’ve ever met worships the “pure idea of the Maiden”. I honestly don’t think there can be such a thing. They worship “the Maiden archetype as defined through my own experience”. That’s a whole different concept altogether. If the archetype is an empty character envelope into which we can slip aspects of our Self. and then we worship that, we’re not going “up”, we’re going “in”. It’s not the Divine we interact with, it’s our subconscious brought out as a playmate.

If that’s what you want to do go for it. Jungian therapy has been doing something similar for years as a psychological tool and many people find it helpful. Just be aware of what you’re doing. The archetype isn’t a deity, it’s a construct in your own head.

I think using archetypes this way is actively detrimental to our practice. Archetypes come from us. A practitioner’s Maiden will never surprise them, or come up with something bizarre they have to cope with. There may be gradual realizations that come about as people grow, but there’s not the give-and-take you get with a completely different personality because there’s NOT one. The “eureka” moments are fewer and farther between because there’s no one outside of yourself to guide you, challenge you, or force you to look into your hidden/scary places.

What’s even worse is that various deities – with full characters and opinions and needs, thank you very much – are shoved into these “archetype envelopes” and left there. All the amazing things that separate and individualize them and yet don’t fit in the envelope are tossed out and forgotten – and once that happens it often isn’t fixed. Arianrhod was dragged into The White Goddess, and for the most part She’s been stuck there since. How many Pagans in the world see Her as anything other than “the Welsh mother/moon goddess”? Despite the fact that the slightest bit of research blows that whole notion out of the water completely? Not very many. It’s frankly insulting to Her.

Unfortunately this problem happens all the time. It’s the exact same issue that underlies the equation of deities with each other. For example, Odin is often called “the Norse Zeus”. About the only thing Odin and Zeus have in common is heading up their respective pantheons. They are two very different gods, from two very different cultures, with two wildly different personalities and experiences. But that’s disregarded completely. They’re both “Father Gods”, right? And since we have a vague idea of what “Father God” means – filtered through modern Western conceptions shaped by Christianity – we think of them both like that despite the fact that it’s wrong. The label on the envelope doesn’t just categorize, it defines. Athena and the Morrigan and other “War/Battle Goddesses”, Loki and Coyote and other “Tricksters”… It’s constant. We don’t see them individually. We just shove ‘em all into an envelope, slap a label on it, think that one label defines the contents, and go about our day.

The danger here is that people are, by and large, lazy thinkers. Using envelopes for our Gods means that eventually the envelope becomes all there is. We’ll forget that Odin gave an eye for wisdom, that Athena turned a woman into a spider for hubris, that Loki is also called the Breaker of Worlds. Once a habit of thought is established it’s difficult to break, and once it’s socially accepted it’s even harder.

There is no difference between treating a deity as nothing more than an imposed label and doing the same thing to minorities. In both cases the one in question is reduced and demeaned to fit in with preconceived notions that deny them their individuality. Most Pagans/polytheists see themselves as socially liberal – how can we advocate better treatment for people while simultaneously disrespecting our Gods? Even our language shows this lack of respect. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Pagans talk about “using a love goddess” in a given ritual. Newsflash: we don’t “use” deities. Sure, those saying it don’t know they’re being insensitive and dismissive – but I don’t think those using casual racism, sexism, or any other –ism in random conversation do either.

Are archetypes as a whole something we should explain to new Pagans? Yes, because they ARE accessible and it IS a common language. Are they handy lenses through which to examine stories and myths for greater understanding? Absolutely. But that’s the line, right there. Using an archetype during ritual, or making offerings to one, or otherwise shoving deities into envelopes further separates us from the Divine – the OPPOSITE of what we’re trying to do.

It also makes my skin crawl. End of.

In Support of a Pagan Laity

“Clergy” is a loaded term for any faith, but it becomes especially problematic when coming at it from a Pagan perspective.

Definitions vary, but for me the difference between “layperson” and “clergy” is fairly basic. Most people focus their spiritual practice on themselves. Their spirituality is largely self-contained, and their personal spiritual fulfillment comes from their own connection with Divinity. Others find that their spiritual practice and fulfillment is dependent on serving others. Both of those types of people would fall into what I consider to be laypeople. However, when a need to serve combines with a calling to some sort of leadership role we get clergy.

This important and distinct difference gets glossed over entirely too often.

I think the line gets blurred because most of today’s Pagans are converts from other faiths, and they’re converts because the faith they grew up with didn’t meet their needs. When they finally find a faith that speaks to their soul, they just jump in without checking in with themselves first. By the time they do that they shrug and keep forging ahead, afraid of losing that spiritual home.

Personally, I tried really hard to force myself to be Christian when I was younger. It didn’t work. The stories and tenets didn’t make sense to me. Being a “good Christian” would have required me to ignore or hide my true self, compromise my principles, and make what I believe to be unethical choices. Nothing against Christianity – it just wasn’t a good fit for me.

Finding Paganism was a revelation. THIS fit. Suddenly I had a place, and the relief was intense. When you light a match in a dark room the brightness is overwhelming. It is easy to see how people new to Paganism would take that bright, shiny “I’m home” feeling and confuse it with “this is my entire life now”. Especially when we’re encouraged to make that commitment from the get-go.

It’s fairly common in the Pagan community to take on a clergy title -“priest” or “priestess” – early in the initiation process. By becoming Pagan it is assumed that you’re serving the Gods, and that by doing so you’re automatically somehow serving the larger community.

This is incorrect on two fronts. The first one is that not all Pagans believe there are Gods to serve in the first place. Some people very happily see all deities as Jungian archetypes, or universal principle made manifest, or Divinity as being in everything and so faceless, or … you get the idea. The idea that the Gods are actually distinct individuals with preferences and personalities who deserve and perhaps require worship is not even the majority in Paganism, much less the default option!

Even if the Pagan newbie does believe in individual deities, they might not know how to conceptualize that. I wasn’t really taught how to serve even the Christian God as a child. Sure, I knew how to follow the rules, but study? Devotional practices? Regular prayer? Writing rituals myself? Holidays that focused on church more than presents? That was what monks and nuns and priests did – not me. I was just supposed to show up. Once my practice started incorporating all of these other elements, the only mental category I had for it was clergy. I don’t think I’m unique in that.  And I certainly didn’t know where to start!

So that whole idea – that all Pagans are serving the Gods and so the community -is simply incorrect, either through lack of belief or lack of skill.

That assumption neatly ties into another one, that is almost an unspoken rule in Pagan circles: Pagan newbies will take on some sort of leadership role in the larger community as soon as their skills are developed enough. Again, this just is not true. But everyone is railroaded into a group leader/clergy path, whether or not they are called to it, because it’s simply the next accepted step in Pagan practice. You learn the basics, then turn around and begin teaching and leading others. That’s just The Way It Is, and those who resist that way are essentially admitting that they’re not advanced enough to handle it. Which means their perspectives and skills are overlooked or ignored.

There isn’t an accepted place for the experienced and skilled Pagan layperson, a middle ground between “I don’t know what I’m doing” and “I am called to lead a group”. This is sad.

I know people right now who are serving as clergy without feeling called to do so. It’s the price they pay for remaining in the public community long enough to know which end of an athame is sharp, and expected if they are going to gain acceptance in a specific group. They are not clergy by my definition – they are artists, warriors, scholars, bards, healers, diviners, lovers. Their necessary and beautiful spiritual gifts are being pushed aside and neglected because they feel pressured and compelled to be something they’re not. Not only is all their free time consumed by something that doesn’t nurture them, they don’t have time left over for the things that do. This leads to a lot of passive-aggressive behavior, self-martyrdom, and eventually leaving the Pagan community in self-defense. At the same time, the entire community is losing out on all the contributions these unwilling clergy could be making, if people would simply back off and give them space.

I also know people right now who know, deep down, that they will never fulfill their spiritual potential without a community to serve and a group to lead. Their gifts are all about counseling, teaching, group work, administration, and ritual facilitation. But finding people who could teach them the skills they need to capitalize on their talents is more difficult than it should be. They have no way of knowing who is serving out of sincere desire and who is serving out of duty, so they have to wade through all the passive-aggression, all the martyrdom, to find someone who gets it and can teach them. While this is going on, they see demonstrated all around them that serving the community will suck them dry, that they won’t have a life outside of it, that they have to bravely accept feeling empty and soldier on despite it. These views are internalized, and this attitude translates into the work they do.

Is it any wonder that many people reach a Journeyman level and retreat from the public scene rather than continue to offer their unique perspectives? That newbies have to get most of their instruction from books, and don’t even know which books to start with? That finding teachers and/or books for advanced topics is such a challenge?

Group leadership is no more important, valid, or devoted a path than the artist who connects to their Gods every time they create, the scholar who finds understanding through history, the lover who feels union with Divinity at orgasm.  They all serve in their own ways.

Laypeople serve different functions than clergy, but they are no less important or valuable. We need to start offering respect, support, and validation of their individual experience. The better we are at doing this the more fulfilled we’ll be as Pagans, the stronger we’ll be as a community, and the better we will serve our Gods.