Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Month: June 2013

The Great Silent Polytheist Majority

I should say at the beginning that this is specifically not an entry in the whole polytheist vs. atheist Pagan debate. Rather, I think that the polytheist side of the debate has been poorly represented until now, and I would like to take the opportunity to ruminate on that failure of my side of the argument to present a more balanced picture.

One thing that has been lost in the din of recent days is the voice of those polytheists—among whom I count myself—who believe in the literal existence of the Gods and Goddesses, spirits of the land, shades of my ancestors, etc. but who do not have the intense “devotion is everything” attitude towards Them that some do.

It is a misnomer (an understandable one, given the participants on that side of the discussion) that all polytheists must by their nature be God-spouses, engage in ritual “horsing” (possession by spirits, including one or more Gods), consult with Them multiple times every day on even the most trivial matters, and, most important, insist that anyone who does not indulge in such über-piety (or—Gods forbid!—deny Their existence) is somehow less of a “real” Pagan/Heathen than they are.

Historically, such cases are few and far between, and their true nature is shrouded in poetic language and possible misinterpretation. Even taking such accounts at face value, they represent an infinitesimal fraction of the total Pagan community of the time, and even of the total sub-community of Pagan priests and priestesses. Read the Pagan and Heathen polytheist blogosphere today and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone who married Loki or who chats with Dionysus over breakfast.

For most of us hard polytheists, that crosses the line into what the ancient Romans termed superstitio (“excessive fear of the gods, unreasonable religious belief, superstition (different from religio, a proper, reasonable awe of the gods).” – from the entry in Lewis & Short). And of course there is no set definition of where the line is, and no central authority any more to make that determination, but each person knows it when he sees it for himself.

The vast majority of us hard polytheists don’t engage in such practices, and most of us look on them with suspicion. For many of us, even saying “Dionysus came to me in a dream and told me to marry Steve” would garner polite smiles whilst slowly backing away and avoiding eye contact, let alone claiming that one is somehow “married” to a God or Goddess, or that one is regularly literally possessed by a deity and used as a conduit for divine pronouncements.

Does this mean that hard polytheists do not believe in direct contacts with the divine? In most cases we do, but it is usually accompanied by a lot of cross-checking, soul searching, and other verification to make sure it’s not just our imagination run away with us. In many reconstructionist faiths there are also historically-based practices that are used to accomplish such divination, and following such practices tends to lend more credence to oracular pronouncements. And it’s (relatively) rare.

So, setting aside the broader polytheist vs. atheist Pagan debate, bear in mind that the vast majority of the polytheist side is relatively quiet. We make our prayers and offerings to our Gods weekly, or monthly, or at the cross-quarter days, or when someone we love is sick, or whatever, and still manage to believe in actual, literal, outside-ourselves deities. We can be pious without our piety consuming our lives. We tend to be more live-and-let-live (at least when it comes to excluding people from using the Pagan or Heathen label entirely), and we cringe when we see people on the extreme of our side of the argument say things like “Paganism that isn’t Deity centric isn’t Pagan” just like many atheists cringe when they see people on their side of the argument say things like “I see religious ritual primarily as a form of entertainment.

Folks on the atheist side have spoken up, to their credit, saying that they, as a whole, don’t share that dismissive attitude. I hope that I can do at least a little to help foster the notion that those of us on the other side of the debate don’t all share the exclusionary attitude similarly on display by a (vocal) minority.

(Also posted to PaganSquare)

Swedish Midsummer for Dummies

Because there’s been entirely too much Big Serious Talk in the Pagan/Heathen blogosphere lately…

Why the IRS and NSA scandals should matter to every Pagan and Heathen

If you follow the news, or watch Jay Leno, you’re probably aware that there are a number of scandals a-boiling within the Obama administration right now. Two in particular should be extremely worrying to every Pagan and Heathen, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum (and even if you consider yourself “apolitical”).

I’m going to ask you to set aside your personal politics just for a minute. If you’re a Democrat or a liberal, try to forget it was Republicans and conservatives who were targeted. Just for a minute, I beg you, resist the temptation to assume it’s a good thing or justified simply because it’s conservatives being targeted.

Never forget, if we have a government that can do this to conservatives and Christians today, we have a government that can do this to liberals and Pagans four years from now.

The first scandal relates to the IRS. In the process of its acknowledged unfair scrutiny of conservative groups, the IRS started demanding donor lists, details on activities (including what books were being read in a book club), lists of interns, and, most recently, telling religiously-based organizations that they cannot take stands on particular issues, that they would not be permitted to exercise their Constitutional right to protest, and – most damning – that they were not eligible for tax exempt status because “your position is not based on facts.”

Let that last one sink in for a minute. We’re finally starting to get rid of local laws banning fortune-telling. Do we want to turn around and give that authority to the IRS?

Now, even if you have a problem with 501(c)(4) organizations engaging in politics, the point is that only conservative organizations were being targeted.

You don’t like the law and think it should be strictly policed? Fine. Do it equally. There are plenty of political liberal groups that could be scrutinized too.

The second scandal relates to the NSA. It has been alleged that the NSA and other intelligence agencies have been systematically collecting phone records, emails, and other information on American citizens (a program started under President Bush, but continued and expanded under President Obama, even though Candidate Obama condemned it). Even if the contents of those calls and emails aren’t examined (and there are rumors that that is the next shoe that’s going to drop in this scandal), the metadata thus collected lets the government build a complete picture of your associations, where you are at any given time, who you’re talking to, your social networks, and so forth.

Yes, they say it’s for security. But is security really advanced by logging the phone calls and emails of each and every person in the country? Is anything gained by logging your emails? Remember Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

On the one hand, we have a government that has proven its ability and willingness to build complete profiles about anyone, whether or not that person has been charged with a crime, has had a warrant against them signed by a judge, that would allow even the most innocuous transactions to come under the closest scrutiny. And if you think you’ve done nothing wrong and therefore have nothing to hide, you’re wrong.

On the other hand, we have a government that has proven its willingness to target individuals and organizations that it considers to be its political opponents. To the point where the IRS feels empowered to question those groups about the content of their prayers, and direct them to give up their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association, simply because the administration in power at the time doesn’t like what they have to say, and who they want to associate with.

The government that can do this to people you don’t like today is the very same government that can do this to people you do like tomorrow. Maybe even you yourself.

Imagine…

The Wiccan Law Federation, a 501(c)(4) organization dedicated to representing Wiccans and Pagans in religious freedom cases, has its tax status re-evaluated by the IRS, and is told that they need to  present both sides of civil liberties issues equally, or they’re not fulfilling their educational mission.

Organizing for the Earth, a liberal 501(c)(4) organization that supports Democratic causes and candidates relating to climate change, has its tax status held up for two years, and is required by the IRS to divulge the names of all its donors, staffers, and to give up the passwords for its Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The New Jersey Wiccan Alliance, a purely religious 501(c)(3) organization, is asked by the IRS to provide complete records of the content of their prayers and whether or not they intend to stage any rallies or protests against military interventions in foreign countries, or against cover-ups of child abuse in the Catholic church.

Information is leaked concerning several high-profile Wiccan and Pagan bloggers and journalists who have been especially vocal in their condemnation and investigation of conservative Christian politicians. This information is highly embarrassing personally and professionally, and is used to discredit their reporting.

Lest you think that none of those things could actually happen, think again. They already have, to conservatives, Republicans, and Christians. If you think that there is going to be a Democratic majority in government for the rest of your life, you’re sadly mistaken.

Once the precedent has been set that political opponents are fair game, and the organs of government are fair instruments to investigate, track, and attack those opponents, then it’s only a matter of time before those instruments are turned against Pagans.

That’s why this needs to be stopped here and now. It’s not about snickering that government is persecuting folks you may happen to disagree with. It’s about making sure that the Christians aren’t snickering four years from now about the government finally putting those witches in their place. This is a weapon that shouldn’t be turned against anyone in our democracy, and we should not tolerate or encourage it merely because it hasn’t — yet – been turned against us.

Mini-Review: Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World

Subtitled Eostre, Hreda, and the Cult of Matrons, Philip Shaw’s 2011 book is a very interesting investigation that attempts to connect two rather enigmatic Anglo-Saxon deities mentioned by the scholar Bede with the well-attested cult of the matrones, which are largely known by a large number of inscriptions on Romano-Germanic and Romano-Celtic altars, mostly in and around the Rhine area.

Shaw is a lecturer in English Language and Old English, and the book reflects his expertise with language. He deftly argues against many previously preferred etymologies for the two goddesses’ names, and makes the case that they are in fact reflective of a cult of triple-goddesses which were either based on locale, tribal/clan name, or a combination of the two.

It’s a slim book and I found it an easy read. Shaw makes his case clearly, if perhaps not decisively (a fact that he himself acknowledges), owing to the fragmentary evidence that remains to us. There is a chapter in the beginning of the book that gives a background in language that is perhaps more than the casual reader needs to follow his arguments, but which someone who is interested in the role language plays in late classical and early medieval culture will find useful.

Shaw can definitely be placed on the “conservative” end of the scholarly spectrum, not being willing to make any inferences that the evidence itself does not explicitly point to. While this is probably a good tendency for the subject at hand, his more general assertions, such as questioning whether deities such as Odin/Woden were pan-Germanic deities at all, err perhaps a little too far on the side of eschewing inference, but do serve as a reminder that many scholars, and especially laymen stating scholarly opinions, often do go too far in connecting dots that may not actually be there.

On the whole, I found this a quick, enjoyable, and informative read: 5 out of 5 stars. It is available from Amazon.com.

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