Theodish Thoughts

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

Category: Devotional Polytheism

“Nice Guy” Gods

Back in 2005, researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton wrote Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. In it, they try to figure out what American teens thought about religion through interviews with about 3,000 teens, and in particular were coming from a standpoint of evangelical Christianity. That perspective doesn’t invalidate their findings, although it does color their conclusions, of course.

Aside from the hand-wringing about the future of traditional Christianity in the West, the big takeaway from their research was what they refer to as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), which I think has broader implications than mere Christianity. MTD can be broken down into the following precepts:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

While there’s a deep chasm between “everyday Asatru” and what might be termed “Deep Asatru“, I confess I see many parallels between these beliefs and a lot of what I see in modern Asatru. All too often I find people writing on blogs or even in person who essentially believe in a Heathen analogue of MTD. I think it comes not as a reaction to Christianity in particular, but as a result of the constant movement of society towards a secular, postmodern, hyper-individualistic form. The Asatru equivalents might be:

  1. The gods exist who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. (Although this one seems to be negotiable for some people, who see belief in the existence of the gods as optional. Sort of like Anglicanism.)
  2. The gods want people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught by most world religions, even if that contradicts the surviving written lore and history.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. The gods do not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when They are needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to the dwelling of the god of their choice when they die.

In short, they want “nice guy” gods who make few, if any, demands of them, are there to be a source of comfort and problem-solving, but who otherwise don’t get in the way of everyday modern, consumerist, life.

This is the mindset that insists that ancestry has nothing to do with religion. After all, it’s not “fair” to exclude anyone.

It’s the mindset that tells us that the afterlife is an open field, and you go wherever your favorite god lives, despite there being no support for that at all in the written lore. Putting everyone into Hel would risk making people not feel special!

It’s the mindset that tells us that asking the gods for petty services and favors like asking Njörðr for help finding a parking space is a perfectly acceptable thing to do*. After all, the gods are there to be our friends and helpers!

And on and on and on.

I’m sorry my ducklings, but the gods don’t work that way. And it’s about damn time we started taking the time to explain that to people, rather than keeping silent and letting them persist in their self-absorbed delusions.

Our gods are hard, demanding, and ultimately alien figures in the sense that they operate on a level of understanding that we quite literally cannot comprehend. They have their own motives, their own objectives, and they’re not always what we might want them to be, or even take our needs and wants into account. They are gods who make enormous demands of us, ripping us away from the things we find comfortable and tossing us into situations that test us to our very marrow.

“Life is Ordeal,” as the Theodish say.

And not because those demands and expectations are designed to help us evolve or improve or because it’ll be good for us in the end. Because They want us to do it for their own reasons, which might be completely unfathomable and inscrutable to us. They’re the ones who have insights into the skein of wyrd, and They have motives that are utterly beyond us. They’re not above killing us in our prime to bring us into Valhalla just in case the Ragnarök comes tomorrow, even if we would have otherwise won the battle. And for the record, not everyone who dies in battle gets to go there; you have to be chosen. And chances are, you won’t be. Suck it up.

And it’s fucking time we accepted it, taught it as the expectation to our Folk, and embraced it as a whole. Want to know why the ancient Germanic peoples are so often described as “fatalistic”? That’s why. The Æsir are not our friends, not our buddies, not our butlers, and not our self-help coaches. They are our gods as well as our ancestors, and that should be enough.

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* I shit you not, I actually know someone who did this and thought it was the cleverest thing in the world, because Njörðr is the god of voyages and obviously has nothing better to do than to arrange the universe so she didn’t have to drive around the block a couple of times. ::double sigh::

Beckett is Right

Those are three words I didn’t expect to see on this blog anytime soon. Regular readers will know that I’m not exactly a fan of John Beckett, his inane writings, or his odious opinions (see here, here, and here), and it’s pretty plain that he loathes me too. But I am also a man who is not afraid of saying that when someone I dislike happens to be right. And in this case, Beckett is right.

I refer here to his most recent post over at Pathetic Pagan, The Otherworld is Bleeding Through.

In this post, Beckett makes the point that there seems to be something in the air. There’s been a big increase in activity from the land wights, the gods, the ancestors, and other creatures. For more than a year, I’ve been feeling that “something big” is about to happen. As Beckett puts it:

Except that this is about the tenth such incident I’ve heard about over the past couple of weeks, and the second one I’ve been involved with personally.

Those stories aren’t mine to tell, but they involve ghosts, spirits, and demons; unexpected appearances of Gods and ancestors; accidents with no good explanations; missing items turning up in impossible places… and a green glowing bird.

Several people whose experience and judgment I trust have all said pretty much the same thing: the Otherworld is bleeding over into the ordinary world in a way nobody alive has ever seen. Midsummer is traditionally a time when the Veil Between the Worlds is thin, but Midsummer is almost two weeks away and this started several weeks ago. Or at least, we started noticing this several weeks ago. I get the impression it’s been going on for quite some time.

Lest you think this is some glorious wonder to celebrate, I’m not talking about “the Summerlands,” some Paganized version of the Christian heaven where a smiling Mother Goddess pours the sweetest mead from an endless bottle and all your ancestors dance merrily around a fire because death cleansed them of whatever made them so ornery in life. No, I’m talking about Gods with their own agendas for this world. I’m talking about angry ghosts, restless spirits, and meddlesome demons. I’m talking about dead who are just as much assholes as they were in life. I’m talking about fae that bear no resemblance to Tinkerbell, who view humans as annoying invaders and tasty snacks.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing, but that will give you the gist.

And he’s absolutely right. I’ve noticed a marked increase in what I call “significant” dreams. Land wights and other spirits that have been heretofore silent are all of a sudden accessible to me. Even the gods themselves seem more… approachable. Or at least more talkative. Beckett’s absolutely right; now’s the time to make sure you keep up your monthly or daily workings in honor of the spirits. They’re knocking at the door; now’s the time to open it up.

And on a more mundane level, there has been a dramatic, and I mean really dramatic, increase in people contacting our local tribe in the last few weeks, looking to come to an event or even join. I don’t know if it’s related, and I can’t say if other groups have experienced the same thing, but an increase in supernatural activity might well be linked to an increase in people looking to rejoin the faith of their ancestors, it seems to me.

This is a popular legend for a reason.

But Beckett’s second point is also very well taken. A lot of neopagans (and, frankly, Asatruar) seem to have something of a, shall we say, overly optimistic view, of interactions with the spirit world. It’s not all friendly wights, rainbows, and lollipops. Our ancestors’ stories, especially those that come down to us in folklore and fairy tales, are replete with wights and spirits that are right bastards. Our gods have their own agendas, and they’re certainly not above using us to achieve them. Not that they’re openly hostile to us; far from it. But they are gods, after all, and it is unrealistic of us to expect that getting you a job, or a girlfriend, or whatever is their top priority.

In fact, I have a theory about that. Complete speculation of course, but I think we’ve reached something of a tipping point, at least as regards Asatru and the Aesir. I think we’ve hit a critical mass. The first phase of the revival was just about getting established. Setting the foundation, Getting the word out that we still exist, putting together the organizations and infrastructure needed to support the second phase. Scholarship to put together the basics of belief and practice. But now we’re seeing the start of the second phase.

Phase II: Infrastructure and more

And what does that second phase entail? Just a guess, but I’m thinking mass awareness, first-generation leaders moving aside for the new generation, the establishment of real temples, large enough and stable enough local groups to support real community-building, and taking our place as an alternative, and certainly minority, but acknowledged and respectable religious alternative.

Is the current upsurge in spiritual happenings related to that? Have the floodgates been reopened, and now we’re living in a truly post-Christian world, where the spirits of polytheism are about? Maybe. It could just as easily be related to something really horrible, like an impending mass economic collapse, or a truly devastating attack by Islamic terrorists that results in tens of thousands or even millions of victims, or something else. Life is ordeal, after all. This might be a sign of a new ordeal to come, rather than a victory.

We’ll know in a couple of years which is so, methinks. But at least there is reason to be optimistic.

Devotion and Discernment

As I noted previously, I have a lot of misgivings about self-proclaimed oracles, especially those on god-spousery, “horsing“, and so forth. But that’s not to say that I think they’re all frauds, or deluded, or anything of the sort. Quite the contrary, I think that such sibyls and völvas are essential to the revival and growth of Asatru (and indeed my thoughts doubtless apply to Heathenry and Paganism in general). But they must be heeded with discernment*.

By that, I mean that we as a community shouldn’t take everything such a völva says at face value. That’s not because of any lack of faith in the Gods; quite the opposite! It’s because of the quite practical and reasonable fear that they might not be faithful transmitters; some people might take advantage of being in a position of spiritual authority, where they are seen as speaking on behalf of the Gods, and might either color what is being said with their own interpretations and filters, or even invent things out of whole-cloth, whether consciously or unconsciously.

And the yardstick against which we can measure the words of our völvas? The lore.

The role of the lore in devotional practice

It has been (correctly) stated that ours is not an uninterrupted religious tradition. Obviously, it is an indigenous European faith that has been stamped out as deliberately and thoroughly as many African, American, or Asian faith has been by Christian or Muslim missionaries have been over the last millennium and a half. But it was never completely erased from history.

Records survive; of contemporaneous outsiders describing the Heathen Germanic peoples (like Ibn Fadlan and Publius Cornelius Tacitus); the efforts of Christian ecclesiastics and political leaders trying to stamp out the public and private beliefs and rituals held by their targets and subjects (like the various law codes, penitentials, sermons, and ecclesiastical letters from the conversion era); accounts of antiquarians writing not too long after the official conversions, when the legends of the Gods were still alive in peoples’ minds (like Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus); and even in later (sometimes partially) Christianized forms, where folklore, superstitions, folk-customs, songs, rhymes, spells, and so forth. Not to mention the various archaeological, numismatic, and linguistic evidence, or the insights to be derived (carefully) from Indo-European studies.

When you look at what we really do have, it’s not quite as paltry as some might have us believe. It’s not nearly as complete as, say, Pagan Roman or Greek religion, but it’s certainly not as if all we had was “a piece of broken stained glass, half a hymnal, and a Saint Francis medal to re-create Christianity” (paraphrasing from some wag on an email list many years ago, lamenting as to the paucity of the evidence available to us).

Am I saying that our völvas should do nothing but parrot what we know from books and other sources? That anything new should be suspect and thrown out as evidence that the völva in question is pursuing some sinister agenda? Of course not.

But there’s a difference between repeating what’s in the lore, and contradicting what’s in it, or adding to it in such a way that is a radical departure from the patterns that had gone before. And therein lies the sort of “discernment” I’m talking about.

Revealed religion vs. folk religion

A useful delineation in the taxonomy of religion is that of revealed vs. folk religion. The teachings, beliefs, and practices of revealed religions are, as the word implies, revealed to a prophet (or prophets) through some divine agency. As these revelations are said to come directly from a divine source, they are not normally subject to change through earthly mechanisms, such as slow and natural cultural change. They are, however, subject to reinterpretation (as has been seen throughout the history of Christianity and Judaism, much less so in the history of Islam), or subsequent revelation that adjusts previous revelations (like Christianity claiming to be a further revelation to Judaism, and both Islam and Mormonism claiming to be further revelations to Christianity, and Baha’i claiming to be a further revelation to Islam, and so on and so on and so on).

Folk religions, on the other hand, are much more flexible and less subject to dogmatic interpretation, because they are borne out of the indigenous cultural/religious/social complex that most cultures stem from in prehistoric (and preliterate) times. These folk-beliefs usually don’t discriminate between ideas that are religious, social, or cultural, are usually more willing to be eclectic than revealed religion, and evolve through the unconscious process of social change. In this way, the Religio Romana (Roman Pagan religion) that was practiced in the 5th century BCE was quite different from the Religio as it was practiced in the 2nd century CE, but both are easily identifiable as being the Religio. The same process applies to Germanic Heathenry, and explains the well-documented religious differences between Germanic tribes. The Continental Wotan is very different in character from the English Woden, who in turn is very different from the Norse Óðinn. But nobody had to come down from a mountain to tell the Germans, or the English, or the Norse that Odin had changed for them. They just knew, instinctively, slowly, over the course of time, because those changes were right for them at that time.

Now, an argument has been made that, at some point, all folk religions must have been revealed religions, because that is the way that those pre-historic, pre-literate cultures could have learned about the supernatural and mystical truths those religions impart. But, however true that might be as far as it goes, what that argument fails to recognize are the literally thousands of years of cultural trial-and-error that went into evaluating the claims of those revelations, and later on, adjusting them to make them more relevant to the needs of the peoples to whom they applied.

That’s something that we modern Asatruar lack. Especially in our media-driven culture, we’re used to change happening at such a breakneck speed that the sort of slow, steady, measured, cultural change that was normal to our ancestors, where changes happened over the course of generations, is completely alien to us today, where we’re used to change happening over the course of days, if not hours. As such, we’re quick to glom on to the latest most fashionable trend, and (worse) try to bend our ancestral folk-religion around those alien concepts that are so appealing to us as modern people at the moment, until our fancy leads us to look at some other glittering object.

Which brings us back to the need to put a break on that break-neck speed. The need to slow down the pace of change, and to evaluate changes by using discernment in the light of the lore.

Practical application

In fairness, thusfar I’ve only discussed those sorts of devotional practices that attempt to impact the direction of Asatru in general. The ones that attempt to introduce new (and dangerous) concepts like Loki– or Fenrir-worship. The ones that try to insist that the latest political fad, like “social justice” or feminism, or radical environmentalism, should be embraced by Asatruar as a core concept. The ones that want to banish those of the Folk who have doubts about the reality of the Gods. The ones that bring in practices that are foreign to our ancestors, like God-spousery (which is not the same as being a “friend of” a God!) or inviting possession by Gods or other wights or astral travel by mortals to other worlds like Hel or Vanaheim. Those would fail the discernment test, as they want to impose radical change in a short time based on personal revelation. The Romans called that “superstitio“; the sin of taking religious credulity too far.

When one is “filling in the gaps” in what we know from the lore, though, I’m absolutely inclined to give such a thing preference over someone who is quite self-consciously inventing things. One person has a blót outline that they claim was recited to them by Freyr, and someone else has a Freyr-blót they wrote themselves, and both seem adequate to the task and don’t contradict what we know? I’ll go with the God-gifted blót.

But, and this is a subtle but vital point, I am not slamming the door on Gods-inspired innovation and experimentation, either! By all means, our völvas should constantly be experimenting and reporting on the results of their experiments. (Ideally, I would also like to see the development of a database of such communications, maintained blindly to prevent a “me too!” effect, in order to see what patterns develop; it would also be most useful in terms of determining the validity of predictions of future events.) But the expectation that their radical conclusions should be immediately (from a generational perspective) adopted is what needs to be tempered. Some of our völvas get positively bitchy when their (radical) pronouncements are questioned even in the mildest manner, let alone not become mainstream instantly.

Give it five, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty years, depending on how radical a departure it is from what we know our ancestors did. If there is value within it, and it stands the test of time, it’ll naturally filter out to the folk and be adopted. But acting as an evangelist for one’s own oracular pronouncements is rather… off. I’ll leave that to the folks who trust prophets coming down from mountains with commandments on tablets.

But where our modern-day völvas should (and, indeed, many do) shine is on the personal and organizational level. Should I take this job in another city? Should we buy this piece of property for a new hof? We’d be foolish to avoid this source of wisdom when it’s right there for us.

Conclusion

I’m all for reverence of the Gods, and I’m certainly for holding those with a deeper connection to the Gods in high esteem. Our ancestors absolutely held sibyls and völvas in near-awe and deep reverence, and I believe we should as well. But without the continuing tradition of hundreds of generations to fall back on, we must be extra cautious in taking what they say at face value, and measure it against what we know our ancestors, who had much more direct experience on the subject than we do, knew about the Gods and the religious tradition that grew out of serving them.

Our ancestors had a hundreds of generations head start, figuring out what worked and did not, and I’ll defer to them. But our modern völvas and others who are in contact with the Gods and wights are a vital element to the Asatru revival, and they must be listened to and heeded with discernment. If they speak in line with what our ancestors believed, I’ll absolutely give them the benefit of the doubt. But if they advocate radical change, it should be absorbed slowly, over time, to see if it fits the needs and gut instinct of the Folk.

It’s possible to value our völvas without slavishly obeying their pronouncements, just as it’s possible to believe in the individual reality of our Gods without being their spouses.

There are many pieces to the Heathen puzzle. We do best when we realize that no one piece is more vital than any other. Lore, devotion, Folk, innovation… they all have their place.

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* I am aware of the connotations of the term “discernment” in some corners of Christendom, where it is used to describe the process of judging spiritual matters by comparing them to what the Bible says. Not having been raised in a Christian household, I don’t have the same sorts of associations that some might, so I can only assure you that my use of the term here is merely because it is a “term of art” that best describes what I’m talking about, and is not some sort of sub rosa attempt to Christianize Asatru or any such asinine idea.

Reclaiming the term “Polytheist”

A lot has changed over the last couple of decades. Take, for example, the definition of the term “polytheist”. When I first came into Asatru, there were two types of polytheists – hard and soft. Hard polytheists believed in the literal existence of the Gods as distinct entities. Soft polytheists believed in the Gods as “aspects” of either two meta-Gods (most often the “Lord and Lady” or “The God and The Goddess”) or of a single meta-God.

This split had a lot to do with the complete overwhelming of the Pagan and Heathen communities by Wicca and Wiccanate ideas. With so many Asatruar at the time coming from a Wiccanate background, it made sense that a lot of them would retain that sort of “All Gods are part of The God” idea.

Today, however, perhaps owing to the growing self-confidence of Asatru and other reconstructionist faiths, the shadow of Wicca has receded somewhat, and those Asatruar who see Odin and Thor as aspects of a single male divinity, and Freja and Sif as aspects of a single female divinity, are few and far between. So the whole hard/soft thing has lost some relevancy in recent years.

However, the hard/soft dichotomy has been replaced by something of a struggle for ownership of the term “polytheism” by two factions who could not be more on opposite sides of the spectrum. On the one end, we have the atheistic Pagans who claim the term based on a loophole in the dictionary definition:

polytheism /ˈpälēTHēˌizəm/ noun
The belief in or worship of more than one god.

So because the dictionary differentiates between belief and worship, they claim the term can equally apply to them, even though they do not believe in the existence of one (or more than one) God. Personally, I don’t think that’s what the authors of the dictionaries intended; if so, then the definition of the words “theism” and “monotheism” would mirror that of “polytheism”, which they does not. Theism and monotheism are merely listed as a belief in a god and/or gods.

It’s my belief that the “or worship of” phrasing was included as an example of lingering (probably unconscious) Christian bias that no one could actually believe in such silliness; at some level the worship of Zeus and Thor was just play-acting. But that’s just my own possible explanation for the asymmetricality of the definitions.

On the other end of the tug-of-war rope, however, we have the devotional polytheists, who feel that any expression of polytheism that does not put their type of polytheism first and foremost is somehow a “betrayal“:

In my opinion, putting anything but the Gods first in a religious tradition is a betrayal of that tradition… 

And by that, what the author means is “whatever I say the Gods tell me at this moment, is what you should believe they want.” That, of course, isn’t putting the Gods first. It’s putting those who claim to speak for the Gods first, and is the worst sort of “revealed religion”, setting up a spiritual dictatorship of those who claim to speak with (and therefor, for) the Gods. That cannot be the chief universal expression of our religious faith, even though it is rightly an important expression of our religious faith for some.

For some it may well be perfectly appropriate to listen to the Gods and act on their instructions, no matter how far-fetched they may seem, as the primary motivator in their religious life. For yet others, religion is about connecting with our fellow folk, and that must be seen as just as legitimate a religious enterprise, because it is just as much a way of serving the desires and interests of the Gods as anything else. “Man is the joy of man”, if we are to believe Odin’s own words (Hávamál 47).

And where does that leave me, and the vast “silent majority” of Asatruar like me who, while we absolutely believe in the literal existence of the Gods as individuals, but who have other priorities in our religious lives than god-spousery (!) and following what self-proclaimed oracles say?

All I can do is to try to reclaim the term “polytheist” and bring it to its proper place between the two polar opposites. It means more than a hollow aping of religious ritual in honor of figments of the imagination, but so too does it mean less than a slavish devotion to what a self-proclaimed prophet says the Gods told her last night.

Those of us between those two poles must simply carry on believing in the Gods, and honoring them as well as the land-wights and alfs and house-wights and our ancestors, and enjoying the company of our fellow Asatruar, and forging and strengthening the bonds of friendship between us during sumbel and elsewhere, and studying the lore that has been left to us, and practicing the magic that our ancestors practiced, and building hofs and groves and sacred enclosures, and through martial prowess, and singing songs in praise of our Gods and our fellows, and trying to make the world a better place for our folk.

And we are polytheists none the less for all of that.

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