Category Archives: Pagan Op Ed

Why I Do What I Do

Back in another life, I studied technical communication; I’ve never actually worked in the field (due to a combination of factors including settling down so very far away from anywhere it’s a viable career :)) but I’ve used what I learned quite a lot over the decades. And one thing that has stuck with me in that time is the idea that it is good to make things easier for others. To take specialized information and present it in a way that is clear and understandable.

Because everyone can’t do everything. Everyone can’t know everything. They can’t, and they shouldn’t have to.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “it’s the religion with homework.” That’s not inherently a bad thing–I am certainly a fan of research and study and learning about the things that are important to you–but it is a thing that can keep people from approaching the gods.

Not everyone has the time or the resources or the wherewithal to engage in intense study. And they shouldn’t have to, to honor the gods.

Not everyone has the ability to devote huge chunks of their lives to their religion. And they shouldn’t have to, to honor the gods.

I used to see on various forums, when a new someone would come in and ask a question, many people reply abruptly with “Read the Eddas/Iliad/Mabinogion/etc.!” And while that’s in a way understandable (“I did the work, you can too.” “If you really want it, you’ll go the extra mile.”) it is, to me, unwelcoming.

The polytheistic faiths are not evangelistic paths, we are not (generally) active seekers of new adherents, but I don’t think it’s useful or necessary to make it more difficult than it already is for the new person. Why set up obstacles? No, we don’t owe it to anyone to spoon-feed or hand-hold, but to offer a little help isn’t that.

So, you know what? I love research and reading. I enjoy it. It’s fun. Not everyone is me. (One is enough. :)) I like comparing sources and pulling them together. And I like to write. So, this blog, where I try to take what I’ve learned and make it more accessible.

I also write prayers, which comes from a different bit of background and a less clear-cut mental place, but even there I am doing it as a maker of useful things, a provider of practical and usable information.

It’s also, for me, something I do to honor the gods. Making it easier for others to approach them, learn about them, worship them, that’s a part of what I feel called on to do as a part of my own path. Taking information that may be difficult to access and making it available, to me that feels important.

Because you shouldn’t have to be a scholar to worship the gods. You shouldn’t have to be a student or a mystic or a poet or a priest. You should be able to be just an average person with a busy life who wants to connect with the deities in whatever way they are able, and you shouldn’t be made to feel bad about it because you lack the time or the resources or the wherewithal.

How Hard is Your Polytheism?

Over the last however-many years, I’ve observed the terms “hard” and “soft” polytheism becoming less and less useful, both in the larger community and personally. Getting to know the Egyptian deities was a real paradigm-changer for me in that area and while I do still consider myself a mostly-hard, primarily-hard, relatively-hard polytheist, it’s a matter of degree.

On a tangentially-related note, like a lot of kids, I grew up with rocks. Rocks in the field, rocks on the beach. From an early age I collected them, brought them home, played with them, seeing which rocks I could write with and which rocks were best to be written on.

Which brings me, in a round-about way, to my first point. The Mohs scale is a very old and very traditional way of determining and measuring the hardness of minerals. (The ancient Greeks and Romans knew it, although they did not call it by that name.) Basically it involves putting two minerals together and seeing which will scratch which–that which is scratchable being the softer of the two. The Mohs scale ranges from 1 to 10, ten being the hardest; a diamond has a Mohs score of 10 while talc has a score of 1. To put it another way, you can scratch talc with your fingernails, while a diamond can scratch almost anything else in your jewelry box because it is the hardest stone in there.

Speaking of stone and stones, I sometimes find myself in old cemeteries. These days most grave markers are made from granite, but a long time ago they were more typically made from marble. Well, marble may be prettier but granite is harder. Old marble tombstones are often weathered and worn, the text is difficult to read, the corners are rounded by the many years of rain and wind.

The point is, some rocks and minerals are harder than others, and the same can be said of our polytheisms.

I am not a diamond-hard polytheist, nor am I easily crumbled between two fingers. Sometimes I might be a bit like granite, other times I am more easily weathered by the encounters I have had.

Breaking the Rules

There’s something I heard, a rule of art, when I was young that has stuck with me over the years: you have to know the rules before you can break them. I’ve seen it attributed to Picasso, and to the Dalai Lama, both of whom are respectable sources. It always made a certain amount of sense to me when applied to art and similar skills–that you have to be familiar with the techniques as they are usually practiced before you can experiment with them successfully. You have to know the tools and what they can do before you can discover what else they can do.

I actually tend to apply that principle across the board in my life. First time I make a new recipe, I follow it to the letter. I may (and probably will) make changes when and if I make it again, but on that first attempt I want to know that what I am making is as expected. When I know how it is meant to turn out, I can do things differently and see what effect that has.

And yes, this also informs my approach to my religious practice. If there is an established way of doing something, I will probably try that first. If it doesn’t work for me, I can make changes, tweak it to see if it’s adaptable, or try something wholly different.

Briefly, I try the tried-and-true, and if the tried-and-true isn’t true for me, I try something else.

Seeking Community, Finding the Self, and Why I Love the Internet

“A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself-and especially to feel, or not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at any moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what he really is.”
–Jim Morrison

I first saw the quotation above many years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. (I discovered The Doors when I was in high school, was quite distressed when I learned that Morrison had been dead for some time by then.) It describes, to me, an ideal of relationship. It’s what we want–at least, it was what I wanted–to be understood, to be accepted, on a genuine basis. It’s what we want to be able to give.

Ideals, however, are rarely attainable. In this case that is even more so because what it describes is in a way opposed to what makes our society run. Relationship, within a society, is give and take. It’s interactive. We can be ourselves, but we cannot only be ourselves. We can be the main character in our own story, but we also have to be supporting characters in the stories of others.

It isn’t just the obvious needs of society and the broad roles we take–that we need doctors who doctor well and without prejudice, police officers who are honest and unbiased, teachers who challenge and respect their students. It is also that relationships need tending. Your friends listen to you with sympathy, and you listen to them as well. You smile at your neighbors and they smile back. You’re polite to strangers and they are polite in return. When someone is in trouble, you try to help them, knowing that if the tables were turned they would do likewise. And yes, those are expectations and assumptions, and expectations and assumptions can be damaging, but they are also the foundation of community.

If I go to the doctor, I have to be able to depend on not only their skill but on them being non-judgmental–that they will treat my ailment or injury regardless of their personal opinion of me or the way I acquired said ailment or injury.

If I talk to my daughter’s teachers, I have to know that they will listen to my concerns and take them seriously; I have to know they respect that I am advocating for my child. In turn, I respect their work and their professionalism, and am grateful for their understanding.

And if, as a mother, one morning I feel angry and unmotherly, I can’t act angry and unmotherly because there are people who need me to be what they need me to be. I fully remember the feeling one day, when my eldest was an infant, when I realized this. It was a sinking sort of feeling, one that rooted me to the world and bound me tightly to her and to what I realized I had become. I hadn’t just had a child, I had entered into a contract. And once you begin to be a particular someone, to do particular things and to take on particular responsibilities, it is nearly impossible to stop doing any of that without it affecting the whole matrix of relationships we exist in.

We all change. Our needs change, our capabilities change, the way we are able to function changes, and the way we are able to relate to others in society changes.

So I try to look at the Morrison ideal as less of a goal and more of a model. Something to strive for, but not something to beat yourself up about if you never quite reach it.

It’s always seemed very clear to me that we are, each and every one of us, essentially unknowable. We are each confined to our own mind and soul and we can never really, really understand what is going on in the minds and souls of others. We can try, we can do our best to be kind and open, and to understand when someone tells us what they are feeling or thinking, but we don’t know. We are, at the heart of things, each alone with our selves. I’m not saying that with any sort of sorrow or regret, just stating what seems to me to be the case.

It’s not altogether a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing that we have to put some thought into understanding others as individuals; it’s not a bad thing that we have to put some work into our relationships. But it does mean, or at least it does for me, that we may not ever feel understood. (I suppose that might explain, a bit, our need for spiritual connection with deities, entities that may lack our mortal limitations of understanding. But that’s beside my point here.)

So we look for community. I’m kind of a loner and even a bit anti-social at times, but I still have that need for a connection, for someone to talk to as my whole and true self without having to be too many other things on top of it. Probably you do, too.

Which brings me to the next point of this, the seeking of relationship, of friendship, of community, spiritual and otherwise.

For folks who are maybe not all that mainstream, it can be hard to find even a beginning of that sort of understanding. Maybe you know some people, but do you know like-minded people? Who worship your gods? Who worship their own gods? Who experience deity as you do, or in whatever ways they may? Who are kind, and open-minded, and accepting of differences? Who will let you be as you are if you let them be as they are? Where do we find such people?

Mostly, I think, we don’t.

It’s a modern sort of thing, though, isn’t it? The ability to focus on the self, the individual. To be oneself. To seek oneself. The ancients, I think, had all they could do to build up their community, and if that was at the expense of the individual there wasn’t much to be done about it.

Today, though, we can live in multiple communities (in a manner of speaking). I live in a town, physically, in my house. I live here, I vote, I pay my taxes, I buy cookies from the Girl Scouts when they come to my door, I am sorry when my neighbors suffer and glad when things are well with them. And I am even more fortunate, I have local friends who comprise a part of my spiritual community and they are great people (although I will confess that right now I am having a hard time dealing with any RL social things at all).

But I also rely on non-physical community for spiritual companionship and support. And by that I mean virtual, online, internet-based community. It has a bad reputation in some circles, and it’s not uncommon for people to talk disparagingly about “internet pagans” or to say that you don’t really know a person until you have met them face to face, or that an online friendship is in some way not real. And it’s certainly true that an online friendship can be different from an in-person friendship (whether that means more or less open and honest will vary). But when you’re maybe not all that mainstream, you may need to find (or build) a community where the people who belong there can gather, and sometimes (often?) that means online.

It is not, I’ve found, all that hard to find the people who honor your gods. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to find community. Finding a group of folks who share your devotional focus isn’t the same thing as finding a spiritual home. The ancients were surrounded by those who worshipped the same gods, and that was surely something we can never have, but I’m not sure that back then there was a lot of respect for or acceptance of individual variation on that theme. We want more because we have come to expect more–because we know we can have more.

But where is it that we want to define our community? To determine who is and who is not a part of it? Where will we feel that we are home? Where will we feel safe and accepted and valued and supported? I know some folks will base it on practice–their community consists of those who worship in a particular manner. Others will base it on belief, and I know a few folks who consider hard polytheism (the belief that gods are individual and discrete entities rather than archetypes) to be the essential issue. If you are someone with a strong mystical bent, you will not feel welcome in a group that is not accepting of that; likewise, if you are a strict reconstructionist you will probably not be comfortable with a highly syncretic group.

I always say that I believe the gods themselves are what bind us as a community in the broadest sense, and I hold to that, in general. At the same time I don’t think there is a need for one great community of worshippers that is all things to all people. The group you hold ritual with doesn’t have to be the same group you talk religion with (although I think usually there will be some overlap). The group you worship with can be different from (or a smaller part of) the group you rely on for support and/or networking. There’s strength in numbers, and there’s strength in diversity, and I hope we can maintain both.

Remember the Titans

Occasionally I am asked whether it’s all right for a Hellenic polytheist to worship the Titan deities. After all, doesn’t myth tell us that they were the enemies of the Olympian gods? Well, not necessarily.

At the very least, I think we can take it on a case-by-case basis. Kronos swallowed all his children (save Zeus), that’s certainly not a friendly act. And yet the Kronia was celebrated in Athens, by Athenians who worshipped Zeus as one of their regular pantheon. Besides, not all the Titans joined with Kronos to fight against the Olympians–Oceanos, for one, stayed out of the battle (he also stayed out of Kronos’ own struggle with their father Ouranos). And other Titans–Prometheus, say–have been helpful outright to humanity.

Even taken as a whole, the Titans are not evil beings. They are not chaotic beings. They harbor no desire to destroy the world–the Titanomachy, the battle between the Olympian and Titan gods for the rule of the earth, is in fact evidence of the value they place upon it. (I mention this because one reason often given in heathen circles for not honoring the Giants is that their intended endgame is the death and destruction of the Norse gods, during Ragnarok. Whether you find that line of argument persuasive anyway is beside the point–for the record, I don’t– because while there is sometimes a tension and an antagonism between Titan and Olympian deities in myth, there is not that sort of enmity.)

I don’t believe that there is any disloyalty in honoring the Titans in addition to the Olympians. I think that they are as willing to work with humanity as any other deity (which is to say, maybe they will and maybe they won’t :)). As always, I recommend doing one’s research first, but generally speaking I think it’s probably fine.

Too Many Gods?

First off, I’d like to say that there is no such thing as too many gods. The gods are the gods, they are as they are, and there are as many as there are. And I would never, ever say to someone that they worship, or honor, or recognize too many gods. That is wholly the business of them and their gods.

But that’s not to say that it can’t be problematic for us mortals to deal with a lot of gods. (So many gods, so little time. :))

But the ancients did it, so why can’t we?

Well, we can, of course. But many if not most of us are doing this on our own. We don’t live in cities where the many gods of our pantheon are honored by the many citizens of our city. Even in ancient times, each and every person in the community did not regularly and actively worship each and every deity recognized by that community. A household is not a city. An altar is not a temple–more specifically, a household altar is not a city temple.

What this means is that the ancients could do it because there were many hands to do the work. And, although there are not as many of us as there were of them, there are still enough so that we can each focus our own devotional practice to whatever extent we desire. We are still a part of a community.

Of course different folks will define community in different ways. Some people identify strongly with a particular form of practice or tradition and will consider only those who do likewise to be a part of their religious community. Others will feel that any who honor their gods are a part of the same community in some sense. (That’s my own opinion and bias, by the way–to me, the gods themselves are what bind us, and while specific religious practices or traditions may make up a community within a community, the greater community still acts together to honor the gods.)

I guess what I’m saying here is, don’t feel like you have to honor each and every deity in the pantheon (or pantheons :)) simply for the sake of “collecting them all.” If there is a god you feel should be worshipped, but you don’t personally have an affinity for, there is almost certainly someone out there who is already doing it. You can focus your own practice to whatever extent you feel is right, or appropriate, or necessary.

(I’m not saying not to worship any of the gods, of course, just that each and every god does not have to have a place in your daily practice.)

It’s all right to be focused on a few gods, or even on one god (a practice known as henotheism) if that is where you are drawn. The ancients had no problem with this–where they took issue was when someone would scorn or deny one of the gods in favor of another deity. Polytheism isn’t a popularity contest, and you can love one without disrespecting another.

On the other hand, if you do feel called to honor a great many gods in some way, that is also all right.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice?

Generally speaking, I am glad to be living in the 21st century. While I draw inspiration from the ancient world, I would not want to live there. I like being in a world with many spiritual options, because I believe that no one path is right for everyone.

But there are some aspects of practicing religion in the ancient world that I envy. Things that were only possible because of the many people who honored the gods, who shared a faith in the same deities.

One thing I particularly wish were possible has to do with votive offerings. I love votive offerings, both practically and conceptually. The idea of a physical representation of devotion and thanks is something that resonates with me strongly.

But it’s not something that we are really set up to do.

In ancient times a god’s temple would be filled with votives, figures in rough clay or precious metal, plaques with words of thanks from those who had received the god’s blessing. Visitors to the temple would see before their eyes the amassed evidence of the god’s goodness and mercy. It was a visible sign of the bond between god and mortal, and it’s something that has a beauty far beyond the material worth of the objects.

So I don’t make votive offerings nearly as often as I would like. There are some on my altars, but my altars aren’t all that big, and it’s really not the same thing.

We don’t have great community temples, and even if we did I would be unlikely to visit them (they’d likely be few and far between and I don’t travel well). But wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a place to join with others in devotion? A place to bring or send our offerings where they could be placed with the offerings of others, in a great sign of love and gratitude to the gods?

It’s a pipe dream and an unlikely one, particularly given the fractured nature of the community of worshippers–because to me we are joined by the gods, more than by specifics of practice or tradition–but a lovely one nonetheless.