Category Archives: Polytheism

Thoughts on the worship of little-known gods

I have a real fondness for little-known gods, gods whose names are known only from a handful of sites, or even those who make a single (known) appearance. There’s no way of knowing just how localized these deities were, how long they enjoyed a cult following, or just how many worshippers they had over the years. But I think that it’s worth paying attention to these deities nonetheless, if you feel called to do so.

When you’re researching gods with little or no literary trail, such as the continental Celtic and Germanic deities, you’re often limited to what has been found in the archaeological record. If you’re lucky there will be statues, votive offerings, and inscriptions with some detail, but sometimes all you’ve got is a name, in which case you may be limited to trying to parse the etymology. None of this is all that easy, and most of it is going to be subject to interpretation.

Here I’m just going to put down a few of my own thoughts on this process and things to keep in mind, in no particular order.

  • Most of the inscriptions we know of date from the era of Roman colonization. This places them chronologically, roughly and depending on where you are geographically, between the 1st and 5th century CE.
  • Gallo-Roman religion was a thing, and that means that even what little information you are able to glean may differ in unknown respects from what the locals were doing before the Romans came around.
  • Inscriptions that predate the Roman era are extremely, extremely rare. There is other archaeological evidence for this era but generally it doesn’t help identify gods.
  • Statuary is likely to reflect the Romans as well although it can help identify deity attributes.
  • Consider the company they kept. I don’t only mean cases where a god appeared with their consort (i.e. Nantosuelta and Sucellus), but where a group of gods were worshipped at the same site; such as in Etrechy where Carantana, Etiona, Gnatus, Isosa and Hidua were found together.
  • Chances are that you will come across more unique female god-names than male. The Romans were more likely to apply the interpretatio romana to male deities than to female, so you have plenty of references to Gaulish Mercuries, Apollos and Marses, who may or may not have their original name attached (i.e. Apollo Grannus).
  • Remember to respect the deity’s original land and context–remember where they came from.

Five Reasons to Write Prayers

While I am a writer of prayers and (like most other prayer-writers, I think) I am happy and honored whenever someone uses one of my pieces* in their practice, I am also greatly in favor of people writing their own devotional works for the gods. I don’t think it’s something you have to do, but if it is something you are at all drawn to, there are excellent reasons to give it a try.

1. They are personal.

When you write a prayer to your gods, you write it from your own point of view. It will reflect the relationship between you and the deity, and you can say things with it that just wouldn’t be there in a piece written by someone else. It can be as subtle or as direct as you want it to be.

2. They are unique.

The prayers that you write are new to the world and to the gods. The words you speak heve never been spoken before. The gods have never heard them before. A prayer you write is an entirely brand-new creation!

3. They add to the accumulated honors paid to the gods.

The gods may not need our praise and recognition, but I think that most of them like it. And I think that we need it, not just on a personal level but as a community–the more we give to the gods, the more we love and worship them, the more we are all enriched.

4. They (may) add to the resources available to the community.

You don’t have to make your writings available to others, either widely in public or on a one-on-one basis. Most people don’t. The gods receive and are honored by them regardless. But if you do choose to share your writings with others, it is a real gift to the community.

5. You learn so much!

There’s something about the act of writing that brings understanding. It is rare that I come out of a writing session without some insight into the nature of the god or gods I am writing for; writing, to me, is not only a devotional act but one that connects me to the gods like little else can.

* My prayer blogs are online and include writings for Greek, Celtic, and Norse gods.

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.

Movable Gods

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research into the gods of continental Europe, of the areas once known as Gaul and Germania, as well as those British gods we know from history and archaeology more than from literature and myth. I have a real fondness for these deities, along with other gods who traveled.

This makes sense, honestly, for me as someone who lives a good way away from the regions my gods first made themselves known. I’m similarly interested in the ways that communities introduce new gods, and the ways that deities accompany colonists to a new region. Gods and their migrations is clearly a topic of some interest.

A lot of what little we know about the gods of Gaul and (apart from Ireland and Wales, where a mythic literature survives) Britain is based on archaeology and linguistics. What this means is that much of our knowledge is dependent on what has survived and been discovered in and on the ground, usually in the form of imagery and (Latin) text inscriptions. This included not only temples (some gods had several, most had none that survived) but also such things as votive offerings which might have inscribed on them the name of the deity receiving them, altars raised in fulfillment of a vow made to a particular deity, and place-names that appear to honor a deity or indicate the presence of a worship site. Sometimes the linguistic and archaological evidence doesn’t match up–for example, the goddess Nantosuelta’s name would indicate a river connection but her strong association with symbols of abundance and prosperity (along with her large number of likely worship sites) suggests that she is far more than a river spirit. It may be that other gods we are familiar with from fewer sources originally had a wider range of associations than we know of as well.

In some cases a god was known across a wide geographical area. Epona was one such–the Romans themselves adopted her and there is, uniquely, evidence of her worship in Rome itself–but other gods were known in different regions as well, such as Belenos, Sirona, or Rosmerta. Others were most well-known in a particular area–for example, as goddess of the river Seine, Sequana tended to be worshipped most often near that river. Still others, tribal deities, have been attested primarily in regions where those tribes existed, although tribal territories sometimes moved and their gods did likewise. There are also gods we know of only from a single inscription or other archaeological find.

Here I’m going to talk a bit about Rome. I’m not myself (at least at this point in time–I’ve learned over the years to never say never) a follower of the Roman gods. Partly this is a conscious choice in that the Romans were very particular and detail-oriented about their worship, and I don’t think I’m personally a good match for that sort of system; partly I suspect it’s because I am already so connected with the Greek gods, and the Greek and Roman pantheons have a very complex relationship.

But about Rome. The Romans were travelers, that is one way to put it. On their travels they encountered many people, and along with these people they encountered their gods. And when it came to gods, the Romans had this thing called the interpretatio romano, which means, essentially, that they saw the gods they encountered as being their own Roman gods under different names. So if they ran across a Celtic god who was a healer, they figured that he was Apollo; if they found a war god, they assumed he was Mars, and so forth. So, Apollo Grannus is the Celtic god Grannus by way of the interpretatio romano. Mars Leucetius is the deity formerly known as Leucetius. And so on. (So, if this is the way your polytheism rolls, there is certainly precedent for it. :))

This was more common with male deities, although sometimes a Celtic goddess was associated with a Roman one (such as Sulis Minerva, patron goddess of the healing springs of what we now know as Bath). But often the Romans would take a Celtic deity couple, such as Borvo and Damona, and only the male deity would be given a Roman name to add on–thus, at some sites Borvo might become Apollo Borvo while Damona remained simply Damona.

To some extent the interpretatio romana is helpful to us in that it provides a bit of context that would otherwise be missing, since we lack a lot of information on Gaulish gods; knowing that, say, the Celtic Cissonius was known to the Romans as Mercury Cissonius lets us know that the Romans believed that Cissonius had something in common with the Roman god Mercury. On the other hand, we have no way of knowing exactly why the Romans thought that Cissonius was Mercury–Mercury has many associations including commerce, communication, and travel, and we don’t know which of these attributes may also have applied to Cissonius.

On the other other hand, it’s certainly arguable that becoming identified with Mercury made some changes to Cissonius’ character, and that Mercury Cissonius was a subtly different entity (or, at least, took a different role) than the “original” Cissonius. But that’s not quite what I meant to write about here, so I’ll let it pass for now.

Another thing the Romans did on their travels was grow their empire. Over the centuries the Roman Empire expanded from Rome itself all the way to Britain, on the way taking over great parts of Gaul, adding their lands to the Roman territories, and taking their citizens as part of their army.

These Gaulish soldiers took their own gods along with them when they travelled with the Roman army to other parts of the Roman Empire. Thus, when we have evidence of gods being worshipped in a variety of regions, we don’t necessarily know how that came to be, although in some cases (for example, when a god known to exist in what is now Germany is also attested at a Roman military site in northern Britain) it does seem to indicate that a soldier may have brought his gods along with him to his new posting.

So the issue here, for me, isn’t whether a god can move from one geographic region to another. Clearly there is evidence that the ancients believed that they could. It’s more a matter of how this happens–and of what happens when a god who was once strongly associated with a place is honored in a different place. For example, it seems likely that a healer goddess retains that ability whether or not she is called on at her own healing springs–the British Coventina, known for a spring near Hadrian’s Wall, is also attested in what is now France and Spain.

My own sense is that gods may begin as gods of place, but they don’t necessarily stay that way.

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.

On the Evolution of Personal Polytheism

I’ve been pagan for over 20 years, and actively a polytheist for perhaps 17 of those years. My practice back then was quite a bit different from my practice now; some things have stayed the same but others really have not.

I was dual-faith from early on (Hellenic and Norse), but since I now honor gods from four different pantheons, I have amended that to “multi-faith.”

Some of the changes are purely practical. I don’t spend as much time studying because there are fewer books and sources left to study. I do still study, but I know the basics, am familiar with the lore, and am comfortable with ritual and other practices, so some of that work has simply been done already.

When my kids were little, I used my shower time to pray and do simple daily devotions, because it was often the only time during the day that I could count on being left alone with my own thoughts. I assumed that this would change eventually, but they are young adults now and guess what? I still pray in the shower. It works. I don’t only pray in the shower, but I have kept that piece of my practice.

I used to do a lot more group work than I do now (mostly because of personal and health stuff that makes it harder to do that sort of thing). But I used to attend a lot of rituals. I used to write and to lead a lot of rituals, heathen for the most part because that’s the irl group connection I’ve had. I’ve had training for it, which I undertook because our group needed someone to do it. These days, though, I am more of a resource than an active leader, which is a change.

Doing less group work has meant (for me) a lessened focus on festivals and following the calendar and a greater focus on smaller personal devotions and worship. I think I have personalized my practice more since it’s just me now, but less so than I would have expected. I’ve kept the things that (still) work and changed the things that don’t.

I used to do a lot of networking, seeking out and meeting other pagans and polytheists locally, attending Pagan Coffee Nights and so forth. I don’t do much of that anymore.

Similarly, the fact that I no longer travel well means that I no longer go to events far from home. That means a decrease in face-to-face interactions with others, which is certainly an additional change in the role community plays for me.

I do, however, still have online connections with others, which is a different sort of community but community nonetheless.

I also used to incorporate more meditation and visualization work in my practice than I do now (again mostly due to the aforementioned “stuff” and the accompanying lack of focus). It never was easy work for me but it was rewarding, and I hope at some point to be able to do it again. Until then, I have the experiences I’ve had and the knowledge I’ve gained, and that has to be enough.

Any requests?

I know I haven’t been posting as much here as I used to. Partly it’s because I’ve already written some of the things I could write quickly and easily, and the things I’m working on writing now aren’t all fully formed yet, and partly it’s because I’ve been busy with Life and haven’t had nearly as much time for research and writing.

(Although, just recently I’ve been writing like a maniac because I’m getting ready to start on a new bunch of prayer beads for the Egyptian gods that I’m entirely too happy about making!)

(I don’t write all that much about my Etsy shop, although I love doing it more than you can imagine. I figure the details of it just aren’t going to be all that interesting to anyone else. I only rarely post when I add a new kind of thing, which I probably should do. Oh, and just to mention it again, I will soon be adding a new kind of thing! :))

In any case, I just wanted to say that if there’s anything you’d particularly like to read about, particularly if it is a topic I haven’t yet covered, let me know!