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Protocol, Priviledge, and Monotheistic Arrogance


This weekend was an interesting working weekend for me. My colleague U. came down and we both presented at a local interfaith seminary. I taught on polytheism, ancestor work, and indigeny in the morning, and he gave an afternoon full of deep meditation and trance work focusing on honoring the earth and connecting with animal and elemental spirits. We come from two different traditions: mine Norse and his Dagara and seeing us working together and reinforcing each other's teaching was, I think, very enlightening for the students.  It really highlighted certain commonalities found across the board in indigenous traditions (like honoring the ancestors). The students themselves were amazing: they were engaged, enthusiastic and very brave given how ready they were to join in the work we were doing never having met either one of us before. I was honored and humbled to be amongst them. Obviously though, since I’m writing this article, something went awry during the course of the day and as my title suggests, that something had to do with ritual protocol. Actually, I think it had to do with common respect or lack thereof, but I'll get to that in a bit.


Allow me to provide a bit of context first. We were given a small seminar room from ten am until five pm.  No one needed to use it afterwards, though there was a holiday party for the director of the seminary scheduled to start at five in the main area. The seminar room had a door and the work being done within was quiet. My colleague had led the students down into a very deep trance experience and they were involved in connecting to various animal medicines. They'd been taken across the threshold of ritual consciousness via a drum and they were very far into the work. I was holding the space. It is unsafe to jar someone out of such a deep state of consciousness suddenly. It can make one sick, cause severe disorientation, dysphoria, headaches, and nausea (to name but a few of the possible consequences). Any ritual worker should know this. Anyone trained in meditation techniques should know this as well. It's a fundamental of ritual studies, regardless of one’s tradition.


About twenty minutes before five, U. started bringing the class out of the deep trance and back into regular headspace. This transition takes time. Just like leading someone down into a deep meditative state, bringing someone out of such a head-space cannot (or should not) be done quickly. One of the staff --let's call her "Deborah" (it's not her real name of course, but it'll do) opened the door. I motioned with my hand 'no' and closed the door. Deborah was clearly able to see that we were in ritual, in meditative headspace, and not finished yet. (The room was dark save for a candle burning and with the way people were arrayed, it was clear that work was being done). Five minutes later, as we were standing in a small circle (a little more grounded but not much, not enough that the students could safely be jarred back to mundane headspace), she opened the door again. Again I motioned 'no'. A few minutes later, she knocked. I withdrew from the circle (experience has some benefits: I'm trained well enough that I can forcibly and quickly ground myself out of ritual headspace, even deep trance, though it leaves me headachy to do so) and stepped outside carefully closing the door behind me.


I was in very protective headspace. My obligation was to keep those students safe and to ensure that the ritual space was not violated. I rounded on Deborah with a very fierce 'What?! We are in ritual space. We cannot bring those students quickly out of deep trance without doing them harm. What could you possibly need?" She stepped back as I used words (and a fair amount of fire medicine) to ward her off. She was apparently concerned that we wouldn't finish at five and apparently the birthday party was more important than any experience of the sacred, respect, or simple common sense. I left her shaking (she did apologize later) and went back into the ritual space and remained until everyone was grounded, ritual had finished, the space had been opened, and the students were milling about talking about their experiences-which took all of perhaps ten more minutes. Might I point out that Deborah prides herself on teaching and leading meditation? Yet, she thought nothing of interrupting (or trying to) a ritual meditation led by an indigenous practitioner.


As my colleague pointed out later, that's what it really came down to: an inability, unwillingness, or general cluelessness in acknowledging the sacred in a polytheistic ritual. Deborah is not alone in this cluelessness. I've noticed it in many of the faculty. At best, those of us who are Pagan/Heathen, polytheistic, or who practice our indigenous traditions are curiosities, amusing curiosities to be occasionally indulged but never taken seriously. At worst, our rituals are dismissed and violated. It's monotheistic arrogance and entitlement at its best; and that's really the point of my retelling this tale. This occurred in an interfaith community where one should have reason to hope for better yet even here there is little respect for polytheisms and indigenous traditions. Had we been Christian pastors, priests, or Jewish rabbis, I suspect Deborah would never have considered interrupting us. Had it been a mass in progress rather than an animist's ritual, I suspect this issue would never have occurred and really, that speaks volumes.


This is a deep seated corrosion. Deborah is not a bad person.  She had not consciously meant to offend or violate ritual protocol.   It never occurred to her that she was doing anything wrong. As my colleague pointed out later: she acted automatically from the position of dominator, from the position of one mentally rooted in a tradition that has no respect for any other, of a monotheism that thinks nothing of treading on indigenous practices. That there was no hesitation in interrupting something sacred speaks volumes. That is yet another problem that I have seen quite often in the interfaith community: lack of respect for the practice of the sacred. Oh, great lip service is paid to it of course, but when it comes right down to it, what most of them call sacred seems very shallow. The proof, as the saying goes, is in the pudding. One can determine the nature of a person's engagement with the sacred by what they recognize as sacred in the expressions and experiences of others and what they don’t. This begs the question: How can one not recognize something so obviously sacred as a ritual journey especially when it was clearly announced beforehand that this was what was going to occur? Even if a particular rite is not in my 'dialect' of the sacred, I can still sense, see, smell that it is something sacred. I respect the engagement even if I don’t comprehend it fully. When someone is totally oblivious, I start wondering what is lacking in their own religious practice.


I suspect it comes down to this; when you claim to worship everything indiscriminately, in reality you venerate nothing. When spiritual particularities are reduced to an unrecognizable jumble the sacred seems to get lost somewhere in the middle. Ritual becomes an empty game, a feel-good indulgence. This is compounded when one’s idea of the holy rests in the pages of a book and not in the experience itself. More and more I am coming to believe that such a practice renders one insensate to the actual experience, direct, rooted, and bone deep, of the sacred.


Perhaps it comes down to the purpose with which we invest our ritual practice. For us, it's honoring and reverencing the Holy Powers. It is a means, a protocol by which we can engage with Them. It is the beginning of an ongoing conversation with specific Holy Powers. It is a dance, a celebration, an ongoing expression of reverence. As such, it is crucial that one enter into ritual with a respectful and mindful attitude. The process is inviolate. The entire process should be bordered by respect and I would hold that true whether or not the ritual was one of my own tradition.


I’ve noticed more and more that for all the misguided talk about ‘unity’ in interfaith circles, the expected and accepted paradigm is still monotheistic. That’s really what unity is after all: it comes from the Latin word ‘unus’: one. It is an erasure of indigeny. It is an obliteration of the wondrous diversity of experience and divinity that characterizes polytheism. It is an extension of monotheistic domination. It’s just been prettied up. It’s been made politically correct. Words like ‘tolerance’ and ‘oneness’ have been slapped on it to present a facade palatable to the WASP and/or new age majority, a façade that precludes active engagement. But let’s not for one minute fool ourselves as to where indigenous traditions rate in the interfaith world. Those that preach oneness still view our traditions with the arrogance and contempt of conquerors, no matter how well they hide it, no matter how unconscious such attitudes might be. They’re there and that is unfortunate for them and for us. Because in the end, those who are working to restore their indigenous traditions need to ask themselves how much time, energy, and commitment they’re willing to take away from their ancestral ways to educate the impious, to educate those who don’t even think to question the status quo. I know for myself, I just reached my line in the sand.


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 Galina Krasskova is a Heathen priest, author, and Northern Tradition shaman. She holds a Masters degree in Religious Studies and is currently working toward a PhD in Classics. Galina is the author of several books including “Essays in Modern Heathenry” and “Skalded Apples: A Devotional Anthology to Idunna and Bragi.”
(Photo by Hudson Valley photographer Mary Ann Glass.)


  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Monday, 10 December 2012

    I found myself uncomfortable with this post, because I could easily see myself making "Deborah's" mistake, unless I was warned in advance "DO NOT interrupt this ritual." It's not clear from your post whether "Deborah" really understood that she was interrupting sacred space, although clearly after being warned off once, simple courtesy would suggest the best response on her part would have been to back off. I'm going to assume that she should have known better, because otherwise, I'm seeing a source of irritation, but not of outrage.

    However, I *do* find myself nodding in agreement to your further point about "Unity" being a suspect goal in interfaith work. "Tolerance" does not equal "respect" and it's easy to see the Big Three Abrahamic monotheisms having a POV that assumes a "pat on the head" condescension to paths that don't share many of their base assumptions. A "place at the table" isn't always the best end-goal of interfaith work.

    I am trying to work out how the first part of your post connects with the second part.

    Respectfully yours,


  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Monday, 10 December 2012

    HI Anne,
    We were invited in to do exactly this type of work; we announced clearly in advance what would be going on, deborah was in the class up until the meditation was about to begin and then ducked out, and there was a sign on the door "session in progress: do not disturb."

    that being said, unless A) someone /something is on fire (don't laugh, happened to be twice in ritual) B) natural disaster, or house falling down or C) medical emergency what possible reason could there be to interrupt a ritual?

  • E K
    E K Monday, 10 December 2012

    Hmmmm. I don't know very much about your organization or the persons involved, but it appears to me from what you've written that Deborah took a defensible action. Often, when groups are sharing a space, punctuality is extremely important. It seems the better route would have been to begin guiding students out of the meditation fifteen minutes earlier and respecting that time boundary, rather than waiting until the end of the allotted time period and expecting others to recognize what your group sees as the more meaningful use of the space - or at least, as Anne suggested, to put a clear sign on the door. I don't quite see how Deborah could have known that everyone was in deep trance - and what the implications of this are - if she wasn't a part of the group to begin with - trance is, after all, an inner state.

    Anyway, I'm not saying this to criticize you, but rather to suggest that maybe religious intolerance isn't the issue here (or at least it doesn't seem like it to this outsider). I hope you're able to come to a good solution to future conflicts like these.

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Monday, 10 December 2012

    there was absolutely no reason for her to interrupt. No one needed teh space afterwards adn the main area was going to be occupied for some time. Besides, there's no excuse to interrupt a deep meditation like that....

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Monday, 10 December 2012

    May I ask why you automatically assign to "Deborah" a motive of acting from "monotheistic privilege"? Nowhere in your post do you give any indication of what her religion is. Do you have any grounds for your assertion that she has a different standard for polytheistic faiths using the space as opposed to monotheistic faiths? You make a great assumption when you claim that a Christian or Jewish ritual would not have been interrupted. In fact, you go so far as to demean and malign her based entirely (from what you've written here) on your own assumptions about her motives.

    You say that the "birthday party was more important than any experience of the sacred, respect, or simple common sense" but I would point out that checking to verify that a space which was booked for a particular period of time would be vacated at the end of that time is hardly unreasonable. Apparently she attempted twice to confirm the status of the room before you deigned to explain the situation to her. Had you done so at the first interruption, it seems from your account that all would have been well. Common sense would seem to dictate that you explain the situation before things got to the point they did.

    And then, to denigrate Deborah's spirituality when you say "When someone is totally oblivious, I start wondering what is lacking in their own religious practice" was completely gratuitous and self-serving. Really? She makes several attempts to determine the status of your ritual, and is given nothing more than a "go away" gesture, and then on the third attempt you lay into her, and for that she's "oblivious" and "lacking in her own religious practice"? You are just laying assumptions one on the other, in what seems to be a very self-gratifying and self-justifying matter.

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Monday, 10 December 2012

    I worked for this organization on and off since 1999 and this was not the first incident of this sort that I witnessed. Having been in multiple staff meetings, "worship services", classroom events, and classes themselves I've experienced this unconscious privilege more than once. Based on past experience, and incidents that I've witnessed, yeah, I'm pretty sure a Christian or Jewish ritual would not have been interrupted.

    Deborah, btw, is Jewish. I had initially used a different pseudonym but my proof reader asked me to change it--i'd inadvertantly chosen her mother's name. I think it was pretty clear from reading that she followed a monotheistic tradition. I know I'm Heathen but I didn't feel the need here to overstate the obvious.

    the space we were in was empty from five pm onward. the main area was occupied with students and teachers in the party. And frankly, I don't care what was going on. There is *no* excuse to interrupt a ritual and more to the point, as I explained in the initial post, it is dangerous to bring people out of deep meditation quickly, which is what she was asking us to do. That's not happening on my watch.

    Also, it was a small enough group of faculty and students spread over two rooms with a main area shared. We were invited in, given our class times, and it was made clear in the morning and again in the afternoon what was going to be happening. There was no guess work. Interrupting a ritual is rude. period. In this case, it might also have been dangerous. I"m glad i wasn't running the ritual and could afford to leave and guard the space.

    This is less about Deborah though --that was the situation I chose to use to highlight issues common to the interfaith community in the US. The real issue for me is the utter lack of respect any indigenous and polytheistic tradition (unless they cling to monotheism) faces within interfaith communities. The attitudes I discuss creep up in different ways, some large, some small but they complicate interfaith dialogue and that complication centers all around the issue of respect.

    It's interesting to me to see how other polytheists, Pagans, and Heathens respond and what priority they give to working with the sacred.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Monday, 10 December 2012

    Thanks for the clarification, which has made clear that the expectations were clearly set forth in advance.

    Which makes her conduct more inexplicable. What was her explanation for her conduct? I can think of dozens of reasons that have nothing to do with monotheism, ranging from personal pique to overly-rigid security procedures. I'm not saying you are wrong (of course, how could I, since I wasn't there?) but I'm not seeing the clear evidence to support the contention that the conduct was based on religious bias. To tell the truth, I think I'd be fine with moving the discussion away from this specific incident to the broader questions you have raised.

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Monday, 10 December 2012

    She didn't explain but apologized later, which is fine. but this really is indicative of the overall, overarching attitude not just in this seminary but in the interfaith community in general....which is what i'd rather highlight and focus on. I know the woman, and I know the staff there fairly well so for me, this wasn't an isolated incident and i'm drawing on many years of experience with these people adn their attitudes.

    but yes, i'd rather talk about the broader issues too.

  • Sophie Gale
    Sophie Gale Monday, 10 December 2012

    The first of November I had the privilege of hearing Rev. Dirk Ficca, former director of the World Parliament of Religions speak at the local chapter of the Interfaith Alliance. From his speech:

    Principles of interreligious dialogue
    1. Harmony not unity
    2. Convergence of purposes not consensus – examples of convergence for many religious groups would be religious freedom, or caring for the most vulnerable, for example. We can find convergences.
    3. Facilitation not structure – build relationships rather than structures
    4. Trust is more important than agreement – it is possible to totally trust a person one does not agree with when one knows the person

    It was a moving evening.

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Tuesday, 11 December 2012

    Those are beautiful principles and if that was what actually happened in interfaith communities, I'd be exhilarated. it's not though, at least not with polytheists on the east coast.

  • Tim Schneider
    Tim Schneider Tuesday, 11 December 2012

    An interruption is rude regardless of source, especially with a sign posted. There are some rituals which should not, for sake of ritual protocol, and/or participant safety, be interrupted. ConVocation, a Midwest gathering of Pagans, has door guards for some of our rituals for just this reason: they check everyone who enters the ritual for a can be called on in case of emergency, and they keep interruptions down.

    Once should have been enough. Twice is downright rude. Three times is incorrigible.

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