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Ritual, Monotheism, and Again with the Piety

 Seriously, folks, argue and disagree with me all you want, but do so based on what i say, not the misinterpretations you project onto what I say. I find it particularly interesting that in the course of the comments to my two articles on ritual (both those posted and those I received privately), quite often I'm being accused of everything BUT promoting piety and respect in ritual. Why is that such a difficult and challenging concept? It certainly wasn't for our ancestors. Piety was a central concept to the majority of ancient polytheisms, though of course the words used to describe this behavior varied from culture to culture. Plato, for instance, wrote an entire dialogue ("Euthyphro") in which the definition of piety was the central issue under discussion. The ancient Romans considered it a necessary and sacred virtue and one simply cannot read writers like Cicero, Pliny, or Seneca (to name but a few) without finding exhortation after exhortation to pious behavior both within one's temples and without. Why is it so difficult for us moderns? Because it is. I don't quite know why, though I have my suspicions, but it really is.(1) 

Unlike Plato, who had his character Euthyphro define piety in part as 'what is dear to the gods,' i would, in addition, define it as 'right behavior toward the Gods.' Piety is a curb and a guide to our behavior.  Of course, right behavior implies precisely that: that there is a right and wrong way of behaving, that there are standards. Standards do not imply tyrannical theocracy. They imply behaving properly and mindfully as the occasion and interaction demands. Now I've written about the opposite of piety here: for those who might want to take a peek. I'm going to let that stand and speak for itself, because there actually is a right way of doing things and it's not that difficult to figure out.  You know what else? The Gods and ancestors are more than capable of telling us what it is if we do the work and listen. Of course that might lead us to a reordering of our priorities but c'est la vie.

Piety, by the way, is a far, far different thing from orthodoxy. In nothing that I wrote on ritual, did i demand any particular orthodoxy beyond piety and respect.  I did not mention what Gods people should honor.(2) I did not exhort readers to any particular ritual style or practice. It's not about any specific action or belief. It's about attitude and awareness, about the way we approach our Gods and ancestors. By exhorting piety, i'm not demanding that everyone become a mystic. I'm saying that we should behave with proper decorum and respect when in the presence of the sacred. What it comes down to, I suspect, is that many people simply don't *want* to be pious. They don't want to be respectful. They don't want their spiritual world to revolve around anything but themselves. Otherwise instead of bitching when I mention piety, we could start talking about ways to show it; because really,  if right behavior toward the Powers isn't valued in our communities, then what is? That's the seed from which all good things flower. 

One of my readers complained that I constantly bring up monotheism. Well, yes I do and I shall continue to do so. Our world is poisoned with it. Our world is poisoned with it and we have been conditioned to never question the consequences of that infestation. We all grew up in a nominally secular culture that in reality was deeply informed by a very particular brand of protestant christianity. For generation upon generation we have been shaped and formed by monotheistic thought, and by what i believe is a very malignant sentience from which what I call the [monotheistic] filter flows. 

Let me be clear: this filter is something different from the religions it overtook. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are also victims of this thing, which I have had ancestors and allies refer to as an ancient enemy. Writer Paul Levy discusses precisely this in his book "Dispelling Wetiko," using a Cree term in place of what I call the 'filter." (Sadly I find this book to be so poorly written as to be nearly unreadable, but the term itself is useful and kudos to him for having the courage to write about it). He draws on the work of Jack Forbes and several other writers,  who connect this spiritual disease right back to colonialism and the destruction of indigenous cultures. You know what? One time Northern Europeans had indigenous cultures and religions too and then monotheism, wearing the guise of Christianity swept over Europe in a religious genocide. This thing is a cancer. Until we shatter our internal filters, until we shatter the lens through which it distorts our world, we're spinning our wheels. It's not enough to suddenly decide to become a polytheist. There's a whole process of mental deprogramming and restoration that has to occur and the most important part of that is learning to see the filter and to root it out in our own minds. That's no small task. 

This thing i call the 'filter' is everywhere. It's more pervasive and runs more deeply through the veins of our world than most of us realize; and we are all poisoned by it. When i saw it, truly looked it in the eye for the first time, saw how deeply it ran into the foundations and fabric of our world, i was devastated for days. It seemed an overwhelming task to undo what this destructive juggernaut had wrought. This is the thing that gave us the doctrine of discovery. This is the thing that breeds that Taliban like violence that was mentioned in a comment to my previous post. This is the thing that  twists our faith and praxis into weapons. This is a thing that makes us eschew ecstasy and joy in favor of narrowness and fear. Mind you, I'm not saying that we didn't see conquest in polytheistic cultures, but what one didn't find was the type of obsession with orthodoxy and targeted attack of differing faiths. Polytheism by its very nature was open to diversity. Freud posited that religious intolerance began with monotheism and I'm afraid I have to concur. What's more, I think that behind that filter, that lens through which we have been raised to view the world, is a sentience, a disease, an intelligence, a contagion rooted deep in our minds. So you bet your sweet ass I talk about it all the time. I will call it out every chance I get. It is my sacred obligation to my dead, to my Gods, and to those who come after me. 

So agree with me or don't agree but I will hold the line against this thing, this ancient enemy, this curse, disease, and corruption as long as I can. i will fight it with every breath, every action, everything I write, and every ritual I do. This is the work to which our Gods and ancestors call us, all of us. So take it up or get out of the way but do not come whining to me because I have standards, because i'm willing to engage with those who disagree with me without seeking "consensus" (oh how so many Pagans fetishize consensus), because as both a scholar of religion and a wyrd worker, i am   capable of connecting the threads and seeing precisely how deeply influenced we all are by the monotheistic tropes and attitudes that have seeped into *every corner* of our world. There's no escaping it and if you think you are free of it, you're sadly mistaken. So I will point out the monotheistic influences in what I'm reading, or what someone else is saying, and sometimes in my own attitudes and work as well because it's there and it needs to be brought to light. 



1. As to my qualifications to determine whether or not we have good role models -- which is a fair question to ask--I hold a Masters Degree in religious studies and a diploma in interfaith studies. I've studied ritual practice for over twenty years. I've trained in ritual work not only within religious settlings but also academically in the field of liturgical and ritual studies. I've taught liturgical studies at a seminary where  part of my job was critiquing student-led rituals. I've probably facilitated more rituals than most of you reading this combined (at one point, I was doing at least two per day, along with weekly rituals, a full and new moon ritual, and holidays). I do indeed have the wherewithal, training, and knowledge to determine whether a ritual sucks or not. Ritual isn't difficult. Leading a good, well structured rite is a learned skill; but it takes the time, effort, and study in order to learn those skills. Moreover not every clergy person is a good ritualist. (I have no issue with that. There are lots of areas in which a clergy person can specialize, ritual is only one of them). 


2. Though it should be noted that for our ancestors, including our Roman ancestors, the Gods were indeed viewed as higher than us in the grand scheme of things. It is only the modern era that eschews hierarchy. The Romans especially had very definite ideas of what constituted proper behavior before the Gods, centering around not only 'pietas' but also 'nefas.' I suggest "Orientalism and Religion" by Richard King, "The Matter of the Gods" by Clifford Ando, "Roman Religion" by Clifford Ando, "Roman Religion" and "A Casebook of Roman Religion" by Valerie Warrior for further reading (there are many more good and informative texts on the subject but these will get a diligent reader started). For those interested in reading more on American secularism and its Christian character I suggest "Love the Sin" and "Secularisms" by by Ann Pellegrini and Janet Jacobson. 


Last modified on

 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.)


  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Friday, 03 May 2013

    Hail and well said. Some decades ago I came to the same conclusion that monotheism is inherently a deeply aggressive and controlling disease that exists to exercise control and intolerance. The pervasive evil of monotheism so pervades western national culture that many people coming to pagan religions end up with "Jesus in a Dress" demanding all their old monotheistic moral controls and dogma under a thinly overlaid Goddess name. Some now claim to be "pagan" but don't even bother to rename Jesus. As you say, it takes a lot of self searching and understanding, perhaps a life long quest, to rid ourselves of the pervasive disease of monotheism.

  • Christine L Berger
    Christine L Berger Friday, 03 May 2013

    Galina, I have to say yours is one of the few blogs that I never miss. In 1985, when I first became pagan, what drew me like a magnet to iron was the very reality of the Gods/Goddesses becoming present and real and alive in the sacred space. Since then my journey has been dominated by the desire to make my relationship to them more intimate more pervasive and deeper on all levels. I do not know what word works best, piety is fine with me. I am devoted to them because they are beings that best manifest the very wellspring of my Being. They have saved my spirit and my life, how could I not desire to act in such ways that support them and show my love for them?

  • Virginia Carper
    Virginia Carper Friday, 03 May 2013

    When I was first introduced to Piety, it was part of ADF's Dedicant program. The person who was guiding us through the various virtues explained - "Pagan Piety is not the Church Lady type of piety." That is when I knew that my thinking was monotheistic since the only example of piety that I could envision was Church Ladies. Pagan piety took a longer time to get.

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Friday, 03 May 2013

    Ok. I'm confused, where was the part about 'piety' questioned? You're preaching to the choir when it comes to the Romans being very interested and passionate about piety. Also, you seem to have never heard of a Lectisternium. 1. Please let me know if this is not the case.

    Either way, I'm not questioning the need for piety. I'm questioning the need for politeness and etiquette in your writing towards human beings. And have the decency to point out the readers you're not happy with instead of blanketing all of us with an assumption that we're "just not getting it." Please, if you're going to respond to something I say, respond with the quote in full. You consistently use monotheism to describe someone who does not agree with you, and that's puzzling on a Pagan forum. I've seen you do it elsewhere, and it's getting boring. I've seen complaints on other blogs about the Neo-Pagan community tearing itself apart, and the words you use, Galina, are divisive and cruel. To insist that the pagan community should act a certain way always or else it will die is threatening, it's very near to a curse or a punishment, and these thoughts and feelings will bounce back at you. Forgive me for trying to save you from your own Karma. Maybe it's not possible.

    pp 37,71,92,108-109,194 "An Introduction to Roman Religion" by John Scheid, Janet Lloyd tr. Indiana University Press, ISBN 0253343771

  • sannion
    sannion Friday, 03 May 2013

    Not to put words in Galina's mouth, but I'm fairly sure the bit about Roman piety was a response to Joseph Bloch's piece.

    To insist that the pagan community should act a certain way always or else it will die is threatening, it's very near to a curse or a punishment, and these thoughts and feelings will bounce back at you. Forgive me for trying to save you from your own Karma. Maybe it's not possible.

    Awww, that's really sweet. I'm quite fond of Ms. Krasskova but even I don't believe that her words alone hold the power to destroy Paganism.

    As far as I can tell all she's doing is sharing her opinion and speculating what might happen if things don't change.

    That's it.

    She's not advocating force or a Taliban-style theocracy or sinister magicks. Just ... doing more stuff for the gods.

    But you guys keep losing your shit. It's amusing to watch.

  • Ashley Moore
    Ashley Moore Friday, 03 May 2013

    Candi i think your more confused then you realize.

    i need NEED to point this out to you, but you said "forgive me for trying to save you from your own Karma. Maybe it's not possible"

    a religious doctrine is not slang. lets say that now.

    alright NOW lets talk about this just for a moment. first off, if you knew anything about the eastern religions that affiliated with the idea of 'Karma', then you realize this is simply not possible in any terms and rather arrogant at that. i see SO MANY pagans attempting to appropriate eastern religions and use terms, like this term especially, so flagrantly without understanding its huge complexities and how it differs (sometimes drastically) from region to region. this is not your term to toss around nor are you in any place to 'save' another person. i think thats a monotheistic sentiment right there, you know..the one's galina i think is trying to point out in her own way and the whole 'save you from your sins' stuff. regardless of right or wrong on galina's part, we are discussing your misuse of this word. pointing out logical fallacies or flaws in an argument that you find from galina, sure, but the very instant that you start throwing in a random indigeny for your 'nobel quest' then i start having a serious problem. if you were born into hinduism, then you would never utter such a ridiculous sentence. if you converted to buddhism you wouldn't dream of saying such things and the list goes on and on.

    Karma is a law of causation which has hugely varying definitions and religious contexts. it varies immensely between hinduism, and then in all the sub sects of hinduism depending on which god or goddess you aspire towards and what your cast is within the systems that exist within the culture. this is sometimes linked to karma to begin with. i happen to vehemently disagree with the cast system, but you cannot disconnect its use. now when we add in the definitions between the hindu understanding then the differences to buddhism, sikhism and jainism and so on, the definitions and spiritual understandings change even more. karma can be linked to current life challenges because of past lives (with no correlation to current deeds), to any cause that will ever be done for anything, to actually a series of punishments and nothing good entailed whatsoever. and the list of understandings from an EASTERN perspective change radically as you research on and on. i am glad you think so highly of yourself, but according to many of these traditions if there own god's cannot interfere with it, certainly you can't. now its quite easy to see the 'filter' that galina has named right here. taking something indigenous and watering it down to be used against another, as some sorta tool to raise yourself above. regardless of whether or not galina is right is entirely against the point. stop worrying about 'saving' people from a term you so clearly don't understand at all.

    it is incredibly disrespectful to through in terminology like this and use it so inappropriately. you cannot save someone from any "karma" however maybe the word fate MIGHT have been more appropriate, but seriously, not okay.

    this was a public service announcement, stop using words you don't understand. now go back to your scheduled piety stuff.

  • Ashley Moore
    Ashley Moore Friday, 03 May 2013

    sorry typo.

    it is incredibly disrespectful to throw* in terminology like this--

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Friday, 03 May 2013

    Oh dear. I really wasn't gonna jump back into this, but feel I've been pulled in by reference.

    So I'll speak up and say, "me, me!" When folks refer to the "monotheist" in the room, I, apparently, am that elephant. (You so named me in your comment on the previous post.) I find that appellation odd and inappropriate because I am radically committed to polytheism -- which I define as finding joy in the multitude of deities and Powers that speak to us.

    When I said things like, "this way leads to theocracy" of your original post in this thread, I admit, I misspoke. You are far from a theocrat; your concentration on direct gnosis and lack of attention to dogma makes that abundantly clear. So I apologize for that misstatement.

    But you are -- in your righteous indignation at the folks in our community that you name "impious" -- very much looking like an orthopraxic. (Forgive the neologism, but I just couldn't find the right word for what I'm trying to say.) That may not be the direct road to the Taliban, which as you rightly point out, is, indeed, a orthodox (belief based) tradition. (Although I, among many, find Islam to be a highly orthopraxic tradition, along with Judaism.) But it certainly leads to *something* that I find unpalatable.

    I don't want to be on the chorus line of people denigrating your path, because I find your posts and ideas surprising, exciting, and challenging, and that's wonderful. You make me think about my religious life, and my practice, and that's nothing but good.

    But anytime we start getting into defining "piety" I start to twitch. I believe that there's absolutely no "right" way to serve the gods. Why? Because I believe that only personal gnosis can impart that information. And personal gnosis is just that -- personal. Which is to say, what's pious for you is, indeed, pious -- for you. But it might not be pious for me. In fact, what's pious for you might very well be *impious* in my relationship to the very same deity.

    Of course, if I'm in a group worship environment, it is nothing less than rude for me to not conform to the group's definition of pious. In a group, if I'm impious (according to the group's definition) I'm impacting everyone else's worship experience, and, potentially, damaging the group's relationship to deity. In such a situation, the group has every right, even duty, to tell me to "get a grip" and conform. Or leave.

    But when you say "if right behavior toward the Powers isn't valued in our communities, then what is?" the question becomes, very quickly, "who defines "right behavior?"

    The amateur sociologist of religion in me looks at this kerfuffle and says, "Oh, this is just the community moving into a new stage of evolution, it's perfectly natural that folks will start arguing about piety and tradition and gnosis and in-groups and out-groups." But the old-style, naturalist, hippie-dippie everything-goes Pagan in me just wants to weep and quote John Lennon in "Imagine" -- "imagine all the people, living life in peace."

  • sannion
    sannion Friday, 03 May 2013

    The amateur sociologist of religion in me looks at this kerfuffle and says, "Oh, this is just the community moving into a new stage of evolution, it's perfectly natural that folks will start arguing about piety and tradition and gnosis and in-groups and out-groups."

    When is that going to happen though? These arguments have been going on for at least the 20+ years I've been on the periphery of the community and yet no progress, no consensus, no nothing has come from it. All it is, as far as I'm concerned, is an excuse for people to substitute thinking about stuff for actual practice, to make themselves feel better by scoring points against perceived enemies on the internet, and to bend over backwords to convince themselves that mediocrity is acceptable.

    Pagans don't even take themselves or their worship seriously, why should any other faith community?

  • Ainslie
    Ainslie Friday, 03 May 2013

    Paganisms of the world are diverse. Galina's a particular person doing particular work in a particular context. Some of that context is related to me and some of that context is not related to me. I've been keeping tabs on Northern Tradition for ten years now because of the part of it that is related to me. At a certain point, I felt the need to investigate all these "detractors" they were talking about. The ones I found were people I could learn from too. Then they were called out on the NAFPS website. Since I'm a certain type of indigenous person myself, I took that really seriously. After continuing in the situation I decided to accept them for the work they were doing, as in the context they are doing it it is a needed thing. That's the balance I've found and on the whole I feel really good about it. If the harsh words Galina's said don't apply to YOU, then why interpret them so personally?

  • helmsman of inepu
    helmsman of inepu Thursday, 09 May 2013

    I think you're right about "the filter." You even see it operating with "Evangelical" atheists- it's not enough for them not to believe, and not having the religious strictures of others controlling their lives, they pursue their agendas with the same zeal as the most ardent bible-thumper.

    Even outside of religion- the phenomenon of anti-vegetarian bumper stickers is another example. Why do the people who go out and buy them to stick on their trucks care so passionately about what someone else doesn't eat?

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