Title: Walking the Worlds
Managing Editor: Galina Krasskova
Editor-in-Chief: H Jeremiah Lewis
Editorial Board: Edward Butler, PhD, and P Sufenas Virius Lupus, PhD
Designer: Sarah Kate Istra Winter
Price: $20/issue, $30/subscription
When the new journal Walking the Worlds -- peer-reviewed and polytheistic in perspective -- was first announced last summer, I immediately plunked down the thirty dollars for an annual subscription. I knew most of the people involved through various online forums, and some personal interaction, so I was confident that it was money well spent.
I was not disappointed.
The inaugural issue of WtW focuses on "Ancestors and Hero Cultus." As managing editor Krasskova explains in the introduction, "... our ancestors sustain us. They are our foundation." A logical place to start when launching a new endeavor that draws upon the traditions and peoples of the past, and which seeks to rebirth/adapt those traditions to the present.
In its nearly 130 pages, WtW manages to include essays from a variety of perspectives and traditions. Tamara Siuda, Nisut and founder of the Kemetic Orthodox Religion, opens the volume with "Dead Does Not Mean Gone: Restoring the Ancestors." This is her call to reverse the separation of the living from the dead which occurred with the Christianization of the West. As she points out, "How can a person worship a god coming from an ancestor-honoring culture, and yet ignore the ancestors who created that worship in the first place?"
This is followed by P Sufenas Virius Lupus' "Doíní, Dé 7 An-Dé: Hero Cultus in Celtic Reconstructionist Polytheist Practice," in which e proposes adapting Irish Saint days as holy days for indigenous heroes who have a link to or qualities in common with that Saint. E pays particular attention to Cú Chulainn and Finn mac Cumhaill. (And I totally love Lupus' suggestion to replace the Epiphany with the Feis Trí Druad.)
Next is Dagulf Loptson's "Askr and Embla: Microcosms of the Macrocosm," which digs deeply into the symbolism of the Norse cosmogony and anthropogony. Loptson examines what it means for the relationship between humanity, the natural world, and the Gods-as-ancestors if the creation of humans from an ash and elm mirrors the creation of the universe itself. I found his discussion of the Norns, the three roots of Yggdrasil, and the three wells which feed the World Tree particularly interesting.
Fourth is "Time and the Heroes" by Edward Butler, a dense and thought-provoking piece which "explicates the Proclean doctrine of the three forms of time [...] with particular reference to the form of temporality associated with the heroes." As I said, dense. :) I had to read it twice.
Sarenth Odinsson follows this with an examination of "The Consequences of Ancestor Worship," including ancestors outside blood relationships, and even Gods; it pairs nicely with Loptson's preceding essay, and gave me lots of ideas for establishing my own ancestor shrine.
Next is Galina Krasskova's "Women as Warriors and Culture Builders in Herodotus," which I recommend to anyone with an interest in women's studies. Here, Krasskova focuses on four individuals and one group of women: Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae; Gorgo, wife of Leonidas of Sparta; Pheretime of Cyrene; Artemisia, naval commander from Halicarnassus; and the Sauromatian Amazons. (If your interest is piqued here, I highly recommend that you follow up Krasskova's essay with Hellenistic Queens: A Study of Woman Power in Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt by Grace Harriet Macurdy. Out of print, but readily available through used book sites.)
This is followed by K Fenrirsson's "Toxic Ancestors." Unfortunately, I know quite a few people who will find his advice on how to identify, respond to, and cleanse -- and even completely avoid -- dangerous ancestors very useful.
Next is the most unexpected essay in the journal: "Assuming the Mantle: The Lessons of Queen Anne Boleyn" by Beth Wodandis Lynch. I am sure that I am not the only one who was surprised to find a celebration of a devoutly Christian Queen in a polytheism journal, but it works. With clarity and detail, Lynch lays out exactly why she is drawn to Boleyn, and what Boleyn can teach modern polytheist women. I was ambivalent about Boleyn when I started the essay; now I'm a fan.
Lupus returns with a second essay, "On Being Fed on Boar and Lion Entrails and the Marrow of Bears: Antinous and Hadrian, Heroes and Hunting." Here, e focuses on how the perception of hunting changed during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, the homoerotic subtext of hunting, and the hunter-as-hero.
Those with an interest in the history of music will likely want to read H Jeremiah Lewis' "The New Wine We Were Promised." A long-time fan of Jim Morrison, poet and lead singer of The Doors, Lewis here argues that Morrison is/was "an archetype of the Neos Dionysus" who continues to have a profound influence on the world, and so deserves hero cultus. I'll admit that I went into this essay a bit skeptical, but Lewis makes some excellent points, and I have now added The Doors to my To Listen list. (Plus, he totally makes me want to build a time machine so I can visit the lavish temple of Homer in Alexandria.)
Virginia Carper takes the idea of ancestor devotion to its Earthly limits in "'That Which Is Remembered Lives:' To Establish a Cultus for Extinct Animals." If there was one essay in WtW which really got my creative wheels turning, it was this one. Fascinating stuff. (Dinosaurs do not appreciate having their fossilized remains displayed for our amusement, elephants actually like humans, and recently extinct species are in far too much pain to associate with us since we're the reason for their extinction.)
Lastly is one short, personal essay, and a collection of obituaries. In "Preserving a Legacy," Sarah Kate Istra Winter discusses the nontraditional route she took to honor her beloved, unconventional, atheist grandparents: she wrote a book. Specifically, The Secret History of Carnival Talk, illustrated by photos of her grandparents and their friends from their carny days.
The volume closes with a series of obituaries penned by Jason Thomas Pitzl (formerly of The Wild Hunt), in which he honors and remembers those influential members of the Pagan/polytheist community who passed on between October 2013 and October 2014. As a result, I am seriously contemplating a place for Margot Adler in my ancestor shrine.
In addition to these terrific essays, WtW is also beautifully designed. The simple font and creamy paper give it an antique feel. The cover logo is perfect: a tree with roots reaching into the past and branches reaching into the future. I have only a few small complaints. There is some smearing of the ink along the interior of the spine (for which one can blame the publisher, and that may not be universal to every copy) and there are a number of minor grammatical errors scattered through the text (e.g. missing commas, missing plurals, run-on sentences, and so on).
I highly recommend Walking the Worlds to anyone with an interest in modern polytheism and its antecedents. I look forward to future issues -- "Building Regional Cultus," "Magic and Religion," and "Philosophy and Polytheism" -- which I plan to keep handy on my bookshelves, for repeated consultation.
Like a lot of American kids, I grew up on a steady diet of Saturday morning and weekday afternoon cartoons. I plunked myself down in front of the tv for hours, lost in the adventures of He-Man and She-Ra, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Tarzan and Isis and Aquaman. And, of course, Scooby and the gang.
I hindsight, I can't really tell you what I thought of the cartoon. I vaguely remember wishing at one point that I was Daphne; and I thought the celebrity guest appearances were fun, though I only had the vaguest idea as to the identity of the Harlem Globetrotters. As I got older, I found the chase sequences increasingly silly -- and I was terribly disappointed that none of the monsters were ever real.
Cartoons have remained part of my television diet well into adulthood, but Scooby-Doo fell by the wayside. That is until my husband stumbled across a animated feature film on The Cartoon Network which included -- surprise! -- real magic and real werewolves. We spent a couple of hours happily reliving our childhood over homemade pizza and cookies while the Scoobies ran around and built ridiculous traps.
Interest piqued, I kept an eye out for new Scooby projects. I was delighted when I found an issue of Scooby-Doo Team-Up* guest-starring Wonder Woman.
As written by Sholly Fisch, with art by Dario Brizuela and Franco Riesco and lettering by Saida Temofonte, the story is quick, fun, and (for a polytheist) deeply satisfying. Mythological monsters have been randomly appearing on Themiscyra; they have attacked the Amazons, and then just disappeared without a trace. The Amazons are baffled. Since no man may set foot on the island without violating Aphrodite's Law, and thereby stripping the Amazons of their immortality, Batman recommends that they call in two female detectives to investigate. Thus, Daphne and Velma take center stage.
I really like the relationship between Wonder Woman and Daphne and Velma. It is one of respect and mutual admiration. Wonder Woman may be a super-powered warrior princess, but she is strong enough to admit when she needs help, and she acknowledges the value of Daphne and Velma's different skill set. Daphne and Velma, in turn, are thrilled to be training alongside the Amazons, and honored that a great woman such as the Princess of Themiscyra would ask for their assistance.
Even better is the depiction of Amazonian society. When Velma wonders why Amazons, who are dedicated to peace and understanding, would be engaging in war games, Wonder Woman explains:
"... the Amazon philosophy is to develop every aspect of our potential, and achieve all that we can -- mentally, spiritually, and physically. Besides, when you face a foe who is less ... spiritually advanced, the physical side can be useful."
The women of Themiscyra are also polytheists, through and through. The very real existence of Goddesses and Gods and spirits and monsters permeates every level of their culture. Goddesses brought them to life, and the blessing of one particular Goddess keeps their island home safe. Expressions such as "Hera give me strength!" and "May the blessings of Hera accompany you on your journeys" pepper their speech; even Scooby gets into the groove, at one point exclaiming "Rufferin' Raphro!" For perhaps the clearest example of their native, heartfelt polytheism, consider this exchange when Queen Hippolyta says that the Minotaur could not have attacked the Amazons:
Queen Hippolyta: ... the Minotaur remains a prisoner of the Greek Gods -- trapped in its labyrinth as it has been for centuries. How could it be here as well?
Velma: Excuse me, Queen Hippolyta -- but how do you know the Minotaur is still a prisoner of the Gods?
Queen Hippolyta: I asked them.
Such a positive portrayal of polytheism in mainstream children's literature's a rare treat. Hopefully this will not be the only time Daphne and Velma pay a visit to Paradise Island; the more kids are exposed to the old myths and Goddesses and Gods, the better.
*Please note that the print and digital edition numbers are different. The print issue is #5, while the story is split between digital editions #9 and #10. The print issue is $2.99, and is available at most comic shops and bookstores, as well as online. The digital editions are .99 cents each, and are available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes.
Today is Faithful Friday here at the Pagan News Beagle, the day we share interesting stories about religious communities around the world. Our stories today include the launch of the new Polytheist community website; a call for papers on Pagan and Goddess studies; animal sacrifice outlawed (in part of India); Chinese Buddhist brand building; American Muslims meet (and integrate better than Muslims in Europe.)
The new website Polytheist.com launched recently and hopes to offer a variety of columnists (the site eschews the term "blog") from across this diverse movement.
The American Academy of Religion (Western region) announces a call for papers from a variety of faith traditions, notably including both Pagan and Goddess studies.
A secular court in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh has prohibited animal sacrifice in Hindu temples.
A famous Chinese Buddhist temple is seeking a top media marketer in an unconventional attempt to spread its message.
This story at the Economist examines why American Muslims are more integrated with their society than their co-religionists in the EU.
This is the time of year when depending on where you live, it's still warm enough to be comfortable, but the oppressive heat of summer starts to fade, and the rains come or will be coming soon. As the land mellows, I feel Njord's gift of serenity, water after fire, which will later wash color into the world.
That said, this is a year where I've felt Njord pretty strongly year-round.
In July 2013 I moved from southern California to Portland, Oregon. I have always wanted to live in the Pacific Northwest, and while the circumstances in which I arrived here were not the way I wanted to come here, I am nonetheless grateful for living in the land that has called to me all my life... and where my own soul sings with it. There are many things about the Pacific Northwest that I love. The thing I love perhaps the most is the Oregon coast, a place of beauty... of liminality. When I go to Cannon Beach, I can feel the veil thin between worlds... I can feel where Vanaheim overlaps with Midgard. I have felt Njord there more strongly than I have ever felt him anywhere else of all of the beaches I've visited.
Njord has been good to me over the years, he has taught me more than a few important lessons... and this past year he taught me about letting go, cleansing, and the flow of wyrd - all rivers run to the sea, and wyrd is as inexorable as the tides crashing into shore. It was valuable. That and the peace he gave me during a major ritual I did in March, has stayed with me, and has helped a lot.
In my gratitude to him, I am putting together a devotional book in his honor. (More details can be found here on my WordPress blog.)
But even more than that... I am feeling him. I am aware of him. I am mindful of him, and especially as the summer winds down, cooling into fall... his season of influence refreshes me after an intense, catalytic thirteen months. I drink in his presence, and I am nourished, and I try to share some of that in my corner of the world.
Njord is a god who I am surprised does not have more of a following in modern polytheism. I know he's not as "exciting" as some other gods out there, but his serenity, his wisdom... his grace... is something I have appreciated for many years. He is a joy to know. I adore him, in his quiet strength, his compassion, his hospitality, his generosity, his sunny disposition, his playful humor, his depth. He calms the wildest storms of my melancholy heart, he reminds me of all that glitters in the world - like sparkles shimmering on the sea - and helps me to remember "this too shall pass" when rough patches appear. He is like the embodiment of the sunlit sea... the gentle rains... given form in his smile, his words, the way he is, and encourages us to just be. He is a beautiful god, with a beautiful heart. While he is not my patron, I am close to him... and my life has been the richer for it.
So in this seasonal change, I turn my thoughts to him, and flow with him; if you've never connected with Njord and you'd like to do so, the coming weeks are a good opportunity (much as he can be experienced year-round, like I noted above). Here are some suggestions:
-Pray; offer your words, the sincerity of them. It doesn't have to be pretty. It is the truth of those words, given from the heart, that matters.
-Poetry, which he is fond of. He also likes song.
-Drink offerings such as mead, rum, or cider.
-Food offerings such as fish, chowders, rum cake.
-Gold coins (such as gold dollars).
-Treasures from the sea - shells, sand dollars, pebbles, sea glass, driftwood. (Please be careful in collecting objects from beaches, as many places have ordinances about collecting these items; take care with the local marine life and ecosystem.) A set of runes carved from pieces of driftwood would be a lovely craft project to make as an offering.
-Spending time at the shore (or other body of water if you live inland, such as a lake or pond or river), meditating on him, maybe talking with/to him if you like.
-Spending time cleaning a beach (or other body of water) from litter.
-Meditating on him during other activities involving water - bathing, drinking water.
-Hailing him when it rains, thanking him for the life-giving gift of water. (While storms are more traditionally connected with Thor.)
-Meditating on him when travelling, or involved in commerce (buying/selling) - domains of Njord's - or other activities that involve flow and exchange.
As noted these are suggestions, not demands. But hopefully these will help, if you have wanted to make a connection with Njord and don't know where to begin.
If you have any words of praise for Njord or experiences with Njord that you'd like to share in the comments, please feel free to do so.
If you'd like to learn more about Njord, the other Vanir gods, and Vanatru, my book Visions of Vanaheim is available via paperback and PDF.
I think it was Judy Harrow that told me this story. If not, apologies to my actual informant, whoever you are. As my father is fond of saying, “Age spares us nothing.”
Dateline: Chicago, 1993: the World Parliament of Religions. (This was the event at which the archbishop of Chicago used his political muscle to get the pagans a permit to do a ritual in a public park. Now that's what I call ecumenism.) It's the main event: religious leaders from all over the world are lined up on stage. The place is packed so full that they have to set up TV screens outside to accommodate everyone that wants to see. The pagans are all outside, watching. (There are, of course, none on stage.)
Some grandee gets up to talk. “Let us all be as one,” he says. “After all, we all worship the same god.” Nods, smiles, and knowing applause from the entire line-up on stage, including (shame on them) the Hindus. The audience eats it up.
Wiccans have a primary pantheon of two major deities, the Lord and Lady. We also have a number of mythologies describing these deities’ relationships. Taken literally they are not consistent with one another. In some but not all Wiccan traditions She is viewed as having three guises: Mother, Maid, and Crone. Sometimes She will have three dimensions but not as mother, maid, and crone, as with Hekate. Sometimes She is treated as a single goddess. The Horned Lord is sometimes seen as the Oak King and the Holly King. At the solstices they engage in ritual combat, dying to be reborn. In other Wiccan contexts and traditions He is treated as a single deity, and sometimes as an aspect of a more inclusive deity.
Wiccans also deal with other deities, usually but not always from EuroPagan traditions, such as Bhride, the Celtic goddess of healing, poetry, and smith craft. In fact my first coven was named Tobar Bhride, “Brigit’s Well.”
In other words, within the Wiccan NeoPagan tradition the primary Gods can be masculine and feminine, or different manifestations of these qualities which may or may not be considered and treated as distinct manifestations of a single deity. In addition, deities of other traditions are often incorporated and honored. Finally, in our quarter callings, many Wiccans include a variety of other Sacred entities to participate in the average circle, from elemental and animal powers to heroes to other deities.
We are in harmony with Pagan traditions thousands of years old. For example, some Pagan Greeks focused only on a limited number of Olympian deities whereas others, such as Thales, held that “all things are full of Gods.” Modern philosophers seek to explain Thales’ statement away, but the same thinking exists today in African Diasporic traditions. Several major Orixas are usually the main focus but there are an indefinite number of Orixas and distinct aspects of Orixas. There are also different understandings as to what the Orixas really are.
Some Orixas or Classical deities were never human and some were said to have been at least at one time human or partly so. Dionysus had one human and one divine parent, as did Herakles. Xango is usually treated as a Orixa who was once an earthly king. The genealogical pattern is messier in these traditions than in Wicca.
Pagan pantheons also do not translate without remainder into ours, or into any other. For example, at first glance the Orixas (Orishas) in Candombleand Santeria seem to resemble the Greek and Roman deities. And to a degree they do. Oxum (Oshun) is the Orixa of feminine beauty and sexuality and seems remarkably close to the Roman Venus and Greek Aphrodite. Venus was sexually connected to Mars, as Aphrodite was to Ares. But while a God of war, Mars,was also a God of spring and other more pacific qualities. Ares, often connected with Aphrodite, usually was more narrowly associated with battle. Oxum is not so connected to Ogum, the Orixa of war and iron work. Ogum’s wife and consort is Iemanja (Yemaja) Orixa of the ocean. She is more a mother figure than a sensual one. Oxum is the wife of Xango, who is said to be mutually hostile with Ogum. While Oxum is associated with fresh flowing water, Aphrodite is connected with the sea. Hephaestus and Brigid share little in common besides an association with smith craft and fire., and have even less in common with Ogum.
Resemblances without correspondence exist between one pantheon and another. Some Wiccans might argue the female Orixas or Classical Venus and Aphrodite are aspects of the Goddess, the male deities aspects of the God. But this effort at categorization does not take us very far and would probably not impress followers of Santeria, Candomble. In Classical times Apuleius made a similar claim about Isis but devotees of Cybele probably did not regard Her as simply Isis under a less precise name.
Any coherent explanation about Pagan deities must be able to account for this mutually exclusive variety.
This incommensurable variety is enough to drive a person seeking orderly understanding crazy. A secular argument then emerges: the deities are nothing but cultural constructs, with no greater reality than the imaginations of their followers.
There is one fatal problem here. The Gods are real. This may not matter to people who have only read about deities, but it matters a great deal to those of us who have experienced at least one of Them.
Many Pagan traditions, including traditional Wicca, are based on personal encounters with deities. I am a Pagan today because of such an encounter well over 20 years ago. In my experience the Goddess is much more than a poetic metaphor or cultural construct. In my experience, and not just in my experience, the Gods partake of a reality greater than my day-to-day reality.
She is also quite individual. To refer to another deity whom I encountered in ritual, She is not the Celtic Goddess Bhride. They are distinct.
Traditional Wiccan Priestesses experience Drawing Down of the Moon, where the Goddess enters their body and mind, a personal connection inconceivable to secular thought. Less often the presiding High Priest experiences “Drawing Down of the Sun.” For those of us to whom this has happened, attempts to reduce these experiences to purely social or psychological explanations are like trying to picture a rainbow with a black and white drawing.
Nor is Wicca alone in this respect. In African Diasporic drumming rituals even people entirely new to the experience can find their bodies “ridden” by their “divine horsemen.” From shamanic traditions to Neo-Platonic Theurgy to incorporation of spirits in African diasporic religions, to the personal encounters of many NeoPagans, and many more, Pagan religions offer people direct encounters with divinity. Pagans know their deities are real. Not every Pagan has (or wants) such experiences, but they are common across Pagan traditions.
These experiences have nothing at all to do with theology, book reading, or in many cases even having heard about them from others. They can be unexpected. They trump theology, texts, and others’ opinions. Any adequate framework making sense of spiritual reality also has to account for these encounters.
Transcendence within Immanence
There are many cross cultural accounts of what could be called “unitive” experiences, where people experience everything as comprising a divine unity. Many having them describe everything as coming from an ultimate Source that is not a personality or an individual. These experiences are reported in Pagan and monotheistic cultures alike. Monotheists usually distrust them because these experiences do not fit the usual account of what a single deity is supposed to be. In Pagan cultures they do not cause such problems.
Shamans in traditional cultures report such experiences, as Jordan Paper explains in The Mystic Experience. (75-79) The Roman Neo-Platonist Plotinus called it the One. Gardnerian Wiccans refer to it as the Dryghton:
In the name of Dryghtyn, the Ancient Providence,
Who was from the beginning and is for eternity,
Male and Female, the Original Source of all things;
all-knowing, all-pervading, all-powerful; changeless, eternal.
What conception of Divinity might fit a spiritual reality of many deities not reducible to any ordered hierarchy, deities that enter into intimate connection with people, and existing within a ultimate unity with no one on top?
While Pagan religions are truly primordial, our understanding of them has always been shaped by the societies within which they were practiced. Authoritarian hierarchies did not exist among hunter gatherer societies, and were absent in their religions as well. Authoritarian hierarchical agricultural societies shaped their religious practices as well, ultimately giving birth to monotheism as hierarchy’s most extreme expression. It is this tradition, so alien to modern life, that still structures how many think of Spirit, and so of the religions to honor it.
Today the modern world provides new ways of making sense of reality, ways that are not hierarchical in this sense. They are also able to make sense of the diversity of spiritual experience we know exists across cultures and times, without resorting to hierarchies. They enable us to free ourselves from conceptions of the sacred distorted by imports of secular metaphors rooted in kingship and domination.
The key concept is called “emergence.” The term refers to new and more complex order arising without anyone being in charge. The term applies to evolution and to ecosystems, to language and to the internet, to a market economy and to science as a whole. And to much more. “Emergence” includes that large range of phenomena that are neither chaotic nor deliberately constructed.
Emergent phenomena are characterized by what can be described as decentered or distributed authority. A political example sheds light here. In modern democracies the people as a whole are supposed to be the ultimate political power. In relatively non-corrupt ones they are. But there is no unified “people.” There is no unified will except in times of external threat, which is why enemies of democracy always seek to find threats. But despite this lack of a central will or plan modern democracies provide many services far better than alternative governments, as Scandinavia demonstrates.
In ecologies, science, the market economy, and the World Wide Web among other things, impressive orders, intricate variety, and spontaneous adaptiveness arises in the absence of any central authority or directing hand. (For those interested in a deeper analysis I published a scholarly secular paper on emergence to kick off the inaugural issue of an online international academic journal.)
Relationship all the way down
Emergence’s other core concept is that order arises from relationships. Relationships, like turtles in the old story, go “all the way down.” One of the most fascinating examples is our own bodies. We now know the cells that make up our bodies are themselves symbiotic combinations of simpler cells into more complex organisms whose components to some degree maintain their own identity. We know that the origins of the capacity enabling these cells to form tissues, at least so far discovered, is derived externally, from viruses. We know that bacteria form essential parts of our bodies, which could not function nearly so well in their absence. We know that bacteria present in the external environment increase the intelligence of mice, and presumably other mammals. Many people, particularly women, have been discovered to possess the genome of more people than their own dominant one, even within their brains.
We are not organisms that enter into our environment, we are organisms constituted out of some of the relations existing within the environment. Some relations are tightly coupled, like in the eukaryotic cell, others loosely coupled like that between ourselves and plants, but we are describing a continuum, not a division. Many scientists now argue we should be thought of as ecosystems or super-organisms rather than our traditional ideas of ourselves as fundamentally discrete individuals.
Our individuality arises from our social, biological and ecological relationships. It does not enter into these relationships from the outside, it emerges from them. But it cannot be reduced to them. Our individuality is very real, but it is not a basic unit in physical, biological, or psychological terms. Our individuality emerges as a self-aware hub connecting the network of our relationships, of “all our relations." If awareness is at all related to tightness of linkage, and this linkage exists along a continuum, we can make sense of terms like expanding and narrowing our consciousness.
This modern emergent perspective emphasizing relationships as constitutive of individuals enables us to grasp a more satisfactory view of deities, and so make sense of the complexities I have described.
Deities are also individuals normally requiring particular relationships to encounter and who change over time. The perspective modern science is discovering about our most basic model of individuality, ourselves, may well apply to deities. The only jump we need make from science to spirituality is to hold that awareness in some sense is as basic a dimension of reality as anything else. By virtue of our being Pagans, this should not be much of a jump.
Our individuality is a node in a network the whole of which is the One. As self-aware nodes we to some degree choose our present and future relationships even as we are constituted from out of them. By extension, deities can be thought of as the most important nodes in this network, the most important foci of relationships within the divine network.
The richer relationships lead to richer and more multifaceted individuality. This is true for people and it seems reasonable to hold the same is true for deities. Because relationships imply more than one, deities can have many of the same qualities and still not be reducible to one another, in a sense like most readers of this essay share many of the same aspects shaping who we are (early 21st century English speakers, mostly Americans identifying as Pagans). We share far more with one another than we do with first century Chinese, but we are still individually distinct. As we are the hubs where our experiences come together to create a world of conscious individual awareness, deities are by comparison “super hubs.”
Of course I am using human concepts to describe the more-than-human. But that is all any human being can do when trying to comprehend this ultimate reality and then communicate it to others. That is all the writers of sacred texts and the people who write theology can do. The difference is that I am using some of the most modern intellectual tools we have rather than metaphors derived from hierarchical prescientific agricultural societies. I believe these tools enable me to solve the problems that have long vexed traditional theologies.
I am not saying I know what deities are. I suspect no one does. I am saying that the model I am presenting covers the reported experiences of deities better than the alternatives I have encountered.
It has one additional advantage. This perspective shifts how we think about religion away from texts and theologies towards practice. If my argument is correct, the importance of any particular theory of Pagan religion, including my own, is far less important than a good ritual. Emphasizing theology grows from the distortions arising from seeking a coherent model of monotheism.
In my final section I argue we are enabled to shift from seeing getting the theology right as important for a religion to viewing it as Sacred Performance Art. We shift from focusing on religion primarily with our head and intellect to holding our hearts and bodies are of at least equal status with our intellect.
Today many NeoPagans first learn about our traditions from books or the internet. The net in particular has expanded easily available information about our religion but at a cost. That cost is to be severed from NeoPagan history and practice except as available through pixels or the printed word. Instead of starting with learning and practice with others and then studying written sources, many NeoPagans now go from the study of texts to practice. They hope to interpret experiences they anticipate having through the texts they have read rather than judging whether the text illuminates or contradicts the experiences they have had.
This modern text oriented approach is comfortable for most of us, and its dangers are hidden by this very comfort. It is a monotheistic way of seeking to learn a polytheistic religion. I think emphasizing the written word as a reliable guide to our practice is at odds with the logic ofPagan religion and carries a very real cost if we are not aware of the problem.
Historically Pagan religions focused on practice rather than texts, let alone theology. Texts were relatively unimportant and theology nonexistent for more than a tiny elite, if that. Plato, from whom philosophy and theology largely derive, emphasized he never wrote down his most important teachings. Socrates, the man he made famous, never wrote anything down. Many later philosophers participated in the popular practices of their day even while interpreting them differently from the average participant.
The Eleusinian Mysteries were held for about 2000 years. Many of the leading figures of Classical civilization were initiates, including Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Cicero, and many Roman emperors. Slaves and women were also allowed to participate. No one publicly discussed the rituals in any detail nor explored various interpretations of their meaning. No theology arose over them despite their probably being the longest practiced formal ritual in EuroPagan history. Their truth, a truth that powerfully attracted people for almost two millennia, was experiential and personal.
As with Paganism in general, the core of most NeoPagan religion is not grasped through dogma or theology. NeoPagans seek to connect with the more-than-human as it manifests in and through our world. To pick Wicca, the tradition I know best, the cycles of life to death and rebirth; the equivalent cycles of the seasons honored during the Wheel of the Year; the same cycle as manifested in the phases of the moon; and the basic sexual duality that dominates human existence; are the frameworks by which most Wiccans seek to participate in and honor the sacred. We do this through ritual, not reading or listening to sermons and talks about the Wheel or the Goddess.
These Wiccan themes are not universal. The Wiccan Wheel does not fit an arctic or tropic environment very well. Today the borders of what were once considered well defined sexual distinctions have become less so. But Wiccans have never claimed to provide the only way to honor the Sacred.
The other major stream within modern NeoPaganism consists of reconstructionist efforts to revive pre-monotheistic traditions driven into extinction or nearly so. Here scholarship plays a stronger role, but I suspect the truth of these efforts is not in reading good papers but in experiencing powerful rituals.
Within these generous limits NeoPagan practice flourishes in many directions, and each tradition is usually respected as valid by others within the broad NeoPagan umbrella.
Of course Pagan traditions have myths and myths can be written down, but mythology is not the same as theology. Myths often contradict themselves. This does not become a major problem because what they address ultimately cannot be put into words. They are more like poetry than prose.
Theology vs. practice
Today this primordial Pagan sensibility is being unintentionally challenged. Recently many of us have encountered Pagans claiming Wicca is “not polytheistic, it is duotheistic.” Some even argue a “true polytheist” can not recognize the reality of any divine unity of any sort. Some non-Wiccan Pagans have described how they were told Wicca is the authoritative Pagan voice for our time, and non-Wiccan traditions are inferior. When I encounter such views my first thought is “Where on earth did they pick this up?”
When these and other ideas are confined to personal interpretations of people’s Pagan practices they do not cause any problems. Pagans have always had personal interpretations of their religious and spiritual experiences. My first Gardnerian coven consisted of people who worked amicably together with markedly different ways of interpreting what we did. Some considered Gardnerian Wicca as Celtic. Others saw it as ultimately Classical. Some interpreted our deities as Jungian archetypes. Others treated them as independent entities. Some of us were interested in other religious traditions such as Santeria or Buddhism, others were not. Some of us had long experience in ceremonial magick, others had none. We almost never discussed theology, and when we did it was from curiosity about others’ views rather than an effort to “get it right” or correct the others’ errors. When conflicts arose among us they generally involved clashing personalities or styles, not matters of doctrine and belief.
Today among some Pagans something new is happening. Other traditions and other Pagan practices are being criticized from the outside. When this happens we find ourselves in the same swamp of feuding theologies that has been such an intractable problem for monotheists.
I think this development arises from importing transcendental monotheistic thinking into a immanent polytheistic context. Our culture encourages such styles of thinking. The problem is made worse when Pagans learn the basics of their religion through books or online because this reinforces cultural assumptions that on matters of religion, wisdom comes from the printed word.
We have grown up in a society where people usually regarded themselves as fundamentally separated from the sacred. In the Christian West the world was fallen and often seen as dominated by malign powers. Deception was everywhere and only certain texts could be trusted. Occasionally, we were taught, inspired prophets would write down their teachings, or Jesus arrived and his words were preserved. Our only access to spiritual truth was in reading and understanding these words of others.
While written teachings have their strengths, they tend to teach two destructive lessons. First, we can never rely on our personal experience if they do not confirm what the texts, say. Second, only some interpretations of the texts are correct.
The more we accept this framework the more hypnotized we became by the text and its claim to be a superior form of knowledge. We become blind to what the text does not say or what interpretations we regard as ‘authoritative’ ignore. Our expectations become blinders. Worse still, since all texts require interpretation, when we regard the interpretation we accept as correct we raise our judgment and will to equality with what we think is divine will. The results have been and continue to be horrible.
Fortunately we Pagans have no texts claiming to be sacred in the way the monotheists do, but we are still biased towards taking texts and the style of thinking they encourage very seriously. They get between us and our spiritual experience. As Joseph Campbell observed, such an approach is 'like diners going into a restaurant and eating the menu.”
They also encourage us to judge others’ religious practices and beliefs by the texts and interpretations we take as authoritative. Everyone should go to our restaurant and eat its menu.
The problem is inherent in the medium. The solution is not to stop reading, but to be aware of how the media fits monotheism far better than it fits Pagan religion, and so be forewarned about problems inherent in it. The best book is nothing more than a training wheel on a bicycle, and you are nowhere much until you have freed yourself from dependence on it because you have learned to ride.
“But diZerega, you write all the time.”
I am not criticizing book learning, I am criticizing relying it uncritically. I am criticizing those who use their favorite texts to criticize others' practice as insufficiently Wiccan or polytheist or whatever the issue of the day might be. I am criticizing treating it as more than an adjunct to other kinds of learning.
Written texts are vital to the modern world. Modern science in particular depends on publications and interpreting and investigating the meanings of those publications. But science differs from religion in that it requires those texts and papers to be rooted in repeatable explorations of the physical world. The texts are ultimately subordinate to scientists’ experience.
Even then texts can blind scientists for years as to what is in front of them. My favorite example is Eastern Washington’s “scablands,” where the largest floods ever to have happened in North America raced through a mountain valley to flow out onto the Columbia Plateau, carving strange canyons and leaving ripple lines of large boulders. These happened multiple times when a glacial dam that created a lake as large as one of the Great Lakes repeatedly broke, reformed, and broke again. People studied this strange landscape for decades wondering how it came to be, and almost unanimously denied floods had anything to do with it.
One maverick, Harlen Bretz, stood his ground, was ridiculed, and in his 90s finally recognized as having solved the puzzle. Now the evidence that spoke to Bretz is obvious to anyone who looks and knows how he interpreted it.
Modern science assumes the universe is open to human understanding, and seeks to take our understanding as far as it can. Competing interpretations are inevitable because we all bring different perspectives to studying these issues. At least all but one will be flawed. Being people, we often get it wrong, but insofar as we are scientists people can gradually whittle away the most visible errors. Science’s strongest point is its ability to eliminate faulty theories. Our understanding of physical phenomena will likely never be complete, but it gets progressively better. Wise scientists never claim to discover truth, but rather to have increased the reliability of our knowledge.
Religion is different. Religion deals with what is superior to human understanding. The assumption that the world is amenable to understanding by human minds, so basic to science, cannot apply to religion and spirituality and so tools suitable to one may be insufficient for the other. Myth, so central to religious traditions, is never a part of a scientific theory.
There is another problem with relying too much on the printed word, even in science. To pick a mundane example, we can never learn to ride a bicycle by reading about it. Instead we try to ride it, tip over, fall off, get back on, and eventually “get the hang of it.” In fact, keeping the formulas for balancing while riding in mind gets in the way. of learning. Better to try, tip over, fall off, and try again.
The same is true in doing science rather than reading about it. One becomes a scientist by working with other scientists, gradually learning how to use the instruments of the field, and getting a sense of how the field fits together.
This same insight holds for religions emphasizing spiritual immanence and personal contact with the Sacred, only much more so.
Texts separate us from the world. We focus on the words and what they reveal to our understanding and imagination. They interpose themselves between us and experience. This makes sense when the world is regarded as deceptive, fallen, or secondary to transcendental truths revealed by inspired writers. But when the world is regarded as a direct manifestation of the sacred it does not.
And so we encounter the silliness of long discussions about supposed Wiccan “duotheism” as opposed to polytheism, carried out mostly by non-Wiccans. Or arguments about what is "real" polytheism, carried out by people who put their experience above everyone else’s and assume their grasp of logic is equal to the task of grasping the super human. Or of Wiccans who treat other NeoPagan traditions as inferior or in extreme cases treat their Book of Shadows as divinely inspired instructions true for all time. All these attitudes arise from applying transcendental monotheistic approaches to religions that emphasize neither transcendence nor monotheism. The problem is made worse by Pagans learning their Paganism from books and the net, and so I think it needs explicit addressing.
What might the spiritual world be like if we put practice and experience ahead of dogma and logic? My next post will explore this.