I’ve been pretty quiet lately for two reasons. The first, because undiagnosed chronic pain issues suck and make it hard to focus on anything else. The second, because in following a lot of stuff that’s been flying around, I’ve found myself forced to think hard about my place in the Polytheist community, what it is, and what I want it to be. As part of that, I’ve been thinking back on how I got to where I am now and I feel it may be useful to share that story with others now.
I was raised Christian, Episcopalian, by a mother who both encouraged the idea of Mysticism as a method of better growing to know YHVH and Jesus, and who also felt that knowledge of other religions, ancient mythologies and native traditions (especially of the Iroquoi of which a great grandmother was a member) was important both to my well rounding as a Christian and as a human being. Ironically it was her teaching teaching me mythology, including Norse, with the thinking of “These are old stories that people believed until Jesus gave us something better” and her opening the door to Mysticism for me that allowed me to hold a personal conversation over several years with YHVH and ultimately decide that He was not a being I wished anything further to do with for myself. It also meant I would never be able to deny His existence.
This left me in a precarious position and for several years a very dark one. I had, and still do have, a very strong view of what is needed for a world I can feel proud of living in and YHVH’s very firm “My way or no way” attitude conflicted with that. I can see no way in which a true connection between mortal and any God can be built, so long as either party sets harsh penalties for walking away. Same for mortal relationships.
So I spent a few painful years hating on YHVH and figuring for myself that I was better off without any God in my life. Then I found Wicca and Neo Paganism, particularly Scott Cunningham’s works and Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon. Those were a great source of comfort to me. There I learned a great deal, including the beginnings of ideas surrounding magic, mysticism and most importantly a reminder that the ways I had left behind were only one of many paths I may choose to walk. There were however several ideas I learned from there that at the time I particularly latched on to but later discarded. One that comes to mind now is Scott Cunningham’s notion that “Belief is for the uninformed”. At the time, I was frustrated with the ideas on faith that were presented to me in the Church where Mysticism was rejected (much to my mother’s continual frustration) and felt that through my mysticism and the development of my own ways to perceive YHVH, I found it was possible to empirically know he existed. Today my sense of that has changed, in that recognizing I will never be able to prove even to myself the difference between actually perceiving a Deity and merely deluding myself out of a desire to do so, I have found that faith and belief will never cease to be important concepts to my practice no matter how skilled of a mystic I may become. I will always need to choose when to believe in my own perceptions and when not to and it will always be a struggle to do so.
A second concept I latched on to at the time, and one that is more painful to hear for many Polytheists, is the rejection of interacting with Deity in a worshipful manner. Though looking back, my mother had tried quietly to fight the notion, the impression I always received from Church teachings (and here I would like to inject that I now make a distinction between Church teachings, and the teachings of Jesus Christ which form actual Christianity), was that worship was done out of obligation because it was expected, demanded, and you would go to hell if you did not. Worship was an expression of our un-worth before God, a plea for forgiveness not only of actual wrongs committed, but simply because we should apologize for being miserable sinful wretches. All this as I now feel in light of research and reflection done since then, in conflict with the message Jesus was trying to teach them in the first place… but I digress.
Wicca and Neo-Paganism gave me the idea of working with Diety, rather than merely under. This rekindled the fire in me that I had let smoulder to mere coals, and allowed me to reconsider the idea of religious practice as a positive force in my life again. Eventually, with some help from the Old Man, I was able to learn that something else was possible: joyful worship AND a business like partnership, in the same relationship.
The last idea that I no longer keep from that time that I once held, is that different Gods, Goddesses and whatever is best to refer to Baphomet and Nidhogg (probably just Baphomet and Nidhogg) and those like Them, were all different faces of the same whole. Different revelations of one Being to different peoples. This was not at all a new idea to me, as as a child the idea that the Great Spirit my great grandmother venerated was the same as YHVH was an easy connection to make and the idea of such a connection between peoples was a comfort to me. It also solved another spiritual conundrum for the moment that I didn’t like, the one of “other people are wrong because they don’t worship the True God”. It was simply easier to see it as “Yes they do, they just don’t see Him the way we do, that’s all,” as a means to satisfy both my need to accept those I was raised with, and other people I had no wish to reject.
That was how it started, but I quickly noticed as I began to attempt interaction with the Wiccan Goddess and God that it was more distinct beings I was brushing against. The same was true for others (at the time other teens my own age) I was working with at the time, they reached for the Goddess and got just the Morrigan or Ishtar. They’d reach for the God and get Kernunous or Apollo. There was no fuss over “but it says in the book that they’re all one” or anything of the sort, we just sort of fell into the understanding of each of these beings as distinct and separate and accepted it as natural, and never really felt we were in conflict with those who saw all of Them as one. Nor did we ever feel discouraged from this view by anyone older and more experienced in the Neo-Pagan community we interacted with.
I myself reached for the Goddess and got… someone who wouldn’t name Herself. Eventually I settled on a few names for Her based on my sense of Her (including the sense that Whom I was interacting with was Female). The Lady of Mists, Lady of Mysteries, and the Lady Who Lives in Moonlight being those that I can still recall. This Being during the time in which we interacted led me along in several very subtle ways, drawing my attention to different people and things in a process through which I made a great deal of progress opening myself up to the world around me and reversing the closed rejecting nature I had built for myself when I bitterly left the Church.
It was during this time that I was struggling with something that it was frequently suggested I ought to learn based on my odd knack for occasionally being uncannily good at guessing games: Divination. I tried Tarot at first, but nothing through that clicked. Then someone suggested I try working with Runes. Those spoke to me, not always in a manner useful for divination, but there was something about sitting down and making a set or three (I made enough that random friends have had to remind me that their runes are of my creation), and while making each rune tile studying what the meaning behind that symbol was, again and again. That got me thinking more and more on the one who first found the Runes, Odin. His wanderlust and more so His constant struggle to guide events away from Ragnarok echoed several of my own tendencies and desires. Those and several other similarities to my own life and being began to strike a chord with me, and I began to think of Him more often.
I didn’t reach out to Him immediately, there was an awkwardness there of where to begin. Things continued to build along that path over several years, most notably at one point when I was in a very dark place and an abusive relationship when I wandered into a small copse of woods behind the apartment I was then living in. It was daylight when I set out and by most of my recollection, the next moment when I fully felt in control of myself again it was dark, my hands were raw with several of the finger tips worn smooth from the work I had been doing, and I held in my hands a small oak staff covered in rune symbols and other designs. I’ve since lost that staff and begun a new one (with new purpose, as my health has recently taken a turn that has made a cane necessary to minimize pain while moving about), but for several years that staff, Garnak I called him, was my near constant companion and comfort. By my remembrance, that was the first time the Old Man laid a hand on me in such an overt fashion. It was also the point at which the earlier female Being that I mentioned ceased contact, as if Her role was to lead me to the Old Man all along.
There were a number of other events and paths that looking back, seemed to be necessary to build my understanding of Him and provide me with the resources I would need to follow His path. The first, came from an interest in Dominant/submissive relationships that at first was purely sexual but developed into a philosophical pursuit, and then a spiritual one. For a time I even experimented with a relationship as a submissive to a much older gentlemen which was barely sexual and much more that of a Master and servant and at times as a Master and apprentice. This later provided me with a framework to approach Odin and allowed me to not feel as though submission before another was the same as the teachings that had left such a poor impression from my time with the Church.
It was through forums for discussing M/s relationships that I first heard of Raven Kaldera, who’s name led me to other authors and ideas, and my first real awareness of another form of Paganism. One where the Gods were thought of exclusively as individuals, where the ideas of submission before and worship of the Gods was being revitalized in a positive light and there was not the over stress on magical practice which I had begun to feel was a bit much (I still include magic as part of my spiritual practice, I just feel as though during my time in more Neo-Pagan/Wiccan circles it received a bit too much focus). Up till this point… around… 2007? I was unable to find any mention of such a movement. The easily accessible books on modern movements in various book stores did not (and for the most, still do not) include much on the topic. I had heard of Asatru and was somewhat curious, but after learning of the racist tendencies of several of the largest organizations and seeing that same sensibility reflected in local unaffiliated groups I had despaired of ever meeting someone positive within a similar practice. It was only through this chance mention of Raven Kaldera on a forum about a seemingly unrelated topic that I was ever introduced to this world at all.
From this point I was able locate other texts and writings, including Galina Krasskova’s books on Odin, and other texts that promoted the building of more personal relationships with Gods through devotional practice. Then (2008 or ’09 now) was when I finally first felt able to reach out to Odin, and He came crashing down like… well, like Odin. It’s what He does. Quite a few things helped during that time, including a visit to a shaman who was a priestess of Odin that happened to be passing through nearby where I lived when I made contact (another point when I had to ask the obvious “how much of this has He rigged?”) and a number of other books and particular articles that I read at the time that gave me new ways of thinking about what my religious practice could look like.
Several were articles written by Raven Kaldera that provided me with a feast for thought and a number of ideas that at the time seemed worth aspiring to, but I wasn’t sure if I could bring myself to do so. One was about why a relative of his was not a Pagan and spoke to many of my concerns that are still relevant today about the poor state of community relationships within any Pagan tradition. Another was on the idea of Sacred Kingship, which provided me with several ideas to consider for my own personal conduct.
The last article I kept coming back to, I would like to invite everyone to pause, read, and then come back to this. It’s one that I’ve struggled with for a long time, and still struggle with. Raven Kaldera’s article On Being A Neo-Pagan Fundamentalist, which to the best of my knowledge is a phrase of his own coining and definition which the linked article can be taken as the original source of. The entire article deserves a thorough read through, but knowing that not all will wish to take the time let me just highlight the last and most difficult point that Raven makes in it.
5. A Pagan fundamentalist is rabidly tolerant, on principle. By that I mean that we do not criticize people for their religious choices, or criticize other religions for the acts of some of their followers. That means no indulging in that fave Wiccan hobby, Christian-bashing. Nope, none of that. Yes, there are obnoxious and vicious people in the world. But a Pagan fundamentalist knows three things about other people’s religious choices, and s/he knows them down to the bone. They are:
A) All people have lessons to learn in this lifetime that are specific to them. You cannot tell anyone else what their lessons are, or where they are supposed to be right now in their lives. They might even be needing to learn lessons about things like intolerance and hate, and perhaps they can only properly do that, for whatever reason, by experiencing it from the inside for however long it takes for them to get the lesson. In fact, a strong call to a particular faith – even a destructive faith – is a good bet that there’s a lesson to be learned there for that person. They may move on after they’ve learned it, they may stay and try to teach others, but it’s their life and their lesson. You can’t decide for them that this current spiritual choice is not where they’re supposed to be right now, this moment.
B) If someone is actually being drawn to a particular faith for reasons of learning a lesson, you attempting to tell them that they shouldn’t be there is guaranteed to fail. In fact, it may even drive them closer, as the karmic pull of the lesson increases in response to outside interference. (If you actually want to do something useful, don’t berate them or denigrate their choices. Call up the Lords of Karma (or some equivalent) and make an offering that they might hurry up these folks’ karmic lessonings. It might, at least, make them take their minds off of you.) When faced with intolerance, the best reaction is to remember that this is, for them, a phase that is necessary for some reason. Imagine if the Universe decided to inflict that lesson on you, close up, and created the conditions to make you into someone who would be fearful enough to embrace it. Imagine the conditions that would do that to you. Maybe it will give you a little compassion.
C) You are a Pagan – and indeed a Pagan fundamentalist – for the same reasons that they are where they are. The only way to teach anyone anything about spirituality that is going to stick is to be a model of behavior, not a ranting pedant. Be good in your own path … because your own path is not for everyone, or even most people. It’s for the people who are supposed to be on it, and who they are and aren’t is not for you to say. Be a model for those who are sent by the Gods to see you, and don’t worry about the rest of them.
This last statement has been gnawing at me since I first read it half a decade ago. I can see the benefit, both to myself and to others, of being rabidly tolerant, but can I do it? In those years I have become more tolerant of many people and things. My family, Christianity, Pagan and Wiccan groups that I had at one point grown to think of as frivolous and roll my eyes at, etc. etc. But still, it is something that requires continued effort and self examination.
At that time (still back in ’09) there were two blogs that were still active. The first was the original Gods’ Mouths and the second was a blog titled Blood for the Divine that dealt with ordeal work. Ordeal work being highly controversial in nature, though not really new as a number of modern authors (Galina Krasskova and Raven Kaldera most notably that I can think of) have already written extensively on and have demonstrated how the practice of enduring pain or various forms of self denial (fasting, sensory deprivation, etc.) has been used by spiritualists of a number of stripes and cultures throughout history both as a means to strengthen a connection to the Divine and as a method of spiritual offering. Much of the controversy also revolves around the perceived connection ordeal work to secular kink activities conducted purely for physical gratification. As I learned through Blood for the Divine though, tools and techniques borrowed from the BDSM community were merely additional tools being incorporated into the trade (and as the Old Man loves to teach me: everything is potentially a tool, and tools are meant to be used). Many ordeal rituals do not involve even the slightest connection to any form of kink.
During this period I read many articles and first hand accounts about ordeal work that inspired through what was a very trying time when I wasn’t sure if my life would ever be on a positive path. There were two common threads in them that inspired me: the first, about enduring adversity through ritual so that one could learn of personal strength previously denied. The second being that of rituals conducted to address personal short comings, hard trials of staring in the mirror at the worst unneeded parts of the self and ultimately attempting to remove some of what holds us back.
One of these accounts provided me with something to think on and a difficult challenge to meet for years after. That was an account by Galina of an ordeal she underwent for Hela. Most particularly, this part:
She drew forth my contempt, plucking at its roots. She took my blood, forcing me to take blood oath in the river Hvergelmir that I would break it down and give it up. That was my sacrifice to Her. I who am not ever fully of Midgard, must learn to connect and build threads there and contempt causes whatever roots I lay to wither away like dust. She forbade it. Then She laid a challenge on me that caused my stomach to roil and every fiber of my being to protest: I was charged with finding three people that I held in great contempt (rightly or wrongly it does not matter) and apologizing to them. Contempt in Her eyes damaged me. It was not about the other person. They might in fact deserve lawfully every ounce of contempt I could muster. I was still not allowed this indulgence. It destroyed my own worth and by doing so, made me unfit for Odin’s service. It poisoned my soul. It must go.
As of this writing, I have already taken care of this. I did so almost immediately after the ordeal, calling one person and contacting the others by email. My words were mocked and misunderstood but that matters not. It only matters that I did as Hela bade and gave what was not mine to hold, back to its rightful owners. I returned contempt to its source allowing it to run out of my heart like water through a sieve. It was wrenching. I was required to choose those people that I least wanted to contact, those people who had slandered, harmed, attacked, and libeled me for over a year causing me no end of trouble. I was required to choose people who had attacked my relationship with my Gods, especially Odin, my value, my sanity, my worth, and my right to call myself Heathen. I was required to contact those who had forced me out of what was then my tribe. I only realized afterwards that this was Hela’s blessing: in apologizing, I freed myself.
This concept, of contempt as something that does more harm to the one holding it than to those it is directed at, troubled me greatly. Contempt was something I constantly held quietly inside myself without giving voice to it at this point in my life. Earlier, I had voiced it somewhat frequently and had chosen to restrain from doing so as much as I could bring myself to only for the selfish reason that voicing my feelings of contempt caused more bother than I felt like dealing with. I held quite a deal of contempt for my family, for my previous religion, even for my employers and close neighbors. Gradually, I grew to notice how this colored my thinking and closed me off from perceiving the value of others. Few knew of this contempt and more often I noticed it was contempt for a group rather than an individual (with the exception of close family members) so the process for myself involved learning to make in roads and connections, and learning to see that I was far more welcome and accepted than I previously perceived myself to be.
There is much more I could write on, but for now I’ve chosen these parts of my history to share as they have some relevance to much of the present dialog in the community. After I’ve let this sit for a bit I’ll be sharing another post, about where my path has led me today.