Like a tree that displays evidence of something it grew against in long ago seasons, I hang around in the world assuming that it’s obvious which forces shaped my current condition. However, like such a tree, the forces that shape me may have long ago left their influence (although their impact remains) or their continual shaping is evident only to myself. And so people wander by and wonder, “what strange forces convinced a tree to grow this way?” and I might explain (if such conversations hadn’t long since grown tedious) that it’s not really so inscrutable at all, merely a rather painful medical condition (or whatever).
But of course there is one influence that I forget isn’t obvious, that I just assume is known, that is so intensely evident to me, and so I grow like those lovely friends in the Forest of Crooked Trees in Poland and centuries later people are still wandering by wondering what on earth I’m up to.
There exists a small but Sisyphean project that someone will take a stab at every few years. It’s pretty clear that there’s a desire for a book on the subject of god-marriage, and so very naturally someone will feel motivated to write it. (For all I know someone has already done so long ago, and good for them!) These projects seem to start very naturally in a similar way, with an introduction to the subject alongside a bit of the author’s personal journey to the subject matter, and then a good long bit that’s a historical and global overview of examples of relationships and relational configurations that more or less resemble the current understanding; this is where the bulk of the research time is spent. (This is also where, perhaps, the greatest service to the p-word community(s) at large has been done since the knowledge base of these relationships and relational configurations has only grown over the past ~18 years.)
But then there’s a stalling out point, because a book about god-marriage as it appears in polytheism and paganism today can’t just be about relationships in the past or about relationships that aren’t in traditions that can be safely placed within these categorical boundaries. Sometimes authors will put out a call for interviews to round out the topical material, but then have to struggle with various representational balances. Sometimes authors will ask for submitted material from relevant contributors, but again the issue of representational balance comes up – whose voices are speaking, what perspectives are being discussed, what arenas of polytheism are covered and which aren’t, etc. etc. etc. There’s a lot to consider when planning an anthology, and many ways an editor of an anthology can fail to meet their personal or publication goals, especially when they’re hoping to provide a sympathetic and nuanced look at a subject matter that is close to their heart.
Most of the book projects of this nature I’ve been aware of have faded before they reached print stage – not for lack of trying or even lack of enthusiasm or focus, but because putting a book together is hard and pretty thankless work. Even if people dearly want to read about a subject, sometimes getting information together in one place is more difficult than it seems at first. And none of the very predictable difficulties I’ve mentioned above – and these are all difficulties I’ve really seen occur in all kinds of book projects – none of these address some of the deeper difficulties dogging the compilation of a book on god-marriage specifically.
As in certain other subjects of human inquiry, there is a hole at the center of god-marriage that we don’t look at. Often we can’t even see it, but a lot of us know it’s there even if we don’t exactly know what it is. And it’s this hole and it’s subsequent unnameable, unaskable questions that make these book projects so much more complicated than it seems like they should be.
What is marriage for? What is marriage such that They use that term? Why do They ask for marriage? What are the consequences of this relationship? What proceeds from it? Why does this configuration endure across time, space, and culture? How are parties altered from involvement in this relationship? What do They get from it? Why do They want it so much?
A while back I presented a conference session on god- and spirit-marriage that went into these questions to some degree, because I’ve always been the asshole that asks, “so what next?” And because it was a session with pretty basic information, I talked first about what marriage is from a cultural and instrumental perspective (between human agents) and went from there. But of course, Part II is going to chuck all that out the window, because being a god-spouse seems to have zero instrumental point (at least from the standpoint of human cultural concerns), and indeed that’s part of what makes it kind of threatening and contrarian in the first place.
(A not-entirely-unrelated-side-note: the term “god-marriage” refers to the relationship, the multiple parties involved, the state. “God-spouse” is the human individual. “God-spousery” etc as a term doesn’t really work for me because it’s giving primacy to the human agent at the expense of the relational state – it’s giving the human the linguistic priority over the relationship that includes the deity, the relational fact, and all the rest. It’s the same reason why some people resist the term “horsing” and use “was ridden” instead. Anyway.)
Acknowledging the hole at the center of this subject might be the first step to solving the riddle – but it’s not. I’ve been staring at this hole for years – decades – and nothing emerges from it. I’ve been talking to people about this hole for years – decades – and we all just shrug and go back to staring at it. And turns out that we’ve all been doing this for all of recorded religious history, so there’s not a flaw in our current polytheist thought; this is a feature, not a bug.
Once the knowledge that can be gleaned from research is imparted, that’s really when the book projects end. That’s because we collectively reach the end of common knowledge, the point where we are able to share a degree of information. After that, knowledge becomes extremely specific, so granular that providing the kind of generalizations that might benefit a reader is an optimistic ambition. Which, again, no doubt someone has already done so, but I can guarantee that certain readers have finished the book and felt like their actual inquiries weren’t satisfied. They wanted answers to questions that they didn’t know entirely how to ask, and if they did manage to ask them those questions didn’t actually make any kind of sense. They were nonsense questions from an upside-down world, and in asking the questions went from deep yearning to artificial sentiment. I know they did because I’ve asked those questions, and those questions transformed as they were spoken and I wondered if I was so simplistic inside as I sounded outside, and if I was really confused, misguided, delusional – just like everyone said.
I was misguided in thinking that a book was going to provide the guidance I craved. I had to learn the paganism of body and bone, to hear my gods as a ringing in the blood, to trust these things, and to find them fulfilling in the absence of any culture- or lore-bound purpose (I’m still not so good at this last).
I suppose this might all sound a bit like I’m predicting failure of future efforts based on past observations, that I’m imaging my personal experiences are anything on which to base expectations for others’ endeavors. And although I can sometimes be a rotten grump with a bad attitude, I hope that I have not seen so very much of the world that I can only predict doom unending for everything ever. No, I actually like it when people have successful projects because projects fun and cool, and because people doing stuff is fun and cool. I like it when people are enthusiastic about stuff, because then we can geek out together. It’s just with this very specific project, the grail of the god-marriage book, it seems that we never seem to be able to write it (even though I’m sure someone already has) and any time the subject is written about it never seems to really satisfy the people who are most actively interested in the subject. I think this is because there is a hole at the center of this matter containing questions that different devotional practitioners have been able to ask but not necessarily answer except on a hyper-local level – to themselves at most, or very maybe in the context of a verbose tradition.
And so those of us who are in these relational configurations are going to keep finding ourselves with these questions and are thus going to want answers without really being able to get those answers. Being book-taught pagans, we’ll naturally look for a book; failing that, we’ll write the damn book ourselves. But because the actual answers we want don’t exist the book we attempt to write (and maybe I’ve made my own attempt at short-form work!) doesn’t actually contain the meaningful information we’re craving, and so, unsatisfied, we toss everything over a cliff, change our names, become card sharks, and roam the great prairies of the central country winning more hands than we lose and giving away any extra money in charity to stay one step ahead of the local law enforcement all while keeping the spirits sweet with gas station pastries. We have very nice shoes and dream of the day when we can return home to Danielle and her special chili.
We never do write some of these books we work on; I suppose the point is trying, or maybe the point is thinking deeply about the matter we’re writing about. Some of us build temples to our gods out of the drafts of unfinished manuscripts, and somewhere in that is glory beautiful. Oh Beloved of my outsized ambition – all my folly and hubris are yours, my attempts, my failures, my aspirations.