It’s happening! We’re less than a month away from Between the Veils in San Jose, CA. I’m looking forward to being part of this in-person conference. I’ve attended the virtual con and I’m honored to be part of such a fine lineup of presenters. It will be nice to see people, socialize, and hear their stories again; that’s the part of in-person events that I’ve missed. Maybe I’ll see you there? Check out betweentheveils.org for more information, including conference rate hotel registration through 7/20/22.
Marrying a deity isn’t inherently religious, some people will say. Atmosphere incense-drenched, heaving sea wedged deep in their heart, kettle-grove boiling, wind-stolen words, the numinous chewing their heels, breath charged with shared awareness – no, none of it religious.
What then, I ask, is it?
God-spouses and those that love to watch us are not, by and large, religious studies scholars, and so it’s disingenuous of me to demand a certain degree of fluency with the subject matter. For most people, “being religious” is defined as behavior. You put up an altar, you make some promises, maybe you self-publish a book; there – religious activity. You behave in a religious manner, you are therefore religious. You exist in a religious paradigm. If you do none of these things, you do not exist in a religious paradigm and thus you are not religious. Therefore, someone could be married to a deity and not religious.
That’s fair. That’s fine. You get to self-describe.
Religiosity is more than behavior. Marrying a deity is more than behavior. A relationship involves changing self-conception, shifting positionality relative to other active agents in your life (embodied or not); maybe it only involves a sense of “what do I do now?” even if no additional action is taken regarding this question.
Is any such hypothetical relationship non-religious? Is someone who makes such a statement of non-religiosity removing themselves (and their relationship(s)) from any paradigm that assumes numinous infusion in any corner of creation? Are they at any point rejecting ecstasy, stating that never once have they been carried away by love? Are they even rejecting the possibility of ecstatic affection, even the desire thereof?
Not being religious, does such a person desire nothing from their God?
I think this is where the root of my question comes. Sometimes I’ll pass this question (let’s be honest, usually on T*mblr) and I’ll just pause and wonder – no ecstasy? no desire for presence? no desire for acknowledgement? Because it seems like a rejection, or at least a negation, of religion is a rejection/negation of religious sentiments…such as ecstasy, a desire for sacred presence, and so forth. Can religious sentiments exist in a context that is explicitly non-religious? What do these sentiments become if they are not-religious?
[And see – I know people are going to say, “Um duh people can have so-called religious sentiments and still self-describe as non-religious, don’t tell people they can’t do that Silence,” and I’ll have to say, “This is an elementary conclusion, and you’re missing my point. My point isn’t to tell people what they can or can’t do (it never is); my point is questioning the out-and-out rejection of religiosity in the first place, especially if religious alignment vis a vis sentiment is such a commonplace part of pagan religious identity-building in the first place.” And then the hypothetical person in my head might say, “but you already told us that we shouldn’t have to be religious scholars to keep up with this line of thinking,” and I’ll have to say, “I know I said that but I’ve edited this about 10 times already and I’m tired, but I don’t want to give up on it.” And the people I imagine talking to will then say, “Your constant hesitation in work is why nothing is ever produced,” to which I’ll have to agree but reluctantly persist in an increasingly shitty blog entry.]
All the same, I have to acknowledge – I don’t know the nature of other people’s relationships. I don’t know what they’re up to, what caused them to agree to marriage, to choose one form of relationship over another; I don’t know any of that. All I know is that, for me, ecstasy is inherent. Not joy, not happiness; real, deep, life-changing, soul-busting, standing-outside-the-self, *religious* ecstasy.
I understand Mahadevi Akka’s scorn of mortal husbands.
As usual, I imagine that there’s not any actual disagreement between me and anyone who might be talking about the subject in this way (as usual, it’s never a single voice, merely a tendency observed over time – again, generally on T*mblr, where ideas are not always at their freshest). I suspect it’s a matter of semantics exaggerated by text and not by actual ideology; I suspect we all want the same things, which is for people to have happy, healthy relationships with the disembodied partners they’ve found. I think we’re probably all supportive of different ways of having relationships, ecstatic or not. For me, the experience of religious sentiments is part of what makes something (in this case a relationship) religious; however, we’re back to the circular question of what is religion, and what is religious, and what sentiments in particular are religious. Others no doubt feel differently about their relationships and so will self-describe accordingly.
As in all things, I have to own up to my personal background – my life has been saturated by the complexities of spirituality, both the study and the experience but I’m not any kind of formal -ologist. I rather wish I could be, but I’m not. Instead, I’m fundamentally cracked, broken, and so I understand the poems begging for the return of a bangle, asking for even rough handling, proclaiming the loss of shame.
Maybe it’s better to not be religious, after all.
I don’t know why I thought reprinting Worshiping Loki would be simple when getting it printed in the first place was weirdly complicated. To be clear, the problems I’m encountering both times are not major obstacles or unsolvable problems, just little quirks that are entirely familiar to anyone who has tried to produce any kind of book-related project as well as just a little extra spice I can only attribute to, well, you know.
I won’t go into the nature of these problems because they’re both technical in nature and extremely dull (and also whyyyy – whyyyy do I have to deal with this?? this is supposed to be such an easy project whine whine whine). Really the only thing anyone here cares about is when I’m likely to solve it and get the thing to print. Well. As usual some of this depends on other people. I’ve already had to deal with some time-wasters on this project (both the reprint and the initial run, which is directly connected to why I’m struggling now), and I’m tired of waiting around for other people to decide if they’re going to waste my time and, if so, how much.
Thankfully, the book is ready to go to print as soon as a particular issue is addressed. The money is budgeted and turn-around at the printer shouldn’t take more than a week (although I hate to even estimate that, too). I’m in the process of solving the problems currently facing the reprint as best I can, at pace.
Anyway, you can be sure I’ll keep you updated.
I’m happy to announce that I’ll be attending Between the Veils: the Gathering Paths as a presenter in February 2022. I’ll be presenting a session called Stones that Live and Breathe, which I hope is as exciting to your iconophilic hearts as it is mine.
I’ve missed you. Really. Come see me and say hi – or come see some of the other presenters. There’ll be good ones. You can learn more about the event at BetweentheVeils.org, or on any of their social media accounts – https://www.facebook.com/betweentheveilscon – https://www.instagram.com/betweentheveilscon or https://twitter.com/gatheringpaths
AND THERE’S MORE
I’m finally reprinting Worshiping Loki. Yes, the little booklet that people have been asking for has not been forgotten. It’s at the printer’s now, I’m hoping it will be ready for pick-up in a couple days. I’ll make a post here when it’s actually in hand and available in the Etsy shop. That’s the best way to get it but if for some reason that’s not an option for you, I can make other arrangements.
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.
One of the most necessary – and most interesting – developments in the large, expanding, and evolving experiential ecosystems that are lives lived with the Powers concerns the matter of consent. When my polytheist life began getting weird in a way that I didn’t understand, my grasp on such issues was at turns flawed, incomplete, and immature. I had the basic understanding that “yes means yes and no means no” but past that I was actually pretty unsophisticated, not to mention naive. While my specific personal upbringing and influences are to blame for some of it, some of it was the pervasive culture at the time; the mid-90s was not a spectacular time for a young adult to absorb healthy, nuanced lessons on this topic (or any number of others). And as in so many other things, one has to practice good consent over and over again before one gets any good – not to mention having any number of negative experiences to learn where those boundaries actually lie.
But this post isn’t exactly about the boundaries of consent with people, although it’s difficult to separate the topic of consent boundaries with people from consent boundaries with Powers, because we (as worshipers, devotees, beloved and besot) actively try – and expect! – the consent boundaries we exercise with people to work the same as with the Powers.
“And isn’t this reasonable?” a voice in my head asks. “Shouldn’t we ask this of our nearest, of our most trusted?”
And yes, I suppose we should.
I suppose it is entirely reasonable that we should want Them to agree, ask Them to agree to cease acting if our consent is revoked, if our enthusiasm falters, if our yes begins to fall silent. It is of course entirely reasonable that we, as human agents, ask Them to abide by a set of rules that prioritizes safety and helps promote hospitable conduct.
“And yet…” that voice whispers. (You see, I have these mock debates in my head. I imagine a lot of you do, too.)
Why, I wonder, is the human agent the one to set the terms? If, indeed, we are attempting to question a paradigm that presupposes any kind of role imbalance, why is it the human agent that automatically gets to set the terms of relating? Because, I reason, we bear the greater share of risk. Ah, so if human agents bear the greater share of risk, does this undermine our attempts to oust the paradigm of role imbalance? Furthermore, are we ignoring the matter of what risks the Powers take simply because those risks are unknown to us? Are those risks irrelevant simply because they are unknown?
“Well,” the voice says, “if the Powers wanted us to know what risks They take, They have to tell us. Communication is key to consent!”
Alright, I answer back to myself, what are the Powers consenting to? Consent must flow in all directions.
Certainly the Powers agree to tolerate so much by entering into relationships with any one of us – but of course, They do so willingly, out of desire for the fact of relationship. Our quirks are precious and sweet to Them, even as They gently guide us through towards little changes that help us improve our lives.
I think the Powers must agree to be blamed for many of our sorrows and problems, for the harsh treatment the world dishes out to all of us in turn. I think they must agree to be ignored, misunderstood, argued with, second-guessed, and outright misrepresented in any number of small and large ways. They also agree to persist, to continue to serve us as protectors and guides, bound by some unnamable principle that brings Them back again and again.
I don’t know why They come back. I don’t know why They stay, even after we leave.
I’ve been challenged somewhat, and very rightly so, on the finer points of consent in divine relationships. And the thing is, I completely agree with what others say on the topic. There should be consent – NEEDS to be consent – in these relationships. And while I realize that consent is a flowing current of negotiation, not a static line, having a fundamentally clear understanding of what we’re being asked to do within the ecosystem of our relationship(s) makes it possible to have the ongoing conversations that make enthusiastic consent possible.
But there are always going to be regions on the map of relationship that can’t be explained with this model. And this is why I always have this mental back and forth with myself. Because I always remember these exceptions, and I know that if there are these exceptions that seem to defy the model, then there must be others. And the thing is, I can’t be arrogant enough to tell the people whose experiences outright defy the current paradigm of relational understanding and context that their experiences are wrong. Their experiences aren’t flawed or bad, and they’re not doing it wrong. In some cases, they’ve done everything they can to fix the situation and the situation remains one that can’t be navigated according to the current accepted rules. Do I abandon these people simply because their experiences don’t seem to make sense based on my view of how things are – or worse, my view on how things SHOULD be?
I can’t do that. I can’t be so arrogant that I assume I’m right about an idea just because I agree with it.
Realistically, I lose nothing by believing someone’s assertion that they have relational experiences that don’t look much like the current ideal of consenting, enthusiastic devotional relationships. Maybe someone is lying, maybe someone is making it all up – maybe not. Either way, it’s impossible to prove. Besides, there are any number of cultural and traditional paradigms that might look questionable or confusing from the outside, but that are reasonable according to their interior logic. People within these living traditions have on-going conversations about the conventions of relational paradigms (and every other aspect of tradition) that outsiders are often completely unaware of. Polytheists who find themselves within any Venn territory of these traditions don’t need commentary from uninvolved outsiders; if an opinion is required, it will be very specifically and directly sought.
But, that voice says again, Shouldn’t we want to hold our Powers to a higher standard? Why should we persist in making the mistakes of the past, or of copying the patterns of interaction that seem to hold true in other traditions?
We should want something better, I agree; but what do we do if we don’t get what we want? Is our only option to walk away from a relationship, even one that is the bedrock of our lives? Are there other ways of navigating situations that do not seem to be explained adequately by conventional understandings of such matters?
At first, we may trust Them because They are gods. We hand our trust over like candy, handfuls at a time, overflowing, can’t get enough, how much can I give, see how much I love you? And when we are inevitably let down, because even gods must fail to live up to that inconceivably tall shining pedestal onto which They’ve been thrust by a passionate worshiper, we revoke our trust. They have failed, we are hurt, we are no longer enthusiastic.
But They persist, and this persistence is another point of critique that has been leveled at my past statements. While no doubt I would say things differently now, I still have to say: Yes. The Powers seem undeniably persistent. I don’t know why.
Were They there before relationship? Were They there before our awareness of Them? Did we, as acting human agents, wander into a cloud of relational potential that anyone might have, rather like a patch of fog on a stroll encountered only if the conditions are right? Were any of us selected and pursued, prey for unseen Hunters emerging from beyond with dreadful names and ancient signs? Were any of us selected and considered, measured for height, made over into altars bearing Name and Form? Were any of us caught, falling stars, dropped from a firmament of order no longer belonging to be caught by Opportunity – oh that Lucky hand!
Impossible to say, though we each have our stories.
Would They leave just because we asked? Would we leave just because They asked?
Oddly enough, some of us persist as well. Some of us, finding the temple doors closed, the lamps snuffed out, will simply wait on the doorstep. Or perhaps, growing bored with waiting like an unfed stray, will spit and curse that empty house, then wander away searching for that missing piece (“hi-dee-ho, here I go”).
We might then be accused of maladaptive emotional configurations – and while allowing for that possibility, is that going to be always the case if all parties are not human? Does human psychology apply to non-human agents? And although many people continually stress the equitable authority and agency of human and non-human agents in these devotional relationships, it seems dismissive and (dare I say) colonial to look at the vastness of human religious experience and call all passionate devotional yearnings co-dependent. None of us needs to be a saint in order to resonate with the sentiment: even if I am cast aside I will love you still.
I love because I choose to.
I love because my nature is to do so.
My nature is made over in relation to you.
And that little voice asks, At what point was this agreed to? When was any of this discussed? Did I ever have a reasonable conversation about consent and boundaries and the very rational ruination of who I assumed I was? I never practices the risk aware consensual polytheism that one might reasonably recommend. Everything was drained away, picked up, torn down, or simply tossed on the bonfire whole. And perhaps that’s not how it “should” be done, but it’s how it happened and without doubt others are going to have similar experiences.
I do want to see consenting devotional relationships, because so much damage has been done where consent has been lacking. I want to see consenting devotional relationships because we as human agents deserve good things, and so do the Powers we are relating to. I want to see consenting devotional relationships because I believe this furthers a culture of consent more generally.
However, I don’t want to mistake the ideal for reality. I don’t want people to feel fearful that because they haven’t set rules or parameters in their devotional relationships, that they can’t trust the Powers. I don’t want people to feel like they have to “get it right” or else everything will fall to bits and they will be somehow to blame. I don’t want people to think that relationships they perceive as “successful” automatically had really excellent boundaries baked in at the very start. I don’t want people to assume that relationships bite back or that the Powers are looking for ways to harm us.
At the same time, I also want there to be room for the exceptions, for experiences of relationship and reality that don’t fully conform to our improving ideals of consent and healthy boundary formation. I want to be able to allow people their experiences without immediately assuming those experiences need “fixing” (unless so invited, naturally). And also, I don’t want to assume that those experience ought best to be fixed to be my first inclination. I want room to be wrong, to learn from strangers, to learn from surprising experiences, to be shown the limits of my knowledge.
There has to be room for exceptions, room to be wrong, room to learn. Room for soft landings after hard falls, room to recover. Because I’ve seen too much, talked to too many people, heard too many stories, and frankly just lived too damn much to think that I have all the correct answers – not about this, and not about a lot of things, and not all of the time.
(Does all this sound like I’m trying to defend non-consensually in relationships? That’s not my goal. What I’m trying to do is leave room to allow for experiences that fall outside my current understanding, to leave room for my own ignorance, to hold lightly my current sense of having a correct answer, so that changing my mind is not difficult when presented with new evidence. I try to be aware of the scope of my own knowledge, and to be humble of the vastness beyond that horizon. That’s all. If someone is experiencing distress and unhappiness within their devotional relationships, then ideally the people they speak to shouldn’t just be saying “oh hey set boundaries and don’t put up with that,” because it’s not always that easy. I don’t know why, but it’s not – and that’s part of what I was trying to get at here. It’s not just a matter of “oh I love Them” or “I tried banishing Them or whatever and They didn’t leave.” There are sometimes situations that don’t seem to conform to whatever current paradigm of relationship is currently in use to explain such matters (and I’ve lived long enough to see multiple paradigms be in use). So I guess I want to encourage people to be a little more gentle with themselves and with others; it’s confusing out there and sometimes less simple than just a matter of setting good boundaries, and less simple than deities always wanting to hurt us, and less simple than anyone madly in love with the divine being codependent, or any other statement that is assumed to always hold true. So yeah. I guess that’s basically what this long post was about.)
If you’ve been missing connecting with pagan and polytheist spiritual community, you might like to check out Between the Veils conference. This is a new event that’s been in the works for over a year; the pandemic disrupted its in-person debut, and so it’s being hosted online this year to give people a taste of what’s in store for the future. I’ve been following it’s development since the very beginning, and I’m excited to see what happens next. I won’t be presenting at this event, but I will be vending so you can find me in the really cool interactive vending space if you want to drop by and say hi. I’ll have a lot of great tarot bags, zines, and other items for sale.
There’s going to be some amazing presenters over the weekend; I’m personally excited to hear Cassandra Snow speak (author of Queering the Tarot column and book!). You can visit the Between the Veils website (betweentheveils.org) for more information, or find/follow them on Facebook and Instagram. See you there!
Tomorrow! Devotion: Our Gods and Their People is happening – a virtual one-day conference focused on devotional polytheism, that good good relational stuff and the complicated topics that deserve some more investigation. I’m excited to be part of this conference. I’ll be speaking on the subject of god-marriage, so it’s sure to bring up some interesting conversation.
Sliding scale registration is available, as well as some scholarship options. Visit this link for registration info and other details. You don’t have to be present in person; you get access to session recordings with the purchase of a ticket.
Did you know that fifteen years ago you wouldn’t have been able to find one person blogging openly about devotional polytheism? There were a few of us writing about devotional subjects on private Livejournal (and Deadjournal) accounts, but we didn’t call it devotional polytheism. In fact, I was fighting an uphill battle trying to convince people that “devotion” was more than just syrupy affection for the deities and spirits in one’s life, that it was the relational model that characterized our basic worldviews and reciprocal styles of interacting. So perhaps I can be a little forgiven if I’m going to be the “back in my day” guy for a bit here.
Devotional polytheism is fine.
Well, it’s certainly fine in the sense that people are out there, doing their thing, relating to their Powers, exploring reciprocation, learning about give and take in relationship, and striving to achieve a balance that is enriched by the numinous. Polytheists as a loosely defined demographic certainly have the same kind of problems that any other loosely defined demographic are likely to have, and we’ve identified problems that call for more focused attention (might-makes-right mentalities, abuse of power, white supremacist ideology, a rather too cozy attitude to global religious nationalist movements that are actually aren’t our friends or anyone’s friends, etc.). We can work on these things. We are working on these things. Learning to recognize the ways in which these problems are perpetuated and perpetrated are the first steps and the continuing steps; these skills are learned through implementation – by doing, and specifically by doing them over and over.
But the existence of devotional polytheism, by the fact of a relational existence, by the fact of a network of bonds, that web of obligation and affection and need and sustenance and giving and supply and honoring and care and nourishment and lack and appeasement and asking and granting and gift and love that holds us all within it?
That’s fine. That hasn’t gone anywhere. We’re all still held in it, our Powers are all still held in it, we’re all held together and we move within it and the tides of need and sentiment and bond move in waves throughout. Devotional polytheism is fine.
If you read Mr. Beckett’s article on trend’s in paganism, you’ll probably recognize the point I’m speaking to. He’s concerned about the waning of devotional polytheism of the type he’s familiar with, or at least people writing about it where he can see it. I’m sure he’s not the only one handwringing the decline of the golden age of devotional polytheism (or at least the one that took place where we all could see it), but he’s the one who wrote something that I saw, so I’ll speak to that.
Devotional polytheism as we think of it currently hasn’t existed for two decades. In fact, our collective thoughts about devotional polytheism change so rapidly that it hasn’t had time to solidify into anything, really. It’s one way, and then it’s another, depending on who currently has the largest online following. And when you think about it, that’s a really odd way for religious thought to develop. (And indeed, some people will recognize that that’s not a way that religious thought develop, but rather how other kinds of thought develops, which is probably why it’s not such a bad thing polytheist blogging has rather waned – and I even say this as a polytheist who happens to still have a blog and has finally remembered how to log in.) We’re still barely on board with the gods being real; the reality of relationships with them is still way beyond what a lot of people even within our own polytheist communities are willing to grant, even though that – to me – is a foundational assumption of a polytheist worldview.
Furthermore, we are presented with the question of what, exactly, our devotional bonds are for. To my view, devotional relationships – indeed, all relationships, whether one exists inside a polytheist worldview framework or not – are self-justified. They require no outside justification, no reason why beyond the fact of the relationship themself. They are relationship-for-relationship-sake, rather like art. Relationships form naturally because we are beings who naturally form relationships, just as we naturally create art. (And yes, we do in fact form unhealthy relationships, or form relationships that become unhealthy, but that’s a secondary fact beside this first.) Therefore the relationships we have with our Powers are self-justified. We don’t really need any theological explanation that details the purpose of these relationships, although various polytheist traditions may have their own explanations of the value or benefit of these relationships, and indeed individual practitioners may come to various conclusions about the value or benefit of these relationships within the context of their own life – but again, I believe these are secondary facts beside the first.
Because I believe that relationships – existing within a polytheist framework or not – are self-justified, based on the fact that we humans are relationship-building creatures, our relationships with the Powers do not exist for the sole or primary purpose of being shown to other people. Therefore, no one can feel entitled or permitted to access evidence of these relationships; our relationships with the Powers are not for consumption, and they are not “for” consumption. If an individual practitioner feels like sharing, feels like they have something to say about their relationship(s), about their life in relationship(s), or about their life as a polytheist (which again, is life lived in relationship(s)), then sure, yeah, excellent, whatever, awesome – but that’s not the point. There is no point, no purpose, no end-goal, no productivity quota, no measurement – relationship is just a fact, just a feature of life, like the shape of the horizon where you live. It has nothing to prove, and unless you choose to talk about it, it has nothing to say.
I also have to admit that I’m also leaning a bit into resisting the endless pressure to instrumentalize every bit of our lives. I’ve gotten smacked by this over and over again, endlessly, brought up short by this tendency, which has been ground into me, carved deep by social and interpersonal pressures that people don’t even know they’re exerting. What is instrumentalization? It’s making everything useful – and specifically, making everything profitable. And profitable not necessarily in the sense of monetary gain (though there is that goal underlying everything) but profitable in the sense of personal gain. There’s this endless pressure to make sure that everything I do has to ultimately benefit me in the sense of very tangible personal gain, including what I say online. And once I started seeing how I was weighing and measuring all these assessments, the more resentful I got – who wants me to profit? To whose profit am I ultimately working? Certainly I’m not personally getting ahead, so someone must be.
I want to choose, at least a little bit, how I am consumed. Admittedly, there are very few ways I can control how I am consumed, and how what I create and output into the world is consumed, so it’s perhaps no wonder that I’m a little picky about framing those outputs. No doubt others who have different life experiences and/or those who have reached different conclusions will feel differently about their creations and their output. But I’m tired. Maybe I’m just getting older and more quickly resentful of people who want things from me unasked. Maybe I’m getting more fiercely private and more quickly resentful of getting pulled apart by intrusive prying. Maybe I’m angry at myself for giving so much of myself away in hopes that it would, in fact, gain me something just like I was promised when it actually didn’t and I felt empty and used instead, and I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.
So no, I’m not sharing the intricacies of my life lived in relationship because it’s not for consumption. It is self-justified, for itself, valuable for the fact of its existence alone, not so I can pull it apart for viewing and consideration by others – strangers and critics. In general, I don’t know what to think about the nuances of these relationships myself, even though I have plenty of information from wisdom teachings to draw from, so I don’t think dumping them on the general public will be at all helpful. Additionally, I want to make sure that I treat myself well – better than I used to! – that I avoid turning myself into a product for others to consume, a novelty that is picked up and turned over, laughed at or pitied, critiqued or considered. I deserve better. So do you.
So yeah – devotional polytheism is fine. You’re fine (probably. maybe there’s some people who seem to be fence sitting about white supremacy that you need to boot from your personal orbit, but you can do it. I believe in you). You can go look at the horizon in your area and not ask it to explain itself, and then you can similarly go look at the Powers in your life and, very gradually, stop asking Them why They choose to be with you.
Maybe we can both learn to do this together. I believe in us.
This day twelve months ago I put in action a decision I had already made in my head and heart many months, many years, before. I had trusted myself that when the time was right, I would know but of course the question remained – would I really know?
I did. When it was time, I knew.
I lost my friend last year, which is an anemic euphemism for the death of an animal, especially when this animist spirit worker knows more or less exactly where the animal still is (in the little cedar box; in the nebulous spirit haze that’s just sort of everywhere). And really, I don’t feel like I’ve “lost” anything – I just feel her gone-ness rather than a loss. No fleeing, no draining, no gradual departure, just a gone-ness that I feel is quite irreconcilable with my own continued staying-ness. My friend is gone and I’m still here. This fact remains an incompatible truth, a pearl of wisdom with firmly defined edges that I can’t help but examine or that I am simply endlessly confronted by.
I didn’t expect to feel better by this point, but I did rather imagine I’d feel differently. Maybe less sad. The sadness has less emotional dominance, it’s not the starring role in my emotional landscape, but the quality of the sadness is still basically the same since it mellowed from depression after the first few months. I do, thankfully, feel many other things besides sad, which is a problem I had for a while, so in that sense I feel like I’ve felt better over time, but the quality of the sadness remains basically the same.
I really thought I had more to say about this. I sort of put off all day saying things that I really quite wanted to say, only to entirely forget what they were and to feel that they were probably worthless anyway. I don’t know if I’m saying these words to get them out of my head, to add a tick mark after an arbitrary amount of time has passed since her passing, to examine emotions I’ve long since become familiar with.
Maybe I just want to stop feeling sad. Maybe I want to find some joy and comfort in the memories of the small soft animal I lived with for 9 years instead of just mourning every time I think of her. Maybe I want to welcome her spirit with gladness instead of thinking about how she’s gone even though she’s *right there*.
I miss you, Butter. I miss you so much. Thank you for everything you gave and did and were and are. You are remembered in the present tense.