Building Right Relationship: Part 1
I recently read an article which ended up prompting me to think again about how modern Polytheists (including Heathens) have begun to re-relate to their deities. Much has already been written about the fusion that has been forming between ancient Polytheism and modern pop-culture in some circles, with arguments ranging between “pop-culture is a doorway to the gods” to “portraying the gods as pop-culture figures is entirely disrespectful”. Without going into great detail, I will say that I think it’s fantastic that the deities and old traditions are finding their way back into the consciousness of modern people through wide-reaching mediums like movies, television, and novels, and it is a very good sign of a Polytheistic resurgence creeping back into our culture. That being said, I have always stood by my belief that treating the gods as if they are characters in our favorite fandom produces expectations that the gods will act in our lives with all of the desires, pettiness, and limitations of human beings, just on a grander scale.
Lately, I have heard many people attempting to validate their worship of a deity in a pop-culture form (i.e Loki as Tom Hiddleston, Hades from the Percy Jackson series, etc) by saying that these characters that share names and characteristics with our gods and goddesses are doorways towards approaching the real thing (which I believe is valid, to a point). As long as I can remember, Pagans and Polytheists have also said that portraying the gods in a purely anthropomorphic form is a way for us human beings to relate to and understand Powers that are ultimately beyond our ability to fully comprehend. Again, I think this is valid… to a point. However, I think that in order for a deeper understanding and proper reverence for the gods to arise within us, eventually, we have to be willing to take those training wheels off. I have heard many justifications for using methods which help to “bring the gods down to our level”, but I have rarely heard of many methods being defended or shared to help bring us up to the god’s level.
With all that in mind, I thought I would share some of the ideas and methods that have carried me to (what I believe to be) a more mature understanding of the gods, and how that has helped me to build a stronger path of devotion. I started worshipping Loki when I was about 7 years old, so I in no way want to give the impression that where I have ended up is also where I started out. I absolutely began my journey with Loki using the “training wheels” I mentioned above. It has been a long process of spiritual growth and breaking down (sometimes painfully) my old, comfortable assumptions about Loki that have carried him from being my friend/love/infatuation to being my God. Here are some of the pivotal shifts in my own consciousness and that helped to make that possible.
1. Recognizing our culture’s obsession with spiritual literalism
It took me quite some time to recognize that even though I thought of myself as something of a “pure pagan” (never having been indoctrinated by an Abrahamic tradition and starting my path at an early age) I had still be unknowingly “brainwashed” into seeing religion and spirituality in a certain way due to the culture I was born into. The reality is that modern American spiritual culture has a terrible relationship with myth. In the dominant Abrahamic faiths, “myth” is treated as something which is an untruth or a lie. There is no room in Christianity (or Islam for that matter) for a “mythic truth”: a spiritual truth that is related to us in a symbolic way, but isn’t literally true. The predominant Abrahamic traditions have constructed their narratives in such a way that depends on absolute literalism. For the “word of god” to be valid (we have been taught), everything in the holy scriptures MUST be true (meaning physically, literally, absolutely true). In the fundamentalist Christian mindset, if every part of the Bible didn’t literally take place, then the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus upon which Christianity depends for its theology may also be suspect.
Because of our overarching religious culture’s disconnect from myth as spiritual allegory, I have seen many Polytheists (especially Heathens) falling into the trap of mythic literalism. In other words, rather than trying to understand the spiritual or ritual symbol that a myth is revealing, I see many people stop on the surface value of our “lore” and treat it as if it is a literal history of things that the gods said and did in a parallel universe. This is one of the primary justifications I see for the demonization of Loki, as many people interpret his actions in Snorra Edda as literal, historical events (whether consciously or unconsciously). I feel that treating our lore like literal histories also has had the effect of over-anthropomorphizing our deities, where instead of looking at their spiritual implications we assume that the gods are a group of large, invisible people that take part in personal dramas that could rival the Kardashians.
I feel that I began to grow more into my spirituality when I stopped looking at the myths like a literalist and started to look at them more like a mystic: acknowledging that the gods could be absolutely real without their myths having to reflect literal histories. Yes, the myths can reveal spiritual truths about who the gods are and what they accomplish in our world, but those spiritual truths have to be teased out of a complex tapestry of allegory and symbolism.
2. Removing the stigma around respect
Many people in America have regrettably grown up in environments where respect for God could often take an abusive turn and be transformed into self-degradation. In the early days of Heathenry, a popular mantra seemed to become “we do not kneel to our gods”. Despite the evidence to the contrary, which does indicate that humbling oneself before the deities was a known practice in Germanic polytheism, I see this popular misconception as a backlash to Abrahamic religious philosophies that have utilized fear and shame in unhealthy ways in order to create an atmosphere of subservience. I think that this backlash against Abrahamic ideas of respect have caused many people to over-familiarize the gods into our big friends and family members who want us to stand next to them rather than kneel before them. When I was very young, this was a belief that I too found to be comforting and appealing compared to the relationships of intimidation I perceived other religions as having with their God/s. Then, I got to see an unbroken Polytheistic tradition through the lens of Santería and got to see how respect for the holy powers could be enacted in a powerful, healthy way…. and how I really needed to up my respect game.
Falling into the “gods are big invisible people” trope is how I think people become suspicious of giving the gods respect. If you think the gods are just bigger, more powerful humans, then you may feel that your relationship with the gods is going to have the same problems and complications as your relationships with flesh and blood people. Having to give respect to the gods may feel like the gods want to manipulate you, use you, overpower you, laugh at you: All very negative human traits that we have plastered onto the Holy Powers due to our literalist interpretation of their myths and our overly familiar ideas of who and what they are.
To break this nut open, let’s pretend for a moment that Þórr isn’t a large, muscular man with a red beard who is friendly, boisterous, and loves to drink. Take out your sledgehammer, go to this much-loved image of Þórr you hold in your mind, and smash it into a million pieces. What is left behind? Do you find the raw power of lightning, thunder, the life-giving rains, the spirit of warriors, defenders, the force of civilization holding against chaos, the force that is the union between the might of the earth and the heavens? Though it can sometimes be a hard and painful mental exercise, I feel that I only really started to understand who Loki was when I was willing to destroy and let go of the much-loved anthropomorphic image of Loki I held in my mind. At times, this made me feel as if I was loosing my connection with Loki, when in reality it was bringing me closer to a spiritual reality that I hadn’t truly seen before. Now, I can still use that image of Loki as a tool without it being a limitation of his person or nature.
I believe it is through being willing to destroy the “golden cows” that the anthropomorphic gods have become that we can reach beyond the human limitations we have placed on them, and only then can we truly understand why the gods need and deserve our respect. They are not big humans demanding our subservience, they are the forces of life and nature that rule and dominate our lives as human beings. We rely on them for our existence and for the order in our universe as we know it. If you can give right respect to a tree or an animal or the ocean, but still have issues with showing respect to the gods, I suggest it’s time to break out that sledgehammer.
3. Getting out of our own heads
Now that we have broken down our understanding of the deities to a more primal level, I would like to examine one last realization that I had about our culture’s modern religious programming. Most of the religions that dominate America, be they Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc, are in essence “world rejecting religions”, meaning that the physical world is ultimately to be denied and cast off in favor of a more desirable “spiritual world”. What this effectively does (from my perspective) is to create traditions that put the worshipper entirely in their own heads. God is something that is read about and experienced purely on an internal level. Our flesh and blood world is merely a pitstop or a test that has to be overcome before we get to the “real thing”. I believe this way of thinking creates a disconnect between ourselves and the earth, the beings we share our world with, and with one another. The ancients saw the gods in the natural world: Loki isn’t just the “god of the sacred fire”, he IS the sacred fire, literally and spiritually. Ægir isn’t just “the god that rules the sea”. Ægir is an old word for the sea. He IS the sea. Realizing that the gods aren’t just the forces that rule over nature, but are the souls of nature itself almost demands a more visceral experience of the natural world in order to reach them and understand them.
We are used to experiencing religion in a way that is predominantly mental: we read stories about the gods, think of them as human beings wandering around Asgard, create life philosophies that reflect our understanding of those stories. These are all very mental exercises, and I don’t think that they accurately reflect the gods that our ancestors came to know when they were living so close to nature. Our modern world has made it very easy to live almost entirely divorced from nature (minus the occasional natural disaster that serves to remind us of why the gods and spirits of nature were sometimes feared). The image of the gods I mentioned in point two is often also divorced from the natural power the ancestors would have recognized as that deity. My antidote for this mental trap can be summed up in four simple words: GO THE F**K OUTSIDE! The shrines as described by Tacitus were groves, and the gods were understood as being a part of the natural world. Those forest shrines (much like the modern Shinto shrines of Japan) forced the worshippers to directly confront the Holy Powers that were truly being worshiped.
So for just one week, put away the statues and the altars, and to find the gods where the ancestors first met them. Give offerings to the gods in the waters, the trees, the stones, the fire. Tear off the human masks that we have given to the Holy Powers, and feel them again in their wild, pure state. Then when you do return to your statues and shrines, you won’t mistake that image of Þórr or Freyja or Óðinn for the spiritual truth hiding beneath it.
In the second part of this article, I would like to examine practices and methods through which one can come to know the gods in a deeper way without having to use the “training wheels” of pop-culture. Instead of dumbing the gods down for human consumption, let’s talk about ways that we can lift ourselves up to a deeper understanding of who and what the gods are, and how we can form the right relationship with them based on that understanding.