Articles by Tess Dawson

Tess Dawson

With over fifteen years of experience, Tess Dawson is one of the foremost specialists in the field of revived Canaanite religion. She enjoys spinning, weaving, doing odd stuff with string, and making up silly songs about objects around the house.

Caring and Exchange in Relationships

We people are social creatures. As such, most of us have one other being in our lives—a child, a friend, a sibling, a partner or spouse, an animal companion—that we communicate with on a regular basis. For most of us, that even means that we may see someone we care about at least once a day or come into contact with them through phone or internet. We have relationships, connections, associations, shared time and shared experiences, with these beings that we interact with frequently. Strong relationships are built over time and with effort, and through caring for another, and through exchange with one another. This is true of human relationships as well as deepening relationships with deities and ancestors.

There’s a tricky balancing act in relationships here that wavers between two ends of a spectrum. While one end looks “self-serving”, and the other end looks “self-sacrificing,” they can end up resulting in the same potential dysfunction when they have their roots in mistaking exchange in a relationship as caring in a relationship. Exchange and caring are not the same thing and are not interchangeable. One is a Lego and the other is a K’nex and you can’t use a K’nex rod where you need a Lego block even though K’nex and Legos can both can be used to build things.

Caring about someone else in a relationship doesn’t involve “Hey, I did X for you and now I see you as obligated to do Y for me.” For instance, Tina and Rufus are two kids hanging out together in a park. Rufus is putting stickers on his scooter and Tina wants one. She says to Rufus, “Hey, I gave you a gum in math class. Can I have a sticker for my bike?” Sometimes Tina might not even say “Hey, I gave you gum in math class” but she’ll be thinking of it when she asks Rufus for a sticker, and there’s an expectation that Rufus will remember the gum, and then because of it he will share his stickers. This kind of exchange, like what Tina and Rufus had, can and does happen in most relationships. It can be a good and useful thing, and it can foster relationships, but it’s not to be confused as caring for the other person.

On the other end of the same spectrum, sometimes a person will confuse caring as “giving,” especially in “giving” more than they really want to give or can give. It’s not really “giving” because it’s not a gift: a gift is given with no strings or obligations attached; and it’s not actually being “self-sacrificing” because self-sacrifice is a matter of giving up something to help others. Instead it is a willful extension, or in many cases a willful overextension of one’s efforts and resources. Sometimes people don’t realize it, but this kind of intentional overextension is actually done with the desire for an exchange. This isn’t really done out of caring no matter how much that party stresses “But I did it all for you! I was just being nice!” For instance, Tyrone often takes notes for Nik because Nik likes skipping class—it’s a morning class and Nik doesn’t do mornings. Tyrone even lets Nik cheat off of him for the test, and Tyrone does a good lion’s share of the work when they’re partners on projects. Nik didn’t ask for Tyrone to do all of this, but he’s not refusing Tyrone’s efforts, either, and Tyrone keeps doing these things. Tyrone thinks he and Nik are good friends. When Tyrone suddenly has to go out of town one week, he’s seriously angry when Nik didn’t think to take notes and help him out just as he’s been helping Nik. Tyrone had been expecting Nik to reciprocate even though he didn’t ask Nik. He thought Nik had his back, and he’s angry to find out that after all he did for Nik, Nik was “just using” him. Nik just thought Tyrone was a “nice guy,” and thought of Tyrone’s efforts as gifts, free and clear of obligation. Nik doesn’t understand now why Tyrone is giving him the silent treatment.

Another example of this secondary end of the spectrum would be when Veronica says to her son Jules, “I brought life to you, and you don’t want to come to dinner this weekend? Fine. I’ll be ok, don’t worry about me, here, alone, with this turkey I cooked for you getting cold. You go and have a good time. No, really, I mean it.” In this example, Veronica stated “Hey, I did X for you” as “I brought life to you…” and, even if it isn’t explicitly stated that “Now I see you as obligated to do Y for me” she still sees Jules as obligated to visit her.

Sometimes, too, what can appear as a reciprocal exchange can end up one-sided. In Tyron’s case he chose to overextend himself and think of himself as “being giving,” but he was angry at Nik for not reciprocating: remember, a gift is freely given without expectation of reciprocation. Or, there’s Veronica’s case: Jules must figure out what Veronica’s cloaked demand is, cope with Veronica’s emotional appeal, and then decide whether or not he can or wants to comply with the demand. I say “cloaked demand” here not so much because the demand is unknown—sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not, and sometimes although it isn’t explicitly stated it can still be glaringly obvious. I say “cloaked demand” more because the demand itself is cloaked under Veronica’s misdirection of emotional pleas and overextension, and further hidden under the appearance of kindness and request.

Make no mistake, Veronica is not requesting Jules to visit, she’s demanding him to visit, and she’s couched it carefully in terms Jules cannot refuse without looking like a Bad Person, but all the while she misdirects the matter so that it looks like she isn’t being demanding. Veronica doesn’t want to admit she makes demands because she believes that making demands means she’s a Bad Person, so she makes the demands but tries to compose those demands so that they are less obvious to herself, to Jules, and to anyone else watching. Even though Veronica has posed herself as the poor lonely mother who is a victim of her son’s potential callousness if he refuses her demand, she’s actually exhibiting controlling behavior that leaves Jules more at risk of being a victim than herself. Veronica could be doing this consciously to influence Jules into doing what she wants, but there’s also the possibility that Veronica is at least partially oblivious to what she’s doing. Often it’s both: some part of her is aware of what she’s doing, and some part of her isn’t, but she may never even admit it to herself.

Of the two ends of this spectrum “self-serving” and “self-sacrificing,” they can both result in the same thing: mistaking exchange as caring when they are not the same thing. One end of that spectrum is a little more obvious and honest in its demands for an exchange, like Tina and Rufus, but still runs the risk of confusing exchange and caring. However, like at the other end of the spectrum, like Tyrone towards Nik and Veronica towards Jules, there is also a desire for exchange of some sort. Veronica in particular dresses up exchange so as to make it look more like caring, and thus she confuses the issue for herself and for Jules. She does this to make Jules feel more keenly the stress of the demanded obligation so that he will comply and she’ll get what she wants. There’s less emotional leverage between Tyrone and Nik, but Tyrone still overextends himself and expects Nik to reciprocate without being upfront with himself and with Nik about his expectations.

Furthermore, sometimes that redirection is so good that like in the example of Tyrone and Nik, Tyrone may not even be able to see it himself. If Nik doesn’t fill the demand that Tyrone thinks he’s obligated to fulfill, Tyrone may end up becoming resentful and thinking he does “all the work” in that friendship. Tyrone’s misdirection may work so well that even he buys his own illusion. Tyrone’s resentment has its roots in believing his own misdirection instead of realizing the problem lay in his confusing his one-sided exchanges with Nik as caring, and in compounding the problem with emotional misdirection. The same is true of Veronica towards Jules; in this case, Veronica tells herself that her caring is unrequited, when really it is her not-quite-so-honest and inappropriate exchange which is unrequited. The caring may or may not be there, but that’s a different issue entirely from exchange.

It’s easier to see this kind of confusion in others at first than it is to see it in ourselves, but at least if we admit it and know that it can be there within us, we know to keep an eye out for it. When we do, we’re more likely to catch this sort of thing if and when it happens within our own behavior and then we can consciously decide if that’s really how we want to behave in our relationships or not.

In caring, being kind, you actually have to put the needs of the other being above your own, if only for a short time, without the expectation of exchange and without being resentful if the other party cannot or will not reciprocate. An act of complete caring without the expectation of exchange is rare. An act of exchange without caring is much more common than an act of caring without expectation of exchange. However, most people will admit to caring at least a token amount for someone with whom they have some kind of regular exchange. Sometimes even just regular, habitual acts of exchange over time can eventually lead to a caring relationship: a friendship can arise from one neighbor offering to shovel snow for another neighbor in exchange for dinners over the course of a winter. The act of caring and the act of exchange are both valuable and necessary acts in relationships. Caring is indeed more valuable, but that does not make exchange worthless or no good. Quite the contrary, exchange is a vital part of relationships, it’s just a different part of relationships than caring. Caring cannot substitute for exchange; nor can exchange substitute for caring. Most of the time acts in relationship exhibit a combination of both caring and exchange, even though the two are not the same thing.

Needing exchange and wanting exchange are not bad in themselves and will not alone make someone the dreaded Bad Person. (Demanding and forcing exchange at the expense and harm of another person, however, is more towards the territory—if not completely in the territory—of being a Bad Person, depending on the acts and the circumstances.) But dressing up what is more of a desire for exchange in the mask of “caring” will place a barrier of dishonesty between the parties in a relationship, and prevent a person from interacting in that relationship in a more honest, genuine, and authentic way, and it will prevent the very thing a person usually seeks to do in the first place: deepen that relationship. This is an important thing right here. The deities and the ancestors see through all of this artful misdirection that we put ourselves through, and when we’re not honest with them and not honest inside our own heads with ourselves, we end up not deepening those relationships as we claim that we want to. We could be cheating Them and ourselves out of what could be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Roman Sewage

There was a marvelous movie-event at the local cinema earlier this night—a documentary about Pompeii sponsored by the British Museum and in support of one of their current exhibits. Please ma’am, just take my money and hand me a ticket now, thank you! I want to see the sweeping silver screen present Roman history, artifacts, ancestors, deities, and polytheism.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were the two small Roman towns devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August of the year 79. The documentary had a team of experts covering different parts of Roman culture: a chef and scholar of Roman cuisine shared his knowledge of Roman diet and cooking while the viewers got a look at cookware and carbonized remains of food and artifacts. A botany and gardens expert led us through the flora and fauna of a lush fresco and what was available in Roman courtyards, and so on. For the most part, I enjoyed the documentary and I enjoyed listening to what the experts had to say. But there was one glaring part that soured the experience. One part that I found wounding to the core: disrespect for the deities.

One of the hosts of the documentary asked if the Romans “actually” believed in these many deities, or if the ancient Romans were “just superstitious.” At a different point in the documentary, they make reference to Bacchus being little more than an amusing “character.” They also showed a household shrine for just a few seconds, only to point out the painting of it and the flat area where offerings went, before swiftly moving on to an extensive discussion about sewage and drains.

They were more fascinated, respectful, and interested in the shit in the drains than they were about discussing and being respectful of the deities. I’m not exaggerating about the contents of the drains: I’m speaking of fecal matter, leftover food, and tossed out broken pots. Don’t get me wrong: the stuff found in sewage drains can yield a wealth of information about daily life, diet, plants, animals, what’s considered trash in a culture, and many, many other things—things that are useful and worthwhile to know, things that are indeed fascinating, and things that require studying. But there is also here evidence of a deep, deep wrong: sewage was met with more dignity than the gods themselves. The documentary didn’t bother to ask the irrational question “Did the Romans actually believe in a sewage system, or were they just germophobes?”

The question of whether the Romans “actually” believed in these many deities or if they were “just superstitious”—is a faulty question from the get-go. It’s a question designed to make you fail. It’s a question designed to force you into accepting and defending bad assumptions first before choosing an “answer” from only a few defective options. For instance, if someone asks you “Which spoiled milk do you like, whole milk or two percent?” This question assumes you can drink milk, and that you like spoiled milk to begin with. It leaves you only with the option of having spoiled milk of some sort: it doesn’t matter if the milk is whole or two percent because there’s the bigger problem of it being spoiled and you probably don’t want spoiled milk at all—the matter of it being whole or two percent isn’t even a factor. And if you are intolerant or have an allergy, then the question is even more nonsensical and inappropriate.

There are numerous unspoken assumptions permeating this question of either-“actual”-belief-or-superstition. The word “actual” in this context already sets the question in a biased way, as if polytheism were some kind of ancient foolishness, as if our ancestors were somehow of befuddled wits and overactive imaginations that could accept such a bizarre and faulty concept as having multiple deities. Using the word “actually” in this context already sets up the question to assume that polytheism is bizarre, exotic, faulty, and silly. The question presupposes that “the gods don’t exist” and “polytheism is wrong and foolish,” as well as “polytheism is irrational and unenlightened,” and “we are enlightened now that we ‘know better’ than to believe in many gods,” “we are smarter than our ancestors” and “our ancestors are foolish for honoring many gods.”

In answering the question with one of the two choices given—either “the Romans ‘actually’ believed,” or “the Romans were just superstitious”—the answerer has been led down a primrose path of putrescence. It doesn’t matter which way the answerer responds because the end result is still the same. Either way, the answerer ends up tacitly agreeing that the gods don’t exist, polytheism is wrong and foolish, polytheism is irrational, none of us modern people honor many gods, we modern people are rational and enlightened now that we don’t honor many gods, and our ancestors are idiots. One assumption, leads to another, and another, and another. The assumptions, the disrespect, and the filth just keep accumulating. Talk about a pipeline of sewage!

Disrespect for the deities is so pervasive in many of our modern surrounding majority cultures that the disrespect passes as normal and standard. We’ve heard it so many times that we’re often deaf to it. It’s like a foul stink we’ve become so accustomed to that we just don’t smell it anymore and our noses are burned out. Often times, we hear this sort of thing and it just washes past us unnoticed, although it washes past like filth in a sewage line. We need to take notice of when we’re wading in it, even though—especially though—it is not easy because we’ve been born in surrounded by a majority culture that has forgotten, ignored, and eschewed polytheistic ways. When all you know is sewage because you’re born in it, your parents and their parents were born in it, and everyone else around you is born in it, you grow up thinking this is “normal,” and it’s difficult to realize that there’s something wrong about wading in it. It’s even difficult to realize that you are wading in something gross. You can even have trouble distinguishing what is gross from what isn’t, or even knowing that not-being-gross is a state you could be in.

This disrespect is the model which is expected, it is the model against which polytheism and polytheists are judged as being aberrations. We’re surrounded by a culture that belittles polytheism for fear of looking foolish otherwise, but it is this disrespect of the deities is profoundly both foolish and dirty. I could hang Roman penis wind chimes from my head, sing crusty tavern songs while my breath reeks of garlic, confess naughty brothel secrets and make helpful diagrams of those ‘secrets’, invent creative swear words, make obscene gestures, and prance barefoot in that so-fascinating sewage…and still be cleaner to the deities than this modern disrespect, these attitudes and assumptions, are. That this disrespect, these attitudes, and these assumptions often go past us unnoticed, ignored unremarked upon, excused, or even accepted, makes the problem more insidious, contagious, and self-propagating. When I say “excused” what I mean is “oh, it’s not really that bad,” or “that person didn’t mean to be disrespectful, so it’s ok,” and so on. These excuses are not helpful, not to humans, not to ancestors, and not to deities.

This culturally pervasive disrespect has me often in tears—sometimes tears of sorrow, sometimes tears of anger, often both—because this disrespect to the deities is rampant, mainstream, and expected. It has actually become expected and socially “appropriate” to treat the deities foully. Even as it would not have occurred to our ancestors to treat the deities so callously, it does not occur to most people today just to avoid disrespect. At this point, I’m not talking about respecting the deities—I’m talking about simply avoiding active disrespect. Even this remedial standard, this lowest standard possible, has not been reached yet. The bar has been lowered so far that the sewers are a step up. Treating the deities with honor and respect in modern life is deemed silly and superstitious in the majority cultures we find ourselves surrounded with. As polytheists, we have a Vesuvius of work ahead of us in doing what we can to remedy this situation within ourselves and in social situations that we find ourselves in.

This is where we are today. Sewage is more respected than our gods—even in documentaries sponsored by credible, respected folks such as those from The British Museum. We need to shift the paradigm and we need to do it with burning urgency—for the sake of our deities and our ancestors, for honoring them, for making up for past atrocities, for getting into right relations with them once again. It helps to make offerings to the deities and the ancestors to make amends for these many generations of compounded disrespect. Bringing awareness to this matter helps; talking about this matter with each other helps; talking with other people about this matter when they’ve knowingly or unknowingly crossed that boundary into disrespect helps.
It can help to remember, honestly assess, and talk with each other about past events where we didn’t respond as well as we could have—and we can consider ways in which we will do this better next time so that we can become more practiced and comfortable in confronting these matters.

It is also important to pay attention to our own thinking when these culturally-pervasive assumptions flit around in our own minds and wear the masks of respect, social awareness, intelligence, rational thought, or education when these assumptions are not respect, social awareness, intelligence, rational thought, or education. If ever these assumptions do come into the mind wearing these masks, refer back to the list of assumptions above that come with a question like “Did the Romans actually believe in all these gods or were they just superstitious?” Either way you attempt to answer that broken question, the result is the same.

Brangelina and Two Mountains

It’s the kind of early autumn day where the sky is a bland and unremarkable grey, and against this backdrop the leaves slowly reveal their inner fires of crimson and gold. A nearby mountain, what I can see of it beyond a black painted chain link fence and a row of tall black maples, has begun to change its robe from summer emerald to autumn finery. The mountain looks like a many-humped dragon curling in a peculiar crescent shape moving, curving, from east to west. There are some ruins atop one of the humps—the one that is furthest east. There are sheer rusted bare faces on the hump that is westernmost. I was curious recently about the ruins so I looked about on the internet: they are the remains of an old vacation resort which burned down. That interested me, but what interested me more was that these ruins were listed as being on a mountain other than the one I looked up.

Turns out what I thought was one mountain with many undulating humps is actually two separate mountains. There is no fence, no wall, no definitive boundary-carving valley, no river, no major change in the types of trees, no visual marker whatsoever that tells me that this here is one mountain and that there is a different mountain. And yet…they are not the same mountain. Clearly there are ruins on one mountain, and rusted, aged bare cliffs on the other mountain. The mountain with the cliffs does not have the ruins, the mountain with the ruins does not have the cliffs. One mountain is named for an American Indian of long ago, and the other is named for a white man of long ago.

Because there’s no fence, no wall, no definite boundary marking one mountain from the other, it is easiest to tell them apart when I start at either end and work towards the center. It’s that nebulous territory in the center when things get a bit squiffy and it’s not easy to tell which mountain is which. Indeed they’re merged at that point—both mountains at once. But just because a boundary is nebulous, not hard and fast, does not mean that the boundary isn’t there. Just because a boundary is mutable, changeable, and without a line down the middle doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. At some point there is overlap. At some point one mountain and the other mountain have merged. At some point in the middle it is both mountains at the same time. Yet just because there is a point of overlap where a hiker could experience being on both mountains at the same time, it does not mean that they are the same mountain. They are not, and to know this all you have to do is to look, again, at the east end with the ruins and the west end with the cliffs. Points overlap, yet areas of merging do not make two things into the same thing.

Being both things at once does not mean both things must be the same thing. Think of it this way: if I were to ask you if a zebra is black or white, you’d tell me that the zebra is both. If I further try to press you into telling me if the creature is black or white, you’ll only get more frustrated because you know the zebra is both black and white at the same time. Thus it is with these two mountains in the center where they come together.

It is easy to confuse an overlap itself for the beings that are in the association together. The overlap is not the two beings themselves, it is just simply an overlap. It’s not so easy to look at the situation and realize that the two beings are not the same being, and they are not either one being or the other at this merged point. Instead, at this merged point, they are both beings. They are not the same being. They are not one being or the other being. They are both beings. They are both there at the same time. Sometimes an overlap or a relationship is confused, mistaken, as evidence of “oneness” instead of as evidence of an interrelationship between beings, a very local overlap, even a symbiosis, which happens to and with specific beings in specific contexts.

When we see two beings merged in this way, it causes our brains to form painful little exclamation marks in clouds near our heads like what you see in an anime when a character has a rough time accepting something that just happened. It’s difficult for us to resolve in our minds. We want the situation to look like either one mountain or the other mountain with a nice wall down the middle, neat, tidy, not nebulous. Or, in a similar effort to resolve this mental tension, we want to see the mountains as just one mountain—the same mountain—neat, tidy, no longer a need for nebulousness. We want to throw away what appears to us as nebulousness instead of confronting it and dealing with it; problem is we’re supposed to deal with it, we’re supposed to work through it.

Seeing the mountains as the same one mountain, or seeing it as definitively one mountain or the other, seems to cause the little hamsters that power the wheels-of-thinking in our brains to calm down, it causes the little anime exclamation point to evaporate. But it’s a calm based on a forced and erroneous conclusion because it’s not an accurate assessment. We can still have that calm while looking at the situation-as-it-is, it just requires a little bit of flexible mental yoga, thinking in a way we’re often not used to but is not as difficult as we sometimes make it out to be.

The mountains strangely make me think of “Brangelina.” Brangelina is not one person, not the same, and certainly not the same person. Look at the two ends again: at Brad, then at Angelina. Although it’s a nifty to acknowledge Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together in a relationship with a catchy name of “Brangelina,” it is folly to forget that although they operate in relation together merged as a singular unit sometimes, they also have separate identities that function outside of that unit. They have separate individual identities that function outside of that relationship as well as within it. You can take photographs of Brad separate from photos of Angelina, and you can take photos of them together; you can potentially have conversations with one or the other, or with both at the same time.

If Brad and Angelina were stuffed together in the same very large t-shirt for some media stunt, you couldn’t see where Angelina ended and Brad began. However, you still know that although in a relationship together and although in a t-shirt together where their boundaries appear nebulous, they are both Brad and Angelina—two different beings together. Again, look at Brad, then look at Angelina, and work your way to the center. You can’t see them as completely separate because that big t-shirt obscures your view, but even if you can’t see and don’t know where one person ends and the other begins, it doesn’t mean that Brad and Angelina don’t know. They are individual people together merged in a relationship and merged in a t-shirt, without being the same person and without being obviously one person or the other. They are Brad and Angelina, in the state of being individuals and in the state of being together, and they are in both of these states simultaneously. They are in both of these states without losing their individuality and without being completely separated with an easy-to-see boundary between them.

Also, it almost goes without saying that if Brad Pitt were in a relationship with Nicole Kidman, the relationship they would have together would be totally different, Bracole would not be the same as Brangelina, even though we’re still dealing with Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt would, however, still be Brad Pitt even if he exhibits different personality traits while in a relationship with Nicole. If Angelina Jolie were in a relationship with Ashton Kutcher, Ashelina would be totally different from Brangelina, too, and yet again, it is still the same Angelina Jolie, even if she may exhibit different aspects of her personality with Ashton than she does with Brad.

In a situation of syncretized deities, or perhaps even deities “translated” through interpretatio romana and interpretatio graeca, deities may appear and be as two merged deities. This can also apply to deities merged with localities and local land deities, or deities who have particular idiosyncrasies when they come forth in one locale and different idiosyncrasies when they come forth in another locale. Like Brangelina above, this does not mean that the beings connected are the same deity, and it does not mean that they must be clearly either this deity or that deity. It often means that the deities are in the state of being individuals and in the state of being together. The deities are in both of these states simultaneously, without losing their individuality and without being completely separated with an easy-to-see boundary between them. And like Bracole or Ashelina above, a deity may exhibit different aspects of his or her personality when in a merger or syncretism with a different deity or locale.

This does not mean that everyone’s interpretation and experience of every deity everywhere is always right. It’s not. A hyper-relativistic view which insists that each person’s own viewpoint is automatically “correct” for the reasons that someone has that view and we want to avoid the conflict that comes from trying to sort out differences, understandings, and misunderstandings, misplaces the matter entirely. It’s not about how we view the deities, instead it has to do with how the deities are. Whether or not we view the deities accurately and relay that information accurately are different matters entirely and must be considered and weighed individually from the matter of how the deities are, as well as in relation to how the deities are.

With syncretized deities, or deities that appear one way when merged with one locale and another way in another locale, sometimes it is challenging to know who is whom. In a syncretism, you may not know where one deity ends and another begins because the boundaries are not hard and fast, but this does not mean that the deities are the same one being, and it does not mean that the deities must be either one deity or the other deity clearly separated by a visible wall. It’s like the two mountains with a merged middle ground between them where they are both mountains at once. It’s like Brangelina in a big t-shirt.

A Cup of Wine: Reconstructionism and Spirit Work

I stayed up to “too early” one morning, watching the movie The Exorcist, while hanging out with an adorable cupcake-scented unicorn named Kissymuzzle. Her wide-stitched eyes poured over the movie which I had on in the background as I read a recent skirmish-of-words about reconstructionism and spirit work. I love a good classic movie, and I had forgotten how intense this one was, from the scene where the little girl is traumatized by well-intentioned people who put her through a spinal tap, through the scene of demon-induced guacamole-colored vomit. In between listening to English-spoken-backwards and the cries of a helpless mother, I read comment after comment of people communicating completely past one another and evading actual useful concerns.

There were some missed opportunities here in conversations about reconstructionism and spirit work in polytheist settings. Both viewpoints in the conversation that I read online had valid, important matters to discuss. Both viewpoints (which are not always separate and need not be separate) had deep concerns, which potentially support and enhance each other.


Reconstructionism, a useful way to honor the deities, relies on researching the cultural, religious, social, temporal, and local contexts that a deity was once worshipped in, as best we can within the limits of scientific and academic disciplines. These disciplines provide extensive, vast, and multifaceted information. The information available is just as limited as it is vast and just as vast as it is limited. A person employing a reconstructionist methodology will use this information to provide better structure and context in which to honor the deities and make up for the structures and contexts which have been lost since antiquity. In regards to research and academia, certainly we human creatures get things wrong from time to time but we also get things right, or at least not completely erroneous, often enough. Reconstructionist methods are particularly useful because if we know a deity valued or preferred something in the past, the chances are that the deity will still value or prefer the same or similar in the present.

Despite the critiques of reconstructionism very few people who engage in reconstructionist methods actually believe that they are engaging in worshiping the deities exactly as it was done in ancient times, or believe that this is possible when it is not, nor do they typically want to regress and push civilization and technology backwards. We do not live in ancient times, and we cannot pretend that we do—and most who employ reconstructionist methods have no illusions that this could be done or is that it would be desirable. Despite the critical refrains from others, only a few who engage in a reconstructionist methodology would actually want to bring back entire ancient cultures wholesale, or demolish modern technology, or both. Some folks who rely on reconstructionism may sometimes employ in rites activities that look like or are much like reenactment, while many others do not. Full-scale reenactment of some sort is not at all required or necessary, and isn’t something that happens all that frequently.

Also, many people who use reconstructionism do not engage in rites which are sometimes compared to Civil War reenactment weekends or live action role playing games.* Sometimes some rites (not always and not all rites) can end up devoid of the very deities folks claim to honor, and the rite can end up being more like a pageant put on for other people rather than an actual rite to honor the deities. When this happens (and it does happen sometimes, not all the time and not all rites, and not all rites that are heavy on pageantry), then the critique that a rite is more like theater with props and acting and less as an activity that honors the deities, is apt. Yet it is helpful to keep in mind that this concern is not just limited to reconstructionist-based rites.

Some critics worry that the structures created using reconstructionist methods are stagnant and dead and inflexible, or that the rites are little more than empty theatrics, or that people who employ the methods want to live in a fantasy-land of the past. Although these things are sometimes true, they are not always true. Is the concern that these things can happen valid? Yes, absolutely, but it doesn’t happen all of the time in all rites and with all people who employ a reconstructionist methodology.

Spirit Work

There are many ways to engage in spirit work and many different activities can arguably fit under this category—activities anywhere from a skilled divination reading, to trance and possession work, and many more. I’ve seen increasing pressure on individual polytheists or assumptions that a polytheist must be a spirit worker. This isn’t true: not every polytheist must engage in spirit work—it is by no means an expectation or a prerequisite to honoring the deities and should not be assumed as such. It’s totally ok and normal not to engage, or want to engage, in spirit work, just as not everyone who employs a reconstructionist method could, would, or can learn an ancient language. Different folks have different skills sets, talents, inclinations, and strengths. Not everyone has to do spirit work, and not everyone who engages in some form of spirit work engages in or is skilled or knowledgeable about other forms of spirit work. Experience differs greatly and across different skill levels and different talent levels, different groups, different individual people, different modalities and systems, and connection with beings or Beings. Spirit work, because it can provide a direct communications with the deities and the ancestors, is an important part of engaging with the deities and of restoring our veneration of them.

Critiques about spirit work include “it’s all faked,” or “it’s not what the ancients did.” Many, if not most, of us have seen spirit work gone amuck, and sometimes this occurs from lack of discipline or structure.** There is a lot of stuff that passes as spirit work which is done with little to no standards, without a check and balance, or without an unbiased second opinion—it’s sometimes not as easy in our circumstances to fact-check spirit work as it is to fact-check history. Also, our spirit work traditions are broken: we struggle to reclaim them, haltingly, fumblingly, and we struggle to find language to express these matters. Sometimes, unfortunately, some folks take an easy way out of assuming a level of competence and relativity where “each person does it right for them, no one can do spirit work wrong” when this is not the case. An observer can easily take one glance at these problems and a proliferation of awkward spirit work, and assume that it is all the same and all poorly done.

Many activities included in spirit work are indeed what the ancients did. But sometimes (not all the time, just sometimes) the manner of going about doing these activities can differ today from what was done in ancient times. If there is evidence that a deity has demonstrated that the method of communication is accurate, real, and appropriate, then this is acceptable to that deity in that situation. The critique of “all spirit workers have an ‘anything goes’ mentality” comes into play here. Some spirit workers may have this attitude and problems can result, so in some situations these concerns are valid, but not all the time always with all spirit workers and all spirit work. Also, just because an observer isn’t aware of the rules, the structures, or the disciplines, it does not mean that there are no rules, structures, or disciplines.

Furthermore, critiques are heaped on spirit workers as a group—and a very diverse non-cohesive group at that—as a blanket whole. Some critics accuse some spirit workers of living in a fantasy land of their own mind; although this is sometimes true it is not always true. Is there bad spirit work? Yes, absolutely, and concerns are, but it is not all spirit work all the time everywhere with every spirit worker that is problematic.

Both Together

A person who employs reconstructionist methods but completely discredits spirit work, or a spirit worker who completely dismisses reconstructionist methods, are both run a risk of missing an opportunity to address very real and useful concerns.

One who leans more towards a strict reconstructionist methodology is often concerned about structure, discipline, standards, and making certain that the deities are honored appropriately. Where spirit work falls short, or is less-skilled, reconstructionism is one technique which can help provide correction. For instance perhaps an inexperienced spirit worker suggests to me to make an offering of pork to a Canaanite deity. I know from research that the Canaanite deities do not receive pork as an offering, and a broader cultural reference flags this as potentially insulting. Thus reconstructionism just provided a useful check and balance. Also, if one doesn’t have much experience working with a particular deity or access to spirit work or a spirit worker, reconstructionism can provide an excellent default setting that helps a person make one of the best approaches possible towards particular deities and ancestors. Because I may not know the level or quality of work a person claiming to do spirit work actually does, I will often quite strongly suggest utilizing the standards uncovered through reconstructionist methodology. Reconstructionism is among the best methods to actively honor the deities well, especially for a layperson and / or a person who does not engage in spirit work and /or a spirit worker who is experiencing fluctuations, difficulties, or shifts. What spirit work can gain from reconstructionism is structure, discipline, a greater depth of context, and a deeply rooted connection to that-which-came-before-us in time and space.

A spirit worker often wants ensure that the deities have the opportunity to interact with people as they chose to instead of being treated as fossilized remnants of a bygone era. Spirit workers typically have concerns that some reconstructionist-based rites can become stagnant or be simply a pantomime without depth and substance. What reconstructionism can gain from spirit work is the opportunity to experience the deities’ presences, and to engage with the deities and ancestors actively. Sometimes there are gaps in research and errors, misinterpretations, mistranslations, or misrepresentations. Spirit work can help add the guidance of the deities and the ancestors themselves to correct these problems. Spirit work also helps deepen the relationships of people with the deities in the modern day—and this is vital if we are to continue to honor the deities in the modern context that we are in and to ensure that these ways endure.

Both spirit work and reconstructionism add meaning, depth, value, and usefulness. We require both skill sets and the wealth of talents of the people who employ them if we are to revive the veneration of our many deities. This is an “all hands on deck” situation, what with the degeneration and destruction that our polytheistic ways have suffered through the centuries. Both spirit work and reconstructionism ideally are ways to make certain the deities are honored well and appropriately: this common goal is the most important goal of all as we re-learn how to engage with our many deities. Reconstructionist methods provide a cup—not the only cup, but a very good, very useful and appropriate cup—while good spirit work provides the wine. A cup, a structure of some sort, is needed to drink the wine, otherwise the wine spills. A cup without the wine, spirits, is empty. When one person says “wine is better than cups,” or “cups are better than wine,” one is missing the point, and likely missing out on a good drink.


* There is nothing wrong with either U.S. Civil War reenactment weekends or live action role playing games—neither of which are the same thing, and neither of which are polytheistic religions. However, sometimes this comparison is apt especially where acts of devotion are little more than elaborate theater; and sometimes it is not apt. I caution against using the term “LARPer” specifically as a silencing, derailing, and/or discrediting tactic towards not just those who use a reconstructionist methodology, but to those who do not use a reconstructionist methodology, and to those people who are polytheists and actual LARPers as if a LARPer could not distinguish her religion from her gaming. (I’ve seen LARP-comparisons used as a derailing tactics in all three circumstances.) To use the term “LARPer” as a tactic in polytheist conversations can potentially reinforce bad stereotypes around LARPing and, more importantly in this context, also shut down what might be a useful conversation amidst polytheists. I object where the term is used as a derailing tactic, or a tactic meant simultaneously to end conversations and discredit the other party in the conversation, or both. It reminds me of how the term “fluffy bunny” is thrown around in some Pagan and New Age conversations as a similar tactic. This term and comparison is not always used in the manner of bad tactics and as such it is fine, but when it is used as a silencer we need to be observant and mitigate foul play in otherwise constructive conversations.

**Not all undisciplined spirit work is necessarily bad spirit work; not all unstructured spirit work is necessarily bad spirit work. Sometimes things just crop up spontaneously—such is the nature of spirits. However discipline, or structure, or both, tend to yield useful results, and working without them can be a risky, even dangerous, act beyond what is already a risky venture.