Articles by Guest Author

The Cycles of Reality

by Ryan Smith

Reality in pre-Christian Scandinavian lore is not fixed, unchanging, or static. Much like life and the natural world all things go through cycles of growth, change, and eventual decline and demise. As is described in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda in the beginning was the Ginnungagap, a great void with the fires of Muspelheim on one side and the ice of Niflheim on the other.1 One day the fire and ice rose up and collided in the gap, creating a great cloud of steam from which emerges Ymir and the great cow Audumla.2 Ymir sired the frost giants with all living in a land of frost for an indeterminate amount of time. One day Odin, Vili, and Ve, the grandsons of Buri and an unknown frost giant, rose up against Ymir, slew it, and in conjunction with all the Gods used its body to create Midgard.3 At some point in the future the giants of Muspelheim, led by Surtr, will rise up, slay the Gods, and burn the Nine Worlds after a new world will emerge from the ashes.4

The cyclical pattern is very consistent throughout the lore. At the beginning of each part of the cycle there is an established reality: the Ginnungagap, Ymir and the land of frost, and Midgard. Each of these arrangements of reality grow, change, and come to an end through deliberate action bringing about cataclysmic transformation whether this is in the form of the collision of fire and ice, Odin’s uprising against Ymir, or Ragnarok. These reality-shaping events are followed by a new world created from the elements and components of the old. This cosmic cycle can be summed up in three stages:

Established Reality

The present order of the cosmos as best known. This is seemingly fixed, unchanging, and permanent to those who exist within known reality.

Cataclysmic Upheaval

Reality is torn asunder by events of cosmic proportions.

Reconstitution and Reconfiguration of Reality

The survivors of the cataclysm use the components, elements, and foundations of the old order to construct a new form of reality. This reality is one that is more beneficial to those who craft it as they create the conditions necessary to thrive.

The flow of this cycle is summed in the chart below:


Also shown are other cycles observed in nature. In each case a similar pattern of new forms transformed from the elements of the old is present. The life cycle is an excellent example of the same concept at work. Plants, fed and energized by the light of the sun, grow and feed herbivores. These herbivores become prey to carnivores who eventually die. When the carnivores die their bodies break down to their core components, enriching the soil enabling the growth of new plant life thus ensuring the cycle continues.5 The seasons follow a similar march from the cold of winter to the promise of spring, the bounty of summer, and the retreat and preparations of autumn for the coming winter.6 Water, in turn, pours from the sky as rain and snow, runs across the land in rivers and streams feeding lakes, oceans, and glaciers before evaporating and returning to the atmosphere.7 Even in the case of the cycle of living, beginning with birth and ending with death, those who reach the end of their individual cycles contribute directly and indirectly to the lives of those who follow them.8 Whether through reproduction or the influence of their actions on the world all that lives plays a critical role in shaping the lives of those who follow.

The progression of events and worlds in the Voluspa follows similar logic to the cycles of life. The end of each world does not herald, as it does in the Abrahamic tradition, the end of reality. Each reality dies and its components, catalyzed by the upheaval that brought their demise, are reformed into a new reality. The demise of one world gives rise to a new one with the universe continuing on much like the natural cycles. This cycle is mirrored in the creation of humans who were made from two dead pieces of driftwood.9 Just as the Gods made Midgard from pre-existing materials they fashioned the first two humans from existing materials, giving unto them the gifts of heat, breath, and intellect. Nothing comes from nothing in Heathen cosmology as all things obey these fundamental dynamics.

A cyclical understanding of the universe is distinct from the more linear, mechanistic view which prevails in society thanks to Abrahamic influence. Reality, whether by the Big Bang or act of God, comes into existence with set rules and boundaries. If and when it ends that end is it. In such linear views of reality everything is arranged like some vast book with a clear beginning, end, and narrative describing how one gets from one to the other. This imposes a top-down, dominating understanding of the world where the ideas and opinions in line with this narrative are the only ones worthy of consideration and all others are secondary at best. It is an ideal perspective for asserting singular truths and monopolies on information at the cost of constricting discourse, discussion, and debate.

This cyclical understanding of the universe approaches reality from a different perspective. When one thing dies, breaks down, or falls apart its constituent elements and components go back into the world to facilitate new life and new creations. Even if a person or an animal dies without siring offspring they contribute to new life both literally, in the form of their decomposing body, and abstractly through the wisdom gained from their experiences, the fruits of their labor, and the impact their deeds had on the world around them. Just as the seasons progress so do lives, societies, and the universe. These broad strokes are consistent even as the details vary.

Another crucial element of Heathen cosmology is the relationship between the Gods and the universe. Unlike Abrahamic tradition, where God is present in all of creation while also being transcendent and outside of it,10 the Gods exist within the same reality as us and are not above or outside of it. While They engage in a great act of creation when shaping Midgard this is done within the context already established patterns and principles. Reality is not willed into existence ex nihilo11 but created from existing components. They also do not create the whole of the universe. When or where the Yggdrasil came from is not known and only Midgard and Asgard are mentioned as creations of the Gods in the lore.12 Even with all Their preparations, might, and wisdom the Gods cannot totally avert the inevitability of Ragnarok and Their own demise. They are a part of the same reality as the rest of us and, like everything else, are bound to its cycles.

What this suggests for Heathens is very profound. If, as the lore shows, reality is the result of endless moving cycles and great upheaval and transformation then we must consider how we live with a similar understanding. When the world and how it is organized is not permanent but can be changed through action this suggests the same is true for our lives, society, and the world around us. The main constants in such a conception of reality are transformation, interaction, and webs of relationship.

This poses a serious question to Heathens and adherents of such an understanding of reality. If all things can be changed through deliberate action one must ask what needs to be changed and what should be preserved. One of the main themes of the coming of Ragnarok is the struggle of the Gods, especially Odin, to delay the destruction of the Nine Worlds in Surtr’s flames. Their actions to maintain the order of reality as it currently is, on the grand scale, suggest there are certain conditions and arrangements worth preserving. Supplementing this are the actions of Odin, Vili, and Ve in ending the order dominated by Ymir and its offspring to pave the way for Midgard.

This dynamic, when taken in the context of other statements in the Havamal, give a clear sense of what should be maintained and what should be changed. The custom of hospitality, as illustrated in multiple verses in the Havamal,13 calls for aiding those who come in need regardless of who they are as best illustrated in this verse:

“Curse not thy guest, nor show him thy gate,
Deal well with a person in want.”

Havamal 135

Equally potent is the reminder of the despair those in a state of poverty and deprivation feel:

“Better a house, though a hut it be,
A man is master at home;
His heart is bleeding whose needs must beg
When food he fain would have.”

Havamal 37

Greed and cowardice are condemned as fiercely as generosity is praised:

“The lives of the brave and noble are best,
Sorrows they seldom feed;
But the coward fear of all things feels,
And not gladly the greedy gives.”

Havamal 48

This verse is an especially potent example with its assertion that those who are brave and noble, in turn, do not feed sorrow. In turn is the reminder that all find joy in life in one way or another and how important this is:

“All wretched is no one, though never so sick;
Some from their children have joy,
Some win it from kinsmen, and some from their wealth,
And some from worthy works.”

Havamal 69

These verses are paired with reminders to confront problems directly and resolve them rather than hoping they will fix themselves by leaving them be:

“The sluggard believes they shall live forever
If the fight they face not;
But age shall not grant them the gift of peace,
Though spears may spare their life.”

Havamal 16

This point is made even more potently in a later verse:

“If evil you see and evil you know
Speak out against it and give your enemies no peace.”

Havamal 127

One of the most direct reminders is the speech given by Beowulf in the famous Anglo-Saxon saga giving his reasons for voyaging to King Hrothgar’s hall:

“Then news of Grendel, hard to ignore, reached me at home: sailors brought stories of the plight you suffer in this legendary hall, how it lies deserted, empty and useless once the evening light hides itself under heaven’s dome. So every elder and experienced councilman among my people supported my resolve to come here to you, King Hrothgar, because all knew of my awesome strength.”14

What motivates him, according to his speech, is hearing of the plight of Hrothgar’s people. Nowhere does he demand or show expectation of compensation, only asking for the chance to fight Grendel on his own terms.15

What is clear is that which is beneficial to life is worthy of preservation and support. That which is harmful, stifling, or causes suffering must be replaced with new arrangements that are nurturing, supportive, and beneficial to as many as possible.

Those who perpetuate arrangements that cause harm must be opposed and neutralized by the most effective means for creating a new, better reality for all. The massive orgy of destruction and death preceding Ragnarok, as described in the Voluspa, offers a grim contrast with the first sign given by the Seeress being the total breakdown of society as humanity destroys itself:

“Brothers shall fight and fell each other,
And sisters’ sons shall kinship stain;
Hard it is on earth, with mighty abandon;
Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall humans each other spare.”

Voluspa 45

Just as positive change is achieved through deliberate action so too is negative, detrimental change realized.

As has been shown in the cycles of reality change occurs because of action. All things eventually fade, age, and pass on but their replacement by newer forms is only possible through deeds, not waiting for the inevitable to happen on its own. The yawning gap was only replaced through the surging of fire and ice. Ymir’s waste was only replaced by Midgard through Odin, Vili, and Ve’s heroic uprising. Midgard and the Nine Worlds, in turn, will be replaced by the world yet to come because of the actions of the followers of Surtr, other Jotnar, and Odin’s plans and deeds in preparation for the final day.

Deeds drive the worlds, transform them, and make it possible for life to become better. It is also possible, as shown by Rangarok, for deeds to ruin them. The question we are left with is what should be changed, what should be preserved, and how to best ensure the most beneficial order for as many lives as possible.

About the Author:
Ryan Smith is a practicing Heathen sworn to Odin living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-founder of Heathens United Against Racism and a founding member of the Golden Gate Kindred. He recently finished his Masters in History, specializing in economic history, the modern Middle East, and maritime history, and currently works as an outdoor educator.

Deep Polytheism: On the Agency and Sovereignty of the Gods

Keynote | Many Gods West 2015

by Morpheus Ravenna

Good evening. Thanks for that welcome.

What I want to talk with you about tonight is the agency and sovereignty of the Gods.

This begins in understanding what Gods are, and how They are distinct from forms such as archetypes. Now, this may sound to you like I will be beating a dead horse here, or preaching to the choir; and it’s true that the differences between Gods and archetypes have been much discussed in our communities. But here’s the thing: we are going to keep returning to this issue because it is crucial for us. Polytheism is relationship to Gods, and we can’t form relationship to beings while we are misconstruing their identities. So this is foundational for us as polytheists, and what I want to share with you are some tools for how to think about this question, so that we can move into a deeper level of engagement with the Gods.

The key, in my mind, to understanding the nature of the Gods and what makes Them distinct from archetypes, is agency. And this is a theme I am going to emphasize a lot here.

One of the reasons I think people do conflate the Gods with archetypes is that in our experiences, they are often coupled together. Archetypes, we know, are images arising from the collective consciousness of human beings which are reflective of essential human experiences or responses, and which may or may not be enspirited with consciousness of some kind. It’s my feeling that if archetypes are enspirited, it is the Gods who animate them, and because of this intimacy between them, it can be hard for some of us to see where one ends and the other begins.

Now, this gets confusing on a number of levels. First, to experience the reality of the Gods requires that we trust our sense experiences, including those of our subtle senses – something that many people in our culture find very challenging to do and which most of us are trained not to do. At the same time, while it is important for us to trust the evidence of our senses, it is also important to recognize the limits of our sensory frame of reference.

What I mean by that is that our sensory experiences of the Gods are not the Gods themselves, because They are inherently grander than our capacity to experience Them. Thus, the Gods as we know Them are something more like processes of encounter, rather than fixed forms. That is to say, the presence we experience is always a mask or manifestation of that God, shaped in such a way as to translate into our more limited consciousness and frame of reference.

So people often find it difficult to separate the psychological experience of an archetypal form from a spiritual experience of a God, because the knowledge of how to recognize the difference is a matter of not just subtle awareness, but also trained awareness.

And because they don’t show up for us neatly separated. These masks or forms that the Gods adopt in order to connect with us can be archetypes, and they do exist as images within the human collective consciousness. The crucial distinction to make here is that from the polytheist standpoint, those forces taking form as Gods are real, They exist independently of our experience, and They can act upon us up to and including physical effects, whether or not we believe that They are real.

Here’s a model I’ve used to illuminate this: Imagine being inside a church, and here is a stained glass window. The window contains an image in colored glass, and that image is lit and brought to life by sunlight pouring through the window.

Here, the image in glass is the archetype – it is an image, a symbol, and as we experience it, it can be alive with light and power. But, in truth, it is not in itself alive or exerting force in the world; it is a kind of passive vessel which is being enlivened by the agency of a greater force. That force, the sun that is generating the light enlivening the image, is the Gods. The church, in this model, is the human mind.

Thus, the experience we have as a consciousness trapped inside the walls of the body is that of an image which comes to life within our experience. It is taking on the form and shape of this picture in glass which, like an archetype, was conceived and made by the human mind and hand. But – and this part is important – its life is real and comes from beyond us; we can feel its warmth on our skin if we stand in the beam. That sun was not made by our hands or minds, and it will rise and set in its own courses regardless of our awareness of it.

This makes intuitive sense and I think we can see how easy it is to conflate the presence and the image, the God and the archetype, because we are experiencing them together.

Now, let’s go deeper into this. Let’s try another model: What if I suggested thinking of archetypes as clothing that the Gods wear?

Let’s take The Smith. As an archetype, this image occurs throughout many cultures, recognizable by emblems such as the hammer, the forge, the primal elements of fire and metal. To access its meaning, all we need to see are the accoutrements of hammer and leather apron and we recognize this archetype: The Smith. The archetype is understood to represent concepts such as transformation through forging; skill and creative power; the capacity to create material culture or express oneself through art. In the psychological dimension, Jungians speak of the Smith as representing “motivation to manifest the extraordinary”; and of “bringing the creative principle to the earthly realm.”

But notice. All of this speaks to the psychological and cultural functions of smithcraft. The archetype, you see, does not tell us the story of the being who occupies it. To know this, we have to look deeper than the image – deeper than the clothing. We have to ask the being’s identity, their name, their story.

For the Gods have stories and identities like all living beings do. Let me introduce you to Goibniu, one of the Gods who carries smithcraft among the Irish; His identity and His story are different from Brighid, from Wayland, from Hephaestos, from any other smithing God we might name. This archetype that each of these Gods may embody – the apron, if you will, that a smithing God may wear – it only tells us something about Their job. It doesn’t tell us who They are.

This is not to say that you can’t have a relationship with an archetype – you can! But it is inherently a functional relationship, not a personal one. To delve into full devotional relationship, we have to get beyond the blacksmith’s apron. Engaging with Gods as archetypes is something like dealing with your local blacksmith as a customer. You go to him for horse-shoeing, or to get a tool made, or to get a quote on a custom ornamental gate. Because that’s what he is to you: he is the hammer and the apron. There can be reciprocity – you pay him for his work, and this sustains him. You offer attention to the archetype, and this sustains it. But at this level of engagement, what matters is his function: how well he does the job of smith for you.

This relationship doesn’t go deeper until you step outside the realm of function. What is your local blacksmith’s name? How did he come to be here? What does he do after work? Would he like to have a beer with you some evening? Oh, he likes beer? Now we’re starting to connect to him as a real being.

His name is Goibniu, and He likes beer; in fact, it turns out He has a brewing operation out back and sidelines making kickass homebrew for His family and friends. Sure, He’ll shoe your horse, but His passion is really fine embossed spearheads that never rust. He nearly died a while back in a violent forge incident involving a poorly-vetted red-haired apprentice; but He’s doing fine now. In fact, He’s mysteriously resilient; if you ask Him what He does to stay healthy, He’ll just tell you that a good soak in the hot tub can cure anything. He has relatives all over the place and He speaks Irish, Welsh, and Latin, too. He doesn’t talk about it much, but if you stick around and He decides He trusts you, He can teach you some clever charms and spells, too.

These elements of his history and personality weave together to make up who He is; His identity. But notice how much of this is incidental to His role as a blacksmith. If you are only engaging Him as an archetype – The Smith – it doesn’t really matter what kind of beer He likes or His favorite language to recite arcane poetry in. And He probably won’t bother telling you. You don’t have a friendship until those personal details begin to matter to you – and when they do, when He becomes Goibniu to you instead of The Smith, those things will come to matter at least as much, if not far more than His skill at the forge. Because Goibniu has become a person to you rather than a function.

And I’ll offer you another example that illustrates something else about why this matters. It matters because archetypes can lead us astray.

Here is a crone Goddess. She looks like an old lady sorceress, with long, tangled gray hair and a dark robe. She arrives at the threshold of your house at nightfall, leans against the doorway, and peers at you with a piercing eye, and She asks to be welcomed in. She might have a weaver’s beam about Her person.

So this is The Crone, right? You know, the archetype of the wise woman? Jungian teachings say that The Crone represents “the ripening of natural insight and the acceptance of what is, allowing one to pass that wisdom on to others.” That’s definitely who this is, right? She’s old, gray-haired, wearing black; she’s associating herself with night and weaving and stuff. Definitely the archetypa Crone, right?

Well, it turns out that this isn’t your wise grandmotherly sage woman archetype. It’s actually the Badb, and when She adopts this crone form and comes skulking at your doorstep, peering at you through one eye, She’s not there to offer you lessons on the karmic wisdom of the ages. She’s there to curse you into quivering shards until not a bit of you will leave the house except what birds can carry in their claws. Oops. Now what?

So there’s a wrong way to deal with archetypes. And it’s the essentializing that is problematic.

What we did there was to look only at what we think are the essential features – the ones that match an archetypal pattern – and overlook the crucial details that make Her who She actually is. We needed to pay attention to the fact that She was standing on one leg and looking through one eye. We needed to pay attention to the names She gave when She introduced Herself – you know, names like “Stormy”, and “Wasteland”, and “Curse”, and “Bitch.” You see, when we are looking for an archetype – when we are looking for what we think can be essentialized instead of dealing with them as a person, we are going to run into problems.

And notice something else. When we do this to people – when we assume that we know someone’s essential character based on certain identified features, it’s called profiling.

Centering the archetype – that is to say, assuming an essential character based on looking only at the Smith’s apron and hammer, or the Crone’s hair and robe, is actually a lot like profiling. It is treating the clothing and accoutrements as if they are determinants of a person’s identity, motivation, and impact.

And we’ve seen the results of this thinking applied to our fellow humans: this is not that far removed from someone who looks at a person wearing a hoody and makes assumptions about their habits or motivations or behavior. Profiling erases a person’s humanity, their individual character, and their agency. To honor their personhood, we have to be willing to look deeper.

I opened by saying that we can’t form relationship to beings while we are misconstruing their identities. We understand this when faced with human-to-human relationships. When we profile, stereotype, misgender, or in other ways mirepresent or dismiss someone’s personhood and identity, we are refusing relationship with them as a person in favor of relating to them as a symbol.

People with visible disabilities will probably recognize what I’m getting at. If you’ve ever spent any part of your life navigating the world in a wheelchair, people probably related to you as Disability; you’ve been archetyped. If you’re a person of color, especially one who favors urban youth culture in your dress habits, people may have related to you as Thug or some other racially essentialized archetype; that’s being profiled. These are examples where a person’s identity is subordinated to what someone thinks they represent. In other words, the reduction of person to the status of symbol.

We know this is dehumanizing. The denial of personhood. It inherently flattens relationships. You cannot form authentic relationship to a someone you cannot see for who they are.

Now, I know this parallel I’m drawing might seem like a stretch to some of you. And arguably, the impacts of things like racial profiling are more manifestly harmful and cause more suffering than the archetyping that I’m comparing it to. But I think the underlying dynamic is very similar and it’s something we need to look at.

We hear this kind of language with reference to the Gods all the time. It’s everyewhere – in books, in blogs, in conversations: people talk about what the Gods “represent”. The Morrígan represents violence. Badb represents death. Goibniu represents skill. You can see how a person’s – in this case a God’s – identity and personhood is reduced to serving as a symbol for a functional category. If we recognize this thinking as dehumanizing to people, why do we feel like it is appropriate for the Gods?

I’m suggesting that if we treat the archetype as primary then we have written the Gods out as agents of their own stories. They become reflections of an image; we have erased their agency. And this brings me to my central message tonight, something which I think is foundational to Polytheism: the agency and therefore the sovereignty of spirits and of Gods.

Now, because the Internet is a place where anything you can imagine is already there, there exists a Tumblr feed called Incorrect Sylvia Plath Quotes where, as the title suggests, people post sayings and falsely attribute them as having been written by Sylvia Plath. So that’s fun. I’m glad we have an Internet, aren’t you?

Anyway, one of the quotes posted there is this one: “Girls are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.”

The lovely irony is that this has been shared around on social media absent its original not-a-Sylvia-Plath-quote context, and therefore has now come to be popularly attributed to Sylvia Plath. Because the Internet is also an infinite perpetual-motion bullshit generator.

But that is neither here nor there. My point is, the quote expresses something true and important about gender and sexism: our culture treats women as beings without agency and without sovereignty over their own bodies. It treats women as machines which you can “put kindness coins into until sex falls out.”

Well, you can probably see where I’m going with this. We’re talking about the agency and sovereignty of spirits and Gods. And I’m saying: now that we’re talking about agency, let’s consider the idea that the Gods aren’t divine vending machines that you put devotion coins into until blessings fall out.

Let’s consider the idea that the Gods are persons. Divine, greater-than-human persons, but persons still; who have identities that matter and are not reducible to symbolic status. Persons who do not exist as an extension of us, or for our benefit, but as sovereign agents in their own stories. Persons whose consent, interest and willingness to participate in relationship with us not only matters, but is primary to that relationship.

It is when we recognize these truths about our fellow human beings that we begin to be able to cultivate real relationships. When we care for someone as a person, rather than as a function or a symbol, we seek relationship not for the benefits that we might get, but because we find that person worthy.

So with the Gods: devotional intimacy begins where we step beyond the archetyping, beyond relating to Them as symbols, beyond asking what They “represent”. It begins where we move beyond treating Them as blessing vending machines and begin offering the coin of devotion because of Their inherent worth. It begins where we step beyond commanding and demanding and into celebration of Their sovereign magnficience. Whatever that brings.

Agency is key. To enter into genuine relationship as one being speaking with another is to recognize that that being has its own history, context, and agenda, independent of our own. Polytheism, as a religious practice of relationship, can only begin when we recognize and honor the agency and sovereignty of spiritual beings. Their lives and life force are not ours to command; Their homes, landscapes, gateways, contexts, and histories are not there for our pleasure or even for our teaching. They live in the world as we do, existing for Their own purposes, pursuing Their own destinies, in sovereign relationship to Their landscapes and contexts.

And that bit about relationship to landscape brings me to my next point. You see, I think the 20th century had it backwards in the prevailing view of Gods and archetypes.

In the Jungian school of thinking, we typically see archetypes presented as images animated within the collective consciousness of humankind, reflecting fundamental human experiences. Archetypes are presented in this model as a sort of perennial image or Platonic pure form, which expresses itself through distinct characters in different cultures. So the archetypal Smith exists first as an archetype in the human soul, and is then expressed in the form of different smithing Gods. Because this is a psychological model, it makes the human psyche the origin of the Gods, painting them as images refracted from these perennial archetypes into distinct cultural forms.

But I think it’s the other way round. I think we got it backwards because the 20th century had already forgotten that the Gods are alive.

I think archetypes are better understood as shadows the Gods leave on the landscape of our collective imagination. Something like the way human life leaves an imprint on the physical landscape, the Gods leave imprints in our interior landscape. Both are shadows which record only functions.

Think of it this way: archaeologists might uncover the remnants of a settlement, showing where people slept, where they worked, what they made. Here we can see there was a defensive fortification, the imprint of a ditch and bank. Here, the postholes from an ancient roundhouse. Deposits of animal bone from feasting. Metal scraps and tools from a workshop. Votive treasures sunk beneath the waters of a lake. Grave mounds with their decorated urns and burnt bone.

These are impersonal; they convey functions: protection, social cohesion, food sharing, skill and craft, engagement with the unseen, funerary honoring. But the names, identities and stories of those who walked and lived there are unrecorded. We can’t see who built the rath, who presided in the roundhouse, who cut the boar at the feast, who swung the hammer, who poured the offering, who wept over the grave mound. Those personal story elements are lost.

If sites like these are the physical remnants of human life imprinted in the landscape, archetypes may be the imaginal imprints left by the Gods in our interior psychic landscape. They are the shadows left on the screen, the imprint of memory showing where the Gods have passed, how the psychic landscape of our species was shaped by Their presence.

There’s a delightful episode from Irish myth that I can’t resist sharing here – speaking of the Gods leaving their marks on our landscapes.

So now I’m going to introduce you to the Dagda. He is a chieftain among Gods, huge, and mighty in both form and appetites, a God who practices druidic magic, and hospitality, and warfare. We see Him wearing a short, hooded cape that extends to the hollow of His two elbows. And a brown tunic is on Him underneath that, which is never long enough to cover His manhood. That is to say, the tunic is of ordinary length. The Dagda… Well, He is extraordinary.

And among His extraordinary possessions is this very mighty club. The stories tell that it is as thick and as long as a tree trunk, and it trails behind Him on the ground. It was said that this mighty club of His is so heavy that it was the work of eight men to move it. So, well, we aren’t surprised when His little tunic fails to cover it, are we? The ancient Irish were not shy about bodies, I’ll just say that.

When He drags this club along the ground, it carves a track that is deep enough to make the boundary ditch that marks the border of a province. And a boundary ditch like that is called “The Track of the Dagda’s Club” for that reason.

And so in this story our mighty Dagda is traveling, and dragging His great heavy club. As He goes along He sees a girl in front of Him, a good-looking young woman with an excellent figure, her hair in beautiful tresses. The Dagda desires her.

Now He’s just come from the camp of His enemies, who have tried to trick Him into violating the protocols of hospitality by making Him eat an entire house-sized cauldron of porridge. Did I mention His appetites are mighty? Of course He ate it all. But now, because of His huge, full belly, He is impotent. And so the girl is mocking Him for His impotence, and they get into a fight. And a very bawdy scene unfolds, and she’s beating Him about, and she throws Him so hard He sinks deep into the earth and makes a furrow, and she’s jumping up and down on Him, until His belly finally unloads all that porridge. I’m telling you, the ancient Irish were not shy.

So, well, He has His potency back, and He climbs up out of the furrow, and He picks her up, and now we come to the sexy part. I’m just going to say it one more time – it’s not demure.

He produces three great stones from his pouch. He sets each stone into the ground before her and says, “These are for my penis and testicles.”… Then the story tells “He bared her pubic hair to his vision. Then the Dagda pierced fiercely against his mistress and they made love after that, repeatedly.”

And there resulted from that a great mark in the land at Beltraw Strand where they made love, and a great pool of His semen from this bulling, and it is said that the place is called the Mark of the Axe of the Dagda from this, or the Pool of Semen of the Dagda, depending how you translate the name.

And after this, she asks Him not to go to battle, and of course He insists that he will.

“You will not go,” she says, “because I will become a stone at the mouth of every ford you will cross.”

And the Dagda says “Yes, but you will not keep me from the battle. I will tread heavily on every stone, and the marks of my heel will be carved on those stones forever.”

And she says, “But I will be a giant oak in every ford and blocking every pass that you need to cross.”

And he says, “But I will pass, and the mark of my axe will remain in every oak of every place forever.”

And people have ever since seen the mark of the Dagda’s axe in every oak, and of His footprints on every stone, and the track of His mighty club that carved the landscape. And the furrow where He fell when she threw Him down, and the place where they made love, are forever marked in the landscape.

This story is about a lot of things, but what we’re looking at here is how it’s a story about the landscape being shaped by the Gods. Even when we think the Gods are gone, Their marks on us remain. We ourselves are a map shaped and carved by Their memory.

But, of course, the Gods are not gone. Modernity has just been ignoring Them, or at best reducing Them to symbols representing functions, to archetypes in the human interior landscape. It has been, to return to an earlier metaphor, talking to the blacksmith’s apron and forgetting to ask His name.

But the Gods are still with us. And what I think is most important to grasp is the difference between the static nature of a symbol or an archetpye, and the dynamic, living nature of a God. And the key to this is story. Living beings don’t just exist, they have stories. They have an origin, they come from somewhere in particular, and they experience an arc of change.

Now, when I speak of the Gods having stories, I’m not just talking about Their mythological stories, like the story of the Dagda I just shared. I’m speaking also of Their journeys through history. That is to say, the Gods have multiple levels of story that are interwoven. Because of course, for some Gods, Their mythological stories do include births, life arcs, struggles, and even deaths. For other Gods, Their mythological stories may tell that They have no arc – Their story may be that They are eternal and unchanging.

But all Gods have a historical story. Meaning, Their engagement with humanity – without which we would have no awareness of Them as Gods at all – that engagement with humanity has a story arc. It began somewhere, in a particular place on this planet, in a particular cultural framework, at a particular time in history.

Gods and spirit beings may not be bound in bodies or even in time, but Their stories still emerge from a place and time, and not vaguely from everywhere. They emerge from landscapes, or landscape features in a particular place; or They emerge from beings or populations of beings who lived and died, in a particular ecology or culture. They emerge from cultural flowerings that took place in a particular region at a particular period in history, shaped by the land and the people who named and worshiped Them. This becomes part of who They are, just as the family, landscape, place, and culture that we each grow in is part of who we are.

So: story as an element of the character of the Gods. This is an expansive concept. We begin to recognize that there is so much more to know about the Gods than what They “symbolize” or “represent”. Yes, we can learn Their mythological stories, but we can also come to know Them from Their journeys through history. Where They first came to be known, where They have traveled, who brought Them, where They stayed and found root. How They have been worshiped, what has fed Them in this place and that place. What languages They have heard and learned. Who They have become through these journeys and movements. What relationships with other Gods They have participated in – and how those relationships have shifted within Their stories and in the long arc of history.

It is an expansive concept. You know that feeling where you’re starting to get to know someone, and you realize how much there is to know about them? Like you could sit and talk and listen for weeks and never get enough? When you want to know where they’ve been and what they’ve seen and what they think and feel about this, and that, and everything else?

It happens when we fall in love, and when we discover a new friendship or kinship, and when we get a chance to talk to someone we admire. You know what that is? That’s what happens when we discover someone’s humanity – when their personhood suddenly becomes deeply real to us. Everything about them, every little detail of their being and history begins to matter.

So there’s something else important here. When we recognize the Gods as beings with identities rather than as symbols, expansion happens. When we recognize Them as agents within their own stories, expansion happens. Greater vistas for learning, and greater opportunities for connection and relationship are opening up. New and deeper questions come up faster than we can learn answers. That expansion, that deepening, is an indicator that we are on the track of something important. I often say that if you’re doing your religion right, it should feel like a bottomless well – the deeper you go, the deeper you discover that you can go. That is what happens when we start to recognize the agency and sovereignty of the Gods.

It’s expansive. It goes even deeper. We can look at the story arcs of the Gods engaging with history, but we can simultaneously recognize that They Themselves may not be bound by time – may exist in a non-linear relationship to these historical journeys we are looking at. Thus, it is conceivable that every form and habit and identity that a God may have undergone throughout history could be simultaneously reachable within devotional relationships.

Imagine if you could contact and talk to and get to know someone you love at every age of their life, in every one of the identities they have occupied. Once we recognize evolution and change as possibilities within the stories of the Gods, it becomes possible for us to engage with any part of Them along that story arc.

So this leads to some fascinating questions. We can recognize the Gaulish Gobanno and the Welsh Gofannon and the Irish Goibniu as having interconnected stories – perhaps representing a journey from an origin hearth into new lands along with the movements of Celtic peoples; or perhaps representing a refraction into distinct personalities from an earlier parent divinity, some ancient proto-Celtic smithing God. Similar questions arise in relation to many deities; for example Cathubodua of Gaul and Her cognate, Badb Catha of Ireland.

Now, when faced with these questions and complexities, our temptation may be to essentialize and begin speaking of an archetypal Smith or an archetypal Crow. But the Polytheist’s response is to recognize that whoever that ancestral deity was, They too were a living God with agency within Their own story. And what we are finding is that we can engage with any part of this evolving complex of divinities from ancient past to present day because all of Them exist simultaneously.

So, for example, I can connect devotionally with Cathubodua from Gaul, with Badb Catha from Ireland, and with the ancient proto-Celtic progenitor within whom these distinct identities dissolve in deep time and whose name would have been something like Bodua – She Who Warns. And I can do this without essentializing any of Them to a flat archetype – I can do this while still honoring and engaging with Them as sovereign beings.

We begin to see how deep it can go, and how expansive it can become, when we recognize the Gods as living beings within their own stories. When we recognize their sovereignty.

And there’s something more that arises from that orientation. Because the Gods are alive within Their stories, we ourselves participate in the unfolding of those stories. We participate in the stories of the Gods in our studies of Them. In our asking and our researching where They came from and where They have been, we add to what is known of Them, and we help to shape those narratives. In our devotional cultus, in the knowledge of the Gods that comes through oracular and revelatory work, we contribute to Their stories. In being another of the peoples that have worshiped, fed and sung songs to Them, we become part of Their stories.

This is what comes from engaging with the Gods on this level. This is true relationship. When someone begins to matter to us as a real person within Their own story, we move beyond seeking what we can get from Them. They cease to be a symbol for something or a source of something and instead They become part of our story. We begin seeking to create a story together, a shared future.

Just so, we know we have begun to engage in deep polytheism when we stop asking “What are you here to give me?” and we start asking “How can I serve you?” We stop asking “What lessons are you here to teach me?” and we start asking “What can we do together?”

We need this expansiveness, this depth. Polytheism is experiencing a resurgance, coming back into its own after centuries of erasure. The Gods are alive and inviting us to step forward into relationship, to enter into the creation of shared history. We are being asked to step into deep relationship, into service, as the Gods draw us toward rebuilding devotional cultus.

But this resurgence is taking place surrounded by and embedded in a culture that constantly seeks to deny the Gods can even exist, let alone have agency and impact in the world. To create devotional cultus that serves the Gods and that is built in collaboration with the Gods, we have to have the courage to meet Them eye to eye and say “Yes. I am with you. What can we do together?”

“What can we do together?” This work is itself expansive, and it will depend upon our courage and willingness to go deeper. We need to be willing not only to explore our own visions of what is possible, but bold enough to ask the Gods what Their visions are, what They wish to build and to create, what paths They want to see forged before us. To go beyond the contemplation of symbol and engage with Their personhood. To go beyond transactional devotion and enter into service. To greet the Gods as sovereign beings, and enter into collaboration with Them. To go beyond seeking experiences and attend to building cultus and traditions that support Their presence in our world.

That is what we are here this weekend to do, is it not? We are here to explore that question – what can we do together with the Gods? So let’s go out there and see how deep we can go.

About the Author:

Morpheus Ravenna is a spiritual worker, artist, and writer, residing in the San Francisco Bay area. An initiate of the Anderson Feri tradition of witchcraft, she has studied and practiced devotional polytheism and the magical arts for about twenty years. Her primary spiritual practice is her devotion and dedication to the Morrigan, within the framework of Celtic heroic spirituality. She co-founded the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood, a Pagan devotional priesthood dedicated to the Morrígan, and she authors the Shieldmaiden Blog. Her earlier work at Stone City Pagan Sanctuary helped provide a space for land-based Pagan community in northern California, shown in the 2010 documentary “American Mystic.”

Morpheus makes her living as a tattoo artist, with a passion for ritual tattoos, folk magic, and tattoo design inspired by historical art and ancient civilizations. She recognizes tattooing as an initiatory art. An accomplished artist, she continues to create devotional artworks in a variety of media including oil and watercolor, ink, metalwork, and more. She also practices medieval armored combat in the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Morpheus can be reached through her website at The Coru Cathubodua Priesthood can be reached at

colouring outside the lines

Owing to a mystical dress that changes colour in the presence of Orcs, colour itself has become a recently popularized topic. In particular importance has been reference to the epics of Homer, wherein there is no mention of the colour ‘blue’ as a descriptor, and how this is used as evidence to indicate that the Ancient Greeks were incapable of recognizing the colour ‘blue’, as they evidently had no word for it.

Before we can approach the mysterious lack of ‘blue’ in ancient Greece, we have to first understand the difference between linguistic differentiation of colour and the actual perception of it. In English, we have a variety of cardinal colours, which represent ‘fundamental’ categories to which more specific shades and hues are said to belong. The colour ‘blue’ for instance encompasses a wide variety of different shades, and both general categories like ‘dark blue’ or ‘light blue’ or ‘deep blue’ are all just kinds of ‘blue’, as too are ‘navy’ and ‘neon electric glitter-blueberry’. On the other hand, English speakers believe, owing to the linguistic distinction, that there is a difference between ‘red’ and ‘pink’. ‘Dark red’ is a shade of ‘red’, but ‘pink’ has its own distinct range of ‘dark’ and ‘light’ that is somehow distinct from ‘red’, although ‘pink’ is itself ‘light red’, even in a range of lightness that would correspond to ‘light blue’. Simply because a language makes a distinction, such as between ‘red’ and ‘light red’ (as ‘pink’), or fails to, such as between ‘dark blue’ and ‘light blue’, does not mean that a speaker is incapable of recognizing the existence of any of these shades or colours.

Homer uses the word οἶνοψ (oînops), which means ‘wine-coloured’, to describe the sea, and also to describe cattle. It’s been said that the reason for this has to do with a lack of the word for ‘blue’, and so Homer could not possibly have described something as ‘blue’ because he had no word for it and thus could not perceive it, and thus the closest thing he could come up with was ‘wine-coloured’. And also for cows. Many of his other colour choices have also been questioned, such as his use of χάλκεος (khálkeos) ‘bronze; copper’ to describe a sky, or χλωρός (khlōrós) ‘green’ to describe honey, or a word derived from κύανος (kýanos) ‘dark blue’ to describe Poseidon’s hair. But of course obviously Homer could not have used that word anyway since apparently Ancient Greek had no word for ‘blue’ in the first place, and thus obviously he never did. Except in the Iliad. And also in the Odyssey.

One thing that seems to be forgotten about Homer’s work is that it is a piece of poetic literature, and this discussion on his use of colour is not a recent phenomenon. Using ‘wine-coloured’ as a description is vivid and emotive, because his tale is vivid and emotive and inspired. If every author were limited to literal dictionary definitions of colour perception, our accumulated history of literary works would have only a single colour: dull.

One common piece of evidence for this supposed lack of ‘blue’ is that there was no word in Ancient Greek that was etymologically related to our modern English word for ‘blue’ and which possessed the same meaning. Unfortunately, this is completely true. Because the word ‘blue’ in English is etymologically derived from a Proto-Indo-European root (*bʰlēw-) which means ‘yellow’. And while on that topic, the English word for ‘yellow’ is etymologically derived from the Proto-Indo-European root (*ǵʰelh-wos ), and is a cognate to the Ancient Greek word χλωρός (khlōrós) which means, as noted, ‘green’. Except when it meant ‘yellow’ and ‘pale’ and was used by Homer.

This ‘evidence’ in support of Ancient Greek having no colours except for when they do is especially concerning when the logic of it is applied to modern languages with current speakers who make different colour distinctions than English speakers do. For instance, many languages regard ‘blue’ and ‘green’ as a single colour, of which our ‘blue’ and our ‘green’ are merely shades. And so Mandarin has (qīng) and Japanese has 青い (aoi) and Vietnamese has xanh. But this linguistic distinction does not mean that speakers of these languages are incapable of recognizing the difference between ‘blue’ and ‘green’, and it also does not mean that they lack words for further specifying individual shades of ‘blue’ or ‘green’. Mandarin has (lán) for ‘blue’ and 绿 () for ‘green’; Japanese has (midori) and グリーン (gurīn) both for ‘green’; Vietnamese has xanh nước biển for ‘blue’ and xanh lá cây for ‘green’.

In a similar vein to the distinction made in English, as mentioned earlier wherein ‘red’ and ‘pink’ are distinct cardinal colours, but shades of ‘blue’ are all just the same, Russian makes a distinction between синий (sinij) and голубой (galuboj), which are ‘dark blue’ and ‘light blue’ respectively, and for a Russian speaker, these are completely different colours.

Despite their obviously muddy-coloured world and lack of ‘blue’, the Greeks somehow had a vibrant use of blue dye, which can be seen by looking at frescos from Knossos. Evidence of the use of lapis lazuli, imported from Afghanistan, has been seen in Mesopotamia, such as the eyes of a statue representing a priest of Ishtar, Ebih-Il, at the site of her temple in the city-state of Mari, and in Egypt, such as in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun. Such was the influence and import of lapis lazuli, that the word for the name of the stone itself became a colour word in many languages, ultimately coming into English as ‘azure’. Similarly, the dye indigo, originating in India, was greatly associated with its origin that the name of the colour in Ancient Greek was νδικόν (indikón) ‘Indian’, which was ultimately borrowed into English as ‘indigo’.

The evolution of colour words in languages are very readily linked to their usage and, quite frequently, their application in or allusion to religious imagery. Tyrian purple, a dye produced from sea snails, gave the Phoenicians their name in Greek. Owing to its incredible value, Tyrian purple became associated with the wealth necessary to acquire it and was a symbol of nobility in Etruria and Rome, and with the rise of Catholicism, was worn not just by kings, but by cardinals and bishops, and it remains so today as the colour of the Lenten season. And for Homer, the use of κύανος (kýanos) to describe the colour of Poseidon’s hair is more than just referential, but intrinsically reverential, as it honours the very watery domain that is Poseidon’s.

In looking at the world around us, it is not just our language that emerges from the experience, but our beliefs, as well. This interplay is rooted fundamentally in place and time, swirling about us as we attempt to make sense of it, grouping things into collective sets of ordered data, sometimes with rigid consistency and yet others not so much. It is our linguistic experience and background which guides us as we traverse the framework of religion and spirituality, and through those which we then redefine our perceptions of the world around us. And so although these lines we see because we have created them are convenient to colour in, they just are not as absolute as our statements about them would seem to imply.

If James Hoscyns were a colour, he would be nacre. James Hoscyns is a former recovering child prodigy and professional translator and language teacher who can be found at He can also be found every Monday on ILT’s “Two-Minute Language” YouTube series discussing language and linguistics at

Service above Self

Brennos, December 2014

Service above Self

Last night I found myself, once again, in downtown Oakland at a vigil for members of the community that have been killed by the police. This was a rare peaceful moment in the troubles that have been consuming our city lately. People gathered on a cold and rainy December night and encircled Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland for a candlelight vigil to remember these lives that have been cruelly taken from their family and friends, casualties of systemic racism and a police force that is violently opposed to taking responsibility for it’s officers’ misdeeds and crimes. This has been an emotional time for our community here in the Bay Area, a time of anger and a time of mourning. The issue of racism within the law enforcement community doesn’t have an easy fix. It’s not a problem that’s going to go away anytime soon and so the demonstrations continue.

In the last 17 days, there have been 15 nights of demonstrations in the streets. These actions have ranged from peaceful vigils to vandalism and looting. Last night was thankfully a quiet one, a moment of introspection and reflection during a period of unrest and pain. I found myself reflecting on these movements that have been springing up around the world recently. Across the globe, people are standing up to reclaim their sovereignty from systems of rule that seek to compromise it.

A little over two years ago, members of my priesthood, the Coru Cathubodua, and members of our community, stood on the shore of this same lake, holding a beautiful sword that had been charged with our community’s prayers and hopes for the return of sovereignty to our land. The night before was our Samhain feast. The sword was placed on an altar in the center of the room and during the feast people went up to it and held it and whispered their prayers and dreams to it. Prayers of a just land with our community living in rightful relationship with the natural world and with each other. So that morning we stood on the shore of the lake, we raised our voices to the Morrigan and the spirits of the land, and we sacrificed that sword for the sovereignty of the land, throwing it far out into the lake.

Memories of that moment became crystal clear as I was walking along the lake last night in the cold rain. I began reflecting on my path to priesthood that led me there to that lake that morning and led me there again on a windy and wet night. As my mind wandered through these paths I looked down to the sidewalk and in front of me was a section of the path that the city had engraved in flowing letters the phrase “Service above Self”

Service above Self. Three simple words that articulated my views on priesthood better than I have been able to do in pages of writing. For me, priesthood is a path of service. Service to your gods and service to your community. This is not an abstract concept. Service isn’t a theoretical mindset but a ‘get your hands dirty and wear out the soles of your shoes’ kind of endeavor. It’s a path that can consume your life. ‘Priest’ is not a title I hold lightly, as a matter of fact I have trouble seeing it as a title at all. ‘Priest’ is not something that I am, it is something that I do. ‘Priest’ means not going to bed when you are exhausted because the gods are vocal and want offerings and want to be heard. It means spending hours of my day answering emails and questions from individuals that are looking for help decoding their own messages from the gods. It means hours of ritual planning and business meetings. It means daily devotional practice and offerings. Recently for me, priesthood has meant marching alongside and providing first aid and support to people demonstrating in the streets so that they can have their basic human rights returned to them and be treated equally in the eyes of the law. It has meant bandaging cuts, washing pepper spray and tear gas from people’s eyes, and sometimes getting between a demonstrator and police in riot gear to prevent the police from beating that person.

Priesthood and activism are inseparable to me. I was pushed into this most recent act of service to my community after witnessing the officers sworn to protect and serve the public brutalize a peaceful protest and tear gas a large section of my town. That night left many people with broken bones, concussions, and deep outrage at the response of the authorities.

The next night and every night since then I have been walking alongside the demonstrators with a first aid kit trying to help people when I am able to and to provide a witness to the many abuses of the police force that have been sent there to, in their own ironic words, “defend the protester’s first amendment rights”. And they have defended the protesters bloody, with batons, tazers, tear gas, pepper spray, LRAD’s (long range acoustic devices), and “non lethal” projectiles aimed at people’s heads, making them much more lethal. Those charged with defending the people are treating the people as the enemy, abusing them at demonstrations and vilifying them in the media.

So as a priest, I have no choice but to stand alongside my community. I have no choice but to speak out against injustice and abuse. I have no choice but to listen to my goddess and stand for sovereignty. Because priesthood is service; service above self.


Brennos is an activist, spirit worker and priest of the Morrigan presently living in Berkeley California. He is one of the founding members of the Coru Cathubodua, a Celtic devotional polytheist priesthood based in the Bay Area. As a priest, he works towards social justice, environmental healing, and sovereignty of the land. He writes on these and other topics on his blog, Strixian Woods.

Preparing the Way of the Gods

John Beckett, November 2014

Preparing the Way of the Gods

Polytheists are a minority within a minority. Within the Big Tent of Paganism, our numbers are small compared to those for whom many Gods are an afterthought and Gods with agency aren’t even that. But even if you lump us together with occultists, kitchen witches, and tree huggers, we’re still extremely small compared to the dominant monotheists and the rapidly-growing atheists.

From our tiny vantage point in the present, we look back to a time before Christianity and Islam conquered Europe and the Middle East and then subjugated the Americas, back to a past where the presence of many Gods was a foundational assumption everyone would grow up understanding.

We look back, but not from some anachronistic nostalgia. We see the spiritual depth polytheism has brought us, we see the philosophical and practical benefits it offers, and we feel the call of our Gods. We look forward to a Polytheist Restoration, to a time when the worship of many Gods in many ways is no longer an an oddity but a commonplace practice.

We have a role to play in this great restoration.

The Gods call who They call. They called us and They can call others. But They may not be heard. People will only hear what their belief system tells them is possible – everything else will be rationalized away so it fits neatly into their preconceived notions of reality. The loudest voice in our culture says there’s only one God. Another loud voice screams there are no Gods. Is it any wonder even our friends inside the Big Tent of Paganism often insist the Gods must be understood as metaphors or archetypes?

If people aren’t ready to hear the Gods, even a bodily appearance by Zeus Himself will be rationalized away.

It’s our job to make them ready. It’s our job to prepare the Way of the Gods.

Not Proselytization

Proselytization – the aggressive and often coercive attempt to convert others to your religion – is incompatible with polytheism. Polytheists recognize that different Gods call different people to honor Them in different ways. The idea of telling someone Who or how they must worship borders on nonsensical. Additionally, most of us have experienced the proselytizing efforts of other religions at one time or another and we have no desire to inflict that on our friends and neighbors.

This very strong and very ethical distaste for proselytization makes many polytheists uneasy about doing anything that looks or sounds like recruiting. So it’s important to remember that it is not our job to “win” converts. It is not our job to make a sales pitch for polytheism, and it is absolutely not our job to close the deal.

Our job is to prepare the Way of the Gods. Our job is to make people ready to hear the Gods when They call. What anyone does after that is a private matter between them and the deities who call.

Polytheism Starts at Home

The single most effective thing any of us can do to make people ready to hear the Gods is to be a polytheist ourselves. Even if we can’t be “out” in all areas of ours lives, simply being a polytheist presence in a monotheist culture makes a difference. Our effect on the mainstream society may be very small, but our effect on the small-but-growing polytheist culture will be substantially more. One more person worshipping the Gods makes the polytheist community that much stronger, and a strong polytheist community can prepare the Way of the Gods far better than even the most charismatic individual.

Worship the Gods. Hopefully I don’t need to say this to readers of, but it never hurts to emphasize the essentials. Worship – veneration, sacrifice, praise – has been a key part of human interaction with the Gods for thousands of years. Does our worship “feed” the Gods? Some say yes, some say no, some say the very idea is ridiculous. I don’t know. What worship clearly does is strengthen our relationships with Them and make it easier for us to hear Them.

Read Their stories. Some traditions have extensive written lore, while others have little or none. Let’s make good use of what we have. These stories aren’t scripture and they certainly aren’t inerrant (in content or in transmission), but they are a great source of wisdom and inspiration. When we read Their stories, we prepare ourselves to tell Their stories.

Read Their history. What did our ancestors think of the Gods? How did they worship Them? How were their ideas about the Gods reflected in their daily lives? Mainstream history, archeology, and anthropology can help fill in some of the gaps created when our ancestors’ religions were displaced.

Academic work – even good academic work – isn’t inerrant either. A good friend likes to say “history tells us as much about the people who wrote it as it does the people they wrote about.” Read any history with the proverbial grain of salt. Frequently the evidence mainstream scholarship discovers is more helpful to Pagans and polytheists than the scholars’ non-theistic interpretation of that evidence.

Talk to Their priests and devotees. Ancient polytheism was very concerned with the family, the community, the tribe, and the nation. Though we see some of that group emphasis in some modern restorations (Heathenry and Hellenism come to mind) contemporary religion is very much an individual thing. Many of us live in places where there may be no other polytheists within driving distance, much less members of our tradition. The reinforcement of polytheistic concepts and practices and the mutual support of other members of the community simply isn’t there (yet).

Sites like this and the many excellent polytheist blogs help to a certain extent. But there’s still no substitute for talking live with someone who shares your beliefs and practices and has had similar experiences. If you can make it to conferences and retreats, go. Use e-mail, social media, and Skype to talk remotely. And for the love of all the Gods, if there are other polytheists near you, reach out to them. Even if they don’t follow your tradition, if they succeed they’ll make it easier for those who come after them to succeed as well.

A Polytheist Presence

Just being a polytheist helps. Being a polytheist presence in the mainstream world helps more.

The Gods never really left Western culture. They’re enshrined in our planets, days, and months. They’re in our place names. And perhaps most importantly, They’re in our stories. Tell Their stories. Storytelling is a wonderful art form practiced by virtually every culture in the world. It’s also a non-threatening art form.

The goal of storytelling is not to persuade people to become polytheists. The goal of storytelling is to make people ready to hear the call of the Gods.

Support Your Local Groups

If you’re fortunate enough to have a local group, support them. If they aren’t your preferred tradition, participate with them to the extent you can and maintain your private practice on your own.

Don’t ignore generic Pagan groups. Denton CUUPS (my local group and spiritual home) has always had a bit of polytheism in it. One of the founders had a life-long relationship with Isis; when I came in I was already moving in this direction. We’re still a CUUPS group and we have our share of folks who prefer Wiccan and other Mystery Tradition rites. But at least half of our open celebrations are explicitly polytheistic – this year it’s six out of eight.

That means that people who come to a Pagan event who don’t really know what to expect are going to see Gods worshipped, ancestors honored, and land spirits invoked. They’re going to see statues of various deities and offerings made to Them. They’re going to walk away with some different ideas than when they walked in.

Will those folks begin their own practice of honoring the Gods, ancestors, and land spirits? Many won’t, but some will.

Not everyone can be “out” on an individual basis, but groups can have a public presence. They can have websites, Facebook pages, and e-mail lists. They can have contact info, if necessary, guarded by pseudonyms. Make it easy for people to find you.

And when new people come in, practice good hospitality and welcome them! Nothing will send people running back to the “spiritual but not religious” camp faster than religious folks (polytheists or anyone else) who ignore them.

A Long Term View

Some day there will be Hellenic temples and Druid groves in every city. But it’s important to keep our priorities in order. We aren’t trying to grow our religions so we can afford infrastructure, we’re going to need the infrastructure to serve the communities that grow up around the worship of many Gods. That’s going to take time – I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime.

And that’s OK. Polytheism is a multi-generation thing. We’re participating in a process that will take many generations. We don’t have to have temples tomorrow – we just have to honor the Gods today.

It’s not our job to recruit or “win” converts. That’s the job of the Gods. They call who They call.

It’s our job to make people ready to hear Their call.

It’s our job to prepare the way of the Gods.

About the Author:

John Beckett grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside his back door. Wandering through them gave him a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God.

John is a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. His blog “Under the Ancient Oaks” is part of the Pagan Channel of the multifaith website Patheos. John has been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years.

John lives in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and earns his keep as an engineer.

Dr. Strangegod, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My God.

Joyous Madness, October 21, 2014

 Dr. Strangegod, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My God.

There has been a lot of talk about animal sacrifice over the last short while in certain corners of Dionysian Polytheism. I have spent most of that few days reading, doing divination, and talking to Sannion, founder of the Thiasos of the Starry Bull, about the subject. The Thiasos, for those not in the know, is a fairly new Bacchic Orphic tradition centered on the revitalization and retelling of the Orphic mysteries (those founded by the poet and prophet Orpheus).

Most of those conversations have been calm, respectful, and polite. It’s a hot issue, and not one to be taken lightly– no matter what side of the coin you stand on, I think we can ALL agree that this isn’t something to be flip about. For the last few days, my coin has been precariously balanced on its edge, not falling to one side or another, until it fell over last night in the wee hours of the morning, as I sat on the couch with my cat, unable to sleep for the worry that was clutching at me.

When the topic was first broached in Thursday’s Thiasos chat, everyone seemed pretty much okay with it. No complaints, just a few questions. I didn’t say anything right away, but here’s what was happening on my side of the screen: jaw slack, stomach threatening to return my dinner, hands shaking and sweaty. I didn’t say any of that at the time– what I said (to my recollection) was something along the lines of, “I’m going to have to think long and hard about that before I decide if I’m okay with it.” And the reaction was… positive. Sannion asked me to voice my objections, if I felt comfortable with it, and some of them I could voice (how is the animal treated, etc.), but some were simply gut reactions that I didn’t understand myself.

I was a vegetarian for 11 months in college. That probably would have lasted longer if I’d had options other than tater tots and whatever “fruit” the cafeteria was serving that day. Towards the end of those months, I had a series of long talks over the phone with my dad, who happens to have a degree in Poultry Science (and, consequently, worked at a feed mill/slaughterhouse for chickens for a number of years before he joined the military). He explained to me the mechanics of slaughter. I read the science and looked into my own misconceptions about the biology behind pain, consciousness, and our own evolutionary progress as related to our digestion. And I came to the conclusion that yeah, a LOT of what we’re eating is CRAP, and we really do need to be more careful about what we ingest and how we treat the animals (and plants!) that we consume, but there’s nothing intrinsically WRONG with eating meat. I had a hot dog yesterday. It was delicious.

So, towards the end of the chat, I asked if anyone would do divination for me, as I was uneasy and unsure of my future of the Thiasos. I got two responses that night, both of which emphasized the need to think about my ancestry– and to think about how my family would feel about the slaughter of animals. Now, my family isn’t pagan, by a long shot– they hate that part of me. But they are, for the most part, farmers: pig farmers, chicken farmers, I think there are a few cow farmers somewhere in there. Both sides of my family. It’s not strange, for my grandparents, for my cousins who did 4H, for any of my family to think “Dinner’s in a few hours, I should go grab a chicken” and have that chicken still be alive while they’re thinking that thought. It’s just a non-issue. It was a part of life.

I’ve heard arguments that “we don’t need to kill for our food anymore,” but… that’s not entirely true. For the chicken farmer who only has his chickens, it’s a lot of times cheaper and easier to kill a couple chickens to feed your 12 children (as was the case for BOTH my dad’s parents) than it was to go out and BUY someone else’s produce. And if you traded your chickens FOR that produce, it was with the full knowledge that those chickens were going to be eaten.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and go one by one through the arguments I’ve seen presented, on either side of the coin. I’m not interested in arguments, and I don’t have the emotional capacity for that kind of stress. When my Facebook thread on this topic started getting heated, I deleted it. I just don’t have it in me to even watch those arguments at this time. There are only three things I’m going to address directly: my own divination, the topic of human sacrifice (and where I agree with the Anomalous Thracian on that), and where I stand now.


I use the Greek Alphabet oracle for divination purposes. A lot of the Thiastai use dice rolls and long lists of phrases, but I like the Greek Alphabet– for one, I can carry it in my pocket, and it’s easier to remember. It is, however, harder to interpret, even more so when you’re doing it for yourself and you’re terrified of the answer. So, I asked four questions, and pulled four answers:

“What will be my role within the Thiasos?”
Omicron: There are no crops to be reaped which were not sown.
Interpreted: Put in the work to get the result. Standing on the sidelines will merit you nothing, sowing the crops will feed and nourish you and your family.

What is the nature of the sacrifice desired by me?”
Zeta: Flee the great storm, lest you be disabled in some way.
-Interpreted: Zeta is the symbol of Zeus. Zeus scares the everloving shit out of me (as do Poseidon and Hades, for that matter). But this symbol, in this particular reading, read as more of a “let go of that which no longer serves you” than anything else. In this case, given the mindset and the prayers from before the start of the divination, I believe this to be a caution against preconceptions.

Should I receive the benefits of a sacrificial animal?”
Theta: You have the helping gods of this path.
-Interpretation: “Hon, you’re worrying too much. We’ve got this.” This was the symbol that inspired the punful title of the post, actually. It’s been coming up a lot for me lately, and almost always with a strong connection to Dionysos himself. A similar reading came from one of the aforementioned divinations from another Thiasos member: “Dionysos won’t get angry at you whatever you choose. In fact, your free choice is preferred.

“Should I continue the work I am doing within the Thiasos of the Starry Bull?”

Alpha: The God (Apollo) says you will do everything successfully.
-Interpretation: “Hon. WE’VE GOT THIS.” Alpha is one of the few universally positive symbols within the set. As a friend of mine stated in one of her interpretations, “Stop second guessing yourself and just act already.”

Human Sacrifice

Did it happen in the past? Yes. Even if there’s some question about the Gauls (given that the only cases of it happening there were written by their enemies, Julius Caesar in particular), there’s no question that it happened amongst the Greeks, PARTICULARLY within the Bacchic cults. You can’t read 3 (thousand) stories about maenads dismembering someone and not recognize that it is a tradition strongly rooted in blood– even if you don’t take the myths literally, which I don’t, people still died. It happened. Dionysos himself was dismembered on at least one occasion, and died more times than I can count. He’s not all wine and sex and wild parties, and to characterize him in that manner is either ignorance of myth (which is certainly excusable, especially if you’re new to this whole thing) or WILLFUL ignorance (which in my book really ISN’T that excusable). Does Dionysos call everyone to blood and gore? Of course not. We’re not all formed from the same mold, and we’re not all given the same gifts. Calling everyone to the same path religiously is like telling every artist they have to be a banker– some of them might have side skills they can use for it, but most of them are going to be uncomfortable with it. And that’s perfectly okay.

The main question for me is this: do the gods still require or request human sacrifice? Short answer… no. Long answer… kinda. The Anomalous Thracian commented on Sannion’s post about the matter with something I’m just going to quote verbatim:

“If the gods required human sacrifice of us today, as they did lawfully call for in the past, they would have ensured that we had the priests and paradigms to see these things returned. They have not, nor does it seem that is is likely to change anytime soon. We literally don’t have priests for those rituals, even if we had the rituals themselves required of us. And, as is ALWAYS stated on the subject of sacrifice, it is better to not do something at all than to do it wrongly, unjustly, without skill or training or lawful place. And the reality is, we simply do not have that job or role any longer in any tradition that I know of in Polytheist religion, today.”

Do the gods require human sacrifice? No. Do they request it? Sometimes. Does it involve someone standing over an unwilling victim holding a knife and chanting in some dead language? HELL no. A lot of what Sannion has addressed is the idea of consent– an animal is not sacrificed if it doesn’t consent, end of story. Because we don’t speak the languages of these animals, we use divination and body language to determine that consent. With humans, though, consent is different– we know our own consciousness, and I firmly believe that the ONLY person who can or should give your life for the gods is YOU, and ONLY as a last resort, when you have been psychologically evaluated and determined to be of sound mind. Sannion gave a 99.5% probability of that not ever happening – I’d give it more of a 99.9% probability of not happening.

I will never, ever, willingly take the life of another human being. I know this. My gods know this. If they ask me to do so, even if the person is willing, even then… I will tell them no. The only god I’m close enough to who would even get away with asking that sort of thing in jest is Dionysos, and like Markos Gage has pointed out, this is a god who pushes our boundaries… but doesn’t go past them, so long as they are set.

If, in some break with reality the leadership of our tradition states that we, as a Thiasos, need to accept or participate in the sacrifice of another human being, I will challenge that person, per our stated rules, for authority over the Thiasos. Failing that, I will leave. End of story. As the omens said… my choice is my choice, and it is preferred for my path that I follow my own choice. That may sound extreme, but this is one area where I won’t compromise. If someone gives their life in service to the gods (either intentionally, walking into a situation where they know they will likely die, or as part of performing some sort of service whereby they are accidentally killed), then I will respect and honor them as a martyr. But I will not knowingly cause their death.

What next?

My fears have been allayed. A combination of knowledge of the ritual itself (specifically, how the animal is killed, how the divination is done to determine consent, and the level of involvement I need to personally take) and my own divination has shown me that my choice and my gut are paramount for me, personally.

I choose to stay. I choose to receive the benefits of a humane animal sacrifice, though I have determined that I will never be the one performing the sacrifice. And not only do I choose to stay, I choose to progress: not on the sidelines, but as an active participant in a growing tradition. I could not be happier or more proud to be part of a tradition where disagreement is treated with respect, where I need not be afraid to say, “I’m feeling something weird about this and I don’t know why.” I could not be more blessed to have a space wherein I can examine my own preconceptions and let go of those that no longer serve me. And whatever my specific calling may be, whatever gifts I have that can be used, I will give those, freely, as my choice offering to the gods, and to the community.

That is my sacrifice.

About the Author:

Joyous Madness is a student in the Midwest. She has been a polytheist-pagan for 8 years and a devotee of Dionysos for 3. She enjoys wine, wit, and complex theological dilemmas. Her personal blog can be found at