Even I feel like this meme series has gone on FOREVER already and I expect some readers want stories about my Gods, but I feel like writing out the answers to these questions is a really good calibration for me, and I’ll move onto the spook and the woo and the mysticism after I’ve put down that foundation.
8. Foundations: Places of Spiritual Significance – Any locations that you believe to be intrinsically holy.
I have from a very young age believed that either all Gods and Spirits believed in by humans are real, or none of them are. Therefore, every place sanctified by every group of faithful worshippers is holy. Every single one!
(I’m looking this up now, now that I am trying to be a Serious Blogger, and I am seeing as many instances of worshiper-with-one-p as I am worshipper-with-two-ps. It might even be a developing US/UK english split. But I like worshipper better and will continue to use it despite the advice of autocorrect.)
That means, of course, I find aggressively hostile/bigoted congregations’ holy places sort of ontologically oppressive. Not all Gods are good!
To think about the “nonstandard” things I find holy, or have the smell of holiness around them; I guess they are generally holy because of their path through time.
Things of a great age are holy – especially from the US where we such a short cultural memory. Both very elaborate and very simple things from the distant past tug on my heartstrings: the fact that people could have such similar-seeming aspirations and basic needs, and at the same time be so completely culturally and temporally unknowable is a paradox I sometimes just sit with (I am no fun in museums) Also things and places that have “seen a lot” – very old trees, or very old buildings/institutions which have a continuity of use.
The places where there are human dead are holy – graveyards in modern use, the mounds of the moundbuilders, battlefields, sites of great suffering. Frankly I think “remembrance” or “maintaining continuity with the past” is one of the most important religious tasks.
I don’t know how to describe this one specifically, but I have been just drawn to the artifacts of US immigrants. There’s a really quite good state historical museum near me, and I remember going there and looking at the hope chests and spinning tools and linens of people who came from somewhere else to where I live. And that journey was not only individual but generational, through space and through time – through conceptual time. A physical distance from their places of origin that manifested in a cultural distance from ideas-of-ancestry-and-rootedness.
The artifacts are generally beautifully made and ornamented, and what does the typical 19th century immigrant get in a US city? Pasteboard and shoddy, no security and terrible housing. The pull of the narrative of progress on those people so relatively close to me (I know the names of all my immigrant ancestors, and their places of origin, but I don’t know many further back than that) when I see that narrative as almost malicious in its falseness – is compelling to me.
7. Foundations: Tools, Altar/Shrine, & Sacred Space – General beliefs on tools, the altar/shrine, and your sacred space.
It is important for me to make a distinction between an altar and a shrine, because I have one and not the other.
To me an altar is a place set aside for magical or ritual workings. I don’t have one of these, or the ceremonial magical tools (cup/knife/wand/disc) that would go with it, because I don’t practice any ceremonial or ritual magic. If I do practice magic it is low or folk magic, that can go on without any circle casting or things like that.
What I do have are shrines.
A shrine, to me, is space set apart for a Deity: to house an icon where they may indwell and where offerings may be presented, a tangible reminder of that deity’s presence. Butsudan, Kamidana, Harrow, Ve, Holy of Holies – while the particulars of any space-set-apart-for-holy-presence may be culture-bound, the principle is universal.
Now, a lot of pagans get accused of icon-hoarding, or collecting knickknacks for the Gods, and the problem with that (if there is a problem, and it is not just the observer of an unfamiliar shrine space being judgmental of someone’s eclectic worship) is not directly with the amount of sacred imagery, but with failure to treat it as such.
As a polytheist in a culture that could be equally well described as secular or monotheist depending, the burden of reinforcing the sacredness of my sacred space is on me, and I am going to get the opposite of help from everyone around me. Not out of malice but simply out of cultural disconnect.
The culture around me is a culture steeped in irony. We wear logos without endorsing or caring about the thing whose symbol we carry around, we turn the markers of class status or cultural particularity into fashion statements. Nerd culture is sometimes an exception to this rule, but I find I rarely if ever assume that I can identify someone by the symbols or statements they put on or around themselves – even the ones I might care about (think about the Anarchist symbol, and how rarely that stands for a set of political beliefs) or ones that might be symbols of “my kind of Pagan” – the Hammer pendant or runes are sometimes simply a symbol of cultural heritage or a gift with no other meaning to the wearer. I find those parts of my culture troublesome, but a person who finds them normal is going to assume the same about me – the objects I keep on my shelves, from statuary to candles, are decorative objects, with no deeper meaning than that.
When everyone around you holds an opinion so strongly, and so unconsciously, they might not think to question it, it has a powerful pull. In the midst of ritual or prayer it is easy to feel the reality of the unseen world in my gut, but that feeling needs to be maintained with the same care and attention as a plant that’s outside its native environment. Without constant upkeep, the very space I set aside and the objects I use to represent the faces of my Gods “desacralize”, in the onslaught of unbelief that washes around me. (Both in my mind, as a symbol of my attention to spiritual practice, and objectively, with the energy of that Deity and that devotion, which would be apparent to someone psychically sensitive.)
This upkeep seems to me to boil down to “maintaining shrine taboos”, of one level of strictness or another – whether or not a deity image gets treated in a non-ordinary way is the dividing line between a cult object and an art object. I meant to divide these from simplest to most onerous, but that absolutely depends on the person. Shrine taboos come in three flavors, as far as I can see.
1. “don’t touch a Deity’s stuff”. Ask permission to clean the shrine space. Thank Them or pray to Them when cleaning away offerings. Don’t re-arrange altar space without asking or consulting Them.
2. “Don’t look at a Deity’s image in an irreverent mindset” – this one is pretty hard for me since I can’t build a bunch of closing shrines right now, but I really like doored shrines. To only see an image while in the middle of ritual/prayer is a powerful way to create the “non-ordinariness” of that image. Right now my ancestor altar is in a jewelry box that closes I try to refrain from walking away from a lit votive candle, and I try to greet my shrines (emphasis on try) when I enter my room.
3. “Don’t let Deity’s shrines get cruddy.” Not only does this include cleaning away offerings in a timely manner, but also spiritual cleansing – whatever that might mean for you/your tradition. Burning cleansing incense, washing the area with consecrated water or a certain blend of soap or anointing it with oils, I find periodic re-dedication of the space important for it to “maintain” an identity above that of “shelf of knickknacks”
These things may be important to me because I am new and bootstrapping my way to continual recognition of the divine, but I think it is one of the more important things that a Polytheist can do. To break a taboo – to enter a holy of holies, to disrespect sacred ground is to manifestly erode the sacredness of that space, but to keep a taboo is to sanctify it.
I don’t believe that it’s an impossible battle, but I do think it is a difficult and ongoing one.
6. Foundations: Non-Theistic Beliefs – The non-theistic/secular aspects of your faith.
In general, these are easier beliefs for me, since I’ve held them for longer. The one struggle is to be forgiving to myself, because they are the easiest beliefs to frame as “thou shalts” and then give my inner draconian tyrant free rein to beat me up for falling short. (This is just some of them!)
1. I believe that every human being has equal value, and we need to struggle to recognize and live that out, regardless of whatever our cultures may say to the contrary.
2. I believe that nobody can make choices about a person’s life except that person.
3. I believe that personal safety and well-being are the number one concerns for anybody; but as soon as that person is in a place of safety, it is their moral duty to turn around and stick their neck out for the people who are not yet safe.
4. I believe that the way we organize our social lives in my culture is dysfunctional in many ways. It is not only important to make room for alternative arrangements but to push back against the damage-perpetuating systems.
5 .I believe that the way we arrange money and livelihood and exchange and production in my culture is extremely dysfunctional, and must be opposed where possible (personal safety comes first, see point 3 – there is no point in beating oneself up for where you shop or what you eat if your choices are constrained. Do what you can when you can.)
6. I believe people of privilege need not only to listen to disprivileged people, but to actively stand aside so they may speak, and to offer their opportunities and resources to those people when they can (see point three again – this should never come from a place of penance or self-flagellation) The balance of power will be different from situation to situation, and that doesn’t change the moral imperative. There is no absolute accounting of any person’s privilege quotient. “People” includes nonhuman people.
7. The best and most effective activism is inclusive, multigenerational, and based on the understanding of a group’s shared fate.
Foundations: Rites of Passage – How you see the “cycles of life,” and how you view reincarnation, death, the afterlife, and milestones.
So much for the brave pride of premonition,
the worry that won’t let it happen.
You know, he said, I always knew I would die young. And then I got sober
and I thought, OK, I’m not. I’m going to see thirty and live to be an old man.
And now it turns out that I am going to die. Isn’t that funny?
– One day it happens: what you have feared all your life,
the unendurably specific, the exact thing. No matter what you say or do.
This is what my brother said: Here sit closer to the bed
so I can see you.
(from How Some of It Happened by Marie Howe)
I have to keep writing and re writing this entry, to make it worthy of Hela, worthy of my own beliefs. Death is so difficult, and even as I am writing about the stupidity and incorrectness of turning away from that and sliding into comfortable creeds about the soul after death, I start doing the same thing myself.
Regardless of belief, the what and how of death will never be certain until it happens to you. Religions may say something about the spritual realms and the soul’s continuance, but they must be taken on faith. Cultures may have practices and sayings, but they are not provable. Even to hear a hedgecrosser whose spirit can travel to those other realms, you have to take the hedgecrosser’s word. Even if you send your spirit there yourself, or pray for assurance from a Deity, you have your own doubts about your experience – was it wishful thinking, was that feeling of presence and certainty manufactured in my brain, was that wide and true-seeming world only within my dreaming mind?
When my grandfather died, I read this at his funeral:
“(from the letter of Paul to the Thessalonians) Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like those who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who are fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who are fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will come out of Heaven with a loud command, with the voice of the Archangel and the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.”
Now, he was a Catholic but I was an atheist. The phrases that rung in my mind were we who are still alive, we who are left. And the mythological passage about the second coming only highlighted the suddenly imposed distance – as far as reality from unreality. A person who has died has moved into the realm of Gods, and cannot be seen or known anymore, only believed in.
A few days previously my grandfather was in a hospice bed. He didn’t always know who was there with him, but our whole family was there. Seized by a pain, or the frustration of the drawn out end, at one point he called out to the air, “I’m ready, Lord, I’m ready!” and we all wanted so badly to feel Presence, I can’t say if we did. I have always been of the opinion that all Gods believed in and worshiped are real, or none of them are; so my grandfathers death was a huge push towards religion, for me – and I can’t deny it was because I wanted and still want certainty, or at least that I need to look for it. But is is not supposed to be easy.
Even as the greatest bulk of my religious practice right now is ancestor work, I would be flat out lying if I said it comforted me about death. I did not grow up with the beliefs of my tradition as solid as the cardinal directions. I have to take them on faith and weave them slowly into my life. I can’t say for certain if my ancestor work is only a very elaborate sort of memorial – if the spirits of my ancestors live only in my unconscious and imagination; if Ida and other Disir are simply thoughtforms nourished by the love of Her descendants.
It is imperative for me to treat those ancestors as if their spirits exist, and those Deities of death and afterlife are real, and worshiped in particular, individual ways: my doubt is mine, and should not infringe on my right actions. I phrase it because I think it is important for pagans and polytheists to voice doubt: the impression is that if one Deity is silent, you move to another – your comfort as a worshiper being paramount, and material or spiritual blessings your due from the Gods. I’m afraid it makes people shy about expressing their silence or doubt, and that hinders the development of a complete, living theology. (Henadology?)
Now even though I had in my head the sudden severing and the distance of humanity from Gods, the sermon given at my grandfather’s funeral, aside from my reading, was completely different. He was praised like Ingwi-Freyr at harvest time. He had grown up on a farm and moved to a town. He served in the Navy during the second World War. He loved my grandmother, he raised three sons. He was a welder, who spent his life from apprentice to master at one machine shop. He cooked and kept vegetarian, but taught those sons to fish, to hunt deer and turkey, and to respect their part in the natural cycles. He kept a faith that enriched his life in the world, that entire time. He was finished doing everything there was to do. He could now go and rest on his laurels in the love and remembrance of his children and grandchildren.
That is heathen to me. I know nothing for certain about the life after death, but I know my grandfather filled up his life and died content with it. I know that is all we can know with certainty, and I strive to be content with it, and to fill up my life as well.