Putting the Gods First

One of the more mature and clear thinking polytheists has just posted an important reply to the most recent round of BS from some of the Righteous Radical Social Justice Warrior crowd. It describes the concerns and lives of those who are devoted to the gods first and foremost, and rejects the pernicious foolishness that says that all things, including religion, are primarily political.

Too Casual a Climate

 

Back in the mid nineties, my best friend in the world was a Lokian former street kid named Steve. Mad as a hatter, and also one of the most intelligent people I ever met. He had a complex, Kauffman-esque sense of humor. At one point, he started learning how to paint in an old-fashioned, realistic style. He wanted to develop a high level of skill and then do one, and only one, painting. He wanted to do Odin and Loki, in oil paint, sharing a bong, with Loki’s eyes and cheeks bulging out as he tried to keep his hit in. Subject matter like a poster from Spencer’s, in the medium of da Vinci. After that, he said, he would never paint again. He thought it would be the ultimate sacrifice, to Loki, to put so much work into developing a skill that was then never used but for one frivolous purpose. The ultimate absurdism.

You know what? His sacrifice could not be made today. You see, he thought that the whole point of the painting was that it was really transgressive. He thought that depicting the gods in such a casual, frivolous manner was really inappropriate, and not respectful enough. He was doing it because, as a Lokian, he viewed it as his duty to cross certain boundaries, and break certain taboos. Doing such a painting in the climate of his day would have made a real statement. Today? Not so much. Today, this kind of casual, frivolous representation of the gods is commonplace. Serious, supposedly devoted Asatruar put such images up on their websites, and share them on social media. Today, far too often, the gods are pictured as laughing stocks, as if they were just people.

I think we have lost something in finding such an attitude to be acceptable. These are our gods, people. These are our revered, ancient, ancestral traditions. They deserve a little respect.

And you know what? It’s a lot easier to cultivate a spiritual state of mind, and reach out for genuine contact with the gods, when you keep the space you devote to them in your head as something special.

The Mystery of Sumbel

Noted heathen scholar H. R. Ellis Davidson once commented that the sumbel was perhaps the most important rite in ancient heathenry. It is one of the very few rites that we have any descriptions of. Stupid oral traditions. It is also one of the most unusual religious rituals in the world. I have long wanted to write something on the mystery of the sumbel, but was hesitant to, for reasons that will become clear below.

There are many different types of religion. Some go in for elaborate, formal rituals. Others utilize spontaneous, informal spiritual observance. The heathen sumbel, however, is a strange blend of both. Too formal to be a mere drunken banquet, too much of a party to qualify as high ritual, the sumbel has always been something of an enigma.

The key to resolution of the enigma lies in the nature of the heathen relationship to alcohol. Almost all cultures have one drug that is special to them, that is no mere recreational toy. Such drugs are used to gain access to the realm of the spirits in some fashion. They are called entheogens. Peyote is the entheogen of certain Native American tribes. Marijuana is a Rastafarian entheogen. Alcohol is the traditional entheogen of the heathens.

The key to proper entheogenic use of alcohol is to remember that it is like walking a tightrope. Too little, and you are not drunk enough to contact the spirits. Too much, and you are too drunk to contact them. The goal is that “golden glowing” state where everything seems a little bright, you feel a strange sort of energy and a close connection to everything, and feel simple joy. Sumbel included ritual recitations, and the goal was to recite them flawlessly, no matter how long the drinking had been going on. Proper sumbel meant finding this state and then drinking only so as to maintain it.

Sumbels took the form of feasts, or formal meals, with drinking. Family and religious groups celebrated together. There would be recitations of poetry, or boasts of deeds that would be accomplished. These had specific forms that had to be followed. While this was going on there would also be drinking from ritual vessels. This could include informal feast-style drinking, but it also had ritual formalism. The gods were toasted, as were local spirits such as alfs, dwarfs, and jotuns. One’s own ancestors might be hailed in this fashion as well. Noteworthy deeds of those hailed might be recited.

One of the reasons for alcohol’s enduring popularity is the intense social bonding that it encourages. It blurs the boundaries of the self, lowers inhibitions, and in special circumstances can make a group feel like it has become one. The sumbel is structured to take advantage of this. The informal, alcohol-fueled social gathering assists this softening of boundaries and tendency to oneness. It also relaxes and clears the mind. The repetition of formal ritual words engages the subconscious mind like all ritual does. The constant speech concerning the gods and ancestors keep the minds of the participants turned to them. When a sumbel works right, these factors come together and result in the gods and ancestors being drawn into the group gestalt, just like everybody else. It can result in the experience of becoming one with the gods or ancestors. It requires no advanced ritual knowledge or meditative skills, just the awareness and discipline to maintain a proper balance with the blood of Kvasir.

The mystery of the sumbel is the revelation of the divine in the experience of the physical. It is a blending of the sacred and the profane. Heathenry has no preachers because it needs none. Instead, all devotees may hold direct communion with the gods.

I have been hesitant to write this article for some time. You see, I don’t want it to be confused with something else that is out there. There are a great many lazy, egotistical “spirit workers,” “godhis,” and “seidhmen” out there who seem to have as their sole spiritual practice watching TV or movies while drinking beer and “talking” to their gods. This “ritual” is usually followed by blogging about how the gods are in said holy person’s social circle. The sumbel is not this sort of lazy, egotistical excuse to avoid devotion. It is instead a rather difficult mental and emotional balancing game, that results in having no spiritual experience at all more often than not. It takes practice to perform properly. Learning to do so means cultivating a good relationship with alcohol, the sacred blood of a god.

Happy Loki Day

Happy Loki Day, everybody.

Of course, nobody knows what rites were used to honor Loki in the ancient days, or what days were sacred to him, but many Lokians I have known use today. For obvious reasons.

As the Lokian who taught me about it described it, today is a day where Loki should be given a sumbel of his own, where each participant recites as many of Loki’s heiti as possible, and recites all of his deeds that they know. Today should be a serious day: no joking, no laughs. Formal clothing is encouraged, and time should be put aside for contemplation of Loki’s mysteries.

May it bring you much insight.

Hail Loki!

We Have To Have Standards

Right-wing leaning heathens tend to hate me because I value other religious and spiritual traditions, and many different points of view about our own traditions. Left-wing leaning heathens tend to hate me because I insist on maintaining standards, and not automatically putting every other belief on par with my own. Certain perennial debates have recently surfaced again in the larger pagan community, leading me to think that it’s time to remind the more strident and knee-jerk left-wing types why they dislike me.

We need standards, people. I respect that everyone has the right to their own beliefs and opinions. I believe that even beliefs and practices that I personally find ridiculous can contain genuine worth and even insight. These things do not, however, mean that all beliefs and practices are themselves worthy of my respect. I have a right to my own beliefs and opinions too, including the opinion that this or that idea is really freaking stupid. People have the right to believe any damnfool thing they want to, but that doesn’t mean I have to pretend it isn’t a damnfool thing to believe.

There is a fair amount of mysticism of one sort or another in the heathen community. Seidh workers, berserkers, thules, godhis, and more practice some sort of communion with the gods or lesser spirits. Many private devotees experience a divine presence in prayer, or have their prayers answered through omens or revelatory experience. This is, after all, where the concept of the UPG (Unusual Personal Gnosis) comes from. This is a good thing. The ancients were a very spiritually oriented people, and wide embracing of the spiritual in daily life means that we are finding their ways again.

This does NOT, however, mean that any and every claim of mystical experience should be given equal weight. Any and every culture that uses a spiritual practice of one sort or another has very strict standards about what did and did not qualify as a genuine mystical experience. We need such standards as well. Because frankly, we’re drowning in drivel. So let me here offer what I think are a reasonable set of standards, mostly cribbed from those of traditional mystically-oriented cultures and supplemented by my own experience.

How To Spot Fake Mysticism

1) Actual historical mystics have experiences of speaking to gods, visiting other spiritual realms, and communing with spirits only after years and years of difficult, rigorous, and even dangerous training. Did you learn to travel to Asgard after a weekend seminar? You’re a fake. Did you set yourself up as a seidh-worker after a week-long intensive? Then you’re full of $&!^. Have you been studying out of Llewelyn books on your own for a year now? You may have some talent, but you don’t have the skills to be claiming anything, Buddy.

Yeah, yeah, there are powerful natural talents who don’t need training. But such people are VERY RARE. They are the Van Goghs of the spirit-worker world. You seriously claiming you are THAT good? Ha. And double ha.

Look at Vodoun. Vodouisants regularly have spirit-possession experiences. However, not every devotee has one, and even then, it is considered only to be possible with large, well-trained groups working in unison. Are you seriously trying to claim that you alone are more powerful and knowledgeable than every Vodouisant ever? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.

2) Actual historical mystics, even the powerful and talented ones, have such experiences only rarely. The Buddha is held to have been visited by a particular god THREE TIMES in his entire life. And this was taken as proof of the Buddha’s great spiritual power and enlightenment. Even when everything is set up just right in a Vodoun ritual, even highly experienced horses cannot expect regular experiences. Even the greatest of heathen heroes have been visited by their gods only a few times in their lives.

Do you claim that you are more enlightened than the Buddha? Do you expect us to believe that you are more talented than each and every Vodouisant in the world? You think you are so much more awesome even than Sigurd the Volsung that Odin is in your social circle? Go away child, grown-ups are talking.

If you claim your practice lets you speak to the gods at will, if you blog about your spirits sitting down to watch TV with you every night, if you claim to get infallible answers from the Outgarths at will, then you are a fake. You are impeding both heathen progress and the overall progress of the human race.

3) Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. This is THE gold standard of every traditional spiritual practice ever. Including ancient heathenry.

The ancient berserks claimed to become possessed by spirits under certain extraordinary circumstances. Not just anybody could demand that their claim to being a berserk be taken seriously, though. They had to demonstrate enhanced strength, reflexes, and combat ability. They had to demonstrate GENUINE fearlessness (think about what that meant to a Viking). They often had to perform extraordinary feats, such as fire resistance.

Seidh workers couldn’t just claim the honor of the title, they had to produce results. As in, actual relevant answers to questions, solutions to problems, etc.

Vodouisant horses claiming to be ridden, or possessed, have to demonstrate the actual presence of one of the lwa. After all, a god should be able to demonstrate miracles, so a claim of possession is only validated when the ridden one chews glass, resists fire, has hot pepper extract blown into the eyes without flinching, etc.

Tibetan Bon shamans have to demonstrate such feats as drying wet towels draped around their bodies while naked in the snow in sub-zero temperatures using only body heat.

You say you talk to the gods? Prove it. Put up or shut up. A person who claims such advanced spiritual powers and knowledge can back those claims up with actions. A person who can’t is a fraud, a buffoon, or both.

4) Actual successful spirit work requires constant practice. The mental state that is required is not at all easy to get into, even with a lot of experience. It requires maintenance with serious, regular devotional practices that involve a lot of time and effort. One sure-fire way to spot a fake mystic is if they have the free time to post daily blog entries about themselves and their supposed spirit work, or if their spirit work consists of watching TV while thinking earnestly about them. If you have such abundant free time then you probably aren’t doing it right.

5) If the gods look and act exactly like you expect them to, and if they reinforce the things you have already decided to believe, you are not having spiritual experiences. What you are experiencing is called “the imagination,” and everyone can do it.

Real mystic experiences are transcendental. They leave you in tears, or laughing maniacally, or passing out from the sheer overwhelming SUCHNESS of everything. They blow your preconceptions away. They force you to see things as they are whether you want to or not, and they constantly challenge your beliefs about yourself, the world, and the nature of the gods themselves.

6) Do you talk constantly about your experiences? Do you constantly demand validation of your experiences from others? You’ve had no experiences. The true spiritual experience is powerful and personal, and the person experiencing it almost never feels like sharing it. It is far too personal, and difficult to put into words. A person who has had a genuine spiritual experience KNOWS it, and does not seek to have everyone affirm that it was genuine.

7) Anyone who has become a god-spouse to Loki shortly after one of the Marvel Thor or Avengers movies has come out is a fake. This also applies to any other works of popular fiction that use names or images of gods and spirits.

It is possible for someone to hear The Call through such a medium, yes. But it is not bloody likely. In general, such characters are fictional characters used to tell a story. They usually bear no resemblance whatsoever to the actual god or spirit portrayed.

Look at Marvel Loki. He has NOTHING in common with the actual Loki from the ancient stories. Marvel Loki goes into a lovely hammy speech about the evils of freedom. Actual Loki is all about freedom. He may even be THE god of freedom. Marvel Loki betrays his kin. Actual Loki pranks his kin and betrays outsiders, but does not betray kin who have not betrayed him first. Marvel Loki is an enemy of Asgard, actual Loki is an agent of Asgard. So to all you Marvel-inspired Loki spouses: you don’t know a thing about Loki.

We need to have standards when it comes to spiritual experiences in this religion. If we don’t then the traditional ways of personal and spiritual development will be hijacked by people who are deluding themselves, lying, or even essentially LARPING. There is a lot of value in the old ways, the spiritual approach to life. Anyone can benefit from it, anyone can take up the spiritual path. However, not everyone will succeed. Worth proves itself. Heathens believe that deeds are more important than words. Those who genuinely have something of worth to add to our spiritual lore will prove it. Those who will not are not worth listening to.

Post Script

And speaking of standards, I wish to add a word here about religious standards apart from spiritual practices. Not everybody who says they practice our religion does. We need to be open to other beliefs, other points of view, yes. But if these points of view are radically different from the traditional ones, then they are not representative of traditional beliefs. Humanist heathens, and chaos magicians, and especially xaos magicians, are not heathen. They believe that they can believe anything they like about the gods and heathen ideals. They believe that worshipping the gods is nothing more than building up thoughtforms in the head. These people will, for instance, worship Marvel Thor and demand to be taken seriously by traditional heathens.

They have a right to their beliefs. It is a valid enough spiritual tradition of its own. However, it is essentially atheist, and not in any way heathen. They are free to use our images and names, they are part of their heritage too. But this does not mean that they have the right to be considered actual heathens.

Poverty and Piety

With Christmas here, I get a lot of time off from work, and so have a little extra time to find out more of what’s happening in Pagan-land. The farce I just stumbled across seems to deserve a word or two, so that will be the topic of my blog post today. I’ve never read Tess Dawson’s blog before, but she seems like a clear thinker of a pagan, and she has recently written a valuable piece on how to interact with a god when you are not sure of the god’s identity. She offered the very traditional and level-headed suggestion that you leave out offering of food or drink that are not to be consumed, but devoted wholly to the god.

Totally traditional. This is how the ancients did it. Totally respectful and pious. Giving something to the god, something that you have to give up yourself, is a sacrifice, it is an act of devotion. Yet despite these facts, this simple commonsense recommendation has released a firestorm of petty bullshittery from a crowd of people with some serious cases of recto-cranial inversion. I’m not even going to bother addressing their complaints about leaving offerings you don’t consume, although I will mention that offering food to a guest and then eating it instead yourself would usually be seen as the very height of rudeness. No, I am going to have to address the comments made about poor people and religious devotion.

The worst offender seems to be this Aubs Tea person. She had the incredible effrontery to say a lot of insane things about poor people. But before I get started on that, let me mention: I’m dirt poor. Always have been. I am pretty much as poor as they come in this country. I sometimes go to sleep hungry. I often must choose between buying food or buying medicine. I cannot afford a car. I have spent a few weeks homeless, sleeping in some rough and dangerous places. So I know what I’m talking about when I talk about being poor and religious.

Basically, this Tea person is claiming that poverty makes it impossible for poor people to make any religious offerings at all, therefore having the expectation that the gods should receive offerings somehow classist and religiously inappropriate. She then goes on to declare that poor people are so emotionally beaten down that they cannot even be expected to perform simple devotional acts that do not require sacrifice. Apparently, in her view, poverty destroys the soul, so that things like prayer and temple cleaning are too much effort. This is, in her view, so endemic amongst the poor that even expecting religious people to be pious, and to devote some of their time and effort to the gods, is incredibly classist and offensive to the poor.

Seriously? Seriously??? WTF? I am calling bullshit on that, Ms. Tea. I am poor. I find your words to be incredibly freaking offensive. Not all poor people are beaten down, whipped curs who cannot even find enough spirit to honor the gods. Seriously, Ms. Tea, f*<& you. I have struggled all my life with poverty, and with keeping a devout religious practice in the midst of poverty. So have many others. Your lame attempt to paint us all as victims belittles our struggles.

Nobody but a poor person has the right to say this, but I am, and I do: poverty can be a great source of inspiration and strength. A terrible one, to be sure, but useful and even enlightening nonetheless. I am an Odinist. I use my religion to help me meet the struggle of poverty. Odin, my patron, teaches that hardship is valuable and I have held onto the teaching during those hard hungry times. I have seen it as a form of testing. I have used it to learn to do without unnecessary fripperies. I have used it to find enjoyment and beauty in even fleeting, small things. I have used it to find a center of spiritual equanimity.

I thank my gods for this. And as I love them, as I am grateful to them, I show them honor and respect. Even when I lived in the homeless jungle, as such encampments are called, I managed to pour out a little drink, or leave part of my own food for them. If this meant I went a little hungrier, then so be it. Wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice if I didn’t suffer a little. Indeed, I took PRIDE in this, I felt it made my sacrifices MORE valuable because they cost me so dearly.

Ms. Tea, poverty can beat a person down or raise them up. I am terribly sorry that it seems to have done the former to you. But don’t you dare go painting us all as having failed, like you, to cope. We are not all victims. We are not all weaklings. We do not all hide behind our poverty as an excuse to get out of doing anything meaningful for the gods we claim to love.

And seriously, you really think this: “If your heart isn’t in it, then don’t do it,” is good advice for poor people or, indeed, anyone? This is frankly the worst religious advice I ever heard. It is when your heart isn’t in it that devotional activity matters MOST.