Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Most people today often look at religion as a social construct created by people. Even though most people see religion and act about religion in this manner, it doesn’t make this view accurate or useful. Religion either misunderstood as only a human social construct, or used as a purely human social construct is not religion at all. We people tend to think that religion is all about us, and our thoughts, and our beliefs. There are other sides in this equation which aren’t people.

The deities exist, even as the sun, the moon, the trees, the air, all exist because the deities are intrinsically these things, of these things, and a part of these things. Whether or not a person decides to acknowledge that, ignore it, honor it, misinterpret it, distort it, disregard it, belittle it, cherish it, believe it, or disbelieve it, it doesn’t make the deities exist more or exist less, but it changes the interaction between that person, that person’s community, and the deities. The word “religion” in English is a troubled word which often notes a concept of a “system of beliefs.” This concept of a “system of beliefs” is one that many ancient people, including the Canaanites, did not have since it was known, understood, and accepted that deities exist. Ancient religion was not based on the modern idea that "deities might or might not exist." Understanding the difference in this matter, and this error of our non-ancient inheritance, is important for coming to terms with the mindset we often take for granted around us today.

Belief is not an issue because the deities exist. Belief isn’t important because instead of belief, there is knowledge and understanding. What constitutes as “religion” is what one does as an extension of that knowledge and understanding; and what one does is that which supports (or doesn’t support) an ongoing relationship among the deities, one’s community, and one’s ancestors. One’s deeds are fully integrated in one’s life and not separated out as “a system of beliefs.” To our ancients, there would be no point of building on the shifting sands of a “system of beliefs.” The deities exist; the only fallible part in this matter is people and peoples' perceptions.

Religion is—and should be restored in human thinking as—systems set in place with the participation of the deities, the ancestors, and people, as a constant negotiation.

Religion, if one separates it out from life and uses this word, refers to an interface, a hinterland of common ground for humans, ancestors and deities. The purpose of this interface is to provide useful, efficient, practical, effective, and safe(r) structures as means for people engaging with the deities. It is a negotiated middle ground between us and the deities, and as such sometimes it shifts and changes in accordance to the deities’ needs and/or the needs of people, and/or the locality, and/or the ancestors. Sometimes these things are accidentally or intentionally distorted in response to faulty human perception—but this distortion isn’t religion, it isn’t holy, it isn’t this negotiated hinterland and it should not be confused as such or attached to it in concept.

Religion is also about relationships. It is always negotiated with at least two parties in mind—humans and the deities. The people who do this negotiation are priests and shamans. The beings who have gone before and who have done this are counted among the ancestors, and this is one of many reasons why honoring ancestors and receiving their guidance is vital.

To recap—
Religion does not equal “system of beliefs”
Religion is better described as
1. Systems for people to engage in some way with the deities
2. Negotiated spaces and meeting points between deities and humans
3. Dynamic, constantly moving, constantly shifting relationships among deities, humans, and ancestors

We should also keep in mind that “religion” as negotiated terms and as dynamic relationships does not guarantee that existence is always comfortable for one party, i.e. people. There are at least two other groups at the same table. Therefore, the terms are not always what we like, or want, need, or what we think we like, what we think we want, or what we think we need. Sometimes it's about the deities’ likes, wants, needs; sometimes it has to do with the ancestors’ likes, wants, and needs. Negotiation. Compromise. Relationship. Interaction.  Sometimes this means making sacrifices in our lives, taking the time out to do that which is difficult because it restores right relations with the deities, with the ancestors, and with communities, and with people. Sometimes it means fasting or spending sleepless nights, or walking up the side of a mountain. That’s just how it is. 

So…why did I post a picture of a kid with a slingshot to go with this post? A slingshot is a simple weapon comprised of a forked stick and something stretchy attached to both prongs of the stick. The tension created when that band is pulled, when released quickly, will cause a projectile to hurl through the air. It’s the tension that makes the simple thing work. Negotiation is always filled with tension and dynamic, and it is the tension which, when used properly, can bring about the maximum effectiveness and the best arrangement for all parties, when done well. The slingshot works because of the relationships these parts have to one another and the tension-in-motion in that relationship. Religion, done well, does similarly: there are relationships amidst the parts (deities, ancestors, people) and a dynamic in these relationships.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sprouting: Question from a Beginner

An acquaintance of mine recently asked “What would you advise someone new to polytheism?” It appears on the surface to be a simple question, but it is one of those questions that although simple can go to great depths, and could probably take volumes to fully explore. Let’s unpack this question carefully.

“What would you…”

This question is directed to me, personally, so I will answer it in accordance to my own experiences and my own background. I am a Canaanite polytheist with fifteen years of experience. Sometimes I honor other deities alongside the Canaanite deities, sometimes I am present with others as they honor deities other than the Canaanite ones, and I have friends and allies who write, share, teach, and with whom I converse. Added together as a whole, that’s a pretty good deal of experience and depth, but it is as broad as it is within certain parameters. My colleagues may or may not answer similarly, and indeed I’d invite them to answer the same question. The question here does not say “Hey, Tess, speak on behalf of all polytheists everywhere and on polytheism itself everywhere for all gods ever and tell us all exactly what to do!” (The reason I include this is not because I assume the one who asked the question thinks this--indeed, I do not. Instead, I think that some folks--albeit not the person who asked the original question--may misconstrue what is being asked and how I am answering.)

“…advise…” This is advice he is asking for. The question does not say “Tell me what to do!” It merely asks for a direction in which to go. So what follows is my offering a direction in which to go; I am not making orders. Guidance and demands are not the same thing.

“…someone new…” This indicates that this is a beginning level of experience. I applaud anyone who can freely and openly admit that they are new at something and ask for aid. We are all new at something, all of the time. Although kindergarteners have this miraculous ability to acknowledge their lack of experience and ask for help every day, these are acts which can confound most adults—myself certainly included—who have differing amounts of pride and posturing that must be overcome. For a seed to grow, it first has to sprout. Being able to come to terms with where one is in learning and to proceed accordingly is not an easy thing to do at all.

“…to polytheism?” The question is not specific to which deity or deities, which sets of deities, which cultures, which locality, and so on, so this provides a unique challenge to answering this question. Further, I do not know if or how the deities have called this person, or which deities may be involved, if any, yet. Much of polytheism is culture specific, local specific, and ancestrally specific. When I say “ancestrally” I don’t necessarily mean one’s biological family tree, one’s biological predecessors; sometimes the dead are just the dead, and ancestry can go beyond that. So, the best I can do with this question is to take my knowledge and experiences, the conversations I’ve had with other elders, and extrapolate* further into a situation that I know no more than the information in the question and what the question asks for specifically. (*Extrapolate: extend the application of a method or conclusion, especially one based on statistics to an unknown situation by assuming that existing trends will continue or similar methods will be applicable.)

This is also a challenging thing because we polytheists have not (yet??) gotten together to pioneer some kind of raw basic cross-pantheon bare minimum tome of advice for beginners, so there’s no one definitive resource I can point anyone to. Granted, this sort of resource would pose multiple challenges because, again, there are culturally-specific, pantheon-specific, locally-specific, and ancestrally-specific things that may not be well-accounted-for in such a resource.

This question is as limited by what information is provided for me to answer as it is broad in openness to receiving whatever information I can provide. So, here comes the meat and potatoes:

The best advice I can give is to set up a daily devotional practice. A person can do this a couple of different ways, but the most common are setting up a shrine, making offerings, and engaging in daily prayer.

To set up a shrine, make or purchase images of the deities, or print out a picture or two of the deities you would like to honor, the deities who interest you, the deities of your ancestors or your biological precedents, and / or the deities who have called to you. Set up a small area for their devotion. Make sure the area is clean and free of clutter and smells decent. Make sure it isn’t near the trash can or the bathroom. Make sure it is an area where ignorant or disrespectful hands can’t get to, and pets won’t walk all over it or try to eat the offerings. Keep the area clean and picked up—if you make food offerings, take them away from the shrine after about a day. Pray daily, and if you can make it a practice to pray at or near your shrine, all the better. Make an offering there as often as you can, but at least set a schedule for offerings if you are just starting out, for instance making offerings at least each Saturday. Offerings can include incense (preferably Japanese incense because many Indian incenses have dung in them), food (make sure you research your deities and their cultures, because sometimes there are food taboos), and drink (such as wine, alcohol, or juice). Bread and olive oil are also typically welcome. What offerings the deities want and how the shrine is best set up will often depend on which deities you are honoring.

For prayer, set a time to pray each day, but remember that you can pray in addition to that time. This can be each morning, each evening, each noon, each tea time, or whenever. Different deities may have different preferences as to which times they like or are more active, but I would encourage prayer at any time. The important thing here when you’re starting out is to engage in a practice that you can keep and build, or change as necessary (according to the deities), over time. The key is practice, ongoing, daily, regular practice. Relationships are best built over time; the more time, and effort, and sincerity you invest in the deities, the more they are likely to invest in you.

When you pray, make sure that you’re not giving them a laundry list. Don’t go before the deities and say something like “Hey, love you guys. I really need some more money. My love life sucks, so if you could fix that, that would be great. My auntie is sick, so could you take care of her? Oh, yeah, and that one guy broke up with my best friend and my bestie is really heartbroken so could you help him out, too?” First off, the deities are not your servants or anyone else’s servants. Maybe a person who prays this isn’t consciously thinking "The deities are my servants," but when they pray constantly in this manner, just looking for the deities to fix things for them, this is what their actions say. Second off, there are things one can do for oneself and others, and most deities will not help until one demonstrates that one is making effort oneself to help with those things. Yes, often there are deities who are willing to help you with these things, but you must build your relationship with them first before you start asking for all sorts of things. To do otherwise is like cold calling royalty: at best they ignore you. Instead, try starting out with a simple prayer of gratitude. If your life truly sucks at the moment, try a simple thank you for nature, and a thank you to the deities for existing and being present.

I have a pretty intense regimen of daily devotion (and what I write below is only part of it), so keep in mind that yours may be considerably less intense because you are not in the situation or position(s) I am in, and you do not have the relationships with the deities that I do. What matters is that you do your practice in honor of the deities, and that you keep your practice on a daily basis—this way you are engaging with the deities daily and building your relationship with them daily. I cannot stress enough: this is a daily thing. 

The best, but woefully imperfect analogy, I can give is this: if a person never does kind things and never tells his girlfriend he loves her, but he keeps hitting her up for lunch money, he shouldn't be shocked if she leaves him. The deities are obviously not the same as a hypothetical human girlfriend, but, if a person never shows the deities s/he cares, if a person do not appreciate the deities, if a person is not kind to the deities and cherishes them, but instead keeps asking them to do something, they won't stick around. Sometimes it's not that they don't love a person, it's that the person doesn't love, or demonstrate that love, to them.

In the morning, I bob and bow (a Canaanite practice of bobbing at the knees then bowing at the waist) at the main shrine and I make an incense offering. I keep an ancestral shrine right next to the main shrine, so I make an offering there as well, too. As I make the incense offering, I will pray something like, “O Deities, I bring you an offering of incense. Please accept it if you find it acceptable. I pray that it will bring you strength, that it will restore you, and that it will bring joy to your day.” And then I bob and bow again, and back away from the shrine. I back way instead of turning around because in turning around immediately at the shrine, one “turns one's back” on the deities. In backing away, I do not turn my back. Many times, I will make offerings at other shrines for individual deities in the house in the mornings or throughout the day or night, in a similar manner. I suggest for a new person new at practice to keep one main shrine.

Sometimes throughout the day, particularly at meal times, I will make offerings of food and/or drink and/or incense to specific deities. I will especially do this if it is a holiday, if it is the marking of an event in nature (solstice, equinox, etc.), if I’ve been told to do so by the deities or by oracle, if something magnificent or miraculous happens in the day, if something dreadful happens during the day, if I’m making reparations for wrongdoing, or if I’m cooking up something especially awesome that I want to share. I also pray frequently throughout the day as I do day to day tasks, especially if I have a moment of gratitude for something. My moments of gratitude can and do include thanking the deities for: clean water, indoor plumbing, hot water, lighters, a roof over my head, health, transportation, friends and family, food, drink, air to breathe, a bird flying by, a wooley worm, the budding trees, fire, art, poetry, sunlight, night, good music on the radio, technology, and so on. I have even given thanks for the education that pain has occasionally provided me—regardless of whether or not I like pain. Which I don’t. Moments of gratitude don’t have to be just for the nice, pretty, pleasant, comfortable things.

In the night just before I go to bed, I will approach the main shrine. I bob and bow, and then I kneel before it. I pray something like, “O Deities, I thank you for my many blessings today. I pray that you are blessed, and honored, restored, strengthened and cherished. I pray that you are remembered. I ask that you bless your people.” Sometimes I will also ask for aid in guidance and discernment, but I keep any list of needs—whether mine others’ very short, and I do this in knowledge that I do much more in our relationship (my relationships with the deities) than "just ask for stuff" all day. Indeed, I spend most of the day "just thanking for stuff."

Before the ancestors at their shrine, I pray something like: “May you be blessed O Ancestors; may you be honored. May you be restored, may you be at peace. I give thanks for the foundations you have built for us in days of long ago, and I ask forgiveness that we over time have wrecked those foundations. I ask that you aid us in restoring these foundations, and that we may honor the deities and you again as we should.”

The prayers here are similar to the ones I pray, even if I change things up: one does not typically have to memorize a specific set of words by rote to pray. Memorizing prayers and repeating them verbatim can be helpful for some practices, but it sometimes depends on the deities and on the practices they want and expect. Best advice I can give when starting out is to pray from the liver (or the heart), and be honest with yourself and with them. Know and understand that whatever you do, you're going to make mistakes in the beginning, and this is part of learning. It is how you respond to these mistakes and guidance that can offer different opportunities to deepen relationships.

Image Notes: Photo by Wetwebwork, used through Creative Commons License

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Tough Love in the Neighborhood

I have not blogged in a bit: I’ve watched, and have kept my distance, from the furor rising up in the Pagan community over the Kenny Klein scandal.  (For my readers who do not know, Kenny Klein was a well-known member of the Pagan community.) I’ve read a few posts, and I have hung my head in sadness, wringing my hands and gritting my teeth, and I have gone on in with this event and my own thoughts and emotions about it in the back of my mind.

I have not commented on it before now because I am not a member of the Pagan community. My comments on the matter are much like any comments I might make about sexual misconduct in any other community. Although I interact with members from other communities—anywhere from parents with kids, to the elderly, to Jews, to Catholics, to GBLT, to bikers—this doesn’t make me part of these communities either. Take my opinion for what it is—the opinion of an outsider. You’ve heard it said that “no one person is an island” and this is true: humanity is at least as much based on interactive relationships among humans as it is on individual humans. The Pagans are my neighbors, and I have a relationship to them as a neighbor. I am not my neighbor, I am not “the same as” my neighbor, and I don’t live in my neighbor’s house, even as I live next to my neighbor and interact with my neighbor on an ongoing basis.

As a neighbor not just to one community, but to other neighboring communities who live around me, I am obligated to speak up if there’s a problem. When I see a neighbor constantly leaving garbage on the patio instead of disposing of it, I am obligated to point out that it is a health hazard. Living around humans, it is a statistical probability that most of us will run into a bad egg within our own communities. It’s the old cliché that 5% of the people make 95% of the problems. It sucks, but that’s how it is. How we respond to these matters shapes not only oneself as an individual, but one’s community as well, and it can affect one’s neighbors too.

The reason why I speak on this matter is because of some of the shenanigans about the recent scandal(s) in the Pagan community and how a few in that community think that people should be helpful and healing, especially in regards to perpetrators. A few folks’ way of defining helpful and healing has nothing to do activities that are actually helpful or healing, and are instead more based on providing comfort, on feel-good emotions and feelings, on suppressing anger, on appearing nice, and on keeping a peace built on a dysfunctional status quo.

The Pagan community—at least some folks in it—often wants to love and be loved (or maintain a loving, peaceful appearance) so much that it forgets that holding down a perpetrator in a submission hold of group-hug will not solve the problem, undo the crime, or support a culture where doing these crimes is at the very least condemned. I attribute some of these problems to a growing political (in-)correctness surrounding cultural relativity and moral relativity taken to extremes. I also attribute some of this problem to a lack of taking personal responsibility in knowing and assessing standards, motives, and emotions.

Loving is a great and beautiful thing, but too often people confuse love with being nice, avoiding conflict, suppressing anger, and keeping an unworthy peace built on a moral ambiguity which would shelter those who prey on the weak. Peace is not any of those things; love is not any of those things. Turning the other cheek does not mean allowing someone defenseless to take that hit. When one turns the other cheek with those who harm children, this is what happens.

To love truly, one must have a clear understanding of what love is, a full understanding of one’s own emotions, one’s motives, and one’s standards, and a full accounting of one’s priorities...or all that love is for naught. Priorities include safety and healing for the victims, catching perpetrators, and supporting justice. Without this, none of that love can be fully expressed or accepted: there are potential victims, PTSD and lack of safety for the victims already harmed, and an ongoing predatory opportunism for the perpetrators. This environment kills any chance at love and can actively support an unwanted cycle of abuse. If you really want to support love and healing, this has got to stop.

I know that most of you will be nodding along here, there is nothing new here and I’m making no ground-breaking statements or revealing the structure of the cosmos. Three basic matters come to my mind:

1. Standards are useful.

Having standards of behavior, norms, ethics, morals, and boundaries are useful and help life-as-we-know-it-among-humans to function in a beneficial manner. Sticking to these standards and supporting others in your community to stick to these standards is important. Having standards is about being good people and acting like good people. Standards are about protecting oneself, each other, and those who cannot protect themselves. You don’t have to codify these standards or set them in stone. Even Google says simply “Don’t be evil.”

A few Pagans (a few, not some, not all, and probably not you if you’re Pagan and you’ve bothered to read this far) balk at the idea of having standards, and think that standards are some kind of Christian Puritan fundamentalist values stripping away at freedoms. Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, nurse, teacher, soldier, that guy walking his dog…most people have standards, most communities have standards. Even shopping malls have codes of conduct.

It is important to avoid using religion as a reason for sexual oppression, or on the other side of the same spectrum, as an excuse for sexual irresponsibility. Ethical standards, even in regards to sex, have nothing to do with any kind of spiritual or emotional tyranny, and nothing to do with any particular religion or lack thereof. Responsibility is not oppression—responsibility is a natural outgrowth of maturity, strength, priorities, caring, and love.

2. Hurting kids is bad.

Sexual abuse, child pornography, rape, pedophilia, and so on, are all bad, evil, not good, and worse-than-useless. Period. No debate, no contingencies, no explanations, no excuses, and I won’t even bother to rank any of these transgressions on a scale of wrongness. There’s no point. Sexual irresponsibility is wrong. Hurting kids is wrong. Combining the two is wrong. Wrong.

3. Healing is painful.

I’ve seen some stuff bantered about regarding how people who hurt kids are sick and need healing. I am far more concerned about the victims, their healing, and their safety. Their road to healing is long and difficult and the hurt caused to the victims has nothing to do with the victims or their own choices. The abuses done to them ruin lives.

I support the perpetrator getting healing if mostly to prevent further acts of abuse. People who commit these crimes are indeed sick—this is a given. This doesn’t change the fact that they are often at least in some way cognizant, aware, and responsible for their actions, and often just as capable as anyone of making their own decisions. They usually know that these actions hurt others and these actions should and do have consequences for them in the form of punishment and social censure.

Healing a perpetrator has nothing to do with “if I just love him/her hard enough s/he will change.” No. It doesn’t work that way. A person has to change him or herself. It is possible to love a perpetrator just as it is possible to love someone or something that has gone horribly, horribly wrong. (I neither endorse nor condemn loving a perpetrator. I condone honesty with oneself about the matter.) Trying to err on the side of love—if one chooses to do so—does not mean that one allows the wrongdoing to continue.

There’s a tale about a boy who has to put down a dog because the dog contracts rabies—it’s called Old Yeller. The boy put down his dog as an act of love. It’s very complex, messy, deep, and nuanced to love a being so completely as to acknowledge and honestly assess what is going on with that being, and to take action necessary to preserve the safety of others and to protect (what is left of) that being’s dignity and any shred of its highest self (if it has one). The boy also loved his family enough to protect them and to set and maintain boundaries. I am not making a blanket statement that perpetrators should be put down like rabid dogs. If you want to, and you want to deal with those consequences including jail time for murder one, that’s all on you. (Don’t blame me for your own decisions and choices! Besides, people are not the same as dogs, rabid dogs, or fictional stories about fictional rabid dogs.) I am illustrating that love can be a complex and an uncomfortable thing that involves a humbling honesty and a clear-headed assessment. Sometimes love is not feel-good emotions, happy thoughts, and glitter. Often love means making the toughest decisions of one's life.

However, if a person really wants to love a perpetrator—I am not suggesting that that is a good or bad thing, or if it is necessary or not—a person must understand what that kind of love entails. It’s not all s’mores and affirmations, it sure isn’t martyrdom, and it sure the hell isn’t allowing a perpetrator continued contact with children. Loving someone means acknowledging that person as that person is, not as you think they are, as you think they should be, or as you hope they will be, but as that person is right now. As Is. No guarantees. Just as some used cars are lemons, so some people are lemons too; if you drive a lemon off the lot, don’t be surprised when the transmission blows. Sometimes that person is just not a good person at that point in time, sometimes they never were, or sometimes they never will be again. One has to fully account for this. Loving someone who has done something like this means setting healthy boundaries for oneself and for those one protects. Those boundaries involve reporting, banning from events, restraining orders, court cases, and jail time. It means setting rules and cultural standards in place to deter or prevent these problems, and setting up contingencies for protecting the vulnerable if something like this, gods forbid, comes up again. Sometimes loving someone means saying no and backing that no with action consistently.

Forgiveness is something that often gets brought up in these discussions. A perpetrator can ask for forgiveness or not. A person can forgive or chose not to. That’s up to each person involved to decide, and it is a deeply personal matter. I don’t see either forgiving or not forgiving as “good” or “bad,” and my opinion does not and should not matter here anyway. Forgiving doesn’t make someone a doormat any more than not forgiving makes anyone a monster. Along with consideration in giving or receiving forgiveness are reparations that have to be done to ensure that the act is not repeated and to (try to) make up for the wrong that has been committed. And whether or not one chooses to forgive, both parties should remember that forgiveness is not a blank check.

So, neighbors, if you were remotely curious, these were my two shekels on what has been a sad situation.