Here is the recording of my presentation on Discernment that I did for LokiFest for those who were unable to make it. The recordings from other presenters can be found here.
Here is the recording of my presentation on Discernment that I did for LokiFest for those who were unable to make it. The recordings from other presenters can be found here.
Polytheistic religions are, by design, multifaceted. There is no single model that encompasses every polytheistic religion. There are, however, several different fields that can be used to explore polytheistic religions, just as there are different fields in every subject. History, for example, can be broken down into many different fields – environmental history, labor history, queer history, women’s history, race history, statistical history, microhistory, etc. In the same vein, polytheistic religions can each individually be explored through certain fields of study.
I try to utilize the twelve fields that follow when I am studying a polytheistic religion. I’ll go more in-depth with each one in regard to the Heathen religion in my future posts, but for now, I am just going to introduce the fields themselves.
The first field is cosmogony, which is the study of the creation of the universe. Every religion has an origin story for the cosmos – some have several. Understanding those creation myths are vital to understanding the religion they underpin. In Heathenry, the creation myth revolves around the collision of fire and ice giving rise to the spark of life in the middle of the Ginnungagap, or yawning void, which then gave rise to everything else.
The second field is cosmology, which is the study of the universe itself. This differs from cosmogony because cosmology looks at the structure of the universe after its creation. Said a different way, the creation myth/s of religion are so integral that they require a separate, in-depth study. In Heathenry, the cosmology centers around the World Tree, Yggdrasil, the Nine Worlds that rest in its branches, and the Three Wells that lay at its roots.
The third field is theogony, which refers to the lineage of the gods. This gives us information about the family of the gods, how the gods structure and arrange themselves, and what the relationships are between different gods. Within Heathenry, there are two or three families of gods, depending on your perspective. Traditional Heathens only acknowledge the Aesir and Vanir families, but others acknowledge the Jotuns (Rokkr) as a third family.
The fourth field centers around sacred calendars, rites, and practices. This includes the calendars that the religion historically used, the days considered sacred, the rituals practiced and the method of practice, and the daily way of life. Many people approach polytheistic religions through this field, as most polytheistic religions are centered on right practice (orthopraxy). Polytheistic religions are lived religions, so practice is a necessity – it is the only requirement. While there are many ways to study a religion, there is only one way to follow a religion, and, in polytheistic religions, that means through practice.
The fifth field is eschatology, which is the study of death, judgment, and final destination. It is the study of the afterlife. Every religion views death differently. Considering the fact death is the most intriguing and terrifying phenomena in the universe, it makes sense that there are so many different ideas of what happens when you die. Within Heathenry, there are several different afterlives, but there are also several conflicting views as to who goes to which life. Most polytheistic religions are life-affirming, so they are rooted in a this-world mentality. Heathenry is no different, as the afterlife you receive is considered to be one based entirely on the deeds you perform in this life.
The sixth field is axiology, or the study of values and ethics. It is the moral creed that underpins religion. Many polytheistic religions do not have creeds that are explicitly stated; instead, the moral codes are culturally embedded and learned through the myths themselves. Within Modern Heathenry, the moral codes are often found in the Poetic lay known as the Havamal. This is a set of maxims supposedly given by Odin himself, as the translation of Havamal is “Words of the High One.”
The seventh field is pneumatology, or the study of spiritual beings and phenomena. This deals with the types of spiritual creatures a person would be expected to encounter and/or honor. This can include the gods but is typically focused on other classes of spirits. Within Heathenry, that includes elves, wights, and trolls – Kvedulf Gunndarson has a wonderful book on the topic called “Elves, Wights, and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry” that really explores the pneumatology of Heathenry.
The eighth field is soulology, or the study of the soul or soul-complex. Soulology itself is a modern term, as the traditional word here would have been psychology. Psychology was once understood to be the study of the soul, but in its modern iteration, it is known as the study of the human psyche. These aren’t identical concepts, so it is important to differentiate them. Within Heathenry, the soul is considered a soul-complex with many parts to it. It is not unusual, in polytheistic religions, to see soul-complexes that describe five or more souls or soul parts.
The ninth field is semiotics & symbology, which is the study of signs & symbols and their interpretation and uses. Within Heathenry, there are many signs and symbols, all of which mean vastly different things. Runes are the mainstay of Heathen symbology, but there is also the Helm of Awe, Mjolnir, the Runic Compass, the Valknut, and the Irminsul (to name a few).
The tenth field is sophology, or the study of wisdom. In this sense, wisdom comes from reading the myths, applying appropriate cultural interpretations to those myths, and using the myths as guidelines for experiential living. It also requires utilizing knowledge gained from other fields of study and/or life experience and synthesizing that knowledge into a composite whole. Wisdom does not operate in a vacuum nor can it be found in a single place. Ethics are a part of wisdom, but morality changes depending on the culture. Due to its nature, wisdom is virtually impossible to pin down or describe, as it has a variety of forms. Within Heathenry, wisdom is highly valued, as Odin, the chief god of the pantheon, is a god of wisdom who always seeks more of it.
The eleventh field is sexology, or the study of sex. This includes the act of sex itself and how it was viewed, as well as gender and how that is construed within the religion. Different religions view nonbinary identities as incredibly sacred; others view them as perverse. In some religions, there are gods that require practitioners to be of one sex or another, and some practices are restricted to certain sexes. In the modern world, people often find it offensive when religious restrictions prevent them from accessing certain gods or certain rituals. Not all people need access to all things. That is why there are still closed religions, and it is important to respect the closed nature of those religions.
The twelfth field is occultology, or the study of the occult (meaning secret). Within polytheistic religions, this refers to magic derived from religious practices. Within Heathenry, there are three specific branches of magic. There is seidhr, which is a type of trance/oracular magic, traditionally only performed by women (there were and are exceptions). There is galdr, which is runic vibrational magic, that was traditionally magic done by men (again, exceptions exist). Lastly, there is spaecraft, and in today’s terms translates to herbalism and/or cunning.
The fields can, and do, overlap each other. That said, it is sometimes easier to use a narrow lens to look at a complex subject to better understand it. Though each of these fields can be used as narrow lenses to explore polytheistic religions, it is important to keep in mind that every religion is far more than the twelve fields listed here – i.e. the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I am the farthest removed you can get from being a reductionist, and I highly discourage anyone from trying to use these fields in a manner that suggests that they are the only parts of a religion. They are not – these are simply the ones that I have found useful in my own studies. I’m sure there are thousands upon thousands of other techniques to use to approach the study of religion. These are just the ones that I have developed for myself. If they help you, great, but do not go out and try to tell people that they are the “only way to study religion.” That is a mindset born from living in a monotheistic culture, and, if you are practicing a polytheistic religion, it is one I highly encourage you to divest yourself of as soon as possible.
Going forward, I will be examining Heathenry through these fields. Some will require more discussion than others, some will require less – in any case, it won’t be as simple as a 12-part series. Moreover, the views I express are mine alone, and they do not represent the views of the entire Heathen community.
Within the American Heathen community, there seems to be a consensus that the gods are the ones that you go to last. First, you are supposed to develop a relationship with your ancestors, then with the wights of the land and the wights of the home, and then, finally – if necessary – with the gods themselves.
I’ve always found this a bit problematic, as I don’t easily connect with spirits that aren’t deity-class spirits. I actually find it a bit depressing, sometimes, since I have such a difficult time connecting with ancestral spirits and with the wights around me. Then I feel bad about getting depressed. After all, I have what so many other people seem to want – the ability to communicate fairly easily with the gods.
I did not start out with that ability – it is one that I eventually developed as I grew more and more into the Pagan world and mindset and left the monotheistic worldview behind. It took a lot of work for me, as I grew up in the middle of the Bible Belt, and I had a lot of trauma associated with the Christian god – namely, that despite my avid belief and worship of him as a young child wasn’t enough for him to ever step forward into my world and answer the prayers I leveled at him for the situation I had to deal with at home. He was yet another example of someone who abandoned me for no discernible reason.
That took a few years to unravel in my mind, and then I also had to start reading up on polytheism itself to begin to comprehend how the universe could be structured if there wasn’t a single god at its helm. That was rather difficult for me, as my mind kept coming back to this realization that there had to be something at the source, something that generated everything.
Reading mythology really helped me come to understand that the “something” I was perceiving was the Primordial Ocean, that which existed before creation. It is, in different religions, also referred to as the Abyss, the Ginnungap, Chaos, or the Void. No matter which religion’s mythology I examined, I always found the First Principle to be the same – life emerged from the Primordial Ocean, the Universal Matrix that existed before creation itself occurred.
That helped resolve the fact that things always seemed to go back to one, but that one gave rise to a plurality, and the gods were a part of that plurality. That, to me, doesn’t make the gods simply one being, as they were generated by the Primordial Ocean. Like children who are born to parents are not, in fact, just their parents with a different face on, I do not view the gods as being the Primordial Ocean personified in an infinite number of guises.
I see the gods as holding the powers of creation that gave rise to them, but not as that which created them. That means I can view the gods as separate, individual entities who have agency and plans of their own, rather than stepping back into a monotheistic worldview that sees the gods as nothing more than a divided part of the Primordial Ocean.
Once I was able to perceive the gods as separate entities of their own, with their own desires and goals, then I started to hear and see them around me. It was like, just reaching the realization that the gods themselves were individual beings opened the doorway for me to be able to communicate with them. Once that happened, the Norse gods were the first to show up in my life, and they are the ones who have been with me ever since.
I think it’s important, however, to note that as a child, when I still firmly believed in the Christian god, I had no trouble communicating with him. I very much knew he was real, and I talked to him regularly. I have never, in my entire life, doubted that the divine exists, because I’ve always known that it does – it is hard to deny the existence of someone who has communicated with you.
I think that was another reason it took me as long as it did to pull away from the monotheistic worldview – I knew that I was pulling away from someone who had once been a friend, a friend that had hurt me in a way that I could not forgive. I had to figure out a way to be okay with creating that separation, and that took some time. I am not a person who easily gives up on others, even to my own detriment.
Once I managed to severe that relationship and embrace the polytheistic mindset, I found friends in the gods that I knew would never betray or hurt me the way that the Christian god had. They helped heal the hurt that had been done to me by a one-sided spiritual relationship, and they taught me how to trust them. That is why the Norse gods will always be the gods that I turn to first – it was them who showed me that the worth I had was merely in my existence, not in what I could do for them. They showed up, wanting nothing but to make their presence known to me, and I learned to love them in a way I cannot adequately express.
The work I do for them now is work I do for them out of gratitude for all they have already done for me, not out of a sense of obligation or requirement. I continue to serve the gods in the capacities I hold because I know that I could walk away from all the responsibilities I have taken upon myself, and they would let me. They would be sad, but they would understand. They give me the freedom I need to be the person I am, and that, in turn, induces the deepest sense of loyalty in me that I can gift to anyone. I never feel trapped by the gods, as the chains of responsibility I wear are the ones that I wrapped around myself.
It is the gods, however, that engendered my ability to learn to trust in the spirit world after being hurt by it. There is still a level of mistrust that I hold towards the wights of the land and home, as I grew up in a home that was full of spirits. I have started to work on healing those relationships, as I have grown to the realization that those spirits in my childhood home did what they could to help me, but they couldn’t do much due to the limited power they hold. I did not understand how limited that power was as a child, but I do now. I may never be incredibly close to the wights, but I do view them with reverence and treat them with the respect they deserve.
It is much more difficult for me to connect with my ancestral spirits, not because they ever did anything to harm me but because of something my mother did to me as a child. In the familial tradition I practice, it is possible to prevent someone – to lock them – from being able to access certain parts of the spirit world. This is generally only done when someone is being threatened by spirits and is removed when they have learned enough to defend themselves, but it is weird that my mother prevented me from accessing my ancestral spirits. I didn’t learn about this until a couple of years ago, and it took the intervention of a god before that particular lock on my spiritual abilities was broken.
There is a lot there for me to process, and it will take time for me to approach the ancestors I wish to work with. I have been hurt by many, many people close to me, and generally, the people who have hurt me have been family members. That makes it hard for me to want to open myself up to the potential of pain that some of my ancestors might cause, as I still struggle to trust other people – alive or not.
I work well with the gods because I have learned to trust them, and I understand that the foreignness they hold to humanity causes any misunderstandings I have. I do not try to hold them to human standards, and it is probably because of their non-human qualities that I find it easier to trust in them. I trust that I will not ever fully understand the actions they take, as they cannot be simply explained by human morals or concepts. I work best with the gods because they are the spirits that I find myself most capable of trusting.
I also understand, now that I’m older, that the gods have preferences for the humans they interact with. The gods choose their followers as much as we choose the gods. Sometimes, we are not compatible with the gods we choose, and those gods never step forward into our lives. I realized, a few years back, that the Christian God never betrayed me or abandoned me – he just wasn’t interested in me.
Once I realized and accepted that the gods are choosy, I realized that it is basically impossible for the gods to betray anyone. It is, however, possible for the gods to reject someone. That is why it is so important that when you approach a god you have never honored before, to be okay if that god tells you no. We just aren’t compatible with all the gods, and even some we wish would work with us will turn us down. There are millions upon millions of gods out there, however, so the chances that you can find a god who will step forward into a relationship with you are pretty solid – I’d say almost guaranteed.
Recently, someone in the Loki’s Wyrdlings group started to claim that he was Loki, that Loki horsed him all the time – even to the point that the cops in the area knew him as Loki. He posted pictures and did his best to entice people into believing what was obviously false information.
There are people out there who are like this, who claim to speak for the gods and other spirits as if they are able to know the minds of the gods. We cannot do that, and we have a responsibility to ourselves and our communities not to run around claiming that the gods are always horsing and/or communicating through us.
Yes, everyone has religious experiences. Many people do communicate directly with the gods in a way that is almost telepathic. That does not give those people the right to repeat the gods’ words as if they are the gospel truth for that deity. That is an abuse of the privilege of being able to communicate well with the gods. On top of that, the louder a person is about their ability to communicate with spirits, the more aware all spirits become – good and bad – about that person’s ability to communicate. That can potentially open a person up to dangerous situations with malignant spirits.
That is why discernment is such an important part of polytheistic practice. We all deal with very real entities with their own ideas and agencies. Not all spirits are benign. The gods are not safe, and we are not entitled to whatever we want from the spirit world. Bragging about deity communication or deity possession is also a good way to alert the less benign spirits that hey, there’s someone around capable of hearing them and holding their power. It’s a dangerous game to play, and a lot of people would benefit from exercising a little more caution.
I can give you plenty of examples of what not to do, but I think I’ll provide an example of what to do instead – there are plenty of people out there making spiritual mistakes, and far too few approaching spirit work with the right amount of caution.
One of my friends had an intense experience during meditation, and she was almost certain that the spirit that had communicated with her during that meditation was Yemaya. Instead of automatically going “oh yeah, totally her,” she discussed the experience with me and another experienced practitioner who already works with Yemaya to determine whether or not the spirit that had come to her in her meditation was actually Yemaya. It was only after the three of us discussed it and came to the conclusion that yes, it probably was Yemaya, that my friend gave an offering to Yemaya. The way in which the offering was accepted pretty much confirmed that it was Yemaya, so that promises to be the start of a beautiful relationship.
When my friend asked me about her experience during meditation, I had a responsibility to her not to give her information that could potentially put her in harm’s way. Even then, my strongest piece of advice was, “It sounds like it is probably Yemaya.” It wasn’t an “it is 100% without a doubt this one particular spirit” because I cannot give someone that kind of guarantee when it comes to spirit work.
Now, I am aware that not everyone has access to experienced practitioners, especially when it comes to deity and spirit-work. Even among contemporary Pagans, it is rarer to find devoted polytheists than people who solely practice some form of magic.
That lack of experienced practitioners seems to have created this idea that people can do whatever they want with spirit work and everything be fine. I have read horror stories about people going to “shamans” for “soul retrieval” who end up plagued with horrendous nightmares for years afterward. (As an aside, the whole “soul retrieval” technique was contrived by a scam artist looking to capitalize on the guru movement. Anyone trained in “core shamanism” has been duped).
I have also witnessed some terribly horrendous decisions made by those who refuse to listen to more experienced practitioners. I witnessed one woman make a blood contract with an incubus utilizing a ritual she pulled off of the first page of Google search results. I’ve also had people tell me of the spirits that attacked them in their sleep because they failed to ward their space – even after I told them they needed to ward their space.
Spirit work is inherently dangerous. Engaging with spirits means engaging with beings that you can never fully comprehend. Their motives and your motives may align on occasion, but there is never any guarantee that they want what you want. Acting as if the gods and spirits exist only to serve your purpose is a good way to put yourself in harm’s way.
When I warn people about this kind of danger, and I hear “oh, but you cannot judge another person’s religious experience,” it makes me want to scream in frustration. Because it’s not their religious experience I’m judging – it’s their inability to make wise decisions and approach spirit work with the respect it deserves.
As a note, experienced practitioners don’t give idle advice. That’s why I always highly recommend looking for someone with at least a decade of experience for advice. That’s what I mean by experienced.
© Kyaza 2019
All relationships with the gods are founded on mutual respect, reciprocity, and hospitality. Generally, we can say yes or no to the gods when they approach us, but the same is also true for when we approach them. The gods are not obligated to accept our offerings. We are not obligated to serve the gods against our will (except in rare cases, which I’ll discuss later).
In general, there are four types of devotional relationship patterns for working with the gods.
The first relationship pattern is that of a devotee. Usually, a devotee makes offerings to the gods with whom they have relationships to sustain those relationships. When these offerings are made, how they are made, and what offerings are used depends on the tradition. This is the type of relationship that most practitioners have.
This is the level where most of my relationships with the gods I honor are at. This includes Thor, Tyr, Niorun, Freyja, Sigyn, Quetzalcoatl, Hermes Trismegistus, Bast, and Mani. This is the level that most deity-human relationships will always exist at, and that is perfectly acceptable and commendable.
Moving on, the second relationship pattern is that of an oathsworn devotee. This is generally a devotional relationship taken to the next level. Different commitments are required – essentially, a contract is entered into with a deity at this point. In exchange for doing X for said deity, Y is received.
That said, oathsworn relationships are dangerous, and you should not enter into them lightly, if at all. This is not a path for everyone – it is not safe at all. Because the gods have agency, they have their own plans, their own agenda, and they are not obligated to share it with us. Even if we are part of those plans, they do not have an obligation to share – we do not have a right to know their overall agenda. Their ways are not ours, and they will hold us to our oaths.
When an oathsworn relationship exists, that deity has a right to your time where and whenever they show up. They are priority #1 over everything else. The work they demand is hard, exacting, and often downright exhausting. This is not for the faint of heart. Do not swear an oath unless you know, with absolute certainty, that it’s the relationship that you’re meant to have with that god.
This is the type of relationship I have with one god, and one god only, and that is Odin. In exchange for the insight and wisdom his path offers, I do a very specific type of work for him. Generally, it is in the form of providing people with information about him and his path whenever the subject comes up in conversation or through other mediums of communication, like emails or comments on blog posts. In addition to that, though, he has told me before that the work I do for Loki is also the work I do for him. More on that later.
Moving on, the third type of relationship pattern is that of a godspouse, which may or may not be as demanding as an oathsworn relationship. It requires a strong commitment, as it is essentially the marriage to a god. The easiest example to demonstrate this is the commitment undertaken by Catholic nuns – they are the closest equivalent to godspouses in the Christian world. In this type of relationship, the god is your #1 priority, and devotions matter almost more (or more) than those to other gods. These are exceptionally rare relationships, and few people will ever have a chance to enter into one. The requirements of these relationships are often secret, as the work a person does in a godspouse relationship is highly personal, highly intimate, and, in general, no one else’s business.
The fourth type of relationship pattern is that of clergy. A priest serves a god in a ritual and/or communal capacity in the ways that the gods make clear. Clergy are devotees and generally don’t swear oaths to enter into the service of a god – some do, so there are exceptions to this.
There are different ways to be initiated as clergy. You can be trained through an official program, you can be called directly by a god, or you can be elected by your community to fulfill that role.
Most clergy members of polytheistic religions are willing and able to take on the role of priest for gods other than the one/s they primarily serve.
When it comes to this type of relationship, I hold it with two gods – Loki and Freyr. The way I became Loki’s priest was through a conversation I had with him one night where he asked if I was interested in a godpsouse relationship. I declined, as I did not feel that was the correct relationship for me, as I have always viewed him more as a big brother/best friend (sorta father figure) than as anything else. When I declined that relationship, he suggested I become his priest instead, and I agreed to that.
The work I do for him is varied and dynamic. I talk about him and his path via blog posts and in face-to-face conversations. I also established the Facebook group Loki’s Wyrdlings at his request that I build a community where Lokeans could feel safe to discuss their practices without being immediately harmed by the Heathens who still view Loki as an evil god and his devotees as evil. Adding to that, I established Loki University, which is an online school where people can learn about Loki and his path. Most recently, I established (alongside some other awesome Lokeans) a book collection called Loki’s Torch, and the first edition of that will be releasing in August. As you can tell, the work I do for Loki is not a light load. Being a priest rarely is.
In terms of my relationship with Freyr and serving as his priest, I actually approached him and asked him if he would be interested in me filling that role for him. If he had said no, I would have accepted it and moved on. He did not. My responsibilities to him are more ritually based than about community building, and all of the rituals I have facilitated for Freyr have been some of the most rewarding rituals I have ever done.
One of the requirements he has for rituals is that no one brings a weapon of any sort into the ritual space – from what I understand, this is fairly common among the Vanir deities. This is something I ensure when I facilitate rituals for him, and I am fairly certain this is why the rituals end up being so strong. The other work that I do for him involves astral work, which I am not comfortable discussing over the internet, as astral work is very dangerous for the untrained.
Now, when it comes to establishing relationships with the gods, there are specific types of people, and it is important to understand this in order to understand how relationships with the gods develop.
There are people who are god-touched, which means they are very attuned to the spirit world (or astral plane, whichever you prefer), and they are able to easily communicate with the gods and other spirits. Because of this, gods often seek these people out, as it is easier to form a relationship with someone you don’t have to scream at to get to pay attention.
There are also those who are god-called. Generally, these are the people who have had gods watching over them for their entire lives, just waiting for the moment when the person finally notices the god’s presence. At that point, a strong devotional relationship spontaneously develops.
I watched this happen with someone I had a conversation with about polytheistic practices and how polytheistic religions answers the question of why good things happen to bad people. About two days after that conversation, which lasted about six hours, the man came back to me and told me that the goddess Morana had come to him and he was working with her – after essentially telling me during the original conversation that he was an atheist. Basically, once he was made aware of the fact that there were religions outside of Abrahamic ones, Morana came forward and made her presence clear to him.
There are also people who are god-claimed. This can happen in a ritual, but it can also happen if someone dedicates a child to a god when they are born. This isn’t always an ethical practice by human standards (although the Christian rite of baptism suggests otherwise), but the gods do not ascribe to our morality. If you were dedicated to them, they have a right to you.
Undoing that kind of ritual dedication is extremely difficult, dangerous, and not recommended unless absolutely necessary. A claim can also be held by a god if you dedicate yourself to them as a thrall (or a slave). Few people do this, but some do, and they generally walk a fine line between sanity and madness. This is not a path I would recommend to anyone, and if you are considering it, I would suggest an alternative path unless there is no other choice.
As a note, because so many of us are raised in Christian environments and usually baptized against our will (as we are too young to properly give consent), it is almost always necessary to do a severance ritual once we have chosen a different religion. I was lucky that I was never baptized, as my parents believed that I needed to make that decision when I was old enough to make it for myself.
I did, however, see a friend struggle with their baptism into Christianity interfering with their ability to properly work with the Celtic gods that they had chosen to honor. She had to have a severance ritual performed so that the Celtic gods could more easily communicate with her without the Christian god’s claim on her interfering with those relationships.
So, if you are someone who has been baptized and find it difficult to communicate with the gods of the path that you have chosen, I highly suggest finding someone trained who can perform the severance ritual for you. While it is is possible to do such a ritual on your own, the cut is likely to be cleaner if you have someone else perform it for you, as they are outside the claim that the god holds on you. Like I said before, severance rituals are dangerous, and they should not be undertaken lightly.
Lastly, you have the type of people that I call god-stalked. Like the god-touched, these people can be sensitive to the spirit world – sometimes they aren’t. This is generally a person that a god has taken such a vested interest in that the god will absolutely not take no for an answer. That means there is no ritual, no request, no anything that will get this god to leave the person alone. It is an adapt or go insane scenario and, thankfully, exceedingly rare.
Most gods honor a yes or no, but, again, gods do not ascribe to human morality. They do not have to honor consent because there is no such concept for them. Relationships are generally more productive when they do honor our concept of consent, but the god-stalked do not have the luxury of saying no. The only real way to deal with being god-stalked is to give in and accept that the god will not take no for an answer.
I have seen this happen to a grand total of one person in the nearly 20 years I have been practicing, and the deity was the Morrigan. This was a pretty unique situation, however, as we did a large group ritual to the Morrigan, and the person opened the door to allow the Morrigan access to them. Once the Morrigan had that door opened, she did not allow it to close, despite the fact that the person on the other side of it was trying to slam it shut.
This is why it is incredibly important that you do not participate in rituals if you are not potentially okay with the deity being honored coming into your life on a more permanent basis. Our gods are not safe, and it is imperative that if you are walking a polytheistic path, that you acknowledge and accept the dangers that come with honoring gods that have their own agency and their own agendas.
We can have amazing relationships with our gods. They provide us with an astonishing wealth of gifts in our lives. The gods, however, are not unfeeling forces or archetypes, content to do nothing except what we wish they would do. No, they are hugely powerful forces and sentient beings with their own desires, their own emotions, and their own ideas. Relationships with the gods are almost aways intense, unique, and gratifying. That said, however, relationships with the gods are never safe.
Dividing the Pagan umbrella into different categories is a rather difficult thing to do, and many people have tried before me to do so. I have no intention of reinventing the wheel, and the combined version of Halsted and Beckett’s four pillars of Paganism work incredibly well.
In his Patheos article, “The Three (or more?) ‘Centers of Paganism,’” John Halstead attempted to divide Paganism into three broad categories. In his view, Paganism itself holds at least three – if not more – particular centers that a Pagan may focus on in their practice. The three approaches to Paganism he describes are “Earth-centric,” “Self-centric,” and “Deity-centric.”
When Halstead speaks of Earth-centric Paganism, he denotes the difficulty with referring to religions as Earth-centric as “earth is a cultural construct and means different things to different people.” Instead of trying to define Earth, Halstead instead suggests that Earth-centric Pagans are those who focus primarily on ecological concerns and define their practice by their relationship to the natural environment.
Though he refers to the second approach as “self-centric,” Halstead is careful to point out that he does not mean that Pagans that define themselves this way are inherently selfish but that they focus on the innermost Self that transcends the ego and the individual entirely. He states that “Self-centered Paganism includes Jungian Neopaganism, many forms of Wicca and feminist witchcraft, and more ceremonial or esoteric forms of Paganism.” Halstead suggests that a Pagan who falls into the “Self-centric” approach to Paganism use the practices of Paganism to facilitate their own individual growth.
Halstead’s third category, “Deity-centric,” is one that he adopted from Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone, as he freely admits. He states that “Deity-centered Paganism includes many forms of polytheistic worship, many Reconstructionist or Revivalist forms of Paganism, including those which are closer to Heathenry, an those which borrow techniques from African-diasporic religions.” Halstead explains that those who take a Deity-centered approach to Paganism define their religion by their relationships to the gods.
John Beckett, a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, adopted Halstead’s centered approach in his first book, The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice, although he added a fourth center – community.
However, he approached these centers differently from Halstead, who seemed to draw the three approaches as if they were completely separate from each other. In contrast, Beckett states, “These aren’t rings you’re either inside or outside of – these are poles you’re closer to or farther away from. Some Pagans are so close to one pole (center), they’re hugging them – they don’t care about the other three centers. Others are close to two to three or even all four centers.”
Beckett explains that those who fall more into the community-centric approach are the Pagans who “find the divine within the family and the tribe – however they choose to define those groups.” These are the Pagans whose practice is centered around the communities they live in, rather than being centered on the Earth, self-growth, or deity-relationships. It is important to remember, however, that any Pagan can take all of these approaches or only a few of them.
Each one of those Pillars – Earth-centric, Self-centric, Deity-Centric, and Community-Centric – have their own subcategories. One of the most frequently made errors is when a person attempts to define Paganism as a set of Earth-based religions. While many religions that fall under the Pagan umbrella are Earth-centric, not all of them are, and this is a grievous error to make.
The other grievous error made by many, scholars included, is that Wicca and Neopagan religions are synonymous. In, A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States, H.A. Berger quotes Andras Corban Athern as saying, “Neo-Pagans are just witches who haven’t come out of the broom closet yet.”
Wicca, however, can be seen as an Earth-centric religion, as that is one of the central tenets of many – if not all – of the Wiccan traditions. For Wiccans, “The ‘Pagan’ element is emphasized in the form of worshipping nature and the Earth, with the consequent duty of the individual not to defile it by pollution and excessive usage of natural resources leading to their depletion.” Many forms of Wicca can be seen as Earth-centric religions, so the connection between Wicca and Earth spirituality is an easy one to see.
The second pillar mentioned – Self-centric – applies mostly to Jungian archetypalism, although Halstead insists that some forms of ceremonial magic also belong in this category. The issue with that, however, is that magic is not religion. Religion can contain magical practices – in fact, many do. Magical traditions, however, rarely require the practitioner to follow any particular religious path and are entirely secular in nature. For more information about Jungian archetypalism, consult John Halstead’s blog, The Allergic Pagan, on Patheos.
The third pillar mentioned – Deity centric – is the one that I am most interested in focusing on here. Over the twenty years I’ve been practicing, I have seen a handful of different ways that Deity-centered Pagans related to the gods. These are my own personal demarcations based on years of observing people within the wider Pagan community.
In terms of how people relate to the gods, there are those who view the gods as either individual beings that possess their own agency (hard polytheists) or those who view the gods as all part of one singular overarching entity (soft polytheists). This demarcation can also be referred to as the one between Reconstructionists and Universalists.
Nearly all of the Neopagan Reconstructionist religions hold Hard Polytheistic views. This includes Hellenismos and Heathenry – Greek and Norse – Reconstructionists. It also includes Solntsa Roshcha/Rodnovery, Slavic Reconstructionism.
While Kemeticism – Egyptian Reconstructionism – holds hard polytheist views, it is NOT a Pagan religion, as it does not classify itself that way. The Kemetic Orthodoxy states: “While Kemetic Orthodoxy might be understood as a ‘Pagan’ religion in the context of the Roman Catholic Church, we do not currently classify ourselves as Pagan, as we neither follow the spiritual teachings of the Holy See, nor do our spiritual practices derive from the same sources, or even the general structure, of groups that currently refer to themselves as Pagan or Neo-Pagan. We do recognize ourselves as polytheists…”
Because there are so many Reconstructionist religions in the world today, it is incredibly important to determine whether a religion you assume is Pagan classifies itself as Pagan. I see many people refer to practices such as Voodoo, Lucumi (Santeria), and the African Diasporic religions as Pagan – they are not. Voodoo is not a polytheistic religion either – it is monotheistic – and Lucumi and the other diasporic religions come from unbroken traditions. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of African diasporic religions, and I highly encourage people to do more research into them. I took a class in my undergrad years on Afro-Atlantic Material Culture where we focused almost exclusively on discussing Yoruba, Santeria, and the Orishas, which is where my understanding of those religions originates.
Within Heathenry, which is the main Reconstructionist religion I practice, I have noticed two very different approaches within the community. There are those I consider strict Reconstructionists who require everything to be done exactly as the lore says with no room for interpretation outside of it, and there are those who I consider recon-derived practitioners who use the lore as their foundation but allow room for personal gnosis and innovation.
Those who stick too closely to the lore, who cannot see past it, are those who I fear are stuck too much in the baggage of the monotheistic society of the United States. Abrahamic religions, Christianity included, are all “religions of the book.” Growing up in a society where the main religion is a book-based religion may make it more difficult for some within the Heathen community to allow themselves to move away from the books into a more substantial and rewarding relationship with the living gods.
When it comes to soft polytheism, there are really two versions – the Universalist approach as previously mentioned, and the Duotheistic approach that religions like Wicca use. Wicca holds that there are two main gods – the God and the Goddess – and that all gods exist within the God and all goddesses within the Goddess. Wiccans introduce a gender polarity that is not found in more traditional soft polytheistic (more properly called polymorphism) religions like Hinduism and Kemeticism (ah, but weren’t they hard polytheists? And thus, the confusion continues – some are, some aren’t).
Though I have never seen anyone else speculate on this, it is something that I have reflected on quite often. The United States is a monotheistic society, and Wicca is generally the first Pagan religion that religious seekers stumble upon if they end up pursuing the Pagan paths. Learning how to think like a polytheist is an incredibly challenging task when you are faced with the reality that your society is monotheistic and that has greatly impacted the way you think.
Wicca, to me, seems almost like a bridge across that gap. There are two gods rather than one, which allows a person to adjust to the idea of the divine being many rather than one. Then, once a person can think of there being two gods, they learn to think of a multiplicity of gods. That often – from what I have seen – leads people away from Wicca and to a more structured Reconstructionist religion. That isn’t always true – some people stay Wiccan forever, and some Wiccans adopt a hard polytheistic mindset.
That said, the community Pillar is the last one to discuss, and Beckett clearly stated that what he meant by community was whatever the person who focused on community defined it to be. For some Pagans, that may mean their immediate family. For others, it may mean their particular Pagan group or their friend group. For others, it may mean their online communities.
The reality of Paganism is that it is varied and diverse, and there is no way to cover all the potential subdivisions of each of the four pillars established by Halstead and Beckett. People define themselves using their own labels, which is what makes an attempt to classify people pretty much impossible from the outset. It is, therefore, of vital importance that we learn how people classify themselves and how the practitioners of a religion define that religion. Despite all our best intentions, the attempt to create a Pagan Taxonomy can never be complete – people are too complex to be classified.
Perhaps the real lesson we need to take away from all of this is the understanding that we group people in our own ways through our own experiences, rather than how they would classify themselves. There are people who view themselves as polytheists who I would argue do not fit that definition, but at the end of the day, who is right? Me, as the person attempting to force them away from a label they wish to use, or them, the person who may use the labels they choose as the stepping stones of the path in front of them?
That’s the danger of classification – we risk to lose too much by trying to force definitions on people who know themselves and what they mean by the labels they choose to wear than we can ever hope to gain. It is only in realizing that exercises like this – attempting to classify others – is something we do only for our own benefit, and the labels we choose for others are rarely the labels they would choose to wear.
 John Halstead, “The Three (or more?) ‘Centers of Paganism,” The Allergic Pagan, Patheos, May 23, 2012. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2012/05/23/the-three-or-more-centers-of-paganism/
 John Beckett, The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice, (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2017), 36.
 Ibid, 48.
 Ibid, 48.
 Berger as quoted in Gary F. Jensen and Ashley Thompson, “Out of the Broom Closet”: The Social Ecology of American Wicca,” Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 47, No 4 (Dec 2008): 755.
 Sam Cameron, “Wiccanomics?” Review of Social Economy, Vol. 63, No. 1 (March 2005): 92.
 Neokoroi, “Hard vs. Soft Polytheism,” Neokoroi: The Temple Keepers, 2003. http://www.neokoroi.org/religion/articles/hard-vs-soft-polytheism/
 Neokoroi, “Hard vs. Soft Polytheism,” Neokoroi: The Temple Keepers, 2003; BBC, “Heathenry,” BBC, 2003. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/subdivisions/heathenry_1.shtml; Solntsa Roschcha, “What is Slavic Reconstructionism?” Solntsa Roschcha, https://solntsaroshcha.wordpress.com/
 I spent many weeks in a classroom learning from Dr. Antonio Bly about these religions, so the only source I have for this information is the voluminous lecture notes I took in his classes.
© Kyaza 2019
The easiest way to learn more about the gods is to read their stories, to study their myths, and to meditate on the meaning of what the gods show us about themselves in the stories.
One of the best ways to do this is to examine a myth through the lens of each god that plays a role in that story. In the myth that discusses the building of Asgard’s wall, the actions of Odin, Freyja, and Loki all show us different aspects of each of the gods.
Odin needs the wall built, and he is willing to do pretty much anything to do it – i.e. the ends justify the means. When the giant suggests that the price he wants for the wall is Freyja’s hand in marriage (alongside a few other key things, like the moon), it is Freyja who protests the price, not Odin.
That shows us that Freyja will not allow herself to be auctioned off or turned into a pawn in one of the All-father’s games, and it paints her as an independent, strong-willed goddess who can match wits with Odin himself.
The gods then turn to Loki to find a solution to their dilemma, and that immediately shows us that the gods trust in Loki’s ability to solve problems. He is a creative, cunning thinker, and he comes up with a scheme to prevent the giant from finishing the wall so that the ill-struck bargain cannot be completed. He is the ultimate con artist, and the rest of the story demonstrates that. It also shows us that he runs his cons for the good of the gods – and sure, his cons work out well for him too, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Just from that one story, we get glimpses of the gods and their individual personalities. Odin is hell-bent on getting what he needs – there are no lengths too far for him to go. He is ruthless and determined and self-assured. He can be this self-assured because he knows that he can rely on Loki, and that is clear because he brings Loki in to find the perfect solution to his problem.
Being able to see these glimpses of the gods through the myths is why it is so important that people who come to polytheistic religions read the stories. The secrets of the gods are hidden in their stories.
Those stories, ancient as they are, were once the shared gnosis of entire civilizations. Myths are the collective understanding of the gods and their unique agencies in this world. That is why they are so important, why it is so imperative that people read the myths about the gods they wish to work with.
It is not about denying personal religious experience and gnosis when we experienced practitioners tell newcomers to read the myths and learn the stories about the gods they are wanting to honor. We tell them to do this because we know that the secrets of the gods are hidden in their stories. We tell them to do this because we know that those stories contain the key to unlock religious experience.
The more of the myths you read and seek to understand, the more you start to know the gods. The more you come to know the gods, the better and more reliable your personal gnosis becomes, and the greater your religious experience becomes.
If you want the key to your own greatest religious potential, read the myths. They are your greatest weapon and your greatest strength.