Ascendant II: Theology for Modern Polytheists

The newest title from Bibliotheca Alexandrina is Ascendant II, edited by Michael Hardy. It contains essays from several different authors, including John Beckett, Wayne Keysor, John Michael Greer, Brandon Hensley, and myself.

My article “Applying Cross-Cultural Methods of Myth Interpretation to the Myth of Baldr’s Death” is featured about halfway through the book. For anyone curious about why Loki’s involvement in Baldr’s death is actually essential to the maintenance of the cosmological order, I highly suggest reading that essay.

I actually highly suggest buying a copy of Ascendant II (and its precursor, Ascendant I) because it features polytheists discussing theology in the modern world. Theology is not often something discussed in Pagan and Polytheist circles, despite all the work we do with and for the gods.

You can learn more about the contents of Ascendant II here and you can purchase your own copy of Amazon for $11 here. 

Frith

While frith directly translates to “peace,” it is a word that holds so much meaning inside it that “peace” does not do it justice. Frith and pax are not synonymous. Vilhelm Grønbech states in Culture of the Teutons,

A word such as the Latin pax suggests first and foremost…a laying down of arms, a state of equipoise due to the absence of disturbing elements; frith, on the other hand, indicates something armed, protection defense – or else a power for peace which keeps men amicably inclined (Grønbech 35).

Frith, then, is an actively defensive and protective type of peace. Frith, for the ancient Germanic people, formed the very foundation of the soul itself. Frith was such a vital part of life that it was considered a base necessity and not referred to as a virtue. Because of that, the society formulated around frith became one “based upon general unity, mutual self-sacrifice and self-denial, and the social spirit. A society, in which every individual, from birth to death, was bound by consideration for his neighbor” (Grønbech 13).

Frith was the power that made people friendly towards one other; it was the glue that bound society together. According to Grønbech, “Frith is the state of things which exists between friends. And it means, first and foremost, reciprocal inviolability” (Grønbech 18). That means everyone was expected to act from a place of frith; frith was more important than any disputes that arose.

Disputes could arise; arguments did occur. Frith did not prevent arguments. Instead, frith required that all arguments be held in such a way that people worked toward a settlement that satisfied the nature of frith. The active force of frith guaranteed a solution that resulted in communal peace. As Grønbech states,

Frith is something active, not merely leading kinsmen to spare each other, but forcing them to support one another’s cause, help and stand sponsor for one another, trust one another….the responsibility is absolute, because kinsmen are literally the doers of one another’s deeds (Grønbech 24).

Frith rested on the Germanic concept of unity. In the Western world, the way we are taught the idea of unity today is the same method that was used when Grønbech lived. Children are taught that a stick by itself is weak but a bundle of sticks together are strong – unity is thus conveyed as the addition of individuals to a collective.

The Germanic people did not understand unity in this way; for them, unity was the natural state of existence. Grønbech explains:

The Germanic attitude or mind starts from a different side altogether. Here, unity is not regarded as originating in addition; unity is first in existence. The thought of mutual support plays no leading part among these men; they do not see it in the light of one man after another coming with his strength and the whole then added together; but rather as if the force lay in that which unites them (Grønbech 33).

Frith is the uniting force; it is what creates the cohesive whole. It is because the Germanic people thought of unity in this way that frith became the most inviolable social reality. It is why the family clan was conceptualized as a fence, each member a stave set in the ground and enclosing a sacred ground.

That is where the Heathen concepts of innangard and utangard originate. Innangard is the inner circle; it is the family, the clan, the communities we build. It is where we owe our loyalties. Utangard is everything outside of those structures; it is everything external to our communities that threaten to destroy frith.

Frith is always accompanied by joy or glad-feeling. As Grønbech states,

Gladness or joy is not a pleasure derived from social intercourse, it draws its exhilarating strength from being identical with frith…Joy is a thing essential to humanity. It is inseparably attached to frith; a sum and an inheritance. But this joy, then, contained something in itself…What were the ideas attaching to this joy? The answer is contained in the old world honor (Grønbech 37-38).

Frith and joy are the foundation of honor, and it is the power of frith that makes communities cohesive and joyful.


Sources

Vilhelm Grønbech. Culture of the Teutons, Volume 1. Trans. W. Worster. London: Oxford University Press, 1931.

 

 

A-Lada Love: A look at Lada, Slavic Goddess of Beauty

Maximilian Presnyakov: “Lada” (“Slav cycle”), 1998.

It is an unfortunate fact that we have lost much of our Slovic practices. When I set out on my journey to learn more about my ancestors and their pagan practices, it was a hard hit to take to know so little is known about it all, especially their use of deities. Mikołaj Gliński put this sad fact best when he says:

Slavs surely had their deities. While many of them can reflect a more ancient shared Indo-European past, it remains disputable whether these gods were worshiped on the whole vast expanses of Slavic Europe (which ranged from the Baltic to the Black Sea) or rather varied depending on the locale and specific Slavic tribe.

However, the deeper you dig in, the more we seem to be uncovering (and recreating).

Thankfully, what we do know about the gods and folktales has given us the knowledge we needed to open up this door that lead to revitalizing the traditional Slavic religion. So, in order to introduce you to the basics, I want to start with a focus piece on the main goddess we focus on in today’s practices: Lada.

Lada is a stunning goddess who truly deserves more credit than she is given. She is not only a goddess of beauty, love, joy, and youth, but also a creation goddess and mother to all the gods. She provides a safe home to many and guards over marriage (many folk songs about marriage mention her in some capacity). 

Many times, if she has a message for you, she comes in the form of a lark. Her connection to all things jovial brings their beautiful song to you, to lift up your spirts when you’re feeling low. When this messenger of hers appears to you, she’s also asking you to look within yourself and go on a journey of self-discovery. Additionally, the lark’s mimicking of other songs and sounds also makes their appearance signal a message from the other realms; listen to how they sound. What are they mimicking…what else is Lada trying to tell you?

Some also connect her with plants with two of the biggest being cherries and peonies. Cherries are considered to be a plant of immortality and combine nicely with Lada’s goddess of beauty and youth aspect. Peonies are for prosperity and good luck, linking it to her side of joy.

The time of the year associated with Lada is spring and summer. Spring brings that rebirth that helps one look within themselves and transform into something greater. Something that I also associate Lada with is the Summer Solstice and Slavic Valentine’s day, which is the day after Solstice. The Slavic Valentine’s day connects to Lada’s love goddess aspect. There is dancing and singing around a fire. One ritual that takes place around this fire is leaping across (carefully!). This is meant to ensure purification and protect against bad energy as well as radiate healing powers. 

If you would like to leave an offering to Lada, she is particularly fond of receiving honey (a symbol of fertility and prosperity) and also responds well to songs sung or played in her honor.

Sources:

Gliński, Mikołaj. “What Is Known About Slavic Mythology.” Culture.pl, 29 Mar. 2016, culture.pl/en/article/what-is-known-about-slavic-mythology.

Warnke, Agnieszka. “9 Slavic Rituals & Customs of Ye Olden Days.” Culture.pl , 9 Nov. 2015, culture.pl/en/article/9-slavic-rituals-customs-of-ye-olden-days.

The Politics of Rökkatru

Now that we have established at least some of the core values of Rökkatru, it is time to turn to the politics of Rökkatru. Though it may not be immediately obvious why it is necessary to discuss the politics of a budding minority religion, given the sociopolitical environment Rökkatru was born into and has been growing into, and the degree to which politics and religion have become muddled and intertwined in America, it is not something to be glossed over. Given that Heathenry as a whole is plagued with white supremacy and other forms of bigotry, it seems especially important to establish the politics of this new branch of Heathenry.

Though Rökkatru is not a unified or organized religion by any means, and there is wide diversity in the views and opinions held by those who practice Rökkatru, there has been some movement in online communities to firmly establish Rökkatru as anti-bigotry. In particular, some Rökkatru communities online have declared themselves in open opposition to the Asatru Folk Assembly, a Heathen organization widely known for espousing white supremacist, transphobic, and homophobic rhetoric.

The desire to form a visibly inclusive, anti-bigotry Heathenry has been voiced commonly enough within Rökkatru communities online that it seems safe to say that this is the most commonly shared sociopolitical outlook of Rökkatru. Considering that the values of Rökkatru include such values as diversity, acceptance, and community, and that the Rökkr themselves often represent the strength of nature’s diversity, it does follow that Rökkatru’s politics would be inclusive.

Furthermore, alongside the Lokean community, it is Rökkatru which boasts the highest degree of diversity among its ranks, in particular with regards to gender identity and sexual orientation. As the Rökkr are associated with shape shifting, in particular Loki who is known to shape shift not only into other animal forms but also into different genders, many Rökkatru see representations of their own fluidity in gender and sexuality reflected in their gods. Nothing within Rökkatru is strictly binary or easily confined to a box, which permits its followers a level of self-acceptance many were unable to find in other spiritual paths that adhere more closely to traditional, hetero- and cisnormative binaries.

In part because of the strength in diversity that the gods themselves represent, as well as the fact that many who might call themselves “misfits” have found spiritual home within Rökkatru, it is a path which has grown in the direction of inclusion and acceptance. Though within the ranks of adherents the most prominent form of diversity is in gender and sexuality, inclusivity and acceptance are extended to all those who fall outside of mainstream society’s hegemony. As a result, Rökkatru has not only been developing as a religious movement which values acceptance, it has been increasingly priding itself on being an anti-bigotry spiritual movement.

RR

Original design available for purchase on tee shirts at Mind-art Passion

Not only is Rökkatru anti-bigotry, it also deeply values environmentalism. Again we see this in the values of Rökkatru, especially in those represented by Jord and Gerd. Caring for nature, especially in the age of climate change, is a key element of Rökkatru sociopolitical identity, and not just because of what Jord and Gerd represent. All of the Rökkatru deities are generally considered to be closely associated with nature. Some may have direct and explicit connections to natural forces, such as Surt (wildfires or volcanoes) or Aegir and Ran (the ocean). Others seem to mirror more vague natural energies, such as Hela (death), Fenrir (destruction), or even Angrboda (who is closely associated with wolves and generally associated with wild things).

With a couple of deities that specifically highlight the importance of caring for and working closely with nature and the earth, as well as how interwoven the Rökkr are with natural forces as a whole, it is clear that this is a path which reveres the natural world. Because of this, environmentalism has become a core element of Rökkatru political values. It is not unheard of, in fact, for people to make donations to environmentalist nonprofits in the name of a particular deity as a way of making an offering to that deity. For example, some people might donate to organizations that are dedicated to cleaning our oceans in the name of Jörmungandr (who is known in the lore to occupy the seas surrounding Midgard) whereas others have donated to wolf sanctuaries or other organizations that protect wolves in Fenrir’s name.

In an increasingly polarized sociopolitical climate, and staring down climate change and rising fascism along with an increase in visible violence towards marginalized communities, all of these political values boil down to a deep value of activism. Rökkatru as a whole does not seem to look well on inaction in the face of injustice, though there is an understanding of the limited abilities of some members of this immensely diverse group (limitations in time and finances, in physical, emotional, or intellectual ability, etc).

Activism in the name of Rökkatru spiritual practice can take many forms. We’ve already discussed the concept of donating to relevant nonprofits in the name of a god/dess as a form of offering. I have extensive experience volunteering with disadvantaged and marginalized youth in part as a form of devotional service to Sigyn, which you can read more about here. Those who are able have in the past shown up at counter-protests to represent this inclusive Heathenry in the face of white supremacist and Neo-Nazi appropriation of sacred symbols as rallies. Some have even shown up as part of the black bloc or with Antifa protesters to disrupt rallies of bigotry.

Ultimately, Rökkatru is made up of individuals who all hold different values and political views. Not all of these views are necessarily complimentary, and not all Rökkatru practitioners would even consider themselves political. The most commonly represented political views within Rökkatru communities, however, have repeatedly proven to prioritize acceptable and inclusion, environmental care and well-being, and active action on these fronts.

Skål.

P.S. If you enjoyed this you might enjoy Is It Any Wonder, a narrative piece I wrote for Gods & Radicals that imagines what Rökkr deities might look and act like living in the modern world.

Responding to the Crisis in the Amazon

As we hopefully all know right now, the Amazon Rainforest is burning. The vast majority of the fires have been set intentionally. Some of them were set legally, others illegally. All of the fires were made easier, if not possible, by the regressive environmental policies of Brazil’s president Bolsonaro. The fires are not only a serious threat to our already deeply imperiled environment, they are a direct threat to the indigenous populations who call the Amazon home and who have been fighting for so long to protect that home. These fires are being set with the full knowledge of the threat they pose to the people who live there, and is nothing short of a genocidal tactic being used against populations who have been struggling to defend their rights against colonization and capitalistic greed for so long.

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Within pagan and witchcraft communities, people who are distraught and feel powerless to help have been creating and sharing spells designed to send healing to the Amazon. I am not a huge believer in the power of magic on its own, though I believe that magic can be a powerful tool for reinforcing or strengthening some other action you are taking in the world.

For myself, I have started a monthly donation to both the Rainforest Action Network and  the Rainforest Trust. Another wonderful organization to support is Amazon Watch, which works with indigenous people to protect the rainforest. I made my donations in Jord’s name, a earth jötunn mother of Thor. I also evoked her in the small ritual spell I did tonight, and will do for the following two nights, and invite you to join me in doing.

My spell is a modification of one I saw drifting around Facebook. The original called for a bowl of water, a candle, and a piece of agate, quartz, or palo santo. Though I happened to have a piece of palo santo given to me by a friend, I strongly recommend against buying palo santo due to its endangered status, which is directly linked to over-harvesting. I also brought along with me a sterile lancet and biodegradable tissue, a bottle of wine, some fancy salt, and a beer — to make offerings to those I called on.

My spell goes as follows, but feel free to make any modifications that will help you perform the spell successfully:

Sit on the earth. Light the candle before you, and dig a hole between you and the candle. As you begin to speak, hold the [agate/quartz/palo santo] in the flame.

“I call on Angrboda, whose spirit is wild, to oversee and lend power to these workings.”

Pour offering of wine into the hole.

“I call on Jord, who is the fertile earth herself, to accept and manifest this healing.”

Sprinkle offering of salt into the hole.

“I call on Freyr of the Vanir, the god who wields the rains, to bring his gift of rain, to the Amazon that burns.”

Use sterile lancet to draw blood from a finger, dab it up with the tissue and drop this into the hole followed by a healthy pour of beer.

As you speak the next bit, douse the burnt end of the [agate/quartz/palo santo] in the bowl of water.

“I implore these powers, hear our cries.”

Pick up the bowl, and as you speak the next bit, dip your finger in the water and sprinkle it on the candle.

“Bring down the rains to drown the flames burning through our lungs.”

If the candle was not spattered out, blow it out now.

Offer gratitude and bid farewell to those you have evoked, in whatever way works best for your practice.

Deity-Human Relationship Patterns

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.

©Kyaza 2019

The Difficulty with Pagan Taxonomies

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.”[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6] 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.[7]

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.”[8]

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.”[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]

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…”[12]

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.[13]

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.

[1] 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/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Beckett, The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice, (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2017), 36.

[6] Ibid, 48.

[7] Ibid, 48.

[8] 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.

[9] Sam Cameron, “Wiccanomics?” Review of Social Economy, Vol. 63, No. 1 (March 2005): 92.

[10] Neokoroi, “Hard vs. Soft Polytheism,” Neokoroi: The Temple Keepers, 2003. http://www.neokoroi.org/religion/articles/hard-vs-soft-polytheism/

[11] 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/

[12] Kemetic Orthodoxy, “Frequently Asked Questions,” Kemetic Orthodoxy, http://www.kemet.org/faq

[13] 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