The subject of sacrifice is always a heated one. When it comes up, it is natural and right to have emotions around it, whether you find yourself in favor of it, or against it. Feelings are natural. Sometimes those feelings override our sense of how to use word-things to communicate our thought-forms, or cause us to lose sight of the global world that we live in, which exists outside of our own experiences or preferences. I recently had the pleasure of discussing these issues with a Pagan who expressed views online which I found to be offensive and dangerous and hurtfully malign. We were able, in private dialog, to come together as two humans, and address the mutually agreed upon need for education, training, and outreach around these issues in every direction. But the way that this dialog is addressed in general is one perpetually riddled by problematic obstacles.

The problems are many. First, while the language used by Pagans who are against this practice often, but not always, does claim to support some kinds of sacrifice and not others, at the same time is very cherry-picking about who gets “permission” to do a thing. (For example, some argue that it is acceptable for Santeros to offer animals to their Oricha, but unacceptable for Heathens to offer to their gods. Similarly, it may be acceptable to some for Cuban Santeros to offer, but not white other-than-Cuban initiates to Cuban lineages.) It is almost always drawing upon incredibly slippery-slope models in its suggestions, such as repeatedly positing that animal sacrifice leads to human sacrifice. This is “Satanic Panic” type language, and we’ve already seen what that does to a community or set of communities.

Segomåros points out in the comments of my previous post:

“I’ve seen the topic used to mock Pagans in general, not just Polytheists in particular, again and again over the course of decades. “Duzzunt you’s guys sacerfice baby’s?” There, the sacrifices in mind aren’t even historically real. There were no baby sacrificing witch cults in the Middle Ages or in the 1980s. When used in this way, the intention was always to shut down discussion and reinforce Christian, or at least monotheist supremacy.”

…and I think that he makes a very good point, though I would add “or secular, academic supremacy” to the end. There is a definite trend in many of these discussions to posit one’s own position or stance as superior, whether it is that of an Evangelical Christian (“moral and divine superiority”) or because one holds a certain degree of institutionally recognized academic performance (“educational superiority”) or intelligence (“intellectual superiority”) or secular post-modern social prestige (“social superiority”), all of which exist comfortably within a secular dominant cultural paradigm as comfortably as they would in a Christian or Monotheist one.

He goes on to say:

“This is the context for the use of the charge being used by other Pagans to mock Polytheists. They are taking very real acts that took place under very particular circumstances and applying a false “slippery slope” argument to suggest that animal sacrifice or just the revival of historically conscious real Polytheism will somehow lead to the worst imaginable (at times Biblical) visions of priests with bloodstained hands. Those arguments are really frightened attempts to enforce a set of rules that Pagans have put in place in order to cope with Christian supremacy, namely “always be harmless, responsible, and nonthreatening”. As such, the fear deserves understanding and reassurance, while the norm needs to be used only where appropriate, (mostly small, conservative communities,) and this “slippery slope ” argument deserves the ruthless deconstruction you’re giving it here.”

The strongest and loudest voices in Polytheism — which as a group of religions and online religiously identified writers and devotees is  specifically named and singled out in this discussion — are advocating for, and providing clear guidelines around, training and discipline when approaching this subject. People who lack the skills to do it right should not do it, as has been stated repeatedly by everyone involved in the most recent discussion’s subject. Those who were not involved in that discussion, but are nevertheless taking it wildly out of context to further their own ends in a greater community context, should take pause.

There simply is no evidence to suggest a “hip new trend”, as is claimed. The people who are doing these practices are by and large doing these practices with a mind for humane animal handling, ethics, training, discipline, and a nuanced and educated understanding of the whys and why-nots. Further, by and large people who are endorsing, studying, or practicing animal sacrifice in a religious context are not doing so for personal gain or empowerment or elevation; those are ideas found in magical thinking, not pious religious thinking. This is not the lens employed nor encouraged in religion as is being discussed in the venues where this criticism seems publicly directed. It is fine within a magical framework to endeavor toward these ends, and certainly discussions around sacrifice in that context should happen, but Polytheists writing about Polytheist religion are not writing about magic or magical practice. We are writing about and engaging in organized structures of religion and religious tradition. Further, these practices are not “new” nor “a recent development”; some modern Heathens have been practicing sacrifice of this kind since the 1970s, for example. This is not “new”. African and Afro-Diaspora traditions have been practicing this way indefinitely in all regions of the world. Judaism and Islam have been doing these things for thousands of years.

When I engage with people with a mind for either defending lawful and ethical religious practice and rights, whether against prejudice from a Monotheist or an atheist or a scholar or a mainstream Pagan or a secular-ish philosophical magician, I am almost always put into a position of needing to “justify” my position. I have to defend my right to speak at all, and I have to qualify my statements with a list of qualifications and very ungently probed “background checks”, as if the people I am speaking to would not themselves be able to discern reasoned argument or defense of lawfully protected and sanctioned act absent the correct credentials. This same sort of behavior is used by police and self-appointed neighborhood-watch to ask why people of minority races are shopping in or walking through predominantly white neighborhoods all the time, suggesting that a certain type of person needs to be able to justify their right to exist unmolested based upon another person’s cultural discomfort with their presence, and what it might represent to them in their own insecurities, judgments, or indeed paranoias. No person should ever have to justify their right to exist in this country, or to participate in or voice support for a constitutionally and federally protected set of practices. That is not the type of country that this is, thank the gods. Answers are poked at with scrutiny as if they might be turned over to reveal a lie. How is this helpful?

In certain initiatory traditions it is acceptable to inquire after one’s lineage and “pedigree” to determine who initiated them. This is sometimes found in Orisa religion, and often in Haitian Vodou, and to varying extents is considered acceptable in order to prevent fraudulent people from claiming power or influence which is not theirs by right. However, in these instances, the people doing the asking are expected to have some form of knowledge already in order to qualify the answers provided, or else the answers themselves would be meaningless to them. Speaking about where we learn what we learn is acceptable, but it must be handled with, and addressed from a place of, an initial place of respect.

The counter-argument to practices of animal sacrifice — that they are done for “edgy” or “dangerous” feels — is just silly and completely untrue of the places where this is being discussed publicly and proficiently. Are there people killing animals for ritual reasons outside of ethical and trained contexts? Sure. But,

  • 1.) those people aren’t writing about it in conjunction with Polytheist religion, to my knowledge or experience,

and,

  • 2.) those people are not going to have their opinions changed by soap-box proclamations which use language like “mental illness” and “organized thinning the herd”. In the cases where those practices are happening, they need to be understood — first and foremost — for what they are, and differentiated from what they are not, rather than lumped destructively together. And then, if indeed there is a true trend of unethical or inhumane practices happening, education and outreach are what are needed.

The suggestion that Polytheists who talk to their gods, and hear back, or affirm the conscious agency of the gods and spirits, are suffering from mental illness, delusion, or are “devolving” superstitious people who do not question anything critically is not only untrue, it is incredibly unethical. Proper employment of methodologies designed for pathological assessment and/or therapeutic interventions do not approach situations in this way, and nor should any who would use their influence or voice in a leadership capacity.

Are there people in various religious traditions, Polytheist or otherwise, who also have mental illnesses? Yes. Of course there are. And telling them that their religious identities are the result of an illness that they might have is destructive to both the classification and support of that illness and its symptoms, AND the development of that religious expression.

Every single Polytheist leader that I know makes referrals to mental health professionals and encourages whole-body-and-mind wellness in the people who are in their communities. We trade names and swap telephone numbers of therapists and counselors and mentors and advocates at every level of the medical and health and wellness industry who have proven themselves to be educated enough and aware enough of complex cultural and religious and spiritual matters to not “shoot from the hip” at everyone whose experience of reality is different from theirs, in order to supply these as resources to our communities, clients, students, friends and colleagues as needed. So, for the discussion of animal sacrifice, let’s leave the pathology out. That is unhelpful.

The class-and-culture related bias in this discussion is astoundingly thick, complicated, and driven. But right now, all of the people discussing Polytheists and the subject of animal sacrifice sound a lot like Evangelicals discussing homosexuality, with disgust and revulsion and superiority. That “othering” is just so insidiously harmful that it makes me sick. And then when we, the group who is being discussed this way and grouped together and “ghettoed” by this “evolved” group of “learned” folks, speak up in defense of ourselves or our practices, we are called “crazy” or described as having “anger problems”. You’re right. Many Polytheists do have anger problems, but not because of mental illness. These problems are social in nature, and stem from being constantly baited with rhetoric, hate-speech, death-threats, and discourse as if we do not qualify as humans at all.

Many Polytheist leaders hold positions of professional integrity, engaging in such fields as psychology, theology, classics, literature, history and counseling, at professional and/or doctoral levels. We are not a bunch of “savage” make-believing folks who think “we are the ancients”. We are people with a set of religions who are growing really tired of other people outside of those religions saying that they want or need or feel compelled to “organize against” us and our practices, because of some paranoia that they have that we might somehow turn their kids into gays and… into people who perform or support ethical approaches to traditional rites of sacrifice.

The statement that “we are not the ancients” is one that gets brought up a LOT in this conversation. It has been stated to me by three people involved in this specific thread here, and a dozen others connected to the various communities represented here, many of them from the East Bay of California (near where I lived for over a decade). This statement is used to imply that somehow Polytheists do not know this, and it is used to belittle, satirize, and literally describe our religions as “devolved”. Nobody in Polytheism believes that “we are the ancients”; we are not advocating for enslaving our enemies or neighbors, warring with other nations, dismembering those who dishonor us, or blinding those who infringe upon our hospitality. We are, however, advocating for lived understandings of things like honor and hospitality, which include thousands of years of developed philosophies around ethical and moral conduct, from around the world. We are also using iPads, smart-phones, writing scholarly books, discussing the environment and our modern impact upon it, engaging in civil rights activism and education, sponsoring and fund-raising for indigenous rights and freedom-of-religion issues (not just our own, mind you!). This is not the “savage” and “superstitious” and “mentally ill” group that is so often mentioned like Paganism’s personal boogey-man under the bed.

The branch of Paganism which seems so trigger-happy in attacking us in this way, using this kind of language, also seems to enjoy speaking from a kind of “post-culture” standpoint, where people who still have a cultural identity just haven’t evolved yet, and people who are actively trying to reclaim, restore, or rebuild a culture are participating in harmful “devolutions”. This is the living definition of ethnocentricism and dominant-culture privilege and entitlement: it has no place in our communities or in interfaith, cross-cultural dialog. Further, statements are often made by, or draw language from, fields of academic study which suggest that only “old and ongoing” cultures or religions are “real”, and that anyone else is effectively just pretending… and yet, to my knowledge the field of anthropology is only about a century old, and yet cultures and cultural movements have developed and come to life in lived authenticity throughout time for a great deal longer than that. Apparently humans don’t need academic permission to exist a certain way; it is not the purpose of academic fields of anthropology (or theology, or religious studies) to define what a person who group can or cannot do, but rather to study and understand those things that are done. The key word there is “understand”.

As Polytheists we do not think that “we are the ancients”. We are modern people who are Polytheists, and we belong to many cultural backgrounds, with many religious backgrounds, educational backgrounds, and ethnic backgrounds. We honor our ancestors, and the ancestors of others. That includes ancestors who came up with and refined systems of justice, and education. Which is why some of us are lawyers, and others are police officers, and other are soldiers serving their country. We represent demographics from across all levels of the political spectrum, from so far left they fell off the edge to so far right they looped back around again into an awkward leftist camp, and aren’t sure what to do with themselves. We have college professors and college students, white people and people of color, men and women of cisgender identity and a gauntlet of amazing people from all over the gender spectrum, all over the sexual-preference spectrum, all over the global national and cultural identity spectrum. Some of our priests have sat at summits or participated in engagements with the United Nations on issues of world religion and indigenous rights. We are apparently not just a bunch of play-actors after all, eh?

Modern Polytheist religionists, as clergy and lay leaders and personal solitary devotees are involved in many exciting and living developments, from new religions to newly restored religions to expressions of ancient religion. We use words like “lineage” and “tradition” because they are accurate, and because it is the right of all people to have religious identity, and the framework to structure the defining qualities of those identities appropriately. When I personally discuss “authentic, lived tradition”, I am not — as I believe I have been mischaracterized by some — using the word authentic to mean “edgy” or “badass” or “impressive” or possessing of superficial “cred”, but instead embodied and true, rather than (as we are often accused) something made up more for show, performance, or pretense. This is something that is essential for the restoration and revitalization of Polytheist religious practice and identity and socio-cultural movement. I am proud to be a part of such a complex and multi-faceted set of religious movements. While we are a set of religious minorities in the American Pagan “scene”, we are disproportionally educated, professionally qualified, globally recognized and cross-culturally regarded with a (long fought for, hard-earned) growing sense of respect and admiration, even as others within Paganism or reactive Monotheism rise up to try and organize their efforts against us and our movements, traditions, and lineages. We face both organized and reactive attempts at erasure and an attack on even our right to call our efforts “authentic”, because apparently this word is reserved for… somebody else, maybe?

And here’s the thing: not all Polytheists believe in or endorse or practice animal sacrifice. Polytheism is not “one religion”, but a set of them. Some of these involve and encourage sacrifice and the trainings, specialized rituals and technologies involved therein, while others do not at all. Some very important and vocal Polytheists are vegetarian, and their ritual arrangements with their gods and religious structures reflect this; or, perhaps their dietary status and moral structures reflect that of their gods? In either case, some Polytheists are part of traditions which are intentionally bloodless in their diets and dispositions, and that’s just fine; respected, honored, protected. Different gods engage different groups in different ways, asking for different things. This is the way of things, and always has been, not just in the distant “ancient” past, but through the continuity to the present age of now.

But for many of us, this is an important topic, and an important practice, which like any lived cultural facet is something that we will guard and protect, as is our natural (and legal, and federally protected) right. And for those who fall into this camp, and are in leadership positions and use our voices to teach, influence, and shape? Every single one that I know of uses that platform on this subject to endorse systems of specialized training, ethics, and sensible compassionate regard at every level. There is zero emphasis or encouragement on people adopting these practices without training for any reason. And whether on the topic of animal sacrifice, or pouring of libations, or considering one’s self a clergy, Polytheist movements are by and large calling for strict application of critical process, questioning, differentiation and delegation, rather than a whimsical “one size fits all” everyone-and-everything free-for-all. Our gods are demanding service, submission, discipline and training of us, as laity and clergy alike, which is sort of the opposite of what the moral panic arguments against sacrifice are suggesting so publicly.

(As an aside, since much of this argument seems to be couched around the proposed desire to minimize suffering of animals, it should be pointed out that such attacks as these directed at those of us who are actively encouraging training, discipline, ethics, humane handling, education and deference to professional specialists in matters of sacrifice, is actually more likely to bring about an increase in likelihood of harm. This is a thing that I do not believe the speakers and advocates against the discussion or practice of sacrifice “get”, in all of their assumptions about the people discussing the subject. The more fear and terror and shame which is hysterically drawn up around the subject, the more panic that engulfs people on either side of the issue, the more likely animals are to suffer, either from a nervous and faulty blade or a hasty rite in poor lighting, or because a person has actually just been made too afraid by all of the militant rhetoric that they never find their way to the specialists, teachers, and educators that many Polytheist leaders are advocating for, and encouraging the use of. At no time in the history of humankind, to my knowledge, has scare-tactic panic-inducing proclamations of paranoid “what ifs?” ever brought about anything but further dissonance, fear, and pain, all of which are in the fields of study which define what is or is not humane, are called by the name of harm.)

The suggestion that we will next be killing people is as offensive as it is ludicrous and intended only to derail and discredit a set of religious and cultural practices that you do not understand or prefer. Yet, while we are regularly told what we can and cannot do by occultists, magicians, and mainstream Pagans, most Polytheists do not at all care what other groups or people are doing, unless it involves things like bigotry, racism, or the sexual exploitation, abuse, and harm of other persons, especially children, or the attempts by a community to cover these things up by forcing the issue underwater like an unwanted litter of cats.

Yet we, who often endeavor to raise our own animals or shop through agricultural co-ops and livestock auctions and get discounts at cutlery shops for professional grade slaughter-and-butchery tools as legally recognized religious clergy whose job entails the processing of animals in a legally sanctioned fashion? We’re obviously mentally ill and super into feeling “dangerous” and “edgy”.

For conversation to happen and progress, language needs to be developed that doesn’t immediately couch Polytheists or anyone at all who is practicing animal sacrifice as “threats” or “mentally ill”. Not only is this unhelpful and largely untrue and built upon a principal of scare-tactic-mentality akin to how Fox News discusses Islam, it is also incredibly demeaning, unfair, and cruel to those with mental illness, regardless of their religious practices or beliefs, as well as those whose employment or lifestyles regularly involve the taking of animal life in ethical fashions. This argument poised against us presents itself as evolved, progressive, and educated: but it isn’t. It isn’t informed, it isn’t critically examined, and it trades-in intelligent discourse and honorable observation of another groups’ identity and culture for catty one-liners and frighteningly militaristic rhetoric and dehumanizing belittling and bullying statements.

Let’s find a better way.

Sometimes people, perhaps validly, critique my writing tone or phrasing with the comment that it sounds as though I am speaking for more than just myself. This is perhaps a thing that I do.

There are a few reasons why this tone comes through in the way that it does (“arrogance” or “ego” are not amongst them) which I will not fully discuss, as not all of me is open for public consumption. However, this bit is:

When I am writing on a subject, such as trends in Polytheism, or when I am moderating comments on a message-board about religion that touch upon sensitive topics such as race or national identity, I don’t always trust my own tone or perception or “reading filter” on its own. So I take the things that I am writing, or reading, and I blast them off to people whose views and values I respect as being essentially different from my own, though grounded and embodied in their own right. I keep a rotating roster of such people, for the sake of keeping myself, my points, and my purposes honest and reflective of their core intents.

This should be encouraged, I think. It helps to soften the blow of ego’s hold on our views and passions, as both views and passions are vital but also easy targets for arrogant autoerotic asphyxiative fixations in what we read, write, do, say, think or feel.

I choose surround myself with people whose well-earned and fully lived views are encouraged and evoked to temper, challenge, and at times change my own.

 

So recently the subject of sacrifice came up in a pocket of the Polytheist world, and as is often this case, this brought with it some level of controversy. Inevitably when this came up somebody had to spit out the accusatory, “would you kill a human if your gods asked you to?” This is a thing that happens nearly every time: the suggestion that if a person is willing to kill a goat or a rooster for their gods, because it is asked for or demanded, that they must be so weak-willed and unstable that they would obviously also kill their neighbors or friends or strangers, “because the voices told them to”.There are ways to discuss this very important topic, and indeed those conversations need to take places. But those are not the general prompts I am presently responding to, nor unfortunately are they the norm. (Though, they should be.) However, vague and passive-aggressive disdainful linking of legitimate living-and-lived religious relationships to death, as in the case of animal sacrifice, to things like mental illness and instability as a casual gestural thing is disgusting and debased. This tactic is offensive, ignorant, and meant only to derail and discourage discussion, and it frames the opposition to this human-centric “fauxgressive” voice of “reason” as being savage, sadistic, and unhinged. 

Well fuck that. “Progress” isn’t drone-warfare and a drug-addled prescription “paradise” generation deprived of free expression as penalty for being outside of a statically conformist mold. “Progress” isn’t the hypocrisy of our modern meat industry, or the corporations who govern global economics for profit on the backs and souls of workers and children. “Progress” isn’t blind. You, who spit this venom, apparently are.

Anyway, I chime in a bit, on the subject of human sacrifice, which I feel uniquely qualified to do, as I was in fact myself a human sacrifice.

For the TL;DR folks:

Nobody is suggesting that the gods have asked for human sacrifice in the way that you mean it, and it is in fact most likely that we are not as a species even worthy of such as that. Not because we have “progressed” (we haven’t, we’re just better liars today), but because we’re literally so removed from the idea of death — good death or bad — that we can’t possibly do those things cleanly. And this is not “progress”.

I am not advocating for human sacrifice. None of us is. But stop rubbing the stink of your ignorance of what “death” is all over the carpets of actual enlightened religious practice. Nobody is suggesting that all must adhere to practices that require sacrifice, but to suggest in turn that those of us involved in traditions for whom the ethical treatment of death — which is literally the only sacred universal quality of life shared at every level — are the equivalent of horror-movie tropes is offensive, stupid, and out-of-bounds.

calvin-death_death
EDITS: Edited opening text to clarify that I am not against discussing this in mature and level fashion, and in fact encourage these. I am wanting to be clear that I am critically responding to those who use the suggestion of human sacrifice, especially as an extension of animal sacrifice, to derail a subject and defame those speaking counter to their views.

The Sea Itself: Living Lineage, Initiations, and Convergent Traditions

Religious and spiritual communities and collectives can take on many forms. A “tradition” is a set of practices, affirmed beliefs, technologies and paradigms which is in some way passed on. Lineage is a particular line of transmitted tradition, teachings, beliefs, practices, or in some cases a distinct spiritual force, power, or authority. These terms are often used in conjunction or interchangeably with one another; I would suggest that all lineages have tradition(s), but not all traditions have a lineage. A tradition is somewhat more general — “Hellenic Polytheism”, “African Orisa-Ifa”, “Kemetic Polytheism” — whereas a lineage refers to a specific “current” of transmission, such as a regional body of teaching, a family-structured house, and so forth. Lineages are passed on, whereas traditions are taught. Some traditions require a person to be part of a lineage, while others do not. A lineage without a tradition, however, would be like a fully fueled car without an engine.

Some traditions (such as Palo and Santeria in modern Cuba, or Orphism and the Cult of Bendis in ancient Athens) exist historically with cultural closeness to one another, with certain levels of overlap, while maintaining their distinction from one another. Other traditions have little to no pre-modern relationship, yet and find themselves in an odd position, occasionally seated side-by-side in contemporary US practice. Sometimes these are merely shared proximities, while other times collisions or cross-overs; sometimes these go well, and other times, less well. Always there are complexities. Always, always, always.

Today, there are a whole lot of communities, sub-communities, and overlapping movements of spirit-working religious, magical, and spiritual traditions, who now, more than ever, are finding ways to connect with one another… thanks to the internet. Some of these have natural congruent intersections, while others are brought into relation only through an overlap of practitioners or social circles. Some of these are very old, others are significantly younger. Some have noteworthy historical or cultural place, tied closely to national or regional identity, while others still have developed with an intense privacy, or a more casual and organic fashion. Some are terribly ancient, in terms of the spirits and ancestors driving them, but have been broken off from the world due to genocide or conversion, and are being restored today. Some of these are insular in nature, structured as family units that one must initiate into for community participation, while others are developed with the solitary individual in mind. Many of these have specific pantheons or families of spirits attached, and indeed are living religious traditions, whereas others are instead magical traditions of ritual technology, absent a “religious parent”, or who are adapted from a tradition linked to a different religion. Sometimes, practitioners who engage and identify in one tradition draw upon the terms — or indeed the living deities and spirits — of another, in ways that cause concern for those for whom those traditions carry significant meaning.

I have noticed this blending-and-blurring trend, wherein some people seem to reach for a level of recognition, prestige, credential or authenticity through incorporating (especially publicly, loudly, or even in a commercially “professional” manner) names, spirits, or practices from initiation-oriented traditions into other structures of practice. It seems to me that in many of these cases, this does a disservice and renders disrespect to both the initiatory tradition and the non-initiation based other, and similarly (and more importantly) to the spirits and ancestors of both. I am concerned by it.

As an individual with a diverse set of practices and paths — each of which is a distinct stand-alone, separate and dedicated, disciplined engagement involving tradition, lineage, initiatory consideration and systems of eldership/community-accountability — I am irked by seeing so many streams crisscrossed in a lazy, muddied, blurry sort of fashion. I am not bothered by those who hold a practice or place in multiple traditions, as I myself do, as do some of my favorite humans.

Syncretism happens. There are beautiful and organic ways throughout the world and throughout time that syncretism, and even eclectic union of paths can and have happened, but none of these is lazy or undisciplined or casually blended. No tradition is meant to be a keyed excuse to kleptomaniacally pocket spirits, phrases, or lineage artifacts; even those that are expressions of a blending, or that operate parallel to one another with certain cross-over, do so while following expediently the practical and process oriented traditions of lineage(s), which represent covenants (sorry to pilfer that word, mainstream religion!) between groups of lineally descended or transmitted persons and the spirits whom they serve and relate with. Within a person’s private practices, they may find themselves called to (or dropped into) devotional relationship with deities or spirits from more diverse backgrounds and origins. Some teachers suggest avoiding such cross-overs, while others encourage it; in all cases, though, I feel that just as it is important to differentiate the context in which you know different humans in your life, it is important to practice discernment in navigating the differentiated contexts of the relationships you might hold with spirits.

In response to this issue, some have claimed that the only way to engage with (at least some) spirits, such as the Orisa, is through initiation, and to do otherwise is a careless and disrespectful endeavor, akin to playing with fire. As all of my long-term readers know, I am a strong advocate of concepts of causality when dealing with the gods and spirits, and deeply emphasize the importance of lineage, discipline, initiation and training. The very real nature of our deities, and the very real risks that can come with crossing them, make these important topics. However, to suggest that a person may only approach them at all if they are themselves initiated is uncomfortably exclusionary, incorrect, and wrong-headed, in most cases.

By way of example lots and lots of people in Yorùbáland and around the world who are not initiated to any Orisa at all make offerings to those Orisa. One does not require initiation as a priest to an Orisa’s cult lineage in a given region to engage with that Orisa; there are limits on what rituals that person will be able to perform, but nobody is barred from engaging with them. However, within these relationships with the Orisa, it would be both ill-advised and unethical for a person with no initiation (and, further, no specific training) to perform professional services (divinations, rituals of purification, initiation) for any other person. The various traditions and lineages that engage with the Orisa represent the agreements that the Orisa have with people; random spirit-workers, eclectic diviners, or magicians who have not submitted to the currents of those traditions and lineages (and their subsequent agreements and structures) have no business being in that business. That said, nothing is preventing anyone from having personal devotions with the Orisa, in the context of their own home practices and household cults. If a person feels that the only way that they can engage with or relate to certain spirits or gods at all is to initiate to those traditions, we will quickly find ourselves — as we do, often — faced with a number of “tradition hopping” seekers, moving from one structure or another, without the time, focus, or continuity of resources to honor the spirits or lineages that they are ritually made to.

All of these various traditions and lineages represent specific agreements between specific spirits/deities and specific groups of people. Those agreements often include specific ritual technologies and “access” (to knowledge, to àṣẹ in the case of Orisa-Ifa, or generally to certain levels of intervention or depth of relation), and require certain behaviors, actions, or agreements on the part of the person to be considered in lawful relation with those beings. To me, this extends fairly universally, applicable for example to the tribes of Israel with their god(s) and spirits, to specific fraternal magical traditions empowered or informed by, say, angelic spirits, to specific expressions of Orisa religion (there are *many* forms and structures around the world, at this point, and even a very diverse set in Yorùbáland itself), and to pre-Christian European and Mediterranean and other “Old-World” ancestral or living Polytheist traditions (such as Thracian, Germanic, Phoenician, Gaulish, Gothic, Athenian, Canaanite, Irish, and the like).

Lineages and bodies of traditions are living things themselves, which in part serve to embody a population’s agreed upon relationship with a specific set or family of beings, spirits, or deities. Individuals within those currents must adhere to the guidelines of those agreements, but that does not necessarily mean that every lineage or tradition must (or does) hold the same agreements; spirits have their reasons and their plans, and may have different agreements with different groups.

Initiation into a specific tradition should be presumed to grant one access or exposure to special technologies, teachings, knowledge, and — most importantly — a bodied community in both the human corporeal sense (living elders, accountability, guidance, as well as continuity through younger students, etc), as well as an incorporeal/ancestral/dead lineage of those who came before and still engage with the living through some means or another. While not all traditions are initiatory, for those that are, these initiations draw a person into a framework of agreements between that lineage’s founders with the spirits, beings, or deities within its umbrella of relationships, devotions or patronages, etc.

In most cases, initiation is not required to engage/petition a spirit or deity in one’s own personal private life. (Thousands of people make offering to Èṣù in Yorùbáland day to day; folks of all traditions and religions, even, regardless of whether they are initiated. Similarly, nothing in modern Heathen practice suggests that a person needs to be credentialed to hail Odin.) Within the contexts where various forms and currents of initiation are present and valid considerations, there is generally a limit on the depth of relationship and the breadth of knowledge available to the non-initiated; and not all initiations are identical, not because there is “one right way”, but because in some cases different lineages have different agreements with spirits, which may have “come down” for any number of reasons through the ages (or more recently).

…that said, initiation is in many traditions a highly emphasized and important structure. But there are also different “kinds” of initiation… that word doesn’t mean one static thing. For example, in traditional (pre-modern) societies, there are social initiations (rites of passage, etc) which are independent of religious or cult institution. These are not the same as cultic initiations to a priesthood, or Mystery initiations to a fraternal order, etc. A Masonic initiation does not make one a priest, and a warrior’s reintegration rites (returning from warfare back into the society as a civilian) are not about Mystery transmission. Initiation is a category of rites, both spiritual and societal, which often overlap.

Certain initiatory rites in religious and magical practices, traditions and lineages are more on the social side (e.g. initiation to a society) even when in the context of a spiritual tradition, whereas others are initiation to a priesthood (e.g. new agreements with spirits are being forged, àṣẹ is being transmitted in an Orisa context, etc). Initiation to a lineage and initiation to a priesthood are not always the same thing.

However, in all cases, the initiation requires a change of state from one role or identity to another; from soldier to civilian, from child to adult, from civilian to soldier, from laity to priest, from stranger to family, etc. It is the “start” of a new role, sometimes with the departure or suspension of a previous role. All of these change things. Some of these bring about purely organizational changes, others intensely spiritual changes (e.g. transmission of àṣẹ), but all of them are called by the same thing.

As for compulsory initiation, there may be traditions where one cannot engage a spirit at all without first initiating, but these are not the standard. For example within the Odu Ifa there is language in verse where a diviner sometimes is made to advise a client NOT to initiate, but still to make appropriate offerings and rituals to the spirits/deities involved in the situation. However, in most Ifa lineages, those not initiated to Ifa are forbidden from studying its technologies and the secrets of its Odu.

Engaging with spirits is potentially dangerous and has consequences, whether somebody is initiated or not, just like dealing with certain humans can carry risk. Certainly there lots of things that can go wrong, but initiation should not be seen as a magical permission slip that somehow gets a person out of harm’s way, or indeed gets them off the hook for studying, training, and deeply engaging a tradition in a disciplined fashion. Initiation is important, in traditions where it exists, should be regarded diligently in accordance with the tradition’s guidelines for hierarchal displays of respect and deference, and, in my opinion, should carry some degree of recognition in other walks as well. However, a lack of initiation should not be taken to mean that a person has nothing to offer, knows less, or is in any way valued less.

For example: I was an invited guest at a ritual (details stripped for the sake of confidentiality) where there were two groups of people: those to whom this was an in-born cultural heritage as well as religious/spiritual/magical practice and identity, and those of different culture backgrounds who engaged or were courted by the tradition later in their lives. As always, this creates some tension; at this specific ritual, in this specific spiritual house, both were welcome and honored.

A new initiate of differing background (e.g. absent the inborn cultural, linguistic, and paradigm relation to the tradition) was having a conversation with a non-initiate of the inborn culture heritage. They were discussing modes of engagement and learning within the ritual fanfare of the tradition, during a buzzing-and-exhausted state *after* the main rituals had been closed. The person who had grown up with the tradition as their natural culture and experience, but who was not initiated, was advising the (relative) newcomer of certain protocols and considerations around such engagement. The newcomer replied, “If you knew so much, you would be initiated, like me.

The non-initiate smiled, and nodded, and said “Yes, you’re right of course. Just like you.

This was an exchange between a person who probably had not heard of the spirits in question five or ten years before initiation, and a person who had never initiated but had been in constant contact with the tradition and its spirits since birth. Who is more likely to offend the spirits?

So… what is the point of initiation? As reflected by the agreements that these families and pantheons of spirits, deities and beings hold with various groups of living and dead humans in the world, there are certain ritual actions, ceremonies, and technologies simply *not* open to non-initiates. But to say that non-initiates cannot relate with, engage with, pray to or greet these spirits at all is, in most cases, ludicrous and counter to the living cultures that these traditions come from (or in the case of those traditions which were lost and are being re-kindled through new covenants and agreements between humans and the spirits in question, ‘came from’).

To be clear, I am in no way arguing against structures of initiation, or against adhering strictly and with high discipline to the agreements, mandates and protocols of one’s tradition. I am also not advocating against structured traditions and disciplines, in any way. I’m not suggesting that a “free for all” anything-goes one-size-fits-whoever approach to working with spirits of any kind is in any way advisable. Literally the opposite in all cases.

But a rush to initiate into anything because of the impression that initiation is the only way to relate to any being or spirit is how we wind up getting a ton of awkward financial exchanges, and untrained or undisciplined priests or titularly recognized but spiritually or magically unprepared folks. Similarly, one can be highly knowledgeable, skillful, and prepared, without initiation; in the areas that do not require initiation.

I was once offered a (silly, over-simplified, and overly cute) metaphor, which while intended as a specific thing for a particular family of spirits I think applies often in a broad way outside of that. For the sake of not inadvertently invoking an actual spirit, I’ll invent one for this model: we’ll call her Gambola, a spirit of frolicking and skipping in wayward fashion, especially tangentially to established paths or highways.

1) Anyone might invoke, receive messages or intervention from, or provide basic (non-ritual) offerings to Gambola, should either that person or the spirit herself deem it. This is like having access to a “sample portion” of the spirit, like when they are doing free samples of wine at the liquor store; just a taste, unless the spirit decides to tip the bottle and pour herself all over the person, for any number of reasons.

2) A person who is formally recognized as a member of the house/family/lineage with whom Gambola holds specific traditional agreements and relationships can engage a bit more deeply. As with the above, they will also have access to a full glass, rather than merely a sample cup, of Gambola; at times, though, she may only pour a small portion of herself into their glass, while at other times it may overflow, at her choosing.

3) A person who is formally and fully initiated to Gambola has the bottle, and perhaps even has the training to pour glasses or samples for others. Gambola herself may decide that the bottle is always full, or perhaps only ever half there, and it may take no time to refill or it may take quite some time; that is up to Gambola. But the person is open to more types of engagement, and often responsibilities as well. (Such as manning sample stations at liquor stores!)

4) A person who has been engaging for a lengthy period of time in a close and intense way with Gambola, however, may not have a bottle — if they’re not initiated — but might know where the grapes grow, because Gambola took them their herself, in their frolicking, if indeed they were born to frolic rather than to priest or to pour for others.

I’ve heard a similar metaphor to the above, but instead of being about drinks, it went like this: anyone can drink a cup-full of the spirit, but a house-member has a hot tub full of the spirit where they can soak, and submerge, and an initiate has a swimming pool where they can swim and dive and leap, and an elder has been shown the path to the sea itself.

(…actually I think I made that one up on my own. I honestly can’t remember….)

What one does in their own personal household practices and cultus is between them and their spirits… and, indeed, may in some cases reflect new and unique agreements or syncretisms with the gods. However, these should not be assumed to be universal, nor confused with lineaged tradition, nor also excused from consequence in the case of slighting or disrespecting a spirit or god due to ignorance, misunderstanding, or disregard.

“Moreover, until the coming of Christianity, there was no need for people to use any type of name or word for their religious traditions. This was what people did. It was what their parents did, their grandparents, their great grandparents. It was the natural way of being within one’s community and tribe. Differentiation of one’s sacred identity from one’s tribal identity happened only at the hands of the enemy.”

From Galina‘s latest at Polytheist.com, this sentiment expresses very well a thing that I often return to in discussions of religious language, societal identity, and differentiations.

People often point out when I am discussing differentiations — for example, differentiation of magic and religion — that these “divisions” are ahistoric and not reflective of “the way things used to be”, referring to an ambiguously ancient day of “then” when things were more integrated and less problematic*. While I agree that these differentiations are ahistoric, and that “stuff and things” were less distinguished from one another on an out-loud spoken level at ambiguous points in various times that happened already, I want to clarify a thing.

The point of all my maniacal differentiations — for example, modern Paganism as differentiated from Polytheist religious development — is neither to divide these things as wholly unrelated, or to suggest that they were entirely separated in some idealistic ancient time with bunny-slippers and such, but instead to actually get us back to a point of integration.

I am of the mind that religious restorations at an identity level, spiritual restorations at a paradigmic level, and cultural restorations at a lived level, are radical ideas that are both necessary and also requiring of an essential affirmation that the world we are currently living in is broken, in at least some way. Therefore, “restoration of polytheist religion” is also a form of “social and religious reform”, not just some new cliquey religious fad to get one’s kicky rocks off with/at/on/in. We are calling for reform because it is necessary; because the social, civic, and conceptual disregard of Polytheist and “lived animism” and “lived regard for the spirits” are the norm. Because we are attacked by atheists, monotheists, and a large swath of psych-or-human-centere Paganisms as well. So, reform, is sort of what needs to happen.

But in that ambiguous day of “then” in the vaguely defined ancient world(s), there were no words for one’s differentiated religion; one either did religion well, or did religion poorly, but nobody “had” or “did not have” religion. Therefore religion, an etheric quality of culture, could be easily integrated as needed with ideas and structures of magic, or indeed completely synonymized at the folk level. Similarly, in this “ancient Before”, linguistic expressions of one’s own culture or people generally translated simply to “the People” in some variation or another; folks were named by others at least as often as by themselves.

Language was used to navigate life, rather than to necessarily *define* it, back in the great and mythic Before. It was used to relate to a thing, rather than to sear a name or title or category into its flesh.

It was easier for this to be the case, then, because there were no railroads, airplanes, or broadband lines of constant global communication and instantaneous contact; the differentiations were less important to name, because there was more emphasis on “doing” than “defining”.

All of my differentiations are ultimately geared toward not a return to the past, but instead a reformation of the present, for the purpose of forging a future where things can be integrated in practice and still understood as unique in identity; magic and/from religion, Polytheism and/from Paganism, Practice and/from Theory, and so forth.

In fewer words, this is all part of a greater scheme of mine to bring about, in part through these lived differentiations, an exploration of and indeed recasting of societal identity.

Because, for all of the good that our current age has achieved — and it has achieved much — I believe that we can do better, and I believe that the future of that mythic Better involves the return to our gods, who never left, and to our religions, which for a hundred thousand years never required defining names in order to exist.

*Also, I don’t think that anything was less problematic in the past, ancient or otherwise. I think humans are inherently problematic, sort of as a defining quality of species.

Things continue to develop and grow over at Polytheist.com, and this month saw the launch of “Featured Voices“, which is a portal to a rotating roster of guest contributors, special topics, and writers not part of our regular team of columnists, covering topics across a wide range of polytheist issues and considerations. The first such piece was one of my own, at the request of a half dozen or so valued voices, wherein I share some views around the essential relational quality of polytheisms.

In other news, everyone’s favorite initiated oracular raven — Gimbalhas a new weekly reading up, for the Polytheist.com community! He performs ritual divinations and readings for the community every week, using a variety of methods and approaches. These last two called upon a multi-volume bibliomantic process, and include possible interpretations from his transcriber, with an invitation to the readers to share their own thoughts, feelings, reflections, or interpretations in the comments section.

My latest is up at Witches and Pagans, wherein I address some “101” level ideas for crafting basic portable shrines and altars, for maintaing religious and ritual practices, devotions and observances even when you don’t have a wealth of private personal space to do it.

Meanwhile, Polytheist.com is almost through its first month, and running strong! After a successful launch with ten columns in early September, new columnists have been added Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The current team consists of:

Walking Through the Inhuman Hour — Julian. Betkowski

Noeseis — Edward Butler

Speaking of Syncretism — P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

The Gargarean — Markos Gage

The Web of Blessings — River Devora

Wyrd Ways — Galina Krasskova

Heart of Fire — Khi Armand

The Weekly Gimbal — Gimbal the Raven

The Goatskin — Conor O’Bryan Warren

Gods and Radicals — Rhyd Wildermuth

Hawthorne and Heather — Aine Llewellyn

Under This Infernal Sky — Amorella Moon

Primal Spirits — Grant Guindon

The Accidental Polytheist — Scott Rowe

Spirit and Stone — Tess Dawson

Kemet Today — Tamara Suida

Polytheist Parent — Niki Whiting

Ørgrandr Lokean — Dagulf Lopston

Behind the Walls — Michael Eldritch

Coming very soon we have a columnist joining us from the Pacific Northwest, another from inside the California State Corrections system (our second incarcerated columnist), a Floridian reconstruction-based polytheist, a Hermesian elf, and more!

In addition to our regular columns, long-term the site will be hosting irregular guest contributions from important voices and community supporters, as well as undertaking a printed version of its online content for distribution into the prison systems to serve incarcerated communities unable to access the internet and join our discussions and important proceedings directly.

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