Things to Consider Before Making Pledges and Oaths

This is going to be geared towards a context of devoting oneself to a deity. It’s also going to be long. This is something I consider really important to read as much as you can about, before you act on it.

I also want to get what I feel is the most important bit of information out in the open, right away.

You do not have to formally devote yourself to a god. Any of them. There is zero obligation. And if you already know that and still strongly feel that it is important, it then becomes equally important to examine your motivations and potential obligations.

Examine Why

What do you think making a pledge, a vow, or an oath is going to give you? (Those are all different things, by the way, and the distinctions between them matter.) Be frank with yourself about whether you think it will make you more “legitimate,” or if it feels like the thing to do.

Are you motivated to make that dedication because you feel it grants you some kind of prestige? Is there something unique to formal dedications that feels “better” than the devotion and work expected of you as a garden-variety devotee?

There’s nothing wrong with garden variety, for the record. There’s a reason certain plants grow in so many gardens. Laity are still vastly important to the function of a faith.

Alternately, are you absolutely certain that you’re not just caught up in the moment? Are you thinking clearly and critically? Are you able to take the potential downsides seriously and¬†accept them¬†without minimizing them?¬†It is¬†so easy to leap into major commitments when you’re wrapped up in a state of spiritual limerence.

For my part, my motivation was mostly lighting a fire under my own ass, because I had a genuine desire to work harder for the gods, but I just wasn’t making it happen.

Examine What

Another thing you need to consider is whether you have done sufficient research.

When I was bitten by the pledge-bug, I was digging for everything I could find on the process, up to and including picking through someone’s ~300 page doctoral thesis to make sure I totally understood my word choice. (What I had been calling a potential oath was, in fact, a pledge. So I’m glad I read it.) Part of this was that I was dealing with Loki, who kind of has a reputation for being opportunistic, so I wanted to be as unambiguous as possible about what was going to happen.

You also need to evaluate the terms of the dedication itself. That is, the expectations the god(s) are entitled to have for you, and the expectations you have from your god(s). Dedications, if you’re not just handing yourself over as a complete package, are going to have certain restrictions. Personally, I hope you¬†want certain restrictions on what the gods are allowed to expect from you. You shouldn’t be afraid of your gods, but there is such a thing as healthy caution.

It’s tempting to be The Best Devotee Ever and promise to clean the shrines, and pray, and make an offering every single day.¬†But nobody is the best devotee ever. That’s because nobody¬†can be the best devotee ever. It’s usually impractical to do too much more than bread-winning and basic survival every day, and even that’s a legitimate burden for some people.

It benefits you to seriously examine your capacity to do an act even once, let alone daily, or even weekly or monthly.

On the flip side, what rights do you retain after dedication? Are you prepared for circumstances that would force you to break your promise? Can you avoid breaking these promises by accounting for those possibilities? I’m still a little uncertain whether this is How Things Are Done, even though this is how I did it, but it may be worth injecting a few “however” clauses. For example, I’m required to wear my pledge ring during waking hours, but there are built-in exceptions for it being removed such as medical necessity, or it being forcibly removed. I can’t take it into an MRI machine, and if someone’s got a gun to my head unless I hand it over, it’s better to just go with it. I am absolutely¬†useless to any god but Hel if I’m dead.

A lot of people don’t think about these potentialities, but I’m a nervous wreck, so outright catastrophe was already on my radar. Your exceptions don’t have to be anywhere near as severe.

Most importantly, I think: Did you write it all down? If you have the memory of a lawspeaker, you can skip this step. But a long-term pledge, or an oath, is going to require memorizing your expectations, rights and responsibilities for a long time. The terms of my pledge are kept in my phone so I can check in on what I need to be doing–especially my choice of words, because that matters.

The last thing I want you to know is that your god(s)¬†will enforce it–but it’s not all bad. They want what you’ve offered. My experience since March has shown they can, and do, pave the way to make sure you’ll give it and check in to keep you on task. The road kind of rises up to meet you.

Just be prepared to hit it running.

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The Inevitable Rant About Discernment

Resources on discernment are, quite emphatically, not in short supply.

And yet, despite this abundance of resources, a lot of people are really bad at discernment. When I was a new baby Heathen on Tumblr, we literally had The Discernment Talk every. Gods. Damned. Week.

And it never got better! We still had our little hysterias. (Remember, remember, the fifth of September.) We still had our sweeping trends. Some of it was just how Tumblr works as a social media site, what with the reblog button and all. But more static, self-contained areas on the internet like closed Facebook groups weren’t immune, either.

It’s just…a very persistent, wide spread problem.

We could write more discernment posts. We could simplify them. We could shove books at people. We could simplify those, too.

But none of this makes a difference if people aren’t open to it. People don’t like to be told they’re wrong. They really, really don’t like to be told they’re wrong. Even when they are wrong. Especially when they are wrong.

And nobody is going to be immune to that.

So when you finally feel like you’re successfully making contact with a god, finally seeing some evidence of their involvement in your life, finally letting yourself believe…what’s your knee-jerk reaction to being told to re-evaluate and start doubting?

You probably start getting worried. Maybe angry. Almost definitely defensive. “You don’t know me, you don’t know my life,” etc. Or the infamous “but it’s my UPG!”

Which…well, you know how I feel about that.

When someone brings up discernment, especially concerns that you need to use more of it, it’s not because someone is trying to take your spirituality away from you.

Rather, the person is usually concerned about lack of judgement, and you going on a wild goose chase and possibly hurting yourself. Because it happens. Gods are confusing at best, and sometimes deliberately misleading. Ditto for spirits pretending to be gods for the sake of messing with you.

And, whew boy do people like to make things up.

Precious little of what a god has ever conveyed to me made any sense the first time around. It is almost always tiny signs. Random objects. Sneaking suspicions. Showing up with crystal clear imagery and speech is rare. And even then it doesn’t make that much sense, because gods are confusing. Sometimes I’ll let myself act on just a hunch, which I try to save for things that seem to unambiguously fall into the “not required, but it would be nice” category. Anything that feels remotely heavier gets marked down, divined on, asked about with people I trust and respect, conditions set for clarification (e.g. more birds! Harass me with MORE BIRDS)…and then shelved if I don’t figure it out. If the gods consider it a high priority, then it falls to them to pester me about it later.

Like with more birds.

Do read that post, by the way, because it’s a great example of bad and delayed discernment on my part. All of that hassle could have been avoided if I’d bothered to just…ask, correctly, and pay better attention, instead of running off based on my own assumptions.

You know. Discernment.

Because what would having my assumptions proven wrong that early have done to me? I’d be struck with doubt about a lot of other things. But a lot of the other things I believed in at the time, uncritically, were causing me serious distress.

I was better off for being proven wrong, because it gave me a chance to rebuild my practice with a fresh and mindful perspective. I am happier. My devotion is genuine and freely given and–yes, a bit cautious! Because I’d rather be cautious than hang my assumptions on the gods and blame them for it. I’d rather not go on wild goose (or falcon) chases unless it leads me to something I’m supposed to be doing.

I’m not going to tell people how to do discernment. Because, as I said at the beginning of this post, the resources are not in short supply. When I was putting together a resource list for someone a few months ago, it was harder to whittle down to a top three than it was to find anything good in the first place. I was spoiled for choice. If we keep writing more posts on the how and not the why, we’re just throwing more information at a wall.

Rather, I’m going to ask people to take notice of whether they focus or gloss over at the suggestion of discernment, or instructions on how it works, and to question themselves as to why they do that. What’s at stake? What’s threatening about it? What does it threaten to take away from you, and why is that so bad?

More importantly, what are you missing out on because of failing to use discernment? What do you stand to gain through better discernment?

To be disabused of notions that don’t serve your best interests is to be given something, and it is to be given something quite precious. The resistance to discernment only hurts you in the long run.

Doing Ritual Without Feeling Like a Pretentious Weirdo

I used to act. As a result, I¬†hate acting. Hate fake-it-til-you-make it. Hate playing the part. Hate rote actions being done “just because.”

But ritual always involves a certain amount of pageantry, and doing specific actions simply because history and trial and error have borne out that it’s the thing to do.

It’s easy to understand why pre-planned shows of devotion don’t seem to make much sense. You can’t pull religious ecstasy out of a can. It doesn’t work like that. It definitely seems like it would make more sense to wait for these spontaneous experiences, and take them as they come.

Right?

So how can we approach ritual, and accept the way it functions, without feeling like we’re faking something?

Understand the Why

Think about your birthday. Getting gifts is a standard thing, at least when you’re younger. They’re not spontaneously given, they’re given to you because on that day you’re special and that’s what they’ve learned to do. People are commemorating you successfully living through the year, and giving you something nice to congratulate you for it. And then everyone sings a song and eats some cake.

That is literally a ritual!

In that situation, you’re the important figure being celebrated. Gifts are offerings. And then there’s socializing and feasting.

Religious ritual is the same. Except instead of the birthday boy or birthday girl, you’ve got a deity. Instead of presents and well wishes, you’ve got offerings. And instead of the birthday song, you’ve got group prayer in the form of a blot. Or Sege. Or whatever the equivalent term is in your particular path.

It is normal human behavior to ritualize events. The passage of time, births and deaths, the divine, and forces we have a hard time wrapping our head around are easier to understand and approach if we have a structured and tangible representation of it.

You have your birthday whether there’s a party or not. But it feels more “real” with some kind of activity to mark it. I know that I have trouble processing that I’ve aged if I don’t mark it with something special. I also know I’m not alone in that.

That’s the purpose ritual serves.

Embrace Structure

It is very, very hard for me to do something if I don’t know the “correct” way to do it. I take tasks handed to me very seriously, and I like to do things in a proven way. Sometimes with a twist, but I need a frame of reference before I work. It’s hard to take a calculated risk if you don’t know what you’re even calculating.

That’s not a big deal when it’s cooking dinner or doing busywork. But when it comes to dealing with higher powers, the lack of structure can be¬†terrifying. Knowing that there are exact rules also helps prevent any risk of a boundary violation. Ritual, in a way, serves the role of etiquette when dealing with higher powers.

When you are shy, and new, especially in a group setting, ritual lets you know exactly what to do and what not to do. And knowing these things can actually be immensely freeing.

Don’t Underestimate the Social Component

The best rituals I’ve ever been a part of were conducted with about twenty of my closest friends. I am generously including strangers, since they’re just friends you haven’t met yet.

I really can’t emphasize the importance of the social aspect of ritual enough. When you are by yourself, or your only accompaniment is gods, you’re very limited in the feedback you can receive over your actions. It’s a toss-up whether gods will give you feedback, and we’re not particularly accurate judges of our own behavior. I’m speaking from a place of anxiety. I am a terrible judge of how I come off to people.

By contrast, when surrounded by people who are committed to giving you helpful feedback, eager to guide you in your work for the gods and community, you have a far better idea of whether your behavior is serving the right purpose.

And on top of all that, knowing that you’re in a setting where everyone is either familiar with what you’re doing, or at least respectfully curious, can be a massive relief. Nobody is going to think you’re weird. Nobody is going to judge you.

You’re allowed to relax.

Let Go

Most rituals I’ve been in involve some sort of pre-ritual that serves the purpose of grounding, and easing people into a slightly altered mental state. This is important, because it helps you feel more open, more connected, and more flexible about what will happen.

Ritual, in practice, is far less scripted than it would seem. Something will always go just a little bit wrong. Candles and torches don’t light, you get splashed with the libation, someone drums off beat, or intones the wrong rune.

It’s whatever.

You’re not doing ritual to be perfect, you’re doing it to be nice. It’s about getting people together to remind the gods they’re loved, to enjoy community with your coreligionists, and to–hopefully–put you in the state of mind where this is easier to achieve.

And maybe you’ll still feel like a weirdo for doing it! But hopefully you won’t feel pretentious. Because pretentiousness is about fluffing up our egos, and that’s not what ritual is for. Ritual will not make you pretentious.

And, hopefully, you’ll feel at peace with being weird. Because what group ritual is great for, in terms of the mundane, is reminding you that you are not alone in that weirdness.

No, Really, You Have to Do the Homework

We all know that I’m a fussy jerk about UPG, and this sort of ties into my fussy jerkitude. But I’m actually not going to go after UPG here. I’m going after a general refusal to read the lore and background info, irrespective of reason.

There was a kerfuffle in one of the Lokean groups I’m in, where someone claimed that Loki doesn’t want her to read the lore because it makes him look bad.

This strikes me as odd, that he wouldn’t want people to know about his achievements. Loki is far more helpful and productive than he’s given sufficient credit for in pop culture. Before Ragnar√∂k and the events in Lokasenna complicated everything (though I have…uh, thoughts on Lokasenna), he’s kind of charmingly annoying at worst in the mythology.

But even if your practice is driven by personal gnosis and focused solely on one god, you need to respect that these gods, the understandings of their personalities, and their stories come out of a specific cultural context. To learn that context, you really do have to read. And not just the myths! You need to read academic analysis and some history to get an understanding of the lore. The hard part is finding a good source, but that can be fixed.

There was an earlier instance in another group where a story was recommended, but it came from the Prose Edda. Which is disappointing. Nobody likes Snorri. Quite a few people didn’t like him when he was alive, either.¬†And filtering distinctly Pagan lore through a Christian sieve is a very real issue, but that’s not a reason to outright refuse to read him, like the person receiving the recommendation did.

I left the group for other reasons (failing to weed out racists being a big one), so I have to paraphrase. But it was something to the effect of “as soon as someone mentions Snorri, I’m out.”

Let’s take a minute here.

Refusing to read the Prose Edda cuts out a huge chunk of the lore. Frustration is not a reason to cut yourself off from it. That is what we have. We have to work with it. Denying yourself useful information in your spiritual practice is a very special kind of petty. And it just means you’re hurting yourself.

It’s also just…baffling to me. The majority of Lokeans I’ve seen were in fact encouraged to study, myself included. I genuinely do not understand, based on both my observations and direct experience, why you would be told to¬†actively avoid information.

My practice really languished without study. Picking up tidbits as you go only gets you so far. You can only subsist on crumbs for so long.

And the payoff is vast. Because I have a better idea of what to expect, and how to tell the difference, I don’t have to spend nearly as much time obsessively watching myself or grappling with unknowns. My scrupulosity issues have improved. I feel like my understanding of the gods has become so much deeper than it would have been if I was just locking in on the first things I heard, and waiting for direct ecstatic experience.

Because people lie. To others, and to themselves. And it is so much easier to brush off a lie if you have a robust frame of reference.

We’re a religion with homework. You have to do your homework.

“There Is More to Be Done.”

Snow in early September has never happened where I live, so I knew I was dreaming.

Loki does not show up in dreams for me unless he considers it important to bring something to my attention. He is also…ridiculously unsubtle and very heavy-handed with the imagery. I’m still not over the “Loki-but-Floki-but-also-that-guy-you-know-nicknamed-Loki shoving metaphorical spiritual death and rebirth in your face, and also, can you go pick some peonies” dream from my big, stupid dramatic runaway fit.

So hanging out in my impossibly snowy front yard at night, with Sleipnir, and looking like the spitting image of what I got used to “seeing” when I was newer…meant…something. At the very least,¬†that picking a jumble of things he knew I’d focus on would get me to pay attention.

All I remember was approaching him, and asking what was up. His response was, “there’s more to be done. Come with me.” And then the dream went back to jumbled, patchwork data sorting. Just my brain throwing everything at the wall and seeing what would stick.

Only that did.

The morbid symbolism of horse dreams aside (death by hanging–fun!) I knew this was a wakeup call. Where was I slacking?

How could I possibly have been slacking, I thought a little indignantly, considering I’d just put in a ton of work for the community like I was supposed to? I was helping take notes at Frith Works!, and volunteering for pagan pride, and captioning panels. I was welcoming a few new deities, and keeping up with altar cleanings and observing holidays and obsessively calculating my calendar…

…and not taking the time to just sit down for ordinary devotional work. Again. And slacking on shadow work. Oh, and also, when was the last time I put out food or water for Loki? Or any of the other deities? It had been a while. What was I¬†actually doing as far as research and working towards ordination lately?

Not much, shamefully.

The ridiculous part of this is that I did not assign myself a particularly heavy workload. I thought very hard when drafting my pledge about what was manageable. Wearing religious jewelry every day is absolutely doable. Cleaning the altars once a month, irrespective of when in the month, is also absolutely doable.

And these, in conjunction with work for the community, were easy to keep track of because they are also easily¬†quantifiable. Generally, we humans work to be paid.¬†It is easy to know when you’ve done something when there are results right in front of you–even compliments that you weren’t prepared for and didn’t know how to accept.

(Leadership skills? In my me?! Apparently.)

And it felt so good to be busy. It felt gratifying to have the sense of productivity it gave me.

But part of maturity, and part of really being productive, really doing work, is making an effort even when you can’t see the results. It’s forcing yourself to do things, not because they’re gratifying, but because they¬†have to be done. Because you can’t do everything for your own benefit, and you need to benefit others as well.

I can’t claim allegiance or friendship without a little quid pro quo. I can’t claim Heathenry if I don’t do my part for the gods.

Since I was volunteering with the land crew for the Draken Harald H√•rfagre when this dream happened (a gorgeous ship, and an opportunity I was blessed to have), I had already been thinking intensely about hair. Namely, its role in making promises. It’s not all bloodied drinks and adorned pits and jewelry and swords. The most famous oath in the sagas was the outright refusal to cut or comb hair until Norway was unified.

I am not shoving an entire country under my control. Don’t plan on it. But because I already had experience dedicating my hair, I could at least take away the cutting portion. Until I get ordained, I said, trying to subtly clutch my oath ring as I went to catch my train home, I must tolerate the creeping split ends and all the damage they do. Once that’s settled, I too can have fair hair.

But not until that moment.

I have to finish up the currently open tasks I’ve started for the community, and there will be more work to do at Parade of Spirits. (If you’re in the Philly area in early December, drop by!) But once my caption work is finished up and I have a few minutes to gather my massive to-do list, as soon as I have money saved up for my Troth membership, I will be getting back in the swing of things.

Go figure it would pop up around this time, though. Fall is always when I get most religious. Loki knows how to read a room.

Info-gathering Tips for Heathens

Getting your hands on good information for Heathenry is difficult, for a few reasons.

The problem with a lot of easily-accessible sources is that they are heavily peppered with subjective interpretations and put together by people who aren’t, at minimum, well-read. You don’t need a doctorate to know what you’re talking about, but you do need to know how to collect, sort and interpret information. (Which, incidentally, are the skills that get you degrees.) Anyone who doesn’t have those skills is a questionable source.

But resources put together by people with these skills tend to be locked behind paywalls or out of print. So what are your options?

Continue reading Info-gathering Tips for Heathens

If I Like Science So Much, Why Am I Still Religious?

The idea that science and religion are incompatible concepts has almost always bugged me.

It doesn’t seem to me like a particularly accurate assumption in practice, given that most of the people educated enough to pursue science in its early stages were people of faith or outright clergy. Hans Christian Lyngbye, for example, was studying pilot whales and other marine life in the Faroe Islands when he recorded Lokka Tattur.

It is still absolutely true that Tycho Brahe fudged the numbers in the name of Geocentrism, and modern fundamentalists rail against simple biology and geology. And, speaking for myself, I absolutely detest plastic shamans who believe herbal medicine is inherently safe compared to pharmacological medicine.

Raw apricot kernels aren’t gonna cure cancer.

But I think, ultimately, that behavior comes down to a failure to understand the source material of their spirituality, rather than a failure inherent to the spirituality itself.

And I’ve written before about how science (specifically, astrobiology) got me even more fired up about my faith. When you learn that gold on Earth is the remnants of supernovae, it’s a little hard not to have intense feelings about firey regenerative patterns and Gullveig. And when you learn that the earliest life on Earth emerged from a literal union of volcanic heat and frigid moisture, the Voluspa suddenly has a lot more gravity.

That was not a physics pun, but we can pretend it is.

Science is about figuring out how and why things work. So too, before science as we know it existed, was religion. To me, it makes perfect sense that those who admire and seek to glorify their gods would want to understand the underlying patterns, which are complex and astoundingly interdependent.

It is difficult, as is, to go investigate the stars. We now know what many of them are made of, how hot they are, how old they are now and how old they will get to be; because we have spectrometers, probes and satellite cameras. Earlier humans didn’t have this luxury. They didn’t know what hydrogen was (it wasn’t properly identified until the late 1700s), or that it is the most abundant gas in the universe, or possibly that there was a universe–not as we now know it, at least; that designation emerged in 1925.

But what they did know was that there were firey orbs in the sky, and they had to get there somewhere.

A Norseman looking for an explanation would look at the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini, and reach the very logical conclusion that the gods put them there. Specifically, they were Thjazi’s eyes, and their placement in the sky was weregild paid to his infuriated daughter Ska√įi. Even knowing these stars are a good deal farther apart than they look, and their categorization emerges from a simple human need for pattern-matching, there is no loss of wonder staring into them. If anything, knowing the vastness of space adds to the fear and wonder of staring into Thjazi’s eyes. He would have had to be terribly mighty.

These people weren’t being stupid. And I don’t think an assertion of ignorance is particularly fair, either, because it’s not like Vikings could have gone to space. (Not until the late 1970s, of course. Hachacha.)

Our stories were best guesses–and very logical guesses!–in their time. New information does not invalidate religion, so long as you have the right approach. And this is why fundamentalist and literal approaches are the problem. Clinging fiercely to literal interpretations allows for the whole thing to be picked apart, disproven and eventually destroyed.

And people of faith generally don’t want that. I sure don’t.

While I believe the gods literally exist (maybe not physically, and to be honest I’ve never really laid the whole thing out in detail), these stories are still viable metaphorical explanations. Mythology was already heavily metaphorical, even in a context where it was understood literally. These people believing in this kind of thing weren’t being stupid, they were using a specific model to approach the objective and observable.

I’ve joked in a few Heathen-geared comment sections that I don’t have the “personality” for godlessness. And it’s true. The set of personality traits that are common among the faithful occur in me as well. Science explains phenomena in a way that I find perfectly accurate and satisfactory (like why people might perceive and strive to interact with the divine in the first place), but I need a strongly emotional outlet to experiencing and processing the world. Science gets me very enthusiastic about dirt, and birds, and trees, but it doesn’t leave a lot of room to tell the trees I love them.

Further, science–at least hard science–doesn’t contribute to our personal growth. Our comparative intelligence as humans complicates our lives. Rather than just a struggle to keep our place in the ecosystem and survive, our lives are filled with purpose-seeking and contemplation. That is a solely emotional process, even though science is eager to explain how it came about. Which is absolutely fair, because the same laws that govern anything else allowed for it to happen.

But the laws of physics, chemistry and biology are indifferent to us. They are not invested in us. They explain our existence in the context of lawful chance. They are neutral baselines for how the observable universe works, and they don’t care about us.

The gods do.