Faith as an Action (or, How I Became a Devotional Polytheist)

I can name ten people off of the top of my head who were chosen by their individual deities rather than vice versa. Someone should (or already has?) come out with a book based on these, er, “forced” conversions. I don’t consider myself one of them. (At least, not originally.) My relationship with Freya has been a long one which has involved much wooing on both of our parts. It was only after my relationship with Her was cemented that the other ones started staking their claims. I blame Zeus’s appearance on the fact that I was, at that point, the ear for five Hellenic pagans who were lamenting about the lack of Hellenic groups in the Bay Area, and I am a Helper. Freyr’s involvement, I blame on Freya, because you don’t get one without the other…

Magick or Deity?

I am a Heathen Devotional Polytheist now, but I was not raised this way. I grew up, actually, as a Congregationalist–one of those Protestant sects that came over with the Mayflower. Congregationalism is a branch of Christianity that is now (and was, when I was a kid) about as close as a church can get to being a Unitarian while still being Christian. I have a lot of good memories from my church from participating in choirs, youth groups, church performances and retreats; I am not the stereotypical “recovering Catholic” kind of pagan. I did not run to paganism to escape some kind of repressive Christian upbringing, either in theology and praxis. If anything, I was recovering from the distinct lack of mystery and connection with the Divine that my church offered.

I’d always been interested in nature, ancient cultures, mythology, folk tales, and symbolism. By the time I hit high school, I was reading tarot and researching Celtic and Native America mythology. I read books by Charles de Lint and Morgan Llewellyn–specifically her book Druids–and my goal was to be an Egyptologist; failing that, a be a Druid, at least. I listened to Enya, made homemade candles and herbal teas, owned a dreamcatcher, and wore a medicine bag around my neck. Looking back, despite my active involvement in my church, I had all of the hallmarks of a early 90s Pagan just waiting to happen.

Most Pagans, I believe, have a story about the point at which they realized that there were more than one spirituality, and chose to leave the belief system of their childhood. A conversion story, if you will; though for a lot of folks it was not the act of converting to a specific faith but instead just having the realization that other, perhaps more applicable, spiritual choices were out there. Mine came before I found that any version of paganism still existed. I was sitting in church with my family at the Christmas Eve service during the first winter break in college. The Christmas Eve service–with its candles, darkness, music, and time for reflections–had always been my favorite, and it is about as woo-woo as my church ever got. Coming back after my first semester away at school I had expected–had needed–to feel something, but I was surprised and disappointed to find that the service was nothing but soft voices, pretty music, and candles. The whole experience just felt empty. I didn’t know what was missing, specifically; I just knew that I needed something more, and that the church I grew up in did not have it. Two weeks after I returned to school, I attended a lecture by the local Eclectic Wiccan circle on “Wicca, Druidism, and Neo-Paganism”, and I knew that I had found “it”. I’ve considered myself Pagan ever since.

But Pagan doesn’t equal polytheist, a distinction which, until fairly recently, I honestly wasn’t able to wrap my mind around. All I knew was that I had spent many years being Pagan and wondering why most pagans had all this emphasis on spells and magick. Candles, herbs, stones, and Kabalistic correspondences are fun to play with, yes; but it never felt like any of the books or classes or even rituals addressed what, to me, were the real issues: who the Gods are, what we believe about them, how to honor Them appropriately, and how to experience them directly. To me, that was always the entire point: this is a religious choice, and I want to interact with the divine. It took me a long time (possibly even up until my dedication with Freya) to really understand that some people are just not that interested in the Deity end of things.

Finding Faith the Hard Way

So, I walked into Paganism specifically seeking that Divine connection. I also was strongly interested in connecting with my heritage. As it happens, by ancestry I’m 25% Norwegian, 25% Swedish, and roughly 40% German/ 10% misc British Isles; so, as soon as I found out that Heathenry existed, I became Heathen. (Technically, it was Asatru at that point.) Even during the four years that I was Wiccan, I was “Norse Wiccan”, because when I did a divination to figure out who my deity Patrons were, I got Freya and Odin. (Freya and Odin: who I now know to be the unofficial Heathen Recruitment Team 😉 ) Though I pretty much ignored the Odin half of this equation for many years, I actively sought to build a relationship with Freya. I read the Norse myths and started making offerings and creating rituals for the Norse gods.

Though I was blessed in my Heathen communities in both KY and CA in that both fully supported the kind of directly personal relationship with the deities that I wanted (and did not focus much on magick or crystals and such), I have to say that what I consider to be actual faith did not kick in until I ended up in a 12-step program. When you truly hit bottom (for whatever reason) you find yourself with two choices. AA, being the original 12-step program, lays these out the clearest, in my mind: you can either A) Live a spiritual life, or B) Die an alcoholic death. There is no in-between. Living a spiritual life in this sense means turning your life over to a power greater than yourself; and this means that you need to have a strong relationship with and complete trust in that higher power, whoever it is. I personally had found that it’s pretty easy to be a pagan–Wiccan, Heathen, Druid, what have you–without actually having much faith or trust in your Gods. I had been able to do it for over ten years. I didn’t know what I was missing until the rubber hit the road and I had to rely on my God. That–that is where actual faith starts. (IMHO, anyway. A rant for another day. Back to my story.)

Freya

For as long as I can remember, Freya has been interested in me, and any problems and setbacks that came up in building our relationship were due to me, not Her–my academic mindset; my modern skepticism; my fears of becoming a crazy person who hears voices; and my underlying doubt that, despite my fervent hopes, a deity would never actually be interested in someone as boring or untalented as me. As far as I am aware, the problem with growing our relationship was never Her.

The “academic” problem was the first, and probably the biggest one, to deal with. I had been studying modern Pagans since the day that I found out what Paganism was–literally. In undergrad, I majored in Cultural Anthropology with a minor in Comparative Religion, and as I tend to be lazy,  I combined many of my assignments with the Pagan events/topics that I knew I would be attending in anyways. This tendency continued with me into grad school, but eventually I had to choose. My thesis professor wanted me to continue studying Heathens, because at that point academia was really just starting to recognize Neo-Pagan religions as legit spiritualities that could be studied. I could easily have made a name for myself in academic circles as being one of the few people who both studied Heathenry and was a Heathen. I did walk this line for a while, which landed me in a conference on a panel with Sabina Magliocco and Jenny Blain one year. But each time I did this–tried to authentically be a participant and an observer–I felt that I was short-changing myself. For me, personally, I can’t have it both ways. To get level and type of spiritual connection that I wanted, I had to choose one or the other. So I chose a different thesis topic, and left academia after getting my Master’s degree. Still, it took me many years of specifically and intentionally rewiring my brain to loosen up that ethnographic mindset enough so that my brain would stop reporting and analyzing what was happening around me and start acknowledging the experiences that I was having instead.

As for the other issues, I still get bouts of Enlightenment/”religion is nonsense fed to the gullible” and “so I hear voices in my head… that can’t be good”, but they are much less frequent than the used to be as well. And any time I try to convince Freya than I’m really just not that interesting or lovable or valuable, well… if you read the blog at all, you can probably guess the reaction I get from Her on that. 🙂

Long story short, here I am. Dedicated to a Goddess whom I love and whom I know loves me beyond all measure. With a deep faith that, even in bad times–actually, especially in bad times–I can rely on to see me through. Faith I strong enough for me to walk on. And benefits that outweigh the challenges and uncomfortableness that sometimes comes with walking the path of being Her priestess. Despite my occasional bitching, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

(This? This is the other reason I blog. For those days when I’m lost and hurt and lonely and have forgotten why I ever bothered to try to buck the easy comfort of belonging to a mainstream religion and work with temperamental deities and their followers.)

16 thoughts on “Faith as an Action (or, How I Became a Devotional Polytheist)

  1. I suspect you and I would have been grand friends in high school… glad to have you now :).

    (I don’t think there’s anything “unofficial” about Odin and Freya ‘ s roles as recruitment officers).

    So much of what you write here resonates for me.

    • 🙂 (Sorry, didn’t see this until today!)

      Yep 🙂 Right back atcha! Perhaps there’s a reason the Gods didn’t throw us together until after high school… long after high school. And I was All Herbs All the Time for a while there. You should ask my friend (and ex-college roommate) Kelly about the garlic incident sometime….

      And yes, yes–Odin and Freya: the inescapable, irresistible Heathen recruitment team. Go Team Heathen!

  2. I actually kind of wonder if “forced” conversions are really just how some people process deciding to become a Polytheist.

    Faith is a part if who we are, but it is also an apparent choice: a scary one that our families judge us for, or that society judges us for, or that we think “God” (that big angry white dude in the sky that our parents told us Mormo-Style stories about) will punish us.

    Sometimes, I think, to get started, some of us need to believe that there is no choice.

    • Heh, many of the “forced” crowd would say exactly the opposite – that they suspect the people who think they had a choice are just telling themselves that because they don’t like the idea that they didn’t have control.

      Personally, I think experiences really do vary quite a bit in this area.

      Not all of the gods I work with are gods I would have chosen. Some of them are. My relationship with Odin is NOT something I chose. I initially balked about the Vanir, but ultimately did *choose* to embrace it.

      Polytheism? Well, I wanted to, but no amount of choosing helped there. That was experience-based, and Odin induced the experience in question by quite literally hitting me with a stick. Well, the butt of His spear, actually. So choice or not? Good question. Even in retrospect, I can’t tell how much of which is present.

      It seems really, really dismissive to me when people categorically reframe other people’s experience because it doesn’t match their own. Be careful with that, eh?

      -E-

  3. The polytheist / pagan distinction is one that’s bothered me too as someone whose path is based more in direct experience of gods and spirits than magic etc. I wondered for a while if they fit… then I found this immensely helpful essay by John Halstead identifying 3 centres of paganism – earth, self-development and deity. All pagan, all just as valid. So despite seeming differences someone focusing on spells for self-development, an earth worshipper and someone devoted to deities are all pagans. The types of paganism are as different as paths!

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