07 January 2013 @ 12:33 am
Personal relationship with deity  
Greetings! I'm a long time member lurker (I think my last post here and indeed, on FB was regarding whether the Irish had a similar concept to the Germanic concept of wyrd and that was a year and some change ago).

Something I've been giving a lot of thought to lately is personal relationship with deity and whether or not it is appropriate or wise. I wanted to share my thoughts and hopefully spark some conversation, especially from a CR perspective on this. Please bear with me as much of this is from a Heathen perspective rather than a CR one (I am what you might call a Gaelic Heathen) and will be a little lengthy.

In paganism one often finds people who are devotees of this or that deity, sometimes to the extent of being henotheistic (or flirting closely with it). In my experience, nearly every hard polytheist I've known have tended to favor or feel a closer connection with a certain deity or a handful of deities, even while worshiping the entire pantheon, so the tendency is understandable. The concept of individual relationships with deity strikes me as a rather new development (as in, something I'm not sure existed among our ancestors). That's not to say it's bad per se, just perhaps a recent phenomenon.



At a recent event I helped host we had a Théodish presenter who gave a lecture about the worldview of the tribes of the Gods. One of the things he presented was how the Gods, busy as they are with things that are more important that our individual needs and desires probably don't hear our prayers or if they do are less likely to respond to them. The idea is that when we assemble as a group and give worship to the Gods, often in concert with blòt (blood sacrifice) or some other large, formal offering, the Gods are more likely to pay attention. The needs of the group is more important than the needs of the individual. It is also believed that one's ancestors (who are gods in their own right) have a more vested interest in the person and therefore individual worship should be directed to them and one's cofgod (house god or house wight).

Of course, if you know anything about Théodism (literally, "tribal belief"), this belief makes sense in a Théodish context and validates or is validated by aspects of their worldview and structure. The weofodthegn or priest is the intercessor on the group's behalf to the Gods. The priestly class of the Irish seemed to occupy a similar role as well. From a Heathen perspective the argument could be made that an individual within a group who seeks a personal relationship with, say, Odin but through seeking it offends him and harms their own maegen (hamingja or "luck") may also wind up harming the shared maegen of the group.

A related idea is that there is a certain arrogance and ignorance in thinking that A) the Gods are at our beck and call, B) are always interested in what's going on with us and C) always have our best interests at heart. The lore of the Germanic and Celtic peoples are certainly full of stories that demonstrate the fallacy of so thinking. At the same time, I do think there are deities that are more...sympathetic to us, for instance Thor or Brighid. I think that it isn't always wise to court the attention of the Gods; there's a reason so many kennings exist for them. The attention of the Gods can be demanding, exhausting and downright interferes with our life, sometimes in ways we'd rather it didn't.

Then there's what we know from the lore. Often the characters in the myths that could be said to have a close, intimate connection with deity were kings and Heroes (note the capital H) and possessed of singular skill and magic ability. In the case of Heroes, they were often semi-divine (case in point, Cú Chulainn). Often it is seen these relationships came at quite a price for both Heroes and kings (who were sacrificed in some cases if crops failed).

Several years ago I would've answered the original question with "Yes, personal relationships with deity are appropriate and wise!" without hesitation. Now, I'm less quick to answer in such a way. I've certainly sought such relationships in the past and they haven't always worked out well for me. I'm still noodling through this, but I think that personal relationships with deity are possible but take a longer time for an individual to cultivate than a group. Whether or not seeking them out is wise or appropriate I think depends on several factors. One would be the intent and knowledge of the individual (to say nothing of the maturity). Another would be the deity in question. I've known several people who, shall we say "invent" their relationship with a deity to get attention, to seem "powerful" or "spooky", what have you. At best they're just quacking in the void with no harm done. At worst...well the consequences haven't been pretty.

At the same time, I recognize that people DO have experiences with the Gods that are deeply moving and I don't discount the notion that sometimes the Gods do take an interest in us. I've certainly experienced both in my time. Just as there's a certain arrogance in making assumptions about the Gods, so too is there a certain arrogance in making baseless assumptions about a person's experiences with one. I think that if we have the attention of the Gods or even think that we do, caution, wisdom and deliberate, well-informed action is necessary, never something to be done lightly. Of course, if one actively seeks that out, they had better be prepared to pay the price. I don't know that the Irish or Scottish had a similar notion, but I personally believe in the Heathen concept of "a gift for a gift".

Thanks for your indulgence! Thoughts?
 
 
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Lady T. - "The Witch Is In": Envyladytairngire on January 7th, 2013 12:42 pm (UTC)
These are all valid points, and something I believe people should at least have at the back of their mind when working with deities,along with admonition of respecting a deity within His or Her original cultural context. But, you're right in that most pagans (every one I've ever talked to at any length) experience some degree of personal relationships with Deity and tend to have a "patron", one or a few particular Deities that seem particularly vested in them.

To my way of thinking, this is because the Gods evolve with society. Their existence is wrapped up with human belief, and so they move with us. It may be that there are fewer pagan-minded people, so the Gods are more likely to hone in on those few and nurture our belief personally. It may be that, living in a world dominated by monotheism, we've come to expect that one-on-one relationship, and so that is what we receive.
Ruaridh: Lost Note - Bromsiorathru on January 8th, 2013 02:18 am (UTC)
Yes, though I do think sometimes it's taken a bit too far and people's wishful thinking gets the better of them. Still, those who truly have patrons tend to live that truth through deed and example.

I agree that the Gods evolve with society but I don't believe their existence is dependent upon our belief in them. What I do believe is that the Gods benefit from our worship, as we benefit from their blessings or suffer from their disapproval.

Assuming the expectation of a one-on-one relationship is a product of monotheism (I don't necessarily know that it is, I'm playing Devil's advocate here), shouldn't we, as polytheists, reject that theology and instead move towards more polytheistic views?

I like the idea that the Gods are more likely to respond to pagans since there are fewer of us, but I personally think this notion presumes that the Gods rely on our belief for their existence, which I disagree with. I think it's more of a case where the Gods, since they benefit from our worship as I said, are more likely to respond to us and take a vested interest in us when we offer correctly (showing my orthopraxic tendencies here) and when we engage in activities like alfrecht mentioned below.

Thank you for your response!
Lady T. - "The Witch Is In": Envyladytairngire on January 8th, 2013 12:40 pm (UTC)
These are my opinions, obviously; a discussion on the nature and source of deity would be another thread altogether.

As for whether we, as polytheists, should move away from this trend and more towards a tribal understanding - well that's up to the communities and individuals in question. I suspect a great many modern pagans are perfectly comfortable with their spirituality the way it is (wishful thinking or otherwise).

Personally, I think it's very difficult to find a true sense of "tribe" and "community" that supports the kind of belief system you're describing. Even when one is lucky enough to connect with pagans of the same ilk within shouting distance. I'd like to see more of a communal attitude in society in general, and if I found one I might feel differently, but having walked a solitary path for so long I'd be uncomfortable with such a shift.
Ruaridh: Triple Ravenssiorathru on January 8th, 2013 03:59 pm (UTC)
I’m not advocating a tribal understanding per se, just a polytheistic one. The two are not part and parcel in my mind. I’m also not saying that a polytheistic view is one that doesn’t allow for personal relationships with deity; I’m just submitting that approaching that topic from within polytheistic theologies is preferable to monotheistic ones. You are correct; many pagans are perfectly happy with their approach and that is fine; we don’t tend to be an orthodoxic lot. :)

Trust me, I know where you’re coming from; only knowing other CR’s through the internet meant walking a solitary path myself; I certainly would be the last one to suggest that tribal belief is the only way in which a person can approach deity, or even that it’s the best way. It is my belief that tribe and community are built by like-minded individuals. Those who favor loose knit groups and assemblies (if any at all) tend to gravitate towards each other while those who favor more tribal approaches tend to gravitate towards each other. It’s true that there seems to be more people in the former group than the latter, such is the way it is.
Lady T. - "The Witch Is In": Envyladytairngire on January 8th, 2013 05:26 pm (UTC)
I’m not advocating a tribal understanding per se, just a polytheistic one. The two are not part and parcel in my mind.

Nor are they in mine; though for the sake of clarity, it does seem as if you are you are questioning whether the popular trends in polytheism that include an emphasis on individual relationships are "appropriate and wise", as opposed to a polytheism modeled more on what was understood by adherents in tribal cultures.

I’m just submitting that approaching that topic from within polytheistic theologies is preferable to monotheistic ones.

At what point would you consider an individual's personal relationship with a pagan deity to be "monotheistic" - and how many people would really fall under this category? My own sense would be not many. While I know many pagans who engage in individual relationships with deities, I wouldn't classify them as monotheists.
Ruaridh: Triple Ravenssiorathru on January 9th, 2013 02:32 am (UTC)
Nor are they in mine; though for the sake of clarity, it does seem as if you are you are questioning whether the popular trends in polytheism that include an emphasis on individual relationships are "appropriate and wise", as opposed to a polytheism modeled more on what was understood by adherents in tribal cultures.

Yes, I am exploring the idea and I contrasted it against the Théodish approach as the presentation I mentioned is the first time I'd been exposed to that approach myself. I've been giving it a lot of thought since Labor Day and felt I was at a point where I could articulate my thoughts and spark some conversation on the topic.

So yes, I'm questioning the popular trends, but only as it relates to my personal perspective and to stir up conversation; not to suggest that it is the “right” way and others should follow suit.

At what point would you consider an individual's personal relationship with a pagan deity to be "monotheistic" - and how many people would really fall under this category? My own sense would be not many. While I know many pagans who engage in individual relationships with deities, I wouldn't classify them as monotheists.

I wouldn't. But perhaps I was unclear. You suggested that maybe the expectation of a personal relationship with deity was a result of monotheistic influence. So, for the sake of argument I suggested that if that's true, wouldn't we as polytheists be better off rejecting that monotheistic influence and instead approach the question of personal relationship with deities from polytheistic perspectives? Even if we ultimately wind up concluding the same thing, at least it's based within polytheistic reasoning. Make sense?
Lady T. - "The Witch Is In": Envyladytairngire on January 9th, 2013 12:10 pm (UTC)
Yes, that makes sense. As an individual, I'm not uncomfortable with some fluidity in the evolution of paganism - in fact I think some syncretism is inevitable (even healthy). But certainly what you're suggesting is reasonable from a CR perspective. Thank you for clarifying!
Prof. Jeremy M. R. F. Chesterfield-Pickles III: Pictish Concennalfrecht on January 7th, 2013 04:39 pm (UTC)
The general points you're making are true and valid, I think.

Some of what you're saying, however, is entirely Theodish in its backing--nothing wrong with that, certainly, it's just that not everyone is Theodish, and to think that anything like Theodism was prevalent in ancient Irish or Scottish societies (except in cases where, e.g., Vikings came in and conquered an area and occupied it) is flawed at best.

Looking away from mythology to actual humans that we know existed, there's lots of Irish and Scottish personal names that mean "servant of ___." The blank in question there is usually a saint's name, and thus the saint in question is deceased and no longer lives on the earth--they're, in polytheistic terms, at very least an ancestor or personage of the mighty dead, if not the equivalent of a Hero (to use your capitalization preference). I don't think this notion developed simply in reaction to saints, I think it developed as an adaptation of a pre-existing practice in relation to deities. And, in some cases (e.g. with Brigit and the like), where the name of a saint is the same as, or derived from, that of a deity, it's all the more likely that such adapted continuations of practice persisted. This wouldn't necessarily just be the kings or heads of clan who would adopt such a role, or had such a role imposed upon them by their parents naming them thus. (I'm sure the earliest Malcolm, i.e. Mael Colum, "Servant of Colum Cille," adopted that name for himself, and then later descendants of that person were given it, etc.)

Also, due to the non-elemental nature of most of the Irish gods (who are not "gods of thunder," "god of fire," etc.), and the gods thus being much more connected to arts, crafts, social structures, and other human endeavors, it's all the more likely that the gods are directly involved in day-to-day life for many people, particularly practitioners of certain arts or crafts, since they would not be able to practice their arts without the direct involvement, blessing, and inspiration of the gods concerned. These gods are not too busy running other aspects of the universe to hear individual human prayers, because the aspects of the universe they're running are the things that humans (and only humans!) do.
Ruaridh: Triple Ravenssiorathru on January 7th, 2013 08:31 pm (UTC)
The general points you're making are true and valid, I think.

Some of what you're saying, however, is entirely Theodish in its backing--nothing wrong with that, certainly, it's just that not everyone is Theodish, and to think that anything like Theodism was prevalent in ancient Irish or Scottish societies (except in cases where, e.g., Vikings came in and conquered an area and occupied it) is flawed at best.


Oh, agreed. I wasn’t trying to put forth the notion that anything like Théodism was prevalent amongst the Irish, except that my understanding of the Irish Druids was that they acted as intercessors to the Gods on behalf of the people, similar to the Weofodthegn. Then again, that’s hardly unique to either the Irish or the Germanic tribes. I think it’s fair to say that while both cultures practiced sacral kingship the particulars differ. I was attempting to introduce the Théodish approach to deity to contrast the more general (at least in my observation) tendencies of paganism in general and CR specifically. I’ve been CR longer than Anglo-Saxon Heathen, so exploring the Théodish approach has been an interesting exercise. I certainly don’t think Théodism is “more correct” than other approaches.

Looking away from mythology to actual humans that we know existed, there's lots of Irish and Scottish personal names that mean "servant of ___." The blank in question there is usually a saint's name, and thus the saint in question is deceased and no longer lives on the earth--they're, in polytheistic terms, at very least an ancestor or personage of the mighty dead, if not the equivalent of a Hero (to use your capitalization preference). I don't think this notion developed simply in reaction to saints, I think it developed as an adaptation of a pre-existing practice in relation to deities. And, in some cases (e.g. with Brigit and the like), where the name of a saint is the same as, or derived from, that of a deity, it's all the more likely that such adapted continuations of practice persisted. This wouldn't necessarily just be the kings or heads of clan who would adopt such a role, or had such a role imposed upon them by their parents naming them thus. (I'm sure the earliest Malcolm, i.e. Mael Colum, "Servant of Colum Cille," adopted that name for himself, and then later descendants of that person were given it, etc.)


That’s a fascinating perspective and one I hadn’t considered. Adopting the name of a saint is a common practice among Catholics, especially during confirmation. I’d be interested in researching how much of this is a survival of an older, pre-Christian practice (especially amongst the Irish). It certainly logically follows. That’s given me much to think on.

Also, due to the non-elemental nature of most of the Irish gods (who are not "gods of thunder," "god of fire," etc.), and the gods thus being much more connected to arts, crafts, social structures, and other human endeavors, it's all the more likely that the gods are directly involved in day-to-day life for many people, particularly practitioners of certain arts or crafts, since they would not be able to practice their arts without the direct involvement, blessing, and inspiration of the gods concerned. These gods are not too busy running other aspects of the universe to hear individual human prayers, because the aspects of the universe they're running are the things that humans (and only humans!) do.


Valid point. Áes Dána, the people of the arts. Something I was going to add to my OP but opted not to, verbose as it was, was that I personally think we’re closest to deity during acts of creation, particularly (but not only) during exemplary acts, such as composing our magnum opus or working on a particularly well-made piece of craftsmanship. I think we’re closest to deity during the times that “tip the cauldrons” to reference Erynn’s Cauldron of Poesy. Birth and Death, certainly, and not necessarily just ours.

Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking response, alfrecht

Edited at 2013-01-07 08:56 pm (UTC)
Prof. Jeremy M. R. F. Chesterfield-Pickles III: Pictish Concennalfrecht on January 7th, 2013 11:02 pm (UTC)
The confirmation names of Catholics is a little bit different--some people might actually change their name at that juncture, while others might have their confirmation name as their middle name from then on; others (especially in the U.S.) don't usually use it at all, unless they're of a particular ethnic Catholicism that does add such names. But, in the Irish cases I'm describing, it's a lot different: someone doesn't just call themself "Brigit" or "Colum," they call themself "Servant of Brigit" or, equally as much, "Slave of Colum," etc. There's added social gravity to the name as a given name and something that one is commonly known by, particularly since those who did it were most often free born, non-slaves, and even somewhat upper (or at least middle) class, in many respects. It's not only comparable to being a "god-slave," it's being known as one in one's very name.

Also, while it's a huge topic and one that we can't get into fully in comments here, there is absolutely no evidence at all that the Irish druad had any societal sacerdotal functions like the Gaulish druids, at least in what has survived. All suggestions that they did come from an assumption--not suited to the evidence as it exists, it should be noted--that all Celtic cultures are the same (and an assumption which, until a generation or so ago, was not only widespread amongst Celticists, but was excpected), and therefore what is linguistically cognate in one Celtic language would be socially cognate in another Celtic culture. Irish druids as storyteller and lorekeepers, yes; Irish druids as magicians and prognosticators, most certainly; but Irish druids as priests or tribal advisors to kings?--no. By that, I mean there's no positive evidence of it that confirms their functioning in that sort of role. Any suggestions that they did rely on comparative evidence, and assumptions that, for example, the filid "were once druids" but redefined themselves, when in fact the poetic function and the druidic function is well separated and distinct even in the Gaulish evidence. Poets and judges (brithemain) in Ireland fulfill some of those expectable tribal/royal advisor functions, but not druids; and the suggestion that they are redefined or demoted druids doesn't exactly hold up either based on the actual evidence as it stands.

In any case, like I said, it's a long and large topic...!?!
Ruaridh: Wolfsiorathru on January 8th, 2013 02:46 am (UTC)
Point taken. My mind made a tenuous link between the two but I recognize how different they are.

I've never really bought the argument that the filid were once druids that either redefined themselves or were redefined (by whom?), but honestly that area of study hasn't been my focus (which is pretty obvious, given my blunder regarding the druids). To be clear, my thinking that the druids operated in that sort of role doesn't stem from thinking that all Celtic cultures were the same, but rather an unexamined assumption that they were the "priests" of the Irish (which admittedly may have been influenced from other sources that made the assumption all Celtic cultures were the same). As I said, the role of the druids hasn't been a major focus of study for me; I've never sought to be a "druid".

So let me ask this; if not the druids, than who? Did the Irish believe an intermediary between them and the Gods who also gave sacrifice was necessary? If so, who would have been responsible for that? Is there evidence to suggest the opposite is true? If they acted as storytellers, lorekeepers, magicians and prognosticators and lacking proof to suggest they did or did not act as priests, is it a stretch to say that they did perhaps act in that role? If we're pretty certain the ancient Celts, including the Irish, practiced human sacrifice then doesn't it logically follow that such an event would have been presided over by some body acting in a priestly capacity?

It really is a huge topic and one I realize is difficult to get into given the comment restrictions. If you're game to exchange e-mails to continue the conversation, let me know.

Thanks very much for your time and feedback!

Edited at 2013-01-08 02:48 am (UTC)
Prof. Jeremy M. R. F. Chesterfield-Pickles III: Antenociticusalfrecht on January 8th, 2013 04:59 pm (UTC)
We can do both, if you like (i.e. both talk here and talk further in e-mail)--send me a private message on LJ with your e-mail and we can set that up.

In the meantime, a bit of further info.

The matter of "if not druids, then who?" is a difficult question. One of the only sources that has druids making sacrifices and taking omens that I'm aware of is a late Ulster Cycle tale, Cath Findchorad, which has Ailill and Medb embarking on a martial venture at the beginning, and their druids make sacrifices and take auspices--however, they make their sacrifices to Ioib, Apaill, Mairt 7 Ois, which is to say, "Jove, Apollo, Mars, and Osiris." So, there's clearly some very learned assumptions and assertions going on there that simply can't be backed up as credible notions on how Irish polytheistic religiosity worked. ;) The authors in that case, and in many of the earlier cases, may have been aware of Roman writings on the druids, and read that in to their own culture, rather than actually looking to their own history and what vestiges of the culture were still in operation. (Augustinus Hibernicus' remark in the mid-7th century on druidic stories of shapeshifting and transmigration, therefore, become all the more important for what they do tell us!)

So, it is possible that they could have served in that role; but, their general portrayal in most of the earlier literature paints them more as magicians--with just as much ambivalence as magicians usually have in most cultures--than as any sort of socially-sanctioned religious functionaries. They're not proscribed, by any means, but their magical skills don't automatically equate to the same socio-religious esteem the druidic class seems to have had in Gaul.

Who presided over sacrifices, then? I'm going to have to look back at a few sources and see if it specifies druids otherwise, especially in the earlier (though hagiographical) materials...
Ruaridh: Wolfsiorathru on January 10th, 2013 03:48 am (UTC)
I'm certainly fine with both!

Yeah, given the proclivity of the Romans to equate foreign deities with their own it does sort of throw into question what other inaccuracies are being presented. What I find especially interesting is those same characters happen across Fedelm and they ask her to prophecy for them. It's clear from the Tain that she was not a druid but rather a prophetess. It also complicates things because it seems to suggest that prophecy for endeavors was not restricted to a tribal priest, but rather something that could be asked, even demanded from those so trained in the prophetic arts and who could boast the imbas forasnai.

Edited at 2013-01-10 03:49 am (UTC)
Prof. Jeremy M. R. F. Chesterfield-Pickles III: Pictish Concennalfrecht on January 7th, 2013 11:04 pm (UTC)
And, come to think of it, "Cú _____" can work in the same way, and with the same sort of emphasis, but usually in a more protective or actively "in warrior/guardian service to __" fashion.
Ruaridh: Lost Note - Bromsiorathru on January 8th, 2013 02:19 am (UTC)
It's funny you should say that because I thought the same thing but abandoned it because I wasn't 100% sure is applied to our discussion above. But, I have an even clearer understanding of name taking now and for that, I thank you.
Prof. Jeremy M. R. F. Chesterfield-Pickles III: Cú Chulainnalfrecht on January 8th, 2013 04:50 pm (UTC)
I've often said that Cú Chulainn can be translated "Culann's bitch" as equally well as "Culann's hound," and even with the submissive and servile connotations of "bitch" that we have in English applying to it! ;)
crossoverqueen: unicorncrossoverqueen on February 3rd, 2013 10:50 pm (UTC)
While the Morrigan has claimed me as her follower since thirteen, a lot of the Tuatha De have been showing up VERY recently. The main distinction is that many are connected to the arts--Aengus Og, Brighid, Ruadan, Ogma, and Nechtan.

In general, there are three consistencies as to the surge of deity presence in my life: 1) My UPG is that the Tuatha De (and my ancestors) want me to write a play about my experiences, and my Native American medicine-woman has confirmed it. 2) The poets need to teach me more detailed control over my abilities because while my medicine-woman is VERY helpful, her knowledge is still specific to a Native American context. 3) Some of them just like me because I'm an artist as well. Seeing as I live in the SF Bay Area, it's logical that artistically-inclined gods would gravitate to an artistically-inclined person in a nationally-recognized center of the arts.

But however much the Tuatha De's artists like me and share my interests, all of them have deferred to the Morrigan. Brighid said that the Morrigan is "responsible" for me, nearly all of the new arrivals are working with me because she asked them to, and there are lots of hints that the Morrigan's kept an eye on me looooong before she decided to choose me as her follower--several of my ancestors recognize her, and she's so rarely surprised at what's been happening to me that she probably knows major life-events in my future as well. Various Tuatha De can tell just by looking at me that "she's the Morrigan's", and the first thing the Tuatha De or my ancestors do if something goes wrong is call the Morrigan.

Given that I'm an introverted, tiny artist who was chosen by the goddess of sovereignty and warfare, there's something about the patron/follower relationship that's definitely not limited to shared interests or frequency of contact--the Morrigan herself tends to go about her business right after morning offerings, while the others are more inclined to stay and "talk." (Or not talk, whenever I ask too many questions.)

Then there's the trade-off that while she's responsible for my physical and spiritual/mental safety, I'm also responsible for making an effort to meet her expectations. She wouldn't have become my patron if I didn't have the right mindset and abilities for enacting her plans, but her personal investment/relationship definitely grew over the years I've been working with her. Unfortunately, that means Lugh can't show up for more than a few minutes, or she goes "MINE" and all but drives him off. It sucks because he's actually kind of awesome.

Tealdeer: Having a patron deity encompasses WAY more than person or deity "Ooh, I like this one because [X]!" It's more "I like this one because they'll be able and willing to do [X]."

I've known several people who, shall we say "invent" their relationship with a deity to get attention, to seem "powerful" or "spooky", what have you.

This isn't from a particular follower/encounter, but I've noticed a lot of sites glorify the Morrigan's aspects of female-empowerment, sovereignty, the land, and what have you. Yes, she's awesome, ridiculously canny, and has helped me through a lot of things, but she's also really stubborn, temperamental, and tricksome. Dare I say it, she can get kind of bitchy--especially before she's had coffee.

Edited at 2013-02-03 11:07 pm (UTC)
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )