It’s not often that I begin my day composing a Facebook post asking for pensive responses to a theological question of mine, but that’s how my morning started. Twelve hours and 100+ comments later, I’m reflecting on my musings, my Facebook friends’ insights (to the ones that overlap as readers of this blog, thank you for your input!), and it’s time to craft a blog post around it all. This was my inquiry for discussion:
Serious theological question for my fellow devotional Polytheists: Do you believe that the Gods you serve are limited in Their ‘outreach’ based on geography? Case in point: during my years in Hawaii, my contact with worlds-wandering Hekate and the Kemetic Deities I serve never abated (the Latter Group loved Hawaii, from my experience), but, try as I might, neither Odin or the Vanir were accessible to me out there. However, whenever I visited Chicago, my ‘line’ to Them was instantly reestablished. Upon returning to Hawaii, the spiritual phone line ‘went dead’ again until I moved back home permanently.
What have your experiences been with Gods and spatial/temporal boundaries?
Squaring Away Some A Priori Assumptions
Before proceeding further, it’s only fitting that I outline some basic beliefs that are common to contemporary practicing Polytheists in the Western world—people who, for the most part, are looking to restore (with varying degrees of historical authenticity) the cults of Deities Who culturally hail from Europe and the pre-Abrahamic Middle East. The chief theological criterion for contemporary Polytheism is a belief in the objective existences of every single Deity. As religious scholar and Egyptologist Henri Frankfort states, “Polytheism is sustained by man’s experience of a universe alive from end to end” (Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation, 1948, p.4).
The Gods are not Jungian/theoretical “archetypes” or aspects of the human psyche. Nor are They empty energetic personifications. They are not reducible to “aspects” of One Big Deity, or even the same sort of Deities. (Thus, the Kemetic goddess of love and beauty, Hathor, is not Aphrodite or Freya or Oshun; the Ram-Headed Creator God Khnum is not Cernunnos or Zeus or Frey; and so forth.) Gods are believed to have Their own lives, personalities, and agendas when we are not interacting with Them; They do not depend on human attention and worship to exist, although the lack of it may weaken Their connection to the world. The Gods are different entities with different abilities, preferences, and standards for Their worshipers, and to understand and attempt to fulfill these standards are the hallmarks of respect and devotion.
We know from vast literary and archaeological sources, for example, that the ancient Egyptians regarded the Gods as generally benevolent but that benevolence could never be taken for granted: after all, the Gods might abandon humanity, as They did during the reign of the heretical Akhenaten (1353-1356 BCE [Before Common Era]), according to his successor, the famous Tutankhamun (1332-1322 BCE). This comment by Egyptologist Emily Teeter applies to how various global cultures regarded and still regard their Gods:
Gods were revered, but they were also seen in practical terms as patient problem-solvers and mediators who could be counted on for help as long as they were revered, maintained by offerings, and shown proper respect through prayer and veneration (Religion and Ritual in Ancient Egypt, 2011, p. 76).
In sharp distinction from the theological assertions of Abrahamic religions, contemporary Polytheism welcomes the notions of a given Deity’s perceived “limitations”: no claims are made for any God as being omniscient, omnipotent, et cetera. They are vastly more powerful than we are, however, and They are worthy of our awe and worship. They can see bigger and further than we can, and They understand things that our meat brains are not capable of processing.
Are the Gods Bound by Place?
Given that a vast number of myths from cultures as disparate as Ptolemaic Egypt (305-330 BCE) and 10th century CE Ireland attest to the mobility of Deities—in other words, They’re not geographically confined to Their countries of origin and loci of worship—how can one account for vacillating “signal clarity” when it comes to the relationship of location and the ability to devotionally connect with Them? This is where I leave speculative theology behind and focus on how I’ve experienced geography as somehow influencing my ability to devotionally connect with my Holy Powers.
Regular readers of this blog will know that my four-year, military-sponsored life on the Hawaiian island of Oahu was a strange, extraordinarily challenging, and yet necessary chapter of my spiritual development. (Look at my blog’s section called “Hawaiian Ghosts” if you’d like some more background on how I was deeply impacted by living there.) From the moment I moved into my first of three homes (fact: it sucks to be on military housing waiting lists!) and began eagerly unpacking my religious items (of course the Hosts of Egypt emerged first) in late March of 2003, I immediately had to contend with this reality: severe energetic dissonance between the landscape/soulscape of West Oahu and my native Chicago (or even mainland USA) environs.
As an empath and a spirit worker accustomed to cultivating devotional relationships with land spirits, I knew my first order of business was to announce my intention of peaceful arrival to the plethora of spirits inhabiting the surrounding desert (West Oahu is arid and has sparse vegetation and rain, in contrast to the lush and verdant leeward coast) and ocean it brushed up against. It was time to show that I would be a good neighbor and a careful steward of the land’s resources, malihini (foreigner) that I was.
Libations to the land spirits at the base of a massive, Martian-looking rock in my backyard began in earnest. Like any good witch, I made do with what I had (Fireball whiskey!) before I could inquire further from the Native Hawaiian friends I would eventually make on what types of offerings were deemed appropriate. In time, I felt at least that the local wildlife, geckos in particular, accepted me and my sailor spouse well enough, and within two months of arriving we’d rescued our first feral/abandoned kitten, a marmalade-colored and manic tom that my husband named Loki (followed by mellow Thor 9 months later).
Harmony with the genii loci established, I of course turned my attention to my Goddesses and Gods for spiritual support. Starting my life over in a completely alien environment required that I spiritually anchor myself in my daily devotionals. I needed my Holy Powers more than ever. I immediately noticed three things: the Gods of ancient Egypt (chiefly Nephthys, Bast, Sekhmet, Ptah, and Khnum) and mighty Hekate Khthonia—She Who is of the Triple Place, Key-Bearer to the Realms of Land, Sea, and Sky—”responded” to my prayers immediately. Furthermore, in insights attributed initially at first to unverified personal gnosis (UPG) but which evolved into peer-corroborated personal gnosis (PCPG) once I’d begun meeting and networking with other military Pagans, it was clear that the Egyptian Deities absolutely loved Hawaii. I felt Their sheer exuberance that Their shrines were relocated to Oahu: I felt the ba (manifestation) of a given Deity “leave” the dwelling place of its sacred statue in my household shrines to explore the locale—thrilled, perhaps, at being in a place that had constant heat, welcome deserts, and access to oases laden with palm trees and roaring waterfalls.
Odin and Company? Not so much.
This proved to be indescribably anxiety-producing for me for four solid years: Whether I was praying alone, with my husband, or with other (military) Pagans and Heathens, the evocations at many a blòt absolutely fell flat. Zero sense of a Presence, of even a Listener. If Gods have phone lines, the ones linked to the Norse Pantheon absolutely entered a dead zone during my life on Oahu; calls absolutely did not get through. However, as soon as I went to visit my family back in Chicago for a couple of weeks at a time between semesters (I was teaching at the time), especially when my husband was away on deployment, I immediately felt the link to the Norse Pantheon reestablished as soon as I entered Chicago’s air space! The second the plane’s wheels landed on the tarmac, I felt Them all—Odin, Thor, Freya and Frey, vigilant Heimdall, and even gloomy Hel. Ecstatic solitary blòts to Thor at the base of a massive red oak tree in my parents’ backyard could once again resume. No disrupted “signal clarity” there; no dead “phone lines” to the Gods.
Of course, the opposite held true, and the minute I would look out the airplane window at the yawning expanse of the Pacific surrounding Oahu, the Gods of the North were once again “removed” from my sphere of spiritual awareness. Dejectedly, I’d disembark from the plane, returning to a home that had cats named after Gods that I couldn’t connect to in that alien terrain.
I thought of a passage from a treasured novel, The Long Ships, by Swedish author Frans Bengtsson. The story centers around a remarkable viking named Orm; an adventure of his goes seriously wrong when he and a friend are captured by Muslim Arab slave traders off the coast of Spain. While being transported to their slave galley, the Northmen begin praying to Odin to no avail because their fetters remain intact. The vikings are eventually brought before their new master, a sultan named Almansur; he interrogates Orm in private about their religious allegiances and demands that they convert to Islam. Orm delivers the news to his comrade in arms:
He says that we must worship his god. He has only one god, who is called Allah, and who dislikes all other gods. My own belief is that his god is powerful in this country, and that our gods are weak so far away from our homeland and theirs (p. 88).
Is Deity contact geographically dependent? Or was I experiencing “god-blocking” to the Norse Pantheon from other Powers? The idea had me thinking out loud in my Facebook post today, fielding all kinds of responses from my friends. My friend Tereesa speculated that perhaps a sense of disconnection doesn’t stem from the wrong location, per se, but
a ‘conflict of interest’ between the various Gods/cultures. Sort of a question of ‘turf.’ Or personality clashes. Or ‘Hey, You! Get off my lawn!’ Not all Deities work well together…Both the Hawaiian Gods and the Northern European Gods strike me as groups that generally don’t play well with others to begin with. I also feel that the Gods are more powerful on Their own turf, among those who are more familiar with Them and work with Them, giving the Hawaiian Deities the obvious upper hand. Whether the Hawaiians told the Norse ‘NO!’ or the Norse said ‘Um…nope. Not here,’ it could be respect for Another’s space, or a rigorous need to protect, either way creating a space Others won’t/can’t cross.
It’s very interesting. I absolutely have to factor in the formidable, palpable energies of the Hawaiian Gods Themselves, Who are very much still revered and considered to be Living Powers despite two centuries of colonial/spiritual oppression by white people. Could the Hawaiian Gods be selecting Who Else gets through Their energetic barriers around the islands? It makes me believe the Kemetic Neteru “play well” with Them or otherwise resonate with Their energies; maybe, as Tereesa pointed out, the Norse Gods don’t?
Some friends expressed diverging opinions on whether or not geography plays a role in the degree to which Deities’ Presences can be felt and communed with. Some maintained that no spatial boundaries exist for any God, while others felt that geography does matter, despite, as my friend Silence pointed out, “our understanding of geography and Their understanding of geography are not necessarily the same.” Many friends shared an emphasis on the Gods’ mobility and ability to resonate with worshipers in lands far away from Their countries of origin—the cult of Isis flourishing in far-flung outposts like Brittania during the late Roman Empire was one often-cited example.
The Issue of Signal Clarity
As my friend John put it:
The fact that you could experience some European Gods in Hawaii but not others would indicate that the issue isn’t with the inherent mobility of the Gods. The first question—that I can’t answer—is whether the disconnection happened on Their end or on your end. The next question after that is why.
Naturally, I will never be able to obtain a satisfactory answer to “Was it me, or was it Them?” regarding my inability to make contact with the Norse Pantheon on Oahu, but the importance of achieving and maintaining proper “signal clarity” is paramount in devotional practice. And here both the external environment and the devotee’s own level of spiritual purity, emotional readiness, etc. come into play. How “noisy” and/or spiritually polluted is the immediate environment? Is anything serving as an impediment to the needed concentration? Is the location where you’re at just profoundly at odds with the nature of the Deity in question? (Good luck trying to pray to Kwan-Yin in the middle of a casino!) Conversely, does the landscape seem aligned with the energies or “preferred habitat” of the Deity, even if it is geographically far removed from the land housing the culture that first honored said Deity? For example, I always am able to connect with my Slavic Ancestral God, Veles, in any marsh or wetlands ecosystem anywhere in the world: that is His domain and portal to the Afterlife as conceived by my Serbian ancestors and still sung about today in folk songs.
I would also add that having symbolic links in the landscape to a given Deity’s cultic symbols/attributes goes a long way too. For example, referring back to my devotions to Thor on Oahu, I found it highly distressing to have been in an environment that was completely lacking in trees with deciduous leaves, let alone oak trees that most certainly would have served as symbolic “lifelines” to His Presence. Had the landscape allowed for that variation in the species of trees, could my devotional practices have turned out differently?
See Rightly with the Heart
When all is said and done, our spiritual landscape in the post-Industrial West is not that different from the lived experiences of many peoples from millennia ago. We live in an interconnected world of commerce and communication; commingled cultures pray to their Gods in diverse languages of praise—devotion set amidst the backdrop of crumbling empires. People move about constantly and bring their Gods wherever they go, from densely populated urban centers to climate-monitoring stations in Antarctica.
Engaging in communion with the Divine is an act of surrendering to Mystery—an act born of longing that finds expression in joy. Even when those of us in Polytheist traditions have little guideposts (be it lack of “lore” or widespread practice) to show us the ways of restoration after cultural interruption from the hegemony of monotheism, we have our hearts to see us through. In ancient Egyptian theology, after all, it was the heart, not the brain, of the deceased that got weighed against the feather of Ma’at in Judgement. As another of my favorite novels so eloquently but so simply declares:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (1943)
Seneb-ti! / Blessings!