I saw a question on Reddit over the weekend that I think merits further comment — what do you do if a God isn’t calling you? how can you still worship the Gods or know what to do when you don’t know whom you should worship? — and started thinking a bit more about it last night. It was late, and I was formatting tables and figures for an article that was due at the journal today. The article now done (YAYYYYYY!!!!!), I can relax a bit.
It is perfectly acceptable — and important — to know that you do not need to be “called” by a God to have a polytheistic religious practice.
Fundamentally — and I have said this before, and often — I restarted my blog several years ago because a middle voice was missing, and at that time, my biggest concerns in life were related to adjusting to life as a working professional and learning how to adult. In a polytheistic sense, learning how to adult means developing a sensible ritual routine and realistic shrine space that can fit into a busy life.
For several years in my 20s, I struggled to do daily offerings because doing that in a way that worked with my routine instead of against it without supportive, nonjudgmental guidance is not a common topic online in Neopaganism or polytheism (although it can be in books — for all of the flaws in Silver RavenWolf’s teen Wicca series, at least she gave practical advice on how to fit tiny moments of devotion into a cramped morning routine), and many of my devotional practices took a back seat. It got easier over time through trial and error.
If we were living in a polytheistic culture, the majority of us would do daily ritual, venerate a profession-related God, and celebrate holidays at most, and we would have many examples and people to go to when we wanted to know how.
The best way forward for people whose hearts are not drawing them to a specific God is to establish a solid household ritual practice that takes under 10 minutes, with a professional patron who is clearly related to whatever job that person does. Such things are enough. No guilt. Just routines. Whichever pantheon of Gods one worships, it is (usually) prudent to start household ritual by venerating the hearth or household God(s) and perhaps a professional patron who corresponds to the type of field one is in.
Some Comments on “Calling”
A major challenge in the community writ large — among recons, Neopagans, et cetera — that makes even starting to do baseline religious ritual is the idea of being chosen by a God.
John Beckett wrote a blog post that made me cringe a while ago in which he compared people who are not devotees or clergy to plumbers. That metaphor still makes my stomach tighten. I don’t dislike Beckett, but the plumber thing is a more noteworthy example of the general challenge of how to explain specialized religious work and/or devotee things without sounding condescending or overly puffed up.
What we’re actually talking about is time availability, values, priorities, and goal-setting. Even a baseline shared polytheistic value like honoring, revering, and worshipping the Gods looks different depending on how a person interprets it, the tradition le is in, and what ler life allows lim to do to revere the Gods. A medical doctor might have a small shrine to healing Gods at home where le makes offerings whenever le’s home, and le may do libations with a few other polytheist doctors at conferences. That may be fulfilling enough. It doesn’t have to be what it isn’t.
People with a lot of experience in devotional worship, ritual liturgy, and the like have made sacrifices of time and effort to become specialists in these things, and what may seem effortless from the outside certainly wasn’t in the beginning and may not even be now. Despite going “yikes” at that aforementioned plumber analogy, I acknowledge that there is some level of hierarchy in spiritual training; I’ve said before that you cannot go to a gym and bench press 400 pounds without working your way up to it, and in a religious sense, that training tends to impact future incarnations. The amount of effort and time we spend on something makes us value it more and more.
(While I would consider myself a devotee, I am not a mystic — I view myself as an applied scientist, but in a religious sense. The research protocols need to be learned and understood, the lab needs to be set up, and so on.)
In the “You Are New!” realm, new people who feel strong impulses to worship a specific God or group of Gods are highly motivated to ask many basic questions about those Gods online, to write in praise of these Gods, and/or to pursue something like clergy status. Devotees will talk — and often loudly — about extremely intimate religious experiences in a highly casual, yet reverent, way: experiences of Gods, ecstatic ritual, and so on. It can be intimidating and weird. On the other end of the spectrum, we have spiritual atheists who just like pre-Christian cultures/aesthetics and who push back against theism even in religions that are baseline theistic like ours are. (I don’t ever encounter humanistic pagans, but I’m sure one might in a Google search?) I see a lot of “yeah, okay, la dee dah, fuck you” directed at both of these groups when people in the middle feel stressed and unseen.
This can be aggravating to navigate when a person just wants a ritual template and to learn a few basic purity rules. It can create the assumption that one has to have these things and that they are statistically normal.
And then, there’s a misconception that someone is chosen by a God in the first place. My counter-position is that, generally speaking, we are the ones making the choice, even if it’s the choice to ask which God we should run after in divination or for dreams/signs. I think it’s better to assume full responsibility and agency in one’s interactions, and people who feel drawn to a God can’t just rely on UPG. Assuming one’s own agency means checking UPG against sources and preexisting knowledge and having the self-knowledge to know one’s psychological vulnerabilities. The human mind can receive the Gods or fall into delusions and deceptions like Slender Man.
“Apollôn wants/chose me” could definitely puff someone up; the critique that people just want a way to justify what they’re doing exists for a reason. It is more honest to say, “I am worshipping Apollôn because every time I engage with his myths and worship him, or when I write poetry or listen to string music, my heart swells with boundless love and happiness.” It simultaneously places control within the devotee because the devotee is the one acting and eliminates control because the focus is on erôs. People can mistake their own feelings of love for a God for the God choosing them. Love travels up ↑, not down ↓. I mean, in Iamblichus, placing oneself in the true hierarchy of beings is liberating because it clarifies expectations, enables one to learn the proper protocols, and teaches one how to distinguish between real and false experiences. There is freedom only by surrendering to the finger trap.
The real challenge is that everyone wants to feel valid in their choices.
We Are So Small
It is easy to see the sacrifices that we have made — for anything, really — and to assign an oversized importance to them, or to decontextualize them. It is easy to say, “I have done this for my God, which is more than anyone else,” and very hard to take careless words like that back.
While writing up the citation analysis paper, I started thinking about reincarnation, the choices that we must all have made coming into our own lives, the multitude of worlds, the things Plato has Socrates say about the Gods we catch glimpses of, and so on. I visualized something that looked like the Hubble Deep Field, with life, death, and polity happening on numerous worlds. It became a grid, a pockmarked field littered with wellsprings of life — conscious, self-reflective living things easy depths that one could fall into. I thought about what would happen if one made a choice of lives in this context, the sheer number of possibilities, like a constellation of rays of possibilities for a single being radiating out, each choice refining the future choices even further, the whole pattern of them like a fingerprint unique to lim.
Later, on thinking about what I had visualized, it seems that definitions would begin at the first life when the first choices are made. It would proceed on from there like a melody or the radii of a spider’s web. Holding the cosmos in one’s mind is like witnessing a star that shines antilight.
And, following from Plato, the soul has a yearning for the God(s), and such a yearning would influence the pattern. Limiting how it moves over time to a specific planet in a specific galaxy in the Virgo Supercluster (I could go on 😁) does not make sense. Path of least resistance, am I right? A flowering of melody in a garden that is limitless. I could be a poet on a world orbiting a red dwarf in the Andromeda Galaxy or a mythographer on an ocean super-Earth.
We are insignificant in the face of that larger whole, a motion of fragmentation, possibility, reunion, and bliss. How could we trap ourselves in comparison games when confronted with something like this? We are all doing what we can in a vast sea that stretches beyond the farthest horizon we can see.
To circle back to the beginning, just start with simple offerings — incense, long-steeped tisane, wine, rhythmic words — and embrace the steadiness of prayer in small shifts.