For years now, in many communities — Reddit, private religious organization fora, Twitter, blog comments — one of the most common questions people ask is about finding a patron God. I have discussed this in other posts, and many other bloggers in NRM polytheisms have also contributed to the conversation.
However, the “Just Do It” post I wrote about this a while back wasn’t as useful as I intended. This post will hopefully correct that. I will first discuss some of the larger context of patronage, and I will end with advice in list format for easy reading.
The reason for the blunt title is, to be honest, search engine optimization — many in the polytheist blogosphere are writing posts like this, and the more we do it, the greater the chances that someone (hello! welcome!) will find one of our posts in the top 10 results.
Patronage is less of a divisive issue than it was 10-20 years ago, when it was often seen as an unwelcome import into reconstructionist and revivalist polytheisms from Wicca and pop Neopaganism or as a sign of a subconscious Christian worldview that someone needed to eradicate within limself. Over the past 10 years, due to social media, the development of the NRM polytheistic community as a quasi-distinct entity, and pop culture (chosen-ness in fantasy films, Percy Jackson, and so on) concepts bleeding into revivalist polytheism, the idea of having a patron and being incomplete without one is one of the first that seekers will encounter when investigating a polytheistic religion. Many, when discussing their reasons for choosing a specific NRM faith to convert to, will indicate a God or Gods who drew them in, a deity whom they may or may not still worship.
The anti-patronage position is still held by some: Baring the Aegis comes out against it with a claim that it is not a part of true, Antiquity-based Hellenismos. The absolute opposing view is that everyone needs a patron and that people are just waiting to find the right one. People who hold the “yes devotional patronage is an ideal for all of us” view range from well-respected members of the modern polytheistic blogosphere and author/teacher circuit to individuals who lack solid theological grounding and who may be engaging in unhealthy spiritual bypassing behaviors.
There is a middle position — the one that I (sort of) hold based both on research and personal experience — that devotional relationships with specific Gods can be enriching and rewarding, but that it’s important to contextualize them against other types of worship. We have many surviving accounts of people with personal devotional relationships from Antiquity, be they philosophers like Proclus (Athene), the orator Aelius Aristides (Asklepios), or surviving archaeological evidence and accounts of ordinary people who set up custom-set shrines to specific Gods (Greek Nymphs by Larson has many examples of this).
I pray to Apollon, Athene, and Hermes daily, but I also have a prayer calendar based on the lunar cycle of sacred days compiled using Hesiod and other sources that I use as a basis for my prayers to other Gods. If I didn’t have strong devotional/bhakti-style relationships with those Gods, I would still do the routine prayers. The reason I write that I “sort of” hold this middle view is that I also believe that each of us is in the series of a specific God and that we incarnate in lives that are either in alignment or not in alignment with lim — but this is a natural property of souls. Arguably, part of “know thyself” could be figuring this out (with some degree of uncertainty), but even so, since everyone has this, it’s not distinctive or special. This idea comes from the Platonists, and you’ll see it under discussion in some of the commonplace book posts that I have done on this blog, like this one.
First, a narrative: I am a weird person to give advice because my family left Christianity when I was a child to be dual-faith Neopagans and “Earth-Based” Unitarians. Ergo, I had my first shrine when I was a preteen, and worshipping Gods for various purposes was just part of my later childhood.
I worshipped Bast a lot when I was nine and ten because cats, and in my late preteens/early teens, I had a thing for Brigit because our Circle held a creative arts ritual for her every Imbolc, and it’s fairly typical for kids raised in polytheism to gravitate to Gods for whom rituals are regularly held. I also started worshipping Iris, a Goddess I called “the Muse,” and Apollon in my mid to late teens, which was the jumping-off point to leaving Neopaganism for revivalist methodologies when I was 20.
My worship of Athene and Hermes started purely for professional reasons — I am an academic librarian — because Athene presides over academia and libraries, and Hermes’ offices include information science. Those seeds I planted in my early/mid-twenties took root and grew into something more because Athene and Hermes have a lot to do with things in my daily life, like conlangs and reading philosophy and lucky-find serendipity in my reading material. I worship Seshat now, too, and that is more constrained to library science and bookish things; it hasn’t developed into anything beyond that. Apollon, Mnemosyne, and the Mousai are more related to my creative work, and the devotional relationship I have with Apollon is difficult to describe adequately. It started because I really like light, music, and poetry, perhaps, except I don’t really know. It just happened.
Let’s unpack those paragraphs of personal experience:
- Gods we worship can change based on our current community context, stages of our lives, and so on;
- Children often start worshipping Gods because they are really into something that the God reminds them of;
- Seeking patronage for utilitarian reasons is totally OK, and the relationship can sometimes deepen from there — much like between human beings when we come to know someone in a professional setting and later on become friends;
- Seeking patronage for utilitarian reasons can sometimes stay in that zone, and that is also OK;
- Occasionally, people have devotional relationships with a God that cannot be described adequately because the relationship doesn’t come from formal community ritual, life stages, or professional outreach to a God who governs that area. Some people call this a “calling”; I don’t like that term and have written about why elsewhere. It’s more like “friendship at first sight,” isn’t it?
- Start from household ritual, as this — not patronage — is a core component of practice.
- Read myths. Read how the God was worshipped before Christianity.
- If you like a specific God, start worshipping lim, do a bit of research — try to branch out into your public library e-resources, academic library databases, or alum JSTOR access to avoid Google result weirdness — and see what happens.
- Think about a God (or Gods) you would like to worship in a professional context. This is much like how you might find a human mentor or professional coach — you review who le is and what ler expertise is, and you make initial overtures. If you are in a specific polytheistic tradition, finding a God who can be prayed to professionally will be easy; if you are eclectic, this may take a bit more research, maybe even a consultation with a divination professional. Just as people often have constellations of mentors, you may find that worshipping more than one God is important.
Occasionally, people who are very pro-devotional/bhakti worship will talk down to people who have started worshipping a God for utilitarian reasons instead of being inspired by a yearning of the heart and/or a “calling” to worship that God. Ignore this. Gods are individuals, and each of them is way more than the sum of ler divine offices — in fact, each of them is everything in a unique, individual way. And, just as there are levels of personal intimacy between people, there are levels of intimacy between a person and a God — we will worship many of them as “distant acquaintances,” fewer as “close acquaintances,” a handful as “friends,” and only a few as “intimate friends.” (Note the quotation marks — I’m making an analogy to friendship.) These relationships are unique, which includes how we started the relationships and where the relationship goes (or doesn’t go) on the closeness scale. The reason we have so many people with extremely close relationships with specific Gods is likely tied to how NRM polytheism is a cluster of religions of (mostly) converts, and people often join a religion or start worshipping a specific God due to transformative religious experiences. Civic, community, professional/need-based, and family reasons for worshipping a specific God (or Gods) are more normative in polytheisms with low percentages of converts and high percentages of people raised in those religions.
I hope that this is useful to people for getting started.