There Are No Guarantees

Overall, as someone raised in Neopaganism, I agree with people online who say that raising your kids in paganism or polytheism ensures transmission to the next generation. However, as a minority religion — at least for the next few generations — there is a rocky road. Navigating this is hard for everyone. I have decided that I will talk about this messiness today.

The reason it is a rocky road is that our same-generational support is very rocky, not to mention the rockiness when it comes to relating to our elders. First off, we lack peers, and even when we do have peers, we may not actually be compatible as friends or ritual-mates due to holding different values systems. (I don’t think you need to adhere to a specific set of values — beyond knowing the Gods are here and being pious — to be a polytheist or pagan, but we do tend to select spiritual friends and ritual associates based on shared values because of the trust that is necessary for deep collaborative spiritual engagement. It’s important to avoid confusion about the difference between the whole and the part.) Second, we will likely be in interfaith marriages, and depending on the circumstances, that could either go very well or very, very badly. Third, boys are still viewed as agents of the next generation, and girls are viewed passively; this is due to the social legacy of coverture in American society, and coverture is especially damaging to interfaith relationships.

If you have never heard the term “coverture” before, you are like most Americans. I had never heard of it before a few months ago, but in an instant, I had a word to describe most of the sibling friction I have felt and screamed and cried about privately as an adult. I am in a family of all girls, and my view is that social dimensions of coverture are very important when we think about the persistence of pagan and polytheistic identity.

Coverture, back in the day, “held that no female person held a legal identity“; she is covered first by her father and then by her husband. (Those are two different links, btw — first to a written piece, second to YouTube.) It’s why single women were once so legally precarious, and it is also the terminology behind why women were not allowed to have credit cards that were not cosigned by a man until the mid-1970s and why domestic abuse was still OK in many places into the 1980s. The “ghost” of coverture, now that I know what coverture is, is part of the root of why many women need permission from their husbands to surgically end their fertility. It is part of why some states require the male parent’s consent during abortions, although it’s more complicated in that instance because another question at play is parenthood rights. Still, the idea you’d have to incubate a baby for nine months just because an ex wanted it indicates that said ex is the legal entity who matters. In an environment where Supreme Court justices are citing medieval British common law, it becomes even more important to pull coverture out at the root by legally overturning it. Socially, coverture is behind why most American women take their husband’s name and why most men are socially conditioned to view taking their wife’s name as demeaning or their wife not taking their name as a sign that she isn’t serious.

I am the eldest of three daughters. Both of my sisters are married to men, and when we think about transmission to the next generation of paganism and polytheism, the social legacy of coverture means that women are more vulnerable than men when they marry. My youngest sister had a handfasting because she and her husband are spiritually compatible. I don’t even know what his religion is because it has never come up — she is free to do what she likes spiritually. She is transmitting our maternal family traditions to her children, including being able to dress up her sons as Star Boys (a consolation prize for boys who can’t dress up in the Lucia candle headdress). My sister is free to use oracle cards and go to pagan rituals and sound bath incubations and do whatever else. To avoid painting a rosy picture, there are some elements of my sister’s lifestyle and personality that I’m less fond of — for example, she’s really into crystals, which I’m a bit critical of, and I think her young sons could use some help developing boundaries and considerateness. The way I’m addressing that as their aunt is to ensure that I’m purchasing books and toys that focus on emotional and social skills. This sister rebelled in her teens by becoming Christian and then an atheist for a few years.

My middle sister’s relationship is the one that has reduced me to tears multiple times in my adult life, including Monday of this week. I actually burst out ugly-crying while meditating because I felt a sense of such profound loss that I could barely cope. Tears are maladaptive, but they were a sign that I’d hit on something raw, and the religious strife in my family related to her marriage has intermittently hit a nerve for me for a long time. My middle sister’s husband has been a source of religious friction with my family for years. When they got married in 2018, her husband forced her to do a Catholic wedding. She decided to have her baptism certificate found (otherwise, she’d have had to go through some kind of long education thing) and certified because we were all baptized before our family left Christianity … I think the UCC denomination, but I’m not sure. She told me on the phone that the oath was just a procedural thing, and I was taken aback at how casual she was about doing something that is really serious, as if it was just a formality and she’d be free to just do whatever once the wedding was over. It got worse during the wedding family. In addition to all of the normal wedding drama about expenses, clashes between mothers, and so on, my mom brought up the behavior of the priest toward my pagan family, and she ended up being mocked by her future son-in-law. I learned at about this time that my (now) brother-in-law believes that he has to protect my sister from the evil Satanic beings possessing her family. He believes that we are all being duped by evil immortal entities that want to send us to Hell for eternity because they find corrupting people fun. At about that time, I also learned that his Bolivian family has sympathies with the political faction that wants to eradicate indigenous religious practices in Bolivia. None of this was okay with me. (I donate to Survival International, so I do put my money where my mouth is.) The reason I didn’t go to the wedding, though, is because my girlfriend was disinvited. I had asked my sister a question about all of the tensions (which exploded a few times) because my girlfriend wasn’t sure if she wanted to go given how much his family seemed to dislike my mom. My sister told her then-fiancé, my girlfriend was called a “bad person,” and I was told that she couldn’t come. So I didn’t go, either. (I looked at the novella I had written months and months before — The Village of Strong Branches — and felt uneasy about how prescient it had been. Its main character also didn’t attend her sister’s wedding.) I was told by some people that I would regret not going to that wedding. I have zero regrets to this day.

The reason I have zero regrets is what I learned after they were married. This brother-in-law was hostile about us passing down our matrilineal traditions to their kids. It took her literally until this year to convince him to let their family do Lucia’s Day because he thought it was Satanic until my sister could definitively prove it came from Christian Scandinavian practices. My middle sister would often call me talking about dreams and wanting to worship the Gods and wanting to go to pagan things. Every time she strayed from Christianity, her husband would find her pagan things and destroy them. He even destroyed gifts that I had given my sister — threw them out, including things like Gods’ icons. I wanted to give her daughters charms related to Gods, but the most I could do was to try nature-related books that were on the safe side of secular. My sister confessed a desire to worship Goddesses like Artemis and Skaði for a few years. She waffled back and forth between Christianity and paganism. She had nightmares every time she left Christianity. Her husband scared her for years by saying that malevolent entities come for her every time she “strayed from the path” due to feeling drawn to the Gods, malefic things that they both intuited were there. He still mocks my family’s paganism, and he still believes hateful things about us. She has seen awful and horrific things in nightmares and has Hell anxiety, just like many people in Christianity do. I honestly have no idea where she’ll land with all of this.

Polytheists who converted to polytheism on their own, generally as adults, likely have no ability to understand the sense of loss that comes with a sibling converting to Christianity in the context my sister did, especially after both of you grew up in an environment where Christians were horrible to you after your family got outed. (They were worse to me than they were to her, and it’s woven in with other kinds of bullying for me. I don’t think that she gets emotional flashbacks like I do. Those flashbacks are definitely at play in how I respond to my middle sister, with a wide range of positive and negative impacts, and you should know about how that trauma impacts me because it influences how I narrate this story no matter how much I endeavor to be reliable.) There are so few second-gens that I feel isolated in this. It has always felt to me like she’s chosen the people who demeaned and abused us over her kin, and that pours acid and salt into the traces of those wounds. It’s really hard to set those feelings aside due to their strength.

Learning about coverture gave me an emotional release I hadn’t expected. The moment my experience as a sister clicked with how it impacted my family’s spiritual life was profound and powerful. As the eldest, I was taught from a young age to be responsible for my younger sisters. I started babysitting them when I was nine or ten. I was doing laundry and weeknight cooking at the age of twelve. Especially with daughters, there are no guarantees. We’re taught to minimize ourselves and to be as compliant and compatible as possible. Our humanity is piecemeal, a set of disjointed laws that overturn bits and pieces of coverture, but which never quite address the root issue. I had been gripping onto the idea of sharing rituals with my family and belonging, and that image in my mind had always included my middle sister. While we’re both still in our 30s — who knows what the future will bring? — I realized that there was nothing that I could do. My sister oathed herself to Christianity when she prepped for her wedding, and she should have to live out the consequences of that choice. She is the cause of her own inner discord, and the nightmares and entities are hers to deal with. No matter how much I believe her husband is spiritually abusive and paternalistic, I can’t do anything, and from a cultural standpoint, I shouldn’t have expected that I could have. The most I can do is pray for her well-being.

For my part, my partner is not pagan or polytheistic, and lesbian relationships are judged against different norms — the ideals were set down as egalitarian and cooperative, and while ideals are not reality, it makes the issues that come up in our relationship a bit different. She is fairly secular in a religiously apathetic sense, but leans Buddhist in some sympathies and observes some Jamaican ambiently spiritual customs like washing shoes after visiting cemeteries and keeping feet covered to avoid malefica; her immediate family is very Christian. She and I have been to some meditation events together with a local Buddhist group. Her personal belief is that actual action in the world matters more than faith, and she has the most respect for religions and religious groups that feed and clothe those experiencing homelessness and food insecurity and war displacement. She has the most loathing for religious groups that have been complicit in child abuse and which cover up the sexual exploitation of women. If we married, she’d rather just have the reception part and avoid a ceremony, and I’d like to do no-guests sacrifices at the household shrine to mark us as a couple/household.

Whether or not someone has kids is really their decision. What concerns me as someone without children is that I really need to make sure that my estate planning (lol, it’s so weird calling “stuff in my apartment” an estate!) ensures that my agalmata go to pious people who need them and that my body is given a disposal ceremony in alignment with my religious beliefs. For those of us who are child-free, this is yet another reason why minimalism and owning only as much as is actually sufficient for your spiritual practice, education, physical well-being (especially mobility!!!), and work productivity are so important. A good set of gym shoes, a few foam rollers and therapy pressure balls; a simple shrine that is easy to clean and that holds agalmata for the Gods you love; books in whatever format you need to enliven your mind and contribute to your well-being in the whole of life, here and there; and a capsule wardrobe and technology that help you connect to and disconnect from what you need to do for your livelihood and life — you don’t need any more than that. Art that nourishes you, plants that clean your air, comfortable places to sit and read, a fitness mat — all additions that address needs. Anything excessive will become the burden of those who survive you. Most will end up in Goodwill or in the trash. It’s very important that sacred objects are made part of your will, even if your kids stay in a pagan or polytheistic faith.

All of this said, I have immense gratitude for my mom and for my sisters. It is really rough to navigate these cultural forces that complicate relationships, especially when such forces intersect with how religious customs are transmitted forward every generation. My mom, youngest sister, and I can wish one another happy full moon and talk about the Gods in text messages, something that many polytheists aren’t able to do, and I am grateful for that. The years I have left with my mom as the maternal glue connecting all of us daughters are so precious — at some point, she won’t be here anymore, and it will be my responsibility to make sure that her ceremonies are conducted as she wants them to be and that her religious and ritual supplies are given appropriate dispersal protocols.

My hope is that highlighting these issues with personal examples will add more dimensions when we think about second-generation pagans and polytheists because we’re not some abstract idea that you bring up at pagan conferences among crowds and crowds of adult converts. We’re real people, in real families, who make life decisions that impact ourselves, the people around us, and the following generations. We are worthy of being surveyed, of having ethnographies written about us, and all of that, instead of the drivel that is written about us in the service of someone’s pet psychology project. I would definitely have preferred to share this in a focus group conducted by a researcher who could excise these experiences’ relationship to me and put what I have to say in conversation with other second-generation perspectives, which could then be shared with the pagan and polytheistic communities in a maximally helpful way. But we do what we can do, and we are where we are, and I hope that what I have shared is sufficiently constructive without being overmuch about the details.


4 thoughts on “There Are No Guarantees

  1. So much of what you write is why I think polytheists should only marry other polytheists (and if the non polytheist won’t convert, don’t marry him/her). that’s harsh, for all the reasons you likewise touch upon. I think it’s necessary though. we need to stop marrying non-polytheists because so much of intergenerational transmission means support of both parents. I was ordained as an interfaith minister, went to an interfaith seminary, taught there, and was their first polytheistic dean for a year. I resigned for many reasons (them not paying their faculty on time was one) but one of THE key reasons was that I couldn’t support interfaith marriages. people forget about what it really means when kids come along — and things that weren’t issues in the beginning become so with kids. Also, your brother in law sounds like a monumental ass and I”m so sorry you are dealing with any of this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. of course finding compatible polytheistic partners is a whole battle in and of itself and underscores the needs for better, more intact, in person communities.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Interfaith marriages are so, so complicated. It really depends on context, IMO. If the two faiths are “open” in the sense that they’re not exclusivist, it’s less likely to lead to issues. For example, if a couple is Asatru and Buddhist, they can raise their kids in both a bit more easily. Quaker and Unitarian/UU would be the easiest Christianity-derived interfaith matches. I don’t think that it’s possible to be in a relationship with an evangelical or a member of another exclusivist Christian sect without running into significant issues. They’ll definitely want kids to be baptized due to the Hell anxiety. In any interfaith cases, though, I think faith considerations for kids need to be hashed out before the marriage in a document with a notary and made part of the marriage agreement process.


      1. I”m a huge, huge fan of marriage contracts worked out by family, couple, elders well before any marriage takes place. some of the older customs were damned sensible. I agree: Asatru and roman polytheist can work for instance, but Asatru and evangelical baptist not so much. it’s the world view not the specific polytheism that is important. I’d still refuse to officiate at any polytheist/non polytheist wedding barring extreme reasons to the contrary (if there aren’t children involved it’s less an issue but still…)

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