You are trapped in that bright moment in which you learned your doom.
— Samuel R. Delaney, The Fall of the Towers
I have a friend who is a Humanistic Pagan, a concept which places humanity and its ethics at the center of the cosmos, around which whirls the wheel of the year and the forms of deities associated with it. Deity is archetype at most, something larger than ourselves and psychological as well as spiritual, with spirituality growing out of the psychological construct of the archetype out of a universal, human memory pool we share as we share basic DNA. [A friend corrects me: much of Humanistic Paganism is eco-centric, as he terms it. Fair enough.]
I take a rather odd, middle ground approach between the gods as primal beings and the gods as archetypes. My view partakes of both views. The deities are real to me in two senses, because we make them so, and because they are presentations of the face of what spiritual jazz musicians of the 1960s frequently referred to as The One, a form I have adopted. [Already someone is now rushing to the comments below to tell me I Am Doing It Wrong. Fair enough. I am not proposing my personal gnosis as Doctrine. We have no real doctrine in Heathenism, so I’m not sure how, precisely, I am Doing It Wrong but please feel free to explain.]
“…and the spirit of Fimbultyr moved upon the face of the deep…”
Snorri, Prose Edda*
The One** is a transcendent force, although concepts of omniscience and omnipotence suggestive of an over-mind with an interest in human affairs–the monist god of the people of the book–does not enter into it, at least not as I understand it. it just Is, somewhat in keeping with the Bookish notion of Yahweh: I Am What Am. I would not even assign it a personal pronoun. This implies the idea that it can be known to some extent, is capable of issuing dictates like the tablets of Moses which can be comprehended and ultimately obeyed. To the musicians from whom I borrowed the term The One the force is one of universal love, an external source only comprehensible through love and best represented by the figure of Jesus in the bookish tradition. Love is the one commandment, and they see a force of love permeating the universe.
Obedience. Commandments. This is where I part from my upbringing in the tradition of the book. I had rejected all mainstream religions not because I am an atheist, but because I am a Promethean. What I reject in the lore of the people of the book is the concept of a religious surrender, whether it is surrendering to the authority of the Holy Roman Church in which I was raised, or the surrender of born-again, Pentecostal protestant Xianity. I am humanist enough to reject gods which require surrender.
That is likely why I found a comfortable spot when the gods of my ancestors began calling to me this past Yule and Imbolc/Carnival. As I have read the lore and its glosses so far, I see in the northern pantheon deities which do not require surrender but would in fact frown upon it. Heathenism is a devotion of relationship, not surrender. Forget the old saying about having a “personal relationship with Xst.” We’ve all heard that but it requires that initial surrender, “let go and let god.” To the extent Heathenism can be said to have a doctrine of devotion it is one of personal relationship without surrender in the Bookish sense. This fits well with my Promethean tendencies which rejects religions of surrender.
From whence then come the gods and goddesses of our devotion? In my own semi-Arian-flavored heresy I go back to the creation myth, and invert it. Deity is a creation of man (drifting awfully close to humanistic paganism here, old boy), born out of an archetypal impulse to give comprehensible mind and form to the spirit of The One. This occurs differently across different cultures because the archetypical impulse must take a culturally comprehensible shape. What is culturally comprehensible varies as do the languages we speak, as people of Indo-European descent spread themselves about the planet. The gods and goddesses are real because we take the role of Ve and Villi, and they become. This does not lessen their superior position, because they are aspects of an ultimately superior One. They are more powerful than us, and take their spirit not from Odin but from The One. We simply give them form and mind we can, to the best of our inferior ability, comprehend.
Within that pantheon called Heathenism we develop relationships with these beings (with all of their projected foibles, and their ultimate mortality), and as I said above it is the basis of our relationship with them that allowed the call I felt earlier this year to take root in my Promethean soul. To simply accept the deities as primal in a literal sense involves a form of surrender I will not brook. If they simply Are, and are the true gods of our folk, then that is a surrender I am not capable of. To me they do exist because we give mind and form to the personal experience of spirit we find laying on the beach like bits of driftwood. This is a powerful metaphor, involving comprehensible bits (Ask and Embla in our lore) birthed by the vast and incomprehensible ocean. This partakes a bit of the anthropic principle, the idea that the universe exists in the form it does because it must be capable of perception by our minds to exist. This does not deny it other forms of existence. We are simply trapped in a dimension if you will which we are capable of comprehending.
To me personally deity takes similar forms–one which exists as the universe exists, as inexorably as gravity–because that is the form we are capable of comprehending. The same can be said of Jesus or Ganesha for people for whom that is a comfortable context. I was once a devotee of Ganesha after my own syncretic fashion, and could simply accept the story of how he got his head as easily as I could accept Ymir and Audhulma, Misgard and Asgard and its inhabitants. A system of belief both powerful (as an aspect of The One) and comfortable and comforting (as an aspect of our humanity, an aspect creation of which is a gift of the gods as in the creation myth, and being a gift of the gods ultimately a gift of The One) is what is needful, and which my own cosmology however heretical some may find it affords me. This extends to the vættir as well. The miraculous occurrences in my sacred grove of oaks–the face and the seated boar in the root boles, the not entirely random occurrences of wildflowers, my personal glimpses of the retiring anhinga spirit of the bayou–these are visible to me because of that reciprocal psychological relationship, and my personal relationship, with the divine.
To come full circle to the epigraph at the top of this piece, which over time has become my Swiss army knife for opening spiritual containers: I am trapped in that bright moment in which I learned my doom. Doom here is of course the wyrd, a very comfortable and intuitive concept to me, and so one I readily accept. I am trapped (in a kinder sense than the original, let us say “captured”) both by The One, and by my own gifted impulse of inspiration which gives It comprehensible mind and form. It is a bright moment because it partakes of The One, of the spirit Odin first breathed into Ask and Embla, and enables me to return belief in the minds and forms of the gods, a gift for a gift.
* The Wikipedia page listing the kennings of Odin lists Fimbultýr which it translates as “Mighty God,” citing a kenning in Völuspá (60)
** To turn again to pop culture, musical references consider Jimi Hendrix’s The Axis in Axis Bold as Love, and then think of Yggdrasil, which transcends Asgard and Misgard, which is both before creation and after Ragnarok. The World Tree exists outside the life cycle of the Gods and Goddesses. It is The Axis, represents the enduring One.