The fun of practical polytheism

A couple of explanatory notes are in order. First, the Hymn to Haides I posted is an older piece I’ll be including in the Polytheist Hymnal, not the hymn that Aidonian (who has been incredibly patient) commissioned, which I’m still trying to get to coalesce. Currently I’ve just got fleeting images and associations of a more localized expression of the God floating about.

I took some poetic license with the Hymn to Herkyna. Persephone’s goose is an iconographic motif found predominantly in Magna Graecian art; the only other place I’ve seen it is in connection with an obscure figure associated with the cult of Trophonios in Lebadeia, and that’s assuming that the two geese are the same. Which we have little reason for doing since the one is found in Boiotia, Central Greece and the other in Southern Italy, regions that had few cultural and other contacts; furthermore this local version of the Rape of Kore has her carried off by the river rather than being abducted while out picking flowers, which generally isn’t found in the Persephone traditions of Greater Greece (except possibly in the Grotta Caruso at Lokroi Epizephyrii.) Despoina, Demeter’s other daughter, who helps in the search is borrowed from the Lykosura Mystery cult in Arkadia, which has no connection to either locale as far as I’m aware. Demeter placing the soul of Herkyna in the body of a goose is a bit of an inside joke. The Trophonios cult bears a strong Pythagorean Orphic influence, as opposed to the more Bacchic strain of Orphism which the Starry Bull tradition is an expression of. The Pythagorean Orphikoi believed in reincarnation as well as the more general metempsychosis i.e. the transmigration or movement of a soul into different bodies – including those of animals, hence their putative vegetarianism. The distinction between the two is significant, though often elided among contemporary scholars and practitioners. (But not in the Starry Bull tradition where we believe in metempsychosis but not necessarily reincarnation; likewise, our tradition most assuredly is not vegetarian – especially considering the central role that thusia or animal sacrifice plays in it – though individual members are free to abstain, or to have a personal belief in reincarnation as they see fit.)

The Hymn to Váli contains some inside jokes as well – for instance the comparison of the Jötunn Rindr to a Ruthenian, which is a tweak on Saxo Grammaticus’ euhemerist account in the Gesta Danorum. Likewise in Saxo Óðinn consults three seers to learn what to do about the matter of Baldr; as an animist I don’t see why those three seers have to be human(oid) and so had the Sorcerer God ingest some amanita muscaria for the purpose instead. I also depart from Snorri who claims that Váli’s sole function was to avenge Baldr. Why would Óðinn have had to go to the extraordinary lengths of using seiðr to rape him into existence on Rindr when the Bölverkr could have simply slain Höðr himself or gotten some other Æsir, Vanir, Jötnar, Álfar, etc. to do it for him if he needed to avoid shedding the blood of kinfolk, or Höðr in particular, for some reason. Clearly, then, there had to be a dire need for him to take such drastic action, especially since the charming fellow is usually more patient and let’s say suave when he goes awooing. (Action that could have had undesired consequences such as provoking a war with the Jötnar.) Plus the other important detail that Snorri provides us about Váli is that he makes it through Ragnarök, when Gods such as Óðinn and Þórr do not. That certainly suggests to me that something more than simple vengeance is going on. Also I wanted to reflect Váli’s mixed Ás and Jötunn ancestry (though many forget that Óðinn is part-Jötunn himself) hence the allusions to ice, stone and avalanche in my description of him. As much as I respect Váli and enjoyed writing this hymn (part of my series on the sons of Óðinn) particularly since he is not among the popular Gods of contemporary Heathenry – it was also difficult as I have an immense fondness for Loki and have sworn to honor his family on account of the close bond between him and my God Dionysos. So you can be certain that there’ll be a hymn honoring Loki’s kin collectively, in addition to the individual pieces for Sigyn, Hel, etc. Ah, the fun (and at times conflicting interests) of practical polytheism.

There is more I wanted to say but that will have to suffice for now. 

11 thoughts on “The fun of practical polytheism

  1. I love this breakdown. wow. Re. Vali’s hymn…I am glad it exists. I think it is an incredibly potent and powerful piece and…I cannot ever honor this God. I want to see Him honored absolutely, but I myself stand with Sigyn and Loki and the slaughter of Their children was something beyond the pale for me. There’s a particular brutality there (though going back to our creation narrative, I can’t help but consider that again, on a theological level, as with Odin and Rindr, there is a reification of the violence and brutality of two opposing forces grinding together to create something new) and…I think this will be one God where I nod in respect …from a distance. Some people see both Vali’s as the same God, but I don’t think that is supported in any extant lore.


      1. Very interesting. *strokes beard thoughtfully* And of course Orphics never met a myth they couldn’t make more bloody, brutal, disturbing, titillating and grotesque – including myths where there had previously been no transgressive elements.

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        1. ha! The Lugal-e and other myths have Gods and Demons procreating with mountains and other landscape “features.” The Hills are Alive (or in this case, the Mountains, Rivers…. ).

          Also, The Lugal-e discusses the red soil that is washed down from the Mountains. The red soil is blood and semen from both Azag and Ninurta.

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  2. This is very interesting! Thank you for breaking this down as much of it would have been lost on me. Going back and chewing on the hymns more and seeing these little notes is great.
    I particularly love your note about Odin consulting the seers and pointing out that the seers do not necessarily have to be humanoid. This is a thought trail that is often lacking in greater polytheist and pagan communities that focus on humans (and humanoid entities) as main characters and therefore miss out when things could very well be, like you said, mushrooms or other spirits or spiritual allies. You’ve given me a lot to think on with my morning tea. Thank you.

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    1. Yeah, I mean most of the surviving Heathen lore comes from predominantly Christian sources; which is to say necessarily an outsider perspective, and one shaded by a range of reactions – hostility, fear, contempt, competition, indifference, appreciation as fine art or a link to fabled past, national pride especially with a judicious dose of allegorization on up to genuine curiosity – which, again, necessarily means that they’re going to have a different understanding and experience with the lore than someone for whom it’s living stories that are part of a lineaged, multigenerational tradition along with ceremonies, public rituals, community festivals, etc. And that doesn’t even get to the mechanisms of reinforcement, etc. that any group, no matter how large or small – inevitably resorts to.

      All of which is to say that we know Snorri, Saxo, Jordanes, etc. – as well as the sources both known and oral that they relied on – tended to humanize the divine in their accounts of earlier Heathen lore, if not for apologetic purposes then to bring them into alignment with Biblical and Greco-Roman narratives – well, why can’t contemporary polytheists reverse the process and expand the divine, restore and continue the lore – rooted in our direct experience of the divine plurality and with the understanding that these sacred stories within our own particular family, social circle, group, denomination or tradition of Heathenry? A rhetorical question of course. Obviously I think it’s possible or I wouldn’t be bothering with the Starry Bear.

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    2. that note about the seers got me too — I’d never, ever considered that they might not be human and I’m an Odin’s woman!

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      1. makes me think about working with greenwights and all they’ve taught me. It never occurred to me that in lore that seers might not be clarified if it were a plant or other non human spirit but then it makes sense that perhaps it wouldn’t be clarified.

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