The Nature of Gods

My wife and I were having a discussion some time ago on the nature of the deities, and how the ways we view and interact with Them can shape how They present to humans. We’re both polytheists who believe that each deity is Their own, individual beings. We strongly believe that, while the gods do adapt and change over time, Their cultural and mythological contexts are integral to who They are. One can’t very well understand the gods or work with them respectfully without, at the very least, acknowledging their historical backgrounds. That said, neither of us feel that “soft” polytheists who view the gods as aspects of just one god, or of a god and a goddess, are without any merit. It is simply that they experience the gods differently than we do.

In our personal religious practices, we don’t believe in a generic god or goddess. There are many gods, each with Their own names and histories, including those whose names have been lost to time and forgotten. It was our speculation that, perhaps, some of these individual gods may even answer the calls to a generic god or goddess. After all, if a practitioner believes that all deities are the same, it shouldn’t matter to them who exactly actually answers, right? (I am certain it’s more nuanced than that, however this is a simplified take on the matter and not meant to be touted as truth.)

What defines an entity as a god or goddess can be debated many times over. There are many questions at play regarding the origins of the gods and whether they require worship in order to exist. These are all things that we can only speculate on while in this life. Even in the afterlife, we cannot say with certainty that we will know. While I can’t claim to have the answers, I find the topic a fascinating one to ponder on.

One thing that is worth noting, is that polytheism and animism has often gone hand in hand. So, too, have other spiritual concepts ranging from fairies, spirits of the dead, land spirits, so on and so forth. Among many different classifications of spiritual beings, there is typically some cross over somewhere. The different beings are distinct from each other, except for the times when they sometimes appear to be the same. So, what are the gods and what separates them from other beings? One could claim that the difference is in whether one is worshipped or not. Yet, that still leaves no solid answer because then one would have to clearly define what it means to worship. One may not worship the fae or their ancestors, yet they still pray to them, give offerings, and do other acts of veneration that is often associated with worship. Likewise, the idea that worship (if it can even be defined) is a requirement for what makes one a god is also complicated. Would that mean that gods who are no longer worshipped lose their status? What if they are forgotten, then rediscovered a millenia later and worship begins again?

This then leads me to the idea of time as a human construct, based on how we perceive it. There are those who believe that time works differently in the spiritual realms. What was once true for a god, always will be and yet no longer is as their mythologies develop. If time is viewed as a spectrum, rather than a straight line, then the matter of whether is god is currently worshipped or not would be irrelevant. The god was once worshipped, so always will be in that time and space. (And, of course, if those who worshipped them once still exist in an afterlife… Perhaps the matter of time also becomes irrelevant.)

If anyone who is reading this expected anything more than further questions, I must apologize. It is my belief that, despite my firm beliefs in the gods I hold close to my heart, fully knowing their true nature (whatever that means) is something that we humans don’t have the capacity for. The moment we think we’ve figured it out, whether it by through academic research or spiritual experience, there is always another question for those seeking more knowledge.

Using the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition (and filtering out strictly monotheistic examples), “god” is: the supreme or ultimate reality: such as the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped; a being or object that is worshipped as having more than natural attributes and powers; a person or thing of supreme value; or a powerful ruler.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/god

It’s synonym, “deity”, is defined as: the rank or essential nature of a god; a god o goddess; and one exalted or revered as supremely good or powerful.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/deity
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Musings On Religion In Appalachia

As a teenager who spent all of my time at home when I wasn’t in school, I spent quite a lot of that time talking to my dad. He had retired due to disability and my mom was often gone with babysitting/ housekeeping work. The conversations we had were often spiritual in nature. I never thought of my dad as particularly religious, though I was well aware that he was Christian. However, he did strike me as spiritual at times. Some of the things we discussed were of spiritual experiences. At the time, I was exploring Paganism and not yet open about it. I had begun playing around with the idea of Christo-Paganism, which felt somewhat safe enough to cautiously discuss. We talked about the possibility of the Christian god being neither male, nor female; as well as being both. We shared stories of spirits, out of body experiences, and connection to the divine. He was rather open-minded in his Christianity. Of course, I never used the word “Pagan” when talking to my dad. I feared that doing so might have triggered a different response than what I recieved, after all.

At one point, I had discussed the idea of someday becoming a preacher for an earth-centered church. My dad’s reponse to this? His perception was that his religion was already earth-centered, as his god was a part of everything. Naturally, it made sense, being that he viewed the earth and everything on it as being his god’s creation.

In retrospect, I have come to realize that old-fashioned Appalachian religion isn’t always so cut and dry as the form of it that Christian churches have often tried to enforce. Though both of my parents’ families had Baptist backgrounds, they still spoke matter of fact about the existence of ghosts and what popular culture would consider psychic abilities. Where movies and certain other church-going types would say it’s all demons and “the Devil”, my family often knew better. The superstitions and magic that the elders practiced was all just a part of life. Even the rumors, often hushed as they were, about certain elders/ ancestors being witches were mostly seen as an interesting fact rather than a point of shame.

Furthermore, I have learned as an adult that religion in Appalachia is truly more diverse than just the Christianity that is in the majority. It wasn’t entirely a shock to me when I started talking to Christians who professed an interest in “New Age” spirituality and witchcraft, particularly when they mentioned the folk practices they saw from the elders of their family. What was a pleasant surprise, was just how many other Pagans there are. (Though I am aware of other minority religions such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Satanism in the region, these are not religious communities that I am a member of and so I will not speak on them.)

I lived in a rural, small town area in southern West Virginia from my teens up through my mid-twenties. The most religious diversity I saw in the open was a Catholic church in town, whereas most of the churches were some brand of Protestant. The only Pagans I knew were Wiccans, a couple of whom were only exploring the religion as a phase in high school before returning to Christianity. There weren’t any covens, kindreds, or other Pagan gatherings in the county I lived in. The closest ones I’d heard of were about an hour away from where I lived. I slowly became more aware of other Pagans in the surrounding area, still mostly Wiccans, but not all. As it turned out, there were more of us Pagans in West Virginia than I had dared to imagine.

I moved to Charleston, West Virginia’s capitol city, several years ago. Part of my draw for the city was in knowing that I could more easily meet other Pagans here. (There were, of course, a handful of other reasons; but I’d be going off topic if I went into all of that.) Charleston is home to a few Pagan/witch owned businesses, at least one or two covens and kindreds, a Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPs) group, and a few public Pagan/ witchy events throughout the year. There may well be more that I haven’t been made aware of. Some groups and events are private. I joined the CUUPs group as soon as I was able to make it work with my schedule. This got me involved with the Unitarian Universalist church that the group is hosted by, which I was aware of, but had not experienced firsthand.

For those unaware, Unitarian Universalism as it stands now is a humanist interfaith religion. Though it began as a denomination within Christianity, UU churches are open to people of many faiths and many of their congregations hold services that draw from varying religions. During my few short years thus far with the UUC of Charleston, I have seen Sunday services composed of liberal Christian sermons, Buddhist teachings, secular issues, Pagan rituals, and more. Being a member of our CUUPs group, I’ve assisted in a few of the Pagan-centered Sunday services. Although the members there vary in their beliefs and aren’t always very knowledgeable of minority religions, they do their best to remain respectful of each other with a willingness to learn.

West Virginia isn’t alone in being home to Appalachians of varying religious and spiritual beliefs. While Appalachian culture is, without a doubt, strongly steeped in Christianity; there have always been pockets of folk practioners who practice magic. There have always been people of varying beliefs here, especially as ideas spread into these mountains, bringing new life to ancient religions and to entirely new ones.

All of this said, it can not be denied that the brand of Christianity that shapes Appalachia (as well as the rest of the United States) is rooted in fascist ideals. Many here hold firmly that there is only “one true religion” and they use their idea of that religion as an excuse to hate, discriminate, and abuse people who don’t fit neatly into their worldview of what is “good”. While I detest the role that this form of organized religion has played on Appalachian culture and her people, I still hold out some hope that we can someday move beyond that pain. Surely, if any place can overcome the hold of Christo-fascism, Appalachia can.

Trans From A Pagan Perspective

Growing up as a southern kid raised with Appalachian roots, the line that seemed to divide binary gender was somewhat blurred for those raised as girls. Both boys and girls were expected to be tough, to play outside in the dirt, to be what society called tomboys. Of course, girls were still expected to wear dresses from time to time; which boys were never allowed to do. I felt a strange confusion of feelings when my mom always insisted on a dress for Picture Days. Why couldn’t I wear pants like the other kids? It felt pretty, but also awkward and uncomfortable. As I grew older, the line that society drew between masculine and feminine genders grew stronger. Applachian women were still expected to be tough and unafraid of doing “a man’s work”, but there was also more pressure to lean into the traditional feminine roles. Nonbinary genders weren’t heard of, and any deviation from binary gendered expectations would often lead to bullying for many. I suppose this is all why it took me so long to begin questioning my gender as a teenager, and even longer to realize that I am trans-masc nonbinary, or a nonbinary trans guy. I realized that I was nonbinary in my 20’s, but didn’t make that step into accepting my trans-masculinity until a couple of years ago as I reached my 30’s.

When I first started questioning whether I might be trans, I was a teenage baby Pagan who was still going through that exploration phase from Christo-Paganism to eclectic soft polytheist Paganism. That break away from the version of Christianity that my parents raised me with started to give me room to view all sorts of things differently. I had become aware that transgender people exist, but wasn’t at the point yet where the idea of nonbinary gender was anywhere on my radar. (I was in southern West Virginia by that point in the early 2000’s, which is only now starting to become more progressive in the 2020’s.) I only knew that my gender isn’t what I was assigned at birth.

All of that said, my focus here will be on my trans experience and how my path as a polytheist Pagan has aided me so far in my journey. Other trans Pagans will, of course, have different perspectives and varying experiences.

By the time I found out more about gender diversity and began exploring my nonbinary gender, my spiritual path was firmly set into a polytheist worldview. I had heeded the call of The Morrígan and Loki had also started calling me. In my experience, these gods don’t play around when they want somebody’s attention. I suppose that is just the way gods in general tend to be. I hadn’t considered early on how my working with these deities could affect how I view myself. My gender and my relationships with the gods have been completely separate. Looking back, though, I realize that some of the lessons They taught me – whether directly or through learning their stories and getting to know Them – helped me to better know myself.

One of the common themes that those who work with The Morrígan often talk about is concerning personal sovereignity. This is the ability to make one’s own decisions, to shape oneself as one feels fit, and to stand one’s ground. Well, that’s my simplified explanation, at least. Though this isn’t directly related to gender issues; it ties in to the ideas of knowing oneself, gaining self confidence, making own’s own decisions, and having the courage to simply exist. All of these are things that I, along with many other trans people, have had to work on. (And in truth, I am still working on these.) The Morrígan has helped me to face the darkest parts of my Self. She has beat it in to my head that the feelings of low self esteem, worthlessness, and shame are feelings that I need to acknowledge in order to fight. Burying them down doesn’t make them go away. Getting to know them, finding their weaknesses (ie- where they come from), at the very least makes it easier to overcome them. In regards to accepting my gender, I had to learn self acceptance; in addition to acceptance of the fact that I am allowed to make my own decisions concerning who I am. Though The Morrígan may not have set out to specifically assist me with my gender issues, the lessons that She taught me have nonetheless been valuable in addressing them.

Loki has a much more straightforward connection to gender diversity. Due to His shapeshifting nature, taking on both traditionally male and female forms at times, some who work with this god view Him as transgender or nonbinary. I am of this same mind, although I recognize that the modern view of gender is surely not the same as it was when people first started telling the stories of the gods. It can’t be denied that Loki’s gender roles have been malleable in the myths and stories that He plays part in, after all. In my exploration of my own gender, I have found comfort in seeing how this god whom I feel so strongly for has embodied both masculine and feminine. It has given me strength in knowing that gender diversity is divine. Loki has helped me on my journey toward self-acceptance, self-compassion, and knowing that my choices are my own. These lessons from my beloved Gift-Bringer¹ and The Morrígan have helped shape me in beginning to connect to my most authentic self.

Paganism, in general, is largely a trans-friendly set of religions. There are some traditions that hold transphobic views, but many recognize that transgender and nonbinary people are a completely natural piece of the human condition. Some Pagans view transgender and nonbinary folks as sacred, either because all people are sacred or because gender diversity in itself is. Our mythologies and folklore that shapes our religions include gods whose genders aren’t only male or female. Some are intersex, some change their genders from male to female/ female to male, some don’t have a gender, some are fluid in their genders, so on and so forth. The gods are a reflection of humankind’s diversity, or perhaps it goes the other way. Maybe the fact that transgender and nonbinary people like me exist is a reflection of the gender diversity of the gods.

¹ Gift-Bringer – A reference to Loki’s role in attaining the Dwarven-made gifts for the Aesir (including mjolnir), as well as Loki’s gift of Her child Sleipnir to Odin. This also has personal meaning to me, as I feel that Loki’s prescence in my life has been a gift.

Making My Path

As it was for many other modern Pagans and witches, I didn’t entirely grow up with the religion and spiritual practices that I now follow. What I did have was the Appalachian folk beliefs of my family. Or, rather perhaps, what remained of them. The superstitions and folk cures passed down to me weren’t much, but I’ve realized that they’re the foundation my spirituality was built upon. They’re the seeds from which it all sprouted for me.

It never occurred to me that other families didn’t always believe in prophetic dreams, spirits, and signs until I was older. As a child, I didn’t think twice about my dad blowing smoke in my ear to cure an earache I had. These things were simply a part of life.

I don’t recall when it was that I realized these things weren’t a part of everyone’s truth, though I obviously did learn so at some point. Was it when somebody had a mocking tone when they talked about spirits and superstitions? Or maybe it was just that I didn’t hear many people talk about such things as openly as my family did amongst each other.

If it weren’t for the family stories of ghosts, dreaming about the future, and out of body experiences; would I have become so interested in the spirit world and spirituality? Sure, I greatly enjoyed popular fantasy on tv and in books. A friend and I once made up ridiculous pretend spells because we were fans of these things. But, that was all fiction. Playing pretend was one thing – belief is entirely another. My belief at the time was part of my heritage.

Despite these firmly rooted beliefs, a large part of my family’s Appalachian religious heritage didn’t stick for me. I left Christianity in search of religion that made me feel more whole, more like I had found home. In a span of a few years, as a teenager, I became a Pagan. I knew it was the right path for me because it was one I was experiencing. Instead of simply hearing some preacher on a pulpit yelling about his (very ignorant) interpretation of the NKJ version of the Bible, I was able to feel a personal connection to the divine. One of my first spiritual experiences was walking home and becoming suddenly aware of the sacred spirits that were around me. The trees, the sky, the earth itself; I realized that they had spirits as much as humans do. I realized that they are divine. I learned that the Earth, herself, is living being.

As time went on and I learned more, experienced more, my interpretation of deity changed. Instead of just one god or goddess, I realized that there are many. Some of Them spoke to me. They visited me in the Dreaming and in meditation, whispered into my waking subconscious, sent me signs. These are deities who feel real to me. They’re not some far off being watching from above, who I could never hope to know.

(All of this is not to say that those who don’t experience religion in the ways that I have are wrong. I would imagine that anyone who feels a connection to a religion will find meaning in it one way or another.)

It is likely that many of my recent ancestors may not be happy with my choice to worship the old gods. There are many things about me that they likely aren’t thrilled about, to be fair. That is, of course, assuming that the ancestors don’t learn and grow in whatever afterlife they are in. It’s entirely possible that those who would have been disapproving in life are more supportive in death.

Many Pagan traditions have a strong focus on ancestral veneration. Norse Heathenry, one of my strongest influences, is very much one of them. So, too, is the importance of family history for many Appalachians. It was never outright said, but rather implied throughout my life, that knowing where we come from and who came before us is important. That’s why pieces of family history have been passed down for so long. Though my ancestors and I are very different people, many whom I would not want to associate with in life, many whose lived experiences would be very different from mine even if we had lived in the same time period; they are important to me. Whatever they were like during their lives, there is something I can learn from them (even if it’s only a recognition of where toxic family traits and traumas came from).

I digress. Whatever my ancestors think of my religion is on them. My experiences with the gods Whom I have connected with has been wonderful. Yes, even in times when They needed to teach me difficult lessons. Even, too, in times when They feel distant, when I long to feel close to Them again.

My relationships with Them have also changed over the years. Since I came to a polytheist worldview, the gods I worship have been teachers, parental figures, friends, lovers, and more. My view of divinity has shifted from being the Unknowable, to one shaped by the personal connections which I have made with a very few of the innumerable number of gods in existence.

Sharing spiritual connections with humans is important, too. I realized this at some point after a number of years spent as a mostly solitary Pagan. Some of that connection was found online, in groups where people shared many of my beliefs. It took some time, but I found an online Rökkatru group where the members feel like a long distance family. Knowing that there are people out there who share a common belief in these gods, who find inspiration in the mythologies, and who care for one another, is comforting.

It wasn’t until shortly after moved to the city that I sought out local religious community. I found that first in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where I began meeting with the Pagan group for a while before also joining the rest of the congregation for Sunday services when I was able. My connection with this group of humans is more centered around community and secular humanism. Though it is not deity-centered, it is still spiritual.

This all leads me to where I am now. My path is a blend of Appalachian folk belief, Norse and Irish polytheist Paganism, and Unitarian Universalism. My path is also deeply influenced by animism, pantheism, herbalism, intuition, and an appreciation of science. Each person will have a different story, different experiences and influences that define their spiritual and religious beliefs and practices. We all have to find our own paths, in our own ways.

When I was just starting out, I never imagined the course that my spiritual path would take. I think that it will continue to grow throughout my life. Perhaps I will come to believe things, as I have in the past, that I never considered a possibility. Or maybe, I will be drawn to revisit a practice that I have long since neglected. Whatever route it takes me, I know that it will continue to enrich my life.

We Are The Weirdos

I was drawn to Unitarian Universalism because a Pagan friend recommended it as a safe place for Pagans who wanted a “church home”. It was described as a space where people of many faiths can worship together. Which sounds complicated, but really the services don’t feel overcomplicated. They mostly focus on what it means to be human and compassion for others. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, to be fair.

My real introduction into this congregation was through it’s Pagan goup. More than anything, I needed a space where I could connect in person to people who hold similar beliefs and practices. I love that the group is eclectic. I love that we can discuss spirituality and religion without many assumptions being made. It’s wonderful to share in ritual with them. As a whole, the people at the UUC are nice and everyone’s supportive of each other.

And yet, I often feel a disconnect. It could be that we’ve only had a handful of in-person events for the past two years. Or maybe it’s also because I’m the only active member of the group who is a polytheist and worships deities some consider “dark”. (There may be others, but they’re not often present during our discussions.) It’s difficult sometimes to click with them on a spiritual level when we talk about our paths.

It kind of hurts feeling like I’m still somehow the odd one out: The weird one among the group. It leads me to having to tone down what I disclose about my own beliefs and practices so I don’t risk being “too much” for the others. Even then, I sometimes worry I’ve said too much.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t intend on leaving the group or the UUC. The connections I make there are important to me. The people in my Pagan group feel like a family. It’s just a fact that even chosen family doesn’t always “get it” when it comes to certain things.

It’s a common enough theme in our discussions when the Pagan group is helping with a Sunday service, such as for Beltaine or Samhain, that we “tone it down” for our non-Pagan members. We usually use a shortened version of our rituals that leave some things out. To me, our rituals are tame already. There’s no invocations of deities that results in “horsing” or possession, or other “heavy” ritual work. Not that I would necessarily want to partake in these practices with my group. That would be too personal for me. My “heavy” work is private or occasionally shared with someone I am intimately close with. Besides, I get the feeling that some of those practices are something most of them would be uncomfortable with, anyway. Still, it would be nice to be able to openly talk about such things in a general way without fearing judgment from them or causing them discomfort.

It’s an odd feeling to sit among others who also follow an “alternative” spiritual path and still feel like the weirdo. It’s strange to realize that we sometimes view certain subjects so differently even when the surface of our conversations sound like we’re completely on the same page. There’s nothing wrong with that. It just makes it difficult to ascertain whether we’re actually talking about the same thing, or if we’re discussing separate concepts with shared language.

All of that said, perhaps what is needed is more openness. Not too much, mind you. I’m not setting out to divulge all of my secrets. It may be that I need to speak up more when I feel uncomfortable with feeling like I have to hide.

What Is Paganism?

A number of years ago, I was discussing a Beltaine festival with somebody and another person pitched in with interest. Knowing that this third person didn’t know what Beltaine was, I explained to him that it’s a Pagan festival. To keep a somewhat longer story short, he thought I was talking about the motorcycle group called “Pagans”. He had no idea that Paganism is a religion. To be somewhat fair, I had no idea that there was a group of bikers by that name, either.

At other times, I have heard others respond to hearing the word “Pagan” with varied confused responses from “What’s that mean?” to “You mean those weird people who believe in fairies?”.

Let’s face it: The general population doesn’t typically know what Paganism is. Why should they? It’s a religious group that many don’t ever come across. In most of my years as a Pagan, I’ve been fairly (carefully) open about my religion. I don’t go into details and, when I do, what details are given are carefully chosen. If somebody asks about religion and I feel safe, I tell them. If they ask what that means, I do my best to explain it in a way I think they’ll understand. That’s not always particularly easy. As time lingers on, I’ve found that my worldview has changed in such a way that I sometimes have a disconnect with the Christian-centered mindset of most around me. Yes, that typically includes the atheists, agnostics, and some other non-Christian folk. Not that this mindset is entirely absent from me – it’s simply not as strong as it used to be, I suppose.

By this point in time, many Pagans are already familiar with some variation of the quote, “If you ask 10 Pagans what Paganism is, you’ll get 10 different answers.” There’s a good reason for this: Paganism is not a singular religion. There are a multitude of religions within Paganism, and numbers of differing traditions within many of these individual religions. Nope, not all Pagans are Wiccan. Nor do all Pagans practice witchcraft of any given tradition, though many do. (Witchcraft, though a related subject, is it’s own thing which is just as diverse in traditions as Paganism. It is also not just Wicca.) And, yes, there are also many eclectic neo-Pagans who don’t practice a specific religious tradition.

To explain to somebody new to Paganism what it is can feel overwhelming. I don’t want to misconstrue it as a singular religion or tradition. I don’t want to make generalized claims that are true to some aspects of Paganism, but completely false about others. I also don’t want to give so much information as to overwhelm anyone. It can be a bit of a tricky tightrope to walk for somebody who cares so deeply about honesty in their practices. Or, perhaps it’s my social awkwardness and anxiety that makes it so difficult for me.

This my best definition of Paganism: “An umbrella term which encompasses many different religions and traditions. Some of which are earth-centered, some not. Some of which are polytheist (a belief in many gods), some not. Some of which believe in fairies or other spirits, some may not. Some of which incorporate witchcraft, some do not. Some of which attempt to reconstruct ancient pre-Christian religions, some do not. Some of which were entirely created in the 1900’s, some not. Some of which are open traditions (anybody can practice), while some are closed traditions (must be part of a specific culture to practice).” On and on this attempt to define something so complex can go… It doesn’t quite feel like an answer, and yet it’s much more of an answer than many of the others I’ve come across.

It is said by many Pagans that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to practice. While technically true, this generalization does lead to a lot of cultural harm and misinformation within the wider Pagan community. (I wrote more in depth on this in a previous post, Paganism: Accountability Matters.) Personally, I hate using this phrase because it can be misconstrued so badly. I always feel as if I am doing a disservice to new Pagans if I don’t follow up with some sort of “yes, but…” explanation when they’re told to do “whatever feels right”. Unfortunately, lots of people don’t like being corrected when they are contributing to misinformation, cultural misappropriation, or other harmful ideas. Those exploring Paganism need to know early on to be wary of certain sources, and how to respectfully practice in a way that feels right to them.

All of that said, when done in a respectful and fully honest manner, there is no wrong way to practice Paganism. That’s the caveat that gets so many in trouble. Respect and honesty in one’s practice: It really shouldn’t be too much to expect. It’s okay to get something wrong – we all do. Owning up to our mistakes and correcting them is what matters.

Alas, I have gone off in a bit of a tangent. So, what is Paganism? It is many things. It is a religious community comprised of people from all walks of life. It is a desire to connect to spirituality in a way that feels right to each individual. For some, it’s also a desire to connect to one’s ancestry or culture. It can be neo-Paganism, Wicca, Asatru, Hellenism, Kemeticism, polytheism, pantheism, duotheism, animism, sometimes Indigenous and African-diasporic spiritualities (not all in such traditions are okay with being associated with Paganism), and over a thousand more religious traditions. Sometimes these traditions and belief systems overlap. Many Pagan religions (as well as non-Pagan ones) share much in common, and yet they are each different. They each draw from their own cultural sources, both ancient and modern. Paganism isn’t any one religion. It’s a plethora of religions and traditions which give life to our communities.

Halloween & Samhain

Halloween was always my favorite holiday. I have fond memories of dressing up in costume, going door to door for treats, and of being frightened by someone jumping out of a prop casket. That spooky time of the year was the one time of the year when I could freely explore the weird and supernatural without being judged as harshly. As I grew older, it became the time of year when I felt more like myself. The beginning of autumn and the sense of change leading up to Halloween were always energizing to me.

For several years, I struggled to really enjoy Halloween. My dad had passed away a few days before Halloween and so the date of his funeral fell on that day. By that time, I was a young Pagan and was aware of Samhain being the same date as Halloween. There was some sense of comfort in this. I wasn’t yet actively celebrating any of the Pagan sabbats, but I knew that Samhain was the time when “the veil between worlds was at it’s thinnest”. (That particular phrasing turned out to be a Victorian-era invention, but regardless…)

This autumnal harvest holiday is a day originating in Ireland. Samhain (pronounced “Sow-wen”) is the Irish/ Gaeilge word for the month of November, in fact. Many Pagans of various traditions celebrate Samhain to remember our ancestors and beloved dead. The “dumb supper” traditionally held at Samhain to honor the dead is an Irish tradition that has been adopted by those outside Ireland.

Because of the connection to the dead, I also have a personal/ UPG association of the day with Hel as caretaker of the dead. But, relevant to Samhain’s Irish origins, there is a mythic connection to The Morrígan in the Cath Maige Tuired that I feel should not be ignored. For these reasons, I like to honor both Hel and The Morrígan, separately, on Samhain. (The Morrígan is, after all, one of my primary deities.)

Though Halloween and Samhain are typically celebrated on the same day, it would be remiss to treat them as the same holiday. I love both, but I consider them separate. One is secular fun, while the other is sacred. And yet, at the same time, they are linked by popular culture in a way that perhaps cannot be fully undone. How many Halloween-themed movies and tv shows throw in the mention of Samhain (often while butchering the pronunciation) as a poorly researched plot tool? It can be difficult to untangle the threads between the two holidays. For me, these threads are further tangled by the loss of my dad just before Halloween and Samhain. They are tangled by the popular media association of witches with Halloween, and the celebration of Samhain by many modern day witches.

Halloween is still my favorite secular holiday. I love decorating, going to haunted houses, getting pumpkins, dressing up, watching spooky movies, and all of those sorts of things. Samhain probably ties with Bealtaine for my favorite spiritual holiday. It’s important to me to remember my beloved dead, celebrate the ongoing changing of the seasons, and honor my goddesses with whom I feel a stronger connection to on this day.

Musings on Being Appalachian

I mentioned almost a year ago in West Virginia, Take Me Home about growing up in Florida until the year I turned 13, but always thinking of West Virginia as home. My parents moved to Florida for work before I was born, but they still kept that connection to home. They, like many generations before them, were West Virginian born and bred. Like many others from the state, they left home looking for opportunities. My grandparents did the same, heading out to California for some time when my mom was young, before returning home. I’ve heard it said that West Virginians always come back home, or they at least want to. It’s seemed to be true for much of my family who’ve left.

Though I sometimes feel nostalgic remembering the ocean and the river we lived on, I can’t remember ever really thinking of myself as Floridian. I can’t imagine going back outside of maybe a vacation. The idea of Florida being a place that I used to live almost feels like a distant dream – one of the strange ones that leave you wondering, “what in the world was that about?”. I simply had no connection there. When I remember my childhood, some of my fondest memories were those spent visiting my Papaw’s house in Lincoln County, WV and running amuck with the other kids up and down the hollow and into the mountains surrounding his property. Not sorry, Sunshine State, you don’t hold a candle to these hills.

I feel a deep connection to these mountains. To me, they are sacred. I grew up hearing stories from my family that I now realize are a testament to our Appalachian heritage. It was like a whole other world to me. It’s no wonder I didn’t connect with that other state. Yet, partly because I did grow up hundreds of miles away from home, I sometimes feel like I’m not Appalachian enough. This despite my living here for almost 2 decades now. Imposter syndrome is a nasty little monster that will gnaw at anything you hold dear when it finds a way in. Sometimes I also just find myself comparing who I am to some stereotype of what an Appalachian is “supposed” to be.

Religion and it’s influence is a big part of what I think of. Like most Appalachians, my family is traditionally Christian. I recall visiting the Baptist church my mom grew up in. We didn’t go back because it must have been too painful for her to be there after having lost her own parents years ago. My Mamaw, though a self-identified witch, also grew up Baptist and still held Christian-oriented beliefs alongside her craft. The culture around Appalachia as a whole often centers around Christianity. As for me? If you’re reading this blog, you’ll already know that I’m a polytheist Pagan. Sure, I now have a church aside from nature; but it accepts people of all faiths. I love that it’s so inclusive.

It’s important to remind myself that the religious influence on the culture here is based on a history of colonization that used religion as a weapon. Christianity was the dominating religion across Europe, and thus across the colonized America’s, for so long. Of course the people of West Virginia were just as influenced by that as everyone else. As people in this past century have been finding their own religious and spiritual paths, Appalachia now has a growing and diverse Pagan community. Leaving behind the religion of our more recent ancestors doesn’t make any of us any less Appalachian.

This brings me to Appalachian folk traditions/ magic/ witchcraft, also now commonly called Granny magic. Because of the history of our people, it is true that these traditions have a heavy Christian influence. Does that mean that an Appalachian Pagan can’t practice our own family’s traditions, or reclaim what we’ve lost? I’ve seen some make that claim. It doesn’t make those people right. It just makes them gatekeeping, bigoted assholes. Yeah, I said it. It seems that most have the sense not to share those harmful views, though. My family’s stories and beliefs, despite the Christian influences, are part of me. They’re part of what led me toward Paganism, to my gods and my identity as a witch. Nobody can take that from me. And, besides, a lot of the beliefs and traditions aren’t even specifically religious, anyhow. They work no matter what else you believe in. The women (and gender diverse people) in my family still have dreams and feelings that show us the future or other things we have no logical way to know. Owls are still a symbol of death and deaths often come in three. Blowing smoke in an ear can still cure an earache. Spirits are still real. So on and so forth. For me, these things are part of my Appalachian heritage.

A lot of the old traditions are disappearing among families. There are people publicly sharing their family’s traditions to preserve them, but different families have different ways. I recently spoke to my mom about our family’s old traditions. Aside from what I remember learning from her, she didn’t remember much else. Most of the older folks in my family who would have known more of the old ways are gone, or else their memories are fading. People like me, who ache for our Appalachian folk ways, are left to put the pieces back together in whatever way we can because we either waited too long or were born too late. It is for this reason I am thankful for those who are sharing the Appalachian folk magic from their own family traditions.

What it means to be Appalachian is going to vary among individuals. We’re a diverse bunch with our own backgrounds, but we’ve all got common ground. We share similar histories as a people and a love for these mountains. I am proud to be Appalachian, proud to be West Virginian.

Worshipping the Dark

Polytheists time and time again have written their own perceptions of the “dark” gods and goddesses we follow. Do we really need to add to that? Well, I sure am going to, anyway. So, here it is. Those of us who follow the gods that we do, generally speaking, we know what we’ve gotten into. We know that our gods can be harsh, Tricksters, even downright scary sometimes. It is not uncommon for some of us to be afraid of these deities before we decide to give Them a chance in our lives. The condescending tones of people who don’t even work with our gods is completely unnecessary. I’m not saying that their views are never valid or wanted, just that they don’t often see the full picture.

The thing is, pointing out that someone’s god is known to be “dark” or a “Trickster” with an air of judgment, as if it makes it wrong or foolish to work with or worship Them, is hurtful on multiple levels. It assumes that the person one is speaking with doesn’t have the sense to make their own decisions. It assumes that those who have a relationship with these deities don’t know Them as well as the person who says they would never work with or honor Them. Yeah, as if someone who doesn’t have experience with that deity is going to know better. Unless you have studied non-biased sources and/or worked with the deity in question, how in any deity’s name are you going to act like you know better than someone who has? That is what’s foolery.

Oft-times, these discussions completely miss the fact that “acceptable” deities can be just as harsh, just as much Tricksters, just as scary as the “dark” ones. Take Loki versus Odin for example. Some Norse Pagans act like Loki is some horrific being, all while pouring out praise for Odin. One has to wonder if those same people have actually read anything of the Eddas or retellings beyond the story of Ragnarok to come to that conclusion. There’s so much more to the mythology leading up to that point. It’s not a story of “good vs evil”. It’s complex. It’s about relationships among friends, families, and cultures. It’s about prophecy and the consequences (both good and harmful) of allowing it to lead one’s actions. It’s about the natural cycles of life, the earth, and the cosmos. And, there’s much more to it than I can discuss here. It can’t be denied that Loki does questionable things, but Odin also makes some pretty cruel decisions. Meanwhile, many of Loki’s decisions end up helping others. While I am more wary of Odin than Loki, I know it’s not okay for me to pass judgment on those who do work with/ honor/ worship Odin. I assume they know Him better than I do. I understand that both gods have equally complicated stories.

Flamehair, by B. A. McNeely (Alvinia). Watercolor.

The Odin example can admittedly be somewhat shaky for some. I’ve run into pagans who seem just as scared of Odin as they are of Loki. At least they’re keeping it somewhat fair. I’d even say that’s smart, in a way. Not that I’m defending any sort of condescension from them about either god. Again, those making condescending remarks are usually people who haven’t built a relationship with either deity. Their perceptions of them simply don’t include the experience to stand on. These are also people who often view the gods as less complex than what they are and don’t much consider the context of Their mythologies.

There are also deities who are considered “dark” not as much for any specific acts we modern people may find unethical, but for their associations with things such as death. Death is a frightening thing to many people. It is an ending, a separation from loved ones, and an unknown. Though we may have our beliefs about the afterlife, those beliefs aren’t always the comfort we hope them to be. It is, however, important to remember that death is part of the natural cycle of life. Among many pantheons, even the gods do not escape this fate.

The Morrígan is a goddess associated with both war and death. Thus, she is yet another designated as “dark”. It is important here to note that the modern conception of war is vastly different, much more cruel, than the concept of it that the ancient peoples knew. In addition, The Morrígan’s role in war seems to align more with death, sovereignty, and prophecy than any direct acts of battle itself. Among these things, it is only Her role with death as “Chooser of the Slain” that most would point out as reason to fear Herself. When left with that, it’s surely not more frightening than any other force that may play a hand with fate. Though The Morrígan is known among many of Her followers to be harsh, much of that is due to Her no-nonsense attitude. Being a goddess who has historically dealt with the things She has, it’s no wonder She’s not known for being particularly gentle. This deity isn’t particularly known among Her followers for being unnecessarily cruel, however.

The Morrígan by B. A. McNeely (Alvinia). Graphite pencil.

This brings us to the UPG of it all. Unverified personal gnosis. As I’ve mentioned in past blogs, this can lead to shared UPG that many followers of a deity hold true due to similar experiences with Them. It is common for polytheists to attribute modern associations with our gods. For us, the gods are beings who are capable of changing with the times. They no longer exist solely in the world of our ancestors. They’re being worshipped by modern people with new problems and new things to celebrate. Because we see the world differently than the ancients did, the gods must come to us in ways that we can recognize Them.

Many of the deities that people today often label “dark” have now become associated with social justice issues. It is not uncommon for followers of these deities to be part of marginalized groups or to engage in social justice work as a way to honor their gods. Due to Ireland’s history of colonization by the British and The Morrígan’s association with sovereignty, those who worship Herself may feel called to spread awareness about the harmful effects of colonization and appropriation on colonized cultures worldwide. Loki has become a role model of sorts for those within the LGBTQIA+ community due to common UPG of Him being genderfluid/ transgender and pansexual. (This UPG being based on mentions in Norse lore of Him living for a time as a woman and birthing children.)

These associations with social justice can also tie in with shadow work, which the “dark” gods can be especially helpful with. I’ve previously touched on part of this in a post about shadow work. It is my opinion that social justice work is a form of shadow work on a larger scale. Acknowledging one’s privileges as well as one’s struggles is a part of both, after all. It is also my opinion that, perhaps a reason why so many fear “dark” deities, is because they may not be ready to face some shadows of their own.

I have worked with The Morrígan, Loki, Fenrir, and others long enough to feel that I know Them. I am not going to claim to be an expert on Them, either academically or spiritually. What I do know is what I have learned about Them through reading, educational content, conversing with others, and my own experiences. I am glad that They have been an influence on my life. They have given me things, from harsh lessons to joy and comfort and empowerment, that I am grateful to have received. Sure, my gods can be scary – if you don’t bother to get to know Them. They’re not always gentle – but gentle isn’t always what’s needed.

It’s okay not to work with any given deity if one doesn’t want to. It’s okay to have different beliefs about the gods, or to not believe in Them at all. What’s not okay, is talking down to someone about their gods from a place of fear. It’s not okay to talk in a condescending manner to someone about the gods they believe in, regardless of one’s personal beliefs.

Evil, Really?

Throughout my life, I have heard Christians speak of others as sinners or lost. To outright call those who aren’t Christian “evil”, though? That’s one that I’d only heard within the confines of their churches when I was forced to go as a youth, or by random strangers on the internet. That is, until today. It finally happened. For some context, to be fair, I’m not entirely sure that the person who made the comment was aware that I’m a gods and goddesses worshipping Pagan. This person was talking about how witchcraft and other “alternative” spiritual practices are okay if done by a Christian, rather than one of those other people. This person then went on to say that non-Christians are evil.

I have to say, that hurt. I was furious. To know that certain types of people think like that is one thing. To hear it said aloud, especially by someone I had assumed was more open-minded, is another thing entirely. I approached this person about it, saying that I understood that they were speaking based on misconceptions. I was prepared to educate if they were willing to listen. Instead, I was met with ignorance. “I know you see it as a misconception, but it’s my beliefs.” It’s this person’s beliefs that people who aren’t Christian are evil. That’s… well, it’s all kinds of messed up, to put it plainly.

I understand that, in their eyes, they speak from a place of caring. They truly seem to think that. Some may say that, at worst, it just results in offense or hurt feelings. Yet, these beliefs they hold about others have real consequences.

This conversation occurred after I read about the Panera Bread incident. A woman was recently fired for being Pagan. Soon after, Panera Bread posted a tone-deaf meme to their Twitter account about manifestation. To be called “evil” for my beliefs, whether it was intentional or not, hurt all the more after the very large reminder that Pagans aren’t treated with the respect that all people deserve. It hurt all the more after the reminder that Christians often get away with discrimination, harassment, and violence in the name of their beliefs. Sure, there’s a lawsuit going against Panera, but that doesn’t make the fact that this sort of thing happens any better.

The belief that certain groups of people are “evil”, “sinners”, or in any way “lesser than” is dangerous. It allows those who believe they are in the right, are “good”, or otherwise “better” to think that they have a right to treat others poorly. Sure, that might just mean making jokes or distancing themselves. It doesn’t always stop there. An atheist father was recently doxxed and harrassed by the “good Christians” of his town for exposing Christian teaching in a public school. Hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community are still all too common. People get fired, denied adoptions, and denied shelter for not being Christian. In the US, this is illegal. But it still happens because Christians get away with it. This isn’t just about harmless beliefs. These ideas promote real harm. If anything can be called “evil”, I would wager that systemically promoting harm to people easily falls under that category.

To be clear, not all Christians are the problem. There are many who practice their religion in a responsible way that’s respectful toward others who don’t share their beliefs. It is crucial to keep this in mind. As a Pagan, I don’t want to make the same mistake of judging all Christians the way some of them judge Pagans, Muslims, or atheists. This isn’t about demonizing an entire religious group because there are too many within it using their beliefs as an excuse to hurt others. We should respect the beliefs of others. The exception to that rule is when those beliefs lead to harm.

All of that said, let’s circle around to another part of the issue with what was said to me. The person who made the comment about non-Christians being “evil” admits to practicing witchcraft. This person admits to using spiritual practices common in Paganism, then says (by inference) that Pagans are “evil” because we’re not Christian. That is all sorts of problematic. This is an issue that goes much deeper than the Christian witches debate that comes up within the Pagan community. This comes up throughout history. After colonizers attempted to erase the cultures of Indigenous people by forcing them to assimilate to Christianity and Euro-centric cultures, they later turned around and started appropriating Indigenous cultures. (As someone who isn’t Indigenous, I don’t feel it’s my place to speak much on this topic, so I highly recommend looking to Indigenous sources for more information.) For someone to say, “these people are wrong/ evil/ lesser than” and then start practicing parts of that people’s culture is perhaps the worst type of hypocrisy. If someone can’t respect a group of people, why should they have any right to share in their traditions?

I’m not sorry to say this: Some beliefs aren’t worth respecting, Christian or otherwise. When they’re causing harm, they deserve to be dragged through the mud.