People sometimes ask me where I get the inspiration for my art, especially for my votive art images, which often depict the Norse Gods and Goddesses as I “see” them. Many of these same people belong to a faith-system that strangely looks upon actual mystical experience–often referred to as Unconfirmed Personal Gnosis (UPG)–with deep suspicion. It also tends to be a belief system that holds firmly to the stance that “we do not bow to our gods; our gods do not ask us to bow to them”. As I said yesterday on Facebook, UPG may not be looked upon too fondly by the staunch Reconstructionists within the Heathen community, but it is the very life-blood of the artist! Insofar as the “to bow or not to bow, that is the question?” debate: many of our historical resources (which are supposed to be the foundation of a Reconstructionist faith) strongly suggest otherwise. When I create a piece of art based upon a vision of a god/dess that I have been given, I do so with great humility, and I offer a gift for the gift which I have been given, whether that be a prayer of gratitude, or a burnt offering of incense, or the actual pouring of a blot.
Godfinding is perhaps the most important aspect of any system of beliefs that would choose to call itself a religion, and yet it is a topic I have found far too-seldom covered within the Heathen community. What do I mean by that word: godfinding?
Godfinding: to come upon (often accidentally, but also through study, research, effort, or experimentation), meet with, or obtain an understanding of God/gods/goddesses; to notice the presence of God/gods/goddesses and then to deem God/gods/goddesses worthy of consideration.
The word “find” is etymologically sourced to Old English findan, which in turn sources to Old Norse finna: to find, to notice, to deem (regard in a particular manner) and consider. To actually find God/gods/goddesses, therefore, we are forced to go beyond simply reading about them in books, or even recognizing the apparent previous finding of Them by our Ancestors in the archaeological and anthropological record. No, to truly find God/gods/goddesses, we must necessarily experience Them, which means we must necessarily be open to UPG, which in turn means we must be open to the concept of faith. A religion without faith is nothing more than yet another political body of semi-like-minded people.
Which begs the question: why is it that in other religions a personal experience of God is pretty much the entire point of being religious in the first place, yet in Heathenry, such personal experiences are generally chalked up to UPG and then shown varying degrees of derision? On some levels, this would be slightly more understandable if demographics showed that most Heathens were also previously Catholic, but numerous censuses have shown that most of those in our community who were previously Christian were raised Protestant. Why do I say this? Because in Catholicism there is an actual council known as The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints whose job it is to scientifically verify that miracles have occurred. In other words, it’s their job to scientifically verify UPG, so clearly such “behavior” is “approved” in Catholicism. Yet most “Heathen converts” come out of the Protestant faiths: faiths that were indeed founded out of an abject disapproval of such “behavior”! If, in their previous “Protestant lives”, people would have looked on the existence of such a council with deep suspicion (if not outright hatred), why perpetrate such “behavior” within their “Heathen lives”? It makes zero sense.
I’ll gladly grant that UPG is a slippery slope: I may see Njordr, for example, as dark-haired and clean-shaven, while you may see Him as grey-haired and grey-bearded. I may regard Freyja, from my experiences of Her, as a goddess of healing, as well as magick, victory, and sensuality/fertility, whereas you may regard Her as a goddess of physical beauty, or of self-esteem, or of whatever. I have even encountered at least one person who experienced Her as a goddess of home and hearth, much more akin to traditional views of Frigga. But that is where godfinding becomes useful.
Let us begin with the accidental encounter, and work our way up to seeking with intent. A year ago, I had a dream wherein I was visited by Freyja. At the time, I expected Loki to be my patron, given my past experiences with Trickster archetypes. As such, my only exposure to Freyja had been “in passing”: I knew of Her from various mentions in the lore, naturally, and from brief conversations with a Heathen friend, but beyond that, I had not actively researched Her. I knew nothing of Her various kennings (Vanadis, Valfreyja, Gefn, etc.), and I honestly only knew of Her as a goddess of magick, sex, and beauty. Yet in my dream She appeared to be wearing “warpaint”, and She announced emphatically: “You belong to me!”
One of the ways which we may accidentally encounter Deity, therefore, is if They come to us, instead of the other way around. The Lady came to me that first time as Valfreyja–Her warrior aspect; She who chooses Her half of the slain–but it took me a year to figure that out! In my case, accident led to intent. I woke up the next morning driven to recreate what I had seen in my dream as art: UPG led to votive action.
Let’s pause for a moment to talk about that term: votive action. In its most simplified sense, votive action breaks down to a devotional act. It is, at its most basic core, a form of prayer through action. More than simply spoken words, it is a thing that you are doing, for one of three purposes:
- As fulfillment of a vow;
- As an act of gratitude;
- As an act of worship.
In Heathenry, the fulfillment of vows (oath-taking and oath-keeping) and the concept of gratitude (“a gift for a gift”) form the very cornerstones of our belief system, but things tend to get a little bit “sticky” when one starts using the word worship:
Worship: the feeling or expression of reverence, adoration, and love for a deity.
Worship requires humility; it asks for bended knees, and many Heathens, as I’ve already said, have a huge issue when being asked to bow down to anything or anybody, regardless of the fact that our historical record shows that our Ancestors definitely did so. In 98 AD, Tacitus wrote in the Germania of the Suebi (a Germanic tribe):
“There is nothing especially noteworthy about these states individually, but they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, that is, Mother Earth, and believe that she intervenes in human affairs and rides among their people. There is a sacred grove on an island in the Ocean, and in that grove there is a consecrated cart, draped with cloth, which only the priests may touch. The priest perceives the presence of the goddess within this innermost shrine, and with great reverence escorts her in her cart, which is pulled by cows. There are then days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place which she deigns to visit and accept hospitality. No one goes to war; no one takes up arms; all objects of iron are locked away. Peace reigns wherever she goes, until the goddess has had her fill of human interaction, and then the priest returns her, in her cart, to the temple in the grove on the island in the Ocean. After that, the cart, the cloth, and if you choose to believe it, the goddess herself are washed in a clean, secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. From this arises the dread of the mysterious, and the pious reluctance to see what only those who are to be put to death are allowed to see.” (Emphases mine.)
For those who would here raise the “a history not written by its own people isn’t a true history” argument, I would also supply this (my own translation) from the third chapter of the Kjalnesinga Saga:
Thorgrim, the High Priest, took special note of the men who would not bow before the gods in the temple. His son, Thorstein, also held a high reputation as one who would call men who did not bow before the gods out as less worthy than dogs publicly. Bui, who was a great hero, was only twelve years old, six years younger than Thorstein, who was then eighteen, when Thorstein witnessed Bui not bowing to the gods at the temple, and made it public to all who gathered for the local Thing, decrying Bui as an outlaw. (Emphases also mine.)
Clearly, historically-speaking, our Ancestors worshipped their gods, and part of worshipping is “bending the knee”, as a show of reverence as well as affection. Most of us can pretty easily understand the word “affection”, but let’s pause for a second and actually define the word reverence:
reverence: to have or show deep respect of or to someone or something.
If we love and deeply respect the gods, why are we reluctant to express or show Them that? And if you don’t love and deeply respect the gods, why are you calling yourself a Heathen in the first place, instead of an agnostic, or even an atheist?
Votive action is the point at which accident meets intent in godfinding. Your devotional act may be something as simple as saying aloud “Hey, I know you’re there”, or it may involve hours of research and study, or it may be as formal as an actual blot; it may even actually involve bowing down before the gods. Your accidental “first brush” with Deity may not be something so “earth-shattering” as an actual dream-vision of a god, as mine was; it may be something as seemingly mundane as repeatedly encountering the same Deity over and over again in your research or study of the extant lore. Study and research might then also become an act of intent–a votive action in and of itself–as you begin to focus on learning more and more about that specific god/dess. As you then begin to obtain a deeper understanding of Them, research itself becomes, in essence, an act of “bending the knee”.
The other side of intent in godfinding happens when we actively seek Them, instead of waiting for Them to come to us. How does one actively seek God/dess? How does one actively seek anybody else, on a mundane level? Breaking down human/Deity interaction to the terms of human/human interaction may at first blush seem to be grossly oversimplifying things, but we are, after all, talking about a faith system wherein the god/desses themselves are incredibly and distinctly human in the way that They interact with each other, as well as with us. How, then, do you actively seek another person–another living, breathing human being–who maybe you’ve only heard about in books or on TV, or from the word of mouth of other people? Or maybe you’ve passed them on the street or at some function? How would you actively find out more about them, so that you might know better how to approach them the next time you meet, and possibly build a relationship from there? In today’s modern age, most of us would answer with two words: google search. You would look them up, right? See what other details you could find on social media or elsewhere that tell you more of their character and interests. We can do the same thing with Deity! Find Them in the Eddas and the Sagas; find other people’s UPG of Them on social media and elsewhere online. Learn what They like and do not like; learn what pleases Them; learn what attracts Them. And then use those things you learn to build a relationship with Them!
How do you use what you’ve learned about Them to build a relationship with Them? How would you use that sort of information when attempting to build a relationship with a living-breathing human? You might start by finding out their contact information: some way to call them up on the telephone, or speak with them via social media, or even write them an email or a letter. You do the same thing with Deity: what’s Their contact information? Obviously, our god/desses don’t have phone numbers, email addresses, or social media accounts (apart from ones that other humans have set up in reverence to Them), but They do have a sort of physical address: your own personal altar/shrine, whether that be a ve, a stalli, a grove, or even your own miniature version of a hof. We also have what could be equated with phone numbers and email addresses, courtesy of the Eddas and Sagas: many of our god/desses have halls which they call home, whether that be Sessrumnir (Freyja), Valhalla (Odin), or even Helheim (Hella). So, once we have someone’s contact information, what do we do with it? We use it to make contact, right? Like I said, we call them on the phone, or we contact them on social media, or we email them, or we write them a letter. Do the same thing with Deity! How? I mean, that’s one helluva long distance phone call, right? Through prayer. Prayer does not need to be conflated, or composed of poetic phrasing; on the contrary, I have found in my own personal experience that my most profound experiences with prayer consisted of conversations very much like those one might have when initially making contact with another living-breathing human:
“Hi, Freyja? Yeah, this is Connla. Are you hearing me okay? I just wanted to call you up and tell you how much I appreciate having you in my life….”
“Hello, Hella? This is Connla. I’ve noticed you being around in my life a lot lately, and I just thought I’d let you know that I know that you’re there….”
Usually the next step following first contact is to organize a “date”, whether the living-breathing human that we’re talking about is an actual romantic prospect, or just a possible friend. We arrange a meeting with them of some sort, usually doing something that we know from our previous research that they will enjoy. Maybe we plan to go to a theater and see a movie that we can talk about afterwards, or maybe we plan a shopping adventure, if we know that they enjoy shopping. Whether our inclinations are romantic or purely platonic, this first meeting is a date. So how in the heck do you date Deity? You use the same sort of information–what do They like; what do They enjoy–and you commit time and effort to bringing those things either to a physical location (your home altar, whatever form it might take) or to a votive action, such as cooking Them a meal, or listening to specific music that They might find appealing, or even, yes, watching a movie that They might enjoy. You make yourself present to Them, via something that is appealing to Them, and then recognize Their presence with you.
So what follows a “first date”, whether romantic or platonic? Hopefully a second date, right? Hopefully that first meeting leads to future meetings that are maybe a little less formal, and more on the level of “hanging out“. That’s when most of us know that we’re actually involved in a relationship with someone: we can just “hang out” with them. Time spent doing the most mundane of things–such as cooking a meal or vegging on the couch watching television–becomes equally valuable to (if not more valuable than) meetings that are formally arranged. Of course, that second date and subsequent hanging out only happens if the first date was successful: if you mutually decided that your personalities fit together, and you actually enjoyed each other’s company. After a first date with a Deity, you will definitely know if you enjoyed each other’s company, or not. Just like with another human, if you come away from that first date “feeling wrong somehow”, chances are that you are not meant to work with that particular Deity, for whatever reason. But if that first date was, indeed, successful, then how do you hang out with god/dess? The same way that you do with another person: notice Their presence, even when you are doing the most mundane of things, and let Them know you notice. With another human, you might do that by engaging them in conversation or simply smiling over at them, right? Do the same thing with Deity!
Eventually, over time, as the relationship with another person deepens, you might come to call that person your friend, your beloved, or even your spouse. When we do this, we are, in effect, dedicating ourselves to that other person. After a period of time hanging out with a particular Deity, you may find that you wish to dedicate yourself to Them in the same manner; I’ll talk more about that in a future blog post. In order to develop a relationship that is that deep, however, you have to find Them first, which means that you have to be open to experiencing Them. We don’t build relationship with physical humans simply by reading about them, or by secondhand accounts of other people’s experiences of them; we should not expect to be able to build relationship with Deity in those ways, either!
Much of my art is based on the experiences I have had while godfinding. Sometimes, as with the above image of Freyja, it is because They have come to me; other times, as with the art I have done of Njordr (and my subsequent devotion to Him), it is because I have actively sought a relationship with Them, via prayer first, and then a “first date”, sometimes followed by “just hanging out” (as has been the case for me with Freyja, Njordr, and Freyr), and sometimes not (as has consistently been the case for me with Thor). Sometimes I find Them; sometimes, They find me. What is important, however, is that finding, and being open to the experience that follows after.