Friday posts are written by Sage of the blog Sage and Starshine. Every week or so they explore a different aspect of the Otherfaith through the letters of the alphabet.
Devotion is one of those words like “spirituality” or “love” with massive amounts of feeling and meaning, and yet can be all but difficult to define. Parents are devoted to children, lovers to their beloveds, artists to their crafts, athletes to their dreams. Religious leaders can be devoted to their flocks or their gods or to both, while ascetic hermits are devoted to the mystery within themselves. Activists are devoted to their causes, patron saints to those under their protection, bodhisattvas to the freedom of all beings. And devotees are, yes, devoted to the Person or People they give devotion to. I believe at the center of all these devotions is a mixture of love and dedication. (I would further argue that Love + Dedication = Duty, but I’m a romantic like that and am sure we could discuss that equation all day. Maybe for the next “D is for ____” essay!)
Devotion is, by its nature, something that must be cultivated carefully over time. I’ve often wondered about the term “devotee” in a spiritual context and whether my relationship with my primary deity “counts” as a devotional one. I suspect others have wondered the same about their own divine relationships. I don’t think this line of questioning is necessarily a bad thing, because all relationships involve a trade of energy, time, and emotions, and it’s important to consider our words carefully. Words mean things and words have power, because they form the backbone of the stories we tell about our lives. At the same time, there is no general gold standard for what does and does not count as “devotional enough.” Individual religions might have their own basic requirements and definitions, which do not always overlap between traditions. The question of “what is a devotional relationship anyway” is something I’ve tried to tackle in my essay series The Devotional Lifestyle.
With this particular post, I’d like to explore what devotion could mean in an Otherfaith context. I say could because we don’t have firm requirements for participation in the faith. Also, as devotion is an interpersonal activity, I think it’s important for both individuals involved in the relationship to decide their own expectations and boundaries. What is “proper” devotion for an Other Person depends on their own skills and preferences, the sort of relationship they’re seeking with a god or spirit, and that god or spirit’s intentions toward their human devotee. In short, there are just too many variables to create a straightforward map of Otherfaith devotion. I hope instead to provide some tools for you to navigate on your own, as well as point out potential signposts and landmarks to guide your way. When in doubt, consult your pineal gland.
A Note on Words
When I talk about devotional Paganism or polytheism, I believe self-identification is the most important aspect of deciding who is and isn’t “really” devotional. If you consider yourself in a devotional relationship, or are interested in what that might mean in your own life, congratulations! This series of posts is about you.
I use the term “devotee” to refer to the human half of a devotional relationship and “Beloved” to refer to the divine half. I realize this may not mesh with everyone’s devotional relationship; perhaps “Beloved” is too touchy-feely a term for your relationship; perhaps it’s strictly business, or perhaps “Beloved” conjures up romantic or nuptial images you just aren’t cool with. For me, “Beloved” is fairly neutral because “love” can encompass so many different emotions and behaviors. Feel free to substitute your own terms instead and/or debate my own words in the comments!
Everyone Is Different
We’re all individuals with our own likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, and ways of being and moving in this world. How we are right now, is this moment, is okay. That doesn’t mean there might not be room for improvement or that we should aim to stay the same forever; stagnation is unnatural and unhelpful, as several of our myths show. A relationship shouldn’t be stagnant, as there theoretically should be an exchange of something between the people involved. However, it means that we are ourselves and we are not our neighbors or friends or rivals. I am not a mystic, and attempting to force my religious behaviors into a mystic’s skillset would not only make for a pisspoor mystic, but for a very unhappy Sage. I am strong in terms of writing, organization, and thinking in visual terms, which means that devotional activities for me are things like writing for the Otherfaith blog, helping get the wiki together, and making approximately three billion Pinterest boards for different spirits. (See for example my boards on the Clarene and the Dierne.)
Likewise, our Beloveds are individuals themselves. We believe they have just as much personal agency as the humans who approach them, including who they will interact with and how they will do so. As the West is a meeting grounds of the human and faery realms, most of the spirits who reside there are interested to some degree in humanity. However, that doesn’t mean they all want a close, personal relationship, or that they will want the same kind of relationship with all humans, or that much should be assumed about their motives and desires at all. Whatever the distinction between human and fae and god – and indeed, those boundaries aren’t always helpful when dealing with especially liminal spirits like the Laetha – we are all endowed with personhood in some way or another. Respect autonomy, respect personal choice, and respect differences; this will help keep many problems from taking root in all types of relationships.
Because we are unique individuals, the terms of potential or actual devotional relationships are constantly in flux and negotiated between devotees and their Beloved(s). What the Clarene wants of me, and what I want of her, and how we navigate those dual desires, will not stay the same over time, nor will this process look like another’s relationship with the Clarene. My experience of the Clarene – “my” Clarene, if you will – is shaded by my own interpretation of the myths, my comfort navigating the Otherfaith, my own identities (queer, DFAB, white, fat, allistic, Pagan, sibling, child, lover, not-parent, book lover, shitty yet earnest gardener, social justice warrior), and past experiences with other gods and spirits. What I want from a relationship with the Clarene is equally influenced by who I am, what I’ve done, and the relationships I’ve had in the past. If we believe the gods and spirits also share personhood with humans, then we need to accept that they, too, will have their own experiences and desires that color their interaction with us.
Most of my experience with devotionalism has at this point been focused around the pan-Celtic goddess Brighid, so forgive me as I skirt around the Otherfaith for a short while to explain devotional moods. I first discovered this concept in my undergrad classes on Hinduism and saw it repeated in the blog Loop of Brighid on Patheos, run by my friend Gilbride. I don’t agree with all his points, but in general his blog is fascinating for a look at how someone can create and structure devotional practices.
I’m especially pulling from information in these two posts on Brigidine “devotional moods.” This comes the Hindu concept of bhakti, which emphasizes intense love between a human and their personal deity. Love manifests in many different forms and so practitioners of bhakti devotionalism may take different roles in loving their deity, such as a dedicated servant, a passionate lover, a close friend, or even an adoring parent with the deity looked after as a child. Gilbride compares and contrasts a list of bhakti devotional moods with personal names and scraps of Celtic myth and folklore related to Brighid. Experimenting with different devotional moods allows devotees a more nuanced understanding of their Beloved. You can also blend moods to see which fit best for you. In my own relationship with Brighid, I think of myself somewhere between a child and a friend.
I really love this approach because it supports diversity, both of devotionalism in general and within our own personal experiences. It also encourages us to be mindful when we think about our relationships and how they can develop. Perhaps you’re uncomfortable with the power dynamics in devotion-as-servant relationships, or perhaps you don’t like the idea of approaching the gods as divine parents. So long as the other half of the devotional relationship consents, there’s nothing keeping you from devoting yourself in another mood that better fits you. I think of myself as a friend to Epiphany and other Book Keepers, given that I work in a library. And given my dedication to justice and equality, I can see myself being a champion of the Ophelene.
You’ll notice that I prefer relationships that put me on more equal footing with gods and spirits. This is completely personal and no better or worse than someone who very much wants to take on a subservient role. You do you; be proud of who you are and respect what devotional needs you have.
Stay Tuned Next Week
In next week’s post I want to take all these ideas – that we’re individuals, that we should approach the gods and spirits as their own persons, that relationships are negotiated between consenting partners, that there are different devotional moods for approaching our Beloveds – and come up with some practical ways for doing devotion. In particular I’m going to look at the theory of multiple intelligences and apply that toward doing devotional work.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear back from you! What relationships are you cultivating in the Otherfaith, or beyond? What does devotion mean to you?