The Demands of Piety

Piety and Devotion… Devout, Reverent, Respectful… I see these words thrown a lot in certain Polytheist spheres- often as a sort of buzzword; something to be slung at people to the point that they’ve practically lost all meaning in today’s religious climate. And quite frankly? When I see someone spouting off about how pious or devout they are, I’m more inclined to believe that they’re not really as pious and devout as they claim to be.

What a pious person looks like will vary from faith to faith as all traditions have their own tenets, virtues, and images of piety looks like according to them. But in simple terms? Piety itself is the state of being religious or reverent; of showing deep respect, devotion, commitment, love, and loyalty for and towards the Gods of your faith.

It is the foundation of all other virtues; a foundation which sets the stage for them, and without which the journey to embody the other virtues (whatever they are in our respective Traditions) might well be meaningless… How do you endeavor to embody Beauty, after all, if that foundation is not there to tell you why you should strive to do so in the first place? To add meaning or reason to that pursuit?

Being a truly pious person is simple… Or, at least it is simple in theory– though not always in application; being pious requires many things from us, some of which are not always easily given.

First and foremost, it requires that we respect the Gods, love them completely, and remain loyal to them; that we are their devoted children (or their devoted Ancestors, or however else our respective faiths view us in relation to the Divine). It also requires that, as their devotees, we participate in the appropriate worship of them according to their traditions- those traditions which we seek to revitalize in the modern era (at least as Revivalists, Reconstructionists, and those who are otherwise Historically Oriented).

As far as piety goes, these are often the most straightforward and simple requirements that we can fulfill as practitioners. After all, faith is an easy thing to achieve for most of us; we may struggle with that faith on occasion, and it may waver or wane when times are hard… But it is not often difficult, by extension, to carry these core aspects of faith into our worship. And yet if piety were that easy, it wouldn’t be such an accomplishment now would it? And it is. It is an accomplishment that demands more from us that simply loving, respecting, and worshiping the Gods.

Piety also demands that we strive to do better and be better as people- both in the spiritual and in the mundane; that we follow the tenets of our faith and strive to embody its virtues; that we follow the example and leadership of the Gods we turn to, and submit to their will. Yet this is not always easy to do.

Sometimes we don’t have the energy to be hospitable. Occasionally we have a bad day and it’s easier to snap at someone than it is to be kind to them. More than once, even, we might choose to skip our devotions in favor of a few extra minutes in front of the tv before work; sometimes it is easier to place our Gods and our faith on the backburner, and this is where people often stumble when it comes to piety… But piety- true and genuine piety– demands that we don’t. It demands instead that we mold ourselves in the image of our Gods, and live our lives devoted entirely to them in heart, body, mind, spirit, and action.

Action is important. When I speak about it, however, I don’t mean giving our Gods the most expensive wine or the highest quality oil; I don’t mean showering them with offerings and gifts, never asking anything of them, or praising them to every passerby. These things are nice if you can accomplish them- and I’m sure the Gods appreciate it. But these are not the kinds of actions the Gods care about. These are not the actions that make you pious.

I do want to touch on something else that kind of folds into the subject of action, though. And that is that earlier, in the opening of this post, I spoke about the fact that piety was often thrown around as a sort of buzzword in certain circles of the Polytheist internet- often as a proclamation of how pious they really are compared to everyone else. And yet, to borrow a quote from Game of Thrones:

“Any man who must say ‘I am the King’ is no true King”.

The full scene in which this occurs (not just the snippet that quote comes from) is truly a wonderful one and is one of my favorites as far as the TV adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s work goes. In it, Joffrey Lannister is throwing one of his famous temper tantrums when his uncle, Tyrion, makes a vague threat that further upsets him. In the throws of his anger, Joffrey yells that he is the king- to which his Grandfather, Tywin, responds with the above quote.

While they may have been talking about Kingship in that scene, however, I feel the quote is just as applicable and relevant to the subject of piety… Because there is something else about piety- and that is that, while piety looks different for every faith, genuine piety is still something which is evident.

In other words the truly devout, truly pious, live their lives in such a way that their piety is obvious to anyone who happens upon them; they are easily distinguishable from the rest of the crowd. They do not need words to confirm their piety. They do not need to scream at anyone who will listen, about how devout and pious they are. This is because genuine piety is something which transcends words; it is obvious. It shines around them. It is shown clearly in their manners, the way they treat their fellow people, and the grace with which they handle life and everything it throws their way- and this is true regardless of the faith they come from.

Now I don’t claim to be a pious person. I slip far more- and far more often- than I care to admit even to myself; I do not always do my Gods the justice they deserve… Yet I do know that if we seek to be truly, genuinely, pious practitioners of our faiths? Then this is an example we should strive to follow.

Why? Because piety and devotion is something which is between us and our Gods. Our fellow Humans are not our judges, they are– and they are the only ones who can judge how pious and how devoted we truly are… But our Gods don’t care about words, they care about action (see how that circles around, there?). If we are concentrating most of our efforts on screaming about how pious we are to anyone within earshot then that is far less time, less effort, and less attention that we are giving to actually becoming as pious as we claim to be with those words. As a result, our words become hollow and empty- and hollow, empty words are meaningless to our Gods.

So do not simply talk about being pious- nor praise your “piety” to every passerby that you can get to pay some vague form of attention to you. It serves no purpose other than to feed our own egos and make us feel better about our failures and shortcomings as practitioners…Instead, be pious. If you are pious, your Gods will know it and your fellow man will know it- and no words will be necessary to confirm it.

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6 thoughts on “The Demands of Piety

  1. “First and foremost, it requires that we respect the Gods, love them completely, and remain loyal to them”

    I would agree with respect and loyalty, and much of what you say here in this paragraph, except loving them completely. For one, I’m unsure such a thing is even possible, since I can only know so much of my Gods. For another, I think that love, at least how the modern mind understands love-as-emotion rather than love-as-choice, my understanding being the latter, is not always necessary to piety. I can be pious towards Gods I have no loving feelings towards by respecting them and maintaining loyalty. In some ways, maintaining piety with Them is especially important when I do not carry these emotional attachments, or when I feel extremes of others like anger or hurt. To my mind, emotion shifts too much to be a strong base upon which to base one’s religion. Which leads me to my next thought:

    “Why? Because piety and devotion is something which is between us and our Gods.”

    I would argue piety is also communally defined, both in the sense of human communities, but also in the sense of communities from which the Ancestors polytheists worship came from and enter into (some upon death, some later in their next life), and the spirits, who I understand have their own cultures and sense of what is pious and/or right action and what is not. Piety, at least from my understanding in the Northern Tradition, cannot be between us and our Gods alone unless we are worshiping our Gods in solitude. The ties of hamingja, group luck and power, are affected by each person who is tied together into a group. These ties affect us whether all of our rituals take place together or only on certain days. The assertion here, as I read it, is that a given polytheist is and can be alone before the Gods. However, many of the ancient polytheist religions were centered on families, clans, tribes, and other methods of organized communities where the actions of one affected everyone within the community. Piety was not only a personal virtue, then; it was also a civic one.

    “Our fellow Humans are not our judges, they are– and they are the only ones who can judge how pious and how devoted we truly are…”

    Here, I echo my previous points just above this quote. Further, if our group luck and power is tied into one another’s, or if the safety and wellbeing of the polis is determined by the doing the rites well and in not only the proper manner, but the proper mindset, then this statement is not true. Now, granted, your Gods in your relationship with Them may not put these things on you. You may not have a group of people you worship with, and even if you do, perhaps your Gods do not put these things on you. However, at least in my case as a Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheist, that is not the case. That’s not to say we’re not individuals devoid of internal lives or identity within the Northern Tradition and in my Kindred’s case. However, there is a heightened sense that we are not, cannot be divided in identity from the group as we are part of it and it is part of us through our web of oaths, our hamingja, being tied together as it is.

    “But our Gods don’t care about words, they care about action (see how that circles around, there?).”

    I simply cannot agree with this assertion. If I walked up to my Gods and told Them all to “fuck off”, I am certain They would care about those words. Likewise, They would care if I walked up to Them and said “I love you”. Certainly, there may be Gods, indeed a great many potentially, who care little for words and care, ultimately, for what you do. However, if this were true, then any of the many poems I and others have written in devotion to our Gods were useless gifts, devoid of meaning to Them. I cannot agree with this, not merely because of the volume of poetry that has been written for Them, but because prayers and communication, being actions of devotion to our Gods in and of Themselves, would be devoid of emotion without words to give expression to the things we wish to say to Them, to the joy and exultation we may feel one moment, despair and tragedy the next, contemplation and reflection another. If we can share so much with our Gods and it all retains its meaning, then words, I firmly believe and assert, must as well.

    “If we are concentrating most of our efforts on screaming about how pious we are to anyone within earshot then that is far less time, less effort, and less attention that we are giving to actually becoming as pious as we claim to be with those words. As a result, our words become hollow and empty- and hollow, empty words are meaningless to our Gods.”

    Many of us devote what spare time we have after doing our devotional work to doing the work of putting out our words. Many of us are working to firmly assert that words, from polytheist to spiritual pollution, piety and cleanliness, devotion and offerings, that all these words and all the concepts and ideas and all the things they touch out from there mean something. Something potent and powerful, ideas that we have based our entire worldview around. The word polytheism is a key to understanding and then living one’s life within a worldview proceeding out from that word, not only that one believes in and worships many Gods. Our words connect us with understanding to the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits). They inspire us to act, they help us to form understanding and connection with Holy Powers. They carry power and magic in them. They carry our means to meaning within them. Our words mean much. A full knowing of piety can only be complete in knowing the word and living it.

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    1. “I can be pious towards Gods I have no loving feelings towards by respecting them and maintaining loyalty.”

      Love is an emotion. And yes, it is fickle. Yes, it wanes and ebbs and flows just like faith does; it’s not always easy, and it’s certainly not always roses and sunshine. It’s hard. But love itself isn’t the choice we make. Commitment is the actual choice- and we make that commitment because of that love we feel. That commitment isn’t always easy, either. In a lot of cases, it can be even harder than the emotion which led us to make that commitment in the first place.

      I could see your viewpoint about being capable of being pious without love if were were talking about something like the Abrahamic faiths. They’re the most common, after all. Most people practice them because they don’t know of others; because it’s the way their family does it; because it’s the way it has been done for a while now in the vast majority of the world. But this is a fringe faith; we’re talking about (often Recon Oriented) Polytheist faiths… If you wound up here, it was likely, largely, by your own choice that you made that commitment. That choice to worship these Gods and follow this faith, was still born out of love was it not? If not, then why make that choice if that love for your Gods wasn’t there?

      This is why in my eyes piety, loyalty, worship, and faith all demand love… Because these types of commitments demand love. Otherwise, what is the point? Why commit to worshiping these Gods if you do not love them? Why commit yourself to following or reconstructing their faith and traditions if you do not love them? Why remain loyal to them if you do not love them? And why bother to seek piety if not for your love of them and want to please and do right by them? Why do anything at all, if not born out of love? What is the purpose of doing so otherwise?

      Re: Communal conditions and judgement of Piety” (forgive me, there were too many good points to quote so I’m grouping them under one banner).

      I would argue to argue (at this moment, based on my current thoughts on and understanding of Piety) that there is a difference between following an established Tradition, which is organized, with clear cut rights and with a hierarchy… And following what I have now (what many in Reconstructionist faiths have).

      In such a faith, you’re right… You have more than the Gods to contend with. You have the religion itself- and that religion has rules which determine piety and correct practice. If you are not pious by their standards you are failing the religion and the Gods which they established themselves to worship in that manner. But you are also correct in that I do not worship with a community or a Grove. I worship as solitary despite being Historically Oriented. This is through no choice of my own, and it is completely possible that if and / or when I find a community this viewpoint may change. But as of right now, I have no man to contend with; no leader of faith, no religion which outlines and determines “correctness” and delivers a clear cut path to Piety.

      And this is true for many Polytheists; we are not developed enough to have hierarchies and systems. To organize ourselves in the traditional sense that other faiths have managed. In fact, many polytheists shirk that kind of establishment (unrightfully, but that is an irrelevant tangent). And that is fine. But without organization and agreement, such a community is incapable of holding you accountable in that manner you speak of. In that case, in the case where there is no true community cohesion and agreement, Piety becomes between you and the Gods and they become the only ones who can judge you on it. Hence where that came from.

      Re: “Words matter as much as action” (again, forgive me as there were too many quotes to choose from).

      I think you misunderstand that portion as saying that the Gods do not care about any words. Not only is that completely untrue, but that is simply not the case at all; the whole post is on the importance of letting your actions speak for themselves when it concerns piety… Not whether or not you Pray or tell your Gods to “fuck off”.

      When it comes to the dichotomy of words vs action in regards to being a pious, devoted worshipper? The Gods very much do not care about words; you can claim that you are pious all you want. You can scream your piety and virtues the world over… But unless you are actually doing those things which constitute pious behavior in the eyes of the Gods, then you are not pious- and the Gods won’t care how many times you say that you are. Action is what matters, here. Not words.

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      1. “I may not have a close personal connection to all of the Irish Gods, but I love them. They are my Ancestors. I did not wind up here worshiping that pantheon out of familial obligation to my Irish heritage. I wound up here because of my love for Cailleach and the demands she made of me- and stayed for love for them and the faith.”

        Before I go much further, I think at least saying “here’s the operating idea of love that I am working with” is useful. It comes from the Oxford Dictionary. Namely, the first of the definitions, “A strong feeling of affection”. Affection (definition here) is “A gentle feeling of fondness or liking”. I do not always like my Gods. They ask me to do hard things, at times, things I do not want to do, but I do them anyhow. If you call that love, well, I suppose it is love. I use another word: duty.

        Piety, being religious or reverent does not demand love, not in my understanding of it. Nor does worship, not in and of itself. What it does, however, is demand respect. Respect for the Gods, the Ancestors, the vaettir (spirits). It demands respect in how we do things, that we do rightly by those we worship, and do our duty within our relationships with and to the Holy Powers, and one another. Love can be a powerful emotion and emotional state, but it can also be quite weak.

        You ask, “What is the point?”
        The point is to live a life well in good Gebo (gift-for-a-gift, reciprocity) with our Holy Powers and one another. Love may not outlast the demands our lives place on us, whether our family or our Holy Powers. Doing our duty does not require love, not at all times, in any case. Sometimes it requires us to just have grit, and power through the rough times. Duty does not change, not in the face of overwhelming odds or periods of long silence. Love? Love can grow, fade, overwhelm. Duty is constant, sometimes damned implacable in its demands. Love is a choice. Duty is an obligation.

        You ask, “What is the purpose?”
        The purpose, as I see it, of our worship is to worship. It is not to be emotionally gratified. We certainly can be emotionally gratified within our worship, but if the focus is on us and how the acts of worship make us feel or are about our comfort, then our focus is not on Them. Our purpose in worship is to do our part by the Holy Powers, to do right by Them. To open up the ways between us so the gifts between us can flow. Were that not the case, if my emotions or life circumstances were of deeper consequence than worship of my Gods, there are several instances in my life where I would simply have dropped polytheism and gone elsewhere.

        You ask, “Why commit yourself to their faith and traditions if you do not love them?”
        I happen to love Odin a great deal. However, even if this were not the case, if I railed against the Old Man with rage, and I have, I have done and will continue to do my duty till and beyond my death. Odin called to me. That is why I am here, why I committed myself to being a Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheist. I love the ways quite deeply, but that well is exhaustible. It needs to be refilled to be of much use lest it goes dry. Duty is the earth the well rests on and within. There would be no point to my love beyond self-gratification were duty not the foundation and form that love exists within. I am not here for love; I am here because I answered a call to follow a God. Now, I am blessed with knowing His family, and many Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir besides I would not have the pleasure and honor of knowing otherwise. However, my journey to being a Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheist began in duty, in answering Odin’s call, not in loving Him.

        You ask: “Why bother to seek piety if not for your love of them and want to please them and do right by them if not for love?”
        Again, duty. It is my portion to do so. It is my duty to do so. It is the work Odin has given me, and the work I take on for my family, and my Kindred. Seeking and committing myself to piety is done out of duty to the Holy Powers, my family, my Kindred, and lastly, myself. Worship is done for Them not because it brings me joy or because I love Them, but because it is the right thing to do.

        You ask: “Why do anything at all, if not born out of love?”
        I did not become a Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheist out of love. Love came later after I got to know Odin. Love came later after I got to really know my Ancestors through these religions. Love was not there when I first came to be a Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheist. Duty was. Duty shapes everything, because duty is bound up in the basic reason for why we do things in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. Duty is bound up in the word Gebo: gift-for-a-gift. It is bound up in obligations of reciprocity to our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. It is bound up in how we interact with one another. Love is a good thing to have, but especially for those times when love is low, lacking, or when animosity threatens, duty prevails above these because to do one’s duty is more important than whether or not you love to do the thing or love the Being/being you are doing the thing for.

        There are vaettir I have relationships with that I am pious with, but have no love for. What binds us is not love, but my duty to do right by Them and They to do the same with me. The point is if we wish to have good, working relationships, duty, not love will carry the day. I simply do not have love for Them. Not because They do not deserve love or some other reason, I just simply do not have it for Them. We have an amicable relationship, nothing more.

        “Re: Communal conditions and judgement of Piety” (forgive me, there were too many good points to quote so I’m grouping them under one banner).”
        No biggie. Given how lengthy these can get, it makes sense!

        “…that there is a difference between following an established Tradition, which is organized, with clear cut rights and with a hierarchy… And following what I have now (what many in Reconstructionist faiths have).”
        A communal vs. solitary practice would necessitate difference in how things played out. My own practices and understanding of things went through shifts when I began leading our Kindred.

        “And this is true for many Polytheists; we are not developed enough to have hierarchies and systems. To organize ourselves in the traditional sense that other faiths have managed.”
        I would not say we are not developed enough to have hierarchies. Rather, I would say that hierarchies are baked right into the proverbial polytheist cake. We have Gods and not-Gods, at least on a baseline. In the Northern Tradition and Heathenry specifically we have the Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar. We have our Disir and Väter, our powerful female and male Dead respectively, and we have our Ancestors otherwise. We have our vaettir, spirits, such as the landvaettir. While we may not have the systems, we do have hierarchies to work with. Though, if you mean hierarchies and systems in terms of, say, temple complexes, I think that is a matter of time and willingness to devote the resources to it.

        “In fact, many polytheists shirk that kind of establishment (unrightfully, but that is an irrelevant tangent).”
        One I could go on for some length.

        “But without organization and agreement, such a community is incapable of holding you accountable in that manner you speak of. In that case, in the case where there is no true community cohesion and agreement, Piety becomes between you and the Gods and they become the only ones who can judge you on it. Hence where that came from.”
        Ah, alright. I can see your point here. Though, I would say your Ancestors sure can judge you on your piety towards Them if They are ones you worship as well. Likewise, spirits.

        Re: “Words matter as much as action” (again, forgive me as there were too many quotes to choose from).

        “I think you misunderstand that portion as saying that the Gods do not care about any words…When it comes to the dichotomy of words vs action in regards to being a pious, devoted worshipper? The Gods very much do not care about words; you can claim that you are pious all you want…Action is what matters, here. Not words.””

        Ah, I did misunderstand then. So if I am understanding you right, it is not that words don’t matter, they do. However, your point here boils down to “we are our deeds”? I can get on board with that.

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        1. “Before I go much further, I think at least saying “here’s the operating idea of love that I am working with” is useful.”

          I do agree that defining the type of love we’re approaching this question from is integral to the conversation, so in the spirit of that I can definitely say our approaches to that definition are much different; while I am generally one to agree with the dictionary most times, I do not feel as if the dictionary defines some things well enough to quote it in certain instances. Emotions are one such instance and I prefer to use psychological, medical, or otherwise scientific models for this reason.

          According to these models, emotions are not a choice. They are involuntary responses to outside stimuli which trigger a wide range of behavioral, hormonal, chemical, and other effects on the body. We cannot control when we feel them, how intensely we feel them, for how long, etc. But we can control what we do because of or in spite of their presence.

          Love is one such emotion. Again, here I prefer to use the psychological model- particularly the Triangular Theory which defines multiple types of love based on three factors: Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment; intimacy being emotional support and connection, passion being infatuation, affection, and related emotions, and commitment being the personal choice to maintain factors 1 and 2 over a long term.

          I do not always like my Gods. They ask me to do hard things, at times, things I do not want to do, but I do them anyhow. If you call that love, well, I suppose it is love. I use another word: duty.

          I do not always like my Husband. Sometimes he upsets me, sometimes I don’t like what he asks me to do, sometimes finances get hard, sometimes I’m having a bad day and I wish he’d just shut up and leave me be. No one said love was easy. In fact, it’s often not… But even when other emotions (like anger, or annoyance) cloud my view of him or otherwise overshadow the love I have for him? It is still love that I feel for him; we are entirely capable of holding conflicting emotions to varying degrees at different times. None of them removes or invalidates the others.

          Duty is something entirely different, though. Duty is something- an action– we’re required to do legally, morally, spiritually, or otherwise; in the spiritual sense (as one example), it is performing our prayers despite the fact that we don’t want to, because we made a commitment to our Gods to do so.

          In my mind, no matter how much we may occasionally dislike our Gods, there is still a reason they were the ones we chose to worship above the others. That reason is usually love (extenuous circumstances notwithstanding); it is love for them that made us make that commitment in the first place- and love for them which compels us to honor that commitment by fulfilling those duties that come along with it. And we are obligated to fulfil those duties because we made that commitment to them in the first place.

          At least, this is how I approach it.

          “I would not say we are not developed enough to have hierarchies. Rather, I would say that hierarchies are baked right into the proverbial polytheist cake. We have Gods and not-Gods, at least on a baseline”

          I don’t deny that there is a hierarchy among the Gods and the Divine, the Spirits, Ancestors, and so on. The hierarchy I spoke of, however, was in the form of the formal Organization of faith systems- such as the development of standardized ritual and practice, texts, beliefs, and so on. And in that sense, there is little to no organization to Reconstructed Polytheist Faith Systems. That particular organization was lost to us when our faiths were no longer the primary religion of their parent cultures and we had to begin to reconstruct them.

          Don’t get me wrong… There are certainly some reconstructionist faiths which are marginally farther along than others; a few Traditions and groups do exist- like OBOD and so on. But these are few and far between, and their groves and groups are often hard to access if not in particular locations. There is not enough of such that we can conceivably call them structured and organized as a whole. Not on the same level as Christianity, Shinto, or other faiths.

          And I agree that it is a matter of having the time and willingness to devote the resources to developing these systems. Until then, however, we continue to be largely unstructured and holding our greater community accountable as individuals is a nigh impossible task.

          “So if I am understanding you right, it is not that words don’t matter, they do. However, your point here boils down to “we are our deeds”? I can get on board with that.”

          Exactly. “We are our own deeds” is a very good way to put that. Another good way to put it is “We are the sum of our actions”. In other words, the emphasis is on actually doing as opposed to simply paying lip service– because what you say you are doing / are going to do is much less important and matters far less than what you actually do.

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