Sovereignty Before the Gods

photo from Wikimedia Commons

If you write about religion beyond the level of platitudes, people are going to disagree with you. You can ignore them or you can get defensive, but if the criticism has merit you’d better give it some serious thought.

Last week Morpheus Ravenna – the de facto High Priestess of Morrigan – took issue with my blog posts saying we shouldn’t bargain with the gods. In the first, I said “How do you make a deal with Morrigan? You don’t.” In the second, I said “Bargaining is for demons – gods and goddesses will have what they want.” In response, Morpheus said:

I respect John, but I’m here to offer another view. I am here to tell you that you can, and you should, negotiate with the Morrigan. It’s absolutely because She’s as powerful and as demanding as She is, that you should be 100% on your toes about cutting a deal with Her. Yes, She must be approached with respect. Yes, if She wants something from you, She’ll have it one way or another. That’s exactly why you MUST negotiate for terms that are safe for you and support your needs.

I encourage you to go read Morpheus’ post and our conversation in the comments. We came to the understanding that my key point (that our dealings with the gods should be based on honor) and her key point (that you should never cede your sovereignty, even to deities) are not mutually exclusive. But I realized my posts implied that negotiating with deities is never a good thing, and that’s simply not true. I’ve done it.

I’ve been thinking about how I could address this without writing something that looked like it came from a canon lawyer (if Pagans ever have canon lawyers, I’m moving to Buddhism!). But dealing with the gods isn’t a hierarchy of if-then statements to be rigidly followed. It’s a collection of concepts and principles to be weighed and balanced… and the only person who can do the weighing and balancing is the one who’s standing before the goddesses and gods.

So if you’re asking a deity for something, or if a deity is asking you for something, here are some principles to keep in mind.

Polytheism. Our goddesses and gods are older, stronger and wiser than us, but they have limits. They’re not all-knowing or all-powerful. They’re also not obsessed with our individual well-being, much less our happiness and comfort. They have limited areas of expertise and responsibility and those duties take priority over the wishes of their priests and other followers.

Reciprocity. If a deity does something for you, you should expect to do something for the deity in return. Perhaps that’s a special sacrifice or an important service. Perhaps it’s a change you need to make in your life to prepare yourself for something down the road. This is something beyond the normal offerings, prayers, and meditations that are the backbone of relationship-building with goddesses and gods.

Is this reciprocity open-ended, as I’ve explained before, or is it quid pro quo, as with the historical example Morpheus listed? It can be either.

Honor. The key to reciprocity is honor – if someone does something for you, you are honor-bound to return the favor. If a casual acquaintance does something for you, you’ll probably want to respond right away. If it’s your best friend, though, you’re probably not going to worry about paying him back. You know one of these days you’ll get an urgent phone call, and when you do, you’ll drop what you’re doing and respond. Either way, you’ll honor your debt.

Trust. The other side of honor is trust – you trust the other person to fulfill his side of the bargain, or to reciprocate in the future. Morpheus makes a good point about trusting deities:

I trust the Morrigan, completely. But trust Her to what? Never destroy anything I care about? No, actually. It isn’t Her nature. I trust Her to be Who and what She is. That is, not human, not inherently conscious of human needs and limitations, not necessarily concerned with all the same priorities that I am. So I set terms and I recommend others do likewise.

Sovereignty. Sovereignty is the right to rule rightly. It flows from the value and worth inherent in everyone and every thing. If you hold the sovereignty of another (a person, an animal, land, a creative work) you have a sacred obligation to care for it. It is not yours to do with as you please. Parents have great discretion in the raising of their children, but they cannot abuse them or fail to educate them and provide medical care. Land owners have great discretion in the use of their property, but they cannot poison it, and in many locations there are much further restrictions.

Your sovereignty flows from your inherent worth and dignity – this is one thing the Unitarian Universalists have exactly right. Yet the vast majority of people in the West have given up their sovereignty to corporations, politicians and celebrities. They spend their time, money and energy chasing what they’re told they should want instead of pursuing their own true desires, their True Will.

Based on the messages from her priestesses and priests, it is fair to say that the primary work of the Goddess Morrigan in our time is as the Lady of Sovereignty, urging people to reclaim their own sovereignty. Neither Morrigan nor any of the other old gods I’ve come to know want sheep for followers.

Morpheus says we should retain our sovereignty even when dealing with the gods, even when dealing with the Goddess of Sovereignty. I must agree. Whatever you agree to do, make sure it is in alignment with your True Will.

When do you offer quid pro quo and when do you offer an open-ended commitment? What terms and restrictions should you spell out and what should you trust will work out OK one way or another? The only person who can answer those questions for you is you. There is no creed, no doctrine, no formula, no decision tree. The opportunity and the responsibility are yours.

Sovereignty is hard work. Hard, but necessary and ultimately, rewarding.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • http://myownashram.com/ myownashram.com

    I have been following this discussion. It has been keenly relevant for me lately. I wrote a post referencing Morpheus' post, but I was also inspired by you. http://myownashram.com/2012/12/19/bargaining-with-kali/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00875369837359076688 John Beckett

    I read that post, Niki – it was one of the things that showed me that what I had written and what I meant weren't in alignment.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01671537285993199353 Morpheus Ravenna

    Getting to this belatedly, as I've been busy moving house – just wanted to say that I've been enjoying our conversation on these topics and appreciated this post. I think you have done a good job of integrating the somewhat disparate approaches we began from. Well said!

  • http://hedgeconfessions.com Traci

    “the Goddess of Sovereignty” ….*one* of the numerous sovereignty goddesses in Ireland. They were intimately tied to specific locales. Not sure whether an other-than-human-person, concerned about the right to rule in Meath, is concerned about…. um, all of North America ?? But hey, I’m an animist who doesn’t go in for this God in the Sky business. It smacks of Christian theology (omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent) and christian centric world view too much for my taste. That, and I just don’t buy it.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Thanks for commenting, Traci.

      That’s the cool thing about Paganism – you don’t have to buy it. And if you’re primarily an animist, I see why you wouldn’t.

      But none of the old gods are “omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent” – they are most definitely limited in scope and power. And if their human followers can immigrate from County Meath to North America, why can’t they come with them?

      Beyond that, I’ve experienced them, here in North America. So have many others. Those experiences are real and meaningful, so I take them at face value. Are these the same “other than human persons” our ancestors knew? It sure seems that way to me, but I freely admit I might be wrong.


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