What is superstition, and how does it pertain to paganism and polytheism?
Superstition comes from the Latin superstitio, a term used in ancient Rome to imply an excessive or unreasonable fear of the gods. Doing unnecessary rituals or needless concern about angering the gods through an unknown action or inaction and hence going overboard was where the term came from.
Often times many pagan practices, myths, and beliefs are labeled as “superstition” today. Defending polytheist practices and ideas is not what this post is about. This is about how to avoid being overly paranoid before the altars and shrines of the gods.
Traditions provide both commonality and certainty
It’s not uncommon among new folk to worry about “getting it right”. This often drives them towards traditionalist and reconstructionist approaches with the idea that if they do things a certain way, they will not risk getting the gods mad at them. It’s true that many ancient polytheistic practices were orthopraxic versus orthodoxic. Practice matters more than belief, as there are many very valid takes on the gods and the cosmos they inhabit. With practices come traditions, and with traditions come lineages.
We have no common backgrounds or lineages today, but we do have people who are thirsty for connection to the divine. And others have found it through a spiritual experience/epiphany and want to learn more about where it might have come from. The gods are not the petty beings that so many modern interpretations of the myths have made them out to be, so why do so many worry about angering or upsetting them?
Forget Homer and Xena, the gods are not petty tyrants
The gods have been around for eons. They’re used to us. I can guarantee given human nature if they were pissed at us we’d be long gone. I also don’t think there’s any sense in honoring gods who want nothing to do with us. Hence I believe that they are way, way more patient with us and anything that we do that we give them credit for.
Don’t expect nonstop miracles or frequent communications from them. Even people accustomed to spiritual experiences aren’t in constant perceived contact 24/7/365. It doesn’t mean that they are “mad” at us either. Live your life, be patient with yourself and the process, and appreciate what simple rituals and offerings can do for you. They will always be around and there for you, even if we screw up. They know we’re gonna screw up, it’s part of the process. It’s even expected.
After all, we’re only human.
Superstition can also be the fear of making mistakes
“If I burn x incense as opposed to y incense, will it make this goddess angry with me?”
“What is the right way to pray to the gods so I don’t upset them?”
First of all…relax. You’re good. People around you are more likely to get upset with you over nitpicky things than the gods are, trust me. Don’t worry so much about “getting it right” and just do it. If you find a different/better/new method that seems more appropriate later, you can switch to that. In the meantime, it’s good to just do your best and have a genuine, heartfelt practice of honoring the gods.
If you wait until you’re certain of getting it “perfect” you’re never going to get it done, and you got to start somewhere. Don’t fear mistakes, be more concerned about never getting started. Try, do your best, and don’t be afraid of changing things around later.
When we’re paranoid, we can read too much into pretty much anything
Superstition is really just a form of paranoia:
“I had a nightmare last night, does that mean the gods are mad at me?”
“I saw x type of animal, is this a sign from the gods about something?”
Sometimes yes, synchronicity and “coincidences” especially when frequent can be a sign of the gods trying to tell us something. But unless you asked for it specifically, this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
However, if the exact same things are piling up all around you, it’s worth a good look and perhaps even a divination to figure out what it is. Or perhaps it’s crystal clear, and a particular deity is just trying to say “hi.”
What do the gods actually want from us, anyway?
This is an interesting philosophical question, and one that we could spend a lot of time debating. I believe that it would be different depending on the god, and the person. We all have unique relationships with the gods and on different levels. Relationships that can vary greatly from person to person. What one practice brings one person to their own relationship with a particular deity may leave another cold or not be something appropriate to that particular tie.
For instance, some may choose to cover their hair as a act of devotion. It doesn’t mean that particular god wants that from everyone. Likewise with individuals who approach gods like Apollo from their oracular aspects and perform acts of divination in their honor. Such practices are not meant to be universal.
How do we know if a god is pissed at us?
Honestly, humans are pains in the butt. I think it would take a lot for them to get annoyed at us otherwise like I said, we would’ve all been wiped out ages ago. A good list may include the following:
- Keep your word. If you make a promise or swear an oath, keep it.
- If you screw up, don’t simply apologize and expect forgiveness. Make a genuine effort to make amends and learn.
- Stay out of other people’s relationships with the gods. If its neither harming them nor anyone else, it’s none of your business.
- Just do your best to be at your best. Strive for arete, a Greek term referring to the virtue of living up to one’s full potential.
- When in doubt, do a divination. Or go to someone who already has an established relationship with that deity to help troubleshoot issues in connecting with them.
When in doubt you can also reach out to an intercessory deity such as Hermes, who is messenger of the gods or even Hestia, who ensures that our offerings reach the gods. Unsure as to whether or not you have their ear? Reach out to her. Do not forget your offerings to her, both first and last.