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Another Question on Piety from a Reader


In response to my call for questions, Trine asked me the following: 

"Why do you think humans bicker so much about the "right way" of pleasing the Gods (through ritual, devotional practice, etc.)? Is it because the Gods (in their mysterious ways) ask something different of each person, and sometimes what they ask and expect of one person is the complete opposite of that of another person? Or is it rather the result of human arrogance and ego? I feel it can be both, but having no experience really with spirit work and what it's like to carry out these duties, I'm not really sure. "


Trine, this is a good question and I"ll give you my take on it. I think that it's perfectly good and natural for the Gods to ask different things of each person. That's the way it works; we're all individuals after all and They don't want cookie cutter copies, or Stepford devotees. i've noticed that even the same Deity will often ask radically different things of His or Her devotees but rather than rejoice in that, and share that glorious diversity of experience, our communities do all too often attempt to place narrow limits not only on the devotee and how he or she may experience the Gods, but on the Holy Powers Themselves. I personally chalk this up to our monotheistic upbringing. 

Do you know where the word 'heresy' comes from? It originally comes from the Greek word αἱρέω, which means to choose, or to select. The word for 'heresy' comes from a term that implies making a reasoned choice. Think about that for a moment. It didn't take on its current meaning of an offense against orthodoxy until Christianity gained political, social, and religious hegemony. I do not blame Christianity for this. It didn't start out as a sect that eschewed freedom of worship. by its origins, one would never have expected fundamentalism to creep and seep into the fabric of its theology but somewhere in the second century give or take fifty years, that began to happen and the monotheistic filter snagged it, took it up, swallowed it whole. 

Well, maybe not *whole*, since we still had Gnosticism, and various "Heresies' cropping up and even today we have Christians fighting the good fight. I even know several polytheistic Christians. One of them said to me once 'I really wanted to be called up by Demeter, or another earth Goddess but when I went seeking the One Who called me, it was the Carpenter, so what could I do?" i looked at his ministerial collar and said "pretty much what you did." i should note, this was after we'd shared a horn in blot to the Norse Gods. Even there, the filter didn't win completely. it just seems like it sometimes. 

To get back to the meat of your question, I think that we are so obsessed with orthodoxy because of our monotheistic upbringings. This is not something that you'd find in polytheism. There was an understanding that piety and respect were necessary, and certainly set forms for state (i.e. public) rites, but within mystery cultus and within individual devotion it seemed to be acknowledged that personal experiences will vary. What I find difficult is that even the idea that piety and respect are important components of interaction and engagement with the Gods is, today, a challenging statement. Our ancestors would not have found it so and from that piety and respect, all the individual actions and techniques, and ritual praxis may flow. 

I really do think that the need we see sometimes to pinpoint the 'right belief' or 'right technique' (as opposed to attitude of approach) comes from our having all been raised in monotheisms, or in an American culture deeply influenced by Protestant Christianity that are themselves preoccupied with 'the one true way." After all, that is what monotheism says 'there is one way to do things 'right.'' now place a moral imperative on that, as monotheism also does and anything that doesn't conform to that narrow standard is not only 'wrong' but something that must be stamped out. Monotheism is what a colleague of mine called 'a closed system.' Polytheism is the exact opposite: it is an open system rooted in a diversity of Deities, of experience, of praxis. That's its beauty but diversity is still something our society struggles with and it should come as no surprise that such ambivalence affects our modes of religious engagement as well. We're learning but it's an uphill battle. There's a lot of programming we have to root out of our psyches still. 

Keep those questions coming, folks. 


(the photo is by Mary Ann Glass, of the altar after an ancestor ritual at House Sankofa).

Last modified on

 Galina Krasskova is a Heathen priest, author, and Northern Tradition shaman. She holds a Masters degree in Religious Studies and is currently working toward a PhD in Classics. Galina is the author of several books including “Essays in Modern Heathenry” and “Skalded Apples: A Devotional Anthology to Idunna and Bragi.”
(Photo by Hudson Valley photographer Mary Ann Glass.)


  • Christine L Berger
    Christine L Berger Monday, 06 May 2013

    Trine, you asked such a good question, you have made me think. in my life, though I started late on a pagan/witchcraft path at age 35, it was not until last year, when I was thrown into circumstances that put me close to the Gods (through an ancient oath to another Priestess being called in) that I started what I do now in devotion. It is the best part of my life, my sixties, yet it demands that I have a certain belief in myself and the Theoi as I experience Them. It is often lonely and scary and all the time demanding the best of me. I think human beings want to cling to some idea of "safety" in their spiritual practices; hence grouping together in the "only right way". For me the only safety exists when I take the leap into uncertainty. It is only then that I can be open to the degree to be teachable. :) Just my two cents.

  • Tannim Wolfkin
    Tannim Wolfkin Monday, 06 May 2013

    Here is a newbie question that I get all the time but would like your take on it as well. Does one have to observe all the various holidays and moons to be pious?

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Monday, 06 May 2013

    Hi Tannim,
    no, i don't think so. Not at all.
    Piety is an attitude that infiltrates everything, that dominates the way you engage with the Powers, it's not about doing any particular set of rituals. Maybe your Gods and ancestors want you to keep those observances, but maybe not, or maybe They/they don't care. it varies.

  • Amarfa
    Amarfa Tuesday, 07 May 2013

    I have a question: If there's such a thing as pagan piety, is there such a thing as pagan sacrelige, and what form would it take?

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Tuesday, 07 May 2013

    I had to sit with this for a few long moments before responding because I was having a strong emotional response to the use of the word 'sacrilege' in this context. It took me a bit to figure out why.

    Sacrilege is a very strong word; moreover, it is not the opposite of piety. The opposite of piety is impiety. Sacrilege goes above and beyond impiety into actual violent or destructive behavior perpetrated on holy people, places, or objects. For instance, clipping one's fingernails during a religious ritual (yes, I saw this happen once) is impious; pissing on the altar would be sacrilege. Under that rubric, Pagan sacrilege would be the active and conscious destruction of altars, shrines, sacred images, sacred tools with the intent of dishonor and disrespect. It would be violence visited upon priests and devotees. A few months ago, when a carved image of one of the Slavic Gods was cut down by vandals in the Ukraine, that was sacrilege. So was the attack last year on the temple and priest of Jupiter, also in the Ukraine.

    I guess one might say Impiety is behaving badly and unmindfully, disrespectfully and discourteously within a religious setting and/or toward the Gods and Powers whereas sacrilege is actual violence and destructiveness.

    If you were wanting to know if there was Pagan "impiety," then I think the answer is yes. Again, if piety is behaving respectful and mindfulness, then impiety is its opposite. I've written a whole article about it here for last year's Pagan Blog Project that you might find helpful:

  • Galina Krasskova
    Galina Krasskova Tuesday, 07 May 2013

    That's a brilliant question and I want to take a little while to think about it. I'll answer to the best of my ability but it may take me a day or so.

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