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9. How does your tradition handle wrathful, savage and destructive divinities?
The gods are Not Tame Lions after all.
Polytheistic traditions tend to use their gods as stock characters for telling stories about human behavior, and you may have noticed that human behavior is not always admirable. We also use such stories to explain the world around us, and the main bulk of Heathen stories about the gods come from an island where if you’re not dying from exposure to glaciers, it might be because the volcano is erupting. As such, we have plenty of examples throughout the lore of Gods Behaving Badly.
That is not, in itself, saying much. The connection between the stories and the gods is about as useful as the connection between who any given human is and a conversation about that human being had by two others who have never actually met that person before. It’s absolutely relevant to the person’s reputation, and reputation will affect real interactions with that person, but depending on just how far from center the story being told started, it’s only distantly relevant as a description of the person it’s about.
And that’s okay, because we don’t only learn about our gods by reading stories in which They are characters.
But the Gods don’t only behave badly in stories. Sometimes They behave badly in real life. That, too, happens when your gods are fallible, finite, but large, powerful, and usually much, much older than you are, which is the common hard polytheistic understanding of the gods.
So how do we deal with Them when They cause problems in real life? Well, what would you expect people to do when someone who is bigger than they are, but not actually omnipotent, is causing a ruckus?
Step 1: Find out what really happened, and WHY. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I assume gods don’t go all wrath and destruction for no reason at all. What went wrong? Can it be fixed? Did we fuck up? Can we make amends?
Do They seem crazy, or just angry? Or is it neither, and we just don’t like the results of something They thought was a good idea? Blame is not necessarily the most relevant factor here, but power and responsibility are both significant.
Is Their behavior Just according to our honest best judgement? Is this actually wrong, or is it just inconvenient for us? The difference matters tremendously, after all.
Step 2: Talk to the god who caused the harm. If They already recognize the harm, and are apologetic, so be it. If They’re at least calm, They can generally be reasoned with to understand that harm was caused regardless of Their intentions – Gods generally are, after all, older, smarter, and wiser than humans, even if They’re not always nicer.
(I know, I say this as though the gods are available to have a conversation with. That’s its own ball of wax. But within my context, it’s a significant option. To be honest, I find that the kind of people who end up feeling like a god is personally fucking with them are the same people who believe it’s possible to have a conversation with said god. They may not believe they can have that conversation without help, of course, but that’s another question entirely.)
Step 3: Assert clear boundaries. If I am in conflict with a god over how They are permitted to treat me, or use my body to behave, I can do things like take Their shrine down, or hide it with a cloth. I can refuse to engage in Their regular offerings until They fix whatever is wrong. I can do various things you can perhaps imagine the wife of an Emperor doing in a legend, and they work about as well. That is to say, they only work if the deity in question actually cares what I think, and wants what I have to offer badly enough to change what They are doing.
Be very careful, though, that such actions are taken within the context of what is actually right, not just what you want. It’s one thing to say, “No, I will NOT offer myself as a trance medium for your use if you do not uphold my tobacco taboos and avoid the foods I’m allergic to while in my body!” and quite another to say, “I won’t give you any more of our agreed-upon weekly beer libations until you bring me a winning lottery ticket!”
If you’re going to call the gods on Their shit, you had better be damned sure.
Step 4: Get help from other gods. If I can’t handle the problem on my own, or the god I am having trouble with isn’t respecting my boundaries, I have to accept that I don’t by myself have enough power to pull Them up short without help.
So whose help do I get? Well, that depends. If a Jotun hurts me, I may take it up with Thor. If Thor puts His foot in it, I’ll probably take it up with Odin. If Odin screws me over, I’ll definitely take it up with Frigga and Freyja. After all, when your wife AND your girlfriend tell you you’ve fucked up, you WILL fix it.
That said, patronage matters. I belong to the Vanir, so if I’m having trouble with someone outside the Vanir, I will ultimately take it up with the Vanir. If I’m having trouble with one of the Vanir, I take it up with the rest of the Vanir, much like any Family-with-a-capital-F.
Step 5: Suck it up. To some degree, the world just isn’t fair, and the unfairness of the gods represents that. The gods aren’t gods of the world as we wish it were, They’re gods of the world as it actually IS. The world – the universe, really – is a big, messy, dangerous, chaotic place, and the fact that we manage to live in it is a testament to the truly crazy nature of life itself. We deal with dangerous gods the same way we deal with everything else: by learning what we do and don’t have control over, and doing the best we can with what we have.
Lon’s answer: Wrath Management