Today’s column is a guest submission by Tahni Nikitins, a long-time Pagan and writer in multiple genres. Tahni’s work has appeared at Gods & Radicals, Eternal Haunted Summer, and Nomad.
“Unverified personal gnosis” (UPG), along with its less frequently discussed sibling “shared personal gnosis” (SPG), are contentious topics in Pagan circles. In my observations, there are as many people who look on UPG and SPG with mistrust and even disdain as there those for whom UPG and SPG are important aspects of their spirituality. Many rely on personal gnosis to patch gaps and holes in surviving mythology, to grapple with the Christianiziation of mythology, or even as a substitute for lore where the myths have clearly not survived. For many, UPG/SPG can be important pieces of a living and ever-evolving, new religion.
As a practitioner of Norse Neopaganism, and as someone who works with often-controversial entities who have little to no surviving or recorded lore, I’ve often kept quiet about my own practices. For a variety of reasons I have refrained from engaging in broader Neopagan communities, especially Norse Neopagan spaces. The vitriol that is occasionally slung at practitioners who utilize UPG/SPG in their practices is certainly among the reasons I kept my distance for so long.
Nonetheless, some of those who are skeptical about UPG/SPG have posed a question that is worth considering: where do we draw the line between one’s personal experience and the accepted consensus of the community? Surely a line must be drawn somewhere to maintain some integrity and consistency within our religions and their practices — right?
These are, honestly, needful questions, and worth keeping in mind for every practitioner for whom UPG/SPV plays an important role. I find it important to remember that we are actively rebuilding religions which were all but stamped out of existence by the Christian conversion of Europe and other parts of the world. Some lucky traditions have a well-documented history of beliefs and rituals, such as those originating in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece. For others, such as Norse Neopaganism or traditions coming out of the Baltic regions, African traditions, and many others, we are lucky to have any surviving lore, even if it has been tainted by the conversion. Many European Pagan traditions have nothing left but carved stones and scraps of archaeological evidence, while the mythology and beliefs to contextualize these memories have been forgotten or nearly so.
Though our Paganism is based on something old, on the religion of our ancestors, it is a new religion. It isn’t a perfect recreation — it can’t be, too much has been lost — but something more akin to a rebirth, a reincarnation. We are taking something which had effectively died and we are breathing new life into it. It seems to me and others who are called by often-overlooked deities that a vital part of re-birthing these traditions is the experience of personal gnosis.
As mentioned, UPG has become a huge part of my spiritual experience. The gods and spirits I work with have little to no surviving lore attached to them. Using the lore to build base knowledge about my gods often requires a sort of mythological deep-cut: tracking down a line or two references from the Eddas, combing through sagas for any references, searching for original kennings which may give a glimpse into the forgotten character of a particular spirit or deity. (An example of the latter is the kenning “incantation fetter” for Sigyn, taken from Þórsdrápa, “The Lay of Thor.”) Because of this dearth of information, much of my spiritual practice also involves studying archaeological evidence and its interpretations. What I can gather from the surviving lore and archaeological evidence, however, is not enough to truly get a sense for these gods or to build a relationship with them.
Without a willingness to work in the realm of my own personal gnosis, weaving together what I’ve learned from my study of the texts and other surviving evidence with my own UPG and the gnosis I have discovered I share with others, I would be tightly restricted in my practice and my relationship to my gods. To say that personal gnosis has no place in Pagan practice is, effectively, to say that certain gods and spirits are doomed to be forgotten by us because they were overlooked in the penning of the lore. In my opinion, that seems a rather presumptuous stance for practitioners to take in the face of our gods.
Should there be a line, and if so, where should it be drawn?
Some might say that any UPG/SPG not in agreement with the surviving lore is unacceptable, but anything that fits within or compliments the lore is welcome. Others (myself included) might feel uncomfortable with this because of the extent to which the surviving Nordic lore has been effected by Christian worldviews, philosophies, and propaganda. Perhaps anything which falls in line with the general spirit of the lore, if not the precise words, is acceptable — but then, how do we define the “spirit” of the lore? Is it in the characterization of the gods as defined by the lore, or is it in the underlying currents that can be identified as truly Pagan? What role does archaeological evidence of these ancient beliefs and practices play in these definitions and drawing of lines?
The fact of the matter is that the answer to the question of where to draw the line is likely to be different for each individual. We’re used to seeing religions which are at least seemingly unified in their theology, so it can be unsettling to accept the idea of such huge variances in our ranks. This is understandable.
We are not those other religions, however. Many other religions have had centuries, if not millennia, to work through the same growing pains Heathenry and other Neopagan paths are now experiencing. A cursory look into the origins of Christianity reveal dozens if not hundreds of disparate factions, all in disagreement with each other to some extent, sometimes with bloody consequences. We see the same kinds of divisions and disruptions in the early years of many major religions, including Islam and Buddhism. These religions still have different factions among them, though the sheer number of divisions has narrowed since the tumultuous early days of those religions.
It is okay for Neopaganism to see these many disparate factions and to experience great disagreement in its ranks. Hopefully we can resolve these disagreements and deal with these divisions in a wiser, less bloody way than has often been seen in the past.
Not all UPG/SPG will be acceptable to everyone. Sometimes something which seems ridiculous to one person will be deeply meaningful to another, and vice-versa. I’m not sure that a rigid line needs to be drawn, except to safeguard against people of less-than-honorable intentions attempting to pass off harmful ideologies as personal gnosis. To me, the real danger of accepting UPG/SPG comes not in the form of gnosis which disagrees with the established lore, but rather in the degree to which bigots might take advantage of such acceptance.
Especially among Norse and Celtic Neopagans of all stripes, there is a painful awareness of how Neo-Nazis, both those openly hateful and those who attempt to hide behind linguistic tricks and dog-whistles, will take advantage of any opportunity to co-opt our religious paths. This is something we must safeguard against with open criticism of these bigoted ideologies wherever they begin to creep in, as well as through a continued commitment to inclusivity for people of diverse backgrounds.
Drawing the UPG/SPG line at “bigoted ideologies not allowed” is probably unsatisfactory to many. To these I would say that time will weed out what ideas are worth saving, while those that don’t carry deep resonance for enough practitioners will, inevitably, be forgotten. Time has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps we should simply let it do its magic and focus our energies on building our paths and combating truly harmful ideologies.