Contemplating the Gods: Friends, Foes, or Something...Else
An ant has no quarrel with a boot.
- Loki, The Avengers
- Loki, The Avengers
A very pointed question arises often in Pagan circles, and it is even more often used as a kind of Heathen litmus test in some circles:
"Do you have a Patron Deity?"What they're really asking is: Do you have the Pagan equivalent of "Buddy Christ"? Do you have personal chats with Divine Beings who, in some people's estimations, have "better things to do"? There are those in Heathenry (though by no means are these naysayers confined to those interacting with the Norse Gods and Goddesses) who would argue, stringently, that the Gods are so far removed from us, working on such a vast scale, that unless They are approached with the care owed a fire-walking, nitroglycerin juggling act, They can and will make your life and wyrd their plaything and it will suck.
Thor, the office Nice Guy.
Except that's likely the way our ancestors treated them. The Gods dealt with communities as a whole or kings/jarls in particular, and everyone else just kept their heads down, trying to survive, making offerings as necessary and trying not to upset the local spirits. Their primary source for aid in the "little things" were their ancestors and house spirits, not the Gods and Goddesses.
The argument about whether a God and/or Goddess would even deign to interact with individual humans is something many reconstructionist Heathens (those who are attempting to re-create the most historically/culturally accurate version of worship of the Norse Deities) take as certain would rarely, if ever, happen. It's a very historically Hellenic (Greek) view of Deity, in my humble opinion.
In surviving Greek Myth, the primary interaction between a Deity and a normal human (not demi-God or any other flavor of touched by the Other) is one of either exploitation or punishment. Getting noticed by the Gods or Goddesses was certifiably bad. Actaeon dared look at Artemis when he stumbled across her bathing, got turned into an animal, and then was promptly devoured by his own hunting dogs. Paris got roped into judging a Goddess Beauty Contest because Zeus didn't want to piss anyone off Himself, and that ended poorly for an entire country.
In Heathen Lore there are less clear examples. Yes, on more than one occasion (Eric Bloodaxe in Eiríksmál springs to mind) it's pointed out that in the very violent and cutthroat world of Germanic and Scandinavian politicking, betrayals were accredited to Odin tipping the odds against his favored in order to bring them to Valhalla. On the whole, though, these were viewed as business as usual for the Old Man, something that those who considered themselves "Odin's Men" accepted as part of the bargain of favoritism from Him.
So where does the aversion to "personal" connection to the Gods spring from? I suspect there are multiple reasons, but a couple of the ones I want to address are: leftover baggage from Christianity (since the vast majority of modern Heathens are converts), the question of scale, and (in my humble opinion) an incorrect view of the concepts of Innengarð and Utengarð.
The Christian baggage makes sense. For most of Protestant Christianity, the idea of lifting up anything from parking trouble to cancer to an omnipotent, omnipresent Being ostensibly willing to help those who are good/pray correctly/etc. is pretty common. That works fine when the Deity in question is supposed to be everywhere, but in Polytheism, the Gods are not on that level. Multiple places at once, sure, but not everywhere. This means that calling on one or more of them really is analogous to phoning a friend when you need a favor. A lot of the Pagan community has come to view this mindset as "coin-operated" or "on-demand." It's a bit irreverent, regardless of the religion you're talking about, but for some, it really can be that cynical.
Say your prayers, go to Church, tithe, and Christian God will help you win that contract or ease the pain in your knee from that track injury in high school. Light a Candle to the right Goddess and you can increase your chances at getting a date, or offer some ale to the right God and maybe your herb garden won't rot. It takes the idea of reciprocity and gifting, two very important themes throughout both ancient and modern Heathenry and boils them down to the quick-and-dirty rush of modern life. It really can look "coin-operated."
If this is your view of gifting, you're doing it wrong.
The problem I have with this view is when people assume any and all personal or "Patron" relationships described by Pagans and Heathens (and even Christians) fall into this category. This discredits those who have done daily prayers, offerings, oaths, etc and developed a genuine rapport with a Deity. From the perspective of reconstructionism, it can look a bit like going over one's station, talking to a Deity so closely and personally. It's like presuming because a jarl granted a favor once now you're drinking buddies, but he has a lot more people to take care of, and you're wasting his time by demanding he join you for drinks every night. Even with that in mind, the situation modern Heathens find themselves in is not remotely similar to what was true of our ancestors. While some Heathens are lucky enough to have a community, the recent demographic study by Hugin's Heathen Hof still shows a significant majority (64%) of Heathens are still solitary practitioners. Are these solitaries (myself among them) just supposed to ignore the Gods altogether since we don't have a community? I reject that notion because not only does it remove the agency of the Gods Themselves, who are perfectly capable of making their displeasure known if they don't want to be "buddies", but it also seems to block a major spiritual and important connection to both the past and present for the people participating in Heathenry as a religion. We are rebuilding a faith, and sometimes a farm starts with hand-planting seeds, not a tractor.
All that being said, should you bother Thor if your keys are missing before that big meeting? It's not really his thing, is it? He's a Defender of people, a weather God, and missing keys aren't really an issue to "scale" for His kind of Divine Aid under most rubrics. If your keys are missing, yell at your house spirits to give them back. You didn't think those bits and bobs went missing on their own, did you? You are making offerings and speaking with your house spirits in addition to the Gods, right? Right?
They can be cranky if they're ignored. Or bored. Or hungry. Or...
You know what? Just be nice to them.
You know what? Just be nice to them.
I guess what makes me so unworried by those who act within the coin-operated mindset described above, in response to the issues of scale and mis-applied omnipresence, is there really are two logical outcomes from that kind of behavior: 1 - The God gets sick of being called in for tiny stuff and eventually ignores the person (almost like They have agency!) or 2 - The person will 'grow out of it', either organically or with the help of others, to realize that there are better ways to maintain close, authentic relationships with Deity that don't involve necessitating a speed-dial of Freya when you can't find the sexy underwear you wanted for your date. For the missing keys example above, Thor's likely to ignore you unless you've got years of offerings and dedication built up and He really is your drinking buddy.
I just hope you have enough glasses.
The disconnect with Innengarð and Utengarð is a bit more complicated. The long and short of it is that there is the "Inner Yard" (Innengarð), those who are family. This isn't just blood family, but this is the kin, or kindred. The people who through blood or choice have decided to bond and share luck amongst each other. If someone in your Innengarð commits a dishonorable act, that will reflect badly on you and everyone else in that group, so inviting someone into that kind of commitment is nothing to take lightly. The idea of a patron Deity, for some, implies that the group or individual considers the Deity Themself as a member of that Innengarð, and the idea of a Deity not only sharing honor and reputation that intimately with an individual, but willing to be bound to the honor of the individual in question really is like the level of interaction from the movie quote that kicked off this post. It's inconceivable, because the scales are too unbalanced, no matter how much effort and energy and gifting the human offers, in the end it's still a Deity being interacted with.
I did see one argument that said it wasn't logical because humans fail and can lose honor, even when acting with the best of intentions, but that the Gods are always honorable. Except even the Lore shows that the Gods and Goddesses are not always honorable, so that argument is out.
The "Outer Yard" (Utengarð) is a catchall for everything not Innengarð in this worldview. There can still be interactions, and gift-giving, but close relationships are not part of that collective. Your best friend from college that you're still in touch with might count as Innengarð. Jim from work, even if you share jokes all day and occasionally have a drink with after work, is still probably Utengarð. In the old times, gift-giving to the Innengarð almost always required reciprocity, but a gift given to one in the Utendgarð could be accepted or rejected with no obligation to reciprocate. It was considered good form to accept and gift in return of course, but it wasn't an obligation as it likely was for those of an Innengarð.
That some people are uncomfortable with the idea of an individual being on Innengarð-levels of close with a Deity is understandable, and can be a perfectly valid way to practice a Heathen worldview. When someone attempts to use inapplicable history and their own unease to lay down a "You're doing it wrong", however? Well, the only proper response is the Heathen motto:
"You're not the boss of me."
In the end, the Gods and Goddesses will do what They want. If what They want is a few groupies mixed in with serious practitioners, why in the Nine Worlds should I give a damn? We are responsible for ourselves and our own Innengarð. If you want to invite a Deity into your Inner Yard, They are perfectly capable of saying, "No," just like we are if They demand too much in return. Offer gifts, do some divination to see if it was well received, and if you get "No" response or a "Go try someone else," listen to Them and move on. I trust the Gods and Goddesses to be Themselves and to communicate with those attempting to reach out to them. We were all neophytes at one point.
A relationship with a Deity is a relationship that will be what you're willing to make it, like any human relationship is. Just it's with...ya know...a God/Goddess. They're not inherently your friend any more than the random person next to you at the bar is. They're not your foes any more than the tough-looking guy walking down the street. They are Gods and Goddesses, and if you approach them with honesty and respect, they can be...something else. What that something is, is up to you and Them. Of course it's likely going to be exponentially more complicated than a relationship with a human, but it can be as exponentially rewarding too. If that's what you want, go into it with your eyes open, and don't let anyone tell you what to do.