We represent our Gods.

Naturally being a very private person, this is something I have a difficult time with: as polytheists, particularly polytheists devoted to particular God(s), is it our place to represent Them? I don’t mean, “Do we speak for Them,” but, you know — does our behavior impact Them, for good or ill. I want to say no. I want to say, They don’t need our representation, They’ve been doing just fine all along. Except, if I bother to look beyond my little fish bowl, I realize that we as polytheists and pagans are a pretty small minority, and that, for good or ill, our behavior does, indeed reflect at least on how others may see our Gods. Further, I don’t think it matters how “popular” They ever get — I know that when I see people who present themselves as devout or dedicated, be they Hindu or Muslim or Christian or pagan, how they act, how they carry themselves colors my understanding of their faith.

We do not have a proselytizing obligation that Christianity has, but we still are living examples of our faith. And, living in an interfaith culture, that means that from time to time there will be questions.

I work in the public sector, in a retail store. I wear a head covering as part of my religious dress. (Actually, that’s pretty much the entirety of my “religious dress” thus far). I frequently at work get comments about it — generally “Ooh, that’s so pretty!” “That looks so elegant on you!” “I really like how you’ve tied that.” Now and again I’ll be asked if I cover for religious reasons. I say yes. Even more rarely, there will be follow up questions.

This always throws me for a loop. For one thing, I’m at work. I’m not getting paid by my employer to discuss religious matters with you. For a second thing, where I come from, how I was brought up, you do not ask people you don’t know personal questions and “What religion are you?” is incredibly personal. I don’t know if it’s the influence of England’s Reformation on the history of New England, if it’s the influence of our own Witch craze, I don’t know if it’s stereotypical New England standoffishness, or, most likely, a little bit of all these things, but these are things you don’t ask of people you don’t know. To compound matters, I do not have a sound-bite answer. There’s no tradition behind what I do; I do it because Poseidon’s asked me to, period.

It’s always easiest when they’re questions come in the form of “are you”‘s. “Are you Jewish?” “Are you Roman Orthodox?” “Are you Mennonite?” (I’m still not sure how they came up with that one!”) I generally say no, because I’m not, and answer it with “I’m polytheist,” and now and again we go a bit further, but I’m usually flustered and stuttering at that point.

This past week, I opted for, “It’s personal.” Because, you know what? It fucking is personal. I didn’t want to get into it, I didn’t have the mental capacity to field personal questions and do my job, and I resented very much this idea that I didn’t even know her name but she decided that, because I was providing customer service for her, that she got to know anything at all personal about me. This apparently offended her greatly. I continued with my job, thought about it some more, and felt . . . guilty? Badly? Uncompassionate? Something not comfortable. I don’t want people to feel ashamed for asking questions; it’s great to be open to asking questions when you come across something you haven’t before, and I don’t want to be a person who is the last straw for someone before deciding to no longer inquire. So, I decided I’d find her if she was still in the store, apologize for being brusque, and explain a bit about my background and my reasoning for responding as I did.

And, I did find her! I did. And I approached her. And before I could say anything at all, she held her hand up to me and said, “SSSHHH!!” a la Cesar Milan.

At which point I no longer felt badly for not answering her and had to try really hard to not then say what I wanted to say.

Some people.

But it’s made me reflect, so it’s good. It’s challenged me into letting go — she embarrassed me and rejected my good intent when I would have apologized; she’s challenged me to consider my answer, and she’s challenged me in my striving for compassion — which includes self-compassion.

I’ll be attempting, “I’m Hellenic” as a pat answer in the future. If they want answers in a public setting they’re only getting soundbytes and too bad if it’s not completely accurate; Hellenic sounds more like an answer than Heathen or Pagan or Polytheist for most people, and I do cover for Poseidon, and the goal here is to satisfy their curiosity without costing me time from my job. Pagan and heathen have the various misunderstandings for those who don’t know any better, which leads to more questions, pagan and polytheist are too open as to be accurate, for my comfort; further, too many people have never heard the word polytheist, to be content with that as an answer.

It’s still frustrating. Had I not been on the clock, my answer would have been way less brusque, because I accept that we represent our Gods, even if we’d rather not. People see faiths through the acts of the devout. Or, as the Heathens like to say, we are our deeds.


13 thoughts on “We represent our Gods.

  1. I think sometimes people don’t realize that they are asking a personal question. Or maybe they don’t care? I have a medical condition that necessitates treatment at the ER somewhat regularly, and for some reason, I often get asked about my runic tatt there. It’s on my arm, and it’s visible, so I don’t generally mind questions about it when I’m out in public..unless I’m at the ER for treatment. And then I do get a little brusque, because a lack of 02 makes me cranky, and I think when I’m a patient, my on-duty light is off.

    • Here in Eugene we’ve noticed people have less respect (or maybe less awareness of? I don’t know that disrespect enters into it all the time) for boundaries. It’s frustrating, coming as I do from places where you can be on a bus crammed cheek-by-jowl with folks who pretend you aren’t there — which I prefer.

      Boundaries — like, people in the ER are pretty much concerned with making whatever emergency issue they’ve got going on go away, and your duty light really should be off at that point. Priorities, you know?

      I don’t think we should have to suffer for other peoples lack of manners and propriety. Except, we do have to deal with it, and it comes down to, how best to do that?

      Though, to be fair, getting accosted at work and getting accosted at the ER are two *totally* different experiences, and all the brusqueness in the world is excusable to one in the ER. For crying out loud.

  2. I had a friend suggest just saying it’s a wedding tattoo, and that seems to draw fewer questions than saying “I’m a Pagan nun,” so I’ve been going with that as of late. That way if “what does it say?” comes up, I can just say it says my Husband’s name. It’s not a lie, cause Loki’s name is in the tatt…it’s a way of telling as much of the truth as is needed, right?

  3. Funnily enough, I’ve been meaning to ask you about this very thing because it keeps happening to me too. The one that took me back the most was in Wal-Mart. As I was leaving, the “greeter” at the door was checking receipts and she commented on my covering saying “Oh, that’s so beautiful!”. Smiling, I thanked her and was getting ready to keep walking when she said “Do you cover for religious reasons?”. “Yes”, I replied. “Oh, what religion are you?” My smiled faded, because how do I answer her question quickly (there’s a line behind me) and concisely? A bit rattled I blurted “I’m Quaker.” Thinking it would it end there, but she then said “I’m not familiar with that. What do you believe?” Oh ye Gods! That was not the place to have a religious discussion.

    I don’t have a sound byte either and really need to come up with one. I feel dishonest if I don’t include Polytheist in my answer but often feel worried about the reactions to that answer.

    • Beth helped me with this. She’s actually the one to suggest, “Tell them you’re Hellenic.” To me, it feels dishonest in its lack of accuracy, but, as she pointed out, they don’t really care about accuracy, they want their questions answered.

      We had, a number of weeks ago, a woman approach us in the craft store (mmmm craft store) and ask if we were Masonic — and our reaction as pretty off-putting. Monosyllabic answers and a general glowery glare. It was a bad morning, we likely shouldn’t have been out in public, and mostly the, “Masonic?” question confused us. (I’m wondering now if she meant Messianic Jew?) I’m still very ashamed of our response — but her asking us there was *way* more appropriate than, say, my customer at work, or the greeter at Walmart. To follow that up with, “what do you believe?”, oh, goodness! As you’re walking out the door! I’d be tempted at that point to give people my less-personal email address; if they’re actually curious, I’d be happy to exchange email, but if not they won’t bother, and a “I’m really in a rush right now, but I’d be happy to talk about this with you via email,” is possibly less off-putting than, “I don’t have time!”

      Still — why do some people not grasp inappropriate timing??

      • I think it comes from a genuine place of well intent and wanting to learn new religions (which is cool) that gets misplaced by time and space. I’d much rather have a polite inquiry that borderlines on intrusiveness than have someone being snarky. What I worry about is the surrounding people ease-dropping into the conversation, and having the over imagination that I do, they are grabbing their pitchforks and torches ready to run me out of town.

        Masonic, hmmm. My answer would had been along the lines of “To be a Mason, one must be a male. I am not a male.” Said with a smile, highlighting the stupidity. She probably meant Messianic Jew, but still, it’s a weird situation. It’s like the lady whilst in the ladies’ restroom asking me if I’m Amish (I was wearing my kapp). Completely taken aback!

    • I get this sort of thing a lot, not because of a tattoo, but rather because of the way I dress (usually with a long full tiered white skirt, and a blue 200 year old Kente` cloth/robe from Africa) the outfit stands out big time. Every day no less than 20 people come up to me and ask “Why are you dressed like that?” or “Why are you wearing a costume?” or “Is their a CosPlay event in town?” or “What the hell planet did you drop off of?” and as I usually have my head covered (sometimes with a veil, other times a cap, other times a sunbonnet, other times a hat) I also get the questions “So, are you Amish/Mennonite/Muslim?” and once in a while someone will say “You’re white, why are you dressed like an African?” or sometimes their laugh and joke and ask in sarcasm “So what are you supposed to be, some sort of Voodoo priestess? ha, ha, ha, ha…” to which I’ll say, “Why yes, in fact I am.” and they’ll stand there dumbfounded. 🙂 I had one guy stand there staring for a few seconds, than drop his drink on the ground and run down the sidewalk screaming “Help, it’s a Voodoo witch, she’s gonna put a curse on me!” ROTFLMAO!!!! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! LOL! Sad, but funny.

      But yeah, Walmart seems to be a place where I get the whole, “Oh I love that outfit, where did you get it?” I look around at the line behind me and have to think fast, how do I answer this without getting into a religious discussion? I say “I sew my own cloths, except for the Kente, it’s an antique that belonged to an African priestess back in the 1800s”, which should end it, except, folks get all agog over the Kente and the fact that it’s so ancient (and I dare wear it in spite of it’s age) and suddenly folks want to know why I’m wearing priests robes, and oh African priests robes, does that mean they belonged to a witch doctor and am I a witch doctor and what religion is it, and I want to run to my car, but heck, I get to my car and find crowds flocked around it, and can’t get close enough to get the door open, because yeah I went all Erzulie Freda on my car and rhinestoned it, and now I’m stuck answering questions “Why did you do this to your car? and “What is this weird symbol on it?” I say, that’s the Veve of Damballa, and next thing I know I’m answer questions about why I’ve got snakes and Damballa veve painted and rhinestoned to my car, and that eventually ends up with me saying something about being the future bride of Danballa, and the whole, oh yeah, by the way, my soon to be husband is a snake spirit-god…

      wow the reactions!

      I get everything from, “Hey, man, that’s like so cool!” to “Ohmigod! You freak, I’m calling the police, you’re frigging crazy!” and everything in between.

      I think the thing folks have the hardest time understanding about it all, is when they ask about, why do I dress this way and why did I do that to my car, and my answer is “Well, Damballa told me to. He wants me to be his representative, he wants to know that I will not be ashamed to tell others of our marriage (as some god spouses are), he wants me to commit every aspect of my life to him, right down to the way I dress and the car I drive, I don’t expect you to understand it. This is a test of my devotion, and I will be expected to do this the rest of my life, if/when I do submit to marriage to him.” – They just can not grasp, such a huge level of commitment to another being (thus why the divorce rate is so high, no one commits themselves fully to another person these days, so when they meet a person who is not only committing to a marriage, but also committing to a marriage with a spirit being, well that just blows their minds right out of the water!

      But yeah, the whole “we represent our gods” thing, I totally get that. I’ve always been a highly religious person, granted I was born and raised Christian and stayed that way many years because I felt I HAD to remain Christian “or else”…I’m not sure or else what, but there was always the “or else” in the back of my head…it was like I could not explore other religions because I was terrified of being struck down by lightening if I did. After a while it occurred to me, that if God really was God, than God would be for everyone, not just a small group of people, and he would love and welcome everyone and not be threatening to blow us up for trying to better ourselves, and one thing lead to another, and finally I branched away from the fear based religious ideas I had growing up and followed the whispers of a kind loving god(?) who had haunted my dreams since childhood (some 30+ years ago). I wanted to know who he was and what he wanted and why me? (He couldn’t talk so it was not like he could tell me who he was or what he wanted!) Why was he in my dreams every night? I discovered that there are 15,000 religions each with a whole great big set of gods and it was like looking for a needle in a haystack, when all I had to go on was the man was an albino, dressed always in white or green, couldn’t talk, and was always carrying this giant anaconda/snake.

      You’d think that would make it easy to figure out who he was, but pretty much every religion has a snake god, most gods wear white, and mute gods are not quiet as uncommon as they would seem. It took me years of searching to identify his identity (Damballa Weddo)

      Well, me being the ubber Christian that I was at the time, I totally freaked out when I found out the guy visiting me in my dreams was a Voodoo god, because I had the whole Voodoo=Satanism theory going on in my head at the time, than it got worse when about 15 years ago, that I found out, ohmigod, he wants me to just toss my secular life aside, become his wife, and devote my life 100% to serving him. Yikes! I was engaged to marry a Mormon priest, and had some rather common (and false) misconceptions about Voodoo, well, I was very “No way am I EVER going to marry a god, and even if I did it certainly wouldn’t be a Voodoo one!”

      Well, suddenly everything went wrong, really wrong, really fast: my grandmother died, my engagement was ended because my future husband decided to become a celibate type priest, my dad went into a coma, a flood took my house, I started rebuilding only to have that house burnt to the ground by vandals, I spent 6 years homeless living under a tarp, my church excommunicated me after 27 years of faithful service, and one day I was sitting at the library trying to figure out what the heck was happening, when I saw this book about Voodoo sitting on a desk opened to a chapter about Damballa. So I started studying Voodoo and found out it was nothing like I thought it was.

      From there, one thing lead to another and once I stopped be scared of Voodoo and started paying more attention to Damballa all of a sudden my life turned back around, and the more I devoted my life to him, the better my life became. I mean 15 years ago the thought of marrying a Voodoo lwa and devoting the rest of my life to him was a terrifying thought that I wanted nothing to do with, and now today, it’s a comforting thought that I look forward to.

      But than, how the heck to I explain this to the cashier at Walmart and do it in 15 seconds so I don’t hold up the line or come off sounding like a deranged lunatic?

      I found a solution: business cards!

      Yes, business cards! It is so simple, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner. The card reads:

      Rev. EelKat Wendy C. Allen
      Autistic Author, Artist, Illstrator, Rootwork, Doll Maker, & Art Car Designer.

      there is a picture of me in my “outfit” and my car.

      than it lists the urls of my Zazzle store, my etsy store, and my blog.

      Now when folks ask about my clothes or my car or my religion, I just pull out a card and say “It’s Voodoo. I’ve explained everything on my blog. Here’s my card. If you want to know more about me and what I do, just read my blog.”

      Than I put my bags in the shopping cart and leave, no worrying about holding up the line! I’ve answered them in under 5 seconds, and if they really want to know the answer, than it’s up to them to head to my blog, if they were just making conversation, than I’ve not wasted every one’s time explaining the details to the uninterested, and I have not caused undo irritation to the line standing behind me.

      • This is quite a tale! I’m lucky, in where I live, that my dress isn’t considered all that unusual; likely, if you were here, your dress wouldn’t be considered all that unusual. Ah, college towns. Ah, Eugene. I find myself, when I hear other stories of other people, of their struggles and experiences, overcome all over again with gratitude at Poseidon’s presence in my life — the idea of driving around in a car that attracts such attention fills me with horror. I understand, and I think it’s fabulous that you’re doing it, but when I’m being honest, part of that “it’s fabulous” reaction is: it’s fabulous that people do such things and I am so grateful I don’t have to.

        Business cards are such a great idea! That gets right through the idle questions because people are nosey and expect to be allowed to know intimate details of a stranger’s life, just because they asked. People who are genuinely curious will follow up. Those who aren’t, won’t.

        Thank you for sharing so much of your story with me — it’s terrible, the things you had to go through to get to where you are now, except at the same time, where you are now sounds to be a wonderful place (possibly not from most peoples standards, but who cares about them?). I know from experience that my own terrible things are things I wouldn’t wish on anyone else, and yet, I would not give them up, because they’ve shaped me, and I like who I am (for the most part).

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  5. One thing I have become more aware of over the years, between my blogging, general online presence, and becoming shemsu ankh, is that on some level I HAVE to represent my Gods. It’s almost an extension of representing myself, because it’s such a core part of my being. Also, my actions can and do reflect on the greater pagan and polytheist communities and I’d prefer those actions to be positive.

    Strangely, I don’t think I have ever had anyone ask if my head covering is religious. That may be due to my only wearing it for work.

  6. Your wish for privacy, and your feelings of discomfort and displeasure when people pry into a deeply-felt personal matter, are completely understandable. To those I will add – in my case, at least – the fear of questions, being (relatively) new to the religion and lacking simple answers for some queries.

    The solution I eventually found, for myself, was holding myself to Hinduism as a path of ego-transcendence, the discovery that I am more than my concerns and worries, and that the people who spoke to me didn’t care about “me” at all. They were but sincerely curious about a new and unknown path, and seizing the opportunity to ask questions – an opportunity that might not present itself again, because of the dominant Western/Christian culture and the resulting need of many non-Christian folks for discretion and concealment. That I wear obvious signs of my faith – in my case, the forehead marking called tilaka and a necklace-mālā of seeds, having been forbidden head-covering as insistently as you were called to it – signifies, to some folks, that I am ready to discuss it. I think they equate openness in display with openness to inquiry, though of course the two are not the same! (And this curiosity does not excuse those like the one you mentioned above, who made your privacy all about her and reacted very rudely.)

    I agree with the above commenter, too, about the feeling of “HAVE to represent my Gods.” As a non-Indian/American Hindu convert, following a path that is unusual even for most Hindus-by-birth, I want to show that not all Western Hindus are “playing Indian dress-up,” fooling around with the exotic. (That is egotistical, I know.) Most importantly, though, my Lord’s name is not common parlance, and his “missteps” are known more than his glories; sometimes I do feel that, if I do not speak well of him, few others will. Of course he does not need anyone’s defense, but I nonetheless desire for his generosity, courage, and boisterous humour to shine through all of my deeds, and this gives an urgent wish to face bravely even the situations that disturb me. (Though, as you write, I would happily be left alone.)

    By the way, the “Mennonite” guess likely comes from overall modest dress as well as head-covering, particularly if you wear mostly (or exclusively) skirts. There are large populations of Mennonites here in Manitoba, and I never see the ladies without ankle-length dresses, head coverings (a bonnet, kerchief, or a small cap pinned to the hair), socks and sensible shoes. 🙂

    • The solution I eventually found, for myself, was holding myself to Hinduism as a path of ego-transcendence, the discovery that I am more than my concerns and worries, and that the people who spoke to me didn’t care about “me” at all. They were but sincerely curious about a new and unknown path, and seizing the opportunity to ask questions – an opportunity that might not present itself again, because of the dominant Western/Christian culture and the resulting need of many non-Christian folks for discretion and concealment

      This is an extremely important point; thank you for making it. It’s possible that not everyone is going to be sincerely asking, but I’d rather go forth and respond as if they are, rather than default to the belief that they will be asking only to stir up problems. I do believe that if one is going to display any part of themselves when they go out publicly, one ought be prepared to answer questions. (Just the same that I believe that if one is going to go out scantily clad, one should not be surprised to be stared at. One may not *like* it, but one really ought not be *surprised*)

      While I’m strongly in the “the gods call whom they will camp,” I have to admit I do not envy people who are called to traditions that were not wiped out by monotheism, that are so heavily tied to culture, who are not of that culture and who are called anyway. You have my admiration, but not any of my envy. To have to be so alert and aware of concerns of cultural appropriation — a term I try to stay away from, because ultimately my opinion doesn’t matter (but goes back to “the gods call whom they will”) but I get so sad? depressed? annoyed? when people decide living tradition have to be off limits for fear of cultural appropriation. I’m grateful that’s not a battle I have to fight directly.

      It’s likely the “Mennonite” query wasn’t very well educated on what makes one a Mennonite — I was somewhat modestly dressed, but in work uniform, and my headcoverings have sparkles! I wouldn’t consider them “plain”. On the other hand, I’m all about the sensible shoes . . .

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