Thursday, November 21, 2013

What’s Worship?

I'm making some effort to catch up on posts as the year ends. Getting my writing-hinges all oiled up. Back to some practical stuff soon, too...

On the topic of “worshipping gods’ I covered what I think a god is. Now I’ll take a whack at what I think ‘worship’ is. There is hardly a stickier, pricklier term in all of modern Pagan discourse.

I’ll put my cards on the table. My goal is to demote the word ‘worship’ from its specialized place of honor or disdain in modern times. I want to normalize it, and strip it of its special status.

Let’s start with the schoolboy stuff:
From Wikipedia (because I know this one is accurate)
“Worship is an act of religious devotion usually directed towards a deity. The word is derived from the Old English weorþscipe, meaning worship, honour shown to an object, which has been etymologised as "worthiness or worth-ship"—to give, at its simplest, worth to something.”

From the Free Dictionary:
wor·ship n.
1. a. The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object.
b. The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed.
2. Ardent devotion; adoration.
3. often Worship Chiefly British Used as a form of address for magistrates, mayors, and certain other dignitaries: Your Worship.
 [Middle English worshipe, worthiness, honor, from Old English weorthscipe : weorth, worth; see worth1 + -scipe, -ship.]

1: chiefly British:  a person of importance —used as a title for various officials (as magistrates and some mayors)
2: reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power; also :  an act of expressing such reverence
3:  a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual

Remembering that dictionaries are only commercial efforts to compile usages, I especially note two things. First, in no case is worship said to involve personal abasement, bowing, scraping, etc. Second, I note that worship is not reserved for any specific category of being. It is extended to gods, ‘supernatural beings” (never mind…), and honored humans.

Here we must, once again, discard the weight of historical western religious thinking. The central principle with which so many of us were raised is that only “God” is worthy of worship. In that model worship is a special position of the emotions and intention that elevates “God” above all other things. All other beings can only be approached with some lesser degree of emotion and intent – often described in English as reverence or devotion. The Roman church uses Latin terms:

Latria vs. Dulia and Hyperdulia: Latria is sacrificial in character, and may be offered only to God. Catholic and Orthodox Christians offer other degrees of reverence to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to the Saints; these non-sacrificial types of reverence are called hyperdulia and dulia, respectively. In English, dulia is also called veneration. Hyperdulia is essentially a heightened degree of dulia provided only to the Blessed Virgin.

So this is the deeply-written core notion of western religiosity – that worship belongs only to the Highest, the Most True, the Ultimate, etc. I think this is among the most important notions to discard as we attempt to regain an understanding of ancient ways. It is an imposition of monotheism, for the most part.

When approaching a word with thick layers of meaning I like to return to etymological origins. I know this isn’t the end of any story about a term, but I like it for clarification. The term worship does not have, at its base, any reference to the divine or spiritual. Instead it refers to the human act of giving honor or respect to another.

Perhaps we should begin at what may be the strange end for westerners – the worship due to other people.
“the five central religious duties or "sacrifices" of the Hindu householder: paying homage to seers, to Gods and elementals, to ancestors, to living beings and, manushya yajna, "homage to men," which includes gracious hosting of guests.”

In English we find ‘worship’ applied to magistrates and other ‘worthies’. There is simply no reason to consider worship to be some high and special position of the heart, reserved only for the highest and most-special things. It is proper, in my opinion, to offer worship to anything in life one finds worthy of respect.

In fact, that would be my own definition of worship in a Pagan context:
The ritualized expression of respect and honor.

The ritualization part can feel funny for modern people in our informal age. In more formal times ‘ritualized respect’ included proper forms of address and detailed rules for social interactions. For some periods and in some places this ritualized respect might have included a degree of ‘bowing and scraping’ (when your lord can kill you or make you rich at a whim, there’s this tendency…). More commonly it includes exchange of gifts, mutual obligation and mutual respect between me and the powers that I worship. In some extremely formal situations, such as eastern guru-worship we see the material presence of a teacher treated as the idol of a deity. That’s strange for moderns, but fully within the spirit of the traditional idea of worship. Most notably for us it again illustrates that worship in a polytheistic context is not limited to the highest or ultimate being.

In the same way, worship does not require any sense of hierarchy or superiority/inferiority. Kings pay ritual respect to other kings, farmers to farmers and, yes, gods to gods. I fall back on Hindu tales again, where when one god petitions another for aid they are plainly said to worship and sacrifice to them. Hellenic story is less specific, though we plainly see gods petitioning other gods for aid. In modern Hinduism the pious greeting is the ‘Namaste’ or “Namaskar’, understood to mean “The god in me greets the god in you with worship”.

Durga is worshipped by other gods.
In this we can understand that no being is omnipotent. No being shapes the world through personal will alone. All beings exist in relationship, depending on the power and good-will of others for our successful lives. All beings must maintain relationship with other beings in order to work our will – even individual gods. Thus it is not abasement or acknowledgement of superiority that drives worship, nor need it be based on overwhelming awe and wonder. Simply the need or desire to establish relationship is all that is involved in the basic idea of worship.

In ADF we sometimes do a style of rite in which we pass the toasting cup, and each present toasts to those spirits that are important to them. Strictly ethnic Pagans might be appalled at some of our rounds, as people toast gods of various cultures, ancestors, nature spirits and, often enough the spirits of living animals, especially their personal companions. While I find a degree of humor in worshipping one’s housepets, I can’t really fault it. It seems proper to respect and honor those you allow to live with you, and thus proper to express that respect in a sacred way. Worship is no more fraught than that.

Next, I find that Pagan worship in no ways requires or assumes exclusivity. There is not the slightest notion from ancient lore that the gods were jealous of one another, or that they ‘competed’ for worshippers. While households, occupations and districts might have their favorite local powers it was understood that people invoked the gods at need, through the customary methods of offering and asking. On the other hand too much is made of ‘categorizing’ the gods (love, war, etc). If a worshipper had a relationship with a powerful spirit that would be the first spirit one asks for aid, even if one is asking a mother goddess for victory in strife. When travelling it was normative, and good manners, to worship the gods of the house or land in which one found oneself. The notion of loyalty to one’s gods did not commonly include exclusivity.

Some religious models suggest that reciprocity is impiety – that we ought to worship because the gods are too wonderful not to worship, and that asking for things in turn is impious. There is great value in generating experiences of awe and wonder in the personal mind. However, I think that from a Pagan perspective we must set aside the notion that worship is primarily a response to awe. Certainly approaching powerful spirits is like approaching a Tesla coil – it produces effects. Those effects are, themselves, desirable, and lead to repeated action. However I don’t think we need some moth-to-the-flame motivation for worship – self-interest is a noble enough cause. We worship because it is good to worship – it produces good for us, andfor the spirits with which we interact.

Proceeding from that I would suggest that Pagan or magical worship is not primarily a position of the heart, but a deed of the hands. Worship is accomplished through willed action. Usually this is ritual action – making an offering, reciting a charm in a spirit’s name, etc. It can be a purely internal action - such as a visualization and silent invocation – but it is deliberate, conscious and focused. The spirits may or may not be concerned with the ‘sincerity’ of the action, so long as the proper ritualized respect is shown. My experience is that the more intimate one’s relationship with a god or spirit becomes the more this stuff matters, though even my hearth gods do not seem to require every offering to be made from the very sweetest position of my heart.

These positions – mutual worship, non-exclusivity, the piety of reciprocity, and praxis-preference – are easy to find attested in lore. Forgive me for not tracking down citations for this blog post.

I suppose my goal here is to rinse away some of the recent accretion of nonsense on the fine old idea of worship. It’s no big deal. When you offer a guest a drink on arrival it is worship. When you leave a harvesting-offering for an herb or tree spirit it is worship. When you place your ancestors’ pictures in a place of honor it is worship. From there of course one proceeds to the other traditional elements of worship – singing hymns, giving praise, offering food and drink. What guest would not be pleased by such kindnesses?

This is why I do not hesitate to say that I worship my ancestors, or the land-wights, or the ground I walk on. It’s only right, and no big deal.


Anonymous said...

Trying to redefine how we use words is a huge undertaking and one I have been taken to task over a few times myself.

I support and wish you lots of luck in promoting this paradigm shift.

IanC said...

Yeah, I know. I just hate seeing good, solid terms hobbled by popular sentiment. Let's at least know what stuff means at its core.

Mary Lou said...

thank you for clearing up something I have been having issues with. you said it clearly and in such a way that I can wrap my mind, such as it is, around it. thank you sir.

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