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UPG: Good, Bad, Maybe Even Ugly?
Article ID: 14416
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Spend any amount of time around folks in the Pagan and Heathen community and you'll pick up on some interesting lingo – it seems that every form of Paganism and Heathenry has, over the years, developed a specialized language that can tell you where they fall in the spectrum. You don't find many Wiccans using the term “faining”, and for most Heathens an athame has no place on their stalli (there's another one!) . But some words and terms are considered universals, understood by all, and one of those terms is “unverifiable/unverified personal gnosis” or UPG. How UPG is received though is generally up for debate. While some see it as a normal part of the spiritual experience, some folks see it as nothing more than “making stuff up”, and are dismissive.
UPG, as Pagans and Heathens commonly use it, is any sort of understanding/insight into the personalities and preferences of deities that cannot be verified through extant materials (mythology, scholarship, archaeology, etc.) that a person receives through their interactions with said deities. UPGs can run the gamut from a preference for a certain type of libation, to a preferred way of setting up an altar, to ritual gestures and a preferred means of address. They are also as old as humanity. Our pre-Christian ancestors – not being “people of the book” - learned what rituals to perform, gestures to use, offerings to give, words to say, etc. from their experiences interacting with the Gods. Over centuries and time, the UPGs of our ancestors formed into cultic practises, established rituals, and in the present have formed the basis of our modern practises and a launchpad for the development of new ones suited to our century and lifestyle. At the same time though, in some ways those early UPGs-become-religion have become the standard by which all other UPGs are judged, which has both good points as well as bad.
It's a safe bet to say that folks living in the Bronze Age had a different experience of the deities than folks living in the Early Iron Age, the Viking Age, and our own age – the “Age of Technology” or “Modern Age”. On the flipside, folks living in the Ice Age would have a different view of the Gods than folks in the Bronze Age. Human experience shapes our interaction with the deities and spirits – nomadic hunter-gatherers and herdsmen would not have as much need of an agricultural deity as, say, people living in a more permanent settlement whose economy centers on what foodstuffs they grow and cultivate and the types of animals they raise. People living in the tropics don't have much use for a deity associated with snowshoes, skis, and safe travel over glaciers. However, deities of a group of people change over time in terms of characteristics, appearance, and associations without changing their core essence, and this is one reason why deities often have many different “faces”, kennings, and affiliations.
Freyr, for instance, is Lord of the Mound Dead; Leader of the Hosts of the Gods; associated with kings, kingship, and farmers; a deity of agriculture, rain, weather, horses, fertility, marriage; maintenance of frith within the community; a deity of priests, the temple, and the sacred grove. A deity who historically was offered human and animal sacrifice in abundance, is associated with the liminal realm of the bog (the meeting of earth and water) , but is celebrated as well as a deity of joy, mirth, release from fetters, and life. All of these different facets of Freyr's personality were gleaned over centuries of contact via worship, communion, prayer, libation, and offering.
Today, Freyr continues to receive worship among Heathens and Pagans alike, but the UPG people have regarding him varies by religion – for some, he is much the same as our ancestors saw him; for others, he has become associated with the environmental movement, becoming a Green Man-type figure; for still others, he has become a “horned God”, associated with the forests and wilds and sporting a mighty crown of antlers. Are any of these ways of viewing Freyr wrong? Technically, no – while the way a deity is perceived may change outwardly inwardly the nature of the deity does not change; therefore it stands to reason that Freyr would easily appear to a modern worshiper as he did to our ancestors.
As a case in point, it has often been remarked that people of Swedish and Icelandic heritage seem to have a stronger draw to his worship – not surprising given his historical popularity in both places. In terms of being associated with environmentalism, given that Freyr has long been tied to agricultural production and plenty, which includes not just vegetation but animals, it makes sense that a modern Pagan or Heathen environmentalist would see him as an ideal deity to pray to, given that modern environmentalism also embraces sustainable agriculture and better, more humane and ethical treatment of livestock. Given that, it would be hard to argue that Freyr would not have an interest in blessing the modern environmental movement, or answering the prayers of those asking him to assist them in their endeavours in trying to encourage less use of harmful pesticides and the elimination of certain agricultural chemicals and practises.
In terms of being perceived as a “horned God” - there is evidence that deer were associated with Freyr and his cult, not only in terms of his use of a stag's antler appearing within the Eddas, but in mention of antlers being used in decoration of halls and temples (such as Heorot in Beowulf) ; further, antlers have long been included in graves as symbolic of rebirth and renewal – Freyr is a God of life, death, and renewal.
Yet, ask some Heathens how they feel about seeing Freyr depicted as a “horned God”, and you'll have the launching point for a discussion on how Wiccans and Pagans are distorting the Gods to fit their particular religious views. Tell some Wiccans and Pagans that there are Heathens still performing traditional swine blot to Freyr at Midsummer and Yule, and you'll have outcry that animal sacrifice is not only unnecessary but also unethical, and that there's no reason for people to keep doing it in the 21st century. Again though, are any of the above interpretations – UPGs – really that off base?
In my personal experience, the best barometer of whether a UPG can be considered genuine, and not the result of fantasizing, wishful thinking, inserting one's personal agenda (s) into worship, etc., is how well that UPG lines up with what we know in terms of established information regarding that deity. For example, Thorr has received libations of mead, ale, and beer for centuries, so saying that you got a UPG that Thorr prefers Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale or Guiness as a libation over Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, or Berry Blast Kool-Aid, makes sense. Frigga is said by many regular worshipers to be fond of various kinds of German pastry. It makes perfect sense that Skadhi would prefer summer sausage to a veggie dog. That Njordhr would enjoy a faining near the marina on Myrtle Beach, or receiving libation or offering on a pier, likewise makes perfect sense.
On the other hand, some people's UPGs fall way out in left field. It's highly unlikely that Odhinn – despite his shape-shifting ability – is best worshiped at a stalli decorated with brightly coloured eggs and a pink gingham cloth, with a libation of Shirley Temples. And while this is an extreme example, it is sometimes the case that people will claim something as UPG as a cover for not having done appropriate research, or for poor judgement.
Another way to approach UPG is with the understanding that sometimes what one receives as a UPG is meant for you and you alone, and not meant to be something shared or implemented widely. One of the reasons that some folks have become skittish regarding UPG is that there are those who have turned UPGs into divine mandates, claiming that they speak for various deities and that they and they alone know in what manner those deities need to be venerated. Anyone claiming to know the “one true way” or “only way” is not operating from a stable center, or very likely from a Heathen or Pagan perspective. In such cases, the best thing to do is to follow your gut. If you feel that someone's claim of revelation from a deity is wrong, then you don't need to adhere to it, or follow it, or believe it.
Often, members of a particular religion and spirituality, as well as those who engage in regular worship together, may find that they get similar or the same UPGs, and this is another means of determining whether a UPG is genuine. The more people that have had a similar UPG, the more likely it is to be genuine, so it is of benefit for people to share their UPGs and discuss them. As long as this is done in an environment of open-mindedness and respect, great insight can be gleaned.
Thus UPG can be a wonderful tool, a means of learning about and growing closer to our deities as Heathens and Pagans living in the 21st century. Although we draw from our ancestors, and in many ways are our ancestors, we do not live in their world, and do not necessarily face the same concerns. Therefore it is necessary for us to be able to approach our deities with knowledge from our ancestors guiding our footsteps and we build upon it for the future. By embracing UPG and its usage in a responsible, ethical way, we can become closer to our deities without sacrificing tradition.
Copyright: Copyright Jess Blalock 2011. Do not reproduce without express permission of the authouress.
Location: Charleston, West Virginia
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