But Do You Love Them? Polytheism and Sacred Animals
Crows seem to be very popular in the pagan and polytheist world right now, simultaneously serving as sacred companions to many ancient deities and sporting the moody, dark aesthetic so many of us love. If you browse pagan art or jewelry, you’ll come across an endless variety of crows, often accompanied by semi-precious stones and so. much. knotwork. I’m not complaining - I enjoy the ubiquity of crow everything. And, dedicated as I am to The Mórrígan, they are important to me in a religious sense.
But I loved crows long before I met The Mórrígan. I don’t remember when my fascination with corvids began. It was probably way back in the late 90’s or early 2000’s when I watched a Nature documentary on crows (which you can now watch on YouTube). I know this fascination was firmly in place in the early 2000’s, when I lamented the fact that the place I lived was rarely visited by crows, though it was semi-rural. I mourned that home when I divorced my ex and moved to the city for work and housing, but I was consoled by my delight in the plentiful population of crows in the Portland metro area. They are everywhere here, taunting us from power lines and stealing poorly guarded snacks.
My love for them intensified when I began my relationship with Herself and learned how deeply embedded crows are in Her stories. They are not only Her companions, but are one of Her forms, along with wolves, eels, and cows. They are sacred to Her not only as symbols, but as beings with whom She keeps company and sometimes becomes.
My relationship with crows becomes more and more important to me as time goes on. And, though we humans tend to compartmentalize sacred and mundane experience, the crows around me frequently remind me that this apparent duality is an illusion. The crows in Her stories and the crows in my front yard are not different from one another. I know this not only in theory, but in experience. So often, the local crows come close or call out with perfect dramatic timing when I do outdoor ritual as part of my devotion to Herself. But more often they are just living their crow lives. One moment they are laughing clowns fighting over peanuts, and another they are throwing a message from Herself at my feet. All of these behaviors are enacted by the same family of crows. There’s no separation between sacred and mundane crows. You could say the same of everything in life. It’s all poetry and prose, all at once.
To me, this means we have a deep responsibility to take beneficial actions for the creatures we so often treat as symbols or messengers from the Gods. A crow may, sometimes, be a message from Herself. The rest of the time that same crow might just be someone who happens to live in my neighborhood and enjoy bathing in my birdbath. But the crow is equally precious in both roles. And the crow deserves the same degree of reciprocity from me whether they are coming to me in a religious role or just as a visitor to the bird feeder. (They’re too big for the bird feeders, but they never stop trying.)
There’s so much confusion among many polytheists about the best way to serve the Gods. What offerings do we give? What work might they want from us? I especially tend to ask why an ancient, fierce deity like Herself would accept a devotee like me, with my quiet life and introverted awkwardness. And of course the answers to those questions vary from deity to deity and human to human. But I understand that our Gods are connected intimately to the land, and to those beings, human or otherwise, who live on that land. Knowing this, couldn’t we serve our Gods well by caring for Their creatures? And wouldn’t that extend to the “mundane” animals around us?
If I revere an animal - or tree, plant, landscape, mountain, whatever - because they are sacred to my Gods, I think it’s important for me to also care for that being in some tangible way. Poems, art, and ritual are, of course, lovely expressions of our devotion, and I would never say not to create them. But I'm thinking more and more that it would be a beautiful act of service to Herself to learn all I can about the challenges faced by Her creatures and find ways I can help support those creatures in the physical world somehow.
I talk about this a lot, and other contemporary pagans and polytheists also talk about it, but it needs to be repeated: Too often our reverence for nature translates to harmful actions rather than beneficial ones. From non-biodegradable ribbons tied on trees as an act of prayer, to offerings like figurines and coins which are really litter, to food left out for the spirits that poisons wildlife, as a community we aren’t very good at expressing our reverence in a beneficial way. Often the harm done is unintentional, born of a lack of understanding of the world outside our front door. But I think the ignorance is made worse by a tendency to view sacred animals (or plants, etc.) as symbols instead of beings. And it rarely occurs to us that we could harm a symbol with our actions.
This is why I think polytheism, witchcraft and other pagan paths suffer when animism isn't intricately entwined with their practice. And that animism should center the other-than-human more than ourselves. It isn’t enough to know that each being has a consciousness if we still relate to them all in a way that centers ourselves and the gifts they can give us. That’s just treating all of existence like unpaid staff.
I don’t believe it’s enough to revere the beings who are sacred to our Gods in an abstract, ritualized way. I think we have a duty to love these beings for themselves, as well, and to support their continued survival in whatever ways we can. This will look different for each of us, depending on our resources and abilities. For me, so far, it's about continuing to learn, and about creating beneficial habitat in my yard as much as possible. That could change or expand as I learn more about the needs of Her creatures.
Whatever our approach, I think caring for these beings is a valuable way to serve our Gods and know Them better through the ones They love. We’ll be required to learn new things. No doubt we’ll make mistakes and need to course correct. But imagine a world where we love the land and those who live there as much as we love ourselves and our Gods. Imagine what we could do with that amount of applied love and care.
Crow photograph by Niklas Hamann, courtesy of Unsplash
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