How does one begin to build up a devotional practice with limited sources & options? That’s the million dollar question, really.
I’m not going to say I’m any kind of expert, because that would be a lie. But, I guess from a certain perspective I’ve got some real insight into it (which is weird, but kind of flattering for me). So we’ll dive into what I’ve been doing.
Let’s start with just what kind of research it takes to even begin building a devotional practice from a type of pantheon with limited resources.
This is the biggest struggle
I work with a pantheon that’s not super popular. There are upsides to this (less weird “role-play” stuff online, less weird porn art, etc); but there are also major downsides (less people to interact with, more misinformation, etc).
But perhaps one of the biggest problems I never realized I would have:
Lack of ability to find sources
Which, is hilarious considering my researchers bent. You’d think I would have considered that; but nope. I really had not thought this would be a problem. After all, how much research can you find on Greek, Norse, Roman mythology? – the answer is a lot.
For Slavic mythology? Practically nil. Oh, and to make it worse: what little there is, it’s mostly in Russian, Polish, Czech, Croatian or another language (depending on what country the research is from). Almost none have been translated into English–or German in my case. So that means, you have to grasp at the few things that have been translated. The problem with that: so much bullshit in this information it’s painful.
Worse still: there are very few primary sources anyway. Slavic people did not have a writing system before Christianity came along. So, what few “sources” we have–those are from monks. And, well, let’s be real. The monks have a definite bias to their writing (which we expect). There are no unadulterated resources or sources in my whole tradition. Pair that with people’s desperation to actually have “real sources”–and forgeries are surprisingly well welcomed. Like the Book of Veles, which is a load of horse-shit; and yet a massive group among Rodnovers/Slavic pagans all believe it.
What sources are there?
So then, what sources do I have?
This is where the fun comes in; and also the trouble. Almost all sources are from Christian monks. Of the resources, almost all are from foreigners. The closest we have to “primary sources”–at least with Western and Eastern Slavic paganism (my focuses):
- The Primary Chronicle
There are other accounts, but this is the closest we get to a real “Slavic pagan” writing down their pre-Christian beliefs. It’s not pre-Christian either, it’s a chronicle for the court. Take that bias as you will–written at a time when they were trying to follow along with the Christianity of the royals. Otherwise, we have chroniclers, historians, and a host of gossip and hearsay from foreign courts to go off of.
Basically: there’s a paucity of sources in this field. It’s difficult, and I don’t recommend this kind of path for someone who isn’t willing to put in a ton of research effort.
How I have built a devotional practice
My method is perhaps more stubborn & stupid than others would pick. And it’s definitely not “path of least resistance” kind of work either.
- Trial & Error
First & foremost: lots of research.
This is kind of obvious, but this is the huge part.
I have collected hundreds of books, articles, and random bits of research. Some are in English, others in German; still others I’ve had translated from other languages (Russian, Czech, Polish, etc). I have dozens of files and articles on my computer, annotated in some cases–and other files just there for reading & later to be translated. I’ve got quite a few books. Again, some annotated, others not yet, but on the list to be done. There’s a lot of note-taking and collecting of information from all sorts of sources.
Second step in this grouping: evaluation. Which is kind of the natural evolution of all the first-step research. That means, once I have the information and resources, evaluating them for whether they’re valid, correct, or just total bullshit. That’s lots of annotation and writing notes. Paired with incidental research (i.e. social cues, cultural behaviors, reliability of the sources and authors). But lots of evaluation on what the research is and how reliable it is.
I’m honest enough to admit that I hate relying on UPG. It’s just…oh, I don’t really know. I kind of feel like it is super easy to challenge UPG, and for people to say that what I experience and know is invalid. (I can admit that I absolutely hate being wrong; which probably explains this) I don’t like challenges like that.
It’s not that I dislike my beliefs being challenged. Questions, debates, even well-referenced challenges are good. I like the opportunity to learn, and to broaden my understanding through discussion and needing to answer questions about myself. So, the challenge isn’t the problem.
The issue is simply that UPG is so personal. But…when you have access to nearly nothing first hand, that means you make use of what you can. And in this case that means I use a lot of UPG.
Given that so few sources exist–I just have to go with what I can. So, those things that have stuck with me, I note down & write up. I keep random tidbits and information, resources and other bits all together in a notebook. Then I compare all these things with the records (scarce as they are), and work with that. I compare and evaluate some more.
Things that only come up once might just be my own ideas coming into play–self-implants is a good way to explain that. Things that repeat; or just stick with me for a long time…those are worth more investigation and consideration. It just requires more consideration, and I write everything down to try and track what comes up.
And sometimes, I just have to accept that there is UPG I have that may not tally with the broader community. So that is another consideration.
Third: Trial & Error
This is my least favorite part.
Let’s be honest, trial & error works far worse when you don’t have the ability to just know whether you fucked up or not. Being head blind sucks in this regard. Because I really have zero clue if what I’m doing at the time is a good idea or not. So…I have to do divination to see if something was working. Or, rarely I get a pretty big sign.
Big example: my use of cornbread as an offering. Literally, had no clue if that would work or not. But hey, I know my grandma liked it while she was alive; and I know that for my gods family is important. So, be extension, I figured: if my grandma liked it while alive, perhaps it would be okay to use it as an offering. I had to do divination after the fact to see if it was okay. Signs all pointed to yes–and that’s how I stumbled upon cornbread as an offering.
Basically, dumb luck. I’m not really proud or stupid enough to claim otherwise.
Sometimes things don’t go as well. I’ve learned that as well. Luckily, I didn’t actually do anything this time–just put the question out, and got a resounding No.
See, way back when my gods were originally being worshiped, the people ate meat. There’s no way around that, considering how you have to eat what you need to, in order to survive. So, I thought, I should ask if I (the vegetarian, keep in mind) should be offering meat to my gods as well. Got a very sharp “No” in response–from both Perun and Veles. Like, the type that clearly tells you that the person will be very offended if you try it. Took some time to figure out why–and it took me a good bit more divination and experience to realize why.
For me, personally, they absolutely would be insulted if I offered meat. Which, actually after thinking it over, makes sense. I hate meat; that’s why I quit eating it. I hated the taste, the smell, the texture…I haven’t handled any kind of it since I was 14.
So to carry that through: if I offered meat, it would be a throw-away. And offering a throw-away is an insult, really. Major UPG, of course. But it’s very clearly been told to me that I am not under any circumstances to offer my gods meat. Not so long as I’m a vegetarian (which, let’s be honest, is probably going to be the rest of my life).
But, it does show that trial & error has some success and some failure. Some failures are less painful than others. Lucky for me, I haven’t managed (as to yet) to do anything catastrophically insulting to my gods. Maybe have them rebuke and point out “no, don’t do that”; but nothing dangerous. Which means I’m very lucky. And I’ll take that luck.
To Sum Up
All in all, it’s been a matter of combining all the resources I can find plus all my own craft and intelligence and intuition. Paired up with just general fumbling around while I try to figure out what I’m doing with my devotions.
It’s difficult, to be honest. Without a solid, foundational base of lore and legend and mythology and without a good network of other people of the same beliefs, it’s been lonely at times. However, I’m also happy that I also have some real freedom to go about my work and my devotions without large strictures. There’s good and bad to this.
Much as I would prefer to base my practice and devotions on historical, solidly-sourced documents, that’s impossible so long as I’m following a Slavic perspective. And I am pragmatic enough to accept it. So, while my academic, historian heart is sad that I can’t be more “reconstruction” about everything–I’m definitely far more on the side of UPG and trial & error.
To be honest, I rather suspect that my gods prefer a bit of a puzzle and striving to learn & work with limited information to eke out devotion. That’s a deep seated suspicion of mine that I’ve yet to test by asking. I don’t need to divine for an answer, if I’m going to be blunt. I’m damn near sure that I’m right here, even without checking.
This is what I do: Use the sources I have at hand, do the research and correlate all the data. Make sure that I acknowledge and work off of the information that has been found and learned. But also, trust my instincts, my feelings, and the personal experiences I have gathered. And on top of that, experiment and just try things to see what happens.
It really at the end comes down to finding a balance in forming a devotional practice.∗