We need more support services for polytheist survivors of domestic violence. I’m just going to put that out there.
A friend recently asked me to serve as a priestess for a teenage kid who had been through some terrible traumas, including sexual violence from partners, and wanted some kind of cleansing ritual. It took some time to tease out the reason behind it, but eventually the kid described an experience that would be familiar to many within the polytheist and magical communities involving another entity. Anyone outside of those communities, however, most likely would have dismissed it as a creative imagination or an indication of mental illness. While the kid obviously does have some mental illness, likely caused by prolonged and repeated trauma from his not-too-distant past, what ultimately matters isn’t what the rest of us thinks should be real but the fact that this experience was very real for him and affected him deeply. Unfortunately, the manifestation of this kid’s trauma response and the way he chose to address it would be seen by many as the actual problem, not a symptom of something deeper.
Child abuse is categorized differently from domestic and intimate partner violence legally and socially, although they tend to have a correlative and often cyclical relationship, but trauma is indiscriminate. The way people respond to it is always unique, shaped by an individual’s experiences, culture, gender, social and economic status, biology, education, and too many other identifiers to list, not the least of which is also religion. The idea that a survivor may incorporate religious beliefs into their coping is at least partially normalized, judging from the DV support groups and organizations available to Christians, Muslims, and members of other “big ones.” Religion is one of those things that burrows deep into someone’s heart and shapes their perception of how the universe itself works in terms of existence and purpose. The role of religion in a person’s life can’t be dismissed without denying a huge influence on the person’s internal and external life, which is counterproductive you’re trying to address the trauma that has shaped those very same things. The same support available to more widespread and accepted religions should be available to polytheists and pagans, and if even one person is helped by it, then it’s not a wasted effort.
Addressing trauma isn’t a matter of who’s right or wrong. It’s a matter of helping a survivor face what happened in a way that doesn’t pretend the abuse never happened but provides the emotional and mental and sometimes physical tools needed to make sure the abuse no longer controls their life. What works for you may not work for another, and forcing your method of coping on someone isn’t going to do shit but a) reinforce a survivor’s lack of agency in their life, b) possibly retraumatize the survivor, and c) be a waste of time and resources on everyone’s parts.
Two of the biggest obstacles facing a polytheist survivor:
- their relationship to their gods
- their relationship to non-polytheistic people and institutions
If you ever feel worthless in the shadow of another person, imagine that shadow being cast by gods. “Why would any of the gods want anything to do with someone as worthless as I think I am?” the survivor asks, sitting in front of their shrine and feeling so, so small.
It’s even more difficult when someone worships deities who typically embody certain ideals of strength, warriorship, power, love, sexuality – basically, ideals that can be so directly impacted by or perverted in cycles of abuse. When you’ve learned to run every time someone raises their voice, how do you talk to Thor? When you feel like you “allowed” the abuse to happen, how do you stand tall in front of the Morrígan? When you’re nauseated just by the thought of sex, how do you connect with Aphrodite? These ideals resonate within you while simultaneously jangling across every raw nerve you have. Faith is lost and the sense of worthlessness is worsened, or faith twists into something dark, dependent, and damaging. Religion is so personal, reaching so deeply into one’s sense of self and existential relationship to the rest of the world, that it can be a shortcut straight into one’s heart, and if that heart is already hurting…
On a more practical level, it can be difficult to develop and maintain a practice when depression or PTSD are doing their best to be the stones that keep you weighed down to your bed. You feel guilty, and you get frustrated with yourself, so you try harder, but if it was that easy it wouldn’t be a problem in the first place, so you get angry while you feel even worse about neglecting your deities, and why even try in the first place —
You get the idea. Other neurodivergent people out there are nodding like, “I know that feel, bro.”
These are things that someone can resolve on their own, of course. Conventional therapy can be adapted to suit one’s needs, with or without a therapist, and there’s whatever other methods people can come up with that work just fine for them. But there’s a reason that support groups exist and sometimes you just want to be able to ask another polytheist, “How do you deal with this shit?”
Because gods know how difficult it can be to discuss this with non-polytheists. Our society has very specific ideas of what constitutes “religion,” “spirituality,” “sanity,” and “mental illness.” Telling your case worker, “Hey, I think I’m being called by [deity] to do [this thing],” sincere validation probably isn’t going to be their reaction. When the rigid structures of the monotheisms are what most people imagine when they think “religion,” the relative freedom and personally experiential nature of contemporary polytheism looks like some odd anomaly born out of mental illness and too much D&D. The idea that we can have a personal relationship with the divine in a way that is traditionally rejected by the big monotheisms, the morals of which are so diffuse through our culture that it influences the secular parts of it, gets labeled with adjectives like “self-delusion” and “bullshit.” I don’t think I’m alone when I say that it’s difficult for me to to open up about the details of my polytheistic practice to non-polytheists whether or not that person deserves my suspicion in the first place because this dismissive, judgmental attitude is so pervasive in mainstream culture. For those of us who are pretty deep in our religious practices and whose healing from trauma gets tied up into that, denying the polytheistic part would be like trying to make a plant grow while keeping it locked in the dark.
If you’re hitting a spiritual wall, you don’t want to turn around and find another one between you and everyone else. You’ve got enough shit to deal with.
So I want to see a space in which we can talk to other polytheists without having to worry about external judgments on the religion itself rather than the abuse itself. I want to see a network that is visible and vocal in the name of polytheist survivors of abuse, one that can spread awareness not just about DV and IPV in general but also about our little-known, often misunderstood practices and how all these things intersect. I want to see priests and priestesses and anyone else called to perform healings who are trauma-informed.
I also want to see a unicorn, but I’m holding out hope that this kind of support can actually be done.