Earlier this year, as part of the Pagan Blog Project, I wrote a post about being a gydja. I realize now that I was rather too hasty in my attempt to quantify and defend my right to the title. As it has turned out, being a gydja (or a godhi, I assume) isn’t really about what I thought it was, at least not for me.
First of all, let me clarify that when I say I’ve been a gydja, I’m talking about two different definitions. One of these is being the leader (or other officiant) of a kindred. In this sense, I served as Iron Wood Kindred’s gydja for five years — and I do mean “served.” Anybody who thinks that priesthood is all about raking in admiration while handing down one’s opinion from on high has confused being the head of a sketchy cult with being the head of a genuine religious organization. Mostly, it’s about doing what you can to facilitate other people’s spiritual experiences and help them figure out their particular understanding of things, and that often involves unglamorous, mundane work. For instance, last year was the first time since EtinMoot began that I was able to experience it solely from the perspective of a worshiper, rather than worrying about scheduling, logistics, and interpersonal drama. Before that, it was mostly about work. It’s not as if I never got anything out of my previous years of attendance, but when you are running an event, it is less about self-discovery and more about making sure there’s firewood or figuring out who’s running which ritual at what time. I don’t regret having been IWK’s gydja at all; it taught me a lot, and I still wish I’d been able to do more for my people while I was running it. That isn’t what this post is about, however.
I’ve heard it said that the titles godhi or gydja can’t just be taken on whenever someone wants a cool new label for themselves — they have to be given to a person, usually by their community. Having met way too many self-labeled “high priestesses” who had read two books by Llewellyn and thought that made them Wiccan elders, I was not inclined to dispute that, even though I’d occasionally seen it used in the Heathen community to discredit people the speaker did not particularly approve of, implying that they took on a title they did not deserve. But it isn’t always that simple, as I found out, although I realize that what I’m about to say will probably earn me some scorn or disbelief by more literal-minded people. All I can say is that I know what I experienced, and that it felt as genuine as anything else in my life.
Now, I’m writing this at seven in the morning and am not inclined to drag out my references, but I’ve been under the impression that the words “godhi/gydja” as they were used in Old Norse society are still not fully understood. We know that they generally didn’t indicate vocational priest/esses, and that they seemed to have indicated community leadership or perhaps household leadership. The most widely-accepted theory is that a godhi or gydja would lead the village or household (which in Old Norse times could be quite large) in rituals or fainings for the gods, the ancestors, etc., without necessarily being acknowledged as some conduit of the spirit world or recipient of divine favor. (I’m not 100% certain where I got this definition, but it’s stuck with me for a while so if I’m incorrect, feel free to let me know.) This understanding seems to be the basis of the terms as they are used in modern Heathenry and related practices, from what I can tell.
But there seems to be another meaning which I was foolish enough to ignore for too long. With this second meaning, it’s absolutely true that you have to be called a gydja in order to really be one, as I discovered. The thing is, you don’t necessarily have to be called a gydja by an entire household full of people, or even just your kindred. If a person calls you their gydja and means it, as in I look to you for spiritual guidance, and they are not merely referring to your titular duties, well…it sticks. Being named as such pulls you into a role in which you are their counselor and adviser in matters of faith. It puts you at their service. And from what I can tell, it’s mostly up to them to decide when that role is no longer useful.
Words have power, and in a pre-literate society which had magical practices like galdr, it stands to reason that certain words used to describe a specific relationship between human beings would not be bestowed casually. “Friend” was most likely not overused in the way it is in the age of Facebook, for instance. “Love” probably wasn’t used to describe everything from obsession to preference (i.e. “I love week-old lutefisk!”) Therefore, it really doesn’t surprise me that a title like gydja would have some kind of spiritual impact, even when used by people who aren’t fluent in the language where it originated. What surprised me was that I could actually feel that impact myself, without expecting it. Three different people have personally called me their gydja to my face, and from the moment it left their lips (or their fingertips) it meant something.
The day I realized this for myself, I was filled with awe and dread. All my housemate’s talk about “archetypal roles” and how gods and people can find ourselves pulled into them, which I had half-listened to for years, suddenly made sense. It was quite scary, not at all the triumphant recognition of my own supposed greatness that some people imagine such moments to be like.
Unfortunately, I did a really bad job of figuring out what, exactly, my obligations were to these people until it was too late, in all three cases. Two of them have forsaken my acquaintance, while the third person died. Each of them at some point, consciously or otherwise, decided I was no longer their gydja. In all three instances, I feel ashamed, regretful, and unworthy of the title they granted me. I feel that I let all of them down, in different but equally upsetting ways. I feel that I failed in my role. That weighs heavily on me and makes me hope that no one ever decides to call me by that title and put me into that position ever again. The problem with looking at roles as merely the acting-out of archetypes is that living an archetype doesn’t save you from the consequences of your own bad decisions. Even if you are riding the wheel as Priest, or Sacred Whore, or Warrior, you still have considerable room for error. Ask Loki sometime about being Trickster, if you don’t believe me.
Now, folks who know some or all of the details of the interactions these three people had with me will probably argue that the way things fell out isn’t my fault. Maybe not, but I feel that it was still my responsibility – and I’m aware of the difference between the two. Mistakes were made, due to my own inexperience and negligence, which have brought me both private anguish and public recrimination. The simple answer is to do better next time, but that doesn’t change the fact that I failed not once, not twice, but three times to help people who were friends as well as fellow devotees to whom I was obligated. Maybe it’s a mark of how unfit I am that I can’t seem to set aside my regret and grief. And maybe that’s what Angrboda wanted me to understand when She asked for my oath in front of witnesses at EtinMoot one summer, and why She agreed to release me from that oath several years later.
It’s funny, but I don’t remember feeling the same sort of weight settle on me when I made my marriage-oaths, or my oath of fidelity, as I did when each of those people called me their gydja. Maybe it’s because the words we use to describe our modern interactions with the gods have become less meaningful through overuse or misuse. There’s also the fact that “marriage” means something far more temporary and less socially necessary in our time than in previous eras, and those connotations, while not applicable in my case, still bring to bear the fact that modern English may have lost a great deal of its inherent magic because we no longer respect the power of language and speech. I don’t know. I also don’t know if this strange “cosmic groove” one is set into, like a skee-ball, works the same way for people who are called godhis, or for those who aren’t god-bothered, or for those whose fulltrui isn’t a crazy motherfucker who like teaching His people lessons the hard way. I only know that when “you are my gydja” or some equivalent statement was uttered, it meant something. And I wish I’d understood what it meant a lot sooner.
Right now I am no one’s gydja, either in the first or the second sense of the word. That doesn’t bother me. What does bother me, and what I’ve never been able to understand to this day, is the tattoo on my forearm. It says LOKAGYDJA, and it wasn’t my idea to put it there. I had that done many years ago, long before I left Colorado and before I had the slightest inkling what my life would really be like as a god-bothered Lokean. I knew it meant, roughly, “priestess of Loki” or “godwoman of Loki,” and that He really wanted it done. He even made sure that the means were provided almost as soon as He indicated that it was a non-negotiable “request.” I wonder — words having the power that they do — what marking this particular term on my own flesh has done to me and what obligations it carries. I’m still figuring that out, too.