If You Have No Religion, What Are You Doing?

Peg asked what utiseta was and I tried to answer her in a comment, but it seemed suddenly to be too complicated for a comment.

Utiseta means “sitting out.” It’s a divinatory practice where you go out and sit on the graves of your dead relatives in order to seek advice from them.

As I’ve mentioned to Shaun Groves, I don’t know what happens to us when we die. I hope I’ll go to be with my family, but I suspect I’ll just cease to be. Neither one of those options scares me. Being dead doesn’t scare me. Dying, of course, does.

I wouldn’t be so afraid to die if I knew for certain that we continued on in some form or that we didn’t. I don’t know, though–hence my fascination with ghosts, hence my inability to practice a religion.

I have no faith.

But here’s what I do know. I know for certain that my dead relatives existed. I know they did, because here I am. I might not know their names or much about them other than some vague generalities, but I know that they were real.

I also know, without a doubt, that, if they still exist in some way, that they give a shit about me, about my well-being. I know that, if they can, they care about me and hope along with me for the best for me, even if we might have different ideas about what that means.

I know that because I knew plenty of them who felt that way when they were alive.

I often doubt my family’s sanity; I often marvel at their fucked-up-ness; but I have no doubt that they love me and that, if it can, that love extends beyond death.

I also know that they left a great amount of stuff they thought was important behind–stories about gods hanging in trees, about a god born to a virgin in a stable, about giants and wolves and travelers and lost loves–and even if I can’t have faith that those stories are “true” in the literal sense, I know for certain those stories spoke important truths to the members of my family.

And because they were important to them, the stories are important to me. If those stories have literal truth to them, and not just metaphoric truths, then those beings are important to me.

I don’t quite feel comfortable saying that I think they’re literally real, but I think, in a large sense, that doesn’t matter.

One thing I think my ancestors were right about is that luck can be cultivated. The more you are in right-relation with your family, your friends, your neighbors, and your community, the more fortunate you might be. And not just you, but your whole family, and by extension, your friends, your neighbors, and your community. If you practice well-being, everyone benefits.

And part of well-being and tending to one’s fortune, I think, involves being in right-relation to your folks–the dead ones and the ones you aren’t even sure really exist.

So, I don’t go sit outside. For one, obviously, I don’t have any graves of my people to sit on and I think it’d be rude to go bother folks who have no stake in my well-being, and for the other, hobos. It’s not the kind of backyard one can just go sit out in all night safely. Plus, I don’t want to freak the neighbors. The crazy Christians are just now talking to us.

But I do think it’s important to just shut up and listen–to nothing, to whatever your subconscious puts forth, to maybe something else–and so I take nine consecutive nights every October and remove myself from my mundane shit and wait to see what comes forth.

In order to do that in a space that feels nothing, if not mundane, it helps to go through a series of things that say “now, this is different. My room usually isn’t lit like this. It usually doesn’t smell like this. These things usually aren’t present.”

And, obviously, the house never smells like burning sage–because sage really stinks when it burns. Which is why I find it useful and why I fight with the Butcher about it every year.

7 thoughts on “If You Have No Religion, What Are You Doing?

  1. Thanks for the explanation. I have never heard of that before, but I like the concept of it. Does it have an ethnic origin?

    I also didn’t know that sage stinks when burned, because it’s so darn delicious when baked with pork. Go figure.

  2. I’ve always understood it to be a pagan custom of Old Norse origin, common among pre-Christian Europeans. I could very well be wrong. My area of exposure is through Celtic ritual, which seems to have borrowed (i.e. stolen) utiseta from the Norse.

    It’s very similar in practice to the Jewish Shiva and the Irish Wake. It also appears, ironically, in Native American cultures in the Sweatlodge tradition.

    Odd, B., that you say you have no faith. Wouldn’t this be considered as much faith as any other?

  3. Aw, Kat, I thought you said that the pre-Christian Germanic people were some of your least favorite and here you are whipping out the vast knowledge.

    Someone with more certainty certainly could make a religion out of it, and some have.

    I just have some things I think are true and some hope. I think faith is more certain. There’s something about faith that knows. I don’t have that.

  4. I usually find out a lot about someone or something before I make up my mind about whether I like them/it or not.

    With people I start out liking everyone. It’s up to them to convince me otherwise. Like when Michelle Pfeiffer taught English Lit to the ruffians and they all started out with As.

    With Germanic and Norse paganism there is a lot that I don’t mind because it isn’t necessarily contrary (word of the day) to whatever I believe in Christianity. If it doesn’t undermine the basic tenets of my faith I haven’t a problem with it.

    What I don’t like about mitteleuropean paganism is mostly its focus on the dark and cold and winter. All that is understandable given the locale of the belief system’s origin. But I still find it very oppressive. I also don’t like certain social systems that sprang from it–such as the concept of wergild (sic).

    As far as faith goes, I think you have more of it than you realise.

  5. Actually, I don’t think you’re alone. I think central to the story of Balder’s death is that the mechanisms in place to dole out “justice” can’t cope with a situation in which one brother kills another. A family cannot pay itself for the loss of a member; that loss is just there. And the fact that the loss of Balder creates obligations that cannot be met brings about the end of the world.

    I think that’s a pretty devistating indictment of weregild. Though, obviously, I don’t know if it would have been seen that way in pagan Europe.

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