"Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." - Rumi

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Slaves, Service, and Words of Power

by Raven Kaldera

A friend recently directed me to the writing of a mutual acquaintance, a Vanir-focused Heathen (I believe; feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) who was musing over the issue of god-slavery- and, more interestingly, over the issue of spirit-workers who do not identify as god-slaves feeling threatened by those who do. While he thoughtfully acknowledged the reality of god-slavery in some people’s lives, he pointed out that it was the only named model of human/divine relationship (besides “god-spouse”) for the fledgling Pagan spirit-worker dynamic. In the Northern Tradition, which he practices, there is the word “godatheow”, coined by Galina Krasskova and indicating a god-slave, someone who is owned by a deity and has little or no agency in their lives because of this. He decided that there needed to be an intermediate term denoting a servant of the Gods, one with more agency and liberty than a slave. He came up with the word “godathegn”, referencing the term “thegn”, or “thain”, the noble servant of a lord or lady of a higher status than them. It would reference someone who had a strong (perhaps oathbound) bond with their deity, but had full agency except in some limited areas, and could leave if worst came to worst.

I fully approve of this. It gets the Raven Kaldera Stamp of Approval (something which may be the opposite of good publicity, but hey). I especially approve of people eschewing the all-too-common reaction of “Hey, this label doesn’t fit me, and that makes me feel bad! Quick, try to discredit it!” and instead reaching for, “This label doesn’t fit me. There needs to be another word in the lexicon, for comparison, which does. Here, I’ll find one!” As far as I’m concerned, the more language we have for how our Gods treat us, and how we form those bonds, and what we can expect, the better.

I was the first person to write about god-slavery in a book, and I did that because of all the positions on that continuum, “godatheow” is the scariest, the most difficult, the one that people in that position are least likely to be able to find resources to understand. A godatheow who fights out of lack of understanding is more likely to end up dead, unlike a godathegn (who will probably only have their maegen trashed). Now that I’ve paved a way for the most at-risk group, I welcome folks who will discuss less risky points on that continuum.

The irony in the current argument over whether god-slavery exists (or should exist, something that brings a wry laugh to those of us who are in that position) is that there is a similar argument raging in the BDSM demographic as we speak, over the word “slave” and its attendant meanings. That’s why this article is in Blood For The Divine and not God’s Mouths. Not all ordeal workers – and certainly not all or even most spirit-workers – come out of or have any connection with any BDSM community. But I do, and that gives me the right to observe and make interesting sociological comparisons.

For those who are not aware of the background: The majority of people in the BDSM demographic do not practice any kind of full-time consenting dominance and submission (the D and S in the acronym). They like to have kinky sex, and do SM. Of the percentage that do practice D/s (that’s what the acronym looks like when it stands on its own), most consider it “play”. Of the percentage of that group who take it seriously, most are part-time. Of the percentage of *that* group who do it 24/7, most of the “s-types” are voluntary submissives who have strong negotiated limits and could (and would) leave if those limits were violated. A much smaller percentage have voluntarily given up their limits to the care of their dominant, and trust them to make all the decisions and set all the limits for them – but could rescind those limits and leave if they chose. This is acronymed by some as TPE – Total Power Exchange. An even smaller percentage practice what is referred to (by them) as IE, or Internal Enslavement. This is a practice where the submissive voluntarily agrees to enter into specific conditioning that changes them radically, and renders them unable to disobey or leave. This practice is, to say the least, extremely controversial even among D/s practitioners, much less the entire BDSM demographic.

Now none of these is the same as nonconsensual slavery, of the type still practiced in many parts of the world, primarily economic in scope. Everyone on every part of the above continuum willingly signed up for their deal, and it came with a great deal of thought and negotiation (or should have, anyway). That’s a different experience from someone born into slavery in Yemen. Even the IE slave agreed to their situation and actively aided it. This is why some people object to using the word “slave” at all in BDSM practice, saying that using this term makes light of those oppressed individuals. However, that’s a small minority and mostly ignored. So who does claim the word “slave” over there?

There’s certainly a segment of the D/s population who claim that their relationship dynamic has moved from D/s to M/s – Master/Mistress and slave. Generally, many of the last three points mentioned on my continuum have a lot of folk who claim that D/s means “people who aren’t as extreme as us”, but there is no quorum and a great deal of infighting among them. The most controversial are the IE practitioners, some of whom claim that their s-types are the “real” slaves, because they can’t leave or disobey, and everyone south of that “only” has a D/s relationship. At least one forum (run by the individual who invented the IE term) asked that people on that forum respect these definitional lines, which of course enraged many newcomers. Some people want the right to use the word “slave” for a one-hour play session where no one is really submitting to anyone in any meaningful way. Others don’t like the idea that their deeply-valued voluntary submission isn’t worthy of the word “slave”.

This has culminated in a variety of very familiar attitudes towards IE practitioners. Some claim that it doesn’t exist and those people are just deluding themselves. Others claim that if it does exist, it is abusive and wrong and no one ought to do it. Some claim that they have the right to call themselves slaves no matter what their dynamic is, because they ought to be allowed to self-identify and not be challenged about it. Some accuse the IE people of constantly telling other people that their dynamic isn’t real enough or good enough, or that it’s the One True Way to do M/s, when there is little to no evidence of this (but people are hearing it even if it isn’t being said, somehow). There are even those who argue for the right to the title when they aren’t actually submissive to anyone (but would be, theoretically, if they could just find the right person). The same arguments are leveled at all full-time submissives by SM people who can’t imagine such a thing working, and so on up the line.

Many of these problems will sound heartbreakingly familiar to people in the Pagan spirit-work demographic, and I suppose that they prove that humans will be humans. Humans will also feel insecure in comparison to people who are doing something they might like to do but cannot for some reason, and they will read attitudes into those people that might not be there, and nothing that the target humans can say will be heard through the fear. One full-time “slave” pleaded that they weren’t saying that their way was the best any more than being a monk or nun was the only real way to be Catholic. Another IE slave wrote this (posted with permission):

"I have a fairly strict definition of what an owned slave is, and I find it useful to have space with people who share that definition to discuss practical and psychological aspects of ownership. People in non-ownership based D/s relationships have different struggles and issues. There is an area of overlap, and I can usefully discuss life in service with someone whether they are owned or not, but there are things that just don't translate.

See, I always considered voluntary honor-bound service to be more prestigious that "slavery", and I resisted the label of slave for quite some time. I felt the implication that I might have to be held by another’s will to be an insult to my loyalty and commitment. Then I became a slave, and here I am. How I got here is a long story, but suffice it to say that I know it’s the right place for me.

I'm not sure if I still consider voluntary ongoing submission to be more prestigious. It is what it is. I think one can achieve a higher ideal of pure service through active submission, because few masters really give as much of a damn about pure service in and of itself. They are generally more practical than that. Being a slave is easier, in a way. A submissive needs to be a stronger, more dedicated person to achieve excellence in their role. A slave need only be malleable.

I don't know if this will make any sense, but I'll try. To me it is like the difference between being a soldier and a monk, perhaps. A soldier will be pushed through his reluctance and wavering, by force if needed. A lesser man can become a fine soldier. It is easier to be a bad monk, so you have to be a better man to be a good monk. Some monastic orders are stricter than others and some will push you harder than others, but no one is going to force you to do anything at gunpoint. You need to maintain your own dedication.

Is one of them better than the other? No. They are just different. But if the soldier and the monk talk about their struggles with dedication and loyalty, they are going to come to some misunderstandings and confusion if one of them insists he is just the same as the other."

How does all this compare with Gods? Obviously, the continuum of human/divine relationship is as varied as the continuum of human/human power exchange relationships, and not entirely similar. Gods can get away with things that mortals can’t practically do. The godatheow area of the continuum does include nonconsensual grabbing up of people, as many shamans will tell you, and Gods cannot be held to human rules in many ways. And submitting to a mortal is just not even remotely on the scale of submitting to a deity in terms of their ability to know you inside and out. A mortal dominant can work towards transparency with their submissive and try their best to learn the inside of their head, but it just isn’t going to be as direct and total as communion with one’s god.

But there are still similarities. A good human master (of either gender) with more than one submissive will gear each relationship to the person involved. They won’t try for cookie-cutter dynamics for each one, and they will understand that what motivates one won’t work for another. If they are polyamorous, they might have subs in various areas of the continuum. I’ve personally got an IE-style slave, a part-time voluntary submissive who actually belongs to someone else, and some distant, heavily boundaried, nonsexual service relationships. Similarly, what a deity asks of one worshiper will be different from what they want of another. Part of that is what they have the cosmic right to take (which will vary person to person), part is what they know is the best way to get someone to respond (ditto), and part will be about the aspect of Deity that the human wishes to serve. (See my last piece about that issue. Gods can also pull the kind of “Jedi Mind Tricks” on people that skilled IE dominants sometimes manage to pull off, smoothly and subtly easing the submissive into a different opinion or different way of being. The difference is that gods are so much better at it.

It’s been ironic to watch these arguments in two separate and widely disparate demographics both happening simultaneously. (There’s got to be something astrological going on here!) In both cases, there have been misunderstandings, and eventual clarity, a process that is ongoing as knowledge spreads. The BDSM demographic is a little ahead in the information-and-understanding dance, but then again they are many times larger (and have more organized events). Now the challenge ahead of us is to come up with appropriate language and labels to describe that continuum that isn’t Northern Tradition, for the sake of all the folks in service to gods of other pantheons, or gods who have no useful cultural context. I have faith in us all. We can find words to create understanding, words that slice clean and clear through people’s insecurities, or at least grow on them after a few years until they find themselves using those terms first grudgingly, then naturally. We’ll do it … because we have to.

Words of power help people to feel that their own personal experience is a shared one, at least by a few other people, rather than dismissed. There’s no reason to dismiss anyone else’s experience except out of fear. Instead, they should be encouraged to talk about theirs, because those who feel that they have adequate space to describe their experience and have it met with interest and respect usually don’t feel a need to talk about that of others. They should be encouraged to talk about it, and name it. It’s not possible for me to speak from the experience of a godathegn, and therefore I shouldn’t try to do it. Let others describe that dynamic lovingly and with a pure show of their devotion, just as I’d encourage a part-time voluntary submissive in the BDSM community to do the same. If it’s what you have, whatever it is, try to find pride in it. That pride can block out the unspoken words that people remember, later, as having been spoken aloud. It can also remind us that the Gods don’t do things for no reason, and that service cleanly and lovingly done is always sacred, no matter who it’s done for, or under what conditions.


  1. As always, your presentation of a complex subject is both clear and eloquent.

  2. Thank you for this. As a god-spouse/slave who also has roots in BDSM, I've been wanting to write something like this recently. Of course, this is more comprehensive and clear than what I would have mustered.

    I do think BDSM's conceptions of agency, power exchange, and pain have a lot to add to discourses on spirit work. Personally, the idea of loving mastery is particularly apt my my relationship with the gods and something most people coming from outside BDSM have a hard time understanding.


  3. Beautiful words, and ones that should be mulled and fermented for a good brew. Too many times people rush to label themselves, and spoil an otherwise good mead. In thinking out our labels, we think out our relationships to ourselves, our Gods, and to one another. Here's hoping more discussion and deliberation seasons the brew.

  4. I fear I am called to this being a godslave by my Goddess, The Morrigan. I wish to escape this being a slave, i cant stand it, I see gods slave as being so tortured, whipped, broken both in spirit and mind, no one is gonna care about the slaves well being. No one is gonna save me. I like a spell to get free, cause I fear I am already a godslave and it makes me very suicidal, cause I refuse to be a slave.

    thanks all helps is appriciated