I remember, back in the day, the various Recon-type polytheisms would have lots of arguments about UPG – whether it was even a real thing, whether it should be considered a valid part of a religion, etc. This was back when the mystic side of things tended to be looked at askance by the more conservative folks. I know there are still some polytheists who don’t believe the gods speak to us (at least, not anymore), and who rely entirely on centuries-old lore (while ignoring the fact that anything we know at all about the gods by definition must have originally come from a person’s actual experience with Them), but fortunately we seem to have progressed a little and now UPG is spoken of often, openly and generally regarded as a regular part of a religious practice.
But as so often happens, the pendulum may be swinging too far in the opposite direction. Because lately I’ve noticed that people ascribe pretty much anything to UPG.
Let’s go back to the basics: the acronym stands for Unusual (or Unverified) Personal Gnosis. It’s unusual if it isn’t corroborated by the collective past experiences of others. It’s personal if it is revealed to one person alone during the course of their active worship of the gods. But gnosis – I think we need to remember that gnosis does not mean simply an idea or thought or piece of information, it’s a (mystical, spiritual) insight, the kind that typically comes as a revelation (often after prolonged study and practice).
When you’re just pondering the ways of the gods and you have an idea about something new – maybe you think, for instance, that a god might like a certain offering not attested to in the sources, or you see a connection between one myth and another that you never noticed before and haven’t seen discussed – that idea might be entirely valid and true and interesting, but it is not really the same thing as when the gods Themselves reveal something to you during ritual, or when in a deep state of devotional mind you have a sudden and profound insight into Their natures.
For instance – several people I know have come to think of crows as being associated with Hermes, even though that is not an ancient Greek belief. It makes sense – crows are clever, they are liminal scavengers of the dead, they populate many of the environments connected to Hermes, they can even talk. Those are all perfectly good reasons for honoring crows as friends of Hermes. Had I thought of those things first, I would have been totally justified in altering my devotional practice a little to encompass that idea. But I didn’t think of those things until after I had a dream, many years ago, where Hermes very clearly and undeniably appeared to me in crow form. That was a UPG. After that dream, I began to piece together the many intellectual reasons it worked, and found that others had also come to those conclusions, and maybe even some of them also had UPG experiences about it, so at this point we may be in PCPG (peer-corroborated personal gnosis) territory. But it was the revelation that was the gnosis, not the subsequent reasoning.
A real UPG changes something fundamental in the way you understand and relate to the gods. It strikes you in your heart. It can happen to anyone, not just mystics – but it doesn’t happen everyday, even to mystics.
While this might seem like splitting hairs, and I’m sure other people will disagree with my definition of gnosis, I think it’s still important to discuss and think about this topic as it influences how we parse our own spiritual experiences. Call everything a UPG, and we reduce the term to meaninglessness, for ourselves and for our religions. It discourages us from trying to distinguish between a true moment of revelation and the ideas coming from our own heads – and that is dangerous territory, when it’s already hard enough to have spiritual discernment.
I am glad that we now accept and even celebrate UPG in many polytheist communities, and I’m also glad that people are making strictly intellectual leaps when it comes to their practice and understanding of the gods – I am a strong proponent of a living, evolving religion. But I think it is also important that we recognize the difference between the ideas that come directly from the gods and those that are a product of our thoughts, and craft different ways to respond to both types.