Some thoughts on UPG

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.

~ by Dver on October 18, 2016.

23 Responses to “Some thoughts on UPG”

  1. […] click: Some thoughts on UPG […]

  2. i’ve become better at sorting out what’s a wham! UPG and what’s just suz pondering, but even if i hadn’t, time usually does it for me. the actual UPGs are never wrong.

  3. I agree very much…

    I wish that people would use the phrase “I had a thought” rather than “It’s my UPG” when it comes to things they have…well…thought up themselves. These can be good or bad, useful or not useful, applicable and practical or not, for some people and not for others…and that’s fine. (And it is even better to take those thoughts to divination and ask one’s Deities about them, and whether they are valid and applicable or not…Deities aren’t shy to say no to such things if they’re not!)

    I wonder if classifying all of these thoughts, though, as UPG is an inadvertent way of people trying to say more about themselves than they might realize. It might not just reflect a lack of discernment on their part, or a lack of using the terminology as agreed upon and understood correctly (which is its own battle!), but instead a kind of attempt to suggest that they’re so mystical that all of their intriguing ideas come from the Deities, or perhaps even the Muses, rather than from their own darn brains. It might be an attempt to kind of give a heightened importance to the thoughts, that if it is UPG rather than “just a thought,” it is therefore God-given and cannot be challenged by someone else; ignored or not accepted, not integrated into one’s own practices or ideas, certainly, but not challenged, which would be tantamount to saying “That spiritual experience of yours did not happen,” or wasn’t what one thought it was, etc. (Though some people do that as a matter of course as well, but since they are usually atheists or other kinds of assholes, their views don’t matter.)

    In any case, yes, this is a timely post, I think, so thank you for articulating this exceptionally well and usefully! 🙂

    • I think there’s a little of everything going on. Some people new to polytheism may have picked up the terminology without really understanding its origins or meaning, and are using it indiscriminately, others are trying to puff themselves up by asserting their thoughts as god-given, and others may just not have the tools to know the difference, or realize there IS a difference, which is why I thought it would be good to broach the topic here, in the hopes it will get people thinking.

  4. I like this. I hadn’t thought about in these terms, but yes, what I hear from Gods and spirits is UPG. My extrapolations from those experiences are my own work, even though they’re grounded in UPG. As always, it’s best to be as precise as we can, to avoid confusion.

  5. This is a very valid opinion, and especially important to keep in mind for someone like me, who’s Greek. I’m used to gnosis meaning knowledge; any knowledge, even that of an idea or thought. I need to remember that the use of the word in English is different and your post helped remind me of that. Thank you.🙂

  6. I’ve noticed some groups using the term ‘head canon’ for their own musings on deities. For example, it is my head canon to link Djehuty/Thoth with geese. I’ve had no dreams or visions, it’s just something that makes sense to me (and a handful of other people). I very rarely experience something I can class as UPG, most of my ideas are ‘head canon’.

    • That’s a nifty term, and sounds like it works well.

      • The difficulty with the term “head canon,” though, is that it comes from fandom, and represents some theory or backstory someone makes up about characters in an established franchise which then some other fans decide “really happened.”

        While it is, thus, a comparable term, and could be a workable term in a religious context, that doesn’t mean it should be used, either. I’m not entirely comfortable with vocabulary from things like fandom being used in religious contexts, no matter how much crossover in membership there might be between the polytheist communities and fandom communities. Just like using role-playing terminology to describe Deities or different practitioners (e.g. “Dionysos is Chaotic Neutral in alignment, and Sannion is about a tenth-level practitioner with high Charisma scores”), I think it muddies the waters more than a bit…

        If people are using the same terminology for their hobbies that they are for their religions, then what is there to distinguish their religions as religions rather than as hobbies? That is my main concern in a situation like this.

        • I totally agree. I had no idea that’s where the term came from, because I have no involvement with fandom of any kind (fandoms tend to turn me off of things so much I almost missed the awesomeness of Hannibal because of the annoying nature of the fandom for it). I too do not think it wise to mix terminologies, because people seem to be having a hard enough time as it is distinguishing between spiritual practice and imaginary characters.

          • Yes…exactly like humans, the Deities don’t only live in the imagination, They are independent persons who have histories and relationships and defined characteristics, wills, etc….They can live in the imagination (amongst many other possibilities), but They live elsewhere, too, and we forget that at our peril.

            I also always hear “head canon” more like “head cannon,” as if people are these Mecha-type robots with laser guns sticking out of their heads. But, that’s probably just me…!?! 😉

          • I had no idea either, as I try to avoid things like fandoms. Hmm, I’m less inclined to use the term myself as I personally loathe people assuming the gods are mere characters. Thanks for the heads up!

        • I had the same reaction, although I don’t think the poster meant it that way.

          When you mix terms of religion and pop culture, you get a strange group of people who believe that the Gods live in their heads. I call them Pop Culture Pagans, but I am not sure if that is the correct term. But “head canon” also means some sort of control, and relationship to the greater group who decides “canon.” Question is who is this “greater group?”

          Also, it seems that the use of the term muddies the experience of the Gods, and terms Them into characters.

  7. The other problem – which I have noticed with Pop Culture Pagans and folks on tumblr – is the groupthink and the group ethos. If you immerse yourself into a culture which reinforces a style of thinking, then you see things in a particular prism, and assume that to be truth.

    For example, the Facebook Memes concerning the U.S. Presidential election. Both sides post them, declare them to be true, and fight anyone who would question the Meme. In reality, context is needed for discernment, not simple emotion. Also, a person’s experience will colour what they perceive, and if they are in a particular group, that perception will be further enforced.

    I worked for the U.S. government and with Top Secret information. From that experience and having it re-enforced that not locking the information (paper or fob) in a safe was a federal crime, I see Clinton’s e-mails differently than someone who doesn’t work in the federal government. Is my perception true? For me and my group, it is. But outside of the group?

    Anyway, I think that UPG is also influenced not just by the person but the milieu they are in.

    • Absolutely, and that’s something not enough people pay attention to. Groupthink is prevalent in polytheism, that’s why we can have “trends” like when suddenly everyone is a godspouse, or everyone is a pop culture pagan. Sure, some people might be introduced to a concept because it is being discussed amongst their peers and be genuinely drawn to it – it could even be how the gods communicate that to the person – but all too often it’s just a case of following the herd. Unfortunately, lack of discernment causes those same herd-followers to ascribe their “insights” to UPG rather than realizing they are just parroting what others have said (who may or may not have had their own true UPG).

  8. This is why I find poetry and art a good place to express UPG. There is a social stigma to prose where we want it to be vetted and factual, but with the other arts such as poetry, music, visual arts; there is more freedom to express creative ideas and visions.
    With regard to the issue about UPG, I also think a good solution is a good education program, where the student studies source material instead of commentary. It also helps to have a good knowledge of comparative mythology and anthropology. There is a lot of scholarly work in being a Pagan.

    • That’s a really good suggestion about using art and poetry to express UPG. That seems like the best way to do it most of the time. It also has more chance of expressing the nuances and ineffable quality of a lot of divine revelation, rather than trying to put it into plain words.

  9. I see your point about the term perhaps being overused and thus losing some of its impact. I don’t think I agree about the scale of the insight having to be of deep personal significance to qualify. I also think that things can start as UPG and then become substantiated, so no longer being UPG but having more meaning to the practitioner for having started that way – that very transformation giving greater weight to the value of the insight.

    For example: when I first began developing a relationship with Menrvra, the Italic/Etruscan goddess who later became syncretized with Greek Athene to yield some aspects of Roman Minerva, I felt very strongly that She did not want me to work with a traditionally armored image of Athene or Minerva as a cult object. My research later revealed that Etruscan iconography is unique for having frequently this goddess. . . without armor. A minor personal instinct about a divine preference became much more meaningful to me as it was shown as grounded in historical precedent and a verification of my “signal accuracy”.

    • I had a similar experience with Chaak with one of my first serious encounters with Him. I had imagined him as being a giant in a vision/daydream, which I cautiously disregarded for a while… until I shortly thereafter came across folkloric accounts that referenced Him being very large.

      My signal strength is relatively weak, so when I come up with an idea, I usually let time sort the wheat from the chaff for me. If a God wants me to know that a thought of mine was directly inspired by Them or otherwise equally acceptable, I’ll usually find out one way or another.

  10. […] recently wrote a post at her blog about Unverified or Unusual Personal Gnosis (UPG) and discernment. Simply because someone experiences what they think is a God, does not necessarily mean that they […]

  11. I wrote a response focusing on groupthink.
    “Discernment, Groupthink and UPG”

  12. Quite lovely, I agree. UPG for me is something shocking. It’s something that I would never have put together or thought of and when it happens I am a little bit skeptical and shook up. There’s a sense of ” that doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t fit what I know what I have read or what anyone I respect has said.” It usually involves a lot of trust. Later I almost always get “academic” information to put it into context in a different intellectual way but if I hadn’t had UPG I probably would have missed out on understanding some of the things in scholarly sources. If I’m reading things and it makes sense to me that there’s a connection I don’t put a lot of faith in that just because life is a long process of finding out you’re wrong🙂 those are theories. I find that a lot of the anti-UPG factions actually accept theories at face value and when I asked “where did this come from ?” Somehow it is factual because “it made sense.” But it made sense in context with your life today in this place with those people. So how is that reconstructionist? What I think most people forget is that all of us are finding new ways to practice old religions. Saying what is right is pretty hard to do when there hasn’t been a continuous practice and if you look at Hinduism which has had continuous practice you can see it is been revamped many times. Currently there are three gods and all of the rest are aspects of them – officially maybe, but the majority of people don’t seem to know that. Looking at Hinduism is always helpful for me because it shows the wide variety of different cultus, practices, beliefs , rituals that coexist side-by-side and overlap without people going into flame wars . To be Hindu do I have to give up my Vedic understanding of Indra for the more modern one? What about the gods and goddesses who are no longer worshiped? What about the regional differences? What about how much it has changed since Indian people have been getting Western educations and studying comparative religions?

    By looking at the long diversity of Hinduism I’m pretty certain that the worship , the focus on different Deities, that the holidays etc. any traditional polytheist religion would have continued to develop in different ways – just like we can see by looking at the ancient history. Different cities get brought together by an Empire and have different creation mythologies , histories for gods and goddesses, opinions about some goddesses, ceremonies etc. and overtime we can watch all of those things change so there’s no static Hellenic or Kemetic polytheism, there must not have been a static Celtic or Germanic, Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon polytheism. Like today some people probably had very little interest in theology for even belief in the deities, others were really fascinated by collecting stories or history , others had mystical experiences , some people had more psychic or magical talents, and others might have gathered to discuss what was commonly known and look at different opinions. Something Freya always reminds me of is that there was no Sunday school .🙂

    So everybody is doing it right because there’s nothing to compare it to to say that it’s wrong. We don’t have any modern examples of continuous Celtic polytheism for example so how can someone say somebody is doing it wrong? I think as I get older it doesn’t really matter to me – what matters to me is how the person is as a person. And if their religion provides them what they need for being healthy happy and safe . If the religion isn’t hurting anybody including the person practicing it then I’m a lot more interested in the person as an individual and what they think and do in different aspects of the world.

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