Pacts with Spirits
It probably stems from Genesis 1 : 28, where the command to fill the earth, subdue it, and dominate is given. Despite attempts to whitewash this, it's undeniable that mankind is told in this verse to kabash, "dominate, tread down, bring into bondage, violate" and radah, "subjugate, dominate, scrape down" all living things on the planet. No wonder Psalm 8:5, answering the question "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" answers, me'at chacer 'elohiym, "lacking little of the Gods" (literally), and usually translated "a little lower than the angels". Certainly if man is placed at the top of the pyramid, with only the Gods above him, and moreover, that all living things are to be not just stewarded, but actually violated, brought into bondage, and subjugated, it essentially enthrones man as a kind of God, and a pretty ruthless one at that too. It creates an anthropocentric mandate, and given humankind's ever all-too-prevalent hubris, it doesn't take much for humans to think they are at the center of all things, especially if given a theological mandate.
But that's not how it worked in the heathen systems. Mankind has an important place, and has been given some important gifts by the Gods. But Midgard is, after all, only one world amongst nine. And since "nine" often is a mystic stand-in word for "multitudes", we are just one of many beings on one world of many worlds, in a very large and broad cosmos. We are surrounded by physical and spiritual beings of all kinds.
In the anthropocentric worldview, the entire creation exists to serve us. Making pacts with devils is an insult to the dignity of man and the God who has given us such a high place in the world when, as is written in Psalm 91 : 11, mal'ak tsavah shamar derek, "he has appointed angels to guard you on your paths". One can get the impression that the entire creation stands at the beck and call of humans.
Well, beings in all the nine worlds are not solely concerned with the welfare of human beings. They have their own concerns, their own economy of energy, their own challenges and pleasures. The Gods do not command an entire army of thralls whose only purpose is to watch over human beings. There are guardians, to be sure, but they are not thralls who have no other purposes. The nine worlds work on the principle of mutual aid. And that means a gift calls for a gift. And it means, "Can you help me out? If you've got the time, if you can give a little, if you can afford it. And is there something I can do to make it worth your while?"
Note this is not conceiving a mercenary universe, but a universe, rather, of reciprocity. How many times when people have come to you with the plights of humans on the other side of the planet have you really gone out of your way to help them? Probably not often unless you are a really generous and benevolent person, and even then, you have your limits to how far you can stretch yourself. How much more so for beings of a different order in different worlds in this world-tree! But if this advocate for other people had asked for a very small contribution, and collected it from many, or, if he or she had proposed a good and fair trade, why, you might be much more willing to help out. A bargain in which both sides can receive benefit is always preferable to charity, as it supports dignity, self-reliance, and the principle of mutuality. In this regard, one's personal fylgia as well as one's larger circle of disir can act as brokers and advocates, striking bargains with various powers to enhance one's store of soulful wealth and power, and enrich one's luck.
But this requires stepping out of the beck-and-call mentality, treating all the wights of the world-tree, including the Gods, as some kind of cosmic "room service" whom all you need do is buzz and ask for your wishes, and they shall be granted on hand and foot. There are few beings in all the worlds who have the time, energy, or inclination for such service, and while the Gods have plenty of strengths, tools, luck, and all the time in the world, they have much larger concerns to attend to than every single petty problem that may arise. Do you write to Congress or the President every time you stub your toe? Even if someone close to you was in need, would you really expect a letter to the President to accomplish much? We may expect more from our Gods than we do our human leaders, but the federalist principle here is much the same : we expect the higher-order leaders to be concerned with meta-issues and high-order business, while local issues ought be handled by those closer to the scene. These local leaders can then intervene in higher-up councils if need be.
Do anthropocentric believers imagine the universe never tires of hearing one's plaints and pleas? Do they suppose all beings in all worlds have not simply turned off to those who obsessively expect handouts? How often does a human, one being amongst many in many worlds, actually put out an offer for a fair deal and a good bargain?
Much has been made, in bad faith, of the absurd spectacle of men grovelling to bargain with the universe. While it is certainly possible to approach anything from a thrall's perspective, to assume every one who bargains is a thrall is a straw-man argument that slanders in order to win the debate --- through unexamined ridicule. What is so ridiculous, in the attitude and approach at the very least, of offering a fair bargain?
The ridiculers ask rhetorically, but never seriously, "What could a human possibly have to offer that a spirit would want?". They never bother to actually ask. And then of course there is the dread specter of thursish spirits who only want blood and gore and all the rest of our negative fantasies.
As a prolegomena to such a question, we might suppose that given the hubris of humankind, and the particular anthropocentricity of the modern world, that the first thing spirits might appreciate is simply the acknowledgement implicit in the willingness-to-bargain that they are not thralls whose only purpose is to hand out charity, but actual beings with their own concerns. Think about your own life. Who are you more likely to help out? Someone with no respect for your own time who harps upon you constantly to hand them out charity, without ever asking about how you are doing or whether you need help, or someone who respectfully gives regard for your time, and in asking for a helping hand, asks if there is anything they can do to help you? The answer is obvious. Sometimes one doesn't even need the repayment if the task is modest and the help has been willingly offered.
But heathenism is about the acknowledgement of worth, and beings who hold power know how to measure the value of the valuable. They are certainly not going to throw pearls to swine, nor bankrupt precious treasures that took great feats and lengths of time to win, most certainly not for those who do not appreciate the value of anything. One way to demonstrate one's appreciation of the value of another's service is to offer a bargain that does that service justice. Those who know the true value of things do not even take notice of those who don't. They've turned down the volume on the constant bleating. That's why worship in its original context was worthship. It wasn't about "bowing down" (a thrall's vision of worship). It was about demonstrating one's worth so that those with value to trade might take notice, and one way to do this is to demonstrate that one knows, or is at least trying to know, the value of things. Medicine men in native cultures are not expected to give away their hard-earned power for free. They expect some work if they are to share secrets, for fruits of great value ought not be treated as if they were acorns freely at hand. Rare and precious things require effort. Every grail hero and protagonist of fairy tales know they must quest and labor for their magic. Those who live only on the free dole may or may not get by as they can, but it those who demonstrate true worth through deeds well dared and well done who earn admiration and better wealth.
Now the fact is that in the heathen worldview, each person has been assigned guardians, recruited from amongst one's ancestors. These are called disir. They are giving, dedicated spirits who engage in negotiations with other wights, including the disir of other clans, as well as elves, dwarves, Gods, etc., to help out their kin. But this by no means makes them into thralls to be treated contemptuously as some sort of on-call servant class. They are, in fact, the Great Mothers and Grandmothers, whose wisdom, witchery, and good will are awesome and far-reaching. They have an entire clan to attend to, and they do have their own concerns in the ancestral halls, and they do, just like you, have their off-hours to enjoy themselves.
And in the modern world especially, even the Disir, warded over by the Hamingja, the Great Clan-Matriarch Ancestress, appeal mainly to the principle of self-help, and ask, have you even cultivated your own personal genius who so painstakingly follows you? Have you bothered to listen to the fylgia who watches over you? Have you done your work to tap into your own genius, and if you have not, why do you expect the rest of the world to do your work for you? The Disir are there as helpers, not as crutches to change your diapers and tie your shoes for you. You are expected to be diligently applying yourself to an ongoing program of self-reliance.
Everything here is in the approach. It's not a matter of replacing an anthropocentric charity model with a mercenary model that treats the universe as a vending machine that only requires the right coinage. It's the approach of remembering that in this wide universe, while there is help to be had, it is help to be spared amongst beings with their own lives, their own challenges, and their own demand-schedules and priorities. Even the destitute know, if they are wise, to ask, "Can you spare some change?" In other words, if you can afford it and it's not too much trouble, can you give a little? They don't demand you give up your whole day just to help them out. And in general, we like people to offer something in exchange for something they want. Not because we're mercenary, but because reciprocity is an important universal value.
"Pacting with spirits" means taking the approach of drawing out agreeable contractual relations that benefit all parties. Why not? The Christians divided the universe into two sets of beings : one, benevolent, who are God's thralls and thus have been commanded to wait hand and foot on humans, and secondly, everyone else, who is unmitigatedly evil, and thus with whom it would be perilous to pact. There are some beings it's better to not contract with, because they are double-crossers, aggressive, and exploitative. That's why contracting with thursish jotnar was so rare in the old days. But the Christians tried to claim that every being that wasn't Jehovah's thrall was a Giant. Absurd.
I think it gives dignity to humankind and our earth to suppose that we do have something to offer spirits in the other worlds, that we have minds and hearts full of creativity and skill that can discover and craft objects, emotions, and deeds of beauty that can be alluring and pleasant to beings in many places. For those spirits who are ancestors, they may merely love to vicariously experience something simple that was once of great pleasure for them : a certain scent found in a remote canyon, or the sight of an early morning sunset glowing upon the waves, and so forth. We have much to give, and shouldn't discount the wealth we may share. Some of that is the dignity of acknowledgement. The progressive movements to empower and enfranchise minorities amongst humans have begun to teach us all how insulting it can be to be marginalized and not have our existence and concerns acknowledged with any importance. How much more so for beings who in a secular and materialist age are invisible and thus not even granted dignity of being? Some of them may simply want for us to tell others that they are real. If we cannot risk even a little ridicule as the cost for help rendered across the divides of worlds, why ought they risk anything for us?
Once one has built up some intuitive savvy (and since Odin calls street smarts or common sense man-wits, perhaps I can coin the term aelf-wits for such savvy), one can simply ask what another being might like and listen. The reason intuitive savvy is recommended as a prereq is the fact that those inexperienced with listening to themselves and to the world may be unable to distinguish from their own projections, particularly shadow projections, which can result in those unfortunate schizophrenic echoes of "God told me to leap off a cliff". Odin does tell us to freista, to test the mysteries to determine their truth, and this applies to the spirits as well. We apply a good dose of common sense as well as diplomacy to what we hear. Why would God tell us to leap off a cliff? What would be the possible benefit? True, we ought to imagine this from the perspective of the particular being's world, values, and situation, but some sort of common sense test still ought apply. Just as one applies common sense with any human being with whom one bargains, so does one with spirits. Outrageous demands require rigorous proofs and demonstrations, as well as cost-benefit analyses. The bargain goes both ways, and if a being demands too high a price for the benefit to be rendered, it might be cost-effective to do some comparative shopping. I know this kind of language can sound a little silly when approaching spiritual matters, but it's an excellent way to graduate from superstitious dread as well as gullibility into an approach that is both pragmatic and respectful.
In a sense, this is approaching the universe as a free market rather than a tyrannical monopoly. There are coins of varous mint in this vast realm, some of earth, some of air, some of fire, some of water, and the Gods then are not monopolistic oligarchs but particularly wealthy patrons who have built up a lot of luck over the long years and distribute it freely as they will. This is approaching the universe from a voluntaristic, libertarian perspective, rather than assuming the universe is a tyranny ruled by a monarch or a council of oligarchs. There are a diversity of beings with whom to interact and exchange, and the Gods protect the market from marauders and those who would violently interfere in the free exchanges of others.
So next time you reach out to the multiverse and ask for help, ask respectfully, and humbly, and offer your own strengths and powers in exchange. You need neither grovel, nor offer all your stores. Show a fair heart willing to strike a good bargain, and see what good you may get. You may be surprised by the results.