Presence and Power

•February 9, 2014 • Comments Off

“But I realize now that what I am looking for from ‘gods’ is the presence and power, but not the person.” (John Halstead)

The gods may seem like people sometimes. They have desires and preferences, They can love, be angry, kill, have children. They have personal histories, stories of Their lives. But if you have only ever experienced the gods as people, as opposed to presence and power, you have not gone deep enough, not at all.

It is often pointed out that in ancient Hellenic polytheism, there was rather an obvious and sometimes extreme difference between myth and cult. My favorite example is always Pan and the nymphs. In myth, Pan is constantly chasing, hassling and even raping various nymphs. You’d think the nymphs would stay far away from Him, and would never consent to be worshipped alongside Him. And yet, almost everywhere there was a sanctuary of the nymphs, Pan was there, and vice versa. They are nearly inseparable in cult practice. Clearly, the ancients’ actual experience of these deities on an immediate level was different than what the myths portrayed – in other words, the mythic (and human-like) version of the gods was not necessarily the only or even primary way of understanding of Them.

For a very long time, I would picture the gods in my head – sometimes like They stepped off of some ancient vase painting, sometimes in more modern guise, but still essentially like people (even if They might be markedly Other in some way, such as being animal-headed). But eventually I came to know Them (the ones I have deeper relationships with, that is, the ones I have had direct experiences of) as Powers far beyond simple anthropomorphism. Dionysos became the Force of opening and loosening to me. Hermes the Power of liminality. Apollon the Presence in the oracular chamber. When I go to honor the nymphs in the marshes or on the mountainside, I don’t expect to see slim-ankled girls cavorting in a fountain (though it could still happen). Instead I feel the presence gathering around me as I make my offerings, the unique and recognizable feel of those nymphs of that place (as opposed to any others, and as opposed even to other land spirits).

It takes a certain amount of experience to get down past all those stories to the more core natures of these beings, though I don’t think it requires being a mystic, just putting in a lot of time at ritual and prayer and devotion. Slowly, over the years, you begin to get a feel for Them. In ancient times, this was probably an easier process, begun at birth, common even to everyday people. Today we have to work at it, not to mention overcoming certain preconceptions we have from the illustrations of childhood mythology books and much worse cultural influences. The ancients at least received their mythology as sacred story rather than solely entertainment, and alongside a regular dose of ritual and cult.

And none of this is to say the gods aren’t people, in the sense of individual, autonomous beings with very particular personal agendas. Nor that They don’t sometimes appear as people, in the sense of having a certain shape and the abilities and actions that go with that shape. But They are much bigger than people in every way. They are gods. Unique enough that one can easily, with time and practice, know just Who has shown up in one’s ritual or dream or trance or divination, but also powerful enough that They don’t need a human mouth to tell us what They want, or human hands to touch us. When you experience that presence, you know it.

Anthesterion 7

•February 6, 2014 • Comments Off

For the past seven years, this date has marked the Manteia for me, the traditional day when Apollon returned to Delphi and the oracles began again after the winter break. Having respectfully ended my service to Apollon a few months ago, I found myself no longer called to celebrate this or any of His festivals any longer. In fact, I quickly lost the connection with all of the Delphic daimones I had honored as part of my oracular work – the Pythiai, the Korykian Nymphs, Trophonios. (I have made my final offerings to Them all, including placing my statue of Trophonios in the scary dark tunnels where I used to seek Him.)

I wasn’t quite expecting that level of total cessation, but I guess it makes some sense – my relationship with all of Them, Apollon included, has always been primarily one of Work, my oracular work for the community, and once that stopped, there wasn’t really a reason on either end to continue a devotional relationship. Unlike with, say, Dionysos, it was never a deep matter of the heart. Which isn’t to say I never had personal experiences with Them, because I did, ones I will always treasure, and They have taught me a great deal that I will apply to my spiritual practice going forward.

On Saturday I will finally be getting my tattoo in honor of this work, and my seven years as Apollon’s oracle. It’s strange to get a devotional tattoo while no longer in the throes of passionate devotion, but as a mark of service and things now all past. It makes it more devotional, in a way, because it would be easy to just move on and find a reason not to do it, but I think it’s important to permanently mark this period in my religious life, and the significant relationship I did have with the god.

Anthesterion 5

•February 5, 2014 • Comments Off

The monthly holy day for my dream spirit. I sat before his shrine in my bedroom (his is the only shrine in that room) with herbal tea in my raven mug and ate a small piece of amanita slathered in honey. Strange, dark music playing, my mind rapidly began reeling. Too rapid to be the actual physical effects of the mushroom, but that never seems to matter.

We didn’t talk – he doesn’t talk, per se, but communicates effectively nonetheless. I was reminded of a particularly harrowing trance experience I’d had…oh, it must be around a year ago now… go to check my journal and indeed, it would be a year as of the following day (today). Sometimes my spirits are better at keeping track of these things than I am, this is not the first time I’ve been reminded of such a date by one of Them. That experience haunts me to this day, but looking back I think it cleared the way for a lot of what came afterwards. It was initiatory, but that sounds better than “I think I may seriously be dying” and coming to, wild-eyed, unable to recognize the face of my partner trying to bring me back.

After awhile (who knows how long when there’s amanita and a spirit steeped in dreamworlds?) things wound down, I read my latest Girls Underground book, and went to sleep, a sleep filled – unsurprisingly – with dreams so vivid that it took me a good 30 minutes on waking this morning to adjust to this world again.

Anthesterion 4

•February 3, 2014 • Comments Off

With Hermes’ shrine lit up and His offering of lager set out, I began preparing for my (slightly delayed) Candlemas rite. I lit candles in every room of the house, and especially ones in front of the bear and all the most powerful of the animal spirits living in my house (the ones still closely tied to their physical remains of bone or preserved skin). This marks the time of bears coming out of hibernation; since Bear is often considered King of the other forest animals – at least in the Finno-Ugric tradition which informs this part of my practice – I usually honor all of them along with Bear (and more specifically, my own bear, who is very dear to me). I also laid out an offering of dark, Slavic beer for Veles, who is connected to this ritual both through St. Blaise and by His own connection to the bear.

I lit the charcoal in the mortar I use for smudging and brought it with me to the adyton, where I set down an offering of nuts, dried berries and honey for my bear. With candles as the only light, I began burning a mixture of alder, birch, amanita and uva ursi, offering it to each animal in turn, along with my own energy in the form of my singing voice. I walked through the house stopping at not only the more “alive” animals but every remnant that I have, even those in the form of jewelry or art. For those I had found and cleaned myself, I paused to remember the circumstances of our meeting, and the connection I feel to them. Keeping their memories is part of this work with bones.

Now only the candles in front of Hermes, Veles, the Hunt and Bear remain lit, though I can still smell the herbs burning in the adyton, and I find myself disproportionately tired from the brief but intense expenditure of energy. It feels right, though, to feed these spirits in the way They seem to wish, to honor Them, to remember.

Anthesterion 2

•February 1, 2014 • Comments Off

Today I took a walk to a little patch of wetlands that was the first place I found which had a strong affinity with my daimon, when I first came to Eugene so many years ago. I hadn’t been there in awhile, since it had become overrun with homeless camps and trash. I’d heard they’d cleaned it up, and went to see. I first approached the small pond where we’d done several nymph rituals, and it was awful – trees practically clear-cut, in full view of the busy road rather than secluded in the woods. No sign of wildlife, where before there had been herons, nutria….I ate my lunch there with a bit of sadness and left half of it in the traditional spot nonetheless, hoping the spirits could gain some benefit from it.

Fortunately, the next section of wetlands across the road was much better – missing about half the trees and all the undergrowth, but still resonating with a numinous atmosphere (although somewhat different than before), and entirely clean of human debris, which felt good. Before exploring, I climbed the hill to the spot connected with my daimon, and did my usual small rite and made more offerings. I shared the hill with a small flock of Canada geese, which happened to serve as an answering omen to a question I’d come with.

After awhile I walked back down the hill (as a much, much larger flock of geese at the next pond suddenly and impressively took to flight) to that numinous patch of woods and wandered through it. As I was leaving, I turned back for a moment after remembering earlier intentions, and played a song for the spirits on my bone flute. Whereupon I looked down at the path and saw a single animal leg bone where I had not seen anything before. I took it with me as a gift, and headed home.

The Flood

•January 31, 2014 • Comments Off

“….I’ve been thinking a lot about Deukalion’s dead which are honored during it. A lot of people tend to think it’s a fairly random insertion into the festival but if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years about Anthesteria it’s that nothing is random when it comes to this festival.” – Sannion


Lenaia cracks the ice.

With Anthesteria comes the flood.

Anthesterion 1

•January 31, 2014 • Comments Off

I woke from a dream (one minute before my alarm) in which I was watching a music video I’d never seen before, and the chorus – I realized on waking – was a message about the significance of the ritual I was about to do. Holding that in my mind, I lit the candles on Dionysos’ shrine and began getting ready. I donned my usual mainadic robes, heavy waterproof boots, my stephanos, and a hooded cowl since it was still misty and might rain. I took only my keys, the lyrics to my song, and a bottle of sparkling wine, and left the house in the pre-dawn half-light.

Hellebores were blooming along my path, and the verdant leaves of daffodils announced they would be next. I had waited later than usual this year to celebrate Lenaia, not only because of my personal situation, but because we’ve had a colder-than-normal winter and it didn’t feel like the right time yet. But finally the rains had returned, and the first stirrings of spring were in the air. And today was the Noumenia, which I always set aside for Dionysos, who comes first.

I climbed the steep hill up to the reservoir on quiet streets, no one else in sight. When I got to the muddy field at the top, I paused to catch my breath so I could bring my full power to the words I was about to sing – a string of His epithets meant to call Him up from the Underworld. The form and tune, though not the exact words, of this song were given to me by Him years ago, and each time I sing it, it becomes more powerful. Usually, I sing up the sun at the top of that hill, but this morning I sang up the rain instead, which began to fall more steadily just as I finished.

My voice still reverberating in the dawn silence, I then popped open the wine – a not-so-subtle symbol of sexual release as well as the emergence of new life in spring – drank a draught, and poured out the rest among the budding leaves. Then I headed home to get ready for the rest of my day.

Hail Dionysos, Opener of the Door.

my new, more primal Dionysos shrine

my new, more primal Dionysos shrine

view when sitting at the shrine

view when sitting at the shrine

“When you tear open your chest, you should find nothing in your heart other than the image of the deity to whom you are devoted.”


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