Why we worship

•May 3, 2016 • Comments Off on Why we worship

I remember back in the early days of Hellenic Recon-based mailing lists, we used to have a frequent argument over whether or not one could have personal relationships with the gods at all (I’m sure this argument is still happening in some corners of the internet). Some would argue that this was mere fantasy or hubris, and others of us would counter with examples from history and myth, along with our own experiences. But it appears that our calls for people to open their minds have caused some polytheists to open theirs so wide that, as the saying goes, their brains fell out.

Because now I’m seeing a sort of “everything goes” attitude in some circles that accepts any and every experience as automatically legitimate, whether or not there is any confirmation that the gods are even involved anymore. Fuzzy feelings and, frankly, sexual fantasies seem to be taking the place of life-altering encounters with divine forces, and no one can even tell the difference. Now, will this necessarily hurt the people involved? Probably not – I mean, if you stay in the shallow end of the pool all the time, and your experiences are safely contained within your own imagination, there’s not too much room for actual gods to come and shake things up – and it’s when actual gods are involved that things can get perilous (and amazing). But I fear we have lost track of the whole *point* of polytheism in the first place.

When our ancestors made offerings, and sacrifices, they were responding to the very real presence of the gods in their lives, even if they never (or very rarely) encountered Them on a personal level. They knew that the gods controlled, or could at least influence, the forces that directly affected their lives. How well the crops grew, whether the neighboring tribe won the next skirmish between them, the health of their children, even their personal luck. They felt an obligation to the gods in return for all the gifts They had bestowed. And they, quite understandably, felt a holy awe when they witnessed the manifestation of those gods. They were engaged with the Powers on a daily level because They are Powers, not because they thought Zeus (or a statue of Zeus) was cute, or because it was fun to imagine what witty quip Hermes might come up with if He was having a drink with them.

When you worship gods for this reason, it DOES matter whether or not the entity you are contacting is actually the god whose name you’re using. It *definitely* matters whether or not you’re just talking to a mental sock puppet or something that has an independent existence. A mental sock puppet is not going to help you with your village’s drought. A minor spirit or thought-form or egregore erroneously addressed as a specific god may not mind the comparison, but it isn’t going to have the might of that god, or the close relationships with the other gods in the pantheon, or the complex and ancient web of connections and obligations binding it to humanity.

I think we’re also losing track of the point of mysticism, within polytheism. It used to be understood that one of the primary goals of bhakti-type devotion is to know one’s god as deeply as possible. If you encountered, for instance, a character in a story that reminded you of the god, it would provoke you to meditate on why that god could be seen in that mask, what that mask revealed about the god, and ultimately, a desire to get to know all the masks, or even what is behind the masks. But now I see people stopping at the most superficial point. They take some perceived similarity between their god and, say, a television character, and fetishize it to the point where they only see the actor’s face when they think of the god… and eventually, they appear to only be interacting with the idea of a person – not even the idea of a god, and certainly not a Holy Power itself.

And so then you get people questioning the ability of anyone (priest, oracle, etc.) to be able to guide you in your relationship with the god, because of course, they don’t know YOUR god, and YOUR god is so different and idiosyncratic and might only share a name with the god everyone else is worshipping. See now, that used to be a sign I would tell people to watch for, that they might be veering too far – past UPG, into just “making it up” territory (or at the very least, mistaking another deity or spirit for the god in question). Because while you might certainly develop little symbols and cues that are unique to your personal relationship with a deity, once They stop resembling the historical deity known by others in any significant way, it’s much more likely that you are in error than that everyone else through all time has been.

Now if you just want to feel the love and acceptance of a disembodied personality, and you get that from thinking fondly of your favorite character and using a name from mythology while you’re doing it, then I guess it doesn’t really matter to anyone else. But you’re probably not getting even close to an actual deity, the kind of deity who sends earthquakes or guides dead souls or is the raw power of love itself. And more importantly, the gods are not getting Their due that way. The right relationship our ancestors maintained between humanity and the Powers is not being fed. And if not by so-called polytheists, then who will take up that challenge? Certainly not the predominant type of humanistic or monotheistic people in our current culture, that’s for sure.

Of course, I’m not advocating against personal relationships with gods and spirits! Anyone who knows me and my spiritual life knows that would be pretty hypocritical. I just think we should be striving for authentic experiences, and wary of experiences that always match our expectations or desires. (I mean, ever notice that people are always seeing their gods as very attractive and popular actors? That alone should be a warning sign.) And that we should always remember why it is that humanity engages with the gods in the first place. There are things more important than having someone to share your morning coffee with, or make snarky jokes with. If the experiences you are seeking are no different than those you could have with a person (or an imaginary friend), if your devotions are indistinguishable from fandom, then it’s really not about a religious practice anymore. And we *need* religious practice – as a species. We need to be actually connecting with the real and powerful gods.

I sincerely hope that we do not lose potential future devotees, ones who would have carried on traditions and maintained that crucial right relationship with the Powers, because they come to modern polytheism looking for meaningful spiritual connection and find only swoony odes to Benedict Cumberbatch.

Self-Published Book Design

•April 6, 2016 • 8 Comments

wAs I’m staring at a relatively small but still significant-to-me tax bill and wondering how to pay it, I thought I might take a moment to mention again that I offer book design services to self-published authors.

I know there are a lot of polytheists and other pagans writing books and using print-on-demand companies to get their work out there, but who need some help formatting the interior, designing the cover, etc. I have extremely reasonable rates (especially in comparison to the competition) and specialize in books with a pagan focus (although I am happy to work on any kind of project). I provide professional results in a very timely manner. I even do copyediting if you need help with the manuscript itself. I have done all of the Nysa Press books by Sannion, the Sanngetall Press books by Galina, the Walking the Worlds journal, and a variety of others.

Visit the Winged Words website and check out my Portfolio as well as the Testimonials. And please, if you happen to know anyone else who might need my services, pass it on!

None of this really matters (a quick reality check)

•March 30, 2016 • 13 Comments

I made a comment along these lines to a private group recently but felt it bore repeating and expanding upon here.

Sometimes it feels very overwhelming when the pagan blogosphere explodes with the latest brouhaha and everyone is arguing and it seems like the community might fracture yet again into even smaller sectors, or that the future of all polytheism is doomed.

I find it helpful to remind myself that, if I were not online at all, or didn’t read these particular blogs, I would have no idea about any of this going on. I’d just be happily going about my own spiritual practices, and not worrying about what people I don’t even know said about stuff. And then it would all blow over, or move on to the next debacle, and I’d still be doing my thing. And it wouldn’t actually matter at all. ​Because it doesn’t.

You can still worship the gods, however you feel like (yes, even if someone insists you are wrong). You can still go down to the nearest nymph-haunted tree and say hello. You can still celebrate the seasonal changes, or make your magical herbal concoctions, or going on long astral journeys to the otherworld, or whatever else fulfills you. No words on a screen can stop you. The opinions of strangers may occasionally be a good source of fodder for reflection, but they don’t control you. And even if somehow things move off the screen and into your real-world religious life (as they did for the Bakcheion crew recently, which is the only reason I even entered the fray this time), you can still meet your obligations to your gods, even if you have to get creative. (Think Dionysos will be losing a ritual in His honor because we had to withdraw from a silly conference? No! He’ll be getting a much better one, privately, because we are still devotees first and foremost. Big public events can be fun but they should not be the bread and meat of our traditions or our personal religious lives.)

Remember that there are tons of polytheists out there just living day to day, honoring their gods and spirits, even devoting their whole lives to it, who have no awareness of or interest in the online “communities” and are totally unaffected by this stuff. Even if you don’t want to be one of them, you can remember to keep some perspective.

Place, Power and Persons

•March 22, 2016 • 5 Comments

‘Correct use’ of a ritual landscape is not really something that can be bottled. Perhaps not much about magic can. Perhaps every magical system is the bottle, not the water.

You see, I had some bureaucracy shit to push through that could definitely do with a bit of ‘London lube’ to help it along, plus I’d made several wizard promises I needed to keep, plus Holy Week. Thus the pieces are me, landscape -both physical and imaginal- and the spirit world….Adding to the complications at the bottling plant is determining when listening ends and speaking begins. This Londonmancy not only arose from a constellation of personal needs, but in response to a compulsion emerging from my mind/dreams/the local spirit world.

So it’s not merely a matter of taking a recipe off the shelf in response to a specific need: “Bureaucratic challenges? Perambulate these specific churches and light this specific number of calendars.” Would that it were so simple!

“They Live in the Starlight” from Rune Soup

First off, that whole post is worth a read. Go read it. I’ll wait.

So, what Gordon talks about here is actually what a whole lot of my spiritual/magical practice looks like these days. Especially since I stopped adhering to a rigid set of (mostly self-created) rules about what I had to do and when and how, and started instead deeply listening to the spirits at every moment and doing what I was guided to do. This was not an overnight process and it wasn’t something I would necessarily recommend for everyone. It was really good, and necessary, for me to go through a period where I stuck to a schedule and met my obligations and forced myself to do things I might otherwise slack off on. But even a very good system can become a noose around your neck, and eventually I had to change my approach. It was only because I had spent years upon years refining my practices, establishing my relationships, and opening myself up to communications from the spirit world that this works so well, but holy shit does it work!

The result is a deep, reciprocal engagement with my personal spirits and gods, and my environment on both a physical and magical level. It is ongoing, constantly changing, and requires an immense amount of attentiveness. As Gordon says, there is no recipe for any given situation. Some “assignments” are extremely brief and self-contained – go leave this thing in this place and say these words. I may not even know why, though I usually have an idea. I may not see the result at all (it’s not always about me anyways), or only put two and two together later (oh, it was just the day after I did that when X happened that I really needed). Some assignments are much longer in scope – like my year visiting cemeteries with Hermes, or the 100 consecutive days I spent giving blood offerings to my spirits (ouch).

A very important process of discernment also needs to happen, on a constant basis, to make sure I’m doing what I’m being Told and not just what I feel like doing (or not doing). This is definitely one of those situations where it may sound like it’s easier, but it’s actually much harder than a more structured system (not dissimilar from my unique college education, which was largely self-directed and required much more work than a normal curriculum, as several students looking for an easy ride found out the hard way). For instance, last fall I was all ready to start doing a lot more Work out in the various numinous places in my region, a lot of pathwalking and leaving offerings and glamourbombs and meeting the local spirits. Except, every single time I set out to do that, I felt a strong NO in response. I kept being Told to stay inside, even to stay in my bedroom specifically (which has been set up to be conducive to certain types of altered states exploration). So I did that, and I found that indeed it was exactly what I needed to be doing at that time, as I eventually started glimpsing Their larger plan for my coming Work. And of course, once I got very comfortable with that, I started getting the call to go out again.

Divination is crucial to this process. As is a keen observation of results. Everything falling apart with my plans? Probably weren’t the right plans to be making. Things I had needed just dropping in my lap? Looks like that new technique is working. I’ve learned to give much more weight to these tangible measurements than to my feelings – it just isn’t that relevant whether I *feel* connected to my spirits. I mean, that’s nice, and I want it, but that is not the point, and furthermore a focus on feelings tends to seriously sidetrack real spiritual practice in so many ways. The question isn’t, do I feel connected, it’s am I connecting? There are a million reasons why I might not be feeling it, but could still be giving and receiving communications perfectly fine. That’s why I like having so many ways to communicate that do not rely on the stuff in my head. I actually do a lot of Work that involves altered states of consciousness and internal Opening Up, but I’ve balanced that with equal amounts of physical actions that have meaning and power regardless of state of mind. And likewise, I pay attention to the ways They reciprocate communication, which are so varied and often make use of the physical world. And that makes me feel close to Them, even when my brain is a mess or I’m sick or I have to tend to mundane concerns for awhile.

So essentially, if every magical system is a bottle, I am in a constant process of finding just the right bottle for the water I’m working with, and often creating a new bottle myself, unique to the specific situation. This results in a complex interplay of Place, Power, and Persons involving both the physical and spiritual worlds and their inhabitants. It’s been an amazing adventure so far.

The long haul

•February 27, 2016 • 6 Comments

“The problem though, is that too many of us are convinced we’re already at the endpoint, that we already know all that we need to know. Bullshit. That’s like seeding a quarter of a field in exactly the same way year after year and then wondering why the yield becomes less as time goes on. Eventually, the field becomes barren and those that engage in that particular tradition of seeding the field starve. We can do better.” (“The Line in the Dirt” by Seo Helrune, which is worth reading in its entirety for her call to up our game with magic and ritual)

I’ve been at this a long time. At least, a long time by the standards of modern polytheism.

I’ve been a devotee for twenty years, and doing intensive spirit-work for about ten (although it was always some part of my practice). In that time, I cannot begin to count the number of people I have known who were at one point completely devoted to spiritual and magical practices above all else, who eventually either stopped entirely, or began focusing more on some tangentially related interest. This may be perfectly reasonable and understandable in any given case, but as a whole, I often wonder why it is that so few people stick with this stuff  – at a high level and intensity, the way one must in order to pursue it as a vocation – for the long haul.

Then there are the people who seem to have gotten only so far, and then stopped. Oh, they still practice of course, but they no longer push to go further, deeper. They pile on titles and get comfortable. They think they know what they are doing. They think they’ve gone through the hard training period and now can relax into their familiar role as witch/priest/shaman/etc.

Several years ago I almost fell into this trap myself, and the spirits did not hesitate to chastise me. It never ends, They said. You will never be ‘done’. 

I have worshipped a god of madness for two decades, and whenever I get one part of my crazy under control, a new kind surfaces which compels me to return to my god again with prayer and sacrifice and in search of healing ekstasis. When I got used to being a mainad, He gave me a new role. When I started to get used to that one, it changed again. Every time I think I know Him, He shows me a new face. Every time I think I have let go, have been sufficiently loosened, He finds a new way to tear me apart and show me I was not free. I expect Dionysos will be destroying me till the day I die and He takes me completely, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Many are the wand-bearers, and they serve a real purpose, but we still need a few bakkhoi to push the boundaries further.

I have spoken oracles and horsed spirits and invoked gods in ritual and spend the bulk of my time engaged either in direct spirit-work activities or those that support such, and still I know I am not even really past the beginning stages of what could be. Still my spirits challenge me with new assignments out of my comfort zone. Still my relationships with my various gods change and grow and deepen (and even, rarely, end). Still I learn new techniques, or understand better the old ones after a decade or two of use.

Do you know the power a ritual can accumulate after a hundred repetitions, or a thousand? Can you even imagine what you could experience after a lifetime of service to a deity? What magic you could effect? What might happen if you refused to be satisfied with the rewards of a little effort, with the same old stuff everyone does, and kept looking behind every door, peeling away every preconception – if you launched yourself on a neverending quest to do, feel, know, serve, create, explore, worship and practice more? What paths you might open for others to follow? The effects of the powerful connections you could make with gods and spirits, that might ripple out far past your own limited lifespan and sphere of influence?

This is the Work of a lifetime. And it is holy Work, and necessary for our collective wellbeing, which is why there have always been shamans and mystics. It is, absolutely, not required (or even possible) for everyone. But someone must take up the torch. Could it be you? Can you endure both the sacrifices and the ecstasies? Are you ready to give your life to the gods?

On faith, the gods, and the nature of reality

•January 27, 2016 • 17 Comments

Those of us who have fairly consistent communication with the gods, in whatever form that takes, can sometimes take for granted our rather astonishing level of interaction with the divine, relying too much on our ability to experience entities that are – for many sincere worshippers – more often than not silent, invisible and mysterious. So when we enter those times (be it days, weeks or even much longer stretches) when we can no longer sense Them, we begin to despair. If it goes on long enough, or becomes a total lack of any communication, we may even begin to question Their existence – were we just fooling ourselves all along? Some polytheists will say, that is when you need to have faith. Others will say, faith has no place in our religions of praxis, and (to paraphrase Terry Pratchett) one no more needs to believe in gods than believe in the postman.

But here’s the thing. During those times, we are not really doubting the gods, we are doubting ourselves. We don’t need faith in the gods – it’s true, They exist no matter what we think – we need faith in our own experiences. We know (rather than believe) that the postman exists, even if we are not currently looking at him or talking to him, because we have seen him before, we have talked with him before, and we can see the evidence of his passing (the mail in our mailbox). This is, ultimately, the only way we know the gods exist, too. Not just because someone told us about Them – that might put the idea in our mind, but it’s certainly not proof. No, we know about the gods the same way we know about anything else – we experience it in some way, directly or indirectly.

When we are connected and open (and the gods are interested in communicating with us, which They aren’t always, as we are not the center of the universe), we receive evidence of the gods through a variety of means. Sometimes we use the same five basic senses through which we interface with the physical world: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. Sometimes we use other senses –  sense of temperature, sense of pain, sense of time. Sometimes we simply know or understand something in a sudden manner that we have learned, through much practice and after many confirmatory tests, comes from Them. And sometimes we see the marks of Their presence – the answered prayers, the omens, the gifts.

These divine encounters are just as real as any mundane ones. Moreover, our means of experiencing them are the only way we experience anything. We tend to forget this because our culture has this story it tells about consensus reality as if it’s this provable, objective fact, when actually we can only ever measure and observe what we receive through our senses. This is as much true for everyday life as it is for complex quantum experiments that aim to explore the nature of reality. How do you know that table over there exists? Because you can see it, touch it. In other words, because your brain has interpreted signals as the familiar object “table”. If you went blind, would you doubt the existence of all tables? No, you would trust that since you once saw a table, it exists even if you’re not currently seeing it. So if you doubt the existence of the gods because you can’t see/hear/etc. Them, really you are doubting your own previous experiences, back when you knew you were encountering gods, clear as day. The immediacy has faded, and it’s easy to start questioning.

So when I’m going through one of those distant periods, this is what I remember. I know that if my partner were to go on a trip to the wilderness and I could not reach him in any way for weeks, he would still exist, we still had real interactions when he was near me, and will do so again once communication is possible. It’s really as simple as that. Maybe the gods have gone off to do other things, maybe I’m just not tuned into Their frequency for whatever reason, but that’s all it is. If I am going to accept the reality of anything at all, and not descend into a solipsistic nightmare where everything is the creation of my own mind, then I must treat the existence of the gods like I do the existence of any other person, place or thing that I know to be real because I experienced it.

Shrine as Repository of Past Rituals

•January 19, 2016 • 14 Comments

Shrines can be used for many things. They can be a focal place for prayer. They can be a receptacle for offerings, both temporary (which are cleaned off periodically) and permanent. They can be artistic offerings in themselves. Sometimes, they can be a literal home for the god.

But let me mention one other approach that I’ve been using lately with my shrine to Dionysos – something that was gradually happening, but which I formalized a year ago. Instead of a dozen statues and trinkets and such, I’ve stripped it down to fairly basic elements: seven candles (for the seven turns in a classical labyrinth), a kylix for libations, a drinking horn, a few small important permanent offering items… but mostly, it has become a repository for mementos of rituals I have done for my god.

There is the giant buffalo skull that dominates the shrine, with a spiral made of red ochre and wine paste stained on its forehead. The staff and bells that accompanied our geros mumming ritual for several years. The necklace I made for the MGW ritual last August. Etc. These are reminders of very large, significant rituals I have done for Him, whether they were repeated or one time only, whether they are ongoing or not.

At first I wasn’t sure – should I leave up that staff when I had stopped doing the ritual it represented? But my gut told me to keep it, and later I could see why. It might seem that these are no different than any other kind of non-perishable offerings – statues, crystals, images, figurines, etc. – but in fact they mark an important shift in priorities. They are less about “stuff” and more about actions. Because it’s not enough, for me, to have a pretty shrine that occupies one corner of my living room and constantly reminds me of my god and is a place to pour libations. The fact is, most of my worship these days takes place outdoors anyway. And while I’m sure Dionysos appreciates my love of His many forms and images, I’m not sure how much He gets from me putting up pictures. Not to mention, on looking at numerous shrines to the same deity, you will often notice the same images, the same statues, over and over. I prefer something more personalized.

Instead, I choose to focus on the rituals I have done for Him, and the experiences I have had with Him as a result. That buffalo skull reminds me of drumming and chanting for Him in the woods that night, after dragging the skull into the clearing, when we threw the plaster images of our own faces into the fire and He reached inside me and prepared the way for some big life changes I didn’t know were on the way. The bells remind me of the moment I understood a bit of the Mystery of playing the goat for Him on the New Year, ringing out eerily through the still night as we passed by darkened houses on our way to the river. These are experiences unique to my own relationship with Him and understanding of Him and what He wants from me.

To further this approach, last year I started a new practice.* In addition to the aforementioned (relatively permanent) mementos from major festivals, I set up a large bowl on the shrine and began to fill it with smaller remnants of each ritual or even more casual experience I had with Him. A piece of purple yarn I found on a magical walk I took with Him. A twig from the tree at the top of the hill when I sang up the sun on Lenaia. Dried flowers from Anthesteria. Every cork from every bottle of wine I libated to Him. The items themselves were nothing special, not really “offerings” per se, but just records of the true offerings, all the work I did to honor Him. All year long, the bowl served as a snapshot of my time with Dionysos, all our individual moments. And on the last day of the year, I emptied it out (giving the biodegradable things to the river) and began again.

This isn’t necessarily an appropriate approach with every god or spirit – I haven’t changed my other shrines along these lines, for instance, as each one serves its own purpose depending on the relationship – but I’ve found it to be a powerful one in this case. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else does something similar.

*A big “thank you” to Sannion for suggesting this to me when I needed a new direction!

 
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