Some thoughts on UPG

•October 18, 2016 • 22 Comments

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.

Autumn rituals

•September 30, 2016 • 7 Comments

Continuing on with my challenge, now that September is almost over I wanted to recap some of my recent autumn rituals.

The fall equinox fell on a Thursday, but my partner and I couldn’t do our ritual until that Saturday, so I marked the equinox itself simply by turning over my seasonal shrine for my spirits from light to dark half of the year. I have one set of items there during spring and summer to express Their manifestation during that part of the year, exemplified by May Day and the fairy rade, and another set for fall and winter, exemplified by All Hallows Eve and the Wild Hunt. So that set the tone for the coming festivals.

This year our equinox celebration had a Johnny Appleseed theme – his birthday being September 26 – because I have long wanted to honor him as a sort of modern avatar of Dionysos (those seeds grew apples suitable for making alcohol, not eating). Our sumbel was done with hard cider rather than mead, we went on a walk around the neighborhood hunting for apples to glean, and our dessert was an amazing apple crisp with a topping of local hazelnuts and honey. And my first toast after Dionysos was to John Chapman, of course. The ritual itself was very simple – I cooked a lovely pomegranate-glazed chicken and some other dishes and we brought the meal out to a wooded area nearby called Edgewood, where we found a suitable spot, shared the meal with the local spirits, made other offerings, and held our sumbel accompanied by libations (as he is Heathen and I am Hellenic).

Next up was Michaelmas, which was yesterday. Over the past few years I’ve found myself drawn to celebrating certain medieval holidays, and just sort of re-paganizing them, as they make potent seasonal markers and cover a lot of the European territory my gods and spirits are connected to. I consider Michaelmas the very beginning of Hunt season. The day before, I baked beer bread from scratch – often the only time each year I bother to make my own bread – in preparation. Yesterday I spent about an hour working on some very special animal remains I am processing, because these seasonal holy days are also when I pay special attention to my animal dead. Then just before sunset, I took the bread, a bottle of beer with an appropriate image on the label, dried apples, hazelnuts, some coins, a deer bone, and incense, and headed out my usual spot for this offering on a butte on the edge of the city.

Except…just as I got to the bus stop that would take me there, I felt a strong pull to change course and instead continue walking to the cemetery a bit further down the street. I immediately got a confirmatory omen of this urge, so I followed it. One of the good things about solitary practice is the ability to make such sudden last minute changes! I think part of the reason I needed to do this was because of my recent exploration of super-local polytheism, where the gods and spirits have been pushing me to focus solely on a very tight radius around my house – no more than, say, a 20-25 minute walk.

Anyway, the cemetery – which is one of my favorite places in the city – was absolutely the right choice. I wandered a bit, reading tombstones, acknowledging the founders and important people of our city’s history (who are almost all buried there), encountering a crazy gathering of stellar jays, and I even found a little corner of it I had never been to before, which was perfect for the ritual. Just as the sun disappeared below the trees, facing west, I laid out all my offerings and sang my Hunt song (I’m on a strange path, I don’t generally recommend people invite the Wild Hunt to them!). Like many of my important rituals these days, the actual thing itself took only a short time, but the preparation and journey there was a significant part of the process.

Once home, I lit fir and cedar incense and went through my house, smudging and singing to all of my animal spirits, of which there are very many.

Tonight is Hekate’s deipnon, and then it will be October! I am putting up Halloween decorations tonight, and am excited for what is, for me, the most wonderful time of the year. The entire month of October is dedicated to one of my spirits and I am looking forward to spending that time deeply engaged with him. Also, for those of you who follow, or aspire to follow, the lunar calendar, we have a neat synch happening where the lunar and civic calendars will align for the month – October 1st is also the Noumenia, and so on.

Happy autumn!

Great discussion of animism

•September 16, 2016 • 1 Comment

Highly recommend this episode of the Rune Soup podcast for an intelligent and insightful discussion of animism as a worldview. It’s worth an hour of your time!

Hermes takes me to some odd places

•September 13, 2016 • 6 Comments

Sometimes doing things for the gods and spirits takes you in unlikely directions. Yesterday I attended a neighborhood association meeting for the first time, and I’m considering writing a city grant application, and it’s all because of super-local polytheism.

See, I’ve been exploring the area within a mile radius of my house more lately, and have found myself particularly drawn to a few powerful, liminal sorts of spots, most of which have some kind of connection to Hermes for me. I’ve also been learning more about the history of this neighborhood, which enhances my experience of these places. One place that I’ve felt strongly about even before the super-local focus is a set of double stairs leading to nowhere. This is actually where I found my very first recently-dead animal which I processed into bones – a raccoon that I cared for over many months, and whose skull now rests on my Hermes shrine. I eventually discovered that these stairs were once a streetcar stop back in the very early 1900’s – so there’s a transportation connection to the god of travellers – which added to my interest. They also led to the first hospital in the city, now gone, and were across the street from our 1930’s baseball stadium, which sadly burned down last summer but is still important to many people here. So, lots of history right there.

But these stairs also have a large, blank concrete side that is very appealing to those with a can of spray paint and nothing better to do. It’s a constant battle of graffiti appearing (and never interesting or artistic graffiti, just ugly tagging), the city painting over it, then more graffiti appearing. For a long time I’ve wondered what might be done about it. Then it occurred to me that in this city at least, where we have many beautiful murals, the taggers seem to respect the art and leave the murals alone. Perhaps if we had a mural there it would end the graffiti. And perhaps the mural could reflect some of the rich history of the location. (I’ve also worried that the city might just decide to rip out the stairs eventually, to solve the problem, thereby losing an important piece of heritage.)

After a couple of inquiries, I found out that one can apply for a grant from the city for such a project, but that the first step is getting support from the board of the local neighborhood association. I also discovered that a candidate for city council lives right next to those stairs, and had had the same idea for a mural but hadn’t yet pursued it. It felt like a really appropriate and meaningful way to honor the spirits there, and Hermes, if I could make this happen, and change it from a trashy, neglected spot to something beautiful and interesting. So even though the thought of attending board meetings and writing grant applications and schmoozing politicians does not exactly fill me with glee, I decided to at least give it a shot.

To get to the meeting and back last night, I had to walk through the exact part of the neighborhood that has been calling me so strongly these last months, and as I wandered past enticingly numinous alleys and little free libraries and magical garden doors, it reaffirmed my desire to contribute to it in some way, to respond to the spirits there with something tangible. Much like deciding to pick up litter in your favorite nymph-haunted woods. Some people may term this “political” action, and if so that’s fine, but I think it’s important to note that it comes directly from engagement with the spirits, and not because of my own mundane inclinations or priorities, and is done only to honor Them. Other humans being involved is just an unfortunate necessity in this case.

So that’s another glimpse into my religious life for this month – sometimes it might not even look like I’m doing something spiritual from the outside, but everything I do starts with the gods.

Taking a moment

•September 6, 2016 • 3 Comments

So in thinking about what I might like to share from my religious life, in the spirit of my challenge, I didn’t want to focus solely on the big festivals or flashy rituals, because I firmly believe that those little moments we give to the gods can be just as – if not more – important.

Yesterday was the fourth of the lunar month and therefore the holy day I set aside (as per ancient custom) for Hermes. The ways I honor such monthly holy days vary widely, from just a small libation or offering to a full festival. However, yesterday I was having a Very Bad Day and not at all in a spiritual mindset, rather preoccupied with other matters, and almost forgot about it…and that happens, and sometimes I miss a day like that entirely, and that’s fine in the big picture as long as it doesn’t happen too much. But just as dusk was fading into night, I looked out the window, and thought of Hermes (as I usually do when the sky is that deep dark blue), and realized what day it was, and that it was – at that moment – the perfect time to do *something*.

So having nothing specially prepared or purchased, I simply took the last can of hard cider from my fridge and headed downstairs to the backyard, where I’d recently laid to rest two animals that have particularly strong significance for me, and are also connected peripherally to Hermes, and are right next to our boundary fence. I lit the candle on their grave, opened the cider, and made a series of libations to the animals and to Hermes, interspersed with small sips for myself so I could share it with them, and accompanied by extemporaneous prayers.

And then I went back inside and continued dealing with other things. But just taking that moment to connect and make offering not only satisfied my sense of religious obligation, and put one more small sentence perhaps in the ongoing Story of my relationship with my gods and spirits, but it also reminded me of my true self and what matters, and made tackling those mundane issues a lot easier.

Are you up for the challenge?

•September 1, 2016 • 43 Comments

Today John Beckett wrote that Polytheism Doesn’t Need Saving, It Needs Practicing. While I have a few quibbles with the post, in general I agree – the most important thing we can each do is to actually practice our religion, whatever that might look like. Beckett adds that we should share what we’ve done – but even he admitted that posts about the latest religious controversy get far more hits and shares than posts about rituals we’ve done. And what does that say about the polytheist community, and what we *really* want to read about?

Well, I don’t like that and I wonder if we could change it. I’ve taken plenty of sabbaticals from my blog when things got to be too much, and I’ve also tried with varying degrees of success to stay out of the fray and just talk about religious matters. Now I’m wondering if some of you would like to join me.

What if we made September a month of polytheists blogging about their actual practices? No talking about what other people do or should do, no politics unless it’s an integral part of the religious practice described, no controversies, no denouncing, no complaining about how other bloggers make us feel. Just sharing our religious lives, the things we are doing in this month to honor the gods, spirits, ancestors, nature, or whatever.

I’m not going to give this a trendy hashtag, this isn’t about looking cool or what your friends are doing. This is a decision we could each make for ourselves. If you want to link back to this post to explain, you are welcome to do so, but you can also just choose to participate quietly.

The seasons are changing, we’re entering a time of spirits abroad on the earth, a time of introspection as the natural world closes its eyes for its winter hibernation, a time when powerful magics are accessible, a time of showing gratitude for what we have, a time of feasting and masking and celebrations in so many traditions…. Let’s go out and DO something in our religions, and then let’s TALK about it, and set aside the rancor and the debates and the mundane stuff for a later time (if ever). If you resonate with what someone is describing, or you find it interesting or inspiring or educational – comment! Let’s let each other know we value this kind of discussion! And if you don’t like what you’re reading – stop reading it!

What do you say? Are you in?

Baggage and Reactionary Definitions

•August 17, 2016 • 1 Comment

Every bit of this post is brilliant and every single polytheist should read it right now. As someone who was fortunate enough not to have any personal baggage associated with monotheistic religions (and thus more easily able to notice and let go of the cultural baggage we all absorb to some degree), I have spent decades now watching other pagans misunderstand and even distort polytheistic religions due to an inability to shake off their issues with, mostly, Christianity. It is doing a great disservice to the development of polytheistic theology and practice. We owe it to our gods and our traditions to be more mature, thoughtful and rational than this. Please read and consider what your own baggage might be and how it might be tainting your apprehension of what polytheism really is.

Of Axe and Plough

Baggage is one of the major topics which I harp on as a cause of major issues with Paganism. In this context “baggage” can run a gamut of incidences: unidentified emotional hangers-on, obvious biases based off of previous interactions or disappointments, or even trauma which needs to be addressed, but nevertheless colors the topic. It largely is considered an emotional response (“emotional baggage”) and there is an implicit assumption that “baggage” is negative. Baggage of all kinds can have an impact on the types of discussions which are had.

Paganism is no exception.

After all, how could it be? Many people come to Paganism after a less-than-affectionate parting with Christianity, or otherwise have had some previous experiences which color them to the prevalence of Christian overculture. As a religious expression which spent a great deal of its life as a counter-cultural representation that defined itself by what it was not

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