As usual, I will update this list if/when sessions become full. Fee is $20 per question. More details here.
As usual, I will update this list if/when sessions become full. Fee is $20 per question. More details here.
With 20 years of experience as a devotional polytheist and spirit-worker, Sarah Kate Istra Winter presents a second collection of short essays and poems examining a life in the company of gods and spirits. A companion to Dwelling on the Threshold, Between the Worlds covers a wide range of topics, including localizing reconstructionist traditions, resisting distractions from the spiritual path, exploring altered states of consciousness, problems in the pagan community, the importance of discernment, communicating with the divine, animism in practice, deepening devotional relationships, the challenges of mysticism, and working magic in both worlds at once.
This is holy Work, but it doesn’t come with a map. For those wandering through these often mysterious lands, the knowledge and guidance shared within these pages will provide some small illumination of the road ahead.
Pathwalking is a type of trancework that straddles the worlds, where one moves about in physical reality while simultaneously experiencing another Place and engaging with a spiritual reality. Essentially, you are peeling back the veil that separates the worlds for an extended time, while staying fully aware of material existence. It is often said to be one of the more difficult practices, especially compared to travelling wholly on the astral plane (or “faring forth”). However, I personally find pathwalking easier, as I do not possess the mental visualization abilities to properly journey outside my physical form, and because my entire path is based on being in a position between the physical and spiritual worlds. But it still requires a lot of work to do well, and it is often challenging to initiate the transition from regular, everyday perception, especially because one does not have the luxury of blocking out sensory signals and messages the way one does in many other forms of trance.
One technique I have found useful is something I think of as “narrowed focus.” The simplest version can be done by paying attention only to your feet as you walk along. Narrow your field of vision until you can only see your feet and the surface on which you are walking – the sidewalk, the forest path, whatever it may be. It helps if you can also narrow your other senses, so that, for instance, you predominantly are hearing only your own footsteps rather than any distant noises that would alert you to what is happening in the larger area.
In this little bubble, you are still experiencing physical reality, but it is somewhat separated from the world that you know is around you. This helps you both to disconnect a little bit from the tyranny of your preconceived ideas (what you have come to expect about your surroundings), and to access other Places which might look very similar from that limited viewpoint. For instance, if you are walking down a city street and look only at the asphalt and concrete and grass around your feet, you could be almost anywhere – across the country, across the world, or even in another world entirely. You could be in the present day or in a moment that happened decades ago. You could be alone or surrounded by others. The familiar suddenly becomes the unknown, and that disorientation creates an opportunity for you to slip sideways a little, into a liminal state where both Here and There exist together.
Once you feel that altered perception taking hold, you can slowly raise your head and start to shift your attention to the rest of the world around you, seeing it all with new eyes. You may literally see the otherworld superimposed on this one, if you have that gift, or you may experience the dual realities in other ways – for instance, encountering unusual objects or people that are clearly being influenced by spiritual forces, hearing strange music or a voice just out of sight, feeling compelled to take a certain route that leads you to a significant location or event, etc.
Of course, there is some practical danger in this technique, especially when done in an urban environment. Taking your eyes off your surroundings, even for a few minutes, puts you at risk in a number of ways, so it must only be done in certain situations. But if done carefully, it can be a very powerful tool. (Having another person walk with you might seem like a sensible precaution, but in fact will probably hinder you more than help, as their unaltered, everyday perception of your mutual environment may serve to drag you back into consensus reality.)
Obviously, if you are trying to access a specific otherworldly Place, it’s best to choose a material landscape that’s at least close in appearance. Or, you can just let yourself slip behind the veil a bit and see what’s going on in the spiritual realm that is closest to where you are at the moment; this is especially effective if you’re trying to meet the local spirits. Remember, also, that just as that world and its denizens become clearer and more present to you, so do you become more noticeable to Them, so it’s best to always do this kind of work armed with offerings, protective talismans, and anything else you might need in a variety of spiritual encounters.
A final note – in my experience, movement is fairly crucial to this technique. You should be actively walking (or even riding in a vehicle of some sort – anything that causes you to traverse the material world to some degree) as you narrow your focus and then slowly begin to widen it again. It may be due to a simple psychological reason; perhaps our brains expect that we must be moving in order to change locations, at least when interacting with physical reality (as opposed to dreams and even astral travel, where we can easily transition from one place to another just by intention rather than an actual process of movement). There may also be some magical or spiritual reason, even just the common guideline of “as above, so below.” Whatever the case, just like in the Amber books by Roger Zelazny, walking between the worlds seems to require actual walking in this world.
I was listening to an interview about polytheism with Galina Krasskova and Edward Butler (found here, and very much worth listening/watching), when a question was posed about the idea of each god being limited to a certain function or sphere – like people tend to think of there being, in any tradition, a “god of love” and a “god of the ocean” and a “god of vegetation,” etc. Oddly, I had just been talking with my (Heathen) partner about this, and how it’s not a particularly useful or accurate concept when describing real, living polytheism, either in the past or present. Edward had this to say in response, which I transcribed because it was so great I thought it needed to be preserved:
“I would say this is a typically modern misunderstanding of polytheism. For someone who is the particular devotee of a certain deity, that deity is – at least potentially – all things to them. For someone who is only peripherally concerned with a particular deity, that deity may be concerned with some narrow function, that they only need recourse to in a particular circumstance of their life, for instance.
It’s one of the artifacts of our modern perspective these days – one of the misleading artifacts of that perspective – that we tend to look at all the deities from this peripheral perspective, and see them as having these narrowly circumscribed functions, and that again is partly because of an excessive reliance on the poets. It’s also because of other intellectual and conceptual confusions and distortions that have arisen over time.”
This is one of those things that, while I understand it and even exemplify it in my personal practice, I still find myself mistakenly slipping back into that erroneously simplistic conception especially when thinking of pantheons and gods I’m not familiar with. Which perhaps makes sense, as those would be deities who I would only be, at best, peripherally involved with, and therefore I see Them through the lens of those limited functions. But it’s good to keep in mind that every god is so much more than the “god of X” and can and will fulfill many roles in the life of Their devotee.
That’s not to say that They are all the same or interchangeable, or that They don’t each have areas of specialty. I may go to Dionysos for help with a problem totally outside His usual realms because we are close, but He’s still going to be the most helpful and most responsive with issues that are near and dear to Him. Still, He’s much more complex than just “the god of intoxication” or even “the god of liberation.” And plenty of other gods are involved in those things too, in Their own ways.
It’s true that we have been unduly influenced by the poets and storytellers, because (as Edward also pointed out) it’s not as if we can directly experience the living cultus that existed for our gods when it was thriving, and see how it might have differed from the myths that came down to us – we can reconstruct with the evidence we have, but we’re missing something crucial that I think will best be restored simply by practicing the living cultus today. It’s going to take time to recapture that mindset.
It’s important, though, to take note of these mistakes in thinking, especially because in some ways they can perpetuate harmful underlying concepts, even just subconsciously. For instance, the interviewer went on to ask, if the gods overlap in Their abilities and areas so much, what is the point in having more than one god at all? And see, that is a common response that reveals a critical assumption (again, even subconsciously): that gods are ultimately an invention of the human mind or culture, that people made up these gods of various aspects of life, and therefore one can question the point of having them overlap. Because it’s true, if it were just an invented system, it doesn’t always make sense or seem very elegant. But Galina’s wonderful response was that the point is, They exist. They exist and we are privileged to engage with Them. So you see, if you get too caught up in the mythology-book idea of the gods fitting into neat little boxes and each fulfilling a human need, you are subtly relegating Them to the position of human inventions, as sure as any anthropologist or psychologist might. The real gods are messy and complex and multi-faceted.
This more encompassing view of Them also kind of dismantles the reasoning behind thinking of gods as equivalent to other gods of similar functions. Hermes and Odin might both be gods of travellers and magic, but if you’ve gotten to know both of Them beyond Their functions, you’ll see how They are individuals with many non-intersecting areas of interest, strength, influence, etc. (This isn’t to say there can’t be useful syncretic practice, when done thoughtfully and carefully, but that doesn’t make those two gods the same, it just focuses on the places They overlap and intersect.)
Like Edward said, in antiquity people would have approached many if not most gods on a relatively simplistic level when they had occasional need of Them, seeing Them mostly through the filter of Their most well-known functions, and that’s fine – it is unnecessary and impossible to delve more deeply into all the gods, even just within one pantheon. But it’s good to remember that those depths exist, with all of Them.
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.
You all probably know that I don’t play the self-deprecating game, so popular these days, of saying “it’s not like I’m a special snowflake” every time I talk about what I do and am capable of. I am special, but that shouldn’t be threatening – it doesn’t preclude anyone else being special too, in their own unique way. That’s what makes humans interesting (to me, it’s pretty much all that makes them interesting) – the potential to be special, to do something special.
Today I was thinking – what was it about me, that made me special in the way that attracted my spirits to me? And you know what, it wasn’t anything all that glamorous. I’m smart, but not that smart. I’m artistic, but actually I only came into my own with that under the direct influence and assistance of my spirits. When I was 13 – when They first approached me – I certainly hadn’t done much with my life yet, of course. Sure, I probably had some innate facility with trance states and a sort of natural animistic worldview that helped. I had potential. But what it really comes down to, is that I said “Yes.” I said yes and yes and yes again. Was that smart? Probably not, all things considered. But when the opportunity came, I threw myself into it with wild abandon, and each time the stakes were raised, I said yes again, I went deeper into the labyrinth.
And then – and this is crucial, this I think is why I was not used up and discarded by the spirits long ago, as so many are when they jump in like that – I did the Work. I put in the blood, sweat and tears (all rather literally) to make myself into the most useful tool for Them that I could be. Which is an ongoing process, never done. There is always a next level, always further to go.
I have been asked, more than once, how I do what I do. Usually I answer (and this is true) that I have nothing in my life that is not the Work now, that I have no social life, no hobbies, etc. But also, the answer is that I keep saying yes, to things most people would (smartly) run away from. And I keep putting in the Work. That’s all my special gift really is, in the end. I’m not all that talented, compared to some. But I do not turn away.
I don’t think we should be afraid to identify what is special about us, and to embrace it, and even to intensify it. We should strive to catch and keep the attention of the gods and spirits. And “how can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
So the other day I was thinking about the types of offerings we make to the gods and spirits – not the specific things themselves, but more the general categories, and why we select what we do. Here are the themes I came up with – I figure it’s kind of a handy reference when one is trying to come up with an appropriate offering, and I’d also like to hear if anyone has additions. These are not discrete categories – an offering might easily overlap several of these.
TANGIBLE OFFERINGS (actual, physical items)
INTANGIBLE OFFERINGS (actions, energy, etc.)