It occurs to me that it might be helpful to post some “testimonials” on my Cartomancy page for those who might not know me too well and wonder about my effectiveness. So, if you have ever received a reading from me that was useful, and are willing write a couple sentences about it which I could share publicly, please send to doorunderground at gmail dot com, and include whatever name/pseudonym/etc you want me to use for attribution. Thanks!
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.
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!
I have returned from my fall/winter hiatus. That was a truly productive break! In the last four months, I have celebrated 13 festivals, completed six major art projects plus several smaller ones, made my last four outings of my Year with Hermes, did three cartomancy sessions for clients, sold and signed my books at a holiday fair, visited the raptor center, a Victorian historical house, several museums, an antique fair, a haunted house for Halloween and an art walk, attended a lecture on fairytales, got two tattoos, made many explorations into altered states of consciousness, designed several books for clients, cleaned deer bones, made wine from local grapes for the first time, did 6-7 thrifting trips, read 5 non-fiction and 8 fiction books, and watched at least 25 movies. And all with absolutely NO online drama to distract me!
During that time, I decided that I will keep A Forest Door active for now, but I am going to limit the focus strictly to posts exploring devotional polytheism and spirit-work in theory and practice. I will no longer be sharing details from my personal spiritual life (other than what might be relevant, as an example, to a broader topic) or engaging in any internet controversies. Basically, I want this to be a space where I can discuss important ideas and lessons I’ve learned that might help others and inspire some thought and conversation, without any of the baggage that comes with participating in the “pagan blogosphere” or whatever you might call it. I recently looked up several spiritual blogs I used to enjoy, only to find they had each transformed into something with a decidedly non-spiritual focus – selling their wares, discussing politics or cultural issues, or becoming essentially a personal diary. None of these things appeal to me.
If you want to see what art I am making, what crafts and vintage items I am selling, or what I’m up to with some of my other interests, you can find links to every single place I have an online presence at BIRDSPIRITLAND.COM. But here, I’m going to talk about gods and spirits and altered states of consciousness and animism and ritual.
Finally, just a note that I’m still offering cartomancy readings. In fact, I would like to do more of this work in the coming year, as it’s becoming more important to my religious practice.
I have a few post ideas saved up, but it may take me a little while to get back into the swing of things, as I am still recovering from the last few months of non-stop intensive Work (and a little play). Hope some of you stick around and keep reading!
I just happened upon this blog post about speaking to the gods silently. The author talks about how, despite some apparent dissent from other polytheists, she generally speaks to her god silently, in her head, and that she does not doubt the gods are able to hear us that way. Neither do I, for the most part – if the gods can speak directly into our own minds (without us “hearing” Their voices the way we might hear the voice of another person), I see no reason They can’t receive communications via the same process in reverse.
This topic happens to be timely for me, as I’ve recently begun doing the opposite sometimes (especially around the house), at least with some of my spirits. But the reason has nothing to do with the mechanics of material-spirit communication. It has to do more with human psychology.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found that speaking out loud to my spirits, as I would to any physical person, subtly shifts my experience. Perhaps it’s that it signals to my subconscious that I am truly talking to another being, and not to myself (since I also talk to myself a lot, silently, in my own head, even using the second person). Perhaps it’s that it feels noticeably bold, walking around my house, seemingly “alone” but vocalizing my interaction with another being that no one else would be able to see or hear – it kind of jolts me into a more aware and present state. Perhaps it’s simply that doing spiritual things more tangibly in the material world, using our physical senses, is almost always a good way to make them more powerful.
It’s not something I’m entirely comfortable with yet, which is also a reason I want to be doing it more.
None of this negates the worth of speaking silently, and I still do that a lot too. But it’s something to consider.
Just came across this post about Local Cultus. The author, like myself, is happy to see more emphasis being put on local cultus in modern polytheism, but dismayed at the way it is sometimes being discussed. They quote an example which was someone’s attempt to align the various Greek gods with the Boston area, and discuss where they think this person went wrong.
“I’m honestly disappointed in how people are handling these ideas. People are misassigning concepts to deities who just don’t handle such functions. It’s one thing to see examples of slow development toward functions that aren’t the norm elsewhere, but people don’t want development over centuries. They want everything now, even when they often lack a firm grasp of the basics.”
This is, indeed, one of the roots of many problems in modern polytheism – people being unwilling to wait and let things naturally evolve. My biggest concern here isn’t the specific examples of mis-assignment (though they do exist, and are indicative of a serious lack of understanding in some cases). It is the fact that these folks are sitting around trying to artificially assign gods to places and things as if it’s just a game, or at best an intellectual exercise. Once again, they are treating the gods as characters, rather than actual living entities. They are guessing about what a god would like rather than finding out what a god actually likes. Which means, ultimately, they are eschewing any attempt at direct experience of the gods in favor of armchair theorizing.
Real, workable, relevant local cultus evolves organically (and yes, even slowly!) over time in response to one’s environment. Sure, some things might be obvious – if you live near the ocean, you’ll probably find Poseidon there. But you might also find another, unexpected god there. And you might have an experience of Poseidon more strongly somewhere else. Maybe, in fact, you’ll have so many experiences with Him in that other place that you realize He must really be present there, and you start worshipping Poseidon of That Place as a special aspect of the god. That is how it happens.
When I came to Eugene, one of the first places I felt Dionysos was at the base of the butte that rises at the edge of downtown. Yeah, there was a lot of ivy growing there – but that is true of many places around here. And yeah, it could almost qualify as a “mountain” and therefore a location of the traditional Dionysian worship of oreibasia – but that would be even more true of the butte on the other end of town which is much higher. If I were just picking and choosing locations for Dionysos based on a list of His common epithets and associations, I would probably pick the nearby vineyards, or even the bars downtown. But those are only the places where He might be found, not the places I actually have found Him. It’s a crucial difference for a living religion.
I will also note that in practice, historically, not every “major” god would be equally represented in a given area – because some were simply more present there than others. You wouldn’t find all the Olympian gods in equal force throughout a city – you might find, instead, that Athene was the most commonly worshipped there under several different locational epithets, followed by, say, Artemis and Hephaistos, and that you had to go to the nearest mountain before you found a major sanctuary for Zeus. That doesn’t mean Zeus – or any god without a temple or major cult presence – wasn’t worshipped by anyone there, it just means that He hadn’t (to anyone’s knowledge) claimed any part of the city as His special place. Just because there was, for instance, an oak grove there doesn’t mean it would automatically be favored by the god due to His oak association. It’s so much more complex than that in reality.
I hope we can, as polytheists, do better than this. I hope we can go beyond games of free association and treat the gods as real and our religion as a serious undertaking. And I hope we can be patient enough to let something deep and beautifully complicated grow, something that is based on experience rather than theoretical ideas, something that might even last the test of time.