Some thoughts on UPG

•October 18, 2016 • Comments Off on Some thoughts on UPG

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.

Saying Yes

•August 6, 2016 • Comments Off on Saying Yes

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?”

Types of Offerings

•July 19, 2016 • Comments Off on Types of Offerings

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)

  • something you love and want, and don’t want to let go of (given not only because of the preciousness of the item, but because the loss to yourself is significant)
  • something that is expensive or difficult to procure (given because of the effort involved)
  • things They like in general or are traditionally held to be sacred to Them (roses for Aphrodite, wine for almost any Greek deity, etc.)
  • things that have significance between you and Them specifically (i.e., due to personal UPG and experience, not necessarily applicable to any other worshipper)
  • things They request specially on a certain occasion (via divination, oracle, omen or other communication)
  • things that have inherent power, at least within your tradition (blood, water, fire)
  • a piece of whatever you have (sharing your meal, tithing a portion of your income)
  • something you make or create just for Them (a poem, a cake, a painting)

INTANGIBLE OFFERINGS (actions, energy, etc.)

  • something you do because it’s Their area of interest (performing magic with Hermes, forging a tool with Hephaistos, caring for animals for Artemis)
  • something you do to help Their other devotees (either collectively, such as putting up an online resource to share information, or individually, such as counseling a fellow devotee in need)
  • something you do because it’s difficult (fasting, elaborate ritual, certain taboos)
  • something you do to learn more about Them (reading, research, learning more about Their field of interest)
  • something you do because it keeps Them in your mind (wearing devotional jewelry, saying prayers at certain times, etc.)

A Different Kind of Closeness

•June 22, 2016 • Comments Off on A Different Kind of Closeness

The following is something that came up again for me during the aforementioned Bacchic retreat, and I decided I should probably talk about it here (even though it’s difficult, being a very personal matter) in case it resonates with anyone else who is struggling with something similar.

When we think of communion with a deity, many of us tend to think of it in the same terms as we would intimacy with a person. We want to feel that connection with another individual. We want to know Them on a deeper level, and have Them know us, our true hearts. We want to experience, for even a moment, that sense of being together in the same place, face to face.

And this is where we can let our expectations prevent us from an actual closeness with the gods. Because what if the god doesn’t come with a human face, or any face at all? What if the god comes as a rhythm, or a holy name, or the scent of the woods at night, or the pure force of desire, or any number of things we might not recognize if we’re looking for something familiar? And what if, when the god comes, you don’t feel Them near you at all, the way you would a person, but only experience the effects of Their divine presence?

Because here is the thing about me and Dionysos: He is the great Loosener, the Liberator, and as attested by ancient epithet (θυρεπανοίκτης), the Opener of the Door. And I am, above all other things, a door for the spirits (well, my spirits in particular). So what happens when I am taken up by Dionysos, when He gets inside my very heart and soul and opens me up, in a way more intimate than any other contact I could imagine? Well, others make good use of that opening up. I find myself suddenly much closer to my Husband, to my other spirits. I can see and hear Them more clearly, I may even have rapturous communion with Them. But, almost never with Dionysos Himself.

For many years, this frustrated and even devastated me. Where was Dionysos? Where was the wine-soaked, ivy-wrapped, bull-headed man-like Person I was invoking and inviting with my prayers and dancing and offerings? Why didn’t He ever appear when I called out to Him with my usual refrains of “Hail, Opener of the Door!” and “Lusios, release me!” Clearly something was happening, because each time, either immediately or soon thereafter, I would have a direct experience with my spirits or receive inspiration related to Them. But Dionysos, it seemed, never came.

And then I realized I was an idiot. (Not the first time.) That I had, in fact, been failing to recognize the very real communion with the god that had been happening all along. Because what could create more closeness than the full Force of this awesome god of liberation entering into me and pushing aside all my blocks, everything that prevents me from being a clear conduit and clutters up the doorway? How could I ask for a greater intimacy than to have Him lay bare all my vulnerability and make it into something beautiful and meaningful? What greater union than to have Him see me for what I truly am, to recognize that door for the spirits and help strengthen it, and in return… well, it took much too long, but finally I recognized, in return, His true self as well. And it wasn’t bull-headed or dark-eyed or drunken or any of the masks that reveal only those parts we can easily conceive of and put shape and name to. The opening – even though it was an opening meant to let in others, and not Him – the act of opening was the communion. It was the revelation of the god. It was what I had been looking for all along.

And it had been happening for pretty much my whole life. Dionysos first came to me just before my spirits did, back when I was 13 years old. And looking back over the years of devotional practice and spirit-work since, a clear pattern emerged – every time I did a major ritual for or had a significant experience with Dionysos, a breakthrough with my spirits would immediately follow.

That’s not to say I never have the kinds of more familiar or recognizable experiences of divine union with my god. But those seem to come unexpectedly, often outside of a formal ritual context, and entirely on His schedule, not mine.

So when, after the intense and beautiful and ecstatic Dionysian ritual at the retreat, I found myself surrounded not by a sense of Dionysos but by my spirits (so strongly They could be felt tangibly at times, and bearing difficult but powerful messages that I needed to hear), I didn’t waste time being disappointed. His presence had undeniably saturated everything, for all of us, the entire weekend, which was truly lovely – but when I called to the god that night, at the edge of the thundering waves, He came the way I really wanted. The way that gets into the deepest part of me. The way that challenges me and breaks me, and makes me what I am. And that makes me His.

“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” (C.S. Lewis)

Super-Local Polytheism

•June 1, 2016 • Comments Off on Super-Local Polytheism

I have been glad to see in recent years a greater awareness of the concept of local-focus polytheism – that we should be orienting our religious practice to the place in which we live. This can take the form of getting to know the nearby landwights, researching historical figures and events that might warrant spiritual recognition (such as hero cultus, commemorative festivals, etc.), melding religious observances with community celebrations, identifying local aspects of European gods (e.g., several American devotees have met a Buffalo Dionysos), even simply caring for the holy or numinous places in one’s region (cleaning up the riverbank, planting trees, etc.).

I have lived in my current city for 10 years now. I have done all of these things and more here – ironically it was only when I moved across the country that I really started paying attention to my environment, having been more oblivious to it and focused on a romanticized idea of Greece in my earlier years as a Hellenic polytheist. I have applied my polytheistic outlook to my bioregion of Cascadia – with focal points including the Oregon coast, the McKenzie River, the Lava Lands, and as far north as the beaches and rainforests of Washington – and more narrowly to my part of the southern Willamette Valley, and the city of Eugene with its many numinous parks and wooded areas, the river, the buttes, and the magical streets and alleys of downtown.

But recently, the gods and spirits have been nudging me toward what I might call a super-local form of practice. And it’s been somewhat of a revelation for me. After all, a person in ancient times – or even 100 or 200 years ago – would rarely if ever have travelled through their entire bioregion, or even as far as we might go just on a day trip by car. And even today, if I were living in a rural area with my own house and land, I would likely pay much more attention to my property and its immediate vicinity, and the spirits living there, than I would to land several miles away. So I started to apply this principle to my current home in an apartment in the city.

Instead of making longer treks out to the wetlands or the buttes (at least two miles away) whenever I want to connect with local nature spirits, I have been spending more time in the ash wood just down the street from me. Within a very small area, there is a wide variety of wildlife, natural features, and surprisingly vibrant spirits (considering it is bound on all sides by human activity). Each time I visit, and leave offerings, and perform small bits of magic, I bind myself more to that place, and further open the veil between the worlds there, making an already numinous spot even more powerful.

Instead of walking all the way downtown or beyond to seek out the wonderful urban treasures of this city in honor of Hermes, I have been exploring my neighborhood, the parts I never went to, off the beaten path. There is so much history here, and so much of it appropriate to Hermes in some way – the unearthed trolley tracks, the marker for our city’s first college – as well as tons of little hidden gems, like the backyard facing an alley where someone accumulated several antique phone booths all together, or the Little Free Libraries scattered along the streets. And each time, again, that I leave offerings for the god in one of these places, I strengthen that spot as holy.

One interesting experiment They guided me to involved printing out two maps. The first shows the entire city, with a circle drawn about a mile in diameter around my house, then ever-widening concentric circles beyond that. The second enlarges that smallest circle around my house so that more detail is shown, with further circles inserted within, down to the smallest with a diameter representing a few blocks. Then I thought about every place I have felt a strong numinous presence in, every place I have visited multiple times to interact with the spirits, and I marked these places on the maps. It was very interesting to see where they fell, how many were actually miles away from me, and likewise how many were clustered more closely to my home. It also helped me visualize which ones were at the same relative distance.

While I haven’t entirely abandoned those places and spirits that are located in the outer circles, I have been paying much more attention to the ones in that smallest inner circle, and it’s really changing my whole experience of where I live, even when I’m just sitting in my apartment – I can feel the web of connections spreading out in all directions. I have a better sense of my most immediate spiritual landscape. When I walk to work, or to the store, or to the flea market (I walk everywhere, having no car), I note the spiritual significance of all the places I’m passing, think about the rituals I have done there, and I seem to be generally just more aware of the spirits everywhere than I was before.

I encourage others to try out this approach, especially those of you living in urban environments where it can sometimes be challenging to connect with the spirits. Resist the urge to spend all your spiritual energy in the most beautiful, obvious natural places and see what you can discover within just a few blocks of your home. You may be surprised, and whatever spirits you encounter may be quite pleased to be acknowledged. It will also help root you more in the place you actually are, and in the present moment as well, both of which are essential to a strong spiritual foundation.

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.

Place, Power and Persons

•March 22, 2016 • Comments Off on Place, Power and Persons

‘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.