The Old Man of the Woods

•July 7, 2021 • 6 Comments

My latest devotional art project has been a long time in the making for such a small thing. Two years ago, I was exploring some particularly numinous woods with a friend when I started to be reminded of the area around my childhood home in New England, and particularly of the dreams I’d had back then, of an old hermit who lived in a small house crammed with books located somewhere in the murky trees across the street from my house – dreams I had later come to identify as my first contact with Odin. I then found a piece of bark on the ground that looked just like a one-eyed mask (which now sits on His shrine), and felt His presence very strongly. I was suddenly overcome with a feeling that I needed to reconnect with that face of the god, and delve deeper into what had been going on during those dreams, and in later ones that happened just as I took up the vocation of spirit-worker. Since the magic inherent in language was a major theme running throughout these experiences, it occurred to me that I might work through it via some kind of story or poetry.

I started taking books and notebooks out into the woods to read and write and think and process, and sketched out the beginnings of an idea. Slowly, so slowly, it began to take shape, and eventually became a poem with lines of nine syllables each, and a structured rhyme scheme (which is not generally my forte). Over many months, I would return to work on it, painstakingly crafting it into what it needed to be, deliberating over every word, trying to fit so many important elements into such a tight form with only nine stanzas. And I started envisioning the final form – a small, handmade book, of course, because the Odin I had visited in those dreams was saturated with the power of books.

The poem was still only about half completed when something finally clicked, sparked by my finding what apparently was the right offering to Him of a wooden image to represent this aspect. The day it arrived at my door, the rest of the poem fell into place. And the book quickly followed. Especially once I realized that I was coming up on the 20 year anniversary of the last important dream that is woven into this (I finished the books on that date, a few days ago). I even managed to create some simple pen-and-ink illustrations – again, not my forte, but my artistic life for the past couple decades seems to be a continuing process of learning techniques and muddling through as best I can for what is required of me by inspiration to make things for the gods and spirits.

I have made a very limited initial run of only nine of these, because the process of making them (like the process of writing the poem itself) was rather excruciating for various reasons (it seemed fitting, really, that something meant for Odin would exact a certain price). Obviously the first one is His, but the rest are for sale. (UPDATE: All three batches of nine books have been sold. However, I now have 11×17 prints of the poem for sale in my shop.)

While this is obviously an intensely personal perspective on Odin, especially as it is intimately tied to the land I grew up on, I do hope it will resonate with others and perhaps open some doors.

And so I present, The Old Man of the Woods.

The problem with the new animism

•July 1, 2021 • 17 Comments

“The Victorian anthropologist E.B. Tylor defined animism in terms of a ‘belief in souls or spirits,’ interpreted as a theoretical construct designed to elucidate the difference between life and death, the appearance of dream figures, and the apparently conscious actions of natural phenomena. New Animism proposes a radically different relational and ecological understanding drawn from post-colonial ethnography and dialogue with indigenous traditions, the hallmark of which is a this-worldly focus on respectful social and ecological relationship. As Graham Harvey puts it: ‘animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.’ Whilst welcoming this development for the ethical focus it contributes, I have been concerned that ‘new’ animism may, once again, be marginalising extra-ordinary experience and ways of knowing, and in the process conceding vital ground to Tylorian scientism.”

– Brian Taylor, “Taking Soul Birds Seriously: A Post-Secular Animist Perspective on Extra-Ordinary Communications” in Greening the Paranormal

I have been having this exact same thought lately when listening to the discourse on animism within non-pagan (or at least not explicitly pagan) circles – for instance among environmentalists – and was very glad to see someone else finally mention it in the book quoted above.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with viewing our co-existence in this world with all manner of other physical, living entities (and even some complex ecological systems such as rivers and mountains) as one of interrelationship with autonomous, conscious-in-some-way, tangible persons. That’s certainly one important aspect of animism within pre-Christian and indigenous cultures, and one I’d be happy to see more people adopt even without any overtly spiritual component. But historically, animism is not only about what can be seen or heard or touched. I don’t know of any traditional animistic religion that doesn’t incorporate some type of understanding of discarnate, invisible (except in certain circumstances), independent spirits. Whether that be ancestors, fairies, nymphs (tied to a natural feature but not identical with it), or the most powerful and wide-ranging ones we call gods.

Sometimes I get the sense that these folks embracing and describing the New Animism, while comfortable with some level of vaguely spiritual response to nature, and ready to cede anthropocentrism to a more balanced, interdependent approach that treats the other denizens of our planet with respect and gratitude, are still mired in the aggressively materialist perspective of our culture in some ways – and worse, some of them seem to think that’s what all those other nature-worshipping types were really doing, too. As if all the talk of spirits was just a metaphor, or an unfortunate mistranslation, and they were really just acknowledging and responding to the animate (but still solid) world around them, without any messy, woo-woo, embarrassing notion of invisible beings with magical powers.

It’s bad enough being erased from most cultural conversations about religion in general, as if religion=monotheism, but it’s particularly frustrating to feel like you’re being erased from conversations about your actual specific form of religion, by people who theoretically mean well and share many of your values but just can’t get past their secular bias. I hope to see more practicing animists speak out and resist this uninformed and perhaps unconscious attempt to redefine the most fundamental, extremely ancient, one might even say innate spiritual condition of the human race.

Beyond Plant Names

•June 16, 2021 • 1 Comment

Hm, I’m feeling bloggier (is that a word?) than normal it seems lately, and particularly on the subject of plants. I guess it’s just that time of year, when I feel the green world most potently due to everything being in a state of growth and abundance, and the regular tending of my own small garden.

Anyway, the other day I was out on a walk, appreciating the lovely gardens in one neighborhood, and noticing that in the past 10 years or so I have really started to break down the undifferentiated-wall-of-green (as so many of us perceive the plant kingdom) and can now recognize many individual plants as I move through the world.

As part of this process, I have always tried to discover and remember plant names – both scientific and common – when I can. For one thing, I think it helps my brain classify and file away all the other information I learn about the plant. For another, I’ve always known that words, and especially names, hold power.

But with plants, the names we give them often say more about us, our priorities, our culture, than they do about the plant. At least, they are certainly not what the plant calls itself, if such a thing even exists. They may even, sometimes, distract from other ways of understanding it.

What struck me on that walk was how there was a different way of knowing a plant, being familiar with it, understanding it. Or perhaps, many different ways. All of which have nothing to do with the names humans have ever assigned to it – not the Latin binomial, not the everyday nickname, not even the indigenous name.

There were, I realized, many plants which I had not yet learned the names of, but which I immediately recognized and had some knowledge of. Oh yes, there’s that plant that always blooms around May Day. Or there’s the one with that amazing hue of purple, or that intoxicating scent, or the one that grows only in sidewalk cracks. There’s a little weed that’s surprisingly tasty. What’s that called again? It doesn’t really matter. Could the name really tell me anything more important than knowing how much sun it likes, which other plants it keeps company with, which animals savor its seeds? Understanding its physical characteristics, its role in its environment, and even just the feeling it gives me, all seem more relevant.

I had set aside these thoughts and decided not to bother posting them until today I was listening to a fascinating podcast episode on aniconism, where they were talking about reasons why people have, at different times, felt that images were an inappropriate, misleading or distracting way to engage with a subject. Names can similarly attempt to pin down something in the way an image can. And so one of the hosts quoted this bit from Eckhart Tolle that immediately reminded me of that moment of clarity:

When you look at [a stone, flower, or bird] or hold it and let it be, without imposing a word or mental label on it, a sense of awe, of wonder, arises within you. Its essence silently communicates itself to you…”

Well I’m not one to ignore synchronicities so I figured I might as well post this. Just in case it strikes anyone else too.

Of course, I love names. I especially love evocative folk names relating to the natural world (I own a book entirely about traditional names for landscape features in Britain). And sometimes they actually do communicate important information, not just about our cultural context for a plant (foxglove, dragon’s blood, cuckoo’s pint) or its practical human uses (bedstraw, all-heal, wolfsbane), but about qualities of plant itself (lamb’s ears, bluebell, stinking iris).

I just think it can be a good practice to set aside names sometimes, or not go seeking them at all, and learn how to experience and interact with plants (and plant spirits) in other ways, from other perspectives. Without words, just using the senses. Or only one sense. Or only the intangible impressions of the spirit. Let its essence silent communicate itself to you.

(And yes, this also applies to other entities and the ways in which we limit and pigeonhole Them with our words and images and categorizations. Extrapolate as needed.)

Falconry & Devotion

•June 9, 2021 • 3 Comments

I’m in the middle of reading Birdology by naturalist Sy Montgomery, an engrossing book which devotes each chapter to a different type of bird and the fundamental avian quality it demonstrates. The chapter on hawks and falconry particularly emphasized how alien birds are from our perspective, how different their experience of the world, their reactions and priorities.

It also reminded me a lot of the gods.

One falconer tells the author: “They may show you a certain companionship. They can become comfortable with you….It’s a beautiful partnership. But if you break their laws, you’ll pay….If you want love out of this, you’re too needy. Don’t be a falconer.”

This is something I’ve encountered in polytheism – people seeking out gods and hoping, even expecting, to receive an all-encompassing, unconditional love from Them (perhaps confusing our gods with the more familiar one of their childhood, Jesus). That might be something a few gods offer but it’s not an inherent part of the deal for most, and may not be possible at all with some – if birds are so radically different from mammals, how much more so entities that are not even embodied or mortal!

Nor is it, generally, a good position from which to approach the gods, in regards to either building a successful and meaningful relationship with Them, or for our own personal development. As Montgomery writes, “For a human to love without expecting love in return is hugely liberating. To leave the self out of love is like escaping the grip of gravity. It is to grow wings. It opens up the sky.”

There are some gods I love – have loved for decades, even – and have never had a single personal, direct experience with. I don’t know if I’m on Their radar at all. I don’t need to be. It’s enough just to know Them even a little bit, and to honor Them. I don’t ask Them for anything, typically. Maybe I just keep an image of Them somewhere, make an offering now and then, read Their stories, and appreciate Their existence. That’s all it needs to be.

Even with the gods I do have more developed reciprocal relationships with, who might even, in Their own way (and I will never truly understand the ways of gods, or how They see us or what They get out of it), love me, I still strive to feel and express my love for Them without strings, without ego. Not only because it is, to me, the right way to engage with the divine (again from the book: “They don’t serve us. We serve them….You train a hawk to accept you as her servant.”). But also because there is a beautiful freedom in giving love to something just because it is, in your eyes, worthy. It is a small antidote to the “me me me” focus built in to our culture. No demand for validation, or even being noticed. Just devotion, for the sake of the beloved Other.

Guest Post about Glamourbombing

•May 29, 2021 • 4 Comments

Just want to direct you all over to the Numen Arts blog where I have a piece up exploring the practice of glamourbombing in the context of art, spirituality and magic. This has become a relatively significant part of my life over the past decade or so and it seemed like something worth discussing. I also pull a lot of quotes from various other folks doing this work. I would love to see more polytheists and animists take this up and see what can be done with it.

Plant Spirit Interactions

•May 16, 2021 • 2 Comments

Just some thoughts I was having today as I sat stringing leaves of a sacred plant for drying.

Personally, and contrary to some conventional wisdom I have seen in pagan circles, I have noticed that there is not necessarily a correlation between being strongly drawn to the folkloric and/or symbolic aspects of a plant – often leading one to successfully use it, or a representation of it, in magic – and having a strong relationship to the physical plant itself if encountered, either in terms of growing it, or ingesting it (especially in cases of entheogenic plants).

Those are different ways to approach a sacred plant, and they can augment each other but they can also exist independently. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that you have to deal with the living plant in order to have an authentic and reciprocal relationship with the overall spirit of the species (what are often termed grandmother/grandfather plant spirits), it’s just going to have a different flavor and different purposes. There are respectful ways to interact with a plant solely because of its traditional cultural associations, it’s just going to be a different dynamic than when one primarily knows the plant by its smell, its preferred location, its vitality – or by its interactions with the human consciousness. Sometimes a plant becomes part of the symbolic language of a ritual, and sometimes it is a direct participant. Both are important and powerful roles to play.

I thought about the “big four” nightshades used for Western occult purposes (basically the witch ointment stuff) – belladonna, datura, mandrake and henbane. They all have varying degrees of dangerous poison and/or entheogenic potential. I have been slowly developing a relationship with these plants for years now, and while it started as strictly symbolic, exploring the metaphor of poisoning as a sort of shamanic ordeal, I have at this point grown each of these as living plants in my garden, as well as experimented with (safely) ingesting them. I’ve also been using them as sympathetic magic ingredients for workings such as repelling unwelcome influences.

And yet, my connection to each of them in each of these contexts is totally different, with varying intensities. When I only knew them as elements of folklore and history, I was most drawn to mandrake, but had no associations whatsoever with henbane. When I started growing them, however, I could immediately sense the henbane’s spirit, whereas I never really clicked with mandrake; though datura actually attracted me the most. Yet I only consume a tiny hint of datura sometimes, while smoking henbane has become a powerful ally; I won’t let belladonna inside me at all. But making ink with belladonna berries has become a valuable magical tool.

I think it just shows how complex all of this spirit interaction really is, how many ways there are to communicate, or to create a bond, and how familiarity has so many levels and types. And how you can’t go in with assumptions or expectations but really have to be present with what actually is happening, and how the relationships naturally develop.

New edition of my spirit-work art book

•April 25, 2021 • Leave a Comment

Some of you may remember that four years ago, I published a special, hand-embellished limited edition art book called Gentlemen, Madmen, Things That Are Not Men. This was the culmination of over a year of photographing liminal places and objects, and collecting antique portraits, followed by what I can only describe as an inspired download of poetry (as it came through me seemingly out of nowhere in the space of a couple weeks when I most needed it, and in a form I had never worked with before), all in an attempt to capture and express some of the feeling of a life spent in the company of my spirits.

After the original 13 copies were gone (all except the first, which of course sits on Their shrine), I experimented with a simpler and more affordable paperback edition but was not fully satisfied with the results. I was finally able to find a compromise in a new matte casewrap hardcover edition, which is similar in quality to the original, but with a price point somewhere between that and the paperback. Due to high printing costs, none of these make a profit and in fact overall I have spent far more than I could ever make on this project, but in this case the goal is just to get them out into the world. This is the next step in that process. Please help me spread the word if you can!

If you are attracted to the darker side of the otherworlds, if you know that the fae are perilous as well as beautiful, if you seek out magical doors hidden in the least expected places, this book may be for you.

You can find it in my Etsy shop – the new hardcover as well as the last remaining copies of the paperback version – just in time for Walpurgisnacht.

P.S. If you purchase either version, write the word POLAROID in the notes to seller during checkout and I will throw in an original Polaroid photograph I have taken (randomly selected from the many I have shot in the years since the book came out).

Kundalini Rising with Dionysos

•March 23, 2021 • 5 Comments

I finally decided it was time to share a practice I’ve been doing with Dionysos, in case it appeals to anyone else. I first had the seeds of this idea many years ago, started playing with it sporadically, and finally settled into a consistent practice in the past year or so. I start almost every day with this just after waking, before doing some yoga stretches and other exercise. Basically, I move kundalini energy up my body through the chakras while intoning epithets of Dionysos.

[Disclaimer: Yes, I realize I probably have a flawed and/or incomplete understanding of kundalini, chakras, and the entire system they come from. I find these to be convenient and generally familiar terms to describe concepts that I feel are deeper than any one cultural tradition. You could also speak of chi, or energy in general, or power centers of the body, or whatever. While there are some connections for sure between Dionysos and India, I’m not claiming this is in any way connected to authentic Hinduism or Tantra. Just my UPG related to my own energy work and relationship with Dionysos.]

In a seated position, I center my awareness on the coiled serpent of kundalini and slowly draw it up from root to crown, pulling it up with each breath, and intoning one of the names of Dionysos at each chakra, with the pitch of the notes rising in concert with the energy. I have chosen these epithets to match certain properties or concepts associated with each chakra, and according to my personal experience and also just what felt right after some experimentation. (Of course YMMV and other epithets could be used.) Most of my choices are probably self-explanatory but can give further detail if anyone is curious. What I use is:

Root: Khthonios (of the earth; subterranean)
Sacral: Auxites (giver of growth; increase)
Solar Plexus: Purigenes (born in fire)
Heart: Omadios (the raw one; eater of raw flesh)
Throat: Iakkhos (a ritual cry)
Third Eye: Kruphios (hidden, secret)
Crown: Lusios (deliverer; giver of release)

I usually end it with the line “Bakkhios himself has freed me” – this is adapted from the Orphic tablets. The phrasing and notes were taught to me by a fellow Dionysian as a repetitive one-line mantra – I use it along with a mala of sorts where I chant it 81 times, something that connects me deeply to Dionysos as well as putting me in a trance state every time. So using it once here is just touching on that briefly, and tying this brief morning energy work with the more intense but less frequent mantra practice.

I find this to be a powerful way to start each day, but also extremely simple and quick which means it’s easy to implement and stick with. It helps get my spiritual energy moving before I do anything else, opens everything up, centers me in my body, as well as making sure that the first words from my lips are honoring my god.

(There are also a lot of interesting connections that could be explored here…. the kundalini serpent and Dionysos’ snake symbolism, the spinning wheel of the chakras and trochos, one of the Toys of Dionysos, the seven energy centers and the seven turns of a unicursal labyrinth….)

I’ve created a little video with a recording of me singing the epithets, to better illustrate the practice, in case any fellow Dionysians would like to adopt or adapt it for themselves. (Note: I just recorded this on my laptop and the sound quality is not great, it kind of sounds like I’m dropping the “s” off the end of many of the names but it’s there if you listen closely.)


The spirits in your neighborhood

•April 2, 2020 • 5 Comments

We here in Oregon, like much of the country and the world, are on a short leash nowadays. It is even more true for those of us, like me, who do not have cars. As public transit has been severely reduced and is still a danger zone for coming too close to other people, I am now in the position of only being able to visit those places I can walk to.

And so I am very glad that I have spent these past years here building up solid and meaningful relationships with the spirits of place in my local environment. In fact, as some of you may remember, I have often spoke of being called to explore the super-local, starting with my own backyard, and expanding only as far as I can walk in, say, 30 minutes. Fortunately, I am well located in this small city, and that radius includes an old cemetery, a wooded hillside park with many numinous spots, a protected meadow that is home to a stunning twisted willow tree, an oak grove, and most importantly, the ash wood and creek just down the street from me.

The latter area, though small (the wood is maybe 12 acres total, and the section of paths I use regularly is only about a mile long loop), has been the site of countless offerings, rituals, and explorations over the years… I have left elaborate glamourbombs in the trees, crawled into large cement pipes to meet chthonic gods, sacrificed poppets to the waters… I found the entire skeleton of a deer there once, and made a fetish from its skull to connect me back to the place; in fact I have made several art/ritual objects in response to the spirits there… I have led mumming processions down its paths… I have honored almost all of my gods there at one time or another, and met several distinct spirits within its boundaries…. it is a sacred place to me on so many levels.

So now, although I cannot go far, I am still able to visit places of intense power for me, places with layers of memory of past experiences overlaid upon them. Even if I am just out for a “normal” walk, just to get some exercise to replace my previous daily walk to work, I am doing so in a landscape rich with meaning, full of spirits who recognize me, who have been fed by me. I usually bring at least some small offering even on those walks, a coin for the creek or some hazelnuts for the wights in the wood. And I’ve been spending more focused time there, too, more than I did before all this happened – as well as time in many of the other aforementioned areas.

It’s very much brought home for me in a new way how crucial these local, even super-local spiritual relationships are. We can communicate globally, but when the shit hits the fan, we must focus our attention locally. I might have to distance myself physically from other people (not really that hard for an antisocial introvert like me), but I can touch the trees and the dirt and the water all I want. They are what will sustain me through this.

I’m also glad that I had come to a knowledge of my house’s spirit recently, something I had not been able to connect with most of my adult life as I went from apartment to apartment, though I tried. Finally a couple years ago it clicked for me, perhaps partly because I had stayed in one place long enough, and partly because I stopped looking for the brownie or nisse type figure that I was expecting and realized I was beginning to tune in to the spirit of the house itself, right down to the foundation and the earth it is set in. Considering how much time I must now spend inside these walls, I am grateful to have that relationship and sense of presence as well, and for its care and shelter of me.

These are the kinds of animistic experiences we must fall back on when the world beyond becomes unsafe or off limits. These are the spiritual relationships we must not only maintain but deepen during these times of confinement and uncertainty.

Disorientation for ASC

•March 27, 2019 • 6 Comments

The Poet makes himself a seer by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses. (Rimbaud)

There are many paths to altered states of consciousness. Rhythm, movement, fasting, entheogens, breath control, sensory deprivation and the opposite, sensory overload. But one I have not seen discussed much, but which is pretty fundamental to my personal practice, is disorientation. And I don’t mean in the sense of spinning around until you are dizzy, although that can work too of course. I am talking about practices which serve to change your sense of everyday reality in slow and sometimes subtle ways. I find these types of activities, while not always a direct or immediate entry into deep trance on their own, serve to thin the veil between the worlds and prime the mind for unusual experiences. When combined with other ASC methods this can lead into more focused ritual work in any specific instance, but also over time they can serve to loosen the mind in a broad and long-lasting way, making it easier to slip into that headspace on an ongoing basis. (The reason this might not be widely discussed, I realize, is that even most spirit-workers might not actually desire to experience this sort of constant alteration, but it is part of my path, so it seems likely there would be others out there, too.)

Some examples. If anyone else does anything like this, I’d love to hear some more.

  • sleeping in an unusual way – in a different room, at the foot of the bed, at odd hours, etc.
  • conversely, doing things (especially spiritual activities) in the middle of the night, between sessions of sleep
  • thinking in another language you aren’t fluent in (slows your mind down)
  • wearing a mask while doing everyday activities around the house
  • different lighting – colored lights, having only candlelight in a room usually lit with flourescents, blocking out all light in the middle of the day, etc.
  • lying down looking up at the ceiling and visually exploring the house in your mind as if the ceiling were the floor
  • watching a movie or observing people in reverse through a mirror
  • staying silent through an otherwise typical day, or speaking only in a whisper
  • when outside, taking a new route to a familiar location – especially through liminal spaces like alleys – until nearly lost (like this)
  • going through an entire day and night without looking at any clocks, erasing your usual sense of time passing
  • wearing a blindfold during normal (but safe) activities such as having a conversation with someone