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.

The long haul

•February 27, 2016 • Comments Off on The long haul

“The problem though, is that too many of us are convinced we’re already at the endpoint, that we already know all that we need to know. Bullshit. That’s like seeding a quarter of a field in exactly the same way year after year and then wondering why the yield becomes less as time goes on. Eventually, the field becomes barren and those that engage in that particular tradition of seeding the field starve. We can do better.” (“The Line in the Dirt” by Seo Helrune, which is worth reading in its entirety for her call to up our game with magic and ritual)

I’ve been at this a long time. At least, a long time by the standards of modern polytheism.

I’ve been a devotee for twenty years, and doing intensive spirit-work for about ten (although it was always some part of my practice). In that time, I cannot begin to count the number of people I have known who were at one point completely devoted to spiritual and magical practices above all else, who eventually either stopped entirely, or began focusing more on some tangentially related interest. This may be perfectly reasonable and understandable in any given case, but as a whole, I often wonder why it is that so few people stick with this stuff  – at a high level and intensity, the way one must in order to pursue it as a vocation – for the long haul.

Then there are the people who seem to have gotten only so far, and then stopped. Oh, they still practice of course, but they no longer push to go further, deeper. They pile on titles and get comfortable. They think they know what they are doing. They think they’ve gone through the hard training period and now can relax into their familiar role as witch/priest/shaman/etc.

Several years ago I almost fell into this trap myself, and the spirits did not hesitate to chastise me. It never ends, They said. You will never be ‘done’. 

I have worshipped a god of madness for two decades, and whenever I get one part of my crazy under control, a new kind surfaces which compels me to return to my god again with prayer and sacrifice and in search of healing ekstasis. When I got used to being a mainad, He gave me a new role. When I started to get used to that one, it changed again. Every time I think I know Him, He shows me a new face. Every time I think I have let go, have been sufficiently loosened, He finds a new way to tear me apart and show me I was not free. I expect Dionysos will be destroying me till the day I die and He takes me completely, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Many are the wand-bearers, and they serve a real purpose, but we still need a few bakkhoi to push the boundaries further.

I have spoken oracles and horsed spirits and invoked gods in ritual and spend the bulk of my time engaged either in direct spirit-work activities or those that support such, and still I know I am not even really past the beginning stages of what could be. Still my spirits challenge me with new assignments out of my comfort zone. Still my relationships with my various gods change and grow and deepen (and even, rarely, end). Still I learn new techniques, or understand better the old ones after a decade or two of use.

Do you know the power a ritual can accumulate after a hundred repetitions, or a thousand? Can you even imagine what you could experience after a lifetime of service to a deity? What magic you could effect? What might happen if you refused to be satisfied with the rewards of a little effort, with the same old stuff everyone does, and kept looking behind every door, peeling away every preconception – if you launched yourself on a neverending quest to do, feel, know, serve, create, explore, worship and practice more? What paths you might open for others to follow? The effects of the powerful connections you could make with gods and spirits, that might ripple out far past your own limited lifespan and sphere of influence?

This is the Work of a lifetime. And it is holy Work, and necessary for our collective wellbeing, which is why there have always been shamans and mystics. It is, absolutely, not required (or even possible) for everyone. But someone must take up the torch. Could it be you? Can you endure both the sacrifices and the ecstasies? Are you ready to give your life to the gods?

On faith, the gods, and the nature of reality

•January 27, 2016 • Comments Off on On faith, the gods, and the nature of reality

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.

Shrine as Repository of Past Rituals

•January 19, 2016 • Comments Off on Shrine as Repository of Past Rituals

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!

Where the gods are found

•August 31, 2015 • Comments Off on Where the gods are found

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.

 

Beyond the God-Phone

•February 27, 2015 • Comments Off on Beyond the God-Phone

For several years now in various spirit-work communities, the term “god-phone” has been used as short-hand slang for the ability to hear the gods and speak back to them in return. A full explanation and examination of the term can be found here. I think it’s a useful metaphor, for the most part, and it fairly well describes the experience of what is probably the most common level of divine contact for spirit-workers. You are able to talk back and forth, in real time, with the gods or spirits, using a generally reliable connection that allows for understanding on both ends, and can be initiated by either party (although, to extend the metaphor, you might get no answer, or a busy signal, at times). Of course, many things will affect this connection and the ensuing “signal clarity” and it’s not as if you can always pick up the phone any time you want regardless of mental, physical or spiritual receptivity, but the basic principle still stands.

However, there are other levels of divine contact that are just as important for a spirit-worker (or other type of mystic). I think the god-phone is pretty much the middle of the potential spectrum (this isn’t addressing periods of no contact whatsoever, which do happen to everyone).

To one end of the spectrum, we find a process more like mail than a phone. Messages can be sent and received from either party, but they are not necessarily communications in real time, nor do the parties need to be co-present. Messages from us to Them might be in the form of prayers, petitions, devotional acts, questions posed to divinatory methods, etc. Messages from Them to us might be in the form of omens, answers given through divinatory methods, words delivered via another mystic or even an unsuspecting person, etc. This is the level that non-mystics – everyday worshippers – generally experience (although even this takes a certain amount of effort and attention), but that doesn’t make it any less important to a spirit-worker’s practice. Especially because it requires a lot less energy, clarity and openness than other levels – making it more accessible in any sort of circumstance, as well as a lifesaver when we’re going through fallow times.

To the other end of the spectrum, we find an experience more like having a conversation with a person standing right next to you (or in the case of my spirits, behind you, as that tends to be how They manifest with me). If the relationship is a particularly intimate one, it may even be like They’re whispering in your ear. You are co-present, in real time, with nothing between you to relay or translate the communication. They absorb your full attention, unlike god-phone interactions which can sometimes be carried out while engaging in other tasks. You may also see or feel Their presence (depending on how you are oriented) in an immediate way you don’t get with the god-phone. This is the most direct, most personal form of communication.

It’s worth mentioning, that just because we use this terminology that involves “speaking” and “listening” does not mean you will necessarily “hear” Them as such – either with your physical ears, or internally (the way you might hear music in your head). Obviously, as in the mail metaphor, messages can be conveyed through other means. Not everyone is geared toward auditory input just like not everyone is geared toward visual input (which is why not every spirit-worker has visions). Nor are all the gods and spirits going to communicate in the same way.

Sometimes “hearing” is just a convenient way to express a much more complicated or nebulous experience. For instance, there is a certain quality of inspiration that I know, from confirmed experience over time, comes from my spirit-Husband. I might describe such an instance to someone else as “He showed me a mask to make” or “He told me what to do next” but that doesn’t mean I saw or heard anything. I received the information, and experienced the connection nonetheless.

So your god-phone might function entirely through pictures, your mail might be delivered via a sudden lack of balance (we have more than five senses), your intimate conversation might feel more like a synaesthetic dream than a chat with another human. It doesn’t really matter how it happens, just that you figure out how it works for you and for Them, and keep practicing to attain both breadth and depth to your communications.

 

Avoiding Mental Miasma

•February 24, 2015 • Comments Off on Avoiding Mental Miasma

In Galina’s recent post On Being and Becoming in Devotion (which is worth reading in full), she talks about the potential for miasma resulting from certain sensory input:

“If we can be contaminated spiritually by what we see and hear, by what we experience, then the logical curative is to be vigilant with regard to our senses….How much are we shaped by our experiences? How much might our center be shifted by what we watch, or what we hear, or the settings to which we expose ourselves?”

I feel this more acutely as time goes on. At first, it was just noticeable during and around ritual practice – for instance, a desire to limit the topics of conversation on a holy day to those suitable for a spiritual mindset, or to avoid areas of excessive commercialization when going out for a festival. Eventually, it began to permeate my everyday life, especially as my spirituality more deeply infused every part of my life.

There are things I simply do not want in my brain, and they give me a strong feeling of miasma. These things feel distinctly incompatible with the spiritual forces that I surround myself with. And to a lesser degree – not miasma-inducing, per se, but not conducive to the mindset I prefer – I avoid being in the presence of too many reminders of mainstream American culture and other distasteful aspects of the world I must live in. I do not have much technology in my home, I try to limit the amount of plastic I have to see around me every day, choosing instead to have reminders of my spiritual relationships and priorities everywhere I look. This even extends to the city I live in – I chose a place where my walk to work each day passes gardens and trees and (in the more commercial areas) a lot of locally owned shops, where the forest is extremely accessible, where the culture is for the most part supportive of my values…I can’t imagine how much my daily experience would change if I had to walk down a loud, crowded street in a big city full of chain stores where, say, fashion and the latest gadgets were the priority of everyone around me.

I think this is one of those things that might have more impact than we think. At the very least, our surroundings, the media we consume, the sights and sounds we are subjected to, influence our mental landscape and therefore affect our ability to dwell in the spiritual world. At worst, there may well be a spiritual-sickness, a miasma, associated with some of this sensory input, that might tangibly harm our well-being.

Galina goes on to consider whether such miasma can be fought by an overabundance of positive input:

“Is it possible to fill the mind and heart so with praises and prayers and devotion to our Gods, fill to overflowing so that every moment of every day as we move throughout our worlds there is no room for corruption or contamination to exist?”

I personally really like this approach, as I’ve used it before as a protective device (i.e., instead of warding or shielding against negative forces, I simply fill myself and the space up with my spirits and Their power to the point where there’s no room for anything else). However, I think it’s a difficult trick to pull off on a constant basis, even if it’s a good goal to have, and it would probably still be more effective in the interim to be culling negative input where possible.

That might mean a somewhat harsh evaluation of what we’re taking in, and why. I’ve found, for instance, that sometimes my so-called “guilty pleasure” activities (say, eating certain foods, or watching certain shows) are actually doing more harm than good, polluting my body and mind in a way that sets me back in my spiritual pursuits – in those cases, it is usually possible to find replacements that are better integrated into my life but still provide needed relaxation and enjoyment. Yes, that can be annoying at times, having to examine everything one does and everything one is exposed to, but it facilitates a life in the company of the spirits. And anyway, I’ve seen the sorts of people who consume what our culture tells us to consume, and I certainly don’t want to be one of them!