Inherent Animism

•July 15, 2015 • 6 Comments

“The city of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so citizens could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favorite trees.”

I know this sounds silly, and I’m sure many of the letters were tongue-in-cheek, but… personally, I see it as a good sign. There’s still some inherent animism in the human spirit, even when the person isn’t consciously animist or polytheist. And maybe it will stop us from entirely destroying the other living beings on this planet.

Speaking of animism, a beloved local stadium built during the Depression just burned down in my city (just a couple blocks from where I live!), and it’s been interesting to see the reactions. People were really connected to that place, even beyond any particular memories or associations. The other day I noticed a sign tacked up to a nearby phone pole: “Rest in peace, beautiful stadium. You deserved better than this.” Again, a bit of personification at work, perhaps the same reason we still call ships “she.” Always makes me smile a little – one of the few times I’m on the same page as the rest of the culture.

Warning Label

•May 7, 2015 • 5 Comments

You know how they say that if you go to Fairyland and manage to get out again, you’ll either be mad or a poet? Well, the truth is that you’ll either be just plain mad, or a mad poet, but it’s not like the poet thing will let you off the hook from the madness part. You’ll probably always be on the verge of veering off into non-functional insanity, holding on by the thin rope of your inspiration.

And the things that were familiar and comforting before will seem strange and remote. And you will have no common language with the people around you, and even the words of your art may fall on deaf ears, although you will not be able to stop it lest you fall into the abyss again. And you will still love Fairyland with all your heart, even after it has done this to you. You will always be looking for the door back in.

Sound like fun? Then I have some spirits you should meet….

Beyond the God-Phone

•February 27, 2015 • 10 Comments

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 • 10 Comments

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. As Rhyd noted about visiting my home, I do not have much technology there, 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!

Interactions and Intersections

•February 13, 2015 • 5 Comments

One thing I’ve always had some trouble with is my tendency to put my gods and spirits and other elements of my practice in little boxes (in my head) that make sense to me, but limit my understanding and experiences of Them. For instance, when I first started on this path, about 15 years ago, I had a strong division in my head between what I considered the Religious and Magical parts of my practice – in other words, the devotional and spirit-work sides. I thought I had to be doing either one or the other at any given time, and that, in general, gods belonged in the first box and spirits in the second. Well, They all took no time in disabusing me of that notion! The more I let these two sides intermingle, the more powerful my entire practice became. I should have known better from the beginning – after all, Dionysos clearly had opened the door for my main group of spirits to come into my life, even though They had previously had no connection to Him or His tradition – but you know how stubborn we can be about our little preconceptions.

So over the years, I’ve made a deliberate effort to stop doing this, and to integrate my spiritual life more and more. But it was Pointed Out to me recently that I am still keeping some of those boxes intact. For instance, I still seem to have difficulty in allowing for the full extent of interaction and intersection between my various gods and spirits. I think on some level it disturbs me a little to realize that in some cases, the only point of connection and commonality is, well, me – and yet, there it is. Whether it’s about experiencing more than one entity within the same ritual and seeing how They interact, or even finding new perspectives where They overlap in a syncretic sort of way, sometimes the only reason They are doing so is because I worship Them both/all. This is, I suspect, how it’s always been, at least collectively – for instance the Greek gods being introduced to the Egyptian gods via the migration of Their respective worshippers – but it’s still a little strange to consider.

It’s all well and good when Hermes spends a year or so stealing all of Dionysos’ festivals (this happened – we decided to call Him “heortokleptos”), or comes to me in a dream alongside Odin (hey, at least They’re both gods, and similar ones at that) but when I see a face of my spirit-Husband (who has nothing to do with the Hellenic tradition, is not a god, is not even known to anyone but me) that looks an awful lot like Hermes… that is still a little hard for me to process. And frankly, even with some of the more familiar or “natural” intersections, I’ve been shutting my mind to them as I dedicate time to only one or another god or spirit, thinking erroneously that it was more proper to give a holy day or ritual wholly to the designated entity. That might seem reasonable, but I have been Told that it is never the right choice to be shutting any of Them out, for any reason.

That instruction may not actually apply to everyone but just specifically to me because of my spiritual/magical role, but I think sharing this stuff is useful in case it resonates with someone else. I don’t even know if anyone else has this problem – I mean, it may have a lot to do with my overall tendency to be more comfortable with one-on-one interaction rather than even small groups, which seems to apply to divine as well as human situations. But I would hazard a guess that at least some other people are also putting Them in boxes, maybe different sorts, and we could all use a reminder not to confine the gods with our own limited ideas of Them.

As I am loosening up about this, I am finding some really fascinating intersections between my gods and spirits that is teaching me a lot about Them both individually and collectively, and bringing me closer to Them. And that is certainly worth a bit of discomfort. Anyway, I wouldn’t be a Dionysian if I didn’t challenge every boundary I found within myself!

The Problem of Temples

•January 29, 2015 • 6 Comments

There’s an article up on The Wild Hunt today about Building Pagan Temples. As appealing (both spiritually and aesthetically) as the idea of modern temples is, I have generally always taken the stance that you really need an active community first, before trying to build something so big – which is affirmed by the examples given in the article of successful projects; they all had a vibrant, dedicated community, even if it’s a small one, supporting them. But even if you have that, there is always the problem of money and resources, and I wonder if we polytheists might, in a way, be in an even less advantageous position regarding potential temple-building than other types of pagan (if you even consider us pagan, but that’s another topic).

In most types of polytheist tradition, a temple functions as the home of the god(s). You might congregate there for rituals, offerings, sacrifices, initiations, oracles, etc., but a temple is generally not *required* for those things, and it is not used as simply a social gathering space, the way many churches, synagogues, and even the Hindu temple mentioned in the article, are. So that causes the first obstacle, in that most people (not me of course, but most) are social creatures, and tend to put a higher value on projects that include a social aspect. They would rather support a place that could also function as a community center, classroom, library, meeting space – not, for instance, something like an ancient Greek temple where you didn’t even go inside to sacrifice.

Secondly, whereas in many forms of neo-paganism, one might need a few special ritual tools but otherwise not be required to purchase anything (even if there are a lot of tempting tchotchkes out there), engaged polytheism usually demands a constant stream of offerings to keep up relationships with the gods and spirits. Sure, these don’t have to be extremely expensive (they don’t all necessarily cost money at all), but the general tendency is to give what one is able – so if I have paid all my bills and have food and shelter and still have some money left over, I’m going to buy that nice bottle of wine for Dionysos, because I can, and I want to show Him my gratitude for His blessings. Multiply that by several times, since most polytheists are involved with several deities and spirits at once, and it can account for a lot of one’s resources. Plus, since we tend to have our own home-based shrines (mini-temples of sorts), not only do we need to spend some of our money on their upkeep, but we aren’t in dire need of a place to make our offerings and commune with our gods.

Simply put, there are few polytheists who are going to have enough disposable income to both keep up with their usual offerings and festivals (and possibly more expensive religious duties such as an occasional pilgrimage) AND make the kind of regular, significant donations required to pool enough money for something as large as a temple. Not to mention – a temple to which god? In which tradition? Since polytheists all practice a variety of paths with different pantheons, and even within the same path have different primary deities, it would be unlikely for enough people to agree on just one (or even a small group) to devote that much money and work to.

Which isn’t to say it’s impossible – I tend to think that if a god wants this done, They might inspire Their worshippers to go above and beyond, and/or prioritize building such a temple above other offerings for a number of years – and there have been some examples of this. But in general, I think we need to stop worrying so much about having grand temples “like the old days” and start appreciating what we are able to give our gods today. Who is even to say that any particular deity truly favors having one large, impressive structure over having dozens of much smaller, individual, but passionately tended, shrines around the world? Seems to me that we have created homes for Them in hundreds of different places already.

[A reminder that my fundraiser to get a new laptop and write my next book will be going on through February!]

Entheogen Use in Spirit-Work

•December 3, 2014 • 11 Comments

“But I would say this, that walking with teacher plants is far from easy. Their purgative effects can be punishing on the body, while they are nothing if not existentially and ontologically challenging. Many cultures regard the experience as something of a moral interrogation, where one is forced to review one’s actions and their consequences from the standpoint of others. One’s failings are typically brought to the fore. Perhaps that’s why the path tends to be self-selecting.” (Andy Letcher, in response to those who claim that entheogens are a shortcut, a degradation of purer spirit work practice, etc.)

I remember – in my early pagan days, studying at college – reading Mircea Eliade’s confident and clearly biased assertions that entheogen use marked a later, lesser form of shamanism. I thought this notion had been debunked by now, but apparently it persists in some quarters. It’s rather patently ridiculous, as entheogen use can be found in pretty much every animistic/polytheistic society to some degree, and the only people who seem to have such attitudes about it are Western folks outside of the traditions, obviously influenced by the anti-drug mindset of our own culture, which looks at any attempt to alter consciousness with a certain amount of suspicion and contempt. There is no objective reason that using an entheogen to access certain mental and spiritual states is any less valid than any other method – in fact, it may be more useful in some circumstances, as it involves (when done properly) interactions with actual spirits who may share vital knowledge or resources, rather than simply a temporary change in one’s brain chemistry.

I used to be somewhat wary of my own entheogen use, constantly checking to make sure I wasn’t relying on them too heavily. While that might be a reasonable concern – with any shamanic tool – the irony is that I was often actually avoiding them too much, and had to remind myself to keep those relationships active with semi-regular use and communion. The reasons for my avoidance were pretty much what Andy Letcher states above – entheogens are hard on the body and the mind. My two primary entheogenic allies are Amanita muscaria and Salvia divinorum. Amanita brings me nausea, excess salivation, and drowsiness along with its more beneficial effects. Salvia, especially the extracted and enhanced versions, can produce seriously terrifying and even traumatic experiences on a mental/spiritual level, just as often as it opens doors directly to the otherworlds (and sometimes, those are the same thing).

And while I have no idea if this is unique to my strange way of functioning, or simply a direct effect of working with the spirits themselves, I have found that over time, the effects become less and less tied to the substances themselves – in other words, I might take a tiny amount and experience a physically-impossible full trip, or take a lot and experience nothing at all, depending on my own state of receptivity, and the will of the spirits. Which means that every time I embark on a journey with them to any degree, I am putting myself in their hands entirely, and risking both mental annihilation and conversely having the whole thing fizzle.

To actually get something useful out of these experiences – to stay on the path rather than succumbing to physical issues or merely drifting off into an unproductive la la land – requires training, spirit allies, practice, and dedication… and a fair bit of courage. These entheogens are not fun, they are not recreational, and they certainly aren’t the easy option. One must learn to maintain some level of control while simultaneously surrendering to what the plants/fungi are communicating, and then be able to process and utilize the experience in one’s spirit-work. It is much easier, safer and reliable to alter consciousness with breathwork, drumming, sensory deprivation or overload, dancing, prayer, etc.

Which is why despite entheogens being a purported “shortcut,” few spirit-workers (in my experience) actually use them regularly, and some avoid them entirely (either by taboo or personal preference) – especially wise considering we lack a traditional context and experienced teachers to guide us in their proper use. Those of us who walk this path usually do so because we were called by the plant spirits themselves (and/or instructed by other spirits to seek them out), and have negotiated a reciprocal relationship which mitigates the dangers to a degree, similar to any other spirit interaction. But we are always walking a sharp edge.


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