The Only Choice

•October 10, 2014 • 8 Comments

Morpheus Ravenna recently wrote about how she managed to get injured just enough to knock her out commission for anything but writing the book she had promised to her goddess in the allotted timeframe. She says:

“The Gods are not fucking around. When you hand yourself over to Them, They can break your bones, end your life or alter it completely, send you down pathways that foreclose other avenues of choice and ability, and perhaps what should be most sobering of all, transform and sculpt you from the person you were into the person They feel would be most useful to Them.”

I certainly am familiar with this particular process. And how just because something serves Them well, doesn’t mean it’s exactly great or fun for us (as John Beckett said, “we are signing up to do holy work, not to receive holy bliss“). The better conduit I am for my spirits, the less my personal experience of it matters – yes, I do get benefits from the deal overall, but they’re not always the ones I think I want, at the very least. (And talk about Them molding us – more often than not, if I’m not getting what I want, They change what I actually want rather than changing what I am getting.)

Morpheus relates all of this in the context of warning people not to jump in to making major commitments to the gods, because those oaths are binding and have real, sometimes unpleasant consequences. She notes that you should fully understand the terms. This is, of course, extremely good advice.

I, on the other hand, made my first agreement with my spirits when I was thirteen years old. I had NO IDEA what I was getting into. In fact, I accepted Their offer without even thinking to ASK what They wanted in return, from me. I’m not entirely sure how I managed to actually survive such a monumentally foolish act. Perhaps They simply realized that – given my propensity to pursue what I want to extremes – I was more useful to Them as a long-term tool than something to use up right away (not all spirits are necessarily this calculating and unsentimental, but mine are for the most part).

Actually, come to think of it, I almost didn’t survive. As a teenager I tried to live a mundane life for a couple years (having rejected these spirits and all things spiritual/magical when it got too scary). After awhile, I got into paganism, but had no intention of dealing with Them again. Then, my chronic depression reached a new low, one that I can see retrospectively might have destroyed me. It was only by recognizing what my deal with these spirits had done to me – permanently, regardless of how I felt about it afterwards – and acknowledging that I would need to continue to keep up my end of the bargain, that I began to lift myself out of that hole. (As I’ve said before, depression seems to be my shaman-sickness; only doing spirit-work gets me out of it.)

Almost a decade after the first one, I made a new deal with Them – this time I made sure to be clear about what I would have to give, not just what I would get, although I found it surprisingly difficult to keep that in my head when I was thinking about it, since They are tricksy. And then about a decade later, I made yet another oath – all of these being variations on the same theme, with increasing levels of intensity. And even then, when I really thought I knew what I was doing, when I had years and years of spirit-work under my belt, still I did not fully appreciate how it would change my life – even my internal sense of self and consciousness. It was the catalyst for a topsy-turvy couple of years – and I’ve only recently begun to integrate everything and feel okay about it all.

But there’s the thing – it didn’t matter how I felt about it. Even when I was mourning all I’d lost, even when I felt abandoned because my ecstatic experiences changed so much they no longer hit the same emotional notes I was expecting and comfortable with, even when I was physically sick every day and complaining that I couldn’t enjoy anything, even when I felt like I was starting from scratch over and over… I did the work. I held up my end of the bargain as best as I possibly could. I endeavored to learn from every setback. I didn’t allow myself any crutches (not for long, at least) because those crutches would be exploited to break me. (Like Galina has said that she “trusts Odin to be Odin,” I trust my spirits and my god to hurt me if that’s what it takes to crack me wide open, and it often is.)

Lately I’ve seen some people make some pretty shabby excuses for not Doing The Work, and it usually boils down to feelings. The thing is, at a certain level of commitment in this line of work, you don’t really get to indulge what might otherwise be perfectly valid and understandable feelings. You don’t have the luxury of dropping things while you navel-gaze, or have an emotional crisis, or just simply feel scared or exhausted or worthless or lonely or any other feeling that’s going to naturally come up during this work – or during your life in general.

It’s useful to have an Odinist as a partner sometimes, they’re very no-nonsense – whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or frustrated by any of this and say something like “But aren’t I allowed to just feel [such-and-such perfectly reasonable thing]?!” he just responds “No, you’re not.” I have to put it aside, because it isn’t helping me do the work.

As Morpheus related, even when you ARE doing the work, sometimes the gods and spirits STILL do something that seems harsh, just to make sure. Once you’ve made those oaths, it’s pretty much out of your hands. But I think of it this way – would I rather let these things (negative feelings, uncontrollable circumstances, etc.) control me, and make excuses, and know I am failing in my duties, or would it be better to do what needs to be done as best as I can, and at least have that accomplishment to look back on? Maybe my spirits have molded me into the person that will keep choosing the latter. Regardless, it seems like the only choice when it comes down to it.


•July 25, 2014 • 61 Comments

Recently I was having a “spirited” discussion with someone in the comments section of a blog post about, basically, how immersed one needed to be in an ancient culture to properly practice its religion (and how virulently one must eschew all other influences….clearly, if you are familiar with my path, my answer was “not very”). Now, it’s kind of ironic, in that I spent quite some time in my early days on the Hellenic lists arguing in favor of Reconstructionism as an approach, and now I find myself having to argue against it, at least to the degree that some people are taking it. Because, the thing is, I think Recon is a very good initial methodology when approaching the gods of an ancient religion. But when taken too far, it risks fetishizing the culture – in other words, humans – rather than focusing on how best to honor the gods. Once again, it becomes an issue of “It’s Not About Us.”

If the gods are real, independent beings and not a product of human imagination (and if you disagree with this, my comments are not really relevant to you), then They did not originate with us and They do not belong to us, not even to the ancient culture who first (to our knowledge, as such) worshipped Them. Those are just the folks with the most history with Them. Now, that’s very important, in that those people accumulated a lot of experience with those particular deities; they had centuries to figure out what They liked and didn’t like, what They wanted out of human beings, etc. Certainly, it would be foolish to disregard all of that and start from scratch. But that is the reason for adopting a Reconstructionist approach – not because that ancient culture was somehow more pure, or worthy, or even more inherently connected to the gods than any of us have the potential to be (though of course, the culture as a whole was more connected than our culture is, but that’s not something we can control no matter how much we play at being ancient Celts or Greeks; we are coming from a fundamentally different position and that’s okay, we can still have very meaningful relationships with the gods, They certainly will not reject us because of it). In fact, every one of those ancient cultures had plenty of problems we would not actually want to take upon ourselves.

My view is that the ideal process when beginning to worship ancient deities (assuming one’s goal is to know and honor those deities as deeply as possible – again, if this is not your goal, or if you’re more interested in human culture, then I am not addressing you) would be to immerse oneself in the ancient *mindset* in regard to the gods – through lots of research and reading primary sources and all of that good stuff – for a good long while, perhaps several years at least, while simultaneously getting to know the gods in whatever ways one can, and *then* once the mindset has been fully understood and internalized, extrapolating and creating new practices when/if called to.

Imagine your friend set you up on a blind date with a woman he’s known since they were both kids. Of course, you’d want to learn something about this woman ahead of time from your friend – maybe what her favorite flowers are, so you can bring some to the date, or what she’s like, and an interesting story or two about her. But you’ll only be getting that one person’s perspective. His view of her is probably flavored by his own experiences, and maybe he still thinks of her the way she was when they were teenagers and not the way she is now. In any case, once you get to know her, you would put much more weight, hopefully, on what she tells you about herself, and how she acts, than on what he said.

Again, I wonder how much the insistence on adopting an ancient culture in its entirety is a symptom of the tendency for many polytheists to focus more on people than they do on the gods. I am fortunately immune from this because I am a raging misanthrope! And I just have a hard time believing that almost any gods would refuse to accept worship from someone who has gone to the trouble to learn what They want and like and how best to approach Them (and yes, this can most easily and reliably be done by looking first to the past) simply because that person does not in other ways resemble the worshippers of the past, or has some parts of their religious practice that come from other cultures and times. That seems like a more human concern to me.

A Typology of Spirits

•July 24, 2014 • 25 Comments

This is just something that came to me the other night when I was pondering the nature of spirits, and the different types of spirits one might encounter. I ended up with the following breakdown, based on my experiences and reading. I would love to hear what other spirit-workers and animists think of this – types I may have missed, how you would organize it differently, etc.

1. Spirits of Animals, Plants, Fungi and Minerals
a. so-called “Grandfather” spirits of an entire species, e.g., Little Red Man (fly agaric)
b. spirits of individual specimens

2. Spirits of Place (both in nature and man-made)
a. overall genius loci, e.g., “The Presence” on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire
b. wights who live in a specific place and do not leave, such as nymphs

3. The Dead
a. biological ancestors
b. spiritual ancestors – individuals not related by blood but who are treated as ancestors
c. heroes – dead people who have become elevated by a group or culture
d. collective dead – died due to same event or cause (e.g., veterans, victims of tragedy), buried in same place, etc.

4. Faeries (includes alfar, dwarves, goblins, gentry, banshees, brownies, etc.)
a. solitary wights – domestic and wild, tend to stick to same area
b. trooping – always experienced collectively, and move from place to place

Of course, there are lots of spirits who are crossovers between types. For instance, the Slavic rusalki are women who died young, haunt a particular body of water, and are generally treated like faeries, so they would fall into categories 2(b), 3(d) and 4(a). An old oak tree with a powerful spirit would be 1(b) and 2(b). The inhabitants of a cemetery would be 2(b) and 3(d). And so on.

Making Room

•June 24, 2014 • 3 Comments

On Myth & Moor, artist and writer Terri Windling relates that she once asked a friend how to attract frogs to her little pond. Her friend told her to simply create a favorable environment for them (clearing out the weeds, etc.), and they would come – albeit on their own time. And she waited and waited, getting frustrated, but after at least a year, the frogs finally showed up.

“I believe it’s the same with creativity. Feel dry, uncertain, empty of ideas? Then create the proper environment: a space you can work in, the right tools at hand, and good work habits, regular and steady. Inspiration will come. Be patient, and it will come.”

And so it goes for spiritual practice. As I’ve said before, you have to make a space for the magic to happen. This goes back to what I was saying recently about being aware of omens, and having enough time in silence for other voices to emerge. It is really easy, especially when you’re not feeling very connected, to start drowning yourself in distraction and mundanity, because that lack of connection is so uncomfortable. But doing so chokes your pond with weeds, so to speak, so there’s no room for that which you wanted in the first place.

It seems so obvious, but I can say from experience that it is remarkably easy to slip back into this pattern over and over again. The best thing you can do is to learn to recognize it, and stop it before it becomes worse. Start by feeding yourself on that which inspires you, rather than meaningless distractions. Do the work, make the effort, create the opportunity for connection, and then let go of it and see what happens. Erase your expectations, and make room for something new and different. It’s amazing how well this works.

Enjoy the Silence

•June 6, 2014 • 7 Comments

A commenter on my last post reminded me of another important point that came up during that radio show, that I wanted to highlight here.

Plenty of people complain that they wish they could hear/see/feel the gods like certain other people do, or at least wish they could do so better than they currently can. Of course, they often mistakenly think that such ability comes naturally or easily, when in fact it is usually the result of many, many years of work and practice. But there’s another factor involved these days more than ever before, and it needs to be examined. And that is the fact that our culture is geared entirely toward making sure you never have to be silent and still, alone with your thoughts, for a single moment.

The other day I stood waiting for the bus and watched a girl take out her phone and perform a number of completely meaningless actions (I think she was playing some game), just so she didn’t have to sit there quietly for a couple of minutes with nothing to occupy her mind. I am seeing this more and more lately – people unable to stand even a brief time without external stimuli. And this goes hand-in-hand with people being decreasingly aware of their physical surroundings, as they walk down the sidewalk (or gods forbid, drive down the street) with eyes glued to a device.

These trends do not bode well for the future of our species in many ways, but they are particularly dangerous for anyone with spiritual inclinations, especially those who wish to be able to communicate with the divine. How are you supposed to ever hear the voices of the gods when you never permit a moment of silence in which They can be heard? How will you notice the omens They may be sending to you when you don’t ever look up from your phone?

You need silence – both literally and metaphorically – to give Them room to communicate, and to give you the ability to process that communication. And it can’t just be a minute here or there – for not only do the gods not work on your schedule, but it is going to take some time for your brain to unwind and become receptive after a constant barrage of input. It’s like how, if you sit quietly long enough in the woods, you will start to hear more and more birdsong and animal activity, as they acclimate to your presence and you become more attentive. There is a reason that sensory deprivation has been used for ages in order to stimulate altered states of consciousness. Right now we are in a constant state of sensory overload, and it is a serious threat to all forms of mysticism.

Try turning everything off and see how much it changes things. No phone, no computer, no television, no music. Try even no reading, no busy work, nothing. Take a walk and pay attention to the world around you, and the world within you. Sit at your shrine and just speak aloud to your gods, and then give Them space to respond. Remove the constant chatter of the modern world, and your internal chatter will begin to abate as well. Do this often enough, make room for Them in this way, and the results will be significant.

Engaging with the Spiritual in the Physical World

•June 4, 2014 • 12 Comments

I just had a great conversation on-air with Galina and Sannion during their Wyrd Ways radio show. And it occurs to me that the point I called in to make is something I’ve never really seen addressed, and something that would be useful to talk about here.

I’ve talked about fallow times here before, when you can’t hear/see/feel the gods the way you usually can, and how to survive them. Any mystic knows that you cannot just drop your practices, that you need to be able to endure these times of silence and keep your faith. Even for the most connected spirit-workers and devotees, the ability to sense and directly communicate with the gods and spirits ebbs and flows over time – just like an artist will not always be able to access their inspiration (and will suffer just as badly when they can’t as a mystic when cut off from her god). So you can’t rely entirely on being in the right headspace or “feeling it” in order to do your Work, maintain your spiritual relationships, etc.

Which is why it’s so important to have a tangible form of communication between yourself and your gods and spirits. In other words, it shouldn’t all be taking place only in your head, because that’s not always going to work (not to mention, it’s a lot easier to get the message wrong, to end up talking to sockpuppets, and to be plagued with doubt about your internal experiences). Not only do you need to have physical practices on your end of the “conversation” – making offerings, of course, but also engaging the material world when doing ritual and magic – but you need to develop a habit of looking for and acknowledging the divine messages that manifest in the material world – i.e., omens. Because if your fallow times are just the result of the normal ebb of spiritual mojo, the gods can still communicate with you via external signs. Which can not only be a great comfort (and useful to know you’re not on the wrong track but simply in a fallow headspace), but it can allow you to continue your Work with the input of the gods.

From what I’ve seen in my own experiences and those of others, the more you are aware of the ways the gods might be communicating with you, the more you acknowledge the clear omens when they happen, the more They will use these methods to speak to you. After all, why spend all your energy shouting at someone who’s not listening? But if you’re open to such omens, well, manipulating the world a little here or there seems relatively easy for Them, and probably often more sure to get Their message across, unimpeded by the vagaries of the human brain.

Remember that the gods are not just in your head. That is not the only place you can meet Them. They suffuse the world.

Thoughts on being a Dionysian

•May 13, 2014 • 4 Comments

“I think about Dionysos and whether all who love him are bound in some way, needing to be free. Or sharing some other commonality of person or pattern that fits to His own. I mean, everyone needs freedom from something, but for us… is it the willingness to forsake boundaries, the realization that such chains are there, an abnormal awakeness, a divine contract?” (Ariadne in Exile)

These words echo my own thoughts lately quite a bit. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a Dionysian (and, I’ll admit, sometimes cursing it too) – how we can never settle for something comfortable or safe, how we always have to be pushing our own boundaries (and sometimes other people’s), how we must be free no matter the cost. And there is great cost, it’s just not as great as not being free.

I have had to give up so much because of Dionysos… including Dionysos in a way, because every time I would get a handle on Him, feel like I knew Him, every time I had established a dynamic with Him, everything got turned upside-down. I have been the mainad madly eating the bark off trees in the forest at night. I have been the priestess calling Him forth with ancient rituals. I have been the chthonic shaman beating my drum in the cave to His rhythms. He has been a man, a buffalo, a hollow mask, a force of nature. There have been times that I was ready to move on, and there have been times when it was agonizing to lose the Dionysos I had grown close to, or stop the way I had been worshipping Him. And yet, if I am to really worship Him, I can’t cling to these things when He says it’s time.

I am often horrified to witness how trapped most people make themselves, blind to their own volition, their own freedom. They complain about living in a city they hate, or being in a toxic relationship, or “having to” do one thing or another, and never realize they have the power to change things. Sure, there will be consequences – and maybe ones so negative that it would be preferable to stay in the situation… but then that is still a choice. But, I think I can understand a little why they avoid this awareness and responsibility. Because freedom can be quite terrible. You don’t get to fall back on comforting habits and addictions. You don’t get to indulge your fears, even if they are quite reasonable. You don’t get to let things just go on in an easy, mediocre sort of way. You don’t get to be complacent.

And maybe that’s a kind of madness too, among His many madnesses… to choose to the hard road over and over, to choose pain and fear and loneliness when our most basic human instincts tell us to choose comfort and safety and gratification. But a Dionysian simply cannot do otherwise. We must see all those things that hold us back and then we must burn them to the ground. We must risk suffering in pursuit of greatness. We must be willing to lose everything – even our very selves, our minds, and our most cherished ideas of our god – in order to worship Him purely and completely.

I do not like many things about where Dionysos has brought me most recently (hence the occasional cursing, as mentioned above). It is unfamiliar territory, and I do not feel equal to the tasks before me. It has required letting go of so much I’m not sure there’s anything left sometimes. I could have gone along rather contentedly on the path I was on indefinitely, and for another person it would have been fine. But this is what it means to be His.

In the first poem I ever wrote to Dionysos, I said “I have gone to the dark with you. I will go to the dark with you.” It is pretty damn dark in the labyrinth right now. But my god was torn apart, He was burned to cinders, and each time He became something more than He was before. There must be death before there can be rebirth. Hail Dionysos.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 583 other followers