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!

Interactions and Intersections

•February 13, 2015 • Comments Off on Interactions and Intersections

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!