My latest Heathen Heretic column
is up, wherein I answer a reader's question about what to do when the idea of honoring the dead is difficult, uncomfortable, or even distasteful.
Check it out, folks.
(the photo above and attached to the article is mine, of arlington national cemetery).
I recently wrote another article here that touched on ancestor veneration, which I consider a fundamental part of polytheistic practice. One of my readers chimed in, asking a very good question, that I suspect an awful lot of people wrestle with as well.
I have a question that is troubling me about engaging with my ancestors and wonder if you can help. I have, after much careful consideration, decided not to have children. I have the clear impression this is displeasing to them. Given that my decision is non-negotiable, how can I establish a good relationship with them when I am refusing to continue to very bloodline that connects them to me? I would be very grateful for any insight you can offer.
Well, it's important to point out that there is no hard and fast rule to ancestor veneration other than "do it." When you deal with your ancestors, while in some respects it may seem as though you're dealing with a monolithic unit, in reality, you're dealing with individuals. It maybe an organized counsel of individuals, a collective, but in the end, you're engaging with a conglomeration of individual people.
While it is meet and right to respect and honor our dead, that doesn't mean that we are bound to obey their every dictate. Working with the ancestors is a process of engagement, *negotiation*, and mutual reciprocity. There's wiggle room there in most cases. Sometimes, they will push very hard. Sometimes we do too. Part of ancestor work is negotiating space where your needs and theirs can co-exist. It's perfectly ok to have certain hard lines with them. If not having children is your hard line (and it's mine as well, by the way) then the thing to do is to sit down with them. Hold a personal ancestor ritual, call upon them and explain this. Tell them that you will honor them. You will welcome their strength and protection and wisdom into your life, but -and this is non-negotiable--you will not have children. You will share their wisdom with those who come into your life, with those you care for, but they will have to look to other parts of your living line for children. They can push--doesn't hurt to ask after all---but you are not obligated to comply and this is where maybe seeking out a skilled ancestor worker and having that person negotiate and facilitate the conversation can be very helpful.
Not having children in no way means you can't have a deep and engaged ancestor practice. You may find it's one or two ancestors who are fixated on this because it's one of the ways that they define health and well being. This is workable. If you have siblings who do plan to have children, point this out. Direct them there. LOL. If not, simply state your position and continue to engage. call upon other ancestors to help or seek out a capable ancestor worker to sort things out. Usually, as with any relationship, ongoing communication is the key.
In trying to reweave and restore our ancestral religions, it's easy to get confused and even easier to miss the mark. Our culture is a sick one after all, disconnected, impious, and fairly confused. After two thousand years of Christian dominance, it can be very difficult to reclaim our polytheistic heritage, most importantly, it can be very difficult to reclaim the mindset, the deeply internalized understanding of the way sacred things work within an indigenous context, that lies at the heart of that mindset. Sometimes it's an uphill battle.
Take this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/agora/2013/05/making-light-hero-worship/ for instance. There is some major disconnect here. I realize that there is an entire foundation, a habitus, a cultural and religious comprehension that comes with an understanding of lineage and tradition, that comes of growing up in a community rooted in a common understanding of what it means to be polytheistic. We don't have that. Still, part of the battle is recognizing it as something important to reclaim. Much of that reclamation begins with learning to rightly honor the dead.
I've said it before and I"ll say it again: the ancestors are our best and strongest allies in this fight. They can help us get it "right." Our traditions were sundered. They were destroyed. Not only our traditions but any sense of lineage was torn away. That is such a horrific, collective, soul-deep devastation, a holocaust of such proportion that it's no wonder we're struggling. Our ancestors are there and they want to help us, but we lack the spiritual technology to figure out how to let them. We as a people have been disconnected so long, we don't realize we're disconnected.
The title of this article refers in part to 'heroes.' By that term, i mean the unique, superlative, elevated ancestors who are special carriers of strength and excellence, fortitude, and inspiration. Ancient or modern, maybe our ancestral heroes are exactly whom we ought to be calling for help on that. I would like to see offerings made, sacrifices done, all for the dead of our collective lineages, those that were sundered with the supremacy of monotheism. I would like to see the ancestors being honored and fed, and empowered in this restoration. This, i believe, is crucial.
In the meantime, that still leaves us with a disconnect. One of the areas that people seem to struggle with is the restoration of our heroic cultus. This was not an uncommon facet of ancient polytheisms. I don't believe we have anything close to it in our modern world, save the Catholic cultus of saints. There's a big difference there though, between saint cultus and ancient hero cultus. If i understand the theology correctly, Catholics venerate saints not only for the miracles they are believed to have performed, but as examples of how to live a good, decent, faithful life. That is not at all the case with ancient heroes.
Honoring heroes like Cu Chulain, like Heracles, like Achilles, or even contemporary Heathen honoring of Saga heroes like Egil has absolutely nothing to do with with their virtuous character. It has to do with their being larger than life figures, figures who performed remarkable, exceptional deeds, whose deeds affected their communities, who embodied in some way --to default to Greek-- "arete."
Arete is usually translated as 'excellence' and refers to glorious deeds performed by the would-be hero. The greatest of Greek epics, the work that influenced not only all of ancient Greek culture but Roman culture as well, Homer's "Iliad" was all about arete: distinction, fame, and glory. It had nothing to do with the behavior of Homeric heroes. Many of the most revered heroes were mighty warriors, which means they were highly trained killers, obsessed with personal glory, quite often willing to rape, pillage, and plunder nations. It is this quality of surmounting mediocrity, of setting in the threads of wyrd that which will stand as an incitement for later generations to excellence that leads to the veneration of heroes. That may hold true with modern heroes (like Malcolm X, Gandhi, or Rosa Parks -- all names recently brought up by modern polytheists as 'heroes') as well: it is not who they were so much as what they did with what they were that mattered.
There are also a couple of pre-requisites to being a hero:
1. You had to have lived at some point. You had to be *an actual person* -- that is, an actual *living* person.
2. You had to do something worthy of veneration. You had to become part of your own mythic cycle. Your story had to become part of the mythic cycle of your people. it had to become fuel for future generations.
I find it incomprehensible for all of these reasons and more, that someone, anyone would equate ancestral heroes with comic book or fictional characters. I understand that not everyone is a reconstructionist. I'm not technically a reconstructionist; but that shouldn't mean that one eschews reverence for the dead or diminishes it. Given the disconnected cultures that we all grew up in, it's all the more important that we give our ancestors the reverence that is their due. They're our essential lifeline.
In a world that already encourages us to view the Gods and spirits as fictional beings, I think it's all the more important to draw a clear line between those things that inspire us but that are fictional and actual holy Beings, that…you know, exist as independent, sentient Beings. There's a very fine line after all between equating comic book characters to ancestral heroes and positioning the Gods in the boundaries of one's mind and heart as fictional too.
I think that's in part what concerns me in all of this: the potential for a remarkable lack of cleanliness. With the media fixation that is also part of our modern American world (cell phones, Facebook, television, movies), television and movies have come to take the place, sadly and to our detriment, of the mythic cycles of our ancestors. There's nothing wrong with a good tale, a good story. It is not, however, substitute for actual ancestral engagement. I'm not denying the power of the theatre or the cinema or even cable tv to present a spectacle that hits us on a deep level and opens us up. (Sannion talks in much more breadth about the sacrality of theatre here: http://www.witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Paths-Blogs/making-light-of-superhero-worship.html). That's great. That's good. This is something in our world and therefore can certainly be a sacred tool. What i'm questioning is the wisdom of equating those fictional characters with our honored dead. It seems all too easy to diminish the latter.
More to the point, the very definition of a hero precluded fictional origin; and religion is not entertainment. The point of veneration be it of the Gods, ancestors, or cultic heroes is not one's personal entertainment. Conflating comic book heroes with ancestral heroes is not a question of orthodoxy vs. modern avante guard perspective, but of singular comprehension of the role of cultus in one's religion vs. spiritual puerility.
Part of the difficulty for us moderns may be the use of the term 'myth.' To, ironically, paraphrase a popular film "I do not think that word means what you think it means." We use mythology to refer specifically to stories that are not true. The word itself implies something if not fictitious itself, then very, very close to it. It's something removed from our every day reality. That is a post-Christian meaning. In ancient Greece, a culture deeply entrenched in heroic cultus, and from which the word 'myth' comes, it meant 'narrative, account, story.' There was no necessary implication of fiction. It was an account of something worth retelling. We are using the word today very, very differently than the cultures in which heroic cultus developed. This is, to be blunt, muddying the waters terribly.
Finally, perhaps the cultus of the dead is a buffer keeping out the frivolous. It forces one to root, and there is a segment of people, a segment of people ultimately of little use to their Gods or their dead who resent and resist that and all the responsibilities inherent in this restoration, that run fleeing from it. In every single traditional religion that I can think of that is the focus, the first focus to the point that we must sometimes go through our ancestors to reach the Gods. It opens up fighting the filter to a whole segment of people who think they have nothing left to offer there. Why? Because everyone has dead and as a beautiful Lithuanian proverb goes: 'the souls of the dead are the protection of the living.' With the heroic cultus, surely that would hold to an even greater degree.
But, unfortunately for us, this is the age of Marvel and DC Comics, Josh Whedon, Dr. Who , etc. and it is much easier engage with fictional characters that won't (in fact *can't*) engage back than to actually engage in the process of spiritual restoration and maybe, just maybe with the Powers - ancestral and divine--who can and will.
Today is my adopted mom's birthday, or would have been if she were still alive. She died in 2010. I loved this woman and she loved me with a ferocity that once led her to challenge Odin on my behalf. We love each other still of course, mother and daughter, one dead, one living bound through the grace of ancestor veneration. You'd think being a shaman it would be easy to deal with death, to accept that the spirit lives on. It's not. Her death still hurt terribly, beyond anything I have the verbal capacity to describe. Death carried away my joy, and it took me a very long time to find bring myself back. She helped with that too. Her story, the parts we wrote together, and the parts she shared with me from her life before we met, are etched in my heart. I am defined by this woman: there is before she died and after. But she was my mother and that, I think, is as it should be.
Through the first part of her adult life, my mom lived in Basel. She had attended the music conservatory there, taught music less than a block from the school (if i recall correctly, on Einhorn Str.--her building had a unicorn on it, small and tasteful and one could just see the top of the piano through the window). She and her partner lived in Basel, and when he died she left that city for good. She said she couldn't stand it, that every cobblestone echoed his presence and it hurt too much to see the city go on when he wasn't there as well. It held too many memories. I get this.
My mom, when I knew her lived in Carmel. I will never go back there. The city holds the breath and shadow of her memory but she is not there and how *dare* it exist without her. How *dare* it go on when she no longer lives. It angers me that the city continues….in the aching world of my heart it has no reason d'être now that she is gone. I finally understand full well why she only once returned to Basel after her lover's death, and then only out of stark necessity and for as brief a time as possible. Some things even time cannot rid of pain.
Her partner was a pianist and a well known linguist. He died of lung cancer and the last six weeks of his life, on his death bed he taught himself Italian. He was reading Dante in the original before he died. When he died, my mom was teaching a class. Her friend came to the window. She looked out, saw her friend's face and said her partner's name. Her friend nodded and my mother died inside a little. She stopped eating for a time, shaved her head and shared her grief with the other woman he loved---they were poly in a time when no one spoke of it; my mom was poly before poly was cool. I had dinner once: her, me, and his spirit as present as if he were there in the flesh, almost, and so i met the man she loved and who loved her in return. I took cigars to his grave site once. He liked to smoke.
Last night I was feeling so raw. I couldn't figure out why but I was feeling so fragmented. It took me awhile to realize that today was my mom's birthday. My partner called me and when he heard my voice and found out why I hurt so, asked me to tell him about her, to tell him her stories, of the times we shared together. So I did and it helped and through my words and tales one who is so important to me now, came to know at least a little, the one who restored me to life. There are many ways to give life after all, expelling a child from the womb is only one of them.
My mom was an atheist for a long time. The pain of the world hurt her terribly, broke something vital in her soul when first she experienced it. She told me once she'd been so isolated as a child, and in her first experience with the anguish of the world she was like Siddhartha. Nothing was ever the same for her again. Humanity appalled her. She was an atheist for years until somehow someone introduced her to the Norse Gods. She was dubious but something must have pinged for she started exploring it. She felt strong, very strong draw to Loki. One night, as she related to me, shortly after this introduction. she lit a candle and challenged Him bitterly to prove His existence to her. (Hubris she would later admit, but at the time she knew no better). That night, the blankets were ripped off her bed and she was yanked out of the bed and onto the floor by Loki. That direct experience changed everything for her.
She could speak to bees and dogs and they would listen and sometimes she understood when they spoke back. She could speak to and understand cats but they disdained her counsel and seldom obeyed. She was terrified of horses -- except Sleipnir---because she could not read them, but knew they were intelligent, and that they knew she couldn't hear their thoughts….they were unpredictable to her and this frightened her. She once braved two very large horses so my god daughter--quite small at the time--could feed apples to a friend's horse. He was in a stable shared with several other riders. A big horse was being groomed by a woman. As my god daughter held the apple up to horse #1, horse #2 butted in to get his share. She fed him some, so he wouldn't feel left out and only later did we realize she'd fed someone else's horse. I remember my mother's face, white as a sheet, as she held my god daughter's hand, inches away from those two horses. That's when I learned of her fear. She was also afraid of alligators but this was far less troublesome!
She was a very humble, very stubborn, very fierce powerhouse. She taught me more about devotion than I ever thought possible and did much to heal what was then a very broken and scarred heart. I can love because of her, but more than that, I can find some measure of joy in living because of her. She was a miracle worker in my world, and she never would believe the number of lives she touched and transformed. My House honors her as a sancta and I am not the only Heathen to do so. She of course would be appalled and say such veneration is far more rightly given to Sigyn.
I miss her. Every day I miss her. She had a high pitched Basel accent and whenever i hear a woman with that accent, I want to cry and I want to smile at the same time. I watched the movie "Les Miserables" recently and almost had to turn it off. Anne Hathaway, when her character has her head shorn looked so much like my mom, and the tale of that character is one of such sadness, degradation, and grief. I found myself weeping and it was solely that I could not look at it and not see my mom in Hathaway's high-cheekboned face, short hair, and huge, huge eyes. She translated Midgard for me, this woman fluent in seven languages. She translated Midgard for me and taught me to navigate a language of being as unfamiliar and alien to me as ancient Greek had once been to her. She gave me fragments of knowledge, taught me to appreciate the grace-notes of Midgard, as she called them. Most of all, she loved me as only a mother could. I have been very blessed in my life. I know this.
So today I remember my adopted mother.
May she ever and always be hailed.
It's a hard people that birthed me
hard and unyielding
like weathered stone
the bones of the dead,
hard like the yoke
and the necessary brutality
It's hard soil
that holds them,
of an ancient nation,
only the stones themselves
and they are silent.
It's a hard God that took me up
and He made me hard in His loving.
There's a hard war to be fought.
and I'll take point.
My ancestors nod grimly
when I say this.
all the different permutations
Just try to break them.
They never yield--
never forgot their ceremonies either.
They know from whence
their power comes.
children of fire
born under a blazing northern sun
know the secret of endurance.
We keep our power hidden
we keep our borders close
we guard what must be guarded.
these things come down in the blood
like hard edged steel.
Then like steel we rise.
My lover once told me of a man,
who was snapped up
by the mad God's fire.
He ran across mountains
leaping amongst angels,
feverish with the fire
that consumed him,
feverish with the grace
that spat him back to earth again
He was the first to be kissed,
to lose himself in the blessings
of the twice-born, two horned
born of the thigh of Zeus,
and Semele's lightening-struck womb.
He was the first
to be taken up,
caught in a net
of ivy-thronged sweetness.
It was unspeakable
and yet His God
bestowed upon Him
the gift of speaking true,
of bearing sacred incantation
via the gateway
of tongue and lips --
steeped far too long
in His inhuman grammar.
I see him in my dreams sometimes,
bare feet like cracked leather,
bones and shells woven in his dreads,
disheveled, wild eyed, joyous:
a thousand years it seemed
he was swallowed up
learning his mad God's songs.
Is anyone ever prepared
for such dissolution?
Salve et coagula.
these words belong to another God,
but I believe Dionysos owned them first.
his prophet, with skin like polished onyx,
eyes glowing with dark, crimson-hued flame,
spat them out upon his unsuspecting world.
He became a mask
through which Dionysus
He became the garb
of a mad God dancing.
It makes me wonder
what was left
of the first one taken up
by Odin's power,
the first who swallowed
of that ancient storm wind,
who bore that awful Hunger forth,
who fell into that ravening maw.
I wonder at the first of my lineage,
who lost themselves on the ancient Tree
and found themselves
on the paths of Power,
I have heard the whispered vestiges
of that one's screaming
as the Tree plucked flesh and spirit
in its feeding.
we make such sacrifices for our Gods
but oh the magnificence we create,
as we tightwalk across that abyss.
There is such beauty in our dying,
the whole universe sings.
(this photo is mine, taken this morning after a visit to one of my local cemeteries).
It is never too late to honor your dead.
It is never too early to begin.
Do not worry
about whether you will do it right.
Do not worry
whether you do as I do,
or that ancestor worker over there,
or this one here.
It does not matter.
The work will teach you.
Your own dead will school you
in whatever protocols they desire.
Those gathered in the footprints
of your blood, and bone, and memory
are for you.
Seek them out.
they will fill your life with blessings
and in turn
you will fill their death
It is the way of things.
Tend your dead
and let them tend you
It is right.
It is proper.
Set aside your fear.
Set aside your excuses
Conquer your indolence,
and get to work.
Your dead are waiting.
My friend R.S. sent me the following in an email. Now I usually don't care at all about popular culture and I watch very little television but i'm really wishing that I had seen this particular show (though I suspect she summed up the best part right here). There was a powerful piece of ancestor wisdom in it--much to my shock. I mean, one just doesn't expect to find substance or ancestor wisdom in NCIS: Los Angeles!
Anyway R.S. told me that in this week's episode ("Kill House") there was the following scene, and boy does it ping with verity (as she also commented).
To quote her directly:
The scene begins with the two senior agents walking Nell, a very intelligent young woman who is being trained for field work after distinguishing herself in the operations center, through the crime scene. She is nervous. They ask her if she feels up to the assignment. She asks how do you know if you are ready/up for something (I forgot the exact words). They said you trust your training, then tell the following story (again, I forgot the exact wording) ...
One year, Hetty (played by Linda Hunt), brought in a Headhunter for their field training. He was a real Headhunter, descended from a Headhunter who was, himself, descended from a Headhunter. He was taught the art of war-craft by his Father who was taught by his Father who was taught by his Father, and all down the line. The techniques the Headhunter taught them had been proven effective by each generation of his family who used them. When he drew his weapon, 10 thousand hands drew his weapon with him.
This 'pinged' True - we draw upon the inherited experiences of our Ancestors."
That is it precisely. none of us walk alone. Whereever we go, we go with a retinue of our ancestors at our back. To connect rightly and properly with one's dead, to engage them well and consistently is to know that when you act, ten thousand hands and hearts, minds and wills act in tandem with you. That is the power of ancestor veneration. Ashe!
This, as R.S. said rang with verity, such verity that I had to share it with you here.
(This photo was taken by K.C. Hulsman and is used here with permission).
Y'all know I like a good warrior queen. I'm fascinated by the prevalence --as much as many scholars might wish otherwise--of female warriors throughout history.(1) One of the first I ever learned about, so long ago that i don't even recall where i first heard her story, was Boudica.(2) I was in London over the holidays and saw the iconic Boudica sculpture that stands opposite Big Ben and so I was inspired to write about her. I honor our warrior ancestors, I speak for the military dead. I also honor our Polytheistic heroes and martyrs and in my opinion, Boudica fits both categories. Since returning from the UK, I've decided to consciously add her to my shrine for the warrior dead. She certainly left her mark in history.
Boy did she also piss off the Romans--a feeling i'm fairly sure given the facts was fairly mutual! Let me tell you her tale. I'll be telling it from memory but I'll give you a list of book recommendations as the end of this post should any of you want to learn more.
Boudica was Chieftain or Queen of a British tribe called the Iceni. Most scholars believe that her name means 'victory' or "victorious' which, given the circumstances is fitting. Boudica and her tribe were living during the time of Roman occupation but, through careful maneuvering had managed to maintain their freedom. When her husband died, the Romans, never one to respect female leadership, decided it was as good an opportunity as any to annex Iceni lands. They moved in. The Roman military leaders in the area had Boudica publicly flogged and her two daughters publicly raped. Then they took control of Iceni lands. This did not sit well with either Boudica or her people and she vowed a bloody revenge.
She raised a band of British warriors--and mind you, this area of the world has a history of female fighters. The people would not have been unaccustomed to following a woman into war. She raised her band of fighters comprised not only of Iceni but of other tribes as well and in 60 or 61 C.E. when the Roman governor of the province (Gaius Suetonius Paulinus) was out of the area marched in revolt. They routed more than one Roman legion, destroyed Colchester, and burnt Londinium (modern day London) to the ground. She and her people were not kind to the Romans and collaborators they captured. There was enough bloodshed and the fires were so fierce that to this day archaeologists can find a layer of burnt soil if they dig far enough below what was once Roman London.
Eventually Gaius Suetonius successfully defeated Boudica and her troops and reasserted control over the area. We don't exactly know what happened to Boudica. it's most commonly believed that she killed herself to avoid being captured and forced to march in a Roman triumph. Her near victory shook Roman leadership and she is sometimes liked to the German Arminius for the long term impact of her revolt.
One of my favorite parts of her story is that before making the final decision to ride into battle against Rome, Boudica made an offering to the Warrior Goddess Andraste, and released a hare (ostensibly Her sacred animal) observing its behavior and which way it ran for an omen of whether or not to proceed.
I think it's important to recognize our ancestors, particularly those ancestors who fought for us and who inspired us. Boudica fills that role for me. As someone who does so much work with the warrior dead, she's someone who stands out as worthy of honor.
Here are some books that folks might find helpful for learning more:
"Warrior Queens" by Antonia Fraser
"Boudica: The Life of Britain's Legendary Warrior Queen" by Vanessa Collingridge
"Boudica's Last Stand" by John Waite
"Boudica: The British Revolt Against Rome" by Graham Webster
"Roman Britain: A New History" by Guy de la Bedoyere
"History of Roman Britain" by Peter Salway
This is a good link as well:
1. Archaeologists seem to have a consistent problem in accurately identifying the graves of female warriors. Every excuse will be used other than that the body is that of a warrior who happened to be female. The current idiotic theory of choice is that any sword or spear buried with a woman (including women buried in full battle armor who died of battlefield injuries) had really been repurposed as a weaving implement. I kid you not. Several archaeologists Renate Rolle and Jeanine Davis Kimball most notable among them have been doing quite a bit of work to fight this bias, having noted the rampant mis-identification in Sauromatian graves. I recommend starting with Davis-Kimball's "Warrior Women" for those who want more info. She provides an extensive bibliography. This is also an interesting article:
2. There are several ways to spell her name: Boudica and Boadicea being the most common.