In scrolling through the various blogs that I generally read as a matter of course, I came across a comment (from a non-theistic pagan of course) asserting that the primary purpose of ritual was 'to experience a sense of community.' Of course I disagree, as I suspect would many of my polytheistic colleagues but since ritual can surely provide a sense of community feeling, I wanted to clarify why I found the statement troubling. I'm not going to go into a discussion of what ritual is, or how to construct one, or what its constituent parts might be though I have the formal training in ritual studies to do so. It's not important to this discussion. Instead, I'm going to focus on what, to a devotional polytheist, the purpose of ritual might be. Then, I'm going to share a brief outline of a typical House Sankofa ritual to give you some idea of what I get up to in my community ritual work.
Firstly, that a ritual can bring about a sense of community is a side effect. It's not the purpose of a ritual. To stop there, is like stopping a six course dinner before reaching the main course. It's a by-product, nothing more, of a well run public ritual. (I specify public, because there are individual and personal rituals as well that do not involve any other members of one's community). Of course it is a joy and a comfort to find oneself in the presence of like-minded folks, all the more so when you're all collectively paying homage to the holy. This goes without saying. It is not, however, the purpose of a ritual, not to a polytheist. You see, this comes down again to where one puts the locus of one's devotional focus: on the self (non-theistic pagans) or on the Gods (polytheists). While there are rituals that can bring a tremendous amount of healing to all involved, I've never been a fan of ritual as therapy, ritual as self-help, ritual as entertainment, or ritual as social club. I would like to think that as a species we're not that self-absorbed. Clearly though, I'm an optimist.
There are rituals where the focus of the ritual is the transition of a person from one state of being to another. Coming of age ceremonies are a perfect example. I would personally not call such services 'ritual,' but might refer to them as 'ceremonies' instead though this is parsing semiotics at this point. Suffice it to say that when I talk about ritual in this article, I'm referring to a basic ritual in which the Holy Powers are in some way invoked. The word itself comes from the latin and refers specifically to religious customs and sacred rites. Durkheim be damned, those of us who actually honor the Gods believe that there is more to religion than social mummery.
For a devotional polytheist, the purpose, first and foremost, of a ritual is paying homage to, honoring, and expressing veneration for the Holy Powers (Gods and/or ancestors). That it can be done in a community or at least group setting lends power to the rite and is in itself a joy. Ideally, one's religious expression in ritual is the culmination of all the devotion and practices that one has engaged in by oneself. Throughout, the point of one's attention and mindfulness is on the Powers.
When someone asks me how to create a ritual, that is what I tell them: every thing you do or say should in some way honor the Holy Powers. Social hour can come after the ritual, during potluck. I once had a colleague tell me about a ritual she attended where the facilitator stopped in the middle to chat with a friend about how much she wanted to travel to London. I"ve seen people complain when rituals took more than 10 or 15 minutes and when they weren't allowed a share in the offerings given to the Gods and/or dead. I've seen interfaith rituals where no specific Holy Powers were ever once invoked. I once saw a woman start filing her nails during an invocation. To all of this, i say no. that is not appropriate ritual behavior. Save it for social hour, folks. From the moment the space is consecrated and ritual begins, the focus is on the Gods and/or ancestors.
It's for this reason that while i've seen, participated in, and even led lovely rituals that incorporated activities, meditations, ritual drama, etc. in the past, more and more I'm coming to favor simple offertory rites. I wouldn't necessarily exclude those other tools and techniques, because they can be quite powerful and effective, but when it comes to teaching people that stepping into ritual space carries with it a necessary corollary of turning one's mind and attention firmly on the Gods, I find that the simpler rites are best. There is still beauty and there is still drama, but it's much easier for a newcomer to see where the appropriate focal point might be.
To highlight what I mean here, I what to share an outline of a basic House Sankofa ritual. This is a format that we generally adapt as needed. Sometimes we get more elaborate, sometimes less but this structure has served us well. This will give readers some idea of what i'm talking about in the above article and it's what we've found works best for us, blended House that we are.
Preparation for ritual usually starts one week, sometimes two (occasionally more) before the actual day of the ritual itself. The night before, the space will be thoroughly cleaned physically and energetically. An altar will be set up, usually on the floor. Sometimes we raise them up and use an altar table, but our House tends to follow the custom of setting up the altars on the floor. We usually don't complete the altar the night before. An altar is an invocation, a living welcome to the Deities involved so we complete that welcome right before the ritual when the last items and offerings will be placed. Divination is done to confirm that so far, everything is pleasing to the Powers involved and that no different or further offerings than what has been planned are desired.
People usually start gathering an hour before ritual. I usually ask that folks bring whatever they wish to offer (I almost always provide a list of appropriate and /or traditional offerings a week or so before the rite) and something for potluck. Offerings are organized and placed where they need to be. We might talk a little bit about the Deity or Deities behind honored, and if there's anything that people want to add to the altar, they do so at this time. In many cases, I will divine again to make sure that what we are doing is pleasing to the Deity or Deities in question, that nothing more is needed, and that we are good to proceed.
Before we start, I or whoever is leading will go over the order of the rite, what is going to happen, when, and what people can expect. If there are any taboos associated with the God or Gods behind honored they are shared with those gathered then. Then I call folks into the space and begin by consecrating the space. We have now entered ritual time and space.
* An offering is given to the Powers that guard the roads of both blessing and misfortune.
* Offerings are given to the ancestors along with prayers.
* The Deity or Deities being honored are invoked. Many prayers are given by various folks in attendance honoring Them.
* Offerings are made.
* Usually there is a chant or galdr or something and during this time, people may go up to the altar and make personal petitions, prayers, speak private words before the image of the Gods, etc. The chant honors the Deities but also creates interference so that no one else can hear what each devotee might be saying to the Powers
* More offerings are made. If there is anything special going on in this particular ritual, it usually happens here.
* If it is a Norse ritual, a horn might at this point be passed.
* At this point there is usually either another long prayer, or a call and response.
* Special petitions may be made.
*the Gods and ancestors are thanked.
At that point, we close ritual space and move into another room for potluck and socializing. Some people usually want to spend more time by the altar communing with the Gods and they are free to do so.I or another diviner in the House will then do divination to make sure that the ritual was acceptable, the offerings were acceptable, and that it is right and proper to conclude the rite. Our rituals take about an hour and a half to two hours usually from start to finish. Ancestor rituals tend to run a bit longer. There are exceptions to this order of ceremony and what i've described here is a generic structure, a flexible structure that we often alter to accommodate various Deities or as need dictates.
I would love to hear how those of you reading this structure your rituals. I'd also be happy to answer any questions folks may have on this topic.
In response to my call for questions, Keith asks:
"I'm struggling with the complexities of honoring a Power for whom no modern cultus exists, even though she has been widely acknowledged both openly and via nationally-specific epithets for at least the last few centuries.
Somehow the idea of resurrecting the old Greek or Roman cultus seems inconsistent with Her emphasis on leading change from the front.
Perhaps I'm over complicating things or being stupidly head-blind again, but do you have suggestions for those who find themselves trying to create a devotional practice in the absence of a "handbook", so-to-speak?"
Well, in a way I think you are fortunate. You're in a position that forces you to seek out direct devotional experience. That is an opportunity to root your veneration and practices in a bone and soul deep knowing rather than on the vagaries of theories or the brittle condensation of the written word (which can be useful as a guide, but is all too often taken as inviolable authority).
At the same time, since apparently, according to what you've shared, there was a cultus for this Holy Power in ancient Greece and/or Rome, you have at least some surviving remnants indicating how She was appropriately venerated by those amongst whom Her worship evolved. Sometimes restoration and reconstruction is something of a balancing act isn't it?
I would advise starting with the epithets and cultic practices that you note in your question. that's a framework, a guide. It should not limit you from also exploring ways to adapt and grow Her veneration in the modern world. Talk to Her, ask Her what She wants and then listen and if you are "head blind" look for omens around you, signs, portents, listen for that small voice inside that reflects the encounter with the holy. Start with the tools that work best for you (like prayer, meditation, ritual, study, etc.) and work outward from there.
I often find altar work to be very helpful in situations like this. I'd encourage you to set up an altar or shrine.Start with the ancient attributions to Her power and put images that reflect those on the altar. Then start looking around your life and world today, and see where you most sense or see Her touch, Her influence, the flow and breath of Her energy. This will give you ideas on how to expand Her veneration in ways that better reflect (for you) your place and Hers in our modern world.
change is powerful medicine, but to flourish and grow in an organic and holistic fashion it needs to be rooted in the wisdom of the past, the wisdom of our ancestors. These two things are meant to work in tandem, balancing and supporting each other, so I would encourage you not to immediately dismiss those old epithets and ancient practices. Just don't stop there, or allow them to limit your explorations of Her nature, Her power, and the ways in which you can express your devotion to Her today.
This article began as a conversation with my partner about the power of art. We've both been undone, each in our own way, by art. We've both served it in one way or another, been used by it, fostered out to it by our Gods. Poetry, literature, music, dance, opera, visual art, these things have crept into our souls, wound themselves inextricably throughout the matrix of our minds, seeped into the marrow of our bones. They fuel us, goad us, open us up. They are conduits for our Gods and oh so often sense-puzzles hiding wisps of Their presence, if one knows how to look; if one is willing to hear.
Art and creativity are sacred things. The Gods speak to us through those channels. They work and flow out into the world and transform it from its grey, ordered dullness, dullness that we have imposed in our servitude to the filter. We've both noticed how terrified the filter and those in its thrall are of creativity and imagination. These things cannot be controlled. They cannot truly ever be rendered safe--like all things sacred they hold within themselves a terrible danger. to the fundamentalist, that danger is that the artist, the visionary, the poet, the mystic will supersede the accepted orthodox boundaries of their world. And they will. make no mistake. they will and through the medium of their expression they'll take others with them.
Over and over again we've heard fundamentalists, staunch Christians sure on their path to salvation, freak the fuck out at movies or artwork or books. Think about the ongoing fundamentalist hysteria over the mention of "Harry Potter," for instance. It's a perfect example. They have such preoccupation with sin, most of it centering around experiencing the sensorium: Don't dance. Don't move your body. Don't listen to music --unless it's holy music (and really, have you heard Christian music lately? It barely qualifies. At least medieval and renaissance Catholics took the narrow category of acceptable "sacred" music and ran with it), don't enjoy the undoubtedly sensual pleasure inherent in the taste, aroma, and textures of good food and good drink, be careful what you read. Don't look at art, especially if it's a nude. let's keep our art safely representative and avoid fancy colors or anything avant garde, anything that might make you think, anything that might make you feel. There's a terror of imagination and a deep distrust of creativity and all the ways these things challenge our assumptions about faith, life, and the world around us. One of us once had an avidly christian relative actually argue that fantasy was dangerous to children and they shouldn't be allowed to read it, even fairy tales because it encourages them to lie and turns their minds away from God. They might come to believe in magic. What. the. Fuck?
Art is dangerous: painting, music, dance, poetry, writing, photography, all the modes of artistic expression we have not named too -- these things have the power to inspire, to set hearts and minds on fire. Creativity is a sacred stream and the daemon that guards it is hell bent on keeping it so and this is good. It's freedom. it brings freedom of the mind. it takes one beyond the status quo, beyond the boundaries of narrow worlds. That daemon looses his children and they rush through our world whispering 'revolution' to one, 'passion' to another, 'devotion" to a third, and "obsession" to another. They bring change and they carry with them an integrity of experience that insinuates itself beneath the pervasive poison of the filter. The Gods hide Themselves in these things, and the flow of creativity can carry us back to Them again. Think art is insignificant? Think again. Ideological wars have been fought over art --Christian Byzantium (from where we actually get the word 'iconoclasm') and Protestant Europe and England both had their iconoclasms. In some cases, especially in the latter example, people died over it. Art is dangerous. Religious art especially is dangerous. If the artist doesn't comply with the party line, we might be granted a glimpse into a godhead we never imagined possible.
How many of you grew up with the typical WASP picture of Jesus hanging on your grandparent's wall; you know, he's a delicate featured caucasian man with long golden ringlets and piercing blue eyes? What if instead, the image of Jesus you'd grown up with was more like this: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/74/214452023_83adf313d3.jpg or this: http://quezi.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/466px-fayum-01.jpg (both of which are far more likely than blond haired, blue eyed Barbie Jesus). If these latter images were the standard images given to us of the Christian God, would that have impacted European conquest at all? Maybe. Maybe not. What if Yahweh were routinely presented not like this: http://www.italianrenaissance.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Michelangelo-creation-of-adam-detail-1.png but like this: http://awakeningwomen.com.whsites.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/n695920388_5518065_1361.jpg?w=300? Our ideologies and assumptions are reinforced by the art we permit ourselves as acceptable. The good artist, the one truly in touch with the flow of things challenges that acceptability and pushes us harder and further and deep and forces us past our assumptions. They break open our world.
What's more, the theatre, opera, classical painting, literature, dance… these art forms are so embedded with our Gods and the values of traditional polytheistic cultures that it's rather surprising that more Pagans aren't seriously into them. I suppose it's also rather telling too. these things are about experience and engagement. One is meant to engage with the arts directly and emotionally and messily. In Florence, in the San Marco monastery, there is a beautiful Fra Angelico painting of the annunciation: http://www.artbible.info/images/annun_angelico_grt.jpg. It's a very well known piece and inevitably comes up when either the Annunciation or Fra Angelico is mentioned. No one ever talks about where it lies however. It's hanging at the top of a stairway in a monastery where, in Fra Angelico's time, monks would pass several times a day (now this is a museum). Art books seldom if ever show the compete painting. Above the angel and Mary there is a prayer written (I believe, it's been several years since i've been to San Marco) on a painting scrolling ribbon. The painting is not considered complete. As monks came up the stairs, they were expected to *look* at the painting and *say* the prayer and it was only with that engagement by the viewer, that the art was considered finished. The viewer became a participant in bringing the artwork to life. We are meant, after all, to engage with things, with each other, with the world and good artistry forces that issue tearing us out of the little boxes we build around ourselves, tearing us away from the safety of our lives and sometimes, just sometimes opening us up to the holy.
Much of the art that we're engaging with his Christian. That doesn't detract from its power. Take this for instance: http://youtu.be/GcUXp-fpiD0. These women are nuns, committed to a life of prayer, dragged out of their convent and sentenced to beheading via guillotine by the ignorant peasant rabble of the French Revolution. Earlier in the story, on her death bed, their previous mother superior tells them that by their sacrifice they can restore peace and health to France. When the time comes, they walk with dignity to their execution, and the overtones are those of conscious intent to offer up their deaths for the restoration of their country. That is powerful stuff. It's wrenching. It's also, despite the Christian trappings, very, very Pagan. there are messages here that strike at our emotional centers and ready us for the hard choices we must face, giving us access to models of valor and courage that can sometimes carry us through those hard moments. you know what else? The filter fucking hates that. It can't stop it. It can't control that channel. Like honoring the dead and like sex, this is a thing that flows hard and fast and furious beyond that cursed thing's control. Art is very, very dangerous and we should thank the Gods for it. It brings us into a conversation that the filter can neither control nor even fully hear.
These sacred conversations may occur across continents, across traditions, across belief systems, across decades, scores millennia. These conversations cross media, (correct latin plural of medium. lol but i don't know what english speakers use?) surmounting the dismal decay of our world. Nothing can shut it out. We are hard wired to crave beauty. We are hard wired to respond to those things that tease and seduce via the sensorium and via our emotions. These gifts, medicines of that most ineffable and cruel of daemons are the transhuman things the poet warns us about without which we cannot hope to thrive.(1) It's important, so important to feed one's sensorium. This is part of the grace and glory of being human. It's also part of fighting the filter. Don't be afraid to feed your senses. Glut your mind, your heart, your eyes, your ears, your tongue, your skin on truth and beauty. These things: music and dance and painting and poetry and a thousand other modalities of creative expression speak of a sensual understanding of the world and our place in it. It tells us that life, feeling, and passion are good. To the filter-poisoned mind, those things are deadly. It's an avenue to the sacred that cannot be controlled or dictated to by orthodoxy.
So seek out those things that inspire you. Seek out those things that tear you open. Seek out those things that make you weep, make you laugh, and most of all make you question. They're weapons and tools by which we will tear ourselves free from the filter. We need to do that. For the good of our souls, of humanity, of the world we need to do that. Revel in the beauty around you. It is an antidote to poison.(2)
1. This phrase comes from the last few lines of Robinson Jeffers' poem "Granddaughter".
2. The question may inevitably arise of 'how' to do this. we would say indulge your senses. Go to a chocolate tasting, sleep naked, dance in the rain, go to the symphony, go to a museum, take a painting class (you may suck at it, but you'll learn to see colors and shadows and shapes in whole new ways. you'll learn to look past visual facades). There are thousands of ways to engage the senses, the key is to not fear doing so.
(The accompanying image is Edward Burne-Jones' "Love Among the Ruins").
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.
Sometimes people ask me 'how can I do what you do?" On occasion, this question is asked by someone who is a new spirit worker, part of the younger, up-and-coming generation of shamans, mystics, spirit workers, god-spouses, etc; more often, however, it's asked by a nice "normal" person, leading a nice "normal" life wanting to know what he or she can do to become more engaged, to do what they perceive as 'important' work for their Gods and ancestors.(1)
This question comes from a good and well-meaning place. I think it's a very good thing, crucial even, to want to become more involved, to want to better serve the Gods and spirits. At the same time, this question bothers me on a number of levels.
Firstly, you can't do what I do. You're not Galina. You can't do Galina's work. You can only do YOUR work. It may be similar but it might be something totally different, something that I couldn't do in a million years. It's important that you do your work not mine and not anyone else's. The Gods have a "Galina." They don't need another one. They need a Jack and a Joan and a John and a Jill doing their individual work. It's *all* important. I think one of the most damaging things for one's spiritual life is trying to fit yourself into someone else's box. You have to do your own work, walk your own path, even if it bears no resemblance to mine, *most especially* if it bears no resemblance to mine. We can each support each other in this but we can't do each other's work.(2)
I fight with exactly this type of spiritual envy sometimes. I have friends who are amazing painters, photographers, musicians, artists of one sort or another and I dabble and I sometimes catch myself thinking wistfully on their talent and wishing with an ache and a longing that I could do what they do. I can't, no matter how much I wish it, and were i to fixate on it, were i to try to force myself into a mold for which I am unsuited and uncalled, the work that IS mine to do would not get done. My spiritual life would wither. I'd be betraying my wyrd and my Gods.
I've learned over the years when I feel this way to consciously say to myself: "well, i can't do that, but they can and wow, I can sure appreciate it and I can let them know what joy their work brings me. I can even share it with others." Appreciating beauty is important too. Our world needs all the beauty it can get. It has the power to heal, to transform, to inspire.
Secondly, there's something about this question that seems to devalue the life one is living. Just because one isn't a spirit worker doesn't mean that one's life and work and spirituality lack value. Do I think that shamans and spirit workers are crucial to their communities? Absolutely, especially now with how out of balance as our world has gotten. Part of our job is to restore right relationship and to navigate the worlds of the spirits. But that doesn't mean that I think a farmer or a shopkeeper or an auto mechanic or a computer programmer is any less important. It's not an either/or. It's *all* important. Each of us has a place and a function that's valuable. I would like us to move away from placing such arbitrary value judgments on our jobs. (If you ask me, the most important job in the world is sanitation engineer…..think about it, folks. seriously. think about it).
That my writing focuses on the work of a shaman and spirit worker is a matter of this being my calling. If i were a black smith, i'd be writing about that (or not writing probably but turning out some fabulous metalwork). One doesn't have to be a shaman to be doing useful work. If the Gods wanted everyone to be a shaman, They could make that happen. Obviously, They prefer a little diversification of calling.
The question remains: if one is living the life and doing the work that one is meant to be doing, (let's presuppose that for the sake of this article), honoring his or her ancestors in whatever way works within one's personal practice, but one is not a shaman, mystic, or spirit worker, what can one do to help with the Work? to do more? to become more engaged?
What i think people are really asking in many cases when this question arises is "what can I do that's important"? We all want to feel valued and important after all and I have found that many, many people want to be part of what a shaman or spirit worker does, because they feel it brings them closer to the Gods. I get that. They want to be part of something. Well, you are already 'part of something' but there *is* a very, very powerful answer to this question; there is something that everyone can be doing, something that was and is done in almost every indigenous culture that's still rooted in its ancestral ways the world over: pray.
For those wanting to be part of the work that a shaman or spirit worker does, for those wanting to become more engaged, to touch the sacred a little more directly, for those wanting to do something absolutely and utterly crucial with respect to engaging with the Gods and spirits then do this: pray for your spirit workers. Pray for your shamans. Pray for your mystics. Pray for those actively engaging with the Gods and spirits. Pray for anyone undergoing a 'dark night of the soul be they shaman, spirit worker, or regular joe. Pray consistently. Just pray. Pray for your technicians of the sacred.
And pray for all our ancestors: yours, mine, your friends', your enemies' ancestors, *all* our ancestors. Pray that they are strengthened. Pray that they have the strength and courage, wisdom and perseverance to step forward and partner with their living in this work (and that "Work" is comprised of each and every one of us doing that which we were put here to do, be it spirit work, raising a family, or being an accountant!). Pray that they lend us their strength and their protection.
I talk a lot about fighting the filter, about the need for every single person to engage in this battle. Well, here's one of the most powerful tools at your disposal: prayer. It is in no way insignificant. Moreover, in functioning indigenous communities, it was the sacred work of the community to pray for their spirit workers, just as it was the sacred work of the spirit worker to navigate the spirit worlds and interface with Gods and spirits for the community. This was a win-win situation. That prayer part of the equation is fundamental and crucial.(3)
So when you ask me "how can I do what you do?" don't be surprised if I look you in the eye and say 'you can't. But you can pray and we need you to pray, we need that desperately. It is important work. It is absolutely necessary and it's work that each and every one of us can do.
1. For the record, I vehemently dislike the word 'normal.' I don't think 'normal' exists. I think there is what is normal for Galina, what is normal for Susan, what is normal for David, etc. There is no one 'normal' just damaging, limiting boxes we try to squeeze ourselves into--to our own detriment.
2. This is one of the terrifying responsibilities of teaching. One can guide and encourage but to force someone into a mold unsuited to them is a grave wrong, a spiritual crime even.
3. My colleague Sarenth and I were discussing the corollary to this: that the community may ask their shamans and spiritworkers, priests and mystics to pray for them. Sarenth said 'I would also suggest they ask their spirit workers and shamans to pray for them. I would have no issue keeping a list of people to pray for at my altar, for individual names, or even whole groups. I wouldn't mind praying for others' Dead, especially if they cannot keep an active shrine. I can see how that can be abused, but I also can see this as establishing gebo. We can, and should pray for one another. Enough of us are in rough spots that we all could use the prayers!' He's right and many of us have been doing this as a matter of course: praying regularly for those who ask but it wasn't until our conversation that i realized many may not know to ask.
"If you're breathing, you can be praying." --Setep
I was talking about wine the other night, and spirits of the land, and the many different ways of rooting oneself in an awareness of all the indwelling spirits of the places in which we live and move and I remembered something I learned a very long time ago.
I'm a bit of a wine snob. I was taught by my adopted mother, for whom wine was one of life's sweetest pleasures. She had a very discerning palate, and with her training, i developed a palate that, had I chosen to pursue it, would have enabled me to take a sommelier's training. This was one of the grace-notes of Midgard, a pleasure we both shared.
Until she came into my life I'd never liked wine. I hadn't been exposed to much and didn't realize that a palate is something that must be cultivated, and that as it was cultivated it would expand and perception would deepen and a whole new world of taste and flavor, aroma, and insight would open up. When I asked my mom to teach me about wine, she took to the task with a vengeance. Over the years that we were together, she gleefully exposed me to some of the best wines in the world. It was, at first, an uphill battle! I have a sweet tooth and at first, that carried over to a dismaying degree into my choice of wines. I found anything not cloyingly sweet too bitter. So she solved this by starting with the best dessert wine she knew and very slowly and very, very patiently, moving my palate away from the sweet. My taste for reds and whites opened up at different times. The latter came first and took about a year to develop. I can still remember with vivid clarity that day, many years ago, when my palate burst open to white wine. I was sitting in Tour D'Argent, overlooking Paris and drinking a glorious, absolutely glorious 1999 Puligny Montrachet. All of a sudden my taste buds were flooded with multiple notes of flavor. I remember losing myself in a complex, multi-layered smokiness that seduced the tongue and nose, unlike anything i'd ever tasted before. To this day my favorite white wines are still the ones that are rich and smoky. It took another year and a half or so for my palate to open to red wines. That was less dramatic and while I know I was in Italy (probably Rome), drinking a lot of Amarone, I can't name the exact time or place of that particular epiphany. With the opening of my palate came a growing sense of the spirit of the vine as well and I began to develop an alliance with him. My explorations of wine were grounded not only in deep and deeply sensual delight but also immense respect.
So my mom took me to Switzerland once, wanting to show me all the places that had formed the warp and weft of her world, all the places she loved. We were traveling through a small village near Montreux and stopped for lunch. The restaurant wherein we were eating offered only local wines, grown within a few miles of where we sat. these wines are, for the most part, not distributed broadly and are sold only in the immediate areas. Before I could venture an opinion, my mom cautioned me against turning up my nose up at local varietals. She told me that the spirit, wisdom, and medicine of the land upon which we stood was contained in those wines. It was a distillation of the "ashe" of the land spirit itself, and contained trace memories of everything that had ever happened in those places. It's a connection, on a very deep level, to the power of the land itself, a very particular plot of soil. It's a means, a very sacred and holy means of absorbing the power of that land spirit --freely given--into oneself. To taste the wine was to taste the land upon which it was grown. (She also had much to say about why a wine tastes better in its native locale than after it's been loaded with sulfites, agitated, and shipped to the US, but that's another tale in and of itself).
She was right of course and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this holds true for every bite of food or drop of drink we put into our mouths. For this reason if no other, homage should be given to the spirits of the land, the soil, the tilled earth, the mulch, the water table, and the entire ecosystem in which our nourishment was born. As the land is nourished so are we.
think about that: as the land is nourished, so are we. Truly grasping that one simple truism changes everything. I know for me, it transformed to a great degree the way in which I interact with the earth. I became much more conscious of what i put into my mouth, where my food comes from, how my local farmers are treated, and the megalithic horror of Monsanto and all the destruction it brings (and not in the name of science either. Hubris maybe, but not science). I found myself radicalizing on fronts that I had heretofore ignored as someone else's fight. Well it's not "someone else's fight," not unless I suddenly no longer require food to live.
It's not enough to say "i honor the earth." Tell me how. What exactly do you do? How does it translate into your everyday Midgard life? Because words are not enough.
My mother taught me that, a bird-boned firebrand, a small, delicate woman with an elegant Swiss accent, a streak of blue in her hair (for Loki--and, according to her, so no one would look at her and think she was without her edges) and a will that would put the mountains themselves to shame. She was a radical: in her devotion, in loving the Gods, and in the way that she adored the earth. That is my inheritance.
Today I'm going to grace y'all with a little rant. I've been sitting with this since last night, wondering whether or not I should address it publicly and I think I will, particularly in light of other conversations that are going on within the spiritwork community right now. I realize that in many respects we are public resources, but I also realize we're working within a set of communities and a greater culture that has utterly no idea what we do, the value of what we do, and how to support us in it. So I'm going to drop a bit of knowledge on you today. Take it as you will.
I receive a significant number of questions from my readers and usually I welcome this. I enjoy answering these questions. People usually ask really good questions, or they're asking something because they're trying to do right by their Gods or ancestors. Seeing that gives me tremendous joy. Also, answering these questions forces me to think long and hard about the nature of my own practice. I have had many an insight and epiphany through the grace and courage of my readers, who sent me their spiritual questions and in doing so bared a bit of their hearts. Quite often, I learn a lot by engaging in that process, and in dialogue with others. Besides, it's part and parcel of taking one's place in the flow of a lineage and tradition: there is an obligation to be a resource for those following. I respect that tremendously and it's a humbling honor to be part of that flow of knowledge. I in no way want to discourage people from contacting me thusly.
There is one question however, just one, that I find in 98% of cases, tremendously ill-thought out, lazy, and flat out offensive. It's a question I don't want to receive, one I'm not particularly nice at answering, and one that I'm going to be discussing today. What is this question? Oh it's a gem.
"How do you know the Gods and spirits are real? How do you know They're speaking to you and that it isn't some trick of the mind, hormones, pain, drugs, etc. Prove it to me because I've tried, I've gone through (insert name of three to five different practices here) and have never gotten anything. So, convince me."
It's that last little bit, the 'convince me' part that sets my teeth on edge more than the actual question itself, so I hope y'all will pardon me for being a bit blunt. The question isn't so egregious by itself. I mean, I understand how people who have not had much contact with the Holy Powers, or who are just starting out, might be moved to ask it. People, I've found, want to be sure they're doing it right..whatever the 'it' of their spiritual lives happens to be. I get that. Hell, I want to be sure I'm doing it right! I don't ever want to offend one of the Powers. So insofar as the question itself goes, generally it stems from not unworthy motivation, particularly when one is concerned about being in right relationship with the Gods and spirits.
My problem is inevitably with the corollaries that all too often accompany it, corollaries that have absolutely nothing with getting oneself in right relationship with the Powers and everything with abrogating responsibility for one's own spiritual life. So, allow me to speak from the heart to all those who would contact me wanting me to answer the questions that time, dedication, commitment, and honest practice would resolve.
To those people I say the following; Look, fuckwits. Just because you're incapable or unwilling of doing the necessary work to engage with the Powers, don't suppose that's the case for all of us. Just because you're too mired in your post modern bullshit to open up into devotional headspace don't assume that's the case for all of us either.
Newsflash: Just because *you* can't sense or know something, doesn't mean it's not true. I don't understand particle physics but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it exists. Your limited world is not the be all and end all of existence-not even for you. If you're not experiencing anything when you do your seeking perhaps you're too caught up in "belief", perhaps you're not listening, perhaps it's not your wyrd, or perhaps YOU are the problem. The Gods after all, don't owe you a response and I don't either. Maybe spend less time floating through traditions and asking foolish questions with the expectation of immediate answers and more time honoring your ancestors and making offerings to the Gods. Spend more time doing the work and honoring the Powers and less time worrying about whether or not the ego of your fixation on belief is being adequately stroked.
To those who might be wondering, this question angers me on a number of fronts.
Firstly, it presupposes that the Gods and spirits are there for our benefit. It presupposes that one is owed some sort of grand cosmological response. It presupposes that such knowledge can just be handed to one without effort, and it prioritizes the idea of 'belief' over the idea of right action and devotional practice.
I usually get this from people who say that no matter how hard they have believed or tried, they can't find evidence of the reality of the Gods. They've gone through half a dozen traditions. blah blah blah.
You know what? try committing to one. Stop assuming that you're owed anything. stop assuming that the Gods and spirits should prove themselves to you. Stop assuming it's all going to be handed to you immediately. Stop. Just fucking stop.
Secondly, this type of attitude demands explanation of mysteries that can only be acquired through experience and the grace of initiation. It is demanding access into a body of knowledge to which one has no lawful right. It is demanding what does not belong to one by right or by grace.
This is an impiety. Initiation is not something to be demanded. Mysteries are revealed when the Gods and ancestors deem it time. One does not demand access without discipline and devotion. Asking this question as so many do is an attempt at a short cut and it doesn't work that way.
We have a perfect example, upon which people may meditate of just this level of hubris in the character of Pentheus from Euripides' "The Bakchai." This is a powerful mystery play and it highlights, amongst other things, the inviolability of sacred rites. Initiation -- and by initiation i am including knowledge and wisdom gained through experience, practice, and the grace of the Gods as much as any formal ritual that breaks open the head and heart to the sacred -- is not a thing to be demanded. It may be sought through devotion and commitment, but not *demanded* and there is always a spiritual price. Moreover, even were I to answer the question, what could I possibly say that would be comprehensible to someone who ranks their comfort, their ego, and their own ingrained paradigms over the Powers? What could I possibly say? Those who have directly experienced the Powers speak a different language from those who have only experienced the metaphysical masturbation of their own egos.
Finally, by demanding "convince me," it foists the responsibility for one's spiritual life off on me. "Do the hard work and all the thinking for me" is what the correspondent is actually saying. You know what? I'm too fucking busy doing my work and honoring my Gods. It's not my *job* to convince you. Do the work yourself.
Too many fucking people want access to the mysteries, they want access to power without any obligations to the Powers. It doesn't work that way. Why should the keepers of any tradition reveal its secrets, why should the Powers reveal Themselves to someone unwilling or unable to commit him or herself to devotion? There's the old saying: you can't always get what you want but sometimes you get what you need. I think that holds true and what most of these people seem to need is to be told NO.
So let me oblige: no, i will not answer this question. NO i will not hand you knowledge gained only through experience. NO i will not pat you on the head and tell you that jumping from tradition to tradition demanding wisdom and paying no homage to the Powers is the way to go. No i will not do your spiritual work for you. Neither I nor the Gods took out a fucking franchise in Burger King. You do not get to have it your way.
You want to try working, learning the process of devotion, learning how to love and honor the Gods and ancestors? I'll go to the wall for you then. I'll answer any question you throw. I'll do my damnedest to help you get sorted and help you succeed. Don't come to me demanding "convince me" though, because my response will be short. My response will be a big, fat "NO."