PaganSquare is a community blog space where Pagans can discuss topics relevant to the life and spiritual practice of all Pagans.
Over the past couple of weeks I've been slowly working my way through my Devotional Polytheist post. I wanted to share my answers to the first ten questions. If any of you are also participating in this meme, please feel free to share the links to your blogs in the comments. I would love to read how everyone approaches these issues and concepts.
1. "What wealth have the divinities brought into your life?"
This is a really hard question for me to answer because I don't want to sound like I am bragging nor do I want to sound as though this devotional journey has always been a bed of roses. It hasn't. In fact, parts of it have taken me as low as a human being can go; they've been wrenching, painful, there are many times I thought that I would die it hurt so badly. But healing hurts and I give thanks, I kiss the ground in thanks for every challenge that the Gods have given me: i've been made a better, fuller, happier human being, and better in service to Them because of it. what They did was rather like taking a bone that had been ill set, or not set at all and that had healed all misshapen and wrong. They rebroke it, reset it, and nurtured it to full health and healing; only here: that metaphorical bone was my soul.
I owe everything that I am now to Them. It's difficult to quantify wealth. Are we talking financial? They have blessed me there tremendously raising me up out of a horrific poverty to relative stability. I no longer have to worry about being homeless. I can go to school. I can put food on my table, clothes on my back. If we are talking finances alone, they have made me.
I look at wealth so much more broadly though. It's all those things that we value that nourish us, that we cherish and treasure. For me, that's definitely not restricted to financial stability (not to devalue financial stability. I give thanks every day that I am comfortable now and that i can do more things for my Gods because of it). I have been blessed with some tremendous people in my life: friends, an adopted mother, a wonderful partner. I am surrounded by amazing, deeply devoted people and they inspire me and each and that each and every one of them came into my life I see as one of the greatest gifts my Gods could have given me. Wealth comes in many forms after all.
I am alive because of my Gods. I am relatively whole. I am, as I never, ever thought I would be, happy. I am doing what i love. I have place and purpose. Most of all, i've been able to grow in my love, devotion, and service to Them, inch by sometimes bloody, sobbing inch. It is good. Some days if feels glorious. Every day, I am grateful.
2. What does your tradition do to increase the power and flow of blessings?
There are a number of things that one can do: prayer, meditation, and devotional work - those things that strengthen one's personal relationships with the Powers- is of course crucial. I think that consistency here cannot be over-estimated. It's what enables us to maintain a healthy, clean spirituality. It roots us, renews us, sustains us especially through those times where there are challenges or questions of faith arising. I think maintaining a conscious awareness of the flow of blessings is crucial, and working from a place of acknowledgement and gratitude stabilizing, helpful, and perhaps equally as important as the practices themselves. Doing all the hard internal work inherent in the devotional process is also crucial. That's what keeps the connection open and allows for reciprocity of being. That's what we can do on the personal level.
As a community, we can give regular offerings to the Gods and ancestors: gifts, libations, and when divination shows it good, sacrifice, ever keeping mindful of our blessings, and the obligations inherent upon entering into the dance of devotion. There is no more sacred rite than that of a proper blot, a ritual in which an animal is prepared and sacrificed to the Gods (or sometimes ancestors). I talk about blot a little here and here. Like our ancestors, I very firmly believe that without sacrifice there can be no true piety. Or rather, this sacred act was a matter of course for our ancestors. it is only we in the modern age who infuse it with any negative or clandestine charge. This is not to say that everyone should go outside and sacrifice a pig! We give what we are able, to the best of our means and circumstances, to give. But if you are a priest, responsible in part for the community's right relationship with the Powers (as we each are for ourselves and our households), then it follows that one should consider either learning to perform blot well (which requires one on one training), or network with someone in the community who can. One of the most powerful ways of restoring the sacred connection with our lineage, our tradition, our ancestors, and of honoring the Gods is restoring the cycle of offering and sacrifice that so sustained our forebears. It is from this that luck and blessings flow.
Beyond that, shifting back to the personal, I also think keeping free of miasma is important if for no other reason than it dampens down our signal clarity which in turn can keep us from even recognizing the blessings that come our way. So keeping oneself energetically and spiritually clean, and centering the patterns of one's life around veneration of and recognition of the Powers is a good first, second, and third step toward increasing the power and flow of the blessings we are given.
I think there are times where we all feel closed off to the Gods, where our spiritual connections feel blocked. There are fallow periods, even what Christians term (and rightly so) "the dark night of the soul.' this doesn't mean that anything is wrong. It means that there is a process at work here, readying us for the fullness of our humanity, readying us for connection to the Powers, readying us to move deeper into the dance of devotion. When that happens, when the hard times come as they inevitably will (show me the person who doesn't have crap to deal with emotionally), it's important to understand it as not only normal but *necessary*. It does not mean anything is wrong. It means there is an opportunity to recommit to our practice, to our ancestors, to our Gods, to our tradition itself and that is a good thing. It is something from which we will emerge more strongly rooted in an awareness of all the many ways in which the Gods pour blessings into our hands. But we have to do the work. We have to be willing not to run from Them or from ourselves and all the tangled issues we bring. That's how we increase the flow of blessings: we cultivate all those things.
3. How have the divinities helped you in times of adversity and violent upheaval?
I've been thinking the past day or so on the best way to answer this question because when i sit down to contemplate it, the necessary response seems so immense. First of all, as I was typing this, I looked at my partner and said "what I"m trying not to say is that They've often been the cause of violent upheaval!" …not that I think that's a bad thing. They will shake us up and clean us out of everything that keeps us from being who we are meant to be, with ourselves and in relationship to Them. To paraphrase Meister Eckhart, the Gods are at thousand times more willing to give than we are to receive! With that in mind, there is no way I could craft in words alone a thorough enough answer to satisfy the love and longing, gratitude and awareness of just how much I owe to Them that rests in my heart. They sustain me, every hour out of every day, every day out of every year they sustain me. Like breath and blood, They sustain me. They are at the heart of everything I do.
My life has been hard. Without going into details, I'm leaving it at that. It has been very hard. Throughout, the Gods and ancestors have supported and seen me through, not only with the gift of Their Presence but by actual physical sustenance - the unexpected windfall, the banishing of an illness, the lining up of chance to create a sliver of opportunity, the direct advice that helped me to better my circumstances, the guidance when i sought it out, and the protection. I am still here because of Them. From the time I was young, They protected me, first by fostering me out to the daemon of dance (something I may in time choose to write on further) and then by shepherding me through a shattering that was necessary for all the seeds They planted to flower. I am still here because I trusted Their guidance and through it all i knew that They were in some way there. They poured blessings into my hands, and in all things I think They have blessed me the most by giving me an adopted mom. Then They brought me a partner, and always They have filled my life with amazing, magical people. I have lived a charmed life. It has been brutal and desolate at times but charmed, and They lifted me out of the desolate places.
I could go into specifics but i'm not going to do that. Instead, I want to focus on something that is beyond any specific instance. A colleague of mine is also doing this meme and in answering the second question, he mentioned how serving the Gods, really entering into a devotional relationship with Them has given him a strong foundation from which to face any challenges that come his way, that he knows that his life 'is being well-spent.'. I was quite taken with this and I think that this is something that it seldom occurs to us to articulate: the Gods instill in those who venerate Them a rock-solid sense of purpose. It will carry one through many a dark place if one's courage and devotion holds.
I think that this is something many of us take for granted: as a direct result of our devotional work, we have a sense of purpose and deep, deep meaning in our lives that underpins everything. It's a grace and a gift and moves us to change the way we are in our world. As I said on my friend's blog, i'm still saddened and shocked every time I realize --and oh, it seems so alien and incredulous a thing to me--that most people do not actually have that certainty of being and I wonder what that must be like and how coming into right relationship with the Powers is like coming home.
4. What are some of the ways that you communicate with the divinities?
This is actually a difficult question to answer. I'm a mystic, a spiritworker, a northern tradition shaman and part of that involves a high level of what many of us call "signal clarity," the ability to hear, sense, or in some other way interact with the Powers directly. Most people with devotional practice can develop a sense of personal discernment and some level of signal clarity but I don't want anyone to think that communicating with the Powers is impossible without a high level of signal clarity. I think that we can all communicate with Them to some degree or another. Prayer is something that is open to all of us. I think the sticky part comes up when it comes our turn to listen to Them. That's often not quite so comfortable and I think there can be a lot of avoidance when we're challenged to grow spiritually. i've often thought that when blockages in communication come up, their origin is with us, not the Powers Themselves. Resistance can be a funny thing.
All of that being said, I think most of us with consistent devotion, possess the capacity to communicate in some way. It just may not be hearing Them in conversation or visions. Maybe instead, it's a quiet knowing. Maybe it's three or four omens following one after another that gives you the answer you were seeking, maybe it's an inner sense of connection. Communication can occur in many ways.
For me, I usually just talk to Them. I pray regularly but i also converse throughout the day. I try to spend regular time, consistently, at my shrines praying and meditating. The meditation piece i think is important: it gives us a chance to listen. I make it a point to make time for the Gods and ancestors as I scurry about my day. I sense Them all the time. There are connections there that I work hard to nurture and doing so has gotten me to a point where I am very much aware--painfully so--if any blockage, issues, or imbalance comes up negatively impacting the relationships. But mostly, I pray. That to me, is the most fundamental.
Beyond that, as a diviner, I also rely on this sacred tool. I don't default to divination for every little thing--I think it's possible to over-rely on it and as a result allow one's sense of personal discernment to atrophy. But I do regularly consult and also if crucial issues come up with regard to my spiritual life, I don't' hesitate to take it to the mat. I usually prefer not to divine for myself if I find that i'm emotionally connected to a particular outcome. If i can't be objective, I"ve no business reading. it will block my signal clarity and in divination one of two things happens: the diviner explores the client's wyrd, or the shells or runes or "system" becomes used as the mouthpiece of a God. Either way, my job is to keep my own feelings out of it. If i can't do that, i seek out a colleague.
People ask me all the time "how do you now Odin wants this sacrifice?" or "how do you know that this was required in this ritual" and I think…'um, I ASK." and while I may get direct communication, while I may know via the relationship that I have with the Powers, I always confirm such things via divination. That is in part it's purpose (with the caveat that once I ask in this way and receive an answer at the mat, I'm rather bound to take action based on that answer).
In the end though it's about conversation, talking, making time. That's how I best communicate and that's what I'd recommend to anyone who asked.
5. If you could travel anywhere on pilgrimage where would it be and what would you do?
A friend of mine, several years ago, went on a pilgrimage along the Camino in southern France and into Spain. I don't think she did it for consciously religious reasons -- she has a sweet sense of the sacred and a deep respect for all its manifestations mind you, and I think is moved on an unconscious level by a hunger to connect and spin in Its orbit, but she prays and connects via her artwork and it was that keen sense of aesthetics that pulled her to Spain---but I think about what it must have been like, walking in the footsteps of so many pilgrims, physically re-enacting a powerfully sacred journey and what that must have been like a thousand years ago before we were so very keen on commercializing the sacred and when there was still danger at ever bend of the attempt. I can't help but think consciously spiritually connected or not, making such a pilgrimage must change a person in some way, must plant some very fertile seeds.
I've made three pilgrimages in my life --I was surprised when I sat down to answer this question today and realized that. The first was in 2007. I went to Iceland. This is a mecca for many Heathens I'll admit and as deeply connected as that land is with our surviving lore, I wanted to see it. It was a holy journey for me. From the moment I got off the plane I sensed the Gods so intensely present--not in Their more civilized guises, but in primal, raw aspects better matching the stark howling beauty of the land. There was magic everywhere, cracks through which one could slip leaving this world behind and when i set foot on Thingvellir, the place where in 1000 C.E. Iceland -- under vicious economic and social pressure from Denmark---made the decision to formally convert to Christianity and thereby probably saving their indigenous tradition as it prevented brutal persecution, Their presence was so strong that I had to find a place, hidden from the main path where there was a waterfall, and soil as silty and soft as spun silk and pour out libations. That trip changed me, made me far more sensitive to the power of the land to open doors for our Gods.
After that, in the intervening years, I've made two more pilgrimages, both for my military dead. Part of my work as both an ancestor -worker and a spiritworker is specifically honoring and speaking for the military dead. I have massive obligations there (though they are obligations I take on willingly and joyfully- I don't want this to sound like a burden! It's not). A few years ago, this group of honored dead starting pushing me (hard) to visit Civil War battlefields near where I had grown up. This was a war that happened on my native land and of all the battlefields in the world, these were geographically closest and thus, in their practical point of view, the best and most logical place to start.
So I talked to two of my friends and we decided to organize a week long trip to Gettysburg and VA. It was a powerful experience and it opened me up to the military dead like nothing else. Setting foot on Gettysburg for the first time, they were able to pour some of their experiences through me, giving me just a glimpse of the hell they'd endured. We visited numerous battlefields in that pilgrimage (my friends were wonderful. They knew it was a religious journey for me and were tremendously supportive. They were, essentially, my de facto "ground crew" and I couldn't have had better) and I've written about it a little bit here and here.
The third pilgrimage I made was also for the military dead and this one might sound a little weird, but it was something they asked of me and that I did gladly. They wanted me to go to Washington, D.C. and visit all the national military memorials: WWII, Korea, and Vietnam (sadly we have no National WWI memorial). I will admit that I did not expect this to move me as much as it did. Firstly, my military dead were very, very present from the moment we got to the Mall. One of them took me over (with my consent) at the WWII memorial so he could pay direct homage to his fallen comrades. Perhaps because my own father served in WWII and Korea, I found the Korean war memorial absolutely haunting. I went with a friend and we visited late at night and standing by the Korean War monument in darkness with no one around it almost seemed as though the statues are the soldiers depicted there were live. The dead were so present as well. By the time we got to the Vietnam War memorial it was like we had an honor guard of soldiers. The press of their presence was undeniable and it was as though time and place shifted and the entire time we paid them homage, we were in a liminal place of remembrance, ritual, and intergenerational communion. The following day we went to Arlington and walked the rows of military graves. I learned a lot not only about honoring the military dead but also about the power of making a conscious pilgrimage over the course of the three days I spent in this service. I wasn't the same after this journey or the two that had preceded it. They changed me, rooted me anew in my work, opened me up to the Gods in the world that I walk and all the spirits that accompany Them.
Pilgrimages are important. Taking us out of our comfort zones, away from the everyday, accustomed habits of being and moving in our world they make it that much easier to slip into the headspace of reverence, the open vulnerability where our certainty about how things must be, how our worlds are is upended making space for the glory of the Gods to transform us. I think about the many travels I made with my adopted mom and all the things I learned from the city spirits we encountered, and all the memories and magic wrapped up across the mad rush of history in the landscapes. Sometimes setting foot on one's ancestral land is a powerful pilgrimage in and of itself too.
Maybe our whole life is a pilgrimage, a slow but certain tramping toward the Divine, through all the particularities of veneration and the foibles and fumbles of existence. Maybe making mindful, conscious spiritual pilgrimages reminds us of that fact.
Some links that might be of interest
Here is the blog of my colleague Rhyd, who has written quite a bit about his own pilgrimage experience.
I wrote a book recounting many of the places I visited with my adopted mom and all the magic I found there. It's called "Numinous Places" and you can preview it here.
This is my friend's lovely book detailing her journey along the Camino Road.
Finally, this is my most recent book on Odin. The picture on the cover is one that I took in Iceland and it is an image of the spot at Thingvellir where I went to make offerings to Odin and Loki, having been so tremendously moved by the raw feel of Their presence.
6. What does it feel like when one receives inspiration from the divinities?
It is like drinking fire. I know i've used that metaphor before, quite recently actually but I just don't have any other words to describe it. It's like being utterly swept away but at the same time it energizes, fires the mind, ignites the spirit, brings focus and clarity to one's world. The overtones and context to the experience beyond that depend largely on the Deity in question. Odin for instance can be coldly calculating and is all about getting a job done. If He is inspiring me, there' s a very fierce glee as a course of action is unfolded before me. If it's Brigid, it's like a massive hammer descended from the heavens and I'm the anvil--it doesn't hurt, but there is that level of joyous, driving force to do and create. Sometimes, with Sigyn and Loki, there is a quiet peace, a sense of being deeply, deeply cared for as the fog around one's life and choices is cleared away. It depends.
Mostly it's a fierce joy. It leaves a fierce joy in its wake to which nothing, absolutely nothing can compare. There is nothing wrought of human hands or will that remotely comes close. That inspiration is like a massive vibration, a hum into whose chords one has fallen and all the detritus of mind and spirit are shaken away by its fervor. It's joy and sometimes terror too and a sobbing bliss, and laughing ecstasy. It takes us beyond anything we have been taught to call the confines of our world. It breaks open the head, dissolves the walls of the heart. It gives purpose to everything. It sustains. It brings liberation.
7. What offerings do you make in your tradition and why?
Oh I think this really depends on the Deity in question!. I give a lot of food and drink offerings, especially alcohol, though some of my ancestors and certain Deities like tea and coffee too, and some only want water. I give tobacco -- a new world practice, flowers, incense, candles. To certain Deities I give sweets, jewelry, weapons, perfume, bread. Sometimes on rare occasions for Odin, I give pain (He is God of ordeal after all). It really just depends. I just finished a contest on my blog that I facilitated as an offering to Hera for instance. Sometimes I make donations to certain charities - though I hesitate to include this under "offerings," since I believe very strongly it's what we should be doing as decent human beings anyway. Over and above, at the foundational level, I give prayer as a matter of course, time, and to the best of my ability, a willing and gracious heart.
My most common offering is probably alcohol. Each night I make the rounds in my home and tend my shrines (alternating from shrine to shrine depending on the day). On special holy tides, and in times of great need when divination holds it appropriate I sacrifice livestock--usually poultry, goats, sheep, or pigs. This is tremendously sacred and not something done every day!
Beyond that, it really depends. I try to give Them what They want, what They've indicated They want either through personal experience, direct engagement, and of course, divination and those wants vary significantly sometimes (all the more so when I'm working in multiple traditions).
8. What methods of inducing altered states of conscious does your tradition have?
Well, methods of inducing altered states are really just tools that any practitioner of any tradition may use. I don't think any one technique is going to work for everyone. That being said, however, and with the caveat that what constitutes lore is neither complete or without its bias, and looking just at the more commonly known lore we can suss out that sensory deprivation (going under the cloak) and ordeal were both used, as well as chanting and drumming. There's some evidence of herbal tools being utilized as well.
In my own practice, the tools and techniques I use run the gamut. I still think that prayer and meditation are essential foundational practices for this type of work. I mean, it's not enough to hit an altered state. That's not the goal. An altered state has a purpose: to do spirit work, to journey, to communicate more effectively with the Gods or spirits, to do *something*. It isn't an end in and of itself. To do that necessary work, there has to be a good foundation from which to move and prayer and meditation provide that foundation. Some people can hit the requisite altered states through those things alone.
Ritual, dance, music, drumming, chanting, singing -- all of these things can be powerfully inductive of an even deeper headspace. Depending on my mood, the Deities with Whom I'm hoping to engage, the work that needs to be done, etc. I have used all of these at one time or another. For long term work there was a point when I responded very, very well to ascetic practices like fasting and sensory deprivation, and of course for really deep, really intense work (usually with or for Odin), for me there is ordeal.
One thing that I recently realized is that I can slip very, very quickly and at will into an altered state (coming back to temporal consciousness isn't always quite as easy, I grant you). I thought that this was normal, that every spiritworker could do it, but apparently (as I've recently learned) that's not the case. A few weeks ago I was working with a colleague and we were exchanging knowledge. I had taught him something and he wanted to teach me a series of techniques that he found particularly effective for energy work. He asked me what I needed to get into an altered state and i took two breaths and did what Odin taught me to do: opened and slipped into the requisite headspace. My friend was visibly shocked. We talked about it afterwards and since then i've spoken to several other devotional laity as well as spiritworkers and apparently this is not something that everyone can do. It is specifically something that Odin trained me to do early on. It can be disorienting and sometimes painful but it's damned useful at times. Granted, it's much easier with time and tools to transition but they're not necessary for me. I like them though and in my regular work I often use ritual and galdr to facilitate light to medium altered states.
The important thing that i really want to emphasize here is that the altered state in itself is not the end goal. It's a means of doing something or getting somewhere, a tool of facilitating better communication.
9. How does your tradition handle wrathful, savage and destructive divinities?
Well, there's how the mainstream of my tradition handles Them and how I think the tradition teaches we ought to engage with Them and those are two very different things. I think that most people try to avoid what many might term 'savage' Deities and I think this is a mistake. This happens, of course not just in Heathenry but in pretty much every polytheism that I've encountered and it's a poison from our modern world, from growing up with the card board cut out image of anglo saxon jesus with his pretty golden curls who treats everyone as a shepherd would treat a baby lamb, from the influence of new ageism that teaches 'follow your bliss" without any other qualifier, and from a culture that has wholesale lost any sense of the holy and any sense of how to use difficult emotions for personal growth--we'd rather whip out the paxil prescription and medicate them away. We've also been patterned by two thousand years of Christianity to think in binaries: black/white, male/female, good/evil and when savage Deities arise it can be difficult for some not to class them as 'evil.' There's little sense in our culture of healthy destruction and with the Protestant Weltanschauung that has so permeated and formed the attitudes of so much of modern Heathenry, intensity in religious devotion, most especially with the Gods is also, sadly, viewed as something to be shunned. obviously I don't think that any of these attitudes actually stem from the tradition itself nor do i think they're particularly helpful or healthy.
I think that we are meant to venerate these Deities just as with any Others. That They may be difficult, frightening, or uncomfortable for us to engage with is no excuse not to do so. They keep us clean. They force us to face those fearful or damaged or dishonest or unrooted places within ourselves, to face them and deal with them bringing them into conscious engagement so that we might become better and healthier human beings. They force us to grow and evolve. They slam us unrelentingly into the intense vulnerability that is the key to effective devotional work. They lay us bare and this is good. We are all too often committed to our own facades and blockages. These Gods demand an honesty and integrity and a commitment to courage (oh so important to solid devotional work) like no Others. They make us strong. They demand that we step up and grow. They bring, believe it or not: liberation. They can free us of all the fetters of mind, heart, and spirit that keep us from deeply rooted devotion, that keep us from growing, that keep us from ourselves. They make us whole. The process can be terrifying and brutal, but They make us whole.
I think that our ancestors understood that the sacred and the terrifying always go hand in hand. As much as we might like to gloss over it with lovely rituals and devotional structures, in the end, it's in the trembling terror as the presence of these Deities cause our souls to burst the fetters we and others have placed on them wherein true wisdom is found.
10. Have you encountered any obstacles as a result of your religion?
Well, my first response to this was 'yeah, my co-religionists." I've often found that Heathenry (and I warrant this would quite likely hold true in any contemporary religion) can be the biggest block toward developing a deeply engaged spirituality, Heathenry and other Pagans. Why you might ask? Well, firstly, there's everything that I wrote about in answer to question nine: the desire to avoid direct engagement, the patterning from birth religions that contain a deep suspicion around anything "mystical" or devotional, anything emotional or messy or not rigidly prescribed and controlled by textual authority. There's every bit of poison and corrosion that we've inherited from the protestant reformation, the scientific revolution (where science replaced the holy as "god"), and modernity in general and that's just a start. Really engaged spirituality is hard for us. We've no foundation for it, and very little support. More often than not it's pathologized and while I can stand up against that with a dismissive 'f*ck you", not everyone can. I have seen blossoming spiritualties destroyed by the nonsense encountered in the community.
Then of course there is the dogged human centricity of the community, the unwillingness to accept the necessary inconvenience that sometimes comes with devotional work, the desire for rules and regulations and most of all a written text that can be fetishized in place of direct communion. All of this is antithetical to what our Heathen ancestors would have done, how they would have practiced, and all of it builds extremely bad habits, or reinforces unhealthy religious patterning already in existence. It's an uphill battle.
So for me, the biggest obstacle has been my fellow co-religionists. I tell people who contact me: trust the relationship you are building with your ancestors and with the Powers. Do not let anyone, not a single person no matter how well known in heathenry they may be, not even me pull you away from what your Gods and dead want. There can be a powerful push in Heathenry to cull and slaughter one's religious life, particularly one's interior practices to accommodate the small minded prejudices of middle America as seen through the Heathen lens. Resist that as you would any other type of mental and spiritual colonization. I believe it spells a potential death knell to the restoration of our traditions and it's something to be fought long and hard in the most secret places of one's soul if we at all value the mysteries and wisdom our Gods have to bestow. Stay the course. There may be other obstacles that arise -- in fact, it's almost sure that there will be--but this is the most grueling and most insidious.
Over the next week or so, I'll be working through the next ten questions so stay tuned, folks.
(the photo here is mine, of a Dionysos shrine set up for the first night of the anthesteria).