I was doing divination last night and the line came up “He who desires and does not act breeds pestilence” and immediately I was struck with a powerful corollary, namely, that we must then train ourselves to desire the correct things.(1) This is part of the discipline of devotional practice and I don’t think we talk about it enough. Devotion doesn’t just happen. We have to take the time to cultivate experience and praxis. Part of doing that is striving to make ourselves into the type of people willing and capable of engaging with the deep vulnerability piety so often requires. It demands a cultivation not just of particular practices, but of our character as well.
I think there is a tendency as moderns to compartmentalize our devotional world into what we do before our shrines, out of sight. I’ve often encountered the attitude that one’s practices are a small part of one’s life and the rest of their world is untouched by the tradition they practice or the Gods to Whom they pray.(2) All too often we unconsciously treat our spiritual lives as a hobby. This not only cripples our spiritual lives but opens us up to the despair that is so much a part of the modern world. Doing devotion well, really tending those relationships means making one’s internal landscape a place where gods and spirits might dwell. This in turn means being careful about what we expose ourselves too, and choosing carefully those things we put into our heads.
It also means learning to cultivate and desire the right things, things that augment our devotional consciousness, that make us more receptive to the Gods and spirits rather than those things that further entrain us to dismiss Them.
It’s not enough to do occasional devotional work if one’s devotion stops at the boundaries of one’s shrine. Living devoutly means living by the values of one’s tradition and carrying our Gods and spirits with us into the human world with every step we take. It means allowing that devotion to transform us from the inside out.
From farther back than even Plato and Aristotle, polytheists understood that virtue and character were things that must be consciously cultivated. The terminology may not have been developed until the philosophical flowering in fifth and sixth century Greece but the understanding was there. This absolutely applies to our religious work as well. This cultivation must become the core around which everything else in our worlds revolves.(3) If it doesn’t, we’re never really rooted in our devotion. It will always remain something outside of our hearts and souls, something that doesn’t touch or transform us, something at which we play.
There is nothing in our world that teaches us how to cultivate devotion well. In fact, what we too often see is the commodification of spirituality, its rendering down to its most shallow components, cultural mores that teach a subtle suspicion of religion and disrespect for devotion. Because there is nothing in our world that teaches this any longer, nothing that reinforces it, it’s up to us to do this for ourselves.
I’ve written before about learning to make good choices with respect to our devotional lives, but that starts right here, with learning to desire the right things. What those things are may vary from person to person, God to God, but it starts with curbing and cultivating desire. Because it is our desires, when they are unexamined and uncultivated, that will pull us away from our Gods, often before we realize it.
1. I have permission from the person for whom the divination was done to share this particular part.
2. This is true not just of polytheisms but pretty much across the board in the modern world with all religions to some degree or another.
3. It is significant that the word ‘cultus’ and ‘cultivation’ share the same root. In Latin, it’s actually the same word: colo, colere, colui, cultus, -a, -um.
One for the Wishgiver
by Dr. E. Kelly
Kara stood a moment in the doorway of her home, looking out over the snow-covered hills. Everything was tinged with the evening sky’s deepening blue. Stars studded the night already, gleaming bright as wolf’s teeth. Kara’s mother had told her these were the best stars for wishing. The shadows had already melted into darkness. With a quick whistle, Kara brought the geese and goats inside the heavy beamed doorframe and whisked them behind their partition of nimbly interwoven sticks. She paused a moment to pat the tall billy goat with the black patch around one eye. This would be the last night she would do this chore. Kara had never thought she would miss it.
It was Yule. Kara’s whole family had gathered from the nearby farms to enjoy each other’s company and share a few horns of mead together. Everyone was so happy for her. “What a fortuitous match!” her father’s sister said. “What impressive gifts!” complimented her younger brother. “What an important man your husband Iorek will be!” chattered her cousin. Kara’s bridal wealth was packed and stowed and ready for the ride to Iorek’s family’s home, over the pass a day’s ride, close to the sea. It was a large hall, empty much of the time. Iorek’s brothers’ had all taken wives from a family that had long feuded with Kara’s. A short time ago Kara’s father laid claim to a much larger farm than he did now. He did not talk much about it. Iorek’s sisters-in-law were involved somehow, and an agreement had been broken.
Why Iorek himself had wanted to marry Kara seemed unclear to her. A messenger had been sent to woo her and gain her father’s permission to marry. The messenger had praised Kara’s beauty with unremarkable poetry, each verse as memorable as one egg is from another. She had not been impressed with the verse. Kara’s lips thinned in anger as a tear welled up in the corner of her eye. The rumor whispering around her family was that Iorek had chosen to marry her to spite his brother’s wives. Life in that cold, dreary hall with those knife-faced women seemed terribly long and heavy.
Kara’s gaze turned to the polished stone gaming pieces displayed by the fire on her family’s hearth. They had been her grandmother’s. She had once travelled with the old earl on his campaigns in the East and had served as his advisor in war. Those pieces might have once determined the life or death of men in battle. They were to have been hers, but were now being left to her younger brother. Iorek’s family did not approve of women in their war councils.
Iorek’s messenger was at the head of the family table. He beckoned her rather rudely to have a seat at the bench and she did so. He addressed Kara’s family. He reminded them of how lucky they were to be marrying up into Iorek’s family. Conveying this information seemed to take a great deal of dull speech and Kara’s attention wandered to the man sitting next to her. She was sure she had seen him around the place, a cousin’s cousin perhaps. He was rough around the edges, too wrinkled for his age and his beard was not well trimmed. The seams on his tunic hung open for want of mending. Everyone around the table had a earthenware mug full of fragrant wine, doled out as a gift from Iorek’s family; one cup per guest and filled less than halfway up. The old man held no such cup.
“Where’s you toast, sir?” Kara inquired. The man met her gaze with eyes of piercing blue and a smile transformed his bearded face. “Oh, they didn’t want to spread out the good stuff any thinner, let alone on a old man like me.” he said. “How awful!” Kara gasped. “How dare he treat my family so disrespectfully! I’m so sorry…uncle…” she trailed off and blushed a little in embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’ve forgotten you name.” “Oski.” The old man laughed. “And yes it’s a few generations, but we are related.” He patted her hand reassuringly.
Iorek’s messenger was still droning on, managing to insult Kara’s family repeatedly while appearing to congratulate them. Kara stared at his fat cheeks wobbling as he prattled on. “Just like a horse’s ass farting.” Kara said aloud, quietly. Oski choked a little with laughter. “You talk about your new husband’s envoy in such a fashion?” he asked. Kara felt cold and heavy and when she spoke it seemed as though her voice belonged outside herself. “I will never marry Iorek.” she said.
Iorek’s man had stopped talking at last, and lifted his mug to beckon others to drink. Kara had never tasted wine. She watched it circle around in the cup, red as summer flowers.
“I would like you to have this.” Kara said, and she placed her toast in Oski’s hand. She ripped a chunk out of the bread before her and passed it over as well. “To your companionship.” The old man took the drink down in a blink, as if he were used to such things. He smiled and his teeth looked just a little as if they were stained with blood. “Companionship”, he repeated. “May you have all you wish for.” The remainder of the feast passed uneventfully.
Later that night Kara sat up in bed, suddenly awakened from sleep. It was cold and deeply silent. Everyone was asleep. The wind had picked up in the night and howled through the rough beams of the wall, despite the insulating chinks of turf. Branches on a nearby tree scratched just outside. Her dream was still on her eyelids, a flash of white, like a swan with candle flames for wingtips. A sensation of flying free. It had been so beautiful. She had been riding with a host of others, tumbling over the dark blue star pierced sky. A column of smoke arose on a distant shore. Kara closed her eyes again and sleep came once more, thick and comfortingly dark. She rested peacefully.
Another messenger came early the next morning, with terrible news. Iorek, his brothers, and all their family had perished in the night, victims of a fire their own hall. “How distraught the bride must be!” he exclaimed. Lightning from the winter sky had set the roof ablaze and all had perished. “How tragic!” Kara’s family managed their condolences, though in truth they were relieved to be rid of those sisters who had plagued them with dishonest dealing all these years. Now Kara conveyed such terrible luck that surely no one would marry her. She would be alone! “How sad!”
Kara smiled. “Alone, here at home where I’ve always wanted to be, with my own kin.” She ran her fingers over he grandmother’s stone strategy pieces. She might get to deploy them on her brother’s behalf after all. Stars winked in the early dawm, where Kara had withdrawn outdoors to be with her grief. “Thank you, Oski.” she whispered.
By E. Butler, PhD
(To give a bit of context for this, Edward and I were discussing a couple of our upcoming articles and he mentioned some push back he’d had recently vis a vis the word ‘polytheism.’)
Edward: I posted a link to a collection of stotras (devotional hymns) attributed to Shankara, the famous Advaita (Non-dualist) Vedanta philosopher, remarking that, though there are questions about the validity of the attribution, the sheer number and diversity of the Gods addressed in the hymns made Advaita look quite polytheistic to me. This is in accord with my conviction that the issue between Advaita and Dvaita positions in Vedanta, being a dispute about the nature of brahman, have nothing to do with the number of Gods.
So, [a certain ‘scholar’] chimes in with how it’s wrong to use a modern, Western category like polytheism with regard to Hinduism.
Galina: these modern secularist fools are trying to take away even the words by which we can define our faith. The word ‘polytheism’ occurs in ancient material; it just happened to enter ENGLISH in the 17th c.
Edward: This is yet another stupid fight we have to wage. As far as I’m concerned, any language that has a plural term for “God” has polytheism, or had it, period. It doesn’t matter to me when the term itself was first used, it’s logically entailed by the use of the plural terms.
The other nonsense issue I’ve seen come up lately is the notion that we shouldn’t translate foreign terms as “Gods” because they’re all sui generis. Only when polytheist civilizations encountered one another, there’s literally not a case I know of where they didn’t use the same term they use for divinities to refer to the foreign Gods. Angirasa Srestha found a passage, for instance, that refers to “Devas of foreign lands”, and Egyptians spoke of Netjeru in foreign lands, and of course we know that for Greeks and Romans the other people’s Theoi or Dei were Theoi and Dei, and so forth.
It’s like being swarmed by ants, though, dealing with this shit. Everyone gets zealous about protecting other cultures from contamination once those cultures start appropriating Western concepts for themselves. Don’t let them get hold of the master’s tools, force them to use their native resources exclusively, after you’ve disrupted those intellectual resources for centuries.
What we need to take away from this, though, is that we need to fight for the proper sense of universal categories like “Gods” and “polytheism”, a sense that doesn’t interfere with the uniqueness of nations and pantheons and individual Gods, but that grounds a stable theoretical discourse and for solidarity across traditions.
(and he is absolutely right. – GK).
I’ll be doing a fairly extensive divination session toward the end of this week — all in preparation for Yule. If anyone would like a consult, I’m happy to do so via email. My rates may be found here. Please contact me at krasskova at gmail.com if interested.
Vesta by Grace Palmer. 🙂
This will be available late next week.
Since I posted my rather polemic piece on the way we engage (or refuse to engage) with our sacred stories, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the Gods present Themselves to us, why, and where that can take us. There’s something almost paradoxical about it: it’s important that we acknowledge and engage with our various sacred stories, and with the ways the Gods choose to reveal Themselves at any given moment, but at the same time, it’s equally if not more important to make sure we don’t fixate overmuch on any one presentation. Our Gods are so much more than any one thing.
Any impression that we have of Them is necessarily filtered through our all too human (and thus limited) consciousness. That’s not a bad thing. It’s something that allows us to develop a relational bond. It gives us a point of connection in which we can plant the seed of a relationship and from which we can expand upon it. It is, perhaps, a necessary starting point.
At the same time, and this is really, really important, a God can take on Him or Herself an image, but is never, ever enslaved to that image. They are more than the sum of Their parts, so to speak. Nor is the image the God. That Sigyn, for instance, may reveal Herself to some of us as a child or young bride, does not mean that is all that She is. It does not negate, annul, or cut off Her ability to present in many other different ways as well. That Odin sometimes presents as Yggr, as the corpse God hanging on the Tree Yggdrasil, ghastly and desiccated, having sacrificed Himself for the runes, does not mean that He may not also present as Oski, or the All-Father, or a thousand other Faces. We must resist vigorously the temptation to limit our Gods just as we must throw ourselves deeply into Their sacred stories and personal revelations. One thing does not negate the other. Ever and always I think we should be looking for ways to expand our understanding of our Gods, rather than limiting those self-same Gods to any finite category or box. They are not finite and so finite things, definitions, and even experiences – as all material experiences are finite—will never be able to completely encompass Their Essence and Being.
Nor do I think we can, with facile ease, simply say “that’s not my Odin” or “that’s not my Sigyn.” Better and more accurate to say that “That’s not yet how She has shown Herself to me” and “Odin hasn’t come to me in that way but rather in the guise of X.” Reframing it thusly in our minds puts the power (where it actually is) back into the hands of the Gods. It also allows for fruitful exploration of the interstices between the various expressions of one’s Deity or Deities.
What we cannot do, not with any wisdom or integrity, is condense our Gods into the limits of our own human experience. That They may occasionally do so Themselves in the mythos that They convey to us is a far different thing from us doing so. One is the expression of a mystery, a window or doorway into greater understanding of an immense Power and the other is the conscious reduction of a Holy Power into a reflection of our own limitations.
I was talking with a colleague in theology the other day and he was discussing the fundamental pieces that make up ‘religion’. He noted, as one of his assumed universals, the existence of a sacred text and I immediately objected. He was genuinely confused and asked how one could guarantee the transmission of a religion and its theology to the next generation without the codification of a written text. I explained that we have cultus and intergenerational transmission occurs by growing up in and being steeped culturally and socially in functioning polytheism (this is, incidentally what we in our modern world lack and one of the biggest problems facing us in our restoration). Part of engaging in active devotional cultus is understanding that the corpus of the sacred is not, for us, set down authoritatively, never to be changed. Revelation has not ceased. Our Gods are still very much [willing and] able to engage with us in ways that grant us insight into Their nature, and are still very much willing to take on elements of Story (a sacred process in and of itself) to further that process. This is part of the innate understanding inherent in devotional work. A functional, thriving intergenerational cultus is then based on the complexities of multi-generational experience with our Gods. The experience itself becomes a poetic corpus if you will. Ongoing experience within the scaffolding of a tradition and its cultus takes the place of a codified text. We have our stories AND…Deity X has presented as X AND…always there is more.
This is one of the reasons why each person’s individual experience with a particular Deity is so precious. Living cultus does not exist on the pages of a book, but in that which is consistently poured out by each devotee before their shrines, before their Gods, in the fastness of their hearts. The books may exist as guides, as archives, as maps but never as a closed corpus.
We must acknowledge our Gods as Gods: as Powers greater in Being and Essence than we, Their totality far beyond our understanding. We cannot hold in our minds all that They are (though we are pushed by longing to try). They are capable of sustaining us and more importantly capable of revealing Themselves to us in more ways and with more complexities than we are capable of conceiving.
Because of this flexibility, because we have traditions unconstrained by rigidly dictated dogma we also have the beauty of regional cultus. The same Gods show Themselves differently in different places. Cultus is shaded and emphasized differently in different areas and this allows for more of the God in question to be honored. It’s a good thing. By its very nature, it conspires to prevent our unconscious limitation of our Gods and our conceptions of Them.
We are, of course, likewise called to deep and ongoing discernment (which is a process and devotional discipline in and of itself). We are called to constantly consider and question in our devotional lives whether we are engaging well and cleanly. We can support each other in this and all benefit. We must, however, guard against dismissing something sacred because it challenges our dearly held opinions, beliefs, and values. That we might be made uncomfortable by something respective to the Gods does not mean that thing is lacking in truth. To expect our spirituality to always reinforce our comfort is to prioritize that comfort – our own selves—above what ought to be the centers of our veneration: the Gods. It is a particular poison of our modern age that we so often are encouraged to believe this to be right.
May we be better and do better with respect to our Gods and maybe, just maybe with each other too.
Hey folks, for those of you who are my supporters over at patreon, i’ve posted the second novena for my upcoming Vanic Novena Book. It’s slow going with my school schedule, but you can get a sneak peak today.
Check it out here.
Are you experiencing the following symptoms?:
• Depression that won’t go away
• Emotional responses that are massively out of proportion to the situation at hand
• Compromised immune system
• Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
• Feeling of isolation
• Feeling people don’t care
• Highly critical to the point that you think your work is meaningless and crap
• Frustration to the point of wanting to quit and throw everything away
• Terrible despair that doesn’t seem to respond to anything
• Thoughts and such that get you questioning and doubting everything especially your practices and whether the Gods care for you at all
• Possible suicidal ideation
Well, this seems to be going around right now. You are not at all alone. There’s resistance to what we do, and you see that in every account of shamans, saints, devout people (laity and specialists alike) – the more they progress, there’s resistance, shit, obstacles that rear up and have to be reined in. You’re not alone in this. Stay the course, my friends. Go to your Gods and ancestors even if it’s the last thing you want to do. They sustain and that which is lashing out at us all wants to isolate us from the very Powers that nourish our souls.
When it gets really, really bad, I suggest doing the Oration of Aristides. Even if you don’t have a devotion to Dionysos, make a small offering and ask Him to help you. This oration clears away miasma like nothing else. It works fine in English but it’s even more powerful in Greek:
The Oration of Aristides
Nothing can be so firmly bound, by illness, wrath, or fortune, that cannot be released by the Lord Dionysos.
Oὐδέν ἄρᾶ οὕτως βεβαίως δεδήσεται οὐ νόσῳ οὐκ ὀργῇ οὐ τύχῃ οὐδεμίᾳ, ὁ μή οἷον τ᾽ ἐσται λῦσαι τῷ Διονύσῳ.
(Aelius Aristides II, 331 K)
Sit and say this over and over again for ten-fifteen minutes. Even if you are resistant to any type of cleansing work, even if you think you have your practices already set (and normally they work), please try this. It will help. If what you have is not working right now, it’s time to try something new.
When this hit me hard, I prayed to Freya and asked for Her help and it was immediate. Consider Her, if you cannot invoke Dionysos for some reason (if you’re uncomfortable invoking a Hellenic God).
This does not mean that you shouldn’t seek out therapy if things are really, really bad. Our healing professionals are there for a reason, but don’t neglect the spiritual causes as well.
This does not make you a bad polytheist. It doesn’t make you bad at devotion. Quite the contrary. It’s a sign you’re doing something good, holy, and important. You’re not weak because you’re suffering. You’re strong because you’re persevering. If your work didn’t matter, if you didn’t matter, this wouldn’t be happening. One of the most important things you can do is reach out to people. If you can help reach out. If you don’t know what to say, just listen, and maybe pray for us all. Pray for each other. If you’re in need reach out. This is isolating people and we’re stronger together.
One thing that everybody, regardless of level of devotion or what you’re going through can do is to pray. Pray for people suffering. Pray for people helping them. Pray for the community. Pray that we can keep this out so that it’s not hurting our people because this is a broad spectrum spiritual attack. These are the times when community comes together to protect itself and its most vulnerable members. When you’re suffering like this, no matter how good you are, you’re vulnerable and there’s too few of us to lose anyone.
(Dionysos in the Underworld by G. Krasskova)
The deadline for submissions is upon us. If you are working on anything for the next issue of Walking the Worlds: “Text and Tradition,” please have it to me by Dec. 15.
The newest prayer card is this gorgeous image of Hestia by G. Palmer. It will be available in my shop next week.
And courtesy of P.S.V.L. and artist Grace Ibor:
Then we have Nergal by Lykeia
and Hekate by W. McMillan.
Pazuzu by B. Kring.
and finally, by request, a card for our past religious specialists: shamans, spirit workers, diviners, seers, orpheotelestai, vitkar, etc. The artwork here is mine.
These are all currently available.