First Steps in Restoring Cultus
Many of us write a lot about this process of restoration: restoring our traditions and restoring cultus. We all know (and hopefully can agree) that devotional work is part of that process. Restoring cultus (the word is Latin and can refer to both the singular and plural. Our word ‘cult’ comes from it, though the Latin lacks any sense at all of the pejorative) to all our Gods is not only an essential part of ensuring that They receive Their due veneration, but also an essential part of ensuring that our traditions flourish, that they are rooted, stable, and that they outlast us. Intergenerational cultus is the foundation for a religion’s ongoing sustainability. The history of colonialism and genocide in the United States has shown us that it takes only one generation to shatter and fragment a tradition — not beyond repair perhaps, but certainly beyond the strength and protection of living memory. One generation before knowledge and ceremonies and Mysteries are lost. We have had untold number of generations between us a world that was predominantly polytheist. We are reweaving the tapestry of our traditions from torn, burnt, severed threads, from devastation. There is a learning curve in this rebuilding of religions.
That is the work that we are engaged in as contemporary polytheists: we are restoring a body of ancestral religions. Sometimes it can be very confusing work. It would be nice if it came with a guidebook! Piety, devotion, and veneration aside, I think there is an even more fundamental base-line starting point so foundational, so obvious, so crucial that we actually overlook it. After all, we are doing this whole process self-consciously, hammering out little by little practices and approaches that were a given to our pre-Christian ancestors. Our world is different and the way we’ve been encoded to approach religion is different. I think many things are a struggle for us that might not have been for those raised in communities where their polytheism was a shared family and community experience farther back than the limits of their living memory. I think there are crucial first steps that would have been innately understood in such a context. I want to talk about that now.
Before we can do anything else, it’s important to first create space where the Sacred can dwell. I don’t mean physical temples or shrines or groves of hofs. I mean it is necessary to distinguish and set apart within our own minds, hearts, will, and consciousness the awareness that the Sacred (our Gods, Goddesses, ancestors, spirits, Mysteries, et al) exists separate unto itself, for itself, from itself; that it is here both immanent and transcendent (no pesky binaries for us!), and that there is a protocol that we can learn for engagement. We must make space for the Gods to dwell; we must make space for our traditions to root. Before anything else can happen, we must consciously set aside space that is no longer for us, but that is so crucial to our goal of restoration.
We must acknowledge and consciously set aside space – in our minds, hearts, spirits, at the center point of our traditions—where the Sacred that fuels every atom of our traditions may dwell and exist without mediation. That is the beginning and then everything else in a tradition building process flows from that. We learn the protocol for engagement, we re-discover our Mysteries, through going to that space, protecting it, nourishing it, seeking it out and learning how to engage with authenticity, discovering how to restore with integrity. It must be bounded off from the rest of our lives not because our Gods do not impact us save in religion — that is not true at all—but because it allows us to learn cleanly what veneration is and how to do it well.
That space is sacrosanct. It belongs to the Gods and we go to it. We learn to approach it having made preparations. We learn how to engage through protocol. We learn how to nourish, protect, cherish, and sustain all that flows from this space and it becomes a container for our burgeoning traditions. This is how cultus evolves into being. It all begins with defined, clearly defined space. This is in part what cosmogonic stories help embed in the consciousness of a pantheon’s devotees. We do not have the advantage of having heard these sacred myths from childhood on up, having seen them performed or recited as part of rituals, having their wisdom ingrained in us from birth. Creation stories teach us to see the world through the lens of our Gods. They are all about creating and maintaining space.
This is an essential divide between the sacred and profane (no pejorative here; this term merely refers to all that is not part of that matrix of the holy). It is not that our devotions and our Gods only inspire us when we are engaging specifically and consciously in that liminal, holy space. We all know that the Gods and our spiritual practices can inspire every aspect of our lives. Nor are we denying that the Gods can permeate our world. They are Gods and as animists and polytheists we know that we live in a world full of Gods and spirits. Rather that these things exist does not reduce or negate the importance of setting aside, cordoning off the space in which our tradition may grow and thrive unimpeded.
Every ancient polytheism I can think of had some sense of this distinction. This is why there ways of preparing oneself for contact or interaction with the Sacred, even if only something as simple as washing oneself. (Such mindfulness protocols also serve as a preventative to the type of excess familiarity that can cheapen the spiritual experience and likewise lead to casual irreverence). There was an acknowledgement of transition into the space of cultus. One might at the same time, carry one’s devotions outside of that liminal time and place, (and indeed this is a good thing to do) but there was in tandem with the quotidian praxis and all the ways that might spin out into the nooks and crannies of one’s life, the protocol of formal engagement. That is religion.
Because this is not really part of our religious framework, I think it’s here more than anywhere else that we moderns struggle. To bracket off the sacred from the profane is an act of profound respect. It does not deny that we can carry our Gods and experiences into our daily life, but it does allow crucial space for the unmediated holy to act. It forces us to acknowledge that the Gods can be awesome and terrifying and that some preparation is essential when we intend to be touched by the Holy. It allows us to bring back into our daily lives the fruits of a tradition that has been given necessary space to thrive and grow.
This is why boundaries are important. This is why language is crucial. This is why it’s so important to make clear distinctions in this work of restoration.