Category Archives: devotional work
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.
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)
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been seeing a growing noise on Facebook and other social media platforms that is staunchly anti-prayer. Generally, this occurs most strongly after some horror or disaster wherein people will post “my prayers are with you.” Immediately the social justice crowd pushes back, questioning both the relevance and efficacy of this sentiment. Let’s be honest; most people post such platitudes because they are moved, they care, but are (or feel) otherwise helpless to impact the situation. It is an expression of care, goodwill, and perhaps even solidarity. Take that for what it’s worth; I personally, don’t see anything wrong with it. I see a great wrong with dismissing prayer, however, and of course, those dismissals never stop with the aforementioned social situations but ever and always leech into our communities, which already struggle with understanding, prioritizing, or practicing devotion well (It’s not, after all, as though we are surrounded in our everyday lives and communities with good devotional models. I think we all struggle with this at times one way or another).
To dismiss prayer as a powerful and effective practice is to cripple our devotional lives and our relationship with our Gods. Over the years, I’ve seen many Pagans and even Polytheists dismiss prayer as something Christian. Well, it’s not. The earliest recorded prayers date from Sumer, written to the God Nanna and the Goddess Inanna. We have surviving prayers from Greece, Rome, Egypt, to name but a few polytheistic cultures. Polytheists prayed. It’s one of the fundamentals of practical religion.
Why are we so eager to render ourselves mute before our Gods?
To hold someone in prayer does not mean that one does nothing else. If there is more that one is able to do on a practical level, then it goes without saying that one should do that. I’m reminded of the Benedictine motto: ora et labora (pray and work). It’s not an either/or situation.
Furthermore, having a consistent prayer practice to the Gods and ancestors is one of the best ways to maintain devotional clarity, to keep the lines of communication open, to strengthen those devotional relationships, and to grow in faith, devotion, and grace. Cultivating hostility or contempt toward what is in fact one of the most powerful tools we have in maintaining our spiritual worlds is short sighted and frankly stupid. To pray is to open a line of ongoing communication with our Gods. It is to approach Them as petitioners, it is to give thanks, it is to express our love and adoration and a thousand other things. It provides Them with an opportunity to act in our lives and in our world. It provides us with an opportunity to accept, again and again, Their grace.
What we are instead tasked with is learning how to pray effectively. While set, formulaic prayers can be enormously powerful, it’s not enough to just say any words. Proper prayer is a matter of preparing our minds and hearts. Our hearts need to be receptive to our Gods. Our minds need to be committed and focused on this process. It’s one of the key devotional disciplines that no one seems to talk about anymore.
Ironically, as we pray, we learn how to pray and to do so more effectively. It is not in the capacity of any human being to compel the Gods. But we can reach out to Them, we can ask, and most of all we can trust that we have been heard. Prayer is powerful in part because it allows us to stand in perfect, active alignment with our Holy Powers. The more we do that consciously, the more we are changed and perhaps even elevated by the process.
Because it allows us to stand consciously in that alignment, it is a potent protection against all that is inimical to our Gods and Their ways. It reminds us, purifies us, re-aligns us again and again into our devotion. Every time we pray, we recommit ourselves to our traditions and our Gods and to living in ways that cultivate piety.
Remove purification, sacrifice, devotion, and prayer and what do you have? Certainly, not a religion.
Today I started my day with a mini conversation on Facebook about keeping one’s word to the Gods and direct expressions of Their grace and power. It made me think of two stories, two examples from my own devotional life and I’m moved to share them here.
The first (chronologically too) involves a blot I was planning to make to Odin. I had prepped for it, bought a small goat from an acquaintance, gone to the appropriate land where the blot was to be held, gotten ready and about ten minutes before we were due to head down to Odin’s godpole, this acquaintance comes to me and tells me he just can’t bear to part with the goat, he’s grown attached. He didn’t have the money to return my purchase costs ,etc. etc. I was vexed, because this meant Odin would not get the goat that I promised Him and was trying to work out possible alternatives when my acquaintance comes back in ashen. He’d gone out to the goat pen to find his favorite goat, the one I’d bought for Odin, dead. It had been struck down in the time it took for him to come in to tell me I couldn’t have it as promised. We did the blot putting the goat’s body (after divination of course) on the fire as Odin likes. Moral of this story: don’t steal from the Gods.
The second is a story I find delightful and still can’t quite believe it happened to me. A couple of years ago I had, for some reason I no longer recall, promised Hermes a steak. On the day upon which I was supposed to deliver there was a blizzard. I went to my Hermes shrine and explained that I couldn’t drive safely now but would go get His steak as soon as the roads were clear the next day and in the meantime, I offered Him some alcohol. I felt really bad about it but it really wasn’t all that safe for me to drive. About five minutes later my doorbell rings. There was a man and a truck that I’d never seen before and haven’t since selling …steak. My jaw must have been hanging on the floor as he told me he was on his way home and was hoping to make one more sale. I bought three boxes. Hermes got His steak. Moral of this story: Hermes really wanted that steak.
If we meet the Gods half way, even when we fall short of what we should be doing (by means of circumstances outside of our control), if we’re honest and upfront, They will more than pick up the slack.
Tonight, I was talking to a couple of apprentices about their upcoming work (they’re all doing well, but as ever, the reward for work well done is more work). I made the comment that “there’s our time and then the right time.” In other words, there’s when we want to do something or think we’re ready to do something, and there’s when the Gods and ancestors determine a thing should be done.(1) In between, there’s usually a hell of a lot of whining and procrastinating! Granted, during this discussion I was thinking every bit as much about my own work and its failures as anything my apprentices are doing (who by and large do not procrastinate and are in fact, very deeply devoted), in large part because it reminded me so strongly of something my adopted mom said to me once. She was doing something for the Goddess Frau Hölle (I don’t recall what) and I asked her if it could wait. She then asked me what was more important, our inconvenience or doing the relatively simple thing the Deity asked when it should be done? In other words, we’re in these committed relationships and that means prioritizing something over our own convenience or inconvenience. It is the least we can do, she said, given the tremendous honor of loving Them.
This is a difficult thing actually, because I am lazy as hell. I struggle with chronic pain; I’m usually tired, and quite often resentful when told to do something. It’s sometimes hard not to balk at what I know are my devotional obligations – even when I very much want to meet them (I think this is termed ‘cussedness’ in the south lol). But even more, and far more importantly, I like to be in the proper devotional headspace when I do things for the Gods and ancestors. To my shame, I’ve often used the excuse of not being in the right headspace to excuse my own indolence. In reality, I know full well I could have easily put aside what I was doing and gotten myself in the right headspace had I wanted to do so. Part of me just didn’t want to be bothered. Part of me was saying that whatever I was doing (watching TV, reading, some hobby) was more important than the Gods.
All ritual work large and small is a process, one that begins well before a person actually goes before his or her shrine and before the Gods and dead. It’s not that every offering or prayer needs to be a huge show, but the transition from mundane ‘me’ space to Their space, to holy space, to receptive, devotional space is worthy of conscious consideration and transition. It is certainly more fulfilling for us and perhaps for our Gods and spirits too when we enter into the simplest of devotional acts mindfully. It all comes down to the choices we make. If I want to have a nourishing and fulfilling devotional life then it’s on me to make time for it, to set aside the time to develop the appropriate headspace, to tend the shrines when they need tending (not when I want to do it), to cultivate devotion in all the various meandering pathways of my life, large and small. Our Gods, as one of my apprentices said so wisely, shouldn’t have to chase us to get our attention when we’ve already committed to honoring Them and paying proper devotional cultus. It’s the same with our ancestors.
Which brings me to καιρός. (2) This is one of several words for ‘time’ in ancient Greek. It has the particular meaning of the right, or appropriate time, the most advantageous time in which to do a thing. It is the critical moment on which the success or failure of a thing may well revolve. More and more I think developing devotional consciousness means being aware of καιρός in our lives, in our work, in the way we respond to the Gods, and the way we pay cultus. There is our time and there is the right time to do the things we all know we should be doing devotionally.(3) We should be seeking the appropriate time for our devotions, even when it’s inconvenient to our other plans. To do otherwise is a distortion of the very cultus we are seeking to pay.
- Fortunately, we have divination to determine that latter should the need arise.
- While the word is Greek, both the word and concept have been taken up in ritual studies well beyond that particular language or tradition. I first encountered it not in my training as a Classicist but when I was doing my undergrad degree in Religious Studies.
- This is why I have often said that half the battle devotionally is getting ourselves and our egos out of the way.
(Bartolomeo Manfredi’s “Apollo and Marsyas.” Source: wiki commons)
I have a fascination with operatic castrati and since I’m currently doing quite a bit of research for an academic project that involves them, their music has been the subject of much conversation in my house lately. Add to that a meme a friend of mine posted on facebook wherein one of the choices was “because a human did something better than a God and that God threw a hissy fit” and I knew I had to write about the conversation my husband and I had the other day.(1) Somehow the subject of the contest between Apollo and Marsyas came up and the lessons this might hold for musicians.
In this story, Marsyas, a satyr and master musician hubristically challenges Apollo to a music contest. The contest is to be judged by the Muses and the winner would then be permitted to treat the loser anyway he wished.(2) Both God and satyr play, Apollo wins, and in punishment for his hubris Marsyas is flayed. Customary interpretations of this story revolve around the flaying specifically as a punishment for hubris, for the satyr daring to challenge a God (and thus to put himself above the right and natural order of things) and this is not an incorrect interpretation but there are other lessons to be had in this tale as well.
Allowing that one of the major lessons of this story is in fact the need for piety and humility before the Gods (amazing how “don’t be an asshole” covers so many situations in which we might find ourselves, devotionally and otherwise), I’d like to discuss here one of the other lessons, and this is where the castrati come in.
In my research I’ve noticed that there is a standard way in which historians seemingly must approach this material. Before they go into whatever it is that they want to discuss about the castrati, they must first state how barbaric or inhumane they find the practice.(3) They must first separate themselves from any hint that they might approve of the process, particularly if they are writing positively about the result (and given that the influence of the castrati pretty much defined opera for two hundred years and shaped contemporary opera too, there’s quite a bit to celebrate there).
The question is endlessly asked (by academics and other researchers): why would someone do that to himself? Why would someone allow that to be done to a child? What was the allure of the castrati (they were the equivalent of sex symbols and rock stars)? I find these questions boggling: for the voice. Are you people deaf? Have you never listened to a top-notch counter tenor? It’s like listening to the voice of God. It’s like having the heavens crashing down around you and these men don’t come close to the vocal quality of a well-trained castrato superstar.(4) I completely understand why someone would have sought to become a castrato and certainly why they were so attractive to their listeners. I mourn the fact that we can’t hear them today.
If the sounds harsh, consider my own background: I was a professional ballet dancer for the first part of my adult life. I started working with a regional company at thirteen and retired in my early twenties. I retired with crippling injuries. I knew at thirteen that I was choosing to commit to a career that would likely leave my body broken irreparably. I knew that I would have to make health and nutritional choices that were ultimately damaging. I didn’t make this choice blind and I did make it over parental objection. The call of that daimon – dance – was too strong. I have crushing pain now and very limited mobility and while I did soloist roles in the regional company for which I worked, I didn’t make it past apprentice in the New York company. I’ll go down in no history books as a competent dancer and…I would make exactly the same choice again.
I suspect that is incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t been infected with that hunger, been taken up by that daimon, felt what it is like to push the body past its limits, past pain, to fly. I know that if at twelve, someone had said to me, if you mutilate your genitals you’ll have a chance to be one of the truly great dancers, I’d have done it without question. I would have considered it a worthy trade. There are things more important than what’s between our legs and far more important than our ability to procreate or the limits of our bodies. Being in service to art, in service to something far bigger and more important than ourselves supersedes all of that. That’s what moderns don’t comprehend.
Of course, that the castrati had to be castrated before puberty complicates things. There are questions of a child’s ability to make such a long-term choice for himself (see my comments above for where I stand on that) and certainly there were children sent under the knife against their will. The consequences of early castration are not just loss of fertility. (5)I also find the way Castrati were treated socially by the same communities that idolized their voices to be repellent (the church, for instance, forbade them to marry and in regular society they were often viewed as freaks, mocked for the very procedure that gave them the angelic voices so celebrated). By the nineteenth century with “enlightenment,” industrialization, more focus on binary gender roles, more focus on ‘nature’ as opposed to constructed brilliance, and certainly the elevation of both childhood and the individual over any common good the castrati were fast becoming a thing of the past. The last operatic superstar was the castrato Giovanni Velluti for whom both Rossini and Meyerbeer composed but operatic tastes were changing along with everything else and by 1913 not even the Vatican choir allowed for them. (6)
So what does all of this have to do with the story of Apollo and Marsyas? One of the many ways that I interpret this story is as a clear indication of what is required for excellence in an art. It doesn’t matter what the art form is (dance, singing, music, painting, etc.), to truly reach the heights of greatness, sacrifice is not just required, it is demanded. Excellence has a price. Art brings us into communion with the Gods like nothing else can. The Platonic philosophers wrote about the ennobling effects of Beauty, how it had the capacity to elevate the soul and I very much believe that is true. To be in service to the arts is to be in service to the Gods when it’s done right. It’s to move in sacred currents. That carries a demanding price and sometimes the consequences are irreparable. Devotion is like that too, if one wants to do it well.
We are owed nothing, yet opportunities are given. Devotion is an art just as much as dance or opera. It’s the art of the soul and it often carries as great a price as that any performer will pay. Excellence requires sacrifice. Mediocrity doesn’t. Make a choice. I read once of one castrato (and I can’t recall which one at the moment. I’ve been reading * a lot* on the topic) who was once asked if he regretted having been cut. He laughed in the interviewer’s face. He was one of perhaps half a dozen men who could do what he did at the level at which he performed in the entire world. He was feted across Europe. His name would go down in music history. He was as close to a god as a mortal has any right to be (barring apotheosis!).
Ironically I have seen some of the same criticisms of ballet children that I’ve seen about the castrati: it’s abuse. How can a child make that decision, etc. etc.(7) One such included a documentary about a leading Russian ballerina. The narrator could not stop talking about the brutality of the training and the sacrifice required. Yes, and she’s one of maybe ten women in the world who can do what she does. She had some of the best training in the world, and it’s training she herself wanted. I find it far more offensive that a second rate film maker is complaining about her sacrifices than that she’s consciously making them. Excellence requires certain choices and sometimes those choices hurt.
I think that’s the second lesson to be found in the story of Marsyas and Apollo. It’s not just a warning against hubris, it’s also telling us what is required to reach the heights of a practice: sacrifice. Perhaps it’s a warning against the hubris of assuming we can find greatness without the work or the cost.
Far from being appalled by the castrati, I rather think that when we as a culture began putting the mediocrity of the individual over the glory of art, over arête, over those things that represent the best of who we are as a people, that was when the real moral and cultural decay began and that’s what horrifies me the most because it’s not just sacrifice for the arts that modernists find problematic, it’s veneration of and sacrifice for devotion too and yet, if we wish to truly find excellence in our devotion, it’s going to require hard work and sacrifice on par with that of the best of the castrati or the best ballet dancers. We should be willing to bleed for our devotion, to bleed for our art, to bleed for our dreams. That’s Marsyas’s lesson: nothing is free, and one doesn’t reach the top of one’s game without painful hard work. We all have those talents and skills that we were given. The gap between that and excellence is what we choose to do with them and how much of ourselves we’re willing to bet in the bargain.(8)
1. The meme in question meant to be humorous, and I found it funny but it edges well into territory that while not impious necessarily bears watching. Humans do not do things better than the Gods and I think to allow that idea to take deep root in our minds is problematic. A joke is one thing but we’re constantly being bombarded by pop culture movies and tv that even when entertaining put forth the idea that humans are superior to the Gods and it’s important to recognize when that’s happening.
2. One source implied that of course the Muses would vote in favor of Apollo but I think that rather They would vote for the better musician. To do otherwise would be to violate the very Arts whose mysteries They govern. It is also to ascribe to Gods our own pathetic lack of integrity.
3. The Castrati were the rock stars of the 17th and 18th centuries. Castrated before puberty (often by their own request), they were men with pure, powerful soprano and alto voices. They commanded great applause and even greater fees and dominated the opera stage for two hundred years. The phenomenon began in the Byzantine church (the earliest recorded castrato singer that I’ve been able to document so far is a Byzantine choir master in 400 C.E.) and ended in the Papal Choir of the Vatican in 1922. We actually have recordings of the last known castrato: A. Moreschi. Unfortunately, they don’t give any sense of what his voice was actually like. Not only was he never an operatic virtuoso, but the recording technology of the time was in its infancy and could not capture the main bulk of his range. You can hear this with contemporary recordings of female stars like Nellie Melba too: the main part of the tessitura, its frequencies couldn’t be recorded so the voice sounds thin and given the limitations of recording, also out of tune. It’s unfortunate but early video recordings of the great dancers of the imperial ballet, like Pavlova and Spessivtseva show similar issues and in no way do justice to their subjects.
4. A couple of my favorite counter tenors include F. Fagioli, P. Jaroussky, A. Scholl, and the winner of this year’s Metropolitan Opera prize, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen. Then there’s natural soporano M. Maniaci, who is in a class by himself. Each of them is singing work originally written for the greatest castrati of the baroque age and a the recent interest in baroque music has allowed for a mini-renaissance of counter tenors. 🙂 The counter tenor voice is a very different voice from that of the castrati, and both are different again from female sopranos. They’re very different instruments.
5. The ends of the bones don’t harden and so most castrati were, for their time, very, very tall. Depending on when the castration was done, they may or may not be able to have sex. If the operation was performed when they were very small, their genitals might not have grown to adult size. The results, according to way too much medical literature that I’ve had to read for my research, varied significantly. If their voices didn’t hold, if they didn’t have what it takes to be truly great, they were resigned to church choirs. Some became priests. I think it’s likewise important to note that ‘childhood’ was not then the cossetted state that it has become now for better or worse. There were different expectations of children and many parents gave their children over to the knife so that the boys would have a better future than the parents could otherwise give them.
6. I often wonder what it must have been like for Velluti…a generation before him, castrati were super stars and while he had an extensive career, he was the last of his kind and knew it and was often greeted as much with horror as acclaim…not to mention Meyerbeer and Rossini don’t hold a candle to Porpora and Handel when it comes to showing off a high voice.
7. Like with castrati, there is a time limit to the training. If a dancer doesn’t make that decision young, they’re not going to have a career and they certainly aren’t going to reach the heights of that career. A childhood is a small sacrifice to pay for such an opportunity, in my opinion (having made that choice). There are rare exceptions. Melissa Hayden for example, one of Balanchine’s stars began dancing at sixteen. She is a rarity and frankly not in the same league as the best Russian or French dancers who began as children. I began my ballet training at ten and that was at least three years too late. There’s a sweet spot with certain elements of the training too. If a girl, for instance is planning to go on pointe, that should happen after two years of near daily training (in the west, I’d say around 12, but in major ballet schools, if they’re training for several hours a day from the time they’re seven or eight, you might see it earlier, around ten. Without that multi hour daily training regimen though, putting a child on pointe before twelve is criminal. The bones just aren’t ready.). Going on pointe too early without proper preparation can severely damage the feet but going on too late, after say 15 can also be problematic. It is much, much more difficult to develop the competence and fluidity on pointe that one needs for professional work if the feet aren’t broken to it young. As the bones harden, it’s that much more difficult to gain that combination of strength and flexibility that makes proper pointe work possible.
8. Here is a BBC documentary on the castrati that is useful for those with no prior knowledge. Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. The whole thing is about an hour.
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(reposted from last year…stumbled on this again today and thought it relevant).
I was talking to one of my professors recently and we were lamenting the sad state of education in this country. We see it specifically with our Latin classes, since so many of the skills that once would have been basic to any young scholar’s education from day one are now sorely missing. One of those, perhaps the most crucial, is the art of memory. (I’m going somewhere with this, I promise!). Students don’t memorize anymore. It’s become a dirty word. I once got into a rather heated argument with a high school teacher when I quoted a Latin aphorism, one that turns up in quite a few cultures (I first learned it in Russian): “repetition is the mother of learning.” Oh no, she opined, that is awful. It stifles creativity. It doesn’t teach critical thinking wah wah wah. I, having come from a ballet background, where you can be as creative as you want once you have disciplined yourself to high technique by daily, ongoing repetition, laughed in her face. It explains so much about our educational culture. There’s so little understanding that careful, thoughtful, thorough repetition is one of the keys to both learning and excellence. By the time students get to me, while they are ready and willing, most have never had to exercise their faculties of memory and they struggle, unable to master the paradigms and morphology of Latin grammar without a great deal of pain. It’s not that they don’t want to commit to memory, it’s that they don’t know how. Lately, I’ve been pondering the effect these attitudes may have on our devotional lives.
Rather than excluding critical thinking and creativity, the ability to hold knowledge in the depths of one’s memory, is a pre-requisite for excellence in both. Memory, after all, is the Mother of the Muses, the progenitor of artistry, creativity, culture, and knowledge. Memory is the most blessed and valuable of treasures. In the Grimnismal, there’s a passage wherein Odin comments that Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) fly across the earth each day and while He fears lest Huginn not return, He fears most of all the loss of memory. It is crucial to our being, to who we are, to the very substance of our identities. Memory is the container of everything we are, the seed-bed of everything we have the potentiality to become. At the same time, like anything of value, it has to be nurtured and nourished, developed and honed. It’s an ineffable muscle of mind and spirit, by some of us, considered an essential piece of the soul.
I’m thinking of this now, less due to that conversation with one of my professors and more so because in one of my classes, I’ve been reading about the connection of memory to the soul. We’ve been reading, among other things, the Cistercian fathers, a lot of medieval commentary, and painfully parsing out Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle’s treatise on the nature of the soul. Not being a philosopher, I’ve had some masterful help in understanding the background as well as the philosophical concepts from a good and brilliant friend (thank you, E.!!). I’ll spare you the ins and outs of that process, but share some of the insights that I got via the most recent readings.
To the medieval mind, if i understand their construct correctly, the physical senses had the capacity to impact the spiritual senses, and hence ultimately the soul. Sight was particularly privileged, though all the senses functioned in more or less a similar fashion with regard to memory and that’s the part that I want to talk about here. Basically when you engage with something via the senses, a simulacrum, or “phantasm” to use the medieval terminology of that thing is created in the memory. That image may be stored in the memory and later recalled to mind. Because it is stored there however, accessible to both the physical and spiritual senses, those things we see and hear and touch (and to a lesser degree taste and smell) have the potential to leak into the soul’s memory, corrupting it. (Now mind you, I’m simplifying a great deal here, of what was a very, very complicated and complex theology of the senses). Memory was key to this whole process.
It occurred to me reading all of the articles and treatises that we’d been assigned that the logical spiritual corollary to all of that, was that one must guard against contagion and corruption through the senses. Of course a devaluation of the physical senses isn’t part of most polytheisms (nor am I suggesting that it should be), however the idea of miasma is. Miasma is a form of spiritual contamination. It is not ‘sin’, and often has no moral shading (attending a wedding puts one in a state of miasma, for instance). Of course one can enter into miasma by means of a crime (murder for instance), but there are lots and lots of gradations and levels. Sometimes even good and necessary work will put one in a state of miasma (tending the dead creates miasma, that must then we cleansed away). In many instances, miasma is the result of encountering something unclean — just as when you step in mud, your pants and shoes get dirty. It’s a natural side effect. In most cases, it’s easily cleansed away.
The ideas that I’m playing with here edge into the territory of miasma, but I honestly don’t know if I’d classify them as miasma…let me unpack this. If we can be contaminated spiritually by what we see and hear, by what we experience, then the logical curative is to be vigilant with regard to our senses. I cringe as i”m writing this because it immediately conjures to mind Christian disgust with the senses, and avoidance of sensual experience and that’s not what I mean at all. I do think however, that there is some merit in vigilance. How much are we shaped by our experiences? How much might our center be shifted by what we watch, or what we hear, or the settings to which we expose ourselves? How much reciprocity exists in the area of experience?
I know as a shaman I eat poison from my clients all the time. I wade in it every time I go out into the world and engage. I eat it or unmake it. I’ve seen the effects of that physically and spiritually and it’s part of my *job*. How might someone be affected by the spiritual poison in our world — and make no mistake, it’s enormous—when it’s not their job, when they just want to love and honor their Gods and live a good life? How might it affect those who are unaware of the danger? So I think about that and then I think about something my adopted mom told me once.
She was what in German is called a “Putzteufel”… a cleaning devil. She once told me that she never bothered to esoterically and magically shield her home. One, she wasn’t a magician and two, she kept it so clean that nothing malignant could find purchase there. She kept it so clean that nothing harmful could get in. Think about that for a minute. I am a vitki and I do shield my home and I can vouch for the fact that hers was the cleanest energetic (and physical!) space that I have ever in four plus decades seen. This was her ‘medicine,’ her way of engaging with the space in which she lived and moved.
Immediately I thought about how that might be applied to devotional life. Is it possible to fill the mind and heart so with praises and prayers and devotion to our Gods, fill to overflowing so that every moment of every day as we move throughout our worlds there is no room for corruption or contamination to exist? Is it possible to have a devotional life so integrated into every moment of one’s waking existence that those things that might impinge upon it, damage it, turn it away from true center simply have no means of gaining purchase? What would it mean for a person spiritually to do this? What would this look like?
I have read of using the names of one’s Gods as mantras to fill the mind during times of trouble. I know that it is possible to be engaging in the world quite effectively and still be almost always praying in the recesses of one’s mind, or to still have one’s mind and heart centered on devotion to the Gods. How can we make it more? How can we go deeper?
In ancestor work, i have learned to cherish my memories of my beloved dead— and by extension my memories of all I hold loved and precious—and to guard them carefully, even from those who think they mean well but who would pry and try to take these memories and the blessings of that experience for themselves. I still share these memories, but I have learned to be selective with whom I share these things. Perhaps this is part of discernment?
The other thing I ask myself all the time is whether or not I maintain just the basic practices of piety toward my Gods or whether I gladly and willingly do more than is otherwise “required,” or requested. Do I do more than I must? If not, why not? (Because let’s be honest, for me sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes no and sometimes I do more but not with any grace).
What does it mean to want to grow in devotion and how can one do that well?
Back to the question of vigilance of the senses, I certainly don’t advocate limiting the mind in any way. I have to admit though that I am careful of what I expose myself to, especially in terms of media. I try to make good, reasoned choices. I’ve walked out of movies because I felt that personally by staying, i was subjecting myself to miasma. There was something grossly impious about what I was seeing (the case I am thinking of involved the remake of ‘Clash of the Titans” wherein the humans are encouraged to show disrespect for the Gods). I’ve read and watched things where I felt that I was unclean afterwards and had to actually go through a cleansing process. I wonder sometimes at the effect that all has on my devotional life.
For me, my one hard line is simply not permitting people in my life who do not respect my religion. If someone is going to constantly try to sow seeds of dissension and doubt, or worse, express contempt toward my Gods, my ancestral practices, my religious choices then they are simply not welcome to be part of my life in any way (and that includes family). Early on, as I began to prioritize my devotional work, I made this decision and it has served me well. I surround myself only with people who make me better as a human being, and who nourish me spiritually. But is that enough? We live in a world that calls itself modern and that is diametrically opposed in so many ways not only to the restoration of our traditions, but to any deeply rooted devotional experience. We cannot remove ourselves physically from the world — nor, I think, should we. So given that every day we wade out into the fray, how can we carry our devotional consciousness with us? Is it enough to carry the names of our Gods in our hearts and minds, letting it resound throughout our being as we ride the subway, or walk to work, or get our coffee at Starbucks, or…whatever? Is it enough to consciously offer a silent prayer with each step we take? Is it enough to know that our hearts are full of the awareness of the Gods? What would be enough?
After running about making various offerings to Hermes, I spent the rest of the morning redoing my Hermes shrine, and my Loki and Sigyn shrine.
Hermes’ place. ^
Loki and Sigyn’s place.^
The icon above is by Grace Palmer, and belonged to my mom Fuensanta.
It’s easy to forget sometimes the tremendous, heart-shattering joy that lies at the center of devotion. It’s easy to close the mind and heart to it, because there are so many things in daily life: work, relationships, stress, anxiety, exhaustion (especially exhaustion) that sap our energy and our attention. Also, devotion can be hard sometimes. It can challenge us to our core. It can hurt. There’s such a tremendous vulnerability inherent in the act of opening oneself up to the Gods, of nurturing that relationship, of adapting to the demands of the radical integrity of being that such relationships by their very nature cultivate in the soul. Devotion can be very hard and in the midst of some of the challenges it may bring, it can be difficult to remember the joy.
Let me tell you what devotion is. It’s like drinking fire. It’s a frenzy. it’s an ecstasy that fills the bones and runs in the blood like a drug. It consumes and the soul explodes into pieces of light. It is breathing in a God and being devoured, like ripe, rich fruit in turn. It is joy, a terrible, all-consuming joy that leaves no room for anything else, not even breathing. It is a dance, a wild, laughing dance. It is agony that suddenly turns, all unexpectedly, into magnificence. Devotion is a dance with the Gods that bracket and infiltrate our lives. It’s a whirling, laughing, sobbing, maddening dance that, if we’re very lucky, plunges us into the heart of our Gods, into a place beyond the worlds and from which they sprang. It’s a dissolution that liberates and at the same time compels the heart — freely, willingly, joyously–into veneration. It’s liberation, ecstasy, terror. Devotion takes courage and dancing down that ragged road will squeeze every ounce of it forth, like blood from a stone as we go.
I’m taking a class this term on Medieval communities and in addition to the mass of social theory we have to read, we’re also reading some of the early Church Fathers and other theologians. This week it was Augustine, Jerome, and Peter Damian.
I like Jerome (something that causes several of my academic friends to raise surprised eyebrows): he’s curmudgeonly; I’m curmudgeonly. He writes in beautiful (for a Christian) Latin, I like Latin and wish I could write like that. He seems to value the spiritual well being of the lay people with whom he corresponded and didn’t condescend to them or truncate his letters, instead he included a substantial and nuanced theology in his responses, even when writing to someone as insignificant in the Roman world as an unmarried teen aged girl. I was very impressed by that, even though I might not agree with the positions he was espousing.
Apparently he was quite a bastard. Palladius in his Lausiac History comments that Jerome’s assistant Paula is much more spiritual and learned but will surely die soon “just to get away from him.” This only makes me like him all the more. I can relate.
I think reading him really impressed on me how important it is to wrestle with all the nuances our theologies present. I think we’re accustomed to both accepting but moreover wanting the easy, neatly compartmentalized answers. We like things orderly and I get that. I like things orderly too. Religious experience isn’t though, at least not at first. It’s messy, explosive, confusing, contradictory and wonderful and I think we need to not be afraid to delve in, to examine and accept those contradictions, to discuss and discuss and discuss. In a way I envy these early Christians. They had such a vibrant network of communication and support for their little death cult. This unknown Roman virgin was corresponding with one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day as a matter of course. When this girl had questions, she didn’t hesitate to reach out to this scholar. That unified sense of purpose, that willingness to work at understanding and faith, to sacrifice, to struggle, and to reach out in mutual support was one of the things that helped Christianity grow. I think this was especially true when they were a nascent sect wisely condemned by the Roman state.
It really highlights for me that contemplation of all the permutations of praxis and faith is not something just for scholars or theologians. It’s something for all of us engaged in and desiring a devotional practice. We should care about these things. We should want to know what those scholars and theologians amongst us are saying. We should want to learn more, to talk about it, to grow and expand our understanding of what it means to be a polytheist today.
Before I wrap this up – I don’t want to go on too long tonight – I want to note Peter Damian’s take on the soul. This is simplifying dramatically but in a nutshell, he talks about the soul as being an empty house. What he means by this, at least insofar as I’ve read to date, is that for a person of devotion (and I think this analogy can be applied to us as polytheists too), we are making, through the practice of faith and right contemplation, our souls a fit dwelling place for our Gods. For this reason, it’s important to take care with what we choose to fill that space.
There’s a discipline in these early religious reformers (for that’s what Damian essentially was) that served the development of a fierce faith. They believed it was important to take care over what filled one’s waking thoughts, what occupied one’s time, what honed the way one approached the world. That’s what it was about largely: creating a mind and heart that made the holy a central point of reference for living in the world (of course Christians often took this to a rather nihilistic place, never being particularly comfortable with the world, despite their god having taken human flesh).
To bring this back to Jerome, he wrote a letter to a young Roman woman who wanted to take a vow of perpetual virginity to Christ. He was offering this contemplative advice on how to do this well and cautioned against the habit of showing off, performing piety for the adulation of others, and most of all against putting herself in situations where she might be exposed to temptation. For Jerome, one could lose one’s virginity not with the deed but with a thought (the thought being parent to the deed, though Jerome is quoting the NT here – I forget which book—where Jesus tells his apostles that one who has lusted after a woman has committed adultery just as much as if he committed the deed in true – and boy aren’t we all screwed, if you’ll pardon the pun). He’s urging her to take care of her surroundings and to foster relationships that encourage and nurture her spiritually, to develop daily habits that do the same rather than fighting against a daily regimen that is in opposition to her religious goals. I think that part of laudable.
Doing devotional work right, remaining in right relationship with our Gods takes work and effort – ongoing work – on our part. It’s a process and a huge part of that process is completely within our control to do well, to ignore, or everything in between. It takes work not because our Gods are petulant, capricious, and punitive – I do not for one moment believe that They are. I think they are, in fact, anything but. It takes work because that is the nature of the soul. Because neither we nor the Gods are stagnant creatures. Because we are human beings with all of our faults and imperfections and we have been given the complicated grace of free choice in these things. Because service and devotion that is compelled has little value. Because the best things, the things most valuable in one’s life take effort. Because it is right and proper to want to become the best people we can be for ourselves and for our Gods too, and because that house of the soul, like all dwellings requires maintenance. (How’s that for a list of run on sentences?)
There’s a term that many of these early Christian writers used extensively: ἄσκησις. We get our word ‘asceticism’ from it but before you get your panties in a twist over what you think that word means, consider its original meaning, one which the early Christians, for all their terror of a proper education in literature and rhetoric, knew well: training, practice, and exercise, also ‘mode of life.’ They may have taken it to frightening (and inefficient) extremes, but this idea of spiritual life taking work is an important one. We must exercise our souls in the pursuit of devotion. The men and women who discussed and indeed practiced this weren’t clergy. They weren’t shamans. They weren’t specialists of any kind. They were lay people, lay people hungry to serve their God well. I know plenty of lay people within polytheism who share an equal hunger to do right by their Gods.
Now I’m not advocating ascetic practices (unless one feels so called – it is a powerful path for some). What I am advocating is that we take the time every day to recommit ourselves to this work, to the craft, practice, and mode of life of polytheistic devotion. The exercise of our souls, like exercise of the body, hones and strengthens: our devotion, our faith, our ability to serve our Gods well, our desire to do so – yes, most importantly our desire to love and serve Them well—and of course our discernment. These are good and necessary things and they are not things that should ever be reserved for the specialists. They encourage mindfulness and proper ordering of one’s life, so that one’s life reflects one’s values and priorities. Nor are they things that we should barter away for the ideological whim of the moment.
I think Christianity gained dominance precisely because it was originally marginalized. It was forced to network to survive. It was forced to come together in unity (such as it was – they did have a remarkable preoccupation with heresy) because it was unsupported at the State level. Those Pagans and Polytheists happily going about their business did not have to worry about their faith, or thought they didn’t. They had come, I believe, to take it for granted because it was the way of the world and had been for generations. Perhaps one thing we should always remember both in working for restoration and in maintaining it once it is firmly established: the world was not always as it is now. Take that as hope. Take that as a warning. Because it wasn’t always thus, it need not be this way in the future. That’s a convoluted way of saying that we should value our Gods and traditions and damn it, we should fight for them, first and foremost in the battleground of our own minds and hearts. If we are unwilling to do that, then perhaps we don’t deserve the Gods or Their holy traditions. We need, I think, to remember the lesson of that last Pagan generation: what you don’t consciously hold precious, what you take for granted (however understandable and good the reason), what you do not fight for you will lose.