Category Archives: devotional work
(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.
This is not a topic I expected to write about but it came up in conversation today and this gave me a chance to organize and articulate my thoughts on the topic. A couple of days, a colleague sent me this article about a Catholic woman who has formally taken vows as a sworn, consecrated virgin. This is the second woman this year that I’ve read about making this commitment and while I have my own thoughts on being so public about such a personal devotional act, it did make me think.(1)
Now this isn’t something that the average Pagan or Polytheist has to worry about. For the most part, we don’t have requirements of celibacy for our priests, shamans, holy people, and certainly not for laity; in fact, I’d say the opposite was almost expected.(2) Still, it’s an interesting topic and one that provides a jumping off point for a meditation on the discipline of devotion.
I say this because the Gods can ask all sorts of things of us to deepen our devotion, and for mystics, spiritworkers, et al, it can be more grueling still. Celibacy can be one of those things. So how does one do that? It’s a horrible thing to demand of a person. It really is. I have several academic colleagues who are Catholic seminarians and they have a hard and possibly lonely road ahead of them. It is a very demanding thing to give over the pleasures of sex, eroticism, intimacy (no, one doesn’t have to sacrifice intimacy but sadly in our culture, we all too often tend to reserve intimacy for sexual situations). I’ve known my share of spiritworkers who had this particular taboo as well and it’s painful, not because one is forbidden for whatever period of time from having sex, but because if one isn’t having sex or behaving in an outwardly sexualized manner in our culture, one may be treated as strange, backward, or other. It can be very alienating and unless one is living in a monastic community (which none of us in our communities are) where everyone is fighting the same battle, it can be very, very isolating. I have heard people of all genders complain that after a certain time it’s damned hard to be single in this culture without being looked at like a ‘freak,’ but celibate? That’s beyond the pale for most. In many respects, the same can be said of many taboos and religious restrictions. Many of them set one apart or they’re inconvenient or, in the case of something like fasting, impact one’s energy levels.
I think that it is a powerful thing when we give ourselves over to reverence in this way: by doing what the Gods ask of us in demarcating our lives as being in devotional service to Them. It can open us up, draw us deeper into communion with the Holy, and elevate us spiritually. It can also be damned hard and confusing and sometimes that which brings us to the point of despair. As someone who carries numerous religious taboos, (not celibacy these days, thank the Gods! – though that was not always the case) I want to share something I’ve found helpful when it becomes really, really difficult and that how one’s mindset toward these restrictions (often willingly promised restrictions) can dramatically help in dealing with the bad times. Recontextualize the problem.
Think of it this way: maintaining one’s taboos each and every day gives one the chance to reconsecrate oneself to one’s Gods every day. Every single day again and again. It’s a process of making an ongoing offering, of giving something difficult and valuable every single day of your devotional life. That’s pretty cool.
The first article to which I link above actually talks about that a little bit:
“Sometimes people think of consecrated life as saying no to something – saying no to sex – but actually it’s saying a huge yes to a much richer life,”
I agree with that, and it’s something to remember when the dark times come. And they will come because no matter how willing we are to give our best to the Gods, to commit fully each and every day, we’re human and we have needs, wants, and desires that sometimes conflict with our best attempts at devotion. So it begs the ongoing question: why are we doing this? What do we hope to gain from it? What is this all about? The answers to those questions are one of the things that enables the devotee to stay the course, hopefully joyfully but if not joyfully then at least fiercely.
Of course, to bring this back to the article that prompted this train of thought, celibacy is a particularly difficult path to walk. For someone bound to celibacy whether permanently or for a specific period of time I’d offer the following thoughts. It’s ok to fall in love. It’s ok to love. This is normal and human and you will be the better for it. Closing yourself off to the possibility of love will harden your heart and I don’t think that’s what the practice of celibacy is about. Allow yourself the joy of natural human feelings. The caveat is that if you’re sworn in this way, you have to choose very carefully how to act upon that love and if, like the Vestal Virgins of old, or Catholic priests today, you’re sworn to celibacy then sexual activity is not within the scope of possible choices.
Also, find ways to get human touch. Even if it is a massage once a month, find an outlet because this is a human need without which we aren’t healthy. There have been studies that show that babies die if they don’t get enough human touch. Why should adults be any different? We may not die, but I think lack of intimacy can warp us in very problematic ways. It’s ok to be bound to celibacy and to be affectionate, in fact it might even be healthy and necessary.
I don’t know what promises my readers have made to their Gods, or what the Gods Themselves have asked of Their devotees. I do know something of the ferocity with which taboos can descend upon shamans, spiritworkers, mystics, and godspouses, so if any of this is a help to those you reading, then I am very, very glad.
- My colleague had sent it to me because I’m a godspouse, but I’ll be the first to admit that celibacy is not required for every godspouse, nor even always permanently for those who do walk that road. The first article that I read about Catholic consecrated virgins may be found here. The article, linked in the body of my post, actually points out that consecrating one’s sexuality in service to the Gods did not originate with Christianity. It was found in polytheistic cultures too.
- Save in particular cases of individual godspouses, spiritworkers, et al.
My Christian aunt puts me to shame. It’s one of those things where we were talking recently and as she talked about her own prayer practice I felt like my own Gods were smacking me upside the head with the proverbial 2×4, as in “ahem. Why aren’t you doing more of this too?” It’s odd and almost surreal when that happens, particularly when the example is so far afield from my own tradition.
My aunt prays [and joyfully too, fervently, fiercely] at least four hours a day: two in the morning and two in the evening. Out of curiosity I asked her what exactly she does and she showed me her prayer book, and talked about the set prayers she does and how she uses them as jumping off points for her own extempore prayers. She told me about all the people she prays for and I could see that this is a major way in which she engages with her religious community and also her way of powerfully contributing to it. I just sat there listening to her thinking, “damn.”
I pray, of course, but since my adopted mom died it’s been a real battle sometimes to hit the points of connection and communication that I am aiming for, a painful thing to open myself to the Gods when in the midst of so much grief (and anger). Eventually of course it all becomes an excuse and one must shut up, put up, and just pick up the reins of one’s practice again or risk withering away spiritually but oh it hurts. It hurts to realize that in some respects, I’ve forgotten how I used to pray.
I was watching something on television the other night and one of the characters had to translate something from the Latin. I read Latin so I realized what it was right away, a prayer: “de profundis clamo ad te, domine:” out of the depths I cry to you, oh Lord. I thought, “well, that’s apt.” Having taken up the reins of mindful practice again after balking at them for so long, I’ve noticed over the past few months how hard it is to reestablish the daily discipline. I always do something for my Gods and dead pretty much daily but not enough, not nearly enough. I crave the prayer to reset the connection but resent the inconvenience of the discipline…and perhaps fear not doing well what I must. I am at times in awe of my hubris. God damn.
So I look at my aunt’s prayer practice and hold that up right now as a goal to maintain daily. What a beautiful way to structure my day again – as I used to do for so many years when first I started down the road of devotion—prayer to open it and prayer to send it off to bed. It forces me to make choices with how I’m going to use my time, how I’m going to order my day, what takes precedence.
I realize that like anything else in one’s devotional life it’s about learning to make the right choices consistently, cultivating a proper venerative spirit. Maybe that’s why the word for engaging in ongoing venerative practices to a Deity in Latin, as well as the word for the body of practices containing the mysteries of a deity (cultus) both come from the word colo, colui, cultum: to cultivate, tend, care for. One could almost say ‘nourish’ but that nourishment works both ways. It’s not about the words, though the words provide purchase, it’s about opening ourselves up to direct experience with the Gods. The daily discipline readies and prepares the soul.
A very wise women once told me that her deepest prayer, every day was this: oh my Gods, Whom I love beyond breath, because I love You, teach me how to love You. I didn’t realize it then but what she’d told me was the seedling of fire at the very core of devotion: because I love You, teach me how to love You and everything flows from there. That love becomes a weight, a power in the heart, mind, and spirit that one cannot ignore. it shifts and eddies and flows and shimmies around every sharp edged corner of our doubt, of our pain, of our weakness, of our pride, of our longing, oh most of all our longing and it shifts us, carefully smoothing away the flinty edges of that internal scream that calls out to the Gods with all its might and fights Them just as fiercely. It brings warmth to the coldness of spiritual desolation. It brings illumination to our unknowing. It carefully adjusts and reorients us until the entire world inside and out is transformed. It is the weight of longing that pulls one down into devotion and sustains one through it all. It is not a feeling so much as a goad, a champion, a driving force. Make me new again oh my Gods that I might be always remade in You, that with each faltering, fumbling step I might please You and open myself ever more to Your understanding, Your mysteries, Your presence. It is a rendering sometimes sweet, sometimes purest agony.
So many people seem to be getting ill lately. I half jokingly said to a friend that June was a really shitty month for people’s health! But no joke, my husband just got out of surgery last week, and I’m hearing of at least three people in my social circle who are either going in for quadruple bypass surgeries or have serious heart issues that were recently diagnosed and the friends I have with chronic pain are beyond number (and I myself live with it every day and it’s been bad of late). I think sometimes that our world is so out of whack that our bodies and psyches absorb it. We wade all the time in poison and pollution and while our bodies do their best, eventually there’s a cost to that, and not just for the patients themselves. The stress and exhaustion visited on their families is immeasurable. So if you’re struggling right now with recent or chronic illness, in yourself or a family member, my heart and prayers go out to you. I want to encourage you to reach out to friends, to your community for support. None of us should have to go through such things alone.
Likewise, I want to thank everyone for the outpouring of support during my husband’s recent illness. It really meant a lot to know how many people were there and holding him in prayer. Thank you.
You know, we have lots of healing deities and in the ancient world many of Them had extensive cultus. I’m surprised that isn’t the case today (though granted, They tend to not be the sexy Deities. Lol. They’re more about hard work and wading into sickness to find a way through). I’d love to hear from people who venerate Healing Deities specifically.
In my home, while I’m Heathen, my husband isn’t so we have a religiously blended household. The Greek and Roman Deities (especially the Roman in my case) get Their share of veneration. But I also honor the Norse healing Deities, and have sporadically for many years. Of course Odin does have “aspects” if you will that venture into healing – the Merseburg Charm for instance names Woden as a powerful healer—but overall that is in no way His primary area of expertise. (1) Or rather, I should say that it is not the way that He has come to me. I hope one day to be able to explore a relationship with Him as Healer, but generally, when one speaks of Norse Healing Deities, Odin is not amongst Those that immediately come to mind.
The most well known of our Healing Deities is probably the Goddess Eir. Many of us associate Her with combat medicine and surgery and She is referenced in the Poetic Edda as the “Best of Physicians.” If we plumb the lore well enough, it becomes apparent that She has many other colleagues in Healing and They’ve gathered a small cultus today. There’s Mengloth, the healer of Lyfjaberg, and an entire retinue of other healing deities with specialties ranging from respiratory care to pharmacy. Goddesses like Hlif, Hlifthrasa, Thjodvara, Bjort, Bleik, Blith, Frith, and Aurboda all have Their areas of expertise. Likewise the Goddess Sunna, governing as She does the healing power of the sun, may also be invoked as a healer. (2) I have also known many to go to the Vanir for such things, which makes sense since They are Deities of life, abundance, and vitality. I myself have two shrines to Freya: a personal one, and then Her image is also included in my shrine to the Healing Deities honored in my home.
I keep wanting to take a month with each of our Norse healing Deities and do intensive meditation, prayer, and devotional exploration with Them but I never seem to manage it, at least I haven’t successfully yet. I hope to do better in the future (I feel the same way about Frigga’s retinue – of which Eir is also a part).
Since I do live in a blended household (and I practice a bit of cultus deorum myself), my healing shrine also has a section devoted to Apollo and Asklepius. The statue of Asklepius came to me on a trip to London. I walked into this store and saw it and got hit with “I need that.” It was so strong a feeling that even though I didn’t have cultus to Him, I bought it and eventually incorporated Him into my shrine. I have great respect for Him. In the ancient world He had a tremendously popular cultus. Apollo, while a Greek Deity, had cultus in Etruria by at least the 6th Century B.C.E. and in Rome by around 431 B.C.E, the latter specifically as ‘Medicus’ or ‘Healer’. Asklepius is the son of Apollo who achieved that rare honor, one shared with Herakles: He was a mortal son of a God who was elevated to godhood, taking His place amongst the denizens of Olympos.(3) I also honor Dionysos on my healing shrine (plus He has His own shrine elsewhere in my home) since He heals issues of the mind, heart, and spirit.
It’s funny: neither Dionysos nor most of the Norse Deities seem to care overmuch for protocols of cleansing before one approaches Their shrines. I mean, one should be clean and of course I wash my hands but They don’t seem to want extensive protocol. Apollo and to some extent Asklepius (though by far especially Apollo here) do seem to require more in the way of cleansing before approaching Them. It’s a completely different mindset when I go to Their shrines and with Apollo at least, there’s much, much more formality.
Someone reminded me that one of the traditional offerings to Asklepius was a black rooster, noting that even as he went to his death, Sokrates’ main concern was that such a debt to this God be properly paid. This time, in exchange for His help I promised not a rooster (I have given Him such in the past), but cultus. I think I’ll use it as an opportunity to do the same for Eir and Her retinue.
Anyway, if you have ongoing cultus to one of our Healing Deities, or would like to share insights or prayers, please feel free to do so here. It’d be a grace and a blessing all around to see Their cultus grow.
- The structure of this charm is strikingly similar to Appalachian healing charms. Likewise Odin (Woden) is referenced in the Nine Herbs Galdr, as a Healer driving out illness and pollution. It seems that He cleanses the situations that cause ill health, but again, while I discuss this briefly in my book “He is Frenzy,” I don’t generally relate to Him as Healer.
- She is likewise noted in the Merseburg Charm along with Her sister.
- I’m more familiar with the Roman material than the Greek and Ovid in his “Metamorphoses” tells the story of Asklepius’ fateful birth and later transformation/ elevation into a God. See also the entry on Asklepius here.
I tell my students to avoid tumblr. I tell those who come to me to learn about the gods or for initiation and/or spiritual training to avoid people who don’t take their Gods seriously. I tell them to take care with whom they spend their time. I tell them to take care with what they pollute their eyes and hearts and minds. This is important. We inevitably become like that with which we associate. The choice of course, whether or not to take my advice is always left with the student, but I lay out my case early on.
Pollution is an actual thing and I don’t think that there’s enough discussion of it in our communities. As human beings, we are affected by those things with which we associate, by what we watch, by the character and conversation of our friends. If a person is serious about developing good devotional habits (and good devotional character), then early on, one learns to avoid those situations that diminish our spiritual worth.
Instead, it’s important to learn to cultivate the people, hobbies, habits, and things that encourage and nourish right relationship with the Gods. If you’re surrounding yourself by people steeped in piety, it will rub off! You’ll be influenced to likewise treat the Gods with respect. You’ll observe good habits and absorb them almost by osmosis. When everyone around you is modeling right behavior it’s a thousand times easier to cultivate that in yourself. The opposite is also true. Peer pressure, as it were, can work both ways.
Now I’m not trying to rain on anybody’s parade. If you like a particular pop culture TV show, for instance, go ahead and watch it, but be aware of the message it sends. Understand that you’re doing yourself no favors. You’ll have to take extra care to ensure that you don’t unconsciously (subliminally?) start copying the behavior and attitudes you’re seeing. That’s the problem with so much of this. It’s not that any person or thing is bad in and of itself (usually), but that we pick up unconscious messages from what we’re around. We imitate and often do so unthinkingly. We do things on auto-pilot, unmindfully and it’s mindfulness that is called for here. We cannot afford to assume that the structures of our lives automatically support devotion. Generally they don’t and very little in our immediate environments do.
I’ll admit that I find this sobering. It has, however, made me very selective about how I spend my time. We each have a great deal of power over our spiritual lives. We have the power to carefully choose that which will nourish our relationship with our Holy Powers or to choose that which does not. We can choose our companions. We can choose our associations, our hobbies, how much and what we allow in. We should choose—even if one takes away the spiritual imperative, we should always be selective about those influences that enter our personal orbits. I always encourage my students to ask: “What attitudes does this thing or person encourage? What is its/their message? Is this making me better as a human being? How does this further my spiritual goals? What does this contribute to my overall life? My character? What is it telling me about devotion? What does it cultivate in psyche and soul?”
It takes a great deal of personal integrity to do this work. It takes a great deal of personal integrity and commitment and yes, courage to resist the pressure to confirm and to water down our devotions to the silliest common denominator imaginable. We are charged, I very firmly believe, with being better.
Before our traditions were destroyed, we’d have all grown up in polytheistic households and communities. We’d have had ample opportunity to see right behavior modeled and we’d have been surrounded by numerous people and factors that would likewise reinforce it. We’d have had plenty of people to go to if we had questions and plenty of good models not just for how to do devotion well but how to become mature, engaged, mindful human beings. We don’t live in that world. Unfortunately, most of us are not surrounded by a community or family that models and reinforces right behavior. We have to learn to do it for ourselves.
So if you find yourself suddenly become flippant about the Gods when you generally know better, look around and see what might be influencing you. Take stock of your company and surroundings. Likewise, if you find yourself needing to cut jokes about the sacred, when normally you would quietly go about the business of devotion, as yourself why? Take a good, long look at the people with whom you’re surrounding yourself. Take a good long estimate of the media influences in which you are willingly steeped and ask yourself if it’s doing your devotion any good. Ask yourself if it’s beneficial or worth it. Then make your choice.
That’s what all solid devotion comes down to: learning to make the right choices, the most beneficial ones day after day, and that is something within all our reach.