Category Archives: Lived Polytheism
The topic this week has been miasma and pollution and how to deal with it. I’ve a longer piece in progress that I was hoping to get done today but that didn’t happen so it’ll probably have to wait until next weekend now. Instead, I find myself thinking a lot about a slightly different aspect of miasma. Most of us within our various traditions (hopefully) have our standard regimens of cleansing before rituals, before approaching our shrines, or after encountering something that carries miasma. What do you do though, when you suddenly and unexpectedly bumble into pollution or realize – oh shit—you’re surrounded by it?
I’ve had this happen a lot because of my work and I started really paying attention to it over the past couple of months. I’ve noticed, both in myself and others, that it can have an immediate (spiritual, emotional, mental, and sometimes physical) effect. What do you do when you read something or see something or engage in some way (either in person or online), or walk into an area that carries or causes unexpected miasma? What do you do when you are, or instance, engaged in a debate and you realize that you’re dealing with a massive amount of pollution? Often it’s not tenable or even possible to withdraw and cleanse. What do you do when you are stuck?
I’m still working this out for myself. I mean, obviously, I have regular cleansing regimens, and then the tradition specific stuff that I do before rituals or tending shrines and for a long time that was enough. I almost think though, that the more we work to be clean, the more this is a priority, the cleaner we become, the more sensitive we get to that which is not clean. Things that perhaps were not a problem a year ago, might become problematic after that intervene time focusing on cleansing. So what do you do?
Right now – and I’m still working on this—I have a two fold approach. First, I have a very specific prayer that I wrote that I use when I find myself stuck or surprised by miasmic things. Secondly, I carry holy water and spritz the fuck out of myself at times. Right now that’s about it, but I hope to develop this type of troubleshooting further. I’d love to hear people’s ideas.
Here’s the prayer that I use. When I asked to which God I should offer the prayer, (I venerate the Norse Gods and the Greco-Roman Ones), I was told Apollo. I wasn’t thrilled with sharing it but I did divination and was told that it would be best to do so, so here it is.
Purification Prayer to Apollo
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.*
Bright Apollo, far shooting God of healers and prophets,
I offer this prayer to You today.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
Most Holy Apollo,
Klarios, Oulios, Alexikakus,
Who averts all harm,
protect me, oh my God.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
In Your Presence, oh my God,
nothing impure may stand.
In Your Presence, oh my God,
nothing impious may find purchase.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
keep my boundaries strong,
that no pollution may affect my mind,
my heart, my soul, my work.
Boedromios, preserve me,
as I wade into this filth.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl away from every evil thing.
I lay my petition before You, Shining God,
that I may stand in the light of Your protection.
To You, Lord Apollo,
(*this line is every so slightly adaped from the song “Sparrow Falls” by David Eugene Edwards)
A friend sent me a clip from an article that had me just shaking my head. In it, a Pagan was talking about pollution and why she never “needed” to do any cleansing work. Doing so, the misguided author said, would imply that she was dirty.
Um…yes, buttercup it does but this is not a moral judgment. When you take a shower in the morning or a bath at night, is that some grave moral judgment on your inner sense of self? Or your character? Your identity? When you wipe your ass, are you saying your butt is bad? One would hope that you actually do take those showers and wipe. I mean really…and if you clean your ass, as my friend quipped, you can take the time to clean your soul.
This is going to be an ongoing theme. I’ve had a lot of questions lately about miasma. I’ve gained a few insights through my own deepening taboos around purification, been thrown for a few unexpected loops, and I’ve been seeing a lot of really screwed up pieces, like the bit I quoted above making the rounds. I’m not even sure where to begin here.
Miasma is a thing. It exists. It is not a statement about the character or worth of any given person. In fact, in most cases, it’s no more personal than spilling something on yourself and having to wash it off, or tracking mud inside, and having to clean it up. To say that one doesn’t need to cleanse is exactly as sensible as saying one never needs to bathe, that is not at all.
Miasma is a type of spiritual pollution. One can pick up miasma by exposing oneself to things that are antithetical to the Gods and Their traditions. These things can shift a person’s head and heart space out of receptivity and reverence for the Gods. They can also leave a taint. Over time, it destroys our ability not just for any discernment with the Powers and spirits, but even our ability to tell what is good and holy from that which is not. That’s one of the dangers of pollution and our world is riddled with it.
Sometimes though one falls into miasma through actions or experiences that are good: for instance there is a particular miasma associated with the dead. That’s why if one touches a dead body, cleansings are necessary before approaching one’s shrines. Well, visiting the graves of relatives is a good and pious act sanctioned by the Gods. The moment one does so, however, one is in a state of pollution and should really cleanse after returning home. Likewise, there is miasma associated with childbirth. Does that mean that everyone should stop having babies? Of course not. It means one learns the appropriate protocols within one’s tradition and uses them.
These purification rites can also be a form of psychological catharsis, helping one to make transitions back into ordinary life. Imagine how much better off our soldiers would be if they had these kinds of transitional and purifying ceremonies to guide their entrance back into civilian life? Instead, we just leave them in the gutter.
Proper piety is important. It is what enables us to maintain right relationship with our Gods. That’s a huge part of why we should want to be clean! Moreover, extended miasma can cause mental, emotional, and even physical problems, not to mention damaging one’s luck. Of course, this presupposes that one values being in right relationship with the Holy. This is where it starts. It presupposes that this is a priority, that we’re willing to examine our culture and society and interactions and influences and take action when miasma is present.
Now just because a thing causes miasma, does not mean it has to be avoided. Some things are only miasmic with certain types of worship, and with certain deities, or for roles and types of work (ancestor work vs plant work, shaman vs. seer vs. laity—there will be different taboos and requirements). Sometimes when you’re called to work with certain Powers and do certain work, that cuts off certain opportunities. That’s too bad. That’s just the nature of devotion. It’s possible to appreciate from a distance without being able to engage.
Sometimes what we read or watch may cause miasma. It affects our headspace. It puts us in headspace that’s not conducive to interaction with the Holy. This is a bit trickier. No one should tell you not to watch or read something. That’s a decision you have to make for yourself with your Gods and ancestors. Divination can help with this. We don’t want to be, after all, like the Abrahamists who fence themselves off from life and authentic experiences with all their rules and regulations, afraid to read a novel for fear it will destroy their faith. Sometimes also, depending on one’s work, one might have to read things or watch things or go places that put one in a state of miasma. Here, it’s important to sit down maybe with a diviner or priest and suss out how to cleanse oneself, what rituals and prayers to do, to restore oneself to cleanliness. (Just because a particular book or movie might put you out of alignment, doesn’t mean it’s ‘bad’. It might not affect someone else the same way, especially if they’re working with very different Powers and traditions. The key is mindfulness and being willing to consider that even things we like may be problematic and require those extra ritual steps or even forgoing gratification in service to something Higher).
Now I’ve noticed something about the people chirping the loudest about how cleansing isn’t necessary. All of the ones I’ve encountered have been anti-theist or humanist ‘Pagans.’ I think that is perhaps the key here. This is a clash of cultures and traditions. Do you serve the ancestors or political ideology? Do you want to reverence the Gods with your entire life or some human economist? Is this real or is it just something people make up in their heads? Do you value the Holy, or are you hell-bent on convincing the pious that it doesn’t exist (generally by trolling them online)? Those espousing a disdain for cleansing and purification are more often than not, those expressing a similar disdain for the Gods and everything else associated with Them. I’ll let y’all do the math. (If Stalin says that 2+2=5, the party believes that 2+2=5).
What I know is that cleansing is crucial. There is a caution here: against what Christians call scrupulosity. We should attend to all the proper rites and rituals for dealing with pollution, but not fall into obsessiveness or excessive anxiety over it—what the Greeks termed δεισιδαιμονίᾳ.
“It is apparent that superstition would seem to be cowardice with regard to the spiritual realm. The superstitious man is one who will wash his hands and sprinkle himself at the Sacred Fountain, and put a bit of laurel leaf in his mouth, to prepare himself for each day. If a marten should cross his path, he will not continue until someone else has gone by, or he has thrown three stones across the road. And if he should see a snake in his house, he will call up a prayer to Sabazios if it is one of the red ones; if it is one of the sacred variety, he will immediately construct a shrine on the spot. Nor will he go by the smooth stones at a crossroads without anointing them with oil from his flask, and he will not leave without falling on his knees in reverence to them. If a mouse should chew through his bag of grain, he will seek advice on what should be done from the official diviner of omens; but if the answer is, ‘Give it to the shoemaker to have it sewn up,’ he will pay no attention, but rather go away and free himself of the omen through sacrifice. He is also likely to be purifying his house continually, claiming that terrible Hecate has been mysteriously brought into it. And if an owl should hoot while he is outside, he becomes terribly agitated, and will not continue before crying out, ‘O! Mighty Athena!’ Never will he step on a tomb, nor get near a dead body, nor a woman in childbirth: he says he must keep on his guard against being polluted. On the unlucky days of the month– the fourth and seventh– he will order his servants to heat wine. Then he will go out and buy myrtle-wreaths, frankincense, and holy pictures; upon returning home, he spends the entire day arranging the wreaths on statues of the Hermaphrodites. Also, when he has a dream, he will go to the dream interpreters, the fortune-tellers, and the readers of bird-omens, to ask what god or goddess he should pray to. When he is to be initiated into the Orphic mysteries, he visits the priests every month, taking his wife with him; or, if she can’t make it, the nursemaid and children will suffice. It is also apparent that he is one of those people who go to great lengths to sprinkle themselves with sea-water. And if he sees someone eating Hecate’s garlic at the crossroads, he must go home and wash his head; and then he calls upon the priestesses to carry a squill or a puppy around him for purification. If he sees a madman or epileptic, he shudders and spits into his lap.” (Theophrastos, On The Superstitious Man)
Being a polytheist isn’t about having the right hashtags or even necessarily about believing in many Gods. Believing in many Gods is the baseline, the fundamental definition, but we should aspire to so much more. Being a polytheist is also about cultivating in ourselves the type of awareness and character that the Gods would find pleasing. To do that, first and foremost, we must cultivate purity and an awareness of the nature of miasma and a willingness to attend to it. Then and only then, can we begin to cleanly and properly commune with the Holy.
Why Couldn’t Cybele Just Restore Attis’ Dick? This is an actual conversation that I’m having with a Christian relative. (#polytheistproblems). This relative asked to read the papers that I’d written over the last semester so I printed them up, per her request and sent them off. Foremost amongst them was my recent article in issue 5 of Walking the Worlds: “Ecstasy and Identity in Catullus 63. This piece talks about Attis sacrificing his manhood in devotion to Cybele and what that meant to him (her?) as a Roman.
Here is the email I received in response:
“G., I just finished reading this paper. It is a wonderful example to everybody to avoid the occult. Messing with the so-called gods (actually demons) is dangerous physically and spiritually. Attis totally destroyed himself in his
ill advised “devotion” to Cybele.
If Cybele is such a great and powerful “goddess,” why could she not have restored Attis’ manhood? A devastating and true statement: You cannot go home again. I believe that in many situations.”
(the rest of the email talked about another paper on Augustine so I didn’t quote it here. Nor did I point out to her that her comments about the Gods being demons isn’t even biblical. The bible after all, acknowledges other Gods.).
Now, this relative knows that I’m a polytheist but it’s like some mental tick. They just can’t help themselves from calling our Gods demons. Interfaith work at its finest, isn’t it? Interfaith work just has a polite veneer over this, but it’s still there.
So what did I respond?
“You took the article where I did not intend. I think it’s a powerful example of devotion. May Cybele be venerated forever.
It also tells you that it’s a terrible thing to fall into the hands of a living God.
As to why Cybele couldn’t restore his manhood: obviously She didn’t want to. That is the price of initiation into Her priesthood and Attis, despite his later existential pain, paid it willingly.
Nor was Her religion “the occult.” It was an international religion openly practiced. It’s still practiced today — there’s a Cybellan monastery not far from me (well, three + hours).
My article was not in any way meant to imply that She should not be venerated, but to point out that all transformations come with a price, that we must understand this when we plumb sacred Mysteries: that they transform, irreversibly.
Asking why Cybele didn’t restore Attis’ manhood is like asking why Jesus didn’t save all the martyrs. Did he not have the power to do so? Did he not care? Or was it more a case of not invalidating their sacrifice, devotion, and faith and the example they provided for the rest of their community. These are mysteries. It’s pretty foul to denigrate them.”
We disagree but I’m not going to suddenly punch this poor relative in the face. One can have decorum in such disputes. Still, this is the type of mental brainwashing with which we all must cope when we engage in interfaith dialogue. Here it is, in black and white. (#checkyourmonotheistprivilege). I have said before that I consider monotheism to be something of a mental illness. It eradicates a person’s ability to see reality and to function in a healthy society. You want to change all these problems we’re dealing with today? Reject the secular (which is really just monotheism taken to its natural conclusion) over-culture. (#fighttherealpatriarchy).
If you have any doubt about this, the situation going on with patheos right now is a good example of what happens when you’re around ‘tolerant’ Christians. They’ll keep you around so long as you’re making them money through your click bait titles and engineered community conflict but the second you turn on them and question their motives you’re gone.
It doesn’t come with a cool pussy hat, but this is the real revolution. (#makinghashtagswontbeenough)
There is nothing better than mornings spent with the Gods, whether in devotion to Them or fruitful discussion of Them. Today was one such morning. My friend Markos posted this awesome quote by Walter Otto on his facebook this morning:
“No single Greek god even approaches Dionysus in the horror of his epithets, which near witness to a savagery that is absolutely without mercy… He is called the “render of men”, “the eater of raw flesh”, “who delights in the sword and bloodshed”. We hear not only of human sacrifice in his cult, but also of the ghastly ritual in which a man is torn to pieces. Where does this put us? Surely there can be no further doubt that this puts us into death’s sphere. The terrors of destruction, which make all if life tremble, belong also, as horrible desire, to the kingdom of Dionysus. The monster whose supernatural duality speaks to us from the mask has one side of his nature turned toward eternal night.”
~Walter F. Otto, Dionysus: Myth and Cult
We both love Dionysos dearly (and if I’m not mistaken, Markos actually belongs to Dionysos whereas while I love this God, I pay cultus from the fringes). This quote encapsulates some core elements of His nature. He is a terrible God, in the old sense of the word, as One Who brings terror.
Another friend Paul C. mentioned that He is also “nice,” and I have to agree: He can be immensely nice and gentle (and we agreed that sometimes that is more shattering than any cruelty He could bring to bear on the transformation of our souls). Paul said:
“I’ll say that when I first started with Dionysus I didn’t expect him to be nice.
It was the niceness of him that was almost hard for me to handle at first. Due to my background of abuse and other unfortunate things I have a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem issues. His acceptance and love was unexpected and clearly not coming from myself. It was hard because of the whole host of new ideas and perspectives that I had to confront As your husband (Sannion) explained it and I think he’s right that was the God’s own way of molding and helping me.
So niceness isn’t always painless like you think it would be. Sometimes it’s more painful than cruelty when it runs counterbalance to what is in one’s head.” — Paul C. (quoted with permission)
Still, as I pointed out, it’s never the “nice” that people try to elide from their Gods. It’s the Power. I was asked to explain and the conversation that followed was meaty enough that I wanted to share highlights of it here.
People will go to any lengths to make their Gods sweet, nice, and unthreatening, to insist that their Gods aren’t savage or vicious, violent or bold. We want our Gods civilized and ‘modern.’ We want Gods we can control, or at least Gods that don’t challenge us, that don’t drag us down into the morass of our own shit and force us to look at it, and deal with it. We as a culture want Gods Who won’t interfere with our lives and the priorities we set for ourselves. We want Gods of peace so that we never have to stand naked, afraid, trembling, and possibly bleeding and snot faced before Them. We want characters in a storybook. Just look at any of our communities.
Of course positioning a Deity as any one thing alone is always problematic. A God, any God is never just savage or nice. They *are*. They are in a fullness and complexity of Being that I don’t really think we as human beings quite have the capacity to comprehend at all. We may catch glimpses, but the totality is too immense for us to do more than gnaw upon. Think about the story of Dionysos’ Mother Semele. When She was tricked into forcing Zeus to reveal Himself in the fullness of His power it burned Her to ash. A human being, as we are now, simply does not have the capacity to behold the Gods in Their fullness. The masks They wear are necessary but every so often, oh every so often we get a glimpse of some of the roaring Power that lies beneath.
So yes, Dionysos is nice. I can also attest He’s been incredibly nice and gentle with me. but …that’s not the part the average person is going to erase in their minds, I think. We know He’s nice. That’s not the part most people want to forget.
I saw this over the years with Odin. Any mention of Odin’s darker sides — and oh, He is a terribly savage God. Anyone who thinks His veneer of civilization and culture is anything more than a carefully calculated mask is deluding themselves.—His penchant for ordeal, His violence, His savagery inevitably led to claims that I was making this God into a sadist. “That’s not my Odin.” (#notallOdins) No, buttercup, but it is Odin. Maybe it’s not what He’s showing you, but it is absolutely His nature. The best of us learn to revel in it. Those who can’t? Well, there’s always British TV, fanfiction, and pop culture.
There’s a movie that several people in the conversation brought up, one that has strong Dionysian overtones: “The Witch.” In this movie, the Devil in the shape of a black goat drives a rather neurotic Puritan family to ruin. Well, they drive themselves to ruin, and the goat just does what demonic goats do. (#goatlivesmatter). In the end, the goat transforms into a man and asks the surviving daughter: “Do you wish to live deliciously?”
We agreed that this is Dionysos.
This is the Liberator. I have my suspicions that many of the medieval images of Witches’ sabbats were cultural memories of Bacchanalian frenzies with all the potential savagery that might entail. (#livedeliciously).
We should be careful what we do to our Gods. One thing I’ve learned venerating the Norse Gods is this: if we insist on allowing Them only one avenue of manifestation, only one mask, They’ll take it but it won’t be the best outcome for us. We will get the Gods we deserve. When we deny Them the fullness of Their being, we start denying ourselves too and as that movie so beautifully showed, repression never leads anywhere good. (#lokiwivesoftumblr).
So maybe let us live deliciously.
Especially where our Gods are concerned.
I was so moved when I read this, that I asked LVB for permission to share it here. One day, I hope the situations are reversed, or at the very least, that we have our shrines and temples and groves peppering our towns and cities too.
Something to Consider…
To all of my Christian, Jewish, and Muslim brothers and sisters: here is a slice of life from my point of view as a pagan/polytheist.
I think too many people take for granted how many churches line the streets, how many temples and mosques stretch across the landscape, how many people have spiritual advisors and pastors and priests and ministers for guidance, when all I have is a tiny shrine at home and a visit to a museum where Gods are treated as fascinating yet primitive antiquities.
It’s strange that, for some people, walking into a museum is a wonderful experience, an opening into a different world while still remaining in the the present. Looking at cool old stuff. For me, walking into a museum is a religious experience. That’s what it was like for me yesterday wandering through the Walters Museum as a polytheist.
There’s nothing like Sekhmet looking down Her gaze at me expecting a physical sign of reverence, or walking through passageways that are sacred spaces holding Gods behind glass, or feeling the watch of the Gods and spirits over me as They firmly command, “Do not disrespect Our Dead” when I take out my phone to take pictures of mummies and of Greco-Roman sarcophagi.
There’s nothing like the tender, encouraging gaze of a Muse who looked down upon me as She planted a seed of strength in my heart. There’s nothing like seeing statues of Venus, whom I worship, and feeling Her smile and laugh playfully in greeting, as if it were a funny sort of events that led us to each other by pure accident like a comedy.
To others, a museum is just a glorified showcase: a place with old, beautiful things that do not belong with cellphones and Netflix. Things that don’t exist anymore.
To me, it’s a temple: a place where my Gods sit behind glass and watch as I struggle to give some sort of offering, watch as They seem to know that I Love Them, watch as I process the bittersweet feeling that the people passing behind me see articles of faith in an act of tourism.
So many places of worship line the streets. There are so many resources for those who have spiritual troubles, who want to strengthen their faith, who want to be involved in community. Please don’t take that for granted, people, because for me, it is a great source of pain that I have to enter a glorified, collectionist showcase – a museum – to look at my Gods. I don’t have a support base. I don’t have an expert I can consult when something Strange happens. I can’t even talk to my friends who aren’t polytheist because, in the end, whether they like it or not, they really don’t get it and it’s not any help.
And it is an even greater source of pain for me that, when I come home, I am all by myself in a world of churches, synagogues and mosques. I am all by myself with my struggles and my troubles, and the people whose shoulders I can lean on aren’t here with me.
Love your Gods deeply, all of you. Love your God. Never miss an opportunity to love your God. And do not take your religious community for granted. Be thankful for what you have. Go to service. Talk to the pastor and to your community when you feel alone and unsupported, or if you want to make a change in society. Take advantage of the resources at your disposal.
Enjoy the privilege of people who believe that your God is real, is good, is loving, is powerful. I do not have that privilege. I really don’t.
So, my beloved non-pagans, come up to the altar and love your God. Pray your rosary. Hold your medals. Do your devotions. Live your way rightly. Read about your spiritual ancestors and read about your theologies that have been written, discussed, developed for over two thousand years – while, in my own faith, scholars are just making the ASTOUNDING revelation that ancient peoples actually did believe in their Gods, actually did love their Gods, actually did have theologies, too.
It’s times like these where I wish I were a Christian – because, then, I’d have a thousand places to go and a million people to talk to. I could turn my head and speak to my friends. I could hold hands during service. I can love my Gods in person whenever I want.
Christians, Jews, Muslims: reflect and love . You guys have it good. Despite problems and challenges, you really, really do have it good.
Because you don’t have to see your Gods behind glass, sitting quietly, catalogued as parts of a esteemed collection – presented as things that happened “once upon a time, long long ago, when people were more primitive and made these idols to cope with life” – provided as evidence that we, as a society, have clearly made progress.
Hail the Gods, forever and always, for all Gods are deserving of love and devotion.
(Reposted with permission of the author)
They’re doing a secret Kalends exchange in the Bacchic Underground (I know this because i lurk :)) and this inspired me to get something like that going here with my readers.
What i’d like to do is pair you guys up and then you guys can exchange cards made in honor of each other’s deities. So let them know Who you honor and they’ll make a card, and you do the same for them.
If you’re interested shoot me an email before next Wednesday, November 30 11pm EST and then I’ll pair folks up and send out the info in individual emails. Y’all can email me at krasskova at gmail.com if you’re interested.
This is a fun way to help build community and to make images and art for our Gods Who are losing Theirs as a result of monotheistic aggression.
Let’s make the holidays polytheist again. ^_^.
(Gruss von Krampus card. 🙂 )
I was sharing this story with a friend tonight who suggested I share it with my readers so here goes.
The winter before last I was doing a lot of work with Hermes. I tend to honor Him regularly (Hermes is awesome) but for some reason throughout that winter He was getting a lot of offerings, more than usual. It may have been around the time that I had expanded His shrine, I don’t recall. What I do remember is that I had promised Him an offering of steak.
The day that I was supposed to give Him the steak came and so did a nasty snowstorm. I am a careful driver in the best of times but I really didn’t feel comfortable going out in those weather conditions. Being from the south, I’m a bit skittish about driving in snow and ice. I went to the shrine, lit candles, offered a prayer and explained the situation to Hermes promising that I would go as soon as I could the next day after the roads were properly ploughed. About five minutes later my doorbell rang.
Wondering who the hell out would be out in a bad snowstorm, I answered it to find a young man selling…steaks.
This guy had a truck full of steak that he was selling door to door and before heading home he hoped to make one more sale. I got the point – Hermes wanted His steak— bought a couple of boxes, thanked the man profusely and made the offering I had promised the God.
Sometimes you go to the offering, sometimes apparently it comes to you.
I like St. Ursula. She’s the patron of teachers and students, her name means ‘bear,’ and seriously, I have my suspicions that she didn’t start out as a good Christian woman. After having made a pilgrimage in part to her ‘goldene kammer’ in St. Ursula’s basilica in Cologne, she’s become one of the spirits that I venerate fairly frequently. I was almost named Ursula after my paternal grandmother and there are many points of connection that I feel with the saint. Let me tell you her story.
According to Ursula’s hagiography, she was a princess who was sent by her father to a bridegroom on the continent. She traveled with a retinue of 11,000 virgins. She declared that before her marriage, she would make a pilgrimage across Europe, particularly to Rome where she persuaded the pope and at least one bishop to travel with her. They headed toward Cologne where they were set up on by Huns who beheaded everybody except for Ursula who was shot dead with arrows, all apparently in the late fourth century C.E. Personally, I’m dubious. Even the Catholics question the historical veracity of this legend, and for a number of reasons too much and too many to go into here!
The Basilica of St. Ursula contains the relics of Ursula and her virgins. Now, this basilica was built on a Roman Pagan burial ground. According to legend, Ursula started out with eleven female companions. People kept finding bones though, a lot of bones, of either gender and soon ‘eleven’ became ‘eleven thousand.’ The bone room, the ‘goldene kammer’ housing the relics truly is a powerful place, a holy place, and I envy the docent her job. We have the bones of dead Pagans arranged on all four walls in various patterns, occasionally spelling out words like ‘Maria, ora pro nobis’ (hard to see in the photo here) and receiving veneration, quite a bit of veneration as Ursula has become (along with the three kings whose relics also rest in Cologne, at the Kölner Dom) patron of the city.
(The above photo is mine, the little photo at the beginning of this article is not mine, but is from wikipedia, a fifth century fresco of ST. Ursula)
I think her chapel with all its bones was one of the favorite ossuaries that I had the pleasure of visiting last year. It was small – much smaller than I expected which made it particularly difficult to get a good photograph.
(this image is by Mary Ann Glass)
My travelling companion MAG said that it was very clearly feminine space – she was picking up on the presence of Ursula I think, and the reliquaries in the shape of female busts, and the statue of Ursula in the main part of the church.
(this photo is mine, of one of the reliquary busts)
We were watched the whole time we were in the bone room, but that was ok. The docent was a lovely woman who tried to be enormously helpful. She made sure we saw that the bones spelled out words and was otherwise unobtrusive.
(this photo is mine, of the bones which spelled out prayers. I couldn’t get back far enough because of the size of the room to get the full prayer in the shot but this gives one a sense)
The presence of this holy power was palpable.
(This is mine, of several of the skulls in one of the niches in the room. I love how they have ribbon over their faces, as though they are shy and hiding from the glance of the world)
It was a bit of a lesson for me that a spiritworker can’t go happily traipsing through these places without attracting the attention of those venerated there, and sometimes that leads to alliances being formed. I went to gawk at her bones and I came away with the expectation that I would continue to pay respect.
Personally, I tend to think Ursula started out as a local deity or demi-deity in the area (the bear connection is particularly potent for me), something not unheard of with popular “saints.” In the end, it doesn’t matter. She was receptive to my overtures and I have found her a strong and steady presence in my work. Today is her feast day. May she be well hailed.
Here is a prayer that I have adapted.
Holy saint Ursula who was strong,
Pray for us.
Fierce saint Ursula who was bold and courageous.
Pray for us.
Good saint Ursula, charismatic in your leadership,
firm in your purpose,
Pray for us.
You are remembered today
with your companions.
Let us be as fierce in our devotions
To our Gods and spirits
as you were in forging your way
across the land
and in facing death.
Saint Ursula, please
pray for us,
and be hailed.
(Holbein’s St. Ursula)
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.