Category Archives: Ritual Work
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One of the key mysteries of our tradition is that of the runes. The word itself, rún, rúnar (1) means just that: ‘secret’ or ‘mystery.’ Our high God Odin (Oðinn) hung on Yggdrasil for nine nights and nine days in agony, pierced by His own spear, a sacrifice to Himself. The result of this ordeal was acquisition of the runes and the knowledge and ability to wield them. There is much the story doesn’t tell us, starting with where the runes originate, what they are, and what their connection to the fabric of creation might be.
I talk about all of these things in my book Living Runes, so I won’t focus on that too much in this post. In short, I think they originate in the Ginnungagap, are a family of living, sentient spirits, and are worked into the architecture of existence in numerous ways, creating loopholes through which the holy can seep (or work) again and again. When I think about this, they’re so often in motion, coursing through creation the way platelets, plasma, and blood cells course through our veins. They may rivet the more liminal parts of creation in place, or they may whirl and dance through the world working His will and their own. I think it varies and it’s something I’m still exploring in my own practice.
What I wanted to discuss today is one of the techniques that I employed when I was first learning how to really engage with the runes. This is also something that I give to my apprentices when they are learning the runes for themselves. Usually, this is done after one has initially met the runes through offerings and galdr – a round 1 of ‘getting to know you,’ shall we say. Once a student has passing familiarity with the runes, knows what they are, has maybe galdred a bit, or meditated with them, once he or she has his or her own devotional relationships to Gods and ancestors securely established (2), when that student is ready for the second round of in-depth engagement, this is what I have each of my apprentices do (and no, this isn’t in my book). I do this myself every now and again myself. One never stop learning after all!
Before I describe this, I want to offer one caveat. If you are going to do this, begin with Odin. He is Master of the Runes (Rúnatýr – God of the runes) and they are first and foremost His mysteries. Afterwards, next approach the Deity or Deities in turn to whom you are dedicated, Whom you would consider your fulltrui, Who hold the most significant place in your personal devotions. This is simply a matter of both protocol, and courtesy and respect.
Now, onto the exercise.
A). Make a list of the various Deities that you venerate or Whose insight you might be interested in gaining with respect to the runes. For instance, Odin, Frigga, Freya, Loki, Sigyn, Thor, Sif, Heimdall, Mani, Sunna, Sinthgunt, Eir. (Make your own list, starting with Odin. This is just an example, though it’s close to the list one of my apprentices recently employed).
B). Each night, meditate upon and galdr the same rune, first making offerings to one of these Deities, and then to the rune itself. So, start with Fehu. Set up a working altar or shrine, some place where you can make offerings to the rune of the night and to whatever Deity you’re approaching. If you have a personal household shrine (and if you’re doing this, you should (3)), you can go ahead and use that. The first night, make an offering to Odin. Offer prayers to Him and ask Him if He would be willing to teach you something about fehu. Make an offering to fehu itself, asking it if it would work with Odin and teach you something about itself. Then galdr the rune, meditate on it, write down your insights. Thank the two powers, Deity and rune invoked, and you are done for the night. Work through your list of Deities meditating on the *same* rune. When you’re done, move on to the next rune and go through the list again in the same order.
What you’re essentially doing is building your own book of correspondences as you engage in this process. I would also repeat this, either approaching the same Deities or perhaps with a new list (though always begin with Odin. He is the doorway to the runes in many respects), every few months. Be polite when you approach both Powers. You are not after all, entitled to Their wisdom. As with anything, the more polite you are, the more productive this is likely to be. Even having worked with the runes for close to thirty years, I still keep this in mind every time I approach them. At the end of your list, or even somewhere in the middle of it, do one night where you do NOT approach a Deity, but work only through the rune itself.
I stumbled on this process of approaching various Deities like this accidentally. I was having a bit of trouble with something and struggling to figure out how to work the rune I had decided to call upon. Completely unexpectedly, Sigyn sorted it out giving me an unexpected bit of insight. I thought, ‘wait. You know runes?’ Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised – She is a Deity after all –but when we have deeply personal devotional relationships with our individual Gods, it can be easy to forget that They are well, Gods. It can be easy to think that we know Them as we might know a friend down the way. We may indeed know a little given that relationships are mutual processes, but no matter how much experience we have in devotion to a Deity, THEY are always so much more.
One of the things that I really like about this particular exercise also, is that it allows the one doing it the opportunity to approach Deities he or she may not have previously considered approaching. It allows for a potential devotional relationship to bloom. It gets one out of one’s comfort zone, away from the regular way of doing things and allows room for unexpected insights to occur.
There are things to consider when you are engaging in this process: how does the rune feel? When you galdr, do you get any images running through your mind, any words popping up wanting to be worked into the galdr, any other sensory expressions of its presence (and that may include taste and smell too)? How do you feel before, during, and after? Has your impression of the rune changed at all? Do your best to keep a good record of this. It is helpful when you’re going back to check your progress. Be sure to stay hydrated and maybe eat a little protein after your nightly sessions. I would also be sure to center and ground well afterwards.
Finally, the futhark tells a story. Each Aett (4) contains its own mysteries. It is normal that some runes will prove harder and more difficult to access than others. That’s ok, and the reverse is also true. Most will have one or two runes stepping forward as a guide through the futhark and through one’s work therein. When you encounter a rune that just won’t open, that’s ok. Be respectful, do your best, make your offerings and come back to it later. There are runes (for me, mostly in the third aett) that have taken years before they allowed me to so much as dip a toe into their mysteries. Again, as with so much spirit-work, you’re building a relationship. Part of the process of learning to work with runes is that they are learning your mental patterns, internal language, internal symbol set and you are learning something of theirs and the two of you are building this pidgin (is that the correct linguistic term?) by which you can communicate. You’re learning each other’s language and building a shared syllabary through which you can productively communicate. That’s going to take time. Some things cannot be rushed.
Before I close, I want to take a moment’s focus on the first aett. As with our sacred texts, there are numerous ways that one can approach and interpret the narratives that we’re given. Since there are numerous patterns in the way the runes relate to each other, one can tell many stories. While these stories are not direct engagement with the runic powers, they are a means of conceptualizing and learning from them. They are doorways into each rune’s power. Here is a very brief way of reading through the first aett connectively. Fehu is the luck that flows through our blood (ancestral luck, hamingja), vitality, wealth, abundance, power. Like a sap through a tree or chlorophyll through a leaf, it flows through our veins and the veins of our soul body giving it life – just like Loður gave us sense-awareness and color, and the roaring pulse of our heart’s blood when the Gods created humanity. Uruz is raw power, maegen, the ability to tap into, access, and use one’s luck. It is initiation that awakens us to the Powers, challenge by which we earn the right to use what we have been given. Thurisaz is a challenge to focus, to discipline, to hone and temper our power. It’s the hard work we do to strengthen our spiritual and ethical muscles. It is the force that shatters our illusions, clears us out, devours what no longer serves, frees one – sometimes violently – from constraints, burns like napalm in the soul until we order ourselves rightly and leave our bullshit behind. (Edited 3/7 to include ansuz, as I was writing with a migraine and accidentally left one of my favorite runes out). Ansuz is divine inspiration, ecstasy (in the classical religious sense), surety and confidence in the Work. It is the touch of the Gods, grace that allows us to persevere in our spiritual becoming even when it is hard. It is the opener of the way, that, if we are working to become rightly ordered, will show us the way forward. Raido is movement, momentum, overcoming of obstacles, the progress made when we accomplish the first three runic lessons and are rightly ordered with the Powers, and the power by which we may find our way through any obstacles in the way of that. Kenaz is the torch, the hearth fire, the offering fire, a candle on a shrine, the light of knowledge, piety, and devotion. It is that which we have been given to tend, to keep fed and bright and warm (our devotion, our traditions). Gebo is the process of exchange between us and the Holy powers, the law by which we are called to live our lives, the pious sensibility underlying every positively ordered engagement with the Powers, and with each other. Wunjo is the fulfillment of fehu, pleasure and ecstatic awareness of the powers, perfection and glory, joy and transformative power. It is the sum total of the other seven runes in this aett. One cannot access the fullness of wunjo, without first accessing and understanding these preceding runes. Wunjo is also the mead of inspiration, of frenzy, of magic, of inspiration on every possible level. How will you drink of it, how will it shape itself to your mind and talents? It will enliven you for the work to come with the next aett, which takes us down immediately into the place of the dead. This is the foundational work one must do in order to access the Mysteries, in order to be of use to our Gods, in order to become functionally realized human beings. It is ongoing work, and the runes can reflect that, though they are also so much more (5). I would also stress that this is only one way of lightly tapping into their insights.
I’ll wrap this up for now. As all rune work begins with Odin, so too should it end with praises to this God Who had the will to win them.
Hail to the God of the gallows,
Terrible and unrelenting.
Hail to the Wyrd-riven Wonder-worker,
Who leaves ecstasy in His wake.
Hail to the Bale-eyed Beguiler,
with His whispered charms
and savage conjurings.
Hail to the Lord of Asgard,
Architect of the Worlds
Who breathed us into Being,
Eternally let us praise Him.
- These are the nominative and genitive singular forms respectively.
- It goes without saying that the runes are a specialty, as well as being a Mystery all their own, and not only does one not have to work with the runes to be a good Heathen, but those who don’t already have their spiritual houses, i.e. their devotional world, in some semblance of order, should not work with them. They are tools of magic and divination and it becomes very complicated, very quickly.
- Really, if you don’t have the most basic devotional space set up and active in your home, you’re not ready to work with the runes no matter how far along you think you are.
- This word just refers to a set of eight. There are three sets of eight that make up the elder futhark.
- They are sentient, amoral, non-human spirits. They have their own agendas and are allied to the All-Father Who also has His agenda. It’s healthy to never forget that.
We always begin our rites with a fire blessing that ends with the words Thunor weoh three times. Thor hallow. He is the one to Whom we turn, along with fire itself, to protect, cleanse, and gird our sacred space, and tonight He, along with Sunna, was so very present. Our ritual was humbling and it left me in tears. I have never before had a particular devotional relationship with either Thor or Sunna…until this year, and with Sunna, that didn’t really happen until this Sunwait. Suddenly, I have a sense of Them, Their Presence, and the mysteries They bring. I never expected this, and it is a blessing. Sitting in ritual Their presence – Sunna, Thor, and even raido– was so soothing and peaceful, so very there. It has completely transformed the room, something we all felt, and I think from here on out, it may well have likewise transformed my devotional relationship with these Powers. I am so very, very grateful for even the barest sense of Them, and the way I felt Them tonight, it really underscored what a tremendously holy time Yule is, and certainly why our ancestors honored both Thor and Sunna so fervently (1)!
It also occurred to me during the ritual that there is a very potent relationship between Sunna and Thor (as colleagues), particularly when it comes to hallowing. It was the last thing I expected to sense. I think in part, there is a genealogical connection between Them too. In the tradition I follow, Nott is Sunna’s aunt, but She is also Thor’s grandmother through Her daughter Jorð, the Goddess of the earth. That makes Thor and Sunna some type of cousins, I think first cousins once-removed (it also means that Dagr is Thor’s uncle, since Dagr is also a child of Nott – though with a different father than Jorð. Nott had three husbands and She had a child with each) (2).
Raido surprised me too. At first it was difficult to capture its rhythm in the galdr, but then that rune came showing itself as a gauntlet worn by Sunna, as a power that opens the way, as a force that barrels right over any obstacles, brooking no resistance, and also as a rune whose power has been knit into the very fabric of the cosmic architecture (3).
For the ritual tonight, my housemate Tatyana and I co-wrote the following prayer. Instead of our regular prayers last night, we meditated on Sunna for a time, and then I wrote the first line of each couplet, and she wrote the second. We each tapped into different aspects of Sunna, which was really powerful. I think I want to take some serious devotional time this year to really explore Sunna and all the ways She may manifest.
Prayer to Sunna with Raido (by G. Krasskova and T. Vitta) Hail to Sunna, Who roars across the sky, skipping in a half circle through the clouds. Hail to Sunna, Whom no force can stop, a rolling, roaring fire, unfolding, expanding, and glorious. Hail to Sunna, wielding the magic of fire, burning away all darkness, ensuring survival. Hail to Sunna, mighty Magus, driving out all pollution, wickedness, and harm with Her unstoppable force. Hail to Sunna, Whose presence brings healing, destroying all infection, all that hinders the relentless progression of life. Hail to Sunna, Who orders the calculated roar of time, from summer to fall, fall to winter, to spring, to summer again, Inexorable Power. Hail to Sunna, Shamaness of the spheres, wielding raido in joyous synergy. Hail to Sunna, mighty Mother, Who opens the way, showering light and blessings on all the Worlds. Hail to Sunna, Who paves the way for Nott, welcoming darkness in its rightful time, and bringing us to well-earned rest. Hail to Sunna, now and forever. Hail to Sunna, Glorious Power.
There is now one more week of Sunwait, a little over a week until Yule. The rune for next week’s Sunwait is kenaz, and that seems a very fitting way to encapsulate the blessings and holiness of Yule (4).
- Of course, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that our polytheistic ancestors were pious, but in tonight’s ritual, I felt like I glimpsed some small measure of how fervently they must have felt about the importance of venerating these particular Holy Powers and why.
- There is nothing in the Eddas about the relationship between Sunna and Nott, but some traditions accept, via shared personal gnosis, that Nott is Sunna’s aunt. Nott’s connection to Thor, however, is attested to in the Gylfaginning. It all really demonstrates though, how deeply interconnected the various families of our Gods are.
- A huge part of that architecture is the cosmic cycles, the shifting of seasons, the turning of day to night to day again, the rhythm of tides and torrents all inexorable, all built into creation by our Gods.
- The runes for Sunwait are really quite perfect a preparation for Yule. Fehu sets us on the right course with luck and blessings, uruz strengthens us for the journey, thurisaz challenges and cleans out any stagnation or corruption, ansuz opens everything up, clearing out the road ahead, raido increases the momentum until we reach kenaz, which encapsulates the holy fire of Yule. It’s a truly beautiful preparation.
After the autumn equinox, we turn almost immediately to thinking about and honoring the dead. Now, honoring the ancestors for most polytheists, is a year-round practice, but the autumn is a time of particular attention and ritual (1). I’m not sure why autumn is such a potent ancestor time but it is, in multiple traditions. I think maybe it’s that the vibrancy and abundance of summer is fading away as the earth itself prepares for winter, something that can lead to a certain melancholy and contemplation of death, but that’s just speculation on my part. It does seem appropriate as the seasons shift to honor the dead in special ways and this leads nicely into the more intense holy days surrounding Yule.
At the end of this month, from October 27 through Nov 2, my House does a whole week of ancestor rituals for various groups of our dead and for our ancestors and allied spirits as a whole. That is still a month away though preparations have already begun in my home. Before we get to those rites though, we have our first feast-day for the dead coming up on October 4: a commemoration of the Martyrs of Verden.
It is no surprise to anyone with even a passing knowledge of European history that the spread of Christianity across Europe brought with it religious and cultural genocide. Charlemagne in 8thcentury France was no exception. The grandson of Charles Martel, Charlemagne destroyed sacred sites and holy places of the Saxon Heathens and, when these brave men and women refused to convert (i.e. to abandon their ancestral Gods and practices), slaughtered them en masse. Four thousand, five hundred of them, at the very least, laid down their lives in defense of their Gods and traditions in 782 C.E. at a bloodbath that is known to historians as the massacre of Verden.
After the Saxon wars, i.e. after Charlemagne’s crusade against indigenous polytheism, the children of Saxon nobles were sent to monasteries as oblates, and sometimes they were forced to take binding vows as monastics (there is a famous case a few decades later of a man who jumped the wall, fleeing the monastery after having been forced to become a monk and during the resulting trial, one of the senior monks said, in the trial transcripts, that any and all abuses toward the Saxons were justified because they weren’t Christian at the time (2)).
I could go on. I have strong feelings about the man (3). I don’t, however, want to focus on him in this post beyond what I have done in order to provide historical context. I’d rather focus on the martyrs, those who were killed because they refused to convert (4). That’s exactly what my household will be doing too on October 4.
We’re still working out the proper rites by which to honor our sancti, sanctae, and martyrs. We don’t have a set format yet. Usually we purify the space, invoke whatever Gods seem appropriate, and then pour out libations to the dead in question, sharing stories of them as we go. More offerings may, if anyone involved feels it appropriate, be made. It’s both low-key and straightforward. We will often have a communal meal afterwards.
Since we’re all home now due to Covid restrictions, we may set up memorial candles and keep them going all month. I’ve been playing with the idea since it was something I used to do on my ancestor shrine throughout October and November. We give water to refresh them, candles to light their way, food and drink to nourish them, and the gift of memory, of telling their stories. If it is not enough, it is at least a good starting point.
What are all of you doing for your ancestors this month?
- At least it is in my tradition. Some polytheisms have their ancestor time in late winter, usually February.
- See Matthew Bryan Gillis’ Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire: The Case of Gottschalk of Orbais. These monastic schools are, I believe, best seen as precursors of the 19thand 20thcentury “Indian” Schools in America, complete with the abuse, destruction of cultural practices, and forced induction into Christianity such later “education” entailed. Those later atrocities didn’t come out of the aether; they’d been perfected hundreds of years earlier by a mass murderer who could barely write his own name.
- There are certain subjects I avoid as a medievalist and Charlemagne is one of them. I turn into Cato ending every speech, no matter the topic, with his famous “Carthago delenda est” though in my case it turns into a shrieking “Charlemagne delendus est.” He just turns my stomach. But then, on my mother’s side, I’m descended from the Saxons he didn’t manage to kill. I should point out, that it was no easy job to pacify them. A generation after Verden and then some, there were still “Heathen” uprisings. Of course, as an historian, I acknowledge that Charlemagne did great things for France, and for the spread of education in Europe but I will not forget that this happened on the bones of my ancestors and the tattered shreds of their religious traditions.
- I highly recommend a small book by James Chisolm called Grove and Gallows: Greek and Latin Sources for Germanic Heathenism.
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One of my students is slowly learning to lead rituals on her own – an intimidating prospect for most people (of any faith tradition, I’d warrant). I remember how nervous I was the first time I was tasked with this, during my clergy training. It took a very long time for that nervousness to go away (of course the opposite, doing it all on autopilot isn’t good either – a little nervousness can be helpful!). I was very blessed to have received extraordinarily rich and really, really good ritual training through Fellowship of Isis and the Iseum of the Nine Muses/Lyceum Urania Celeste. Throughout my entire working life as a priest and spirit worker, even well after I became Heathen, I have remained tremendously grateful to the gifted women who set my feet rightly on the path of ritual. It was years before I realized that this isn’t something everyone is taught, and boy does it sometimes show! So, as I work with my student, as she learns more and more about ritual, edging toward taking her vows as a priest of Freya, I’ll share tidbits here too, for those who may find them helpful.
A ritual is a formalized series of actions done with sacral intent. It’s a ceremony, a performance of actions, prayers, etc. by which one is able not only to reverence the Powers, but to enter into a more receptive headspace vis-à-vis the Holy. A priest may lead a ritual because there are certain ceremonies the Gods request, he or she may lead rituals as part of his or her obligation to a community (however large or small) to help them maintain right relationship with the Powers, or it may be more personal, a devotional rite to honor a Deity, or performed in a desire to establish a devotional relationship with a Power, or a thousand other reasons.
A good ritual is like a well written essay (as an aside to students, please dispense with the five paragraph essay you were taught in high school. It is the bane, the absolute bane of college professors everywhere! This has been your public service announcement. Read academic articles. Read essays you like. READ. That is all, but no five-paragraph essay. They suck.): it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is organized. No matter how free flowing it may seem, a good ritual is organized with a clearly defined scaffolding. Within that scaffolding, one may include many different things – the toolbox of useful techniques and practices available to a ritual facilitator is huge and often crosses religious traditions (chant, meditation, prayer for instance are used by numerous religious traditions the world over and always have been) but the supportive architecture is still there, creating continuity and holding it all together. A ritual need not be complicated either. It can be incredibly simple, but there is still structure.
The purpose of the ritual leader, usually a priest, sometimes a spiritworker but not always, is to A. create sacred space. For those worshippers, this is the point where the priest performs actions that create a palpable change in the cognition of those attending, perhaps from a performance perspective, an ontological change in the space in which they are all gathered itself. You’re almost pathwalking: moving into a different time, a different space, a different headspace. It’s what I’ve heard ritual specialists call Kairos – ritual time, the righttime, as opposed to Kronos chronological time (and I never spell these right * sigh *. My apologies if they’re wrong here. I can’t spell in any of the languages I read). The space becomes its own world in which the process of the ritual is allowed to cleanly unfold. Then, B. the ritual facilitator is there to guide those attending into that sacred space, hold that space while the ritual happens so that those attending can have the possibility of experience, and then bring them back to mundane headspace again. There are transitions into and out of that must occur for which the ritual specialist is responsible.
After the actual act of creating sacred space, I might go so far as to say that facilitating those transitions smoothly is the number one responsibility of the ritual leader. How one goes about that will change, depending on whether one is leading ritual for a small group (2-6 people), a middling size group (7-20), or more. For instance, I might hold a ritual where I pass a horn around to the participants, allowing each person to individually pray and honor the Deity or Deities of their choice. This is a standard part of a Heathen rite. I would only do this however, if I had less than ten people present. To utilize this type of practice with more people than say ten would slow down the TEMPO of the rite far too much, which in turn would negatively impact those points of transition. In ritual, tempo and rhythm are everything. This is how the facilitator manages those transitions and, essentially, manages to create an altered state in those present (the purpose of which is experience of the Holy in some way), finally, it’s how the facilitator will bring everyone back to grounded, mundane headspace again when the ritual is concluded.
This is also something that is very, very difficult for someone just learning to lead rituals to pick up on intuitively. When one prays or performs a ritual alone, tempo and rhythm don’t matter so much; or rather, a conscious awareness of tempo and rhythm don’t matter. The devotee is able to work at his or her own pace and doesn’t need worry about anyone else. That’s not the case for a ritual facilitator. When one is leading the ritual it’s no longer about one’s own experience of the Holy. In fact, the ritual facilitator’s personal experience of the Holy during the ritual is THE least important part of the entire process.
What this means in practice is that the ritual leader cannot go into as deep an altered state as he or she facilitates in the others attending the rite. (This also means, that if a person is planning on carrying a Deity via possession, there really should be a second priest present to facilitate the ritual, at least from the point of Deity possession onward). This was a huge surprise to my student, and she reminded me as I was writing this to be sure to include it here. I’m grateful for that reminder, because it isn’t something I would have thought to point out otherwise. The ritual leader must be observant and keyed into the headspace of every single attendee: that’s a matter of paying attention to energy levels, rhythm, and tempo. There are also physical cues when someone is struggling to get into a receptive headspace, when they’re deeply attuned to the Gods in ritual, and when they are coming back up out of an altered experience. A good ritual facilitator learns to observe all of this and learning to recognize and track all of that just takes time and experience.
Sometimes I think the hardest thing is just not rushing. Because one is on the outside of the experience of the attendees, it’s easy to think one is taking too long in establishing the groundwork for the ritual experience, or in guiding the attendees down into ritual space. Err on the side of more, not less. Ideally, the ritual facilitator will have training and more experience than the laity in attendance, and he or she may find it very, very easy to drop into an altered state (which is really what ritual headspace is) quickly. I know this is the case for me because I’ve just been doing this for so long. It’s a professional competency developed over a couple of decades. That’s not the case for the average lay person. Don’t assume those in attendance will move through those transitional states as quickly as you yourself might. This is where an established protocol really comes in handy and I’ll write more about this in the future as I continue these practicum posts.
Of course, learning to speak up, to project one’s voice, to chant or sing without shyness or hesitation is a sizeable learning curve for many. The only advice there is that one has to grab that bull by the horns and just do it. It gets easier eventually but even after all these years, I still get a tad nervous before leading a ritual and I think that’s good. One shouldn’t ever be complacent about the Gods.
Finally, make sure that the rite has a clear purpose. For most polytheistic services, that purpose is first and foremost honoring the Gods, or a specific Deity or group of Deities. Everything in the rite in some way, shape, or form refers back to that purpose. Nothing is extraneous. Keep the dilly dallying and chatter to a minimum (not just out of simple respect, but again, because such things will negatively affect tempo and rhythm, which in turn will negatively impact those transitions into and out of ritual headspace). What happens then in the body of the ritual should, if at all possible, appeal to the entire sensorium: taste, sound, sight, smell, and feeling. We’re corporeal creatures and the more that something engages our sensorium, the greater the impact it is likely to have on us, and the easier it will be to engage.
For those of you who are just starting out learning how to lead rituals, or who have fumbled and wonder why, what questions do you have about this process? Hit the comments section and let me know.
I was telling my husband how helpful his honest question about drinking horns had been and he looked at me and after a moment said, “you should write something about what makes good ground crew.” I’ve only very rarely seen this discussed, even amongst spiritworkers, so I think maybe he’s right and so here we go.
Firstly, what do I mean when I say ‘ground crew?’
This is a term a bunch of us came up with (or at least began using) in 2004 after the first ‘Keepers’ Crossing’ gathering held at Cauldron Farm. This was an international gathering of spiritworkers, shamans, vitkar, mystics, et al that we held yearly for five or six years. It was the equivalent of a professional conference and gave us a professional forum where we could meet with other specialists and delve into the nitty gritty aspects of our work. We networked, exchanged tech. and sometimes talked terminology. It turned out that quite a few of us were using similar terminology to refer to the team of people – be they spiritworkers or not—who assisted us before, during, and after possessory work (1), intense trance and journey work, or other aspects of spirit work that require altered states of some sort.
Why do we need ground crew?
Well, we may not needground crew, but a competent and committed ground crew certainly makes the sacred work go more smoothly.
The spirit worker needs to be focused on doing the work he or she has set to do, in order to do that as cleanly as possible. That often means neglecting their bodies. If that person is splitting attention, distracted by practicalities it can make him less efficient. If she has no ground crew to monitor her, she can push into injury, pain, or even seizure. If a Deity is coming via possession, then it is only polite to have attendants. After such work, a spirit worker can be disoriented, sick, in pain, or just spacy. The ground crew makes sure that the spirit worker does everything required to transition back into mundane headspace safely. What that entails will differ from spirit worker to spirit worker and it’s something that must be discussed in detail well before any work occurs (2).
It’s easy to forget essential things if one is doing any type of altered state work so the team acts as spotters. Spirit work of any kind is grueling on the body. It can trigger chronic pain flares, immune issues, neurological problems, migraines, muscle spasms, and dehydration to name but a few. I don’t know how much of it comes from the average spirit-worker’s intense focus and stubbornness about pushing through, and how much is just a side effect of the work itself. Shifting states of consciousness, dropping quickly from regular headspace to a deeply altered state, carrying divine energy, working with the energies with which many of us work takes its toll and we learn to dissociate from pain very early. It’s really, really helpful to have a team that doesn’t do that, whose sacred job is taking care of the physical needs of the spirit worker. Usually that means, attending them as they prep for whatever work they’re doing, watching over them during that work, and making sure they’re fed, watered, and relatively functional after. It also means doing all the physical driving. Do not drive after doing altered state work of any kind, people. It may also mean acting as a spotter if the spirit worker has to do on site unexpected spirit work. This happened to me, for instance, the first time I went to Gettysburg. I had an intense experience with some of the military dead, one that laid me completely out for three days. If I hadn’t had a very calm, centered keeper with me, I could have walked into traffic, fallen and broken an ankle, forgotten to eat, etc. Ground crew are angels, absolute guardian angels.
On a purely practical level, it’s also really nice to have a pair of hands or several pairs to help manage tools and sacred items. This is important work – not everyone can safely handle exposure to sacred tools. They’re also capable of bundling up the spiritworker and calling 911 if need be – I’ve done a lot of my work in the woods, and accidents happen even when one is just hiking. Add altered state work on to that, or any other type of spirit work, and it’s best to be prepared. One of my ground crew always has a full medical kit with them, and enough first aid to make use of it.
So, what makes good ground crew?
Well, this is my opinion and what I look for in my own ground crew. I’d love to hear from other spirit workers about what you look for in your team. I also want to emphasize that having a ground crew is a real privilege. I worked for over 15 years without one and I have to say, it’s so much easier to do good, effective work with ground crew. It was mind-blowing to me just how much easier it was the first time I experienced it. To those who are willing and able to serve in this capacity: THANK YOU a thousand times.
Firstly, while I prefer ground-crew that has at least a bit of sensitivity to Gods, spirits, and energy, it is perfectly ok to have someone head-blind on your team. The important thing is that they know how to monitor both the spirit worker and everyone around them, especially if it’s a public ritual (3). If they are gifted, they need to be in control of that: grounded, centered, and with a capacity for shielding, preferably up to and including the ability to shield someone else. Spirit workers can make excellent ground crew themselves and it’s always good to do this for others, because you learn what it takes.
I like at least one person to have medical training – at least CPR and first aid. The best ground crew I ever worked with had two people in the medical field on it, one of them a nurse. They also have to be discrete. They’re going to see the spiritworker at his or her most vulnerable, possibly up to helping him/her dress or undress, vomiting, passing out, etc. They need to know how to keep their teeth together. They are also responsible for making sure the spiritworker’s property, tools, garments, etc. are in good order, collected, and with the spiritworker when they depart. It’s important that they have food, hydration, and other necessities for helping the spiritworker ground and come back to mundane headspace afterwards. They provide aftercare, making sure the spiritworker isn’t in shock, is hydrated, fed, grounded. They provided grounding and shielding if needed. They force the spiritworker to eat and drink (discuss this with them very early on and work out what is acceptable. Each spiritworker will have preferences. I tell my crew to make me eat, to be hardasses about it because I know I won’t want to and I’ll be resistant). It goes without saying that the crew must be pious (4).
Most important of all, every single person on the ground crew needs to be organized, capable of following instructions, and willing to take orders, but also think on the spot as situations arise and/or change. It is the spiritworker’s obligation to teach the ground crew what they need to know: preferences, protocols, emergency procedures, situations that may occur, etc. They need to function as a well-oiled team. Most of all, the crew has to be security aware. Their job is to protect and assist the spiritworker who may be operating on a completely different state of awareness or not conscious at all if possession is happening. They are there to provide care and safety. The team cannot be afraid to get their hands dirty and they cannot be hesitant when it comes to protecting their charge. I like one of my team to be armed for just this reason.
The ground crew has an incredibly important function: they ensure that sacred protocols are followed by everyone concerned so that rites and rituals can happen properly, in ways that allow for clean communication between the Gods and the community, and that enable the spiritworker or specialist to come through the work with as little damage as possible. They make the transitions as smooth as possible. So, take the time to train a good crew and treat them like gold. They’re worth it.
I would love to know what questions you have so please don’t be shy. Post them in the comments and I’ll try to answer as best I can.
- This term refers to the practice of Deity possession, allowing a Deity to pour His or Her consciousness into ours, taking over for a time to engage with devotees. It’s a sacred act and a traditional one, appearing in polytheisms the world over. There is ample evidence for it having been practiced amongst the Norse. Today, folks are probably most familiar with it from various Afro-Caribbean religions like Lukumi, Voudoun, and Candomble.
- As an example, before the third day of our solstice ritual I was right at the cusp of a pain flare (I have fibro). I was in growing physical pain on a number of levels. I knew that if we waited a couple of hours I would probably stabilize and could do the ritual without a problem. I said to my team, “I can push this, but I’ll pay for it.” And we discussed whether or not that was necessary. It wasn’t, so we were able to wait a couple of hours and everything went off quite well. Had I needed to force the appropriate headspace and mobility, I could have done, but the wisdom of my ground crew took over and they were better able to evaluate the situation (whereas I was really concerned about the work to the extent I would push all else aside for no need). Because of that, I was functional later that evening and not in terrible pain the next day.
- In a public rite, the spiritworker should ALWAYS have a keeper who doesn’t leave their side but isn’t at all intrusive. I remember several years ago being asked to carry our moon God Mani via possession, what we call “horsing,” an Afro-Caribbean term that implies that the Deity rides the devotee like a rider might a horse. We don’t control when the Deity seats Him or Herself. Our job is to prepare properly and show up with a willingness to be of service. That’s it. If the Deity decides not to descend, that’s ok. There could be a million reasons why that have nothing at all to do with the spiritworker. Our job is to show up prepared.
Well, Mani is unusual when He possesses in that He likes the sense of corporeality of the horse experiencing the God experiencing the horse. He’s slow and careful, leaving all the devotee’s mental architecture in the same state when He leaves as it was when He possessed. He doesn’t rush. So, He was skirting around the edges of my consciousness, partially there but not fully, taking His time as is His privilege to do.As I was pacing before His offering table, another spirit worker, knowing better – so much so that I cannot help but think this person did this in order to break me out of the necessary headspace and ruin the ritual—came up and grabbed my/His shoulders and basically told Him to get the show on the road. Had I been fully me, I’d have clocked the polluted creature in the mouth for violating ritual space and possibly for assault because this person wasn’t gentle. Mani is much calmer and was in me enough that I wasn’t fully me. This prevented my own normal response (let’s not even get into the fact that this creature knew I have neck damage and the way I was grabbed could have compounded that).
My ground crew had gotten separated from me – people often want to be close to the horse because of the Deity energy pouring through them and one of the things a crew does is monitor that and keep it orderly. The horse should never be overwhelmed and touching a horse in anyway, particularly before the Deity fully seats Him or Herself in them is a huge no no. It can completely break the horse out of the necessary receptive headspace for the possession. Well, I’m told later that the head of my crew saw it, saw this other spirit worker coming and couldn’t get across the field in time to head it off. Fortunately, I am very experienced and thanks to my training was able to remain focus. Mani slid in when it suited Him and held court and people were able to engage with this God.
I recount this to emphasize the necessity of training your crew for every possible situation. I had worked with those wanting me to carry Mani before, and knew most of those gathered. I had no reason to suspect that an experienced spirit worker who, while we disliked each other personally, was a professional would behave in such a violent and inappropriate fashion. I had not prepared my ground crew for this, because I assumed that such a thing – unthinkable to anyone with basic piety—would not happen. I was wrong and because I did not prepare them, it wasn’t on their radar as something to pay particular attention to so even when the head of my crew saw it happening, he couldn’t stop it. It is incumbent on the spiritworker not the ground crew to prepare the crew with all necessary protocol and for any possible situation that may occur. ].
- On the positive side, because they are navigating everything behind the scenes, the ground crew will usually be the first to witness the theophany of possession, and it is with possessory work that they are the most crucial for the spiritworker’s welfare.
A few days ago, someone asked me about the New Year’s Eve ritual that I typically do for the House. I promised I’d post it here, so here it is. I alter this a little every year, but the barebones scaffolding remains intact:
New Year’s Eve Ritual
I don’t usually share House rituals, but I’m moved to share our New Year’s Eve ritual. This is one that many of us will be doing in our own homes as the year turns. I share it with you here, for those who may be wishing for some idea of what type of ritual to do, but who might be coming up short. This New Year’s, my cultus deorum practice took the lead with defining the ritual.
(Do this so that you begin on the 31st and end on the 1st. 🙂 Adapt it as you need and wish. Five Deities are invoked: Cardea, the Goddess of the door hinge, Limentius, the God of the threshold, Forculus, God of the doorway, Janus, God of beginnings, doorways, passages, etc. –January is named after Him, and Hermes.) (The image above is Cardea by L. Perkins)
Take a ritual bath to prepare yourself and dress in clean clothing.
I. Begin by cleaning all your shrines, both to the Gods and the ancestors.
II. Make an offering to your ancestors, thanking them for all their help and protection in the previous year and asking for their continued blessings.
III. Make an equal offering to the house spirits.
IV. If you have a mask, don it now and take up a noise-maker (drum, rattle, even a can filled with some coins) and open a couple of windows. Go through every room in the house making as much noise as you can, cleansing it via sound of any stagnant or unhelpful or malignant energy. Sweep your house, every room if possible and sweet out the door. Then vacuum. (I’m practical. My mother was Swiss lol).
Take off the mask and put away the noisemaker.
V. Light four candles and ask the blessing of fire on your home.
VI. Go to the front door. wipe it, the threshold , and the lintels down with an infusion of juniper or verbena, or some other sweet and cleansing herb (I think Florida water is a good substitute). Hang colored streamers from your door (colored wool would have been traditional), anoint the hinges with a dab of olive oil. Asperse the door three times with verbena water, florida water, rose water or some other sweet smelling infusion.
Offer the following prayers After each prayer, set or pour out an offering glass of wine:
Prayer to Hermes
I sing of Hermes, the favorite of Bakcheios,
the wily one with mischief and wisdom in his heart.
He stands at the cross-roads, a pillar connecting the worlds,
whose foundation is in the underworld
and whose eyes survey all that transpires in heaven.
He is the lord of magic, the inventor of words and religious rites, the trustworthy one who knows the secrets of the gods
and interprets their will for mankind. (The image here is Forculus and LImentius by G. Palmer).
Praise for Hermes:
In gratitude let my lips pour forth praise
for Hermes, the wily one, the master of many guises
clever in his plotting, who wanders over wide ways
with feet so light they never leave a track
for the huntsman to follow. Ghost-like, shifting,
who flits through our thoughts and knows how
to carry off our deepest, most well-guarded secrets,
King of the land of Sleep who guides the
dreams like sheep through one of the two gates
to find their way to us while our bodies rest,
and with the same staff he uses to check
their step he can conjure illusions and
shape reality to his will, he can cause poisonous
roots to spring up from the earth and brew
strange philters to protect against the witch’s charms,
for Hermes is great in magic and the inventor of
powerful words. Those words he knows how to use,
to bend the rules of society and trick the canny
businessman out of his money. Hermes wants for
nothing for through hard work, cleverness, the
weaving of fine tales and simple treachery or theft
he can get whatever it is he wants and even
managed to sneak his way into the bed of the lovely
Aphrodite whose soft, warm flesh delighted him so.
Hail Hermes, is there anything you cannot
accomplish? If so I am ignorant of it.
(prayers by sannion)
(Hermes by G. Palmer)
Prayer to Cardea
I call to You,
Guardian of all passageways.
Without your leave no blessings may flow.
You are guardian and keeper of the earth:
You open that which has been closed,
and close that which has been opened.
Bless us this night and in the year to come
with an abundance of all good things.
To You, gracious Goddess
(prayer by Galina)
(Cardea by G. Palmer)
Prayer to Forculus
I hail You, Forculus,
Gracious Guardian of the door.
I ask Your blessings and protection
on my home and in my life
in the year to come;
and I thank you for
for watching over me
in the year now past.
doorkeeper of the earth,
(prayer by Galina)
Prayer to Limentius
I pray to You, LImentius,
God of the threshold.
I thank You for the grace
of Your protection and care
in the year now past.
I ask that You watch over
and protect me
in the year to come.
To You, keeper of the threshold,
(prayer by Galina)
Prayer to Janus
Sing I Ianus,
lord with two faces,
who opens the door,
and causes unexpected things to occur.
To those who have your favor,
no obstacle blocks their path.
You create the way where none appeared before,
and bring helpful spirits through to aid us in our work.
No great task is begun without first invoking you,
gatekeeper of Olympos who holds the keys
to all the temples of the gods.
O Ianus, unlock the door of my mind
to let powerful verse spill forth,
like the Nile in flood season.
O Ianus, unblock the gates of the underworld,
so that Demeter’s rich bounty can fill the land.
O Ianus, make smooth the way so that men’s prayers may travel up
and reach the ears of the Blessed Immortals.
Ianus I sing!
(prayer by sannion)
(Janus by G. Palmer)
Make the following offerings:
*refried beans (seriously, a traditional dish for Cardea lol. She likes the ancient Roman equivalent of re-fried beans)
*a bowl of milk and honey
*bread and butter
*anything else you feel moved to give.
light a little incense
Hang a wreath on the door and ask for the Gods’ protection (if you have hawthorn, this is particularly associated with Cardea and is very protective. Laurel would have also been traditional for these wreaths but don’t sweat it).
Say: “joy to this house” three times.
VII. Go back inside and give an offering of grain and salt or salt and bread to the fire.
VIII. eat something sweet, symbolic of welcoming sweetness in the new year.
It’s also nice if, at this point, you can share a meal – however simple–with those you love
IX. if you have the skill, sit and do divination for the rest of the year. (This is a good time as head of your house to do household divination. You can always follow up with a professional diviner if anything comes up that’s troubling or you feel needs to be further addressed.)
X. When you are next out, give food to the poor/homeless/hungry.
(the prayer cards above, unless otherwise noted, are by Grace Palmer. All may be found here.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about sacrifice lately. Yule is approaching and that is a time where I often give appropriate sacrifices to Odin and it’s time to start thinking about what the winter will entail, and to start making the necessary preparations should animal sacrifice be part of that.
I take the necessity and goodness of sacrifice for granted but obviously not everyone does. I recently had an issue with a neighbor over my practice. She didn’t see anything (I’m not rude to my neighbors and I have a secluded area and shed in which I do this type of work), but simply knowing that this was part of my practice bothered her extensively, to the point of her lightly interfering and interrupting a non-sacrificial religious rite. It’s easy when surrounded only by people who share one’s worldview, to forget how disconnected our society is from its food cycles, from offertory traditions, from life and death, and from the ways of our ancestors. Think about, people don’t die in the home anymore. They get shipped off to hospitals and hospice to make that passage which denies us contact with them in their last days, and with the process surrounding their dying, something, I might add, that I believe ratchets up the grief afterwards. Unlike with our ancestors, we buy our food neatly pasteurized, sanitized, sterilized, geneticized (yes, i’m making up a word? ) and sealed. There are kids today that don’t know hamburgers come from cows. Disconnection seems at times too mild a word.
Even for those of us engaging in these practices there can be one hell of a learning curve, but so much good can come of facing that head on because sacrifice is essential to polytheistic religions. To paraphrase Ken Dowden, noted scholar of Roman religion “without sacrifice there is no piety.” (1) Period. End of story and this is not rocket science. Except in fact, for those of us raised in our modern, spiritually oblivious culture, apparently it is. This is, sadly, understandable. How many of us after all have grown up slaughtering our own food? That separation from the origins of what nourishes us creates, I believe, an inability to position the act of slaughtering an animal in one’s world either practically or sacrally. There is a level of disconnect present with which our ancestors never had to deal. Take for example, that neighbor who recently wanted to know why I had to be so “mean” to the chickens I was about to ritually offer, why couldn’t I get my meat at the grocery store?” –(factory farming obviously not a moral issue for the woman). Why indeed and if you could see me now, you’d see the exasperated rolling of my eyes. It can be a really shocking and frightening thing though, for those who have never been exposed to it sacrally, except maybe in media stupidity and sensationalism.
I get really passionate about this subject too. I’m passionate about a lot of things, but fiercely so where sacrifice is concerned, partly because I believe it’s incredibly dangerous and unhelpful to carry unexamined modern attitudes into our practice, and partly because sacrifice is so, so important. I’m really glad that it’s come up recently in discussion again, because it is a much needed impetus for me to write more about this. We talk much about restoring our ancestral traditions but this particular tradition can make some of us cringe: without butchery, i.e. the slaughter of animals, there is no piety. There is no religion. There is no being in right relationship with one’s Gods. Pretty much, to one degree or another, across the board this was the accepted view of our ancestors, and of religious traditions that sustained their people for generations upon generations. Even Judaism, Islam, and some forms of Christianity allow for it in many cases. Our railing against the necessity of sacrifice is just one more way that we assume that we know better than our ancestors. It’s one more way that we assume the death of our traditions was some sort of moral ‘progress.’ It’s what my colleague Raven Kaldera, in our book “Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner,” called “Urdummheit,” the idea that our ancestors were stupid.
I have found over the past couple of years, that in some sections of modern polytheism, even the idea of giving appropriate offerings is problematic. After all, it does highlight that we and our feelings are not the central point of the religious equation, doesn’t it? When Sannion and I were on the air, discussing this (among other things) on our show Wyrd Ways Radio, we had an unexpected call in by a listener who told a fascinating story about Alexander the Great, which can be found here. If I could see our contemporary polytheisms nurture any attitude in its followers, it would be this: we cannot give too much to our Gods. But in a culture, permeated with Protestant values, the values that say “don’t waste that” (or if one is Heathen “Don’t give too much!!!” – as if one *could*) when one is about to lay out an offering of food or drink, as if giving tangibly to one’s Gods and ancestors is a waste, it’s no wonder that we think ourselves kinder and gentler and –let’s be honest–above offering an animal. We as a culture think ourselves better than our pious ancestors.(2) It’s an arrogance unthinkable to the ancient mind.
Sacrifice is one of the holiest of offerings. It is the most solemn and sacred of all rituals. It renews, restores, nourishes in a way that no other offering can. Not every Deity requires this granted, but many, many do. The role of the sacrificial priest, one that I have fulfilled since 1995, is an awesome responsibility. One must learn the mechanics of slaughter adeptly, so that the animal in no ways suffers. One must develop (or have an assistant with this skill) the ability to communicate with and soothe the animal. It is important that the animal suffer neither pain nor terror. They are fulfilling a tremendously sacred role, the apex of what their own wyrd may be, and participating in this communicatory cycle in a way denied us as people. It is an act worthy of recognition, respect, and care. This type of priest must learn all the necessary prayers and purificatory rites required before, during, and after both for oneself and for the animal. It is necessary to develop a very strong connection with one’s ancestors and one’s lineage because the power released during a sacrifice is enormous and the broken threads of our traditions, imperfectly restored (if at all) may not be able to sustain the force of that which once would have nourished a living community. Not everyone is meant to be a sacrificial priest. It’s a specialist position. Even though, for instance, I’ve done this work for years, I still divine before each and every ritual involving sacrifice to make certain that I am cleared to serve in this capacity. Our ancestors had the option in many cases of going to a temple, purchasing an animal, and having the sacrifice done for them. One should not attempt a sacrifice without proper training and, for the first few rituals, oversight. There’s no room for error here. There’s no room either from a religious perspective or a compassionate one for getting it wrong.
I will always divine before planning a sacrifice, even if I am sure one is desired. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe I’m wrong. I let the Gods and ancestors speak for themselves. I will divine and if there is any further question after that, I will see another diviner for absolute impartiality. I will also divine right before the sacrifice is to be performed, and immediately after to make sure that it was accepted. Well before a rite of this sort is done, I will seek the Gods’ counsel on how it should be disposed of: is it meant to be cooked up to feed and nourish a community too? Is it meant to be given in total immolation to the Gods? Is it meant to be buried or disposed of in a particular place? What do the Gods wish? This is one of the purposes of divination, to give the Gods a chance to convey Their wishes. Even if I am certain that I have heard and understood a Deity directly, I will still confirm with divination. I do this not to question the Deity, but in deference to my flawed human understanding. I do not want *my* errata of comprehension or translation to mar the process.
So I will share how I consecrated my statue of Dionysos several years ago. I first did divination to determine that such sacrifice was appropriate and then asked if He would accept two roosters. (With a shoulder and back injury, I no longer offer four-legged animals without a strong assistant present). The divination was very positive, I also asked if Hermes would require an offering and again, it was positive. After setting the date, acquiring the animals, cleansing and going through my ritual process, I first made offering to Hermes, one of the quickest, cleanest, and most beautiful of sacrifices I have ever done. The bird was field-dressed and cooked up with herbs, lemons (for some reason, it keeps coming up at every Hermes offering that He likes lemons!), and lots and lots of butter and offered to Him as a feast. The blood was used to consecrate His image, and the head and heart put at the base of His herm. Then the Dionysos offering was made and His statue likewise washed in the blood of the two birds. They were then disposed of as divination indicated (and this was long enough ago, that I don’t recall what we did with them). Divination afterwards showed both offerings to have been happily accepted. I made sure to do all requisite cleansing after to remove miasma (even though it is a sacred thing, the killing of an animal, like marriage, carries miasma) and so it was done. Not too long after, I wrote the following:
Sacrifice is important. It’s one of the holiest and most sacred of our rituals. When we engage in sacrifice for our Gods, we are entering into the flow of a very ancient, very, very profound contract We are entering into something tremendously powerful, something that reaches to the very core of our traditions. This is what brings renewal. This is what brings grace and blessing to the community. This is one of the things that nourishes our Gods and in turn nourishes us. It completes a sacred cycle and there is very little if anything that may serve as a truly adequate substitute.
For this reason, I give thanks for those clergy, of all our various traditions who have dedicated themselves to the task of learning and restoring these rituals and protocols. I give thanks to the Gods and ancestors for those who teach and those who do, for those who take up the knife so that our Gods may have the offerings best suited to Their glory. I give thanks for our sacrificial priests (and yes, I am one, but I give thanks to those who taught me, to those from whom I continue to learn, and to the Gods for Their continued patience). I give thanks to the farmers who provide the feast for the Powers. I give thanks to the fire that carries the fullness of the sacrifice away via immolation and I give thanks to those who dress and prepare the sacrifices for feasting, when that is appropriate. I give thanks to the knife and the ones who craft it. I give thanks for the animals and I give thanks for the land that catches the blood as it is spilled. These things are sacred. The hands of the sacrificial priest are sacred, and the process and cycle itself. For these things, I am grateful. I know how they nourish wyrd. I know what it means to restore these rites after two thousand years of our ritual places lying fallow.
I stand by that now. If sacrifice bothers you, consider why and understand that your discomfort does not for a moment render this act any less sacred or any less necessary. The modern lens through which we filter our faith is the problem not the corpus of sacred rites given into our care and safe-keeping. Sometimes veneration is messy.
- Ken Dowden, Religion and the Romans, Bristol Classics Press, 1992, p. 1.
- The impact of the Protestant work ethic on contemporary Polytheisms and the making of offerings is a topic I’m reserving for another post.
Continuing the conversation on miasma and purity, a reader emailed me this morning asking if I would give examples of what I do in my own practice.(1)
It would be too cumbersome (and I suspect boring) to go into detail of what I do day by day, but I can describe how I prepare myself for a ritual and hopefully that will give some idea of the practicalities of purification within a regular practice. (2)
If I know that I have a ritual coming up, about three days before the ritual, I start preparing. I’ll make sure that the shrine cloths, sacred statues, icons, etc. offering bowls and any other accouterments that I require are clean and in good working order. I’ll also make a list of what offerings I need to acquire and make sure I do that well before the day of the rite (except for flowers. Flowers I tend to buy the morning of a ritual in order to make sure that they are fresh). Once all that is done, I turn to getting myself into the right headspace.
The whole point of avoiding miasma, (and taking care of it quickly when it occurs) is to avoid being in a state that isn’t conducive to the presence of the Gods. Miasma can impact our headspace, our attitude, our energy, our discernment and shift us ever so slightly (or depending on the level of miasma greatly) out of true. We avoid miasma to maintain the best relationship possible with our Holy Powers. When we can’t avoid miasma (and we can’t – it happens as natural side effect to certain things. (3)), it’s important to cleanse it quickly.
So about three days before a ritual, I start taking care with what I read and watch on tv. I’m easily affected by what I take in visually. Under normal circumstances I read and watch what I want (within reason. I don’t want to pollute my mind so I tend to avoid exposing myself to certain things, particularly things that are really really violent. I don’t want the images in my brain) but since I know that I can be affected by media, I’ll limit myself for a couple days approaching ritual. This helps me to get into and maintain a good headspace for approaching the Gods.
I clean my house and make sure I have clean clothes for the ritual. All energetic cleaning begins first with physical cleaning, at least insofar as I was taught. So I’ll take cleansing baths for three days approaching the ritual. While I take regular cleansing baths anyway, usually with white salt or pink Himalayan salt (I find that different salts tend to be more or less intense in their esoteric cleansing properties) before a ritual, I’ll use black lava salt (which I find very strong). Sometimes I’ll also take beer baths – pouring a bottle of dark beer into my bath. It’s a German folk custom that really works like a charm (no pun intended) for cleansing or do some other type of cleansing bath recipe.
I don’t isolate myself during this time. I go about my normal day, work, school, art classes, whatever needs to be done, but I try to do so mindfully. When I get home, I take a bit more care than normal over what I watch or read. I aim to eat healthily and get enough sleep (not doing the latter is one of my migraine triggers and I don’t want to get sick the day of a ritual). I also increase prayers and personal offerings to whatever Deity or Deities for Whom we’re doing the ritual. I may also read Their stories and prayers to Them if I have any.
The day of a ritual, I get up early and set up the altar for the ritual. I go get flowers and whatever last minute items I decide I need and then I sequester myself for a little bit. I take a cleansing bath, dress in clean clothes (usually, if it doesn’t violate any of my taboos, in colors significant to the Deity or Deities involved). Then I take a half hour or so to ground and center myself, pray, and get into proper ritual headspace. Before the ritual begins, I’ll cleanse myself (usually with mugwort recaning or a fire blessing if it’s a Heathen rite, khernips if it’s cultus deorum) and partake of the rite. The only unusual thing that I sometimes find myself doing is covering my head in the days leading up to the rite, and especially the day of – all the more so if it’s a heavy ancestor rite. I find this helps my focus.
Afterwards, I usually have to have time by myself again. I find the transition out of ritual space and back into regular quotidian space difficult sometimes. I’ll often take a cleansing bath again almost immediately afterwards, wrap up in soft, warm, and comfy clothes (the rattier the better LOl, you know, the ones you wear all the time) and get something to eat and drink.
For regular daily veneration and devotional work, I am not at all as diligent. I’ll usually lay out all my preparations (offerings, etc.), do a ritual cleansing (often just head and hands), meditate for a time, and then get on with things. But it depends. I do tend to avoid television, computer, and other media for an hour or so before any type of devotional work. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these things, but doing so helps me get into the appropriate focus.
Of course if I do anything to put myself in significant miasma (and this can happen during good and right things. For instance, when I visit a cemetery and make offerings I’m doing right by the dead, but because I’ve entered a place of the dead, I’m in a state of miasma. I need to do a special cleansing when I return), then I do special cleansings (and I’ll divine if I don’t know what the best type of cleansing to do might be). Otherwise, this is pretty much it. The only other thing that I do is divination before the rituals to see if anything special is required, and afterwards to make sure all offerings were accepted. I also have divination done for myself quarterly to make sure I’m not missing anything in my devotional life.
So I hope that answers my reader’s question. Feel free to shoot me any further questions if you have them, and let me know what you all do. I’d be very interesting in learning new ways to handle miasma and pollution.
- I use the term miasma for spiritual pollution. It is a neutral term (i.e. miasma is not sin, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, etc.) but it is Hellenic. Most of our traditions have some concept of purification but I find the term ‘miasma’ to be the most comprehensive (granted, this may be due to familiarity given my training as a Classicist). I would very much encourage people to see what the working terminology is or might be (we might have to do some linguistic research) within your own traditions. I plan to do this as soon as I have a spare moment with Heathenry. We know that pre-Christians Heathens had these concepts of purity and pollution (why sanctify a space with fire if it is already clean? Likewise, we have alternate names for two of our creator Gods (Vili, and Ve) that speak to inherent holiness and integrity. These are concepts that point in some way to the idea of miasma/pollution. We’re not as blessed as the Hellenics and cultus deorum folks out there in having a plethora of surviving material written by Heathens—a significant portion of our lore was written after conversion and little of it deals with religious praxis—but we can still infer a great deal from what we do have extant.
- Of course, purification isn’t something to worry about only when we are about to do a ritual. It’s important on a day by day too, for spiritual, emotional, and even physical health and well being.
- This doesn’t mean we’re bad or tainted, but it does mean that we’re miasmic and need to do the requisite cleansings.
There has been quite a bit of discussion about miasma of late. I’ve seen discussion threads and articles and posts cropping up all over the place. Unfortunately it seems that many of the people writing on the topic lack the faintest idea of what miasma actually is.
The idea of miasma and spiritual pollution is absolutely crucial to our practices. It’s important therefore not to stretch the meaning to fit some political agenda, not to misidentify and mis-equate one thing with another, and not to transfer monotheistic ideas of sin and shame onto these pre-Christian religious terms. It’s important to understand precisely what we’re talking about, why it’s so important, and how best to put it into practice. So let’s start with what miasma actually is.
Miasma is spiritual pollution. I’ve written on it before here, and here and here. Likewise I wrote about the Roman idea of ‘nefas,’ which is somewhat analogous to ‘miasma’ here. (I think that the biggest difference between the two is that nefas has a definite and very negative charge, whereas miasma is neutral. Even positive things can carry miasma as we shall see). I think that while these pieces have been a good starting point to the discussion for me personally, my understanding of the topic has deepened and become far more nuanced over the years.
The seminal work on miasma is a book titled “Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion” by Robert Parker. In that book, he discusses miasma thusly, looking first at the root of the Greek word:
“The basic sense of the ‘mia—‘ words is that of defilement, the impairment of a thing’s form or integrity.” (Parker, p.3).
This is crucial information right here: miasma is about integrity. It is a twisting of things out of true. If we think of it as some impairment to the integrity of a person, place, or thing, then that can help us move away from thinking about miasma as ‘sin.’ One does not have to do anything wrong to fall into a state of deep pollution. It is the natural side effect of certain experiences. For instance, if I spend an extended amount of time in the company of people who are themselves in some way polluted spiritually, then I may also end up miasmic. Why? Because miasma is a spiritual contagion; just like dirt or germs, it is easily passed from one person to another. If I am in lengthy company of someone miasmic, I may find myself influenced by their words, ideas, and actions. I may start behaving, thinking, or approaching the Gods similarly. Without ever meaning to, my spiritual integrity may be corrupted. Drama is not a necessary component to this at all. What is necessary is attention to what we absorb, to whom we pattern ourselves after, and to the influences in our immediate social world.
I recently fell into an intense state of miasma after reading a book. A colleague had recommended this book detailing the incredibly abusive upbringing of the author. It was extremely well written but the subject matter was searing. I read through it in one sitting and found myself upset – furious on behalf of the child—jagged, and so out of balance within myself that there was no way I could even think about approaching one of my shrines to pray. I didn’t realize what was wrong, only that I felt this terrible ugly energy, as though I had been coated in grossness. I was talking to my husband about what I’d read and how horrible I felt (it had a tremendous impact on me) and he told me to go do some cleansings. I did and felt immediately a thousand times better and I realized that one can end up in a state of miasma from things experienced second and third hand – they still have the ability to shift one in head and heart and spirit out of integral balance. Anything that closes us off to the Gods, that clogs us up like dirt in a drain is problematic. Anything that shifts us out of true, “impairs” our inner “integrity” can put is in a state of miasma. (1)
I’ve had the same thing happen with watching certain movies. I felt spiritually polluted afterwards. It was the same when I witnessed an act of verbal blasphemy during a ritual. I, everyone there, and the space itself were polluted simply by having been present when such a thing occurred.
Miasma doesn’t have to be from things so obviously – dare I say it? –dramatic though. In his book, Parker goes on to note:
“Things that in English we term ‘dirty’ are a common source of such defilement, but there are defilements deriving from things that are not dirty in themselves, or not deriving from matter at all. Miaino can be used for the pollution of a reputation through unworthy deeds, or of truth through dishonesty, justice, law, and piety are in danger of defilement. (p. 3)”
This clearly points to how one positions oneself in their world. How do you carry yourself, behave on a day to day. How are you situated with respect to your neighbors? All of these things combined to create what we might term ‘character.’ Part of good character to our polytheistic forebears involved piety.
Of course, as my friend L. pointed out, the roiling energies of community drama can create situations that may lead to miasma but so can a wedding. Seriously, amongst the list of things that put one in a state of spiritual pollution are weddings. These are happy things, the union of two families, a building block for one’s community and its longevity but (like birth and death) they create imbalance. They create pollution. There’s nothing bad at all about them, but they still put those present in a state of miasma. Some situations just do that. We may feel perfectly fine. We may even feel happy (for instance at one’s own wedding) or celebratory but we are no longer in a state of spiritual attunement.
Miasma is considered an extremely dangerous condition (Parker, p. 4). For this reason it’s important not to misinterpret it as being reliant on our emotions, how we feel in a given moment. Can one often feel the pollution? Yes, but not always. This is why it’s so important to have and maintain proper spiritual protocols with respect to cleansing and purification. Have your traditional protocols intact and try not to deviate from them and then this takes care of itself. Of course it also helps to take equal care in keeping your environment clean and surrounding yourself with people who are themselves not polluted.(2)
Why is miasma so crucial? Its effects are long term. It’s not like the Gods are going to smack one down for being in a miasmic state after all, but it corrodes and compromises one in one’s relationship with Them. It impairs signal clarity and a lot of times the consequences of it aren’t immediately noticed, in fact, may not be felt at all until suddenly the spiritual relationships that were once so vital and present and true are blurry, distant, and hard to reach.
It impairs luck and health. It twists all that is spiritually balanced and good, beneficial and ordered into something plebeian, mundane, and gross. It lowers us in the eyes of the Gods and part of the reason that people may not recognize when they are in this state, or approaching it, is that our world is so out of balance. Our world is riddled with spiritual pollution on every level. In a society where people are blowing up mountain tops from sheer greed, poisoning our food supplies, where children are picking through mountains of garbage for food, and the Kardashians are considered role models it’s difficult for people to recognize such spiritual disease. When once piety and purification were the expected adult norm, now it’s the exact opposite and people look askance, even in our communities, when one seeks to take proper precautions around one’s spiritual health by insisting on healthy boundaries.
Not only do we need more conversations about this, we need to take more action, especially when we’re doing group rituals and gatherings.
- For those wondering, would I still have read the book knowing all of this beforehand? Yes, absolutely but I would have gone in with my eyes open and would have prepared myself better and immediately cleansed afterwards.
- Two further comments on this that I’d like to offer: 1. This is where divination can be extremely helpful, if one is uncertain of whether a particular person, place, or thing might be polluted and 2. What to exclude, whom to avoid are not decisions that can be made for an individual by anyone else. What is miasmic to me, may not be to my husband and vice versa for instance. We serve different gods, have different levels of purification expected of us. What to allow into one’s world and whom to associate with are decisions that each person must make for themselves after careful consideration and perhaps prayer and divination.
I was thinking about Mani tonight and it inspired me to hunt up this example of a nice Monday night ritual that can be done for Him.
Monday: Honoring Mani, the Moon God
(excerpted from “Devotional Polytheism” by G. Krasskova)
For Heathens and Norse Pagans, the moon Deity is male. He is a glorious, gentle, and deeply compelling God named Mani, the son of Time, nephew of Night, brother to the Sun and the Cosmos. He rides across the fabric of night, followed by the wolf Hati, who, it is said, either keeps Him on His course, or chases Him with the intent of devouring Him and bringing on Ragnarok. Only Mani knows the truth of the matter, and perhaps, the wolf. What is attested to in the surviving sources, and in the experience of those devoted to Him, is how deeply Mani cares for humanity, especially children. Some say that it is for this reason that the wolf must follow Him, for otherwise He might easily be swayed off His course out of curiosity or caring for those humans who scurry about beneath the waxing and waning of the orb He bears.
Here is a little something I wrote a couple of years ago about the moon, Mani, and Monday:
Today is Mani’s day. Monday actually means “moon-day” and in our tradition the moon belongs to a lovely God named Mani. Monday is His day and a good day to make offerings to Him. I try to do a little something for Him every Monday. Sometimes I forget–i’m human and I make mistakes. My mindfulness occasionally has its lapses–but I do my best to be as consistent as possible. Fortunately, even when I slip up, Monday will always come round again.
I like to give Him little things whenever i can. Usually, I make my offerings in the evening, because I like to do so when the moon is visible in the night sky. Sometimes though ,He rides high and proud, winking at us from the lightening hues wrought by His sister’s passage and for me, there’s a special delight in that and then I will honor Him when I rise, making my offerings with the brightening day. Offerings like this need not be enormous. I usually give Him a glass of either sambuca or, more recently, Smirnoff’s marshmallow flavored vodka. He seems to like it. I spend a few moments in prayer and that’s that until the next Monday. It’s a stabilizing consistency to the crazy roller coaster of my life.
Some of you might find it strange that we honor a moon God and not a Goddess (our Sun Deity is a Sun Goddess as well –and Mani’s sister– to complete the juxtaposition) but we are not unique in this: Japanese and Egyptian religions also have moon Gods and if i went looking, I suspect there are a few more as well, but I’m feeling lazy today so I’ll leave that research to you, my readers.. One wonders though if all the moon Gods are companions….
When my adopted mom was small she used to call the moon Luna Lunera and would watch as She (my mom of course as a small child thought the moon female) showered the earth with the blessings of her gentle light. She said her father would stand on a balcony of their home while she played in the garden –oh she must have been very small—and throw candies down and she thought they came from the moon. Maybe, in a way, they did.
I never thought about it one way or another until I encountered Mani and then I knew what it was to love the moon. He is beautiful and compelling in His ways. Even I am not immune, though it amuses many and probably Mani too should He ever catch wind of it.
Evening Rite for Mani
Begin by setting up a small altar to Him. It need not be elaborate, but should include a candle and incense burner with incense. Moon images and anything else associated with the moon are quite appropriate. Many of us have found that Mani likes beaded necklaces, jangles, time pieces, even bits of clock and watch innards, abacuses, calendars, night blooming flowers, and music. Anything of this ilk, and anything else that one personally feels called to associate with or give to Him is appropriate to place on the altar. You should also have something to offer Him: a glass of alcohol, cookies, flowers….anything that you are moved to give. (If you are including your children in this ritual, have them help you prepare the altar).
Once you have created the altar, which is, in effect, an invocation in and of itself, sit quietly for a few moments centering yourself. This may easily be accomplished by a simple exercise that I call the ‘four-fold breath:’ inhale four counts, hold four counts, exhale four counts, hold four counts. Then repeat for five minutes continually.
Once you feel that you are adequately centered and focused, turn your attention to Mani. Envision the moon in the sky. Think about all that He must have seen as human civilization progressed, all that He must have witnessed. Imagine that you are reaching out to him with heart and hand and spirit. Imagine that, as you breathe, you are breathing in His silver, soothing light. You are filling yourself with the blessed touch of the moon. When you feel ready, light the candle with the words, “with this light, I kindle the light of the moon in my heart, in my mind, in my spirit.”
Light a stick of incense and offer it with the words, “I offer this incense, that I might be blessed by Mani, son of time, keeper of the roads of night.”
Invocation to Mani
Hail to Mani,
Hail to the God of the Moon.
Hail to the Sweet Light in the darkness,
and Sweet Darkness in the light.
Son of Time, be with me here tonight.
Turn Your gentle gaze in my direction.
Wash me in the sweet caress of Your light.
Allow me to thank You for Your blessings-
especially for the grace of my day.
I know each day is a gift.
Thank you for seeing me through
and thank you for watching over me each night.
By Your grace, may I never lose my awareness of Your blessings.
Ride swiftly across the darkness, Sweet God of the Moon.
May You always outpace the wolf who nips at Your heels.
I hail You Mani with gratitude.
I hail You with love.
I shall hail You always,
Hail best loved son of Mundilfari.
Please accept these offerings, Mani. (Set out any offerings that you wish to give to Him. This can be as simple as a single glass of alcohol, or a cookie).
Spend a few moments in contemplation. As you sit in silence, imagine that with each breath you are drinking in the presence and blessings of the moon. With each inhalation you are inhaling Mani’s soothing, healing light. Feel or imagine that this light flows through you cleansing away all stress and tension, and any miasma you may have picked up throughout your day.
Continue for as long as you like praying or meditating upon the blessings of the Moon.
Thank you, Mani, for holding me in Your light.
May my comings and goings on this day be pleasing to You.
Hail Mani, always.
The rite is now completed. You can either allow the candle to burn down, or save it for your next Mani ritual. I usually find it best to leave the altar out for awhile, but there is nothing amiss if you must, of necessity, deconstruct it right after the rite.
I think that this ritual is best done before bed, but this is a very personal matter. Some people are simply more alert in the morning. Being a night owl, I tend to prefer doing all my ritual work late in the day or early evening. Use your own judgment in this. Do this rite whenever you feel you can best connect to Mani.
Suggestions for Mani
(In each of the rituals for the days of the week, I provide a small section of similar suggestions. These suggestions have been drawn from my own experience with the God or Goddess in question, and discussions with many others who honor Him. They are suggestions and you should not feel limited by them. If you want to offer something not on this list, or feel a strong association go with it).
Colors Associated with Mani: blues, silvers, black, purple/lavender, pale white
Symbols: anything moon shaped, hour glasses, old watches, clocks, and their component parts, knots, calendars, musical scores, flutes, beads, mirrors, mathematical equations, abacuses and other time keepers, astrolabes and other nautical equipment for plotting directions.
Stones: moonstone, labradorite, selenite, quartz, and amethyst.
Flowers: Camellias, jasmine, night blooming flowers.
Food and drink: sambuca, cookies (especially ones with marshmallows or odd shapes. A nice way to incorporate children into the above ritual, is to have them make moon shaped cookies in honor of Him), angel food cake, peppermint flavored sweets.
Other offerings: any volunteer work or donations that benefit abused children or the mentally ill.
Contra-indicated: harming or abusing children in any way; mocking the mentally ill.