Category Archives: Spirit Work
A reader asked me recently asking whether or not it was really possible to experience the Gods through our senses, to have some type of direct engagement, where we sense, hear, or see the Holy Powers, what is called theophany (from two Greek words: φαίνω “to see” and θεοί “Gods” and meaning essentially to see or perceive the Gods). It was a very good question and forms, I think, one of the most difficult chasms to cross from 20th century post-modernism into actual devotion, and certainly to the type of devotion that informed the world of our ancestors. For our ancestors, including our medieval Christian ones, it was acknowledged that one might experience the Gods via the senses (how else would one experience Them? Our sensorium is the way that we experience every aspect of our world, after all) (1). They set up temples where one could go to pray for dreams, developed mystery cultus to allow for cathartic experience of the Powers, and worked this awareness into their philosophies and literature (2).
I will preface this by saying that I think everyone who experiences the Gods directly does so a little differently and that’s because our brains are not wired to take in something that inhuman and immense. The experience, the Being, the Presence gets filtered through our consciousness, so if person x sees but person y feels or hears that’s a matter of their own inborn facilities/predilections (some people learn better visually, some by hearing, etc.) and how their brain is processing the stimuli. One modality isn’t better than the other. Now onto the actual question!
One thing that I realized with this question is that I didn’t come to Heathenry or even to polytheism unprepared. I had a very good devotional upbringing. I was encouraged to pray, to do novenas, the idea of “God” being able and willing to engage with devotees was not a foreign one so I never self-censored there. I didn’t close that off, the idea that engagement was possible, but I think like a muscle one might work at the gym, the facility to sense the Gods was actively developed through years of prayer and meditation and later shrine work, devotional work, study, etc. Also putting myself in space where it was more likely such contact might occur didn’t hurt, and a couple of years of ritual work further developed that awareness.
I think many times the Gods show Themselves not through the raw impact of visions or direct theophany but through small graces, gifts given through the natural world or one’s daily life and that is potent and powerful too. Learning to see all things as sharing in that connection, that capacity for engagement is important because if we are always looking for the big explosion of Presence that overwhelms, we may miss the small whisper of grace that opens. Both are important and maybe, just maybe it’s the latter that prepares one for the former.
I’ve argued with other spirit workers about whether or not the capacity to experience theophany is part of one’s inborn psychic or spiritual wiring or whether it is something that can be developed through consistent prayer, meditation, and devotional work. I default to the latter and perhaps that is because I was a priest long before I became a spirit worker. It’s also though that I have seen ecstatic ritual move people away from the tightly locked down headspace of their daily lives and into receptivity toward the Gods. I also think that saying one can only experience the Gods directly if one has the inborn talent for it negates the agency of the Gods in this equation, and without that agency no one is going to be experiencing anything!
As a spiritworker I have to say, don’t be upset or discouraged if you don’t immediately receive the feedback of direct experience. You are having experience just by engaging in devotional work and there is far, far more merit in doing that work without the bold and obvious interaction/theophany/etc. than in doing it solely to receive that. Pray without expectation without preconception and you will be opening all the doors of your heart and senses to the glory of our Gods. Besides, theophanies usually come with work. The Gods are there and will usually meet us more than half way if we but start in whatever fumbling capacity we can down the road of devotion. In the end, that’s all that matters.
- Even in omens, prodigies and κληδόνες, the person receiving such a gift is experiencing that through their sensorium: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
- One of my favorite passages in the latter is found in the Virgil works in a powerful description of a priestess of Apollo being possessed by Her God:
“But the prophetess, not yet able to endure Apollo, raves in the cavern,
swollen in stature, striving to throw off the God from her breast;
he all the more exercises her frenzied mouth, quelling her wild heart,
and fashions her by pressure.”
At, Phoebi nondum patiens, immanis in antro
bacchatur vates, magnum si pectore possit
excussisse deum; tanto magis ille fatigat
rabidum, fera corda domans, fingitque premendo.
Virgil’s Aeneid, 6 77-83.
I love this description of possession because it so aptly depicts the partnership required and, while it’s been awhile since I’ve read the Aeneid in Latin, I believe in at least one other place, it’s actually described with vocabulary that conjures up the horse and rider paradigm that is used in modern Afro-Caribbean religions to describe the process of Deity possession, a metaphor that many polytheistic traditions use as well.
Note that the word that is here translated as ‘raves’ is ‘bacchatur’ and means to ‘behave in a bacchic manner,’ i.e. to be taken over completely in divinely inspired ecstasy, possibly violent ecstasy. It may also be translated accurately as ‘rave’ or ‘rant’.
I could have translated ‘fingit’ more as ‘tames’ rather than ‘fashions’ though either is an accurate translation. (this isn’t my translation — I’m not sure whose translation this is, but I liked it. I would probably translate it this way: “But, not yet fully opening to Apollo (or enduring Apollo, or allowing Him in, but the sense is that Apollo has not yet seated Himself fully on the prophetess because she is instinctively resisting), immense (vast) in the cave she raves, trying to drive out the great God from her breast; He exhausts her mad fury, taming her wild heart, instructing her by seating Himself fully (this is one of the possible poetic meanings of premendo).
So, just looking at this quickly before I hit ‘post’, I could make several choices in the translation and I’d probably have a half page of footnotes lol.
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.
I don’t do drugs. Mind you, I think they should all be legal, but I’m too old, too creaky, and have too many health issues. I don’t need to complicate my life, even as a spirit-worker. Perhaps if I weren’t taking certain medications for my migraine condition, I might occasionally walk the Plant Road, but right now, that’s just not in the cards, and it doesn’t have to be. There are multiple techniques and roads by which a spirit-worker can get to where they need to be. The Plant Road has never really been one of mine (1). That being said, it’s a powerful road and one for which I have the deepest respect. Depending on the plant allies with whom one is engaging, it can be potentially fatal. (This is why protocol and preparation are so important). Last night, without ever ingesting anything, I got a powerful taste of a particular spirit’s medicine and got taken on a rather unexpected (and initially non-consensual) journey.
My husband belongs to Dionysos and part of his sacred work is guiding people on plant journeys safely (2). Last night, after several weeks of preparation, one of our housemates had arranged to meet Amanita Muscaria, Little Red Man (3). He’s called “Little Red Man” partly in a nod to the vibrant color of the amanita and partly because the spirit of this mushroom often appears as a fierce little man with either reddish skin or a red cap or both. Sannion was all set to be guide and guard. Not being involved in this work, I was planning instead on working on my final paper for the school semester (which I did, for a couple of hours, at least). They went to do their thing in part of the house, and I went to my studio/office in another part in order to get to work. Ne’er should the twain have met lol.
About an hour into it all, I started to get massively nauseous (one of the symptoms of having ingested amanita – which I repeat, I had not at any point done). It took me awhile longer to realize what was happening, during which interim, I had several significant epiphanies about my paper topic, which I credit to the inspiration of Amanita). Finally, I gave up working, understanding that I was linking in way too much to the power of the Red Man, and went to the kitchen to get a glass of water with rehydration salts (important on plant road journeys – and yes I realize a mushroom is a fungus not a plant but consider “plant” shorthand for the whole breadth of spirits with whom one might work on this road—to stay hydrated before, during, and after) and sat down in the living room to wait for my husband to finish up his work. About an hour later, he came out, by which time I had the beginnings of a bad headache (which is why I don’t do plant path).
We chatted for a bit and realized that because amanita is one of Odin’s plants, because it is associated specifically with berserkers, which gift I have, and because I tend to be very open to the Gods and spirits that are within our household retinue, I had tapped right into the experience our housemate was having, though we each went very, very different places—or, more likely, amanita had tapped right into me. This is what I learned and what I share now about the power of this being:
- I always knew that despite various scholars’ meanderings, amanita ingestion does not cause the berserkergang. Only someone who was not a berserker and who had never tried amanita would think it did (4). Being a berserker is knit into one’s soul. It’s an inherent part of a person, not something learned or acquired; HOWEVER, when used by someone who is a berserk, the spirit of amanita grants speed, incredible speed (everyone and everything else seems to be moving and thinking and existing incredibly slowly), one hell of an advantage in battle.
- It renders one impervious to pain. The Berserkergang does this anyway, but it’s different with amanita. One sees the injury or pain, is aware of it, but is above it, unimpacted. The berserkergang itself has a healing capacity and can ensure some measure of healing to these things so perhaps this would have been useful in knowing where to direct that healing?
- I was several rooms away, working on an academic paper. I hadn’t ingested anything other than a cup of Darjeeling tea. Because of the factors outlined above, I linked unexpectedly right into the Red Man. Parsing this out later, we had a major insight. One person takes amanita and while the Red Man is affecting him/her, that spirit’s influence is beginning to affect the person next to that first, even before that latter person ingests anything. One person taking it augments the next, who augments the next and this would lead to tremendous power and cohesion in a battle situation. I can well see why Odin would suggest use of this mushroom to His warriors. I also suspect that a vitki or spirit worker or shaman offering to the spirit of the mushroom, engaging with it could ensure that the berserkers didn’t mistake their own people for the enemy in the haze of the battle fury. Such a person could direct, along with the cooperation of the spirit of the mushroom itself, the ride.
Ironically, Sannion had suggested before he and our friend began their work that I micro-dose (take a miniscule portion of the mushroom so that I would be inside its influence). I declined because A) I don’t do plant path and B) I had academic work to accomplish. I wish, in retrospect, that I had done as he suggested. I think it would have been an easier journey (I would have known I was taking a journey for one thing!). Today was rough. Because I hadn’t prepared (though I had divined and helped our friend in that friend’s preparations, including talking to Red Man which, of course, had me primed and open for his later influence), coming back to mundane time/space/head-space hurt and of course with me, that often means migraines. But it was worth it. I received information that transformed my research in exciting ways, learned something about one of Odin’s allies, and learned that the ancient contracts and alliances between Gods, spirits, and particular groups of our ancestors (in this case berserks) don’t just disappear. The groove is there and under the right conditions, can easily be activated again. This is a hopeful thing, because it means that we *can* restore the broken lineages and covenants our ancestors threw down when they converted (and even if conversion was forced – a horrendous and horrible thing, a violation on both sides in many ways—the broken covenants with the Holy Powers still exist). Our place in taking up and repairing those threads will be recognized by those Gods and Their constituent allies. That is a good thing, a useful thing, a blessed thing.
- Though it must be noted, that Plant Road work can be very powerfully done without ever engaging with entheogens.
- It’s always good to have an experienced guide the first several times one meets and engages with a plant ally, especially if that ally is an entheogen. It’s also always good to have a spotter, someone to hold the space soberly to make sure that one comes through safe and sound, or to call for help if something goes awry. I think the Gods like courage, not stupidity after all.
- CAVEAT: if you eat this without proper preparation, it will kill you horribly. If you eat too much of this, with proper preparation, it can still kill you horribly. Do not play around with this. Unless you are working under experienced supervision AND are called to the Plant road, it’s best to leave this mushroom and spirit alone. In our state, he is legal, btw. It varies state to state.
- There’s a trend in scholarship to ascribe any mystical, visionary, or magical experience to drugs.
Today is so bad. I woke with a migraine bad enough to make me vomit. Too much spirit contact and unexpected at that. Last night, I already wasn’t feeling great. I had a bit of a migraine mostly from the weather so I took migraine medication and settled in to watch some tv with my housemate and my husband. I wanted to show them a WWI show that I like: The Crimson Field. It’s all about VAD nurses in WWI (got cancelled after one season, probably because it showed how fucking incompetent military leadership was). I didn’t think to first make offerings to the military dead, even though they are one of my primary group of spirits, especially the WWI dead.
I’ve since decided that whenever I watch anything having to do with WWI, I’m just going to make offerings to that family of the dead as a matter of course. That’s my new protocol now and forever a-fucking-men.
As we were watching the series last night, I started getting enraged and wanting to grind my teeth and at one point the man who had risen up with his brothers-in-arms behind me actually used my voice to hiss bitter at the story being portrayed and that’s when we all realized the dead were around us. An ancestor worker carries the dead always. We carry them with us and whether it is men who sing like angels or men and women who plodded through mud and piss and shit and hell they are with us always. I realize the story being depicted was so very close to what had happened to the spirit behind me and he was still so very angry so we gave him voice and gave him and the others there offerings and the room grew crystalline bright and I saw the spirits of the dead ringing us misty and pale and that is how we spent out night and today I feel as though I have been beaten. My head is not large enough for the multitude that wanted to pour their stories and their pain into it. The honeycombed halls of my heart are willing to receive their stories, to carry their pain but oh I feel as though someone clubbed the back of my head hard.
Sannion: “the spirits take everything.”
Me in response: “OMG that’s absolutely the truth. They so do, but they give everything too.”
And he and my housemate concurred. They take and they give and we are stretched thin in between.
Hard to believe it’s been 7 years since this book first released! Who has a copy?
We are all surrounded by spirits. Many people feel called to work with them, but few know where to begin. Enjoined by the gods and spirits to fulfill this need, Raven Kaldera and Galina Krasskova have reconstructed the indigenous spiritual traditions of northern Europe and Scandinavia extinguished more than one thousand years ago by the spread of Christianity. Arising from basic survival needs, these practical traditions are fundamentally tied to the elements found in the harsh world of the ancient North.
Beginning with the skills tied to the Earth element, necessary for grounding prior to the more demanding aspects of the practice–working with Sun, Moon, Plants, Animals, Water, Fire, Craft, and Air–the authors explain, step by step, how to build relationships with each elemental spirit and the Ancestors. Offering 83 practical exercises, from cleansing with the Moon or borrowing the legs of Reindeer to making sacred space with Mugwort or creating an ancestor altar, they also explore building spirit relationships through altered states. Emphasizing the proper management of your spirit relationships to avoid spiritual debt or offense, the authors outline the ancient cultural rules and taboos that circumscribe these practices, essential knowledge for successful and fruitful spirit alliances.
Detailing the beginning set of skills needed to work with the spirits of this ancient world, this comprehensive workbook offers a unique ancestral spiritual outlet for those of northern European descent as well as an accessible guide for anyone trying to fulfill their shamanic callings.
A step-by-step guide to working with the spirits of ancient northern Europe
- Explains how to build relationships with Earth, Sun, Moon, Plants, Animals, Water, Fire, Craft, Air, and the Ancestors through 83 practical exercises
- Explores the role of altered states in spirit work
- Outlines the ancient cultural rules and taboos to avoid spiritual debt or offense
Someone emailed a colleague of mine out of the blue with the following question (he shared it largely out of shock at the utter obliviousness of it all):
-” What does the shaman who horses (1) deities get in return for all the sacrifice, hard work & suffering they had to endure to become a shaman in the first place?… Can the shaman expect to be a highly skilled & powerful sorcerer whose (sic) able to bring about change in his life & this world through sorcery, after horsing deities for years? Or is it dependent on the relationship that is forged with the deity?”
The question is offensive on many levels and oblivious on many others, so much so that I was left quite literally speechless when my friend emailed me. (I think I said something to the effect of ‘I don’t know quite what to say here but you do get the best questions. Damn!’).(2)
Even writing this, I’m still pretty boggled by the question. First of all, what do you get? You get a job. You get the honor and privilege of serving the Gods, a particular privilege that most people never even conceive of let alone experience.
But more to the point, it’s not about us. A shaman provides service to the Gods and to the community. It’s not self-serving. No one in their right mind would want this job and yet, it is an honor and a privilege to be taken up in this way.
I just am so boggled by the incorrect attitude displayed in the email, not just to the idea of a shaman’s work being for personal empowerment, but the idea that we can use relationships with the Gods for personal greed. It is so incredibly wrong. If you ever wanted a primer on how not to approach the Holy Powers, this is it.
There are many ways to approach the Gods but first and foremost there is a foundational commonality on those that are appropriate and that commonality is respect. These are Holy Powers. They are the Movers and Shapers of the Cosmos. We were created to exist in right relationship with Them. They do not exist to pander to the worst of our instincts and desires.
Part of regaining right relationship with the Powers involves understanding that everything is not about us. We are not the super-center of the cosmos. The universe does not exist to cater to our whims and to stroke our egos.
So to answer this fool’s question, you get to be of service. You get to go to your grave knowing you did your part to restore right relationship communally with the Gods. You get to experience specific Deities more closely than can ever be imagined. That is both a grace and a blessing. No, you cannot, as a result of horsing (or anything else we do) expect to be “a highly skilled & powerful sorcerer” capable of bending the world to his will (and if you want to study magic, that too is a lifetime’s commitment and takes sacrifice). This is not a D&D game. And everything, everything is always dependent on the relationships we forge with our Gods, and those relationships that we nurture? They’re the reward for the work.
1. To horse a Deity is to carry that Deity via possession. It’s terminology drawn from the Afro-Caribbean traditions. The Deity “rides” the devotee as one might ride a horse.
2. I asked my colleague’s permission to share the question for this post.
Be sure to check out my other sites:
Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy
My academia.edu page
My amazon author page.
Walking the Worlds Journal
My art blog at Krasskova Creations
My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.
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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.
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.
This July I will be attending an international artists’ residency in Poland. This is all paid for by the folks organizing the residency (yay!) and I”ll be working with some amazing artists. I decided while I was there, to take advantage of proximity and, after the residency is over, to spend one week, visiting ossuaries in the Czech Republic and Germany. I believe very strongly that these are sacred places, and that reverence for bones pointed to a devotional understanding that our ancestors lost with the so-called “Age of Reason.” There is a very keen wisdom there for those that would seek it out. Moreover, contact with such places, places built for devotion, given over to devotion for centuries, filled with bones that enjoyed their share of reverence has the potential to teach much about honoring the dead. I think this will powerfully further my work, and more importantly, the intensity of these places will prepare me for a trip I intend to take in a couple of years to Somme and Verdun. When doing this type of work, it’s necessary (or at least helpful and eminently less painful) to have an assistant. It helps to have someone to help navigate Midgard (and words, the whole wording thing doesn’t work so well after extensive contact with the dead, yeah..helping with words lol), and make sure the shaman doesn’t walk into traffic. (Sorry, Heathens, not going anywhere anytime soon). My friend MAG is going to be coming with me. She’s a photographer so the trip will be a good one for her art, but she’s also agreed to serve as my assistant when dealing with the dead, something she has done in the past when I’ve made pilgrimages for the military dead. She’s got good instincts and does this extremely well.
Over the next few months, I am going to be fundraising to cover her airfare and expenses. I am asking for community support. I believe that what I will learn from this pilgrimage (because that’s very much what it is for me) will open up a deeper level of understanding with ancestor work and that is something that I will share with all of you. It was not uncommon in times past for a community to pitch in to help one of its members go on a pilgrimages. I”m asking for that help now, not for me, but for my friend. To that end, I”m offering the following (or will be, within the month):
* for $15 I will write a prayer to the Deity of your choice.
* for $30 I will do a setting of lights for you.
* for $45 I will make a set of ancestor prayer beads for you (limit 5)
* for $50, you will receive a divination session (limit 3 questions).
* for $60 you will receive a signed copy of “On Divination” and six prayer cards of your choice. (Limit 5)
I will also shortly be offering a series of “baskets” on ebay. They’re not literal baskets lol, but small devotional collections. For instance, the first one going up (if all goes well, i’ll have it up by Monday), is a “ Freya Basket.” it contains the Paul Borda statue of Freya (brown finish), a devotional to Freya, a prayer card, a love and beauty magical bath, a small vial of blessing oil, and a Sigdrifa’s Prayer bookmark. bidding will start at $125.
I’ll be doing three, perhaps four of these “baskets” in May.
I’ll also be donating 75% of all my art sales from my studio and also online (krasskovacreations.wordpress.com — if you see anything you like email me at krasskova at gmail.com).
Should anyone wish to donate, rather than purchase one of these things, I am open to that as well. Again, contact me at krasskova at gmail.com. One of the things that I am seriously considering doing, is taking prayers of anyone in the community who wishes it with me, and making offerings and offering prayers to the spirits of the land, the dead whom I’m visiting, and those of our Gods once reverenced on that land. I will happily do this for anyone. I’ve already had several people ask me to pay respects to their ancestors when I set foot upon their ancestral soil and I’m happy to do so for anyone.
My goal is to raise enough to cover MAG’s airfare and hotel.
Taking a page from my partner Sannion’s book, when I return, I will offer a free class to all those who contributed in some way. I’m going to decide on some topics over the next week or so, and y’all can vote on what you’d like to see offered.
That is all for now. I’ll post here when the first ebay auction goes up.
I recently ordered some incense from Dver — you can check it out here. I’m particular about my incense, but i’d used hers before and it didn’t set off headaches or make me otherwise miserable so I decided to order some of her new blend
Oh. My. Gods. I used it this past week in ritual and it was lush and magical and just marvelous to use. I used it in offering to my dead, but it would make a lovely ritual incense as well. Anyway, I’m picky and I like it, so I’m recommending it here. ^_^.