Lineage is a fragile thing. I think about that every time I think about ballet, and I probably learned more about what it takes to maintain and nourish a lineage through having been a dancer than in all the studies and religious work I’ve done since. Lineage is connection, power, tradition, rootedness, identity, culture, and that culture is directed at maintaining and expressing something precious (be it devotion in our case as polytheists, or beauty and art, a different type of devotion, in the case of the dancers I’m discussing here). It is passed through bodies, through the stories, material culture, and lived experience of one generation to the next. One generation takes the next in hand, carefully forming them, teaching them, helping them, and entrusting to them whatever lineage and tradition it is that one carries. That is a sacred trust, something to be cherished, reverenced, protected.
In ballet, it’s not just greatness that is shaped this way, but the endurance of specific choreographies, pedagogies, and ballets themselves. One learns directly from those who danced before one. One dancer teaches a particular role to another, or a dancer begins to teach and passes on all he or she has learned to those students seeking to step into the art, and that is how the lineage and tradition survives. It is terrifyingly ephemeral. Break that chain and you can shatter the lineage.
It is the same with religious traditions, which is why intergenerational passage of knowledge i.e. polytheists raising children as polytheists, cultivating devotion from the womb is so terribly important. We don’t have the societal structure (yet) to support any type of devotion let alone ours, but we can make our households, our homes, our minds, and our hearts living temples to the Gods one by one. We can restore. There’s a line in the Talmud that says that to save a single soul is to save the entire world. I’d like to think that raising up one good polytheist or being one oneself, or leaving behind a body of work to help the next generation, is similarly restorative to our traditions in the world. Anyway, I’m digressing when instead I specifically want to talk about a break in ballet lineage.
In the mid 19th century, there were two main centers of ballet: France and Italy. Denmark also had a significant school. The Imperial Russian school existed but hadn’t yet come into the fullness of its tradition. That would take thirty plus years of Italian and French dancers and ballet masters working in St. Petersburg and sharing their knowledge, establishing clear lines of pedagogy, and training up several generations of dancers, each better than the last. After 1863 the locus of ballet moved to Italy and then Russia and French ballet fell into … not oblivion but let us say disregard. I’ll explain in a moment. It wasn’t until the Ballet Russe – shaped by French and Italian pedagogy – returned to Paris in the early 20thcentury that French ballet experienced a renaissance. I believe strongly that part of the reason for French ballet losing its place for close to a hundred years was the death of ballerina Emma Livry (and I will caution you before you read further, I’m going to talk about her death, and it was horrific).
In each generation there are dancers who stand out from the rest, the truly great artists and/or pedagogues. The heaviest weight of a tradition rests on their shoulders and they pass it on to their apprentices and students. They infuse the ballet tradition of a particular place with power, life, and vitality and make it shine like the sun in its glory. In the generation before Livry, the key dancers were Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) and Fanny Essler (1810-1884 – Essler actually visited the east coast of the US on one of her many tours! She performed in Baltimore). There was also Carlotta Grisi (1819-1899), Lucille Grahn (1819-1907), and Fanny Cerrito (1817-1909). It’s important to note that many of these women were also noted choreographers, a fact that until recently received very little attention (1). The same can be said for their predecessor Marie Salle (1709-1756). While all of these dancers at some point danced at the Paris Opera Ballet, it was Taglioni who truly reigned in Paris (and I think can probably be counted the greatest of the dancers mentioned here, though she and Essler were rivals on pretty equal terms technique-wise. Their artistic styles were almost diametrically opposed).
Emma Livry was Taglioni’s student and protegee. Before she met Taglioni, she debuted at age sixteen at the Paris Opera ballet in Taglioni’s signature role La Sylphide. When Taglioni saw her dance, she took Livry as a student and eventually choregraphed a ballet named Le Papillon (the butterfly) for the girl. Livry was incredibly talented and a noted sculptor at the time, Jean-Auguste Barre created sculptures of her. She was praised by ballet critics and it was clear, even in her own day, that she was the one destined to inherit the mantle of the French ballet tradition, and in doing so, carry it into the next generation. Sadly, tragically – and I don’t use that word often—that did not happen.
On November 15, 1862, during a ballet rehearsal, her skirts caught fire. At that time, stages were lit by gaslights, not electricity. There had been fire related deaths before due to this, so dancers had the option of fire-proofing their skirts. Livry, as many dancers, declined because the substance used in fireproofing made the skirts stiff, unpleasant, and more importantly heavy. When she went up in flames, two male dancers rushed to help her, but by the time they were able to put the fire out, she was so burned that the stays of her corset (dancers wore corsets when they danced in the 19th century) had burned/fused into her ribs. Her face and breasts were unburned. Taglioni was present and tried to help her as the girl as well, and it is recorded Livry prayed fervently immediately after the ordeal. She didn’t die immediately but lingered bed-bound for months in an agony it is recorded she bore with piety and stoicism, dying on July 26, 1863. She died of septicemia when her wounds reopened (they never really healed) at the age of twenty. She is buried in Montmartre Cemetery. I knew most of this from my own time in ballet, but here’s the wiki article on her.
As a dancer, Livry was particularly noted for her extraordinary ballon: the quality of her jumps, the ability to jump lightly and to seemingly hover in the air. Le Papillon was the only ballet Marie Taglioni ever choreographed.
Here’s the thing: the power of French ballet died with her for decades. It’s a noticeably glaring gap in the history of ballet. Many of the leading pedagogues had moved to St. Petersburg (which led to the glory days of the Imperial ballet there, and the Ballet Russe, which returned and repaid the debt to France generations later). Livry’s death, however, left a lacuna in the mid 19th century that no other French dancer could fill. I’m not the only historian to note this. I can’t recall where I read it, possibly here, but other historians have also pointed out that with Livry’s death, ballet in France went into a serious decline (2).
I will close by pointing out that the work you do matters. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is. It matters even if all you’re doing is choosing to pray or make an offering. In the eyes of our Gods, I do not believe this is insignificant. It is restoration, the whisper of lineage, devotion and in a tiny way, the restoration of our world. Never ever doubt that your lives matter, that the choices you make matter. You may not realize how much at the time. You don’t have to be a spiritual specialist like a spirit worker or priest for that to be true. It matters and what you create matters. So, find your devotional voice. Find the medium by which you will bring beauty into the world and throw yourself into it without hesitation. It doesn’t matter if others think it ‘good.’ Pray. Do your devotions. Bring beauty into the world and know that in doing so you are reweaving delicate threads of traditions through which the Gods, I think, are aching to express Themselves. You’re restoring windows to the world through which They can act. May be so always and may you be blessed in the striving.
- Until the past two, maybe three years, there was in ballet circles the mistaken idea that until the 20th century choreographers were male. Even now, it’s still seen as men choreograph, women dance. This is not the case at all though historically. Women, from the earliest significant periods of ballet, like Marie Salle in the 18th century, were choreographers, and noted as such in their heyday.
- The prestige of French ballet began to rise again in the 1920s (after the Ballet Russe re-infused ballet there with vitality). Several noted Imperial ballerinas, most especially Matilda Kchessinska , Olga Preobrajenska, and I believe, Lyubov Egorova began teaching in Paris. Then there was ballerina Yvette Chauvire and Claude Bessy, the latter the youngest child to ever be admitted to the Paris Opera Ballet School, and who later became director of the school. Both of whom helped train the incomparable Sylvie Guillem, and thus the tradition in France was revived, restored, and holds its place today as one of the great schools of modern ballet.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting several posts about lineage, particularly my artistic lineage. Part of this is simply due to the fact that these spirits have been strong and very present in my devotions of late, and partly to something one of my friends told me.
Apparently, (this is what my friend told me – she watches Ukrainian, Russian, and English news about the war) pro-Russian propagandists are using the reputation of the imperial ballet and the ballet russe as justification for Russia invading and torturing Ukrainians (and anyone else – give it time). The argument is something like, look at the glory that only Russia has produced. Let me just say that the modern Russian ballet is a caricature of its glory days. Even Soviet era ballet was better formed, with better technique and far, far more artistry (though not choreography) than what we see now (1). Imperial Russian ballet had phenomenal dancers from all over what was then the Russian empire (not all of whom were ethnically Russian), and its core came from a French pedagogue and choreographer Marius Petipa (March 11, 1818- July 14, 1010) and an Italian dancer and pedagogue Enrico Cecchetti (June 21, 1850 -November 13, 1928–he was the first to dance the bluebird in Sleeping Beauty). The latter’s skill and style were essential parts of the artistic formation of every iteration of both the Imperial Ballet AND the Ballet Russe pretty much through Alicia Markova – who was actually English (2). It continues to form the core of British ballet training. Ballet is and always has been an international conversation. Without the Italian and French influence, there wouldn’t be modern Russian ballet. The artistic torch inevitably makes the rounds from generation to generation, prima to prima, pedagogue to pedagogue, country to country and no one country can lay claim to that artistic prize without bowing its head to the weight of the multi-national lineage that comes with it.
Now, yesterday a piece of ephemera arrived for my ancestor shrine. This is meant for the section of my ancestor shrine given to my artistic lineage (and lately I sort of just roll castrati, ballet dancers, artists, and writers all into the mix – gaudeamus igitur and all that – but this particular person is part of my ballet lineage).
This is an image of Giuseppina Bozzacchi (November 23, 1853-November 23, 1870 – yes, she died on her 17th birthday). Bozzacchi was an Italian ballerina who created one of the most beloved comedic roles in classical ballet: Swanhilda in the ballet Coppelia (3). Bozzacchi actually has the shortest ballet career on record. She lived during the Franco-Prussian war and died technically of smallpox or possibly an unspecified “fever” (4) but more likely of war-time starvation.
At the time she was dancing with the Paris Opera ballet, she was “discovered” by choreographer Arthur Saint-Leon (September 17, 1821 – September 2, 1870). Saint-Leon was ballet master of the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg for a decade. He had studied music with Nicolo Paganini (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) and ballet, most likely with his father who had danced with the Paris Opera. Saint-Leon danced with one of the last great romantic ballerinas Fanny Cerrito (May 11, 1817 – May 6, 1909) He even married her, though they later divorced. While Saint-Leon was a gifted dancer, he has become even better known as a teacher and choreographer. He is responsible, along with Marius Petipa for creating the scaffolding of what became a pedagogical system that turned out some of the greatest dancers in the history of the Russian Imperial Ballet who in turn traveled west with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and helped create English and American ballet.
Bozzacchi danced Coppelia eighteen times before she died. Here is a lengthier article about her, Saint-Leon, and this ballet.
- The ability to raise one’s legs beyond a split does not artistry make. It’s a grotesque twisting out of true, in classical ballets – the core of the art – at least. There is also a simple fact that having a great artistic history doesn’t give you the right to go into a neighboring country and start killing people there—and I’ll forgive a lot in service to art, but there are limits even for me!
- Her birth name was Lillian Alicia Marks but in those days, because of the influence of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, and also dancers like Anna Pavlova, it was common for English girls to take Russian names if they were ballet dancers. I’ll be writing about Markova later this month.
- I danced this ballet – in the corps. I played one of Swanhilda’s friends who help her break and enter a dollmaker’s shop. It’s a fun ballet to dance. It tells the story of a dollmaker, who makes a doll so lifelike that a stupid young peasant boy, Franz, falls in love with it, thinking it a living girl. The toymaker, you see, would set the doll in the window, with a book in her hands, where she could be seen from the street. His sweetheart, Swanhilda, isn’t having it and after a small act of breaking and entering (lol), hides the doll and takes its place. The toymaker is initially none the wiser, and eventually, of course, it all works out. Her lover Franz gets his come-uppance and realizes he’s been an idiot, the toymaker is amused and forgives all, and Swanhilda and Franz go off into the sunset. It’s quite a charming ballet and the only one I can think of that’s anywhere close to it (though for whatever reason, it’s not performed very often these days) is La fille mal gardee (I believe it was first performed in the mid 18th century). The Royal Ballet has an updated ballet version choreographed by Frederick Ashton.
- The accounts note smallpox and fever. Today we have a vaccine for smallpox but up until the middle of the twentieth century, smallpox was considered one of the “deadliest diseases known to humans.” See here and here for more info. As of today, it has largely been eradicated via vaccination. The vaccine was created by Edward Jenner in England in 1796 and there was a vaccination drive in France throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Bozzachi had grown up in Italy however and it wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that there was a significant push for vaccination in that country. The methods of vaccine creation were hotly debated as the technology was fairly new.
Today on twitter someone expressed the sentiment that he kept ‘thinking about ancestor veneration and what that would look like in practice but was concerned about how one would hold the ancestors accountable.’ I tried to find the comment again so I could quote it exactly, but I couldn’t and I’m too tired to hunt anymore. The comment stuck with me though and the more I thought about it over the course of my afternoon, the more annoyed I became.
Firstly, who are we to think we have the right to hold our ancestors, en masse, accountable for anything? (1) Who are we to think that we are better or more evolved than they? There is a certain degree of hubris in the initial comment, and I think we need to remember always, that modernity does not equal progress. Our ancestors made their mistakes, so have we. The purpose of ancestor veneration is not to express agreement with any choice a particular ancestor has made. Our ancestors were people and none of them were perfect. We aren’t perfect either, and holding up our standards as the apex of moral rectitude has its prideful dangers (not the least of which is that our own descendants may look upon us with horror for the choices we make today). There ARE rites and rituals to call particularly problematic ancestors into account, to bring them healing, to restore them and help them become valuable and contributing members of our respective ancestral houses. Ancestor “elevation” is one such rite (which can also be done for perfectly healthy ancestors as an act of devotion) (2).
Ancestor work isn’t about projecting our own morality anachronistically onto the dead (though we can and should learn from their actions, both good and bad). It’s about honoring family – as far back as we can go, in all its complicated variations.
Acknowledgment, appreciation, veneration, and respect are the watchwords of ancestor work.
When someone says, “how do we hold our ancestors accountable for xyz),” I want to ask in return: what have you accomplished? Have you painted a great masterpiece? Have you saved a life? Have you given life and raised a family successfully and well? Have you farmed a field and fed your village? Have you served your country? What have you done that will make you worthy of honor when you too become an ancestor (and one does not need to have children to be an ancestor). Will you have contributed and left the world better, or will you have sought only to tear down customs and traditions that create civilization and that have sustained families and communities for generations? Sort your own house out and be grateful for the help of your dead (3).
- As an ancestor worker, I will call out the generation of ancestors who willingly abandoned their ancestral traditions, converting to Christianity. I have flat out said that they have an obligation to their descendants to join the work to make things right and I will commit them to my other ancestors so they can be sorted out productively. This is my one exception to what I note above. Even there, I give the opening for productive restorative work to occur.
- Really toxic ancestors, those who want to prey on the living, or who remain vicious and abusive can be sequestered and isolated from veneration. There are rites for that too, though they’re not to be done lightly. Often ancestors abusive in life, once the burden of their own life-pain is removed, once they experience the Gods, once they are brought to their own ancestors for healing realize the devastation they created in life and want to make amends.
- Many of them are well aware of their mistakes and they often work off that debt by helping us become better human beings. We complicate this generally by resisting them.
Today I woke to an email wherein K.H. asked: why do you still honor ballet dancers if you’re retired. You don’t dance anymore so haven’t you exited the lineage?
This is a good question and it’s not the first time I’ve been asked this or had a similar question arise when teaching about ancestor veneration. The word “ancestor” for us, tends to be polyvalent. It’s absolutely first and foremost our blood ancestors, those from whom we are biologically descended. It’s also any adopted ancestors. For instance, I was legally adopted. My adopted mom is a major ancestor. After that, there are those we consider spiritual ancestors – friends, people who inspired us in our lives, teachers, saints, etc. Some of us may be called spiritually to honor certain groups. I have a good friend who honors “the working girls,” dead who were prostitutes in life. I have an acquaintance who honors the deaf dead. I myself honor the military dead and the castrati as two distinct groups within my ancestral house. I feel called to do this as part of my spiritual work, and I have come to love them dearly. There are also lineage ancestors.
In my House, we honor our spiritual lineage: those who were spirit workers, clergy, shamans, diviners, etc. before us. We also specifically honor those who may have initiated us, or taught us who have died – the latter group first and then the larger, overarching group. This is so important that I even include it in my opening prayer when I sit down to do divination, each and every time.
It’s not just clergy, diviners, or spirit workers et al. who have lineage. When you work in a field, any field, you become part of a lineage and it nourishes the soul and orients one properly to recognize and honor the sacred in all that one does. When I danced, I served the daimon of the art and I became part of a lineage stretching back a thousand years, if not more (because ballet has its roots in a certain type of mime originating in ancient Rome). As an artist, I have stepped into a lineage dating back to the time of our ancestors who lived in caves and made their mark in ochre and charcoal. It doesn’t matter that I never became a great dancer, I belong to that lineage, likewise art and music (I’m studying guitar and have musicians in my family). Even though I am retired from ballet, I am still connected by virtue of the time I danced, to that particular lineage. It is a part of who I am. It always will be. It’s not something that I can excise from my history or my formation. It’s left a deep mark on my character (and I would go so far as to say I was able to thrive as a spirit-worker and maybe even as a priest because of the lessons I learned as a dancer).
It’s true that one may choose, upon retirement or upon leaving a field, to stop honoring the ancestors, the forebears of that particular lineage but I don’t think it’s a good idea to do so. We are who we are, we become who we become via our experiences and the professional lineages in which we work. I have found that those particular ancestors, though related only by virtue of our shared time in a professional field, continue to show interest and to be an active part of my ancestral house. I think for whatever time, however long we worked within a field, we contributed and helped to fortify it and that forever ties us to that lineage. This isn’t a bad thing at all.
For those interested in learning more about honoring ancestors, you should check out the tags here at my blog “ancestors” and “ancestor work” and I’ve also written a book available here.
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There are points in my practice wherein various ancestral groups sort of blend together. It’s ok and I go with it, but sometimes it does surprise me. I’ll give you the example that I’ve been thinking of this weekend. Because I was a ballet dancer, I honor those dancers who inspired me in my work. Because I love them deeply, I honor the castrati. Awhile back, I sort of combined those two groups into one ancestral group. There was historical cross over – Marie Salle, one of the most famous ballet dancers of her generation worked with Handel and several castrati in London (she was also a choreographer in an art and at a time where female choreographers often didn’t receive recognition). All this really means is that when I honor them, I honor them together. Well, the same thing is happening, sort of, with the artists that I honor.
Because I paint now, semi-professionally, I honor my artistic lineage (my writing lineage also got smooshed into this group unintentionally). I started early with those who painted the magnificent murals in neolithic caves. As part of that, in my kit, I have the four ochres: white, yellow, red, blue. That is what I carry in my töfr to represent this particular lineage. I also keep a small box-shrine (a box that sits right by my easel and that contains various things I associate with my artists) near where I paint.
Now, at first, I thought that honoring these artists was just because I am also an artist. It’s only the last week that I realize it also dove tails with my spirit-work. Spirit workers edge into art in so much of what we do (I have had to paint spirit-portraits and icons, create elaborate necklaces, embroider prayer flags, create medicine blankets, and even setting up a proper shrine is an act of art. Many of the artists I honor, including some of those neolithic ones considered their art a sacred act). I didn’t realize this until I got pushed *hard* to add certain things that are used in natural dying (dye not die) in numerous cultures to my shrine box. I found myself purchasing Madder (how one gets a brilliant and beautiful crimson dye out of this I just don’t comprehend), raw lapis (ground it creates ultramarine paint – it was so expensive in the renaissance that wealthy patrons who commissioned paintings would sometimes purchase the ultramarine and dole it out as needed to the artists. See this marvelous book, and this book for more information – also, they’re fantastic reads. Today we mostly use synthetics for this color.), dragons-blood (used in magic but also in dying), oak gall (makes a nice sepia tone, also the duergar like it), cochineal (one of the traditional sources for a deep reddish-purple), etc. These can make dye, watercolor, and ink, as well as being used in conjure – and probably in more things too that I don’t know about. There are other plants and resins that I keep in my kit as well to help facilitate all this. It came as a shock to realize that the artistic use of these things was connected not just to art but specifically and powerfully to spirit work and not just my spirit-work. I was pushed to share these with my assistant, and it became clear it was a lineage thing (1).
All of this makes me remember something that happened years and years ago. One of my language teachers, after our tutoring session, told me that she really wished she could experience the Gods as I did. I knew that she painted as a hobby, and I asked her how she felt when she created a piece of art. What she described was the touch of the Gods, that holy power flowing through her, and I told her that. She was having direct experience with the Gods, it just wasn’t coming for her in the same way that it happened with me. That conversation, she told me later, completely changed the way she looked at her art.
Art is a conduit for the holy. Let’s do more of it because bringing beauty into the world is a good thing.
What inspires you? What crafts, art, artists (in any art form) open you up to your Gods, your ancestors. What makes you feel closer to the holy?
- The cochineal were discovered, btw, by Arachne’s dog. Arachne is one of the holy powers honored in the Starry Bull tradition.
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After close to two decades of searching, this morning the names of my Lithuanian great-grandparents (for my grandmother) were dropped into my lap. I’m still sitting here in shock. That is all I have to say save hail our honored dead, now and always.
If Y’all are doing genealogy to try to sort that all out and hitting walls, don’t give up. Just keep making your offerings and doing what you must. It might take a longtime, but eventually, the tangled lines will be opened. This has happened to me several times always out of the blue. Just be patient and consistent in your veneration.
Now I’m going to stagger off to make offerings. just…wow. Thank you, Ancestors!
(Ten years ago today, I gave the opening prayer at a conference held at the “Breaking the Silence: Beginning the Healing” conference held under the auspices of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and which was a part of their year-long focus on the effects of the Doctrine of Discovery. I was likely the only Heathen there, and I was asked to open the gathering with a prayer to our collective dead. This is the prayer I gave, and while some of the language rings much differently today (to the point that were I writing this prayer today, I would rephrase certain elements to avoid association with the left), the core message stands).
Let us begin our work today by calling upon our ancestors.
Let us call upon the Algonquin, the Wappingers Confederacy, and all other Native peoples who walked this land and whom this land remembers.
Let us begin by calling upon the mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers of our lines, all the way back to the time our respective peoples began.
Let us begin by reaching into the past, to the strength and wisdom of our forebears, for guidance, as we seek to transform our present.
I call now to our collective ancestors, women and men who laid down their lives, who faced conquest, struggle, potential obliteration, who stood strong and proud so that each of their descendants might have a chance at survival, at life, at continuance. I call to those men and women whose joys and sacrifices, struggles and successes culminated in each one of us sitting here today. Hear us, oh honored dead.
Those of you who came before us, living lives rooted in your own ancestral ways, be with us here today. Be with us as we come together in dialogue and peace. Inspire us that from here, buoyed by the strength of our collective passion, our collective words, our collective insights, we might go forth and transform our oh-so-damaged world. Root us, oh Ancestors, in our respective indigeny. Root us in the knowledge that indigeny is about celebrating the dignity of every living being on the planet; indigeny is about recognizing that we are indisputably connected to the earth, the land, and most of all to each other. Oh ancestors, let our work today honor that awareness with grace.
Our mothers, our fathers, our foremothers, our forefathers all the way back to the time of the beginning are calling us to action. I know you all hear that call. May our warrior ancestors, who never, ever went gently into the good night of conquest, who fought and laid down their lives sometimes en masse for the survival of their traditions, our traditions, be with us, let us call upon them now. Defiant Ones, proud and enduring Ones, men and women both. Give us the strength to reject that which would poison and corrupt our connections to our ancestors, our Holy Powers, this land upon which we live, and each other. Give us the wisdom to know in our bones that sustainability does not come from disconnected governments and avaricious corporations but from the belly of our ancestors and the traditions they called their own, traditions that are our birthright, our inheritance.
Oh Ancestors, give us the courage to confront privilege – our own most of all – to actively engage with ideas and concepts that may be painful, to engage with mindfulness, respect, and authenticity.
Most of all, let us never give up, never surrender, never step back from this fight, no matter what hostility or pressure we might face. We too are warriors in a struggle that has spanned generations. Stand with us, oh our beloved dead. Grant us a measure of your strength. We carry the medicine of our ancestors. Oh Ancestors hear our vow: no one here will be legislated, educated, starved, murdered, shamed out of existence. We will not allow our traditions – whatever those ancestral traditions might be, for here we sit from all corners of the globe united by a common purpose – to be forgotten. We will not allow the land that cradles the bones of our foremothers and forefathers to be devasted. Many things can be lost or taken by the rushing press of dubious progress, or through the violent devastation of conquest, but indigeny is not one of them. It flourishes in each of us. It is in the soil upon which we walk. It is hidden in our skin and blood and bones, in the connection from parent to child to grandchild and beyond. Oh our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, help us stay consciously rooted in that knowledge.
May we hold strong. May our ancestors sustain us.
It will take both sides, living and dead, to right the balance of this world.
May we hold strong and never bow our heads in fear.
We are each our ancestral lines walking. The time is now and I call upon our ancestors: give us ears to hear and eyes to see and the courage to go fearlessly wherever we must go, to do whatever we must do, to protect and heal our broken world.
With the blessing of the ancestors – all of our collective and honored dead – may we be given strength and may we always remember: we do not do this work alone. We are our ancestral lines walking. We come with nations of our ancestors at our back. May they be honored. May they be hailed. May they be remembered. May they inspire us.
In a recent discussion on a previous post of mine here, the subject of “family” came up. I don’t often talk about family, but this is a blog in part about things relevant to contemporary polytheisms, to their restoration, and their longevity, and to the nurturing of devotion. As such, “family” is an important topic, one which, in my ham-fisted way, I’m going to touch on it here just a little. I spent most of my twenties hostile to the whole idea of “family.” My own experience with my birth family had been less than pleasant (1). It took having a deeply devout adopted mom to help me sort all of that out and learn to cherish this idea of “family” as something good and necessary to healthy communities.
When I say family, I do not necessarily restrict that to father-mother-children. In fact, while I believe there should be male and female role models in the family to help guide and nourish the children, I think restricting that to just the parents is deeply divisive, stressful, and destructive. It puts a tremendous pressure on the parents while providing little to no resources or accountability. We need our extended family, our grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and more; and on top of that, we need to situate all of this in an awareness of our ancestors – that there is that family going back as far as we could ever imagine, of which we too will be a part one day. The nuclear family is an aberration. If you look just throughout the world today, and most certainly throughout history, it was and is more common to have extended family living together and helping each other out, instilling intergenerational virtues and building up functional, healthy, pious adults (2).
It’s become the vogue today, especially amongst those who consider themselves “woke,” who draw a good deal of their rhetoric and raison d’etre from Marxism, to dismiss the family as a wicked and patriarchal institution that serves no purpose but the abuse of those within its confines. What nonsense. Yet, this nonsense is gaining traction in our communities. Mind you, I’ve yet to see a workable alternative presented, because there isn’t one. Family is fundamental (especially when you expand the definition of family beyond the nuclear. (3)). Of course, “family” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists within a culture, a society, a community that may or may not reinforce the values of one’s kin. In our modern world, family can be a fortress in which piety may be nourished and allowed to grow, a curative and medicine for the spiritual pollution infecting our world (4).
Personally, I’ve come to believe that family is an absolute essential building block of any sustainable tradition. It is the way that a proper …I’ll use a Roman term and if that hurts your brain, too bad …pax deorum begins: first in the individual, then the family, then the community, then the city and outward in ever larger circles. It is a sacred thing, something to be cherished and nurtured. “Mother” and “Father” are sacred titles and should carry with them an awareness of the power and responsibility of those roles. What is it that Swinburne wrote? “Mother is the name of God on every child’s tongue…” (5). Family is the best means of passing a religious tradition on to the next generation, and the best way of rooting it as a long-term societal presence. A healthy family is also the best way of correcting societal ills; it starts at home.
- For a number of reasons, mostly having to do with intergenerational trauma; happily though, in my thirties I was able to heal some of those rifts and make peace with my biological family.
- If you’re not pious I don’t think you’re actually healthy. That piety may look different in each person depending on tradition/gods/etc. but part of raising a healthy child is exercising their spiritual muscles and teaching them what it means to be in right relationship with the Gods, i.e. passing on your tradition.
- Sometimes we make our families. Envision it how you want and create it but understand it’s an essential building block for sustainable polytheistic communities or indeed any community.
- No, I don’t think that we should keep children confined and away from any interaction with the world at large. What I think is that we should be providing them with protection – emotionally and spiritually- from the forces of uncreation. We should be nurturing them in ways that allow them to develop strength and courage, devotion, and goodness. We should be making space for them to bring their questions and to share what they are receiving from the world at large and how and why that may or may not accord with our values.
- Which is why child abuse of any sort is absolutely anathema. Healthy communities, religious or otherwise, root that shit out assiduously. There is no room now or ever in our communities for someone who would sexually or physically assault a child or a spouse.
It’s a delicious zero degrees outside and I am loving it. Every morning, when I get up (after I have tea and sort myself into a grumbling consciousness), I go outside and greet the Gods and spirits. Because it was so cold today (and because I’d started the laundry, so all my warm pants were being washed), I put on (over thin leggings so I’m not breaking my taboo against dresses) a thick woolen skirt. It’s actually period clothing, made in the style of the 18th century, so in truth, it was a woolen petticoat. I only put one on (women would often layer them), and then warm woolen socks and Lobben boots (what my god-daughter once called my “troll shoes” – she’s fascinating by the slightly upturned toes lol), a flannel shirt, and a hat. I gathered my gear (incense, lighter, cup of water, and drum) and went out to work. The whole rite takes about 15 minutes, and I was perfectly warm. I could have stayed out there with no trouble for hours.
All of this got me thinking about the way we dress. My ancestors, and certain ancestral groups that I honor, often ask me to incorporate aspects of how they dressed during their lives, into my daily garb. It’s comfortable and not an issue for me for the most part, plus, it allows a means by which I can better connect to my dead. It’s like I’m wrapping myself in their attention and blessings. But I’ve learned some very practical things through this as well.
My usual at-home gear tends to be very, very simple: black pants of a light, synthetic fabric (1), a ratty camisole top or t-shirt, and felted wool house slippers. That’s it. I’d live in it if I could. When I teach of course, I dress professionally (but I’ve started trying to replace any clothing made of synthetics with bespoke clothing of natural fabrics – it’s expensive but it lasts so much longer). One thing that I realized is that it’s only due to central heating and air that we can dress as we do (2). I don’t think it ever really hit home before that so much of how both men and women dressed was a matter of keeping the body’s core warm when, even inside, temperatures were much, much colder than what we are generally used to today. Here’s a fascinating video that shows all the parts to an upper-class Dutch woman’s dress circa 1665 (working class women would wear most of the same underwear bits and stays, but the quality of fabric and the number of layers would be less than what we see here).
Up through the turn of the 20th century, there was no central heating. I spent a very cold and snowy January in a house without central heating a few years ago, getting up in the morning to light the huge wood stove, the only source of heating in the place. I’m going to be very blunt: it sucked (though not as much as having to trek through knee high snow to the outhouse or haul water). The way one managed was by layering one’s clothing and of course, there were chores to be done throughout the day (including cutting wood and keeping the fire going) that helped to keep one warm. It was a really good lesson in physically comprehending a tiny bit of how our ancestors lived. These experiences build—at least for me– respect for how our ancestors lived, survived, and even thrived. I always through the way early modern women dressed – in multiple petticoats and stays– was foolish but you know what? Those petticoats keep one perfectly warm (probably warmer than the men, given that the style, at least in the 18th century, was for men’s pants to stop at the knee. Calves on a dude were viewed as sexy. Lol. So, they wore white stockings and showed that shit off) and the stays, and later corsets that women wore protect the core, adding a significant layer of warmth. What I’d dismissed as frippery and foolishness had a very practical purpose. This is also the case with head coverings. Yes, modesty for women was one of the reasons hair and head were covered, but there was also the question of warmth. Both men and women tended to keep their heads covered and both wore nightcaps. I’d always thought this absolutely ridiculous but when there’s no central heading, and the weather can drop to zero or below, covering the head makes perfect sense for keeping body heat in.
It reminded me yet again that our ancestors knew things. They were smart. They engaged with their world in practical and insightful ways. They understood their world and how to make the technology and crafts to which they had access work for them. In some ways, they understood better than we do today (3). They moved in their world in ways that made sense to them, and that took into account the available technology, the climate, and the work that they had to do. I think there’s a tendency to think that we are better than our ancestors, that they were somehow less sophisticated than we are now. This is a mistake, and this is where living history (in ways large and small) can teach us to reconsider how we treat our dead, how we approach them, and how beneficial it can be to approach our ancestors with a willingness to learn all the lessons they have to teach.
- I’m moving away from wearing any synthetics. Most of them are made of plastic and they are terrible for the environment, pick up body odor much faster than natural fabrics, and don’t last. They’re garbage fabrics. I have a colleague who, like many spirit-workers, has clothing taboos. In her case, she’s not permitted to wear synthetic fabrics. While that’s not one of my taboos (I have certain color taboos, and I’m also not generally permitted to wear skirts or dresses – unless it counts as ritual garb), I’ve started copying her because the fabric is just so much better. Silks, cottons, woolens, even rayon (which is made from plant fibers), linens, hemp, bamboo all allow for a broad choice of clothing.
- This was further brought home to me when my assistant and I were traveling back from a funeral at which I’d officiated. I was dressed in an 18th century men’s suit (but with long pants), and she was in a sun dress and sweater, since this happened in the spring. I’m not usually sympathetic when women complain about office temperatures and such being too cold. My attitude, since I tend to run hot – my ideal house temp is 68 F—is put on a sweater. I’ve never worked in an office or classroom that I didn’t find swelteringly hot. My friend had a sweater on though but still begged me to turn down the ac in the car (I did). I was perfectly comfortable though – in three layers around my core: linen shirt, wool vest, wool jacket. It really got me thinking about male versus female garb – it’s not all bad though, as I note above in my article.
- As a complete aside, I have a theory about why women’s clothing today tends to lack pockets. I don’t think it’s simple female vanity (I know some of the problem is concern over the line of more form fitting dresses, but I don’t think that’s the only thing happening here). Until the early 19th century (??) women would wear pockets as a separate part of their attire. You could have huge pockets, but you tied them around your waist, underneath your petticoats. They were accessible via openings in the sides of the petticoats. They could be as large or small as you wished. You were in charge of your pockets. In the 18th century, panniers were …. ginormous pockets. I seriously wonder if the dearth of pockets in modern female clothing isn’t some unconscious holdover from this earlier, multi-century trend. Here’s an article on decorating pockets. Here’s a site that shows traditional pockets on a mannequin.