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Treading the Path of Memory

Ballerina Gavin Larsen

This Yule, one of my best friends gave me a book about ballet: Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life” by Gavin Larsen. The author had been a principle dancer for close to 18 years with various companies, she even danced in Suzanne Farrell’s company – a respectable career for any dancer. The book was very, very good and in fact described the physical realities of being a professional dancer better than anything I have thus far read. It opened with a discussion of what it’s like upon first awakening in the morning, how the first thing—while still lying mostly in bed— one does is carefully test every muscle, unkinking the back, stretching the Achilles, opening up the body gently and carefully before even setting foot on the ground. Every breathing moment is a test, determining the state of one’s body and how one is going to physically work later in the day. That careful evaluation is something I do even now, because the alternative is pain, sometimes crippling pain, and further injury. The book details the process from first opening one’s eyes, to daily [ballet] class, to rehearsals and post-performance care. I became tremendously emotional reading it, because my body remembered both the good and the bad of that life. Shortly on the heels of reading this book, I watched a movie, “White Crow” about the defection of Rudolf Nureyev and again, it brought me back emotionally into the middle of the world that shaped me: ballet. 

There is a saying in the ballet world: “A dancer dies twice.” The first time is when he or she has to stop dancing and the second is actual, physical death. This is truth. It took me at least a decade to recover emotionally and mentally from my retirement (I retired in my early twenties), and I still carry injuries and chronic pain from my career. Somehow, in some strange way, perhaps through a desperate clutching at the memory of being able to create, through the sweat, blood, and pain of my body, a beauty that elevates the soul, perhaps through the desperate longing (to touch the Gods?) that drove me into dance and didn’t leave me even after I was spat out by the daimon of that art, a bridge was crafted that spanned the fractured, abyssal space between my life as a dancer and becoming a devotee of the Gods, a priest, and finally a spirit worker. One led directly to the other and without the first, I would not have survived the transformation into the second. 

me dancing in the 80s, one of the very few photos that I have

Long ago, I learned that there were two paths to becoming what many might term a ‘shaman’(1): madness road or death road. The idea is that you are cast down from your world, shattered and in the process of rebuilding and restoration, one comes back stronger and more resilient than before. There is a third way though, and that is the road of art. What is that? It is living a life where you are fully given over to the daimon of an art – in my case dance. Every inch of your identity, everything inside and out by which you exist and define yourself as a human being, centers around, relies upon, and is defined by one’s art. Then…usually at a terrible and critical juncture, that is stripped away and the result is a psychic shattering of the self. You rebuild (or not, but “not” involves consequences that are a luxury for a spirit worker. “Not” involves destruction, devolution, sometimes madness, drug addiction, and death). You claw your way back into some semblance of existence. You learn to live again and eventually, if you’re lucky, to find some measure of joy. If this is part of a spirit-worker’s journey, then this is when the Gods begin the process of direct formation. (In the end, I think every spirit worker or shaman ends up traipsing painfully down every one of the roads at some point in their life as we are remade again and again in service to our Gods. It is the way of things – formation never ends). The easiest and most productive thing to do is to embrace the process. 

There are so many things that I brought with me out of the crucible of ballet training that helped me when I became Odin’s, that helped me center myself as a priest, that helped me embrace my formation as a spirit worker. I am so immensely grateful that I was allowed to foster under that terrible and hungry daimon of the arts. Ballet prepared me for spirit work, but also for regular devotion and I cherish the lessons that I learned as though they were jewels poured into my hands. Some of these things are contained in words that young people today find very difficult to swallow, triggering if you will, but they are utterly essential to the Work. 

The first is discipline. In ballet, there is the understanding that discipline brings freedom. It was ingrained in us from the beginning of our training. This isn’t discipline that someone is forcing onto us, but a process that we enter into willingly. The discipline comes from within, must be summoned from within, and it is a gift we give first and foremost to ourselves. We train and train, submitting to a series of exercises that have been done by ballet dancers from beginner to professional, in largely the same order, the same way, all across the world for at least four hundred years. The moment we place our hands on the barre and will our bodies into position, we enter into a lineage that began in the mime and theatre of the ancient world, and that came to fruition as ballet specifically in the court of the Sun King, and then reached its perfection in 19th century Russia (2). We stand with our ancestors within that lineage, moving as they did, putting our bodies into the same steps and rhythms that they honed and passed down, dancer to dancer, body to body – because that is the way that memories are passed in this art—and in so doing, we ourselves are shaped in accordance with the dictates the tradition requires. It is a beautiful yet terrible thing. The discipline required in ballet is brutal. One engages in a constant battle against nature. With that discipline comes a tremendous endurance to pain, a knowledge that one can persevere, and a potent resiliency in the face of physical pain and even failure. Those things all transfer well, not just to spirit work but pretty much to any other field. 

Louis XIV dressed as the sun in an early ballet

The second jewel in that hoard this art gave me is that of obedience. I think this is perhaps THE most difficult idea to accept. It comes into play more often in devotion than one might think though. We learn to willingly curb our will so that we might learn the necessary techniques, and so that we might develop the aforementioned discipline. In devotion, the idea of obedience to one’s Holy Powers isn’t so much a matter of unthinking, blind obedience but of choosing to trust when we may not have all the information or answers. This obedience is a personal choice, not something imposed to destroy one’s autonomy, but rather something one consciously chooses each and every day in order to help in one’s spiritual formation. It helps us to better develop as devotionally pious people of iron strong faith, and it helps us to carry more fully and well the Mysteries of our Holy Ones that we are meant to carry. Ultimately, it brings freedom. There’s a lovely saying by Seneca that comes to mind as I write this: deo parere libertus est. To serve a God is freedom. 

 Finally, if one is very focused and very lucky, ballet brings with it an awareness, palpable and almost physical, of the Holy. I don’t know how to explain this to someone who hasn’t experienced it in this particular way, but ballet opened me up to a sense of the sacred, to the Presence, to Numen. It was how I first learned to pray.  It was my first direct experience with the Holy Powers. In Larsen’s book, toward the end (p. 224), she quotes Choura(3) the autobiography of Alexandra Danilova.

Soviet dancer Alexandra Danilova (1904 – 1997) as the can-can dancer doll in the ballet ‘La Boutique Fantasque’, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. (Photo by Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Danilova, who trained at the Maryinsky, was a ballerina with the Ballet Russe, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and also both professionally and personally involved with George Balanchine. She also taught at the School of American Ballet, shaping a whole generation of professional dancers. In her autobiography, she writes about the tradition of bowing (female dancers curtsey) at the end of each performance. Like the respect shown at the beginning and end of each ballet class, this is a ritualized act, and an acknowledgement of one’s place in the lineage and hierarchy of the art itself. Danilova writes, “In Russia, we were taught never to touch our knees to the floor when taking a bow unless there was royalty in the house; we were to go to our knees only to royalty or to God. (Larsen, 224)” It’s a lesson many polytheists in general and spirit -workers in particular would do well to take to heart. The humility and respect, bound together like the circling chains of our DNA, that this awareness engenders, an awareness deeply embedded in the body on a visceral, almost primal level, cannot be under-estimated. It is one of the greatest gifts my ballet career left me, and in all ways, it prepared me for encountering the Gods later in my life. 

dancer bowing after performance – Maria Doval ballet

 Recently, one of my undergrad students asked how I went from being a ballet dancer to a theologian. The answer is painfully, but doggedly and the line from one to the other is straighter than one might think. I am grateful, deeply, deeply grateful for each of the many teachers I have had in my life on the way. (I was thinking of this today when I was doing the dishes. My assistant made her first cake the other day and I was washing up one of the cake pans. Whenever we bake in our home, the first piece is given to our house spirits and domovoi. I learned that from another Heathen woman. I visited her once, many years ago in NC for what turned into an incredibly fruitful weekend of hearth cultus and spirit work and though we’ve long fallen out of touch (she was Theodish and I left Theodism behind close to twenty years ago), I am grateful for what I learned in the moment we baked together in her kitchen.  There are Teachers from whom one consciously studies and by whom one enters into a tradition, and teachers who often inadvertently open us up to greater understanding of our Gods. I am grateful for them all. Every teacher is a treasure to be cherished, respected, and their lessons honed and passed on. 

This brings me to the conclusion of this rather rambling meditation on my life and work: gratitude. Last year, instead of making any New Year’s resolutions, I chose a word that was going to be my touchstone throughout the year. That word was devotion, and it was certainly a tremendously fruitful year devotionally, often in graceful and unexpected ways. This year, my touchstone is gratitude.

 

from The Art of Calligraphy

Notes: 

  1. I have no issue with using the term “shaman.” The difference between a “shaman” and a “spiritworker” is that death (or madness, or art induced psychic shattering). I’ve found, however, that for myself over the years, the word “shaman” fits less and less for what I do. There are Norse terms I prefer, particularly vitki, because it aligns me in mind and heart more fully with Odin as Gangleri and Galdrafaðr. Ever and always, the work remains much the same though. Spirit worker is an umbrella term for a specialist who works with or for spirits and the Holy Powers. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but for the purposes of this article, that definition will do. Likewise, I use the word “daimon” in the classical sense, that is as a divinely connected and powerful spirit. 
  2. I have opinions on this. While ballet obviously continues across the world, I think the artistry and glory of the imperial ballet is yet to be equaled. 
  3. This is a female nickname for Alexandra. It’s spelled шурa. The other common nickname, used for either Alexandra or Alexander, is Sasha. 

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Me about 14, just after ballet class, having just started working with a regional company (I blurred out the figures around me to preserve their privacy, hence the strange background).

On Again Reading “Till We Have Faces”

Last weekend I reread C.S. Lewis’ beautiful, poetic, and absolutely wrenching novel Till We Have Faces. It was the last novel Lewis wrote and I’m using it in an intro to theology class that I’m teaching. As it’s been nearly a decade since I had read it last, I’d forgotten how powerful a text this is. For those who may not have read it, Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the story of Psyche and Eros and no novel I have ever read better encompasses and explains the story of a soul’s journey to its God. By the time I got to the end of the book I was sobbing my eyes out. It happens every time I read it.

The story centers around three sisters: Oruel (the protagonist of the book), Redival (her second sister, a fairly minor character in the book), and Istra (whose name in the fictional world of the book means ‘soul,’ or Psyche in Greek). Oruel, whose physical ugliness is highlighted by the book, which in turn is written from her perspective, loves her youngest sister dearly and very, very possessively. Istra, in turn, is so incredibly beautiful and kind as a child that people begin to treat her like a Goddess. They begin to venerate her. Neither she nor Oruel encourage this in any way. Of course, those familiar with Greek myths will know immediately how spiritually dangerous this is, and the problems that may (and do) ensue.  

Receiving praise due to a Deity is a form of hubris. It is violence against the proper order of the cosmos. It is a way of placing a human being and the human ego above the Gods in that cosmic order. Allowing this, even passively to occur, is tremendously disrespectful to the Gods in question. It’s a type of impiety that has the potential to spread like wildfire too. This is exactly what happens in the fictional city of Glome, where all the action of the story occurs. The people began to venerate Istra in place of the Goddess of Glome (a Goddess named Ungit, who, as the text tells us, is their Aphrodite). This leads to devastation in the land, with the result that Istra must be taken up to a sacred mountain and given to Ungit’s son. This spurs a painful, bitter, but ultimately enlightening journey for the book’s protagonist Oruel. 

Oruel, for the first 2/3 of the book is deeply resentful and bitter toward the Gods. She spews vile, impious, and hateful things toward Them because They have “taken” Istra away from her. (Istra for her part, until Oruel intervened with bullying manipulation, was supremely happy and fulfilled). We see through the course of the book that Oruel doesn’t love. She covets. She is greedy, selfish, and deeply self-centered. Her idea of love is possession. Her complaint against the Gods was this, “I was my own, and Psyche was mine and no one else had any right to her.” This included Psyche’s right to herself. Like so many self-centered people, Oruel was fully prepared to destroy Psyche’s happiness because it wasn’t centered on her (Oruel). She was fully prepared to shit on anything holy, to pull those she purported to love down into the empty, shallow morass of her own mediocrity and misery rather than allow them to exist, whole and happy away from her control in loving relationships with their Gods. 

The book is about the consequences of jealousy. Spiritual jealousy – that is jealousy over someone else’s spiritual gifts, is one of the most destructive things in the world. It twists, corrupts, and destroys everything good, clean, and holy. It destroys the jealous person most of all. Oruel spends 2/3 of the book complaining that the Gods never answer her accusations, that Their answers are confusing, misleading, impossible to understand. She is presented with mystery and refuses to see (even when she is granted a vision). It is easier for her to condemn it as madness and her sister as mad. Oruel eventually becomes Queen of Glome and sovereignty begins to heal her, forcing her to care for those in her kingdom. What really cements that process is writing her account of Istra’s being taken up by the God. Only in the end, when Oruel herself begins to realize how misguided she has been, how cruel and selfish, do we see the true nature of this manuscript. 

Here’s the thing: every mystic, every devotee, everyone who loves his or her Gods and works diligently to center their lives around piety and devotion is Oruel as much as we have ever been Istra. Every one of us must, at some point and often more than once face the “holy darkness” that Oruel so pits herself against again and again in the text. Every one of us faces the choice over and over again, day after day in how we respond to the call of our Gods, the press of devotion, or the press of the world and what we have been taught is “rationality.” Every day we face the temptation to dismiss it all as “madness,” just as it was easier for Oruel to claim that Istra was “mad” rather than to accept that she was loved by a God. The book even has Oruel asking, “Was it madness or not? Which was true? Which would be worse? (142).” It’s so much easier to dismiss a life-changing (or challenging) theophany as madness than accept that it is real and have the safe, known pattern of your life fall away. It’s so much easier to call it madness than accept that someone else has received this and you may not be there yet. Jealousy is a terrible thing, especially spiritually, and it twists our souls all out of true. It’s a challenge I think we all face at some time or another (1). 

It’s with part II that Oruel starts to heal and come to fruition spiritually. After writing the first part of her story, she has an epiphany, and a theophany that causes her to realize the horrible evil she has done in trying to tear Istra away from her God. Moreover, she comes to repent of it and, gaining both insight and humility, enters finally into right relationship with the Gods. It takes her entire life, as the story is at its core, the story of the soul’s journey. Toward the end of the book, she asks her teacher ‘are the Gods just?” His answer moves me to tears every time: “Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were? (p. 335). They are ever and always better than we deserve, even though it might take us our entire lifetimes to realize that. It is a touchstone, a thing to contemplate, a thing that urges one to cultivate virtue and piety *better* — whatever better means for each individual soul. 

One of the other key questions, the question that gives the title is something Oruel asks after she’s had her epiphany: “How can They meet us face to face until we have faces? (p. 335)” and the novel asks the reader to contemplate exactly what that means. What does it mean to have a face? Why is it necessary before we can experience the Gods? I don’t have an answer to this save that the story of the soul is one of becoming, of growing, of peeling away layers of pain, jealousy, and misunderstanding until we see what Orual finally grasps in the last couple of paragraphs of the book: throughout she has been demanding answers from the Gods. In the end, she realizes that the God –in her case the “God of the Mountain”—IS the answer. In the end, our Gods are enough. 

Notes: 

  1. I’m not saying that one should not engage in clear spiritual discernment. This is always necessary. Just because one is engaging in deep devotion to the point of having mystical experiences, doesn’t mean one should ignore one’s mental and physical health. 

All page numbers are from this edition of the book. 

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The Way We Speak

I’ve been sitting on this for a while. Around the autumnal equinox, I started to see gross postings in various places (tumblr, facebook, twitter, etc.) mostly about Persephone and Hades, putting in crude terms Her cyclical return to the Underworld. I don’t have cultus to either of those Deities but nonetheless, reading the trashy memes and comments really disturbed me. I think it says something about the paucity of our culture that we so blithely speak not just of sacred things, but of Holy Powers and Their mysteries with such casual disrespect (and I don’t think this is just a polytheistic problem either). Nor am I condemning all memes -– I’ve seen some that are lovely and some that are humorous without crossing the line into disrespect. I think that’s fine. I think that’s healthy and it’s really wonderful to see art and cartoons and prayers and imaginative renderings of our Gods. This is the way we develop iconography and build religious cultus and culture. It’s a good thing. It can be done without disrespect though. In fact, it can and should come from a place of love, adoration, and deep, deep devotion to the Holy Powers. That devotion is the core of every healthy tradition. 

Of course, there are some (usually Hellenics but occasionally Heathens will chime in too) who will argue that Homer wrote stories that presented the Gods in less than salutatory manner. Yeah, whoever (and it may be more than one author—but we’ll stick with “Homer” for convenience here) actually put together the Iliad and the Odyssey and other Homeric works did, but A) this corpus was criticized for that very potentially impious presentation by later philosophers; and B) there are also beautiful and deeply pious prayers and hymns within the Homeric corpus. I rarely see that latter coming from the same people who post garbage about the Gods. Often, I want to shake these individuals, and just flat out ask, “if you feel so deeply disgusted with our traditions, traditions you too claim to practice, if you want to erase all mystery and actual cultus, if you hate our Gods so very much why are you here?” I’d be very interested in the answer. When your entire blog or online world is devoted to tearing down and spitting on our traditions and the Holy Powers from which we received those traditions, why are you here? 

To put it bluntly, we should speak of our Gods with respect. That shouldn’t be a difficult or contentious thing. These are GODS. These are our Holy Powers. These are the Bestowers of mystery, the Givers of blessings, the Immortal Ones Whose will, and kindness crafted the worlds. These are the Powers from which our souls proceed and to which we will one day return. These are the Good and Gracious Gods from which all our blessings flow. When we speak of Them or render Them into art, we can do so with love and respect. If we have no respect for sacred things and for our Holy Powers and Their Mysteries, I ask again: WHY are we here?  

(I completely agree with the comment to this video that says, “This dude should mobilize and bring his healing slaps to the general public.” LOL. Please come to contemporary polytheisms. Please. We need those healing slaps. A lot of them. Repeatedly and with alacrity. Slap the hubris out of us. A-fucking-men). 

QOTD- Celsus

We must never in any way neglect the Gods, neither by day nor night, in public or in private, neither in word nor deed; in working and in repose let the soul be continually directed to God.

— Celsus

Keep On Keeping On

On another forum I’ve been writing about spiritual warfare – no, I wasn’t raised evangelical and I know this is a term that one usually hears in that context. It’s an uncomfortable term, a term that challenges our ideas of how the world works, of how our traditions work. I know that and unfortunately, I have no words and no way of making this any more palatable. I have no better term for what is happening now on every front. I can only write about what my own experience has been and what I see and deal with daily. 

To be blunt, probably blunter than I ought to be, we are beset on every side by evil, apathy, entropy, degeneracy, and moral and spiritual decay. It’s not just happening to us, but is seeping in, breaking in, crashing in through the doorway of other religions too, and through the doorway of political events (on every side). Everything we are seeing I very strongly believe is a reflection of a greater, deeper, spiritual war that is going on behind the scenes. Evil exists and it can influence people, corrupt them, and it aligns itself against all that the Gods, the good and great Holy Powers have wrought. Looking at it now seems so overwhelming. It fosters a despair that can corrode and damage the soul. Our traditions so often ignore or downplay, or sometimes outright deny the existence of Evil that I think we hobble our ability to respond to it and to ward ourselves from the hostility and despair is its greatest tool. 

As I told someone yesterday: don’t give into despair. There is no need. That only allows that which is evil a victory. Instead turn to your prayers and redouble them. Prayers open doorways for our Gods, doorways into our hearts and minds and souls, doorways into our world. Double down on your devotion. Do that which is given to you to do. It doesn’t matter how big or how small it is: when we honor our Gods, our ancestors, our land, we align ourselves with the Powers and create in microcosm a world in which the good and holy has triumphed. This is where transformation starts: on our knees before our shrines, with offerings filling our hands, with prayers filling our mouths, with love filling our heart. Don’t be afraid. Don’t despair. Maintain cultus to the Holy Powers. Throw yourself into whatever creative work you can do. Pray and celebrate your Gods and your love for Them. That will transform you and sustain you. It is enough. It drives back the foulness. 

Each one of your voices matters. Your prayers matter. Your devotion matters. Each one of us fights this battle one on one in the hidden passage ways of our souls but we don’t fight alone. We have our Gods, our ancestors, our fellow devotees right by our side. Our voices are joined by the voices of all those who honor and who have in their lifetimes honored the Powers, hoping and  praying and working together. That conquers evil. When we lift our voices together in piety and praise for all that is Holy: then we are mighty indeed. What is evil before that? We conquer it again and again within ourselves, uniting ourselves in devotion to our Holy Powers and from there it spreads out like a tidal wave. 

Lovely is the Labor…

There’s a passage from one of Euripides’ plays that begins “Lovely is the labor, O Phoebus, I carry out for you before Your house, honoring. Your prophetic shrine… (καλόν γε τὸν πόνον, ὦ 
Φοῖβε, σοὶ πρὸ δόμων λατρεύ- ω τιμῶν μαντεῖον ἕδραν).”

Whenever I am aggravated or tired or just plain resistant to doing my devotional work, I think about this. I think about it a lot. It is a grace and privilege, an honor to be able to venerate our Gods. Every single time we approach Their shrines, every single time we utter a prayer, every single offering given – we are privileged to be able to do this. That should be a thing of joy and that sense of gratitude is something that I try hard to cultivate in my work, especially when I’m not feeling quite up to doing anything but curling up like a worm on the couch. (That’s not to say that I don’t do THAT later too!). It’s this thought that motivates me quite often to make a small offering, or to refresh a shrine, or to bow my head in a moment’s prayer. It’s that thought that keeps me going: lovely is the labor that we do for our Gods. Always. 

When You Run Out of Spoons

For those who don’t know what I mean, here is a little bit about the spoon metaphor.

Disclaimer: this topic did not come to me out of the ether. I saw a post on twitter about someone who was doing a podcast on the subject which made me think about it myself. I’ve been hunting twitter for that post and my response but I can’t find it. My apologies to the lovely person who first gave me the idea for this topic. If you know who you are and see this, please let me know and I’ll update my post to give you credit. (edit: I think it was this video. Thank you, E. for sending it my way. There are good suggestions in the video. This does not mean I support the channel or the creator – I don’t know this person at all. This video, however, offers good pointers). 

I have severe chronic pain issues.  Having worked as a ballet dancer for the first part of my working life, I was sidelined by injury and retired in my early twenties. While I loved my work, it left me with spinal damage, torn ligaments that never properly healed,  tendonitis, arthritis, and chronic pain. Later, I developed fibromyalgia and severe migraines. Ballet taught me many things that I have carried over into my spiritual work and devotional world. I can work through a great deal of pain (whether that is healthy or not is a totally different question! Often I’ll be so focused on a task that I won’t realize my pain levels are creeping into seriously dangerous territory until I stop working. Once my concentration is broken, suddenly I’m hit with massive pain and it can lay me out for a long while. I do not advocate this for anyone, but, it’s a habit that I picked up as a dancer). I can use pain productively, as in ordeal where pain is one of the catalysts for going deeply into an altered state. I can force myself through pain if something needs to be done. I can function until I can’t, or rather I can function but then I pay a high price for it. 

Learning to admit when I have to stop, and to take better care of myself before I get to that point has been one of the most difficult things I have ever had to learn. I have an aversion to laziness that only someone raised with dictums like “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” could have. It took me a long time to really accept that self-care was not laziness. I’m still somewhat dubious about where self-care ends and self-indulgence begins but I find it helps to think about self-care as a marathon. What is going to help us stay the course long-term? I bring myself back to this in my academic work, where I am all too often struggling with pain, and I bring myself back to it with my devotional practices too, especially as I get older. So, this is not an easy topic for me to approach in a way that I think will be valuable to you, my readers – even though I’m going to try to do just that here. All of this is complicated for me in that I think it is terribly easy to use one’s pain or circumstances as an excuse to do less, as an excuse to forego devotion all together and I have a knee jerk reaction to that, or to fostering that in myself or anyone else. It’s not always easy for me to balance these two things.  Couple that with being an Odin’s person and very work-oriented. 

I want to love my Gods better so much it hurts. That being said, devotion should not be torture. It should be something that is as natural and easy to us as breathing. There are going to be those times where we’ll struggle, or where we might have to slog through resistance but devotion should be the thing that sustains us and lifts us up.  It’s important to build good devotional habits from the beginning and I think it’s so incredibly perverse that it can be so easy to build bad habits and so damned hard to build sustainable good ones. What is with that? Then chronic pain or some other physical or neurological condition comes along and complicates things. Like it’s not hard enough already? Argh. So, I have found that it’s perfectly ok to bitch, whine, and moan about this. Frustration with our limitations is natural. If you need to vent, allow yourself to do so. It doesn’t make you a bad polytheist to want to pound a wall sometimes in sheer frustration!

More importantly,  I like to say that we are as we have been made and the Gods are not going to fault us for the peculiarities of our corporeal forms. If you’re having a bad day physically or a bad brain day and just can’t do the type of devotion you usually do, that’s ok. There is zero reason to be ashamed. Don’t beat yourself up. There are enough people in this world who are ready to do that for no reason at all. Just pick yourself up and do what you can do. If it’s just a whispered prayer that’s enough. The Gods know your heart. The best you can do is the best you can do at any given time. It’s ok if that varies considerably from day to day. Do what you can do and know that the Gods see you and it is enough. 

I think it’s natural for us to plan for our good days. I would suggest having a series of plans for your bad days, and then those days that are worse. When XYZ happens (when I wake up with a migraine so bad I’m screaming for instance, or with my joints so inflamed I can’t get out of bed) what is the devotional game plan?  It may not be much. It may be a single prayer, like Sigdrifa’s prayer that I have committed to memory. Usually we can always pray – maybe not too coherently – but at least there is some kind of reaching out. If that’s the best one can do, then it is enough. 

I think it’s really important to establish a base line for the very worst days. Prep for that. Know that they will happen and that’s ok. That’s not going to be the new normal. It’s temporary and there’s no shame in it. Do what you can do – and you yourself are the best judge of that. When you are feeling better and are able to do more, then do more. It’s that simple for me. I have the goal of giving 110% but when I fall short, provided I’m doing the best I can, I don’t beat myself up. I just regroup on the days I feel better. 

Self-care is part of the work. We can’t do devotion without at least a modicum of self care. For those like me with chronic pain, that may mean getting enough sleep, eating regularly, staying hydrated, doing what exercise one can…I know if I disrupt my sleeping patterns for more than a night or two, I’m going to get hit with a migraine. It’s almost certain. Learning how my chronic pain works and what triggers it and doing my best to avoid those triggers (not always a possibility, I might add) has been an important part of my own self-care.  

A friend of mine, when we were discussing this said, “Proper self-care is the first service you can offer your Gods because you are Their instrument and if you aren’t keeping that instrument in proper care, you’re neglecting your first duty to Them. You’re breaking something beautiful that They have created.” She’s right. “Always ask yourself how your behavior is benefiting Them.” If you’ve crossed from self-care into non-productive self-indulgence (1) (because feeding the soul with beauty is not a bad thing) then step back and see how you can get back on track within your limits. My friend continued, “always ask: is this behavior on course with what my Gods intend for me? Am I still on the same road with Them? If you feel you’ve deviated then perhaps it’s time for a reset, perhaps you’ve crossed from necessary self-care into behavior that is damaging to your development.”

You know best when you’ve crossed those lines, just like you know what your body best needs to function. Don’t be afraid to prioritize self-care when those bad days come. It’s not just making sure you aren’t in physical pain, but making sure that internally – mentally, emotionally – you’re in a good place. Do what you need to do to feed yourself on all levels. Feed your eyes with art. Feed your mind with poetry, with books, with things that inspire us to live better, to live fully, to live joyously. Listen to music that echoes the voices of the Gods in every note. That’s self-care too. 

 Note

  1. This is such a terrible term. Luxury isn’t bad. Beauty isn’t bad. We need to feed our eyes and ears and tastebuds, and our entire sensorium with beauty to be healthy. Beauty lifts us up to the holy. Beauty is sacred. We should enjoy life and enjoy our work at least some of the time. I don’t have a word other than “self-indulgence” though for when one falls out of right alignment with the Powers and with oneself. I will say this:  that line is going to be different for everyone anyway. 

A Reader Question on Prayer

Question: I have a copy of your little booklet of polytheistic prayers, several of which, you say, come from your personal prayerbook. I was hoping that one of these days you might write about the process of creating that prayerbook. Is it a handwritten book, a Word file, printouts and clippings, organized, disorganized? How did you start and how did it evolve over time? Anything you’d be willing and allowed to share.”

I do have a handwritten prayer book that I illustrated myself. It’s pocket sized and I made it when I was traveling quite a bit. I’ve since typed up most of those prayers, added quite a bit more to make it useful for all the rites and rituals that we customarily do as a House, and printed that up in larger format for myself and other members of the House. It contains all the prayers in the two small prayer books I sell on etsy, other prayers that we use for protection, exorcism, and cleansing, prayers and rituals for the holy days, funeral prayers, birth/blessing prayers, daily prayers like a couple that I’ve posted here (like the four-fold Adorations to the House of Mundilfari) and so forth. For awhile, I was printing up each set and stapling it as it became something we began to use more and more, but I got tired of having multiple print outs all over the place. So, once I collected everything in a single file, I had it printed in a little book with 25 blank pages at the back so we can all add personal prayers we like or make notes. Every six mos or so I reprint it with new material added as well. It’s a work in progress. I’ve shared some of the prayers on my blog but that book is not something I’m willing to share publicly. 

We use this book and then Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheistic Household for our regular day to day, as well as any prayers we might say extempore. Then I have a separate book with all my divination systems and prayers for those. 

I DO recommend creating your own handmade prayer book if you can. It’s a lovely devotional offering. It doesn’t have to have every single thing in it. You can make small, very focused prayer books.  I made one with just a few prayers as an offering to Mani. You don’t have to learn bookbinding either! You can stitch the pages together and stitch fabric covered squares of cardboard onto that as a cover. Decorate it as you will. There are many, many tutorials on youtube or just online in general that will give you plenty of suggestions. If you do know bookbinding, go to town. It’s on my list of things I want to learn but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. 

My prayer practice has certainly evolved over time. I was really lucky to have grown up in a religious family. I think for those who didn’t have good devotional models when they were small, this whole thing of prayer, devotion, and praxis can be really difficult. One’s default isn’t piety if one wasn’t raised in a household – be that religious upbringing good or bad – where piety was practiced (again, however well or poorly; though if it was a religiously abusive household, that causes problems all its own beyond the scope of discussion in this particular blog post). It’s like working a muscle: if the muscle wasn’t worked as a child, it atrophies. This isn’t insurmountable. It just means that one has to be aware of one’s default state-of-being a little more than someone raised religious. Don’t worry, those raised religious have other issues that they have to guard against. No none gets any type of free ride with this stuff. 

So, I was lucky to have grown up in a religious household and also to have had really good devotional models available to me from the time I was small. I was surrounded by people who prayed in some form or another. I didn’t give that up when I became a polytheist. In fact, if anything, my prayer practice became stronger. I’ve seen the results of that in my own devotional life. I think prayer is crucial. It’s the single best starting point one can have and I often suggest shrine and prayer work simultaneously when one is starting out as a good place from which to begin. I would go so far as to say there isn’t a more important tool in our arsenal than prayer. By that I mean set prayers, formal prayers, extempore prayers, informal prayers and everything in between. One of my former students once brought me a quote (I don’t recall at this late juncture where she found it): “Pray as though your hair were on fire.” I like that image. Of course my more literalist readers had to point out how illogical the saying was, but it’s the intensity, the need, the frenzy of the thing that appeals to my Odinic heart. Pray as though it’s the most important thing you will ever do, because it is. 

It never occurred to me until quite recently that not everyone grows up learning to pray. I’ve taught within my religious community for over two decades and usually, during that time, I would be meeting quite regularly with students and holding regular rituals and they’d be seeing prayer in action all the time they were around me or others in the House. It’s only recently, when I acquired an apprentice who was raised atheist (in a communist country to boot), one who wasn’t shy about saying, “how do you do that?” (because she wanted to know and learn!) that I realized I can’t take this as a given. Should it be? Yes. I think ideally we should all be raised in communities where we pray to the Holy Powers as easily as we breathe, but we’re not there yet. In fact, in our society these days, prayer is actually quite often viewed as something negative. At least if it’s treated with indifference, you can start with a clean heart, a clean/blank slate. Many coming into our religions don’t even have that these days. 

I realized that if one didn’t grow up doing this, prayer of any sort can be anxiety-inducing (one wants to do it correctly!), embarrassing (one never sees others praying in the mundane world), confusing (am I doing it right?) and a plethora of other things. I tell people that prayer is talking to the Gods and giving Them space to answer (maybe not in words, but in ways that fill and transform a life). It’s communication and just like communication is key to building strong human relationships, so too it is key to building strong devotional ones. I usually recommend time spent extempore in front of one’s shrine, but balanced with a few simple set prayers (like, for instance, “Sigdrifa’s Prayer”). I also give a handful of meditational exercises to help still the mind and begin teaching discernment in one’s practice. 

Over the years, there have been certain books that have reinforced or helped to shape my prayer practice today. Most of them are Christian since I study early Christian theology academically. That’s ok. Prayer is the thing that crosses all religious boundaries. The earliest known recorded prayers were, I believe, by a Sumerian priestess Enhenduanna. This is a practice that belongs to neither polytheism nor monotheism but fills every religious tradition with life. Recently, I read “Courage to Pray” by Metropolitan A. Bloom and George Lefebvre and I recommend it without reservation. Yes, eventually you have to filter out the specifically Christian scriptural material but so what? Do it. The information on prayer in this book is extraordinarily helpful. Likewise Evagrius “On Prayer” and Cassian’s “Conferences.” The latter is much more monastic in its focus so read it and take what you can use. I have cannibalized libraries like this in order to learn to love my Gods better. 

Prayer is also the thing that provides the best and most essential protection from the gaping entropic evil that pits itself against all that is holy. If you don’t pray, if you can’t pray, if you refuse to pray, you are a weak link, and a danger to pious people around you. You’re also a danger to yourself and you can fix it so easily by actively reaching out to the Gods. It doesn’t matter how falteringly you pray. Just do it, fumble through it. We all fumble. We all feel awkward sometimes with it. But prayer shapes and forms the mind, the heart, the soul in ways that make us receptive to the Gods, the Good, and the Holy. It’s essential. It is a spiritual vaccination. Take the shot. 

Formal prayers often trip people up. By formal, I’m thinking set prayers like the Catholic “Hail Mary.” There’s a set text that doesn’t vary and one says that text whenever one says the prayer. It’s very, very easy for these set prayers to become stale or even worse: mindless repetition rattled off at the speed of light. This isn’t their purpose. Rather, they serve three purposes (and maybe more, but three come to mind at the moment I’m writing this). Firstly, they’re a good baseline. When you can do nothing else, when your exhausted, your brain is fried,  you’re pissed off at the Gods, you’re having a bad pain day or any other reason that might make it hard to pray freely, you can reach for one of these prayers (hopefully committed to memory through regular use) and it’s *something*. There is that. Secondly, in a ritual setting, a set prayer allows everyone there to participate, hitting the same devotional groove. Songs are like this too, which is why we should all probably envy the Catholics for their hymnals! We really should be upping our game there. Thirdly, set prayers allow the mind to constantly be filled with prayer, which keeps the whispers of evil out. It allows one to contemplate the Gods’ mysteries, Their sacred stories, to wander off in the heart of a word, a byname that opens up an entire devotional universe. Each word is a window, each whispered syllable the turning of a key in a lock opening wide the gates of this world, our world, our interior world to our Gods. Informal, extempore prayers can do this too but there’s something really helpful in having a verbal scaffolding, rooted in our cosmology, already prepared within which the contemplations of our minds might unfold. 

I find there can be a great deal of push back against the idea of prayer in Heathenry. This is partly because too many Heathens allow atheists to take up space in their kindreds, and worse, to take up leadership positions. Get your Houses in order.

This is partly because some have been raised in abusively fundamentalist households. This is sad. This type of religious abuse doesn’t just damage heart and soul, but it also makes it very, very difficult to develop a loving devotional relationship with any holy Power. I wish for those in this situation compassion and that they find teachers, mentors, elders, and therapists who know how to help them through the pain and into the joy of clean, healthy devotion. 

Sometimes, though, this is partly because people claim to be Heathen but just don’t want to deal with the Gods or ancestors. These things make nice abstractions, nice stories in a book but the reality scares the hell out of them (or for many does what’s worse: inconveniences them) and they just don’t want to be bothered. Shun these people like the plague. We choose devotion every day. It’s a conscious choice. It is a willing, often difficult choice that has to be made again and again and again and if someone isn’t willing to make that choice, or is consistently hostile toward the even the idea of making that choice, they’re not Heathen, they’re not devout, and they’re sure as hell not spiritually healthy. In fact, they are spiritually ill in a way that is polluting and contagious to everyone around them. We make spiritual choices about everything we do, everything with which we fill our minds, and everyone with whom we associate. They count. Part of developing devotionally is learning to make healthy choices. We need to have the courage to do that even with the small things. 

Someone asked me once if we’re really meant to be praying 24/7. Um…yeah. I think so. That is the goal. What does that mean? Well, for me, part of my mind and heart is always reaching out to the Gods in devotion. I may not be murmuring prayers, but part of me is always thinking about Them, engaging in some way devotionally. When I’m not doing that, I try to center everything I do, even the small tasks through the lens of my devotional world. I fail at this a lot but it is the goal and when I fail, I pick myself up, center myself, and start again. When I can pray more obviously (say I’m sitting a home or on the train) I’ll use prayer beads or sometimes just do so extempore. I’m nowhere near 24/7 but I hold it up as a goal. It reminds me to strive. I may not reach that goal, but by aiming for it, I’ll go far more deeply into devotion than I otherwise might have done. That’s the thing with devotion: aim high and just plug away consistently at it. It’s the consistency that matters, not whether we reach the goal (and as an Odin’s woman who is very results oriented, that just about kills me to say, though it’s true). Some days will be better than others but the one thing that costs nothing, that is fully within our power no matter where we are or what we’re doing is prayer. We need only the will or maybe the courage to do it, the desire to reach out. Beyond that, there’s a lovely Baltic proverb with which I’ll end this piece: “The work will teach you how to do it.” One could say, as the Havamal does, “one word leads to another word, one deed to another deed.” The best starting point is prayer. 

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Beautiful Things for Our Gods and Dead

My housemate Tatyana is working on a beautiful project for both her ancestors and her Gods, particularly the Goddess Freya. She’s Ukrainian and if you look at traditional Ukrainian garb, you may notice beautiful, multi-tiered necklaces, often with pendants attached (1). Traditionally, these beaded strands were given to girls at key moments in their lives, a strand being added for each significant point of transition.  They are then passed down the generations. She told me that while most of the necklaces were made of red beads, white necklaces could be given at marriage and then passed down from mother to daughter (2). Tatyana is a spirit worker and a gyðja (priest) in training and almost two years ago, via divination, Freya directed her to make two necklaces, one white and one red. She‘s almost finished with the white one, and it is stunning. When I saw it today, I asked her permission to write about it here, which she graciously gave. 

Tatyana’s necklace, not quite, but nearly done.

The beads are Siberian reindeer bone. Each pendant represents a particular Deity, ancestor, or group thereof, to whom she pays homage. A great deal of divination went into determining which Deities should be included, and what type of pendant Each of Them wanted, and whether each particular God or spirit should be on the white necklace or the red (this latter is not pictured here). There was divination throughout every single step and then some—I know, becuase I was the diviner for some of it! Each pendant has been carefully chosen and most of them have been handmade just for Tatyana, often from amber, sometimes from gold. It‘s been an expensive project and she has made a lot of personal sacrifices in order to be able to afford it, stretching it out over months and months for the same reason, and it has taken a very long time to get it just right. All of this is in love and devotion to Freyja. All of this is a pouring out of her love for her Gods into this piece that will be a useful tool in her work for the rest of her life. 

In our particular tradition, one of the first serious tools that spiritworkers receive are necklaces marking their committment to their sacred Work, and delineating that work. For me, that happened when I was midway through my ordeal cycle years and years ago. I received three, one marking my job as a diviner, one marking my ordeal cycle and my work as a vitki, and one for my work – which I didn‘t know i‘d be doing at the time—as an ancestor worker. Like Tatyana, I made them myself. 

In my father‘s Lithuanian culture, instead of necklaces, it‘s woven sashes (3). I don‘t know how to weave them, but I‘ve contacted several artists in Lithuania who make them and I have several that I use in my own spiritual work. They were traditionally made by young women and given as gifts at moments of transition. For instance, when Tatyana joined our religious House, I gave her one to welcome her and to mark the occasion. 

Lithuanian woven sash — this one is actually the one I gifted to Tatyana upon her moving into the House.

It doesn’t matter where you come from. Anyone may honor the Gods. Anyone, provided they are willing to be respectful and pious, may venerate our Gods. Likewise, we all have ancestors and it doesn’t matter from where those ancestors come. The important thing is to honor them because they are our foundation and strength. One thing I’ve learned through my own work, through seeing Tatyana’s work is that the practices that come from our ancestral cultures might just weave their way into our spiritual work, bridging the space between living and dead, past and present, ancestors, Gods, and us too.  I see it as a microcosm of Brisingamen, enfolding us in Their protection, and of Bifrost connecting us now and always throughout the Worlds. 

Notes: 

  1. Called дукачь – dukach’, which I think is etymologically related to the 14th century French word for particular type of coin: ducat.
  2. She told me that often you’ll see a young woman wearing one white strand and then the rest of the necklace is red. I wonder if it was a case of a mother having more than one daughter and parceling out the gift of her own wedding necklace, one strand to each daughter. 
  3. I’m a mutt. My dad is 99% Lithuanian with a bit of Russian in there. My maternal side is Swiss, German, Scots-Irish (Hannay Clan! ^_^), Huguenot, and English – mostly Swiss and German. My adopted mom was Swiss and Venezuelan, with a bit of Spanish. My sister is half-Korean. My husband is Italian with a smidge of Welsh and fully half Blackfoot Native. I include all of these lines on my ancestor shrine because they too are my family. It’s a beautiful mix and I love it all. Because I grew up around my maternal family, that has had the largest influence on me, but the past couple of years I’ve been drawn more closely to my Lithuanian line. I write more about my genealogy at my other blog, though be warned, I don’t update it often. 

More On Our Cleansing Protocols

I live in a small religious community. We are a small House of four devotees at various stages of training and experience and we are setting down the seeds of what we hope will grow into a proper, sustainable temple and religious House complex. It may take us years to realize this dream, but we are well on our way. As such, we’re always looking for ways to improve and, if possible, streamline our regular cleansing and purification protocols, just as we’re always trying to find ways to deepen our prayer practices. I’ll write about prayer at another time (though I think it’s the single most crucial thing anyone lay or specialist can do) and today I want to add more to what I’ve previously touched on with regard to cleansing. 

In addition to everything else we do, we have selected one night each week to do divination for the week, divination for other questions and issues that might arise, and more serious and more intense cleansing rituals. One important part of that is uncrossing. This is a conjure and hoodoo term (I got my start with conjure and I’ve studied and practiced it for years. I’d moved away from it for awhile, but lately I realize how foolish that was) for a cleansing that removes any curses, hexes, or other malefica thrown at one. So much of what rare fragments of conjure that I learned as a kid was about keeping the home free of negative spirits. Then as an adult when I really studied it (instead of just doing what my grandmother herself had done by rote – she hadn’t realized that her spiritualist aunt was also a conjure woman), I discovered how proactive in keeping spiritually clean and bringing luck and peace to a home some of these practices really allowed one to be. (Hoodoo itself is a blend of Afro-American, Native,  Scotch-Irish, English, German, practices all smooshed together – it’s eminently practical and what I learned from my grandma has a PA Deutsch feel to it as opposed to what I learned later from active practitioners). 

So, on that night, we take massive cleansing baths: varieties of salt, beer, milk, khernips, various herbs, flowers, honey powder, vinegars…in any combination thereof, depending what we feel needs to be cleansed and how we wish to fill the space that has been cleansed (nature abhors a vacuum. I always do a blessing after a cleansing). Usually I like beer, salt, and khernips OR milk, salt, and khernips. Those without tubs can pour the blend over their head and bodies while standing in the shower – this is actually a bit more traditional. 

Then, we do a cleansing with stalks of specific herbs, partly as an uncrossing and partly as blessing. I’ve been quite taken with this blend for some time now: hyssop, basil, rue, and marjoram. One might also add mint. We grow all of them in the herb garden. One of us will pick the largest stalks of each we can find and collect them together like a bouquet. Then, we take turns, sweeping it over each other’s [clothed] bodies, slapping the plants over them like a babushka cleaning herself in a Russian bath house. This is done in a downward motion. At the end, the plants are burnt (or taken out into the trash immediately and outside the house. Burning is better). 

Before the div, we make offerings and tend all the shrines, and then after all the cleansing work, we spend time in prayer. More and more, cultus to Askr and Embla has been growing as an essential part of recentering ourselves. Finally, at least once a week we have a full spectrum of protection, exorcism, purification, and blessing prayers that we do. The full rota takes about an hour, sometimes a little more. 

Our weak spot is that our home is cluttered but little by little we’re addressing that as we can (bookshelves are at a premium!). I wrote this mainly to give readers some sense of how seriously we take cleansing protocols and also a glimpse of how they can be integrated, relatively easily, into one’s devotional life. I’ll close by sharing one prayer in that rota that I note above. Feel free to use it, but please do attribute it me. 

Prayer of Purification  

Hail to You, Oh great good immortal Gods, Mighty Brothers Odin, Hoenir, and Loður,

Sovereign Powers over all the Worlds, Unyielding Conquerors in the face of evil, You Who made all creation, setting into place the orbits of moon and sun, crafting and honing the bones of Ymir into the beauty of Midgard, Who wrought the Nine worlds by will alone, and sacral vision, You Who ward and protect Your children, hear my prayer. 

Odin, Sig-Father, unafraid of sacrifice, Who blessed Ask and Embla, and every human after with breath and soul, Who brings healing when all other healers have failed, I beseech You now to stand as healer to my soul. 

Hoenir, Who infused Ask and Embla and every human after with sense and intellect, bless my mind that it may remain free of the fury of the Unmaker. Turn my mind to You and the works the Holy Ones have made. Always. 

Loður, Who blessed Ask and Embla and every human after with life and warmth and feeling, increase my love and devotion to the Gods a thousand-fold, until my prayers are a raging inferno burning away anything unholy. Fill me with the fire of devotion. Always. 

I beseech You, oh Great Good and Glorious Gods, render powerless, banish, and expel every diabolical power, presence, and machination; every evil influence, malefica, or evil eye, and all actions aimed against Your faithful servant (NAME). Where there is envy, jealousy, hatred, and malice, grant us instead an abundance of victory, benevolent blessings, endurance, and piety. Oh dear Gods, Makers of all the Worlds, Who love us faltering human beings as fathers love their children, I pray that You extend Your wills, that You reach out Your powerful hands, and come with mighty arms and focused power to our aid. 

Help us, weapons-wise Allfather, cunning and clever Skyfarer, and Mighty Marsh Lord, help us Whom You have so carefully crafted. Send angels and disir and good but fierce helping spirits to watch over us, and to protect us body and soul. 

Keep at bay and vanquish every evil power, every servant of the Enemy, every poison, malice, or malefica invoked against us by corrupt, envious, and bitter people. Free us from oppression that we may serve You in gratitude and joy. You are our shield and buckler, invocation to You the weapon in our hand, Your blessing our preservation and salvation from harm. Whom should we fear? Who is as powerful as You? Under Your gaze, I shall ready myself for battle. Under Your gaze, and in the solace of Your protection, I shall gird my spirit as I prepare to engage the foe. Let my hands, my will, my words, and my soul never falter and let my mind ever be turned to You, and the works You have so carefully wrought. ALU.