One of the things that my tradition does of late is, at the start of each season, honoring a specific Goddess. That is not the only Deity that will be honored during this time – month to month, on holy tides, in personal devotions we honor many others, for instance, November belongs to Odin for me—but this is specifically for the seasonal shift. There is something in the power or what the Greeks would call the timai of the Goddesses that we’ve chosen that echoes the energy of the season.
At the start of the Autumn we honor Idunna. This is purely instinctive in our household – there’s something about the magic of Autumn that really calls Her to mind for us. And even though it’s a time when the earth is getting ready for its winter sleep, it’s that very sleep that brings about renewal in the spring. Usually in early September, we do a rite to honor Her for the quarter.
Winter was more difficult. In early December this year we did our rite to Frau Holle. This was a time when we were all focusing on internal household preparations for Winter and so, this seemed appropriate. I could also see honoring Skadhi at this time as well, particularly if one were outdoors a great deal. Our focus on this, however, is the preparation of the household throughout the seasons and attuning it appropriately so we went for this quarterly rite, with Frau Holle.
In early March, we honor Hrethe as a matter of course as a Goddess of March, but the Goddess that seems to dominate Spring as a whole for us is Ostara (or Eostre—same Deity, one name is Old Norse, the other Old English). It is to Her that our quarterly venerations go and we usually do that on the holy tide that bears Her name.
Then in Summer, in early June, we honor Sif and look to Her to govern the cyclical aspects of the season. Much of the household preparation we do throughout the season is dedicated to this Goddess, particularly things like maintaining a sustainable garden and pantry. This has made us overall, far, far more mindful of necessary household rhythms and of ways to connect the work we do in fulfillment of those rhythms to veneration of our Gods.
For one of my classes, I recently had to read Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth. In one of the chapters, Orsi discusses the impact of Vatican II on devout Catholics. Now, I personally think that Vatican II was one of the biggest mistakes the Catholic Church ever made (pandering to Protestants in the name of ecumenism, excising devotion, Marian cultus, saint cultus, and embodied devotional practices, putting the mass in the vernacular, easing up on regulations binding priests and especially nuns, devaluing the latter almost all together) and we in other traditions can learn quite a bit about what not to do from it as we engage in our respective restorations. It was a surrender to secularism and modernism and the end of the Church as a functional entity. It was also an outright attack on devotion. That being said, as part of his work, Orsi discusses several interactions with clergy on the matter of lay devotion and it’s that which I wish to discuss.
One chapter discussed a priest, post Vatican II, who was so against any aspect of devotion that he talked about the immense disgust and rage that he had whenever he saw statues of the saints or Mary, or any old school devout Catholic practice. He told Orsi that he wanted to destroy the statues and sacred images and spewed an immense amount of vitriol toward the very idea of actual devotional practices. This is a priest saying this, someone who ought to be encouraging devotion. It was striking and one of the most polluted things I’ve had to read this year. The account involves a Father Grabowski and occurs on p. 56-57 where we have a priest encouraging desecration and sacrilege — in the name, of course, of progress. “’The urge to destroy…haunts me’” Father Grabowski confesses” (57). He is talking about seeing statues of saints, and in the same paragraph, a statue of the Virgin. Time maybe to call an exorcist.
Disgust, aversion, and especially rage toward things associated with devotion or the sacred is one of the first signs at best of spiritual pollution and at worst of demonic obsession or even possession. What so many Catholics would term the demonic, I tend to see as an extension of what some of us term “the Nameless.” Evil exists, evil being that which is categorically ranked against the order that our Gods have created and that They work to maintain. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. It is insidious. It is the thing that we must ever and always guard against in our spiritual lives. It may have only the openings we give it, but it is very, very good at conniving to have us give those openings.
When holy things, devotion, and other sacred things begin to cause a reactive response of rage and disgust, an urge to destroy, that is a serious warning sign. I’ve gone through this myself, time where being in the presence of the sacred has been like razor blades down the skin of my mind, and every single time it has been an attempt to derail my work, to put a wedge between me and the Gods, to pollute. I have regular cleansing practices and this is one of the reasons. After the first time I noticed this, once I took care of it, I heightened those protocols to prevent just such a thing. With those cleansing practices in place, it’s much easier to recognize this state of spiritual emergency and deal with it as soon as possible. That’s exactly what it is too: a spiritual emergency. In better times, I might feel sorry for this Father Grabowski that he lacks appropriate spiritual direction to overcome this, but with things being as they are now, I’m just disgusted. It’s not just that one person may feel disgust, part of their poisoned state is a desire, no, a needto spread that poison as far as they possibly can, and to destroy devotion wherever it might be found.
This isn’t something that only affects specialists either. Lay people are every bit as susceptible. This is one of the many reasons why having a good prayer practice is so incredibly crucial. It realigns us every single time we choose consciously to engage, even if we do so imperfectly. Sometimes we must fight our way to the Gods inch by bloody inch, against the press of “progress” that would cast our devotion as superstition, against “modernity” that would urge us to abandon belief and practice, against evil.
V.M. Asks: “Would you be so kind and write on how to strive to be more and more generous on our relationship and offerings to the Gods?”
I think learning how to prioritize the Gods and being in an open, loving, proper devotional relationship with Them takes ongoing time and consistent attention. In many respects, we learn as we go. I know for myself, I often wantto be generous with my Gods but then the little kid inside of me cries ‘no, that’s mine” usually when the offering in question involves part of something sweet. Lol. This is not a bad thing though because it provides us with the opportunity to consciously choose to make those offerings, to be generous, to give to our Gods. It allows for greater mindfulness and for consciously cultivating a generous character in our devotions. We’re all works in progress and developing a generous devotional heart is a matter of conscious cultivation.
If this is a significant issue in your devotional life, I would suggest really meditating on why you find it difficult to be generous with Them. Often a lack of generosity in our hearts indicates a sense of want or loss or not having enough in our lives. The willingness to share one’s bounty is a statement that we ourselves are nourished enough, have enough, and do not want. We should not feel a sense of loss when we give to our Gods. That sometimes this is the case is heart-breaking. In those cases pray to Them. Ask Them for help. Trust Them to be patient.
I find that sometimes starting small with offerings is very helpful. If there is something that one wishes to give the Gods, but one meets with internal resistance, then perhaps half the offering. Give half and keep half. It sounds simplistic, but when the heart is hurting, or bound by insecurity, such simple measures can be useful stepping stones in developing a habit of generous and joyful gifting. Most of all, don’t beat oneself up about these struggles. We are all learning and it’s normal to hit what I liked to call devotional speed bumps. Some days will be better than others, but the important thing is the ongoing commitment to becoming better, fuller, and more devoted to our Gods and ancestors.
In the end, it comes down to learning to make good choices, learning, little by little, to make the decision to give. It’s like developing a habit – it’s a matter of practice and consistently forcing yourself to do the right thing. The good thing, the grace about all of this is that we can ask our Gods and ancestors for help. They will provide it. We’re not alone in our spiritual struggles.
Now, for no reason whatsoever save that she is awesome, is a picture of my cat Elena catching some sunrays on the stairs. ^_^
I recently had a question sent to me by a reader: how do I set up a shrine. I’ve written about this in at least two of my books, “Honoring the Ancestors,” and “Devotional Polytheism” but, it is significant enough as a devotional act that I will touch on it briefly here and now.
Firstly, it’s important to understand exactly what one is doing when one commits to setting up and maintaining (that’s the corollary, the oh so important corollary: it’s not enough to set one up and be done with it. A shrine must be regularly maintained.) a shrine. Understanding this will then dictate the how and what and where. Likewise, the nature of the God or Goddess being honored on the shrine will dictate its composition and the offerings made.
In setting up a shrine, we are giving our Gods a concrete place in our homes, hearts, and lives. It becomes Their space, a conduit for Them, and a place where we can go to make offerings, pray (though of course one can and should pray anywhere and everywhere), and contemplate Them. It is a visible reminder but also, more importantly, an invitation and welcome to the Holy Powers. It’s also a sign of a life ordered around devotion and piety. So there’s a lot going on when one sets up a shrine. Most importantly, it is space for the Gods we are honoring.
Proper shrine maintenance is a beautiful thing. It can transform one’s devotional life. We are, as I’ve said before in numerous places, creatures of the sensorium. We experience our world, including our devotional world, through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Platonic philosophers often wrote about beauty being a thing that had the power to elevate the soul, to bring one into a greater awareness of the Good and that is true. It also helps prepare the soil of our hearts and minds in a way that creates a fertile environment for devotion. Prepping a shrine is an act of love. We bring those things that speak to us of beauty, that speak to us of the relationship we’re building with the Deity in question to the shrine and I’ve often found that one’s shrines will reflect the state of one’s devotional and spiritual life.
Of course, if one is starting out in devotion, then one may not have a sense of the relationship yet – like any relationship, those with our Gods require careful tending. They require time to grow and strengthen, to flower. They require our time, attention, and consistency. In the Havamal,we’re counseled to travel often to our friends’ homes and exchange gifts regularly because doing so strengthens and nourishes the friendship. (verses 41, 44). This is good advice in building a relationship with the Gods too. So if you are new to this, where does one begin?
Firstly, understand that this is a commitment. While I consider it one of the essentials of devotional life, (or close to it) it’s not something to do without consideration. Better not to begin a shrine than to have one and allow it to become dusty and ill-cared for. Once you’ve decided to take this step, however, the first thing you want to do is fine a good spot in your home. This can be a special table, a window sill, a box (I have one shrine that is in a box. It’s elaborately decorated inside and has little compartments and I open it when I honor those particular spirits – it’s part of my ancestor shrine, not a Deity shrine), a shelf. What is important is that it be consciously dedicated space that will not otherwise be disturbed. I will give one warning: shrines grow. Partly this is a natural outgrowth of the relationship with the Gods deepening over time and partly I find that when one honors the Gods, as that relationship develops, one might be “introduced” or pushed to begin honoring other members of that God’s divine family. So, looking at my own experience years and years ago, I began keeping shrine to Loki and a year or so later, was suddenly moved to begin honoring Sigyn. They now share a shrine. Common sense, and where that fails, divination can sort out whether or not a second or third shrine is required or whether the Deities in question may share.
Once you’ve figured out the where, then comes the process of figuring out the what and how. I usually suggest that one begin with an image of the Deity in question, a prayer card, a statue, an icon for instance. Some people prefer aniconic work though, and if this resonates more then it’s perfectly ok. Make the shrine beautiful. This space will change and evolve as your relationship with the Powers changes and grows. This is good, natural, and necessary. I always feel sad when I see shrines that are bare and sterile. This is space set aside for the Gods. We should make it lush, welcoming, and lovely and how one does that is completely dependent on one’s creativity. I usually try to have a selection of shrine cloths, candles, things that remind me of the Gods, images (I don’t particularly care for aniconic work for myself. I like my icons and statues and such. I feel they help me grow closer in my mind and heart to the Gods). When I make offerings (be it incense, flowers, or anything else), they usually go on the shrine (I may dispose of them later by burying, throwing into the river behind my home, or burning depending on divination and/or the Deity in question). Anything that reminds me of that Deity and brings Their presence to mind is good and useful. One is limited only by the breadth of one’s creative vision.
As an aside, a Catholic friend of mine told me recently about his own home shrine and said this raises eyebrows amongst many of his friends because it’s not the norm and I thought, ‘buddy, I have upwards of forty shrines in my home. It’s perfectly common for polytheists.” Lol.
The most important thing with building a shrine is to begin. There are a thousand and one reasons not to do a thing but in the end, we simply have to take ourselves in hand and do what is correct, not just in our devotional lives, but in life in general. It’s healthy to worry about not doing this right, but it is more important that one begin. Some things are best learned by doing.
Finally, there is always the question of offerings. The most common offerings are flowers, incense, water, alcohol, food, candles, and lots and lots of prayer. As with the structure of the shrine itself, one is limited here only by one’s imagination. Offerings don’t have to be financially lavish. It is possible to give according to one’s means and everyone can at least give water. What is most important is consistent attention. Go to the shrine often, pray, sit and meditate on the Gods. Build the relationship by investing oneself in it. Everything else is a corollary to that.
There was a moment today where I was filled with awe and gratitude for what it means to belong to a God. The path of Odin that I follow is that of Gangleri. This is how He comes to me most of the time, and when it comes to ordeals and challenges that define the boundaries of my spiritual life, they tend to be dictated by this aspect of Odin’s nature. I had a moment today where I realized what that truly means and how deeply and significantly it can impact one’s life.
There are things I want or want to force into a specific shape so badly that I would rip my own entrails out in order to be able to do so. There are things for which I ache, actions I wish to take driven by raw emotion, desires, life paths I want desperately to follow, even the indulgence of certain emotions and I cannot – no matter how much it feels like not reaching for these things will tear me apart – I cannot because of obligations I have to the Gods, because of my reason for being, because of whom They have made me, and whom I’ve agreed to be with Them. I cannot do and be in some ways that I want (healthy or no, good or no) because to do so would be to abandon everything I have promised my Gods; and sometimes I hate it (such a mild word – hate—for the cyclone of emotions embedded in all of this) and I rage and it takes me to a point of almost suicidal despair. If I have also neglected my devotions, if I am unable to slide my heart and mind and spirit into a place of receptivity, humility, and deep love for the Gods, if I am unable to sense or touch Their reassuring Presence than it is very easy to go to that darkest of places, to feel oneself being drawn to within a hair’s breadth of that precipice. But if I am able to reach out, and if I’m given the grace of the touch, barest touch of Their presence, of Odin’s presence, everything changes and I am restored.
It happened ever so briefly today and I realized that in carrying my own pain and rage and disappointments, I carry His. Perhaps this is a small bit of what He goes through, over and over, this most passionate of Gods Who must sublimate everything – even His own desires– to His own higher purpose, His own question for power and knowledge and that which will enable the Gods to maintain cosmic order. Perhaps this is what it means to be devoted to a God, to belong to a God. If I can re-position my own struggles thusly, it allows me to connect so intimately and so directly with Him. It changes everything. Then these things are a glory to bear, and they carry sweetness because they lead to Him. Then, bearing them lightly becomes part of my spiritual work and a joy.
I wish to Gods I could stay in this head space always. I can’t do that though and so I have to bring myself consciously back via prayer and meditation. Still, the mark of that initial grace remains and I am grateful. I wish gratitude to always be the motivating force in my relationships with Them. It resets the soul. It cleanses and restores. It brings a joy so deep that the soul laughs. It lightens and sustains. It restores focus and with Gangleri, it’s all about that ultimate focus. I praise Him, now and always.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of devotional work, more intently than usual, for Sigyn lately. She is such an under-estimated Goddess and I don’t think She gets anywhere nearly the attention and veneration She deserves within modern Heathenry and for a number of reasons (1). She is one of two Goddesses for Whom I have deep devotion and I’m afraid I’d been ignoring Her myself the past few months. Suddenly, though, when I reach out to Her in my struggles, She is there and I am reminded once again of how powerful Her blessings can be. One of the things that I’ve been meditating on with Her guidance is fidelity.
Now I know it’s one of the nine noble virtues, but that actually isn’t what brought it to my mind and contemplation. Sigyn is prompting me to clear my heart and head, to re-center, refocus, rebalance and to reconsider everything that forms a part of my character. We began with what for me is fairly easy: fidelity. This isn’t something on the surface that I’ve ever struggled with…on the surface, not with my Gods and not with my husband. I consider myself blessed in that surface fidelity has never been an issue, but I want to parse that out here a bit more. A friend had asked me recently to write something on marriage so take this as the first post on the topic (though to be fair, my own reasons for writing about it have to do not with marriage but with my devotional relationships. I think I realized some time ago, however, that the same practices and behaviors can help or hinder both).
Fidelity can best be defined as remaining faithful to one’s commitments. One of the things that Sigyn has gently pointed out to me the past few days is that it’s not enough to remain faithful. There are ways to do that poorly, grudgingly, carelessly or mindfully and well. To embrace fidelity in the best of ways is to do so consciously, as an ongoing practice. That means accepting and embracing [self-directed] curbs on one’s behavior in some cases (perhaps not all) and acting consciously from love and a desire for the other’s happiness and health. How do we embody this practice in our devotional relationships and in our human ones too? Do we even give it a second thought beyond the most obvious?
What got me on the fidelity bandwagon was a book I read recently: “If Nuns Were Wives: A Handbook on Marriage from the Perspective of a Nun.” The nun in question is a Buddhist woman who trained in a very traditional convent in Taiwan for many years before her elders and teachers realized that convent life was not for her and sent her back out into the world. She talks about all the lessons she learned during her spiritual training and how they have helped her nurture her marriage. It came up in my feed on Goodreads, and I was curious (thinking, I’ll admit, that it was from the perspective of a Catholic nun – I was bored and didn’t read the description well). I wanted a quick read after some of the academic reading I’ve been doing lately and so downloaded it and dashed through it. Boy, did I get more than I bargained for! While I don’t agree with everything in the book (her willingness to cry seems a bit manipulative to me, for instance, rather than ‘showing softness’), there are beautiful passages and suggestions and meditations on various virtues. Her focus on the daily mundane, (of cleansing oneself, mind and heart and soul, with every act of physical cleansing of one’s dwelling), the grace of maintaining a home, of keeping balanced and loving space, reminded me so strongly of Sigyn that it brought me back to Her shrine on my knees (2).
In one very brief chapter, the author writes about fidelity and this is what struck me so about this virtue, and this is why I referred to “surface” fidelity above. The author says that “being faithful is a state of mind” (kindle loc. 1443), that it goes far beyond (remember she’s talking about marriage) not “lusting after another person” and “reserving your love and affection for the” one you choose to spend your life with. The way she describes it, fidelity becomes an ongoing [spiritual] process of choosing to engage in those behaviors that nourish one’s relationship, and choosing to avoid situations that might not, to curb one’s behaviors where it could lead to the opposite. She makes it clear that it’s something that she herself chooses to do, no one forcing her, and that it enhances the quality of her marriage. This made me question where I’d fallen short not just in my marriage but more pointedly with my devotional relationships as well (because I’ll be honest, since my adopted mom died in 2010 it’s been rough, hence why Sigyn is spurring a much needed re-evaluation and cleansing).
Early on in the book, the author describes marriage thusly:
Marriage is not the easiest of institutions. It requires mindfulness, heart, compassion, unconditional acceptance and often the kind of wisdom that comes with true maturity. It also requires something even bigger and more spiritual than what most people have to offer their mate – reverence.(kindle loc. 152. Italics in the original).
To be blunt, no shit! If people realized how difficult, they’d never do either! Marriage is fucking hard and let me tell you, so is devotion. We come to both with so many unconscious expectations and unacknowledged needs, with baggage: hurts, scars, damage and the space of the relationship becomes the arena in which those things are dredged up and worked on or out. For me, fidelity becomes a commitment to stay the course through the barren times, through the difficult times, through the struggles.
It’s more than that though, it’s a committed willingness to tend the relationship as though it were a living, fragile thing requiring constant care – because it is (and again, this holds true in marriage AND devotional relationships). We’re all self-centered in our hurts, in our needs, in our moments of vulnerability and it’s easy to forget to step away from ourselves and prioritize our partners (or Gods) but I think the practice of fidelity is what allows for that perspective, what allows for one to approach the other in gratitude, in love, with deep compassion, with an awareness of the love the other bears for us. In one section of the book (which I did not mark, so this is my paraphrase), the author talks about a terrible fight she had with her husband. She went to cool off and while she was, she began to consciously think about all the small things he did out of love for her, little things that might otherwise pass unremarked. She found that by calling up the kindnesses, the moments of him tending their relationship, of him expressing love in small ways and acts, she was able to move from anger to appreciation and a more open head and heart space in which to talk. I think it works that way with devotion too.
If we continue with the metaphor of tending a relationship like one would tend a garden (which I like because the word for cultus in Latin also means to tend or till a field), then that also means weeding that garden, not letting things build up, not bottling up needs and vexations but being willing to talk them though with your other to reach accord. Tending a garden means not hiding, not allowing weeds to sprout and grow, strangling the good. That means attentiveness, hard work, consistency, and a willingness to be uncomfortable.
Fidelity also means loving someone just the way they are. We don’t (or shouldn’t) enter into relationships to change the Other/other. We love those people in our lives just the way they are, and hopefully they love us the same. Fidelity grants the amazing gift of being able to be oneself, and allowing one’s partner likewise to be the same. I don’t think two people in a relationship set out to hurt each other, but hurt happens and it’s the same in devotional relationships. Cultivating a practice of fidelity, I think, means consciously returning to a place of love and kindness before acting, before speaking, space in which each party can breathe. I particularly liked the section where the author noted (for her, with respect to her husband, but this is something I want to carry with me in my devotional relationships with my Gods too):
In my marriage, I thought about all those times I resented my husband for not saying or doing something I wanted: for not demonstrating love as I wished. “Why don’t you care about me?” I would silently ask myself. “Why don’t you come talk to me? Love me?” But rarely had I asked, “What more can I do for you?” or “How do I show you I care?” My mentality had been so wrapped up around myself. But compassion is a sentiment that requires one to let go of selfish thinking and to ask, “How can others’pain be alleviated? Are they lonely or sad? How can others be happy?” (loc. 2217)
And that is damned difficult. We’re selfish creatures and our hurts all too often define us. It’s really, really hard to see beyond the sting (or punch in the gut) of pain. But a relationship is like a dance and for it to flow smoothly, both people must be committed to doing just that. I wish, oh dear Gods I wish that I’d realized this when I started building my devotional relationships. I am ashamed to think of the times that I have been (and probably will be again, let’s be honest) peevish, selfish, and just spiteful and mean with my Gods (and probably with my husband too!). Taking those times of failure though, when we are less than what we know we should be, can help us hone our practice of fidelity, can help us to re-evaluate and make it better. (No wonder both atheism and divorce are up – who the hell wants to go through the constant trouble! Lol). Acting with love is exhausting! Except that it’s not, it keeps a relationship vital and charged and constantly renewing itself.
A commitment to fidelity is a commitment to constant renewal. It means that one doesn’t allow oneself to become comfortable within a relationship, to take it for granted, to become dismissive, to rest on any laurels, as the saying goes. And yes, it’s being faithful and choosing not to do that which would compromise one’s faithfulness. There was a prayer offered in the book that screams to me of Sigyn-wisdom: I pray that my heart be as vast as the sky. (loc. 229). So here is my prayer lifted from that:
I pray that my heart be as vast as the sky,
that I may always remember to ground myself
in a place of love, of gratitude,
in a willingness to see, to hear, to care.
May I never fear the vulnerability these things bring,
but embrace the ever-changing, ever-renewing maelstrom
that is devotion…
with my Gods, in my marriage, with my friends.
May my heart open
and may it be as vast as the sky.
I place myself at the feet of my Goddess,
Sigyn, Lady of the Staying Power.
May I learn, oh Sweet Goddess. May I learn.
Hail to You, Sigyn, Goddess of constancy,
Hail to You, Goddess of Devotion.(3)
- I think there are a couple of reasons that Sigyn gets short shrift in our community (not across the board. She has significant cultus in some denominations, but in the more mainstream denominations She’s too often overlooked); partly She is Loki’s wife and remains with Him when He is bound in the cave. Loki is incredibly controversial in the continuum of communities that make up the modern Northern Tradition. Some love Him, some hate Him, some fear Him. He polarizes and this is themajor denominational fault line within our traditions. Because Sigyn doesn’t repudiate Him, She’s often dismissed as a doormat, an abused wife—all because She made a conscious choice to honor Her commitments to a Husband Who loved and cherished Her, a choice that many in our community might not like. I suspect, She’s also often looked at as a ‘doormat’ because Her locus is the home. She tends the home and creates sacred, nourishing space. Her world is the domestic sphere and for all that Heathenry honors the traditional roles of women, I think because Sigyn is not flashy, not overly sexualized in modern narrative, not given a role as a warrior or queen, because She is a hausfrau, She’s often sadly dismissed as weak (which is foolish to anyone who knows the respect with which wives were held in ON homes).
- “A nun told me that when they sweep, they imagine they are sweeping away the negativity of their minds: impatience, irritability, greed, anger and the like. Cleaning the floor becomes a process of inner purification.” (kindle loc. 279).
- In addition to Sigyn as a Goddess of devotion and constancy, we have the also overlooked Goddess Nanna, wife of Baldr. If there is ever a Goddess of fidelity it is Nanna, who chose to follow Her husband into Helheim rather than remain without Him.
I’ve been thinking about love a great deal the past few days. I’ll keep this brief and to the point, mostly as a reminder to myself. Love needs to be tended. It needs to be mindfully cherished and nurtured and if it isn’t, if we take it for granted, grow complaisant, grow comfortable, it can be damaged and then it is so very hard (not impossible but so painfully hard) to restore and rebuild. Love isn’t an emotion (or rather not just an emotion), it is conscious, decisive, willed action. It is choosing to invest attention and emotion, time and above all else, care into the relationship. It is hard, bloody hard work. I think maybe this holds true for human-human relationships too. It’s not that absence can’t be fruitful, but I think there must be a longing for the sweetness of return, not a closing off, a turning away. It’s so damned easy to grow complaisant too and to take this precious thing for granted, to forget that it is something very sacred given into our care to tend. This is the true meaning of paying cultus, of maintaining good cultus: to tend and nourish. It comes from the Latin colo, colere, colui, cultus and the word is used both for tending the Gods and Their rites, and for tending a field, preparing it for seed and harvest. It’s hard, hard work but oh the reward is great.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been seeing a growing noise on Facebook and other social media platforms that is staunchly anti-prayer. Generally, this occurs most strongly after some horror or disaster wherein people will post “my prayers are with you.” Immediately the social justice crowd pushes back, questioning both the relevance and efficacy of this sentiment. Let’s be honest; most people post such platitudes because they are moved, they care, but are (or feel) otherwise helpless to impact the situation. It is an expression of care, goodwill, and perhaps even solidarity. Take that for what it’s worth; I personally, don’t see anything wrong with it. I see a great wrong with dismissing prayer, however, and of course, those dismissals never stop with the aforementioned social situations but ever and always leech into our communities, which already struggle with understanding, prioritizing, or practicing devotion well (It’s not, after all, as though we are surrounded in our everyday lives and communities with good devotional models. I think we all struggle with this at times one way or another).
To dismiss prayer as a powerful and effective practice is to cripple our devotional lives and our relationship with our Gods. Over the years, I’ve seen many Pagans and even Polytheists dismiss prayer as something Christian. Well, it’s not. The earliest recorded prayers date from Sumer, written to the God Nanna and the Goddess Inanna. We have surviving prayers from Greece, Rome, Egypt, to name but a few polytheistic cultures. Polytheists prayed. It’s one of the fundamentals of practical religion.
Why are we so eager to render ourselves mute before our Gods?
To hold someone in prayer does not mean that one does nothing else. If there is more that one is able to do on a practical level, then it goes without saying that one should do that. I’m reminded of the Benedictine motto: ora et labora (pray and work). It’s not an either/or situation.
Furthermore, having a consistent prayer practice to the Gods and ancestors is one of the best ways to maintain devotional clarity, to keep the lines of communication open, to strengthen those devotional relationships, and to grow in faith, devotion, and grace. Cultivating hostility or contempt toward what is in fact one of the most powerful tools we have in maintaining our spiritual worlds is short sighted and frankly stupid. To pray is to open a line of ongoing communication with our Gods. It is to approach Them as petitioners, it is to give thanks, it is to express our love and adoration and a thousand other things. It provides Them with an opportunity to act in our lives and in our world. It provides us with an opportunity to accept, again and again, Their grace.
What we are instead tasked with is learning how to pray effectively. While set, formulaic prayers can be enormously powerful, it’s not enough to just say any words. Proper prayer is a matter of preparing our minds and hearts. Our hearts need to be receptive to our Gods. Our minds need to be committed and focused on this process. It’s one of the key devotional disciplines that no one seems to talk about anymore.
Ironically, as we pray, we learn how to pray and to do so more effectively. It is not in the capacity of any human being to compel the Gods. But we can reach out to Them, we can ask, and most of all we can trust that we have been heard. Prayer is powerful in part because it allows us to stand in perfect, active alignment with our Holy Powers. The more we do that consciously, the more we are changed and perhaps even elevated by the process.
Because it allows us to stand consciously in that alignment, it is a potent protection against all that is inimical to our Gods and Their ways. It reminds us, purifies us, re-aligns us again and again into our devotion. Every time we pray, we recommit ourselves to our traditions and our Gods and to living in ways that cultivate piety.
Remove purification, sacrifice, devotion, and prayer and what do you have? Certainly, not a religion.
Tonight, I was talking to a couple of apprentices about their upcoming work (they’re all doing well, but as ever, the reward for work well done is more work). I made the comment that “there’s our time and then the right time.” In other words, there’s when we want to do something or think we’re ready to do something, and there’s when the Gods and ancestors determine a thing should be done.(1) In between, there’s usually a hell of a lot of whining and procrastinating! Granted, during this discussion I was thinking every bit as much about my own work and its failures as anything my apprentices are doing (who by and large do not procrastinate and are in fact, very deeply devoted), in large part because it reminded me so strongly of something my adopted mom said to me once. She was doing something for the Goddess Frau Hölle (I don’t recall what) and I asked her if it could wait. She then asked me what was more important, our inconvenience or doing the relatively simple thing the Deity asked when it should be done? In other words, we’re in these committed relationships and that means prioritizing something over our own convenience or inconvenience. It is the least we can do, she said, given the tremendous honor of loving Them.
This is a difficult thing actually, because I am lazy as hell. I struggle with chronic pain; I’m usually tired, and quite often resentful when told to do something. It’s sometimes hard not to balk at what I know are my devotional obligations – even when I very much want to meet them (I think this is termed ‘cussedness’ in the south lol). But even more, and far more importantly, I like to be in the proper devotional headspace when I do things for the Gods and ancestors. To my shame, I’ve often used the excuse of not being in the right headspace to excuse my own indolence. In reality, I know full well I could have easily put aside what I was doing and gotten myself in the right headspace had I wanted to do so. Part of me just didn’t want to be bothered. Part of me was saying that whatever I was doing (watching TV, reading, some hobby) was more important than the Gods.
All ritual work large and small is a process, one that begins well before a person actually goes before his or her shrine and before the Gods and dead. It’s not that every offering or prayer needs to be a huge show, but the transition from mundane ‘me’ space to Their space, to holy space, to receptive, devotional space is worthy of conscious consideration and transition. It is certainly more fulfilling for us and perhaps for our Gods and spirits too when we enter into the simplest of devotional acts mindfully. It all comes down to the choices we make. If I want to have a nourishing and fulfilling devotional life then it’s on me to make time for it, to set aside the time to develop the appropriate headspace, to tend the shrines when they need tending (not when I want to do it), to cultivate devotion in all the various meandering pathways of my life, large and small. Our Gods, as one of my apprentices said so wisely, shouldn’t have to chase us to get our attention when we’ve already committed to honoring Them and paying proper devotional cultus. It’s the same with our ancestors.
Which brings me to καιρός. (2) This is one of several words for ‘time’ in ancient Greek. It has the particular meaning of the right, or appropriate time, the most advantageous time in which to do a thing. It is the critical moment on which the success or failure of a thing may well revolve. More and more I think developing devotional consciousness means being aware of καιρός in our lives, in our work, in the way we respond to the Gods, and the way we pay cultus. There is our time and there is the right time to do the things we all know we should be doing devotionally.(3) We should be seeking the appropriate time for our devotions, even when it’s inconvenient to our other plans. To do otherwise is a distortion of the very cultus we are seeking to pay.
- Fortunately, we have divination to determine that latter should the need arise.
- While the word is Greek, both the word and concept have been taken up in ritual studies well beyond that particular language or tradition. I first encountered it not in my training as a Classicist but when I was doing my undergrad degree in Religious Studies.
- This is why I have often said that half the battle devotionally is getting ourselves and our egos out of the way.
(Bartolomeo Manfredi’s “Apollo and Marsyas.” Source: wiki commons)
I have a fascination with operatic castrati and since I’m currently doing quite a bit of research for an academic project that involves them, their music has been the subject of much conversation in my house lately. Add to that a meme a friend of mine posted on facebook wherein one of the choices was “because a human did something better than a God and that God threw a hissy fit” and I knew I had to write about the conversation my husband and I had the other day.(1) Somehow the subject of the contest between Apollo and Marsyas came up and the lessons this might hold for musicians.
In this story, Marsyas, a satyr and master musician hubristically challenges Apollo to a music contest. The contest is to be judged by the Muses and the winner would then be permitted to treat the loser anyway he wished.(2) Both God and satyr play, Apollo wins, and in punishment for his hubris Marsyas is flayed. Customary interpretations of this story revolve around the flaying specifically as a punishment for hubris, for the satyr daring to challenge a God (and thus to put himself above the right and natural order of things) and this is not an incorrect interpretation but there are other lessons to be had in this tale as well.
Allowing that one of the major lessons of this story is in fact the need for piety and humility before the Gods (amazing how “don’t be an asshole” covers so many situations in which we might find ourselves, devotionally and otherwise), I’d like to discuss here one of the other lessons, and this is where the castrati come in.
In my research I’ve noticed that there is a standard way in which historians seemingly must approach this material. Before they go into whatever it is that they want to discuss about the castrati, they must first state how barbaric or inhumane they find the practice.(3) They must first separate themselves from any hint that they might approve of the process, particularly if they are writing positively about the result (and given that the influence of the castrati pretty much defined opera for two hundred years and shaped contemporary opera too, there’s quite a bit to celebrate there).
The question is endlessly asked (by academics and other researchers): why would someone do that to himself? Why would someone allow that to be done to a child? What was the allure of the castrati (they were the equivalent of sex symbols and rock stars)? I find these questions boggling: for the voice. Are you people deaf? Have you never listened to a top-notch counter tenor? It’s like listening to the voice of God. It’s like having the heavens crashing down around you and these men don’t come close to the vocal quality of a well-trained castrato superstar.(4) I completely understand why someone would have sought to become a castrato and certainly why they were so attractive to their listeners. I mourn the fact that we can’t hear them today.
If the sounds harsh, consider my own background: I was a professional ballet dancer for the first part of my adult life. I started working with a regional company at thirteen and retired in my early twenties. I retired with crippling injuries. I knew at thirteen that I was choosing to commit to a career that would likely leave my body broken irreparably. I knew that I would have to make health and nutritional choices that were ultimately damaging. I didn’t make this choice blind and I did make it over parental objection. The call of that daimon – dance – was too strong. I have crushing pain now and very limited mobility and while I did soloist roles in the regional company for which I worked, I didn’t make it past apprentice in the New York company. I’ll go down in no history books as a competent dancer and…I would make exactly the same choice again.
I suspect that is incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t been infected with that hunger, been taken up by that daimon, felt what it is like to push the body past its limits, past pain, to fly. I know that if at twelve, someone had said to me, if you mutilate your genitals you’ll have a chance to be one of the truly great dancers, I’d have done it without question. I would have considered it a worthy trade. There are things more important than what’s between our legs and far more important than our ability to procreate or the limits of our bodies. Being in service to art, in service to something far bigger and more important than ourselves supersedes all of that. That’s what moderns don’t comprehend.
Of course, that the castrati had to be castrated before puberty complicates things. There are questions of a child’s ability to make such a long-term choice for himself (see my comments above for where I stand on that) and certainly there were children sent under the knife against their will. The consequences of early castration are not just loss of fertility. (5)I also find the way Castrati were treated socially by the same communities that idolized their voices to be repellent (the church, for instance, forbade them to marry and in regular society they were often viewed as freaks, mocked for the very procedure that gave them the angelic voices so celebrated). By the nineteenth century with “enlightenment,” industrialization, more focus on binary gender roles, more focus on ‘nature’ as opposed to constructed brilliance, and certainly the elevation of both childhood and the individual over any common good the castrati were fast becoming a thing of the past. The last operatic superstar was the castrato Giovanni Velluti for whom both Rossini and Meyerbeer composed but operatic tastes were changing along with everything else and by 1913 not even the Vatican choir allowed for them. (6)
So what does all of this have to do with the story of Apollo and Marsyas? One of the many ways that I interpret this story is as a clear indication of what is required for excellence in an art. It doesn’t matter what the art form is (dance, singing, music, painting, etc.), to truly reach the heights of greatness, sacrifice is not just required, it is demanded. Excellence has a price. Art brings us into communion with the Gods like nothing else can. The Platonic philosophers wrote about the ennobling effects of Beauty, how it had the capacity to elevate the soul and I very much believe that is true. To be in service to the arts is to be in service to the Gods when it’s done right. It’s to move in sacred currents. That carries a demanding price and sometimes the consequences are irreparable. Devotion is like that too, if one wants to do it well.
We are owed nothing, yet opportunities are given. Devotion is an art just as much as dance or opera. It’s the art of the soul and it often carries as great a price as that any performer will pay. Excellence requires sacrifice. Mediocrity doesn’t. Make a choice. I read once of one castrato (and I can’t recall which one at the moment. I’ve been reading * a lot* on the topic) who was once asked if he regretted having been cut. He laughed in the interviewer’s face. He was one of perhaps half a dozen men who could do what he did at the level at which he performed in the entire world. He was feted across Europe. His name would go down in music history. He was as close to a god as a mortal has any right to be (barring apotheosis!).
Ironically I have seen some of the same criticisms of ballet children that I’ve seen about the castrati: it’s abuse. How can a child make that decision, etc. etc.(7) One such included a documentary about a leading Russian ballerina. The narrator could not stop talking about the brutality of the training and the sacrifice required. Yes, and she’s one of maybe ten women in the world who can do what she does. She had some of the best training in the world, and it’s training she herself wanted. I find it far more offensive that a second rate film maker is complaining about her sacrifices than that she’s consciously making them. Excellence requires certain choices and sometimes those choices hurt.
I think that’s the second lesson to be found in the story of Marsyas and Apollo. It’s not just a warning against hubris, it’s also telling us what is required to reach the heights of a practice: sacrifice. Perhaps it’s a warning against the hubris of assuming we can find greatness without the work or the cost.
Far from being appalled by the castrati, I rather think that when we as a culture began putting the mediocrity of the individual over the glory of art, over arête, over those things that represent the best of who we are as a people, that was when the real moral and cultural decay began and that’s what horrifies me the most because it’s not just sacrifice for the arts that modernists find problematic, it’s veneration of and sacrifice for devotion too and yet, if we wish to truly find excellence in our devotion, it’s going to require hard work and sacrifice on par with that of the best of the castrati or the best ballet dancers. We should be willing to bleed for our devotion, to bleed for our art, to bleed for our dreams. That’s Marsyas’s lesson: nothing is free, and one doesn’t reach the top of one’s game without painful hard work. We all have those talents and skills that we were given. The gap between that and excellence is what we choose to do with them and how much of ourselves we’re willing to bet in the bargain.(8)
1. The meme in question meant to be humorous, and I found it funny but it edges well into territory that while not impious necessarily bears watching. Humans do not do things better than the Gods and I think to allow that idea to take deep root in our minds is problematic. A joke is one thing but we’re constantly being bombarded by pop culture movies and tv that even when entertaining put forth the idea that humans are superior to the Gods and it’s important to recognize when that’s happening.
2. One source implied that of course the Muses would vote in favor of Apollo but I think that rather They would vote for the better musician. To do otherwise would be to violate the very Arts whose mysteries They govern. It is also to ascribe to Gods our own pathetic lack of integrity.
3. The Castrati were the rock stars of the 17th and 18th centuries. Castrated before puberty (often by their own request), they were men with pure, powerful soprano and alto voices. They commanded great applause and even greater fees and dominated the opera stage for two hundred years. The phenomenon began in the Byzantine church (the earliest recorded castrato singer that I’ve been able to document so far is a Byzantine choir master in 400 C.E.) and ended in the Papal Choir of the Vatican in 1922. We actually have recordings of the last known castrato: A. Moreschi. Unfortunately, they don’t give any sense of what his voice was actually like. Not only was he never an operatic virtuoso, but the recording technology of the time was in its infancy and could not capture the main bulk of his range. You can hear this with contemporary recordings of female stars like Nellie Melba too: the main part of the tessitura, its frequencies couldn’t be recorded so the voice sounds thin and given the limitations of recording, also out of tune. It’s unfortunate but early video recordings of the great dancers of the imperial ballet, like Pavlova and Spessivtseva show similar issues and in no way do justice to their subjects.
4. A couple of my favorite counter tenors include F. Fagioli, P. Jaroussky, A. Scholl, and the winner of this year’s Metropolitan Opera prize, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen. Then there’s natural soporano M. Maniaci, who is in a class by himself. Each of them is singing work originally written for the greatest castrati of the baroque age and a the recent interest in baroque music has allowed for a mini-renaissance of counter tenors. 🙂 The counter tenor voice is a very different voice from that of the castrati, and both are different again from female sopranos. They’re very different instruments.
5. The ends of the bones don’t harden and so most castrati were, for their time, very, very tall. Depending on when the castration was done, they may or may not be able to have sex. If the operation was performed when they were very small, their genitals might not have grown to adult size. The results, according to way too much medical literature that I’ve had to read for my research, varied significantly. If their voices didn’t hold, if they didn’t have what it takes to be truly great, they were resigned to church choirs. Some became priests. I think it’s likewise important to note that ‘childhood’ was not then the cossetted state that it has become now for better or worse. There were different expectations of children and many parents gave their children over to the knife so that the boys would have a better future than the parents could otherwise give them.
6. I often wonder what it must have been like for Velluti…a generation before him, castrati were super stars and while he had an extensive career, he was the last of his kind and knew it and was often greeted as much with horror as acclaim…not to mention Meyerbeer and Rossini don’t hold a candle to Porpora and Handel when it comes to showing off a high voice.
7. Like with castrati, there is a time limit to the training. If a dancer doesn’t make that decision young, they’re not going to have a career and they certainly aren’t going to reach the heights of that career. A childhood is a small sacrifice to pay for such an opportunity, in my opinion (having made that choice). There are rare exceptions. Melissa Hayden for example, one of Balanchine’s stars began dancing at sixteen. She is a rarity and frankly not in the same league as the best Russian or French dancers who began as children. I began my ballet training at ten and that was at least three years too late. There’s a sweet spot with certain elements of the training too. If a girl, for instance is planning to go on pointe, that should happen after two years of near daily training (in the west, I’d say around 12, but in major ballet schools, if they’re training for several hours a day from the time they’re seven or eight, you might see it earlier, around ten. Without that multi hour daily training regimen though, putting a child on pointe before twelve is criminal. The bones just aren’t ready.). Going on pointe too early without proper preparation can severely damage the feet but going on too late, after say 15 can also be problematic. It is much, much more difficult to develop the competence and fluidity on pointe that one needs for professional work if the feet aren’t broken to it young. As the bones harden, it’s that much more difficult to gain that combination of strength and flexibility that makes proper pointe work possible.
8. Here is a BBC documentary on the castrati that is useful for those with no prior knowledge. Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI. The whole thing is about an hour.
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