Blog Archives

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. 

Affiliate Advertising Disclosure

What Makes a Good “Ground Crew”?

I was telling my husband how helpful his honest question about drinking horns had been and he looked at me and after a moment said, “you should write something about what makes good ground crew.”  I’ve only very rarely seen this discussed, even amongst spiritworkers, so I think maybe he’s right and so here we go.

Firstly, what do I mean when I say ‘ground crew?’

This is a term a bunch of us came up with (or at least began using) in 2004 after the first ‘Keepers’ Crossing’ gathering held at Cauldron Farm. This was an international gathering of spiritworkers, shamans, vitkar, mystics, et al that we held yearly for five or six years. It was the equivalent of a professional conference and gave us a professional forum where we could meet with other specialists and delve into the nitty gritty aspects of our work. We networked, exchanged tech. and sometimes talked terminology. It turned out that quite a few of us were using similar terminology to refer to the team of people – be they spiritworkers or not—who assisted us before, during, and after possessory work (1), intense trance and journey work, or other aspects of spirit work that require altered states of some sort.

Why do we need ground crew?

Well, we may not needground crew, but a competent and committed ground crew certainly makes the sacred work go more smoothly.

The spirit worker needs to be focused on doing the work he or she has set to do, in order to do that as cleanly as possible. That often means neglecting their bodies. If that person is splitting attention, distracted by practicalities it can make him less efficient. If she has no ground crew to monitor her, she can push into injury, pain, or even seizure. If a Deity is coming via possession, then it is only polite to have attendants. After such work, a spirit worker can be disoriented, sick, in pain, or just spacy. The ground crew makes sure that the spirit worker does everything required to transition back into mundane headspace safely. What that entails will differ from spirit worker to spirit worker and it’s something that must be discussed in detail well before any work occurs (2).

It’s easy to forget essential things if one is doing any type of altered state work so the team acts as spotters. Spirit work of any kind is grueling on the body. It can trigger chronic pain flares, immune issues, neurological problems, migraines, muscle spasms, and dehydration to name but a few. I don’t know how much of it comes from the average spirit-worker’s intense focus and stubbornness about pushing through, and how much is just a side effect of the work itself. Shifting states of consciousness, dropping quickly from regular headspace to a deeply altered state, carrying divine energy, working with the energies with which many of us work takes its toll and we learn to dissociate from pain very early. It’s really, really helpful to have a team that doesn’t do that, whose sacred job is taking care of the physical needs of the spirit worker. Usually that means, attending them as they prep for whatever work they’re doing, watching over them during that work, and making sure they’re fed, watered, and relatively functional after. It also means doing all the physical driving. Do not drive after doing altered state work of any kind, people. It may also mean acting as a spotter if the spirit worker has to do on site unexpected spirit work. This happened to me, for instance, the first time I went to Gettysburg. I had an intense experience with some of the military dead, one that laid me completely out for three days. If I hadn’t had a very calm, centered keeper with me, I could have walked into traffic, fallen and broken an ankle, forgotten to eat, etc. Ground crew are angels, absolute guardian angels.

On a purely practical level, it’s also really nice to have a pair of hands or several pairs to help manage tools and sacred items. This is important work – not everyone can safely handle exposure to sacred tools. They’re also capable of bundling up the spiritworker and calling 911 if need be – I’ve done a lot of my work in the woods, and accidents happen even when one is just hiking. Add altered state work on to that, or any other type of spirit work, and it’s best to be prepared. One of my ground crew always has a full medical kit with them, and enough first aid to make use of it.

So, what makes good ground crew?

Well, this is my opinion and what I look for in my own ground crew. I’d love to hear from other spirit workers about what you look for in your team. I also want to emphasize that having a ground crew is a real privilege. I worked for over 15 years without one and I have to say, it’s so much easier to do good, effective work with ground crew. It was mind-blowing to me just how much easier it was the first time I experienced it. To those who are willing and able to serve in this capacity: THANK YOU a thousand times.

Firstly, while I prefer ground-crew that has at least a bit of sensitivity to Gods, spirits, and energy, it is perfectly ok to have someone head-blind on your team. The important thing is that they know how to monitor both the spirit worker and everyone around them, especially if it’s a public ritual (3).  If they are gifted, they need to be in control of that: grounded, centered, and with a capacity for shielding, preferably up to and including the ability to shield someone else. Spirit workers can make excellent ground crew themselves and it’s always good to do this for others, because you learn what it takes.

I like at least one person to have medical training – at least CPR and first aid. The best ground crew I ever worked with had two people in the medical field on it, one of them a nurse. They also have to be discrete. They’re going to see the spiritworker at his or her most vulnerable, possibly up to helping him/her dress or undress, vomiting, passing out, etc. They need to know how to keep their teeth together. They are also responsible for making sure the spiritworker’s property, tools, garments, etc. are in good order, collected, and with the spiritworker when they depart. It’s important that they have food, hydration, and other necessities for helping the spiritworker ground and come back to mundane headspace afterwards. They provide aftercare, making sure the spiritworker isn’t in shock, is hydrated, fed, grounded. They provided grounding and shielding if needed. They force the spiritworker to eat and drink (discuss this with them very early on and work out what is acceptable. Each spiritworker will have preferences. I tell my crew to make me eat, to be hardasses about it because I know I won’t want to and I’ll be resistant). It goes without saying that the crew must be pious (4).

Most important of all, every single person on the ground crew needs to be organized, capable of following instructions, and willing to take orders, but also think on the spot as situations arise and/or change. It is the spiritworker’s obligation to teach the ground crew what they need to know: preferences, protocols, emergency procedures, situations that may occur, etc. They need to function as a well-oiled team. Most of all, the crew has to be security aware. Their job is to protect and assist the spiritworker who may be operating on a completely different state of awareness or not conscious at all if possession is happening. They are there to provide care and safety. The team cannot be afraid to get their hands dirty and they cannot be hesitant when it comes to protecting their charge. I like one of my team to be armed for just this reason.

The ground crew has an incredibly important function: they ensure that sacred protocols are followed by everyone concerned so that rites and rituals can happen properly, in ways that allow for clean communication between the Gods and the community, and that enable the spiritworker or specialist to come through the work with as little damage as possible. They make the transitions as smooth as possible. So, take the time to train a good crew and treat them like gold. They’re worth it.

I would love to know what questions you have so please don’t be shy. Post them in the comments and I’ll try to answer as best I can.

 

Notes:

  1. This term refers to the practice of Deity possession, allowing a Deity to pour His or Her consciousness into ours, taking over for a time to engage with devotees. It’s a sacred act and a traditional one, appearing in polytheisms the world over. There is ample evidence for it having been practiced amongst the Norse. Today, folks are probably most familiar with it from various Afro-Caribbean religions like Lukumi, Voudoun, and Candomble.
  2. As an example, before the third day of our solstice ritual I was right at the cusp of a pain flare (I have fibro). I was in growing physical pain on a number of levels. I knew that if we waited a couple of hours I would probably stabilize and could do the ritual without a problem. I said to my team, “I can push this, but I’ll pay for it.” And we discussed whether or not that was necessary. It wasn’t, so we were able to wait a couple of hours and everything went off quite well. Had I needed to force the appropriate headspace and mobility, I could have done, but the wisdom of my ground crew took over and they were better able to evaluate the situation (whereas I was really concerned about the work to the extent I would push all else aside for no need). Because of that, I was functional later that evening and not in terrible pain the next day.
  3. In a public rite, the spiritworker should ALWAYS have a keeper who doesn’t leave their side but isn’t at all intrusive. I remember several years ago being asked to carry our moon God Mani via possession, what we call “horsing,” an Afro-Caribbean term that implies that the Deity rides the devotee like a rider might a horse. We don’t control when the Deity seats Him or Herself. Our job is to prepare properly and show up with a willingness to be of service. That’s it. If the Deity decides not to descend, that’s ok. There could be a million reasons why that have nothing at all to do with the spiritworker. Our job is to show up prepared.

    Well, Mani is unusual when He possesses in that He likes the sense of corporeality of the horse experiencing the God experiencing the horse. He’s slow and careful, leaving all the devotee’s mental architecture in the same state when He leaves as it was when He possessed. He doesn’t rush. So, He was skirting around the edges of my consciousness, partially there but not fully, taking His time as is His privilege to do.As I was pacing before His offering table, another spirit worker, knowing better – so much so that I cannot help but think this person did this in order to break me out of the necessary headspace and ruin the ritual—came up and grabbed my/His shoulders and basically told Him to get the show on the road. Had I been fully me, I’d have clocked the polluted creature in the mouth for violating ritual space and possibly for assault because this person wasn’t gentle. Mani is much calmer and was in me enough that I wasn’t fully me. This prevented my own normal response (let’s not even get into the fact that this creature knew I have neck damage and the way I was grabbed could have compounded that).

 My ground crew had gotten separated from me – people often want to be close to the horse because of the Deity energy pouring through them and one of the things a crew does is monitor that and keep it orderly. The horse should never be overwhelmed and touching a horse in anyway, particularly before the Deity fully seats Him or Herself in them is a huge no no. It can completely break the horse out of the necessary receptive headspace for the possession. Well, I’m told later that the head of my crew saw it, saw this other spirit worker coming and couldn’t get across the field in time to head it off. Fortunately, I am very experienced and thanks to my training was able to remain focus. Mani slid in when it suited Him and held court and people were able to engage with this God.

I recount this to emphasize the necessity of training your crew for every possible situation. I had worked with those wanting me to carry Mani before, and knew most of those gathered. I had no reason to suspect that an experienced spirit worker who, while we disliked each other personally, was a professional would behave in such a violent and inappropriate fashion. I had not prepared my ground crew for this, because I assumed that such a thing – unthinkable to anyone with basic piety—would not happen. I was wrong and because I did not prepare them, it wasn’t on their radar as something to pay particular attention to so even when the head of my crew saw it happening, he couldn’t stop it. It is incumbent on the spiritworker not the ground crew to prepare the crew with all necessary protocol and for any possible situation that may occur. ].

  1. On the positive side, because they are navigating everything behind the scenes, the ground crew will usually be the first to witness the theophany of possession, and it is with possessory work that they are the most crucial for the spiritworker’s welfare.

Caring for One’s Ritual Drinking Horn

(I posted this today on my facebook and I was surprised at the response–this is apparently information that people do not have. So, if this helps folks, especially those new to our community, I am very glad). 

My husband was manning the horn during our Solstice ritual and was a little confused about how to clean it afterwards. It occurred to me that he’s not the only person in our religious communities who might have this question so I figured, as a change from bitching about politics (I do this a lot on fb lol), I’d talk about that for a moment.

Those who practice Heathenry often utilize drinking horns in their rituals. The horn symbolizes the well of Wyrd, fate, and memory so any prayers or oaths taken over it have particular sacral power. In some denominations (particularly Theodism), only women may bear the horn around the gathered community but our household’s tradition does not hold with that, and having a priest and orpheoteleste of Dionysos carrying the horn (which is almost always filled with alcohol for rituals) seemed fitting — far more than having me do it while trying to juggle two shaman’s drums, or our Freya’s woman who was leading the rite.

Most horns are made of some type of bovine horn that has been cleaned and either lacquered or covered with wax inside. I own several, with museum quality carvings and semi-precious stone inlay. I also have at least one that has just been engraved with a bit of color added, and one with brass design around the mouth and tip. styles vary and some horns are just plain with only the inside having been fiddled with. Regardless, they do need a bit of care (1).

So here you go: rinse out the inside with tepid to lightly warm water. If it’s lacquered, you can use serious dish soap and a cleaning brush. If not, be careful. Do not let the horn sit after rituals. Do this immediately. Take care of your tools. With a slightly wet towel or sponge, wipe down any mess on the outside of the horn (drinking from a horn is tricky. ha ha. it’s almost a rite of social initiation for a newcomer to Heathenry to do it incorrectly and end up with a face full of mead. We’ve all been there. lol). Let it dry. Take a bit of food grade mineral oil on a soft cloth and wipe down the outside, every nook and cranny. Let that dry. (This is the same way, by the way, that I care for ritual offering bowls if they’re made of wood). Store your horn in a safe, dry place (mine live on two different shrines).

That’s it – easy, peasy. Do NOT run them through the dishwasher. Do NOT let crud accrue in them. Do NOT use abrasive chemicals to clean them. Treat your tools with the respect they deserve and they will serve you well all your working life — this is especially so with horns that are nearly objet d’arts.

Idunna horn

(a close up of my Idunna horn, crafted by Shrewood)

 

Note:

  1. The only difference between sealing the inside of a horn with a lacquer of some sort versus wax is that with the latter hot liquids cannot be used in the horn (they’ll melt the wax). Honestly though, in the thirty years I’ve been Heathen, I cannot think of a single time that I have used a hot drink in a horn. I guess i must have with either wassail or spiced wine –I probably didn’t think about it because most of my horns are lacquered. If your horn is sealed with wax, and you want to use something like Gluhwein in it, just use a glass or cup instead. I think our ancestors were practical and there’s no harm in substituting a glass. I even have a couple of glass horns that I inherited. If you haven’t found the right horn yet, or you can’t afford one at the moment, it’s perfectly ok to use a glass or cup as a stand in and then during the ritual it serves the same sacral function.