Whenever I pick up our House prayer book, my personal devotional florilegia, or a copy of the Eddas to read for devotional purposes, several things run through my mind at once, almost as soon as my hand touches the book. Foremost is that I often feel like I’m slacking when it comes to cultivating my own devotional world. Devotion can be the easiest and most natural thing in one’s life and at the same time it can be hard, hard work. Sometimes it’s frustrating and confusing – not because of the devotion part of it, but because of my own faltering, fumbling awkwardness with the process. So many questions come up:
- How do we properly pray? How do I pray? Am I just phoning it in? How do I make sure that I remain engaged?
- What the hell is contemplation and how am I supposed to do it?
- How do we read? What and how do we read and how does this bring us to our Gods?
- What is devotion and how can I go more deeply into it?
I used to take all these things for granted but as I teach students and apprentices within our tradition, as I reevaluate my own spiritual work, as I engage with clients who come to me with all sorts of questions about their devotional lives, I realize that nothing here should ever be taken for granted. I also realize I had really, really good devotional models within my family. It’s only been the past couple of years that I’ve truly come to understand how precious a gift (and maybe even a grace) that has been. Of course, the downside to all that is that I tend to be very action oriented: “what do You need me to do, oh my Gods” which often leaves me feeling in retrospect as though I got the work part down but somehow am giving perilously short shrift to the devotional/contemplative (they’re not always the same, mind you) part of things. The more frenetic my life becomes, especially with school, the more I find myself examining these lacuna and wanting to ground myself more securely in solid veneration of the Holy Powers.
It’s odd too because I don’t think a text is necessary. Ours prior to Christianity, was an oral tradition. One learned by experience, by growing up in pious households, seeing the community engaging in rituals and seasonal festivals, and being surrounded by examples of this living tradition. Our ancestors had stories yes, but they didn’t depend on the written word, nor did we ever have anything like “scripture.” Still, we today live in a world that privileges the written word perhaps excessively. I once had a fellow theology student ask me about our “scriptures” and when I said we don’t have anything like your bible, he was floored. He kept asking, “but how do you teach your children your religion?” um…we live it. But I get what he was saying. We depend far more in proper inter-generational transmission of the tradition, directly and via devotional, ritual, and venerative experience. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Still, I like my books and there is value in being able to extract insight from a text. I think so long as we remember that our Eddas and other parts of the lore are not “scripture” as monotheistic traditions would comprehend, but maps to the holy (and maps with gaping holes, tatters, and graffiti sometimes too!), we’ll be ok. So, enough of my blather. Let’s get into the stanzas that I chose for today.
The Voluspa contains part of our creation narrative and I think that creation narratives are particularly important for any religious tradition. They contain all the themes and patterns that we will see repeated again and again throughout our cosmology and in this way provide key insights into how our tradition views the world. Here are the passages, first in English and then Old Norse.
6. Then sought the gods | their assembly-seats, The holy ones, | and council held; Names then gave they | to noon and twilight, Morning they named, | and the waning moon, Night and evening, | the years to number. 7. At Ithavoll met | the mighty gods, Shrines and temples | they timbered high; Forges they set, and | they smithed ore, Tongs they wrought, | and tools they fashioned. 6. Þá gengu regin öll á rökstóla, ginnheilug goð, ok um þat gættusk; nátt ok niðjum nöfn um gáfu, morgin hétu ok miðjan dag, undorn ok aptan, árum at telja. 7. Hittusk æsir á Iðavelli, þeir er hörg ok hof hátimbruðu, afla lögðu, auð smíðuðu, tangir skópu ok tól görðu. Immediately in the Old Norse the words Regin and Ginnheilug goð jump out at me. I usually translate Regin as “holy Powers,” but it may also be rendered as “the Rulers,” “the Gods” and may even refer to Their decrees. This word turns up in the lore at various points always referring in some way to the Gods, thus we have regin-braut – the way of the Gods, regin-dórmr – the judgement of the Gods, regin-kuðr/kunnr – descended from the Gods, and regin-þing – holy thing-place to name but a few of its iterations. Because it is so associated with judgement and holy decretals, it reads as a much more formal term for the collective Gods and when I see it, I perk up and pay special attention. It brings me back to the story of the creation of the worlds, and the ways in which the Gods set everything in its proper place, balance, and order. Goð, obviously also a word for Gods, is nearly always collective and inclusive of both Gods and Goddesses. It turns up in compound words having to do with things and people belonging to the Gods and its cognate góð carries the moral force of ‘good,’ or ‘worthy’ such as góðr maðr (good man). One can be goð-borinn, descended from the Gods, goð-málugr, knowledgeable in the lore of the Gods, or goð-árr, messenger of the Gods, for instance (1). The most significant term there, however, is Ginnheilug: most sacred. Combinations with the prefix ginn—almost always imply great holiness or sanctity. Sometimes Regin will occur as Gin-regin, which I would translate as „the most holy Gods.“ It is not one-hundred-percent clear if this is related to Ginnungagap, the great and yawning void from which all creation came into being with the collision of the Niflheim and Muspelheim, but theologically I would (and do) certainly draw this parallel (2). It is the most holy chasm from which this process of creation began; and They are the most-holy Gods Who oversaw this process. All of this runs through my mind and is the background against which I read this text (or at least against which I was reading the text when I wrote this!). Were I teaching this text, the first question I would ask my students (and this is likewise what I myself zero in on for contemplation) is „what did the Gods do first?“ What was the first collective priority after the three Brothers created the scaffolding and architecture of the worlds? First having come together in counsel, They ordered day and night, the course of the planets, and by extension the seasons. This is all temporal. Materiality has already happened when the two primal worlds ground together, but here we have temporal and one may assume spatial ordering. They gave materiality structure, partitioned it out into a healthy and harmonious rhythm. They created seasons and put planets in rotation. Day and night are the most important divisions for us as human beings, particularly when our lives were – like so many of our ancestors—predominantly agricultural. This division of time was meant as a guide and to nourish us: when do we work? When do we rest? When do we plant? When do we harvest? How does the world work? Moreover, such binary division (day/night, light/dark) reflects the productive exchange of opposites embedded in Niflheim and Muspelheim – ice and fire. I also think this emphasizes how cosmologically important the House of Mundilfari is. Farmers would have looked to the sun and the moon, and the Gods thereof to ensure their wellbeing. It‘s easy for those of us living more urban lifestyles to forget how crucial Mani and Sunna‘s blessings would have been for our ancestors. They literally insured continued sustenance and life. Plus, one could gaze up into the sky and see a symbol of Their presence. So after celestial cycles were established, the next thing the Gods did was build temples – for Themselves or for each Other the text does not say. We know though that Freya has the epithet of blotgyðja for the Gods, and there is precedent in other IE traditions for Gods recognizing and participating in each Other’s divine process. Even in what remains of our sacred stories, what has been filtered down to us through Christian voices and hands, we have a sharing of attributes: Thor borrows Brisingamen, Loki borrows Freya’s falcon cloak, and so forth. When this is done licitly it adds power to the Gods in question (3). So the Gods acknowledged the divinity of each other and by extension we can assume, Their individual spheres of influence and power. After this, the third thing They do is to create art. Craft is sacred, it’s a conduit for the holy. Here, smithcraft is particularly mentioned and in many IE cultures including the Norse, smiths were considered magical figures, magicians, shamans, and such. This is because they wielded the elemental powers of creation, especially fire, and drew from the earth that which was later transformed into objects of beauty. Beauty and art empower the worlds and in good Platonic fashion lift us up to the Gods, in awareness, in understanding, and in devotional longing. This is a process that didn’t just happen once. In setting up the temporal division of night and day, we are opened up to the possibility of change. You can’t have change unless you have time. So each new day is a reification anew of that initial creation. Each day we can remake and restore ourselves within that holy architecture. At this point in my reading, I would most likely take stock of what I have done throughout the day (or if I’m reading in the morning, what I wish to do), always keeping the Gods in mind – how am I affecting that ongoing reification in my world?—and then I”d make offerings and prayers. I’m going to stop at this point. I still have a few things to do for the semester’s end, but if there’s a particular passage from the Eddas that you’d like me to discuss, shoot me a comment and let me know. Notes: 1. See “A Glossary to the Poetic Edda” translated from Hans Kuhn’s Kurzes Wörterbuch by Students at the University of Victoria, 1987. 2. You’ll notice that unlike the previous Lectio Divina article that I posted, this time I did not employ any significant level of philological engagement. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t and it depends what first strikes me in a reading. It’s different every time I meet a text anew. 3. When it is done illicitly it’s more complicated. I’m thinking specifically of Freyr sneaking into Odin’s high seat and spying Gerda…it ended well but it was…complicated.
My housemate was watching the new series “The Stand” this afternoon on her lunch break, and I sat down to watch with her. Without giving away plot points for people who may not have read the book but are watching the series, the story is about a confrontation between good and evil, the latter embodied in a terrible being that wears the shape of a man. At one point, four characters aligned with good are journeying to make their stand against this creature and there is a moment where they have to decide whether to continue as a divinely inspired prophet told them to do, or whether to stay with an injured comrade. The fallen comrade invokes the 23rd Psalm and watching this scene, I had a moment of such intense clarity that it was painful.
There is evil and pollution out there, everywhere we walk in this world. Sometimes it is small but sometimes it is massive and terrifying. Sometimes we are called to step up and come face to face with that evil. Do not fear. Wherever we go, our Gods are with us. Our ancestors walk at our backs sustaining us. The land itself reflects the power of the Holy. Why the hell should I fear anything when my God stands at my back, surrounds me with His protection, when He fills me with His glory as I stand encircled by enemies. None of the evil which rises against us matters. It is nothing in comparison to the Power of our Gods and when we choose, really choose to align ourselves with the Holy, we no longer have any need to fear. What is there in this world, what force, what wickedness that is as great as those Gods that we love and serve?
So yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – places polluted and filled with wickedness, places of foulness and danger, and though I am forced to sometimes engage with people who are also filled with pollution, I will never fear. I will not give evil that to feed upon. I am surrounded by my Gods. They have poured Themselves out around me, through me, through every pore, every molecule of my being. They stand between me and every unholy thing that I must face down. They are with me, filling me with Their protection and Their glory. What is the banality of wickedness in the face of such might? What is evil in the face of such power? I will be a conduit for my Gods until my soul itself is dust glittering in Their hands. Why the hell should I EVER fear that which stands against Them?
I was also thinking about what actors do when they tell these stories of evil. Those stories are important. They aren’t just stories of evil, but stories of human courage and virtue and valor in the most unexpected of places. Just as those that are the most evil are often boring and banal, the man or woman next door, so too are those who might rise up against that evil. We need those stories. We need to see that we too can have courage. At the same time, actors are vessels for forces far greater than they themselves. I was a performer for the first part of my life, granted a ballet dancer not an actor but the same thing holds: those who take up that work empty themselves out and take on the mask of other beings. That is dangerous. I know if I were playing a role now that was supposed to be the embodiment of evil, I would be bracketing every actual performance with offerings and prayers, cleansings and there would be a shrine to my Gods and probably also to Dionysos especially – even if I weren’t devoted to Him, because is the patron of the theatre, in my dressing room. This is why, I firmly believe, that in the ancient world, theatre wasn’t just a good time. It was bracketed by days of rituals and prayers and offerings to Dionysos. The stage is a liminal place and those who work upon it open themselves up in ways that can be very dangerous to the self. The stories told on the stage are important. They have the power to make us better, to elevate us to virtue and help us cultivate the best parts of ourselves. They give us a language to understand what is happening when evil comes calling. Evil feeds on fear. The power of Story, a Power in and of itself, shows us how to move beyond that fear.
May those who do this sacred work remain clean. May they be protected as they open themselves up on stage, before a camera, to forces beyond themselves. May they feel the grace of Dionysos and their own Gods too. May they be safe and nourished in their work. May we ourselves rest secure in the knowledge that the Gods are with us always, That we need not fear. That we are Theirs and They are ours, and in the alchemy of that equation evil is nothing at all.
They are so incredibly good to us in ways large and small! Sometimes it really does take my breath away, and it is so incredibly humbling to know how keenly we are held in Their sight. This was really driven home to me yesterday in the most prosaic of ways. Let me set the stage for my tale.
My husband injured his back not too long ago and I’m disabled (in part due to spinal damage accrued when I was dancing professionally. Ballet is brutal). Our housemate recently tore her rotator cuff gardening. (Nature is brutal too). We had close to eighteen inches of snow dumped on us very late Wednesday night, so when I woke on Thursday, there was a beautiful, glittering blanket of white all across our yard. Usually Sannion would shovel, but while he heals up, that’s not possible (not without the risk of reinjury). I’m not supposed to shovel (doctor’s orders, due to my own back issues) but I figured, well, someone has to do it, and I’m a tough bitch, so I thought I’d give it a shot. That was quickly a no go as I realized if I continued, I was going to seriously hurt myself. I know my body and I know when it’s sensible to push ahead and when I need to back the fuck off and sit down and at my age, I’m smart enough to listen.
So, I spent about an hour calling around town and posting on local groups to find someone who could shovel our drive, but that was a completely fruitless endeavor. In the meantime, we’d had groceries delivered quite early, or at least we were supposed to have had them delivered. The delivery woman hadn’t bothered to let us know she was at our door, though I provided my number, and rather than wear boots like a sensible person and bring the groceries to our door as we’d paid her to do, she shoved them under my car. Yes, you read that correctly. She put three bags of groceries in the snow *under* my car and left. (She told her supervisor that she put them on top of my white van. Mind you, I don’t have a white van). We thought that they’d not been delivered (even going out and looking around, we weren’t able to see them – she put them under the car on the street side of the car) so the part of my morning that wasn’t spent trying to find someone to shovel was spent on the computer with the delivery company getting a refund and filing a complaint about the delivery person. (If you take a delivery job the day after a blizzard and don’t have the sense to wear boots, I have zero sympathy for you). They were good about making restitution – more on that in a bit.
I had awakened in a good deal of pain (I’d pulled a muscle badly the day before) and none of this helped. It was shaping up to be a really awful day. We gave up, did a few informal prayers (I have started doing a brief morning ritual, but that didn’t happen yesterday), ending with an unspecified plea for help. Things immediately turned around. It was really kind of stunning.
Our lovely mailman, who is just an angel, came two hours earlier than usual, found the groceries and carried them up to the house for us. He didn’t have to do that, and the kindness almost made me cry. (I contacted the delivery service to cancel my refund since I had my groceries). We had pretty much given up getting our drive shoveled (and ok, it’s not like we are going anywhere, but I’d still like to be able to take my garbage down to the street and get to my mailbox, plus, if there’s any type of emergency, we need that mobility) when the doorbell rang. It was a young man whom I’d never seen before. He told us, a little dazedly, and he repeated this several times, that a voice told him to come to our house, and he asked if we’d like him to shovel. He did a marvelous job and we told him quite frankly that he was literally the answer to our prayers.
The rest of the day was quiet and uneventful. The bad energy and unpleasantness of the morning was completely gone.
All of this reminds me of something that happened to me seven or eight years ago. I had promised to make steak and offer to it Hermes. The day I owed the meal, we had another blizzard. I’m an uncertain driver in such weather (it was really bad), so I went to Hermes’ shrine and prayed and told him, “I’m sorry but I don’t think I can safely drive to get your steak.” (There were no grocery delivery services in our area then). “I’ll go out as soon as the weather clears up.” I made a liquid offering and went about my business and less than ten minutes later – no joke—a dude rings my bell. He’s a traveling salesman selling…steak. I’d never seen him before and haven’t seen him since. He wanted to get one more sale before calling it a day and heading home before the weather got worse. I bought a ton of steak and Hermes had His offering.
The moral of this story, my friends, is that the Gods do listen to our prayers, large and small, and sometimes the answer is no, but sometimes it’s a yes so loud and unsubtle that we can’t help but be knocked on our butts. Hail to Them all.
With this week, we move into the week of Ansuz, thank every God that is. The week of thurisaz was rough, even though it brought many productive and fruitful epiphanies. It was really, really rough though and while I work very well with the rune thurisaz, and consider him one of my primary runic allies, I must admit with all respect, that I am breathing a sigh of significant relief as we move into ansuz. I will say though, with thurisaz at the helm, I got quite a lot of work done! He really helps to focus one’s energy and intellectual might. I’m grateful for that.
We began our rite as we always do, with an Anglo-Saxon fire cleansing, then offered the following prayer (which I wrote –Tatyana and I have been trading off, but thurisaz and ansuz were my weeks).
Prayer to Sunna Havamal verse 148. A fourth I know: if men make fast in chains the joints of my limbs, when I sing that song which shall set me free, spring the fetters from hands and feet. And so it is. You Sunna, come with ansuz. You wield it like a mighty spear, a battle cry, a flight of ravens in Your brilliant light. It is the incantation with which You open all roads before You. This then, is my prayer: Come with the power to loosen the fetters that bind us. Come with the power to open the way before us. Come with the power that causes all roads yield to Your command. Obliterate all obstacles that keep us from clean devotion. Your words have power. Speak the runes that restore creation, and teach us the prayers to support You in this work. Hail to You, Sunna, Shining Glory of the sky, Blessed Power of the House of Mundilfari.
After the prayer, I galdred ansuz, and while this is a rune that I consider a particular ally, it was difficult to find the rhythm appropriate to ansuz and Sunna. It came through – I asked the rune to show me – and the galdr was very productive. We shared a horn of a lovely grapefruit flavored rose (I usually have much more high brow taste in wine but damn the rose was good! I’ve never seen the horn empty quite so quickly lol), offered more prayers and finally concluded with pouring out offerings and Sigdrifa’s Prayer. Yule is one more week closer!
Yesterday, my friend Elise asked me if I prayed in the mornings and if so, whether I used formal, set prayers, or prayed extempore, in a more conversational format. I thought it a very good question and asked her permission to recap her question and my response here, which she generously gave.
I am not, in any sense of the word, a morning person. My natural bio-rhythms ideally have me waking at about ten am, working till two am or so, and then going to bed. I can make some adjustments for work, but it tends to have an immediate and largely negative effect on my health and mood (1). I’ve learned to accommodate diurnal scheduling to a degree over the years but I hate it. Years ago when I lived in Queens, the majority of my kindred all lived within walking distance and for about six months we met every
bloody morning at six am (we all worked in the city mind you, so we had to catch the train in) to do a morning liturgy. It was lovely, nourishing, and damn near killed me. So, while I would like to keep monastic hours, treating my day as an interlocking circle of prayer in which I exist constantly praising my Gods, it is a goal and hasn’t happened yet. I do pray when I awaken, but it tends to vacillate between a garbled “arrrrrrgggghhh, gah, consciousness, grrrr…hail to the Gods and my dead” or a formal prayer like “Sigdrifa’s Prayer.” My more intensely focused prayer happens later in the day, and then before bed I usually pray for an hour or sometimes two (2). I feel bad about that though, and more and more, I’ve been trying to at least make a prayer the first thing out of my mouth when I wake, if not “Sigdrifa’s Prayer,” than this one that I wrote:
Hail to the Gods and Goddesses!
Your grace illumines all things.
Your gifts shine forth
making fruitful nine mighty worlds.
Blessed are those that serve You.
Blessed are those that seek You out
Holy Powers, Makers of all things,
bless and protect us in Your mercy.
Lead us along the twisting pathways of our wyrd,
and when it is time, guide us safely along the Helroad (3).
I really would like to develop the discipline of greeting the day with more fully formed prayers and even a ritual though – it’s a life goal. That being said, when I told all this to Elise, it led to a discussion of what is better: formal or informal prayer. She did not grow up in a religious family (nor in fact, in this country where we are exposed to religion somewhat simply by virtue of the nature of American culture) and formal prayers (set prayers, like the one above, or in Catholicism, the “hail Mary” or “our Father” prayers), she said, felt stilted and awkward. For her, praying was sitting in front of her shrine and immersing herself in the Presence of the Deity in question and …talking. That is lovely. That is what many people who practice prayer aspire to achieve. But, the two forms of prayer (formal and extempore) are not mutually exclusive. They reinforce each other, the formal prayers providing a scaffolding around which one weaves conversation, meditation, contemplating, and direct experience (4). Eventually, they should both lead to the same place: immersion in the presence of the Gods.
Each type of prayer has its pros and its cons. With formal prayers, the pros involve having this baseline that is easy to drop into regardless of what’s going on with one’s life. You know what to say and that it is going to be appropriate and respectful. This type of prayer often re-articulates and reifies our cosmology and the divine order undergirding it, so it is a word-act, a volitional articulation of and alliance with the Gods and the order They have created and that They sustain. It’s a means for us to participate in sustaining it too. Because one isn’t having to think about what to say, it allows the mind to focus on the Gods and Their mysteries, and from there, it is possible to have a powerful contemplative experience. Formal prayers also serve to remind us that there is an implicit hierarchy here, no matter how friendly a relationship with the Gods we may have in our devotional lives: this is not a relationship of equals and that’s a good thing. What a wondrous thing that we can have a devotional relationship with one of the Holy Powers, what a transformative thing!
Finally, for newcomers, particularly those who don’t know how to pray, formal prayers are excellent teaching tools, both for conveying some level of doctrine, but also for teaching one how to do this thing called prayer. I often find that those just learning to pray are often afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, or they feel awkward, or they don’t know how to pray and just stall themselves not knowing where to go or what to do. That’s all normal. Even people raised in religious households may experience this and all of us can use a refresher on how to pray well. With formal prayers, one can hit a groove that in the best case scenarios, represents a prayer prayed by generations of the devout. (We’ll get there, never fear).
The cons to formal prayer is that it can seem boringly repetitive and it’s easy for it to just become rote verbal repetition. The key is to train the mind to look at each word, each sentence as a word-knot to be untangled by the mind, to look at the prayers as a rhythm aligning us with the will and architecture of the Gods, carrying us into direct contemplation. It takes discipline and practice and there are days where it’s more of a struggle than others. Like working any other muscle, one will become better at praying over time, but learning to enter into a receptive headspace, to use the prayers as an opportunity to contemplate the Gods and Their mysteries, and to allow that to open one up more fully to those Gods takes time and ongoing practice. Try not to be discouraged if it doesn’t happen all at once. Devotion is an art form, a craft and like any craft, it’s something we’ll be honing and developing our entire lives.
The pros to informal, extempore prayer are that they allow a freer expression of one’s inner mind, heart, and soul to the Gods. It often feels more natural, and it allows for one to express oneself without the constraints of any external scaffolding. The cons are that it can elide the protocols and respect or even an awareness of the extant hierarchy between us and the Gods and this can lead to disrespect. Also, for those unformed in prayer, informal prayer may seem as awkward as its more formal brother. The important thing is to understand that these two types of engaging devotionally with the Gods are not opposites. They are not in opposition to each other. Both types of prayer are important, even necessary for the devotee, and each one complements the other. I often advice my students – as I did with Elise when she asked me about this – to continue with the extempore prayer (Because that is a good and lovely thing, something to which, at its best, we can all aspire) but perhaps end the prayer session with a set prayer like the one I offer above. She liked that because then the prayer becomes like a knot tying off a string of pearls, or a door carefully and respectfully closing. I often begin and end my times of extempore prayer with a set prayer myself.
I also think that it’s important to think about ways that we can pray throughout our day. Most of us are not monastics. We don’t have the benefit of living a life centered around ongoing prayer hour by hour. Even so, it is possible to move throughout one’s day consciously centered, mentally and spiritually, in an awareness of our devotion to the Gods, and of Their grace and glory. I look for ways throughout my day that I can slip in a prayer, or turn my mind, for however brief a time toward the Gods. Working from home due to Covid (my university moved most of its classes online this term), it’s been particularly easy. I walk past a shrine, I take a second or two, to thank that Deity or group of Deities for Their blessings. Sometimes I will quickly recite a prayer. Sometimes I’ll make an offering (yesterday I was passing Sigyn’s shrine with a couple of scones in hand that I’d just bought while out on errands, so I stopped and gave Her one). It doesn’t have to be a big, huge, formal ritual, nor even a formal prayer. Sometimes a ‘thank you’ is enough (5).
So, what questions do you have about prayer? What prayers do you particularly like, and what inspires you throughout your day to turn your attention to the Gods?
- A colleague told me in passing a couple weeks ago that he read an anthropology article (I don’t have it – didn’t think to ask him for it) postulating that different sleep cycles evolved when we still lived in caves: so someone would always be awake to protect the tribe. Maybe. It’s as good a reason as anything else, I suppose.
- This is not including feast days or ritual days when there is some type of religious service.
- Helheim is not a land of punishment in Heathenry. “hel” means “light” and refers to the Goddess Hela as well. It’s a land of comfort and peace for the dead, a place where our ancestors dwell. There may be parts of Helheim where the wicked and foul are punished, but Helheim itself is not a land of punishment like the Christian Hell.
- I think formal prayers also form a solid base line, the low bar that at the very least, even when we’re struggling to get in the right headspace, distracted, sick, sad, etc., we can do. If nothing else, we can do this. It’s always better to be in appropriate and receptive headspace when one prays, but sometimes we’re just not going to be able to do that.
- My adopted mom used to say that the single most important prayer one could ever utter to one’s Gods is “thank you.”
Earlier this year at the start of the pandemic, JR, one of my readers contacted me with a thought, “What if a bunch of us polytheists started a sort of Novena to Apollo to combat this virus?”
Recognizing a great idea, the seed for the Apollo novena was born. Not only is Apollo a God associated with healing, but because he was well known in ancient Greece as deeply multifaceted–with connections to the sun, knowledge, the arts, protection of the young, averter of evil, and so much more–a novena seemed long overdue.
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While some content in this novena has been published before in my Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheistic Household, there is also quite a bit of new material including a new divination system.
JKE recently asked,
“Here’s a question, if you have time. What is the most fundamental part of your devotional work? If all else had to be eliminated in a crisis, what would you keep doing?
This year, I have had multiple hospital stays, been temporarily displaced from my home, etc. I find myself asking this question a lot, trying to figure out what forms the bedrock of my spiritual practice. I find myself saying evening prayers every day, before sleep, and it keeps me anchored. At its most basic, it is just listing the names of the gods, and a few words of gratitude to each. I also offer song and fresh water, because those are available and possible just about anywhere. It makes me wonder what other polytheists do to stay focused on the Gods in chaotic times, or when stripped of resources.”
You hit on the answer to this question already, JKE: prayer. It is the most important part of any devotional practice. It’s where one usually begins one’s devotional journey, and it’s the thing that no one can take away. We may not be able to make offerings or libations due to circumstances (though the offering process is also important and as you note, water is almost always available) and certainly not everyone may have access to a properly trained blot priest, but we can always pray. We may not be able to wear any religious symbols or even to have a shrine, but we can pray. No matter where you are or what you are doing, you have the capacity to pray. This is the most fundamental form of devotional communion.
Now a lot of people think prayer is asking for things and it can be but … it’s also so much more. One may ask for things when one prays but I hope that sooner or later, with devotional maturity, one will ease away from this. There will always be times when we reach out to the Gods for help but where prayer is concerned, on a daily basis, that should be the exception rather than the rule. Prayer is a means of preparing the ground of the mind, the heart, the spirit for experience of the Holy. It’s communication, and I think the very process of praying creates in us a certain receptivity to the Gods and spirits. For that reason alone, it’s indispensable.
Affiliate Advertising Disclosure
I have paid my debt to this God. The small novena book I promised Him is now available. Like my other novena books, it is pocket-sized and offers nine days of prayer to Aphrodite’s son, Anteros, the God of requited love. It’s now available here. Thank you, Wynn, for coming up with the title. ^_^
A reader asked me recently asking whether or not it was really possible to experience the Gods through our senses, to have some type of direct engagement, where we sense, hear, or see the Holy Powers, what is called theophany (from two Greek words: φαίνω “to see” and θεοί “Gods” and meaning essentially to see or perceive the Gods). It was a very good question and forms, I think, one of the most difficult chasms to cross from 20th century post-modernism into actual devotion, and certainly to the type of devotion that informed the world of our ancestors. For our ancestors, including our medieval Christian ones, it was acknowledged that one might experience the Gods via the senses (how else would one experience Them? Our sensorium is the way that we experience every aspect of our world, after all) (1). They set up temples where one could go to pray for dreams, developed mystery cultus to allow for cathartic experience of the Powers, and worked this awareness into their philosophies and literature (2).
I will preface this by saying that I think everyone who experiences the Gods directly does so a little differently and that’s because our brains are not wired to take in something that inhuman and immense. The experience, the Being, the Presence gets filtered through our consciousness, so if person x sees but person y feels or hears that’s a matter of their own inborn facilities/predilections (some people learn better visually, some by hearing, etc.) and how their brain is processing the stimuli. One modality isn’t better than the other. Now onto the actual question!
One thing that I realized with this question is that I didn’t come to Heathenry or even to polytheism unprepared. I had a very good devotional upbringing. I was encouraged to pray, to do novenas, the idea of “God” being able and willing to engage with devotees was not a foreign one so I never self-censored there. I didn’t close that off, the idea that engagement was possible, but I think like a muscle one might work at the gym, the facility to sense the Gods was actively developed through years of prayer and meditation and later shrine work, devotional work, study, etc. Also putting myself in space where it was more likely such contact might occur didn’t hurt, and a couple of years of ritual work further developed that awareness.
I think many times the Gods show Themselves not through the raw impact of visions or direct theophany but through small graces, gifts given through the natural world or one’s daily life and that is potent and powerful too. Learning to see all things as sharing in that connection, that capacity for engagement is important because if we are always looking for the big explosion of Presence that overwhelms, we may miss the small whisper of grace that opens. Both are important and maybe, just maybe it’s the latter that prepares one for the former.
I’ve argued with other spirit workers about whether or not the capacity to experience theophany is part of one’s inborn psychic or spiritual wiring or whether it is something that can be developed through consistent prayer, meditation, and devotional work. I default to the latter and perhaps that is because I was a priest long before I became a spirit worker. It’s also though that I have seen ecstatic ritual move people away from the tightly locked down headspace of their daily lives and into receptivity toward the Gods. I also think that saying one can only experience the Gods directly if one has the inborn talent for it negates the agency of the Gods in this equation, and without that agency no one is going to be experiencing anything!
As a spiritworker I have to say, don’t be upset or discouraged if you don’t immediately receive the feedback of direct experience. You are having experience just by engaging in devotional work and there is far, far more merit in doing that work without the bold and obvious interaction/theophany/etc. than in doing it solely to receive that. Pray without expectation without preconception and you will be opening all the doors of your heart and senses to the glory of our Gods. Besides, theophanies usually come with work. The Gods are there and will usually meet us more than half way if we but start in whatever fumbling capacity we can down the road of devotion. In the end, that’s all that matters.
- Even in omens, prodigies and κληδόνες, the person receiving such a gift is experiencing that through their sensorium: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
- One of my favorite passages in the latter is found in the Virgil works in a powerful description of a priestess of Apollo being possessed by Her God:
“But the prophetess, not yet able to endure Apollo, raves in the cavern,
swollen in stature, striving to throw off the God from her breast;
he all the more exercises her frenzied mouth, quelling her wild heart,
and fashions her by pressure.”
At, Phoebi nondum patiens, immanis in antro
bacchatur vates, magnum si pectore possit
excussisse deum; tanto magis ille fatigat
rabidum, fera corda domans, fingitque premendo.
Virgil’s Aeneid, 6 77-83.
I love this description of possession because it so aptly depicts the partnership required and, while it’s been awhile since I’ve read the Aeneid in Latin, I believe in at least one other place, it’s actually described with vocabulary that conjures up the horse and rider paradigm that is used in modern Afro-Caribbean religions to describe the process of Deity possession, a metaphor that many polytheistic traditions use as well.
Note that the word that is here translated as ‘raves’ is ‘bacchatur’ and means to ‘behave in a bacchic manner,’ i.e. to be taken over completely in divinely inspired ecstasy, possibly violent ecstasy. It may also be translated accurately as ‘rave’ or ‘rant’.
I could have translated ‘fingit’ more as ‘tames’ rather than ‘fashions’ though either is an accurate translation. (this isn’t my translation — I’m not sure whose translation this is, but I liked it. I would probably translate it this way: “But, not yet fully opening to Apollo (or enduring Apollo, or allowing Him in, but the sense is that Apollo has not yet seated Himself fully on the prophetess because she is instinctively resisting), immense (vast) in the cave she raves, trying to drive out the great God from her breast; He exhausts her mad fury, taming her wild heart, instructing her by seating Himself fully (this is one of the possible poetic meanings of premendo).
So, just looking at this quickly before I hit ‘post’, I could make several choices in the translation and I’d probably have a half page of footnotes lol.
One of my readers contacted me a couple of days ago suggesting that a bunch of us commit to doing a seven day “novena” for Apollo, praying for protection and health in the face of Covid 19. I think this is an excellent idea (and we’re calling it a novena, even though it’s only seven days, seven being a number sacred to Apollo). Here is the email I received:
“During my nightly prayers, an idea came to me. What if a bunch of us polytheists started a sort of Novena to Apollo to combat this virus? Well, maybe Novena isn’t the right word but I was thinking light a candle and using the prayers from your ‘Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheist Household.’
Thought I’d pass the idea on to you and maybe your household and others would like the idea.
Obviously, we’d keep doing the common-sense stuff, no hoarding TP, wash hands, etc. What do you think?
I think it’s an excellent idea. As JR notes, it doesn’t take the place of common-sense measures like hand washing and social distancing – our Gods created medicine and gave us common sense after all!—but it is a spiritual measure that we can take in tandem with these things. Since JR suggested the prayers from my book ‘Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheist Household,’ I’m including the Apollo prayers here.
I plan to begin this cycle tonight and I invite any of you, my readers, who are interested to join me. Thank you, JR, for a wonderful suggestion!
(image by Lynn Perkins)
Seven Day Cycle for Apollo
Day 1 – for Apollo, Whose Arrows Never Miss Their Mark
It is to You Whom I turn when the night is darkest.
It is to You, Whom I cry when I am beset and surrounded,
by enemies as thick in number as an unkindness of ravens.
When I call, Oh my Lord, Your arrows gleam so viciously bright in the shadows.
I know I have nothing to fear.
You, Far-Shooter stalk those Who would harm the Gods’ servants,
Your arrows rattling in their quiver, their rhythm making the Moon smile.
You protect what is Your own. You keep pure Your sanctuaries.
You dance across the field of battle before the opponent
even realizes their last dawn has come, splendid in Your wardance.
You, Mighty One, avert all evil, all miasma, all pollution, all harm.
The glorious swan cries a paean to herald Your coming.
Great shooter from afar, Your arrows always find Their mark.
You restore, Lord of the ash, Lord of the bow, Lord of restoration.
May You always be praised. May I always praise You,
and know my place before You in service.
For Apollo – Day 2: Who Protects His People from Evil
You are terrible in Your wrath, Son of Leto,
when You stride into battle, gleaming arrows
rattling in their golden quiver.
Rage is too small a word, for the fury
that radiates from You,
more fiery than the sun,
deadlier than any blade.
You protect Your people,
raining plague upon those
who trample upon Your servants.
You strike down the impious,
and stop the evil-doer in his wake.
With Your raging war-cry,
You shatter pollution,
scattering to the winds,
all who would oppose You.
When You let fly Your arrows,
Your aim is ever true
and You destroy them.
None may escape You.
Howling Ares in His battle frenzy
may indeed match Your war-dance,
but You are cold precision, ice to His fire.
You never miss Your mark and when You take
the field of battle, Your heart is empty of mercy.
Agrios, best of hunters,
let Your fury fall upon all
that would seek to challenge divine order.
Set loose Your ravens, turn lose Your wolves,
that they may rend and tear Your enemies,
until You stand unopposed and triumphant.
Be our shield against evil, Bright Son of Zeus.
Hail to You, Apollo.
We will reverence You always,
not out of fear – for we will be ever pious—
but in love, and awe at the terrifying beauty
of Your majesty.
Hear our prayer, we pray.
Day 3 – for Apollo: Who makes Whole that which has been Broken
Hallowed One and hallowing,
You make whole that which is broken.
Your gentle hands bring healing,
tenderly encouraging growth and restoration.
Medicus, by Your grace and generative power,
You gifted Asklepius to the world,
and from His children, Mighty Sons and Daughters,
struck a blow against miasma and hurt.
Your temples are sanctuaries and so powerful Your blessings
that even the Christians hailed You, calling You angelic,
and best defender of the heavens.*
On this, they were not entirely wrong.
Yours is a purifying healing force against which
no possible pollution, illness, or malefic spirit may stand.
Your face is glory. Your touch a beautiful solace.
Your very presence is undiluted joy, ecstasy of mind, heart
and most of all, spirit. You move our tongues to praise,
our hearts to reverence, our bodies to celebration.
Enfold us, oh God, sweet and noble Lord, in Your light.
Restore us, Brightest Lord, we pray.
Renew us in all ways, that we may praise You more fully,
and every day with greater joy.
Preserve us, Holy Lord, from all the dank, impious places
we must walk in this world.
Fill us with Your light until no pollution remains
nor the possibility for it to fester and grow.
With this prayer, let us be aligned with our Gods,
with You, mighty Healer, as our advocate.
Hail to You, Apollo, may the warmth of Your blessings flow.
Day 4 – For Apollo, Who Bestows Prophetic Power
Frenzied speech You give, the oracle-woman bowed back
with the force of Your Presence in her head,
with the force of Your words erupting like a volcano
from her heart and mind, dancing and blazing on her tongue,
every synapse burning bright, as though she had fallen into the sun.
Frenzied speech and prophetic power You bestow, Great Lord,
weaving like a serpent through the brain, opening doorways
through which Gods and spirits might howl triumphant.
This is a high art, and You train Your women to wield it
swift and sure, mercilessly and sometimes cruelly,
like a surgeon’s blade, deployed keenly and without hesitation.
It is this Power, like the blistering force of a thousand suns,
that shines the wisdom of the Gods into mortal lives.
Those who heed it uphold the will of Zeus,
the immortal hierarchy of the heavens, the glory of the cosmos.
Those who ignore these whispering women glory-sent,
wreak their own destruction and order is again preserved.
It is the pristine ratio dancing, ever turning, ever re-harmonizing in Your hands.
You maintain the radiance of its song, the cosmic majesty of its dancing sequences
through which worlds are born, pass away, and are born again.
Preserver, Savior, Eternal God, Your songs soar in the hearts of those who love You,
and through the cosmos too, restoring order to all things touched by the sourness
of spiritual decay.
May we too join in this dance. May our hearts be patterned for Your song
that like wood in the blazing fire, we may be transformed, into light and heat
and conduits of Your goodness to our sad and broken world, every day of our lives.
Hail to You, Apollo.
Day 5 – for Apollo, Whose Love is Fierce
Your love is a terrifying thing to bear,
Sweet and searing, You penetrate to the core.
It is like walking off a precipice,
and whether we fly or fall is all the same
when the ending is You
and the conflagration of Your affections.
Oh Sweet God, burn away all that keeps us from taking that leap.
Let us not be like Kassandra, inconstant, aching,
so hungry for You and yet so afraid. She was a slave to Her fear.
Let our fear never win. Let it instead be the spice
that flavors the feast of the senses You proffer.
Free us from the chains of our terror.
Let us rise proudly into Your embrace
counting as small the consequences of such devotion.
There are always consequences to devotion.
Let us pay the requisite price gladly;
and then let us throw ourselves madly
into the heat of Your Presence.
Hail to You, Apollo, most-longed for God.
Hail to You, and all Your hungers
that fuel the fires of our veneration.
Day 6 – Apollo, Who Ever Purifies
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl
away from every evil thing.
Bright Apollo, far shooting God
of healers and prophets,
I offer this prayer to You today.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl
away from every evil thing.
Most Holy Apollo,
Klarios, Oulios, Alexikakus,
Who averts all harm,
protect me, oh my God.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl
away from every evil thing.
In Your Presence, oh my God,
nothing impure may stand.
In Your Presence, oh my God,
nothing impious may find purchase.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl
away from every evil thing.
keep my boundaries strong,
that no pollution may affect my mind,
my heart, my soul, my work.
Boedromios, preserve me,
as I wade into this filth.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl
away from every evil thing.
I lay my petition before You, Shining God,
that I may stand in the light of Your protection.
To You, Lord Apollo,
Day 7 – For Apollo, Glory of Olympus
You, Kyrios, are the glory of the Sun,
washing the world clean with Your light
every moment Your horses thunder across its heavens.
Your very presence restores, as light drives out darkness.
Your very song reorders, as its resonance shatters stagnation.
In Your hands lies the balance, the ratio of all the spheres,
A scaffolding of perfection, a purity of sound,
Divine harmony resolving into beauty, through Your music,
You keep those holy chords whole and add to their substance,
filling the world with Your whispered descant,
the potential for regeneration. So, it is with You, oh Medicus.
Your hands bring healing and restoration to us too,
Restoring the harmonies of our flesh, our bones, our rattled synapses.
You hear our most desperate cries, driven by pain and fear, lost in illness,
You hear and the moment Your attention is caught, pain begins its retreat.
The sound of Your attention, the gentle and firm touch of Your power,
Begins again, a dance in which illness has no place save its flight,
Alexikakos, from Your power.
You are the glory of Olympos,
And Your blessings fill the world with beauty.
Hail to You, Apollo Medicus, Father of Healers,
Whose charmed arrows never fail to hit their mark.
(All prayers here written by Galina Krasskova, published in “Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheist household” copyright 2020).