In the comments section of my previous post, one of my readers asked a really good question about the taboos that spirit-workers often have, how they work, and why. It was such a good question that I decided to post it here separately, along with my response.
Firstly, a word on terminology. When I use the term “taboo” in this context, I am referring to proscriptions (either positive or negative) upon some aspect of behavior that spirit-workers often experience from their Gods, spirits, or sometimes as a result of particular rules within a lineage. This may include things that cannot be done, worn, eaten, etc. or conversely, things that must be done, and even protocols that must be followed over and above what would fall on regular laity. (I’ve been known to refer to this latter category with the Irish term geasa, singular: geas, but that’s my personal usage having been exposed to the Irish terminology early on. Most of us just refer to them as “taboos”). That is not to say that specific Deities won’t have particular protocols that one must follow when approaching that Deity’s shrine (for instance, washing hands and anointing with khernips before approaching Apollo’s shrine, or women covering their heads when going to traditional Catholic mass – as random examples), but those protocols are universal to anyone approaching that Deity or that sacred space. They’re not a matter of X restriction or obligation being laid on Y person because that person is a spirit worker in service to Z Deity. Lay people do not usually have to worry about this type of thing, not in the compulsory way that spirit-workers will often experience, ALTHOUGH in many traditions a goodly portion of what a spiritworker does is sort out taboos for laity, so your mileage may vary—initiatory traditions, for instance, often have taboos for individual initiates as a matter of course. From here on out, I’m going to write from the perspective of a spiritworker who has mostly divined on the question of taboo for other spiritworkers. I hope that makes sense because this is actually the first time I’ve ever written about this in any depth, so I’ve never really had to parse it out like this before.
I’ll also add, don’t be a stupid jackass and go looking for taboos. The Gods are ever more willing to give than we are to receive, and spirit workers who are just so certain that to be real, live spirit workers, they MUST have taboos are likely to find that the Gods listen and give rather unpleasant, or at least inconvenient ones. You’ve done it to yourselves, people. Just let the work teach you and lead you where you need to go and listen to the advice of your elders.
So, in my previous post, David asked: “I guess I’m asking- if one has them, what type of taboos are they? What governs the practice- by what gnosis? Lineage? I guess I’d just like an overview of how that works. Thank you.”
All good questions but difficult to answer because there’s no set way this happens. It’s not formulaic. Every real spirit worker that I know has a passel of taboos, some large, some small but there’s no rhyme or reason to it that we ourselves know even amongst those owned by the same Deity (though, of course, I am fully convinced that the Gods have a plan there and it makes perfect sense to Them–we just can’t see it). In fact, two people owned by the same Deity can have precisely opposite taboos. There’s no telling when or if one will get them either. Someone may end up getting hit within their first few months of service, others only after years, and some lucky devils not at all.
I want to emphasize again that with certain practices, or certain Deities, or certain shrines, traditions may teach that there is a protocol to be followed by everyone. That is not a taboo. That is just part of pious respect.
Now, with taboos, often a spirit worker can sort of feel them coming on. One will start to have an adverse reaction to certain fabrics or foods, for instance, when no medical allergy exists. Sometimes something will just start to feel really, really wrong. That’s usually the point at which the spirit worker will consult one of her tradition’s diviners to find out what’s going on (or more likely avoid it as long as possible in the hopes you are wrong. This does not work by the way. Lol). Often taboos will be given to a spirit worker to help sort out a problem that the spirit worker is having. Maybe a spirit worker is having problems with his Gods, and this is a means of rectifying that. In the negative, perhaps a spiritworker has abused a privilege and the taboo is the corrective. More usually, it’s a neutral thing that happens as a result of the various changes and modifications that spiritwork brings about in a person. Sannion noted in a conversation we had, that it’s not always a negative response to something that is the first sign a taboo is coming on; sometimes one can have a deep attraction to things that end up then becoming taboos. He’s right, and I’ve certainly experienced that myself.
I do think that taboos are meant to strengthen the spirit worker in some way, or his/her connection to his/her cadre of Holy Powers. We always end up having to discourage “baby” (new) spirit workers from seeking out taboos or pretending, in their enthusiasm, that they have them, or copying another spirit worker. Just stop. Having them doesn’t make you a better spiritworker. It doesn’t make you more legitimate. It’s just a byproduct sometimes of the Work. It’s certainly not something to seek. They’ll come if they come and if you pretend, you might get hit with one hard and fast that you don’t like. It’s not like we get to choose them after all and often they’re damned inconvenient.
Food and clothing taboos seem, as far as I can tell, to be the most common. I also think there’s some aspect of “othering” to certain taboos – that the spirit worker is meant to stand out as a carrier of the holy and we see this in anthropological accounts of “shamans” quite a bit. It’s interesting but I haven’t made a study of it. I just cuss when I realize I’ve had a new taboo dropped on my head. Often, quite often, taboos can be about protection too and ritual purity — an awful lot of mine have to do with avoiding miasma.
Some taboos come with lineage. So, if one is initiated to a particular Deity, and certain patterns occur during the divination thereafter, then xyz taboos are laid as a matter of course. Sometimes, a spirit worker will receive a taboo via theophany or more often personal gnosis. (A spirit worker will be told directly by one’s Gods and/or spirits). I even actually inherited one from my late mom. It’s funny, when I’m divining for someone, and that person is a spirit worker who asks about whether or not he or she has a taboo, unless that person is starting to experience the aforementioned dis/comfort, I’ll caution them NOT to ask. (Better to ask forgiveness than permission…once it comes up on the mat, one is obligated). Taboos can change over the course of one’s life and Work. For many years, I had a specific taboo, but then about fifteen years ago, after a major initiatory cycle, that completely changed. I freaked, but a ton of divination and also prayer and discernment confirmed that the original was no longer needed.
I want to emphasize that there’s no virtue in having a religious taboo. There’s no virtue in being free of taboo. It’s just a thing that sometimes happens in our formation as spirit workers that, in some way, helps us. My colleague Tove just said that “sometimes, it illuminates a path that we’re on as spirit worker with more clarity than we otherwise would have had.” I have found that to absolutely be true. She also added, “they [taboos] can also be an expression of the voice of our Deities too, especially our primary Deity.”
I can’t think of anything else to say on the matter. If y’all have questions, feel free to drop them in the comments.
I’ve had a few questions coming in the last four days, so I figured I’d handle them here all at once. I have also been reading a couple of interesting articles so I’m sharing those too. Questions two and three were from the same person.
- What is your favorite of Odin’s heiti? – J.
J, that is a hard question. I probably resonate the most devotionally with Odin as Gangleri or Runatyr but it really varies depending on where I’m at devotionally at any given time. Eventually, I want to explore Him through the lens of as many of His by-names as possible devotionally. Each one is a mystery and each heiti an opportunity to get to know Him better, to go deeper into devotion, and more importantly to push oneself outside of one’s comfort zone in devotion. Right now, with Oski’s day just past, I realized that while I’ve honored Him as Oski before, I don’t think I’ve written any prayers to Him in that capacity. I was shocked! Lol. So, that’s the heiti I’m most focused on but is it a “favorite?” I would say no, which is not to say that I have any personal issues honoring Him that way, it’s just not the primary way that I’ve encountered Him in my devotions and I tend to only address Him in this way in December. Mostly, there are so many heiti from which to choose that I find it really hard to say, “this one is a favorite.” There’s also liking a by-name and connecting most strongly with Him through that by-name. Those two aren’t always the same thing. So, it’s complicated.
In the New Year, I plan to start my series here discussing Odin’s various heiti. Many of you had great suggestions for which heiti to examine first when I first mentioned this a month or so ago, and I’m looking forward to delving in. I didn’t want y’all to think I’d forgotten!
2. How do you justify being folkish? Why do you support the AFA?
(I’ll leave this and question three anonymous)
I’m not folkish and I don’t support the AFA. I’ve never been a member and I have significant problems theologically with their positions. They are however, entitled to have those positions just as I am entitled to disagree with them. That is their first amendment rights granted to them by our Constitution. I can disagree with them and they with me, but I won’t abridge their right to practice as they wish. I’ll simply not engage with them or join their organization. I will vote with my feet!
Here’s where I stand. I believe that anyone of any race or ethnicity can practice any tradition including mine and I would not allow discrimination against anyone in any of the religious spaces that are mine to tend, whether that discrimination is based on ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality, or any other personal characteristic. My job as a priest is to nurture devotion and faith, to teach the tradition, the right relationships between people and their Gods, ancestors, and other Holy Powers, and to work to the best of my ability to serve my Gods well.
Now ancestor veneration is an important part of my practice, of Heathenry, and of most polytheisms in general. We know that all those alive in the world today are here today because there is a line of ancestors who fought and struggled through hardships to keep living. We respect and love and venerate them for this and the sacrifices they have made. That doesn’t mean we don’t venerate or respect other dead, or that we think only ours should be venerated – everyone has ancestors. Honor them. It’s a simple equation. People call me folkish because I tell them not to forget those sacrifices and to respect their ancestors, remember them, learn from them. We all stand on the shoulders of our dead. Every last one of us.
3. What do you think about Hindutva?
(Several links that I won’t share here were included in this email, many of them accusing former acquaintances of mine of being fascists because they have in some way worked for organizations that have ties to Hindutva).
What I really think you’re asking, is what I think of Western polytheistic attempts to make alliances with Hinduism, and also, Western polytheistic attempts to visibly support larger, extant indigenous polytheisms.
I think for the most part, those attempts are foolish—until we build up our own communities how can we be a credible help to any other polytheistic tradition that is under attack or in danger? Yes, we should absolutely stay informed and speak out when we see other polytheistic and indigenous traditions under attack – especially when those traditions are under attack by monotheistic attempts at proselytizing and erasure. However, until we get our own house in order, we’re not useful to ourselves or anyone else.
I think right now, we are better served spending the bulk of our energy building up our own traditions. With all due respect to my Hindu colleagues, and my colleagues in any other indigenous tradition, these traditions have nothing to gain by any alliance with any Western polytheistic group. While I do think that it is good when polytheists can stand together as a block, and it may be emotionally satisfying to sidestep the difficult work of building our own traditions by friendly alliances with Hinduism, or Ifa, for example – lineages that haven’t been sundered, in the end, I don’t think it’s beneficial to either side right now. Maybe on paper. Maybe as a public relations stunt, but what is really accomplished in actual, concrete actuality? Not a damned thing. Our energy would be better spent focusing on our communities.
When we can enter into these alliances as equal partners then I would be all for it. Right now, at very best, we are the ones likely to be changed or absorbed by any such work because we have not taken the time to develop a backbone, a cohesive sense of identity as religious communities, or any clear sense of piety. We have no ethics because too many of our people mistake politics (usually progressive but not always) for religion. We need to start and really commit to the process of building solid, in person communities, religious houses, temples with the attendant infrastructure to think and act like the communities we can be. We need to be raising children in the faith and looking to restore the framework for intergenerational transmission of our traditions. Then, maybe we can step up and enter into larger alliances with something to offer other than pretty words. In other words, we actually have to HAVE communities before we can have any type of productive alliance.
Now onto some interesting links that I read this week and think some of you may find interesting:
An article about how birds perceive time. Read here.
Vikings got here before the eleventh century. Read that here.
Finally, I just saw a new book came not too long ago on Heathen concepts of the Soul. I have not read it yet, but it looks promising. The book is called ‘Heathen Soul Lore Foundations: Ancient and Modern Germanic Pagan Concepts of the Souls” by Winifred Rose. You can find it here. (and … half way through the first chapter I disagree with the definition of “soul” offered so strongly I may have to write a review. This is theological work but it’s not approached theologically and I find this frustrating. That being said, I am looking forward to seeing how Rose develops her ideas historically and philologically).
Finally, over at House of Vines, a commenter (Xenophon) gave the perfect response to those that are constantly nattering on about how everyone who practices actual religion instead of politics or who disagrees with the political position du jour is a fascist: “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of my prayers to the Gods.” That’s it, folks, the best advice of the week: ignore the haters and get on with devotion.
Here is an apotropaic phallus.
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Yes, I do. I think it’s important on a number of levels to bless our food and to give thanks. In my home, there are a few preparatory blessings of cooking ingredients that I do: all salt is immediately poured into a large salt jar and blessed and that is the only salt we use in the home. So, anything made from scratch, uses blessed salt. Then, as I cook, I’m usually praying over the food. For anything we order, I bless it as I’m unpacking it and usually again when I plate it. Pretty much any meal I eat, I first say grace over it, and I do this for two primary reasons.
Firstly, I think it’s important to give thanks to the Gods and spirits that nourish us, and building that habit with respect to the food we take into our bodies is a good place to start. It keeps us mindful. It connects food and nourishment with the Gods and puts us in a receptive headspace of gratitude and respect. Those are good things. This also connects the mundane task of nourishing our bodies with something holy and properly elevates it. Food is sacred after all. It is key to the connection between Midgard, Vanaheim, and Helheim. Our physical bodies too are part of our soul matrix and giving them proper nourishment then becomes a sacred task. Cooking is also a powerful connection to our ancestors. So, there’s a lot bound up in food. Plus, we are blessed to be able to nourish ourselves and our families and the Gods pour Their grace into the very food we eat always.
Secondly, as a culture we pollute our food: GMOs, pesticides, and all sorts of unnatural things. Sometimes these things damage the spirit of the food itself, and I think praying over our food restores a natural balance, inasmuch as it can be restored.
Whenever and whatever I eat, I will put my hands over and it ask for blessings. I’ll say something like, “I thank you Frey, Freya, and all Good and Gracious Gods for the food I’m about to eat. Please bless it and fill it with Your odhr that it may restore and nourish both my body and soul. Blessings on this food and the hands that prepared it.” If I’m feeling the Roman Gods more strongly, I might include Pomona and Ceres in the prayer as well. Then I’ll make the hammer sign over my food and eat up. It’s that simple and I do it whether I’m alone or eating out.
If anyone else here says grace, do you have particular prayers that you like to use? Please feel free to share in the comments.
This is actually a multi-part question, so I’ll take each one in turn. Here we go:
Question 1A: “I was reading your article on prayer but and a question came to mind…”How do you determine who to pray to?” Say for example a person wishes to do so in reference to a research paper they have been working on. What determines whether they should pray to Thoth, or Athena, or Hermes or Saga, or any God or Goddess of Knowledge/Wisdom?”
You know, it seems like such a simple question, but it really isn’t. This is definitely a “polytheist problem!” I have my set of household Deities, Gods to Whom I’ve been dedicated to for years and I pray to Them regularly – I aim for nightly but I’ll admit I do miss days. Sometimes I or my household are just too tired to do it properly. Then the morning prayers, which are brief, have to suffice. Sometimes though, I’ll just get a feeling that I’m entering into another Deity’s house, sphere of influence, so to speak. Then, as a matter of what used to be called “guestliness” (the hospitality and grace owed by guest to host) in some of the Heathen groups in which I worked, I will reach out to that Deity. Sometimes, it will come up in our regular household divination that one of us should approach a particular Deity. Sometimes one prayer just leads to another. There’s no formula or rule for it. If one has a fulltrui, a patron, a particular Deity or family of Deities to Whom one pays regular devotion, I would always start there. You can always ask the Gods to Whom you usually pray, ask for insight and be patient.
Question 1B: “Another question I have is…does a particular place affect one’s connection to the Gods? I have read a few articles where people have moved to different places due to work or personal relationships (significant others), and in their original place they had a good communication with the Gods, but in the new place, it’s like the communication seems to be cut off. Does the “God Phone” tend to get bad reception in different places? I wonder if there is something to it because I felt more receptive to the Gods when I was in [state redacted] but since moving to [state redacted] I’ve had difficulties…”
Yes, (though it’s not that the the ability to sense or hear the Gods is cut off, but something else). This is why regional cultus is such a powerful thing. We see the same Gods being venerated in different ways, manifesting in different ways, carrying different bynames in different areas. For instance, my primary God is Woden in Old English territories, Odin in Scandinavia. Sometimes He is Gangleri, sometimes Oski, sometimes Wotan, sometimes Allfather, and so on and so forth. Not all of these heiti depend on the land, but there are reginal manifestations of His power. To give a second example, there is Dionysos of Mount Beacon – how we honor Him here– and Dionysos of Nysos and a thousand more iterations of this God. The Gods have Their own business, I think, with all the spirits of these places completely unrelated to us and our relationships and They wear different…”clothing” so to speak, accordingly). I’ve often said that the polytheistic triad is Gods-Ancestors-Land and it may be, and this is my speculation here, that some sort of conversation between the Gods and the spirits of the land is occurring. After all, They have relationships not just with us, but with multiple families of spirits (like land spirits) too. This applies to Gods and ancestors too – those are unique relationships. To get back to your question, there are definitely regional expressions or currents through which our Gods work.
I would suggest making offerings to the land spirits in your new home and also to your Gods (and ancestors too –never hurts). When you move to a new place, or even if you’re visiting for an extended time, greet the land and make offerings. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn to see your Gods through new eyes. It’s not that They can’t hear your prayers, or aren’t present, rather I think that it’s a matter of us sometimes struggling to catch the… “frequency” for lack of a better term, of one’s Gods in a new place, and of one’s Gods in conversation with new land spirits. Also, we do like our preconceptions and those can be a powerful block to new experiences of our Gods, all without us ever really being fully aware of how much this is the case.
It really takes time (and sometimes, it becomes easier after moving to a new place – this is not always a problematic thing). Just be patient and continue your practices. I asked my friend who is a land worker and she said she thinks there’s some kind of negotiation between the Gods and the land that happens and how they come to you is different because of that. Also, you need to get to know the spirits in your new place. Sometimes the Gods will even step back a bit in Their presence because it can overwhelm the sense of the land spirits or one’s ancestors in a new territory. There’s important work rooting oneself there that should be done first, grounding yourself in this land and developing those relationships, that all needs to happen before the Gods express the fullness of Their presence again.
You have to acclimate. You can’t really do clean work of any sort, including devotional until you acclimate. The space needs to be met, greeted, honored. Then it needs to be cleaned, ordered, blessed, and protected. Otherwise, there will be interference, distractions…and some of this can simply be the interference of chattering spirits who are curious about the new person. Even if we can’t hear or sense this (no one is in the state of perfect receptivity all the time no matter how good their general abilities are!), on some level it gets registered as interference or blockage. It’s not though. The process of moving, involves acclimating on both sides: you, your Gods, the land…sometimes rituals of formal introductions for all parties can help. But in the end, just give it time. It’s always easier when you make friends with the land.
Finally, here is Question 1C: “Also I can point out with these articles I glanced at, no mention was made of cleansing practices so perhaps that’s an important way to “boost the signal”. Are there other ways?”
Well, the first and most important thing you can do is establish a regimen for cleansing and purification. That is rule one when it comes to discernment. Rule two is to be consistent in your prayers and devotions. If you’re not cleansing regularly, of course your discernment and ability to accurately engage with your Gods will be severely impinged.
Hope this helped. There’s nothing worse than moving to a new place. My land worker friend said moving is one of THE most traumatic things for her personally! Psychological studies that I’ve read, put it right up there with the death of a loved one and divorce. So, be kind to yourself and soldier on.
Question: I have a copy of your little booklet of polytheistic prayers, several of which, you say, come from your personal prayerbook. I was hoping that one of these days you might write about the process of creating that prayerbook. Is it a handwritten book, a Word file, printouts and clippings, organized, disorganized? How did you start and how did it evolve over time? Anything you’d be willing and allowed to share.”
I do have a handwritten prayer book that I illustrated myself. It’s pocket sized and I made it when I was traveling quite a bit. I’ve since typed up most of those prayers, added quite a bit more to make it useful for all the rites and rituals that we customarily do as a House, and printed that up in larger format for myself and other members of the House. It contains all the prayers in the two small prayer books I sell on etsy, other prayers that we use for protection, exorcism, and cleansing, prayers and rituals for the holy days, funeral prayers, birth/blessing prayers, daily prayers like a couple that I’ve posted here (like the four-fold Adorations to the House of Mundilfari) and so forth. For awhile, I was printing up each set and stapling it as it became something we began to use more and more, but I got tired of having multiple print outs all over the place. So, once I collected everything in a single file, I had it printed in a little book with 25 blank pages at the back so we can all add personal prayers we like or make notes. Every six mos or so I reprint it with new material added as well. It’s a work in progress. I’ve shared some of the prayers on my blog but that book is not something I’m willing to share publicly.
We use this book and then Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheistic Household for our regular day to day, as well as any prayers we might say extempore. Then I have a separate book with all my divination systems and prayers for those.
I DO recommend creating your own handmade prayer book if you can. It’s a lovely devotional offering. It doesn’t have to have every single thing in it. You can make small, very focused prayer books. I made one with just a few prayers as an offering to Mani. You don’t have to learn bookbinding either! You can stitch the pages together and stitch fabric covered squares of cardboard onto that as a cover. Decorate it as you will. There are many, many tutorials on youtube or just online in general that will give you plenty of suggestions. If you do know bookbinding, go to town. It’s on my list of things I want to learn but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
My prayer practice has certainly evolved over time. I was really lucky to have grown up in a religious family. I think for those who didn’t have good devotional models when they were small, this whole thing of prayer, devotion, and praxis can be really difficult. One’s default isn’t piety if one wasn’t raised in a household – be that religious upbringing good or bad – where piety was practiced (again, however well or poorly; though if it was a religiously abusive household, that causes problems all its own beyond the scope of discussion in this particular blog post). It’s like working a muscle: if the muscle wasn’t worked as a child, it atrophies. This isn’t insurmountable. It just means that one has to be aware of one’s default state-of-being a little more than someone raised religious. Don’t worry, those raised religious have other issues that they have to guard against. No none gets any type of free ride with this stuff.
So, I was lucky to have grown up in a religious household and also to have had really good devotional models available to me from the time I was small. I was surrounded by people who prayed in some form or another. I didn’t give that up when I became a polytheist. In fact, if anything, my prayer practice became stronger. I’ve seen the results of that in my own devotional life. I think prayer is crucial. It’s the single best starting point one can have and I often suggest shrine and prayer work simultaneously when one is starting out as a good place from which to begin. I would go so far as to say there isn’t a more important tool in our arsenal than prayer. By that I mean set prayers, formal prayers, extempore prayers, informal prayers and everything in between. One of my former students once brought me a quote (I don’t recall at this late juncture where she found it): “Pray as though your hair were on fire.” I like that image. Of course my more literalist readers had to point out how illogical the saying was, but it’s the intensity, the need, the frenzy of the thing that appeals to my Odinic heart. Pray as though it’s the most important thing you will ever do, because it is.
It never occurred to me until quite recently that not everyone grows up learning to pray. I’ve taught within my religious community for over two decades and usually, during that time, I would be meeting quite regularly with students and holding regular rituals and they’d be seeing prayer in action all the time they were around me or others in the House. It’s only recently, when I acquired an apprentice who was raised atheist (in a communist country to boot), one who wasn’t shy about saying, “how do you do that?” (because she wanted to know and learn!) that I realized I can’t take this as a given. Should it be? Yes. I think ideally we should all be raised in communities where we pray to the Holy Powers as easily as we breathe, but we’re not there yet. In fact, in our society these days, prayer is actually quite often viewed as something negative. At least if it’s treated with indifference, you can start with a clean heart, a clean/blank slate. Many coming into our religions don’t even have that these days.
I realized that if one didn’t grow up doing this, prayer of any sort can be anxiety-inducing (one wants to do it correctly!), embarrassing (one never sees others praying in the mundane world), confusing (am I doing it right?) and a plethora of other things. I tell people that prayer is talking to the Gods and giving Them space to answer (maybe not in words, but in ways that fill and transform a life). It’s communication and just like communication is key to building strong human relationships, so too it is key to building strong devotional ones. I usually recommend time spent extempore in front of one’s shrine, but balanced with a few simple set prayers (like, for instance, “Sigdrifa’s Prayer”). I also give a handful of meditational exercises to help still the mind and begin teaching discernment in one’s practice.
Over the years, there have been certain books that have reinforced or helped to shape my prayer practice today. Most of them are Christian since I study early Christian theology academically. That’s ok. Prayer is the thing that crosses all religious boundaries. The earliest known recorded prayers were, I believe, by a Sumerian priestess Enhenduanna. This is a practice that belongs to neither polytheism nor monotheism but fills every religious tradition with life. Recently, I read “Courage to Pray” by Metropolitan A. Bloom and George Lefebvre and I recommend it without reservation. Yes, eventually you have to filter out the specifically Christian scriptural material but so what? Do it. The information on prayer in this book is extraordinarily helpful. Likewise Evagrius “On Prayer” and Cassian’s “Conferences.” The latter is much more monastic in its focus so read it and take what you can use. I have cannibalized libraries like this in order to learn to love my Gods better.
Prayer is also the thing that provides the best and most essential protection from the gaping entropic evil that pits itself against all that is holy. If you don’t pray, if you can’t pray, if you refuse to pray, you are a weak link, and a danger to pious people around you. You’re also a danger to yourself and you can fix it so easily by actively reaching out to the Gods. It doesn’t matter how falteringly you pray. Just do it, fumble through it. We all fumble. We all feel awkward sometimes with it. But prayer shapes and forms the mind, the heart, the soul in ways that make us receptive to the Gods, the Good, and the Holy. It’s essential. It is a spiritual vaccination. Take the shot.
Formal prayers often trip people up. By formal, I’m thinking set prayers like the Catholic “Hail Mary.” There’s a set text that doesn’t vary and one says that text whenever one says the prayer. It’s very, very easy for these set prayers to become stale or even worse: mindless repetition rattled off at the speed of light. This isn’t their purpose. Rather, they serve three purposes (and maybe more, but three come to mind at the moment I’m writing this). Firstly, they’re a good baseline. When you can do nothing else, when your exhausted, your brain is fried, you’re pissed off at the Gods, you’re having a bad pain day or any other reason that might make it hard to pray freely, you can reach for one of these prayers (hopefully committed to memory through regular use) and it’s *something*. There is that. Secondly, in a ritual setting, a set prayer allows everyone there to participate, hitting the same devotional groove. Songs are like this too, which is why we should all probably envy the Catholics for their hymnals! We really should be upping our game there. Thirdly, set prayers allow the mind to constantly be filled with prayer, which keeps the whispers of evil out. It allows one to contemplate the Gods’ mysteries, Their sacred stories, to wander off in the heart of a word, a byname that opens up an entire devotional universe. Each word is a window, each whispered syllable the turning of a key in a lock opening wide the gates of this world, our world, our interior world to our Gods. Informal, extempore prayers can do this too but there’s something really helpful in having a verbal scaffolding, rooted in our cosmology, already prepared within which the contemplations of our minds might unfold.
I find there can be a great deal of push back against the idea of prayer in Heathenry. This is partly because too many Heathens allow atheists to take up space in their kindreds, and worse, to take up leadership positions. Get your Houses in order.
This is partly because some have been raised in abusively fundamentalist households. This is sad. This type of religious abuse doesn’t just damage heart and soul, but it also makes it very, very difficult to develop a loving devotional relationship with any holy Power. I wish for those in this situation compassion and that they find teachers, mentors, elders, and therapists who know how to help them through the pain and into the joy of clean, healthy devotion.
Sometimes, though, this is partly because people claim to be Heathen but just don’t want to deal with the Gods or ancestors. These things make nice abstractions, nice stories in a book but the reality scares the hell out of them (or for many does what’s worse: inconveniences them) and they just don’t want to be bothered. Shun these people like the plague. We choose devotion every day. It’s a conscious choice. It is a willing, often difficult choice that has to be made again and again and again and if someone isn’t willing to make that choice, or is consistently hostile toward the even the idea of making that choice, they’re not Heathen, they’re not devout, and they’re sure as hell not spiritually healthy. In fact, they are spiritually ill in a way that is polluting and contagious to everyone around them. We make spiritual choices about everything we do, everything with which we fill our minds, and everyone with whom we associate. They count. Part of developing devotionally is learning to make healthy choices. We need to have the courage to do that even with the small things.
Someone asked me once if we’re really meant to be praying 24/7. Um…yeah. I think so. That is the goal. What does that mean? Well, for me, part of my mind and heart is always reaching out to the Gods in devotion. I may not be murmuring prayers, but part of me is always thinking about Them, engaging in some way devotionally. When I’m not doing that, I try to center everything I do, even the small tasks through the lens of my devotional world. I fail at this a lot but it is the goal and when I fail, I pick myself up, center myself, and start again. When I can pray more obviously (say I’m sitting a home or on the train) I’ll use prayer beads or sometimes just do so extempore. I’m nowhere near 24/7 but I hold it up as a goal. It reminds me to strive. I may not reach that goal, but by aiming for it, I’ll go far more deeply into devotion than I otherwise might have done. That’s the thing with devotion: aim high and just plug away consistently at it. It’s the consistency that matters, not whether we reach the goal (and as an Odin’s woman who is very results oriented, that just about kills me to say, though it’s true). Some days will be better than others but the one thing that costs nothing, that is fully within our power no matter where we are or what we’re doing is prayer. We need only the will or maybe the courage to do it, the desire to reach out. Beyond that, there’s a lovely Baltic proverb with which I’ll end this piece: “The work will teach you how to do it.” One could say, as the Havamal does, “one word leads to another word, one deed to another deed.” The best starting point is prayer.
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Over the last week, I’ve had quite a few questions hit my inbox. Normally, I answer these things privately but some of the questions are things that I get asked frequently, so I figured it was time to write something here (and I welcome the questions so don’t ever worry about emailing me. I might be slow – I am in grad school and perennially running behind in email – but I’ll answer as soon as I can). So settle back, because this is going to be a rather long post as I try to cover the questions I’ve been receiving. I’ve tried to group them by topic, so most of them deal with ancestor veneration. I put those first.
Question 1: Most of my ancestors were Protestants not Polytheists. Can I still venerate them? Will it make them angry?
Death is a great equalizer. I have very, very rarely found religion to be a problem with non-polytheistic ancestors. Nine times out of ten, being reunited with one’s ancestral house, freed of the difficulties and pain of corporeality, is very healing and liberating for our dead. Quite often, many of the prejudices and narrowness that define our living experience simply fade away (I suspect that it is partly due to actually encountering the Powers directly). There are exceptions to this, mind you, but for the most part I have found that what you’re most likely to encounter is happiness that you’re reaching out, a little confusion about how the whole thing works (as we learn to work with our dead, I think they learn to work with us too), and a willingness to communicate.
Sometimes, depending on the religion that your ancestors might be coming from, they may not have a working knowledge of how to DO ancestor work, how to engage with the living so there may be some negotiation there but for the most part, barring the occasional bitter or damaged ancestor, you’re rarely likely to encounter hostility because of your religion. There might be curiosity, and in that case, just explain what you do and why.
Sometimes really damaged or wounded ancestors will require healing and if one is willing, elevations can help enormously with that. I advise people to just start honoring their dead – start where you’re comfortable starting—and then deal with any issues that come up as they arise. It’s a learning experience (on both sides) and there will be a little fumbling along the way just like in any other relationship. That’s ok. Consistency is the key.
If you have ancestors who were especially devout in their tradition, one thing you can do is find out what ways that tradition has of honoring the dead. For instance, my grandmothers were both Catholic. I often have masses said for them or will go and light candles at Marian shrines in various Churches for them. They seem to like it.
Question 2: I know you honor dead that aren’t related to you biologically. How does that work? Is there ever any conflict between your blood ancestors and these spiritual ones?
Oooh yes and yes. I struggled for many, many years to develop a working relationship with my ancestors and I sometimes think they get a little jealous of how much more easily my relationship with non-blood related groups (especially the castrati and/or the military dead) developed. There’s more ease there with those that aren’t related to me even now. I feel often as though I have more in common with them. But, like anything, it’s a work in progress and if I didn’t honor my own dead properly then I wouldn’t be in any position to take up honoring specific groups of unrelated dead. One aspect of veneration feeds into and strengthens the other for me.
I have certain dead in each group, including my blood ancestors, who kind of help keep things organized and will step up to solve any problems that arise between the various groups and that helps immensely. Beyond that, divination is always a go-to when larger problems arise, though I can’t think of the last time that happened. For the most part, we all manage to work together well 99% of the time.
For those who wonder which non-blood related ancestors I honor, I specifically venerate the military dead, the castrati and also as a work-lineage, ballet dancers (I was a dancer for the first working third of my life so that was a lineage of which I was part. It shaped me and contributed to the way in which I approach my spiritual work. I honor them as a spiritual lineage). I also honor my spiritual lineage ancestors (spirit workers, vitkar, priests, etc.). This latter is one of the areas where I find my spiritual ancestors and blood ancestors overlapping since I have several theologians in my line (most notably Jakob Boehme, who is my 11th great grandfather on my maternal side).
Question 3: If you pay ancestor or hero cultus to a celebrity, say a famous dead musician for instance, how is that different from fandom?
I think the purpose in venerating them is different. You are basically asking that this particular dead person become an honorary part of your ancestral house. Why would you do to that for someone not related to you? Well, maybe they are part of your work-lineage. Say you are a musician. Honoring a famous musician who inspired you fits into “lineage.” Or, you are asking that person to become a patron, as in ancient Roman patron/client relationships. This is analogous in many respects to hero cultus. In ancient Roman polytheism, or instance (and one sees this in other polytheisms too, but Roman comes to mind as I write this) one might pay cultus to a local hero because he or she was extraordinary in some way. Herakles for instance, received extensive hero cultus. Why does one do this? I equate it to Catholic saint cultus (which I think evolved partly from a combination of ancestor veneration and hero cultus that was pandemic in the pre-Christian world): one petitions these holy people to intercede with God in Catholicism, or to lend their holy might, their power to prayers for us. Well, we can do that with our heroes too. They can be models of excellence (much like saints are models of holiness), they can be petitioned for help or intercession, or for protection in our work, or a dozen other things as well. The important thing is, we’re not just going ‘rah rah rah’ and swooning over their work. We are recognizing their importance in their field and their impact on us personally, honoring them for that, in the hopes that they will inspire us, open doors for us, and that we may tap into their fire on a spiritual level and be made better through that (along with our own hard work). The purpose is different from fandom.
Question 4: What if you have an ancestor who did something particularly egregious (serial killer, Nazi murder, communist, or just plain asshole in the family). What the hell do you do with them?
This is a good, really good question. The answer: It depends. This is the answer for a lot of complicated questions in ancestor veneration: it depends. It depends on your relationship with that person, whether their actions directly impacted you (if you’re a generation or two removed, you can be a bit more objective in many cases). It depends on whether that person showed any shame or regret or desire to make amends in life. It depends on whether one senses that after death. It depends on what they did and how deep the poison runs.
Often it’s healthier to at least perform the occasional elevation for a wicked ancestor, even if you decide not to honor them in any other way, than to allow their poison to go untreated in the line. An elevation is a ritual to heal a damaged ancestor. It can be very hard to do and I always recommend asking one’s entire ancestral line to pray with you as you do what is a nine-day rite. Why would you do this for an evil ancestor? Well, nothing goes away. If an ancestor is hurt or damaged, wounded or wicked, or any other thing good or bad, it bleeds into the entire ancestor line and that has long term, inter-generational consequences. Sometimes it’s better to face that and find a way to deal with it via ancestor work. This can actually help heal multiple generations. I would do this in consultation with a diviner steeped in your own religious tradition. I like to say that it’s statistically impossible that every one of your ancestors was an asshole. It’s also statistically impossible that every single one was an angel. We all have that one ancestor though, so the deeper one goes into ancestor veneration, the more likely it is that we’ll encounter something that requires careful consideration.
I was telling my housemate the story of Beate Klarsfeld (b. 1939) last night. Klarsfeld was German and was very small when WWII ended. She was part of the generation that wasn’t really taught anything about the war or the Holocaust in school. She went to France as a young woman and when she found out what really happened during the war, she was filled with a deep shame and a deeper rage. That rage filled her with a fury that remained unabated her entire life. She became a ferocious Nazi hunter. Among other Nazi war criminals, she and her husband were instrumental in bringing Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, to justice. She wasn’t perfect. She cooperated with East German Stasi to gain information on West German officials’ past activities, but her life was largely dedicated to bringing Nazi war criminals to justice. THIS is one way of beginning to repair an ancestral line tainted by such a terrible thing as a Nazi ancestor.
One doesn’t have to work publicly like Klarsfeld but if you have an ancestor like this, finding a way to give his or her victims a voice and to help them can in turn help repair your own ancestral line. This is not self-serving. An ancestral line that is poisoned and out of balance brings nothing but pain, hatred, and violence into the world. Healing your own ancestral line shuts a door that evil can otherwise use to further damage Midgard.
So, what do you do if you have an ancestor who was a Nazi, a serial killer, a Stalinist, etc.? Or what about just an abusive, violent bastard? Or what if you have a murderer or a rapist? On a small scale, it depends, and saying that can be like bitter ash in the mouth. Still, it’s the truth: it depends. Consult a competent diviner within your tradition. Your other ancestors who were directly harmed by this person may have serious pain and trauma. I usually suggest doing elevations for THEM first before anything else. Then sit down and see what they want? What you are comfortable with? Take your time and consult your elders and diviners. The damaged ancestor may be coming forward in order to try to make amends, to try to fix the damage he or she wrought. (This is not always the case. Sometimes they’re every bit the bastards in death that they were in life, but just as often, they are filled with shame and want to do what they can to repair things. That’s one of the things to figure out. Then, you have to make a decision weighing the pros and cons. I usually suggest an elevation or maybe a series of elevations either way, and then after that, you can decide if you want to work with that person further. If you don’t, there are other rites one can do to cut them out or separate them from the rest of your dead and shun them. If you do, that can be negotiated. It really depends and this is determined on an individual basis. It’s a family thing too: do this in consultation with your other ancestors. Honoring the bad ancestor doesn’t mean you forgive him or her, or that you approve of that person’s choices and behavior. It doesn’t mean that you like that person. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t angry or hurt or [insert emotion here]. It means that you’re making the best choice possible for your spiritual health and that of your ancestral line. Sometimes that choice is to slowly begin elevating, healing, and honoring a particular ancestor. Sometimes it’s to block that person out of your life and line.
There’s no pat answer here. It’s complicated and difficult and often quite challenging.
Question 5: Can pets be included in ancestor veneration?
Absolutely. They are little lives that intersect ours and often make us better people. I have seen animals pray. I absolutely include my deceased pets on my shrine.
Question 6: Can I be heathen even if I don’t have Scandinavian or Germanic ancestors?
Absolutely. The Gods call whom They call. End of story.
Some people are drawn to Heathenry because they have Germanic or Scandinavian ancestry and that becomes a powerful point of connection. That’s ok. Most people find it easier to honor their ancestors first than to approach the Gods (ancestors are concrete. We knew grandma. Gods are harder to conceptualize at first, unless we are blessed with the capacity to sense Them in some way. Not everyone is and that’s ok too). This doesn’t mean that you *have* to have any particular ancestry to honor the Norse Gods (and, as far as ancestor veneration goes: everyone has ancestors. The point is to honor them. It’s not about where those ancestors are from. It’s all good).
Now, the traditions that make up Heathenry are connected to specific lands and cultures. But in the world of our ancestors, that wasn’t as restrictive as we today would make it. What mattered was being respectful and honoring the Gods in ways appropriate to the tradition or cultus. Being part of a community was a matter of sharing that veneration, sharing the same language, customs and laws. It was about acquiring those things, not blood.
It’s cool if one has Germanic or Scandinavian ancestry. That’s great. It’s going to allow one to connect in a particular way to our Gods. But if one doesn’t have that ancestry, that’s ok too. That’s also going to allow for a unique connection and both are equally good. Our sacred stories tell us that our Gods travelled everywhere, engaged with all manner of people, intermarried, had children. They returned home and shared what They had learned. There’s a lesson there that maybe we should take to heart.
I’ve never been a folkish Heathen. There are generally two points on which we disagree theologically: one is veneration of Loki (most folkish Heathens I have met are against His veneration. I fought for 20+ years to normalize His veneration within Heathenry. Those youngsters on tumblr who bitch about how terrible I am would do well to realize that for a very long time I was a lone voice in the wilderness advocating for this God we all love, and without my work, they might find their own veneration of Him a much more difficult thing publicly. But that would be respecting one’s elders and we can’t have that now can we? *sarcasm*). The other is ancestry. I don’t think it matters at all what one’s ancestry is. We’re always going to discover things we find really cool about our ancestry and also things that we don’t like. None of this has any bearing on whether or not one can honor the Norse Gods.
Folkish Heathens think ancestry matters here, and that only those with Norse or Germanic ancestry can honor the Gods (or those adopted or married into the “tribe” so to speak). While I don’t think that Folkish Heathenry equals racism (it doesn’t and eliding the complexities here serves no one), I just don’t agree with them here.
So, if you are not of Germanic or Scandinavian ancestry and feel a pull toward the Norse Gods, go for it. Set up your shrines ,pour out your offerings, pray, develop those devotional relationships and know that you are in perfectly good company. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. You belong just as much as anyone else. Honor your ancestors too. That is our strongest foundation of all.
Finally, I don’t usually receive political questions, but two people emailed me questions the week before last (they were polite, at least the first was, so I took the time to answer):
Question 7: “Why do you hate Marxism so much?”
History. (I could have stopped there, to be honest).
I think it seduces people by pretending to offer a solution to all their woes and then cannibalizes the very people who placed their hopes in it. I think it leads inevitably to socialism and, if left unchecked long enough, communism. I think it is dehumanizing and degrading. It inevitably attacks the family structure, destroys the economy, and leaves little room for individuality or human excellence. I also think it is completely incompatible with any religious or devotional life. Like Nazism (two sides of the same bloody coin in my opinion), I think it is evil.
Our country has many problems to be solved, among them, failing infrastructure, contempt for the aged, lack of medical care, stifling educational debt, racism and misogyny that continue to bubble up to the surface, a poor and broken educational system, to name but a few. The solution isn’t to go to the other extreme to fix the problem. Extremes never work but only cause more damage. Rather than focus on Marxism, we should consider that we have a worthless Congress that has something like an 8% approval rate by its citizens. They control the purse strings and they really don’t care about the human lives that put them in office and allow them the privilege of staying there. Marxism is a misdirection that will never fix the actual problem. It will make everything worse and the very people so ra-ra-ra for it, will – if history is any predictor—be the first against the wall should their Marxist “utopia” ever become reality.
This, btw, is why I am not a supporter of BLM or Antifa. It’s just Marxism under another name. Of course, when one points out that Marxism/Socialism/Communism have never successfully worked (and always have a horrific body count) modern interlocutors will go on about how that wasn’t *real* Marxism. That wasn’t *real* socialism. That wasn’t *real* communism. Theirs, of course will be different. Right. I’m not willing to bet my life on it.
Question 8: Are you a Nazi? (yes, someone actually emailed me and this one sentence was the entire email. Such eloquence. I am astounded *sarcasm*).
No. Read my work. I despise Nazism every bit as much as I despise communism. It was and is evil and destructive. People who resort to calling me a Nazi are doing so because they are too small minded to actually engage with my work, and they want to make sure that no one else takes the time to read what I’m actually saying as well. People that throw this term around don’t like that I’m not pro-left (I’m not actually pro-right either) and they use shock-language to scare people away. Never mind that in doing so, they’re showing tremendous disrespect to those who died under Nazism, and are making light of one of the worst and most horrific expressions of hatred in the 20th century.
Read my work and decide for yourself. You are all capable of doing that. From the beginning of my public writing I have always maintained, without exception, a strong stance against this bullshit when it creeps into our communities. This is precisely why I am pro-free speech.
Finally, someone asked me a question I’d actually never been asked before. That alone prompted me to answer it:
Question 9: Who are your personal heroes?
I had to really think about this. I’ve been lucky to have had extremely good devotional models in my life and the one that stands out the most is my adopted mom Fuensanta. Without her, I don’t think I’d even be alive right now. She taught me more about devotion and honoring the Gods and behaving with integrity than anyone else in my world so if we’re talking personal heroes, she tops the list.
After that, it depends on which area of my life we’re discussing. There are people who have inspired me, but very few that I would honor as heroes or saints. That’s such a special category. I need to think about this question more because it really depends on which “hat” I’m wearing. Are we speaking artistically, academically, spiritually, personally? There are many who inspired me (in ballet for instance when I still danced, I looked to women like Anna Pavlova, Olga Spessivtseva, Marie Taglioni, etc. to teach me the grace and value of sacrifice, pain, and discipline) and often they are honored as part of my work-lineage on my ancestor shrine (as the women I just mentioned are), but I don’t pay them the type of cultus that I would give a “hero” or “saint.” It gets complicated – what, with ancestor veneration doesn’t? I have a lot of historical figures I deeply admire, but hero cultus is something else.
I think that’s it for today. I have a couple more questions but they can wait for a later post. I’ll try to do get that post out in a couple of days. If you’re interested in learning more about ancestor veneration, check out my book here. Or, check out the tags ‘ancestors’ and ‘ancestor work’ here on my blog.
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One of my readers, Coastal Pagan asked a very good question about Ancestor Elevation. It wasn’t one that I’d thought to discuss initially but it’s actually a very good question. Also, when we understand the rituals that we do more fully, we can put more into them, perform them more effectively and that is all to the good.
So, Coastal Pagan asked:
“I’m probably drastically overthinking this, but is there a specific reason why you and others suggest using books for the physical raising parts of Ancestor elevations? I’ve never been thrilled with the idea for a variety of reasons. It’s probably either OCD or scrupulosity on my part, but I worry about the books picking up miasma if the elevation goes poorly or even good contagion if it goes well. I use my books regularly, so either of those things could cause problems. I also have visual processing problems galore, so admittedly the idea of having to figure out if several books are approximately the same size stresses me out a bit, lol. I’ve been thinking of buying several bricks and using them exclusively for Ancestor Work, especially specifically for elevations. I have several Ancestors who were bricklayers or related jobs, and one who was a stonemason but switched to bricklaying when he came to America because there wasn’t much call for stonework here. I have no experience with brickwork myself, but it struck me as way to help my Ancestors be more closely involved in the process by using a medium some of them are familiar with, and struck me as similar to the practice of giving the Ancestors tools or other items to help and work with. I also like the idea of the symbolism of bricks being used to build things, including strong foundations. But then, a lot of the nuts and bolts of religious practices seem innocuous, but in reality, aren’t at all. Is there a reason why books are best?”
I was really thrilled to get this question because while it may seem simple, it’s actually touching on a significant part of the elevation process. So, here is my answer:
Hi Coastal Pagan, Ok. for those not familiar with what you’re asking about, ancestor elevations are an open rite that comes originally from spiritualism, one that has been adopted wholesale by the Afro-Caribbean religious community – a testimony to how effective a ritual it is— but also by ancestor workers in general. l learned it at two separate times from Lukumi practitioners. It is a sequence of prayers done nine nights in a row while working a special type of shrine. You can learn more about the ritual itself here. A caveat about the whole process may be found here. While seemingly straightforward and even simple, this ritual has the capacity to heal, strengthen, and “elevate” an ancestor, helping them to do the work they need to do to become better human beings, better keepers of their line, as well as personally healthy and whole and work like this can actually transform an ancestral line, not just extending that healing forward, but allowing it to flow back in the line as well. That is a very, very powerful process.
Now, as part of the elevation, a shrine to a particular ancestor, the focus of the elevation, is set up on the floor. This shrine should include an picture of the ancestor in question, or names written out on paper if you don’t have photos, or something representing him or her. Prayers are given for nine nights and each night, the picture, name, or token of the ancestor being elevated is physically raised up a little bit more, usually by putting a book or brick under it, adding one more each day.
I firmly believe that the raising up of the picture is there as a visual representation for both the dead and for us of what is happening in the elevation. It sends a powerful psychological message to us, our ancestral house, and most importantly of all the ancestor for whom the ritual is being done, one that really drives home the prayer and devotional process being put into play.
Your question about miasma is also an important one. I cover the books with a white cloth so there is a barrier. Furthermore, I handle that by ritually cleansing everything afterwards. Because I usually use books, I will rekan them with mugwort (smoke them by lighting some mugwort or other cleansing incense and let the smoke run over the books). When I elevate, I use one book each night, usually one that’s about an inch thick. I think using bricks would be absolutely brilliant, not only because that solves the problem of variant sizes, but most especially I think it would be potent for you personally Coastal Pagan, because you had ancestors who were bricklayers, so that’s a nice bit of continuity and connection. Also, it is a perfect representation of a foundation that supports.
I use books because I learned this from two urban Lukumi practitioners and for years I lived in a small NYC apartment. ^_^ I had books. I actually really like the idea of using bricks. It doesn’t matter what you use, so long as the image is visually being elevated daily. Don’t stress if they’re not all exactly the same width and size. The important thing is the actual act of raising up the image or token of your dead. Good question and I’m really glad you asked it!
This question popped up on one of the Asatru forums on Facebook. Many of the answers there were complete nonsense, so I thought I would take a shot here at answering it. The question was, “What would you older Heathens tell newcomers?” I’d be interested in people’s answers here too if anyone wants to chime in. The following are my top five thoughts on the matter.
- Keep the Gods central to your practice. All too often we fetishize the idea of community, to the point that we make the Gods and Their veneration secondary to the social fulfillment of “community.” There is no greater or quicker way to warp a tradition. Living community will come, but if it is not founded on principles of devotion and integrity of practice, what is its point? If community is all you’re looking for, leave our faith alone and go find a LARPing group.
- Read everything. Don’t let anyone tell you what not to read. You are a thinking, reasoning human being. You’re capable of curating your own intellectual world. Read everything you can on Heathenry, both the lore and modern sources. Some of those sources will be utter crap, so consider carefully before you incorporate what you read into your practice, but words won’t actually hurt you and useful information can be found in the most unexpected of places.
- Ignore the assholes. There are many within Heathenry. Usually they are busy attacking the work of people who are actually honoring the Gods and contributing to the sustainable future of our traditions. These people do nothing, are often deluded to the point of obsession, spiteful, hateful little trolls who suck the life out of any space they’re in. They couch their bullying with cries of “oh that person is a nazi” or “we should be concerned about their ethics” (when they have none themselves), or “that’s not Heathen” when in reality they are cowards who have done absolutely nothing of merit for their Gods or their communities. They’re garbage. Treat them as such and move on.
- Don’t forget your ancestors. It doesn’t matter where your ancestors were from. The important thing is that you have ancestors and should be honoring them. Veneration of one’s honored dead, while it can take time to really develop, is the thing that will benefit your devotional and spiritual lives the most. It provides a healthy foundation, a source of protection and strength, and will powerfully augment the venerative work you do with the Gods. It’s fundamental and crucial. It is NOT an excuse for racism and if you think it is, you’re doing it wrong.
- Don’t be afraid to get started. Perfection is the enemy of getting anything done. Don’t let naysayers stop you from throwing yourselves into loving and honoring the Gods. No one has the right to interfere in that relationship. Start where you start, be consistent, and it will work out in the end.
Getting started in a tradition can be exciting but also anxiety-producing and difficult. There are people in the community to whom you can reach out but they can be hard to find. If you are lucky enough to find someone, treat them like gold. Don’t assume that you are entitled to their time or energy. Don’t send long emails before introducing yourself and asking if they’re willing to chat with you. Be respectful. But at the same time, don’t let what someone says put you off honoring the Gods. We’re all coming from our own experience in the community and sometimes that experience can be pretty harrowing. Most of all, work on cultivating virtue and developing yourself as a man or woman of character rooted in devotion to the Gods, ancestors, and good helping spirits. That is what is truly important, not all the drama you may encounter in the so-called community.
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Senneferet asked me a really potent question in the comments section of one of my ancestor posts: “How do you cope when finding out bad information about someone you had previously loved and respected? I know everyone has their flaws, but I feel a bit foolish. (I adored my grandfather and assumed he had a deep love for my grandmother. I recently found out how violent and cruel he was to her and their children. His photo has been relegated to a drawer in my shrine room for the time being.)”
This is such a good question, and I’ll bet that an awful lot of people are in this situation and don’t know what to do. I certainly know that for myself, it was so much, exactly like this, that tripped me up in learning to honor my ancestors when I started out. That’s why I decided to parse this question out and answer it in a separate post. Hopefully, it will be useful to many of you starting out in your ancestor work.
Firstly, I want to say that if this is the situation in which you find yourself, there’s no reason to feel foolish. People are complicated. The person (your grandfather) you may have dealt with either in life or during ancestor veneration is not the person your grandmother endured. Think about how parents can have very difficult and damaging relationships with their own parents, but those self-same parents will watch their own children having wonderful and loving relationships with those [grand]parents. It’s ok to love someone who was flawed, damaged, and even damaging. One can love without supporting the terrible behavior.
In fact, as another ancestor worker once told me: it is categorically impossible to have ancestors who were all wonderful people. Sooner or later, you’re going to encounter one that leaves you aghast. It’s likewise categorically impossible that they were all assholes. Your ancestral house is a mixed bag but they’re yours. I’m also going to say something that probably isn’t popular: just because an ancestor was a complete dick in life, doesn’t mean A) they can’t change and continue to grow when they’re dead and B) doesn’t mean they don’t have your back. That’s…uncomfortable but it is a reality of ancestor work.
I dealt with this situation with my maternal grandfather Roland Isaac H. He had a horrific childhood, which at least helps me understand his later behavior (though it doesn’t excuse it). He also tried to make amends later in life to his children. He was physically and emotionally abusive to my grandmother and his five kids. She divorced him in the fifties when, in the small town in which they lived, this was not common. I remember her telling me once (it’s odd the ancestral stories we carry – my brother, twelve years younger than I, doesn’t know any of this) that for a while after they divorced, he lived rough in the woods near her home and she was always afraid he’d come back. A police officer at the time, frustrated because in the 1950s in rural Maryland there were absolutely no laws on the books that protected domestic abuse survivors, told my grandmother, who herself was a crack shot with a rifle, that if he came back to go ahead and shoot him, but to make sure he was inside the house and facing her when she did. That was the best he could do. Fortunately for all concerned, it never came to that. There was a time, about ten years ago, when I started sensing my grandfather’s spirit strongly, along with the sense that he wanted to help and be an active part of my ancestral house. I also sensed my grandmother was still scared of him. Much divination later, I worked this out. It’s this experience that taught me, more than just knowing theory ever would have done, that it is possible for our dead to continue to heal and grow and that we can be part of that if we wish. So, what did I do?
As an ancestral spirit, Roland was always fine with me and supportive, so acknowledging his behavior to his family and making sure he understood the full weight of the damage he caused, I explained what I was doing and then moved his image to a separate and physically lower place on my ancestral shrine – as far away from my grandmother (his wife) as possible. I did a series of healing elevations for her. Knowing the situation within Roland’s life that contributed to his damage, I then did a series of elevations for him, and then started working doggedly with his mother. That took several years to begin to untangle. I also visited my grandmother’s grave and did venerative work there. I bought a gravestone for Roland, whom I discovered had none, visited his grave and also made offerings to heal and refresh his soul. I tried my best to find where my great grandmother (Roland’s mom) ashes were buried but was unsuccessful so I had memorial masses offered for her (she was Presbyterian but they are kind of low church so I had Catholics do it. Not the best solution probably, but she also wasn’t particularly religious). I visited Roland’s father’s grave and had it out with him too, but also made offerings. (to him and to his mother and father. I really like the way his mom’s spirit feels). I acknowledged them ALL as significant parts of my ancestral line.
Now I could do this because Roland wanted to make amends. If he had still been violent and abusive, I would have cut him off from any veneration, offerings, or acknowledgement. I would have called on my Disir, my ancestral guardians (there always seem to be a couple of female ancestors who step forward to order one’s ancestral house) to assist with this. I would also have called on the rest of my male ancestors to help here as well, because his behavior in life was not honorable as a man. A real man doesn’t work out his emotional damage by beating his wife and children.
No one is obligated to work with an ancestor that was abusive in life. When this comes up, it’s really very situational and I would definitely go to divination. I’d also, however, take one’s own feelings into account. Sometimes, they’re not relevant. We, as adults, often have to do things that are uncomfortable because they are the right things to do. This is called having character. There are many times I don’t feel like making the offering or prayer I said I would for whatever reason, but I gave my word and it is my obligation and privilege to get off my butt and do so, even my body may not be cooperating that day. I do the best I can. This isn’t necessarily one of those situations. The thing is, as long as this lies unaddressed and unacknowledged in one’s ancestral house, the damage keeps on happening. It doesn’t go away – there is no magical place called “away.” Sooner or later, ancestral damage needs to be dealt with and we as ancestor workers, have some small capacity to contribute to the healing of our lines. How that healing is accomplished (whether by prayer, elevation, and engagement or by cutting someone out of the line) really depends on the who, what, when, and why of the situation and on the potential for further harm to the living.
Some spirit workers will talk about ‘ancestral curses’ and yes, these are a thing. They can have many, many causes, but one of them is unresolved trauma and hurt. So, an ancestor worker’s willingness to engage via elevation can retroactively and proactively both, help the entire ancestral line. For most though, this is not an obligation. It is a choice and sometimes, for many reasons, the choice will be to not engage because more damage to the living family, or to their own hearts might ensue. Sometimes even in this case, an ancestor worker will choose to engage rather than allow that to pass on to their children. It’s complicated and messy. Wading into something like this can tear open pain for living family members. I’ve talked before about how really getting into proper ancestor veneration has the corollary that often one’s ancestors (whether one can hear/sense them or not – some develop that sensitivity, some don’t. it’s not a pre-req for ancestor honoring) will push one to deal with one’s living relatives, heal rifts, bring concord and healing there too. Multiply that a thousand-fold where something like abuse is involved. Make the best choice for you and your family living and dead and don’t let anyone make you feel badly about it. Each situation is different and needs to be handled carefully and respectfully by any spiritworker or diviner who becomes involved.
Also, know that no choice you make with regard to honoring or not honoring a particular ancestor is immutable. There may come a time where you change your mind and decide to engage. Perhaps the situation with living relatives has changed. Perhaps a living relative has died. Perhaps other ancestors are requesting it. Perhaps healing has occurred to a degree with the ancestors that were harmed and now thread of wyrd are open that will allow you to cleanly work with the abusive one for his or her healing. No decision you make no is necessarily impossible to change at a later date.
Ancestor work, healthy ancestor work is a balance. There are multiple sides to this process. You’re balancing the needs of the living and the needs of the dead as well as the needs of those who will eventually come into the line. You’re working with your values and ethics and familial loyalties through the lens of your own experience and sometimes deep hurts that have been caused as a direct result of a particular ancestor’s behavior and choices. That’s not easy. It’s never easy though it does become easier with more engagement (partly, I think, because other ancestors will eventually feel empowered enough to step forward and help).
I also wouldn’t assume that an abusive ancestor didn’t love the ancestor he or she abused. I would say instead that maybe that person loved to the best of their ability but were crippled by their own damage. Maybe they just had poor character and were in capable of loving properly. Maybe they were a dozen other things, but I wouldn’t assume that one facet of their nature, good or bad, was all they were. That too, is deeply uncomfortable, even as I sit here typing it. It’s true though. Whatever else they are, good, bad, or indifferent, people are complicated.
So, to finally answer this question, I would go to divination. We’re polytheists and our religions are religions of diviners. This is how it was in the ancient world. This is how it is with unbroken polytheistic traditions, and this is how it can be for us as well. I would seek out someone who understands this sacred art. I don’t think I would do the divination myself because in such a situation I would not be unbiased, and this could make it difficult to read accurately. Strong emotions and involvement skew our readings, and also confirmation bias is a real thing. I would pray to my Gods and healthy ancestors about this and ask for clarity and insight. I would probably (provided this person was also an ancestor rather than a living relative!) begin elevations for the ancestor who was hurt by the abuser. What happens next would depend on a number of factors outlined in this post. There isn’t any hard and fast rule.
For more about ancestor veneration, check out my book “Honoring the Ancestors: A Basic Guide” available here. This book was born out of an online class I taught several times, designed to teach people the basics of good, solid ancestor work. I’m also happy to answer any further questions here.
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.