Reader Question about Ancestor Veneration
Today I woke to an email wherein K.H. asked: why do you still honor ballet dancers if you’re retired. You don’t dance anymore so haven’t you exited the lineage?
This is a good question and it’s not the first time I’ve been asked this or had a similar question arise when teaching about ancestor veneration. The word “ancestor” for us, tends to be polyvalent. It’s absolutely first and foremost our blood ancestors, those from whom we are biologically descended. It’s also any adopted ancestors. For instance, I was legally adopted. My adopted mom is a major ancestor. After that, there are those we consider spiritual ancestors – friends, people who inspired us in our lives, teachers, saints, etc. Some of us may be called spiritually to honor certain groups. I have a good friend who honors “the working girls,” dead who were prostitutes in life. I have an acquaintance who honors the deaf dead. I myself honor the military dead and the castrati as two distinct groups within my ancestral house. I feel called to do this as part of my spiritual work, and I have come to love them dearly. There are also lineage ancestors.
In my House, we honor our spiritual lineage: those who were spirit workers, clergy, shamans, diviners, etc. before us. We also specifically honor those who may have initiated us, or taught us who have died – the latter group first and then the larger, overarching group. This is so important that I even include it in my opening prayer when I sit down to do divination, each and every time.
It’s not just clergy, diviners, or spirit workers et al. who have lineage. When you work in a field, any field, you become part of a lineage and it nourishes the soul and orients one properly to recognize and honor the sacred in all that one does. When I danced, I served the daimon of the art and I became part of a lineage stretching back a thousand years, if not more (because ballet has its roots in a certain type of mime originating in ancient Rome). As an artist, I have stepped into a lineage dating back to the time of our ancestors who lived in caves and made their mark in ochre and charcoal. It doesn’t matter that I never became a great dancer, I belong to that lineage, likewise art and music (I’m studying guitar and have musicians in my family). Even though I am retired from ballet, I am still connected by virtue of the time I danced, to that particular lineage. It is a part of who I am. It always will be. It’s not something that I can excise from my history or my formation. It’s left a deep mark on my character (and I would go so far as to say I was able to thrive as a spirit-worker and maybe even as a priest because of the lessons I learned as a dancer).
It’s true that one may choose, upon retirement or upon leaving a field, to stop honoring the ancestors, the forebears of that particular lineage but I don’t think it’s a good idea to do so. We are who we are, we become who we become via our experiences and the professional lineages in which we work. I have found that those particular ancestors, though related only by virtue of our shared time in a professional field, continue to show interest and to be an active part of my ancestral house. I think for whatever time, however long we worked within a field, we contributed and helped to fortify it and that forever ties us to that lineage. This isn’t a bad thing at all.
For those interested in learning more about honoring ancestors, you should check out the tags here at my blog “ancestors” and “ancestor work” and I’ve also written a book available here.
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Reader Question about Ritual and Self-Care
Today I received the following question from one of my readers. It’s a good question and while I answered privately, I also asked permission to write about it here, which my interlocutor gladly gave. This is something that I think needs to be discussed more, and it’s something my generation of spirit-worker learned the hard way.
Reader Question: How do you handle multiple rituals in a row? I’m exhausted and so glad tonight is the last for a bit or else I’d have to be carried around just for the joint pain management.
This is a hugely important question, especially for those of us with chronic pain. I should point out though that even if someone is in perfect physical health, multiple rituals in a row can also be quite physically grueling. Learning good self-care and management early on in one’s practice can be tremendously helpful and can also ensure that one doesn’t get burnt out or hurt. It’s a longevity practice and that’s important (1).
It goes without saying that as much as possible, getting proper rest, eating healthily (I don’t know any spirit worker who does, but we should lol), and getting moderate exercise forms the foundation for a healthy mind and healthy body in any practice. I won’t belabor this (2). The better physical health we’re in, the easier the work can be (3).
Develop a solid prayer practice – not just a devotional practice (though this is equally important) but specifically a practice of prayer. Ideally it is the first thing we do on awakening, the last thing we do at night, and something to which our hearts and minds turn throughout the day. If we are praying all the time, that’s a start. Now, obviously that’s not just prayer before one’s shrines, but also personal prayer, sometimes set prayers, sometimes recitation of our Gods’ names, etc. There are many, many different ways to pray but learn to do it consistently and well. It is the first and last line of defense, the best of foundations, and a lifeline in times of crises (4). If this is too much trouble, then don’t do the work, don’t expect results, don’t even worry about longevity because you simply won’t have it. This is beyond essential.
Learn the basics: grounding, centering, shielding, cleansing and do them daily. Keep yourself spiritually clean. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass to develop and maintain purification protocols but you will be grateful that you did as you progress. Moreover, be aware of what you allow to take up space in your mind, memory, and thoughts. Yes, this includes popular media. What you do, watch, read, expose yourself to, etc. shapes you. It’s fine (and healthy) to have hobbies and avocations but choose them wisely. They should enhance your practice, reinforce good habits, character, and virtue, and make you a better person, not the opposite. What values are you instilling in yourself accidentally? It’s important to understand that, and I’m sure there’s a gentler way of phrasing this, but that isn’t my strong suite: discipline and courage are key and need to be cultivated, just like you would carefully nurture a seedling into a strong and mighty tree.
Cleanse before and after your workings in whatever way you typically do in your tradition. I tend to use khernips and also to recan (smoke/smudge) with juniper. Do whatever is congruent with your Gods and tradition. This isn’t new. It’s not restricted to my practice. This has been pretty much the standard in ancient polytheisms the world over, especially for ritual practitioners. We’re not inventing the wheel here. Christianity did not invent the wheel either. Prayer and purification do not belong solely to them. Every religion and culture had and has their purification and prayer practices.
Ok, now onto the practical aspects of doing multiple days of ritual. Firstly, in addition to everything I’ve already said, I recommend the following (with the caveat that I am not a doctor. Always check with your doctor before making any changes to your health regimen and/or before incorporating any of the suggestions I give below):
- Stay hydrated. I actually keep rehydration salts in my kit (there are several brands on the market. I personally prefer Liquid IV) for just this reason. Water won’t rebalance your electrolytes as well and sports drinks have a ton of sugar. Rehydration salts are my go-to even if I haven’t been outside. Spirit-work and/or ritual work is WORK. It has an effect on the body. It’s very easy to get dehydrated. I usually drink this twice a day if I’m doing intense periods of ritual.
- Stretch gently before and after rituals – whatever your body can manage. Don’t just jump into it. Prepare yourself physically, which means warming up the muscles and joints. (If there are joint problems, don’t skip your meds. Take your pain killer, take your anti-inflammatory before and especially afterwards. If your joints really get inflamed, take an ice bath – I soak my ankles and wrists in ice water even now when they get bad, or just in buckets of ice). Then wrap up warmly, as warmly as you can stand (5).
- Begin your day with a healthy multi-vitamin. I also recommend Vitamin D, B Complex, Magnesium (and if you get a lot of migraines, Chromium), and quite possibly a natural serotonin supplement. Again, I am not a doctor. Discuss all this with your health care professional. I’m telling you what my experience has been, what I’ve found helpful, and what I suggest to my own students. Yes, I also send their butts to the doctor more often than they would like. Maintenance is essential (6).
- When you’re doing a lot of Work, I also recommend taking Airborne (thank the Gods they make gummies now. The powder or tablets are god-awful) and Emergen-C. Don’t overdue either. Too much vitamin C can give you diarrhea. But when you’ve done an excessive amount of work and you feel like a dried-up shit-stain on the pavement, this can be helpful. It’s my default on heavy ritual days, or if I’m generally feeling run down from the Work.
- If you exhaust your energy channels, psi gifts, etc., if you take in too much energy and overload your ground, if you just overdue it way too much, you can get what I was taught is called a ‘reaction headache.’ This is a headache, often of migraine intensity that nothing will help. Nothing. It’s a horrible, nauseating experience. I was given the following recipe by my very first herbal teacher, a lovely, gnome-like woman named Arcus who used to run an herbal shop in the village in the early nineties and teach on the side, to help both with regular migraines but also with reaction headaches. It’s not the best tasting thing, but it’s not terrible either. Make a tea nightly of equal parts feverfew (for headache), skullcap (for muscle tightness), and oatstraw (for general anxiety) and drink a cup a day. I find it works best when it’s had time to build up in the system. I just gave this recipe to my assistant a couple of days ago, and it occurred to me that it’s not restricted or initiatory material, so I share it here. Again, run this by your doctor.
- Finally, if you can, have an assistant, or some sort of ground crew. You want someone to make sure you eat – and don’t skip this unless fasting is part of your ritual cycle. Make sure you get protein too. You may not want to eat when you’re exhausted from intense ritual cycles but you need to. Have someone make sure you eat, have them monitor your medication – this is especially the case if you take pain medication as it can be terrifyingly easy to take it, forget you’ve taken it – because the pain may not subside for awhile, and double dose. This is how overdose happens. I keep careful note of what I take and when for just this reason. It is also very, very important if you take a medication like insulin where you have to take it regularly AND eat. Also, having someone there as an assistant helps take a tremendous amount of stress off the spirit-worker, magus, ritual worker, priest, etc. They can monitor you, protect the space, make sure you have what you need, etc. You may find your motor-coordination is not the best after seriously intense work. Obviously, your assistant/ground crew person has to be someone sensible, trustworthy, and it should be someone you’ve worked with extensively, so they know how you’re likely to respond. They do not have to be a spirit-worker or even particularly psi-sensitive (and in some cases, beyond the scope of this piece, it’s actually helpful if they’re NOT) but they do have to know how to follow instructions, be mindful of what’s happening, and be willing to forcibly take care of you if necessary, which means he or she has to have a good, focused mind in a crisis (and of course consent for such care is discussed and given before the work begins so everyone knows one’s role, boundaries, and limitations).
To be honest, sometimes just knowing that a particular ritual cycle is going to be exhausting, that you’ll have x, y, z response and then preparing for that as best you can helps. Be gentle with yourself afterwards as intense ritual work, intense spirit, or Deity contact, etc. can leave one feeling raw, frail, and friable. It’s always good to keep a record of your work and how you felt afterwards. Like building a muscle, it does get somewhat easier.
- I think this is why monastic manuals, like John Cassian’s “Conferences” counsel a certain degree of moderation in ascetic practices (of course their idea of moderation is, to modern readers at least, more intense than we might label “moderate.” I think that’s as it should be though. We shouldn’t be lukewarm in our devotion). The idea is that these are tools in a lifelong spiritual, intellectual, and emotional formation. The goal is ongoing and ultimately eternal life with one’s God. This is why I think it’s so important to really know why one is doing an ordeal or a particular ascetic practice: it should be to bring one closer to one’s God, not for any other reason.
- And I myself am hardly an exemplar of it. I would rather push myself until I drop than stop and work in a measured capacity – it’s how I was trained, how my generation of ballet dancer trained, and I’ve carried that over into my spiritual and spirit work.
- If you are a spirit-worker/shaman/orpheoteleste or other specialist, good fucking luck. The work itself, particularly with the levels of pollution and evil that we deal with and fight on a regular basis can cause damage.
- I should note that we ought to pray because it is the right thing to do, but in doing this there will be benefit to us on every level too.
- All of this presupposes that you know your body and the difference between good pain (i.e. a hard work out) and bad pain (i.e. injury). I used to take this for granted having been a ballet dancer, but not everyone has a background where they would have learned this. It is actually part of being a good spirit worker: know your inner landscape mentally, emotionally and learn your body’s limits good and bad.
- Not everyone will find a serotonin supplement helpful and this one definitely has to be discussed with your health care provider. I have found, however, that certain aspects of spirit-work damage the immune system and mess with serotonin levels. I have no idea why. If you have a lot of trouble sleeping, staying asleep, falling asleep, if you have cravings for foods high in serotonin after Working then maybe discuss this with your doc.
A Reader’s Question about Freya and Her Cats
From Katherine B.: What are the names of Freya’s cats?
Normally, I would have answered this one privately and moved on with my day, but I’ve been seeing erstwhile answers to this question cropping up lately and they’re just wrong. This mildly annoys me and so, I figured I’d answer the question here. The answer is simple too: we don’t know.
Firstly, we don’t even know how many cats Freya has, and we certainly don’t know their names.
I have seen two answers posited, but both are assumptions not anything drawn from extant lore.
The first is that Her cats (and both answers assume She only has two) are named after Her daughters Hnossa and Gersimi.
The second is that they’re named Beegull (bee-gold, i.e. honey) and Tregull (tree-gold, i.e. amber). This is not in the lore. It’s from a series of fiction novels written by Diana Paxson, who is Heathen. These names likely have traction partly because of that, and partly because they represent two things that are sacred to Freya as well. Still, nowhere in the surviving lore do these names, as the names of Freya’s cats, exist.
I should also note that the names Diana Paxson gave are also used in a very sweet children’s book, which is a lovely way to encourage young kids to think about the Gods and to start learning devotion. There’s creative license, however, inspired by devotion, in this case to acclimate children to our Gods, and then there’s actual lore-based knowledge. It’s important to know the difference. (1).
Freya’s cats are supernatural, powerful beings that are part of Her retinue. They are part of Her mysteries, and knowing Their names is a privilege, one probably reserved for those initiated into Her mysteries if even then – Their names are part of these Beings’ power. Her cats are cats but also “Other”– just like Auðumla is a cow, but so much more. To even say they are “cats” as we conceive of them is somewhat questionable and I’ve known those devoted to Freya who saw very large felines, much larger than housecats in their contemplations of Her. I’ve seen regular cats, lynx, other large predatory cats (cougars, lions), Norwegian forest cats, and even wolverines suggested by Freya’s folk. The answer is we just don’t know and as with any Holy Being, maybe They choose how They appear to our limited vision. What we can assume is that They are creatures of power, part of Her retinue, and perhaps we can learn much by considering why cats are so clearly Her creatures in our tradition.
On an only slightly related note (because cats lol), here is a video about Manul cats. They are awesome. If I ever see one, I will probably die having been bitten to death because I will not be able to resist petting it. LOL. .
- There’s no issue if one agrees, based on one’s own devotional experience, that “Beegull” and “Tregull” are the name of two of Her cats, but were I writing about that, I’d footnote exactly this: “no names are given for Freya’s cats in the surviving lore, but drawing on the work of Diana Paxson (and I’d note which works), some Heathens believe Her cats are named Beegull and Tregull.” Then I might note whether or not I agreed with this on my own devotional practice. Personally, I’ve never been given any names for Her cats, but She is not one of my primary Deities. Though I honor Her regularly, I don’t carry Her mysteries.
Q&A About Spirit-Worker Aftercare
Yesterday, one of my students asked me how to handle the spirit-work “hangover.” For those who do spirit-work, this is when you have had nothing alcoholic, but have done a ton of spirit work (especially where one’s wod is running hot and strong) and then wake up the next morning feeling like you’ve been hit by a freight train. This may include but is not limited to sore muscles, headache, dehydration, brain fog, general feeling of exhaustion even when one has slept well, inability to regulate body temperature, irritability, extreme sensitivity to taste/smell/sound/brightness, nausea and, if one has been dealing with a great deal of spiritual pollution, diarrhea (I think it’s the body’s way of getting rid of residue of spiritual pollution). They don’t all happen at once usually, though they can, and it varies by degree depending on the person, the Deities involved, and the type of work done.
To some degree, this is just a part of the Work; BUT, one can mitigate this by good self-care before and after whatever spirit-work one is doing. Experience is also a strong mitigating factor. We learn how we work best, what we need for optimal performance and care, and also, like building a muscle, our capacity to handle wod also increases as we gain more practice and experience. All of these things contribute to longevity in the Work.
One of the reasons I’ve started writing these “practicum” posts is that when I started out, there was almost nothing available. Those of my spirit-work generation had to cobble together information as we went, often by trial and error. I try to spare my students that and when I can, likewise my readers. I will also preface everything that follows by saying that I am not a doctor or a medical professional. You should always check with your doctor before adding a new vitamin or regimen to your regular self-care. What I write here is no substitute for competent medical care. I’m writing what I have learned based on my lived experience, shared exchanges with other spirit workers, and research. Your own mileage, as the saying goes, may vary.
Firstly, spirit workers are dealing with raw power – like plugging into an electrical socket. That can leave one’s psychic channels raw until one develops a bit of endurance. Half the modifications a spirit-worker receives from his or her Deities are designed to help that person better carry and use that force, what we term wod. For me, when my wod rises, I become hot, really hot to the point that I can work outside in subzero temperatures in a t-shirt. That is, unless the dead are around me and then, no matter how warm the room, I become really, really cold. Remember what I said above: it depends in part on what Gods and spirits are around or participating in the Work? This is an example of just that. Learning to carry wod is just like building a physical muscle in that the more one experiences, practices, and works, the great that person’s capacity for handling wod with few side effects becomes. Few doesn’t mean that one will be 100% fine though afterwards. There can still be discomfort the next day (though I suspect spirit workers’ general disregard for their own self-care post Work contributes greatly to this). It’s a matter of degree.
A few things to note: All the altered state work that spirit-workers do can cause neurological issues. (Again, not always, but it’s not rare either in our line of work). Journey work tends to weaken the immune system (no idea why but poll real spirit workers and you’d be surprised at how often this is an issue). Spirit work, especially when the wod is running high, can seriously screw with your serotonin levels. So, here is what I do afterwards to make sure that I can get up the next day and do it all again (or just function more prosaically for school).
Firstly, it helps to have assistants or colleagues. If someone else is warding the space with prayer and power for instance, then the spirit worker can focus fully on whatever it is that needs to be done. (Just be sure that if you have the luxury of a partner, assistant, or colleague to ward for you in this way most of the time, that you also establish strict protocols for warding and protection when you must work alone). The one warding can also keep an eye on the spirit worker to make sure he or she doesn’t get dehydrated or overheated in summer, or hypothermic or frostbitten in winter (it’s entirely possible for the wod to be so strong, or the spirit worker so focused, that he or she might not know this is happening, this is all the more so if we’re working in the spirit realms while our bodies are here. One’s assistant can also make sure one eats and drinks after the Work. Often a spirit worker won’t want to do these things, even though we all know better than to skip it. A good assistant will force the issue. Most of my winter garb is heavy wool, which is a godsend in harsher temperatures. The only thing I tend to forgo (or more likely forget) is gloves and let me tell you, carrying an iron staff in twenty degree (Farenheit) or lower temperatures over ice and snow without gloves because you’ve been stupid and forgotten them, really, really sucks.
Here’s what I do after a serious session of Work. Firstly, if I’ve been working out in the cold, I get hot tea. If I’ve been working out in the heat, I’ll drink rehydration salts (I like the brand Liquid IV and keep them in my kit). If I’ve been working inside, I go for something with caffeine. This latter is personal preference. I make sure to eat something high in protein (the night before a working I’ll have a meal slightly heavier in carbs but will also protein load the day of if I can). Often, because of the issues with serotonin, I’ll often crave chocolate after a Working, so I keep some in my kit. By the way, I will often drink rehydration salts before a particularly intense working just as a preventative.
I make sure that I’m warm (and if I have an assistant, I’ll make sure that he or she is taken care of properly in all of these ways as well. It’s a privilege to have an assistant – be it a colleague or a student that one has trained. I treat it as such, and my obligation is to make sure that this person is well taken care of after any working that we do. This is especially the case if one’s assistant is less experienced and therefore will naturally have less endurance but also less awareness of when he or she is reaching his/her limits. It’s not always apparent. If you have an assistant, you are responsible for them in all ways before, during, and after the Work). Often, I’ll put on a fleece vest to keep my core warm because when the woddissipates, I get really cold. In fact, I’ll make sure that I change out of my gear and garb immediately after the work is done and I get into comfortable, WARM, and totally mundane clothing, though I’ll tend to keep my head covered (cuts down on spirit-related stimuli). Changing out of ritual garb and gear helps with the psychological transition from work-headspace to mundane-headspace. I also take some time to center myself and make sure I’m still properly grounded.
Once I’m in comfortable clothing and have drinkage, I’ll eat. Then, both the night of the work AND the next day I take the following (again, don’t just do this. Check with your doctor if you plan on something like this. I am not a medical professional): a good multi-vitamin, magnesium, extra vitamin D, B12 (most of this I take daily anyway), Emergen-C, Airborne gummies, and an iron supplement (I like Floradix iron and herbs liquid). I also take a serotonin booster called Genius Joy and a brain enhancer (I need all the help I can get lol) called Genius Mushrooms. Before I got to bed and again, when I first get up if my head hurts at all, I’ll usually take a dose of Excedrin or Advil (depends on if my head hurts or if I feel the type of joint pain that indicates I need an anti-inflammatory – def. check with your doctor about these two OTC medications. If I am really, really headachy, I’ll take my migraine medication rather than Excedrin). I was dubious about the serotonin supplement, which I take daily, but I actually sleep well now, which is the first time in years that has been the case. I haven’t noticed any other effect except when I lay down to sleep, I actually almost immediately go to sleep, and I sleep deeply. That’s one of the supplements I tend to take daily now.
Because I have chronic pain issues, which can be exacerbated by spirit work, I also take my prescription medication, particularly muscle relaxant and pain killer. Do not skip your prescription meds when doing spirit work, people. If you think you might forget, set a reminder, or have your assistant or spouse or friend remind you.
It is important to get a good night’s sleep after doing intense spirit-work and if you have to, I suggest taking a sleep aid like melatonin (just be warned: you can get some seriously funky dreams on this supplement. I don’t take it for that reason). The reason, even when exhausted, that it may be difficult to get to sleep after a major Working is that the mind is often flying all over the place. It takes time to decompress and bring one’s mental energies down to a dull roar. That’s normal, but unless you can afford to sleep in really late the next morning, force the issue. Take warm milk with honey, take melatonin if your doctor permits, do whatever you have to do to get your butt to sleep.
I try to allow myself to sleep in the next day, though this is not always possible. Even if I don’t want to, I eat some protein. I make sure to run through all the basic centering and grounding exercises and I take it easy if I can. If I have to leave the house, I will wear protective charms and keep my head covered (very spiritually protective). Ideally though, I am able to rest most of the next day. The work really does teach one how to do it though, and the more experience one gets, the less downtime one needs. Still, there will always be those really intense workings that knock you on your butt. Getting into good self-care habits early on and never really allowing yourself to deviate from them too much, makes the whole process much easier down the line and by easier, I mean easier on you, the spirit worker and your body.
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A Brief Discussion of Spiritworker Taboos
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.
Miscellaneous Roundup of Questions and a Couple of Interesting Links￼
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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Reader Question: Do You Say Grace Before Meals?
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.
Reader Question on Prayer
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.
A Reader Question on Prayer
Question: I have a copy of your little booklet of polytheistic prayers, several of which, you say, come from your personal prayerbook. I was hoping that one of these days you might write about the process of creating that prayerbook. Is it a handwritten book, a Word file, printouts and clippings, organized, disorganized? How did you start and how did it evolve over time? Anything you’d be willing and allowed to share.”
I do have a handwritten prayer book that I illustrated myself. It’s pocket sized and I made it when I was traveling quite a bit. I’ve since typed up most of those prayers, added quite a bit more to make it useful for all the rites and rituals that we customarily do as a House, and printed that up in larger format for myself and other members of the House. It contains all the prayers in the two small prayer books I sell on etsy, other prayers that we use for protection, exorcism, and cleansing, prayers and rituals for the holy days, funeral prayers, birth/blessing prayers, daily prayers like a couple that I’ve posted here (like the four-fold Adorations to the House of Mundilfari) and so forth. For awhile, I was printing up each set and stapling it as it became something we began to use more and more, but I got tired of having multiple print outs all over the place. So, once I collected everything in a single file, I had it printed in a little book with 25 blank pages at the back so we can all add personal prayers we like or make notes. Every six mos or so I reprint it with new material added as well. It’s a work in progress. I’ve shared some of the prayers on my blog but that book is not something I’m willing to share publicly.
We use this book and then Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheistic Household for our regular day to day, as well as any prayers we might say extempore. Then I have a separate book with all my divination systems and prayers for those.
I DO recommend creating your own handmade prayer book if you can. It’s a lovely devotional offering. It doesn’t have to have every single thing in it. You can make small, very focused prayer books. I made one with just a few prayers as an offering to Mani. You don’t have to learn bookbinding either! You can stitch the pages together and stitch fabric covered squares of cardboard onto that as a cover. Decorate it as you will. There are many, many tutorials on youtube or just online in general that will give you plenty of suggestions. If you do know bookbinding, go to town. It’s on my list of things I want to learn but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
My prayer practice has certainly evolved over time. I was really lucky to have grown up in a religious family. I think for those who didn’t have good devotional models when they were small, this whole thing of prayer, devotion, and praxis can be really difficult. One’s default isn’t piety if one wasn’t raised in a household – be that religious upbringing good or bad – where piety was practiced (again, however well or poorly; though if it was a religiously abusive household, that causes problems all its own beyond the scope of discussion in this particular blog post). It’s like working a muscle: if the muscle wasn’t worked as a child, it atrophies. This isn’t insurmountable. It just means that one has to be aware of one’s default state-of-being a little more than someone raised religious. Don’t worry, those raised religious have other issues that they have to guard against. No none gets any type of free ride with this stuff.
So, I was lucky to have grown up in a religious household and also to have had really good devotional models available to me from the time I was small. I was surrounded by people who prayed in some form or another. I didn’t give that up when I became a polytheist. In fact, if anything, my prayer practice became stronger. I’ve seen the results of that in my own devotional life. I think prayer is crucial. It’s the single best starting point one can have and I often suggest shrine and prayer work simultaneously when one is starting out as a good place from which to begin. I would go so far as to say there isn’t a more important tool in our arsenal than prayer. By that I mean set prayers, formal prayers, extempore prayers, informal prayers and everything in between. One of my former students once brought me a quote (I don’t recall at this late juncture where she found it): “Pray as though your hair were on fire.” I like that image. Of course my more literalist readers had to point out how illogical the saying was, but it’s the intensity, the need, the frenzy of the thing that appeals to my Odinic heart. Pray as though it’s the most important thing you will ever do, because it is.
It never occurred to me until quite recently that not everyone grows up learning to pray. I’ve taught within my religious community for over two decades and usually, during that time, I would be meeting quite regularly with students and holding regular rituals and they’d be seeing prayer in action all the time they were around me or others in the House. It’s only recently, when I acquired an apprentice who was raised atheist (in a communist country to boot), one who wasn’t shy about saying, “how do you do that?” (because she wanted to know and learn!) that I realized I can’t take this as a given. Should it be? Yes. I think ideally we should all be raised in communities where we pray to the Holy Powers as easily as we breathe, but we’re not there yet. In fact, in our society these days, prayer is actually quite often viewed as something negative. At least if it’s treated with indifference, you can start with a clean heart, a clean/blank slate. Many coming into our religions don’t even have that these days.
I realized that if one didn’t grow up doing this, prayer of any sort can be anxiety-inducing (one wants to do it correctly!), embarrassing (one never sees others praying in the mundane world), confusing (am I doing it right?) and a plethora of other things. I tell people that prayer is talking to the Gods and giving Them space to answer (maybe not in words, but in ways that fill and transform a life). It’s communication and just like communication is key to building strong human relationships, so too it is key to building strong devotional ones. I usually recommend time spent extempore in front of one’s shrine, but balanced with a few simple set prayers (like, for instance, “Sigdrifa’s Prayer”). I also give a handful of meditational exercises to help still the mind and begin teaching discernment in one’s practice.
Over the years, there have been certain books that have reinforced or helped to shape my prayer practice today. Most of them are Christian since I study early Christian theology academically. That’s ok. Prayer is the thing that crosses all religious boundaries. The earliest known recorded prayers were, I believe, by a Sumerian priestess Enhenduanna. This is a practice that belongs to neither polytheism nor monotheism but fills every religious tradition with life. Recently, I read “Courage to Pray” by Metropolitan A. Bloom and George Lefebvre and I recommend it without reservation. Yes, eventually you have to filter out the specifically Christian scriptural material but so what? Do it. The information on prayer in this book is extraordinarily helpful. Likewise Evagrius “On Prayer” and Cassian’s “Conferences.” The latter is much more monastic in its focus so read it and take what you can use. I have cannibalized libraries like this in order to learn to love my Gods better.
Prayer is also the thing that provides the best and most essential protection from the gaping entropic evil that pits itself against all that is holy. If you don’t pray, if you can’t pray, if you refuse to pray, you are a weak link, and a danger to pious people around you. You’re also a danger to yourself and you can fix it so easily by actively reaching out to the Gods. It doesn’t matter how falteringly you pray. Just do it, fumble through it. We all fumble. We all feel awkward sometimes with it. But prayer shapes and forms the mind, the heart, the soul in ways that make us receptive to the Gods, the Good, and the Holy. It’s essential. It is a spiritual vaccination. Take the shot.
Formal prayers often trip people up. By formal, I’m thinking set prayers like the Catholic “Hail Mary.” There’s a set text that doesn’t vary and one says that text whenever one says the prayer. It’s very, very easy for these set prayers to become stale or even worse: mindless repetition rattled off at the speed of light. This isn’t their purpose. Rather, they serve three purposes (and maybe more, but three come to mind at the moment I’m writing this). Firstly, they’re a good baseline. When you can do nothing else, when your exhausted, your brain is fried, you’re pissed off at the Gods, you’re having a bad pain day or any other reason that might make it hard to pray freely, you can reach for one of these prayers (hopefully committed to memory through regular use) and it’s *something*. There is that. Secondly, in a ritual setting, a set prayer allows everyone there to participate, hitting the same devotional groove. Songs are like this too, which is why we should all probably envy the Catholics for their hymnals! We really should be upping our game there. Thirdly, set prayers allow the mind to constantly be filled with prayer, which keeps the whispers of evil out. It allows one to contemplate the Gods’ mysteries, Their sacred stories, to wander off in the heart of a word, a byname that opens up an entire devotional universe. Each word is a window, each whispered syllable the turning of a key in a lock opening wide the gates of this world, our world, our interior world to our Gods. Informal, extempore prayers can do this too but there’s something really helpful in having a verbal scaffolding, rooted in our cosmology, already prepared within which the contemplations of our minds might unfold.
I find there can be a great deal of push back against the idea of prayer in Heathenry. This is partly because too many Heathens allow atheists to take up space in their kindreds, and worse, to take up leadership positions. Get your Houses in order.
This is partly because some have been raised in abusively fundamentalist households. This is sad. This type of religious abuse doesn’t just damage heart and soul, but it also makes it very, very difficult to develop a loving devotional relationship with any holy Power. I wish for those in this situation compassion and that they find teachers, mentors, elders, and therapists who know how to help them through the pain and into the joy of clean, healthy devotion.
Sometimes, though, this is partly because people claim to be Heathen but just don’t want to deal with the Gods or ancestors. These things make nice abstractions, nice stories in a book but the reality scares the hell out of them (or for many does what’s worse: inconveniences them) and they just don’t want to be bothered. Shun these people like the plague. We choose devotion every day. It’s a conscious choice. It is a willing, often difficult choice that has to be made again and again and again and if someone isn’t willing to make that choice, or is consistently hostile toward the even the idea of making that choice, they’re not Heathen, they’re not devout, and they’re sure as hell not spiritually healthy. In fact, they are spiritually ill in a way that is polluting and contagious to everyone around them. We make spiritual choices about everything we do, everything with which we fill our minds, and everyone with whom we associate. They count. Part of developing devotionally is learning to make healthy choices. We need to have the courage to do that even with the small things.
Someone asked me once if we’re really meant to be praying 24/7. Um…yeah. I think so. That is the goal. What does that mean? Well, for me, part of my mind and heart is always reaching out to the Gods in devotion. I may not be murmuring prayers, but part of me is always thinking about Them, engaging in some way devotionally. When I’m not doing that, I try to center everything I do, even the small tasks through the lens of my devotional world. I fail at this a lot but it is the goal and when I fail, I pick myself up, center myself, and start again. When I can pray more obviously (say I’m sitting a home or on the train) I’ll use prayer beads or sometimes just do so extempore. I’m nowhere near 24/7 but I hold it up as a goal. It reminds me to strive. I may not reach that goal, but by aiming for it, I’ll go far more deeply into devotion than I otherwise might have done. That’s the thing with devotion: aim high and just plug away consistently at it. It’s the consistency that matters, not whether we reach the goal (and as an Odin’s woman who is very results oriented, that just about kills me to say, though it’s true). Some days will be better than others but the one thing that costs nothing, that is fully within our power no matter where we are or what we’re doing is prayer. We need only the will or maybe the courage to do it, the desire to reach out. Beyond that, there’s a lovely Baltic proverb with which I’ll end this piece: “The work will teach you how to do it.” One could say, as the Havamal does, “one word leads to another word, one deed to another deed.” The best starting point is prayer.
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A Week’s Worth of Questions
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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