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Month: December 2013

20
Dec - 13

Long Dark Solstice of the Soul

Two years ago on the Winter Solstice, I took a leap of faith that cost me everything. It took me a long time to write about this, because it’s personal and a bit raw and embarrassing, and because it doesn’t make anyone look good.

I was in the dark for a long time, when I look back on it. But you see, and this is why I’m telling this story, you don’t realize it at the time – you’ve been in the dark so long you think you’re just blind, or that’s all the light there is. Dim, dreary, fumbling amongst shadows, knees skinned to bleeding, exhausted but still upright and stumbling along. That was me. I forgot life could be any brighter than that.

I should explain. I’m that girl who thinks she can handle anything. I grew up a tomboy, grew up wilderness camping with my dad and wandering the woods outside our mountain house alone. I learned hammer and nailgun and socket wrench and tire iron. Because I didn’t want to be a helpless female. I admired Disney villainesses and adventurers and heroes and serial killers. Queen Boudicca and Joan of Arc were my heroes. You can’t scare me.

In my late 20’s and my 30’s, I was living the strong-woman life. I was the breadwinner in my marriage. I was involved in leadership in my spiritual community, I had students, I had co-founded a Pagan sanctuary, built a stone henge, hell, built an empire almost. I was a priestess of a war Goddess and talking to the world about autonomy, strength, courage, warriorship, sovereignty. But I was in the dark and running blind.

Art by Aunia Kahn

This is the part where I have to bite the bullet and tell it to you straight out. I was busy showing the whole world how strong, independent and powerful I was, and all the time I was living a lie because I was living with a verbally and emotionally abusive partner, and I was letting myself be bullied, belittled, tormented, controlled and undermined every day. I was eggshell-walking around the rage triggers and justifying it to myself. I was appeasing and apologizing, promising to change myself and become better. I was apologizing just to stop the fighting even when I didn’t think I was being the crazy one, until after a while I was so used to being wrong that I didn’t know what to think, and maybe he was right and I was the crazy one. The confidence I displayed to everyone was a lie. I was deep in the dark. For years.

And I stayed there that long because I was tough, goddamnit. I could handle this. I could not fathom the idea that I could be that pathetic woman who stays with an abuser. That could never happen to me. This was something else. It wasn’t abuse, we just had a really dynamic, fiery partnership. I was a strong, independent woman. And that is why I’m telling this story now. Because strong women have this blind spot and I have now seen it a couple more times in friends of mine. Our self-image as strong women who wouldn’t put up with that leads us straight into the trap.

I was deep in the dark and I stayed there for years, stumbling along. Honestly, I have no idea if I would have saved myself, or how long it would have taken me. What happened is that two years ago, She stepped in.

People who work with the Morrígan have observed that starting in about late 2010 or early 2011, She started to get more active and more insistent with Her priests. That aligns with what happened to me. I had been a dedicated devotee for over a decade at that point, but something big shifted in 2011 and She started wanting more from me. I struggled all that year to understand what She wanted, to step up, to deepen my service, but I felt profoundly confused and in the dark, struggling to translate and visualize what I was supposed to do. My narrowed, starved sense of self no longer had the imaginative capacity or the courage to visualize the horizons She was trying to push me toward. I simply could not imagine being the person who would do the things She was showing me.

Late in 2011, I think She must have got impatient with me, because the visionary possessions and intense dreams kicked in, She sent a long-estranged old flame who was also Her priest to remind me what human interaction should look like, and when I still wasn’t listening, She turned to fits of simply screaming inside my skull. And, you know, I’m not actually stupid, and I finally did get the message. The message landed in mid-December, after a particularly brutal episode of traumatic verbal rage from my partner, which broke through my protective prison of denial with the realization that I’m NOT the crazy one. THIS is crazy. And the next time I was at my devotions, She was there, and huge, a presence as still as the pillars of the earth and as undeniable, and She said, CHOOSE. You cannot be My vessel and do My work while you are selling out your sovereignty. I require a vessel with structural integrity. You need to choose: stay broken, or be whole and do My work.

The long darkness finally broke and the light came streaming in. On the eve of the Winter Solstice, I made a commitment to Her and to myself. I committed to honoring Her in my own sovereignty, and to reclaiming my integrity. I made a pact that starting on the Solstice, I would give myself three months until the Equinox to renegotiate my life in alignment with my sovereignty and my needs, but if it could not be so realigned, I would get out. By Equinox, I would be my own being again and free to do Her work, whatever that cost me.

I am here to tell you that it cost me everything, and it was the best bargain I ever made. Over the next year, I turned my entire life inside out. I used to joke to friends that the Morrígan ate my life… but I wasn’t really joking. I dissolved my marriage, moved from remote wild mountain to city, lost my job, started an entire new career, started a business, and founded a priesthood of the Morrígan. Most of 2012 is a kind of hurricane in my memory. And I would do it all again if I had the same choice given to me. I have never been happier, healthier, freer, or felt more solidly in line with my life’s purpose.

Why did I tell this very personal story on my very public blog? Well, because it’s the Solstice and it’s on my mind. But also, because like I said earlier, I think that the trap I fell into can happen to a lot of us, and not just women, either. And the more we don’t talk about it because it is embarrassing to us, or because we don’t want to make our partner/abuser look bad, the more there is a culture of silence about it, the more that blind spot can operate to hide the trap. One of the reasons I did wait this long to talk about it is because I still share a lot of friends with my former partner, and I’ve felt uncomfortable about making him look bad or poisoning those friendships for him. But you know, this happened to me. To us. It was real, and I doubt he is any more glad of it than I am. And I don’t think people like him who find themselves becoming abusers are helped by the culture of shame and silence either. He is not a monster, he is an evolving human being like the rest of us, and he got lost in the dark too.

And the other thing I want to share from this is about courage and destiny. Meeting your destiny may cost you everything else. And my friends, if my case is illustrative at all, it is WORTH EVERY PENNY. Not every risk that comes your way is destiny calling you. But if you find yourself huddled up inside, in the dark; if you find yourself wondering how you ended up here because it doesn’t feel like your story; if you find yourself turning from opportunity because I can’t, I could never do that, not me… then start looking for a risk. Start looking for something that terrifies the fuck out of you, because that terror is your calling, it’s the light breaking in. And above all, if your Gods offer you a hand, take it. Take the risk, do not look back, do not worry about the cost or what you might lose because there is nothing, nothing, nothing worth letting your soul die in the dark for. And because stepping on the path of your destiny is a life-affirming act, and the Gods love a courageous heart, and the life force will answer and rise in you, and something new will rise and take the place of whatever you have to let go of when you take that leap.

Blessed Solstice to you, and may the light of courage always return for you.

12
Dec - 13

Gods with Agency: Ritual theory for polytheists

Here and there I’ve been part of an ongoing conversation about ritual theory for Pagans. It’s got me thinking about some patterns I observe in many Pagan rituals, and I ended up coming back around to another conversation thread, the one about polytheism and humanism and whether or not we think the Gods are objectively real, or archetypal constructs, or whatever.

Here’s the question that keeps coming up in my mind when I’m following these discussions:

How would you do ritual if the Gods were real to you?

Because I am a polytheist, and the Gods are quite real to me. And as a result it becomes jarring to me when I’m seeing a ritual that is obviously built around the people in the room rather than the Gods that were named, and where things were clearly proceeding without reference to whether or not the Gods actually showed up. Some of them are mistakes I’ve made myself in my learning process.

So here are my thoughts and observations about this.

Deity flavor-of-the-month.

OK, you’ve decided to have a ritual in which you’re going to call upon a particular God or Goddess, because Their sphere of influence makes sense for your ritual purpose, and you want Their help, or you just figure invoking a God is part of your ritual structure so you’re supposed to pick one. So you dig up some ideas about what They like, and you call Them on in. Assuming that because this is Their sphere of influence, They’re going to help you, even if you’ve never contacted Them before. Assuming that because you’ve brought an offering that the books say They like, that They’re going to accept your offering and work for you. I know, this is 101 stuff, but it still goes on and I’ve seen it recently enough to still feel annoyed by it. It would be analogous to deciding that you want to publish a novel, and it would be really cool if Neil Gaiman would help you accomplish that, because hey, that’s what he does, so you call him up on the phone and invite him over to your house and expect him to not only show up, but knuckle right down to help you with your novel. And then saying, “And we’re serving your favorite kind of pie!” as if that seals the deal. Never mind that he’s never heard of you, and you might need to do a little more preparatory work to, you know, establish a rapport with him, maybe have coffee together or something before you expect him to be showing up at your house to hang out with you and fix your problems.

Friends, this is what devotional work is for. Do that first. Privately. When the deity is showing up for you regularly and engaging with you, that’s when it might be appropriate to invoke them in a public ritual.

Invocations.

This might be the big one. I have been to so many rituals in which the invocation is given, and then the ritual just proceeds immediately forward as though nothing had happened (or as though something is assumed to have happened). Someone speaks some poetic words, but always of a comfortable length so that nobody starts to get fidgety. Or maybe a chant is used, and a few rounds are sung, enough to get everybody comfortable with the words and singing, and then the chant is brought to an end safely before anybody might start to get bored, and the ritual moves on to its next planned action. As though it can just be assumed that once we’ve given the invocation, the Gods are there and on board. I can’t help thinking people who conduct ritual this way aren’t really looking for an Other presence to enter the room – what they are really looking to do is to conjure the image and idea of the deity in the minds of the human participants. And I think what that means is the Gods aren’t real to them.

What would we do in our invocations if the Gods were real to us? We wouldn’t just be performing the invocation, we would be at the same time actively feeling, sensing, and listening for the Gods to arrive. We would keep singing, keep speaking, keep calling to Them for as long as it took to bring Them in. We would build our ritual skills toward facilitating passion in participants for this kind of calling, rather than letting the energy die down after one peak when it naturally wants to, and letting that be our cue to end the invocation. We would train our senses to be able to recognize when They have in fact arrived, and that would be our cue to move to the next stage of the rite, inviting Them along with us. We would be orienting our action in ritual at least as much toward communication with the Presences we’re trying to conjure and work with, as toward the human participants. As a community, we would study focus and patience, would be willing to keep the magic rolling instead of getting bored if it doesn’t progress on the same time scale as the plot of a 40-minute TV show. Have you had a look at some indigenous devotional ritual? A lot of those people are willing to sing and dance all night long if they have to. In my experience, if you’re good at your job (and if you did your devotional prep work; see above), it’s not usually going to take all night. But it might take longer than half a dozen rounds of your chant, and if you think the Gods are real you shouldn’t hang up the phone until they answer.

Hospitality

When we call a God into our rite, are we treating Them like a living being we’ve just invited into our house? Offering them hospitality, comfort, respect? I have seen so many rituals where the next step after the invocation is immediately to direct the attention of the deity and the participants to the working of the rite. To me this is the equivalent of inviting someone over, and as soon as they walk in the door, saying, “Great, you’re here. Now get to work.”

What do we do when we have a respected guest in our house? We talk to them. We take their coat, offer them a space to become comfortable. We say “It’s great to see you. Can I get you anything? What’s happening in your world?” before pushing ahead to the business at hand. We should be making the religious equivalent of this a standard part of our rituals. In terms of ritual theory, this means a few things. It means giving offerings when They arrive, as an act of hospitality, not one of propitiation or request. It means making space in your ritual for Them to communicate with you, not just for you to communicate with Them. And making space for that communication to be what They want it to be, not one that you have scripted.

If you’re invoking the God or Goddess into a priest, for all that is holy, don’t give them a script to recite. Let. Them. Speak. Yes, this means needing to be able to rely on the skill of that priest at being able to carry the God and channel Their voice. (Don’t call the Gods into priests who haven’t been taught to do this, and practiced it.) Yes, this means the unexpected may happen. The Gods might decide to take your ritual on a detour to unplanned places. You might have to roll with it, do some priesting-on-the-fly, carefully weaving whatever the Gods brought you back into the ritual. You might have to think on your feet, responding to and engaging with the God that is present with you, instead of the static one in your ritual script. If that idea is terrifying to you, if you are unwilling to allow for the possibility of your ritual changing in the hands of the Gods, then what you’re doing isn’t religion and isn’t magic, but is in fact just theater.

A lot of practitioners don’t do invocation into human vessels. Some for exactly those reasons – fear of the unexpected. Some don’t do it because they don’t have access to appropriately trained priests who can handle doing that. Some don’t do it out of concern that it is dangerous to the priest acting as vessel (it is). Or because they believe that invocation into a human vessel inherently diminishes, filters and humanizes the presence and consciousness of the Gods (it does). These are valid reasons. Polytheist ritual can work just as well without giving the Gods a human voice to speak through. But you still need to let Them speak. You still need to write space into your ritual for the Presences you’ve called in to communicate with you and with your participants, and you need to actively facilitate that communication. You still need to treat Them like an honored guest, tend to Their needs and interests, and make Them at home before you ask Them to work for you.

Reciprocity

I’ve touched on this already, but I think it bears expanding on. Reciprocity is fundamental to all functional relationships, devotional ones included. I think that this idea is fairly common knowledge. But I often see it misunderstood.

A common mistake is to treat devotional offerings as transactional. I offer this God wine and flowers, and in return I get to ask for favors. I’m not saying this doesn’t work at all – it does, to a limited extent. If you don’t mind hanging out in the shallow end of the pool magically and devotionally, you can get by just fine with that. But consider that framing  your offerings in a transactional way tends to commodify devotion. Would that feel good to you? How deeply would you hold your connection with someone who only did something for you if they had a favor to ask? How meaningful would a gift from this person ever be to you? How hard would you run to have their back if they were in trouble?

Try this. Decouple your offerings from work you want to do with the Gods’ help. Make offerings as a regular devotional practice, apart from major rituals. Do some rituals that are solely devotional in nature – just for purposes of communion and worship. Let these practices deepen your relationship with the Gods. Then see what unfolds when the time comes that you do have a need to ask for help with something. Be that friend who was always there, always giving, whose commitment and care is clear and rock-solid, and for whom you would do anything. Be that kind of friend to your Gods. Find deep reciprocity, instead of transactional reciprocity.

Gods with Agency

If I had to boil it down to a core concept, it would be this: if your Gods are real to you, treat Them like beings with agency. Agency: the capacity of an entity to act. In magical terms, agency is something like will.

If our Gods are real, They have agency. We don’t get to order Them around. We don’t command Them; instead we invite. We don’t dismiss Them when we’re ready to move on; instead we say thank you and goodbye.

If our Gods are real, They don’t disappear outside of ritual space. Relationship with the Gods doesn’t begin with casting a circle (or laying a medicine wheel, or marking the Hammer Rite, or whatever you use to define ritual space). If our Gods are real, and They have agency, They are making a choice whether or not to respond to our calls. They are making a choice whether or not to engage, to help us, to be present. We can’t be treating them like a tool you put back on a shelf when you don’t need it, and then expecting Them to come and wield Their agency for our benefit!

What would you do if the Gods were real to you?

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