Q16. What devotional goals have you set for yourself?

This one I’ve been thinking about for a while, because I don’t really set specific goals. I’ve got my commitment to a daily yoga practice, which has been going well so far, but the rest of the things I do are not so goal oriented. It is good for me to do these things, but I don’t know. It is hard for me to come to that cleanly. I tend to use those sorts of goals as an opportunity for failure and disappointment, which just isn’t useful at all.

If I were to set goals, it would be to basically do more of the things I know are good for me to do. I won’t even say how often – it isn’t something I want to measure at this point. But here are some things:

Eat food that honors my body and the earth. So much of my understanding of our place in the great web of physical existence is about food. Not just what we eat, but our relationship to what we eat. There is a line from the I Ching, “If you want to know what a man values, look at what he chooses to nourish himself.” I suppose it would be good to eat with more mindfulness and reverence, but really, if I am not eating in a way that is congruent with my beliefs and values, it is hard to really get behind that. And when I am eating in a way that is congruent with my beliefs and values, that reverence and mindfulness comes naturally. It is an inherent part of the process.

Pray, imperfectly, and often. Jumping off that last point, when I am not doing all the things I “should” do, I tend to push the gods away. It is so stupid, when I actually think about it. It isn’t as if the gods don’t know how imperfect I am. Yeah, there are some gods who don’t seem too interested in dealing with me unless I am giving at least a decent effort to doing the right thing by their standard, but there are others who are quite happy to take me as I am. If nothing else, I can take that struggle to do the right thing, and lay that at their feet as my offering. I think of that line from the Leonard Cohen song, “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” If I can manage it, I try to see my pain at not having “done enough” as a recognition of the part of me that knows how to do the right thing, even when I can’t manage to do it.

Have more sex. Especially have more sex where I am aware of the joy and wonder that is our physical bodies. Sex is really the first place where learned about spiritual connection, not just with my partner, but connection with the gods, and connection with the Infinite. My body has always been my strongest spiritual tool, and for me, sex is the most natural expression of that.

Make music. This is always a good exercise in embracing my imperfection, because I really have minimal musical aptitude, but I do enjoy singing. I enjoy playing my ukulele. Sometimes I even manage to enjoy playing the violin, but I’m still really in the stage where I am struggling so much to get the basic technique that it is hard to really enjoy it. Still, music is good. Even just listening to music is good. I’ve got a somewhat bizarre collection of songs that remind me of certain gods, and it is a very effective way for me to keep my mind and heart focused on things that have meaning to me.

Help people. Service comes right after sex for me, when look at ways I experience spiritual connection. I can’t always connect with people emotionally, but I can do things for them. I love being able to use my skills to help people. I’m not out to save the world or anything like that. I’ve never been a “big picture” guy. But when I can do small things to make life a little better for the people around me, I am happy.

Okay, so that is five. Five is a good number, and I ought to be in bed by now…

Q15. What methods does your tradition employ for protection and the warding off of malign influences?

This is a short one. Warding off malign influences isn’t a primary concern in my tradition. It is definitely something that spirit-workers deal with, but for the average person, it isn’t something we talk about. It definitely isn’t something most of us would do proactively. If we had some reason to think there was something to be concerned about, most of us would probably try some combination of incense (mugwort or sage), water, or salt, along with maybe prayer or singing. If we still felt some reason for concern, we’d call a spirit worker.

But really for nearly anyone who isn’t a spirit-worker, we would only do something like that if we specifically had a reason to suspect some kind of malign influences. Maybe if we had a special object that we’d gotten back from a hostile ex-lover. Maybe if someone had been traumatically ill or died in our home. Maybe if we were moving in to (or doing ritual in) a really unpleasant space. But it isn’t something we routinely do. Anyone in our tradition who does that, aside from spirit-workers, learned it outside of this tradition. Even prior to ritual, while we often do something to “prepare the space”, it isn’t seen as mandatory and it is generally seen more as a way to focus your intent and prepare yourself for the ritual, not as a specifically protective thing.

I think many of us see it sort of like flossing. My guess is that 90% of the time it never occurs to us, but when we are reminded about it, there is a slight feeling of, “Oh, yeah, that. Should I be doing that? I suppose I should. Yeah, maybe I’ll try to do more of that.” There isn’t really a concern about actively malicious influences, or psychic attack, but I think there is a general sense that some kind of routine purification and maybe shielding is a good idea. It just isn’t something that is really treated as a priority.

Q14. What role does mystery play in your tradition?

We made the decision, early on, to intentionally break away from the “initiatory Mystery cult” model, and organize in an open “congregational” model. There is definitely a place for small, closed groups of heavily involved people, committed to training and exploring in depth the mysteries of their tradition. I think there is also a place for groups that are open to the public, for whatever level of involvement those people are presently interested in, and that is more of what we offer. I don’t think that deep exploration of the Mysteries is generally appropriate for an unscreened, mixed group. People are in very different places in their personal journeys. Some may not be ready for or stable enough to handle that kind of exploration. Some don’t have enough trust in the facilitators to fully engage with the experience. There is not enough of a relationship formed between the participants and the facilitators, to provide context and support for that sort of work. There isn’t the commitment to the weeks of months of preparation for a participant to be ready for that exploration, or the integration of the experience afterwards.

So our group rituals to not go into any deep exploration of the Mysteries. They might touch on a few things. They might draw on the experiences of those who have experienced certain Mysteries. They might intentionally evoke a curiosity for deeper exploration. They might even expose people to some of the power of those Mysteries. But they don’t, in general, deliberately try to guide people into an understanding of or experience of those Mysteries.

To back up a little – we’ll make a distinction between the “small-m mysteries” and the “big-M Mysteries”. The small-m mysteries are the secret or private aspects of practice or belief, the things only explained or revealed to people who are judged to be ready for them. Some traditions guard these secrets very closely. Some consider it dangerous for an unprepared person to be exposed to these things. Some think it dilutes the power of these things to have them widely available. Some just have recognized that people don’t put as much value on things they haven’t had to work for.

Our tradition doesn’t have any of these. There isn’t anything about our practice or belief that shouldn’t be revealed. There might be a few things we would want someone to have a little context before attempting to explain them, but nothing that is actually secret. Even the rare closed rituals we do aren’t secret – we’ll tell people exactly what goes on at them, and we’re generally only trying to screen out people who would behave inappropriately or who would find it disturbing.

The big-M Mysteries are “the Mysteries that guard themselves.” These are things that no matter how you explain them to someone, they aren’t going to “get it” on that deep level unless they’ve had an experience of them. Some examples are: “Everything is connected” “Death is part of life” “The distinction between sacred and profane is illusory” “Our words create reality” “All things move in cycles” “We are our ancestors” If there is any disinclination to reveal these big-M Mysteries, it is that sometimes having a superficial understanding of one of them can blind you to the deeper experience of it. You think you already know, so you don’t look any further. Some of them are things that you can come to a new and deeper realization of over and over throughout your life. There is no bottom to them. They are inexhaustible.

We do have some of this type of Mysteries in my tradition, even though they aren’t emphasized. I suppose the biggest one is basically “This is not metaphorical. The gods are real. This is all real.” That isn’t something we ever specifically try to convince anyone of, but it is an area where we are continually ready to provide support to the person who has just come to that conclusion. Possibly more than anything else, our purpose is to provide a support system for people to explore and come to terms with the reality of their spiritual experience, at their own pace. We have a fair number of long-term members who don’t see any of this as particularly “real”, and that is important too. It gives people who are teetering on the edge of this Mystery some sense of freedom. It takes some of the pressure off. But when it comes down to it, we are much more concerned with providing space for people to explore the reality of their experiences than we are with providing space for people to doubt those experiences. (There is no shortage of people who will support you in doubting the reality of your spiritual experiences, so we figure that part is already covered.)

There are some other Mysteries we continually touch on. Ones about the cycle of sky and earth. Ones about our relationship with food and life. Ones about the relationship between the gods and this world. Ones about the nature of sacrifice. It is nothing formalized, just a loose and evolving set of deeper realizations that we tend to come back to over and over. They can be understood metaphorically, symbolically, but for those who have understood them on a deeper level, we try to draw out that experience in our group rituals. We try to give context for understanding them, over time, so as people over time gradually draw themselves closer to them, they have the tools to navigate that experience.

Q13. Have you ever found it difficult to uphold your end of a bargain with the divinities?

(image by Alex Bramwell)

This is something that has been weighing on me pretty heavily lately.

A few years ago, I made a commitment to Shiva to practice yoga daily. I would call it a “commitment” rather than a “bargain” because I hadn’t asked for anything in return, but it is the same basic thing. I was consistent (though not perfect) in keeping this commitment for about a year, and substantially less consistent in the next year. I did okay over the summer, but by October of last year I was rarely practicing.

Part of it was practical constraints – in warmer weather I’d been practicing outside, or in our unfinished (unheated) extension, so once it got cold there were a lot more easy excuses not to practice. I knew that if I really wanted to practice, I’d find a way, but having to “find a way” was enough discouragement that I kept putting it off and not finding the time.

Last month, when Raven began feeling called to work with Shiva, I was reminded of how infrequent my practice has become. I’m sort of a “rules weasel” so I dithered about it for a while. I told myself I’ve been doing other fitness-type things, which is pretty much the same, right? I told myself “Yoga” is a broad term… It isn’t just the physical asanas. Prayer, chanting, journaling… those could all count, right? Not that I was actually doing one of those things daily, but once the wheels of rationalization are set in motion it is hard for me to get any kind of clarity about a situation.

So I asked Raven for his advice, and he said that his impression was that while those other things were good, they didn’t “count” towards my commitment to a daily yoga practice. It had to be some kind of asana practice. Not necessarily a vigorous Ashtanga practice, not necessarily any specific length of time, but something reasonable given the circumstances of the moment.

Three or four days of successful practice, and then I got sick with one of the worst flus I have ever had. Really, I’ve not felt this awful since I had to get an emergency apendectomy a few years ago. I’m no longer acutely miserable with fever and chills and aches, but even a week later I’m still weak and fatigued. I can’t even fully support my own weight going down the stairs – I need to hold myself up using the banister or my legs shake and give out. Any overexertion brings me back to a bout of fever and chills. Staying awake for more than eight hours straight is a struggle.

So, have I been practicing? Nope. Not even a little. Until I saw this question today, I’d pretty much forgotten all about it. But this is my reminder, so I will get back to it. I might not be able to do much, but surely I can do something when I get home tonight.

The thing I try to remember is that a daily practice is about doing the practice today. There is no sense in me keeping score, or feeling bad about how much I’ve done in the past. Every day is a new day, a new opportunity. So all I have to do is practice today.

Q12. What sort of festivals, memorials or seasonal observances do you keep throughout the year?

This is an easy one for my tradition. We’ve always been an eclectic group, but we’ve historically had a large number of members influenced by Wicca, so we have always celebrated the Solstices, Equinoxes, and Cross-Quarter days. The traditional seasonal symbolism lines up pretty well here in New England, and Wicca aside, as a tradition we have a strong emphasis on the seasonal/agricultural cycle. It is largely about food for us, though sometimes more symbolically than literally. We don’t do full moon or new moon rituals as a group, mostly because we are too geographically dispersed to meet that frequently.

Each holiday has certain themes associated with it, but whoever steps up to run the ritual has pretty free reign with what they do. It is not uncommon for them to entirely substitute a seasonally appropriate holiday from their own personal tradition. We’re fairly non-specific when it comes to names for the holidays. We are more concerned with coming together to celebrate these eight points of the year, not one specific way of celebrating them.

So for instance the Spring Equinox is coming up. We’ll usually call it Ostara, but we’re not particularly tied to one specific name for any of the holidays. The general theme of Ostara is new beginnings, childhood, or some version of “Yay, Winter is finally ending! You can see dirt with tiny growing things. The earth is no longer a frozen wasteland.” But this year, the folks running the ritual decided on a “Warrior” themed ritual, justified by the fact that astrologically the Spring Equinox is the start of Ares. So they’ve picked a few favorite “Warrior” gods and goddesses to honor. But beforehand, because we do it every year, we’ll be painting prayers for the coming season on eggs and hanging them on a tree. There will be no attempt to pretend this is relevant to the “Warrior” theme, and nobody seems to mind. (We’ve tried in the past omitting one of these longstanding traditions when it didn’t fit well with the theme of the ritual, and it was a wildly unpopular move. It is Ostara, and the People demand an egg tree!)

Beltane we have a weekend campout, with a Maypole and a bonfire. Unfortunately, early May is often chillier than we’d like it to be, but we’ve only had the occasional really-cold-and-soggy Beltane. It is the only holiday where we do anything honoring that male/female duality which features so prominently in Wicca. We carefully pre-select a “Green Man” and “May Queen” who are a reproductively viable male/female couple with some type of committed long term relationship. While this is definitely a sex and fertility themed holiday, we keep the event “family friendly”. We feel pretty strongly that there should be actual ritual sex between the Green Man and May Queen (not just sticking knives into goblets), but the sex happens offstage, in the privacy of their tent.

In somewhat warmer climates, Beltane is a celebration of the earth in full bloom, everything lush and growing and green. We don’t really get there until the Summer Solstice. The ritual is often a celebration of the sun or a “solar” god.  Since it is the turning point where the days begin getting shorter, there can be something of a death theme in there. It is also a good time for any Kemetic (Egyptian) rituals, because it is reliably warm enough for appropriate costuming. (A shenti over sweatpants is not a good look.)

Lammas and Mabon are consistently harvest themed rituals. Lammas specifically grain, and generally honors all the plants we kill and eat to survive. Mabon both about honoring livestock (and hunted animals), and about recognizing that the bountiful and sustaining period of the earth is quickly ending, as we enter into the cold, dark, dead time.

Samhain honors the ancestors. Often there will be some sort of portrayal of the underworld or land of the dead, for a specific tradition. It always ends by setting a table with candles and all of the “good dishes”, and calling the names of our beloved dead. It is a really powerful ritual for many people. We’ll hold it in late October or early November, but never directly on Halloween to avoid conflicts with trick-or-treating and other events.

The Winter Solstice, for us, is Yule, and it is unashamedly “Pagan Christmas”. We get a tree to decorate, we sing carols, we make reindeer cookies, and some of us exchange gifts. The general theme of Yule bringing light and joy and abundance to each other at the darkest point of the year. The worst of winter is still ahead, but at least the days aren’t getting any shorter. Imbolc is really mid-winter for us. Our default is a “candlemas” thing, lots of candles in the snow. It is still about bringing light to the dark cold time, but more with patience and focus, not with revelry like at Yule.

Q11. What blocks to devotion have you had to overcome?

Consistently, my biggest block to devotion is awkward self-consciousness. I have a hard time with experiencing emotions in general, and devotional stuff is a very vulnerable emotional state for me. It is really wonderful, but it isn’t something I’m entirely comfortable with. I can’t access that emotional space in my normal day-to-day state of mind, and I can’t reliably bring myself into a compatible state of mind. Very often I can’t “get over myself” enough to enter into any meaningful experience of devotion. I get stuck in my business-oriented practical “work-mode” and there is not a lot of space in that mindset for deity.

So, what do I do about it? I wish I had a really good answer to that. Theoretically, various meditative techniques to quiet the “talking mind” ought to be helpful, but in practice I find that the most effective thing for me is to find a space where I can be alone and undisturbed, get some appropriate music and sing along with it, preferably at high volume. It could be music I associate with a specific god, or even just something neutral with a strong beat to it. For a while, No Shadows by Gaia Consort was my favorite for this. I suppose I could use a repetitive spoken prayer or chant, but I generally don’t. Moving around definitely helps. Doing that for a little while helps to put me into a very lightly altered state, where it is easier to “get over myself”. (If I drank alcohol or used drugs, those might also be useful in this context. Just enough to take the edge off the normal waking consciousness, not enough to substantially impair cognition.)

If I can’t manage some kind of “experience of devotion”, then I might just give an offering and sit awkwardly for a little while. That is pretty normal for me.

I’m realizing, though, that one can interpret “devotion” in many different ways. I don’t think I can describe exactly what I mean by an “experience of devotion”. I’m not sure why that experience of reverent emotional connection is what first comes to mind for “ways I have struggled with devotion”, but that is what I’ve got today.

Q10. Have you encountered any obstacles as a result of your religion?

(Blegh. I’ve had a cold, and trying to write coherently through a head full of phlegm was just not working. Feeling a little better today, so I’ll give it a try.)

My biggest personal obstacle is the lack of well-defined traditions, structures, and organizations. My first few years in Paganism were a struggle against my envy of more well-defined traditions. I have never liked the loose and unstructured approach common in Paganism, and for my first few years I kept longing to run off and join the Benedictine monastery that is a few towns away from me. (“But Josh,” my friends said, “You aren’t Catholic. You aren’t even Christian.” and I’d say, “Well… yes, I know. But…”) I was longing for a tradition polished over many generations, perhaps changed by time, but essentially unbroken. The “broken-ness” of our Pagan traditions is still very hard for me to look at.

The other big obstacle for me is having a theology that so many people in my culture consider ridiculous. I know some people consider all religion ridiculous (like most of my family), but my theology is even considered ridiculous by the majority of Pagans and nearly all non-Pagans in this culture. I think I’d find it a little easier if they considered it blasphemous or evil, but most often the response is more like, “Wait, for real? You actually believe that? But… really?” and often they decide that since I’m clearly not a raving lunatic, I must actually mean something different than what I seem to be saying.

This keeps me from discussing my religion in any kind of genuine detail with nearly anyone, because some of the fundamental concepts are just complete conversation-killers. I can discuss some things, in general terms, but it is a very careful and selective process, and one that always makes me uncomfortable. Even in very open-minded interfaith contexts, I’m holding my breath, waiting for them to decide I’m too weird to be taken seriously. It comes up a lot in my yoga program, in discussions about spirituality or personal growth or what constitutes “right living”. A lot of the Hindu/Vedanta-based “theology” they use has multiple distinct points of incompatibility with my beliefs and practices, and I’ve got to choose between trying to join the discussion across this huge gap of understanding, or keeping quiet while they discuss how these principles are “universal to every spiritual tradition”.

I’ve not been in a position to personally experience much serious discrimination due do being a Pagan polytheist. Some ignorance, sure, and some hateful comments, but not any notable situations of someone in a position of power acting with clear bias against me due to my religion. To be fair, it doesn’t come up often, but when it has come up it has been more of a “people look at me funny” thing rather than a “people harass me or deny me services” thing.

Locally we’ve had more problems due to being open about the fact we eat our livestock (*SEE NOTE*) than we have about religious stuff. (For instance, some guy drives past our house a few times a month, late at night, blasting his horn and yelling, “DON’T KILL GOATS!”) There is a big overlap though – people who are upset that we keep livestock and do our own butchering often put some weird religious slant on things. (Our dog got a discarded duck head after butchering, hopped the fence, and left it in the dirt along the road in front of our house. A neighbor decided this was related to some sort of creepy religious activity. Nope.)

Nothing generally comes of it. Just gossip. This is New England, and most people, if they think what you are doing is awful, they go out of their way to ignore you. Thankfully, the local authorities are sick of people who move to a rural area and then pitch a fit about people doing things that are considered perfectly normal here, so the livestock-related stuff is a non-issue with them. If someone complains they saw us killing a goat in our backyard, the cops are likely to say, “Was it your goat? No? Then why are you calling us?” All of the official folks with power to do anything to us don’t seem to care at all what sort of bizarre religious practices we engage in, just so long as we’ve got our camping permit and our guests don’t park in the road.

A note about Livestock

Yes, we kill and eat animals. No, we are not evil.

Raven and his wife and I live on a small hobby farm, with goats, sheep, chickens, and often other assorted livestock. Part of our reason for keeping livestock is ecological and financial. Since we’ve got the land for it, it is (sometimes) cheaper to keep livestock than it is to buy meat from someone who keeps livestock in a way that we are really comfortable with. A larger part is spiritual. We want to personally participate in the life cycle of at least a small portion of our food. It is something that connects us to the natural world. It connects us to the spirits of the plants and animals we eat. It connects us to the gods of the agricultural cycle. That is also why we keep adult females and at least one male of all our animals, rather than the easier route of having the females bred elsewhere or buying babies each spring. The animals breed on their own cycle. They nurse their own babies whenever they are willing and able.

They aren’t pets to us, but they also aren’t inventory. We form an emotional attachment to most of our breeding adults, and we keep them after they are no longer reproductively viable. We’re fond of the young animals, and even though we know they are destined for the freezer, we care about them having good lives. We don’t do everything perfectly, but we try, and we continually try to do better. Our livestock aren’t just “walking meat” to us. They are conscious beings who we have a spiritual obligation for the right treatment of.

The ASPCA, the local animal inspector, and the local police, have all visited us due to people trying to report us for abusing or neglecting the livestock in some way. None of the officials have had any complaints about what we do. The methods we use to kill our livestock are considered humane by nearly anyone who actually knows anything about killing livestock. Our facilities aren’t up to commercial standards, but for a hobby farm we aren’t doing anything exceptional.

What I want to emphasize is that the primary difference between what would be considered “ritual animal sacrifice” in my tradition and what would be considered “church barbecue” in someone else’s, is basically about us ritually blessing the animal and offering its soul to the gods before we eat it, rather than paying to have it killed on some distant “disassembly” line. Having a ritual around it (and personally ensuring the killing is done humanely) does not transform it into an evil, unethical act.

When we do animal sacrifice, no one is required to watch it. We try to be welcoming of a wide range of beliefs and respect people’s personal comfort levels with regard to emotionally intense experiences. We either set up a separate ritual for them as far away as practical, where they make representational offerings, or we do the sacrifice a little before the main part of the ritual, so they can arrive after it is over.

The overwhelming majority of people who get incredibly distressed about our livestock are not vegetarians. They have no problem chowing down on a big fat chunk of dead animal flesh, but they say it is horrible, unethical, abusive, or disgusting for someone to personally raise and kill those animals for food. This is ridiculous. Paying someone else to kill an animal is no different, ethically, than killing it yourself.

Humans – like other animals – can only survive by eating things that were alive. Sand and rocks will not sustain us. We do not photosynthesize. I understand some people have ethical objections to eating meat, and I respect that even though I don’t agree. However, from my perspective, plants are not a radically different type of beings than animals. Plants have a consciousness, even though few of us can communicate with them. Animals are no more alive than plants, and no more conscious. They are just more like us. I don’t expect anyone else to agree with me on that, but it is what I genuinely believe.

Q9. How does your tradition handle wrathful, savage and destructive divinities?

How does my tradition handle destructive deities? Very carefully. Okay, that isn’t an answer, but I have to back up a little.

One of the basic concepts you often find in polytheism that people from a non-polytheistic background miss is that the gods are not primarily moral exemplars. They may inspire us to live rightly in certain ways, but for lack of a better phrasing, they are all extremely biased. They value certain things and are indifferent to others. Most of them don’t provide a balanced model for healthy human social/emotional development. They embody a certain quality, or set of qualities, and they express that quality to its fullest. Many of them embody qualities we would usually consider to be virtues, but even then we can look to them both for help in cultivating that virtue and for an example of what happens when the expression of that virtue overrides all other considerations. Most of them would provide an extremely unbalanced focus for monotheistic worship. Rather than having all qualities balanced within themselves, they maintain a balance of forces via their interaction with each other.

The gods do not represent what is good or admirable or virtuous. They represent what is powerful. They embody the forces which create, sustain, transform, and destroy. They embody everything that is important to us, not just what is desirable or beneficial to us. When people ask, “How can you worship a god who ______?” this is the point they are missing. In general, when we worship these “destructive” gods, when we say the power they represent is worthy of reverence, we are not saying we want the forces they embody to overpower all other forces. We are not inviting these forces to run unchecked through our lives or the lives of others. We are recognizing that they exists, that they are powerful, and that they, in some way, are necessary to maintain the balance of the system as a whole.

People who are called to work with these gods often have an intimate understanding of the balance that keeps that particular force in check. They often recognize that force in themselves, and understand the need for opposing forces. Raven wrote a good piece about honoring Fenrir, that explains that concept better than I can, and other writing on that Fenrir Shrine might also be helpful.

In my tradition, we tend to use caution when honoring gods whose influence is likely to be incredibly disruptive. We stress that some gods represent forces which require opposing forces to maintain the balance in which human civilization is possible. We recognize that just because a certain god is in favor of a given plan, it doesn’t mean that plan is a good idea. Given the vast diversity of gods, you can find a god who will be in favor of nearly any course of action you can conceive of, no matter how terrible. That is why they do not exist in isolation, and are not worshiped in isolation. Divine approval does not necessarily make a thing permissible.

On a personal level, while I can honor certain “destructive” gods from a distance, it has been difficult for me to work closely with a god whose morality and values differ sharply from my own. In my case, it was Aphrodite – not a god commonly considered “destructive”, though I’d argue that she definitely qualifies as “wrathful”. On more than one occasion I felt strongly pressured by her to have unprotected sex with strangers. (No. I’m sorry, My Lady, but No.) On one notable occasion, someone asked for my advice as a priest/representative of Aphrodite, and despite being personally appalled by it, I felt compelled to assure this person that Aphrodite was completely in favor of her decision to abandon her husband and children to run off with some guy she barely knew. In that case, kept my personal morality out of it, but only because the woman had specifically asked me for Aphrodite’s advice, not my own. I consider myself very fortunate that I work primarily with a god who has what I consider to be a fairly balanced morality, and in general I can look to him for guidance in that way. Not all gods are like that. In order to safely honor the wrathful, savage, or destructive deities, we need to be sure enough of ourselves to find our morality elsewhere, be self-aware enough to recognize how those forces manifest within us, and have enough self-control to keep those internal forces in check even when facing the ecstatic pull of the divine.

Q8. What methods of inducing altered states of conscious does your tradition have?

Altered states aren’t emphasized much in my tradition. We recognize the value of induced altered states in ritual and spirit-work, but it isn’t part of our regular practices.

Our group has generally stayed away from rituals where participants are doing a lot of chanting or dancing or breathwork or any other tool to bring the entire group into an altered state. Part of it is because our rituals are open to the public, and we’d generally consider it dangerous to do with participants who hadn’t been screened in some way. Part of it is that it is just way outside of most of our members’ comfort zone. They aren’t interested in “letting go” to the extent required for that sort of work, or being in a vulnerable mental space with a big group of people. Part of it is fear of people behaving inappropriately.

We generally recognize any altered state work as something to be done only when you have a specific reason, and only with a small, well-prepared group of appropriate people. Within that context, we don’t advocate any specific methods. We’d be most likely to use chanting, drumming, and dancing to induce a mild altered state in a group of people doing a ritual together, and probably a combination of breathwork, visualization, and drumming for someone who wanted to learn how to induce an altered state in themselves. For a situation where the goal is for one person to access a very powerful altered state fairly quickly, like some type of personal initiation, we’ll often suggest ordeal work or some type of sexual activity, if the person is receptive to that. Those two methods aren’t especially controversial in my tradition, and within my tradition there isn’t generally a lot of fear of coercion or exploitation related to them. (There is a lot more I could say about that, but maybe some other time.)

We aren’t at all theologically opposed to the spiritual use of mind-altering drugs, but it is a fairly controversial issue for us, both for spiritual and legal reasons. Spiritually, a good number of people in my tradition see the casual use of these “entheogens” as spiritually reckless as well as disrespectful to the plant spirits, and would personally only approve of it in a very narrowly defined ritual context. Legally, as an organization we’ve always maintained a policy of “illegal things are illegal”, but our biggest concern is that almost every incident of dangerous, disruptive, or flagrantly inappropriate behavior we have had at our events has been from someone who was intoxicated. Even if some very responsible folks had very good reasons for wanting to include legal intoxicants in one of our public rituals, there would probably be strong resistance to it, due to fears about other attendees being disrespectful, violent, or sexually inappropriate while intoxicated, and discomfort with the exclusion of people who choose not to use intoxicants.

While we will occasionally do rituals with spirit possession, they are generally the sort where the person doing the possession handles the altered-state work “off stage” with an assistant or two. The ritual crew uses whatever techniques they feel are appropriate during the “off stage” preparation for the possession, and the rest of the participants are not in any kind of altered state at all. As a tradition, we do not practice any kind of group spirit-possession rituals, where any of the participants might spontaneously become possessed. It just isn’t something our gods have ever asked of us. That is a really big topic though, so I’ll write about how my tradition handles possession in future post.