A Priest/ess is a Spiritual Specialist

John Beckett over on Patheos wrote a fabulous article on what “priesthood” means in a modern Pagan/polytheistic context. I HIGHLY encourage everyone to go read it. It’s ok – I’ll wait.

*waits*

Wasn’t that wonderful?

Priesthood is a topic I’ve written about before, albeit indirectly, but I’ve been playing with it in my head for the last little bit and decided this was as good a time as any to put my thoughts into words. I think it’s something anyone working within a polytheistic framework needs to understand, even if it’s just to define where we don’t want to go with our spiritual life.

Personally I identify as a priestess before any of the other spiritual titles out there. I always have. For me “priest/ess” is essentially interchangeable with “spiritual specialist”, and that fits me better than anything else. To my mind there are two incredibly important parts to being a spiritual specialist – private devotional work and the public facilitation of spiritual experience.

So let’s look at those.

Devotion

Frequent readers of my blog will likely be familiar with my devotion to my Lady. It comes up a lot. When I say “devotion” I’m using the word in the dictionary sense – the love, loyalty, religious fervor, and dedication I have to/for Her, and to a lesser extent the other Powers with whom I work.

Devotional practice covers a lot of ground. Personal prayers and offerings fit here, of course. Meditation and daily devotions, both primary ways of fostering two-way communication with the Powers, are also part of the devotional side of things. This also includes the creation and maintenance of my home altar space, the hours spent studying lore and philosophy, and the time/effort involved in obeying the various instructions and taboos I’ve been given.

That’s all fairly predictable. But there’s a strong component of privacy bound up with the definition of “devotion”, and that too is important to me. My devotion is a private affair, between myself and the Powers. I can share what I study and learn with others, but those others aren’t why I’m doing it. They are not my motivation or my guide. If I was living as a hermit and never saw other people ever, if my ability to blog vanished and I had to hide everything I am from those around me, this is the part of my practice that would continue unchanged.

My home altar, where I do my private devotional work.

For me, all the things I do in my personal daily life that aren’t specifically spiritual in nature but stem from my spiritual practice also fall in the “devotion” category. For instance, as I mentioned in my last post, my Lady is all about helping others reach their potential. As a result I’ve found myself becoming more and more passionate about causes like childhood education and LGBT rights. This isn’t at my Lady’s direction, and isn’t really being done as an offering for Her, but it comes from how my devotion has influenced me and shaped my worldview.

Facilitation

Devotional work is personal, but facilitation is a public service. This part of the priest/ess gig is all about how I help others experience and enhance their own spiritual lives. There are three components to the way I approach facilitation: helping others observe the cycles, providing alternative perspectives, and helping others connect to the Powers.

The aspect of facilitation most directly related to my Lady in particular, and most commonly associated with the work of the priest/ess, is helping others mark/celebrate/commemorate cycles, almost always in some sort of ritualized way. This can include seasonal festivals (cycles of seasons), rites of passage and Ordeal rituals (various life cycles), etc. It also encompasses how I help people move on from past stages or experiences, usually through counseling or Ordeal work. Sometimes I lead the rituals myself, sometimes I advise, sometimes I simply clue people in to the idea that whatever they’re doing could be done in a ritual context and thus possibly have more meaning for them. The most recent example of this was helping an old friend ritualize a memorial tattoo for a lost loved one as part of her grieving process.

An actress, playing the role of a Greek priestess, receives the flame used to light the torch for the Olympic Games.

Actresses, playing the roles of Greek priestesses, transfer the traditionally-kindled flame used to light the torch for the Olympic Games in 2012.

Perhaps surprisingly, providing alternative perspectives – not facilitating ritual – is the majority of the work I do in this area. One of the first lessons my Lady taught me was that changing our perspective changes our reality, and that the magick we do through perspective shifting is some of the most powerful magick out there. Seeing a situation from different perspectives helps us reach a deeper understanding about it, be more aware of the bits and pieces that went into it, and thus better react to or adapt it. There’s also an aspect here of challenging what we think we know.

This can manifest in many ways. Sometimes I’m a sounding board, supporting people as they verbally navigate through confusion and helping them clarify things. Sometimes I play devil’s advocate, helping others put their thoughts and feelings into words by being intentionally contrary. At other times I simply listen, and through listening validate their experience or allow them to purge what may be blocking them. Circumstances might dictate the use of divination, or Powers might speak through me and relay things others need to hear. The method used doesn’t matter. As long as the person I’m working with gains some sort of insight or clarity I’ve done my job, even if their ultimate decision/action still remains murky.

The final aspect of facilitation for me is lending whatever support I can to those attempting to connect with or deepen their connections with the Powers. This can include showing by example, sharing experiences/stories/knowledge with whoever might need it, teaching techniques and skills at need, etc. I do that all in person, of course, but blogging and Facebooking about these topics fulfills the same purpose. I do other things in this category too, like maintaining a religious/spiritual library for source material, networking so I can offer alternatives if something comes up I can’t handle, and overall just being available as a resource.

Putting it Together

Devotion and Facilitation, as I’ve divided them here, could just as easily been Private Work and Public Work. I think a priest/ess needs to do both. YMMV, of course, but I think there are different terms for a reason. I’m a big fan of specificity, and that matters even more than usual when we’re talking about spiritual topics.

If someone is doing Devotion/Private Work, without having a public component to what they do, then I think something along the lines of “devotee” would be a more appropriate term. When I was doing strictly private work my Lady called me Her votary. I really liked that – I linked that to votive candles in my head, and took it to mean that my life was a flame in Her honor. “Laity” would also be completely acceptable here. The majority of any faith’s believers are those who honor their god(s) at home, maybe attend a ritual a few times a year, and otherwise live a secular life. And that’s fine. Not everyone is meant to be a spiritual specialist.

On the other hand, someone focused strictly on the Facilitation/Public Work, without maintaining a personal devotional practice,  is really more of a Facilitator than anything else. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, it can be helpful to have someone truly neutral facilitating a ritual or offering counseling/divination services. I’m my Lady’s before I’m anything else, and there’s no way for me to run a ritual or do a divination without Her presence. Even if She’s not specifically invited She has an open invite simply because I’m there. That’s not always a good idea, or what the person seeking services needs at that particular time. In those cases having someone facilitate without strong ties to Anyone might very well be the best option.

While lay members and facilitators both have their place, priests and priestesses are necessary too. By filling both private and public roles they can share insights and skills between them. The dedication and insight provided through devotional work informs their work with public ritual, and working with the public provides further growth opportunities and perspectives to bring back to the devotional table. That kind of role-sharing lends a unique expertise, and that expertise is deserving of its own label.

I know these are loaded terms for many people and that my view isn’t going to work for everyone. That’s ok. Does anyone else have an alternative view on the topic? If so, by all means say so in the comments!

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Fleur De Lis – A Symbol of Sexual Boundaries

In my last post I talked a lot about consent and the maintenance of boundaries. Those are both important topics for us to talk about as a community, which makes it something I’d normally cover on this blog. That post went further than I thought it would, though, and I got a lot of feedback on it – especially since it went up on Witchvox. And one of the comments that came up again and again was that I talked about establishing personal boundaries and how important that was, but I didn’t go into how to do that.

I didn’t think that was something I should address. This is a very individualized thing, and there’s no one answer for everyone. Which was a lapse on my part. Knowing where we stand on issues of sexuality and consent is so intertwined with community support of those boundaries that we really can’t talk about one without addressing the other. After all, it’s hard for the community to support us as we enforce our personal boundaries when we haven’t individually defined anything yet!

While this is a very individualized thing, and there are no wrong answers, there are wrong approaches. So that’s how I’ve decided to tackle the topic.

The Approach We’re Given

Here’s a visual of what most of us start with, I think:

boundaries

For the sake of argument let’s say that the top line in that graphic is the concept most of us probably grew up with: the only permissible sex is with a married spouse in the dark in the missionary position strictly for the purposes of procreation. The bottom line represents the Pagan ideal that all acts of love and pleasure are sacred.

These are the two extreme poles we as Pagans generally start off with. These are the theoretical standards we’re supposed to work with in the real world, when we’re dealing with real people and real emotion. Notice all that grey there? That’s where those theoretical standards get fuzzy, when real life makes those simple standards unexpectedly complicated. And the space between those lines? For most of us our personal boundaries lie somewhere in there. It’s simply up to us to figure out where we draw our own clear and distinct lines in all that space.

I say “simply”, but for many of us it’s not. Simple, I mean. Figuring out where we stand can take some pretty heavy internal work. I’ll be honest – it took me several years, working in the sex industry, and a vow of celibacy to get my internal mess sorted out. I didn’t know where to start when it came to grappling with this topic, and I had some personal issues besides, so it took awhile.

I could do something like provide a list of rules here. I do like my lists, and I could do something like the Ten Commandments of Sex. But I refrained. For one, I’m no Cosmo. And anyway, the way to figure all this out for yourself isn’t to get the answers from someone else but to ask yourself the right questions.

So here is the way I approach the whole topic, the questions I ask myself. It is by no means set, and I’m still tweaking the concept, so feel free to take what you find personally useful and discard what you don’t. I’m posting this in the hope that it’ll encourage thought among those who read this. As always, whatever works for you (so long as it’s legal!) is what you should go with.

My Approach – The Fleur de Lis

The fleur de lis is a stylized lily blossom and is an ancient symbol often associated with ideas of purity and chastity. Through the Middle Ages the symbology became more specific, and each petal came to represent a different concept within that frame: Faith, Wisdom, and Chivalry. The band at the bottom that ties the petals together is the unifying force between all of them.

Fleur de Lis

Isn’t it lovely?

Over time I have adopted the symbol as my own, and it’s become how I visualize my sex life. Each of those four concepts categorize a whole slew of things to think about and get comfy with prior to getting naked with someone else.

The Band – Sharing

I have a history of using sex to fulfill other needs – connection, touch, forgetting, approval, distraction, release. And sex filled those needs fairly well, at least temporarily. However, when using sex to fill other needs my partner became secondary to the whole thing. They were faceless stand-ins for what I really wanted, self-directed dildos I used for my own gratification.

It took a bit for me to recognize what I was doing, and even longer to understand what that meant for my partners. I was dehumanizing every partner I had. It was all about me, what I needed, what I wanted. And once I figured it out I was pretty horrified. Even with my head all messed up I understood that what made sex sacred was the sharing aspect, the feedback of pleasure and intimacy that can exist between two people who come together openly and honestly. I wasn’t doing that. I was using, not sharing. And since I wasn’t sharing with them, they weren’t sharing with me either – which meant they were using me too.

Not ok, not from any perspective.

So that’s the first question I have to ask myself. What’s my personal motivation when sex comes up, using or sharing? When we’re clear in our heads that this is an experience we want to share with the person in front of us, and that the experience alone is the goal, then we can move forward with the idea. Otherwise, without that sharing, it’s demeaning to everyone involved.

The Left Petal – Faith

The faith this petal requires is faith in myself, trusting my inner thoughts/feelings instead of what other people tell me I should think or feel. This has become much easier over time, but at the beginning of things I was utterly clueless.

One of the things I’ve struggled most with is the fact that I simply don’t feel romantic or sexual attraction the way that movies and books and the people around me told me I should. I never have. But instead of trusting that, going with that, I kept trying to force myself to somehow “get past it”.  I had this idea that my sexuality just had a really screwy lock, so if I could find the right key I too could enter the world of teen rom-coms and marital bliss.

By the time I was a junior in high school I didn’t care if I was straight or gay or bi or pan or anything else, so long as I found the key that worked. Or maybe it wasn’t a partner-based thing, but an experience or technique my particular lock needed. That was possible, right? So I experimented with everything, for years, hoping that one day I might find the key I needed.

It didn’t even occur to me that I could relate to my sexuality in a way different from the people around me and still be a warm, loving person with a fulfilling sex life. I was basing my identity on what people told me, instead of what I innately knew. And that seriously screwed my life in ways I didn’t understand until much, much later.

Once I started trusting myself, though? My eyes were opened to a whole spectrum of relationship configurations and approaches to sexuality that might not be mainstream, but certainly fit my needs better than anything else I had found previously. And once that happened sex became much more fulfilling and whole-hearted than it had been before. It’s easier to share when I know what I’m sharing, and it’s easier to be open and honest with partners when I know what’s inside of me and accept it as it is.

Now it’s not many out there that have this particular issue, but the question posed by this petal is still valid – am I trying to express my sexuality using other people’s standards or my own? By trusting ourselves to know ourselves better than anyone else does we lose the need to justify our sex life to others. That helps us find methods of sexual expression that work for us, and allows us to be much more honest and authentic when we’re sharing with others.

The Right Petal – Chivalry

Chivalry is a word that evokes images of knights on chargers adoring a far-off lady in a tower. It refers to an entire elaborate code of honor that was the pinnacle of medieval nobility. In this context I use it to refer to my own honor and ethics when it comes to sex.

It’s pretty simple. If I’m not comfortable doing it (or at least talking about it) on the front page of the newspaper than I don’t do it. At no point during the act, from foreplay to aftercare, should I feel dirty. Or ashamed. Or guilty. I should never worry that the sex I’m having is unethical, or that I’m bad or wrong for having it. Sex cannot be demeaning or humiliating (some people get off on that, so it’s fine for them – I don’t so it’s not).

This applies to my partner(s), too. They’re part of this too – sharing, remember? If they’re conflicted, then the sex is conflicted, and I share in that conflict. That’s not ok, and I won’t be a part of making someone feel bad about themselves or their sex if I can possibly avoid it.

This covers a ton of ground. Are either of us chemically altered? Are either of us involved in other relationships that have rules around this kind of thing (as so many do)? Are either of us lying about what we’re going for here, or under any false pretenses? Has any sort of pressure been used on either side to make this happen, that might make consent questionable? And a thousand other questions that fall along these lines.

So that’s what this petal asks – am I behaving honorably by having sex with this person, and do I trust this person to behave honorably when having sex with me? If there is the slightest doubt here, sex probably isn’t the best idea. These conflicts take away from the sharing aspect of sex, make it harder to connect with each, and could lead to actual harm. None of those are OK.

The Center Petal – Wisdom

This petal refers to my ability – my responsibility – to be an adult when it comes to my sex life. I am in charge of my personal safety. It’s all the unsexy parts of engaging in a sexual relationship, that I have to personally answer and then effectively communicate to my partner. After all, if I can’t talk about this kind of thing to the person I’m having sex with, then I probably shouldn’t be having sex with that person.

Everyone’s list here will be different. It changes depending on circumstance, but here are a few possibilities:

1)      Have I been tested for STIs (including but not limited to HIV) recently? What’s my status? How about my partner? Do I have this person’s contact information in case something health-wise comes up later that was unforeseen, and do they have mine?

2)      What safer sex practice(s) are necessary here, and which will be used? Can I handle the consequences should those safer sex practices fail? Can my partner?

3)      Have I arranged all the safe calls or other safety nets I might need to ensure physical safety?

4)      Are there any potential spiritual/magickal side-effects with this? If so, is that desired or not?

5) Are the Powers with which I’m involved ok with this? How about the Powers my potential partner works with?

These questions normally come up during the negotiation phase, and they’re important. This petal is all about physical, emotional, and spiritual safety. If anyone involved doesn’t feel safe and secure, then they’re going to be more occupied with keeping themselves safe than sharing sex. Which of course hits points on the other petals, and brings the entire encounter back into question, thus restarting the process.

Only when I have satisfactorily progressed through all parts of the fleur de lis is sex acceptable and within my personal boundaries.

Notes About Approach

Notice that the above guidelines don’t say anything at all about what kind of relationship status I have with someone before the sex. To my mind a one night stand can be sacred, and sex with a long-term partner might not be, depending on how it fits the framework.

The guidelines also don’t single out any specific acts as particularly sacred or not. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about how we approach it.

Like I said, figuring out our personal boundaries when it comes to sexuality is a very individualized process. How any of us choose to approach it, and the boundaries we come up with during the process, are ours and ours alone. Once we know them, though, we’ve got a system we can use when working with others, and a system our communities can help support and enforce in more public settings.

Six Rules for Safer Pagan Sex: A Guide

Many of us grew up hearing every variation possible of “sex is bad for you and will turn you funny colors”. There was guilt and shame associated with having sex, with our bodies, with our pleasure. Most of this sex negativity was community-enforced and dumped on teens who were already flailing around trying to figure all this crap out anyway. There was no defense against it, so most of us absorbed it to greater or lesser extents. It’s not like we had another viable model to follow!

Sex Negativity 101.

Sex Negativity 101.

And then came Paganism. For many of us Paganism was our first exposure to a sex positive environment, where sex wasn’t feared but embraced. Doesn’t The Charge of the Goddess explicitly state that “all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals”? Sex went from morally reprehensible acts done in the dark to sacred celebrations.

We all know what Beltane's maypole represents!

We all know what Beltane’s maypole represents!

We learned that the path to being a good Pagan was through indulgence, not restraint. Hedonism, not asceticism. And while the attitude was different, the pressure to conform to the community standard was still there. When I came in to the community it was pretty well accepted that those who didn’t embrace the Pagan ideal of sexual freedom were obviously still dealing with whatever rules they were raised with. Eventually they would get past all that repression and join with the rest of the Pagan community. Pun intended.

And oh, did that create some potential problems. When the community emphasis shifted from sexual repression to sexual permissiveness, exploitation and abuse situations shifted too.

In this new sexually permissive environment saying “no” and “that makes me uncomfortable” suddenly became rebellion against community pressure. After all, didn’t all good Pagans ditch those sexual limits when they ditched their old faith? What, you still haven’t overcome all that Christian upbringing? Then why are you here? There was way more pressure encouraging sex than not. Add in the fact that, for many, Paganism is the first time they’ve ever felt accepted and the pressure to conform was even greater.

But if saying “no” and “that makes me uncomfortable” was bad, did it necessarily follow that everything had to be a “yes”? There were people out there who honestly didn’t know. The situations were all different but no one was talking about how to handle them.

Safely and successfully navigating a sex positive environment takes a whole different skillset than most of us learned growing up. And it’s not like Pagan groups regularly cover this stuff, either. Newbies are expected to just kinda pick it up as they go along, and since there’s no real hierarchy in the community there’s no one designated person to go to if we run into problems somewhere.

We as a community cannot allow our members to be victimized if there is any way to possibly avoid it. It’s time for us to step up and better care for our people.

Why is this a concern, anyway?

For those who have not been keeping track, there was a lot of drama recently around a fairly prominent Pagan author and musician named Kenny Klein who was arrested on child pornography charges. When news of his confession and arrest got out, people from the larger Pagan community started coming forward with their own allegations against him. Allegations that, when reported at the time, were downplayed or rejected or ignored. Some of these allegations go back almost 20 years, and many are from teen girls who were targeted by Klein during festivals and events.

Needless to say the fallout has been extreme, and everyone has been wondering how this was allowed to go on for so long.

My take? We had a bunch of people in a sexually permissive environment who suddenly didn’t know what was and was not ok, who were unsure of their rights, and who didn’t know what to do or who to go to when something bad happened. The victims were confused and scared, and the rest of the community was confused and divided over responses. I saw this concept popping up several times in the article above, in the quotes from people Klein victimized.

We have to do better.

What can we as a community do to help prevent victimization in the future?

There are two things everyone in the Pagan community needs in order to prevent victimization: empowerment and safety. “Empowerment and safety for everyone!” should be our new rallying cry when we think about our community spaces.

Victimization is a lot less likely to occur when people know exactly what is ok and what’s not, understand how to navigate these complex situations, and have a guaranteed support network from their entire community if something bad happens. Uncertainty and secrecy are the tools of predators. Let’s do our damnedest to take them away.

The first thing we need to do to make that happen is figure out a new code of conduct. The old rules we relied on to prevent victimization were all based on ideas of sexual repression. When we ditched the repression we ditched those old rules, and Paganism as a whole community has not yet replaced them with something that works with ideas of sexual openness. A commonly held set of community guidelines would take away the confusion, and give us at least the seeds for a united community response to violations.

I figured I’d do my part to get that particular ball rolling. So here are my Six Rules for Safer Pagan Sex.

What are the Six Rules?

I’d like to state up-front that I couldn’t care less about the specific activities a person chooses to engage in. As long as all people involved are happy then all’s well. These rules all address the interpersonal skills needed before, during, and after indulging in those activities.

These rules are:

1) No means no. Period.
2) Negotiate your sex prior to getting naked.
3) Altered people can’t consent.
4) Sex space is safe space.
5) What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
6) Don’t be that guy.

No means no. Period.

This is a big one. No one can touch you without your expressed consent. You and only you are in control of who touches you and how they touch you – I ask if hugs are ok until I know the person well. That extends to hair, jewelry, clothing, and anything else that is not community property.

Permission given once does not mean that that permission is given forever. It can be revoked at any time for any reason. And agreeing to a touch from one person does not extend that permission to anyone else.

If someone says “no”, whether it’s for a conversation or a touch or sex, that “no” is accepted at face value. There is no “trying to talk someone into it”, no questioning it, and no justification required. A simple “no” should end whatever the hell is happening immediately, and a “no” can be given at absolutely any time. You’re in the middle of ritual sex and one of the people involved suddenly feels uncomfortable? Then that sex stops, on a dime, and the person who put the brakes on it can’t be hassled about that decision.

Boxing gloves should never be required.

Boxing gloves should never be required.

This has to be community enforced. If for whatever reason someone isn’t listening to someone else’s “no”, other members of the community should damn straight step in and assist, up to and including removal of the person with boundary issues. No one should ever feel unsafe.

Negotiate your sex prior to getting naked.

Agreeing to sex doesn’t mean your partner now has total freedom to do whatever they want to you. Agreeing to have sex means you’re agreeing to have sex. How that sex happens still has to be decided. That’s negotiation.

The preferences and boundaries of all participants have to be made very clear before anything happens, and everyone has to be ok working within those expressed boundaries. “I’m ok with this, and love this other thing, but if you do that I’ll have to kill you so don’t.”

Yeah. Talk about it. Even if you think you already know the answer.

Yeah. Talk about it. Even if you think you already know the answer.

Negotiation requires a lot of honesty and communication, but it’s another way to help make sure everyone feels safe. Regular partners can usually boil this down to a short-hand form, since they’ve negotiated before, but it’s still an important step. Things could have changed.

If anything is not specifically agreed to during negotiation, it’s not done in the heat of the moment. Coitus – especially with a new partner – is not the time to whip out the surprises. But saying no at any time is perfectly ok.

In other words, agreements during negotiations are not binding, but refusals are.

If the idea of talking about sex like this makes you uncomfortable, you might want to reconsider whether you’re ready to engage in sexual activity at all. If you can’t talk about it you probably shouldn’t do it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with sitting out until you’ve figured out what you’re ok with, either. I have personally witnessed negotiated “sex” that was three hours of a guy brushing a girl’s hair. And that was perfectly ok. No one present gave it a second thought – except to comment on how gorgeous her hair was.

Sometimes negotiations break down in the middle, and that’s ok too. Maybe the only thing you like sexually is the one thing that freaks your negotiation partner right the hell out. Or vice versa. Aren’t you glad you figured that out before getting naked?

Altered people can’t consent.

People cannot consent if they are chemically altered in any way. If you get drunk or high before the event, stay the hell home. If someone shows up to an event who is drunk or high, don’t let them in. If you were a little enthusiastic with the mead cup during the event, leave if possible or tell someone in charge what’s going on so they can look out for you while you sober up. If the person you want to have sex with is drunk or high, don’t have sex with them.

Here is a handy guide for what you CAN do with someone who’s altered. Fun times!

On this note, the endorphins released by your body during sex are also drugs. Naturally occurring drugs, true, but drugs all the same. That’s why negotiations are done before the sex and not during the sex. Someone suddenly being open during sex to something they were not down with during negotiations? That’s the endorphins talking, and does not constitute consent. They’re altered. Talk about it after the sex, and if they still want whatever you can always have sex again and include it.

Sex space is safe space.

There are a bunch of different types of people involved in the Pagan community, and for many of them the Pagan community is the only one in which they feel completely accepted.

Discrimination in any form – racism, sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, size-phobia, ageism, etc – is simply not acceptable. Anyone who expresses or acts on any of the above is not helping other people feel safe and should either leave or be removed from the area. That goes across the board in general, and is even more important when sex is on the table. Getting naked makes people feel vulnerable enough in this society. There’s no excuse to make that worse.

See? They get it!

See? They get it!

This also extends to the types of activities people are doing. If someone is doing something that makes you uncomfortable, it’s not your right to interrupt them or make them feel bad for liking whatever it is (unless there’s a clear consent/safety issue). You don’t have to watch it either, though. Simply remove yourself from the space, quietly and without fuss.

I’d put relationship drama under this category too. Dragging your relationship drama into a space where people need to feel safe isn’t cool – it drags in a bunch of bad vibes that these people did not sign up for. If you run into an ex, or start that big break-up fight with a soon-to-be ex, take that noise elsewhere. There’s no reason to make everyone present uncomfortable with your personal issues.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Or wherever.

This is another way of making sure people stay safe. Who does what to whom is not discussed with anyone else. You can talk about the event in general terms, and you can certainly discuss what you did, but names and/or identifying characteristics of other people are not yours to share. So don’t. Respect the fact that some people have reasons for not advertising their involvement in whatever went down, and it’s not your right to question their decision. We’re all adults here, and maintaining confidentiality is respectful.

However, if something happens that makes you unsafe? If you see someone else feeling unsafe? If someone is victimized? Then fuck confidentiality. Report it immediately to whoever you can find. Safety trumps confidentiality every time.

Don’t be that guy.

There are a few special rules for those who are doing their thing in group settings, which for Pagans is generally at festivals and conventions. Different venues may have different rules, but these are fairly standard. If you find yourself in one of these more public venues please follow these guidelines. Please.

that guy

A little courtesy goes a LONG way in these situations!

Do not perv on someone having sex in front of you. You can watch. You can get turned on. Depending on the rules of the space you might even be allowed to masturbate. But don’t get right on top of them to watch, don’t interrupt them, don’t ask to join in while they’re in the middle of things, and don’t have a loud conversation right next to them. It’s just rude. Keep a respectful distance away and make sure your enjoyment of what you’re watching doesn’t interfere with what they’re doing.

Clean up after yourself. Dispose of used safer sex materials in the appropriate place. Wipe things down. Sanitize surfaces. Take soiled linens to wherever the soiled linens are supposed to go. Keeping people safe doesn’t just mean emotionally – when body fluids are present there are physical health concerns too.

Keep activities to the designated space. Usually there’s a “social” area and a “sex” area, and the two are kept distinctly separate. Respect that, and use that. Do negotiations in the social space, so that the rules are set before you get lost in the middle of things and agree to something you wouldn’t otherwise be ok with. Overwhelmed in the sex space? Hit the social area. I’ve done entire events in the social area, and that’s ok. Things start heating up between you and your soon-to-be sexual partner(s)? Move it to the sex area. You might be fine having sex in the social area, but that chick in the corner who feels brave for sitting in a chair around naked people won’t like it nearly as much. Respect the space, and by doing so respect the needs of the other people present.

I can see the value of these rules, but how do we start applying them in a Pagan context?

The more that comes out about the people affected by the Kenny Klein situation the more obvious it is that whatever the Pagan community has been doing thus far to keep people safe is not working. We need to try something new.

Hence my posting this. Read it. Share it with your friends, your working group, the people you see at the next PNO, those at the next festival or convention you attend. Discuss it. Disagree with me, even! Because as long as we’re actively engaging these topics we’ll pay better attention to them.

I’d like each and every one of us to start taking responsibility for what’s happening around us. If you see something that makes you or someone else feel unsafe, say something. Speak up for those who, for whatever reason, have difficulty speaking up for themselves. If someone isn’t being heard, add your voice to theirs. Do not be silent. Safety wins out over secrecy every time.

Community support is the most important thing here.

This is HUGE, and it can only happen if we work together.

I’d like to see our communities stop silencing those who speak out and start taking complaints seriously, especially if more than one complaint is brought against the same person.

I’d like to see communities adopt safe space guidelines and then enforce them.

It would be wonderful if someone in each area stepped up to serve as an educator and advocate for those who have questions or encounter problems.

Every young person in our community needs to be taught these rules as soon as possible, so they know how to draw a boundary and what to do if that boundary is not respected.

If there’s a big community Beltane ritual consider offering a class on Safer Pagan Sex – even if no sex will be occurring at the event. Let’s do our best to get everyone on the same page where this kind of thing is concerned.

I’d also like to see every festival and group hold regular classes on what is and is not ok when it comes to Safer Pagan Sex – especially if that festival or group is either having ritualized/magickal sex or has an officially-sanctioned “sex area”. Even better would be making this kind of class required for anyone who wants to participate in the ritualized/magickal sex or visit the designated sex area.

Along with this, festivals and groups would ideally specifically designate people to serve as educators and advocates, just like I suggested above for individual communities. That person should be both very visible and easily available, so they can be found quickly if they’re needed.

I’d like to see training offered to anyone and everyone who wants more information on how to help out newcomers, how to handle complaints, and how to address ritual/magickal sexual abuse in a Pagan-centric way that is healing and sacred.

We might not have these skills and processes in place, but we can. This is my place to start. What’s yours?

Growing Devotions (Pt 1) – Understanding Devotions

Establishing a regular devotional practice is one of the most important – and definitely most basic – things a polytheist can do to honor their faith and the Powers with which they engage. It can also be one of the most challenging things to wrap our heads around. Those of us who have any experience with devotional traditions are usually more familiar with seeing that work handled by specialists if we ever see it done at all, and those of us with no devotional tradition to draw on are completely lost.

Sometimes it’s not that we don’t want to do the work, we simply don’t know what work to do.

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Ok, I’ve made this gorgeous altar – NOW what?

That’s actually ok. Not knowing where to start offers a fabulous opportunity to build a practice from the ground up that meets our needs.

Often we just need to get a handle on something to figure out our approach. Consider this series of posts your handle on devotions. I’m not claiming to be an expert, and my approach is in no way Trad/pantheon/culture/deity specific (outside of a little Celtic cosmology). However, it will get you started on a set of basic devotions that can be easily modified as needed or desired.

Before we talk about how to do them, though, we need to understand what they are.

What are Devotions?

“Devotion” is defined as “a feeling of strong love or loyalty”. “Devotions”, plural, are defined as “prayer, worship, or other religious activities done in private, rather than in a religious service”.

The words are related. After all, if we’re engaging in religious activities of  our own volition in the privacy of our own homes then obviously we feel strong love or loyalty to some aspect of our practice.

And yet it goes beyond that. Do you remember the movie Dogma? In one scene Bethany talks to a coworker about going to church:

Coworker: “Does [going to church] do anything for you?”
Bethany: “It gives me time to balance my checkbook every week.”
Coworker: “That’s what I’m saying. People don’t go to church to feel spiritual anymore.”
Bethany: “They go to church and feel bored.”

What Bethany’s missing is a sense of engagement. The types of traditional religious services most of us are familiar with don’t really have one. The priest lectures the crowd, maybe a choir sings, and attendees either pay attention to the guy at the front or fall asleep.

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This is not the face of a woman enthralled with what she’s doing.

Devotions are more personal, more one-and-one, and more engaging than the typical church model, and that’s a profound change is perspective.

As a hard polytheist I accept that the Powers with Whom I work are distinct individuals outside of me and that I can interact with Them. That’s fundamental – it’s what separates a hard polytheist from the other types of theists out there.

I know that if I listen, They will speak and I will eventually understand. That as long as I reach out, They will grasp my hand. That if I make time for Them, clear space in my day for Them, that They will fill up the empty places.

That’s what devotions do – they make space for the Powers to fill.

Why Should I Care?

Prioritizing a relationship with the Powers, nurturing a connection with Them, simply makes our lives better. To take it even further, by connecting with the Powers we connect with ourselves, each other, and our world in a deeper and more meaningful way.

So let’s break that down.

Connecting with the Powers Makes Our Lives Better

When I started out on this path 20 years ago damn near every book I found aimed at newbies assumed that most people were kind of lost and miserable. They were essentially magickal cookbooks – complete with lists upon lists of necessary tools and ingredients – with a veneer of faith kind of tacked on at the end. People would do the magick, notice an improvement in whatever area the magick addressed, and then have to keep doing the magick to keep the momentum going. It was a never-ending circle of “magick magick everything!”.

All this magick had to be constantly redone because it never dealt with the actual problem. Because the reason all these people were unhappy and unfulfilled? They were living out of balance with the Powers, and had spiritually advanced just enough to realize it but not enough to know what it meant or how to fix it. They were using magick to impose balance from the outside, and that never holds for long.

It’s been said that all blessings flow from Them. I don’t know if I’ll go quite that far – people have agency too, and sometimes good things randomly happen. However, I will say that the more balanced my relationships with Them become, and the more I trust where They lead me, the less magick I do. There’s no reason for me to go through a whole rigamarole when I just have to accept the multitude of gifts They offer. Nowadays the most I do is charge water with healing when I’m sick and do shielding work.

That’s not just me, either. As I’ve helped my students develop a more devotional relationship with the Powers I’ve watched their use of magick drop steadily too.

I sincerely believe – and have seen demonstrated – that a life lived in balance with the Powers is a life that works. Who doesn’t want that?

Connecting with the Powers Connects Us to Everything Else

I think many of us wrestle with feeling disconnected from the world around us. As a society we’re often closer to the people we watch on TV than we are to our neighbors, we check our phones for the weather instead of opening a window, and phone/computer interfacing often substitutes for face-to-face interaction. Polytheists have an extra disadvantage here, because our community is so scattered that getting together with like-minded people who share our worldview can be very rare indeed. Feeling disconnected and adrift is totally understandable, but can be harmful to us long-term. Fostering a connection with the Powers anchors us.

Through our connections with the Land Spirits we connect to the present moment, to our bodies, to the environment, to the wind and the rain and the dirt under our feet. By connecting with the Ancestors we connect to a sense of history, to the realization that humanity really is interdependent, to every heartbeat of every person who has ever lived. Connecting with the Gods connects us to possibility and growth and change, to the joy and price of knowledge, to hopes and visions and futures.

And every single devotional act we do deepens those connections.

Even better, the more individuals find their personal balance with the Powers, the closer humanity as a whole gets to balancing with the Powers. That improves things for everyone.

Really, I think the question here is not why should we care about doing devotions, but how can we not?

Approaching Devotions

The most common approach I’ve seen beginners take to developing a devotional practice seems to be going at it piece-meal, a little of this from over here and a bit of that from over there. A collage is created from different sources – even different cultures – that is in no way cohesive. The practices may even conflict, and trying to make them all fit together, and then fit into our modern life, often robs them of the very things we found appealing about them in the first place.

The biggest issue with the collage approach is that rarely do we have a cultural frame for what we use. Traditional devotional practices mirror cultural aspects even the traditional practitioners may have consciously forgotten. When we adopt a practice without understanding it, we also risk cultural appropriation. That’s never a good thing, but it’s especially bad when applied to our devotional work.

Luckily we have alternatives. Instead of acting like magpies and stealing anything shiny we can instead approach this in one of two ways.

1)      We can do our very best to reconstruct ancient practices from a specific culture, relying on all the hard data available and judiciously filling in gaps with culturally-similar practices as appropriate, even if we don’t fully understand why a specific practice was significant.

2)      We can learn the underlying philosophies of a specific culture as best we can and then develop a devotional practice based on those ideas, even if the specific practices themselves are historically incorrect.

For me it basically comes down to a decision between practice leading to understanding or understanding leading to practice. Both approaches have their issues and neither is inherently better than the other. I tend to go more with the second because that’s how my head works. I recommend going whichever way works with your head.

My Approach

I work within a mostly Celtic cosmology of Land/Sea/Sky. My symbol for that is the triquetra:

Apologies for my basic usage of Paint.

Apologies for my basic usage of Paint.

Here we see Land, Sea, and Sky – for devotional purposes Land Spirits, Ancestors, and Gods – all balanced out in this lovely flower shape. The circle on the outside further connecting the Three Realms symbolizes movement, the energy flowing between them.

And that red splotch in the center? That’s each individual person around whom the Realms spin. (That is not to say that humans are the center of everything, because they’re not. But for now we’re focusing on one individual human perspective.)

Think of each person as the hub of their own Wheel. They are the center point around which everything in their life turns. That center needs to be steady and strong to get everything spinning correctly.

So the first step of my approach to devotions focuses on helping us find a solid place within themselves on which to balance everything else. We have to find and maintain their Centers. This is key. Because each Center is in a different place, the balance we find with each of the Realms will be different too. My approach is all about striking an individual balance, as opposed to some sort of one-size-fits-all practice.

Once we sort out our Centers, we can then establish connections to the entities already sharing our physical space – the Land Spirits – and get comfortable with maintaining those relationships. When that’s stable we can add in a connection to our Ancestors, and learn how to keep all of those relationships stable simultaneously. When the Center and established connections are strong, then we can establish connections with the Gods and balance everything together.

Achieving balance between and within the Three Realms is imperative. It takes real dedication, and this work is ever really finished. It’s not a “done once, done forever” kind of deal. Our Centers can change, requiring rebalancing. Things from the outside can make us bobble somewhere, which means we have to fine-tune the whole system again. Things with which we balance ourselves – jobs and relationships and and health, for instance – can change with our without our consent and result in a system overhaul.

Thankfully balance is, in some ways, a self-regulating system. The more balanced everything is, the harder it is to lose the balance. What once sent our whole world into a tailspin can become something more easily juggled, because it’s just one thing as opposed to everything. We’re no longer establishing the balance, we’re simply maintaining it. And practicing that balance every day gives us the skills we need to cope with variables that bobble the system.

It might sound complicated. I promise, it’s really not. I’ll take us through each one of these steps, one by one, with lots of detail. Each will get their own post, giving me space to really go into detail for each. A final post will tie it all neatly together and provide tips on establishing a regular practice that works when time, money, and energy are all limited. I’ll also provide my perspective on how to tweak these basics to suit whatever devotions will best support your personal practice.

Good here? Time to move on to finding your Center!

A Southern Girl’s Guide to Hospitality

Let’s face it: a lot of the information out there about interacting with the Kindreds and establishing a devotional practice is damned intimidating for a beginner.

Most of us in the West don’t have a devotional tradition to draw on, and when we try to find others who can maybe show us the way we drown in technical terms and ideas we can’t understand yet. Add in the arguments about the info that is available and it can be more confusing than helpful.

I’m not an expert by any means, but I have been doing this for awhile. I figured I’d provide my perspective for any beginners out there simply looking for a place to start.

Maybe you’re new to the whole idea of hard polytheism, and just don’t know how to interact with entities who are real individuals and not theoretical constructs. Or maybe you’ve had an experience you don’t understand with an entity you’d like to get to know better. Maybe you’ve never had an experience like that and would like to. Perhaps you want to take your practice out of the Circle for the first time and start working with Them in day-to-day life. Or it could be that you’re none of these things and simply want some new ideas.

If any of that applies, then this is the post for you. Forget about “god phones” and “Ordeal” and “god spouses” and everything else that can be confusing and overwhelming. You can get to that later.

Right now? Right now we’re going to focus on the foundation of it all: Hospitality.

What is Hospitality?

Simply put, Hospitality is the fabric of social interaction. It’s how we make others feel welcomed, enjoyed, and appreciated in our presence. We normally talk about it in terms of “host” and “guest”, but with some tweaking it applies to every interaction we have.

The most basic premise is “treat others as you’d like to be treated”. This applies across the board, whether you’re dealing with your neighbor down the hall or a God that fills you with awe and reverence. There’s a reason why every culture I’ve ever come across values Hospitality so very highly. Without it we can’t connect to others – and a devotional relationship is all about connection.

Connections go two ways, and Hospitality is reciprocal. All of us have to do it for it to work. Just as fabric requires a warp and a weft to be woven, so too does Hospitality require all parties involved to engage. The very first extension of Hospitality sets the tone for future interactions. I treat you well, you treat me well, we both respond in kind, and our relationship is strong and balanced and everyone’s happy. It’s when Hospitality is not reciprocated that we start having issues.

This is really important when we’re dealing with the Kindreds. No one likes to be taken for granted, and often the only times people interact with Them is to ask a favor. That’s not how you treat those you honor and value. Without extending Hospitality first, that whole “setting the tone for future interactions” thing never happens.

And that’s a problem. Without that connection, that mutual maintaining of the social fabric, They are not any more inclined to bother with you than you would be inclined to deal with some random stranger who popped up out of nowhere and asked for money.

Many of us really don’t get Hospitality as a concept. We never learned it.  However, when it came to establishing devotional practices with the Kindreds I was lucky. I do have a tradition of Hospitality to draw on. I’m a Southern girl. Hospitality is born and bred into those of us born below the Mason-Dixon, and the rules don’t change simply because the entities who come callin’ are non-corporeal. Hospitality has guided my interactions with the Kindreds from day one, and when in doubt about how to proceed it’s still my fallback.

The Basics

There are a few basics to Southern Hospitality that are directly applicable when working with the Kindreds: being ready to entertain, offering food and drink, and showing respect.

Be Ready to Entertain

When I was growing up I was quickly taught the difference between public and private areas in the home. Public areas were anywhere guests might go, and private areas required an invitation. The distinction was important, because the public areas had to be public-ready at all times, just in case we got unexpected visitors. Guests had to immediately feel comfortable, and that meant things needed to be straightened and dusted and plumped and generally feel welcoming. Not perfectly cleaned, of course. Then it looked too perfect, which made company think they had put us out and required extra effort on our parts. Just tended and together. (Of course, when I’m expecting company I sterile-clean everything, then leave like a glass in the sink so it doesn’t look like I tried too hard. But I digress.)

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*bustles over to the sink* “Oh, let me get that towel. Sorry the place is such a wreck, hon. I wasn’t expecting company, but I’m SO glad you’re here!” *hugs* “You just have a seat and get comfy – would you like some sweet tea?”

Additionally, the formality of the visit and how well I know the guests determines where they’re entertained. Company I don’t feel particularly close to get entertained in the living room. Family gets a seat at the dining table (and usually coffee – we’re all into the caffeine). That’s just the way it works.

It’s really no different for the Kindreds. The areas They visit need to be clean and tended to. Ones I don’t really know yet get entertained at the altar. Ones I work closely with either have a shrine space decorated to Their preferences or get invited to the dining room table. Land Spirits almost invariably get the run of the kitchen, unless They request differently. My Lady goes wherever the hell She pleases. All of those places need to be kept at least moderately presentable at all times. No dust on the altar, the shrines tended, the table cleared, and everything just generally picked up.

Offering Food and Drink

When someone first moves into a Southern neighborhood, neighbors often bake a cake (or cookies, or pie – usually something very dessert-like) and bring it to the new family. The new family then offers a beverage (almost always sweet tea) to the visitors and they all share the dessert together.

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A typically Southern presentation – sweet tea and a tart.

While they’re all eating and drinking they get to know each other. Introductions are exchanged, advice on local attractions is given, and offers of assistance are made. The new residents are thus encouraged to become entrenched in their new community. Southern people traditionally look after each other, and that whole relationship begins with an initial exchange of items guaranteed to send people into a diabetic coma. From then on every time the neighbors visit the host offers food and drink, in echo of the original exchange that helped them get to know each other in the first place.

Southerners are all about the food and drink. Looking back, I cannot think of a single social occasion – not one – where food and drink weren’t somehow involved. That initial offering of cake and tea is the whole foundation for connections between people. It’s a physical embodiment of a social contract.

That doesn’t change simply because the guests aren’t physical. We just take on the role of physical hosts. We invite Them to visit us, and offer Them food and drink while They’re here. It’s being friendly.

There are a couple of levels to the food and drink thing.

1)      Visiting Fare: Desserts are almost all “Southern specialties”. Most people seem to have one thing they make in this category that’s like a signature dish, and they keep it around all the time just in case. Fresh-baked cookies, pies, and cakes are standard fare. (I do no-bake drop cookies.) Breads and rolls work too, as do appetizer things, and in a pinch store bought is perfectly acceptable. Sweet tea and coffee are both commonly offered drinks, but any liquid including water is fine. These are kept handy for any “just stopping in to say hi!” visits. As we saw above, these also work for “let’s be friends” presents.

2)      Sharing a Meal: This is the next step up from drink and dessert. The host doesn’t go through anything special, they simply offer the guest a portion of whatever they’re having for their meal. This always includes a drink, and often includes a dessert (and if it didn’t before, the host’ll hit their “just dropping by” stash and make dessert happen).  Common when someone stops by at mealtime (since eating in front of a guest without offering a portion is incredibly rude) and during long visits.

3)      Invited Sit-Down: This is when the guest is specifically invited to attend something like a dinner party, and the host pulls out all the stops. We’re talking nice dishes, tablecloths with candles, multiple courses, and a meal designed to suit the tastes (and dietary restrictions) of the guest. The host is not expected to break themselves to pay for it, though – it’s fortunate so many Southern meals are cheap to make!

4)      Potluck: When the host invites multiple guests – think backyard barbeque or a big fish fry – guests typically bring a dish for everyone to share. If the event is small enough the host handles the entrée (or the main dish for something like a birthday party if no entrée will be served), and guests handle all the appetizers, desserts, and sides. For truly large events everyone brings something, and multiple people bring entrée dishes. That way people can celebrate together, there’s enough for everyone, and no one person has to bear all the costs. And hey, if you bring something you’ll know there’s at least one item there you like.

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Um, yeah. The Southern potluck is an endurance sport. Expecting one person to cook all that is just inhumane, especially in 100* weather!

This directly relates to offering food and drink for the Kindreds. The first level? That’s the kind of offering made when you’re just saying “hi”, whether it’s a standard daily thing or an introduction. Sharing a meal is a nice thing to do with Kindreds you’re already working with – I make them a plate of whatever I’m having, and I generally shoot for something I cook myself. The “invited sit-down” level is where planned meals in a specific Kindred’s honor come in. When the whole community is involved in a ritual and honoring, like a Sabbat observance, everyone who shows can bring something to share with other guests and with the Kindreds.

I’ll go into how to do all this in the later posts (yes, another series is already in progress!), but the concept is straight out of Southern hospitality rules. Offerings don’t have to involve a whole cast and choreography crew, or be ruinously expensive – simply share what you have as you can, and if even a slice of cake and glass of tea are beyond your resources water works just fine. It’s the offer that’s important, not so much what’s being offered at this early stage.

Showing Respect

So the guests are comfortable in the clean and pretty space you’ve prepared. You’ve made the initial overture of offerings. Now you get to interact and play host/ess. Because you’re a polite person, you want to interact with everyone respectfully. Luckily Hospitality has rules for that too.

1)      Respect Other Perspectives: Acknowledge the fact that you don’t know everything, that your experience and perspectives are limited, and that everyone has something useful to contribute to a discussion. That means sincerely listening when other people speak and considering what they say, not dominating the conversation or interrupting, and inviting everyone to participate and feel like part of the discussion.

2)      Respect Conversation: If you can, before a guest shows up find out about who they are and what they do. Then ask about it when everyone gets together. Southerners don’t just gossip to gossip – it’s another way to create community. Ask after the baby their sister had, how their job at the mill is going, whatever. It shows sincere interest.

3)      Respect Timing: It’s often jarring to go from “hello!” to “get to work”. Small talk allows us to ease into the issue at hand, and then ease out again. It also allows us to demonstrate interest in the person in front of us for more than what they can do for us. In an emergency this can go out the window, but otherwise? Life’s a bit slower in the South. Slow down and allow things to unfold naturally. It makes everything warmer and friendlier.

4)      Respect the Unexpected: If an unexpected guest shows up and you can possibly manage it, make them feel absolutely welcomed and like you wanted them there all along. If it becomes a habit you don’t like, gently talk to them about it while letting them know this isn’t a rejection of their company but their timing. If someone you didn’t expect shows up at a party or whatever, try extra hard to make them feel welcomed. If you absolutely can’t manage a visit due to scheduling, apologize profusely and reschedule.

Again, this all directly relates to interacting with the Kindreds. When engaging with Them, give Them time to talk too. Actively listen to what They say to you, and offer up your own responses. If They are quiet, ask Them to speak and give Them time to do so, and be perfectly ok with it if They choose to stay quiet anyway. Do your research before They show if you can, so you know a bit about who you’re visiting with, and leave yourself open to hearing their side of the story too. Visit with Them and chat a bit – and remember that conversations go two ways. And of course, if Someone drops by to visit without being planned do your best to accommodate Them. If it’s simply not possible, reconnect with Them as soon as you can and visit.

Advanced Ideas

When in doubt you can’t really go wrong with the basics of a tended space, a thoughtful offering, and respectful behavior. However, should your relationship(s) deepen the Hospitality you offer will change. That’s perfectly normal. You’ll find out what specifically makes Them comfortable when They visit, so if you get a strong sense that They want to change something, that’s fine. Go with it.

This could include things like favored foods and drinks, preferred incenses, greetings They particularly enjoy that remind Them of times past, etc. For instance, the Land Spirits I’ve worked with don’t really like sweet tea, but I’ve yet to meet one that doesn’t like milk. During Beltane, when I specifically reach out to the Land, I make a big deal about bringing in a wide variety of non-local cheeses and honeys, so They can sample stuff They may not have had before. Several  Gods I’ve worked with like alcoholic beverages, but preferences ranged from chardonnay and merlot to beer and rum spiced with red peppers. One Goddess I’ve worked with actually prefers pure spring water.

Just as in human relationships, the depth of what you share with a Kindred can change too. Perhaps the initial introduction leads to a friendship, or a teacher/student arrangement, or a love affair. All of that will develop in time, as you and the Kindred in question get to know each other. That’s when things like “god phones” and “god spouses” and such come into play, and They’ll tell you when (or even if) They want that.

But to start? Practice basic Hospitality. Dust the altar, offer a slice of cake and a glass of sweet tea, settle in for a nice visit, and see what you learn!

Envelopes, Labels, and Gods

People have wondered at the appeal of the Twilight Saga. Especially since Bella doesn’t really have a character. She’s got some blurry qualities, but her personality is amazingly bland (if you leave aside a complete lack of common sense with safety issues). Yet the books and movies have become worldwide beststellers even with a main character who has the personality of a stupid potato.

I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes Bella such a compelling character is her lack of character. She is an envelope into which any fan can slip herself. So the story is, invariably, about someone just like them. Readers aren’t watching her life, they’re vicariously living it. It makes them a part of the story. That’s the draw.

That same appeal, I think, is what makes the concept of archetypes so enduring and compelling. It’s also what makes them so potentially awful.

On the one hand an archetype is dead easy for everyone to relate to. We can see how the Maiden manifests in our lives, or when we’ve set forth on a new journey like the Fool, or fought like the Warrior. Stories and myths using these archetypes are accessible to each of us in different ways, allowing us to relate to the stories individually while still sharing the communal story experience. That can only serve to build community and give us a common language.

But Pagans have taken that a step further. Some actually have shrines to a given archetype on their altar, or hold rituals for them. Even more common, especially in group work, is to invite “all the Mother goddesses!” to a Circle followed by a damn roll call. The archetype concept is used to simultaneously categorize and impose labels on the Divine. Personally, as a polytheist it alternately creeps me out and pisses me the hell off.

No one I’ve ever met worships the “pure idea of the Maiden”. I honestly don’t think there can be such a thing. They worship “the Maiden archetype as defined through my own experience”. That’s a whole different concept altogether. If the archetype is an empty character envelope into which we can slip aspects of our Self. and then we worship that, we’re not going “up”, we’re going “in”. It’s not the Divine we interact with, it’s our subconscious brought out as a playmate.

If that’s what you want to do go for it. Jungian therapy has been doing something similar for years as a psychological tool and many people find it helpful. Just be aware of what you’re doing. The archetype isn’t a deity, it’s a construct in your own head.

I think using archetypes this way is actively detrimental to our practice. Archetypes come from us. A practitioner’s Maiden will never surprise them, or come up with something bizarre they have to cope with. There may be gradual realizations that come about as people grow, but there’s not the give-and-take you get with a completely different personality because there’s NOT one. The “eureka” moments are fewer and farther between because there’s no one outside of yourself to guide you, challenge you, or force you to look into your hidden/scary places.

What’s even worse is that various deities – with full characters and opinions and needs, thank you very much – are shoved into these “archetype envelopes” and left there. All the amazing things that separate and individualize them and yet don’t fit in the envelope are tossed out and forgotten – and once that happens it often isn’t fixed. Arianrhod was dragged into The White Goddess, and for the most part She’s been stuck there since. How many Pagans in the world see Her as anything other than “the Welsh mother/moon goddess”? Despite the fact that the slightest bit of research blows that whole notion out of the water completely? Not very many. It’s frankly insulting to Her.

Unfortunately this problem happens all the time. It’s the exact same issue that underlies the equation of deities with each other. For example, Odin is often called “the Norse Zeus”. About the only thing Odin and Zeus have in common is heading up their respective pantheons. They are two very different gods, from two very different cultures, with two wildly different personalities and experiences. But that’s disregarded completely. They’re both “Father Gods”, right? And since we have a vague idea of what “Father God” means – filtered through modern Western conceptions shaped by Christianity – we think of them both like that despite the fact that it’s wrong. The label on the envelope doesn’t just categorize, it defines. Athena and the Morrigan and other “War/Battle Goddesses”, Loki and Coyote and other “Tricksters”… It’s constant. We don’t see them individually. We just shove ‘em all into an envelope, slap a label on it, think that one label defines the contents, and go about our day.

The danger here is that people are, by and large, lazy thinkers. Using envelopes for our Gods means that eventually the envelope becomes all there is. We’ll forget that Odin gave an eye for wisdom, that Athena turned a woman into a spider for hubris, that Loki is also called the Breaker of Worlds. Once a habit of thought is established it’s difficult to break, and once it’s socially accepted it’s even harder.

There is no difference between treating a deity as nothing more than an imposed label and doing the same thing to minorities. In both cases the one in question is reduced and demeaned to fit in with preconceived notions that deny them their individuality. Most Pagans/polytheists see themselves as socially liberal – how can we advocate better treatment for people while simultaneously disrespecting our Gods? Even our language shows this lack of respect. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Pagans talk about “using a love goddess” in a given ritual. Newsflash: we don’t “use” deities. Sure, those saying it don’t know they’re being insensitive and dismissive – but I don’t think those using casual racism, sexism, or any other –ism in random conversation do either.

Are archetypes as a whole something we should explain to new Pagans? Yes, because they ARE accessible and it IS a common language. Are they handy lenses through which to examine stories and myths for greater understanding? Absolutely. But that’s the line, right there. Using an archetype during ritual, or making offerings to one, or otherwise shoving deities into envelopes further separates us from the Divine – the OPPOSITE of what we’re trying to do.

It also makes my skin crawl. End of.