Striking the Spark – Using Oil Lamps

This is the final post of a four part series. Posts one, two, and three need to be read before reading this entry for clarity.

Now that we’ve made (or are thinking about making) an oil lamp, what do we do with it?

Like most things you’re pretty much limited only by your creativity. They’re so easy to customize that there are more options than I can possibly list. Think of them as having the flexibility of candle magick with a bit more permanence. LOTS of options!

I’ll hit a few of the uses here to get you started.

One thing to keep in mind? Oil lamps have two usable parts – the flame, and the fuel. That expands the techniques quite a bit.

Meditation and Dreamwork

This is perhaps the most widespread use of the oil lamp in spiritual practice, especially those that burn olive oil. The flame is incredibly steady, making it ideal for use as a meditative focus. It’s also dimmer than petroleum flames so it’s easier on the eyes (important to me, since I’m photosensitive).

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A simple Buddhist altar, with an oil lamp for meditation.

Oil lamps give some flexibility to meditation beyond what candles can offer. For instance, it’s incredibly simple to mix a few drops of essential oil into the olive oil, offering a light scent and a way to boost the correspondences of the oil used.

One of my favorite techniques is to anoint my third eye with oil from the lamp as a boost to my meditation, especially when I’m trying to deal with a specific issue. I’ll say a short prayer prior to lighting the lamp to ask for clarity, light the lamp, and then anoint with the oil before I settle in to my meditation session. This can also be done before sleep to enhance dreamwork.

Divination

Simply use the flame to illuminate the divination surface/tool. This is especially useful during crystal or mirror work. The steady flame that’s so useful for meditation is a natural fit here. And again, just like with meditation the oil can be customized with essential oils and used to anoint both the reader and the tools.

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For this lamp the base of the crystal ball also helps support multiple wicks.

It is also good for fire scrying. The steady flame doesn’t offer the shapes some people look for when scrying in things like campfires, which can take some adjustment. However, the flame itself plus the meditative headspace it creates, when focused on a topic, can provide a wonderful divination method.

Cleansing and Blessing Work

Back in the day the Greeks didn’t have soap (soap was a Celtic thing). The Greeks cleaned themselves by covering themselves liberally in olive oil and then scraping it off. Olive oil still has that association with cleansing, and with olive oil being the primary fuel for these kinds of lamps cleansing uses seem to be a no-brainer. Especially since the flame itself of course brings in all the transformational and purifying qualities associated with fire.

Add a little rosemary or sage oil to the olive oil already being used and you’ve got something that literally “burns away” destructive energy in a given space. It’s similar to a smudge stick, without all the smoke that is difficult to breathe and the bits of sage falling away that can start unintended fires. It can even (carefully) be carried around to “shine its light everywhere” if that’s desired.

I greatly prefer this to candles. For one, adding a few drops of sage oil to the olive oil is much neater than rubbing oil all over a candle and then having to carry it around. *shrug* That matters. The lack of smoke from this kind of lamp is also a huge bonus, especially when cleansing a sickroom. A dedicated lamp used for cleansing also carries that cleansing intent between workings, which is a bit harder to get from anointed and carved candles.

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The blessing of St. Jude Oil at a shrine in NYC. St. Jude Oil is used as a protection against evil and healing for both mind and body.

Another technique – one I use every time I do any altar work at all – is to incorporate a lamp into personal cleansing work. I light the lamp, use the flame to help calm and center myself, and then “breathe in” the flame. I visualize the flame burning away any impurity inside of me before I address myself to the Powers. Visualize the flame radiating through you to your immediate environment and you can cleanse that too.

And of course the oil can be used to anoint people and objects for cleansing.

Shielding

Light the flame of the lamp. Everywhere illuminated by the lamp is shielded, either by the flame itself or by the Presence it signifies (discussed below).

Honoring, Offering, and Presence Lamps

Oil lamps are foundational tools used around the world for shrines and temples. The lit lamp symbolizes the presence of a given Power. The maintenance of the lamp – trimming the wick, filling the lamp, meditation time before it – is also often seen as an offering to that Power.

A related use is providing a definite start/stop time for a specific presence. There are some Powers that you really don’t want lurking around. If Their presence is tied to a lamp, so They are only present when it’s lit and are not present when it’s not, you’ve essentially got a switch. It’s not foolproof, of course, and it needs to be set up, but I find it works rather well.

Using the same lamp over and over again, and simply topping it off as needed, keeps that “setting” going strong. And, as always, the oil can be used for anointing. In this case it can connect you to a given Power and convey blessings.

Spellworkings

Just as a lamp can provide an on/off switch for a given Presence, so too can it provide the same type of service for a given working.

Set up any working you like, especially if you plan on repeating the same working. (I find this particularly applicable to shielding and other defensive work, but that’s how I’m wired. YMMV.) Incorporate the creation of a dedicated lamp into whatever spellcraft you’re doing. When you want to “activate” the working, light the lamp. When you’re done with it, extinguish the lamp.

Memorials

Oil lamps are often lit to honor those who have passed during tragic circumstances, especially after disasters, battles, or terrorist attacks. This is a wonderful tradition to add to Veteran’s Day and Samhain observances, as well as working well for specific memorials throughout the year.

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A girl lights oil lamps at a Buddhist temple to honor those killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Sri Lanka.

Uniting Groups

If a group is working in separate physical locations, individuals lighting oil lamps similar to those lit by others in the group can help unite them, especially if the lighting and extinguishing follow a set liturgy/ritual. It doesn’t have to be long – a sentence and gesture might be all that’s needed – but it works. One person can purchase wicking, hack off pieces, and send them to the other members, so the wicking is all in common. Another way to unify the lamps is to have one person bless and add essential oils to a gallon of olive oil, and then mail smaller bottles containing that oil to everyone else. Remember, one one-liter bottle can burn for 250-300 hours, so a little goes a long way!

Signifying Initiation

Let’s say a group uses oil lamps on their personal altars. If someone new comes into that group, lighting their brand new lamp from the flame of an established member is a way to make them part of the group – they’re sharing the same flame.

Signifying Graduation

This is similar to the above. When someone has graduated their teaching and is qualified to teach others, their oil lamp is lit from their teacher’s to show that the knowledge has been passed on and the new student now has authorization to share that knowledge with others, eventually lighting other lamps themselves.

Passing the Torch

When one person takes over the roles/duties of another in a group setting, lighting the incoming person’s lamp with the outgoing person’s lamp is a highly visible way to “pass the torch”. If done with a perpetual flame, the same flame might burn through terms of office, regardless of who fills the role.

Etc, etc, etc

There are even more uses than these, of course. Feel free to experiment and come up with something that uniquely fits your practice. I’d love to hear what you come up with!

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Striking the Spark – Constructing the Floating Wick Oil Lamp

This is the third in a four part series. Please read part one and part two before proceeding.

The floating wick oil lamp can be even easier than the standing wick lamp, depending on how it’s approached. And either way there are fewer steps!

Materials

The container for the floating wick lamp tends to be easier to find. Any wine glass works, for instance. Glass, ceramic, and metal are all appropriate choices, and I find glass particularly fitting because it doesn’t block the flame even when the liquid level drops. About the only real shape considerations are that a) you want it taller than it is wide unless you want more than one wick, and b) it needs to hold at least 1 cup of liquid. More is fine, but less liquid requires more frequent tending, which can be inconvenient.

Instructions

These are instructions for building two different versions! Either way the first step is the same, though.

1) Assemble your supplies.

The container for this lamp is a red wine glass picked up on clearance. Also needed are a pair of duck-billed pliers, a pair of wrapping pliers, a pair of wire cutters, a cup of water (not pictured), about two feet of 14g copper wire, a cork wick float, and maybe a ruler. (The wire and the wick float make two different versions of the floating wick lamp, so decide which one you want before assembling your supplies. The wick float was purchased at the same supply house that provided the wicking.)

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Again, any wire can be used. I stuck with regular copper for this lamp too.

For the Wick Float Version:

The wick float is a very simple little device. It consists of a piece of sealed cork with a metal shield on top. The cork is sealed to prevent it from absorbing oil and sinking, and the metal shield prevents the cork from catching on fire. For most floats all that remains is a hole in the center through which the wick is strung. However, I decided to go with the slightly fancier model that features adjustable “rabbit ears”. These are supposed to allow the user to raise or lower the wick without getting their fingers oily. In my experience they don’t work well for that, but they do provide convenient handles for lifting the entire float.

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See? Bunny ears!

All that’s necessary to use this is threading the wick through the float and plopping it in the lamp. *shrug* Assembly done! Once the wick is saturated in oil it’s ready to light.

The only “trick” here is the composition of the lamp oil. First fill the container about halfway with water. Add a pinch of salt if desired (blessing it is entirely optional), then top off with olive oil. Allow the liquids enough time to settle out, with the oil floating cleanly on top of the water, before adding and lighting the float.

It’s a really ingenious system – the wick floats in the oil until the oil’s gone, at which point it absorbs the water and extinguishes the flame. It’s like a built-in timer!

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You can make out the oil/water layers in this picture, and see the extra wicking swirling around in the back.

This version of the lamp cost me about $8, including the glass. I’m SUCH a big spender! *laugh*

For the Wire Wick Holder Version:

This is another holder made from bending wire, like the standing wick lamp, and there’s even less to bend with this style. However, the measurements have to be fairly exact to work because it has to balance on whatever vessel you’ve chosen. You can actually measure it out (with the ruler), or do it by eye with the wire in-hand. Whichever works for you.

1) Make a center twist.

Center the wire and make a corkscrew-twist with two rotations to hold the wick. Since this is designed to sit at the center of the glass, the two “arms” of the holder will each equal the radius of the vessel. Once you have that measurement kink the wire 90* as shown in the picture.

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The measurements here are completely dependent on the vessel chosen. This measurement fits inside of the glass I used.

2) Make other bends as needed to fit your vessel.

As you can tell this whole technique is highly dependent on what vessel you go with. I kinked the arms above to fit inside the glass, but that alone wasn’t enough to properly balance it on the lip of the glass and make sure it was sturdy. So I bent it some more. Because the glass has a flared lip it was a bit more challenging, but I eventually came up with something that worked. Experimentation is key.

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These angles will keep the center wick-holder centered as well as almost clamping it to the sides of the glass.

3) Finish off the wire ends.

Once you’ve got the wire holder done you’ve got to decide what to do with the remaining wire ends. I could have decided to just clip them below the lip part, but I wanted something decorative and pretty. So once more with the spirals! I spiraled the ends up, and made them large to help “seat” the holder over the glass. Once again the spirals looked bare, so I hit my bead stash and made pretty little dangles for the spirals. And here’s the final product!

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As with the floating wick lamp, simply thread the wicking through the holder part, wait until it’s saturated with oil, and light.

At about $6 this lamp came in a little cheaper than the floating wick lamp, simply because wire is cheaper than the cost of the pre-made wick float. The only reason the standing wick lamp was $10 more expensive was because of the vessel I chose – change that and there’s not much cost difference at all between the styles, so it really is a matter of personal preference.

The next post will offer some tips and techniques for actually using the lamps we’ve made in this series!

Striking the Spark – The History of Oil Lamps

This post introduces oil lamps. The two posts after this will be step-by-step tutorials of how to make your own version of two different styles. The final post will discuss how to use the lamp you’ve made.

One of my favorite stories is the Greek myth about how humans first got fire.

Prometheus was a Titan who created mankind (and all the other species of the earth) from mud. Athena breathed life into the mud figures Prometheus made, and Epimetheus (another Titan) was tasked with gifting all the creatures of the earth with their various qualities and skills, like cunning and speed and fur and talons and scales.

That all worked beautifully, except that by the time Epimetheus got around to gifting mankind there were no more gifts to give. So Prometheus decided that man should walk upright like the Gods and have fire to boot.

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Prometheus Creating Man in the Presence of Athena (Detail), by Jean-Simon Berthelemy and Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse.

His work for mankind didn’t stop there, though. As the Titan god of forethought and cunning he was pretty damn clever. Clever enough to trick Zeus into accepting bones and fat as the portion of sacrifices meant for the gods, leaving the meat for man. Zeus was not amused by this, however, and He was a sore loser. So he punished mankind by taking fire away from them.

Prometheus couldn’t bear to see man so cold and helpless without fire. He stole some from the Hall of the Gods/the sun in response (sources differ as to location), and used that to replace the fire Zeus had taken away. In retaliation for the theft Zeus gave mankind Pandora with her jar, and Prometheus got eternal torture.

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“Torture” in this case referring to Zeus chaining Prometheus down and having an eagle eat his liver. Which was bad enough, but HIS liver kept regenerating. So the eagle ate it EVERY DAY. No wonder Prometheus is known as the Helper of Mankind! He was eventually rescued by Herakles, so at least the torture eventually ended.

There’s so much to love in this story, what with the layers and the ethical questions and the perspectives, even in the bare-bones version I give above. Disregarding all of that, however, we can see that fire itself has long been recognized as essential and necessary for the development of mankind and the growth of civilization.

We see the same idea – albeit in a less engaging form – in modern times when we check out current scientific research. Not only did fire allow early humans to cook food and create weapons, cognitive evolution studies now suggest that fire itself physically “altered our brains, helping endow us with capabilities such as long-term memory and problem-solving”.

According to the theory, having a fire that kept predators at bay allowed humans to sleep deeply enough at night to enter REM sleep, improving our ability to learn multi-step tasks like tool manufacturing.

Even more exciting, fire could have directly changed the way our brains work. Focusing on fire allowed early humans to reach meditative states, and the regions of the brain affected by those states overlap quite a bit with the brain regions that govern working memory. It’s working memory that allows us to think about multiple things at once and relate concepts to each other, and “it’s an essential trait for imagining and executing complicated plans”. People would have first experienced this without trying, just by sitting around a campfire.

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Like this one. Sadly, there were no s’mores for early man.

Whether we approach it from a mythic viewpoint or a scientific one, it can easily be said that fire is what allowed humans to become human. From a community campfire to the hearth of every home, from torches to oil lamps, fire has been our first and greatest tool in our struggle to survive and thrive in our world.

Is it really a surprise, then, that fire is still considered sacred in so many ways by so many faiths?

Oil lamps in particular hold a special place in religious practices all around the world. Beyond the advantages of a portable flame, the flame from an oil lamp burns with less flickering than a campfire. That steady burn amplifies the tendency of the human mind to enter meditative states when focusing on it. Meditating in front of flames is a practice that has extended in an unbroken line from the earliest humans to the present day.

There is absolutely no reason why modern-day polytheists can’t join our ancestors and experience flame the same way, with oil lamps of our very own.

Oil Lamp Symbolism

The uses of lamps for meditation are fairly universal. Additionally, there have been quite a few symbolic uses/meanings layered on to them too. These vary according to spiritual tradition, of course, but there are some interesting similarities between cultures.

Lamps are often used as symbols of “lighting the way to the Divine”, and can represent the soul rising to meet the gods. In Orthodox Christian churches the sanctuary lamp is first lit when the church is consecrated and burns olive oil perpetually thereafter. The sanctuary lamp thus honors the presence of Christ within the church. Hinduism links lamps with Truth and Wisdom, as well as burning them in honor of various deities, and lamps either burn perpetually or are lit at sunset and extinguished at dawn.

Incense offerings are lit from the lamp flame in a wide variety of traditions.

Fuel Choices

Pretty much any burnable liquid has been used in oil lamps throughout history. Most modern-day lamps burn a petroleum-based fuel, but historically fuels have been whatever burnable could be locally produced. Traditional Indian lamps use clarified ghee as a fuel, for instance, and coconut and castor oils are popular for the oil lamps used in Santeria. Olive oil was the easiest source for people living around the Mediterranean, and olive oil is what I prefer to use in my lamps.

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A working olive oil press in Nazareth Village, a historical and archaeological re-enactment of a first century Jewish village in modern-day Israel.

Safety-wise, olive oil is at the top of the list for liquid fuels. The amount of heat required to make it actually catch fire is the highest of any vegetable oil and much higher than petroleum products – it will not flame without a wick, and the wick must be exposed to air to burn. Submerging the wick in the oil will put it out. This helps prevent accidents. Olive oil also produces less soot and scent, so even those with sensitivities to lamp oil fumes should be able to use olive oil.

Olive oil is cost effective too. Most surviving historical examples of olive oil lamps are small, often just a couple of inches across. A liter of olive oil will provide 250-300 hours of light, so a small vessel will contain enough oil to burn as long or longer than a much larger petroleum-based lamp.

Later pressings of oil are actually more traditional for lamp fuel and tend to burn better (fewer solid bits are present in later pressings), so feel free to get the cheapest pressing of pure olive oil you can. I usually pick it up in at ethnic food stores. Olive oil also keeps for longer than any other edible oil – up to 15 months if stored in a tightly sealed container in a cool location. Refrigeration will extend the life of the oil.

Correspondence-wise olive oil is associated with health, purification, and peace. It has traditionally been used to bless, anoint, or draw beneficial things towards the user. Also, if additional correspondences are desired olive oil can easily be blended with other oils. Just remember that significantly changing the composition of the oil will change the way it burns. A drop or two of any additional oils should be fine for magickal use.

And yes, if desired you can absolutely use the oil in the lamp for anointing and blessing purposes in ritual. How’s that for multi-purpose?

Types of Oil Lamps

Olive oil lamps are constructed in a wide variety of ways, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to limit discussion to my two favorites – the standing wick lamp and the floating wick lamp. Not only are they beautiful and easy to maintain, but they’re also incredibly simple to make and customize.

The Standing Wick Lamp

This style is made from any water-tight dish/saucer/bowl/tray that can take the heat (sturdy ceramic is just fine), a wick, and a length of thick wire. The wire is twisted into a short spiral that holds the wick, spiraled around a few times to form a base that will keep the wick upright, and then bent to form a decorative handle from which charms or beads may be hung. This can of course be more complicated if you like – I’ve seen some gorgeous version with one wire being wrapped in such a way that it supports multiple wicks. This lamp needs to be tended very regularly to monitor fuel and heat levels, and as such is not the best choice for a perpetual flame.

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A simple version of this lamp, with a copper wire wick holder in a shallow bowl.

The Floating Wick Lamp

The floating wick lamp gets its name from the way the wick floats inside the oil, unlike the supported type where it lays on the bottom of the vessel.

The vessel for this lamp can be any water-tight container, including glass as well as ceramic or metal. Ideally, this type of lamp needs something narrower than it is tall to allow the water and oil to level out. Cylindrical shapes are perfect – most of the purchased styles have cylindrical glass liners inside the perhaps fancifully-shaped metal sheath.

The container is filled about half-way with water (and sometimes a few pinches of blessed salt), and then filled the rest of the way with oil. The wick is either threaded through a floating cork topped by a metal shield or suspended by a metal wick holder braced on either side of the vessel (often called an “Old Believer” holder – see third picture below). The metal wick holder can be purchased or can be made from twisted wire, ceramic, or metal. You can even make one out of wood if you cover the top in a layer of foil.

Floating wick lamps are very safe as the water prevents the lamp from overheating and puts out the wick should the lamp be accidentally tipped or run out of fuel. It’s also the best choice for lamps that will burn for long periods of time – with the right kind of wick it can burn 12-18 hours before it requires tending.

If you want to buy a ready-made lamp you can get ones that stand on tables or hang from walls and ceilings. You can also get a peg-type container that is designed to fit inside of a taper holder, which makes it look more like a goblet and gives more height.

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Various styles of floating wick lamps.

Wicks

All of these lamps use loosely woven cotton or hemp wicks – standard woven round wicks will do very well, or you can make your own from cotton mop heads. Fiberglass wicks are too tight to allow the thick olive oil to penetrate. Wicks must be saturated with the oil before they will burn properly. Occasionally trimming the charred part from the end of the burning wick will ensure that the wick continues to burn evenly. My favorite source for wicking caters to Eastern Orthodox Christians and charges less than $5 for over a year’s worth of wicking. (I’ve been experimenting with making my own wicking, but I’ve not come up with anything superior.)

To maintain a perpetual flame, the lamp flame can be used to light a candle or other lamp. The wick in the primary lamp can then be trimmed or whatever, and the lit candle can then “return” the flame to the lamp.

Making Your Own Oil Lamps

As I mentioned above, both lamp styles are incredibly simple to make and require a minimum of specialized tools.

The next post in this series will be a step-by-step tutorial (with pictures!) of how to make a standing wick lamp. The post after that will be the same type of thing for floating wick lamps. The final post of this four post series will discuss tips and techniques for using the lamp you’ve made.

So stay tuned!

Trusting the Powers

I’d been working with my Lady exclusively for 15 years before I officially dedicated myself to Her service. It wasn’t a fear of commitment, exactly. I was perfectly willing to commit to Her. She’s amazing. And if She’d changed Her mind later about working with me I would have understood and carried on – I’ve done it before and survived it perfectly well, thank you.

I simply couldn’t imagine why She would ever want to commit to me. Even before I knew which end of an athame was sharp I knew that Her accepting me into Her service established a two-way relationship, gave Her responsibilities to me as well as me to Her. Why the hell would She want to do that? I was so convinced that She wouldn’t want to bother with me that I didn’t listen to Her when She said that relationship was exactly what She was going for.

So W/we did this whole “together until one of U/us wants to bail” thing. That’s as far as I would let it go. Until I woke up one otherwise unremarkable morning filled with the knowledge that Her admittedly vast patience with my hesitance was gone and it was time to step it up. Ok then. Through an interesting game of deity telephone with multiple people I wound up naked in a ritual while a trusted top beat the hell out of me with everything from a flogger to a damn boat oar. He’s creative and has quite the toy box, so who knows what else was involved by the end? I certainly wasn’t tracking!

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I can pretty much guarantee no kitchen sinks were involved. Otherwise? No clue.

At the time I had a hellaciously high pain tolerance, but this wasn’t a scene and there was little to no warm up. It was rough from the get-go. Rough in more than one sense, actually. I’m very musically cued, so the soundtrack for this ritual was a playlist of songs that pulled up every painful emotional thing I had gone through during my entire time with Her, including the 2 years I spent in Florida recovering from what was essentially a mental breakdown. The pain of this ritual wasn’t just physical, it was deliberately emotionally painful too.

I was sobbing within 5 minutes. The soundtrack was over an hour long.

I thought when we started that the point of the ritual was simply to endure it, to show that I was strong enough to serve Her, to earn my place. (Because obviously I had to earn a place with Her. It’s not like She could have wanted me as-is. *rolls eyes*) Every time I was driven to my knees I got back up to take more, getting more and more pissed at myself and my “weakness” as the time crawled past.

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And no, Chumbawamba was not on my playlist. What a missed opportunity!

Near the end of the playlist – and my endurance – I got knocked down again. Except this time, instead of getting pissed at myself I got pissed at Her. How much more did She want from me? I very clearly remember snarling out loud “Well dammit! I could REALLY use some FUCKING help here, since I’m doing all this for You anyway!!!”

I didn’t feel another blow for the remaining 10ish minutes. She took them instead. My body moved under the force of the blows, but every muscle in my body instantly relaxed and my breathing immediately leveled out. I couldn’t even hear much of the music anymore. I was wrapped in Her, in contentment and peace, and standing there to finish off that soundtrack was suddenly no more difficult than standing in line during a high wind.

During that entire 10 minute period I also felt Her satisfaction and relief. As the soundtrack ran out and the blows stopped coming I realized – FINALLY – that She didn’t want a demonstration of my endurance. She knew how good my endurance was. My endurance was part of the problem.

She wanted my trust. She wanted me to lean on Her, to rely on Her to hear my prayers at night and still be there in the morning. She wanted me, needed me, to have enough faith in myself to have faith in Her. The whole damn ritual was Her last-ditch effort to get that through to me. Waking up the next morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with hardly a mark on me and no soreness to speak of, was the cherry on the top of my “Aren’t I a Clueless Mess?” sundae.

It’s true that in some cases bruises really do teach best. But I’d like to help others avoid that, if I can. Hence this post.

Let’s start at the beginning. What is trust?

The dictionary definition of trust is a “reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc,. of a person or thing; confidence”. It then goes on to define trust as the “confident expectation of something; hope”.

At the time I relied on no one but myself. I didn’t have enough confidence in myself to feel confident in trusting others to be there for me – why would they? The few people that I had relied on throughout my life to that point had all abandoned me for one reason or another, and I didn’t have any real hope that the trend would change. Even with a goddess. Maybe especially with a goddess. I mean, wasn’t She busy with more important things than me? So I managed myself and figured She’d let me know if She needed me for anything else.

That whole attitude had some unintended consequences. I didn’t expect Her to magickally fix my life, which was good. But it never crossed my mind that She might want to make things better for me, so it never occurred to me to ask for help in the first place. That effectively tied Her hands – She respected me and my own agency more than I respected myself, and that limited my relationship with Her. Even more, that “I am an island” attitude trickled into every relationship I had with all the other Powers. I didn’t give Anyone any openings to make O/our relationships a partnership.

After literally getting my ass kicked enough to see the problem I realized this isn’t where I wanted things to be. I had to fix it.

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The Powers will catch us, as long as trust Them enough to fall. Without our trust They just stand there. Waiting. Tapping Their feet. I’m damned lucky my Lady knew me well enough not to push!

How do we develop trust in Them?

There are a couple of things I had to do to really start trusting the Powers. Maybe these will apply to you and maybe they won’t, but here are the steps I took. (And wow does it look neater in a nicely numbered list than it did when I was living it!)

1)      Start at the Center.

I talk about this a lot. When in doubt, when hurt or lost or confused, go to your Center and reassess. (Don’t know where your Center is? Check out this post.) It applies here too – it’s hard to figure out how you relate to O/others when you don’t know how you relate to yourself.

When I went back to my Center I had to figure a few things out. I knew I had trust issues. Those trust issues were a defense mechanism, but for what exactly? I needed to figure out what they were defending me against. Once I figured that out I could then assess whether those defenses were still useful and address them accordingly.

The absolute core of everything was this idea of abandonment. I figured that anyone I counted on would leave me, either physically or emotionally, the second I began depending on them. Worse yet, they’d leave without notice – leaving my routine-dependent self scrambling to fill whatever niche they left vacant.

I can’t even say this was an irrational fear, since I have a long list I can point to for reference. And since the only common denominator between all those people was me, then obviously they must have all left because of something I did. In most cases I had no idea what that could have been (although WOW did I have theories), but there it was.

This led to me being more distant from others than I think I would have been otherwise. *shrug* If I wasn’t close to them, it wouldn’t hurt so much when they left. I also had a distinct lack of confidence in my own charm/awesomeness/lovability, because nothing intrinsically “me” had been enough to make people stick around before. To keep them around I had to be more than just me – I had to become indispensable. They couldn’t leave if they needed me, right?

It’s not like all of those issues were limited to my human interactions. Oh, no, that would be way too easy. They influenced my interactions with the Powers too. As a handy example, it’s exactly this line of thought that led to my needing the dedication ritual I talked about at the beginning of this post.

Once I figured all of that out – and it took time – everything came down to one simple question: was protecting myself from future hurt more important to me than building my relationships with the Powers?

I won’t lie. For awhile protecting myself was more important. My armor was what I needed to be functional at the time. Not that I sat on my hands or anything. I spent that time stabilizing myself, anchoring my Center, finding and exploring my purpose. Once I had enough of an anchor that reaching out no longer seemed so scary those relationships with the Powers felt more necessary. I’d just needed to do the prep work.

2)      Ditch “blind faith” in favor of actions.

Those of us who grew up in monotheistic faiths were told, again and again, things like “God will provide”. I was, at least. I heard that as a kid as I once again shoved my clothes in a trash bag for yet another move, and I heard it when we were trying to feed 5 people on $20 a week, and I heard it when I tore ligaments in my ankle and my mom couldn’t afford to take me to the doc-in-a-box for a few days to get it taken care of. “God will provide” always had this underlying subtext of “because we certainly can’t”. We turned to God when we had no other options. And every time I missed school to take care of my little sister because my mom was too blitzed to care I once again saw it demonstrated that God didn’t provide, and that if I personally couldn’t cover it then there was no certainty anyone else could or would bother to.

If blind faith without follow-through worked for me I’d still be monotheist. That didn’t change when I started working with my Lady. I didn’t give Her everything from the get-go. I couldn’t. By the time She came to me I didn’t know how.

What I could do, though, was extend just enough trust to cover one thing. That was plenty challenging to start with! When I worked through my issues and stumbled over something in my head that triggered me, something that made me cry or made me rage or made me shut down completely, I turned to Her. I trusted Her to be with me when I worked through all the reasons I couldn’t have Her in my life.

Every time She did the equivalent of petting my hair and murmuring to me I felt a little safer, a little better, a little more valued and loved. And just barely brave enough to keep spelunking in my own dark places.

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There are monsters hiding in the dark. *shiver*

Gradually I started trusting Her with other things. And She delivered. Trust wasn’t given over in one go, it was built step-by-step. The first time I argued with Her I knew it was over. I just knew She’d walk away and find someone that was less trouble. When She actually listened to me, took what I said into account, and was happy that I’d stood up for myself? I was dumbfounded. I had absolutely no idea what to do with that.

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Me, afterwards.

I think that moment was when W/we turned the corner. She earned my trust, action by action, brick by brick. Now it’s hard for me to imagine not trusting Her – it would be like not trusting gravity. And with that kind of stability I found reaching out beyond Her and trusting others a much easier prospect.

3)      Let Powers you trust vouch for Powers you don’t know yet.

As a polytheist I know each Power as individual and distinct, like people. And on the whole I still work from the premise that people are generally not to be trusted. That carries over when I engage the Powers.

What’s different now is that I trust my Lady implicitly. When She asks me to work with Someone I trust Her to have vetted Them. By vouching for Them She knowingly risks my hard-earned trust in Her. And since I trust that She values the relationship we’ve built, and I can always count on Her support, I have the confidence to do as She asks. After all, even if something happens with that relationship my Lady is always there to support me and help me if I need it. Having not had that kind of dependability before, realizing I had it was life-changing.

How does trusting Them change things?

A willingness to trust has made the relationships I have with the Powers possible. Once I trusted my Lady I was able to extend at least a willingness to trust to other Powers. Once They proved trustworthy (and my Lady was super-careful in the beginning to make sure They would) it became even easier to branch out. Even to other people!

There are now several Powers in addition to my Lady that I gladly work with, that I’ll go out on a limb for, because They’ve proven They’ll back me up if necessary. A few can even vouch for Others and have that taken into account. That’s so far from where I started it’s in another universe.

I still have some trust issues, true. I’m gradually working through them, and I will be for the foreseeable future. But I would never have started the process at all without my Lady “encouraging” me to, and working through them has brought me closer to Her than I’d ever dreamed possible. My Center is more solid, I actually feel balanced more often than not, and I’ve grown through my interactions with Them in uncountable ways.

All of this growth comes from that one specific dedication ritual years ago. In my case bruises might not teach best, but they certainly did open me up to the lesson!

Defining the Work

My last post was pretty well received overall, but I did get some flack. My repetition of “do the Work” seemed harsh and demanding to some people, triggered some defensiveness, and those responses ranged from dismissive of the concept to insulting me personally.

I just didn’t get what all the fuss was about. I was being totally clear. Right? Well, maybe not. Maybe I should have spent a bit more time defining and unpacking what I meant.

What I Mean When I Say “Work”

“Work” refers to anything you and the Powers with which you interact think you should be doing.

That’s it. That’s the whole shebang.

If your Work consists of pouring tea and saying “hi” for 10 minutes every second Tuesday, that’s fine. If your Work consists of every spare hour in your day, that’s fine. It’s up to you and the Powers, and anyone else’s opinion about it matters not at all.

So I was confused with the kick-back. How does stating “do the Work” – a short form of “do what the Powers want you to do” – make anyone defensive? It’s not like I was specifying what the Work was, I was just encouraging people to get out there and do it.

After thinking about it a bit I realized it was because “work” is a loaded term, and I wasn’t’ accommodating the assumptions people make about it.  I talked it out with some people, thought about it, did some meditation, and worked out what some of those assumptions might be. This isn’t a comprehensive list, but these are the topics that came up most often during my discussions.

Assumptions About “Work”

Assumption Number 1: Types of Work are somehow hierarchically arranged.

Thanks to the monotheistic framework many of us still carry around in our heads we’ve got this idea that “sacred Work” and “secular Work” are separate things. Sacred Work consists of typical clergy stuff like leading rituals and kneeling at altars. Secular Work involves making art or raising children or having a career. Sacred Work is often seen as more valid and more appreciated by the Powers than secular Work, and if you’re called to do Work on the secular side you’re “not as good as” those doing work on the sacred side.

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Hello, unnecessary binary!

That is, of course, bullshit. *shrug* When we’re dealing with the number of people on this planet, and the relationships each of those people can form with the lengthy list of Powers out there, thinking that every Power wants or needs the same thing from every person is ridiculous. Intellectually we can see that when we’re looking at it. But emotionally our default is still “clergy is better than laity, and monastics are like clergy squared”. That’s what we learned as children, and it’s hard to overcome that kind of embedded bias.

The most obvious consequence of this idea is that people overextend. As I’ve mentioned before, there are simply not enough hours in the day to work a full-time job and raise a family and have a social life and have hobbies and spend hours a day in front of an altar and sleep. No one can do it all. Something’s got to give somewhere. And when someone breaks, the spiritual work is usually the very first thing to go. It makes a helluva lot more sense to try to balance it from the get-go, doesn’t it?

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Make one piece larger and the other pieces get smaller. Not exactly rocket surgery here.

And if we’re not careful, we’ll get so overwhelmed that we’ll burn out completely. At which point no Work gets done at all. How is that helpful?

We have to understand – and appreciate, and support – that the Powers might want us to raise children as our Work. Or make art. Or devote our lives to medicine or law or teaching or building things. There are so many ways out there to serve, and all of them are important and valuable.

Assumption Number 2: The Work we do affirms and legitimizes our practice.

The key question to ask ourselves when considering this assumption is exactly W/whose affirmation/legitimization/approval are we looking for here? If we’re looking to have our practice approved by other devotional polytheists we need to step back and rethink things. Because really? It does not matter what other devotional polytheists think about our work. All that matters is what the Powers think about our work. If They think we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, then we’re good to go. All that other stuff can get in the way.

Now this is not a “get out of jail free” card or anything. You’ve still got to take action to have a practice. I mean, doing something is the definition of practicing it. But the type and amount of action you take is strictly between you and the Powers. Anyone else who tries to judge you is exercising the worst sort of hubris, and you trying to meet a human’s standards with your practice completely misses the point.

Assumption Number 3: The time and energy devoted to our Work must meet some sort of minimum requirement.

I am sworn to the service of my Lady, and She’s fairly demanding with my time. I spend a minimum of an hour a day in prayer and meditation, and more time outside of that on things like teaching classes and writing blog posts. It’s all part and parcel of the Work I do for Her.

But that is not some standard others have to meet. There are reasons my Work manifests the way it does – many if not most of them in my own head – and it makes no sense for other people to try to pattern their Work off of mine. That’s like trying to treat your spouse the same way your BFF treats theirs. The relationships are entirely different because the people involved are different, and that affects how things will manifest.

And that’s ok.

Are the Powers happy with the effort you put in to what you do? If so then yay, keep up the good work. If They’re not then step it up – but because THEY want you to, not because you’re patterning your practice off of someone else’s.

Assumption Number 4: The Work we do is pre-defined and pre-determined.

I think that some people see “Do the Work” as “do a specific type of work”. The way I see it all the Powers are individuals, so what They want and need from us will vary as much as They do. However, most of us don’t really have a tradition of practice to fall back on that allows for individuality when it comes to our gods, because most of us are used to only having one. And in the Judeo-Christian sphere the Work we can do for God is very clearly laid out. So obviously the gods we work with as polytheists will have the same type of clearly-laid-out template.

Which is nonsense, of course, once we think about it. My Lady works with me like She does because I’ve got a specific skill/interest set to bring to the table that meshes with part of what She wants to see develop in the world. She’ll work with someone else in a completely different way, because their skill/interest set will be different than mine and will mesh with Her goals differently. And that’s just ONE goddess. The other Powers I work with want different things from me entirely, and that’s only to be expected. Add a whole planet full of people, and every Power available, and the way Work is expressed is going to be wildly different between practitioners.

There’s no way the Work we might be called to do is pre-defined or pre-determined. We have to figure out what it is as we go.

So how do I figure out what the Powers want from me?

When we start dating someone many of us gravitate to the standard dinner-and-a-movie trope. It’s easy, it’s established, and it’s safe. Both people involved pretty much know how it goes, so instead of stressing out over what’s going to happen or how formal to dress people can focus on getting to know each other better. The surroundings and basic activities are templates that allow us to focus on all the other stuff faster.

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It’s so common we have to work to AVOID it.

In the beginning that’s all our Work is. It’s a stand-in template that gives us a place to start until we figure out where this new relationship is going next. It’s all it can be – we haven’t received any other direction. But we’ve got to start somewhere, so basic Hospitality serves as our version of dinner-and-a-movie. For that we need:

1)      A place to welcome the Powers when They visit. This is usually an altar or shrine. Setting something like this up is a common first step when trying to connect to a Power.

2)      Food and/or drink to make Them feel welcome, which can be pretty much anything at this stage of the game. Call it Cakes and Ale, or offerings, or whatever else you like – sharing this kind of thing with a Power is both common and necessary.

3)      The ability to have a conversation, which means we’re learning how to quiet our heads so They have inner silence in which to speak. All that meditation and writing in dream journals and such that newcomers are encouraged to do? It all helps us quiet our heads, which helps us have useful communication.

This is what we mean when we encourage newcomers to “do the Work” and then start off on altars and the like. It’s a bare basics template we can put out there to get the conversation started and the ball rolling. Once things are going well changes will of course be made to this framework, to suit both you and the Powers. You might decide that scheduling this kind of work first thing in the morning never works well for you, so you switch it to right before bed. Some Powers will want regular meditation, and Some will prefer to talk to you in dreams. *shrug* There are as many variations as there are participants, and we have to be willing to go with the flow on this type of thing.

Of course, if the Powers you’re working with happen to belong to a tradition with a known ritual practice (like the Egyptians, for instance) then you might be able to bypass these basics completely and go straight to that. All of that is ok – it just depends on how your relationship with Them develops.

There’s another thing to note about this type of beginning interaction with the Powers. It’s a beginning, and we are nowhere near expert in the process until later.

Practice Makes Perfect

Like a very talented pianist friend once told me when I was a boy; it’s better to practice a musical instrument for five minutes a day, than to practice for two hours, once a week. It’s something I never forgot.” Make Art Every Day

The idea that daily practice of any skill is important is not a new one. Beginning writers are often told to make time every day to write. Musicians hear the same thing, and dancers hear it too. It’s also recommended for people who engage in meditation. In fact, “do a little every day” is common advice for many skills out there.

Interacting with the Powers is no different, which is why I’m so insistent on the need to do the Work every day regardless of anything else.

For all of the above skills, “do a little every day” is usually followed by “and make it a priority”. It’s so easy for us to get distracted, to reschedule and push off and rush through, and when we finally come up for air from everything else in our lives we realize that our altars are dusty and we haven’t visited the Powers in entirely too long. Making it a part of our daily schedule makes it part of our routine, and once it’s a part of our routine we do the Work as a matter of course. It’s not something we have to force ourselves to do. It just is.

Even better, every session spent at our altars gives us a chance to practice the mechanics. Eventually we know where the tools are, the most effective way to fill the offering dishes, and the words we want to say. We don’t have to think about them anymore – they’re readily accessible and available.

Once that happens we’re able to go beyond the words and the gestures to the meaning/joy/reverence/union/love behind what we’re doing. And our persistence makes it more likely that we’ll make the connections we’re working towards.

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A much more poetic way of framing the concept.

So yes, we have to do the Work. Whatever the Work is for you and the Powers needs to be done, and at least in the beginning it helps if it’s done frequently enough that it becomes second nature. Only then can our Work flourish.

I hope that this makes my stance on the issue at least a little more clear.

The next few posts will be much more personal and close-to-home. I’m excited!

Growing Devotions (Pt. 4) – Embracing the Ancestors

This is the fourth in the series, and this post won’t make much sense without the context of the first, second, and third posts. Please read before proceeding.

Good? Yay! Onwards!

The Land connects us to where we are physically located in the here-and-now. Once we’re solidly grounded and anchored there we can move on to the next stage of devotional work – the Ancestors all around us.

Ok, why do I want to connect to dead people?

Let’s be real here. For those with no tradition around Ancestor work this has to be the first question asked and answered. It was certainly mine!

See, we in the West are very fond of black and white thinking in a lot of cases, and especially in regards to spiritual topics. For instance, “dead”. When we hear “dead”, we think “dead and gone”. When we’re alive we’re able to affect the world, and when we die we go away to a different place that rarely if ever interacts with this one. We don’t expect to maintain relationships with the departed, because they’re, well, departed. Or so we think.

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Because any day I can reference The Princess Bride is a good day.

The idea that the dead are gone from us is fairly new, and is far from universally accepted even now. In many cultures it’s simply known that not only are the Ancestors still devoted to nurturing their descendants, but that it is our job as descendants to take care of Them. And since They were human at one time, it’s commonly held that They are better able to understand human wants and needs than other types of entities out there.

And honestly, there are people in our lives who are/were literally willing to charge grizzlies with baseball bats to keep us safe. Who would we trust more to go to bat for us in the spiritual realm? Death is really a minor hurdle for that level of love and concern.

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If Mulan’s ancestors could help her from beyond the grave, so can ours.

The practices around honoring and caring for the ancestors are usually grouped together as “ancestor veneration or reverence”. And to be clear, it’s not a worship deal – people don’t suddenly get holier when they die. They simply change forms, and the way we interact with Them has to change to accommodate that form change.

The most familiar-to-the-West approaches to this are probably the Catholic practices of praying for the souls of the dead and petitioning saints (super-holy dead people) to carry prayers from the worshiper to God. The most visible examples of ancestor veneration, on the other hand, are probably the Egyptian pyramids.

Beliefs around the dead vary widely, of course. For Catholics, when someone dies they’re assigned to an afterlife (Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and anything Dante might have missed) and help from there. Egyptians thought the soul continued to live, just in a different place – and that the foods and materials provided Them in our world help sustain Them in the afterlife. One idea I’ve heard for those who go with reincarnation is that the dead stick around for as long as They want to/as long as They’re remembered, after which They move on to the next life and perhaps even choose to be reincarnated in the same bloodline.

However you look at it, ancestor veneration has been a core religious practice around the world for much of human history. Today it can be found in societies around the world, and it can be revived in our lives too. We can reclaim our Ancestors, take care of Them, and They can help take care of us.

Who are my Ancestors, then?

You were not created from nothing. The very DNA of your body came from combining the DNA of your parents, right? And they got their DNA from their parents. When you trace your lineage backwards you find that you are the product of generations upon generations of other people.

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As this somewhat sentimental image tells us.

It’s not just physical, either. We have language and art, climate control and internet, cities and nations and societies because we inherited the ideas that led to all of it from our ancestors. The debt we owe to those who came before is staggering.

And it’s even more than that. Humans are much more interrelated than you might think. Because of the way genetics and family trees work, every single human alive on the planet today can trace their family lines back to one common ancestor, one who lived from 8,000-2,000 years ago.

As observed in a 2004 paper on the Most Recent Common Ancestor:

“No matter the languages we speak or the color of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who labored to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.”

Isn’t that amazing?  Ancestors connect us not just to our parents and grandparents, but to every single person on the whole planet. No matter who we are or where we go, every random person we meet is family. Calling everyone out there “brother” or “sister” isn’t exactly accurate, but only on a technicality.

I don’t know about you, but that idea changed a lot for me. Honoring the Ancestors led me towards greater compassion for others by connecting me to everyone else in the world. There is no more “us vs. them” – we really are all in this together, united by the very blood in our veins. That’s had a huge impact on how I think about everything from faith and politics to how I regard my coworkers. I think that’s pretty damn significant, personally.

Wow. So that’s, um, a lot of people.

It is. So in practice, we have to narrow down the Ancestors that we choose to honor. Just like we can acknowledge all the Land Spirits out there but only work directly with those at home and work, so too can we acknowledge all of our Ancestors while working with only a few. The fun (fun?) is deciding how we want to narrow things down.

Some people strictly honor those on their family trees, or even only their direct line, for as far back as they can trace but no further. A common thing I’ve seen is focusing on the family tree while “adopting” close friends and influential people.

Another technique is to supplement the honoring of blood-line lineage (or replace it altogether) with a focus on professional or lifestyle connections. Soldiers often claim brotherhood with those they’ve served with, for instance – the relationship is based on shared experiences rather than family trees. For those profoundly affected by their service those shared experiences may trump bloodlines for relationship importance.

Those identifying primarily by minority affiliations, like polytheists and members of the LGBTQAI+ community, might find a greater sense of family and understanding from Ancestors with Whom they can share those types of experiences.

There’s also a growing idea of “families of choice” – people are making their own families and clans, and those too can guide our honorings.

Others don’t identify individuals at all, and just go with “Ancestors” as “Anyone of helpful intent who wants to claim me”.

Note that in this area, like anything else touching on family, opinions can get very heated. There are lots of people who will try to tell you exactly how to do your Ancestor work, and critique the holy hell out of you if you decide to do something differently than they “suggest”. Frankly, that’s all bullshit (unless you’re working within a specific tradition, of course – those rules are different). You can certainly pick up perspectives and techniques from all those people, and I highly encourage you to do so, but remember that the only ones who can really tell you how to proceed are yourself and the entities with whom you work.

I don’t have the strongest family lineage. I can trace parts of my mother’s side of the family back to before the Revolutionary War, but I don’t really know more than a handful beyond my grandmother’s children and their descendants. There are two Ancestors I work with on that line, and that’s it. And I know nothing about my father’s family at all – seriously, I’ve tried to trace them and it’s like my grandparents were born on another planet or something.

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How my paternal grandparents reached the United States.

That’s perfectly fine. I have all of human history to draw from should I choose to do so. So I chose.

The bulk of my practice honors individuals who have left me a legacy, regardless of bloodline or historical period. This includes maternal ancestors, but also historical figures and inspirational people from all walks of life. I have a separate honoring for monastics of all faiths whose dedication has inspired and guided me along my path. I have also made it my personal mission to honor the Forgotten Ones. Human history is as tragic as it is beautiful, and there are many who have been lost along the way. My life has been blessed by so many people that it is my honor to honor Them.

And the converse is true. By choosing who I honor, I also choose who I don’t honor. Because we can do that. We do not have to honor a single damn Ancestor we don’t want to. Not one. My mother passed, and I do not want her in my life at all. It’s not even that I’m lashing out or want her to suffer. I simply want her to reincarnate as soon as possible. Maybe she’ll get it right next time. *shrug* I drink a shot in her memory at Mabon – because like it or not she helped make me who I am today – and that’s all I can bring myself to do. And that’s ok. Just having options was incredibly healing for me. If you suffered abuse at someone’s hand, or otherwise find an Ancestor to be an all-around repugnant person, then feel free to avoid honoring Them. Death doesn’t suddenly forgive all sins, and sometimes our family trees need to be pruned. However, alternative perspectives and wisdom often come from those we disagree with, so be careful when deciding to drop Someone from your work.

So how do we honor the Ancestors?

With Hospitality, of course! Here’s how I approach it when it comes to Ancestors.

1) Be Ready to Entertain

In my personal experience I find that the Ancestors aren’t as concerned with the whole house being spotless as They are with Their area being neat and tidy. Because yes, They (at least in my experience) want an area. Time to build a shrine to the Ancestors!

Assemble objects that bring your Ancestors to mind in one location, and arrange them so they’re visually appealing. Photographs are fabulous for this – and if you don’t have a photograph of someone you honor but can get a picture of their tombstone that works well too. Family Bibles, grandma’s favorite knitting needles, a toy dog passed down for generations. The items don’t have to be particularly valuable to work – I have a rock on my altar from Wales, where the maternal ancestors I work with are from. A print-out of a family tree works, too. If honoring historical figures, portraits and/or examples of their work are absolutely appropriate here. Really, whatever works. Just make sure to include space for a plate and a cup. I almost always offer incense too, as this is traditional in many cultures when honoring the dead, so if that’s something you want to do incorporate an incense burner into your arrangement. Another similar idea here is offering fresh bouquets of nicely scented herbs/flowers.

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A simple, and beautiful, ancestor altar complete with offerings. It doesn’t have to be lavish to work.

2) Offer Food and Drink

This can get fun with the Ancestors! There are lots of stories around about eating and drinking with the dead for inspiration, but I like to keep it simple.

Liquid offerings often include coffee, tea, and water. Alcohol is common too, especially if the Ancestor liked it in life. Food offerings run the gamut from cakes and breads to treasured family recipes. If the deceased had a special favorite dish, making it in Their memory would certainly be appropriate.

Food – both scent and taste – resonates with people on levels we often don’t consider, and I like playing with that type of sense memory. My favorite thing here is making food I’ve never had that was common in other times and places. For the Aunts I honor in my maternal line I’ve experimented with all kinds of traditional Welsh cuisine. I’ve also made good old-fashioned American food like meatloaf and fried chicken when honoring American soldiers who died overseas (because I figure They must have missed that), French desserts to honor Antoine de Saint-Exupery, homemade mac ‘n cheese for abused kids I honor at Samhain (what kid doesn’t like mac ‘n cheese?), Indian curries when honoring wandering monks, etc. While I’m making these foods I also learn a lot about the cultures, lives, and times of people in different places, which is always fascinating and brings me closer to Them.

It might seem a bit silly, but I always keep the food for the Ancestors and anything I plan to eat separate as soon as it leaves the stove, and the dishes the Ancestors use are strictly Theirs – they don’t go back in my cabinets for general use. Ever. There are too many stories about Bad Things happening when the two get mixed up. YMMV, of course, but I thought I’d mention it.

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Lest we unwittingly wind up like the Greek Persephone.

Once you’ve decided what to offer, offer it. Make up all the plates and cups and whatnot, and arrange them in the available space. Then find your Center. Anchor yourself in the here-and-now by connecting your energy to the land (saying “hi” to any Land Spirits you might “feel” along the way but not focusing on Them). Once you feel stable, cast your awareness “out” to the Ancestors. I usually visualize this as a transparent sphere that emerges from my Center and expands to surround me and my Ancestor altar, a sphere that lets in Ancestors who wish me well and blocks out everything else. (If your visualization skills aren’t the best, work on that. And in the meantime feel free to write a casting if that helps you.) Once that sphere is stable I verbally invite in Whoever I’d like to share food and drink with. *shrug* I’ve seen some lovely ritual poetry to do this, and if you feel it necessary go with it, but this is family. I tend to speak from the heart and let the chips fall where they may.

3) Show Respect

Share your offering with Them in a meditative silence, listening for Them. I usually take this time to catch the visitor up with whatever’s going on at the time, focusing especially on family gossip and on how what’s happening in my life is affecting me. I’ll ask for advice only if I’m stuck (and accept it gracefully if They offer it regardless). Their perspectives are usually different enough from mine that I get interesting insights into the issues I might not have had before. Just make sure to leave Them time to communicate too.

And just like with the Land Spirits, don’t presume on the association. They’re family, not slaves, and getting demanding with family is a really fast way to find everyone talking about how ungrateful you are and refusing to talk to you. It’s best to just avoid that whole scene.

When the visit is over, sincerely thank Them for sharing with you, and leave it open for a repeat later. If They prompt you with “I’m done” go ahead and dispose of the food and drink outside. If not, leave out on the altar overnight, then dispose of the food and drink outside the next morning.

Continuing the Association

Ancestors are people, and as people there’s more you can do with Them than just say hi over an altar. This is especially true since They are in symbiotic relationships with Their descendants (which, as we’ve covered, includes everyone on Earth). Anything you do to help out your fellow humans helps the Ancestors too. Here are a few ideas.

1) Explore your family tree. Guides on how to do this are all over genealogy websites, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but you can learn all kinds of cool things. I found the Ancestry website to be a great resource for this. Genealogy is also a wonderful way to invite the living members of your family to contribute to your work. My Christian family doesn’t get a lot of what I do, but my super-conservative grandmother was eager to help with this project. I got personal accounts of the people in the genealogy I’d never met, which is something no amount of research could give me. Other sources include letters, diaries, service records, etc.

2) Visit a cemetery where your Ancestors are buried. If you can track locations down this can be a really interesting pilgrimage. The coolest one I did was from New Jersey to middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania awhile back, as I had some family buried at a tiny cemetery there. Standing at the grave of a direct ancestor who died three hundred years ago was thrilling (yes, I have issues). Can’t find a location? Try Find A Grave, which is a database listing millions of cemeteries with information available from the tombstones. I found relatives scattered all over the US! A bonus here is that occasionally the tombstones will fill in holes in the genealogy you didn’t know you had.

3) Speaking of, volunteer with Find A Grave. Figure out, say, the three cemeteries in your area that are easiest for you to get to, register on the site, and volunteer to be a contact person for those cemeteries. People who would like a picture of the headstone but can’t physically get one themselves request a picture. Volunteers then go out to the cemetery, track down the grave, and snap a picture to send to the person requesting it. This helps reunite ancestors with their descendants, which is an amazing offering to make! It’s not very time or labor intensive, either, if that’s a concern.

4) Adopt a local cemetery. There are a sad number of cemeteries across the US that are pretty much ignored. This can be especially true in areas with high population turnovers. So adopt one. Take one day a month to tend the graves, leave flowers or other offerings for the deceased, and read the names of the dead out loud. I don’t get to do this often, but when I do there’s usually one or two graves that for whatever reason catch my attention. I’ll spend extra time there, chatting and communing, and I always feel that the effort to connect is appreciated. As an added note, I know one person who literally adopted a whole cemetery into her ancestral line. The cemetery was incredibly small and overgrown, and she felt that all the people there had been forgotten. So she offered all of Them space on her ancestor altar, and now Those who wanted it are in her line too.

5) Attend funerals for people without families. There are more and more people these days dying with no one – or at least very few people – to attend their funerals. So read the obituaries, and if you can show up and offer respect. If nothing else they lived a life, and that’s not exactly the easiest thing to do. If this becomes something of a calling for you contact local funeral homes – they might be willing to work with you if you explain your purpose, and let you know when a service might be planned that won’t have many attendees. If you can’t make the funeral you can make it a point to visit the grave afterwards and leave flowers.

6) Honor the Ancestors with the community. Unlike many polytheists I tend to honor my Dead at Mabon (often called “the Pagan Thanksgiving”), because that’s a time I associate with honoring my family. It’s not like people cease to be family when they die, so separating the two doesn’t makes sense to me. (I go into more detail about that here.) This can be done at Samhain too, if that makes you more comfy. Simply invite a bunch of people to a potluck to honor the Ancestors. It doesn’t even have to be a ritual, exactly – just sharing food and drink with Them and each other is enough to make it a memorable occasion, as long as They are included. Give Them an area for food and drink offerings, play songs that call specific Ancestors to mind (people can bring CDs or mp3 files they’d like played in memory), and have a good time. Death doesn’t have to be all sad, so having a party works too.

7) Volunteer as an offering. For instance, if Aunt Flora was an English teacher, then volunteering to teach adult literacy classes could easily work as an offering. Think about things like that and see what comes up. Don’t limit yourself, though. ANYTHING that helps out any other person can work as an Ancestor offering, because strengthening the living strengthens the Dead (as long as we remember to include Them). So do it as an offering, and let Them know it’s an offering, and see how much of a difference you can really make out in the world.

Add working with the Ancestors to the routine established with finding your Center and connecting with the Land. If you start feeling overwhelmed, go back to your Center and make sure that’s steady, then add back in your work with the land spirits. When you’re totally stable with those add working with the Ancestors back into your practice. Once you’ve got all three of those elements balanced it’s time to begin working with the Gods – the next-to-last post in this series!

Growing Devotions (Pt 3) – Connecting with the Land

This is the third post in this series. They build on each other, so if you haven’t read them yet here are Part One and Part Two. Don’t worry – I’ll wait for you to catch up.

*waits patiently*

All good? Excellent then! Moving on.

Once we get to know our Selves a bit better, and firm up our internal foundations a bit more, we can start connecting with other entities.

What kinds of entities can we connect with?

Categorizing all the other entities out there – even loosely – is a challenge, and I’ve yet to see a perfect method. I tend to go for more functional definitions, so here are the three basic categories I use when discussing devotional work:

Land Spirits: These are entities in symbiotic relationships with a given place. They nurture and are sustained by locations ranging from a single flower to an entire continent, depending on the entity in question.

Ancestors: These are entities in symbiotic relationships with a bloodline or tribe. They’re also usually dead, but I throw tribal spirits and some totems in here too. These are spirits who nurture and are sustained by a given family lineage, certain families of choice (often grouped by profession or experience, like “cop” or “rejected by family for X reason”), and/or specific clans/tribes within larger cultural groups. Adoption into a line is definitely possible, both before and after death, so the lines aren’t quite as clear-cut as they might seem.

Deities: These are entities in symbiotic relationships with larger cultural groups. They nurture and are sustained by a whole people. Those of us not born into a specific cultural group can almost always “seek citizenship” (although how that happens varies by deity and culture), allowing us to join with a people in a way similar to how individuals get adopted into family lineages.

This classification system is incredibly general, and leaves a lot out, but it’s enough to get us started.

One thing I want to emphasize with these definitions is the symbiotic relationship between each type of Power and Their realm of influence. It’s a critically important idea because that symbiosis is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of a given Power.

If a Land Spirit’s land is tainted or drained or razed for shopping malls the Spirit can fade, which means the land is no longer tended and so energetically fades faster. If a family line forgets to honor their dead the Ancestors can be lost, and the family loses the guidance of and traditional knowledge held by their loved ones. If a people cease to honor their Gods, then those Gods begin losing influence in the world.

With these relationships being symbiotic, we as people also lose out when those relationships weaken.

On the other hand, every act of devotion we do helps anchor and fuel the Powers. This strengthens the land, our families, and humanity as a whole. The devotional work we do literally enriches the world.

That’s a very very big deal.

Over time, as we connect with the entities listed above, we may find ourselves interacting with Powers that don’t easily fit these categories. And that’s ok. This series of posts is a beginning step, not a final word, so feel free to alter things as circumstances change.

Also, notice those definitions don’t mention things like “power” or “strength”. I frankly think that’s a silly reference point. It’s totally subjective, for one, and not really useful besides. (For more detail on why I feel that way check out this post.)

Where should I start?

The foundation of all devotional work is Hospitality. That still holds true. And we really need to pay attention to that, because no matter where we may be it’s time to reciprocate.

Look around. There were Land Spirits living here before our current locations were built, and hopefully there will still be Land Spirits there when we leave. No matter how long we may have been somewhere, we’re the newcomers to Their established places. The resident Spirits are sadly used to being ignored, so They tend to go with a live-and-let-live approach to newcomers, but They know we’re here whether we’ve reached out to Them or not.

If we want to form relationships with Them it’s up to us to get the ball rolling. Time to bake some cakes and visit the neighbors.

Visiting the Land Spirits

For the most part we spend the majority of our time at home and work, so those are the two places I recommend we start connecting with the Land Spirits. We’re already in Their spaces for substantial amounts of time anyway, so it just makes sense.

Improving our relationships with Them can help with everything from keeping the emotional environment calm to always being able to find our keys, and They can help protect us and our spaces too. Eventually, Those most familiar with us can vouch for us when you travel or move (what, you didn’t think They spoke with each other?), which helps things start out on a much friendlier note at the new place.

land spirit

A Domovoi, or household spirit, found in the folklore of Eastern Europe.

The techniques used to meet with Them are fairly similar regardless of location. If you read the post on Hospitality linked above you might find the entries here familiar.

1)      Be Ready to Entertain

If you’re inviting a land spirit to visit you at home, clean your house. The whole house, with a special emphasis on the kitchen and, if you have one, the hearth. Seriously. This has to be your first step. I hope you have a clean house anyway, but house spirits generally cannot abide mess. If They’re bound specifically to your house, and you’re a slob, They will do things like hide your keys and pop light bulbs to try to make you either clean or GTFO. Consequences only get worse from there. If the Land Spirit has enough range to avoid your place, They won’t step foot inside if it’s messy unless it’s to try to screw with you. Make it the kind of place you’d feel comfortable visiting yourself.

If you’re trying to meet Them at work, seek out a good location. If you’ve got a private office you’re golden – simply follow the house rules. Most of us don’t have that option, though, and our work environments range from retail stores to cube farms. If this is your situation hunt around outside for a quiet place, one that would be suitable for a picnic. I always find a fountain or other water source to be a huge plus. If there’s nowhere like that around consider a local park instead.

2)    Offer Food and Drink

I wasn’t joking about baking cakes! Offerings for land spirits can vary, but I recommend home-made if possible, minimally processed, and traditional. Response has been neutral-to-negative when I’ve offered meat of any kind so I avoid it, but dairy seems to be just fine. And it’s hard to go wrong with honey and beer!

Best offerings in my experience? Fresh-baked biscuits with locally-sourced butter, honey, and jam. Fruit cakes. Local wines and ciders. Milk. Every Beltane I hit up Whole Foods and buy a ton of cheeses and breads from around the world, along with juices and wines, as part of a full honoring ritual for Them – that tends to go over beautifully. Hot teas are appreciated, especially herbal ones, but iced teas not so much. I’ve found that a full formal English-style tea is fabulous, too.

Once you’ve decided on what to offer, offer it. I tend to make offerings to Them in my kitchen or dining area at home. If you have a yard, patio, or balcony, consider setting a spot there aside for the Land Spirits. If at work go to wherever you previously picked.

Set out a plate for yourself and a plate full of yummies for Them. Take a moment to find your Center, and from that center send out a spiral of energy into the earth as an invitation. Think of it like a handshake – I like to leave it kind of “hanging” until it’s “grasped”. Once you know They’re present, simply invite Them to share treats and spend some time with you. No need for poetry or whatever – speaking from the heart with sincerity is better.

Outdoor shrine

This is an offering spot set up at the roots of a tree.

3)      Show Respect

Share your offering with them in a meditative silence, listening for Them. Feel free to share some information about yourself that the Spirit may not have, like what you most love about where you currently are. If you love the land you’re on you already have something in common with the entities who live there. Land Spirits are very interested in the “now”, so focus on what’s current when sharing perspectives and news. Just make sure you leave Them time to communicate with you too.

If this is the first time you’ve sought Them out, don’t presume on the association. You’re there to gain friends and allies, not subordinates. Don’t disrespect Them by assuming They’ve been waiting with bated breath for you to give Them permission to adore you and give you things. (Heads up – They haven’t.)

When the visit is over, sincerely thank Them for sharing with you, and leave it open for a repeat later. If They prompt you with “I’m done” go ahead and dispose of the food and drink outside. If not, leave out in a sheltered location overnight, then dispose of the food and drink outside the next morning.

Continuing the Association

Once the ice is broken you’ll want to continue building a rapport. You can of course continue with the offerings above. However, since They are in symbiotic relationships with the land your available offerings are many. Here are a few ideas (in no particular order):

1)      Leave a space in your yard untouched, as a wild space. Another option here is to set up a permanent shrine to the land spirits.

2)      Grow something. Anything. If you’ve got the space you can garden. Growing kitchen herbs you’ll eat is particularly awesome, but an orchid or fern will do. Just get something green. If you don’t get enough light in your place to grow anything, consider aquarium gardens or hydroponic setups. There are even setups specifically designed to grow herbs on counter tops.

3)      Try music. Land spirits in particular seem to love it – think of all the fauns from Greece with pipes! Drumming is good, and I’ve had great results with a penny whistle. I don’t exactly rock at it, but the effort for Their enjoyment is noted and appreciated. A penny whistle is also less than $10, so we’re not breaking the bank either.

faun

This is a faun – with pipes! – at Hillwood in Washington DC. Originally the estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post, Hillwood is now a museum surrounded by extensive gardens. The faun above is on the terrace wall.

4)      Art is another great offering. Perhaps the happiest place land-spirit-wise I’ve ever been was a sculpture garden in New Jersey. Outdoor sculpture works well, but be creative! Variations include land/neighborhood focused graffiti/murals (should you live in an area for it), landscaping, nicely-designed pavers, etc. Even beyond that craft-work in general pleases Them, especially metal working.

5)      Put out feeders for birds and squirrels in the winter. In rural areas consider salt licks for deer. In more urban areas you can put out shelters for stray cats.

6)      If you don’t already recycle, start. Consider composting too. Vermiculture is doable in apartments, so if you’ve an interest there’s a way.

7)      Walk instead of drive when you can. Try carpooling or the local park and ride as eco-friendly alternatives.

8)      Throw a picnic! This is a great way to meet new Land Spirits outside of your home and work zones. Pack a basket of yummies, haul it out to the park, and spend a day communing with the land. This is a great time to break out the drum or penny whistle, too, and works well as an honoring day with other people.

9)      Volunteer at animal rescue organizations, for conservation efforts, at community gardens, for road/neighborhood cleanups, etc. Just keep it local.

10)   Consider where your food comes from. Do what you can to eat locally produced foods, with an emphasis on organics. Move as far away from processed foods as you can, too.

If you get indications that something else is desired as an offering go with it. There were Land Spirits here before people came, and with each wave of immigrants we got a few hardy spirits that traveled with them to establish new ranges. In settled areas there’s no way to tell at the beginning what culture your local Land Spirit might come from, if They are associated with any human culture at all, so you might have to experiment a bit to see what works. The less settled the area, the more likely that the local Spirit is native. And don’t forget that They have personal preferences, too.

Add working with the Land Spirits to the routine established with finding your Center. If you start feeling overwhelmed, go back to your Center and make sure that’s stable, then venture out to the Land Spirits again. When you’re totally stable with this addition to your practice, move on to working with the Ancestors – the next post in this series.