Sometimes You Just Gotta Open Your Mouth

It’s been a harrowing summer-into-autumn for me. Things great and small happened, from teaching on the West Coast for the first time to being diagnosed with congestive heart failure. I now have the responsibility of running a brand new Northern Tradition Kindred named Wardenheart, which both excites and scares the hell out of me. But every time I sit down and think “You know, you haven’t written anything publicly for quite a while there, kiddo”, my brain freezes up and demands more stupid reality television. On more than one occasion when faced with complete writer’s block, Loki has given me the same advice – “Just open your mouth and see what happens.” So as I write this entry, I have no great plan, no secret outline, not even sure where it will go or if it will be worth reading – but I will publish it, because at this point anything is better than silence.

A big part of my spiritual journey these past few months has been experiencing the stark reality of a prediction/oracular message I was given four years ago. It has become almost commonplace parlance for me and my friends/lovers/family to talk about the fact that I don’t have much longer on this side of the veil. Even in starting the Kindred, a big portion of what I feel is my responsibility is to do everything within my power to make each and every member as proficient as they want to be, so that at no time does the group’s vitality rest solely on my shoulders. I have much practice at this, having to simultaneously make real plans for the future while leaving enough wiggle room that should I fall ill, the world will not end. But now, knowing that I have stage three of a four stage disease, that sense that I won’t be around for much longer feels much more real. The prognosis for someone like me with CHF is right around 50% after five years; I have enough co-morbidities that my doctors have been pretty frank with me which side of the coin my destiny likely is.

To be super clear, I am not chucking in any proverbial towels. If anything, I am spending a great deal of time thinking very seriously about what things I feel I must accomplish, or at least try to accomplish, with a limited amount of time and even more limited amount of energy. One of the most crippling symptoms I am dealing with is fatigue; I honestly can sleep 18 hours a day and be ready for a nap shortly after waking. It’s a kind of tired that you can’t really understand until you’re in it. I’ve actually started falling asleep sitting up and then falling or bonking my head when I go cataplectic.

But as Hel reminds me more and more these days, this is the year of Dedication. (I know that some of you don’t read my other blog, in which I detail my work with Hel more often. Starting with 2013, which was the year of Contemplation, I have been given a different “activity” with which I am to frame how I spend my time.) It means that I still have to get up and put on my big shaman pants and do The Work. I can’t just close up shop and spend the rest of my days keeping comfortable – if that was the plan, I would have just checked out when I was given the chance. But I chose to stick it out, and I don’t regret that decision.

The “easier” part of Dedication was just looking at the different commitments I have been running on autopilot – events I have been going to for years, hosting parties for certain events or rituals for holidays, traveling to see friends and loved ones – and start culling those that don’t fit into whatever Grand Plan I’m still trying to figure out. Some of those decisions were made for me – I became persona non grata at Dark Odyssey events, for example, which has disappointed many folks who depended on those events as times they could do deep work in person. I also decided not to force Free Spirit Gathering into my schedule this year, for both personal and professional reasons. I don’t know what the future holds for these or any of the other time/energy investments; I just know that skipping them this year was good for me.


But at the same time, there are commitments I did make that I have dropped the ball on. I owe a few people readings. There is a lot of email unanswered or unsent or plain ol’ unwritten. I started out some client relationships that didn’t blossom the way I had hoped – one leaving because I was too unavailable, another for disappointing them in some way they didn’t really explain. I am still working on essays for the subscription service, essays that have sat half composed since June or July. I try to make a pilgrimage to Cauldron Farm every year, and this year it just wasn’t in the cards.

I have likely written about this before, but it has come up ever so strongly as part of my lessons in Dedication – that sometimes the Work doesn’t care if I’m in pain, or exhausted, or even in the hospital. I conceptually understood that by choosing to Work on this side of the veil meant that even mundane parts of the Job were going to get more difficult as my body betrays my intentions at almost every turn. A night when I was in incredible pain did not change that I promised to be there when my friend passed away, and so I went to his bedside when it was clear he didn’t have much time left. (He died about an hour after I arrived.) There have been many times when my home became a refuge, a psychic hospital, a temporary landing pad, an occult school, an overnight orgy, a ritual space for Gods to speak: and none of these were on my calendar until they were happening.

Because really – if I stopped doing the Work, what the fuck else would I be doing?


The lack of a romantic relationship, and really any kind of intimate connection beyond Rave, has been a bitter pill to swallow now and again. I am still verboten from even the mere appearance of looking for love or even just a fuck (a theory I tested twice and was rightfully smacked). Please don’t think I am devaluing Rave’s role in my life – she damn well knows how important she is to me – but a big part of why I am poly is because it isn’t fair to expect one person to be all the things you want or need in your life. I know I still have lessons to learn in this arena, so I assume the prohibition is likely to stick around. (I’m not quite celibate. It’s just that I can’t spend time finding or nurturing any kind of relationship. If someone shows up and wants to play, I am certainly allowed to do that within limits.) It doesn’t help that my physical challenges have made it very difficult to love my body in the ways it needs, nor has it given me any sort of self-esteem I rely on to turn on the red light, so to speak. I have hopes – little ones, for now – but I have a strong sense that this is one of those things that will not happen on my timeline, so I might as well just surrender and keep my head down until I hear the All Clear siren.

Samhain approaches. It’s my favorite time of the year. Heck, I just celebrated my 40th birthday (in the hospital, alas. But Rave brought decorations and secret cupcakes and did it up as much as we could). In a strange way, I have been looking forward to speaking with my beloved Dead this year. I have specifically not reached out for my mother more than once or twice for my own reasons, but I do plan on making her offerings and catching her up on how my life is going. And I get to eat macaroni and cheese with cut up hotdogs, which has become part of my tradition in honor of Jon. This year, I get to spend the holiday with the new Kindred, which feels right and good. (It is, however, open to non-members. It’s this Sunday, starting at 5pm, in Hagerstown MD. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to awesome.del at gmail dot com by Friday.)

I am planning on doing some personal ritual over the weekend to help clarify my vision and re-engage my spirit. Things have been so rooted in the earthly plain as I learn to modify my life around my illness, that I have been lacking in even the merest upkeep of my own spirituality. I can’t be a good Godhi/Priest/Shaman if I neglect my astral health and spiritual growth, and my Kindred deserves the best I can give them.

So there is what came out when I opened my mouth. I have a lot more to share, but not today.


Ancestors and your Beloved Dead


Many different forms of Paganism and Polytheism put some level of emphasis on honoring and/or working with Ancestors. This can be problematic for those whose parents/guardians were less than honorable in their parenting skills, whether that mean abuse, alcoholism/addiction, neglect, or abandonment. It is also difficult for those who were actively or passively “kicked out” of their family – whether their family has explicitly told them to go away and never come back, or if repeated attempts to connect with family show that they have no interest in connecting with you. Having a family whose identity is strictly bound to a certain religion or faith tradition that is incompatible with your life choices and/or spiritual beliefs may also complicate matters or make them impossible. Children of adoption may not have any knowledge about their blood lineages and may feel disingenuous trying to work with their adoptive lineage. In short, many Pagans may find it difficult or impossible to understand why Ancestor veneration is considered a meaningful and important part of spiritual practice.

At first, I made a fiat decision that I wasn’t going to include Ancestor work in my practice. I only know shreds of information about my paternal bloodline, and my father was abusive and neglectful. I felt very close to my mother (and still do in some ways), but my maternal family has never felt very comfortable with me, nor I with them. I also know that my father’s family was Catholic and my mother’s is as WASPish as they come, so attempting to integrate them into my wacky Northern Tradition Pagan-inspired practice seems disrespectful of their beliefs. Also, when I attended rituals that encouraged us to “look back and greet the Ancestors”, I heard nothing but crickets. No long-lost great great great uncles or nieces came lunging through the darkness to guide me in jack shit. So I would stand in respectful silence until that part of the ritual ended.

Later on, at a Samhain ritual, the priest used a phrase that changed the way I thought about Ancestral work entirely.

“You are the product of a million hopes and dreams whispered into the darkness; the yearnings of hearts longing to be remembered for their life’s work and the marks they left upon the Earth, among the people you stand with today.”

I wrote this down and spent a long time thinking and toying with this idea. I spoke about it to other Pagans who had similar reasons to disconnect from the traditional thoughts about Ancestor veneration. The more I tried to deconstruct the concept of “Ancestor”, the more I got an energetic sense of “Yes! You’re on the Right Path! Keep Going!”

So I started to play a game. I thought about what was happening in the world at approximately around the time I was born. Although I am sure in some ways I am the product of my birth parents’ hopes and dreams (and maybe Loki too), they are only three out of millions. So if I am the product of millions of hopes and dreams, who was doing the hopin’ and dreamin’?

The first and most obvious leap was to the early Gay Liberation movement. The mid-70’s was a time where many gays and lesbians were starting to come out both personally and politically. I’m sure that being able to live life as a queer trans* man without being locked away (in a psych ward or a jail) is something the gay liberators desperately hoped for the children born around them. Instead of taking on the whole movement, I looked for specific members that I personally resonated with – ones whom I thought would be honored and pleased when their names came from my heart and lips. Even before she passed in 2008, I considered Del Martin someone who would be pleased to see her struggles made manifest into pleasures in my life. I also felt compelled to find a genderfucker that I could connect with, and when I approached Divine in a meditation and asked her if she would be my ancestor, she gave me a giant hug.

I did this with many other outlier groups: I particularly felt drawn to working with those who died in “insane asylums” or other mental health facilities, especially those who were abandoned by their families (and possibly erased from those family’s trees). I also reached out to some who were working with ecstatic states of worship, regardless of their religious tradition. There are a few who died via suicide because they were lonely and forgotten. There are also some who died because their illness was not diagnosed or treated in time.

Before I knew it, I started having a pretty respectable list of those who have passed, who may have dreamed that someone like me would have the kind of life I have now. Doing this has made me incredibly thankful and gracious about the freedom and acceptance I enjoy, and I am painfully aware that many people laid down their lives for that freedom and acceptance.

As time has passed, I have had many close friends and family members, most recently my mother in early December, who have gone on to become my Ancestors and Beloved Dead. These days, I laugh a little when I remember how I used to think I had no ancestors to work with; now I never know who is going to show up when I make space for them in my altars and during my rituals.

I encourage you, regardless of how close you feel to your lineage, to play the same game. Think about who you are today, and whose dreams you are fulfilling. Do some research into what the world was like when you were born, and who has been forgotten or overlooked that you can identify with. Maybe even go to a local cemetery and find a grave that is in desperate need of tending; spend some time there and see if you feel some sort of permission to groom their grave and leave small offerings. See if your local historian society has an idea who that person was, what their life was like.

There are millions of dead who want only to be remembered, and they may not care whether you’re related to them via blood or not. And remembering someone is not very difficult, and can bring you a sense of connectedness and continuity in your life.



Belated: National Suicide Awareness Day and Thoughts About Suicide from your Friendly Neighborhood Madness Shaman

This isn’t going to be easy to write, so please bear with me.

I have a long and complex relationship with suicide. When I learned that yesterday was National Suicide Awareness Day, I felt I wanted to write something to encourage those who may be contemplating suicide to get help if they can. Y’know, one of those posts that lists a bunch of hotlines and websites where you can talk to someone if you’re thinking about killing yourself.

I couldn’t bring myself to write it, and at first I didn’t know why. So I meditated about it, and eventually the truth began to come out of the confusion. I wouldn’t be able to write an essay about why you should get help if you’re suicidal because I am in the midst of a depressive episode, and it would either be, or feel an awful lot like, hypocritical if I gave a blanket “suicide is never a solution, get help” sort of message.

I’ve written extensively about the fact that I have mental health issues. They used to be a lot worse than they are today, but I was never “cured” or “in remission” or anything like that. I just found a place between “so crazy I can’t have a conversation ” and “stone cold sane” and started building a new life in that place. Most people know that it involved a shamanic crisis. Some people know that part of that process was me trying to kill myself, only to have a talk with Loki and wake up a little groggy, but otherwise okay.

That was not my first suicide attempt. I tried to kill myself four times while I was growing up. I never told anyone and did not get help. I was already in state-mandated therapy for other reasons, and I knew that if I told the therapist the truth, my life would change drastically in ways that would not, in the end, really help me at all.

I have a general policy now, that when someone tells me they’re going to kill themselves, I will do what I can to keep them from doing it. Most of the time, it comes down to me calling their local police department and having the police pick them up. I have learned that although this policy has saved the lives of people I cared about, it had two completely unintended and, ultimately, heart-wrenching effects. One was that people who ended up in a hospital because I called the police not only didn’t take the therapy seriously, but also stopped talking to me and in one case, killed themselves later on without talking to me. The second effect was that when two of my friends decided to kill themselves, they purposefully didn’t tell me. In one of those cases, the person was killing themselves in order to end their life with dignity rather than suffer a terrible illness, and many of my friends knew about the person’s plan but didn’t tell me because they were afraid I would call the police.

It puts me in this terrible position that I don’t know what the answer to is. I understand at a heart-level what it feels like when there are no other solutions, and I can be a really good ally to have if you want help finding solutions that can’t be seen when you’re in the thick of it. I know a lot of really good mental health programs, and therapists who could give a rat’s ass if you’re poly or kinky or queer or trans or “alternatively spiritual” or whatever flavor of freak you are. It is an important part of my madness shamanism to be able to enter into another person’s point of view (that is tainted by their madness) and help them get to where they want to go from inside the madness, rather than most people who are staring at you from the outside and can’t really get deep in the trenches because they just don’t see why you feel the way you do, or why you’re making the choices you are. I can do that, and I’ve helped a lot of people that way.

On the other hand, I am obviously not a medical professional. I’m just some dude who lives in the suburbs who has had a lot of experience with being a mental health patient and general crazy person; but this does not qualify me as a person who always knows what to do when a stranger, friend, or family member tells me they want to kill themselves. Sometimes it can be hard, because I have to push past my personal relationship with this person and the emotions that well up because of it, and put on my “work hat” – and I’m not perfect at that.

In addition, sometimes getting into the muck with someone means that I push them out, but I leave myself behind. I’m still someone with multiple pysch issues, and I’m not free from triggers. My life is far from peachy, and it only takes a split second for me to let the muck suck me in.

That’s not why I’m depressed now, though.

It hit me last week, as I was reading a memoir. I read a single sentence, a passing mention of something that had happened to a family member; it said “{family member} had not recovered from their divorce.” (Emphasis mine.) It hit me like a medicine ball to the stomach. I literally stopped breathing, started trembling, and broke down and cried.

A literal shit-ton of jarring life experiences have happened to me in the last year and a half. It’s been a year since my marriage fell apart and I had to move out in a matter of a week. I’ve had friends die. I’ve been in the hospital and had multiple surgeries, one of which I almost didn’t survive. My financial situation changed drastically, and things I hadn’t had to worry about for years suddenly became life-shaking realities. My diabetes, which had been mostly controlled by diet, got much, much worse and is contributing to my overall health. I had to move three times. I walked away from parts of my life that meant a great deal to me. I moved far away from most of my friends and it’s not as easy for me to go to social stuff and no one lives close enough to just “drop by”. I spend a lot of time alone. I don’t drive, so I am always relying on the kindness of friends to help me do simple things like go to doctors or run errands. Not very long ago, I didn’t have enough gas to get me to the ER, nor could I afford it (I went anyway, but the way I got the money was not easy nor did it make me feel good about myself or my life).

I’m not writing this because I want people to sweep in and start solving my problems. I frequently don’t post about problems in the day-to-day because I don’t want people to think I’m walking around with my hand out. Or people whom I could help – something that makes me feel good about myself and my place in the world – decide I am too engulfed in my own shit and ask someone else. I also know that there are people who celebrate (publicly) when I am depressed or sick or just not doing well; there are others who think I’m making it all up, or just trying to get people to give me money/attention/pity/etc.

I’m writing this because on National Suicide Awareness Day, I want to say something not just about suicide, but about the suffering and anguish that many people who don’t kill themselves go through. It’s one thing to tell them suicide is not the answer, but it’s a very long and intricate process to actually make other answers seem viable and attractive to someone who is that lost. It’s extremely difficult to remember that it’s not about you, or how much you love them, but there are years (or decades) of neglectful upbringing, or traumatic experiences, or biochemical imbalances (in some, but not all), or plain ol’ suckitude, that brought them to this place, and a single act of happy-making isn’t going to solve the problem, or in some cases it can actually make things worse. That no matter how strong and sane you are, the person likely needs a professional if they can get one. If not, you have to choose – are you going to put your arm around them and really commit to walking them back to a place where they are functional? Are you going to do the homework to find them a professional to talk to that won’t get sidetracked by their freak factor(s) (ask me sometime about the therapist who thought all my problems were because I went to Rocky Horror a few times a month!)? Can you be strong when they engage in behaviors you know are bad for them or are symptoms of their mental illness?

Writing love on your arms is pretty, but there’s a whole lot more involved if you want to help someone come back from suicidal ideation.

I feel like I want to say something about what it’s like to have a loved one commit suicide, and how I (and others) never forget, never really move on. Many suicidal people convince themselves that their friends and family are better off without them, or that they’re a burden rather than a blessing, and that once they’re dead everyone will feel relief. It is just not true. Even when I know that the person was truly in hell, physically or emotionally or mentally or all three, and that maybe now that they’re dead they suffer no more; it doesn’t make the grief any less, or the feeling of failure you feel that you couldn’t help them, or that they didn’t reach out to you, or that you didn’t fully grasp how bad it was.

On the other hand, I am a strong supporter of body autonomy, and in my case that includes the right to off yourself if that’s how you want to go. Not only do I support people with terminal or end-stage/uncurable chronic illness having the right to decide to die sooner rather than suffer through months or years of pain and suffering; I support the right of people who just want to control the way they die. Even when I’m doing well and mentally stable, the idea that I have to surrender my life in a way not of my choosing seems foreign and oppressive. It’s my life, and I should have the full right to do with it whatever I want, including ceasing it’s function. If someone truly and sincerely asked me to help them die, and they could make a cogent case as to why they should, I don’t know that I would say no.

Suicide is not a black/white thing, like everything else in humanity. It’s not all bad, all the time, no matter what. But frequently, it’s not the cure for mental illness, either. Even now, in the midst of a bad depressive episode, I know that I don’t actually want to die; I just want to stop feeling terrible and having terrible things happen to me or those I care about. I want a quick and easy answer to my struggle. Death is attractive in moments like this, but I know it’s not the right choice for me now. Doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, fantasize about it, or don’t allow myself to imagine a plan.

I also want to make sure people understand that there is a difference between thinking about suicide and actually wanting to kill yourself. The medical term is “suicide ideation”, which just means that you think/fantasize about suicide, and may feel suicidal, but either don’t actually want to kill yourself/die, or won’t go through with it. I won’t say everyone thinks about killing themselves at one point or another, but it’s a common experience. One of the ways I work with my mental illness is to remind myself that it’s totally okay to think about suicide, and a whole different kettle of fish to actually plan to kill myself. For me, it’s better if I let my thoughts flow as they will, rather than punishing or correcting myself if I’m thinking about something I “shouldn’t”. When I think like that, many of my compulsions kick into high gear, and I start doing very unhealthy things in the name of what I “should” be doing.

It’s also okay to call a suicide hotline even if you don’t have a gun to your head or a bottle of pills in your hand. These people want to talk to others, even if it’s just a friendly chat so you feel less alone in the world. If you have secrets you can’t talk about with anyone, it can be a big relief to call a stranger who doesn’t know your real name or where you’re from (and you can use many online programs to call from a number other than your personal home or cell, like Google Voice), and tell them your deepest darkest secrets. I first confessed that I thought I might be queer to a suicide hotline. I also talked to one when I thought my spouse was cheating on me and I didn’t want to get any of my friends involved. I called one not very long ago, for reasons I’m not going to write about here just yet. None of these times were moments out of a movie, with the caller literally putting the noose around their neck and begging the hotline volunteer to talk them out of it; it was more, “I’m feeling very lost and alone about this or that or all of the things in my life, and I’m not seeing many solutions or resolutions other than running away or killing myself.” There’s no meter or metric that you can measure your suicide ideation with to confirm or deny that you’re “suicidal enough” to call for help.

Hi, I’m Del, and I have multiple mental health diagnoses. I’m in a depressive phase and things don’t feel so good. Sometimes I think about suicide, but I don’t have any plans. I take medication for my depression, and I’m not afraid to say so. I know I will have to take it for a long time – it’s not a course of antibiotics that you take until you feel better. I have to take them until such time as situations in my life are more balanced and only then with the help of a professional – if ever. If I have to take them for the rest of my life, I would much rather take a few pills every day than ever feel as bad as I have in the past. I would rather take a few pills than go back to a psych ward. I would rather take a few pills and deal with a few side effects rather than spread my crazy onto all of my friends and loved ones.

I’m only going to list a few resources here: I figure you all have Google and can find the more nationally-known hotlines and services. These are a few places to start if you’re in need of a therapist who won’t judge or pathologize parts of your life that others might.

Kink Aware Professionals: This is a list of all different kinds of services, from lawyers to contractors to therapists. It helps if you’re close to a major city, but there are some out here in the boonies. I also like that they encourage listers to categorize how hep to kink they are: “Friendly” means they generally know what an average citizen knows about kink, and won’t judge you on it. “Aware” means they’ve done some research and have some understanding of kink/power exchange, and “Knowledgeable” means they either are kinky themselves, or know enough about the lifestyle that you’ll find yourself not having to explain an awful lot.
I should mention that I refer a lot of people, kinky or not, to the KAP because you’ll find that a therapist or counselor who is hep to kinky stuff is much less likely to lose their shit about other alternative lifestyles, including spirit workers/shamans or LGBTQ folks.

Poly Friendly Professionals. A similar list, except instead of kink stuff, these people are either polyamorous or aware/non-judgemental about being poly. I find poly-aware therapists are usually open to non-traditional relationships of all stripes and colors, including Godspousery. (Again, not all, but most of the ones I’ve talked to or worked with.)

The Open List: This is another list of professionals of all stripes that are welcoming to all those in alternative lifestyles, with a focus on non-monogamy. What’s nice is at the bottom of the page, they list other lists that have similar foci, should you not find what you are looking for here.

Broken Toys is a website hosted by Raven Kaldera that has many essays about kink and mental illness. Although the full title says it’s about Submissives, the articles come from all sorts of people in power exchange relationships from the Top and the Bottom. It’s not a place to find a therapist, but it does have some great essays both on what to do when you/your partner is struggling with a mental illness, and also first hand stories/experiences.

Although it is geared towards teenagers, Kate Bornstein’s book Hello Cruel World is a wonderful list of 101 alternatives to suicide. If you’re depressed and web searching anyway, google Kate and listen/read/watch what she has to say on the topic; she and I feel very similarly about suicide. Her mantra is “Do whatever it takes to make your life worth living; anything at all.” She even hands out (and offers on her website) “Get Out of Hell Free” cards, so if your God(s) punish you for doing what it took to make your life better, she’s volunteering to do your time for you. Her only rule? “Don’t be mean.” Her book even has an app on Itunes, so if you can’t get the book, or if you need something right away, this is a good start.

Kate also has posted her own “It Gets Better” video on YouTube; it made me cry my eyes out in a good way.

I hope this terribly long and windy post helps someone, somewhere, to feel better even for a moment. Maybe posting this will help me feel better for a moment. Who knows?

Betwixt and Between: A Samhain Open House

We are opening our hearth and home to all those who are looking to celebrate the end of the cycle of the year with friends, family, and like-minded individuals. All people of all ages are welcome to attend (children under 18 must be a known quantity or be with a parent, sorry), and there is no faith-requirement. Yes, this is open to people who are not Pagan, including atheists and agnostics, if the activities seem interesting to them. All we ask is that you maintain an attitude of reverence, and an understanding that this is a religious ceremony for some or all who attend.

Here’s the specifics:

  • When? Friday, November the 1st, starting at 7pm and lasting until sometime around midnight but possibly later.
  • Where? Hagerstown, Maryland. Specific address will be given as a response to RSVPs. You must RVSP by October 30th to ravesblood at gmail dot com. As our place isn’t very big, we will have to cap attendance at 20 people; therefore, RSVPs are important, and we ask that once you RSVP, please honor your commitment. If you RSVP late, we will maintain a “waiting list” in the order people respond, so if we have a cancellation we will notify the next in line. We don’t know for certain we will reach our cap, but it’s likely, so RVSP early.
  • Who? We expect most people will be local, friends and family who want to celebrate with holiday with us. We do have the ability to host a small number of out of towners, so if you’d like to come from far away we can give you a place to sleep (although if we get many, it may be a patch of floor here or a bed at a friend’s place). We should be clear, however, that we have set plans that Saturday afternoon, so although you’re welcome to stay the weekend, we’ll be gone for most of Saturday.
  • What? Samhain is a holiday from the agricultural “wheel of the year” (the literal reality of which we can debate another day, but it’s what’s been adopted by some NeoPagans) that marks the end of the harvest, a time when the veil separating the living and the dead is thinnest, therefore making it easier to feel and hear the presence of our Honored Dead. It’s one of my favorite Pagan holidays, and as Rave and I are at loose ends for a group to celebrate with, we figure there are others who might be as well. You don’t need to ascribe to the Wheel of the Year to take some time to think about and grieve our dead.
  • How? The evening will have three parts. From 7pm to 9pm, we will have several people practicing various forms of divination (and yes, if you’re a diviner, feel free to indicate whether you’re willing to read for people, and what kind of set up you’ll need.) As I have a strong ethic that you pay for skilled labor, but also an understanding that this is a special occasion, I have decided that all readings will cost $5, or you may attempt to enter into a barter agreement with the diviner of your choice – but of course, the diviner has a right to turn down barter they don’t want or need. If you wish to attend only to avail yourself of divination, you are welcome to RSVP thusly, but the reading will cost you $10 (to give people an incentive to stay the whole evening).
  • The second part will be a dumb supper, which Rave will be organizing. A dumb supper is somewhat a Samhain tradition; people cook various entrees and desserts that were favorites of a dead relative or friend (or something the person is just really good at cooking), and bring them potluck-style. When we clear the room from Part 1, a bell will be rung, and at that time all speaking will cease. The moving of furniture, the setting of the table, the meal itself, and a short time afterward will all be held in silence. The idea is to invite our Honored Dead to eat with us, and there will be a plate in the center of the table where people can share a portion of their dinner with the Dead. We eat in silence so we can be better able to feel the dead’s presence, or hear their whispers. When the meal is over, the offering plate will be placed outside and a silent prayer thanking the Dead for attending will be said. If your Dead want a certain kind of drink, or (as in my case) for you to smoke tobacco, you must bring those things with you (and you don’t have to share if you don’t want to). When it is time to speak again, a bell will be rung a second time. There will be a short period of re-adjustment before we move to Part III.
  • Part III will be a Sumbyl. This is a Norse tradition, but is accessible to people of all faiths. We fill a drinking horn with some form of alcohol (probably a hoppy beer, or cider) and it will be passed around as we make three rounds of toasts. The first round will be toasts to Gods of the Dead; it can also be to Death itself, or even a Concept or Archetype of Death if you so desire. The second round will be to your Honored Dead – people who have had a good influence on you, both intimate and not, so you can toast Aunt Tilly and Jim Henson if you want to. The third toast is usually a boast, but it is the only part of the ritual I’m keeping close to the chest. At a sumbyl, it is always okay to skip a round, or to libate the alcohol instead of drinking it (or kissing the horn), so none of it is mandatory. If the feeling in the room is to open it up after the last round, allowing people to make further toasts, we will continue until the hosts decide it’s over.
  • We ask that attendees plan to be at all three parts, but obviously we ask that at a minimum, you be present for parts II and III, as we can’t predict how long the dinner or the sumbyl will be.
  • Also, we can set aside a space for those who may not have been able to get their reading before the supper, to do so during or after the Sumbyl. Of course, it is up to the diviner as to whether or not they’re willing to work later on, so I can’t at all guarantee that it will happen. If someone comes and isn’t able to get a reading, I will offer them a reading at the same cost sometime later on,either via email/skype or in person.
  • Why? Well, the short answer is “because my Gods told me to”, but that isn’t really satisfying for anyone other than me. We feel there is a dirth of Samhain celebrations in the area, and since death magic and the dying/decomposing part of the cycle of life is something I work closely with, it seemed like a no brainer. I also felt that having a ritual where people who aren’t sure where their faith lies, can still come and take a little time to mourn their dead without having to swallow a bunch of thoughts about what the afterlife is like or that Uncle Harry is “smiling down on us” or whatever.This ritual is meant to be built in a way where it is primarily internal – your reading is confidential between you and the diviner, the dumb supper goes without saying, and you can always offer a toast without telling anyone why, or the circumstances that lead you to. (Of course, you can choose to share if that helps you.)

So, again, you must RSVP to ravesblood at gmail dot com by October 30th if you want to attend. If you aren’t a known person to us, letting us know how you found me (fellow Lokean, blog fan, friend of a friend, etc), will make us feel much more comfortable letting you into our house. Also, keep in mind that Part II only works if people bring entrees and desserts to share (plan to share with 10 people), and we’ll be supplying plates and tablecloths and such. It can be store-bought if you’re not a cook; it’s more important that the food have some meaning for you or your Honored Dead.

Why “Shaman”? A Joint Post with Wintersong Tashlin

This is two essays in one. My partner and clansbrother Wintersong and I decided to take on this heady topic together, as we have similar and differing views on the subject. We have both been ridiculed, attacked, and disparaged because we use this title for ourselves, and it was one such letter Winter received that inspired this post. The first half is my thoughts, followed by Winter’s. Understand that any questions or comments you make to this version will be answered by me; if you wish to hear more from Winter on the subject, you’ll have to go to his version at Notes from a Barking Shaman to get his answers.

Del, from Sex, Gods, and Rock Stars, says:

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
–James D. Nicoll

The word “shaman” is a hotly contested word in the Pagan and New Age communities. Honestly, when I first started getting the inkling that it was a word I was going to use someday, I avoided it heavily. Even now, it’s not usually the first word I use to describe the way my service to community manifests – I try to use the less controversial “spirit worker”, or “pastoral care counselor”, or “ritual facilitator” and sometimes “ordeal master”, although the last one isn’t without its own controversy. But use it I do, and I frequently get pushback from those who find it to be some form of cultural appropriation.

Raven Kaldera tends to sum up his use of the word by simply stating that the Gods told him to use it, so use it he does. I won’t take that tack – although in some sense it is true – because my thoughts on the matter are more nuanced and complicated than that. Like I said, I resisted the title for a long time, but then I came to a place of compromise on it.

First of all, I am aware that the word describes a very specific spiritual and cultural role in Northern Asia. Sources tend to attribute it as a Siberian word, but other cultures in the area had similar sounding words that described generally the same thing. There is some argument made that there is also a Sanskrit word, saman, which means “chant”, which could be part of its heritage.

Some people like to make the argument that “shaman” is a Native American word, but in a literal sense this is incorrect – there are no documented Tribal languages that use a word that sounds anything like “shaman” to describe medicine men or other spiritual leaders. The way the word became connected to Tribal spirituality is from English and American anthropologists, who lumped any person living in tribal culture whose primary role to their community was to work with spirits or as a spiritual healer. But it is not, at its core, a Tribal word at all.

And like the quote above states, lots of English words are taken from other languages and used in similar contexts as the original language used them. Words like kindergarden, pastrami, phoenix, and even batman come from other languages, but when people use them in everyday conversation we don’t accuse them of stealing from German, French, or Russian. The word shaman has a similar history – anthropologists learned of shamans and shamanic practice from the Northern Asian area, including the word for said, and began applying it to similar persons and techniques from other places.

But I know that doesn’t sate the detractors of the word. Just because a word has been subsumed by our motley tongue doesn’t mean that someone claiming it, no matter the context, is not a form of subtle cultural appropriation. I do feel there is an intrinsic difference in some English-speaking people who use the word, and this may be where the accusation of cultural appropriation comes from.

Where I agree with those who take umbrage with the use of the word are people who use it to describe practices that either mimic or directly descend from other cultures. There are a lot of (mostly white) people who offer “Native American Sweat Lodge experiences” or “Native healing ceremonies” who use the title “Shaman” to describe their role in these rituals. It can be practically impossible at this point to discern which ones have actually studied and learned not only the original rites, but the culture from which they come from; and those who’ve attended a few classes or rituals and decided there was money to made in creating similar experiences for (mostly white) people who don’t know any better.

I also agree that there are some people who claim the title “shaman” specifically to make money from hapless seekers who have a general sense of the English meaning of the word. As an active person in Pagan community, who sometimes rubs elbows with New Agers, I’ve met these sorts of folks. They live pretty average, middle class lives; but when it’s showtime, they put on Tribal looking clothing and bring out the drums. I’ve attended some of their “rituals.”

It’s usually the unintended association with those sorts of grifters that makes me reticent to use the word for myself. But a few things happened in my life that made me come to terms with the word as it relates to my personal practices and the services I offer my community.

First and foremost, I was not the first person to use the word in reference to myself. It’s hard for me to remember the specific timeline, but there was a time where people started either asking me if I was a shaman, or telling other people I was. Around the same time, I had clients who referred to me as “their shaman”. I will be honest – at first, I cringed. I associated the word with the ne’er do wells who put on their spiritual selves to make money, rather than those who lived and breathed a life focused on spiritual service, both to the Spirits/Gods and to the people. But sometimes a ball starts rolling down a hill, and you can either start the arduous journey of pushing it back up, or go for the ride.

Around the same time, I had become pretty active in the clique of East Coast spirit workers of which Raven Kaldera is a member; as he uses the word for himself, others started to assume that I did, too.

Finally, I underwent a spiritual journey to ask the Gods I serve if this was something I should actively try to change or accept. It was an odd experience, because I got several answers from different Gods and Spirits I have worked with or for. The first collective answer I felt strongly was that I had to use a word of the language of my people – English – so using a word like Gothi or Hougan would make little sense. Also, because I serve Gods from various parts of the world, choosing a word from one specific tradition would be confusing for those who sought me out to work outside of that paradigm. Although I sometimes identify as a “Northern Tradition Pagan”, I’ve made it abundantly clear through my writing that I work for many Gods who are not Norse in origin.

Secondly, They were clear that I had to use a word that the people I was here to serve would understand. Using a word I made up for myself, or something that wasn’t as easily comprehended, would end up alienating potential clients. One of my strengths is that I can move between different traditions and be of service to people who have relationships with a wide variety of Holy Ones. Along the same lines, if I chose a word like “priest”, it could be seen as misleading, since “priests” tend to be dedicated to a single cause – either serving a specific Deity, or a specific congregation/community.

The job description for “shaman” has, admittedly, become watered down over time, but the core of it still remains – I am a person who is attuned to the Spirit World, who has learned and cultivated ways to communicate and work with the residents therein, and who uses that ability to help those who seek me out because of those talents. There is also a delineation that has been made between “spirit workers”, who are people who do work for Spirits (on Earth and in the Beyond) – some of which serve clients, but some of which have very solitary practices – and “shamans”, who have undergone some traumatic life event (typically dying, but some recognize going completely mad and other traumas that radically change your life in a way you can’t change back) and have been rebuilt by the Spirits/Gods in some way that make them better suited for the Work.

The other differentiation I have seen between “spirit workers” and “shamans” is that spirit work can be a part-time endeavor – you can have a relatively normal life, a spouse and family, a career that isn’t rooted in spirituality – whereas most shamans I respect have lives that are controlled and dictated by their service. This doesn’t mean that shamans can’t have other sources of income, but the difference that I’ve witnessed is that whereas spirit workers can sometimes delay or ignore a request from Spirit or a client, shamans rarely can, especially if that client was sent by a God I have oathed to.

It would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that part of the reason I think Those I Serve chose that title for me is specifically because it’s controversial. It’s not like in every other aspect I’m an average Joe – almost every aspect of my life is seeped in some form of controversial identity. I’m queer, I’m trans* identified, I’m kinky and live in a 24/7 power dynamic, I have a radical appearance and lots of body modifications, etc. It’s part of my job to provoke, to make people think about their assumptions, to teach by example that people can choose to live their truth, even if they fear that truth might alienate people they care about.

Like I said in my essay about detractors, I’ve actually gained clients from people who have tried to besmirch me for my use of the word shaman; it’s piqued people’s curiosity about what terrible, awful things I do and they end up contacting me for something I do in my work as shaman. So in a way, I’m okay with open discussion about whether or not I’m a cultural appropriator or not. In fact, I enjoy that every so often when I read things that challenge the usage of that word by Americans or other English speakers, it makes me reassess my own usage of the word and make sure that I’m being true to myself, and not just being lazy by using some shorthand or convenient word rather than something that better describes what I do. As a person who also heavily identifies as a trickster, it would be antithetical to my nature to get angry when people question anything I do, even if they aren’t the politest when they do it.

In the end, my use of the word ‘shaman’ is like any other title in the Pagan community (like High Priestess, Elder, Magician, Spirit Worker, Occultist, Pantheist, etc); my usage will only continue if I live up to the qualifications to it over time. No one takes a self-appointed “Priestess” who does nothing for community and does not do actual service to a God/dess; if I ever shirk my Work (which I don’t think is an actual option for me, but that’s another post entirely) then people will stop calling me that, and eventually it will cause me more agita than it’s worth. But in the meantime, it’s the word on my Cosmic Shingle, and I have to do my best to live up to it.

Winter, from Notes From a Barking Shaman, says:

Del has already done a thorough job of breaking down the issue with the cultural appropriation argument against the word “shaman.” While I don’t feel compelled to expand on his analysis, I do want to make it clear that I agree with it. The argument can be made that the use of “shaman” is cultural appropriation from the Siberian peoples it is originally attributed to. But then you would have to take the issue up with the Native Americans and other now-English-speaking cultures who use it as well. I doubt many folk would be eager to explore that particular territory out of a drive for linguistic purity.

Moving on: I will be completely honest, as a self-descriptor “shaman” is a word that I’m deeply conflicted about.

I believe that for every person who hears the word “shaman” and thinks of one who serves as an intermediary with the spirit world, and perhaps helps guide others in their own search for knowledge and connection beyond the mundane, there’s going to be someone who hears “charlatan,” or “scam artist” or just thinks “but… you’re white.”

Why then would I use it?

Simple, it’s the word my Patron tells me to use, at least to refer to specific parts of my Work.

Which isn’t to say that’s the end of my relationship with the word. I’ve been a “shaman” for many years, and over time there are things I have learned about this word, at least in regards to how I relate to it.

When my Lady first informed me that I would be taking a prolonged break from my magical studies and Work, to undergo an extensive process of transformation in order to become a shaman, I was certainly not thrilled. Up to that point the study and practice of magic had been the primary focus of my work for Her, and one of two primary focuses in my life. Moreover, I knew that the process involved would seriously suck, if I survived it.

My own shamanic death/rebirth cycle was comprised of four major ordeals over the course of two years, each one of which could potentially have resulted in my physical death if it had gone less than perfectly. This was accompanied by a worsening of my physical and mental health over the course of that time. I came out the other side as one who is never fully in the mundane world or the Otherworld(s), not wholly alive, but certainly not a shade either.

Many years on I’m still exploring what it means to be a shaman in service of the Mistress of the Forest Fire, and discovering what my shamanic work fully entails, especially as I finally start the process of incorporating my magic and my shamanism.

Perhaps the first thing I learned about this word is that it’s very loaded, not only in interpersonal interactions, but in the eyes of the Universe and the gods. Declaring oneself a shaman can open doors and bring connections to the spirits that had not been there before. There are areas of spirit work where working under the title of “shaman” gives me different privileges and access than I have as a servant of the gods, or as a magician. This is especially true in my work the Dead.

Of course, simply declaring oneself a shaman doesn’t make you one (and like Del, I was not the first person to use that word to describe myself). Laying claim to a title that isn’t yours can have consequences, and perhaps the most destructive I’ve seen is the declaration that one is a shaman leading to one’s wyrd becoming tied to that path, even if that was not the desired outcome.

Personally, I believe that the connection to traumatic transformation, although not necessarily around death, is a big part of what makes one a shaman. I’ve met shamans of madness as well as of death, and there can be a third, far rarer path of shamanism as well.

The process of going deep into another state of being, so much so that it completely consumes you, and then coming as far back as possible, leaves a person changed. Existing not in this world, but not in another either, is to me a major factor that distinguishes a shaman from other forms of spirit workers. My beliefs differ from Del’s in that I feel strongly that one can be a spirit worker 24/7 without being a shaman. Although not all spirit workers are 24/7 and I’m not convinced all shamans are either.

I should also note, that I believe it’s possible to be a “full time” spirit worker or shaman while also having a “day” job, particularly if said day job dovetails into one’s spirit work. The definition of a “full time” shaman or spirit worker is by its nature rather subjective after all.

I realize it is a digression, but here are some forms of spirit workers I’ve known. It is certainly possible for one person to be more than one, and not everyone who fits these titles are spirit workers per say.

in no particular order

  • Shaman (since we’re talking about it)
  • Gods-slave
  • Gods-spouse
  • Purpose-bound
  • Mystic
  • Medium
  • Monastic
  • Scholar
  • Bard
  • Priest/ess

For me, “shaman” is a job, a sacred role, and one of several central facets of my identity. For all that, in some ways, I don’t consider being a shaman to be all that special. Within the framework I use to define “shaman,” it is rather rare, even among pagans, polytheists, and spirit workers. But in the end it is simply another way to serve the gods and the Universe, no better or worse than others.

I do believe that shamans do a particular form of important Work that few others can do. However, the same can be said of a mystic, bard, gods-spouse, or any other of a variety of spiritual roles and titles. It is also worth noting that many of those other roles and titles are in their unique way as controversial and emotionally loaded as “shaman” is.

As a demographic we are figuring all this stuff out as we go along. Together we are creating not only new ways to express faith and experience the divine, but on a more fundamental level exploring ways to conceptualize the nature of our individual and shared reality.

Words are one of the essential ways we define our existence, so it’s of no surprise that words like “shaman” become bound up in layers of intellectual and emotional meaning, with all the controversy that can entail.

In the end though it’s the word my patron deity says I use, so I use it. All my complex feelings and intellectual considerations around “shaman” will always come up short in the face of Her insistence. That’s the nature of our relationship, and I find myself surprisingly ok with that.

Questions about Sacrifice

My post, Sacrifice seems to have gone viral among people of many different faith paths; I received more hits per 24 hour period on that piece than any other I’ve written to date (although it has a way to go for best all time hits, as God Sex and Hearing the Gods are currently the most popular.)

One person, identified as “C”, sent a comment full of well thought out and important questions, so I thought instead of answering them in the comments section, I would give them a post of their own.

1) Many, if not most, of us who are now polytheistic or polytheistically inclined have come from a Christian background. One of the reasons a lot of ppl leave that path is precisely because they do not feel heard, acknowledged, or cared for. Paganism, at large, has held out the image or idea that these other Deities are more tangible and responsive, more imminent in our daily affairs. However, it sounds like you, and many of your colleagues, are saying that the Gods are, or can be to most of us, just as remote and apparently non-responsive as the Christianity deities ever were. So how does Paganism/polytheism offer anything preferable, or as many assert, superior to the Christian paradigm?

There might be some conflation between the concept that the Gods are imminent, and the concept that Pagans can develop the abilities to see and hear them on a regular basis. One of the (debatable) theologies of most Pagans is the idea of imminence: the Gods are not living in some far off kingdom in the sky, looking down on us from a detached viewpoint, they are here on Earth, walking among us, interested and involved in our day to day existence. That’s how I view imminence, anyway. And as it is possible for a human to be interested in our daily existence and collect all kinds of information about us (as proven by how many times people google “Del Tashlin” to find this blog, for instance), and may even be an invisible hand guiding our decisions or the outcomes therein, it is all the more possible for the Gods to be at work in your life, and yet you might never actually get to have a two-way conversation with them.

The reason some people are given the gifts of understanding the Gods with their senses (hearing, seeing, etc) is specifically to live a life of service to those who do not. So even if you, personally, do not experience the Gods with your senses, it may only take a phone call or a coffee date with the right spirit worker in order to have personalized messages delivered to you (if the Gods have anything to communicate, anyway.) It may take the form of oracular work, or it may be divination. And that’s another equalizer in this; although you may not have the ability to hear with your ears, learning a divination system is available to most people, and I do believe that Gods communicate with us through divination, as long as you learn the basic energetic exercises that go with being a channel (grounding, centering, etc), rather than just interpreting the forces of randomness.

Another hurdle here is that few people take the time to really listen. We live in a society of constant distraction; music at the gas pumps, Ipods on the train, tv in the background; we have learned to think of silence as a terrible punishment. Even sitting in a car with another person, if the conversation dies, both people are likely frantically searching for a new topic of conversation, rather than just letting the silence pervade the experience. (I had the fortune to learn how to sit in conversational silence while dating a person who rarely spoke; at first, it drove me crazy, but over time I learned to love the feeling of release when I no longer pressured myself to fill the silence with random chatter.) You can’t hear the Gods if you’re constantly bathed in distraction, and that takes practice. It may take a meditative session of an hour or longer before you can allow your brain to silence the running commentary track, because even that may be too loud for the inspiration to come through. And like I’ve said in Hearing the Gods, it rarely manifests as actually hearing an external voice, even if most spirit workers shorthand the description that way (“Odin told me to buy whiskey” may actually mean “I was in the liquor store buying tequila for the upcoming party, when I felt an overwhelming desire to purchase a specific kind of whiskey. I followed my gut, and later I sat for two hours staring at the whiskey until I had an internal revelation that Odin likes whiskey, and it’s been a while since I’ve libated to him, so I should probably go do that”, followed by a sense of resolution when you finish the act.) It takes a lot of trial and error (and yes, error, as in “I really thought seeing two ravens for three days straight was an omen from Odin, but actually, it was just that there was some carrion outside my house and they kept coming until it was gone.”

The other half of the sacrifice, which I guess I didn’t make clear enough in the first piece, is that those who dedicate their lives to the service of their God’s people, have to learn and perfect a variety of skills in order to do their Job and do it well. (No one wants to go see the shaman who doesn’t know how to meditate, right?) And if you’ve got a great day job and a wonderful spouse and lovely children, you might not have the kind of time, patience, or dedication that these skills require. Most spirit workers I know do not have children; many of them do not have day jobs or if they do, they spend all of their free time working on their spiritual calling. It’s not something that a full time engineer can achieve unless they’re willing to make… you guessed it…a sacrifice. That’s part of the life I live as well. I live in a very small, suburban/rural city, in a very quiet neighborhood, and I spend about 70% of my time sequestered in my room, working on some spiritual thing or another. There are days that my girl (who lives with me) will only leave my food at the door, knowing not to interrupt, and that eventually I will peek my head out if I need sustenance. I don’t get to go out to the bar, or visit a friend, or have a game night. Sometimes I don’t leave my house for weeks, and then only to see a doctor. It’s a very solitary life, and although I have romantic partners, they all understand that the Work comes first, and that means I might disappear for a month, too busy to send a text message or schedule a visit.

In other words, for dramatic effect, I used the bigger life sacrifices that my colleagues make, but inside of that are millions of smaller ones, daily ones, choosing to answer someone’s well thought out questions rather than sleep, maybe? 🙂

2) Given that apparently only a limited number of ppl appear to be able to hear and communicate meaningfully with the Deities, how does someone, such as myself, who’s tried their entire lives to make contact, not come to the conclusion that ALL of this isn’t simply fantasy wish fulfillment?

Again, this ignites what my colleagues call an “on duty light”. It’s a small pull around my heart chakra (or sometimes the feeling of force pushing down on my head and shoulders) because these are the services I provide my tribes and communities. I am out there, ready and willing to verify that your prayers are heard, your offerings not in vain, and that your beliefs are not an addiction to Dungeons and Dragons gone awry. Loki rewired me and removed the obstacles in my life so I have the ability to offer my skills humbly, to anyone who might need them. And He did it to me, because honestly, I was wasting my life away and was ready to end it, and He decided there was a whole different track I could be on, if only I was willing to surrender my free will. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? Reading those words in no way can convey what it’s like when I was Told that after my most recent marriage failed, that having a spouse was too much of a distraction from the Work, so although I am allowed to have romantic liasons, I am now barred from taking a new spouse, or even having a relationship that resembles spousery (like living together, sharing finances, making decisions as a unit, etc). I’m a Libra, and we work best when part of a partnership. But it’s very true, what the Gods said; both of my spouses and the relationship I had that might as well have been spousal, dragged me away from my calling; and it wasn’t their fault. It was too easy for me to ignore the Work in deference to the work a long term relationship entails. In each of those relationships, if the Gods told me to do something that my spouses disapproved of (my Soon To Be Ex (STBX) was fond of saying, “Well, if the Gods want that, They can pay for it.”) I just didn’t do it. And it wasn’t outward denial to my Gods; I just let the Work pile up in the cosmic inbox and plugged my ears and la la la’d my way along. And each and every time, the circumstances were brought about that the spouse would be removed from my life – and oddly enough, not by my choice – which is why I tell would-be spirit workers and shamans never to tell the Gods that something like your children, or your job, or spouse, is keeping you from doing your Work, because They have ways of removing those obstacles, usually ways that aren’t fun or pretty.

But anyway, this isn’t about my sob story. What I’m trying to convey to you is that I can tell you, C, that your prayers are heard. That you are loved and noticed. I feel it coming through my body and spilling out of my pores. And in the future, should you have doubts, now you know how to find me, and I will happily serve you in any way that will strengthen your spiritual journey.

I know this may feel a little like going to a Catholic priest; as though you need an intercessory in order to communicate to God. But that’s not the case at all. Prayers are heard, even if the pray-er does not feel the revelation after doing so. You can always talk to your Gods, by yourself, in any way that feels right to you, without anyone’s help. It’s only when you seek confirmation – and it’s worth noting, that often when people ask me if their Gods hear their prayers, I can easily point out the omens and signs they were given, but did not notice or apply to their situation. So the answers are usually there, but it takes time and skill to see them.

3) If, as is taught by some, the Gods are our Elder Kin, why should they be so recalcitrant about speaking to us? Do any of you who do receive communication ever ask the Gods point blank why they deign to speak to so few or at the very least make their presence felt? To expect or desire or in any way accept the heart felt pleas, prayers, cries, devotions, adorations, etc. of untold multitudes of souls w/o so much as a breath of recognition and response of any sort sounds quite cruel and capricious!

I can’t speak for everyone, or for the Gods on this question. I can only speak to what it inspires within me. Many of my shamanic colleagues, mostly when we’re railing against our calling, wonder why there seems to be more spirit workers and shamans cropping up all over the place; in places where there were none before. Obviously, no scientific survey has been done to definitely state that there are more shamans, shamanic practitioners, spirit workers, God spouses, and the like, than there was 30 years ago. Before the Internet, it is very likely that many were called but failed to understand what they were being asked to do – no googling “spiritual crises” back then – or that they just went about doing their Work, quietly, taking clients as the encountered them on the street, or in their tribes, or perhaps even just their extended families. They may have used different words to describe what they did; I’m positive that during more oppressive times, there were many “special grandparents/aunts/uncles/cousins” who knew about herbs spirits and energy work, but since the monotheistic paradigm made it difficult or impossible to discuss without being accused of Satanism/Witchcraft (in the bad sense of the word), it was just something like, “Every time I visit Sammy’s house, I always feel more focused, more clear headed, more connected.” and no one talked about how or why it happened.

In the age where we have better means of long distance travel, as well as the obvious ability to google various spiritual quandaries and find meaningful answers, when hospitals are hiring Reiki practitioners who are as well regarded as MDs, when Tantra is something an adventurous couple might try to spice up their sex life, and as the eon changes now into Aquarius and more and more people will be open to imminent spirituality, us wackjobs who have been studying, practicing, and quietly doing our daily devotions and research on our Gods will come forward. I can speak from experience how many clients I’ve had who approached me as atheists or anti-theists, and over time and exposure learn to open their heart to whatever calls to it…

The Gods are activating us. They are pushing us to be more public. For years I fought using the title “shaman”, and it really wasn’t until other people started using it in reference to me that I began to embrace it. (There’s a whole essay on that in storage, as I’m waiting for a co-conspirator to add their thoughts.) The main reason my Gods demanded I do so is because it’s a word that people understand, that they have at least some concept of what one is and what it does, whereas if I followed the emerging trend to choose a title that comes from the language of the Gods I serve (from godhi to seidkona to volupsa), many of my non-Norse-following clients, as well as those who are just starting out with this whole spiritual thing, will have no effing clue what that means or what skills I have because of that title.

I bet, right now, as of 3:15am EDT, there is someone in an ER somewhere dying, knowing each breath might be their last; when a God of some pantheon or another, probably unknown to hir, is appearing and offering the same deal I got – die now and give up, or let me the reigns and I will make your life meaningful again. And maybe that ER is three miles from your house. Who knows? But we are out there, and there are more of us out of the broom closet and mingling outside of the Pagan demographic, reaching out to communities and tribes we’ve been assigned to (or chosen, in some cases).

Which brings me to:

4) If They are indeed as capricious as what it sounds like you’re saying and as it appears, what makes Them worthy of our love and efforts at all!? If I’m going to get all the response I would from a bit of concrete, then why don’t I just call some random piece of concrete my deity and pray to it?

Well, speaking as an animist, I’d completely encourage you to find a bit of concrete and see if it has a spirit within it that you can help or learn from in some way. But I admit that’s also me being a bit of a saucebox.

For as much as my Gods have asked to sacrifice or surrender in order to live the life I do, I will emphatically exclaim that their presence in my life has brought such richness, has turned my life from black and white to technicolor, has given me the audacity to believe in things that science can’t, and may never, explain. I’ve seen glorious things, both in the realms of magic as well as in the transformation of the human soul when it opens itself to seeing the world as being encircled by Gods who are here, with us, encouraging us to be our best selves, to get over what holds us back and move forward boldly and with a surety they did not possess before.

I have those times, though. I won’t bullshit you. In long stretches of the darkened silence, I have pounded my fists and demanded to know why I was asked to give up so much if all I was going to get was “do this thing you don’t want to do, and don’t talk to me until it’s done”. Or worse yet; when my chronic illness first manifested, mostly in the form of severe chronic neurological and muscular pain, I actually wrote a letter to many of my colleagues, demanding to know why Loki would have punished me so, and what am I not doing that He feels this is a suitable punishment. Was it? No. Although now i see my illness as a blessing, I do not believe that any of my Gods thought that making me use a wheelchair or be hopped up on opiates was a grand idea. I believe in science as much as I believe in magic; my mother’s lineage is full of autoimmune and neurological disorders, and so it’s very likely whatever it is I have (if you’re interested, my other blog, Dying for a Diagnosis is all about that part of my life) is genetic, not divine. But have the Gods found a way to make it work with Their overall plan? Sure, in the same way that anyone deals with a monkeywrench. Or maybe They knew all along this was coming, and that was why They chose me and not the dude down the block. Who knows? To this day, I have no idea why I was picked. :shrug:

But yes, I empathize with the feeling that it’s all for naught, that the messages you receive (if any) are just wish fulfillment, that you’re merely using the Encyclopedia Mythica as your literary porn (in the case of Godspouses and consorts), and that in the end it doesn’t matter.

This is not a problem of the Gods. It is a problem of human faith. Faith is a difficult thing to nuture, because at its core it is holding a belief and acting upon that belief without the presence of proof. My Boyfriend is struggling with this as we speak; he once had a working God Radio (he could hear Them but had no way of knowing if They heard him) but his God purposefully broke it, mostly because he had to learn to trust in his own faith, rather than rely on the stream of information coming from Them. Once his faith is bulletproof, he’ll get a radio back (and maybe a phone, if he’s lucky), but right now, he needs to cultivate belief in the absence of proof. Without that absence, then what we believe in ceases to be spiritual, and becomes either science or fantasy.

There are days when I question if what I’m hearing is really Them, or if it’s just a fantasy game I like to play by myself. I wonder what would happen if I broke one of my taboos, or ate something They’ve told me to avoid, or even denied their existence. I just came through my own ordeal, where I underwent a surgery that I had been Told would have a life or death crisis (and it did, as I stopped breathing and was on a respirator for a short period of time) and that I had to pass my Underworld ordeal in order to return to the land of the living. How much did I want to reason it away, to look at what was going to happen as a simple surgery (the removal of a large abscess in my abdomen, as well as 40lbs of infected and necrotic tissue, as I was literally dying from the inside already), and not some big ass Spooky Foo Showcase. Friends came from all over the country to participate in the rituals both the night before, and the day of surgery; we sent out instructions for those who couldn’t be present so they could work from home.

When I woke up in ICU, one of the first revelations I had was that they had all made this giant deal out of it, and other than the whole not breathing thing, everything turned out all right. I mean, I have severe trauma in my mind from the ordeal I passed in the Underworld (which I am still in the process of remembering), but physically, so far everything is going well. I wonder – was it all the hoopla that upped my odds of success? Or were we just blowing the procedure out of proportion.

Lucky for me, I was able to verify my spiritual thoughts with people completely unaware and unaffected by what I thought was going to happen. Boy howdy, did I seek out verification – I believe I spoke to over ten different spirit workers about one aspect or another. Yes, I even contacted spirit workers I did not know personally, having no idea if their godphone was “real” or “memorex”. (Please be old enough to get that reference.)

But that’s faith. And I can’t give you it. No one can. It is something you create, from pieces of your soul, and that you nurture on a regular basis. It’s perfectly normal, and somewhat expected (as my Gods tell me) that we doubt from time to time. They know it’s a lot to take in, and I even have felt their frustration that They couldn’t just manifest or create some random miracle before your eyes in order to bolster your faith. It’s kinda the one rule Gods have to abide by; devotees must come based on their faith, not on verifiable proof of existence. It sucks, but I guess you can lodge your complaint with the Universe, or whomever makes up the rules for the Gods.

5) Not to in any way demean, belittle, or question the trauma of your sacrifices or any those of any of the ppl you’ve mentioned, but MANY of us out here have gone through horrific sacrifices as well. My own include job loses, poverty, deaths of many loved ones, debilitating health problems, having my life threatened, and more. But regardless, there’s still no response from the Spirit world or the Gods, no matter how I implore them. So to say that there’s some kind of dividing line – involving sacrifice – between who receives communication and who doesn’t, seems arbitrary and unwarranted. It also sounds suspiciously like that old gem that crops up in everything from diet to religion, “you’re just not doing it right!”

I did not feel belittled by your question at all; in fact, you’re not the first person to ask me this. Frequently, people will write me and tell me about some horrific experience they’ve survived, wondering if it was a shamanic crisis (usually in addition to asking that if it was, when would the cool spooky powerz show up?). Not every trauma has a spiritual aspect to it. I had a miscarriage in 2002, and although it was a terrible awful thing, if it had any spiritual meaning (other than I am not supposed to have children, which I’m still not entirely sure if that’s true or not) I have yet to find it. My father died in 2007, and although it brought up a very complex set of emotions and messed me up for almost a year, I don’t feel it had any spiritual relevance. I was raped in college, and oddly enough, I’ve been told by the Gods that it didn’t have any spiritual significance; I just invited the wrong person to spend the night in my dorm room.

Because I have her permission, I’m going to use Galina as an example. She was a dancer, who suffered an injury that she feels put her on the track of her Work with Odin. Here’s the difference between a random event and a spiritual crisis: many dancers, once injured, decide to become dance teachers, or find some other way to stay connected to the life that they love. Olympic gymnasts become coaches, mentors, judges, or even go into producing the events. Just because something bad happened to someone, doesn’t mean that their life has to change dramatically. But Galina had a revelation, of what quality and kind I do not know, but something in her gave her the unshakable conviction that dancing was over, and that she was to pursue her spiritual calling instead. For me, it was that at the moment of the crisis, I had an actual “hallucination” (or “visitation”, take your pick) of Loki, talking to me and telling me what was to happen.

I have worked with several clients who really, really wanted their trauma to have some deeper spiritual meaning, maybe to help them make sense of it, to feel like it had some sort of silver lining. And no amount of divination or communication with the Gods revealed any greater purpose. Sometimes we’re just the extras in someone else’s movie; we’re not always the star, even if it may feel that way. Maybe my rapist had a spiritual conversion when he was fired due to my accusation. Or maybe it was his boss, who upon hearing of the incident, came to understand his role as a Sacred Guardian, and that he had to make sure all of his security guards understood the sacredness of what they were doing. Or maybe it was the person I told the story to, who realized that their own trauma didn’t exist in a vacuum, and went on to create a non-profit for LGBT rape victims. I’ll never know if there was any spiritual meaning to it, or where in the pond the ripple found a stone to push.

Loki reminds me daily that although I can pretend to be a rock star (see the title?), that I am really just a vagabond, wandering into people’s lives and saying or doing the right thing at the right time, and then fading to black as that person moves on without me, who may not even remember my name a year later, or who runs into me at some event and can’t remember how we know each other (even when their tear stained face is burned into my memory). That’s what I mean when I talk about having humility as a prerequisite for these abilities; the Gods aren’t likely to give them to someone who only wants them to gain power, control, or fame/prestige; in fact, I’ve seen some of the effects that happen to those who walk that path, and it rarely ends well. Humility is as much a part of my spiritual practice as meditation or energy work. Without it, I’m an asshole on a power trip that only helps other assholes who don’t mind being a part of that power trip, who stroke my ego and tell me how awesome I am; meanwhile, so many wounded and hurting can’t break through the shielding of inflated ego, and go on ignored and untreated. Whereas if I walk among them, hurting and wounded myself, not only will they find me, but they will understand that I know what it’s like, because I’m a human too, having a human experience.

So that’s the end of C’s questions. I hope my answers help in some way, not just C but everyone who stops by.

Just as a warning to my regular readers; my next essay is going to be about racism in the Leather and kink communities. It contains some information and images that might be offensive (and should be, but you’ll see). I’m working hard on it, because it addresses a complex issue that has many points of view at play. I hope you’ll read it and take part in a town hall that’s based on it on Sunday (check this post for more information. There is a chance I won’t be able to finish my post before Sunday, but Leatherati already has many posts on the subject.

Book Review: Dion Fortune’s Book of the Dead (Crossposted)

I am crossposting this on both of my blogs, since the subject matter is germane to both of them in different ways; I have different subscribers on both blogs, so I wanted to make sure no one missed it.

Dion Fortune’s “Book of the Dead”
published by Weiser Books
Amazon link: Book of the Dead

This book, which is probably better called a “pamphlet” at it’s very short 77 pages, was originally published in 1930 under the title, “Though The Gates of Death”. It’s not usually listed among her works due to its brevity, but I was lucky enough to stumble upon it while searching for new books to read on my Nook. This version was originally published in 1995 by the occult group she founded near the end of her life, “The Society of Inner Light”.

You’ve maybe heard of her before, because she was a strong influence on authors and occultists who created the Pagan traditions and thea/ology that we take for granted today. Diana Paxton and Doreen Valiente both credit her writings as a go-to when they were beginning what we now call Wicca. She’s also written one of the best books ever on the subject of psychic self-defense, titled “Psychic Self-Defense”. That is a book I frequently make students read and digest.

She was very active in the burgeoning occult underworld in the 1920’s and 30’s. Interesting to me, she had a nervous breakdown and went into a psychiatric institution right before she began having psychic and other magical experiences (madness path, anyone?). She studied various occult systems, including Crowely’s Golden Dawn, the Freemasons, and the hottest parlor religion, Spiritualism – a form of Christianity that held strong beliefs about being able to contact and interact with spirits of the dead and astral travel. She was also a “lay psychotherapist” (not far from what I do, sometimes) who had taken classes on the roles of psychology and psychic phenomenon from the Theosophists. And if that isn’t cool enough, there is scuttlebutt that she was one of the occultists the British government employed during WWII.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to find an E book version of her Book of the Dead. Working with spirits of the dead, and traveling to various other planes of existence, is something Ms. Fortune was very well known for. I was eager to hear what her thoughts were on the process of dying, and what the living can do to assist the dying in their crossing over.

These are the two things that the book focuses on the most – what the body and soul go through when one begins to die/what the soul can expect upon severing itself from the body, and what the living can do to assist the dying in making a gentle transition from life to death.

The first place that felt like a slap in the face (there were a few) is that she very strongly felt that there was no way that “natural death” could occur before “three score and ten years” (70). She explicitly states that dying from disease was not a “natural death”, because it meant that you were less than vigilant with your body. I believe this, like some of the other things I strongly disagree with her on, is a product of her era. This was before cancer was really known or understood, and although there still lingers some attitudes that some cancers are the patient’s “fault” (lung cancer, I’m looking at you!), I think our society’s view on those who contract terminal illnesses has radically changed since the 1930’s.

She describes three stages that a soul goes through after the last breath is released. The first is the disentanglement from both the “clay body” (your physical form) and the “etheric double” (how you envision yourself when you’re not looking at your body, basically). This can be assisted by those present at this stage by attempting to connect telepathically with the dying and give them permission and encouragement to move on. Also, having a source of prana (energy) present is useful – thus, the tradition of lighting candles and spreading flowers for the dead. Otherwise, the dying may use the prana from someone present, which she says explains why loved ones who suddenly feel tired shortly after the last breath have no explanation for it. I don’t know if I buy that entirely, since I know there’s a release of stress and energy when you know someone you’ve been sitting with is finally dead, and that might be confused for “stolen prana”. But it can’t hurt to have a good source handy if you’re sitting vigil for someone.

The second phase she calls “Purgatory” (remember, she was still seeped in Christian framework, even though she was an occultist). Supposedly, the soul is shown visions of their unrealized or unsuccessful desires. She talks about Karma a lot in this section, but I wonder if she only uses this term because it was the one accessible. The soul either has to overcome its attachment to these desires and failures (and thus move on to become a Master on the Higher Planes) or be reincarnated in order to live out another life to learn how to overcome them. Interestingly, Fortune states that while souls are in this phase, which starts “a few months after death”, they are not contactable, and cannot hear the summons of their loved ones on earth.

The third phase, “Heaven World” depends on what the disposition of the soul is – it can either ascend and become a “higher being” – a soul that assists in God’s work, or works with other freshly dead souls, or some other purpose – or you prepare to be reborn into a new incarnation. There is a time between phase 2 and 3 where a soul may be communicated with again, but Fortune warns that if you continually contact a soul in this phase, or bring them to mind/heart on a regular basis (like on their birthday, or an anniversary), you may be inadvertently keeping them from moving forward. If the departed does not feel like their old life is sorted, and their loved ones can move on and live their own lives apart from them, they cannot either ascend or be reincarnated. This meshes with some of my experiences working with dead who have been trapped due to similar circumstances.

I found many of her insights incredibly interesting, especially her thoughts that those who are psychically or magically aware have a much different death experience from those who are unused to fairing forth from their earthly bodies. She gives very veiled references on some exercises one can do to make that transition easier, and to retain consciousness during these processes. She attributes that most people cannot remember past lives, or what the after life is like, because their souls were “asleep” during them, and they attribute the experiences to a dream. She points to those who have a good handle on who they were in past lives as being more magically gifted in one way or another, because they are closer to becoming “masters”.

However, there was some stuff in there that I just found wacknutty. As I posted on Facebook, she states forthrightly that if a soul is severed from their body traumatically, like in a car accident, that soul will find itself inside the body of a baby about to be born. She claims that it is old midwives wisdom that if a baby is born with “old eyes”, it will die prematurely. Yes, she says that the traumatically severed soul jumps into a baby’s body so it can die properly, shortly after birth. I really wonder if she had a friend/friends who had lost children and were looking for some occult reason for it, and this was what Fortune came up with. Otherwise, it just seems too cruel, even for me.

I found this to be a really great read to get me in the mood for Samhain, which I will celebrate this weekend. It made me think very hard about what it must be like for a soul to leave a body and find out that it is more than the flesh, and gave me much to think about not just about where we go when we’re dead, but how we get there. It also gave me some incredible insights on things I can do should I find myself sitting vigil next to someone who is terminal. Some of it is definitely a product of the era it was written in, and there’s a lot of Christianity to translate to your own belief system, but the translation isn’t that hard. (She might have even been using it because it made it easier to publish in that time.) I suggest giving it a read, and it’s super short (77 pages). If you are a Nook user and wish to borrow my copy, complete with my own notes and thoughts, drop me an email and I’d be happy to lend it out.