In my previous post in this series, I explored a text quote which demonstrates how the absence of purity is not a deal-breaker if you are a human calling out with an earnest heart to Hellenic deities.
In this post, I’d like to look at a quote very often cited as evidence that one should never make prayer in a state of impurity.
…and with hands unwashed I would take shame to pour the glittering wine to Zeus; there is no means for a man to pray to the dark-misted son of Kronos, with blood and muck all splattered upon him
— Homer’s Iliad, 6.266-8
When you take this quote utterly out of the context of the surrounding story, it seems pretty clearly supportive of the idea that you can’t pray, at all, without ritual purity. Strange, considering the anecdote about Glaucus that I explored in my last post.
Let’s zoom out a bit and get some context. For those who aren’t familiar with the Iliad, it is a story of a war. That war has “good guys” we are supposed to be rooting for, and “bad guys” who everyone knows lost.
Who, here, is speaking? Where are they? How did their actions turn out? Did their concern for purity help them?
But when Hector was come to the Scaean gate and the oak-tree, round about him came running the wives and daughters of the Trojans asking of their sons and brethren and friends and husbands. But he thereupon bade them make prayer to the gods, all of them in turn; yet over many were sorrows hung. But when he was now come to the beauteous palace of Priam, adorned with polished colonnades —and in it were fifty chambers of polished stone, built each hard by the other; therein the sons of Priam were wont to sleep beside their wedded wives; and for his daughters over against them on the opposite side within the court were twelve roofed chambers of polished stone, built each hard by the other; therein slept Priam’s sons-in-law beside their chaste wives—there his bounteous mother came to meet him, leading in Laodice, fairest of her daughters to look upon; and she clasped him by the hand and spake and addressed him:
— Homer’s Iliad, 6. 238-252
Stop. Where are we? This is the Trojan War, but we’ve suddenly entered a domestic scene. Hector has left the field of battle, and entered a place of domesticity and beauty. In terms of which side of the war this is? It’s the side that has stolen Hellen and is destined to lose. Who is Hector? He’s the greatest warrior of Troy, and in this war, before it is over, he’ll have killed 31,000 Greek fighters, at least if you believe Hyginus. Ancient people listening to and reading this story will know in advance that the Trojans are going to lose. The mythology and relations with the gods portrayed in the story are there to explain both how this war lasted so long, and also why the Trojans were ultimately defeated.
But let’s continue.
“My child, why hast thou left the fierce battle and come hither? Of a surety the sons of the Achaeans, of evil name, are pressing sore upon thee as they fight about our city, and thy heart hath bid thee come hitherward and lift up thy hands to Zeus from the citadel. But stay till I have brought thee honey-sweet wine that thou mayest pour libation to Zeus and the other immortals first, and then shalt thou thyself have profit thereof, if so be thou wilt drink. When a man is spent with toil wine greatly maketh his strength to wax, even as thou art spent with defending thy fellows.”
— Homer’s Iliad, 6. 254-263
Ah yes. Wine. His mother is offering it to him. The primary reason isn’t to honor Zeus, but to soothe a man who is “spent with toil.”
The idea that one should not drink wine without making a libation offering first is one we encounter in Plato, also. Socrates, even, ponders whether he might be allowed to make offers from his hemlock before drinking it. But Hector is not staying long and puts his mother off.
Then in answer to her spake great Hector of the flashing helm: “Bring me no honey-hearted wine, honoured mother, lest thou cripple me, and I be forgetful of my might and my valour; moreover with hands unwashen I have awe to pour libation of flaming wine to Zeus; nor may it in any wise be that a man should make prayer to the son of Cronos, lord of the dark clouds, all befouled with blood and filth.”
— Ibid, 6. 264-268
What does Hector mention first? That he doesn’t want to get drunk, because it will make him clumsy and behave like a fool. And anyway, he’s all dirty. He’s got the capacity to go get clean, but not the inclination. That he doesn’t have time to bathe and purify is secondary to “I don’t want to get drunk.”
Far from being an example of religious piety, this episode with Hector demonstrates an unwillingness to personally engage with the gods. He is making excuses. The pretense at piety fools No One.
Nay, do thou go to the temple of Athene, driver of the spoil, with burnt-offerings, when thou hast gathered together the aged wives; and the robe that seemeth to thee the fairest and amplest in thy hall, and that is dearest far to thine own self, this do thou lay upon the knees of fair-haired Athene and vow to her that thou wilt sacrifice in her temple twelve sleek heifers that have not felt the goad, if she will take pity on Troy and the Trojans’ wives and their little children; in hope she may hold back the son of Tydeus from sacred Ilios, that savage spearman, a mighty deviser of rout. So go thou to the temple of Athene, driver of the spoil; and I will go after Paris, to summon him, if haply he will hearken to my bidding.
— Ibid. 6. 269-280
So what happens? Does Hector’s notion that he’ll be better off getting someone who is ritually pure to pray to Athena for him pan out?
Now when they were come to the temple of Athene in the citadel, the doors were opened for them by fair-cheeked Theano, daughter of Cisseus, the wife of Antenor, tamer of horses; for her had the Trojans made priestess of Athene. Then with sacred cries they all lifted up their hands to Athene; and fair-cheeked Theano took the robe and laid it upon the knees of fair-haired Athene, and with vows made prayer to the daughter of great Zeus:
“Lady Athene, that dost guard our city, fairest among goddesses, break now the spear of Diomedes, and grant furthermore that himself may fall headlong before the Scaean gates; to the end that we may now forthwith sacrifice to thee in thy temple twelve sleek heifers that have not felt the goad, if thou wilt take pity on Troy and the Trojans’ wives and their little children.”
So spake she praying, but Pallas Athene denied the prayer.
Ibid. 6. 299-310
So, in summary, comparing the situation of Hector to that of Glaucus:
Looking at the consequences, I draw a very different conclusion about this textual evidence. It seems to me that a better consequence comes of crying out to the gods honestly and directly, irrespective of purity status, than to get a third party to do it for you, no matter how perfectly the ritual is done.
Granted, Athena might have just decided “fuck the Trojans” well in advance. In fact, we know that she did. But she could have easily said, “my will is that you should lose the war, but I will answer you and protect all the women and children.”
Regardless, the initial quotation is not the slam dunk it initially appears to be. The gods may choose to answer the prayers of the impure, and deny the prayers of the pure. They may answer those who earnestly pray with empty hands, and they may ignore even the most perfectly executed rituals.
Consider this when next you hear someone beating the war drums over ritual purity. The gods care about purity, but they don’t care nearly as much about it as they care about justice, politics, fairness, love, honesty, and genuine sentiment.
And if you put off making genuine contact with the gods because purity is too much overhead right now, you are making Hector’s mistake. It is better to pray for yourself, empty-handed, bleeding, surrounded by corpses and covered with grime, than to have someone else — even if they are pure and excellent with ritual and capable of bearing precious gifts– do it for you.
Note on this: I’m having a hard time with thinking clearly about how to deal with literal, swastika-flag flying Nazis in my country. I’m Jewish, I have ancestors who died at the hands of the last people who carried that symbol, and I’m enraged. Impassioned thinking isn’t the best, so I’ve been in conversation with Hermes for the last few weeks.
I don’t feel comfortable publishing all of that conversation. It’s long. It’s expletive-laden. It’s one of those circumstances where you can really see the veneer of modern deity fall completely off of him. It’s more vulnerable than I want to be. It’s more vulnerable than I want him to be, too.
This part, however, seemed like it might be really useful to people. Here, he dishes on a technique for consecrating your space so as to facilitate the protective presence of a deity (or deities).
Hermes: You need to first feel safe, in order to get centered. And you need to be centered to do any other kind of magic.
Start with your home. Consecrate the place you live to spiritual allies whom you trust. You have deities and spirits whom you know will go to bat for you. Let me repeat that: your gods will go to bat for you. You can facilitate that by consecrating your home to us.
Following all the ritual edicts associated with a proper temenos is… with all due respect to Comrade Themis, on the side of impractical. What with all the living and fucking and dying you do. And really, consecrating a temenos is really just about setting aside a place where you don’t do things like that, which is pretty damned unhelpful. I’ll give you an alternative.
I’m going to start with the assumption that you have a shrine to your household deities or at least a shrine to your household deity.
First, you choose a stone that represents the deity to you. A rose quartz for Aphrodite, a citrine for Apollon, a carnelian for Ares.
Next: place that stone beside the icon, and say whatever prayers you are accustomed to say. Ask particularly for protection, and as a part of your prayer, ask the deity to consecrate the stone to that purpose. You, Thenea, have like 85 Hermai all over your home. Any single one of the constituent stones would work for what I’m about to suggest.
Then: Place the stone in water overnight. In the morning, sprinkle the desired area or areas with said water.
While doing this, say a prayer, such as, “My Lady Athena, by these waters, I consecrate this space to you, that you should watch over it, and me.”
You can also consecrate something you will wear, and take the protective power of the deity with you.
Be safe. You are loved.
A word oft misused, a concept sorely misunderstood. Miasma is the Greek word for ritual impurity. I have decided to explore the topic of miasma in hopes of demystifying the concept and making the topic less frightening to the less experienced practitioner.
It being me, I’m not just going to write about my feelings on the subject. I have sequestered 10 quotations from primary sources, 15 journal articles from JSTOR, and 5 passages from this book by the Petrovics and this oft-cited book by Robert Parker. I recommend both books to anyone who wishes to follow along at home.
Both of those books will tell you roughly the same thing: while purity and purification are well attested, references to miasma are sparse, and evidence for beliefs surrounding the concept of baneful impurity are overwhelmingly from Greek Tragedies.
To put that in perspective, imagine what kind of a practice a Christian might have if they reconstructed their practice from the writings of Shakespeare. Playwrights take liberties for the sake of plot. They are not theologians. What they write *is* evidence of how people in their culture thought about the world, but it must be taken with a grain of salt.
I’m going to start with a quotation from the Iliad, as a way of framing this exploration.
But upon Glaucus came dread grief as he heard the voice of Sarpedon, and his heart was stirred, for that he availed not to succour him. And with his hand he caught and pressed his arm, for his wound tormented him, the wound that Teucer, while warding off destruction from his comrades, had dealt him with his arrow as he rushed upon the high wall. Then in prayer he spake to Apollo, that smiteth afar:
“Hear me, O king that art haply in the rich land of Lycia or haply in Troy, but everywhere hast power to hearken unto a man that is in sorrow, even as now sorrow is come upon me. For I have this grievous wound and mine arm on this side and on that is shot through with sharp pangs, nor can the blood be staunched; and my shoulder is made heavy with the wound, and I avail not to grasp my spear firmly, neither to go and fight with the foe-men. And a man far the noblest hath perished, even Sarpedon, the son of Zeus; and he succoureth not his own child. Howbeit, do thou, O king, heal me of this grievous wound, and lull my pains, and give me might, that I may call to my comrades, the Lycians, and urge them on to fight, and myself do battle about the body of him that is fallen in death.”
So spake he in prayer, and Phoebus Apollo heard him. Forthwith he made his pains to cease, and staunched the black blood that flowed from his grievous wound, and put might into his heart.
— Iliad, Book 16, 508-529
Follow this train of blog posts until its conclusion and you will be quite satisfied that corpses are ritually impure. You will also be satisfied that purification before prayer is a well-attested practice and a Good Idea.
Here, we have a prayer spoken to Apollon, a god renowned for his concern with purity. The prayer is spoken amid corpses and filth. No hands are washed. No ceremony is observed. No physical offering is made. No physical offering is promised.
There is no concern that anyone other than Apollon may answer. Not only does he answer, but he answers with a miracle. He answers, in no small part, because he cares about the outcome of this human war.
No matter what else I may write on this subject, and no matter what else you may read, know this: Hellenic deities are deities who answer prayers. They are beings deeply invested in human life and human societies. They care enough to answer even when the prayer is spoken in the midst of the direst miasma. Caring about human affairs and human opinions is a defining characteristic of this pantheon.
Miasma need not be feared. We need not fear that we will be rejected by our deities in times of need because of our inability to do enough ritual.
Purity, however, is a manner of showing respect, and the more we know about it, the more we are able to do to honor these gods and make them feel comfortable in the spaces we invite them into. It need not involve shaming other people, it need not be coercive or done out of fear. It can simply be adhered to as a way of showing a deeper respect, offering a better quality of hospitality, and expressing our friendship by showing interest in their customs.
Apparently, there was a war on Tumblr between Hellenes and Otherkin who believe that they are incarnations of Hellenic deities. It was a while ago. I’m just catching up.
Mostly, the argument went like this:
Deity-kin: We are your gods!
Deity-kin: But we are, tho
Hellenes: Are not!
Deity-Kin: Are too!
Hellenes: Are not!
Reasonable people: Maybe we should just agree to disagree and not waste our time arguing about this.
This was such a fascinating issue to me. It’s really a perfect quandary for philosophical inquiry. The issue begs some essential theological questions which, regardless of what side of this you are on, you’d do really well to ask yourself.
- Are deities, by definition, non-physical?
- How do we know what/who is a deity? What are a deity’s responsibilities? Who gets to decide that?
- Do deities have the right to demand worship?
I’d like to explore these questions one at a time and to opine on them, because that sounds like fun.
Are Deities, by definition, non-physical? (No.)
Can a deity choose to stop being a deity? Are they allowed to quit? Are they capable of incarnating? This is sort of like the “Can God create a boulder so heavy that he cannot lift it” quandary for Polytheists.
If a deity cannot stop being a deity, are they not prisoners of their own apotheosis? If they can quit, then where do they go? Will you really claim that a deity can ride in an ill-fitting, borrowed human form, but not inhabit one that they grew up in?
Obviously, it is possible. Gods take human guise, they tool about in borrowed human bodies, and if they really wanted, they could incarnate. We have myths about deities like Harmonia leaving the world of deities, living human lives, and giving birth to mortal children.
Gods in human form are found in many cultures. The Pharaoh of Egypt, or any other God-King, is an example of this. The Kumari Devi of Nepal is another example. Gods can be physical, living beings.
How do we know who is a deity? (Because they are best able to contribute to their community in that capacity)
There is a problem with saying things like, “the gods don’t have to answer our prayers to be gods.” Sure, that’s true. But if they never answer your prayers, or respond to you in any way, how do you know you’ve got the right number?
Think about this from the deity’s perspective for a moment. Let’s pretend you are a god. Someone calls you. They actually get you, but they are trying to venerate you as a deity of something you find properly loathsome. You try talking to them, but while you are certain they are aware that you are talking, and feel your presence, they persistently mishear you in order to bolster their own belief system.
People stop in and question the person, but the person basically tells them to shut up, and implies that once they are able to surrender to the gods more, they’ll understand.
You can’t ignore the situation because if you do, someone will fill that empty space you left.
You don’t want to hurt the person, and furthermore, fear that any divine punishment may be taken as verification of their incorrect views. They’ll just say that you’re “initiating” them, or that it’s Shaman Sickness. Besides, you’re pretty sure that they’re just confused and fragile, rather than malicious.
Some deities are ok with hurting a single person to prevent spiritual harm from being done to a large number. But most bad stuff that happens to priests is interpreted as confirmation, rather than condemnation. “The gods just like to fuck with us,” or “this is the price of their attention.” Or, “God tests those whom he loves.”
So you create a magical dead-zone around the person so that there would be zero manifestations of you, false or otherwise, with any energy or force behind them. You incarnate any spirits who tried to impersonate you into human form. You make damn sure that, even if this one person had some wrong headed ideas about you, that it won’t spread. The only thing that isn’t taken as confirmation is absence.
Except then, people start making excuses. The gods don’t *have* to show up when we call them. We have to worship them anyway. The problem is clearly with the people who didn’t feel anything. They just need to crack themselves open wider. They need courses in using their psychic senses correctly. People start legitimately doing themselves damage by ripping open their energy body in unnatural ways.
So maybe you just decide to give up on the people misunderstanding you, and bless the people who are hearing you correctly. And then the unwashed, hungry dead just sort of pile in and collect the offering cookies from the people you are ignoring. And people are possessed, and the community leaders declare victory. And if anyone has their consent violated, or gets a really toxic message? Well, that’s just their filter that they need to work through, and maybe they should (insert line of ideological bullshit).
Or, so my deities tell me during their frustrated pacing and ranting.
So long as we have no criteria, any person, no matter how off-base, no matter how unsuccessful they are at connecting with the gods, can claim success, or at least blame failure on other people.
These criteria don’t seem unreasonable to me:
- Gods know more.
- Gods can do more.
- Worship facilitates their contributions to their community.
And so, if a person claims to be a deity, but they have not, as yet, answered anyone’s prayers, nor performed any miracles, nor shown themselves capable of sending omens as deities, then they are equivalent to the dead who show up and eat the offering cookies of a deity.
It’s kind of like the old riddle, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it… does it make a sound?”
If a deity is neither wise, nor kind, nor miraculous… then who really cares?
It brings us to a more essential question: why worship anything at all?
Apollon will always be Apollon, whether he is worshiped or not. His passionate connection to Truth and Nature and various other things assure that. However, unless we invite him to share what he knows and hear what he says on those topics, he cannot fully contribute all that he has to give.
If worship, however, facilitates a physical human’s contributions and makes the community a better place, then that’s a great thing to do. If the community is wasting their time, energy and resources on the worship of a being, physical or non-physical, then that is a poor choice to make.
Which brings us to:
If someone is a deity, do they have the right to demand worship? (No!)
Do you have to worship Jesus? Did you not get the memo that he threatened you with a bad afterlife if you didn’t? Why aren’t you Christian? Are you crazy?! He’s a god!!
I mean… I shouldn’t have to say more, but I will.
I dislike the idea of Vocation, and basically every other Puritan theological belief. However, let’s just start by assuming that a deity can truly call someone to a profession against their will, or even to their own service.
Under such circumstances, you would be incapable of saying, “no.” So, try it. Try saying no. Say “no” early, and often, because it is the surest test of a being’s divinity.
Of course, the ideas of vocation and pre-destination are based upon the notion of a singular, omniscient, omnipotent deity. Polytheistic deities are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Don’t ask Apollon to bake you a cake. Don’t ask Hestia to forge you a suit of armor. Don’t ask Hephaistos to foretell the future. Dionysos isn’t much of a philosopher, and Hera doesn’t know much about metallurgy.
Moreover, even if we posit that the entire pantheon together was collectively omniscient and omnipotent, then what the hell happened in Europe?
To continue the earlier example, Apollon will be a god no matter what. However, not until he has a cultus does he have anyone to actively be a god to. That is the difference between someone saying “I am a god,” and saying “I am YOUR god.”
If you are my god, then it’s because I’m worshipping you. You can no more be a god to a non-participating person than you can be a lover to a non-participating person. If you even try, things get really gross and very rapey very fast. Rape is not sex. Kidnapping is not marriage. Hounding someone is not the same as being worshiped by them.
Communities choose their deities, and how. Historically, they wrote out, deprecated and delegitimised deities all the time. Saying that a community cannot do this is ahistorical. So, no. As much as a deity might like to, they can’t actually make a living by demanding worship. A group of humans has to actively choose them, or their cultus dies out.
I hear a lot from certain friends of mine about how we are “addicted to outrage.” That being offended makes us feel powerful. Many of the stories cited about how people are getting unreasonably offended are told about women, people of color, trans people, people of minority faiths and people with disabilities who “just need to relax.”
No, we should not relax. It will negate our sense of personhood and our inner divinity. Allow me to explain.
At Pantheacon, there was a con-suite ritual which has sparked much thought for me. It is a devotional for Ares, Athena and Hephaestos.
If you follow my blog, you know that I love Ares, and I love Hephaestos. If you follow Greek mythology, you know that they don’t so much love eachother. And it goes a bit beyond mere sibling rivalry, or the rivalry between lovers.
Just as Apollon is a living emblem of masculine beauty, Ares is the pinacle of physical ability. He is called “The sceptered king of manliness” in the Homeric Hymn to Ares.
Heracles might be physically stronger than Ares, and Hermes is certainly faster. But Herakles has trouble with his temper, and Hermes has a brain and body that are often on about two completely separate things.
Ares, however, represents a sublime unity of body and spirit, and control over both. He’s that guy who can always will himself to do one more rep. He is the will to keep crawling when death is almost certain. He is the ability to feel fear and behave in defiance of it. He is also the god you call to crush the evil impulses in your soul. No, I’m serious. Read it:
Shed down a kindly ray from above upon my life, and strength of war, that I may be able to drive away bitter cowardice from my head and crush down the deceitful impulses of my soul. Restrain also the keen fury of my heart which provokes me to tread the ways of blood-curdling strife. Rather, O blessed one, give you me boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace, avoiding strife and hatred and the violent fiends of death. — Homeric Hymn to Ares #8, Lines 15-17
If you have ever suffered impulse control issues. If your emotions have ever gotten the better of you. If you have ever called it quits because your body was screaming at you to stop. If you have ever known the pain of shouting at limbs (or a brain, or a pounding heart) to do as you will and had them straight up laugh at you. If you ever started to do one thing, and then found yourself ten minutes later doing something completely unrelated. If you have ever experienced a lack of emotional regulation. You understand the gap between spirit and body. Ares does not have that gap.
Hephaestos, by contrast, stands in that gap and sanctifies it, reminding us that we can find beauty and creativity there.
Both of these things are needed. We need to be able to call on divinity to help us do more than we can do. And we need a god to help us love ourselves when we realize our hard limits.
But the relationship between those two gods is understandably fraught. Ares would tell you in a heartbeat that he respects his brother. And Hephaistos will tell you that casual ableism is rampant in the world, and that Ares, with his “no excuses” and “no mountain too high to climb” rhetoric is exactly the embodiment of why. Our culture loves a good story of people overcoming all obstacles without help. It dislikes admitting that not all context accommodate all bodies. It even dislikes admitting that some bodies, no matter how much willpower is applied, can ever be included in a space without accommodations.
Every person suffering from depression who is told that they don’t need medication if they have art or nature or unicorn farts by a neurotypical person, or that they should try yoga for their panic disorder instead of a benzodiazepine knows the feeling of being Hephaistos interacting with Ares.
Every person who suffers from chronic pain or illness and has been told to “just” do that one more thing, or has been interrogated by people blissfully unaware of the struggle about why something didn’t get done, knows that feeling.
Every fat person who has ever been invited to go clothing shopping with straight-size people knows that feeling, too.
It’s being “invited” into spaces where you cannot reasonably participate. It’s the feeling of your struggles being simply invisible, and not because they are hard to notice. It’s being born into a body that society problematizes, even as it gives lip-service to your equality. It’s trying to struggle through spaces and contexts that are harder for you than they are for other people, even as you are told that the playing field is perfectly level.
“It’s perfectly fair, Hephaistos. Everyone has to go up the exact same flight of stairs.”
“Hey, everybody, let’s race to the summit! The slowest off us is a rotten egg! — Oh, come on, Hephaistos, it’s just a game! Lighten up!”
We cannot ask him, nor can we be asked, to just “lighten up” about being disrespected for what we can never change about our bodies. To do so is letting go of the idea that we deserve to be treated equally, to be respected, to be loved, and to be included.
To pray for the reconciliation of Ares and Hephaistos is also to pray for the perfect inclusion of people who daily experience the gap that Hephaistos embodies. To suggest that there is no animosity between them is to suggest that society has done as much work as it needs to already on recognizing, honoring and accommodating people with physical limitations, visible and invisible.
This post is about the unique spiritual challenges of depression, and how I modified my practice to overcome those challenges. I am not a Psychiatrist. I do not have the letters MD after my name in any way shape or form, but I wanted to take some time to share what helped me, and how this experience impacted my practice.
Backstory: about a year and a half ago, I underwent fertility treatments. It triggered a depressive episode which lasted for the better part of a year. Depression has many different factors which contribute to it. As a person who suffered from major depression in childhood, I already had the predisposition. Apparently pummeling my endocrine system with mega-doses of synthetic hormones wasn’t the best thing for my overall well being.
Depression is not just feeling “down” or “sad” about something. I experienced it as a pervasive exhaustion, a low level body ache that sapped me of my will to do things. It is numbness that dulls emotional reactions and ambitions. It causes difficulties concentrating. It makes you forgetful. It feels like your thoughts are covered in molasses. Things you usually enjoy bring no happiness, beauty is less beautiful, colors are less colorful, pleasure is less pleasurable.
When you are in crisis, it’s the absolute worst time to get cut off from your spiritual source of strength. At that time, you need your gods more than ever (provided that you believe in gods that care about you), and if you are a magician like I am, you need magic to smooth things over until you are better. However, depression can destroy your self-confidence. It can make you feel unworthy of love, or even of help. In short, it can make magick and mysticism difficult.
Because it must be said: part of what I am going to discuss in this post is alternative and magical treatments for depression. If you suffer from depression, or if you suffer from any mental illness, do not stop working with mental health professionals. Depression kills. Especially when people are just starting to feel better, they can become suicidal. Work with your doctors, even if you are pursuing alternative treatments at the same time. Do not discontinue medication except under the care of a professional.
Realizing That It’s Depression
When depression follows an illness, or a course of medical treatments that make you feel ill, it can be hard to discern between “I’m sick” and “I’m depressed.”
That’s because illness provokes a response from your immune system. Immune response can come in many forms, but a very common one is inflammation. When you are sick, or when you have inflammation for other reasons, such as injury, the main thing your body wants you to do is lie still and heal. If you are feeling your usual bouncy self, that’s unlikely to happen. So instead, your body slows down. You feel lethargic and miserable. You want to stay put. And that is exactly what depression can feel like, minus the broken leg or runny nose.
If you feel like you are coming down with a cold, but there is no cold, and it goes on for months, you might be suffering from depression. Likewise, if your feeling of “being sick” persists long after the Doctors tell you that your illness has cleared up, you might be suffering from depression. If your whole body aches and your Doctors can’t find a cause, if you are sleeping longer and waking up tired, there is a good chance that you are suffering from depression. If you’re having persistent chest pains, and your Cardiologist gives you a clean bill of health, that, too, might be depression.
Go see a Psychiatrist. A good Psychiatrist will take an exhaustive inventory of your mental and physical symptoms, and will not diagnose you with something you don’t have.
Getting Over Your Fear of Psychiatric Medicine
Articles about bad doctors, big pharma, and medication-related conspiracy theories are the clickiest. Particularly in the Pagan community, it’s easy to find memes to indicate that psych meds will destroy your magical soul, and an equal amount of “pull yourself by your own boot straps” rhetoric.
When you are suffering from major depression, you might have no bootstraps to pull yourself up by.
Doctors are not monsters, and depression is not different from any other kind of physical ailment. So, rather than waiting for the sky to open and for a choir of angels to descend and miraculously cure me, I went to go see a Doctor. And yes, I took psych meds. They were certainly not the complete solution for me, but they did give me some bootstraps to pull on.
Going on medication for depression did not in any way negatively impact my psychic senses. It did not make me less creative, or less sensitive. If your medication causes you to feel like this, talk to you doctor. Psychiatrists now understand that spirituality has a neurological basis, and you can, in broad terms, say that you feel “less spiritual” or you can say that you feel less imaginative, and they will very often be willing to guide you to a medicine which will impact you less.
Some Pagans and Polytheists do avoid mental health professionals because they fear that they will be medicated just to change their belief system. Few Psychiatrists have any interest in delving into your beliefs or personal life. You get 15 minutes. You relate your symptoms. They make a recommendation for this drug and that therapy. If your Gastroenterologist suggests that Jesus will cure your IBS, get a new Gastroenterologist. If your Cardiologist recommends Synagogue instead of beta-blockers, fire them. If your Psychiatrist brings up the topic of religion? Run. They are a quack.
Lastly, yes, you can get care even if you have no money and no insurance. Here is a resource list. Especially useful is this service which can help you get free or cheap medication even without insurance.
Adapting Daily Practice
My usual practice is highly Ceremonial. There are purifications, and invocations, and glyphs and tech and more tech, and procedures and, and, and…
For a while, I withdrew from my practice because I just did not have the spoons. Then, I started to feel badly about myself because I had withdrawn from my practice.
Something I learned early on in my practice was that little actions done consistently added up to more than the occasional monumental effort. So I asked myself: what can I do everyday?
When you are full of energy and activity, and pouring a little wine out for your gods is no big deal, you might have to do a little more than that you express how you feel for them. When the process of locating a clean glass and a corkscrew is a monumental effort, it means more.
To restore connection, and confidence, I started a practice of silent bedtime prayers. These were informal.
“Hey, I’m thinking about you. I haven’t forgotten you. I feel overwhelmed and tired a lot right now. I really wish I had more to say. I love you. I hope you are okay.”
“How was your day? If you get a chance, you can stop by and maybe tell me about it. I like hearing about your adventures.”
“I’m going to daydream a bit before sleeping. Want to join me?”
“I’m not in the mood to talk. But come sit with me?”
Taking your medication can also be a sacrament — and you ought to be doing that daily.
Adapting Group Practice
Somehow, I managed to still run group rituals. I’m not sure how. Looking back on it, it seems like nothing short of a miracle. I chalk it up to falling into a weekly routine, delegation, and actually finding the rituals we did to be beneficial. There are a host of things that you can do to modify group ritual to prevent making your depression worse, and some things that you can do to maybe make it a little better. It can sometimes be just enough to help you break even on your spoons. And really, none of them are actually that weird.
Drumming and chanting has been shown to have a measurable, chemical effect on depression.
Libations are an important part of Polytheist practice, but be careful with what you drink, because some choices can make your symptoms worse. Alcohol is a depressant. It may temporarily make you feel better, but alcohol will, in the long term, worsen your depression. Likewise, sugar can make depression worse, so cool it on the fruit juice. Artificial sweeteners are not great for depression , either. Instead, try a nice anti-inflammatory turmeric tea, or maybe coffee, if that works for you.
Gratitude can help ease the symptoms of depression. It actually boosts serotonin in the brain (increasing serotonin is one of the major way drugs help patients with depression and anxiety). If you make giving thanks a major feature of group ritual, everyone is going to feel better — especially those who suffer from depression or anxiety. Also, the gods really seem to like it when you spend time recognizing the good things they do.
Integrating motion into your rituals can release endorphins, and can give your mood a boost. What that looks like will depend upon the individual people involved, but Greeks love processions, and many people are big fans of ecstatic dance, which can be modified for mobility issues and different fitness levels.
None of these things is going to cure you. They are not a replacement for conventional psychiatric care, but every little bit helps.
Taking Stock of the Wreckage
Depression and anxiety lie to you. They tell you that you are worthless, and that no one wants you around. This can impact your filter.
What is filter? Filter is your internal algorithm for interpreting social cues, behavior and language. Filter is shaped by your beliefs about the world. Things that align with your filter are easier to see, and things which do not align with your filter are harder to see. Culture is a major player, but so are your previous experiences, and even your mood. When you are suffering from anxiety or depression, you may feel worthless, and it may be next to impossible for affirming messages of any kind, whether from deities or humans, to get through. Even if you hear them, they don’t feel real.
This does not mean that every person suffering from anxiety or depression is going to be a terrible medium. It is possible to be pro-active in taking stock of your personal biases, and to frequently ask yourself if your beliefs are justified — but this takes spoons. In my case, I had to start feeling better before I could tackle the problem.
Healthy boundaries take bandwidth that you may not have.
When I was depressed, I let people interrupt me, talk down to me, cut in front of me, and otherwise de-prioritize me, because I just didn’t have the energy to do otherwise. Imagine my surprise when, as I recovered, I suddenly started to push back on the unfair treatment and the response from these people was outsized — you’d have thought that I was lighting people on fire, for all they were complaining about it!
The same thing can happen with the spirit world. Boundaries and shields are your way of communicating your “no” to the spirit world. In my case, some of these barriers needed to be rebuilt, and I had to put my foot down a second time with some of the lesser spirits that surround me.
Epilogue: I’m ok, now. 🙂
A combination of good medical care, avoiding things that made my symptoms worse, finding a medication that worked for me, eating well, taking my vitamins (D!!) sustainable and affirming spirituality and gradually increasing my activity level all contributed to putting me back on my feet. I am now more or less back to my keyed-up, neurotic, passionate, cantankerous self.
I have also mostly cleaned up the social and psychic mess that this all caused.
If you are suffering from depression, don’t wait to get help. Take care of yourself. Work together with your mental health professionals. Take your meds. Try anything that might help, and if it helps, even a little, then keep doing it.
My Hypothesis: If I Clearly Communicate The Expectations In The Context To All Humans Involved, The Expectations Will Be Respected By Both Humans and Spirits.
I had my community agree to the following community guidelines and rules, shortly after Pantheacon 2016:
Article I. Divine AffiliationsThere are three levels of participation in this contract for spiritual beings. The same levels apply for our dead, the fae, certain spirits of place, spiritual familiars, spirits of various types, dragons, and deities.1. Acquaintance. This means that you are welcome in our working space, but we will not be doing any active spiritual work with you in the context of the group. You may or may not have devotionals hosted for you, and you may or may not receive offerings.2. Friend. Once you have proven that you can be trusted to respect our boundaries, we will start to do active spiritual work with you, provided that you desire this. This may include slightly higher woo devotionals, guided meditations, and rituals to purify our individual and group connections to you. This level of participation may or may not involve trance, if individuals have that sort of relationship with you.3. Patron. Once the group has worked through its filter with you, we will begin to work with you more intensely. This might include private or public trance parties and/or devotionals. If you make it to this level, and you are a Greater Spirit (dragon, deity) we will create an initiation for you, or perhaps several.
Article II. Rules of the Road For Spiritual BeingsEntering into our space implies the following agreement:
- You will not harm anyone in the space
- You will not force anyone into anything. You will not force people into contracts or agreements. You will not force people into altered states that were not planned during the session. You will not forcibly possess anyone. You will not initiate any sort of physical or spiritual intimacy that was not asked for.
- If you are asked to depart from your channel, do so as quickly and gracefully as you can.
- You will obey the terms of short-term contracts that are drafted for the purpose of our workings if you signed them.
- You will not follow anyone home unless they specifically verbally state that they wish for you to do so at the event you attended.
- Don’t make anyone sick. Do not give them headaches unless you are a deity of headaches, or nausea unless you are a deity of puking. Endeavor, to the best of your ability, to prevent and/or fix this sort of thing.
- Do not passive-aggressively tolerate a person’s behavior when they are with us, then maliciously “punish” them later. Use your big kid words instead. We are all adults here.
- Do not consume foods that your channel is allergic to. Respect their dietary restrictions and taboos. Do not drink if you are riding a person who is in recovery. Do not take any sort of prescription or illegal drug unless it is specifically stipulated in your short-term contract with your channel.
- When you are riding a human, you are a guest in their body. You are a guest in our space. Don’t be rude to your hosts. Don’t demean people. Do not reveal embarrassing information about those whom you are riding. Don’t use their body in a way that they do not want it to be used.
- When riding a human, you will not delete the entire contents of their memory for the time that you were present. Please do delete from their memory any private conversations you have with other humans. Likewise, don’t go blurting people’s private business to other humans.
- Don’t ride the people responsible for monitoring the channel or the energy of the space.We reserve the right to suspend rules under certain circumstances, but this can only occur if all present agree to it by a unanimous vote. This can happen quickly, if need be.If you are invited into our space and subsequently fail to follow these rules, we will investigate whether or not you were responsible, or whether the group or individual filter might be at fault. If you are found to be guilty, or if this happens more than three times, you will not be invited back into the group setting.There are no acceptable circumstances for violating these rules without discussing it with us. If you have reason to request a suspension of the rules, please signal us by “muppeting” (scream and flail). This will alert us to a problem, and we can listen in more detail. If it’s not important enough to warrant screaming and flailing, it is DEFINITELY not important enough to ask us to break the rules for.
Article III. Rules of the Road For HumansThe humans in the group are also responsible to one another.
- Respect no. If, for any reason, a person says no to participating in a ritual, having a particular experience, being touched, or consuming any substance, that “no” will be respected.
- Respect yes. We are not here to second-guess each other’s life choices or spiritual paths. If a person is in a consensual relationship with any sort of entity, we must respect that choice.
- Be honest. If you are non-amnesiac during full possession, please disclose that to the group. If you are not sure who you are channeling, or whether you are actually channeling, please let us know. We are here to help each other with that sort of thing. If you anticipate a problem with an activity or exercise, tell us. If you are having strong emotions and think they might be coloring your perceptions, tell us.
Article IV. SIGNS OF DISTRESS
- If, during a trance session, the body scratches its left wrist with the first two fingers of the right hand, that means that whatever is riding them needs to leave.
- If you are feeling overwhelmed by energy and need help grounding, raise your hand.
Results: Problems Extinguished… Unless We Had Guests
For a number of months, we had a stable group with no additions and no subtractions, and we had no problems.
The very first time we added someone new, she began to experience a spirit being pushy about carrying. I scolded the spirit, saying, “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t want to know. But that is how you get yourself banned from this group. Back off, or I might get curious about your identity, and add you to the no-fly list.”
Whoever it was backed off immediately and without hesitation. I had the new person read the contract, and we rolled along without any incident.
Until more new people came in. This time, one of the old-time members was feeling some unidentified spirit push to be carried.
“No.” I told the spirit, “This is not trance mediumship time. We ban people for violating our boundaries.” Again, whoever it was backed off. And so we shared the contact with our guests, too, and the problem, again, ceased.
In other words, when new people brought their old expectations in, it generated problems such as we see elsewhere in the community. The problem is cultural.
In future, we plan to simply read the terms of service to people right after they walk in the door.
Conclusion 1: Spiritual entities try to ride humans to get attention and forge relationships. If it is made clear that the group has no qualms about putting spirits, deities and powers on the “no fly” list for certain behaviors, those behaviors will not be evident in the context.
Conclusion 2: **Whether or not the humans have been made aware of the rules for spiritual beings mattered. New deities did not need the rules read for them so long as there were no new people. New people brought a change in the way spiritual entities manifested. Acculturating the humans profoundly changes the apparent behavior of deities, powers, and other spiritual beings.** IE, this rape culture nonsense is definitely filter.