Last weekend, a group of us went into the woods by a river to be together, share friendship and camaraderie, and do ritual: in honor of Asteria/Brizo, who has made herself known to me recently, and of Dionysus, one of the gods of our cultus.
We danced, drank, played music, swam in the river, sat beneath the trees, cooked breakfast in the rain, and traded quizzical looks with scrub jays, chipmunks, and deer.
And then we came home to the news out of Charlottesville.
Retreats refresh the soul and provide the opportunity for the kind of private ritual that, as polytheists, we sometimes have trouble finding time and space for in our daily lives. But we do not believe that our gods are only to be found there; nor is that the only place for our work. Dionysus is a god of liberation, and that does not mean solely in the woods, or in the circle, or in the wine-soaked temple. It also means in the streets, and in our own hearts. America has a lot of work to do, not least in recognizing that our past isn’t really past, and that we have never come to terms with our history.
Recently I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It was recommended by a teacher in ethnobotany and edible and medicinal plants who I’ve taken a few classes from. Within a few chapters I understood why she praised the book so highly.
On some level many of us know that something is wrong. We know that the way we live isn’t sustainable–unfortunately “sustainable” has become a buzzword, ironically robbing it of meaning–and that we damage the Earth in ways that will take a long, long time to recover from…while meanwhile, the damage continues.
This is something that either bothers you or it doesn’t. If it does, Braiding Sweetgrass comes as close as anything I’ve read to laying out another path. Because everyone who agrees that there’s a problem is largely in agreement about what the problem is. It’s solving it that’s challenging: because, first, finding and articulating a vision of what that solution is, of what that other way looks like, is hard.
In general we have some notions about getting back to the land, about eating local and consuming less. These are generally good things to do because they help develop awareness of the bigger problem, the one that individual choices cannot solve because it is systemic.
Braiding Sweetgrass makes its case via the sciences of botany and ecology, the interdependencies of spirituality and religion, and the grief and passion of people who have seen their land ravaged and their way of life all but destroyed. It’s facile to observe that much of the argument for saving the planet is really about saving ourselves: the planet will continue to exist, probably even with life on it, long after our species has worn itself out.
Kimmerer, though, points out that in devouring our world, we are also devouring ourselves. I see it not only in industrial agriculture that produces more than we could ever use, then wastes it due to market forces; the determined glutting of markets for everything from oil to timber in pursuit of profit; but also in the grinding poverty from which people living in the richest country in the world cannot escape; the stress, anxiety, and rage within even those who by any standard are doing well; the rampant paranoia of a nation as unable to come to terms with its past as with its future.
Wild Gods is dedicated to living in partnership with the world that birthed us. This isn’t just a nice idea, but essential. Kimmerer herself asks the question: who will arrive at Hekate’s Crossroads first? Those who will save the world? Or those who will destroy it?
I had, at the time, been a dedicant to the god for over a decade. The coven of which I was a member regularly performed Dionysian ritual, including a fully-fledged Dionysia every two years; I was part of another group devoted exclusively to Dionysus; and that group had grown out of longstanding service to a regional pagan festival in which Dionysus played a major role.
I had also just the month before decided to end my involvement with said festival, for a variety of reasons that aren’t relevant here. Since my relationship to the god of wine had largely been forged out of my association with that festival–I still remember the first private Dionysian ritual I participated in there, and there were many others over the succeeding decade–it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising when the god stopped talking to me.
It happened around the time I went to China during the run-up to the festival. The two-week trip meant that I missed a preparatory ritual being led by my priest, who was also the priest of Dionysus for the festival. My phone worked in China, sort of, so we texted back and forth during the ritual prep. Most of the texts didn’t go through.
They didn’t go through because online access in China is strongly curtailed and the ritual was taking place in a remote location with poor cell service, but nonetheless it’s hard not to look back at that and not see it as a harbinger of what was to come.
And at some point, I think it was during the festival itself, I realized that Dionysus no longer spoke to me.
This would have been difficult enough, considering that my best friend was serving as the god’s priest, that the ritual called for both of us to undergo a ritual death, that a deity I had heard and served for over a decade was suddenly silent, that there was a hell of a lot of turbulence around the festival itself that year, and that at the time it seemed like no one understood what I was going through. (Probably not true, but when one’s religion calls for relationships with deities that are by nature intensely personal, it’s easy to feel this way.) But the show had to go on, and I felt myself facilitating energies in which I could not partake.
Somewhere in all of this, a particularly observant friend pointed out that Dionysus is
called “the god who comes,” and in order to be that, He has to go away at some point. Indeed His myths and stories are full of strange and sudden arrivals and departures; His arrival brings chaos, upends local order, drives people to ecstasy or to madness depending on whether they embrace or resist Him.
The chief thing that connected us would do so no longer. I was departing the festival. Much as it hurt at the time, Dionysus withdrawing from me made sense. The decade-plus of engagement with Him in a particular way was over, and I had to come to terms with it.
A couple of months later, Wild Gods had our annual camping retreat. Prior to welcoming our participants, the friend who had been Dionysus’s priest at the festival, before and since my working partner in Wild Gods, did some ritual work to see whether the connection could be mended. The whole experience had somewhat strained our friendship; when you have an entity in your head that isn’t speaking to your priestess, it makes things a little awkward. I never blamed him, but there was discomfort between us.
We did the ritual, and Dionysus deigned to speak with me again. And He asked me what the nature of my dedication was to Him.
I couldn’t answer.
For years it had been about the things we usually associate with Dionysus: wine, dance, ekstasis, resurrection and rebirth, divine madness, joy. But suddenly that wasn’t enough anymore. For years I had been tasked with preparing festival priests and participants to encounter the god, and when I walked away from the festival, I walked away from that task.
It was awhile before Dionysus spoke to me again after that. That year I lost an important and beloved mentor, and began a creative writing program. A great deal in my life shifted in spiritually catastrophic ways. Slowly, I began to rebuild the connection.
Last weekend, Wild Gods performed a spring rite, and my friend once again served as the priest of Dionysus, and told me that I was once again and always His child.
I don’t rave at the Dionysian rituals in the way that I used to. I’m older now and no longer have the physical resilience that I did. It’s not really about the partying, anyway–Dionysian revelry is and always has been the vehicle, not the goal in itself. That goal is collective ekstasis, collective joy, something increasingly at risk in these days of isolation, deprivation, and fear.
It took Dionysus leaving and returning for me to begin to understand that, and to build my own path back to Him through reflection, creativity, dance, and ritual. I hear His voice again, but it’s different now.
An interesting and challenging aspect of taking on responsibility for stewardship of land if you’re a nature-worshiping polytheist is the necessity of entering into communication with the entities and spirits in residence in that land. As I embark on such an enterprise, an acquaintance’s observation that as Americans, the land we live on is not necessarily in alliance with us resonates deeply. Not only is the land of which I’m proposing to take stewardship recently clearcut commercial timberland, but it has some earlier prior history of which I am ignorant, because that history has been erased. Did other people whose relationship to the land ran along different lines once live there? Almost certainly.
Wild Gods has a fairly set ritual structure and specific deities with whom we work, inspired by the work of Labrys in Greece and other reconstructions of ancient Greek religious practice. Yet at the same time we are aware that we are engaging in these practices in a time and place outside their origin. There is a wide-ranging and contentious discussion to be had on this subject; right now I’ll say that given how concerned ancient Greek religion was with place, we likewise engage in our practice conscious of the place in which we do it in both specific and general terms: where are we right now, and what entities reside here that might be gratified or offended by what we’re doing–and, more generally, what is the historical, cultural, and spiritual context in which we are operating?
Every full moon I perform a ritual termed the dadiai, based on a historical full-moon offering of cakes to the goddess Artemis. For this full moon, I wanted to open communication with land of which I propose to take stewardship, and of which I have necessarily obtained legal ownership for that purpose. (How the concept of land ownership plays into all of this is yet another large and contentious topic.) How to adapt my practice, the means I possess for attempting this task, to a respectful and meaningful end that will help accomplish its purpose? Especially since I don’t know what the historical and potentially pre-historical inhabitants would have done?
One must start somewhere. For this ritual, I chose to address first the aspects of the deities I work with that I wished to evoke. I wasn’t just calling on Artemis, I was calling specifically on the aspect of Artemis which cares for and stewards wild places. I wasn’t just calling on Pan, I was calling specifically on Pan as the spirit of wilderness that endures against incomprehensible opposition. I wasn’t just calling on Dionysus, I was calling specifically on Dionysus as the spirit of rebirth and renewal. Incorporated into all of this was explicit acknowledgment of the spirits of the place I was in, an element I brought with me from the witchcraft Tradition in which I was trained.
Thus this communication was also an introduction. Hello. I’m new here. I know you have been abused and much has been taken from you. Here is what I’m proposing to do about that, and here are the the names in which I do this work.
There’s something in us that goes for the quick fix, and polytheists and witches are as susceptible to this as anyone. In this work, however, there is no quick fix. You cannot expect the spirits of a damaged land to take your word for anything. The most optimistic interpretation I have of the response I got was: We’ll see.
“Like the myth of his birth, therefore, the myths of the appearance of Dionysus also reveal much about his nature.
“At his conception the earthly was touched by the splendor of divine heaven. But in this union of the heavenly with the earthly, which is expressed in the myth of the double birth, man’s tear-filled lot was not dissolved but preserved, rather, in sharp contrast to superhuman majesty. He who was born in this way is not only the exultant god, the god who brings man joy. He is the suffering and dying god, the god of tragic contrast. And the inner force of this dual reality is so great that he appears among men like a storm, he staggers them, and he tames their opposition with the whip of madness. All tradition, all order must be shattered. Life becomes suddenly an ecstasy–an ecstasy of blessedness, but an ecstasy, no less, of terror.”
At first the surprise
of being singled out,
the dance floor crowded
and me not looking my best,
a too-often-worn dress
and the man with me
a budding casualty
of one repetition too much.
God just touched his shoulder
and he left.
Then the confirmation
of an old guess:
God was a wild god,
into the most mindless rock,
looking—this excited me—
like no one I could love,
cruel mouth, eyes evocative
of promises unkept.
I never danced better, freer,
as if dancing were my way
of saying how easily
I could be with him, or apart.
When the music turned slow
God held me close
and I felt for a moment
I’d mistaken him,
that he was Death
and this the famous embrace
before the lights go out.
But God kept holding me
and I him
until the band stopped
and I stood looking at a figure
I wanted to slap
or forgive for something,
I couldn’t decide which.
He left then, no thanks,
that he’d felt anything
more than an earthly moment
with someone who could’ve been
anyone on earth.
To this day I don’t know why
I thought he was God,
though it was clear
there was no going back
to the man who brought me,
with whom I’d slept
and grown tired,
who danced wrong,
who never again
could do anything right.