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.
Artemis, Great Lady, steward of the wild, protector of the young, hunter, mountain dancer, torch-bearer, guide.
We ask your protection this month and every month: guide our hands in the work we have dedicated to your service, watch over our families’ children, our friends’ children, all children in danger of hunger or harm. To you we offer evergreen cedar of the land we care for in dedication to you and to the earth. We ask that you accept these offerings and grant us your blessings.
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.
Lady Artemis, we ask your protection for the children of our families, and of our friends’ families; for those suffering the upheaval of displacement, by choice or by force; for those harmed by thoughtless politics and cruel policies. Aid us in the stewardship of the air and water, of the forests and the mountains, and all the creatures who live thereon. So mote it be.
hiketeria: a branch wound with fillets. Offered in supplication.
Lady Artemis, goddess of the wild, of children and animals and all wild things, hear our entreaty. Now is a dangerous time for Your creatures, even as we await the blessing of spring, for everywhere the children of the world and the great wilderness of the world is in danger. Help us to protect what is sacred to You. Help us to be Your stewards in this time. Guard our paths and may Your torch shine bright. Io evohe, so be it.