Monday, April 28, 2014

Sprouting: Question from a Beginner

An acquaintance of mine recently asked “What would you advise someone new to polytheism?” It appears on the surface to be a simple question, but it is one of those questions that although simple can go to great depths, and could probably take volumes to fully explore. Let’s unpack this question carefully.

“What would you…”

This question is directed to me, personally, so I will answer it in accordance to my own experiences and my own background. I am a Canaanite polytheist with fifteen years of experience. Sometimes I honor other deities alongside the Canaanite deities, sometimes I am present with others as they honor deities other than the Canaanite ones, and I have friends and allies who write, share, teach, and with whom I converse. Added together as a whole, that’s a pretty good deal of experience and depth, but it is as broad as it is within certain parameters. My colleagues may or may not answer similarly, and indeed I’d invite them to answer the same question. The question here does not say “Hey, Tess, speak on behalf of all polytheists everywhere and on polytheism itself everywhere for all gods ever and tell us all exactly what to do!” (The reason I include this is not because I assume the one who asked the question thinks this--indeed, I do not. Instead, I think that some folks--albeit not the person who asked the original question--may misconstrue what is being asked and how I am answering.)

“…advise…” This is advice he is asking for. The question does not say “Tell me what to do!” It merely asks for a direction in which to go. So what follows is my offering a direction in which to go; I am not making orders. Guidance and demands are not the same thing.

“…someone new…” This indicates that this is a beginning level of experience. I applaud anyone who can freely and openly admit that they are new at something and ask for aid. We are all new at something, all of the time. Although kindergarteners have this miraculous ability to acknowledge their lack of experience and ask for help every day, these are acts which can confound most adults—myself certainly included—who have differing amounts of pride and posturing that must be overcome. For a seed to grow, it first has to sprout. Being able to come to terms with where one is in learning and to proceed accordingly is not an easy thing to do at all.

“…to polytheism?” The question is not specific to which deity or deities, which sets of deities, which cultures, which locality, and so on, so this provides a unique challenge to answering this question. Further, I do not know if or how the deities have called this person, or which deities may be involved, if any, yet. Much of polytheism is culture specific, local specific, and ancestrally specific. When I say “ancestrally” I don’t necessarily mean one’s biological family tree, one’s biological predecessors; sometimes the dead are just the dead, and ancestry can go beyond that. So, the best I can do with this question is to take my knowledge and experiences, the conversations I’ve had with other elders, and extrapolate* further into a situation that I know no more than the information in the question and what the question asks for specifically. (*Extrapolate: extend the application of a method or conclusion, especially one based on statistics to an unknown situation by assuming that existing trends will continue or similar methods will be applicable.)

This is also a challenging thing because we polytheists have not (yet??) gotten together to pioneer some kind of raw basic cross-pantheon bare minimum tome of advice for beginners, so there’s no one definitive resource I can point anyone to. Granted, this sort of resource would pose multiple challenges because, again, there are culturally-specific, pantheon-specific, locally-specific, and ancestrally-specific things that may not be well-accounted-for in such a resource.

This question is as limited by what information is provided for me to answer as it is broad in openness to receiving whatever information I can provide. So, here comes the meat and potatoes:

The best advice I can give is to set up a daily devotional practice. A person can do this a couple of different ways, but the most common are setting up a shrine, making offerings, and engaging in daily prayer.

To set up a shrine, make or purchase images of the deities, or print out a picture or two of the deities you would like to honor, the deities who interest you, the deities of your ancestors or your biological precedents, and / or the deities who have called to you. Set up a small area for their devotion. Make sure the area is clean and free of clutter and smells decent. Make sure it isn’t near the trash can or the bathroom. Make sure it is an area where ignorant or disrespectful hands can’t get to, and pets won’t walk all over it or try to eat the offerings. Keep the area clean and picked up—if you make food offerings, take them away from the shrine after about a day. Pray daily, and if you can make it a practice to pray at or near your shrine, all the better. Make an offering there as often as you can, but at least set a schedule for offerings if you are just starting out, for instance making offerings at least each Saturday. Offerings can include incense (preferably Japanese incense because many Indian incenses have dung in them), food (make sure you research your deities and their cultures, because sometimes there are food taboos), and drink (such as wine, alcohol, or juice). Bread and olive oil are also typically welcome. What offerings the deities want and how the shrine is best set up will often depend on which deities you are honoring.

For prayer, set a time to pray each day, but remember that you can pray in addition to that time. This can be each morning, each evening, each noon, each tea time, or whenever. Different deities may have different preferences as to which times they like or are more active, but I would encourage prayer at any time. The important thing here when you’re starting out is to engage in a practice that you can keep and build, or change as necessary (according to the deities), over time. The key is practice, ongoing, daily, regular practice. Relationships are best built over time; the more time, and effort, and sincerity you invest in the deities, the more they are likely to invest in you.

When you pray, make sure that you’re not giving them a laundry list. Don’t go before the deities and say something like “Hey, love you guys. I really need some more money. My love life sucks, so if you could fix that, that would be great. My auntie is sick, so could you take care of her? Oh, yeah, and that one guy broke up with my best friend and my bestie is really heartbroken so could you help him out, too?” First off, the deities are not your servants or anyone else’s servants. Maybe a person who prays this isn’t consciously thinking "The deities are my servants," but when they pray constantly in this manner, just looking for the deities to fix things for them, this is what their actions say. Second off, there are things one can do for oneself and others, and most deities will not help until one demonstrates that one is making effort oneself to help with those things. Yes, often there are deities who are willing to help you with these things, but you must build your relationship with them first before you start asking for all sorts of things. To do otherwise is like cold calling royalty: at best they ignore you. Instead, try starting out with a simple prayer of gratitude. If your life truly sucks at the moment, try a simple thank you for nature, and a thank you to the deities for existing and being present.

I have a pretty intense regimen of daily devotion (and what I write below is only part of it), so keep in mind that yours may be considerably less intense because you are not in the situation or position(s) I am in, and you do not have the relationships with the deities that I do. What matters is that you do your practice in honor of the deities, and that you keep your practice on a daily basis—this way you are engaging with the deities daily and building your relationship with them daily. I cannot stress enough: this is a daily thing. 

The best, but woefully imperfect analogy, I can give is this: if a person never does kind things and never tells his girlfriend he loves her, but he keeps hitting her up for lunch money, he shouldn't be shocked if she leaves him. The deities are obviously not the same as a hypothetical human girlfriend, but, if a person never shows the deities s/he cares, if a person do not appreciate the deities, if a person is not kind to the deities and cherishes them, but instead keeps asking them to do something, they won't stick around. Sometimes it's not that they don't love a person, it's that the person doesn't love, or demonstrate that love, to them.

In the morning, I bob and bow (a Canaanite practice of bobbing at the knees then bowing at the waist) at the main shrine and I make an incense offering. I keep an ancestral shrine right next to the main shrine, so I make an offering there as well, too. As I make the incense offering, I will pray something like, “O Deities, I bring you an offering of incense. Please accept it if you find it acceptable. I pray that it will bring you strength, that it will restore you, and that it will bring joy to your day.” And then I bob and bow again, and back away from the shrine. I back way instead of turning around because in turning around immediately at the shrine, one “turns one's back” on the deities. In backing away, I do not turn my back. Many times, I will make offerings at other shrines for individual deities in the house in the mornings or throughout the day or night, in a similar manner. I suggest for a new person new at practice to keep one main shrine.

Sometimes throughout the day, particularly at meal times, I will make offerings of food and/or drink and/or incense to specific deities. I will especially do this if it is a holiday, if it is the marking of an event in nature (solstice, equinox, etc.), if I’ve been told to do so by the deities or by oracle, if something magnificent or miraculous happens in the day, if something dreadful happens during the day, if I’m making reparations for wrongdoing, or if I’m cooking up something especially awesome that I want to share. I also pray frequently throughout the day as I do day to day tasks, especially if I have a moment of gratitude for something. My moments of gratitude can and do include thanking the deities for: clean water, indoor plumbing, hot water, lighters, a roof over my head, health, transportation, friends and family, food, drink, air to breathe, a bird flying by, a wooley worm, the budding trees, fire, art, poetry, sunlight, night, good music on the radio, technology, and so on. I have even given thanks for the education that pain has occasionally provided me—regardless of whether or not I like pain. Which I don’t. Moments of gratitude don’t have to be just for the nice, pretty, pleasant, comfortable things.

In the night just before I go to bed, I will approach the main shrine. I bob and bow, and then I kneel before it. I pray something like, “O Deities, I thank you for my many blessings today. I pray that you are blessed, and honored, restored, strengthened and cherished. I pray that you are remembered. I ask that you bless your people.” Sometimes I will also ask for aid in guidance and discernment, but I keep any list of needs—whether mine others’ very short, and I do this in knowledge that I do much more in our relationship (my relationships with the deities) than "just ask for stuff" all day. Indeed, I spend most of the day "just thanking for stuff."

Before the ancestors at their shrine, I pray something like: “May you be blessed O Ancestors; may you be honored. May you be restored, may you be at peace. I give thanks for the foundations you have built for us in days of long ago, and I ask forgiveness that we over time have wrecked those foundations. I ask that you aid us in restoring these foundations, and that we may honor the deities and you again as we should.”

The prayers here are similar to the ones I pray, even if I change things up: one does not typically have to memorize a specific set of words by rote to pray. Memorizing prayers and repeating them verbatim can be helpful for some practices, but it sometimes depends on the deities and on the practices they want and expect. Best advice I can give when starting out is to pray from the liver (or the heart), and be honest with yourself and with them. Know and understand that whatever you do, you're going to make mistakes in the beginning, and this is part of learning. It is how you respond to these mistakes and guidance that can offer different opportunities to deepen relationships.

Image Notes: Photo by Wetwebwork, used through Creative Commons License

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