Astral Appointments with Gods and Spirits

alice-in-wonderland-1253474_1280Astral travel as I see it is the process of projecting one’s consciousness out into realms and worlds far from, adjacent to, and/or overlaid upon this one (readily accessible, easily acknowledged, consensus reality). In my own practice, I most often refer to astral travel as journeying or faring forth. When I plan to fare forth and its on my own timetable, I like to prepare by igniting rich resinous incense and lighting anointed candles. These acts serve two purposes. First and foremost they are initial offerings for the Powers who taught me to journey and who support the work that I do on those journeys.  Second, pretty smells and warm lights signal to my busy mind that stillness is needed. When taking a planned but somewhat leisurely trip to the otherworlds, I take these early moments of preparation to focus on my destination and any Powers I need to meet and greet in that place.

When I have time to prepare, because I am journeying on my own schedule, I prepare offerings for the denizens of the worlds I plan to visit. My offerings are sometimes simple, taking the form of bread and wine and fresh flowers, or sometimes elaborate requiring two or more hours of cooking, arranging, dressing, anointing, and pouring. These things I place in sacred space along with the candles and incense.

When I fare forth on my own schedule, I also enjoy taking time to slowly ground and center. I draw my awareness to my body by wiggling my toes and fingers, rolling my neck, flexing my muscles. I settle into my own skin and the wonders of corporeal existence. I bring my awareness to my breath, to the steady rise and fall of my abdomen as I take in and release measured air. I allow myself the simple pleasure of humming a haunting melody, whatever creeps into my mind at the time. I feel the vibration of my voice as it resonates through my bones and blood. When preparing to fare forth, I take stock of exactly where I am in this world that I might more easily find my way back.

alice-30615_1280When it’s time to then fare from here to there, I allow my body to sway, my breath and voice to summon a spirit song, and my mind to reach out in search of a road, a path to carry me there. Sometimes the way is smooth and clear, sometimes its crooked and narrow. My fylgja comes with the song and rides it with me into the otherworlds. It may sound like I’m in charge but in fact he leads the way. Oftentimes he is so sure of the place to which we journey. Sometimes not. But he leads all the same. And with the flapping of his wings we end up exactly where we need to be, having a chat with exactly who we need to talk to. Sometimes he stays with the Powers and me, other times he wanders off. Over the years it’s become a gauge for me of how safe I am with the spirit or deity I connecting with. Safe equals fylgja flying free, doing whatever he feels like doing. Less safe equals fylgja practically perched on my face. He and the gods who charged me to travel the worlds nevery promised me absolute safety. That would be silly, and impossible. What wisdom is ever really wrought by safety?

When our audience is done, my fylgja leads the way back home. With a whoosh of my own breath I am back in my body, wiggling my finger and toes, checking my mind, body, and spirit for impurities, broken or lost bits, and hitchhikers. Good times…when I have time.

alice-29775_1280But over the last two years, with changes in the professional demands on me from my doctoral program I didn’t have as much opportunity for leisure, planful strolls through the otherworlds. However the calls to journey across the hedge kept coming. My fylgja visited his sense of urgency on me and shouted every call from the Powers That Be that I had let slip with an Alice in Wonderland White Rabbit-like ping in my left ear: “You’re late!”. What? Then I was dragged off into the otherworlds while on the bus, watching TV, cooking, or at some other inopportune time. If I was lucky, an unplanned trip happened while winding down for bedtime.

When the pings first started happening on a semi-regular basis, I tried to delay the powerful pull into trance. I would ask my fylgja to buy me more time, usually a few hours, so that I could wrap up what I was doing and then cross the hedge. Sometimes I would try to delay things even longer, especially if I knew it was a big call. I did this with a call from Hekate once. She was 47 kinds of pissed, so needless to say, I stopped procrastinating and started turning the damned stove off, having a seat, and letting the trance come. When I strolled through the otherworlds more regularly, this sort of thing still happened but was less often and was oddly less surprising when it did happen.

alice-in-wonderland-276452_1280When I was journeying more regularly, I felt the call more urgently and was ready – in mind, body, and spirit – to make the trip. But when I started traveling less, each call felt less urgent, and it was unexpected, so I found myself less ready to travel. Of course astral travel/journeying/faring forth skills take spiritual and psychic muscles, and I had let myself go a bit for about two years. So it’s not really any wonder that the gods and spirits started pushing harder. Of course my fylgja had to grab me by the scruff and drag me to the appointed meeting place with the spirit or power in question.

I’ve been basically done with my doc program (yay!) for the last several months so I am getting back into the flow of journeying.  It’s been rewarding building my spiritual and psychic muscles back up so that I don’t have to be grabbed as often!

In summary, here’s what I learned from being called, shouted at, and then grabbed by my guide/ally and dragged off into the otherworlds:

  1. If you are paying attention, you get notification in advance, or at least have an inkling that a particular power may be calling on you soon.
  2. If you don’t pay attention, you may be man/woman/person-handled by your guide/ally.
  3. By the time your guide/ally is forcing you into trance, find a safe place and don’t resist the lull into trance. You’re late for an important appointment and your guide/ally is just trying to look out for you and make sure you get there while receiving as little flak as possible from the spirit or power you’re supposed to meet with.
  4. After these encounters, gift the spirits and powers (including your guide/ally!) richly, because you kept them waiting beyond a reasonable time frame, which some may read as a sign of disrespect.
  5. Schedule time for regular travel so that you are less difficult to call and meet with.

Happy Astral Traveling!

Greeting Odin Among the Stars

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Many moons ago I met Odin among the stars. We sat at a large campfire set upon a great comet sailing through space near Earth. Sitting to Odin’s left, I stared into the fire then into his eye and confessed. At that time I felt lost but I was ready to find my way again. He smiled the most warm and still somehow wild smile, then he drew me close. I leaned into his warmth and chuckled with tears in my eyes. He whispered to me of the importance of storytelling and learning from the past in order to improve the future. The Earth turned, the comet sailed on, the stars pulsed around us, and the sun seemed to shine a little brighter at the edges of my awareness.

What I describe above, a bit of mystical experience from my recent history, was inspired by contemporary cinema, in this case the scene in Cloud Atlas at the end where Tom Hanks’ character is teaching the children history around the fire. Contemporary books and also movies are stories, modern tales told for the same reasons our ancestors told stories around their communal fires. The tales told in modern movies and books are contemporary sagas, present day chronicles of consciousness, being, community, and identity. And Odin and the other gods speak through them as easily as they speak through ancient myths. The mystical moments seeded and inspired by modern stories are no less valid than those that emerge from our readings of the Eddas and Sagas or other such ancient sources.

Odin used Cloud Atlas imagery to speak to me as that was the most clear and present symbol system rolling through my brain at the time.

For me, it was more than a scene with Tom Hanks and some cute kids among the stars. In my version, the children were me and Tom Hanks was Odin. At the time when I met Odin on that comet I needed to begin the process of re-membering myself. We humans do that through story. In the company of the stars I could see the constellations of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that were a part of me. I could interact with the vast array of experiences that were chapters in my story. With Odin’s help I began a journey through self and through the Worlds. The new narrative of my self is being written everyday in thought, in deed, and in story. I have committed to telling my own story, to weaving my own tale, drawing the lines that give form and function to the constellations in the sky of my experience.

Odin and I still meet on that comet. Each time we do, I sit at the fire there and tell my story. And he tells me how the Worlds began. Together we re-member the past, mark the present, and weave the future.

Altar from Til Árs ok Friðr: A Freyr Harvest Blot

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On August 4th the Catskin Sisters gathered for peace and plenty (the meaning of Til Árs ok Friðr). Here are a few words from the ritual that I facilitated on that day in honor of Freyr. We followed the blot with a nourishing and delicious potluck feast!

God of Fruitful Seasons, you whose harvest sustains the people through the turning year, to you we give bright barley, the grain that nourished and continues to nourish numerous nations.

God of the World, giver of life’s pleasures, to you we offer honey, one of the land’s oldest and sweetest delights.

God of the Vanir, you whose shining hand joins human ingenuity with the might of the fields, to you we give a deep drinking of ale, the potent product of mortal mind and wih-wheat.

Hail to Freyr! We ask, with antler in hand, that you turn aside our troubles and fortify us for the times to come. May you bestow upon us light and life, health and wealth, and above all, peace.

The U.S. Capitol City Through Pagan Eyes

In late July, I visited Washington, D.C. My first purpose there was to visit a friend from college but somewhere along the way, during the initial planning process, I encountered Athena and decided that my second purpose would be to seek her out in the art of the Polis. For those who do not know, many key federal buildings in Washington, D.C. were built in a neoclassical style, a return to ancient Greek and Roman (especially Roman) architectural and artistic conventions.

Naturally, I could not resist the opportunity to tour some key places in DC with my Pagan eye wide open (and take pictures to document the experience!). To be honest, I was more stimulated by the neoclassical architecture than I expected to be. Plus classical mythology references were everywhere, from the sculptures to the reliefs to the paintings! During my time in the nation’s capitol city, I took in a few memorials, two Smithsonian Museums, the U.S. Library of Congress, and the U.S. Capitol Building, but the Library and the Capitol were the coolest of the places I visited, in my Pagan opinion.

Images of the gods are all over those two buildings! The fountain outside of the Library of Congress features Poseidon-Neptune and the Waves. Inside the Library, at the entrance, are Athena-Minerva of War and of Peace. War is armed, peace of course is not. Those pieces belong to Athena-Minerva more so in name. Precious little of their iconography and even less of their bearing speak of her. With regard to their bearing in particular, they are much more delicate and feminine than most popular classical depictions of Athena-Minerva. On the second floor are the eight Virtues who grace the four corners of the Great Hall. Many of them were vaguely reminiscent of Athena-Minerva from my perspective, particularly Courage, Fortitude, Industry, and Prudence. The resemblance was partially (and barely) borne out in their iconography (i.e., some weapons, spindle, and distaff) but also in what they stand for, the abstract ideas that they represent. Like War and Peace, the Virtues were very feminine, but then again, they are not named after Athena-Minerva so I cannot fault them for being less like her than I would have hoped. The full-color, absolutely gorgeous mosaic of Athena-Minerva complete with spear, shield, helmet, breastplate, owl,  olive tree, laurel, and Nike-Victoria was the complete opposite of the other Athena-Minerva-like pieces. Not only does it bear her name but it is true to popular classical images of the goddess.  It looked like it was taken straight from a wall in Pompeii (of course I say this as someone who is not at all a trained scholar on ancient Roman architecture and art). I stood in awe for at least five minutes, taking it all in.

Poseidon-Neptune depicted in the fountain in front of the U.S. Library of Congress

The Minervas, of War and of Peace

Industry, one of Maynard's Virtues

Courage, one of Maynard's Virtues

Fortitude, one of Maynard's Virtues

The Athena-Minerva Mosaic

My next stop was the U.S. Capitol Building. When I researched what to see in DC related to Athena-Minerva a week or so prior to my trip, most results were for sights in the Library of Congress, but the Statue of Freedom which tops the dome of the Capitol Building also has some Athena-Minerva influences. Really, any martial neoclassical female (but not necessarily feminine) figure will probably make the average Pagan think of Athena-Minerva, and the Statue of Freedom was no exception. The replica of the Statue of Freedom in the Capitol Building Visitor Center lobby offered an opportunity for closer inspection of her iconography. Although she is obviously an United States symbol (and some would argue a problematic one), her Athena-Minerva heritage is revealed by her helmet and shield, and in the fact that she is armed. Although the items themselves partially characterize classical images of Athena-Minerva, the details were altered for the Statue of Freedom to uniquely represent the United States of America (e.g., stripes on the shield representing the original states instead of the head of Medusa). Regardless, I saw Athena in the Statue of Freedom and so I purchased a couple of inexpensive postcards depicting the Statue.

Replica of the Statue of Freedom, located in the Visitor's Center

I also took a guided tour of the Capitol Building, after studying the Statue of Freedom replica in the visitors’ lobby. Most of the tour was interesting but did not raise my Pagan eyebrow. It was not until we visited the Rotunda and I looked up at the Capitol Building’s dome that my Pagan eyebrow nearly raised clean off my face. The Apotheosis of Washington.

The Apotheosis of Washington, located in the Rotunda

Nuff said for those who have seen/read about it. For those that have not, let me elaborate. It is basically a romantic neoclassical depiction of Washington’s imagined elevation to godly status elegantly rendered on the dome (which is just below the actual bronze Statue of Freedom that tops the building). In the painting, Washington is surrounded by the Greco-Roman gods. Athena-Minerva is present as a patroness of Science. She teaches and offers guidance to some of the greatest thinkers of that day. Poseidon-Neptune, Aphrodite-Venus, Hermes-Mercury, and Demeter-Ceres are also featured. Hephaistos-Vulcan even appears in the piece to represent Mechanics in the founding of the country. I actually did not see him while I was physically there in the Rotunda. It was not until I got home and examined the photo I took that I saw the head of another figure, did some research, and found out that it was Hephaistos-Vulcan. He and Athena-Minerva are depicted directly opposite one another; consequently, only one can be seen at a time, depending on where you are standing in the Rotunda. In addition to Athena-Minerva (and Hephaistos-Vulcan) in the Apotheosis, there is also a depiction of Athena-Minerva in the frieze just below the dome/Apotheosis painting. In that highly central room of the Capitol Building, Athena-Minerva is literally stacked on top of herself. She is reflected to some degree in the Statue of Freedom then depicted true to classical form in the Apotheosis decorating the inside of the dome and then again true to ancient form in the frieze just below that. As a Pagan in the Polis – the capitol city of the United States – I thought that was mighty cool!

The actual bronze Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol Building, photographed from across the Mall on the 2nd floor of the Library of Congress

Athena-Minerva depicted in the Apotheosis of Washington, located on the inside of the dome

Athena-Minerva depicted in the Frieze, located a few feet below the Apotheosis of Washington

In each depiction, Athena is framed as an important goddess of state, honored as an ancient patroness of the polis. She is also presented as a key intellectual and moral resource for the formation of a powerful, successful, and just state. I am not making claims about what the U.S. is or is not in reality, only what it aspired to be at the time Washington and others were laying plans for the capitol city. Whatever the reality may be, I will say that while walking through DC I was inspired by Athena’s “presence” there, even if it was primarily iconographic. Specifically I was inspired by the high ideals, reason, and hard work of crafting/building that she embodies. Being in DC to honor her also helped me to see the glory in at least attempting to contribute one’s best to a society/culture (which I understand as broader than one’s city-state). The funk I have been in lately has made it hard for me to find value in the work of my hands, or in my case the work of my mind, but both really are Athena’s kind of work and the more principled and purposeful the work is, all the better. In a nutshell, my time in DC helped me to start seeing the value in my work again and the importance of contributing to something greater, whatever that may mean to the individual and her community.

Glory to Athena! I give thanks to Polias (She of the City) and Oxyderkês (the Sharp-Sighted One) for the insights gained during my time in Washington, D.C. and to Ergane (the Worker) for helping me to regain my confidence and sense of meaning in my work.

Streamlining Altar Space

Until recently, I had a separate and distinct altar for almost every spirit or deity I work with. Unfortunately for me, that arrangement left me feeling literally pulled in multiple directions. Some were the tops of chests, of bookcases, or of dressers, others were TV tray tables, all spread across three rooms. So, I decided to streamline my devotional space in the hopes that it would also help me to streamline my practice. I went from about six altars to just one five-foot table flanked by two TV tray tables all located in my living room. The altar is very loosely and abstractly divided into sections. Each of the gods have their own areas and they are roughly grouped by pantheon. The animal spirits that walk with me have their own space. Also, the orishas, lwa, and dead with whom I work have their own section, roughly subdivided. Based on my initial intuitive read on things, everyone seems happily installed in their new space. I will continue to check in with them though. Don’t want to piss anyone off.

Thus far, about two or three weeks into this new arrangement, consolidation has made it much easier to physically clean and care for the space. Things like dusting, changing candles, clearing ashes, replacing incense, and the like take about 10 minutes now, instead of 20. Consolidation has also helped to minimize my feeling of being overwhelmed by the multiple deity and spirit relationships that I maintain! Now, everyone is “gathered” in one place, so I can say my prayers, sing my hymns, and give honor in a more organized and relaxed way. There is no longer a need to go from room to room, try to remember where I left the lighter, transferring various oils from one altar to another, or similar mundane considerations while I should be focusing and contemplating the mysteries of the gods and spirits. So far, consolidation has been a logistical dream come true.

The one challenge I have encountered thus far is the location of the altar. With it being in the living room there is the potential for the altar space to devolve into a curiosity for my guests. I also found early on that I sometimes felt like I should have been honoring the gods instead of watching TV, or honoring the spirits instead of beading bracelets, or honoring the ancestors instead of insert “non-sacred” activity here. So, in order to respect temple space while simultaneously appreciating the host of “mundane” activities that I do in that space, I decided to veil the altar when it is not being actively engaged for clearly stated spiritual purposes. Thus far, the veil has been a success. I can acknowledge the gods, spirits, and dead without feeling like I am somehow bad for not actively burning incense or whispering hymns 24/7.

As I work more with the new altar arrangement, I will share my experiences here.