As I have probably mentioned before, I was raised without religion. Christianity was pervasive and ubiquitous throughout my childhood, of course: on television and in the Cub Scouts, in my textbooks and in everyone else’s assumptions. I even went to church for Christmas, sometimes, and Easter. But my upbringing did not include any actual, direct instruction in Christian religious doctrine or practice.
My early explorations in religion, such as they were, were self-guided, and—ultimately—their own undoing. One hears about That God and the Bible quite a lot in Cub Scouts and in a Kansas elementary school, but always in ways which presume that one already knows what the speaker is talking about. Now, generally, this is actually a very effective indoctrination tool: the presumption of knowledge backs most people into a corner where they will agree to anything to avoid admitting that they don’t know what you’re talking about. That never worked on me. Gathering the impression that the explanations for all the gibberish could be found in a certain book, I picked up the children’s Bible my parents house. There were rules, I learned (so many rules, but mostly the Big Ten), with dire consequences promised for breaking them. But I could see that those punishments weren’t being meted out. The only conclusions that my pre-teen mind could make from this contradiction were that That God must be absent or unjust.
Thus began my decade-and-a-half “phase” as an angry agnostic. I wanted no part in any gods. I found the Neo-pagan movement (Wicca and its offshoots, in particular), and although I found a home, of sorts, for myself … I rejected their gods, too.
All of which is to say that I have no early-life framework for worship or devotion. I have, in fact, often compared worship of any sort to spiritual slavery. So…. For about twelve years I celebrated seasonal festivals to satisfy needs I can no better articulate now than I could then. Nor am I yet certain what changed in my head or why, that day in St. Louis when I suddenly called out to Dionysus, Hephaestus, and Apollo.
Six years after that sharp about-face, my altar is home to nine gods and three familiar spirits. The spirits I have solid working relationships with: although we are still negotiating the precise terms of our arrangements, we are friends and partners. The gods, though … Dionysus, Hermes, Hephaestus, Baphomet, Rhea, Athena, the Kouros, the Witchmother, and the Sun … some of them are as uncertain what to do with me as I am with them. Each has reached out to me, or me to them, and made solid contact at least one time. Rhea was the first power whose voice I could discern calling to me from the darkness; Athena found her way to my altar through a series of omens; the Kouros answered my call when I went searching for meaning in the Divine Masculine, and the Witchmother came to me through the statue I had used to search for the Divine Feminine; Hephaestus stood at my side when I sat at the bench; Hermes is the chief god of the modern Western esoteric tradition; and Dionysus … well, that’s a slightly longer story.
I recall deciding, in the strange days leading up to that first call, that if I were ever to worship the gods, Dionysus would be among them. A youthful, effeminate, sometimes cross-dressing god. The god of wine and ecstasy, of loosing yourself in the beat of the drum, and of running and fucking in the woods. The god who causes and cures madness, and who disdains the kings appointed by his father Zeus. Himself an initiate into the Mysteries of an older, more primal goddess. As long as I have made mead, I have done so in the name of Dionysus; those of you who have had my wine can attest to its improbable efficacy. Dionysus was the first god to appear before me at my initiation, and he is always the most firmly present when I perform my pentagram rite. His leopard visits my astral temple. And yet, at the same time, he is the most inscrutable of the gods upon my altar. When I seek him out, I cannot find him. Only Athena has less to say to me when I pour the libations.
I wonder, sometimes, if it would be easier if it were in my nature to devote myself entirely to a single god. Could I then count on the god to tell me what was wanted of me, and what I would get from it in my return? If that were my only dilemma, though, I could simply go the other obvious route, joining one of the Hellenistic recon communities. I could be well-loved there, as an actual Classicist. But my own UPG is too far afield, and my witchcraft too radical (to say nothing of my feminism) for those groups I’ve seen.
Each of the powers who has come to me has told me a little bit of what I need to do. Just enough that, with a little bit of luck and creativity, I have (so far) been able to struggle up to the next step. I make offerings of coffee, candles, wine, and/or mead at least three times a week. I must not abandon my visionary practice—I must, in fact, escalate it—but I must also have daily planetary ritual. But the Orphic hymns aren’t quite …. working. There’s something lacking : something maybe 25 degrees off. And while they’ve been showing me how to make masks, magically, I’m still trying to puzzle out some of the material components of the process. And I have to keep with the lunar and solar calendar I have already devoted so much of my life to.
Now, don’t get me wrong. So far, none of these are hardships (well, except for the occasional extremely hung over Saturday or Sunday dawn offering rite, and they’re usually pretty forgiving if I’m late). But … there are disparate pieces that I haven’t figured out how to smelt into a cohesive hole.
How do you obey the gods when they talk so little, and you can’t quite hear them when they do? When you have no background in “religion” as it is so frequently understood? When your knowledge of history, and the way in which the gods have been deployed to further—or, given a less charitable set of assumptions, participated in and even instigated—injustice in the name of power for as long as there have been priests and kings, makes the whole idea of “religion” more than a little suspect? When your grip on sanity is adequately shaky that you’re not one hundred percent certain you’re hearing anything but the echoes of your own derangement? And, perhaps most to the point, where do you find the missing pieces of a ritual practice that has never quite existed in the form you’re working toward?
True story, y’all: I have no fucking idea what I’m doing.