The New World Wyrd: Polytheistic Pagan Practices, Cultural Contexts, and Defining Boundaries in Pursuit of the Limitless

A photo taken of me and fellow members of the Ifá house, Ilē Ayó (The House of Joy), at a bembe for the orisha Oyá. October, 2012

A photo taken of me and fellow members of the Ifá house, Ilē Ayó (The House of Joy), at a bembe for the orisha Oyá. Chicago, October 2012

I was 18 years old when I came out of the broom closet to my Serbian immigrant parents, announcing that the Serbian Orthodox Christian faith in which they’d raised me was irreconcilable with my expanding consciousness that came to understand Deity, humanity’s relationship with nature, and human nature itself in ways that were markedly different from the catechism of my upbringing. While my parents weren’t wholly surprised–despite being devout Christians they (especially my mother) always encouraged openminded inquiry about world religions; furthermore, it was commonly accepted in my family that I was “weird”–there was an air of sadness to near elegiac levels in the kitchen of my childhood home that September day when I made my announcement. My father worried that my self-imposed exile from the Church would result in “God” removing “His” protection from me, laying me wide open to assault by “unclean” (read: demonic) forces, meaning I would be making an unnecessarily hard life for myself as I entered the world of adulthood. Did I really want to start my life as a college student that way?

My mother’s sadness was more tersely expressed: “Don’t cut yourself off from your roots, Ana,” she said with a sad shake of her head. The a priori assumption there is that, since so many European national churches in Eastern Orthodox Christianity (Serbian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, etc.) inform peoples’ cultural understanding of themselves (especially when those people were subjugated by foreign empires headed by a non-Orthodox theocracy–thus the Serbs, like the Greeks, struggled to retain their Orthodox Christian beliefs during 500 years of occupation by the Islamic Ottoman Empire), by announcing my severance from the Serbian Church, I was, to her, for all intents and purposes, annihilating my ethnicity in favor of becoming a root-less American, someone utterly divorced from the cultural traditions of their ancestors. My parents had always prided themselves on the fact that, despite having been born in the U.S., my brother and I were decidedly “not American” by virtue of the fact that we hailed from a distinct, very intact culture–language (I was raised bilingual), customs, cultural modes of artistic expression, Church, and all.

The paradox–which you’ve heard me describe before if you’ve read my Gravatar profile copy–is that it was a fondness for and eventual investigation into the histories of the ceremonialism, sensory stimulation (icons and incense and singing, oh my!), and indisputable Slavic Pagan folk magic incorporated into so much of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s  liturgical practices that made me want to shed any “threadbare Christian cloak” (to borrow the words of anthropologist Sir James Frazer) and embrace Paganism fully.

A Serbian Orthodox priest burns the previous year's badnjak, or sacred oak, on Christmas Eve (January 6) outside the steps of St. Sava Cathedral, downtown Belgrade, Serbia. Paganism never died, it just got co-opted by the Church. Oak is sacred to the old Slavic Thunder God, Perun; his nativity in January was grafted onto the Christ Child's.

A Serbian Orthodox priest burns the previous year’s badnjak, or sacred oak branches, on Christmas Eve (January 6) outside the steps of St. Sava Cathedral, downtown Belgrade, Serbia. Paganism never died, it just got co-opted by the Church and watered down into folk custom. Oak is sacred to the old Slavic Thunder God, Perun; His nativity in January was grafted onto that of Jesus.’ On Christmas Eve in Serbian Orthodox Churches, parishioners and guests are given blessed badnjak branches to take home and hang over the inside front door, hang in their barns or rearview mirrors of their cars, or even carry on their person, clearly a vestige of old Slavic apotropaic magic. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Of course, with a very vibrant–and growing–Slavic (and Baltic) Pagan renaissance taking place throughout Eastern Europe, I can more than confidently assure my mother that far from straying from my cultural heritage, my polytheistic Pagan path is giving me a greater sense of rootedness. The ways of one’s ancestors should hopefully serve as a springboard for inquiry for anyone–whatever their race, ethnic background, or national origin–who is dissatisfied with the religion of her upbringing and feels compelled to walk the path of the Seeker. (All too often, I’ve wondered about the Westerners who, dissatisfied with their Judeo-Christian religious upbringings, wound up embracing Eastern paths like Buddhism or Hinduism later in life; what if they had looked into the pre-Abrahamic beliefs and customs of their people instead? I’ve especially wondered about this regarding Europeans or Caucasian-Americans who find a home in Hinduism that Judaism or Christianity could never have been for them…News flash: Your ancestors worshipped a plethora of Gods, too! And chances are, they’re not so very different from the Deities of India; hence the term “Indo-European.” But I’m digressing.)

Happy Rus Pagans kickin' it up for Dazhbog, the God of Fire. The growing number of Slavic Pagans/Heathens across Eastern Europe makes me very happy and hopeful. Honoring the Gods of Place IN Their actual lands is very powerful.

Happy Russian Pagans kickin’ it up for Dazhbog, the God of Fire. Wonderful (and historically authentic) ritual attire by the volkhv, or priest, and his attendants (left, clutching their wolf pelts). The growing number of Slavic Pagans/Heathens holding large public holiday observances across Eastern Europe makes me very happy and hopeful for the future. Honoring the Gods of Place IN Their actual lands serves as a very powerful link between you and Them. Image courtesy of http://www.starisloveni.com 

While I’m proud of my Slavic heritage and seek to preserve the pre-Christian beliefs of my ancestors in my daily devotional Pagan practices (especially the cult of the dead, which is a BIG DEAL in Serbian culture and has been a central part of my spiritual life since early childhood; the ancestor altar is the biggest focal point of family spiritual activity in a Serbian home) as best as I can (meaning that I live in modern Chicago, not medieval Kragujevac), I want to be unequivocally clear that one’s Pagan religious orientation should not be defined by their DNA.

Because, let’s face it: I’m not exactly Egyptian. Nor am I of the beautiful Yoruba and Fôn peoples of modern-day Nigeria and Benin. But the Gods, Goddesses, and Spirits of those lands have definitely laid claim to my head and heart. They’ve woven themselves into the skein of my Wyrd a long time ago, perhaps even, as the Yoruba belief in the West African religion of Ifá expresses it, before I was born. For then, it is said, a person’s Orí or Destiny (anthropomorphized as one’s own literal head) “kneels” before the throne of the Creator and agrees to have the life experiences It is going to have in the person’s incarnation on Earth–everything is predetermined: the parents you’ll have, the experiences that will shape your character (iwa pele in Yoruba; one’s only true possession in life), even your Guardian Orisha and any other Gods you will serve in your lifetime. It’s literally all in your head!

Like a lot of children with an avid interest in history, I “felt” that ancient Egypt was somehow “home” to me. I really connected with the fantastic, animal-headed Deities and marveled at the Pyramids and other sacred locations throughout Upper and Lower Egypt: the Valley of the Kings, the stupendous temple complexes at Luxor and Karnak. And wow, Nile crocodiles, even (Hail, Sobek)! They all made my soul sing. This greatly got on the nerves of the nuns and lay teachers who taught the Religion classes of my Archdiocese of Chicago-fueled K-12 education. I was forever pointing out–and getting in trouble for doing so–that the Egyptians, to me, seemed way culturally superior to those grubby Israelites and if the Hebrew God was “all-powerful,” then why did “He” allow “His ‘Chosen People'” to fall into servitude to the Egyptians in the first place? [Insert deer-in-the-headlights response from Religion teacher nun, followed by the angry injunction for me to roll up the right sleeve of my white Oxford shirt so I could be hit with the yardstick from the chalkboard ledge.] And sorry, no, I didn’t believe that Pharaoh Rameses II (Rameses the Great) mentioned in the Book of Exodus was a bad guy at all; and it was terrible of “God,” via Moses, to punish the Egyptians by having the first-born children killed. (What the fuck? Tell me again how this “God” is all-loving and good?)

Whack, Whack!

Defiantly, I also added that Pontius Pilate was a cool dude. I refused to recite the Apostles’ Creed starting at age 10 because I felt he was being made an unfair scapegoat for Jesus’ execution. After all, he didn’t want to have anything to do with it; he washed his hands of it. So leave Pontius Pilate alone! And oh yeah, the ancient Romans were culturally superior to those grubby Israelites, too!

Whack, Whack, WHACK! Meetings with the Principal and allegations of my “Satanism” spread. The Dominican nun Principal of my grammar school on Chicago’s far north side called my mom when I was in fifth grade to discuss my “Satanic” pro-Egyptian, pro-Roman stance…and concluded, after speaking with my mother (who angrily defended me), that I must come from a Satanic family too! Man, those Serbian immigrants, I tell ya! 😉

So perhaps that’s when Pagan seeds stirred in my developing childhood consciousness. Out of a love for and solidarity with Mediterranean basin Paganism, that which held sway before the time of “A.D.” would come to mar the development of human history. The year before I came out of the broom closet was the year I completed reading the Egyptian Book of the Dead (or, translated more accurately, The Book of Going Forth By Day), and I had profound epiphanies. They were made all the more emotionally relevant in the wake of my brother’s death; he was killed when he was 20 years old, one week before my 17th birthday. The Neteru of the Two Lands watched and aided me, I just knew it. Anpu/Anubis guarded my roaming ka at night and saw it to its safe return to my body in the morning. When my mother was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003 and she almost died from a surgery meant to insert artificial platelets in her spinal vertebral column, I squeezed her hand and prayed with all my might to Aset (Isis) to bring her fully back into this world and to bring healing and relief. Yes, the Neteru are with me and it is to Nebet-Het I am chiefly sworn to lifelong service through my legal ordination as Priestess in the Fellowship of Isis.

As Egyptian Gods, lest one forget (and many people often do!), are ultimately African Gods, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I would ultimately be claimed by the West African religion of Ifá and sworn to service (through levels of initiation; I suspect this reflects the influence of European Freemasonry courtesy of French incursions into Central and West Africa during the Imperialist age of the 18th and 19th centuries) to the Orisha. (Please note I use this term both singular and plural per Yoruba grammar–you don’t refer to a group of more than one Orisha as “Orishas.”) Though I will admit, I didn’t see it coming.

Mind you, I had always had an academic interest, going back to junior high, of the related Diaspora religion of Vodou or Vodoun (which has its origins in the tiny nation of Benin on Africa’s West Coast), and while the concept of spirit possession in Vodou definitely intrigued me, I didn’t feel that it was appropriate for me, as a non-Haitian, to take it up as anything other than an academic interest. In my heart, though, I definitely respected the Lwa.

But the Orisha had other plans, in concert with my own Orí, for me.

It started in 2007. My marriage to my alcoholic sailor of a spouse was falling apart. It was horrendous. The spring of that year, frightfully so. Out of nowhere, I felt a compulsion to begin studying everything I could get my hands on about Orisha worship, Santería, Lukumí. It really felt like a life-or-death compulsion. I read book after book, some good and some of dubious academic quality. I started having weird dreams of male beings of African descent (I recognized them as more than human) who, given their colors of their attire (green and black, red and black), I would come to recognize as the Orisha Ogun and Eshu, respectively. And during the day, I became obsessed with one Orisha in particular: Oyá, the Warrior Woman, Ruler of the Cemetery, the Whirlwind, the Marketplace. My life was feeling like an out-of-control whirlwind at the time, but Oyá would give me the strength to stand in the eye of the hurricane.

Oyá the Fighting Queen, Wielder of the Lightning and Powerful Winds of Change

Oyá the Fighting Queen, Wielder of the Lightning and Powerful Winds of Change

Modern Nigerian woman possessed by the spirit of Oyá, whose animal is the Water Buffalo. Hail, Buffalo Woman! O hei, Hekua Yansa, the Mother of Nine!

Modern Nigerian woman possessed by the spirit of Oyá, whose animal is the Water Buffalo. Hail, Buffalo Woman! O hei, Hekua Yansa, the Mother of Nine!

Instinctively, I felt the best place to get Oyá’s attention was a desolate crossroads in the very cemetery where my brother was buried. I spoke to Her, left Her (and Eshu) offerings routinely. I was working up the nerve to ask Her to facilitate the curse I was planning on throwing on my soon-to-be Wasband. In the meantime, I was desperately looking around Chicago to find a reputable santero or other clergy skilled in working with the Orisha. I needed a reading. I needed advice on my planned working. But whom to trust? I was so leery of con artists, of being duped because I’m a white woman with no family ties/cultural connection to the tradition I was seeking to enter. And it’s a secretive community too. Whom to trust? It had to be a man with street cred.

I found him after a couple of weeks of searching. In mid-July, I stopped at my favorite occult bookstore in the city, Alchemy Arts, to talk to Ken, the owner, about my plight. He stoically handed me a flyer announcing an Ifá priest who was a personal friend of his was coming to the store that very night to give a talk on the cult of the ancestors in Ifá! I was blown away! The stars truly were aligned! After the talk (which was excellent and had me convinced I’d indeed been led on the right path), I spoke with the priest/babalawo (now my godfather or padrino), Jim. We set an appointment for me to have a reading the following Saturday.

I’d asked a male friend to come with me as I didn’t feel entirely comfortable going to a stranger’s house for the first time alone. So my friend Andy agreed to join me, and he wound up having a reading too (his was first, actually). When it was time for me to sit across from the babalawo (which means, incidentally, “father of secrets” based on the years of rigorous training they undergo) and have the divination chain, called an opele, thrown for me for the first time, I began weeping tears of joy. It really felt like a homecoming.

“Your ancestors are very glad you’re here, Ana,” Jim said to me. And as he began to sprinkle droplets of water on the floor of his temple/consultation room and invoke his own ancestors, I continued to weep at the beauty of what I was seeing, hearing, and most importantly, experiencing radiating from the center of my chest. My heart chakra, my anahata, was spinning majestically.

The reading confirmed that Oyá had not only taken notice of my plight and would definitely help me, but that She had been walking with me since birth, knowing that my ancestral reverence was strong. Her mate, the great Alafin King Shango, the Orisha of Thunder and patron of the sacred Batàa drums used in ceremonies, was also fond of me and I was under His protection.

Suh-WEET! I had to placate my ancestors, though, Jim warned, and then he asked me, gently, what my philosophy was on animal sacrifice. I took in a deep breath, expecting this question to come up. The same year I came out of the broom closet also happened to be the year I announced I was renouncing meat-eating for a vegetarian lifestyle. And I’ve been vegetarian ever since (23 years and going strong). Yet I knew also, as the Cuban expression in Santería puts it, that there has to be an energy exchange: “Vida para vida.”  I honestly answered that I understood the importance of animal sacrifice in this cultural context and thus wasn’t against it; however, as an animal lover, I had no idea how I could predict my reaction, emotionally and physiologically (would I faint?) if an animal had to be sacrificed on my behalf.

There was no getting around it. Three colored roosters and colored pigeons, Jim wrote at the end of my session, like a doctor prescribing meds. He gave me the address of a live poultry vendor in town to procure the birds from. The feeding for my ancestors would have to take place within the week. I was apprehensive but also very excited.

To my absolute amazement, when the appointed time drew near for my cleansing and feeding of my ancestors, I was enveloped in a sphere of not just calm, but indescribable peace. Roosters and pigeons were decapitated in front of me to feed Spirit Beings, and I was more than okay with it. I remarked on my sense of peace to Jim afterwards and he told me, “That means you are definitely walking the road of your Orí. This religion IS meant for you. Remember what Ifá revealed in your reading: you are meant to receive your Warriors, so don’t put that off. Your roads will really start to open up for you once you have Them in your corner.”

And he was right about that, as he has been right about everything since when I have been in need of his  counsel and workings. It’s a beautiful, joyous journey of exploration.

But a lot of people express shock when they see me, Hand of Ifá and all, clad all in white, my head  covered, ready to join in the ritual celebrating at a bembe for one or more of the Orisha. I am neither Yoruban nor Cuban! I’m a gringa, a bruja. What am I doing? Shouldn’t I be, as one ignorant person at a barbecue asked me, following the Gods of my own ancestors instead? (I remember bursting out with laughter before I gave my response to that fellow.) While I’m very sensitive to the issue of cultural appropriation, because that is something white people have been excelling at not just in the times of New World colonial conquest, but in more recent times with the New Age hijacking of Native American beliefs, for example. I definitely understand the criticism. And yet, to quote K.W. in her excellent essay, “Being Black and Pagan” from the anthology Shades of Faith: Minority Voices in Paganism: “to blindly dismiss anyone who works in a tradition outside their racial makeup is foolhardy. If more people took the time to actually discuss matters rather than just assuming the worst, I think it would do a lot to foster not only mutual respect, but understanding” (p.112).

That is my answer from my heart, but I have an answer from my head too. As my padrino explained it to me, all human beings, regardless of race, ethnicity, or national origin, have a guardian Orisha. Think of it as a guardian angel. Some people will be called to cultivate a relationship with that Orisha–to have it made official–and others won’t. That’s it.

To me, my whiteness in an African-based religion and cosmology doesn’t matter because, if you want an anthropological explanation, all human beings descended from an African female primal ancestress. This is an indisputable fact. As a Dark Goddess-worshipper, I can say with fierce pride that I AM MY DARK MOTHER’S DAUGHTER. We are all daughters and sons of Africa.

And my Ifá religious practices are done in complete accordance with the proper cultural understanding and guidance from my padrino. This is not me running off on my own and making shit up because I think it’s cool–that Oyá is just another bad-ass Goddess to add to my roster of bad-ass (read: Dark) Goddesses I serve like Nebet-Het, Hekate, or Santa Muerte . You work with very prescribed rules when dealing with the Orisha. It calls for a level of discipline that, again, might be another factor in why some people are called to The Religion (as Ifá or its New World incarnation of Santería is sometimes called) and others are told that it’s not the path for them.

As you might imagine, my home temple space is a busy, bustling, nearly crowded space. I have several active shrines to many Gods and spirits, including more than the Gods I’ve mentioned in this blog post. How does one go about managing all these relationships? Time management skills are a must, and fortunately many of my Deities have Their sacred days of the week that make devotionals easy to tend to. I remember my late Priestess-Hierophant in the Fellowship of Isis, Deena Butta, once telling me that people in your life come into your life “for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” It’s about the magnitude and the duration of the staying power of the relationship, based on its mutually defined need. Same thing with cultivating a symbiotic relationship with a Deity or Spirit. Are you being “tapped” to fulfill a specific working for a specific amount of time, and then the God or Goddess or Spirit will depart? Or is it something definitely long-term, like a soul contract you’ve forged? I feel that what I have with my Gods and Spirits is definitely the latter. What matters is that, however disparate the altars may seem to a casual observer of my temple space, the Gods I have my relationships with make perfect sense to me–the reasons why They’re ensconced in my home, my heart, and my head are ones I need only ever explain/justify to me.

And my Orí. Ase, ase, and So Mote It Be!

So, gentle Pagan folk, if you’re of a Polytheist persuasion, or even if you’re not, how do you feel about working in Pagan traditions outside of your “racial makeup,” to use K.W.’s words from the essay quote above? Do you have experience doing so? Have you gotten flack for it? How about managing multiple relationships with Deities of different cultural traditions/pantheons? Is your approach culturally contextualized or are you doing an eclectic approach of spiritual cafeteria selections? I’d love to hear from you!

May you always walk your Path in Beauty and forever Speak Your Truth! Iré-o! Blessings!

 

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16 thoughts on “The New World Wyrd: Polytheistic Pagan Practices, Cultural Contexts, and Defining Boundaries in Pursuit of the Limitless

  1. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m not Egyptian either; I’m predominantly Welsh, with some Irish and Scottish. There was a time when I tried desperately to be a Druid or a Celtic polytheist, but it was to no avail. For whatever reason, I just can’t feel a connection to any of the Deities my own ancient ancestors probably worshiped. It would seem that Seth’s always had His red hand on me, perhaps even well before I was born. I’m perfectly comfortable with this, but I have met certain people who aren’t (and for many different reasons).

    I always get frustrated whenever I hear someone argue that white people should just “stick to Christianity” and that not doing so is somehow “insulting our ancestors” and “going against our roots.” (Working in academia, I’ve actually heard this sort of thing a lot, though usually with more elaborate language.) The irony here is that the Christian God is not European but Semitic, that Jesus was a Hebrew, and that the Jewish religion was never intended to be practiced by anyone but Jews (which is what being Yahweh’s “Chosen People” means). Christianity itself can be viewed as a Roman (i.e., white) appropriation of what began as a Jewish heresy. So it can’t really be claimed that white Christians are in any greater touch with their ancestral roots; heck, many of them believe their pre-Christian ancestors are burning in hell!

    As for animal sacrifice, it’s not really an issue for me because Seth seems to prefer I give Him strictly vegetarian offerings. But I respect it as a necessary part of certain traditions and even as a necessity for people who have to kill their own food anyway. As long as the animals are treated and killed humanely and the proper health codes are being observed, I have no moral problem with it; but I would probably only practice it myself if I were living on a farm.

    Anyway, thanks for another great post!

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    • Thank you for the feedback, G.B. Marian!

      I agree with you wholeheartedly on the bizarre, illogical, and patently false understanding some people–including many older religious scholars and anthropologists–have regarding Christianity as a somehow “indigenous” form of European religious expression. Say WHAT? The Neolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France, represent religious expression on the European continent. As do Minoan frescoes, or the intricately detailed Gundestrup Cauldron–the largest surviving piece of European Iron Age silver work. Those constitute indigenous European religious expression from antiquity. A man killed by asphyxiation when nailed to a cross in first century C.E. Judea does NOT. It’s amazing how long it takes people to cognitively process the idea of a Mid-East import into the Roman Empire, not unlike the Persian cult of Mithras. Actually, Christianity stole quite a bit from Mithraism–the idea of a salvific god born under mysterious circumstances (i.e., no Daddy God present) on December 25, whose messenger (the god Hermes) appears before humble shepherds to announce the Nativity; an ecclesiastical hierarchy, with the ceremonial leader, addressed as “Pater,” wearing a hat we now call a bishop’s mitre; partaking of a communal meal in religious ritual, with consecrated wine and bread as stand-ins for Mithras’ blood and flesh, etc. So even as far as imported cults go, Christianity wasn’t even original!

      I’ve had a hard time establishing relationships with Celtic deities also, despite my sincere intent to get to know some of Their energies–especially “Dark Goddesses” like The Morrighan and Kerridwen. It’s like being a child and making a telephone line of soup cans and string, but there’s no one on the other side to play along. Again, it’s not about your intent; it’s about Who chooses you. Who you wish you could make contact with and Who actually reaches out to you to cultivate a relationship won’t necessarily be the same Being, and yes, race and ethnicity matter little in this selection process.

      I give Set vegetarian offerings too: watermelon, figs, lettuce. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Though, several of the things you’ve mentioned about Mithraism aren’t actually true in practice or in the ancient evidence which exists when one looks at it; a great deal of those similarities were exaggerated way out of proportion to make it seem like Christianity and Mithraism were more similar than they actually are. The Dec 25th thing is not remotely correct–that only comes from the presumed syncretism (misunderstood as “same as” rather than “is similar to”) of Mithras and Helios/Sol Invictus, despite the many scenes showing them interacting with one another; and in any case, Sol Invictus’ birth on Dec. 25th does not actually occur in Roman practice until the reign of the Emperor Aurelian in the mid-3rd c. CE, when the cultus of Sol Invictus was organized out of a combined Roman and Syrian matrix long enough after the disastrous reign of Elagabulus to forget the allergy to such monotheistic solar gods they had developed as a result of being subject to the teenage tyrant. The late second/early third century CE is the earliest time we have a Christian dating for the birth of Jesus on the 25th of Dec., which is around fifty years before Sol Invictus’ birth is placed on that date. Sol Indigenes, the originally Roman solar deity, had a festival on Dec. 11th in antiquity.

        And, that’s only one item in the list of purported similarities between Mithras and Jesus and their religions (which are trotted out by atheists regularly these days to demonstrate that Jesus isn’t real, just like all the Roman/Greek/etc. deities aren’t real!) that, upon closer inspection, proves to not be remotely the case, unless one is using a Joseph Campbell/Jungian archetype framework that tends to paper over differences more than it demonstrates similarities.

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      • Aha! Thank you for sharing these helpful details! My fiancé and I have done a bit of past-life regression work, both independently prior to our forming a relationship (mine was conducted under the auspices of a psychiatrist in Honolulu who trained under Dr. Brian Weiss! My sessions with her would make for some interesting blog fodder, Díosa Mío!) as well as since we’ve partnered, and we keep looping back to shared Mithraic Mysteries-type of experiences. I was an infantryman who made it to the rank of Miles, and the man who is now my fiancé was the temple’s Corvus. Weird strands of Wyrd, man! I adore learning about everything I can about Roman history. When visiting my relatives in Serbia, I always make it a point to tour the impressive Kalimegdan fortress in Belgrade’s Old Town, which impressively sits atop a hill where the Danube and Sava Rivers converge (not only are the views gorgeous, but the whole area is thrumming with energy–very active land spirits!). While the foundations of the fortress are pre-Roman (Celtic), the most discernible layers of ancient construction (and in my opinion, the most aesthetically pleasing) are Roman, including a very deep well simply known as the Roman Well. There are weathered limestone steps hugging its edges if you dare tread them; I did to an extent the last time I was there (grateful my uncle was within shouting distance) and it triggered a massive Mithraic past-life recall experience. If your travels ever take you to that corner of southeast Europe, I highly recommend visiting it! The nearby open-air museum of antiquities has gorgeous finds that were excavated from the area; I’ve made offerings to the statue of Jupiter there. No plexiglass, no partition whatsoever between you and the sacred images of these Holy Powers!

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  2. I am Eshu’s child and He sent me to vodou to learn from my Lwa and fulfill my destiny. I feel very strongly that neither Orisha traditions or Haitian vodou are pagan traditions–they are culturally based and deeply entwined in every day living of the cultures they come from, thus they are not outsider faiths. Rather, they are the majority faith and it is the colonial religions that are ‘pagan’ there. I’m quite sure that if I described vodou as pagan to my Haitian elders, they would be quite offended and believe that I had indicated that vodou is full of devil worshippers.

    I’m white, and have gotten an enormous amount of shit for practicing vodou, but never from anyone who actually practices vodou. Pagans and other polytheists are the worst about it, but, by and large, their opinions are their opinions and I don’t really care. My mother in the religion gets all sorts of shit for having white people in her lineage, but she doesn’t care either. Things get hilarious when people realize her white children can speak Kreyol, know the prayers and the songs, and have the Lwa come on them, too.

    Vodou is a cultural religion with a lot of cultural insider information that a person misses if they don’t immerse themselves as much as they can in Haitian culture and don’t learn Kreyol. Vodou is the living history of Haiti, and if you don’t learn that you miss a lot–things won’t make sense. So, I do as my manmi instructs and listen for what the Lwa tell me and let all of that inform my practice.

    I treat my orisha in accordance to how my orisha priest instructs me and what my orisha tell me. I manage my priest duties to my NTR in the same way by listening for their cues and preferences (like not being in the same room as the Lwa). Stoking the flame of each religion makes the connection stronger between myself and them, and strengthens the ancestral lineage that adopts me–I not only please my spirits, but please my ancestors of lineage and keep their blessings fresh.

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    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Alex! And it’s always a pleasure to meet a fellow Omo Eshu!

      I wasn’t calling African Diaspora traditions “Pagan”–that’s a label I apply to myself only. I’m sorry that you’ve had negative reactions from people within the Pagan community about your dedication to Haitian Vodoun practices. It’s the opposite experience for me: everywhere I go, especially the large Pagan festivals I attend, I see more and more crossover with people identifying as Pagan also seeking initiation in Vodoun or Ifá Houses and wanting to worship in the proper, culturally prescribed ways the Powers that they feel have called them/claimed their heads.

      Blessings to you in your journey and thanks for having a gander at my post!

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  3. I work with some Celtic Powers (where some of my ancestry lies) and some Vodou Powers (where I most definitely don’t have any ancestry). One of my teachers in the latter said many Vodou houses (including the one they were in) held that it didn’t matter what your racial or ethnic background was as long as you approached the lwa and Vodou itself with honor and respect; that I’ve done to the best of my ability. Interestingly enough, I have a lot of German ancestry but I don’t follow any Gemanic, Nordic, or other such Powers; a lot of my friends do, but I even had a rune reading that confirmed that none of those Powers is particularly interested in me… My approach is eclectic, and it works pretty well for me. The Powers I serve are OK with it, and get along with each other pretty well, too. 😉 I’ve never taken any flak about it that I have ever detected…

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    • Hi, Aeddubh! Thanks for reading my post and commenting on your experiences! I agree with you 100% that it’s about what your intention is when you approach/cultivate a devotional relationship with Holy Powers that are of a different cultural tradition than your own. Blessings on you and the Powers that watch over you!

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  4. Very interesting reflections here–thank you for writing these!

    I never expected to end up where I have with my own polytheism. I got interested in Celtic matters when I was a late teenager, and eventually went to Ireland to get a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies to fully enter into what can be understood of that milieu. While that did help, and put me on the road to being a fili in the best possible way that one can do so now, it was also during that time that another prayer of mine got answered in terms of my involvement with Antinous and building one form of his modern cultus. His is a cultus that cannot be confined to one or another culture of the ancient world without losing a great deal–he can be understood well as a Greek hero and within that tradition, but then that loses out on his Egyptian full-on deification, and also on the ways in which he is syncretized to several Roman Semones like Silvanus and Vertumnus who are thought to be divine but are nonetheless “semi-human; and so on and so forth with each of those three cultures. I have always seen myself as a dyed-in-the-wool polytheist who just took a while to get there; but I’m also equally a dyed-in-the-wool syncretist. I still do the Celtic (mostly Irish) stuff, but also the Antinoan, as well as some wider Greek, Roman, and Egyptian things. My ancestry is Germanic, Slavic, and Jewish (on both sides), and while I’ve done tiny bits with Slavic, and a slight bit more with Germanic stuff, I’ve actually done more non-monotheistic Hebrew (and Canaanite) stuff than anything that comes definitely from my own genetic heritage, so to speak.

    And, I’ve also done some Shinto and some Hindu stuff, too. Those religions don’t seem to care that I’m not Japanese or Indian, they just want to make sure I do it right. 😉

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    • Well-met, Aediculaantinoi! Thank you for stopping by and commenting on this post! It is interesting how we wind up serving Powers we never anticipated serving, isn’t it? Had someone told me when I was but a sprightly Coven Maiden for the Gardnerian coven here in Chicago that created such an indelible imprint on my spiritual development that I would soon be following suit with an initiation into an Ifá House, I would have probably replied with, “But I’m not Nigerian nor of Yoruba ancestry.” And…voíla! Your background sounds immensely fascinating! I’m sorry I didn’t get to attend Many Gods West this year; Gods willing, I’ll be there next year and I would love to meet you in person and discuss our polytheistic practices! Blessings!

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      • I couldn’t reply to your other comment above, so I’ll just reply to both of them here. 😉

        I don’t know if I’ll be at MGW next year or not…at the moment, I’m guessing the likelihood that I’ll be there is around 36%. But, who knows? There may be other chances to meet at some stage.

        I have not yet been to Serbia–I had a friend who was from Jagodina in high school, and he always told me how Beograd was an originally Celtic foundation. But, interestingly enough, it turns out that there is an Antinoan altar (probably from a temple) that was once in Serbia (I think–I’ve been told it was in Croatia, and then Bosnia, and then Serbia, so I’m actually not entirely certain where it was!) in the Roman colony of Socanica, and I’d love to get over and see it at some point. I had to search high-and-low for records of it in my research over ten years ago, and even some professional academic classicists said “I don’t think it exists” and “I’ve never heard of it,” but I didn’t give up, and eventually turned it up in a Croatian journal. I also got a secret/magical name of Antinous that turned out to be close to a Serbo-Croation rendering of the name of Achilleus, which is interesting…so, if we’re talking about past lives and the like, there might be something going on there! I know of one, from which I get the “Virius Lupus” in my name, that comes from Roman Britain, and is also the name of the first priest of Sol Invictus under Aurelian, so those threads are there.

        As Eli Sheva, the elected shophet of AMHA was saying to me last month, “I think there’s a lot of different past lives that are coming together in you and you’re resolving historical connections on several different fronts.” That’s the only possible explanation, I think, for why I’m as weird as I am. 😉

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  5. Thanks for writing this! It was a really interesting read and gave me quite a bit to think about. 🙂

    I’m biologically and culturally British isles, with a little of the European continent and three Native American tribes thrown in. I started, like so many, as trying the Wiccan path, then explored faiths of my ethnic heritage. I worked hard, studied a lot, but something was off. By the time I was in my late teens I was a full Hellenist Recon. My parents thought I was “weird” too, but the Gods don’t seem to mind. That could be the Greek cultural influences on Western society though.

    In a twist, I married a man who is ethnically Macedonian Greek and Albanian, but religiously Norse-Celtic. Now my home is a mix of both. We keep them separate as much as possible, but every now and then we’ll get a tap on the shoulder from our spouse’s pantheon. In the interest of harmony, we always awkwardly comply.

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    • Hi, Hodge-Podge! Thank you so much for reading and sharing your very interesting anecdotes of your adventures in cultural explorations and their spiritual applications! Sometimes what we think is the right fit for us, or something we desire badly, just isn’t meant for our well-being or spiritual development at all; that’s the whole premise behind the concept in Ifá of walking the path of your Orí or Destiny. Thankfully, my course corrections from the Powers I serve have been gentle ones; I know others who’ve had a lot of lessons in the Metaphysical School of Hard Knocks! My fiancé, for example, is a devotee of the Titaness Hekate. He argues, and several of our friends have attested to this as well in relaying their experiences of spiritual development, that She’s a very harsh Teacher Who teaches lessons in painfully unforgettable ways. I have not had such encounters with Her (yet!).

      Blessings on you and your household! And have a great weekend!

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      • Testify! Hekate is very exacting. My experiences, which of course are not universal, seem to indicate that She demands observation, perseverance, and a willingness to grow. Regardless of how much pruning She does in the process. To me, it speaks volumes about a person’s character to be chosen by Her.

        Overall, my pantheon has been… well, I suppose you could say tolerant. In an eye rolling, “let her figure it our herself” kind of way. My transition into the faith was a bit brutal, so maybe They decided to go easier on me after I finally made my choice. I get the feeling I frustrate them like an adorable toddler who gets into everything.

        Enjoy your weekend and this lovely Friday the 13th! 😀

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