Standing between death and the dead

This time of year is when I most strongly feel the ancestors around me.  Memorial Day was yesterday, and tomorrow is the anniversary of my father’s birth.  Six years ago my cat went missing on June 9, and I wonder if he yet lives, or I may honor him among the dead.  This past weekend I helped adopt someone who lived in my town until his death four years ago as a community ancestor.

Perhaps that’s why I found myself weeping as I wrote yesterday’s remembrance of Taliesin Myrddin, who died trying to prevent hate.  I didn’t know the man at all, nor any of his loved ones; this was not personal grief.  Normally I don’t feel the deaths of strangers deeply; there are far too many people dying in the world for me grieve them all and yet live.  His death touched me, and divination confirms that my own dead wanted it to.

First, a little something about Ludwig Montesa, a man “whose unconventionality, both mentally and physically, sometimes unsettled people who didn’t know him,” according to one obituary.  He died in 2013, while I was at a point in my studies of Hellenismos at which I was learning about Hekate, the Deipnon, and ancestor veneration.  I knew him as a friendly, if slightly peculiar, man who was a constant presence in our downtown; when news of his death spread, I found stunned to discover the number of people whose lives he had touched.  My first ancestor offering was made at the impormptu shrine which emerged not far from where his parents ran a gift shop.  It had much the look of many impromptu shrines:  flowers, candles, heartfelt messages of grief were included, but also Metro cards, which to him were the connection to his favorite metropolitan area.

In the years since his passing, I have come to know Ludwig Montesa better than I did in life.  He transgressed boundaries of gender and personal space, ignored the hobgoblins of shame and comparison to others, and embraced himself with joy and abandon.  He was known for high-fives that never seemed to end, karaoke performances unfettered by self-consciousness, and an enduring love for New York City (which to me was the most alien thing about him).  Each May since he died there has been a Ludwig Day replete with games, musical performances, and remembrances.  I’d never been able to make it for one reason or another, but it was clear that Ludwig Montesa had a festival in his honor, much like the heroes of old.

This year I decided I was going to lead an ancestor-veneration ritual for Ludwig.  It meant forgoing Rites of Spring, but local praxis should take precedence.  Family members were on board, and one of them was in attendance.  A photographer for our local paper was also there, and gave me some images from the event.

It was a short ritual, with about fifteen people in attendance.  I set up a low table as a shrine, using a black cloth and candle mostly because people in this color associate black with death.  Before it was a really stunning framed portrait that captures Ludwig’s eccentric flair.  I did a brief overview of ancestor veneration and how in Hellenic tradition the dead are down in the underworld.  I invited him to attend and poured out an offering of Diet Coke, one of his favorite beverages.  Participants were invited to offer flowers, Metro cards, and brief remembrances; I had some of the first two for people who were unprepared.  (Cards with money still loaded on them will be distributed to those in need in his name.)

This was the first public ritual I’ve ever led, and it went quite well.  I felt Ludwig’s presence and had the opportunity to honor him in a way befitting his near-shamanic life.  Our communities all have local heroes, and it’s appropriate to identify and honor them.

Coming off of that experience, and readying myself for this annual pilgrimage of mine, I found myself learning about a young man who stuck is neck out to help some strangers, and got a knife in it for his trouble.  It’s both hard to bear and completely inspiring.  How many of us would put their bodies between hate and harm like Taliesin Myrddin did?  Who among us truly knows the answer to that question without it being tested like it was for him?

There’s more to tell in that story, to be sure; a member of his family may be speaking with me soon, and his mother seems to be responding to this tragedy with a combination of love and activism.  Like her son, she inspires me, and I hope to be able to speak to her at some point.  Even if I lived in that town, I am not the kind of reporter who could knock on a door and say, “Your son was just violently killed.  How do you feel?”  There is a need for personal space and time which transcends freedom of the press.

For me, the time for honoring death will continue through July, as I intend on undertaking the Vigil for the Bulls again.  It’s curious that it is now, as spring bursts into life, that death is closest to me.  Such is the mystery.

In closing, some pictures of the ancestor rite for Ludwig Montesa.

Cultivating sources

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Paul Beyerl [Wikimedia Commons].

When I asked to interview Paul Beyerl for this week, it was because I strongly believe in preserving the wisdom of our elders.  Now in his seventies, Beyerl was easy to talk to in part because he’s not put off by the idea that he’s an elder.  What I wasn’t expecting from the conversation was news that his church’s center would be uprooted and moved in the near future, after 24 years establishing a botanical garden in the suburbs of Seattle.

That’s the joy of journalism: discovering interesting information that the people holding it don’t necessarily think is newsworthy.  It takes good questions, intuition, luck, and often a lot of time to get those answers.

Earlier in the week, The Wild Hunt posted an update about the Druid Daniel Scott Holbrook, based on a court transcript in which the prosecutor asserted in closing arguments that Holbrook had not downloaded hundreds of images accidentally, as he’s claimed.  There were people who had that information when I wrote the original article, but for various reasons didn’t believe it to be newsworthy, ergo I didn’t find out until I saw the transcript, and only then did I start asking questions.

The occasional detractor of the news site for which I write will complain about a lack of investigative journalism.  I have to wonder if such people understand what that kind of work requires.  While it’s not technically difficult, conducting investigations takes quite a bit of time.  Back when newspapers were the go-to source for news, there were reporters who spent weeks or months on a single story, talking to people and sifting through documents in search of the truth.

I would love to throw myself into that kind of work, but if I spent 40 hours a week on chasing down mysteries in the Pagan community, I wouldn’t have time for any other writing.  I contribute to several other news sites and publications, all of which pay me a flat write per story, stories which take time to research and write.  The Wild Hunt is no different in that regard.  My family couldn’t afford to give up those other sources of income, and The Wild Hunt treasury isn’t big enough to pay me what I would need to do that full time.

What’s required for deeper, more thorough investigations?  Money.  Lots and lots of money.  To turn just one reporter into an investigative machine would require more than doubling how much money is donated during the annual fund drive.  I base that on my own situation, which is unusual because I’m not the primary earner.  Replacing my lost income, plus adding a new reporter to the weekly rotation (because I likely wouldn’t have a finished story every week, and the ten-year-plus tradition of new content daily could not be broken) would run about $20,000.

I stand ready to do more for the Pagan communities.  Are Pagans and polytheists willing to step up and make that possible?

First and Last, and other signs of Hestia

The first book that I have ever edited has now been published:  First and Last: a Devotional to Hestia.  I am proud of this work, as should every be every single contributor.  Its completion also fulfills a rare vow that I made, to see this project through.  However, Hestia has made her presence known in other ways this week, and it’s worth reflecting on it all in writing.

Writing is a lot of what I do professionally and spiritually, and occasionally both at the same time.  One way that I blend the two is by keeping an account of offerings I make to the gods, which became a useful resource in writing a litany to my many gods.  (Even if you don’t write ’em all down, you can write a litany too!)  Other than getting two or three entries every day, Hestia’s presence this week in particular was profound:  I ran out of room in my first book, and started the next.  The last offering in the old is a portion of dinner to Hestia, and the first in the new went to Hestia Caffeina.  Without planning to, the new book was started on a Sunday morning, which is a neat nod to the beginning of the modern week.

If you aren’t yet sure why I chose to name the Hestia anthology First and Last, it’s possible you haven’t been paying attention.  I am not her priest, but I give Hestia first and last offerings like many of my co-religionists.  For me, at least, she tends to manifest at times of beginning and end.

This week marked another last and first in my relationship with Hestia:  her statue.  Working with an incredibly talented sculptor, Joe Laudati, I commissioned a statue of this gentle goddess together with some partners.  I now own the first one cast, which was the last step in the process of creation.  Once I write an appropriate description this incredible figure will be available for sale, the first step in this statue’s transition from private to public life.  She stands now upon my mantle, and her spirit is strong.

Fitting on the mantle was one of the criteria I wanted for this statue:  there’s no need for a representation of Hestia if one has a physical hearth, but now that she is in that place of honor I feel like the room would be empty without her.  Keeping that in mind, I believe, helped convey her role as hearth goddess into the final form of this figure.

It’s tempting to include flame in a statue of Hestia, and we wrestled with that idea.  There are plenty of examples of sculptors doing just that, and I don’t think it quite works.  If one puts a watermelon in a sculpture, the viewer thinks, “That’s a watermelon.”  If one includes a flame, however, the viewer’s thought instead is, “That’s a representation of flame.”  That difference didn’t work for me.  A lamp might have also worked, but ancient Greek oil lamps still have a flame visible.

To convey her association with the hearth, the more subtle image of bread is used; she carries two loaves in one arm.  At her waist is a set of keys, reinforcing that she is preeminent goddess of the home.  Aloft she holds a bunch of grapes, which to some might seem an unusual choice.  Flowers, to which she is clearly linked, also can fall short in sculpture.  Grapes were selected to convey a full larder.

Hestia is veiled, this representing her choice to be a virgin goddess.

What makes this piece special to me is the fact that the bowl is separate.  Hestia is the receiver of all offerings, and this ceramic bowl allows the user to actually give some offerings right there.  Portions of one’s meal, as well as modest libations of wine and oil, “offerings least and greatest,” can be put in this offering bowl.  It could even be used to burn incense on charcoal, but I would not recommend placing a candle there.  While the bowl wouldn’t get damaged by a candle, other parts of this cast resin statue might.  Otherwise, utilize common sense and wash the bowl when needed.

Difficult work

I volunteered to take on the Kenny Klein coverage for The Wild Hunt, which until this week was just a matter of checking a court docket from time to time.  That changed when Klein was convicted.  When witnesses finally testified, what came out of their mouths was horrifying to me.  It’s the first time I have ever felt the need to take a purifying bath after writing.

One thought remains with me:  I hope Klein will have access to ministers of his faith while imprisoned.  I believe everyone deserves that opportunity.

Finding Ares

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Ares icon created by PT Helms

It is no small thing to find a god, for deities are as elusive as a reflection on water, as insubstantial as the mote which dances before the eyes, as subtle as the shift of late winter to early spring. Many religions teach of a “God” or “Goddess” who is imbued in all things, or oversees each and every working of the universe, or whose omnipresence transcends the concepts of “within” and “without” and makes those words feel meaningless; while such teachings suggest that a deity which is everywhere might be easy to find, it is remarkably difficult to focus on the everywhere. Gods, while rarely far from us, can be easily overlooked.

Indeed, the very decision to seek out a god is a difficult one to make: this is a secular world, and belief in the unseen increasingly is looked at askance. Aside from religious services, citizens of the western world are counseled to trust their eyes, to be pragmatic, to shunt aside their emotions and focus on rational experience. Any deity, from a monotheistic father to the god of a tiny spring which wells forth only once in a generation, can have its voice lost in the cacophony of marketing messages, career choices, and family dynamics of 21st century life.

So it is no small thing to find a god, especially if one is not seeking to do so. It is no small thing to find a god, particularly if the god one seeks is not the god who wishes to be found.

I was not seeking a god, nor a religion. I believed I had both: I was Pagan and I embraced the pantheistic, multi-faced One through many faces. I was not Wiccan, although some of their teachings resonated with me. I understood that all deities were simply aspects that my limited mind could best accept and relate to, with distinct personalities and histories. My beliefs were broad, inclusive, and only slightly more meaningful to me than the Catholic teachings of my youth. Intellectually, the message of love and healing was important, but it didn’t speak to my emotional self. Paganism became more of a label than a life for me.

No subtle nudge would have roused me from this torpor; no whisper at the edge of my awareness could get me to take step back and reconsider my path. I was entrenched in a life as full of activity as it was devoid of meaning, a comfortable place in which a man to find himself.

Only a roar as loud as nine thousand men could have gotten my attention, and only a god that terrified me by virtue of what he represented could utter that cry. I heard it from the bottom of the pit into which I had crawled I knew not when. I heard it even as I became aware of the maggots gently consuming my diseased self, and preparing to consume those parts which remained healthy. I heard it with my ears, my eyes, my follicles, my soul. I heard it, and I obeyed.

Get up.

Get up, and show some respect for this gift you have been given.

Do you think I, steeped in the blood of the slain and crusher of the defeated underfoot, know nothing of cowardice, nothing of failure? You are wrong. When the faithful lift their craven thoughts up to me, unable to continue without my aid, I take them up and wrap them like a cloak about my shoulders. Your failings, your weakness, your whispered words of self-defeat, your limiting beliefs; these are my mantle as I wade into battle.

You, who feel the weight of all your mistakes and missed opportunities, know nothing of the burdens I carry for you and your kind. Without me, you would have been ground to dust long ago. I shoulder it precisely because you are frail, you are mortal, you are a passing mote blowing hither and yon.

Get up, for you are strong enough to carry what is left to you. If it remains too much, than either you hold back my due or you protest too much.

Get up.

I got up. I obeyed: studying Hellenismos, discovering my patron and others among the theoi to whom I am drawn, and eventually taking up the mantle of priest after some years of preparation and instruction.

Ares has not spoken to me since. I still make offerings to him as I am led, but to him I have sworn no oaths. He was and is my gatekeeper, and I feel him near when my blood boils or runs like ice, but for the most part his work on me appears to be done. The way was opened with violence and fury, and only now am I able to do work of healing, and peace.

Business as usual

“You are now on the business beat,” said my editor to me yesterday.  That suits me just fine, because I am fascinated with how we struggle with money issues in the Pagan communities.  We’ve got a fair amount of poverty (some by choice), and a fair amount of guilt over doing well.  There are rules about who can charge what money for which services without automatically being deemed jerks.  The permutations may be endless.

Business_presentation_byVectorOpenStock

Last week I spoke with a vandalism-targeted Pagan shop owner who has dealt with proselytizing inside and out, broken windows, Chick tracts and spit-attacks.  On the flip side, I was honored to interview Abby Willowroot, whose spiral goddess design is a staple in Neopagan circles.  (Side note:  I really, really dig interviews with elders.)  Yesterday I wrote about the ongoing issues faced by esoteric business owners, whose products and services are often indistinguishable from outright scams to the average observer.

Do Pagans and polytheists risk a loss of our core values by getting serious about business, or is it one of the best ways to ensure that we are seen as serious and legitimate religious practitioners?  That debate is sure to rage for quite some time to come.

The specious nature of hate crime

hate (2)Being a journalist means being paid to learn new things, which is why being a Pagan journalist finds me learning a whole lot about issues that matter in our overlapping polytheist and Pagan communities.  This week, I learned just how hard it can be to get something prosecuted as a hate crime.  Dominique Smith feels like a hate-crime victim, but local police aren’t ready to make that call.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical of hate-crime laws because they smack of thoughtcrime, but I thought they were at least an effective tool, albeit a questionable one.  The motivation behind these laws is laudable, but now I’m left wondering if they serve any valid purpose at all.