Depression and the gods

Adapted from my book Empty Cauldrons, here’s a list of deities who might have a particular interest in—or understanding of—depression. Keep in mind that all gods have their own personalities and preferences. If you are drawn to any of these deities, do some research to understand how best to make their acquaintance, which should include divination as to whether a particular god is interested in a relationship at this time.

Apollo or Apollon is connected with both Greek and Roman pantheons. A god of healing, truth, and light, Apollo also has an interest in creative pursuits such as music and poetry, that might be dampened during depression. In some traditions Apollo is said to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky, as well.

Consecrating a divination system to Apollo may make it easier to use during a period of depression.

Ares is a Greek god of battle, carnage, and war. The myths about this god are not entirely noble, but in one the god kills Hallirhothios, who raped Ares’ child Alkippe; Ares was then acquitted by the other gods. Ares does not let anger fester, and instead acts. Ares is also difficult to ignore: during one battle, the god bellowed like nine thousand soldiers when wounded. During one particularly dark time when I felt isolated from the gods, Ares came to bellow at me like a holy drill sergeant, extolling me to stop being weak and instead to direct my anger at finding solutions. For me, those solutions included reorganizing my practice around Hellenic polytheism.

Offer your anger to Ares, especially if you do not know how to use it. Ares will help you hone and focus it, and thus release it rather than being consumed by it.

Blith is a Norse god of happiness and head-weather, as Raven Kaldera explained: “In the shamanic healing system of [northern tradition shamanism], the body can be seen as a world unto itself, an ecosystem, and we are taught to journey inside someone’s body, visualizing it as an entire world, and interpreting the ecosystem. In the apple valley, which is the brain, chemical imbalance sometimes shows up in these shamanic journeys as ‘bad weather,’ thus Blith, a minor Norse healing goddess whose name literally means ‘happiness,’ and who is called upon for healing mental illness and mood disorders by my tradition, is referred to as ‘the goddess who calms the weather in the brain.'”

Ask Blith to calm the weather that rages in your own head. Try offering an apple to represent the apple valley, and ask the boon of a clear day of happiness.

Demeter is a Greek god of agriculture and the fertile earth. The abduction of Demeter’s child Persephone forms the basis of the myth explaining the existence of winter, and was the focus of one of the longest-running mystery cults in history. After that disappearance, Demeter lost hope and was inconsolable, resulting in the first winter.

Pray to Demeter for guidance on how to endure feelings of hopelessness, and ask for a sign that new life will again burst forth in your own heart.

Dionysos is a Greek god who is closely associated with mental health, madness, and liberation. “Instead of trying to get happy, it’s about letting go of all that I feel,” recounted Sarah W., a devotee of the god. Also closely associated with wine, Dionysos understands the subtle difference between using and abusing alcohol and other drugs. In one myth, Dionysos is torn limb from limb by enemies, only to be reborn in a more powerful form. The fact that depression is reminiscent of and underworld journey means that this rebirth is a hopeful sign that we can return from this difficult journey.

When life feels overwhelming and everything seems like it is spinning out of control, recite these words from Aelius Aristides: “nothing can be so firmly bound by illness, by wrath, or by fortune that cannot be released by Dionysos.”

Frey or Freyr is a norse god of grain and agriculture, called the “golden one.” As such, Frey is connected with the cycle of death feeding life that is systematized in agriculture. As with other gods on this list, Frey knows something of the mystery of death, but it seems that it’s Frey’s connection with light that makes this god a strong ally during periods of depression. JOshua Tenpenny shared with me an experience in which Frey placed a spark of light in Tenpenny’s heart. “He told me this was light in the darkness, and I could build this into a fire to keep me warm in the dark times.”

Call upon Frey to rekindle your own light, and teach you to find your own way in the darkness.

Freya or Freyja is a Norse god of love and fertility, which in this case has an unambiguously sexual quality. Kaldera advises that while Freya may bless any sort of fertility, it’s wise to set clear boundaries around pregnancy in any case. The body is the first place Freya will turn, and the body is often the repository for the accumulated emotions left to build up and stagnate during a period of depression.

Ask Freya to help you remember your love of life, and to use the gifts of your own body to feed your creativity, imagination, and passion.

Hekate is a Greek god who is described as “welcome in all the worlds:” the living earth, starry heaven, and the underworld as well. It was Hekate who helped Demeter search the world for the missing Persephone, carrying a torch to light the way to the dark places. The dark of the moon, called deipnon in Hellenic practice, is a time when Hekate is asked to help clear out the old month to make way for the new.

Ask Hekate to light the way as you undertake shadow work and explore the darkness of depression. In the alternative, when the moon is dark bring Hekate your doubts and fears and ask for them to be taken from you.

Hel or Hela is a Norse god of death, traditionally depicted with a body that is half alive and half expired. Hel is charged with caring for those who die of sickness and old age. Some devotees of Hela, such as Joshua Tenpenny, find themselves closer to this deity during periods of depression, when the god is experienced as a “loving, compassionate mother.” Tenpenny reports that during such deep devotion, “the depression is irrelevant to that [relationship]. Maybe it’s the key to access the experience.”

Call upon Hel when you feel lost and near the point of breaking. In your prayer, make it clear that you do not know where to turn and that you seek solace.

Helios is the god who first directed the chariot of the sun across the sky each day, according to Greek mythology, and continues to be honored as a sun god by some devotees. This all-seeing god was the sole witness to the abduction of Persephone, for even the darkness of the underworld is not thick enough to banish the light of day.

If you feel darkness encroaching, making it difficult for you to see the way forward or be willing to act, ask Helios to cast light upon your situation and allow you to see clearly.

Herne is a god of the hunt who is most strongly connected with Wicca. Herne is depicted as an antlered human man hunting to feed the people, and also as a stag who dies so that the people might eat. The cycle of predator and prey here serves as a reminder of how rare and precious life can be.

Call on Herne to remind you that others depend upon your skills and your presence in community, and that you are an important part of what makes your community thrive.

Himinglaeva is a Norse god, one of the nine daughters of Ægir and Rán, who are described as mermaids or waves. Kaldera refers to Himinglaeva as the “ninth mermaid” and a bringer of light. The name has been taken to mean “transparent on top” in English, suggesting the light shining through a wave of emotion.

Pray that Himinglaeva will bring light when your emotions are roiled and you fear you may drown in your own feelings.

Inanna or Ishtar is a Mesopotamian deity with a great many associations. The most relevant myth here is of Inanna’s descent into the underworld in an attempt to conquer it, which is a humbling experience that is characterized by giving up all that was precious to the god.

Ask Inanna for the resolve to see your journey through without ever forgetting who you are.

The Morrigan is a Celtic god of battle who models inner strength. While in the old myths the Morrigan is depicted mostly in the carnage of war, devotees who are experiencing an inner battle like one with depression also derive comfort from this god’s strength.

Offer the Morrigan your pain and your suffering. This is an offering that may readily be accepted.

Persephone is a Greek god best known for being kidnapped, but who is also a god of flowers and springtime. Persephone was taken to the underworld to marry Hades, and ultimately adopted a routine of spending part of the year in the land of the dead and the remainder in that of the living. Persephone epitomizes the hope that even death is not forever, and that there is always some form of rebirth in the future.

Ask Persephone for a sign that your own period of darkness will end, and because it’s hard to see in the dark, ask too that the scales fall from your eyes so that you can see that sign in the first place.

Poseidon is the Greek god of the moving world, whether that’s the storms and tides of the oceans or the planet-wrenching power of earthquakes. This makes Poseidon a manifestation of the emotions that are buried so deeply that no one can predict when they will next erupt. The depths of the ocean are places of incredible darkness and unimaginable pressure. This same pressure that births devastating tsunamis can also bring forth new land.

Give Poseidon your grief and your sadness, and ask that the salt of the ocean carry away your pain if you are unable to shed tears.

To which gods do you turn during the low times?

fire of depression

It burns away what ties me to other people: the love, the relationships, the shared experience. What it leaves behind is the ashes of loss, emptiness, desolation. The taste in my mouth is that of fear—fear of a particular something that is palpable, yet cannot be named. The blood is pounding hard and burning hot.

Depression is not always cold, and it is not always laconic. When depression burns, it moves at the speed of a forest fire, and its energy screams out of every pore in its explosive urgency. This is because depression does not eliminate emotion, even though the awareness of emotion can be numbed completely. Emotions are physical in origin, birthed in the spasmodic laughter of the diaphragm, the worried tightness of neck and shoulders, the excited fluttering in the stomach. Emotions are of the body, and are not easily suppressed.

The sense that emotions are depressed is in part a function of memory: in a period of depression, the emotional component of memory is altered, even stripped away—depressed. Anger, though, is difficult to forget. Recalling white-hot rage also serves as fuel for self-recrimination, negative self-talk, and a desire to avoid other people—ideal nesting conditions for this spirit. Instead of forgetting the experience of anger, it’s the warning signs that anger is building which are depressed. That can lead to the kind of outburst which is awfully memorable, both to me and to those caught in the blast.

Courtney Weber, one of the people who agreed to speak about the experience of depression for my book Empty Cauldrons, knows about anger and memory in depression. “I was always angry, but I didn’t know the source,” Weber said. On the other hand, “Sometimes my first thought [upon waking] is guilt and remorse over something I said in fourth grade.” One might suspect that this is a feature, not a bug, of the condition. While other emotions might be smothered like vegetables in a thick, simmering tomato sauce, anger inevitably comes to the surface like a bubble of gas that causes the sauce to spatter. The emotion is more violent by virtue of not being released in a controlled way.

Any fire can be controlled, given the right tools and skills. The fire of emotion will never be extinguished in an embodied spirit; emotion is proof of life as humans know it. That doesn’t mean that anger must run roughshod over that life. The tools of control include a mood journal, and the skills include meditation. Each contributes to self-awareness, making the manipulation of memory more difficult. Grounded in that knowledge, it’s possible to move from forest fire to candle, but not to shut it off completely. That would be like blowing out the pilot light of a gas stove.

Excessive fire in the life is a sign that there may be depression hiding in the shadows. Fire sustains us, but if anger is turning to outburst then fire may be consuming you, instead. Meditate. Track moods. Check in with friends. Be open to accepting help from professionals. Your fire is sacred, and nurturing it requires a group effort.

spirit of depression

I conceive of depression as a spirit, but that does not resonate with everyone. Whether or not depression feels like a spirit—a non-corporeal being with agency—it’s probably easier to agree that some of the symptoms of depression manifest in spirit directly. The whole idea of trying to categorize diseases and conditions based on whether they hit the mind, the body, or the spirit is not very helpful: these are different parts of the whole, and all health issues impact every part of the self. To me that seems especially obvious when it comes to depression. It’s categorized as a mental health problem, but the symptoms can cause physical pain. It’s categorized as a mental health problem, but the symptoms can cut off spiritual connection. In this case, we are limited by our language: since we have different words to describe these aspects of self, we conceive of our selves as fragmented. Sometimes it takes a serious condition like depression to teach us that this fragmentation is an illusion.

Depression can visit at any age.

The term “acedia” describes the spiritual dimension of depression, while “melancholia” the mental aspect. Acedia’s first use in written English was in 1607, while melancholia has been written about since at least 1553. That’s centuries of effort to reinforce this idea of fragmentation, that the mind controls the body and the body is not the seat of self, and perhaps more importantly that the spirit or soul is distinct from the other two—except that the actions of mind and body can impact that soul. We’ve been spending hundreds of years or more trying to put that square peg of an idea into the round hole of what we actually observe about human beings.

One of the ways that depression impacts spirit is to drain away our interest in spiritual matters. While maintaining a daily practice is in no way indicative that one is free of depression, dust collecting on the altar is certainly a clue that something might be up. No information should be interpreted out of its context, mind you; there are very spiritual people who simply do not dust, and there are others who might take the time to set up a nice altar and then move on to something new. I know that it’s a common belief that physical tidiness makes spiritual connection easier, but as hard as I pray to Hestia to help me dive into housecleaning as a sacred practice, I need a day’s notice if anyone other than one of my closest friends is coming by to visit. I am not a fastidious housekeeper—but I seem to be in the middle of the pack, based on the homes of others I’ve visited. An orderly home feels good and doubtless has spiritual benefits, but it seems that earth-worshipers generally don’t mind a little bit of dirt, either.

What dirt might indicate is that there is an accumulation of spiritual detritus, too. That can happen during a period of depression, but again, physical evidence of a spiritual condition must be considered in context. For example, if I look around at the dusty corners and hard-to-reach places where grime accumulates with revulsion not for the dirt but for myself, then I may be moving through a dark place. At another time, I might recall that I have chosen to make my home welcoming to spiders or other spirits, embodied and otherwise. The difference is internal: do I feel in relationship with other beings, or do I feel like smothered by the state of my own existence? The cause is also internal; the spirit of depression has joined the conversation in my head and tends to bring the mood down.

Depression is a powerful spirit; most humans lack the ability to truck with it at all, and I don’t know of anyone who has consciously invited it into their own life. Nevertheless, many of us are in relationship with this spirit. Know this: if you have walked with depression and lived, you are a spirit-worker of great power. You may be entirely untrained and lacking in focus, but you have raw strength. I am still trying to understand the nature of this spirit, but it could be that it’s drawn to that strength and is sustained by it. It could also be that this is a protective spirit that is doing harm in an attempt to prevent even greater harm. Perhaps both are true: depression might be protecting us or those around us from power we do not understand how to wield.

All I can say with confidence is that an encounter between a human spirit and a spirit of depression can be a difficult one. A common metaphor of the experience is that the world is drained of color. Color does not literally drain from the world; what happens is that we lose the ability to care about its vibrancy. During a period of depression we do not process micro-affections, we fail to interpret acts in a positive light, and our joyful memories are suppressed. There’s a spiritual pall surrounding anyone on such a journey, which may suppress the use of subtle senses even if it doesn’t make it harder to move subtle energy. If your cosmology includes spirit as an element, then it’s just as easy to see depression expressed as spirit as it is earth, and air, and fire, and water. Depression is all of these things, because depression grows in the shadow of human lives.

Depression makes spiritual matters less appealing. Courtney Weber, in an interview for my book Empty Cauldrons, may have said it best: “You should go to your altar every day, but if you’re in a bad place, go three times a day.” It’s dangerously easy to abandon practices during a period of depression, to become convinced that they have no value. Double down, despite not getting any validation. Pray. Meditate. Worship. Offer. Celebrate. Depression does not turn the gods away, but can make them difficult to notice. It’s routine that helps us push through, and faith that the world is every bit a magical and sacred place today as it was on a day before depression took root. The human spirit is resilient, and I am here to bear witness to the fact that there can be a time when that spirit is again free of this condition.

Never forget that one’s own spirit is far stronger than can be easily understood.

Darkest night

I do not need to be in depression to write about depression.

The words were carefully lettered onto a sticky note, which I affixed to the top of my old roll-top desk as the first step toward writing Empty Cauldrons: Navigating Depression Through Magic and Ritual. If depression is a spirit, as I have come to believe, then invoking it by diving into research and interviews was a possibility against which I wanted to guard. If depression is a disease, which I also believe to be true, then the peril was in taking on the condition with the intention of healing it within in order to heal others, as well. This, my first opportunity to write a book for a major pagan publisher, in no way felt safe; inviting the forces of darkness into one’s life never should feel safe.

Photo by Lucas Pezeta on Pexels.com

At no point did I believe that my life was at risk, however. Depression does kill, and it’s nearly killed me more than once, but we understand each other better now. This was nevertheless a crossroads, and depression could send me down the wrong path. I was risking becoming completely overwhelmed, crushed by the sense of obligation, and unable to fulfill my part of the contract. I was also risking the stress of this new venture exceeding my threshold, resulting in a short temper coupled with a sharp wit: such are the tools for destroying relationships personal and professional. My life would not be ended by trying to write a book about the worst suffering I and many others will ever experience, but it could be irrevocably changed for the worse by this willing plunge into darkness.

I do not need to be in depression to write about depression.

Using language is not the most efficient way to reach the deeper parts of the mind. Those words need to be digested, broken down into component symbols, and absorbed. Reading the same phrase dozens of times a day is needed. I did this, but there are better ways to reach the deep self.

It’s appropriate to write about this on the darkest night. Depression is likened to a form of spiritual darkness. It was also on a winter solstice night, not long too long before the turn of the century, that I was given the gift of a spell box capturing the light of the summer sun, the triumphant sun that was shining in full glory on the other side of the world. A dear friend had seen that spell, written by Silver Ravenwolf, and assembled it with care before having the members of our circle charge it for my use. It was the first magic I ever successfully used to shift my relationship with depression, and it’s my honor to be able to include that spell in this book.

Understanding comes in part from engagement, and engaging is difficult with depression, because it’s inside. It wasn’t until I was well into the research phase of my writing that I was guided to create a process to allow the separation of depression from the body, by inviting it into instead inhabit a totem. Rather than being some sort of cure, this is a means to allow depression to be appealed to and appeased, as one might do with any spirit. Walking beside depression rather than within it, I was thus able to foster dialogue between my deep self and this intense spirit, this depression. I do not need to be in depression to write about depression.

Now, there is darkness. There is cold. There is quiet. All of this is familiar, but also different: the darkness, the cold, the quiet is outside the walls of my home. They are outside the walls of my heart. The darkness of the world is a cycle of the seasons, not a metaphor of a hopeless existence. I have cycles as well: good days and bad, with spirit, body, and mind moving through peaks and troughs. My thinking self recognizes that cycles are the way of the world, and my deep self sings gratitude for the knowing.

Real money magic: investing in evil

It’s been six months since a veritable coup was staged in the Exxon Mobil board room. Three new directors that were seated over objections of company leaders are committed to addressing climate change as a business risk for a company that’s all about oil. This is a big deal, and highlights the power that shareholders have—but rarely exercise—over companies in which they have a stake.

Voting power at these annual meetings is based on shares of stock held. This is the one form of democracy in which votes are openly bought and sold in the market. Every share equals one vote, and company insiders often make it a point to hold enough shares to block any unpopular action—often, but not always. The activists who lead the hedge fund Engine No. 1 had just two-hundredths of a percent of all the outstanding Exxon shares, yet they were able to get the votes to pull this off. That’s even more impressive given how these decisions are framed: the proxy statement in which board candidates and other matters are laid out always have a board recommendation next to each choice. Any candidate or question supported by board members includes a recommendation to vote for the proposal, and it’s easy for an uninformed shareholder to assume that board recommendations are the way to go. That’s a lot of headwind to overcome, yet that’s what happened.

Forcing the addition of three outsiders to the Exxon Mobil board easily could go nowhere; these energy transition experts are just a quarter of the full board, after all. Convincing the other nine directors of this corporation to make such a big shift in course also faces stiff headwinds. Momentum seems still to be building, though; another investor group believes change must come faster. Energy is building.

Mostly, people think only of the money that can be made by investing in corporate stock. The fact that shareholders are owners of these companies, and as such have power to effect change, tends to be overlooked. Thankfully, that’s not the case now, because we need every tool at our disposal. Owning even fractional shares in companies like Exxon Mobil makes it possible to have a say. Directors will always resist change, saying that their first duty is to make money for shareholders; when shareholders are the ones asking for change, they are replying that profit isn’t everything.

I now have a tiny sliver of several companies with problematic histories in my portfolio, including Exxon Mobil, Volkswagen, and Microsoft. Whether those modest investments make or lose money does not matter to me. The dollars I spent are a component in larger spells to change the world. By my will, let it be done.