Death sandwich

A sandwich is a thing framed by another thing, with the thing in the middle being the part that matters when it’s being named:  it’s a ham sandwich, not a rye sandwich.  This is why I find the phrase “compliment sandwich” utterly nonsensical; it should be called a criticism sandwich, a putdown hero, an insult slider, or something of that sort.

I can say with confidence that the warm part of this year, for me, has been a death sandwich.

To begin with, my wife and I bought our graves.  It’s the most expensive thing I have ever purchased as a result of writing an article for the Wild Hunt.  Spending is in my nature, which is why I focus a lot of energy on saving.  I bought something pretty much anytime I went on a trip, and any number of items in my possession resulted from an interview I did, like the Hermes oracle cards I got after lunch with Bob Place, the stone divination set I picked up at Changing Times-Changing Worlds, or the steampunk belt with thigh holster I ordered after seeing one at Rites of Spring.  It was when I wrote about my friend Deana Reed, and learned that she was buried in a natural cemetery just one town away from my own, that I knew it was time to invest in some real estate.


Not mine; looks like a neighbor is moving in.

My dear old dad used to say, “Just toss me naked in a ditch,” knowing full well that he had a guaranteed spot in a veterans’ cemetery which wouldn’t allow for that.  I’m not entirely sure he was joking, and regardless I find the idea appealing.  Certainly more appealing than embalming, or cremation (which can also include embalming), which are really quite nasty from an environmental perspective.  Now that we have the deed to two adjacent plots in the wooded natural burial section of this local cemetery, I’m that much closer to getting away with it.  Certainly I cannot be buried with any artificial fibers or plastic crap, and my only container options are a pine box or just a board.  If I outlive my wife, I think I can probably get away with naked, but it would certainly take careful planning.

A sandwich, I already noted, is a thing framed by another thing.  Purchasing a grave is not death, and even if it was this is the bread, not the meat.  The meat of a death sandwich is death.

I told my mother about my new purchase when we took our annual pilgrimage to my father’s grave around Memorial Day, when the flags are everywhere.  As was her wont, she looked at me like I had two heads, not for planning ahead (she’d planned and paid for her entire funeral some 15 years ago), but for my enthusiasm.  I was thinking her reaction two months later, when after a month of drifting back and forth through the veil, I was again at that cemetery to commit her mortal remains and rejoin them with those of her beloved husband.  I and others shepherded her as best we could in the weeks ahead, and I continued that work with offerings of tea with milk as she transitioned to being an ancestor.  She was ready to get to work in short order.

A death sandwich is death framed by another thing.  The thing which sandwiches death for me this year is the idea of death.  In the spring I purchased a grave, acknowledging death, and this autumn I acknowledge it again by inviting my co-religionists to honor Haides with words.

October 31 is when submissions open for The Host of Many: Hades and his Retinue, and it is long in coming.  I frequently see posts from Hellenic polytheists grumbling about portrayals of Hades in popular culture, or expressing frustration that his emerging cult doesn’t have a lot of historical sources upon which to be built.  This is an opportunity to change that.  At the same time, I know there are a huge number of underworld deities and spirits who might never see the cover of an anthology; they deserve honor, and I dearly hope to see as many submissions about these lesser-known gods as I receiver for Hades himself.

Do the research.  Write the paper.  Script the ritual.  Offer the prayer.  Help me finish making my death sandwich.


Raymond Buckland wasn’t the first writer about Paganism that I read; that designation goes to Margot Adler.  My early teachers didn’t use books, and by the time I was starting a library, I already knew that I was not a really a Witch.  While I knew his name, I didn’t actually pick up one of his books until I found the one on coin divination, which fits my work.

That said, when he consented last year to let me interview him, it was a big deal for me.  This is Raymond friggin’ Buckland!  It doesn’t matter what Pagan or polytheist practice one feels called to; in the United States he was one of the trailblazers who made it possible to openly practice and share information about it.

Our impetus for wanting that interview was practical:  he was in his 80s, had eliminated public appearances from his schedule, and had recently suffered a heart attack.  As a journalist, the best thing I can do to serve this community is elevate our elders before they become ancestors.  Was it really necessary to get an interview with someone who had already written millions of words about his tradition?  I certainly think it was.  If nothing else, what we know about people in their own words — and the recollections of those closest to them — informs our ancestor practice.

Regarding honoring Buckland’s life now that it’s over, there has already been a “cyber-wake” on Pagans Tonight, Selena Fox will also be dedicating her show to him tomorrow night.  Participating in that first podcast, I was joining people who set the foundations of contemporary American Paganism, including Fox and Oberon Zell.  It was humbling, because these are the people who got it all started, the people whose lives I’d like to help chronicle.  Even having lost another of their number, that brain trust inspired awe in me.

I really only talked about one way that Buckland inspired me, his Coin Divination.  Readers of my occasional book reviews know that I take some of the more extreme suggestions as challenges.  In this book, Buckland references a set of small gold coins minted in Singapore late last century, each with a different animal associated with the Chinese zodiac.  What a wonderful divination set those would make, he mused: “For the serious practitioner, this provides beautiful divination tools and is also a wonderful investment.”

Challenge accepted.  Using solely the money I earn writing for the Wild Hunt that I saved for more than a year (because saving money is my most powerful magic), once I finally chased down what these coins were called (not an easy task in itself), I have tracked down and purchased all but one of those coins.  That wasn’t a stretch, because even if it doesn’t work out for divination I still have gold which can be sold should my family need the money.

Based on the ideas Buckland offers for divination boards, I’ve designed a cloth which I am embroidering when the cats allow.  Telling him about my plans was the one fanboy indulgence I allowed myself, but since the work is as yet incomplete, I wonder if I should ask Buckland if he’d like to aid in readings I do with this set.  He can always say no, after all.

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.

A crunchy Deipnon

I do not celebrate the Deipnon exactly when most of my co-religionists do, which was last night.  This is due to my stubborn insistence to hold onto this one last remaining vestige of the modern calendar in my practice.  When I began this path and learned about monthly observances, I began them on the first of each standard month.  That convenience was necessary for me to advance in my practice at all, but eventually I started paying attention to the phase of the moon instead.  (I still wouldn’t be able to tell you the ancient Athenian name for the current month if my life depended upon it, at least without my smart phone.)  I have yet to adapt to starting days at sundown rather than midnight, which is why I celebrated the Deipnon today.

Most months, I get together some appropriate foodstuffs to offer Hekate, and then I prepare chocolate chip cookies for Noumenia.  This month the timing worked out that I was due to make favorite snack, one which I only prepare during the last week of the year:  special snack, we called it in my childhood; a slightly modified recipe of Chex mix.  Since the recipe was handed down to me by my late father, and it includes essence of onions which are fairly common in offerings to Hekate, I opted to make it the offering instead.

Incense plays a cyclical role in my devotions.  I add the appropriate incense to my mortar and pestle before I begin, but there’s always a little left over from the last set of offerings.  I have been offering a particular Yule blend since Kheimenia, for example, adding a bit more frankincense each morning since I’ve been giving that to Hestia.  For the Deipnon I offer Hekate benzoin, and Poseidon gets myrrh on Thursdays, meaning it’s a heady mix right now.  Despite the snow, I prefer to make particular devotions outside, and the scent hangs in the heavy, most, cold air like a fog bank on a mission.

Since I got a new book recently, I selected a hymn from that to read aloud; I have not yet written a hymn to Hekate, but I know that I must.  Yes, I’m stalling.  Yes, it will be worth it when I’ve written my grand litany.

I may be later than most, and perhaps my offerings are not entirely traditional, but I’d like to think that the stereotypical ancient Athenian would recognize what I was doing, and why.  Perhaps the incense would smell vaguely familiar, or the fact that I poured an entire cup of unmixed wine onto the ground would strike a cord.  Even if that Athenian would not have recognized it, however, I am confident that Hekate knew exactly what I was doing, and why.

Deipnon is also a time for ancestor veneration, which including reading a portion of A Litany for the Many Dead as well as burning another incense blend entirely, lighting a candle, giving them water, and spirits, and tobacco.  then, after they indicated that they were not entirely satisfied, I gave them more incense.

Ancestors.  They tell you what they want.

Fun with the ancestors

I walked past my ancestor shrine earlier this afternoon, and noticed that some of the objects had been rearranged.  The silver napkin ring in the center had last been seen on the left edge of the table, encircling the three coins I use for divination.  Those coins are now in a straight line, and from the edge they display tails-tails-heads.


Yes, cats do walk here, and drink the water left as an offering.  It’s a good relationship; the cats remind me of my practice.  I’m fairly certain they had a paw in this.

The black iron knife on the right side of the image was forged and owned by a Witch friend of mine who recently passed.  I’ve been moving the knife closer in with the other objects day by day.  The reason I’m being gradual is because she represents an entire community of the dead that I have come to serve.  That community is comprised entirely of Pagans who have died in my lifetime, although I did not know them all personally, and I suspect that they are now livening up my ancestor work.

It is not my practice to put pictures of my ancestors on the shrine.  They are instead represented by objects.  The black mirror is to allow me to look into their eyes through my own.

I’d use the coins for divination to ask about this, but there they sit, tails-tails-heads, apparently in response to a question already asked.  That response suggests that they mostly feel the answer to the question is in the negative.  Sure would be nice to know what the question was.

What I learned from the hilasmós of Athene

  1. Dionysos hates owls.
  2. Athene ritual doll

    Doll for the drowned dead

    Galina Krasskova takes honoring the dead very, very seriously.

  3. I haven’t the slightest clue how to pronounce “theoi.”
  4. Athene is a protector of the dead.
  5. Markos Gage should have been there.
  6. All the Hellenic gods seem to have a chthonic aspect, which makes ancestor veneration all the more important.
  7. A Litany for the Many Dead is even more profound when someone else reads it aloud.
  8. The complicated-sounding doll design isn’t always as hard as it seems.
  9. The number nine always seems to crop up when there’s a Heathen in the room.

A Litany for the Many Dead jump-starts my ancestor practice

When starting out with ancestor worship, two unanswered questions made it harder for me:

  1. What do I say? and
  2. What about all those ancestors whose names I do not know?

I wish I’d had a copy of A Litany for the Many Dead, because that’s exactly the questions that this book could have answered for me.

Ancestor shrine with A Litany for the Many Dead on it

A Litany for the Many Dead gracing my ancestor shrine.

This book, which I believe is Rebecca Lynn Scott’s first, is a collection of prayers to the dead, and it is also one big prayer that describes the many, unnamed dead in a variety of ways that make them approachable, and able to be honored.  This is an incredibly helpful tool for any beginner with questions like I had, or anyone else who wishes to explore ways of deepening an established ancestor practice.

My original plan to read through this book when I got it and give some heartfelt thoughts about it when right out the window when I received my copy; this is a working volume, and can’t be evaluated by flipping through it over the third cup of coffee in the morning.  Instead, I realized that it was better to take the litany out for a spin by reading it before my ancestor shrine, which admittedly doesn’t get quite the amount of use that I’d like it to.   (To be fair, the fact that I finally have a shrine is progress in itself.)  Slow and steady is a tactic that usually works well for me, so after glancing through and seeing that there was a short verse on each page, I decided to read one page a day until I was through.

Hmm, the introduction doesn’t really count, so I just read that at my desk this morning.  And because the bulk of this book is a litany, the first page is the introductory prayer, with the idea being that a practitioner can read the introduction, then choose from among the several dozen individual prayers, and then wrap up with the closing towards the end of the book.  It’s customizable, easily adapted for groups and solitary work, and there’s room for more stanzas for the many dead online, as this is an ongoing act of devotion for Scott, one for which she invites submissions (and I found I was unable to finish this post without first writing and submitting a verse of my own).  Despite learning all this, I still had a fuzzy idea that I could just light a candle and read a page.  Not that I didn’t understand how the book was structured; I more or less figured I could turn it into one, big, multi-day ancestral offering.  Hmm indeed.

As it happened, after lighting that candle and replacing the offering of water, I found that stopping after the introduction didn’t feel right.  I think that’s because the verses of the litany speak to the forgotten dead, in their many forms, and it’s precisely the forgotten nature of the dead which has held up my own practice.  Even those relatives I’ve chosen to honor are people I didn’t know very well in life.  Grandparents who died in my youth, and a parent who died much more recently, and about whom I am still learning ten years after that passing.  A hero of mine, an actor who was paid for breathing life into a fictional character.  As for the countless generations of ancestors about which I know nothing, the best I could do was include a black mirror, so that I can look into my own eyes and see them looking back out.  There are always going to be far, far more dead than we living can possibly remember.  Perhaps that’s for the best:  that which remembers, lives, so maybe it’s best for the majority of the dead to remain so.  Otherwise, our brains and cultures might be predisposed to reciting the names of our progenitors back five hundred generations whenever we are introduced to someone new, and that would never do in the age of txtspk.

How it played out, then, is that I read a group of prayers, left the candle burning, and went about my business.  Each time I passed the shrine, I picked up the book and read a few more, four or six or even eight a time.  Each verse of the litany carries in it the cadence of the whole, a somber and serious rhythm that shapes the tongue and throat to its purpose.  It carried me forth as I prayed to groups of dead I had never before honored:  the disabled, the abused, the stolen, the young, the burned, the drowned.  It carried me forth as I prayed to the forgotten dead, and the blessed, the beloved, the wise, and the restless, as well.  In the end I offered the entire Litany for the Many Dead before stopping, and then read the final prayer, The Offer to Serve, silently.  I am not yet ready to make that commitment.

Some of the verses could easily conjure vivid-and-unpleasant images, but it’s easy enough to see where things are going from the first line of any stanza and just skip that one entirely.  I actually lingered over the verses which represent types of death that I would prefer to avoid, but that’s just me coming to terms with the fact that we usually don’t have a lot of choice in how we go, and steeling myself in case I pull the icky straw.  Not everyone is quite so interested in dwelling on death-forms that hit too close to home, but that again brings home the advantage of structuring this as a flexible litany, picking and choosing which dead to honor each time.  Because my copy already has post-it flags marking some the ones I expect to use frequently, I recommend that anyone who buys this book would be better off coughing up the extra five bucks or so to get a physical copy.

Most of your ancestors, I’d be willing to wager, used more books than ebooks, so it might even help you get to know your old-fashioned, computer-less forebears.