I’m trying to raise funds so that we can get a ritual team together to put on a big celebration for Dionysos at Many Gods West. We need to cover transportation, food, lodging, ritual supplies as well as incidentals for several folks and there are a number of ways that you can help with this, which I have detailed here. For instance, you can consider taking my 4-week class on Bacchic Orphic offerings which is available on a sliding scale. To help keep this cause fresh in people’s minds I’m going to make a series of posts on how to start up a religious practice within the framework of contemporary Hellenic polytheism and the Starry Bull tradition consisting of excerpts from my books. If you find this information useful in any way please consider donating to our common fund. Every little bit helps. Now onto the good stuff!
Note: I wrote this back around 2000, when I was still largely developing my practice. As such, there are a few points I wouldn’t necessarily include today and some of the terminology is problematically imprecise, such as my overuse of kledones, a technical term that is normally reserved for auditory signs. But a lot of it still holds up, so I don’t mind sharing it.
We live in a society that has lost its sense of the holy, and even when people reject the radical materialism and atheism that are the dominant philosophical premises of our culture, they often do not know how to go about establishing a strong and lasting relationship with the divinities. In antiquity there would have been people trained in these arts, who could act as intermediaries between the world of the divine and our own: priests and shamans and oracular agents who could teach the individual the ways of holy communication and show them how to recognize the mysterious presence of the gods in their lives. Today people are left to their own devices and have to figure all of this sort of thing out for themselves. While there are some positives to this – it ensures total freedom for the individual, since no dogma or priestly authority can stand in the way of their relationship with the divine; it makes the spiritual life one of exploration and growth – it can prove exceedingly difficult to get anywhere when one doesn’t even know where to begin.
The most important step as far as I’m concerned is to begin cultivating a state of open awareness. Divinity surrounds us in a multitude of forms, and it is constantly speaking to us, though we don’t always have the ability to hear what the gods are saying at the time. Remember the words of Thales of Miletos – there are gods in all things. In the sky above us and the earth below; in trees and rivers and rocks and flowers and all the animals that inhabit the world. Nor are these numinous presences limited to the things we traditionally associate with nature: there are spirits of concrete and glass, of fiberoptics and electricity, of shining skyscrapers and darkened alleyways. Each of them possesses a distinct personality and can act in the world, though some are harder to reach than others, and some may possess only a limited ability to influence the things around them.
As you go about your daily life, try to be aware of your surroundings. Too often we go through life with tunnel-vision. Our minds are occupied with other things. Our bodies are carried along as if by its own volition. We see our fellow commuters as a mass of indeterminate shapes on our periphery, and most of the time we can’t even tell if the sun is shining or if its grey and drizzily out.
Stop. Be aware. Notice all the things that are going on around you: the blades of grass breaking through the concrete, the warmth of the sun on your bare arm, the smell of pine in the air, the fleeting conversations carried to you on a breeze. Remember that all of this is alive and that the material world is the playground of the gods, wherein their forms and revelations are made manifest. Keep an eye out for things that are abnormal: leaves rustling when there’s no wind; shadowy shapes in the corner of your eye; dancing light on the surface of a pool. Seek out places where you feel this numinous presence strongly: parks and abandoned buildings, rivers and crowded markets. Spend time there, just soaking up your surroundings, taking in all of the sensations that come to you, and looking out for the spirits of the place. Do little acts to cultivate a relationship with these beings. Care for their land by picking up trash or removing graffiti. Leave small offerings such as flowers, food, drink libations, pretty stones and feathers, or shiny trinkets. Do something creative while you’re there, such as sketching or painting, writing poetry or journaling, or even just read, especially if you do so out loud for their enjoyment.
When you have developed this state of open awareness, you should begin looking for oracular signs, kledones as the Greeks called them. This is one of the strongest and most constant ways that the gods communicate with us. We see these things all the time, but either we’re not fully aware of them, or we dismiss them as chance and coincidence. But that’s precisely why they are so powerful. A coincidence is something outside of our control. Since we know that it cannot possibly originate with us, it becomes increasingly likely that the source for it is the gods themselves. Now of course, not every random thing that happens need have a god behind it. And we should also be careful lest we put too much into it. Sometimes our desire to see something clouds our perception, or can inflate our egos and lead us to a disastrous outcome. (Just because you see the face of Christ appear in your breakfast burrito does not mean that you are the Chosen One.) So use your discretion when it comes to this sort of thing.
But what type of kledones are there? Well, sometimes you’ll be mulling over a problem in your head, cross a street, and find the solution spelled out in a storefront poster. Or you’ll overhear a snatch of conversation that, taken out of context, sounds as if the person is speaking directly to you. Or maybe you’ll have been feeling distant from a god only to have the various images associated with him pop up throughout the day, or you open the book you’ve been reading and see his name, even though he has nothing to do with the plot, or you’ll turn on the radio and all of a sudden a song you’ve always associated with him starts playing. These, and countless things like them, are what I consider to be kledones, little messages from the gods imbedded in the fabric of our lives, sometimes profound ones, sometimes nothing more than a casual “Hey there!”
One thing that has proven very helpful in establishing communication with the gods is meditation and visualization. To get started with this you should first find yourself a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed for a while. Preferably this should be a darkened area lit only by a candle, but if that’s not possible, any area will do. To help set the mood you may choose to light incense and play music, but this music should be of a sort that is conducive to meditative states. Try to avoid music that has singing, as this can interrupt your mindfulness, although singing in a foreign language you don’t understand, especially if it is long, droning and sonorous in form, can actually help you enter an altered state. Sit comfortably on the ground, in a relaxed but upright posture. If you are familiar with Yoga asanas you may adopt these, but it’s certainly not necessary, especially if you are just starting out. Close your eyes and relax your breathing. Let your mind empty gradually. Don’t try to force it, as the purpose isn’t to enter a Zen “no-mind” kind of state, but one of open receptivity. Slowly feel yourself entering the presence of the god. You may choose to visualize yourself coming into a moonlit forest clearing or the adyton of an ancient temple or wherever you envision the god most clearly. Begin to fill your mind with images associated with him, whatever it may be that brings to mind the god for you. If you are trying to commune with a particular aspect of the god, choose the associations most appropriate to that epiphany. As a way to help with the mindfulness you can chant his names and epithets. This practice is especially helpful in the early stages with driving out errant thoughts and centering you. You may choose to envision yourself performing some act associated with the god. In the case of Dionysos, that might be dancing with the throng of Maenads and Satyrs, participating in a hunt, offering sacrifices to the god at his temple, approaching and communicating with the god, acting out certain of his myths, or anything else that would be appropriate for the setting. Try not to force anything too much, but go with the flow.
Once you have set the stage let your visionary faculties take over and see where they lead you. That part of our soul which psychoanalysts call the Unconscious and which the ancient Neoplatonists termed the daimonion is in direct communication with the divine, but our conscious minds act as a barrier between that world and this. Visualization and meditation – as well as all forms of ritual – help soften the barrier and allow us more direct forms of communication with the divine, be they through visions (images pregnant with meaning), journeys (to other worlds or parts of this world normally inaccessible to us), messages (verbal and other forms of communication) and even prognostications of future events.
Don’t be worried if this sort of thing doesn’t work well for you at first. Some people simply lack the ability to sit quietly for a prolonged period, or find themselves extremely blocked so that it takes years of practice before they can get even the simplest form of communication. And some others never get any kind of results from this practice, which is perfectly fine. Not everything is meant to work for everyone. However, I think that there are certain benefits to this practice for everyone, even if it’s just a way of centering their minds and focusing themselves for something else. This is a practice which can be performed anywhere (I often do it on the bus on my way into work in the mornings) and either on its own, or as part of another practice, such as a regular worship ritual or in preparation for divination. Afterwards, you should record any significant experiences you had during the session, especially if you receive any kind of important communication. However, while you’re meditating be fully there, and don’t constantly be focused on remembering or recording what’s going on: this is a sure way to cheat yourself of important experiences.
Another way that the gods can communicate with us is through dreams. Many gods in antiquity had dream oracles where people would come to sleep in the temple in order to receive a visitation from the divinity in their dreams. Dreaming is a time when our conscious minds are entirely subsumed within the unconscious, and leads us into a world ripe with symbols and populated by imaginary structures. You can study techniques such as lucid dreaming or deep meditation to help you navigate this realm better, or you can perform rituals before going to bed to acquire dream oracles. There is extensive literature on this topic relating to the incubation practices connected with the cults of Asklepios, Trophonios, and Serapis in antiquity, as well as whole procedures in the Greek Magical Papyri.
But some of the most intense dream-communications I’ve ever received occurred spontaneously – and in fact it was this latter sort which originally led me to explore Dionysos, since he had been appearing to me in a series of dreams and visions before I even properly knew who he was. You should keep a notebook by your bed to record any significant dreams you have, especially because dreams are fleeting things that are often difficult to remember in their entirety once we are fully awake and under the grip of our conscious mind.
A word of caution, however, is in order regarding both dreams and visualization. Yes, they can be powerful things, and the gods can communicate directly to us through them – but not every dream or vision we have is necessarily true or meaningful. Sometimes we don’t remember them perfectly, or the kernel of truth is enshrouded in falsehood which we must strip off, or far more commonly, it’s just our brain’s way of processing information, working through the random images in our subconscious so that we don’t go insane. There are people who treat every dream they have as if it possessed monumental importance and was always the result of a divinity communicating with them. Not only is this highly unlikely – while the gods are concerned with us, it’s arrogant to presume that we are their only concern and that they have nothing better to do with their time than to sit there and whisper things into our sleeping ears – it’s also absurd when you consider the nature of our dreams, and how random, pointless, and mundane most of them are. One should also be on the lookout for arrogance and egotism: just because you have a dream and it’s personally meaningful for you, it doesn’t necessarily follow that that dream is a communication intended for the whole rest of the world. One need only stroll through an insane asylum to see how common these messianic delusions are, and how little comes from them in the end.
A good check on the validity of dreams, and also another way to communicate with the gods (though this is also prone to the above pitfalls) is divination. A standard element in almost all ancient Greek rituals was divination, usually by interpreting the entrails of the sacrificial victim, and so this should play a part in any properly reconstructed ritual. In addition to that it’s the best way to open up communication with the god, going to him directly when we have any question that we cannot answer on our own.
But of course the best and in my mind one of the most essential aspects to a strong relationship with a god is actual, formal worship.
This is the routine I follow for my rituals:
– Purification: First I make sure that the altar is arranged properly, and clean off any incense ash, previous offerings, or dust that may have accumulated since last time. Then I wash my hands in a bowl of lustral water, or khernips (You create this holy water by consecrating it with fire i.e. dipping a burning branch into it or by mixing it with sea salt and reciting a blessing over it.)
– Pompe: Once everything is set up, I take a few steps away, and then approach the altar with slow, steady steps, mindful of entering the presence of the deity.
– Fumigation: When I light incense, it’s either a specific mixture for a god, like I’ve detailed in the Compendium of the gods, or something general such as frankincense, myrrh, patchouli, or nag champa.
– Hymnodia: When I recite a hymn to the gods, I generally use those of Homer or Orpheus – though Archiloukos, Pindar and Sappho have some good material too – or else I use something I’ve composed myself. While I read, I think about the god I’m honoring and will often spend a couple moments meditating on them afterwards. Alternately, you may choose to read a story about one of the god’s myths at this time.
– Offering: For the sacrifice itself, I place my offering in a bowl in front of the god’s image, or on the altar, usually after holding it aloft for a couple moments. The sacrifice may consist of a small portion of food, grain, flowers, a picture, oil, more incense, candles, stones, feathers or other natural objects, and so forth.
– Prayer: I take a few moments here to address the god or goddess. This is usually in the formal Hellenic prayer structure (a list the deity’s epithets and cult centers, mention of past assistance, etc.) – but if I’m addressing Dionysos or Hermes or a god with whom I have a more familiar relationship, I may speak to them in a companionable tone, even at times as I would a close friend. If I have need of anything, now is when I make my request. Otherwise I just speak to them or meditate on their nature. A new practice that I’ve developed is writing out prayers, verses, thoughts, whatever’s on my mind, etc., on scraps of paper which I keep near my altar, and then I place them in a bowl. This act helps focus me, gives me a tangible sign of the encounter, and allows me to keep track of what I’ve been talking to the gods about. I usually keep the bowl for about a month, and then I burn all of the scraps of paper in a cleansing ritual.
– Libation: I either sprinkle a few drops of wine on the altar, or pour the gods a glass. In addition to wine, I may use water, oil, milk, honey, or another alcoholic beverage.
When that’s done, I either remain in front of the altar after meditating or I process away, comforted after having spent a few moments of my busy day with the bestowers and sustainers of life’s blessings.
All of these methods, taken in conjunction, cannot help but establish a strong level of communication between yourself and the gods. The important thing to remember is: be aware of the world around you and make time for the gods in your busy life.