My leadership philosophy

If you want to build a ship
don’t herd people together to collect wood
and don’t assign them tasks and work,
but rather teach them to long
for the endless immensity of the sea.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

в гостях хорошо, а дома лучше

So what kind of a commune am I envisioning?

Well, to begin with it will be open only to polytheists – and specifically those who honor the Gods and Spirits of the Kingdom. The foundation of the Kingdom – indeed, the very reason for our coming together – is to uphold the covenants or sacred contracts between our Gods, our Spirits, our Dead, our Land and our people. This creates a reciprocal bond between us; we will make offerings, perform devotional activities, keep their festivals and holy days, tend and protect their shrines and those portions of the land that have been consecrated to them, consult them on all important matters of both an individual and communal nature, follow and preserve the sacred traditions, customs, rites and mysteries that they have entrusted us with and everything else that goes into being a proper member of the tribe; in return they will guide, protect and bless our land and our people. Divinities who have not formally entered into a covenant with the Kingdom are of no more concern to us than non-members of the tribe. This does not mean that members cannot maintain private cultus for them, merely that they are not reflected in our communal rites and customs and there exist no formal collective obligations. Children will be raised to value the traditions of our tribe and to reverence the Gods and Spirits of our Kingdom. Anyone who cannot do so, regardless of age, will be removed from our land and not permitted back until they have demonstrated correct belief and behavior.

The land will contain the following: numerous small homes for the permanent residents, lodging for guests and space for camping, a great hall for public business and feasting, workshops for our artisans, land set aside for farming and livestock, a place for our warriors to train, a common field for religious ceremonies ringed by god-poles, outdoor shrines and even a couple small temples, as well as a labyrinth, a sauna, an untouched grove, a hill and a lake. This, at least, is what I was shown in the initial dream – what we end up with may be a whole other matter.

We shall strive to be a self-sustained and contained community. Our members will have a diversity of skills and use barter and work-trade to supplement what they cannot make or do for themselves. There will be common tools and machinery to cut down on costs. To the extent that they are able everyone will be expected to pitch in at planting and harvest time, perform communal chores and help with the general upkeep of the place and its possessions, as well as defend our people and our land from threats both internal and external. In addition to the permanent residents (and allies from other polytheist communities and groups who may be in attendance) we will have an extended community drawn from the neighboring area and further afield who will visit for festivals, retreats and similar special events. Anyone who sets foot on our land is expected to contribute, especially at planting and harvest time. In return none shall want for their basic necessities – they especially will not go hungry or suffer untreated ailments or injuries – for as long as they are with us.

One is not simply born into the tribe; rather an individual must undergo thorough training in our ways and prove their worth through a series of ordeals and initiations. With the passing of each level comes an increase in rights and responsibilities until one is made a full member of the tribe. Until then the individual is as much of a non-entity as outsiders are. This process is also intended to determine the individual’s aptitudes and affinities from which their vocation will be forged. Everyone has a place, and that place is doing the thing they love most. Guilds will exist to facilitate specialized education within a particular field and foster professional relationships and opportunities. Each Guild will have its patron divinities whose cultus (private and public) members are responsible for maintaining. Guilds will also have Representatives who will sit on the Council of the King’s Advisors.

There is more I could say – much more – but that should give you a good sense of what I have in mind for this grand venture.

Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir.

Before I continue with the wonderful questions that have trickled in since I posted the writing prompt there is something I need to say, particularly as it will influence how I answer some of these, especially the ones on traditionalism and tribalism. Astute readers may have picked up on it already, as I have been dropping hints for a while now (most notably in the pieces Dionysos in the Northlands and Behind the Mask) but I am sure for others this will prove rather shocking. I still do not know how I feel about it, and I have been living with this for quite some time!

The apocalyptic scenario I outlined here is only part of the story. Most of it is based on a dream I had about four or five years ago, and the rest was pieced together over the interim from various oracles, visions, weird experiences and conversations I had. In the dream I watched as environmental catastrophes and political violence ripped our world apart, mirroring what was happening in the divine realm. From this chaos and destruction was born a new world, represented by a community of devout polytheists who came together in the Pacific Northwest during those final, terrifying days. I watched them grow from a ragtag band of artists, mystics, bikers, and preppers into a powerful kingdom at the center of a network of like-minded communities stretching all along the West coast and into what had been Idaho, Montana and parts of Canada over the course  of a couple hundred years. 

When I woke I was struck by the vividness and concreteness of the dream – it was clearly not a normal dream – and yet I did my best to dismiss and interpret it metaphorically. Surely Dionysos wasn’t saying that literal monsters are going to rise up and rampage across the globe and that I needed to move and acquire land on the other side of the country, get myself crowned King and start up some wacky commune in the Cascadian wilds before that happened … was he? I mean, I know he’s the God of madness and all, but this was certainly a bit much.

Regardless, I put my efforts into building up the Starry Bull tradition, establishing connections and working with a bunch of colleagues in the nascent pan-polytheist movement, figuring that these were useful activities even if the end never came. And for a while we met with moderate success – before it all unraveled due to ego trips, incompetence and endless keyboard crusades.

One of the things that became evident to me during this frustrating period is that belief in the Gods was not enough. Many of those in the movement felt it was sufficient to extract the religious components from ancient cultures and graft them onto their modern habits, notions, politics and values. (Assuming they even had these.) This inevitably led to confusion, conflicts and schisms within their individual communities, to say nothing of our larger ecumenical effort. Unsurprisingly I soon became disillusioned, disheartened and disinterested in continuing to associate with such people, finally withdrawing to focus on writing poetry and my evolving private practice – which got really complicated once the Norse Gods started showing up and Dionysos revealed his whole secret history among them.

Every so often my mind would turn to what I had learned from these experiences about the need for a holistic, interconnected identity rooted in tribalism and sacred traditions. These need not be atavistic and could not be bloodless recreations – they had to grow organically out of our lived experience with the Holy Powers, the land, and our people, and they must be totalizing, like the Zen parable of the tea cup. More and more I came to see that this was what Dionysos had been telling me in the dream, and it was the best way to make it through the troubled times that lay ahead. 

And so here we are. 

More than a mere exploration of the crossroads between religion, politics, ethics, culture, aesthetics, etc. I intend for these writings to become a blueprint for a real-world intentional community of devotees of the Starry Bull and Starry Bear Gods and Spirits. 

I would invite you to join us in the forest but most of my readership will disappear in a scandalized huff before I’m even halfway through. If you remain and find meaning in these remarks, then we can talk. 

Apolitical Dionysianism

Responding to my call for writing prompts, Sarenth posed the following:

  • Would you tackle the intersection of politics and Dionysian and/or Starry Bear work/cultus?

Dionysos is a radically inclusive God. One of the first and most powerful expressions of this in the literary record comes from Euripides’ Bakchai, in the famous speech of Tieresias the prophet:

Those old traditions from our ancestors,
the ones we’ve had as long as time itself,
no argument will ever overthrow,
in spite of subtleties sharp minds invent.
Will someone say I disrespect old age,
if I intend to dance with ivy on my head?
Not so, for the God makes no distinctions—
whether the dancing is for young or old.
He wants to gather honours from us all,
to be praised communally, without division.

Much further back, a thousand years and more, the archaeological record confirms this. In the handful of references to the God in Linear B we already find him associated with women, with tenant-farmers, and with kings. Every class, every category, every permutation of humanity is welcome in his rites.

While it’s true that his worship could give expression to revolutionary tendencies:

Dionysus was left to the powerless of Italy and they embraced him. In 185-184, the slave shepherds of Apulia – the heel of the Italian “boot” – revolted and sources hint they claimed Dionysus as their patron. Between 135 and 101 B.C., two slave revolts in Sicily and one slave revolt in western Anatolia all invoked Dionysus. The god appeared again in the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies known as the Social War (91-88 B.C.): rebel coins showed Bacchus as a symbol of liberation. (Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War pgs 34-35)

It held equal appeal for the wealthy and powerful:

Antony himself, when he was staying at Athens, a short time after this, prepared a very superb scaffold to spread over the theatre, covered with green wood such as is seen in the caves sacred to Bacchus; and from this scaffold he suspended drums and fawn-skins, and all the other toys which one names in connection with Bacchus, and then sat there with his friends, getting drunk from daybreak, a band of musicians, whom he had sent for from Italy, playing to him all the time, and all the Greeks around being collected to see the sight. And presently, he crossed over to the Acropolis, the whole city of Athens being illuminated with lamps suspended from the roof; and after that lie ordered himself to be proclaimed as Bacchus throughout all the cities in that district. (History of the Civil War Book 3 quoted in Athenaios 4.29)

Indeed, one of the most interesting things about reading epigraphic testimonies of the God’s cults is how frequently we find the different classes mingling in his worship, as you can see for yourself in Philip Harland’s exhaustive, though by no means complete, collection of them.

This was such a strong component of Dionysiac worship that it completely scandalized Philo the Jew:

In the city there are thiasoi with a large membership, whose fellowship is founded on no sound principle but on strong liquor, drunkenness, intoxicated violence, and their offspring, wantonness. (In Flaccum 136)

Which is what ultimately led to the suppression of the Bacchanalia in Rome. Had this just been a cult of slaves, women and foreigners the Senate wouldn’t have freaked out as they did:

Then Hispala gave an account of the origin of these rites. At first they were confined to women; no male was admitted, and they had three stated days in the year on which persons were initiated during the daytime, and matrons were chosen to act as priestesses. Paculla Annia, a Campanian, when she was priestess, made a complete change, as though by divine monition, for she was the first to admit men, and she initiated her own sons, Minius Cerinnius and Herennius Cerinnius. At the same time she made the rite a nocturnal one, and instead of three days in the year celebrated it five times a month. When once the mysteries had assumed this promiscuous character, and men were mingled with women with all the licence of nocturnal orgies, there was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was wrought by men with men than with women. […] They formed an immense multitude, almost equal to the population of Rome; amongst them were members of noble families both men and women. (Livy, History of Rome 39.13-16)

Once upperclass folk started getting involved that’s when the hammer fell, with disastrous consequences:

But so great were the numbers that fled from the city, that because the lawsuits and property of many persons were going to ruin, the praetors, Titus Maenius and Marcus Licinius, were obliged, under the direction of the senate, to adjourn their courts for thirty days, until the inquiries should be finished by the consuls. The same deserted state of the law-courts, since the persons, against whom charges were brought, did not appear to answer, nor could be found in Rome, necessitated the consuls to make a circuit of the country towns, and there to make their inquisitions and hold the trials. […] A greater number were executed than thrown into prison; indeed, the multitude of men and women who suffered in both ways, was very considerable. A charge was then given to demolish all the places where the Bacchanalians had held their meetings; first in Rome, and then throughout all Italy. (Livy, History of Rome 34.18)

Which is why I am concerned by efforts to politicize our religious communities. By insisting that paganism and polytheism are not religious but revolutionary, dictating what positions a person must take on contemporary socioeconomic issues and furthermore insisting that they have the backing of the Gods in all that they are doing I cannot in good conscience stand with such folk. It is not right when the Christian dominionists push for the blurring of the separation of the sacred and secular, and it’s not right when “we” do it either.

For one, it diminishes our intellectual and moral capacities to believe that a God must tell us right from wrong. I can get upset all on my own about the militarization of the police force or corporations blowing up mountains and dumping toxic sludge into our waterways.

And for another, outside of those and a handful of other serious issues a lot of this stuff doesn’t have simple answers. Decent, sincere, caring people can come to diametrically opposed conclusions on these matters and I’m not going to shun someone because they happen to think differently than I do.

In point of fact I am not permitted to exclude another Dionysian from fellowship unless their actions violate the xenia of the God, for instance by taking advantage of someone who is too inebriated to give proper consent. Tolerance is one of the cardinal virtues of Dionysos and sometimes that means putting up with people I don’t particularly like.

Wild Things

The travels of Dionysos in the North and his identification as Óðr are an important strand of the Starry Bear tradition but far from all that we are about. Indeed there is a whole constellation of archaic myth and ritual attached to the name, and more broadly we are concerned with the historical intersections of Germano-Slavic and Greco-Italian religious culture which occurred at different levels and through different means depending on time and place, with Northern Italy being among the earliest and most important centers of this. (Everything always comes back to Italy.)

Already in the rock art of the Valcamonica (the earliest strata of which date back eight to six thousand years before Christ) we find a potent complex of symbols such as solar wheels, meanders, spirals, geometric shapes and Labyrinths, as well as the Camunian Rose, the distaff and similar weaving tools, boats, bear and other hunt scenes, Giant-slaying Horned Warriors and proto-Runes – the Runic script, scholars theorize, having evolved out of archaic Etruscan directly or via Rhaetian. Interestingly, a late Rhaetic inscription found in Verona (once ruled by none other than heroic Þiðreks, who recently got a write-up at The Wild Hunt) invokes Bacchus alongside the Slavic deity Veles who could be represented as a serpent with a bear’s head, much like the Badalisc who is still a favorite figure of the region’s Christmas mumming traditions. (Echoes of Vǫlundr and the Bear, anyone?) The Valcamonica also encompasses Benevento (with its famous witches), Bergamo (home of Arlecchino) and Puplonia the fabled city of Fufluns Pacha who was still revered as Faflon into Leland’s day, despite the place having been nominally converted since at least the time of Lombard conquest. (Don’t get me started on those long-beards for that’s a rather chewy hasenpfeffer as well as Perticae, pesky Lokian epiphanies and the Squasc and Gigat, oh my!)

And that’s nothing compared to what we’ll uncover on the shores of the Black Sea. 

The emergence of the Starry Bear

For a while now I’ve been referring obliquely to the Starry Bear tradition. Having made the big reveal – Dionysos is Óðr – I think it’s appropriate to say a bit more about what this term entails.

It was conceived as an offshoot of the Starry Bull tradition around 2014-15, largely in response to a number of encounters with Norse divinities I and several of my Bacchic associates began having. We came up with the name on a lark well before we had any inkling of the full extent of what was happening to and around us – it obviously had to be Ursa Major to complement the constellation Taurus! (How little I understood at the time the appropriateness of this half-joking coinage in a midnight Slack chat; later I would uncover some very interesting myths and cult practices which had collected around these stars from the early Neolithic on and in widely divergent locales throughout Eurasia and the Americas.)

Along with visitations by Freyja, Óðinn, Loki and an increasing assortment of Germanic and Slavic divinities (each of whom seemed to have history and clandestine arrangements with Dionysos) a constellation of concepts, practices, symbols, folkways, etc. began to emerge and cohere into the rudiments of a tradition. At first it was like I was given a string of keywords to explore: bear cultus, fairies, wild hunts and witches’ revels, warbands, lycanthropy, fairy tale figures, fertility rites and dances, smithcraft, singing, mumming, the distaff, etc. Each was a rabbit hole, leading to deeper and deeper interconnected mysteries. Some of these I am permitted to write openly about; some I have experienced but may not speak of; some I have had but glimpses of and others are completely closed to me. That has made the process of codification … complicated, to say the least.

However, guided by dreams, visions, ecstatic trips, divination and channeled oracles, as well as conversations with colleagues, collaborators and fellow-travelers (whom I hope will be inspired to share their own recollections and personal takes; I am a notoriously unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to my personal history) and marathon research sessions, the contours of the tradition and its patchwork mythology has grown clearer and easier to articulate over the years. By continuously circling back to certain geographical zones – roughly encompassing Northern Italy, the South of France, the Black Forest, the Black Sea to Siberia, and Dracula’s homeland – areas for further fruitful study have suggested themselves, as well as unexpected intersections and echoes.

Taking all of this disparate source material and synthesizing it into something comprehendible and useful for others is both a daunting labor and a fool’s errand. Heathenry, through a Bacchic Orphic lens. Oh, I can just imagine what the purists will make of that! (Especially considering the prominent role played by Loki in our emerging tradition.)

I realize I haven’t actually explained what Starry Bear is. That will unfold gradually over the course of these writings, as I take you on a spiritual journey to the ends of the earth – and beyond.

Bring your coat – the winds can be rather biting.