Teach Yourself How To Have A Mystical Practice

Just a few ideas to get you started.

Start training your brain to respond. If you smudge or burn juniper as a purification, do it every time, let your spirit learn that this is a cue; like the dog drools when Pavlov rings the bell, let the smoke teach your soul that this is a cleansing time. Use ritual baths or ritual clothing to train yourself to think of the divine in a ritual-appropriate way when you do that bathing, wear that outfit. Associate ways of doing your hair or pieces of jewelry with particular magical tasks or particular relationships to Powers, so that when you put it up or put it on you are already halfway to completing that alignment.

Steep yourself in symbolism like a good cup of tea. Know a hundred names for your gods so that you can call on the right path at the right time. Learn how to see runes in arrangements of fallen twigs. Stop looking up correspondences and live them: blue is heaven, gold is eternal, black is the fertile earth. Do things four times if you’re Kemetic and three times if you’re a Celt, and know why those numbers matter. Read relevant art books for the pictures. Learn the language of pose and gesture. Draw as a devotional practice (or sculpt, or dance, or…) and use what you know. Stop thinking about this stuff and know it.

Pray often. Add prayers to your cleansing, to your cooking, to your awareness of the world. Cultivate wonder. Yell at the gods when that’s what matters. Sit and sink roots deep into the earth, sometimes, and hold the stars with your hands. Use perfumes to cultivate particular states of mind. Collect music that reminds you of your gods, or which puts you in particular frames of mind, and use that music to go deeper into your knowledge. Meditate. Don’t fall into the trap where the only form of meditation you will accept or acknowledge is the no-mind stillness kind; learn to meditate when you’re washing the dishes. If you listen to Enya or something when you’re meditating, don’t play that when you’re driving, it’s not safe.

Get to know yourself. Figure out how long you can go between meals without turning into an asshole before you do a fasting ritual with company over. Figure out how long you can go between meals without making yourself sick before you do a fasting ritual at all. Learn what kinds of foods open you up and what kinds of foods snuggle you down, and eat appropriately for the work you want to do. Try having a glass of wine at dinner if you can safely and see what it does for how your mind works and your energy flows. If you can’t eat a pasta dish without becoming ravenously, crankily hungry an hour or two later, don’t eat pasta before a major ritual. Get enough sleep. Record your dreams in a notebook by the bed, or in private Livejournal entries, or somewhere. Get to know the recurring cast members of your personal inner drama and how many different faces each of them typically has. Find what brings you joy and get to know it better.

Cultivate a regular space for spirit. Burn incense for the dead. Give the first slice of bread to the domovoi. Give presents to your landwights. Pour milk on white stones. Light candles. Sing. Watch the children play, and smile. Make a quiet space when you take your evening medication and be sure to spend some time there every day. Build cairns out of fieldstone. Watch the stars. Dedicate your houseplants as shrines and make watering them a devotional. Paint your entire face with your eyeliner. Be creative.

Ritual Purity

So some folks have started up a thing called the Kemetic Roundtable, to discuss some basic ideas and give people a sense of the breadth of the religious community that actually exists out there and let new folks orient themselves accordingly. And this is a fantastic idea, so I am joining in, though – as usual – I’m running late. The first topic for the roundtable is ritual purity, and that link should take you back to the compilation with everyone’s contributions.

Ritual purity is hard to talk about, actually, in significant part because a lot of people don’t have a context for the concept of purity that is actually healthy. (I think it was a post on the Slacktivist blog I read recently for my time-addled value of “recently” that noted that in common discourse, just about the only thing people mean when they say “purity” is some value of “sex, abstinence from”.) The use of purity as a bludgeon is pretty widespread – along with the treatment of various aspects of humanness as a contagion or innately broken. It’s easy to beat ourselves up with purity.

Which means the first thing, and the most important thing, that I would say boils down to: purity is not about self-abuse, about sinfulness, or about shame.

(As I was getting ready to do some work this evening, whether it was writing this post or prepping my talks for Paganicon, I found a pile of cat vomit in my bedroom in one of the less pleasant ways one can make such a discovery. And when I shoved my leg into the shower to hose down my foot, it was not about self-abuse, sinfulness, or shame; it was about cleaning off my foot. You know?)

When I was fairly new to Kemeticism, I was a lot more formal and literalistic about purity than I am currently, in part because I was much more likely to be doing formal rituals. (I made a commitment to do formal ritual at new and full moons and kept it up for several years, in fact.) I spent time wrangling with questions of menstrual taboo and what I could do within that context (my eventual decision was to do my formal ritual without “opening” the space, since the concern about blood taboo was primarily focused on ritual actions in front of “open” statues, and while I didn’t have that responsibility, I felt that the opened space carried some of the same weight).

As I’ve gotten to be a more competent mystic, and as I’ve gained training in a Craft tradition, my sense of purity has gotten a lot more internal. (“Endless purification!” as my teacher is wont to quote.) Purity of heart, of mind, of the souls, those are the things that occupy me, and they are a perpetual quest. Purity is a matter of aspiration, of transformative work.

Consider the First Time, Zep Tepi, the holy spark of being at the center of time and space. Here, ma’at was established: all things came forth from ma’at. The Powers are the sweat of creation, as humans are the tears of the eye of creation, and this is as it should be. The central core, the essential nature of all being is by definition pure, for the simple fact that it exists at all. This is your true self, your inner holiness, that resonance that brings you closer to divinity and in communion with all things. So many of the ancient texts say “I am pure, I am pure, I am pure”: the fundamental cry of beingness, of existence drawn out of chaos.

And at the same time that the heart is the seat of ma’at, other things can interfere. I don’t know about you all, but I have places where I’m folded around pain and old wounds, and these are matters of impurity. (I’m currently in the process of going through therapy for active PTSD, and this is as much a purification ritual as any washing with natron could ever be.) I seek health, I seek the capacity to act, the actions that support the holiness of my inner nature, and these are acts that seek purity.

There have been times when I have been full of turmoil or pain, when trying to heal myself has left me feeling covered in filth of some kind, as if I was sweating out the last of a disease. In those times, I go to the ritual bath, I cleanse myself with soap and water, or if I’m feeling really formal and wanting to go deep into the symbolism, with natron and water. The act of cleaning the physical can also act to purify the souls, and it is a comfort.

When I do formal ritual, I do formal bathing, formal cleansing: this is part of the symbol-set that I have chosen to work with, and it not only serves the function of creating the mental difference, but doing the spiritual work of cleansing.

In the past, when I had an ecumenical ritual group, one of our shared practices involved washing the mouth with natron and water as we entered the ritual space, and I prepared that. I do not know if my new ritual group will wind up doing something similar, but it will be the case that before major rituals, I will do cleansings, because that is what I do when I act formally. It’s important to me to follow correct procedures when correct procedures exist, y’know?

But most of my practice is not formal. And most of my cleansing is with Craft techniques, these days, working at cleansing away the pains and troubles that lie between myself and my heart.

I will be at PaganiCon

PaganiCon is a small pagan convention held just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota; this year it falls on the weekend of March 15-17. Guests of honor this year are Brandy Williams and Orion Foxwood.

I just got the schedule finalisation message last night, so I can say what I will be up to when there:

At ridiculous o’clock on Saturday morning (9am) I will be doing a presentation titled “Digging Up The Mysteries: Building New Rituals from Ancient Roots”, talking about bridging the gaps between ancient mystery religion and mystical practices and things that we can do in the here and now. While I haven’t finished writing my presentation yet (and that is a matter of current panic, believe you me), I am planning on using my work with the Nut cycle as a primary example of how to take ancient materials and start to wrestle with them in order to produce modern pathworkings, mystical explorations, and intimate and power ways of engaging with the gods.

At 1pm on Sunday I am doing my other talk/discussion, “Living the Customs of Our Religions: Paganism in Households”. Like many other folks, I’m a product of the Pagan Book Explosion of the 90’s, and thus in an environment in which it seemed like everyone was assumed to be doing this religion thing on their own, possibly while living with disapproving parents. And, y’know, at this point I’m pretty sure a lot of that information just doesn’t make any damn sense to someone who’s in their mid-thirties, settled down, has a job, kids, spouses, housemates, all like that there. So I’m wrangling the question of having pagan religion in contexts that can include interfaith (including with other pagan religions), dealing with work responsibilities and other grownup stuff, how to involve children in the process of religious practice, and so on.

Any of you fine folks up in Paganistan who are making it to Paganicon, I look forward to seeing you there (in between the overwhelming “augh I have not got my notes in order!” agitation, that is). Anyone who’s flush enough to consider making the trip, I’m given to understand that it’s a nice little con, nowhere near as overwhelming as PantheaCon is, and located near a wide variety of useful food. (Unlike PantheaCon.)

The Ritual Bath

The doors of the sky are opened
The doors for the firmament are thrown open at dawn….

As people who might recall my marking of the Days Upon the Year with a fiveday of ritual bathing might guess, I am kind of a fan of the ritual bath.

This isn’t for ritual purity reasons, particularly (though the priests performing temple rituals would bathe in the temple’s sacred pools beforehand); it can serve that function, of course, but that isn’t why I find them a useful tool or technique.

A ritual bath is a consciousness-altering tool. If used to prepare for other forms of ritual, it can soothe and center the mind in order to create a useful ritual mindset, cultivate openness to sanctity and/or the Powers, or create a breathing space between the day-job mindset and everything else. The idea of washing up may be a fairly mundane task, but accompanying it with intention, with a set of ritual actions, with deliberate additions of particular substances, with prayers or recitations, transforms it into something else, a meditation perhaps, or a work of magic.

This kind of thing can be done with many other tasks, but I think that the bath is pretty much ideally suited for it. Culturally speaking, after all, there is an expectation of separateness for Bathroom Activities, which can make it easier to construct and maintain the sort of structure that lends itself well to changes of state of mind. The use of water, itself, provides multiple layers of transformative properties, whether the magical associations of transformation, emotion, or the primordial, the mental constructions of cleanliness that are thereby evoked, the use of temperature to construct emotional responses or soothe physical discomforts, and so on.

(And all of this can be done in the shower, too, though I’ve found that it takes a little more effort to construct the transformative mental state. It’s a bit more brisk and businesslike, which also has its uses.)

I don’t actually do the ritual bathing thing all that often. (I have need of it now, so it’s on my mind.) It would probably do me some good, really.

I go up into the Field of Rushes,
I bathe in the Field of Rushes.

– quotations adapted from Pyramid Text 325

House of Life

A while back, henadology mentioned a book titled Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance, by David Frankfurter, and I had to admit that it was Relevant To My Interests (even though I don’t do a lot of reading outside the Pharaonic period). But given that my generalised thoughts about the development of religion outside the temples, a study of how religion in Egypt was constructed during the decline and destruction of active temple cult is, well, a thing.

I didn’t get fifty pages into the thing before finding this:

This kind of rite was hardly unique to Esna and demonstrates that, alongside a ritual cycle exclusive to the priesthood and to the temples’ inner courts, temples would actively serve the needs of farmers, infusing the fields with the very sacred power that “lived” in the temples. Temples would thus be popularly regarded as repositories of such power for the sake of the landscape and fields, much as Libanius described: “In them, the farming communities rest their hopes for husbands, wives, children, for their oxen and the soil they sow and plant.” In actively penetrating the countryside with the images of gods the temples involved themselves intimately with a basic concern of popular culture, according to a calendar of festivals and processions. The fact that such processions adhered to calendrical cycles does not so much set up some sort of “temple hegemony” as integrate the natural cycles of the Nile Valley with the temple, the local “center” of sacred power, and with the worldview that the temple epitomized.

By the Roman period such traditional forms of administering the fertilizing power of the temple-gods were often supplemented locally with more “open” shrines. Thus in Thebes, outside the main temple of Luxor, stands a small mud-brick shrine dedicated in the early second century to Serapis and his accompanying images and holding a large statue of Isis-Thermouthis. Although other temples were still being built or refurbished in the more traditional manner that excluded the sacred images from the eyes of devotees, the structure of the Luxor shrine allowed for devotees to be separated from this central icon of popular agricultural fertility only by front doors, which were ritually opened by a priest at certain times; and offerings might be made immediately in front of the shrine.

This is from the section of the book headed “The Distribution of Powers: Fertility”; subsequent headers include “The Cult of the Nile as a Popular and an Institutional Phenomenon”, “Healing Cults as a Nexus of Temple and Popular Piety”, and “Temple Festivals in Egyptian Life”, which one might note are also primarily concerned with the basic same force as one might be invoking when dealing with fertility: the flow of life-energy and its channeling into proper channels.

In other words, from a perspective situated outside of state ritual and the formal cult which was almost entirely invisible to the general population, the function of the temple might be best summed up by the term for the temple library: House of Life.

The basic architecture of the temple supports this perspective of the temple as a sort of source or bank for life energy which can be accessed for the benefit of the people. Each temple, after all, was organised such that someone entering the pure precincts thereof would climb the gently sloping corridor through the hypostyle hall – full of the decorations of first fruits of the creative surge, the marsh plants and the wealth of life – into the holy of holies, which was Zep Tepi itself, the creative mound, from which the entire cosmos flows in the perpetual act of coming into being.

So this raises the fundamental question: what does it mean to have a House of Life? What does it take to create such a place, to live within a world in which the House of Life exists? What does this mean, in practical terms of what Life is, what qualities it has, what its substance may become.

The gods so frequently were shown holding the ankh, each one carrying life as they go about the world, sweeping the holiness of life in their wake as they walk. The divine carries life; the house of the god keeps it safe.

The Long Road

When I was a kid, my family did a lot of road trips up and down the east coast of the United States, visiting family. One of the things that I noticed through these peripatetic meanderings was that a lot of towns had the same names: Dover. Rockville. Gloucester.

There was a part of me that always wanted to believe that those towns with the same name were somehow connected, that if I knew the right spot, the place where everything lined up, it would be easy to step – or drive – from one Dover to the next, from one Rockville to another.

I was thinking about this again last night, when I went to dinner at a restaurant just off Route 28, and how my father lives just off Route 28 a few hundred miles away, an entirely different road, but they share a name. So there has to be a way, right?

Names are magic.

We see this in the Western grimoire tradition, where knowing the true name of an entity makes for the powers of summoning and dismissal and control – and we see this back in Egypt, where Aset stole Ra’s name in order to gain the power of creation.

We name things. We summon them up from out of nothingness, out of the Nun, we bring them into being. We imagine things, form images, develop concepts, and then out come the blueprints, the design sketches, the plans, and these things happen… because we started to give them names. We make laws, form families, join clubs, all of these social matters, and all of them are the power of naming.

Names are magic, and with this magic we make the world.

(And if anyone can figure out how to tesser-hop from one Dover to the next one or state route 28 here to state route 28 there without having to deal with the New Jersey Turnpike, I’m all ears.)