Athena and the Floods

My first attempt had been thwarted by floods. It was Beltane 2010, and having just finished priestessing at our community Beltane gathering, I was traveling to Nashville to meet with my partner. He was on a long layover due to his semi-trailer truck being grounded for the weather. It had been a few weeks since I had last seen him, and always up for an adventure I decided to brave the storm.

It was apocalyptic. The rain was so heavy my windshield wipers could literally not withstand it, and continually broke free of themselves, rendering them useless every few miles until I could stop to readjust them. By the time I reached Nashville the storm was breaking. After a kind man fixed my wipers for me, I collapsed in the hotel room I had reserved, alone and exhausted. In the morning light, the devastation was shocking, and all the more emphasized by the entirely vacant mass of highways.

I braved the 1000-year Tennessee flood. It kept me from my partner. And from the Parthenon. But it did not keep me from myself. It was a reminder of how capable I was, the strength and resilience I possessed, and that even alone I could weather the storm.

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Nashville Parthenon Photo by S. Nagakyrie

Five months later I returned to Nashville, my life swept away in its own flood. I was on my way across the country to start a new life in San Francisco, recently single, with only my dog and what I could pack into my Subaru.

The pull to visit the Parthenon and to see the statue of Athena was irresistible. I knew I would need her on this journey. So I planned my route through Nashville. It was the first stop on what came to be the second, but most important, pilgrimage in my life that far.

I pulled into the parking area and took in the sight of this most unlikely Parthenon. Perched at the top of a small park, it looked more like someone had taken one of the plastic replicas from Greece, enlarged it to actual size, and plopped it down in the middle of a quintessential Southern city. The contrary nature of it began the shift in my awareness toward a liminal state.

I made my way to the Naos, past the galleries, and taking in the towering columns and the reproduction art and statues. I passed through a massive doorway, turned a corner, and fell to my knees. There She was, a 42 foot replica of the statue of Athena, as she would have been in the Parthenon of Ancient Greece. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I think at most I had hoped for an authentic museum like experience. Instead I found the certainty that the goddess was present here, that this was not a museum, not to me anyway, but a living breathing temple.

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Athena Parthenos Photo by S. Nagakyrie

Having just spent the last few years working to the bone to nurture community-as-temple and to create physical-space-as-temple, the feeling was overwhelming and a balm. Here in the most unlikely of places was a building in which the divine resided.

My knees protested against the marble floor, and the tears that would be with me for the rest of the journey began to wet my face. But this pain, and this flood, was sacrament and offering. As some of my tears fell to the floor at her feet, I remembered the flood waters that only months before had been on this same ground.

I prayed for strength and wisdom as I went westward, weary from long battles and yet feeling as though I was being deployed to new territory. Would I make it? Could I do this? Was this even the right thing? I tried to quiet my sobs as more people were entering the space, and I took in her physical presence her more closely.

Her serene face belied a deep wisdom as I considered her shield, and what a fine raft it might make in a disaster; my mind firmly unattached from its usual hinges. Nike’s wings brushed against my face as I heard Athena’s voice resounding in the echo chamber of my heart. Here in this sovereign Goddess of wisdom and battle, I began to feel the ray of divine love in my heart again, and the support of a sister who is larger than life.

I offered my tears and weariness to her, and felt an abiding strength fall across my shoulders as a cloak. I knew I had many days travel ahead of me, yet I did not want to tear myself away from her. I shifted my body and craned my face to look at her one more time, and asked for her support in the days and months to come. At that moment, I knew this was another trial and another part of my journey and that I would never be alone.

I will stay with you as you drive this chariot, Warrior Sister.”

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You Should Totally Know Her

Rhyd has written some mighty kind things of me. My heart overflows.

Paganarch

It’s a bit odd to have someone obsessed with you. Well, a couple of someones. One of them’s written 22 posts about my work in the last 30 days. Apparently, I must be pretty important to them.

Of course, if anyone took up that much time in my head, my friends, lovers, and gods would all kindly point out that I might need to go for a walk. Or at least take a break from the internet.

But either way, I guess I’m glad to have given them something to write about?

Unfortunately, one of the two people obsessed with me also just attacked a friend of mine, which is kinda shitty.  But rather than get upset about it (who’s got time for so much anger?), I figured It’d actually be a good time to honor that friend, especially since they’re one of those people who hangs in the background…

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Requiem

It feels like pooled velvet
the grains so fine,
they seem to disappear as I grasp them.

They defy their mass
This, your Mass
my Sacred Rite

Kali of the cremation grounds, whose ashes heralded Her coming
Your blessing of a sharp blade and fierce love

Is this your boon received?

The color of it surprises me
For a moment
it is only the sand of a beach
and then a chip of bone sifts to the surface
Maybe, it is only a shell.

The wind shifts, a wave splashes
Ash kisses my face.

Sure as had been Her blade,
the moment strikes upon me
an initiation greater than any.

Love and grief and soul align
dissolving into one,
as ash dissolves into the sea.

Offering and Taboo

CW: discussion of animal sacrifice

Kalighat

I had just received darshan from the podium above the image of Maa Kali. My senses were overwhelmed with the headiness of the spiritual experience, and the overload of being crowded and jostled by devotees, and harangued for money by the phaledar delegates. I exited the temple into the not-so-fresh Kolkata air, and walked around to the other side. Suddenly, my bare feet felt something slick. I looked down, afraid of what I would see, and noticed the blood red streaks from the enclosure next to me, going around the outside of the temple. I turned the corner and took in the sight of the Harikhat-Tola. Covered in blood, as well as red siddur and piled with flowers, this is where the animal sacrifice took place. There were two harikhat, a smaller one for goats and a larger one for buffalo. It was a festival day, and there had obviously been a sacrifice that morning – the blood on the stone around the temple was still fresh.

Kamakhya

I was sitting peacefully within a temple high on a hill, having just entered the womb of it and received darshan of the yoni of the goddess. Pigeons were being released with devotion, having been blessed with red marks by a priest. The bells were ringing, and people were praying with looks of complete bliss and devotion. Goats were wandering everywhere, and I had to remember to not set anything down, for a nibbling goat would quickly be there.

A very young goat was led by a rope into the enclosure next to me, bleating the whole way. The cries briefly became more desperate, and then suddenly stopped. A moment later, a priest walked out with a bowl full of blood and siddur, and devotees gathered around him fervently, ready for the blessings.

Goat at Kamakhya
Goat at Kamakhya Photo by S. Nagakyrie

On my second visit to Kalighat Mandir, a gentle and devoted man that a friend connected me with guided me through the temple complex. He took me back to the Harikath-Tola, and looked at me as he explained the purpose of the place. I could sense that he wasn’t sure how I would react as a Westerner, and was quick and sure to explain that only in some Kali worship was this done and that the animals never suffered and nothing was wasted. I lingered there a moment after he spoke, the full meaning of this place settling on me after experiencing his sharing of it, the devotion and reverence transforming any sense of disdain I had felt.

As a vegetarian of over a decade and a Westerner these experiences should, and did, shock me at first even though I knew to expect them. And as a white person in the US I would never conduct animal sacrifice in my worship of Kali. But within the fabric of Hindu Tantric practice this was an essential thread.

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Harikhat at the Kali temple Photo from http://www.kalibhakti.com/kalighat/

Taboo

There is a Tantric dictum that says Yaireva Patanam Dravyaih Siddhih Taireva – That by which one falls is also that by which one rises. This of course speaks to the core philosophy of tantra, that desire and attachment to the material world cannot be overcome simply by abstaining from it; one must confront that desire and those material attachments themselves. It is through desire and attachment that we can be free of it.

“The Tantra holds that the impure, the ugly and the unholy things of life are things which have been wrongly seen out of their context, and, from their own particular positions, or from the point of view of the things themselves, they are neither good nor bad, neither beautiful nor ugly, neither holy nor unholy.”
~Sri Swami Krishnananda

In Tantric rituals, items are used in acts of devotion that may seem out of place at best, and abhorrent at worst, to our Western perception. There are items that are often taboo in Hindu culture, for example tobacco and meat. And in Tantra, particularly in the worship of Kali, there is sometimes blood through animal sacrifice.

Offering

As a witch I agree that the things of life, from their own particular position, are not in and of themselves good or bad – that is far too binary for me. But I do think that the things of life become good/bad, beautiful/ugly, and even holy/unholy, through the meaning that we give them. Unfortunately, the context within which we find and ascribe meaning is powerfully influential. And the means through which that context and meaning is constructed is just as important.

The first time I attended a tantric puja, I wondered about the use of tobacco. I was a smoker at the time, so it wasn’t particularly taboo to me to use tobacco. Within the context of my life, tobacco was a normal thing. But as the small cigar was passed around, I thought about the lives that had created that object, whose own contexts were very different from mine. I thought about the history of tobacco in America – the sacred use of it by indigenous peoples, the harm and subsistence it has brought since colonization. For some people tobacco has a very significant meaning. For me, it had become so commonplace as to barely register in my awareness. I inhaled the taste of it, noticing the small part of me that was repulsed by smoking tobacco in ritual, while the multiple layers of meaning shuffled in my head.

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We know daily use of tobacco kills people. We know that the corporations that produce tobacco for mass consumption do so using 100s of chemicals that increase addiction and that lead to a multitude of health problems. And so this too is a part of the context, is a part of the origin of the thing which influences our construction of the meaning. We cannot ignore it – that awareness is a part of our consciousness.

But we can acknowledge it, and flip it in an act of offering, of sacred-making. We can open ourselves to all of the meaning that has been ascribed to a thing, and thus reclaim our power to create our own meaning. We can move through our binary attachments and recognize the complexity of our own and other contexts.

In India, I opened myself to another source of meaning, a different context for the things of life. That awareness has created an even greater opening in my devotional practice, and for the creation of my own meaning.

Bystander Intervention

This is originally from a Facebook post, which has been shared many times and which I refer to frequently. I’m finally dropping it here, and will write more about this in the future.

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We teach bystander intervention in sexual assault and intimate partner violence prevention, but it is an important and useful tool in the prevention of many forms of personal violence.  As we see more emboldened public displays of racism, misogyny, and bigotry it is inevitable that one day you will be witness to an act of violence, whether that is bullying, a physical attack, or some other threat to a person’s safety.

This is a basic breakdown of reactive intervention techniques for bystander intervention, which you can use when you are in such a situation. Think about them, discuss them with your community, do some role playing. Be prepared to claim and wield your power for the protection of another.

Reactive intervention is designed to distract and interrupt the perpetrator and allow the victim time to respond and get to a safer place, or for the attacker to leave.

Basic techniques of reactive intervention are Direct, Distract, Delegate.

Direct: you intervene directly in the situation by inserting yourself into it, sometimes putting yourself between the victim and the perp, and addressing the perp directly by calling out their behavior. This is the most involved and potentially dangerous of the interventions, and you should be prepared for potential escalation and hatred being spewed at you too. But it is the most likely to allow the victim time to get away. Consider power dynamics carefully here; great option for those who carry privilege in the situation.

Distract: you intervene by distracting the perp with unrelated questions or comments. Ask for directions, ask about a game on the TV, somehow engage them in questions about something else going on around them. This is the second most involved of the interactions and does carry some potential for escalation.

Another technique is not to say anything, but make your presence known. Stand close to the victim. Stare at the perp. Let them know you are watching and present and may step in if it gets worse. This technique straddles the line of Distract and Direct.

Delegate: This technique gets other people involved. You may see something but not feel comfortable intervening by yourself. You can ask others around you to intervene with you. There is power in numbers and a group of people addressing a perp and making their presence known can shift a situation faster than anything else I’ve seen. This is a powerful option particularly for those who do not hold privilege in a situation or are not comfortable with confrontation (which is often due to an individual’s own trauma).

In the Delegate response, traditional BI suggests getting a police officer or other individual with systematically imbued power involved. In situations of violence of oppression I do not encourage this as a first reaction, as it may add to the victim’s trauma.

What techniques do/would you use? In what situations might you see these techniques be useful, or to fail?

On the Backs of Turtles

I know, its been quiet here. I’ve promised you more writing on India, and on polytheism, and the currents I see in our communities.

But Death came for a visit.

As many of you reading this will know, my sister died in her sleep on March 10. It was sudden and unexpected. Though in hindsight I see the many, many portents and preparations for this I received.

A week prior, an intense and fully embodied experience with Kali.
Continued visions of threads and weaving, and that night a raspy comforting whisper from One of the Ones who Weaves, cutting and removing a thread.

So on March 10 my world came to a screech. It didn’t halt though.

And I’ve been watching the chaos within a portion of the polytheist community while all this was happening. The pain and anger and harm directed at projects I am actively engaged with, and at those I love. I haven’t said much, because go to hell assholes, because I’m grieving and have been a little busy, because I would still much rather put my time and energy into building and supporting community and less into dealing with authoritarian power trolls.

The drama of it seems to have faded again, for now, though the damage has been done.

Some of that damage has been very personal. Yes I am a founding board member of Gods&Radicals. Yes I am a co-coordinator for Many Gods West 2016. I do it because I am passionate about the work, because it is Work that has been asked of me, because I care for the people I work with. I don’t shout it from the rooftops, because that is not who I am as a priestess. But know that an attack on them is an attack on me.

So let me lay this out there: while one of your own was deep in grief, was in desperate need of support from her spiritual community, was in need of the work and service that she has so often provided, that we claim to hold as essential and necessary Work for our Gods and for community,  y’all were embroiled in bullshit petty online arguments about who was right or wrong, about who was the devil and who was the savior, about who was trying to tear down community and religion. Rather than ACTUALLY DOING THE WORK OF COMMUNITY you were arguing about who was destroying it.

I’d call it ironic if I weren’t still so angry.

Oh, not everyone of course. The support I’ve been receiving has come from some of the most unexpected places. Primarily from people who either don’t care or don’t have the luxury to engage with the online arguing. And bless them, for if it weren’t for them I really don’t know where I would be right now.

I noticed those closest to me who have been the most directly affected by the vitriol struggle to maintain their engaged support of my grief, as they were forced to field the mud slinging and direct attacks to their emotional and even physical safety. Eventually I heard less and less from many of them, as their own reserves were drained.

Can no one else see how all of this is related?? For a community of people who claim such access to the Otherworldly, to be outside of the boxes of status quo society, to be able to forsee and rise above… we are just as susceptible to the currents running through our culture and our world.

What is it that forces us to devour our own? To not live our speech? To not actively engage our work, or only engage it when it is convenient or pretty or polishes our egotism?

How about we start sacrificing that egoism instead of feeding it? I know Someone in particular who will gladly devour it, so that we can feed ourselves something so much better…

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And now that this post is out the way, I’m going to do my best to continue to weave all that I am learning and experiencing right now into a coherent story for you all. There will be entries into the Grief Papers. There will be more on India. More on my current journey and how it all relates. It will be uncensored. And I will hold no space for the kind of rabid shit show I’ve been witnessing. So join me, or not.