Column: Many Gods West

Heathen Chinese —  August 22, 2015 — 19 Comments

Acknowledgement and thanks to the spirits of the land and the water, to the Nisqually and other Coast Salish-speaking peoples on whose sovereign land we were uninvited guests, to my ancestors, to my gods, and to the ancestors and deities and other allies of the humans at the conference. Thanks to my friend and traveling companion. Thanks to all those who showed me hospitality and friendship, and to the organizers of the conference: Niki Whiting, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus and Rhyd Wildermuth.

The Many Gods West (MGW) gathering was held at the Governor Hotel in Olympia, Washington from July 31st to August 2nd. Over the course of the weekend, 180 humans attended, along with innumerable gods and spirits and crows and other kinds of beings. The conference included twenty presentations, nine public rituals, a keynote address by Morpheus Ravenna, a musical and terpsichorean performance at a local venue, open hours at Skaði’s shrine in one of the hotel rooms, and a communal shrine accessible at most points throughout the day. As at any gathering, many private conversations were held as well, alliances were strengthened, previously separate threads of thought and experience were woven together.

many gods west
Many attendees and presenters have written about their experiences at MGW, or published the texts of their presentations.
These individual accounts are shards in a mosaic-in-progress, strands of wool on a spindle. There are patterns at play here, subterranean and subcutaneous, a fluid and shifting battle formation…if one is trained to notice such things.

The opening ritual was entitled “Many Lands, Many Ancestors, Many Gods, Many People/s.” Similarly to Reclaiming’s practice of mingling the Waters of the World, participants were invited to approach the communal shrine and pour water from a source near their home into a large basin. Soil from the many localities participants had traveled from were similarly mixed in another bowl. Each and every person has some sort of relationship with their local land and water, whether they recognize that relationship or not. This section of the opening ritual was intended to acknowledge and honor those relationships.

Any gathering is likely to be attended by a significant number of people who live in close geographical proximity to the gathering’s location: the logistics of travel dictate this. However, while individuals did travel from the Midwest and the East Coast and other regions to attend, this gathering’s very name reflected a deliberate intention to focus on the West Coast. The concept of “regional cultus” is being discussed in polytheist circles currently. “The West Coast” is a broad term, and certainly contains many smaller regions within it. The entire coast, however, is now united by the shared experience of heatwave and drought and wildfire. As those who live here know, however, from the ashes, new growth springs: a proliferation of new regionalisms, praying for transformation like the knobcone pine, resilient like the manzanita and the madrone.

A fallen madrone (also called madrona or arbutus) provided the wood for the figures which enshrined the ancestors of the conference attendees. Figures carved with faces enshrining Female, Male, Gender-variant, Warrior and Spirit-worker ancestors were passed around the room, allowing each participant who wished to the opportunity to honor their own ancestors in these various categories personally. Meanwhile, the room resounded and reverberated with the song, “Ignis corporis infirmat; ignis sed animae perstat” (“the Fire of the body diminishes; but the fire of the soul endures!”). The Ancestors Of And In The Land and the Dead Who Are Not Yet Ancestors were honored on the communal shrine as well, though their figures were not passed around the room.

Last, but certainly never least in a room full of polytheists, individuals were able to enshrine images of deities and other spirits they have relationships with on the communal shrine. The key word, as ever, is “relationship.” Morpheus Ravenna’s keynote address, entitled “Deep Polytheism: On the Agency and Sovereignty of the Gods,” reiterated this theme with the grace of poetry and the force of a smith’s hammer or a chieftain’s axe. Not just any archetypal “smith,” or any archetypal “chieftain,” however. Morpheus took care to introduce Goibniu and the Dagda—two gods she has devotional relationships with—to her audience, and to tell stories about their individual personalities and pasts, pointing out that “Living beings don’t just exist, they have stories. They have an origin, they come from somewhere in particular, and they experience an arc of change.”

And of course, they exert change upon the world as well. The mark of the Dagda’s axe can be seen in the cleft of every oak in Ireland. Morpheus argued that the gods leave similar marks on the landscapes of our psyches: “Even when we think the Gods are gone, Their marks on us remain. We ourselves are a map shaped and carved by Their memory.” But human beings have our own agency and sovereignty as well, and Morpheus eloquently wove this deeper understanding of reciprocity into her description of what “true relationship” might look like:

In being another of the peoples that have worshiped, fed and sung songs to Them, we become part of Their stories. This is what comes from engaging with the Gods on this level. This is true relationship. […] They become part of our story. We begin seeking to create a story together, a shared future.

One story, one shared future, found its roots deep in the blood-soaked battlefields of ancient Gaul and the beginning of a new chapter in a dimly lit room at Many Gods West. Three members of the Coru Cathubodua, Morpheus and Brennos and Rynn, conducted a ritual in honor of the Gaulish goddess for whom their priesthood is named. After Cathubodua, the Battle Crow, was worshiped through polyphonic song and offering, those individuals who were called received the Warrior’s Mark from her priestesses and priest. A call “aims at those who can hear it.” That is its power. There is another power in standing and bearing witness, as many of those present at the ritual chose to do. As Rhyd Wildermuth said, “meaning is never a solitary act.”

mgw communal shrine

MGW Community Shring [Photo Credit: Finnchuill]

Rhyd’s talk on “meaning” began with a rejection of the concept of absolute Truth, which, Midas-like, fatally corrupts all that it touches: “Looking for the material being-ness of a thing, rather than its tapestry of meaning, is to destroy it.” For example, a body undergoing vivisection—a cruel name, as it quickly turns into the dissection of a corpse: “What are you, really, when we get to your core existence? A dead and dis-membered pile of bloody muscle and gore.” Better to recognize that “There was [and is] no Truth, only potential meaning.”

Heimlich A. Laguz’s lecture, “Dreaming, Death, and Memory: Sketches for a Heathen Cosmology,” based upon his 2010 essay in Hex Magazine, touched upon the concept of “dis-memberment” during the same time slot that Finnchuill spoke about the history of “disenchantment” and the practice of reenchantment. Their presentations were held in adjacent rooms, in fact. Heimlich utilized a pun to highlight the subtle relationship between “dis-memberment” and memory, “When we re-member the essence of this dis-membered world we discover that death and life are one.”

Heimlich began by pointing out that the Germanic cosmological concept of the World Tree does not exist in some sort of independent stasis, but is watered by “the wells of Urd (Past), Mimir (Memory), and Hvergelmir (the ‘bubbling cauldron’ from which the rivers of the world arise and beside which the death-dragon Nidhogg dwells).” As a living system, the newly-created memories of the present necessarily flow “back down into the wells again to create new layers of history.”

Within this dynamic ecological cycle, death is a source of fertility, and it is memory that “has the power to carry the dead back into the world of the living.” Heimlich told the story of the shepherd Hallbjorn, who slept many nights upon the grave mound of the poet Thorleif, with the intention of writing a poem about Thorleif, though his skills in that area were few. Eventually, Thorleif appeared to Hallbjorn in a dream and taught him how to write poetry. Heimlich pointed out that “poetry is a force of unfettered life and excitation, and the idea that it could be sought through necromantic communication is potent and fascinating.” Furthermore, sleep is associated with death, and Hallbjorn learned poetry in a dream. With such connections as these (and many more), Heimlich deftly tied together the three major themes of his lecture.

Death and memory were also powerful forces behind Sean Donahue’s talk on “The Rattling at the Gates: The Dead as Allies in Resistance,” subsequently typed up and titled “Restoring Life to Death.” Sean spoke of two kinds of death: one beautiful and life-nourishing, and the other untimely and traumatic. He spoke of the salmon dying after they spawn: “Like sacred kings, their bodies and their blood nourish the land.” He spoke of the salmon dying this year before they spawn, slain by the drought and the heat. Those killed before their time are restless, denied the beauty of dignified death, prevented from moving on.

Sean quoted his Colombian friend Hector Mondragon: “Hector said “My murdered compañeros were killed twice . . .” once by bullets or machetes or bombs, and once by a world that refused to acknowledge their lives and their deaths.” He spoke of the importance of recognition and memory: “Witnessing and remembering are the beginning of restoring sacredness to the death around us to enable it to feed new life.” Morpheus used similar language during her speech, “the 20th century had already forgotten that the Gods are alive.” But some people never forgot, and others are now waking from amnesia into the dream of remembrance.

Once forgotten, but still alive, still powerful, and newly resurgent, splendid in their beauty: the Matronae, “a collective of indigenous Germanic and Celtic goddesses who were worshipped syncretically in the Roman Empire,” honored in a devotional ritual led by their priestesses River Devora and Rynn Fox. A well was set up in the middle of the room, filled with water from Olympia’s Artesian Well, surrounded by roses and other flowers. Libations of goat’s milk were poured. Singing, dancing: “Mothers of victory, Matronae. Mothers of the tribes, Matronae.” Oracular trance, messages both for the group and for individual petitioners. Wishes made on pennies, tossed into the well. Weaving.

These words you’re reading now? Merely a thin and tiny thread in a vast tapestry.

The various report-backs on MGW delighted in using the word “many” in their titles. But while there are “many” experiences to be remembered, there is also “more,” for relationship is a continual, ongoing process. There is more work to be done, there are more battles to be fought.

Heathen Chinese

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Heathen Chinese writes the TWH monthly column, "Tiger's Leap." He is the son of Chinese immigrants and is a diasporic Chinese polytheist living in the San Francisco Bay Area (stolen Ohlone land). He practices ancestor veneration and worships (among others) the warrior god Guan Di, who has had a presence in California since the mid-1800s.
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  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    This is a fantastic account…and, to draw the attention of readers who may not know it otherwise, Heathen Chinese’s own presentation on Chinese Millenarian Movements, was also top-notch in terms of its relevance and the quality of the information presented, and gave all those present much to think about! Thank you again for that, and for this write-up: well done!

  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Thank you for this account!

  • Segomâros Widugeni

    It sounds like a truly excellent conference. I wish I could have been there. Maybe in future years.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    This is as good as I expected that it would be. It will be interesting to see what you are becoming. I am very glad that you will be a monthly writer here so that I can be reminded of you, and what you have to say.

    • Heathen Chinese

      Thank you!

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        I just wish that I had had the chance to interview you myself, but that was not to be. I enjoy interviewing people that force me to wrap my mind around new ideas.

        • Heathen Chinese

          Thank you for the encouragement to write this piece, nonetheless.

          • ChristopherBlackwell

            We have far too many discouragers in this world. Time to tip the balance in the other way and see what people might do if encouraged instead. I try to become the elder that I wish I had had when I was younger. You do good work anyway, even without me. This is just one way for me to give back by supporting our future.

  • Gerrie O.

    Thank you for this little taste! It would be wonderful if this concept could extend to other regions – I live in the Midwest. I may have to have a chat with the organizers and pick their brains.

  • Jeremycrawford

    This is not a Time of Past Grievences but a time for understanding and making friends were once we all had enemies. We all worship the same God or Goddess but we all have different names for Her or Him!

    • ChristopherBlackwell

      Jeremy,

      That is one of the differences for Polytheists that you seem not to understand. They do not believe all gods and goddesses are the same god and goddess. They see each god, and each goddess, as distinctly individual, and not necessarily related to those in other pantheons.

      It gets even more complex. Even the same god, in different areas, may be seen quite differently, by each people and in each area, having got only different specialties, a different story, but even different parentage. This is the reason why even the Greek gods and goddesses have conflicting stories, depending which of the Greek people were talking about that god in which part of the Greek world. So each god might well have several different cultus going at the same time, each equally true.

      So while you may believe all the Gods and Goddesses are the same one with different name the polytheists believe quite differently. As I recall this was one of the constant complaints some Polytheists had with Wiccans trying to claim that all Pagans saw the gods the same way, or should.

      I interviewed a number of Polytheists, and I too had to be careful that I did not misunderstand their differences from some of us Wiccans. We Wiccans need to talk less and listen more to our fellow Pagans better. In the Pagan and Heathen world, our differences are as important as our similarities. We Wiccans must honor each groups right to view things differently from us. We will gain more respect if we show that respect to others.

      Ancient Pagans did not believe all the Gods were the same. Only in the last ditch fight to e take over my against Christianity did some try to float that idea to get different Pagans to work together against a common enemy.

      Now you may choose to believe it as that is you personal right of belief, just do not try to push it on others that do not believe such.

  • Macha NightMare

    Clarification: Mingling the waters of the world did not originate with Reclaiming, and in my considerable experience, it hasn’t been used often in Reclaiming. It’s very common in the international interfaith movement, particularly at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and has been used in CoG; however, I think it originated in the UU world. Not a big deal, just saying…

    • Heathen Chinese

      Thanks for the clarification, I was unaware of that! I’ve only come across it in Reclaiming before.

      • TThornCoyle

        Mingling of the waters as far as I know, is used at every single Reclaiming Witch Camp in the Waters of the World ritual and has been for as long as there have been camps, so around 30 years or so? I can’t recall the exact date of the 1st Reclaiming camp. I attended the 2nd.

        But yes, it is a Unitarian ceremony of very long standing, and may be the originator, though of course, some times similar rituals arise in various places spontaneously!

        Heathen Chinese, I’m very glad to read your voice here at the Wild Hunt.

        • Heathen Chinese

          Thank you!

  • “But while there are “many” experiences to be remembered, there is also “more,” for relationship is a continual, ongoing process.”
    Yes! And so much has already occurred afterwards.

    Good write up that includes many of the stones of the mosaic that I was unable to experience. There was so much to choose from there.

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