Column: Over Easy

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This document constitutes a one year contract (September 13, 2019 – September 13, 2020) between Luke Babb and the entity known by the names Fjölnir, Grímnir, Hleifruðr, Hroptatýr, Óski, Odin…

I never figured myself for a hard polytheist.

First of all, it was a dumb phrase, even as jargon goes. “Hard” suggested that I thought of the gods in the bright pastels of Disney, magical beings that could solidify out of the aether and bop me playfully on the nose while singing edifying Elton John lyrics. My first encounters with Paganism taught me to be dismissive of the idea. Those people who believe that the gods really physically live on Mount Olympus, and can be visited there? Pfft. There’s religious, and then there’s delusional, am I right?

I couldn’t imagine how I could make that logical jump. Being Pagan was a conscious choice for me, a solution that I reached after realizing that I liked the world better when I believed in something. As I became aware that the world was larger than my experience of it, it seemed to follow that the stories people used to describe the ineffable would reflect the parts of the universe they understood. If there were something called the divine, then we had been trying to describe pieces of it for millennia. All I needed to do was find the pieces that spoke to me, and focus my energies there rather than the mythology I had grown up in and out of.

The words I used for myself then were noncommittal. “Agnostic, leaning Pagan,” I said, spreading out the goat skin and putting my new statue in the center. It was almost $50, a purchase so luxurious at the time that I was concerned about groceries. I cleaned it with a damp cloth, smoothing the face and chasing off the last of the styrofoam that had protected its more fragile edges. It wasn’t marble, but my knowledge of marble was the red columns of my hometown auditorium and the pictures I had seen in books. It was easy to believe.

An early rendition of one of the author’s altars [L. Babb]

This document is not considered binding unless and until signed by Luke Babb’s hand, and with their full name. Once signed it shall be considered binding and no negotiation will be entertained outside the outlined parameters until…

I can’t remember a specific moment when that started to shift for me, but the story is neater if I blame the handfasting. It’s almost true – there had been growth before then, a changing understanding of the powers that be, but nothing so sudden or dramatic. I wrote it myself, filled with anxiety at making my first ritual so pivotal, at the structure of the guest list, and most of all at the nature of contracts. Even not-quite believing in magic, I had read enough Yeats to know the importance of language, and nuance, and intent. I wrote and rewrote the wording, had friends read it over, gave it to my fiancée for her edits.

I did not write down the invocation. At the time this seemed like poetic license, a space to fill with the names of the gods whose stories spoke to me, whose cleverness and tenacity, wisdom and strength, I wanted to embody in my own relationship. I don’t remember all the list I called to, and there’s no record of it – it was a tumble of names lit by my excitement and nerves and joy.

Four months later I sat in my first community gathering, hands moving with an echo of that energy as I spoke. “It’s not – it’s nothing specific. I just feel like being solitary isn’t enough, anymore? It feels like I need to be doing something.”

I didn’t consider myself a hard polytheist even then, but increasingly I found myself using the language. I spoke about my conversations with Freyr as real things, as a growing relationship. “I work with the Vanir,” I said, laying down a row of beans. “Freyr’s pretty chill so far, but he’s got limits, like anybody.”

My theology did not shift, exactly, so much as it took on more nuance from the books I was reading. That essentially Neo-Pagan idea of the gods as emanations of some central and unknowable truth took root and, echoed by my experience, flourished. I thought it was useful to speak about them as individuals, in much the same way as it was useful to speak about truth and justice as standards of living. That didn’t mean they were any less a part of that great central ideal, the Divine that they came out from. “Not a hard polytheist,” I said, thinking myself very clever. “Not exactly soft, either. Call it over-easy.”

I chose paradigms like tools, relying on what was useful at the moment. Channeling was holy practice, whether it was true connection to a god, a road into the collective unconscious, or an articulation of some aspect of the speaker. Offerings were worthwhile, whether for the sake of the gods or the ritual needs of the community. Knowing the land was beautiful, whether to commune with its spirit or to soothe the animal part of the human brain, was important.

I have a difficult time moving across those lines, now.

Bean planting in Darién, Colombia [Neil Palmer, Wikimedia Commons]

This contract shall be binding to both parties, and the obstruction, dismissal, oversight, or otherwise breaking of the terms herein will mandate the party in the wrong rectify the situation by a gaes or the payment of schuld. For the purposes of this contract, schuld is defined as follows – 

There is a difference between balancing ideas and balancing people. People take time, energy, and space in ways that ideas usually do not. They require attention. The first years of my marriage were filled with that work, and as we opened our home to more people, the work became more complicated. My wife, a stage manager by training, showed me the arcane path of the spreadsheet and the Google calendar and the weekly meeting in which we synchronized both with the shifting needs of our growing community.

In retrospect, I should have realized what had happened on the day that I asked my teacher to give me a tour of his devotional practices, walking from altar to altar in his house. “How do you balance them all?” I asked, with something that sounded a lot like stress. “How do you pay for all of the wine?”

“Well,” he said, pausing by Antinuuous. “I have a schedule.”

One of the author’s altars [L. Babb]

At the end of one calendar year, assuming that both parties are agreeable, this contract will be available for renegotiations. These negotiations will be conducted in the clearest manner available at the time, and verified by at least one other method of divination. These may include, but are not limited to, oracular spae, possessory rite, spirit board, or Lenormand. The following have been deemed insufficiently nuanced for these purposes at the current time – dream communication, tarot, runes, pendulum…

In practice, the tipping point was much less sensible.

I bought a spirit board. I was interested in the spookiness they seemed to carry with them and, spurred by some accounts of their accuracy and usefulness, I splurged on one with a Buffy the Vampire Slayer theme, complete with crossed axes decorating the center. It was board-game weight and laminated, with a little comic still enclosed in the box, and I carted it out to my friends’ housewarming, ready to spend a spooky night with some fellow Pagans.

Calibrating the thing was difficult. Our hands were too heavy; there were too many of us around the table. We sorted through false positives and mischief, spirits that failed to answer simple questions as we tried to discern whether they were who they claimed to be. It felt faintly ridiculous, and I contemplated whether I could resell the board at a profit.

“Let’s just – listen,” my friend said, as we slid the pointer to ‘Good-bye’ again. “There’s one spirit I can always get a hold of.” He pulled a picture out of his wallet, a man that looked too young, a photo that looked too new.

The pointer moved faster than it had, and my friend led the questions, asking for names, places, details that none of us had ever heard him mention before. After a few minutes he sat back, and the pointer kept moving. “Wop bop a loo bop, a wop bam boom.”

My friend smiled. “Hi Dad.”

It turns out pointers can move even when hands are shaking.

 

The original spirit, or ouiji, board, made in 1871 [Wikimedia Commons]

Having obtained the verbal and/or otherwise clearly communicated assent of all non-corporeal parties, this contract is signed on Friday, September 13th of 2019 by…

It seemed like the obvious choice to try a god next.

The theory was the same, after all. Deities should be able to muster just as much energy as ghosts, and communicate just as clearly as if they were channeling, certainly. We set up a small altar and, half-cocked with the thrill of success, called the only god of language we were all on casual terms with.

When the pointer moved to “Hello,” I lifted my chin, and, grinning, looked into the air just above the board. “Prove it. Prove you’re Hermes.”

The pointer moved fast, almost slurring the letters in its hurry to move across the board. “Fuck yourself.”

I tend to find that the Hellenics tend to like a bit more pomp and circumstance than the Norse.

After some more discernment, well satisfied that we had dialed the right number, we started a conversation. The voice on the other end of the line was funny, irreverent, a little terse at times – and internally consistent. Moreover, it was specific, giving detailed advice about travel and timelines, speaking to each of us in turn. As it talked, my explanations for how it might be anything other than a deity gave out. By the time we said goodbye again, I was shaken.

“I’m just going to text my friend for a blind reading,” I said, leaning back into my seat.

After a while, the answers came back.

From California: “Weird – something about travel over water?”

From Boston: “Oh hey! Going on a trip?”

From Oklahoma: “Oh wow, lots of work to do! Lucky I just got a new Hermes deck, he really seems to like it.”

It took 24 hours for me to get the message back in different iterations enough times that theology settled across my shoulders like fact. There are explanations, always; there have to be in order for something to count as belief. But I had to reach for them, searching for some rationalization that didn’t seem forced. It was far easier to accept that my paradigm had shifted. The gods were real in every way that seemed to matter.

People take up space. They can be pushy, disquieting, unpleasant. They can be reasoned with.

This contract is agreed to in good faith, and for the mutual benefit of both parties. Nothing here is given by force or with regret, but freely and with good cheer.