Thoughts, lessons, and theology from an eclectic witch from a varied background.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Elementary Necromancy (Or how to talk to the dead)

Say the word necromancy and the Hollywood stereotypes pop up. Visions of hooded robes, blood sacrifice, and grave robbing will undoubtedly come up at some point early in the discussion. Necromancy, however, is something different from what the entertainment industry portrays it as. The term necromancy is defined by the Mirram-Webster dictionary as: 
1.) conjuration of the spirits of the dead for purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events 
2.) magic, sorcery

Necromancy is often considered to be an 'evil' art. Lurid tales of necromancers engaged in nefarious activities have abounded since the rise of Christendom during the late Roman Empire and the ban upon magical studies that was imposed during this period. Necromancy, however, has been practiced for as long as humanity has existed and is even still present in modern society. Many people seek the services of a necromancer with out realizing it, and in many cases the necromancer in question not realizing said term applies to them.

Many of the psychics who speak with the spirits of the dead are, by definition, necromancers. Because the term is loaded with many negative connotations, these psychics shy away from it and use the more neutral term 'medium' in its place. If you use the term necromancer or medium, the basic elements of the practices are virtually unchanged from antiquity. There are two different general categories of necromancy. One is organic and the other is ritual.

Organic necromancy comes as a result of the necromancer having an innate talent for sensing and communicating with the deceased. The person who receives psychic visions of the dead or may hear them with out any ritual to assist them is an organic necromancer. While modern psychics make organic necromancy seem to be common place, it is a less common psychic skill then what the media portrays it. Incidents of empathy (in the psychic sense) and precognition are far more common, though less discussed in the general public because they are not as popular in the media.

Ritual necromancy requires the necromancer in question to use a ritual to establish connection and communication with the dead. Ritual necromancy is by far the version that is portrayed most often in the media. Rituals vary from the extremely simple to the elaborately complex. All rituals can be examined from the most basic and common components.
  1.  Statement of intent & establishment of working space. While this step is not practiced in all cases of ritual necromancy, it is among one of the oldest used. The use of a ritual space to 'contain' the spirits summoned is frequently said to be a holdover from ceremonial magicians of the Enlightenment era and late medieval period, but there are signs that this practice is rooted in antiquity. From what I have been able to establish in my research on ancient necromancy rituals, there is a distinct practice of establishing a space where the spirits of the dead are housed. This comes out of the acknowledgement that not all spirits of the dead are kindly inclined towards humanity and can potentially prove dangerous to the summoner.
  2. Entering into a receptive trance state. This can be accomplished by any number of means. Modern necromancers in the U.S.A. tend to rely heavily upon self-hypnosis. There is, however, an established tradition of using consciousness altering substances. Several of the herbs traditionally associated with European witchcraft, such as mugwort, have mild to significant psychoactive properties that will alter the user's perception of the world upon ingestion or other methods of consumption.
  3. Establishing contact with the dead. The establishment of contact in ritual necromancy is often a summoning of the deceased's spirit. Some rituals use something that has an energetic tie to the dead. This can range from an item that the dead carried on their person on a regular basis to fingernail clippings to soil from their grave site. The use of the item with the energetic tie is to strengthen the focus of the summoning and give the ritual greater 'pull' in drawing the spirit to the practitioner. Other rituals the summoning does not use anything that has had physical contact with the deceased. 
  4. Communication. This is, quite simply, your conversation with the dead. This can happen via many different mediums. A popular one used since the early 19th century is the famous Ouija board (known then as the talking board or the spirit board). Pendulums can be used for simple yes/no questions. Tarot decks and other divination tools can also be used for more complex questions.
  5. Dismissal of the dead. This is the point where the persons enacting the ritual have completed their business with the spirit of the dead and dismisses them. It is important to use this step because hauntings have resulted from persons not properly breaking contact with the spirits they have summoned.
  6. Reestablishment of 'normal' consciousness. Equally important is the return to 'normal' consciousness after any sort of magical endeavor. It is not only good practice but it makes it easier for the necromancer to not be bothered by other spirits as they go about their day. Sometimes, the dead can be quite chatty and they'll make a point of trying to get the attention of someone they can tell has any sort of ability to perceive them.
If one wishes to undertake a simple foray into necromancy, it is better to seek out the assistance of someone who has skill in this area. When done improperly, necromancy can become problematic. The dead are not always kindly towards the living. Sometimes, they will cause problems for them for reasons that we can not fathom. These problems might manifest as small items going missing (such as your keys disappearing from where you put them EVERY day) to technology going haywire or items being manipulated (your radio keeps turning itself on but it's mechanically sound, for example). In the event of such a situation, one should seek the assistance of a person who can perform an exorcism or otherwise lay said spirit to rest. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Devotional Polytheist Meme Question No. 8

What methods of altering consciousness does your tradition have?

The most commonly used method is that of hypnotic trance induction. Along with the fairly basic hypnotic trance induction, I have used chanting, rocking back and forth, and rhythmic movement (such as passing a set of prayer beads through my fingers). Most commonly, I use a few different techniques at the same time. Generally, my altered consciousness states are used in meditation.

I don't do as much spellcraft as I did before. I have found that my uses for spellcraft have become more specialized then what they were in the past. I do, however, spend time in an altered state of consciousness listening for the gods and what they might have to impart to me on a given day. The habitual entrance of a trance state has made it easier for me to achieve it. I have developed a set of visual and tactile cues that 'drop' me into a trance state.

Certain scents do this to me as well. These are listed below. There seems to be some sort of established history of these scents inducing trance state. I don't know if this is due to the scent itself or if it is due to the very strong correlation between the scent and trance priming the mind for the state. While I'd like to try using some herbal methods of trance induction, concerns about how they would react with my medications has stopped me. (And that herb that people like to talk about inducing trance, I start wheezing when I get around the stuff so even if it were legal I wouldn't have that option.)

Scents that induce trance for me:
  • Sandalwood
  • Frankincense
  • Myrrh
  • Dragon's blood
  • Pine 
  • Cedar

Devotional Polytheist Meme Question No. 7

What offerings do you make in your tradition and why?

The offerings that I make fall just about everywhere on the spectrum. The ones I give to Dea are those of works, flowers, and devotional writing. (This blog is amongst my devotional writings for Dea's sake.) Those I give to the Norse deities range much wider. For Freyr, I give my writing and personal energy. The writing is something he has requested of me and the personal energy is something that has felt correct to give intuitively. Loki asks for random things and when they are within my capacity to give them to him, I do. I give Odin regular offerings of hard liquor, which he seems to approve of and enjoy.

I am still building my relationships with the other Æsir, Vanir, and Jotnar. As these deities (and yes, I am one of those scandalous people who consider the Jotnar deities in their own right) make requests of offerings, I will do my best to provide them. Some of my offerings that I give fall in line with some traditional ones, like Odin's hard liquor or Dea's flowers. These are my recognition of traditional practices that have come before me.

Others are my filling the requests of the gods (such as Loki's regular morning cup of coffee, recently it has been a demitasse of espresso). I have found that several of my offerings resonate with those of other modern followers of these gods. (The shared PG1 of many of Loki's followers is that he enjoys coffee, to continue my earlier example.) It leads me to believe that these offerings are something that are not only requested of myself but perhaps many, many other followers and will eventually become accepted as a modern standard offering.

The third reason for giving offerings is because I have a desire to give the gods gifts to express my esteem and devotion. The things that currently fall under this heading is the semi-regular offering of incense for Odin, random crocheted prayer items for various gods, and devotional writing for Dea. The way I see it, the gods have given me so much good in my life, I am obligated to some extent to give gifts back to them. I am also someone who firmly believes in giving gifts to those people in my life who I care for. This also extends to the gods.

On occasion, I do give votive offerings. They are generally given at the time of the request. The offering is presented with a written request of the gods which I also say aloud. Ideally, I would burn the slips of paper that the requests are written on after they have been filled. My living situation doesn't allow for me to do so, thus I destroy them by hand and put them into my recycling.

And there are the offerings that I give as a continuation of how I was 'raised' within the pagan world. At harvest time, I give a portion of the first fruits of my harvest to the gods. I regularly burn candles for the gods as well. When I have it, I will give offerings of bread and wine to them also. All of this reflects the Wiccan tradition that I was trained in. The gods seem to approve of these offerings, thus I continue to give them on a regular basis.

1. PG stands for personal gnosis.

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Shrine for the Beloved Dead.

There are many reasons a person would set up a shrine for their beloved dead. One common reason is to honor the deceased and the relationship that you had with them in this life. Many people believe that the dead have the capacity to influence the world and to petition on the behalf of the living with the deities. Some shrines are elaborate affairs and maintained by the community. This would include things such as memorial garden established in the community, a memorial monument, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or a graveyard. Other shrines are very private and simple. This could be a collection of photos of the dead, the regular placement of flowers, and the burning of incense or candles.

Most commonly, people will honor their ancestors and departed friends. There is, however, an established habit of roadside shrines being hastily constructed by the community for persons who died of violence or from a particularly egregious car accident. One does not need to only focus on the dead whom they are related to or have had some sort of personal connection to during their lifetime. It is also possible to honor deceased persons who have been highly influential in one's life by way of their works or otherwise have made an impressionable impact on their life. There is also a sub-practice of establishing a memorial shrine that includes deceased pets.

The simplest ancestor shrine is the placement of a memento or an item that symbolizes the dead. More complex shrines can be made into free standing structures or special cases that hold mementos of the dead and offerings to the dead. My personal ancestors shrine consists of a shelf. On that shelf is an assortment of items that I associate with my familial dead and deceased friends. There is a small vase which I will put an offering of flowers in on a regular basis. I also have an electric candle that I keep lit all the time for them as well. (The lit candle, in my usage, is a beacon that helps the bring the kindly dead to me and show my beloved dead that they are welcome in my home.) I also have a little box that I will put physical offerings in.

As you may have intuited, one may leave offerings for the dead. There are a variety of ways to do this. One can lay flowers at the deceased's grave site. This is a very common offering for the dead. Another thing that can be done is to light candles or burn incense for the dead. The candles are found quite frequently in Christian Catholic influenced settings and faith systems (such as Santeria or Voudon). The practice of burning incense for the dead has been done as long as there has been recording of people burning incense. There are some people who will give food offerings to the dead. (In urban America, there is a semi-regular practice of pouring out a bottle of alcohol in memory of the dead.)

In addition to leaving offerings for the dead, a person can pray to and commune with the dead. This is actually a very common practice. Within Christian belief systems, one will find frequent reference to praying to persons who have deceased and believed to have joined the company of their deity in the paradise referred to as Heaven. The Catholic community refers to these deceased persons as saints. (Saint is a generic term for the deceased who are in good standing within the faith. Saint as a title refers to deceased persons who are especially blessed and believed to have considerable intercessory powers and capable of performing miracles for those who petition them.) Praying to the dead and giving them offerings is a practice that helps strengthen familial ties and bolster one's sense of filial duty, when the veneration focuses specifically upon family.

Maintaining a shrine for the dead can be quite complicated. At it's core, maintaining a shrine requires the regular cleansing of the shrine and ensuring it is in good condition. It also includes the disposal of the remains of offerings in a fashion that is in proper accordance with the beliefs of the persons who are maintaining the shrine. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Devotional Polytheist Meme Question No. 6

What does it feel like when one receives inspiration from the gods?

 Ecstasy just is not a strong enough word for it. It feels as though I am drowning in light. It feels as though I am caught in a roaring river and getting carried away by the irresistible force. It is like listening to the most perfect strain of music ever fashioned played flawlessly by the greatest of performers to have ever lived.

I am failing to express this sensation. It is like looking into the Sun, though curiously painless and you do not come away injured. When moved to speak, I feel it heavy on my tongue like honey and it pours out my mouth like water. It is like when you encounter something so beautiful and awe-full that you are moved to weep before it.

The description of the 'touch' of the gods as being like fire is also adequate. It burns away everything else from your senses leaving only that sensation there for you to focus on. And you can not help but focus on it because it is utterly entrancing. Paradoxical descriptions and heavy poetry are all weak ways to describe it. Unfortunately, feeble words are all we have for this because nothing in this world is like it. There are moments that begin to echo something of the qualities it has but they're nothing more then an echo of it.

Devotional Polytheist Meme Question No. 5

If you could travel anywhere on pilgrimage, where would it be and why?

This is a question that I honestly have no idea how to answer. A part of me says I would be delighted to go to Uppsala and to walk that sacred ground. Another part of me says I should visit the modern shrine to Freyr that I read about a few years ago where they keep horses in his honor. (It is odd that I clearly recall reading about this place and now I can not find their webpage. I hope that they are still about that business as the world needs more holy places recognized for the various religions in it.)

And then there are the countless holy sites associated with the various manifestations of Dea. The idea of visiting places like Lourdes where the Blessed Mother has been seen sounds very tempting to me as well. A part of me fancies that it would be a lovely thing to catch even an echo of that glorious moment. The idea of going to these places and walking the ground, getting some kind of attachment to the place sounds quite pleasing to me.

More likely, however, I would go visit the places where my family came from. I feel a deep sense of importance to knowing where I come from. Part of this comes out of the fact that I was raised with a good deal of pride in my heritage. Part of this also comes from the fact that I walk with one foot in this world and one foot in the other. Going to places that allow me to learn more of those who came before me makes it easier for me to work with the dead.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Devotional Polytheist Meme Question No. 4

What are some ways you communicate with the gods?

This is an interesting question. As Rumi wrote, There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground; there are a thousand ways to go home again. The essence of this quote is that there are many, many ways to pray and establish your relationship with the Divine. As an amateur artist, I use my artwork as a vehicle to communicate with the gods. More often, I pray while I am doing crochet, but I have made devotional paintings as well. As I am working on a piece, I meditate upon what I wish to communicate to the gods and work to incorporate the essence of the prayer into what I am crafting.

I will speak or write down my prayers as well. Some of this comes out in prose, like what I pen in my prayer journals. (I keep three. One for Freyr, one for Loki, and one for Dea. Loki is the one who got me started writing in the journals on a daily basis.) The tone of my prose prayers come out more like letters to the gods. Usually, they are expressions of gratitude and what things are presently on my mind. Frequently, my prayer journals read like letters to dear friends where I share things that I feel are important and of strong emotional influence on my life.

There are times, however, where my prayers come out in more poetic language. The prayers to Dea are most frequently in blank verse poetry. It was from these prayers that I assembled my little book. My spontaneous spoken prayers tend to be blank verse couplets, though there have been times where I accidentally used some complicated rhyming schemes. (It's made things a wee bit frustrating to later record when I can't recall exactly what I said at the time.)

I also do my best to make my daily activities prayerful ones. I was inspired to do this upon reading the autobiographical writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux where she spoke of her Little Way. I strive to take even the least of my actions and dedicate them to the gods. Some days, this is very difficult to do. Distractions and emotional tumult that comes with bipolar disorder makes it very hard to remain so focused on the Divine. The hardest of all the tasks that I attempt in honor of the gods is forgiving myself of my all to human flaws and resisting the effects of my illnesses.

When I am not actively engaged in prayer, I find a measure of comfort and communion with the gods by way of reading and listening to the works of others. I am especially moved by those of the Beguines and St. Hildegarde of Bingen. It seems odd that the works of medieval Christian women are what speak strongest to me, but their comprehension of divine love rings so very true for me. It becomes a passive means by which I might open myself to the gods and align myself with their will.

In many ways, that is the goal of my prayer life. While I do not seek to renounce the world, for it is filled with wonders and I firmly believe that only a small population of the world is called to renounce it for purely spiritual pursuits. I seek, however, to bring myself into greater alignment with the gods because in every instance I have attempted to do so, good things have come into my life. In my effort to clarify my place with the gods and my role in the world, I depend heavily upon prayer and meditation. I suppose one could say that this is the fruit of my fascination with medieval European culture. What ever the cause of it, these things form the core of my spiritual life and are the means by which I express myself to the gods.