“Go not to the elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.” – Frodo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
I’m no elf, but last week I found myself saying both no and yes.
The title of last Tuesday’s post was You Will Never Be Ready – Do It Anyway. Then in Thursday’s post I said “if you need to agree with all of something in order to find it meaningful and helpful, you’re not ready for The Brazen Vessel…”
The fact that none of you accused me of contradicting myself shows you understand the importance of context. Tuesday’s post was about getting started despite fears and insecurities. The line in Thursday’s post was a reminder of the need for maturity… and a subtle acknowledgement that I wasn’t ready for that book a few years ago.
As always, discernment is required to avoid disappointments or disasters. Ordinary people in good health can hike to the top of some of Colorado’s 14ers – mountains over 14,000 feet tall. Other peaks require mountaineering equipment and the skills to use it. Grow those skills and you can climb some of the highest mountains in the world.
But every year people die because they try to climb mountains they’re not ready to climb. Some think because they’ve climbed two mountains and they can write an $80,000 check they’re ready to climb Mount Everest. A few make it anyway. Some have to turn back short of the summit. Others die on the mountain.
Mountain climbing is inherently dangerous – people die who are experienced and careful. But your odds are far better if you know what you’re doing.
What does this have to do with Paganism, polytheism, Druidry, and the like?
Sometimes we need to dive in head first. Sometimes we need to go slowly and deliberately. And sometimes we need to step back and make sure we’re really ready to climb this particular mountain.
Organizational and spiritual leadership: just do it
It’s one thing to sing in the choir. It’s another thing entirely to sing a solo, or to direct the choir. In the choir you’re one voice among many. If you’re off a bit no one will notice, and even if they do they won’t know it’s you. When you’re out front, everyone knows.
But somebody has to do it, and you may very well be the best person available. Or the only person available. You won’t be comfortable until you’ve done it a few times, or possibly a bunch of times. Anyone else would feel the same.
It’s best to have some training and some lower level experience before you step to the front. If you can get it, great. If you can’t, don’t let that stop you from doing what you’re called to do.
Have some humility, but have some confidence too. Just do it.
Religious devotion: do it mindfully
If you’re called to worship, honor, work with, or work for a God, just do it – don’t procrastinate. But do it mindfully.
The Gods are not whatever we want Them to be. They are who and what They are. They want what They want. And They’re Gods – they deserve to be treated with honor and reverence.
When you’re starting out, a good intent is usually enough. But the deeper you go, the more will be expected of you, and the less tolerance there will be for errors and omissions.
Read and study. Talk to experienced devotees. Pay attention to what you do and to the responses you get. There is no need to fear making a mistake, but the Gods deserve your best. Honor Them mindfully.
Ecstatic devotion: proceed with caution
Anyone can worship a God, or many Gods. Anyone can talk to Them in prayer and listen for Them in meditation. This is normal ordinary behavior in a polytheist environment. It’s what polytheists do.
The first-hand presence of a God in ecstatic experience is something different. It’s not normal and it’s certainly not ordinary. It’s beautiful and powerful and amazing, but the line between ecstasy and insanity is exceedingly thin. If it happens more than once (and maybe, if it happens at all) it becomes a long-term commitment that you can’t back out of just because it gets hard, or because you decide you’d rather do something else.If you feel called to ecstatic devotion but you don’t feel ready, take it slowly – let things come in their own time. Talk to others who are doing this work. Spend extra time in meditation. Negotiate terms and boundaries.
The danger here isn’t that you’ll do it wrong. The danger is that you’ll start something you can’t stop.
I don’t want it to stop. Make sure you don’t either before you begin.
Oaths to deities: eyes wide open
Our contemporary culture thinks an oath is something you promise to do for as long as you feel like doing it. Our ancestors knew better. An oath is something you promise to do, no matter that. No matter how difficult it gets, no matter how much you’d rather do something else.
An oath to a deity is the most serious of oaths, because They have greater means to enforce them.
Earlier this year I wrote 6 Reasons You Shouldn’t Swear an Oath to a God (and 3 Reasons You Should). If you haven’t read that post yet, or if you forgot what it says, read it now. Too many beginning polytheists think they have to swear an oath to a God to be a “real polytheist.” That’s simply not true. Worshipping one or more of the many Gods makes you a polytheist.
Oaths to deities are wonderful things, but make sure you know exactly what you’re promising, who you’re promising it to, and how long you’re promising it for.
Non-divine persons: listen to the experts
The Gods do Their own things for Their own reasons – reasons which may not coincide with your comfort and safety – but They are always virtuous. The same cannot be said for non-divine spirits and other persons. And there is some serious misinformation about them, particularly in regards to the Fair Folk.
If your ideas about fairies come from Disney, or from people who say “fairies just want help us” or “fairies will be our teachers if we listen” you are dangerously misinformed. The idea that fairies are helpful nature spirits is at odds with traditional lore and with the first-hand experience of those closest to themselves.
Read Morgan Daimler. Listen to the people who grew up in places like Ireland and Wales. Learn some traditional lore.
The same is true for those who wish to work with demons, or even angels. Listening to pop culture will get you hurt. Listen to the experts.
Magic: burned fingers vs. setting yourself on fire
Magic is dangerous, period.
Some magic works by manipulating unseen forces – forces that we don’t fully understand. Some magic calls on the aid of Gods and spirits. Gods are always virtuous but don’t always have your best interests in mind. Non-divine spirits are not always virtuous, and some of them view you as a tasty snack. Other magic works by psychological programming – do any of us really understand the inner workings of the human mind?
We don’t fully understand what we’re doing when we work magic and we certainly don’t know exactly what will happen. Work magic more than once or twice and something will go wrong. Perhaps you’ll have a funny story to tell. Perhaps you’ll learn an important less that you’d rather not share (raises hand). Or perhaps you’ll set yourself on fire – hopefully not literally, but that is a possibility, especially when you consider how many spells involve actual fire.
The bigger the spell, the greater the potential for something to go wrong, and for it to be painful if it does.
This is why you have to practice magic. Start small, so you make small mistakes. Then learn from them. You will burn your fingers. Practice mindfully and you won’t set yourself on fire.