You’re Probably Not Chosen, and That’s Okay

Last night on Twitter, I found a tweet thread that I thoroughly agreed with pertaining to the notion of spirit animals and how it’s culturally appropriative to use the term, and outright disrespectful when people say “unicorns are my spirit animal” or “whiskey is my spirit animal”:

I’ll let you read the whole thread, written by an Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) person with actual claim and propriety to speak on the matter, because the thread is a little long and it deserves reading.

It’s a sensitive topic for many people, but she makes fine points all around, and I can’t really disagree with them in any reasonable sense.  There are good comparisons between how people in popular occulture and New Age scenes use the word “spirit animal” with the word “shaman”, which originally applied only to Central Asian steppe-based Mongolian or Turkic tribal religions; unless you’re practicing a form of Tengrism, technically speaking, you’re not a shaman or working a shamanic path.  However, the term was adopted and adapted by anthropologists (who, I might add, typically are from Western Europe and take on a subtly colonialist-universalist view of every culture that isn’t theirs) to be applied across the board to countless religions, traditions, and cultures far removed in time, space, and language from those Central Asian priests based on perceived or superficial similarities.  In general, the word “shaman” is used wherever “priest” would normally be used, except for cultures that were deemed more “primitive” or “undeveloped” as, say, something more established, formalized, structured, or civilized as in the West.  As Kalagni shared in a related discussion on my Facebook page,

When (white) people go on about how there are analogs in other cultures, and that “spirit animal” is generic, they really mess up their history. Yes, “spirit animal” is generic and in English, but the term was coined in English to refer to Native beliefs as part of their persecution and eradication. Also, as part of another side rant, if wypipo also want to harp on about how “we have culture”, then use the goddamn names from your our culture then and prove it.  Then again, white (North American) culture did steal a lot from Native folks…so it’s part of their culture in that way.

I’d say shaman is a better case, because it’s not an English word, so despite being applied to “shamanic” traditions everywhere now, you can point and say “This is the language and culture it came from.” People have trouble grokking that with spirit animal because it’s in English, so obviously it’s a white people thing.

And, of course, as is commonly joked-not-joked?

There’s so much that can be said about this topic, and how the line is hazy or non-existent between cultural appropriation and syncretism, what the best term to describe something is depending on circumstance and originating context, whether fylgjas or totems or tutelars or paredoi or other concepts are similar enough to be clustered together (typically they aren’t except by people who don’t understand them), and so on.  Honestly, while I thought about writing about this discussion, I really don’t have much to add at the present time besides “don’t do it, and understand what you’re actually describing before you open your mouth and why you should or shouldn’t say it a certain way”; that wouldn’t make for a very exciting blog post, though, would it?  Besides, I’ll let people from the actual originating cultures speak for themselves, and keep my own mouth shut.

But there is a related topic that I can speak about, and don’t think is spoken about enough in Western occulture, New Age, and pagan thought.  People (think they) have spirit animals because they feel that the animal has chosen them; some people have patrons or matrons/patronesses (I’m not sure why “matron” isn’t the default term here, but okay, whatever) in this pantheon or that system, and all around people claim that they are “chosen” by some big-name entity or to do some monumental task.

People go on about how they’ve been chosen by some thing for some thing to do some thing, and…in general?  I don’t buy it as much as others do, or as much as I did.

I suspend my disbelief out of politeness, and see how far it goes for the person in our conversations, but for the vast majority of people and the vast majority of cases, they’re not chosen. And that’s okay!  Not only is it the norm to not be chosen, but in many of these traditions, there’s no notion of “choosing” that the gods or spirits do for us.  Moreover, any such notion is generally a recent Western overlay, much how “shaman” is used for African, Native American, and Central Asian religions despite their differences in context and origin.

I would think that the notion of having a patron in general comes from Catholic influences, where people can have a patron saint, or where a certain profession, area, or trade is associated with a saint who’s related to the thing in some way.  By being involved in that profession or trade, you can petition that saint for special help above and beyond a general-purpose spirit, sure, but you can also do the same by having your own patron saint.  Sometimes this is found based on the day of the year of the calendar of saints you’re born on, sometimes this is based on where you’re born, and sometimes it’s simply something you choose (note that it’s you doing the choosing of the saint, not necessarily the other way around) at baptism or confirmation.  This saint helps intercede for you through their unceasing prayer, not as a mediator of prayer to God but to pray alongside you to better live a better life here and in the hereafter.  This is a pretty common practice in Catholic and close-to-Catholic traditions, and seeing how that undergirds much of the past thousand-ish years of Western European philosophy and religion…well, it’s a common notion, to say the least.

So now we have all these new or newly-reborn traditions and religions, some invented out of whole (old) cloth, some reconstructed from historical and religious research: Hellenism, Heathenry, Kemeticism, Religio Romana, Rodnovery, and so on.  There are also living traditions, such as Vajrayana Buddhism or Shinto, that never died out and are extant, vibrant, and practiced to this day in their own ways.  In each, there are often an abundance of deities, demigods, heroes, saints, spirits, and whatnot.  Okay, good, cool, excellent!  The more, the merrier.  Each has its own cultural background, historical context, linguistic reliances, and so on; sometimes those who are in the know of more than one tradition can syncretize parts of them, sometimes parts of different religions ought to stay separate and far from each other.  Something I can say, however, regarding many of these traditions?  The notion of a spirit “picking” or “choosing” you is…uncommon, if not absent entirely, without having been previously syncretized with Western Christian or modern neopagan (which has some Western Christian elements) ideas.

Let me offer my own experience with something personal to me.  In La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (or Santería, as is commonly known, the Yoruba diasporic religion as it developed in Cuba with Catholic influences), there is a notion that everyone has a patron saint of sorts, an orisha that claims the head of everyone.  You don’t really get a say in who owns your head; that comes out in a special divination reading where humans don’t get to choose, but the orisha themselves choose.  In my case, it came out (surprisingly to me, at the time) that Ogun owns my head; that is a case where I was, in fact, chosen to have that connection with him in a way that other people don’t necessarily have, even if they work with Ogun or have other connections or relationships with him.  However, unlike the orisha who owns my head, it was not chosen for me to be initiated.  Some people are told that, yes, they are meant to initiate as a priest in Santería, that it is indeed an already done deal where they don’t really have much of a say in the matter if they want to continue living their destiny as it was written for them.  That wasn’t the case for me; regardless of what orisha owns my head, it was not chosen for me to initiate, and I was not told that it was necessarily part of my destiny nor that I must initiate.  Instead, I made the choice to initiate; I chose to have that relationship with Ogun, and I chose to have Ogun put on my head.  The fact that I have Ogun on my head doesn’t preclude me from working with other orisha; I still have vows and pacts made with my courts of orisha, and I can and do work with them in ways that others can’t or don’t.  Even then, however, Ogun may have been my patron saint all along in that system, but it was I who made that relationship real and tangible by my own volition and sacrifice.

Now, let me compare the similarities of that to my work with Hermes.  There are lots of things in my life that I do or that I have going on that do, in fact, relate well to Hermes’ domain: linguistics, languages, mathematics, programming, astrology, divination, conjuration, magic, trickery, trade, and on and on.  I work in a building that used to be one of the grandest post offices in the United States, and is designed with caducei and paeans to Hermes-Mercury on the pediments.  For all this, it makes sense for me to work with Hermes, because the things of his influence are already around me.  However, that does not mean I’m chosen by him to work with him, any more than a person who grew up in a family of chefs and bakers is chosen to be a culinarian themselves.  Rather, I chose to establish a shrine to him and offer sacrifices and honor in his name; I chose to have his emblem tattooed on my mortal flesh; I chose to work with him.  He did not chose me, not only because the notion of having a patron deity is unfamiliar and foreign to Hellenism, but because he…well, didn’t.  All these things in my life that are under his influence are things I chose to have in my life; he didn’t send them in my way to lure me to him, but I chose them.  Just so did I choose him, and I continue to choose him.

Another example I can offer is my own connection to what I may have called my “spirit animal” in an earlier time.  (Forgive me for declining to say what it is, but those who know me will already know what it is.)  This is an animal that I indeed feel a connection to, and which seems right and proper for me to work with.  But, that said, I’ll be honest with you: I went out of my way to find this animal, and I formed a connection with it of my own volition.  I can’t say that it’s my totem (because that’s more of a clan/lineage/family thing) or my spirit animal, because I don’t belong to the tradition that came up with the idea or that uses those terms; I rather say that it’s my tutelary animal or that I simply work with that animal spirit, because that’s more accurate and descriptive of what I do.  Moreover, this is a connection that allows for other connections to be formed with other animals as the case may be, sometimes as strongly as my primary tutelar, sometimes not so much, sometimes stronger as the case may be; I work with the spirit on my own connection, and listen to it if it needs something, but this is a spirit that ultimately I chose.  I may have encountered it in a strong way, but it was I who chose to stay with it and not pass over it.

I see that distinction a lot like how an astrological magician might view their own horoscope.  For instance, it was not a matter of my choosing when I was born; I am a Libra by virtue of my birth, and so could be said to have been “chosen” to be born under that sign.  It does not necessarily mean that Venus is my ruling planet, nor does it mean that I have to work with Venus or any of the deities associated with that planetary sphere except by my own volition.  Nor, for that matter, does it mean that I can’t work with other planets, or that I have some past-life connection with Venus, or that I am specifically chosen to do Venerial things in the world above and beyond other people, especially other Venus-ruled people (whether or not they’re Libras, Tauruses, Pisces, or another sign entirely).  I know of some people who live lives that would seem to run directly counter to their zodiac sign or almuten, often to great effect and purpose, but that’s because they often chose that path in life and worked for it.

Some people have certain entities that they work with closely and intimately, sometimes to enhance their own works; a photographer, for instance, could petition Saint Veronica because she holds special significance for photography and photographers generally.  Other times, they work with a certain entity because it enhances their own personal development, like a mask they can adopt to adapt themselves to the traits and characteristics of that entity that, over time, they can better facilitate and embody, like someone working with the spirit of the Wolf to be stronger, more cunning, braver, or more ruthless.  We can easily and properly say that we work with these spirits or entities because we’re already involved in their sphere, but that’s not because they came to us and made us work in their sphere.  Consider: at a banquet where you’re presented with multiple dishes, you don’t say that the first dish that was presented with you is what “chose” you, or that whatever dish you most like “chose” you.  You choose what you want to eat or pass over, and you choose what you want to take home and try to recreate in your own kitchen to make your life tastier.

In some cases, yes, someone is, in fact, chosen by some entity to do some sort of work.  The more I see, however, someone being chosen like this is actually kinda uncommon; more people who claim that they’re chosen aren’t, and are rather describing something they chose of their own volition as being out of their hands.  I consider this a kind of false modesty, ascribing one’s own choices in something to the work of the gods, and I…it twangs my sensibilities.  Some people might ascribe such choices to fate or predestination, which is not only a kind of false modesty but also handwaving away their own choices to something that can’t be proved.  Rather, people may feel a draw to some practice or divinity, but be honest: is that because they’re actually being lured to it by the divinity, or are they acting on an impulse and drive that they themselves have and want to explore because it’s actually something that clicks with them?  Are they told that they need to work with some deity or entity, or are they doing so because the person has their own needs given the themes and motifs in their lives that that particular entity can help with more than others?  Are they chosen to work with that deity, or do they chose to work with that deity?

There is no harm in saying that you chose a connection, relationship, or patronage with some spiritual entity.  While it may be an honor to have been chosen, it is also exceedingly honorable to willingly make that choice yourself, if not even more honorable, because it’s you who’s forming the connection, doing the work, making the sacrifices, and going above and beyond the normal level of devotion one might have into something truly special, rare, and powerful.  To do something of one’s own free will and unbidden by the gods that pleases them is almost always a sweeter sacrifice than any fumigation or libation or festival than they demand.  There’s no shame in saying that you chose this animal, this saint, this deity as your patron; if you’re earnest about it, and actually dedicate (literally giving over) yourself, I would say that you’re doing both you, the spirit themselves, and the world an honor by it.

So be honest with yourself.  Did the spirit you claim chose you actually choose you, or did you choose the spirit and choose to form that relationship with them?

I know this can press some people’s buttons, and this can easily lead to a topic of debate that borders on insult and aggravation.  Plus, there are definitely problems of destiny, fate, free will, and the subtle machinations of spirits that can influence what we “choose”, but in our limited human consciousness, we have to take responsibility as much as we can for our actions.  By all means, dear reader, share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, but please be respectful towards others if you do so.

Hestia and Me

A large part of my devotional activities focus on working with the Greek gods.  This goes well beyond Hermes, of course, though he does take up the major focus of my work between the new field of mathesis as well as being the god of guides and a guide of gods, men, spirits, souls, and heroes.  I also honor Aphrodite, who’s arguably my celestial mother in astrological terms, as well as Hephaistos for my crafting work, and Dionysos because he came into my life for an as-yet unclear purpose and who am I to turn down He Who Comes?  There are yet other gods I honor and work with, enough so that it helped me out to develop a ritual calendar for making monthly offerings based on lunar cycles and grammatomancy.

One of the gods who made that list is the hearth goddess Hestia, lady of the hearth flame and arguably the definition of domestic deity, whose name itself literally means “hearth”.  Hestia is a daughter of Kronos and Rhea, of the same generation of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, and Hades.  She is probably the least dramatic of all the Olympians, not having many stories of her exploits since she didn’t really have any, and the only one that comes to mind is how she got her position as goddess of the hearth.  Basically, Apollo and Poseidon both wanted her hand in marriage, but she wanted nothing of them nor of marriage in general, and so begged Zeus to remain a virgin all her days; Zeus agreed, and instead of giving her in marriage gave to her the hearth of the gods and, thus, of all mankind.  And since in older times the hearth was the focal point of domestic life, providing warmth and light and food and protection for the family, Hestia became the goddess of all of these.

Moreover, as the household hearth was also often the shrine to nearly all the other household gods, as much as it was in Greece as it was in Rome, Hestia presided over all offerings and worship made at her hearth.  Indeed, since she was both first-born of the original six Olympians as well as last-born (recall how Zeus ripped out or forced his father Kronos to vomit his other children, and how Hestia was eaten first and therefore escaped last), it was custom for Hestia to receive both the first offering and last offering made at any ancient Greek ritual.  Going to a scale larger than the family, Hestia was often viewed as the goddess of the city hearth itself, with a central fire from which all other hearts burned and took their fire, and from which other colonies of a given city could trace their hearthfires back to as well.  Even more unusual for a Greek deity, she had no processions of her own, no parades to celebrate her; as the hearth was an immovable part of the household, so too was Hestia’s worship and honor solely situated on the hearth itself.  In spite of Hestia’s lack of epic poetry or exploitations, she’s kind of a big deal to the ancients.

I associate Hestia, according to Agrippa (book II, chapter 14), with the zodiacal sign of Capricorn, and thus with the Greek letter Rho according to the stoicheia of the letters.  Her day is the 21st day of the lunar month, which I would normally set aside to make special offerings for her as I do the other gods, but Hestia is different in many ways.  In fact, up until earlier this year, I didn’t really honor Hestia at all.  Sure, there was the genius domus and genius loci, the spirits of the house and land where I lived, and I referred to them as “children” of Hestia and Gaia, and worked with them to make my residence better for myself and my neighbors.  That said, there was no real hearth to the place; it was a second-story apartment in a suburb of DC, our living room was nearly bare and only my roommate spent any amount of time in it, and our kitchen was small and cramped.  It was only when I moved to my new house this year that I decided to formally welcome Hestia into my life and my new house, especially since this new house has an actual wood stove placed against a stone wall with built-in stone shelves.

Now, before I proceed any further, let it be known that while I work with and honor the Greek gods, I am not a Hellenist in the sense of belonging to Hellenismos, the Greek neopagan reconstructionist religion.  I do not follow all the rules and customs that survive to us from ancient writings, nor do I follow the rules and customs of other Hellenistic communities; I generally do my own thing, inspired by the rules and customs as well as by my own experience and interactions with the gods themselves.  After all, times and cultures change, and it’s a given that most traditions change with them.  I’d love to make more offerings of piglets and pigeons to Hermes and Hephaistos, for instance, though I need to build and consecrate a proper altar outside for that, and most neopagans would revile me for even entertaining the thought of blood sacrifice, though I have nothing against it.

Though I live with my fiancé and our mutual close friend, none of us are particularly into cooking large meals.  When we cook at all, we tend to cook for our individual selves, and regardless of whether we cook for ourselves or for all of us, we do it in the kitchen with our fancy modern stove and oven and microwave and cooking supplies.  We don’t use our woodstove to cook (though we may experiment with it foolishly come the winter), nor do we keep it burning (we’ve not used it yet and should probably get the chimney cleaned first), nor do we rely on it for warmth (we have a HVAC system for that) nor for light (since we have electric lightbulbs and not torches or firepits).  We live out in the country, so there’s no big municipal center with its own central hearth, since hearths and common grounds both are generally missing in most of modern urban, suburban, exurban, or rural America.  Even if there were a local community hearth fire, I strongly doubt most people in this neck of the woods would think to honor an ancient Greek goddess with any amount of reverence.  Most of how the ancient Greeks honored Hestia simply doesn’t work for me, and indeed, most of the relevance Hestia had to the ancient Greeks is missing for me.

Still, that doesn’t mean I should just ignore Hestia; she’s an Olympian for a reason, after all, and although many of the amenities of houses have changed, the things for which she stands never have.  We still need light, heat, and food, which Hestia provides through an old-fashioned hearth or through modern lightbulbs and HVAC systems and ovens.  We still need shelter, protection, and a place to call “home”, which Hestia abundantly provides.  We still need a place to gather and celebrate our lives and rituals, which Hestia allows us to do.  Hestia, though she is the goddess of the hearth which is becoming rarer and rarer to find these days in active use, is also the goddess of the home generally, and we definitely have one of those.  It is thus right for me to honor Hestia, giving her a spot to call her own, her own simple shrine in the place she’d feel most comfortable and honored: right by our fireplace.  At the very minimum, I acknowledge her every day as the goddess of the hearth, house, and home itself, and thank her for letting me live there and watching over the house.

Still, I don’t honor Hestia as the ancients did, nor how Hellenists tend to do.  For one, Hestia is an outlier to me; she was one of the original Olympians, yes, but recall that there are 12 Olympians.  There’s Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hephaistos, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, and Demeter, who form 11 of the 12, but there’s both Hestia and Dionysos to deal with.  Although we don’t have a surviving story that says as much, it’s believed that Hestia gave up her seat at the table of the Olympians to give to Dionysos when he was (re)inducted into the Olympian ranks; Hestia did this to prevent upsetting a balance or causing drama, always the arbiter of peace and prosperity in the home, and took her eternal place by the hearth of the gods.  Likewise, I have my temple room on the other side of the house from the hearth where I do all my spiritual work, with all my shrines and altars and prayer tools.  Hestia, on the other hand, is separated from all that, kept by the fireplace in the living room, isolated from both my spiritual work as well as that of my fiancé and housemate.  My gods are not the household gods, and they’re kept in their own little temenos apart from the public spaces in the house.

Further, while my other gods get their monthly offerings (or, depending on the god, weekly), and although Hestia has a day set aside for her in my lunisolar grammatomantic ritual calendar, I do something different and make offerings to Hestia much more frequently.  I buy novena-like 8″ glass-jar candles from the dollar store near where I live in bulk, and they last about 5 days each; I keep one burning for Hestia at her shrine, and when it goes out, I light her another one along with making her an offering of wine, oil, and incense, and sing out her Orphic Hymn and (short) Homeric Hymn.  The only other shrines I light this type of candle for are my primary devotional altar (which serves as a symbol of the Eternal Infinite Light of God) and for my ancestors, though neither shrine gets special offerings when I light them a new candle (the ancestors have their own trimonthly schedule of offerings).  Hestia gets a large amount of attention from me every five days or so, amounting to about six offerings a month, which is more than the other gods.  Even Hermes gets weekly offerings in addition to his larger monthly offerings, so about five offerings a month.

That said, I’ve only recently started up the process of making an obligatory initial offering to Hestia before the monthly offerings of my other gods.  Before I do any offerings to, say, Zeus on his day of the month, I set out a small amount of wine and oil by her image, thanking her for allowing me a place to live, love, rest, relax, and honor the gods, then I go back to my temple and resume my usual song and dance.  This doesn’t apply to my weekly offerings; those I find more intimate, casual, and off-the-cuff with individual deities I share a very close relationship with, and not everyone gets both a weekly and monthly offering.  Overall, making a preliminary offering to Hestia is a nice gesture, and it helps me prepare myself mentally to do anything else with the gods.  Sure, it’s a little more wine and oil spent, but it’s worth it.  I don’t, however, make her an offering after my other monthly stuff; it suffices for us that she get the first pour of wine.  Plus, this only applies when I’m working with the Greek gods; different traditions necessitate different rules, and some traditions (like Santeria) specify that one of their deities must be fed first; in order to prevent a conflict of interest when one might arise, I keep Hestia before offerings to Greek gods and other deities before gods of their own kind.  (This is one of the problems with having your fingers in so many spiritual pots.)

When it comes to food, well, none of us are big cookers or bakers, though we are known to prepare some large dishes from time to time, or host an occasional dinner party.  When we produce a large amount of food (and I’m talking something substantially more than a pot of macaroni and cheese for an after-work dinner), we set aside small portions for our ancestors, and I set aside another small portion for Hestia.  After all, if the hearth is where food is cooked, then it can be argued that the kitchen is one such hearth for us, and since Hestia allows us a home to live in and cooked food to live on, it’s proper to honor her too.  This follows no schedule, of course, beyond whenever we happen to make a large amount of food or bake a loaf of bread.  When it’s time for the food to be removed, a day or more after I make the offerings, I do with the food the same as I do all the other spiritual offerings; throw it into the pit in my backyard.  That way, we feed the land with the actual material food, which in turn provides more for us both materially and spiritually and helps out the fae and other flora and fauna, both physical and metaphysical, in our area.  In other words, we compost.

Of course, Hestia isn’t the only household spirit we work with.  As I mentioned, we have a big fae population where we live out in the woods, and we feed the fae once in a while, perhaps giving them offerings of their choice (usually red wine and berries with whipped cream).  Plus, in addition to Hestia, I also have a household guardian, a coywolf spirit I’ve been working with for some time now.  The coywolf gets offerings along with Hestia, and a smaller candle lit just for her.  If we get other spirits who decide to take up residence with us as household spirits or guardians, we’ll likewise honor them in a similar way; that said, I don’t exactly intend to call on them the same way as I did the genii I did in my old flat; Hestia and the coywolf guardian suffice for my needs.  It’s not like I need to ask them for much, either; they keep the household running safely and soundly, and all goes well.  When I offer a candle to Hestia, I often dress the candle with oils that encourage peace, prosperity, and fortune in the home for me and my housemates.

So, when I actually do make offerings to Hestia, what is it I seek from her?  I mean, honoring the gods in and of itself is a virtue that should be inculcated, but in my Hermetic and Hermaic mind, nearly all worship and honor is a transaction.  Of course I honor her because she’s Hestia, but I also honor her to ask for her blessing.  When it comes to Hestia, I think my goals are pretty straightforward: I want to live in a place that is safe, stable, and secure from those who would try to harm me intentionally or unintentionally; I want to live in a place that helps me obtain peace, prosperity, and protection from the world, both natural and humane; I want to live in a place that gives me tranquility and takes away tension.  I want a place where I can live, learn, love, rest, relax, study, store my belongings.  I want a place where I don’t have to be evicted or come under threat of it.  I want a place that won’t be destroyed by plague, earthquake, fire, or flood.  I want a place where I can be warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot, dry when it’s raining, fed when I’m hungry, rested when I’m fatigued, and safe when I’m persecuted.  I want a place to call home.

Of all the sacred places in ancient Greek thought, from Gibraltar in the West to the Indus in the East and all the shrines and temples in between, probably the most sacred one of them is the oikos, the home itself, which itself is the sanctuary beyond all sanctuaries and temple beyond all temples, the one to which we ourselves belong.  Hestia has much to provide for us, even in our day and age.