Hermeticism, God, and the Gods: A Cast of Divinities

Whew.  Honestly, despite the difficulty of this somewhat-accidental post series, it’s good to get this all out of my system, because these are topics I’ve been wanting to write about for literal months or, in the case of this post, almost a year.  Although I know there’s plenty I’ve been writing about on my blog regarding Hermeticism, there’s just so much more to write about, think about, discuss, and share—and it really does help that I try to keep myself involved in online discussions about it, even if only to get more things to write about here.  This blog post series  about the polytheism inherent and explicit within classical Hermeticism, how the Hermetic texts construe “God” as a monist focus for mysticism, and how some people conflate and confuse monism for monotheism is worth the difficulty I’ve had in writing it, because it helps to clarify a lot of misconceptions that people sometimes develop when they encounter the Hermetic texts for the first time—or for the first hundred times, I dunno.  The Way of Hermēs is long, indeed, and some people take a slower or more circuitous route along it depending on what it is they’re doing in life.

For myself, as I’ve studied Hermeticism more and given it more thought as to what it claims, teaches, and looks like when implemented in (various kinds of) practice, I’ve shifted my perception of Hermeticism from that of a religion to that of a kind of mysticism.  Although I originally considered Hermeticism as a whole practice unto itself that could fulfill one’s religious needs, I’ve since moved away from that position.  As I also said in the first Hermeticism FAQ post about whether Hermeticism is a religion:

Kinda!  Although many modern people are scared or wary of the word “religion”, we should remember that many modern people’s conception of religion is colored by Christianity and Islam, when the case is much different for Hermeticism (and, indeed, many pagan religions).  Hermeticism is focused on God and the gods, and how to rise up to them in order to secure the salvation of the soul; in this, Hermeticism bears much in common with many religions.  However, Hermeticism (or what we have of it) doesn’t give us much in the way of fixed litanies or worship services, even though some can be constructed.  In its original context, Hermeticism was not meant to supplant or replace existing religions or religious cults, but to supplement them; for those who wanted more than just attending the usual temple sacrifices, Hermeticism would give more of a chance for profound spiritual experiences in a sort of extracurricular or after-hours setting.

The bit about Hermeticism not replacing existing religion is a thing I like to contemplate, and one which I’ve referenced earlier in this post series.  Rather than being something wholly separate from existing religious practices or traditions of its time, Hermeticism in its original Greco-Egyptian context was more like a mystical adjunct to one’s existing religious life.  For us modern folk, consider what it’s like to go to school as a child: you’d go to class to learn the basics of mathematics, literature, science, and the like, all of which is necessary for us.  However, for those with other interests, there are all manner of extracurricular or afterhours activities: athletics, culture clubs, student government, volunteer associations, and so on.  Depending on what else you might want to learn or engage in on top of your existing classwork and studies, you’d join in on some of these extracurricular activities which relied on your normal-hours schoolwork, but which you couldn’t just do instead of your expected schoolwork.  I consider Hermeticism to be much the same way: rather than being something separate to replace existing religious work as expected of any devout or respectful person in Hellenistic Egypt, Hermeticism provided a milieu for people who wanted “something more” than just the usual rites and sacrifices that everyday temple religion could offer.  In other words, Hermeticism provided an esoteric dimension to spirituality for those who wanted it in addition to the exoteric stuff they were already engaged with; it was intended to supplement, not to supplant. To that end, for all his focus on teaching about God, Hermēs Trismegistos does not neglect the gods; rather, he teaches that everyone should attend to them, but for those who are able, to also attend to God as being a step beyond the gods.

This is the fundamental mystic impulse of Hermeticism, the thing that sets it apart from Greco-Egyptian religion more broadly; the focus of Hermeticism lies not with the gods but with their (and our) pēgē, their (and our) Source or Font, not on divinities but on Divinity, not on the various creators but the Creator-of-creating-itself.  In addition to not having a clear sense of what a “Hermetic community” looked like back then or what such a community might have done (beyond tantalizing clues regarding rituals of spiritual rebirth or ascent, the ensoulment of statues, the performing of communal prayers and meals, and the like), we don’t have a clear sense of the specific religious beliefs of the classical Hermeticsts were as evidenced by their texts.  Sure, based on the works of Garth Fowden, Christian Bull, and Wouter Hanegraaff among others, we can make a reasonably good guess that the original Hermeticists were Egyptian priests or those trained and taught by them who were raised or educated in a Hellenistic Mediterranean culture that was highly syncretic across various aspects, the same syncretism producing and facilitating such cults as the Serapis cult, the Mithraic mysteries, Hypsistarianism, and the like.  Within this broad and dazzling array of beliefs and traditions, what the classical Hermetic texts specifically teach us about is principally about a mysticism regarding the true nature of the Creator, of Creation, of us (and the gods) as Creatures, how to live within and break out of the cosmos, how to shed the chains that keep us unfairly bound to mortal forms (or, rather, how to break our addiction to insipid incarnation), and the like—things that don’t really fit into the overall purview of “everyday temple religion”, at least in the Greco-Egyptian sense as we might otherwise popularly find it.  Hermeticism builds on such religion and uses it as a foundation, but doesn’t supersede, replace, or ignore it.  To my mind, Hermeticism is to Greco-Egyptian religion what Sufism is for Islam: not as something distinct and separate but as something that builds upon the other.

In that light, what would a sort of Greco-Egyptian religion look like that would be amenable to Hermeticism?  Setting praxis aside for the moment, what gods might there be to worship, what spirits might be recognized as being instrumental in the cosmos as facilitating our presence and passage in it from a Hermetic point of view?  It’s true that the Hermetic texts focus on God, but once you dig in enough—and we certainly have, but especially when you get into the practical/technical stuff of texts like the Greek Magical Papyri—we can get a good notion of who these mystical priests and their students would likely have been making offerings to.  Plus, if we were to rethink and reconsider some of these gods from the perspective of a student of Hermeticism, what sorts of Hermetic emphasis might we put onto these gods and entities?  What follows would be my own attempt at a sort of roster or cast list of deities and spirits that would be important for a Hermeticist.  To be clear: I don’t mean to suggest that what follows is what those in the heyday of classical Hermeticism would have themselves believed or gone to the gods for, or that they necessarily worshipped any or all of these gods, much less restricted themselves to only such a list.  Rather, I offer the following as food for thought, something to chew on if one were to consider a tentative “Hermetic pantheon” of sorts so as to develop or engage with the Hermetic texts as the foundation for a sort of theoretical polytheistic religiosity that feeds into Hermetic mysticism.  This is all also in addition to the obvious worship one would give to God.

To start, consider the big four people we get from studying the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius: Hermēs Trismegistos himself and his three students Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn.  Putting aside the fact that these four are presented as mortal humans in the Hermetic texts, albeit descended from divine forebears, we can consider them either as deified hero-saints or as gods in their own right:

  • Hermēs Trismegistos is himself Hermēs-Thōth, obviously.
  • Tat is conjectured to be just a variant form of Thōth, and so a more “pure” (but also perhaps a more naïve) Thōth than Hermēs-Thōth is himself, a “Thōth the student” (Tat) rather than “Thōth the teacher” (Hermēs Trismegistos).
  • Asklēpios is the Greek name for Imhotep (“He-who-comes-in-peace”) aka Imouthēs, a chancellor to the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser and high priest of Ra sometime in the 27th century BCE, eventually deified as a god of medicine and healing, hence his being equated to the Hellenic son of Apollōn.  However, more than just medicine, Imhotep was also honored as a patron of scribes (being joined/equated to Thōth) architects (likewise to Ptah, sometimes mythically claimed to be Imhotep’s father).
  • Ammōn is a Greek spelling for the Egyptian Amun, one of the most widely-revered deities across all of ancient Egypt, both geographically and chronologically.  For the Greeks, he was syncretized with Zeus; in addition to having various cosmological associations (at times with the Sun, Moon, or even the empty and invisible air or wind itself), Amun was a god of rulership and kingship (being the patron deity of Thebes), but also of mercy, mystery, protection of the poor, and personal piety.

In addition to the above, it would be remiss of me to not say anything regarding Poimandrēs, the very teacher of Hermēs Trismegistos himself in CH I.  Unlike the other four above, the name “Poimandrēs” doesn’t have an immediate presence or parallel in existing Greco-Egyptian religious texts—unless one were to read it in another light.  Rather than reading it in the folk-etymological way of as “shepherd of men”, the first way we might read this name is as a Hellenicization of the Coptic p.eime-ṇte-rē meaning “mind/understanding of Ra” (per Peter Kingsley, “Poimandres: The Etymology of the Name and the Origins of the Hermetica”), giving this name both an immediate solar connotation but also strong similarities to many epithets used for the god Thōth (e.g. “heart of Ra”).  The second way (per Howard M. Jackson, “A New Proposal for the Origin of the Hermetic God Poimandres”) is as a Hellenicization of the Egyptian pr-ꜥꜣ mꜣꜥ(,t)-rꜥ , variously rendered as Pramarrēs, Premarrēs, Poremanrēs, Porramanrēs, and the like—all a way to refer to the Twelfth Dynasty Pharaoh Amenemhat III in the 19th and 18th centuries BCE, later divinized as pharaohs were wont to do, his specific cult being relegated to the Fayyum area of Egypt.  If we also consider the divine teacher of CH XI being Nous (and Poimandrēs’ own self-identification with Nous in CH I) and how various other Hermetic works (no longer extant on their own, surviving only as quotes in e.g. Cyril of Alexandria) of Agathos Daimōn being a teacher of Hermēs and Osiris and others, then we get a further identification with this deity—leading also, then, to Agathos Daimōn’s own Egyptian syncretization with Shai, the deification of fate itself.  While this is a lot to take in all at once, I personally consider Poimandrēs in this super-broad notion of being a “high archangel” of sorts, a divine teacher-of-teachers who assumes a grand, salvific role for humanity as a whole as well as for humans as individuals.

Beyond the above, we could also theoretically pull in Isis, Osiris, Hōros, and Kamēphis, too, much as we did Tat, Asklēpios, and Ammōn—being students of Hermēs Trismegistos, albeit by another route, the Korē Kosmou (aka Stobaean Fragments 23—27), a series of discourses of Isis to her son Hōros imparting to him the knowledge that her father Kamēphis (kꜣ-mwt.f “bull of his mother”).  Much is already known popularly about Isis, Osiris, and Hōros (especially Hōros’ own solar associations), but Kamēphis is a weird one—a primordial, ungenerated or self-generated deity, a leader of the celestial gods or even a demiurge unto himself, also called “forefather of everyone” or “ancestor of all”, sometimes associated with Amun.  However, all of these could sensibly be brought in under a Hermetic purview, especially given their shared Egyptian background.

Also, to take another direction towards classical pagan stuff, CH X.5 mentions Ouranos and Kronos as being the ancestors of Hermēs.  While these are, properly speaking, the grandfather and father of Zeus (and thus great-grandfather and grandfather of Hermēs) in a Hellenic context, these would also likely be equivalent to the Egyptian deities of Shu and Seb, respectively, as deities of sky and earth.  If Hermēs et al. are gods who deserve worship (and I personally contend that they do), then their extended family and the gods Hermēs et al. descend from likewise deserve worship, especially given their grander cosmic nature, at least in one form or another.

To take a different approach regarding particularly important rulers of the cosmos, we can also turn to AH 19 and AH 27, where Hermēs talks about several kinds of Zeuses, at least two with a hypothesized third (per Walter Scott, “Hermetica” vol. III).  In this scheme, there’s a sort of tripartite division of the cosmos: the heavens, the Earth (including the oceans), and the air between them, each with their own “Zeus” (general ruler-deity) presiding over it.  In AH 27, at least in the Coptic translation available in the Nag Hammadi Codices (specifically NHC VI.8), we also see a notion of Zeus Ploutonios having Korē as a consort, with Zeus Ploutonios ruling the earth and sea but not possessing nourishment for mortal living creatures, rather being provided by Korē.  Those who are familiar with Greek mythology will recognize this as fitting the pattern for Haidēs and Persephonē, though this is less about the underworld and more about this world—giving this less a feel for the Eleusinian mysteries and more for that of the cults of Osiris and Isis, or even that of Serapis.  If the ruler of the Earth has a consort, it’d make sense for the other two rulers to also have a consort, each forming a sort of pair, although we lack the relevant section of the Coptic AH and the Latin AH doesn’t speak of such things at all even for Zeus Plutonios.  Still, it’s an interesting idea regarding divine rulerships over cosmic domains, and if we were to try to read an Egyptian origin for this, then not only would Zeus Ploutonios and Korē be given to Osiris and Isis, but the other Zeus could sensibly be given to Hōros, completing the same triad from the Korē Kosmou.

Speaking of deities in the AH, AH 19 does mention a few others, but in this strange and not-entirely-clear sense.  AH 19 explicitly gives us Zeus, Light, Pantomorphos, and Fortune together with Fate as being particular gods that preside over heaven, the Sun, the thirty-six decans, and the seven planetary spheres, respectively.  AH 19 brings up air as another thing that is presided over by some deity, but AH 19 cuts off here; something seems to have fallen out of the text, and it’s here that Scott proposes a “second Zeus” to match the first Zeus from before.  This is a really complicated section to follow, and its notion of ousiarchēs “essence-rulers” isn’t well understood, but there may be something in here that could be useful for considering and digging into.

What AH 19 does touch on, though, is a notion of celestial gods—and boy, is that ever a fruitful thing to consider!  It’s obvious that we would consider the Sun itself to be a deity (Hermēs himself explicitly says that he worships the Sun in SH 2A, along with there being things praising the Sun in CH V and CH XVI), and of all the planets, the Sun is probably the most important to worship.  But there are the other planets, as well: the Moon, Mercury (ever an important planet for us in our work and studies!), Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  On top of those, there are also the thirty-six decans (touched on in SH 6 but also in the Sacred Book of Hermēs to Asklēpios) who absolutely had a strong Egyptian presence as gods in their own right.  While one could certainly worship the twelve Zodiac signs as gods in their own right, or use something e.g. Agrippa’s Orphic Scale of Twelve to associate the Zodiac signs with gods as I make use of for my own Mathēsis stuff, based strictly on a Hermetic textual approach, I’d feel more comfortable giving worship to the decanal gods instead of the Zodiac, but your mileage may vary.

Beyond these groups of stars, though, there’s also the notion of giving worship to the northern stars—whether Polaris alone, Ursa Major, or some combination of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor including Polaris.  While the northern stars are not something that we can clearly note as deities from the Hermetic texts (except for perhaps one fleeting reference in SH 6), we do know that they were considered divine in Egyptian religion and that there was an active bear-cult incorporating Ursa Maior especially, especially based on various entries from the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM).  I’ve outlined things along these lines in my “Pole Lords and Northern Stars” post series back in 2018 (parts one, two, and three here), tying them not only to the seven planets but also as something higher and greater than them.  (This is a topic I really wanna return to in the future, especially learning what I have recently about Taoist and various Asian practices venerating or worshipping the northern stars in one form or another, like how I mentioned in my recent post about my prayer to the “Seven Ladies” of Ursa Maior.)

Closely related to the notion of celestial gods, and especially those of the pole lords from PGM XIII, is that of Aiōn, the divinity of time and eternity itself.  Aiōn (or at least the notion of eternity generally) is especially important in CH XI, but also appears in CH XII and XIII as some sort of divine or cosmic medium or power.  Although not appearing as a deity or divinity in and of itself in the CH, Aiōn is a frequent flier in various Hellenistic, Greco-Egyptian, and PGM sources as being a powerful divinity, including especially in texts like PGM XIII.  Hanegraaff has much to say about Aiōn in his Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination, recognizing it as a sort of “universal consciousness” or “God’s incorporeal imagination” (p. 217), something for us to become so as to reach henosis (or something approximating it).  In a sense, at least for the more theistically-inclined, I would consider Aiōn as a hypostasis of God, the closest thing that might be considered God-as-a-god, joining with (or becoming) whom would allow one to rise even higher (p. 271).  It’s certainly an interesting idea, and considering Aiōn in this light could be a rich source of ritual devotion, bridging the gap between “God which is not a god” and “God whom the gods themselves worship” (especially when you consider the explicit identifications of Aiōn in texts like PGM XIII as being identical to the God of Abraham).

After this point, though, we get into some pretty nebulous and abstract concepts, where it gets harder for me to justify thinking of them as things to worship as gods.  From AH 39 or SH 12—14, we get some interesting discussions of notions like Providence, Necessity, Fate, or Order that talks about them as personified or deified concepts.  These are less clearly things that are approachable as gods like the planets, stars, decans, or other entities, and are only described of in broad conceptual terms.  To me, while these are things we might certainly poetically revere, they seem more like “cosmic infrastructure” than deities per se.  However, to use the model from the SH texts (with my equivalent substitutions from AH 30 in parentheses):

  • Providence (AH Heimarmenē “Fate”) is the will of God.
    • The ultimate ruler over all things that exist.
    • The divine order of all things, a kind of “unmanifest logos“.
    • The only power that rules over heavenly things.
    • Providence produces by its own nature both Necessity and Fate.
  • Necessity (AH “Necessity” as well) is both “the maidservant” to and “a firm and unbending power” of Providence. 
    • Necessity “constrains and contains” Providence, but there are things that are not under the rule of Necessity (i.e. the Nous, or intelligible reality).
    • Necessity is the ruler under Providence over earthly/created things, the “manifest logos” to the “unmanifest logos” of Providence.
    • What Providence establishes to exist, Necessity fulfills and sets up the rest of that which logically follows.
  • Fate (AH “Order”) serves both Providence and Necessity.
    • Fate is the tool of Providence.
    • Fate “drives and drives round all things by force”.
    • The tools of Fate are the stars.
    • Fate operates through the stars to affect and effect earthly/created things below in the world.

There is, however, the notion of a particular entity, referenced in SH 7 of Justice as “the greatest female daimōn”, which I find to be identical to be “the chief demon who weighs and judges” souls in AH 28 (and may well be the same as the “avenging daimōn” of CH I.23).  I spoke about this entity before in my post series about the Hermetic notions of the afterlife (links to the whole six-part series can be found on my Hermeticism Posts page), but in short, this is a particular entity set to judge our actions and assign us a place in the cosmos after our death according to our behavior in life.  In a sense, just as Providence and Necessity are appointed over divine order, Justice is appointed over human order in tandem with Fate, perhaps to account for the “free will” (such as it is) of the soul in addition to the fated events that befall the body itself; in this, Justice serves to oversee human living (not merely human life) and to punish wrongdoing.  It’s a bit of a messy topic unto itself, and unlike other deities whose aid can be supplicated for, Justice seems to be something…different, and while I would still encourage reverence and respect for such an entity, it can certainly be debated as to its specific function or the benefits of worshipping it as described in the Hermetic texts, except perhaps for lenience, mercy, and awareness of our actions and acceptance of the repercussions thereof.

Beyond this, I suppose there’s also the notion of Cosmos to consider as a god, as well.  Cosmos is described as a god—specifically the “second god” made in the image of the “first god” (i.e. God) in CH VIII.1—2,5, in CH X.12, in AH 8 and 10 and 39, and in SH 11.2.6.  In a sense, all the gods that are highlighted above are part of the Cosmos as a whole, and in a sense, the Cosmos itself should be held in reverence and respect, which is why we’re supposed to engage with it with all our arts and sciences to constantly co-create and perfect it.  However, this itself can also be considered a call to worship the Cosmos itself as a deity in its own right.  What complicates this, to my mind, is whether we should equate Cosmos (i.e. the whole of creation, the corporeal universe as well as the incorporeal universe as one whole) with “Nature” (phusis in Greek).  In some cases, Nature is sometimes used synonymously with Cosmos in the Hermetic texts, or to a specific aspect of it with regards to generation (and, equally, corruption).  Depending on your approach, you might consider this something distinct to pray to and worship as well, whether Cosmos and Nature as one thing, Nature as a specific aspect of the Cosmos, or as a sort of higher/incorporeal vs. lower/corporeal distinction.

Before even the Cosmos, however, there is the matter of the Demiurge itself.  The Demiurge, as described in CH I.9—11 or in SH 3, is a creator deity (or “mind”) that takes care of the creation/crafting of material reality and entities.  While all creation is ultimately (and monistically) attributable to God, some texts talk about a distinct “assistant” (as it were) to God who handles creation at lower, more ephemeral, or mortal levels.  Given the description in CH I, the Demiurge is ontologically equivalent with the very Logos of God (“the mind who is god…by speaking gave birth to a second mind, a craftsman” and “the word of god leapt straight up [from the elemental creation of the world] to the pure craftwork of nature and united with the craftsman-mind for the word was of the same substance”), and has a special role to play in the creation of things.  Although this would seem like a sort of distant bit of cosmic infrastructure too high for us to interact with, CH XVI and SH 2A talk about the Sun as being equivalent to, identified with, or otherwise just as the Demiurge (which would also render the Sun as the manifest presence of Logos in the cosmos).  Not only does this cement the Sun’s importance in the mind of the Hermeticist for the sake of worship as a god, but it also illustrates that the Demiurge, likewise, should be revered and worshipped, whether independently or as the Sun.

And then, of course, there’s God—but we’ve already spilled enough ink on that.  Besides, God is not a god, and so has no place among the gods.

This post is already getting lengthy, but I think I’ve made a decent-enough start for thinking about the various gods one might engage in worship of within a Greco-Egyptian context in a way amenable to a Hermetic mysticism.  To be sure, there are lots of ways one might go about worshipping any or all of the above, and the list above is not at all meant to be prescriptively limiting; there are plenty of other gods, whether purely Egyptian or purely Greek or syncretically Greco-Egyptian, that one might also consider apt within a Hermetic context or which is conducive to facilitating Hermetic mysticism.  Heck, I don’t see why the fundamentally monist mysticism of Hermeticism couldn’t be applied as a framework to non-Greco-Egyptian polytheist contexts, so long as the overall cosmologies are compatible enough between them to harmonize.  In this, I think Hermeticism could be useful not only for those of a Greco-Egyptian, Hellenic, Hellenistic, Egyptian, Kemetic, or  otherwise classical Mediterranean bent, but for a good number of pagans and polytheists today who want to supplement (not supplant!) their religion with “something more”, an esotericism to build upon and flesh out the exoteric.

And why?  Because Hermeticism expects us to already be religious before we can be mystic, because mysticism is a tower built upon the bedrock of religion—and for the teachers of the teachings of Hermēs Trismegistos, that involves a healthy respect and worship for the gods so as to eventually reach the Godhead.

Heavenly Thoughts

I don’t recall which grade it was, probably late elementary school or sometime in middle school, but I recall one time riding the bus with the rest of my classmates from some field trip or another.  Middle of the day, clear bright weather.  There I am, my usual introverted child self, maybe some age between like 9 and 12, sitting by the window starting outside watching the landscape go past—and there I am, thinking my thoughts as I was, and it struck me:

Gosh, the sky is big.

Which, like…duh.  I asked the kid next to me (I’ve long since forgotten who) if they ever thought about how big the sky was, to which they give a (in hindsight utterly predictable) answer of pure confusion and dismissal, a combined “no” and “duh”.  I shrugged off their reply and went back at staring out the window.  I don’t remember anything else about that trip, or even what grade it was, but I remember the sudden childlike awe that struck me when it dawned on me how immeasurably huge the sky is.

Which is weird, right?  I mean, there hasn’t been a single day in my life that I haven’t seen the sky.  Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it’s cloudy; sometimes I see the Sun, other times the Moon, other times only stars (and even then, maybe more or fewer depending on light pollution).  Somedays I go outside with the sky directly overhead, other days I stay inside and see it from my window, but there has never been a single day I can recall where I haven’t seen the sky once.  It’s always there, it’s always been there, and it always will be there.  It stretches from east to west and from north to south, a complete 360° circle, forming the illusion of a complete and total dome around the boundary of the horizon.  And yet, for some reason, in this one bizarre moment, I only realized just then how big the sky actually is.

And yet, every now and then, in the intervening years, it’ll dawn on me all over again, with almost the same impact as it did the first time.  As it did earlier today while I was taking an afternoon walk around my neighborhood.

Thinking back on it, and all the times I remember that instance and all the times I get hit with it, I realize now what actually triggered it.  Sometimes I’ll be lying on my back on the ground staring up at the sky, but that isn’t what trigger it (although, if you trick your brain, you can kinda make it feel like you’re stuck to some sort of ceiling facing a bottomless pit, which is neat, too).  What triggered this realization was, sitting on that older kind of school bus with the plain seats and cheap industrial interior, the fact that I was staring at the sky from a window—and realizing that the sky exceeded the frame of the window itself.

Intellectually, of course, I knew that the sky would go past the boundaries of a single small window (it literally exceeds all boundaries!), but I think what I realized in that moment was that the sky could not be bounded, could not be contained, and just staring out the window with a bit of tired-relaxed-eye vision to see both the sky and the window through which I saw it helped me come to that realization.  Whether or not the window is just one of a series and you’re just looking through a single pane, or whether it’s a single window in a wall, the sky will always fill the window, and just keep going past it.  Heck, you could look up outside at the sky between the tops of trees on a street, or the sky between tall buildings in an alleyway, and you’ll see the same thing: there is nothing that could ever actually limit the sky.  It just keeps going, well past the point where you yourself can see it.

It’s like…consider your own eyesight.  You have your field of view, and while some people have better peripheral vision (things outside the direct center of your sight) than others, everyone has limits to their field of view.  Now, dear reader, if you’ll indulge me in a bit of an exercise: consider your own field of view.  Become aware of the limits of your sight, how far you’re able to look from left to right and top to bottom, with one or both eyes.  You don’t need to move your eyes or anything, just relax your eyes slightly and just…become aware of your whole field of vision.

Now try to look past that, say, further to your right than your right eye actually can see.  Don’t try to move your eyes to the right, but just try to look further to the right than what you’re actually seeing in your field of view.  Look to the right into the space where you can’t look anymore.

Feels weird, right?  Almost like a paradox; your eyes aren’t designed for that, even from at the level of your own skin right down to the level of your optical nerves.  How can you see anything when you literally don’t have the field of vision to see?  How can you look  in a direction when there’s nothing there to look?  How can you get input from a source that you are literally unequipped to receive input from?

Try it again.  Don’t move your eyes, don’t try to strain them or give yourself a headache.  Just as you became aware of your field of vision as it is, try to become aware of what is outside your field of vision.  Perhaps just start with the area to the right outside your field of vision like before, or (if you’re bold) the whole area outside your entire field of vision, as if you were looking backwards while facing forwards.

Your brain is probably racing at this point, trying to figure out what sort of image to supply there for something that literally has no image.  For most people, it’ll be whirling around in a confusion, since you’re trying to tell it to do something that it naturally knows what to do normally but it’s operating in an undefined area here.  Should you just perceive an inky blackness, a void devoid of any image at all?  Should you perceive static, like a TV disconnected from any input cable?  Should you perceive what you know is actually outside your field of view, mentally constructing it from memory rather than from sense of sight?  Should you perceive the inside of your own flesh and skull, veins and tendons and all?

That feeling you get from trying to look past your own field of view is the same kind of feeling I get about the sky in general.  Just as with the limitations on your field of view, where you can just turn to see a bit more to the left or right or up or down depending on how you turn, you can just look out the window a bit more from a different angle, or poke your head out and crane your neck to get a bigger view of the sky to see more of it.  But there will always be parts you can’t see, parts you know are there, but the perception of which—the mere feeling of the perception of which—simply exceed your capacity to perceive.

And, again, that makes sense; of course the sky would do that, because it’s the sky.  But I think what stuck with me then, and what continues to stick with me now, is the sheer feeling of Unlimitedness that this is all so intimately bound up with.  Interminability, infinity, immeasurability, boundlessness, endlessness—these are all things that the sky is perhaps one of the best, most physical, and most immediately accessible representations of these notions that we have.  Unlike any building we might inhabit, any land we might tread, any sea we might sail, any road we might walk, any depth we might plumb, there is nothing on this planet that is as unlimited as the sky itself is.  And, when you think about it, that’s just the 2D spatial qualities of it; when you consider that there is nothing on this planet that has lasted as long as the sky has, or will have lasted as long as the sky will, taking any temporal bounds as a “windowframe” of time as it were, then the sky becomes even more daunting.  And, going back to the spatial qualities of it, even if you were to just consider the sky as some sort of 2D dome above the Earth based on its appearance to us, it’s technically just “the whole of the rest of space”, so if you consider it as a 3D domain, then it’s also extends infinitely above you in every direction, too.

There is nothing that can bound, limit, frame, or contain the sky.  Try as you might, you will fail—because the sky is what bounds, limits, frames, and contains all things.

When we talk about things associated with the sky, there are several terms we can use, each of which has a fascinating etymological origin:

  • “sky”, from Proto-Indo-European *(s)kewH- “to cover, to conceal” (cognate with Latin obscurus)
  • “heaven”, from Proto-Germanic *hibin-, perhaps from Proto-Indo-European *kem- “to cover” or from *h₂éḱmō “stone” to refer to the celestial vault generally
  • “celestial”, from Latin caelum “heaven, sky”, with unclear etymological origin, but perhaps from Proto-Indo-European *kaid-slo “bright, clear” or *keh₂i-lom “whole”
  • “天” (the Chinese character for the sky, heaven, or celestial things, including weather or divine entities associated with such realms), is considered as a person with outstretched arms (大) with a level over the head (一), originally representing the round sky (囗) above a person but in addition/alternative to this as an anthropomorphic depiction of heaven as a person with a large head

In three of the examples above, there’s a notion of the sky being something covering us, like a tarp over a pile or a lid on a pot.  The sky is the “lid” of the world we’re familiar with; from our perspective, the sky is what conceals the things above it from us, but by that same token, when seen from above, the sky is what keeps us down here below separated.  In a sense, the sky is the limit of the world, that which contains us and covers us, like a tunic does a body.

But the word “celestial” above is not quite like the other.  It has a different connotation, if you consider the PIE root *keh₂i-lom “whole”, and which would render the word “celestial” indeed related to our word “whole” and thus “holy”.  While the connotations of the English words may well have existed in an earlier time in a different language (emphasis on the word “may”), it’s especially interesting when you consider the Latin word caelum as the opposite of templum “a part” (itself from PIE *temh₁ “to cut”, related to Greek τέμενος).  Sure, this word is generally used to refer to any space dedicated to a deity or to their worship (hence our modern English derivative “temple”), but when it came to the ancient Roman practice of augury, it refers to a demarcated space that an augur would mark out in the sky—a “cut-out part” as it were—in which the augur would observe any omens for interpretation.  The whole sky was not observed, but just a part of it, presumably because the observation of the whole sky was not something possible or feasible to do, especially considering the relatively limited and limiting concerns humans have about things down here.  As a parallel, consider: in ancient Greek thought, one went to a legitimate oracle of the gods for prophecy, but otherwise would piously refrain from trying to determine the events of the future (though one might still seek out advice or guidance regarding it), because only the gods were permitted to know the mind of Zeus and the inner workings of Fate, and even then, such a mind could not be known in full, but only particular thoughts.

There, again, we see a notion of limits—and that makes sense for us as human beings, doesn’t it?  By our very nature, we are finite creatures, and we can’t really deal well with infinity all that well.  I’m reminded of the distinction in Islamic conceptions of infinite time (courtesy of Andrew Chumbley’s Qutub) between azal and abad.  In this context, azal is defined as “eternity a parte ante” or “eternity without a beginning”, and abad as its counterpart of “eternity a parte post” or “eternity without an end”.  As human beings, we naturally have only our own frame of reference to understand abstract concepts, and the most immediate frame of reference for discussing matters of time is the present moment.  In this light, azal is the whole infinity of the past up until this moment, while abad is the whole infinity of time from this moment into the future.  We can look in either direction well enough, but trying to look at both at the same time to consider one infinity unbounded in both directions at once is…challenging.  Sure, we might be able to accept the existence of time as something without beginning and without end, both agenēton and ateleuton, but trying to actually comprehend that is a different matter.  In astrological terms, it’d be like trying to join together the North and South Nodes of the Moon together to see what their conjunction would be like; they are, by definition, opposites of each other.  It’s just the same with azal and abad—and perhaps fittingly so, as they both have conjectured Persian origins meaning “without head (start)” and “without foot (end)”, respectively, just how the North Node is the “head of the dragon” (but without a body, as in Rahu) and how the South Node is the “tail of the dragon” (but without a head, as in Ketu).  It’s only through limitation, because we’re ourselves finite, that we can’t easily approach unlimitedness.

And yet, that very notion of unlimitedness is what so many of us in this mystical stuff seek.  I mean, from the Corpus Hermeticum, consider Hermēs’ vision of Poimandrēs revelation of the “the archetypal form, the preprinciple that exists before a beginning without end” in CH I.7:

After he said this, he looked me in the face for such a long time that I trembled at his appearance. But when he raised his head, I saw in my mind the light of powers beyond number and a boundless cosmos that had come to be. The fire, encompassed by great power and subdued, kept its place fixed. In the vision I had because of the discourse of Poimandrēs, these were my thoughts.

Or again when Nous tells Hermēs how to understand God in CH XI.20:

Thus, unless you make yourself equal to God, you cannot understand God; like is understood by like. Make yourself grow to immeasurable immensity, outleap all body, outstrip all time, become eternity and you will understand God. Having conceived that nothing is impossible to you, consider yourself immortal and able to understand everything, all art, all learning, the temper of every living thing. Go higher than every height and lower than every depth. Collect in yourself all the sensations of what has been made, of fire and water, dry and wet; be everywhere at once, on land, in the sea, in heaven; be not yet born, be in the womb, be young, old, dead, beyond death. And when you have understood all these at once—times, places, things, qualities, quantities—then you can understand God.

In these examples, we have Hermēs confronting (or being told to confront) the very notion of divinity in all its unlimitedness, in all its boundlessness.  In the former example, this is the revelation of Divinity itself; in the latter example, this is the way to be understand it.  It is so unlike anything else we might understand, given how we’re so finite—or, rather, are accustomed to finitude and limits, even if our limits are all within this grand infinity.  After all, the sky stops being a sky once you’re no longer on Earth; then it just becomes space, same as everywhere here.  Once you no longer have sky, you no longer have a separation between world and not-world, inner space and outer space.  It all just becomes…well, it doesn’t become anything, doesn’t it?  It’s rather that the barrier just falls down: it’s a revelation, an uncovering, and in this case, the sky itself is the covering.  At that point, you’re no longer gawking at the limitations that unlimitedness breaks, because there’s no limits there to gauge “limit” or “limitless” anymore.  You just…are, as something with and in and of the totality of everything.

I know this post is a little weird and rambly, but as I said earlier, I occasionally turn to that childlike thought in my childhood of being in awe at how big the sky was.  In considering what it meant and exploring that line of thinking a bit, it reminded me of an important aspect of this mystical stuff that I’ve been exploring more as part of my Hermeticism.  Maybe I haven’t been particularly adept at expressing it, but realizing how used we are to limits in general and realizing how limitlessness can be an aspect of Divinity—and, moreover, how easily it is to behold that limitlessness, and how weird it is to actually experience it—is something I think is a crucial reminder of what it is we’re in this for.  After all, as Nous told Hermēs, we need to get on God’s level in order to understand God.

Remember that little experiment from above, about trying to see outside your field of vision?  Maybe I could make up for the rambling of this post with leaving you a little meditative exercise that builds on that, and which also relates to the imagery of the sky.  As with most meditative exercises, get yourself into a good posture, relax yourself, and regulate your breathing however you normally do so.  Once you’re ready, consider: see yourself sitting as I was, on a school bus seat, looking out the window at the sky.  Take a good look out the window—what do you see?  Trees, cars, people walking their dogs, construction crews?  Always find the sky behind and covering them all, and fix your focus on the sky.  Contemplate how it covers, surrounds, and exceeds anything else you see, wherever else you see it.  Mentally extend how big the sky must be in your mind, not just in one direction but in all directions.  Dwell in that feeling of Bigness, letting it wash away and drown out all else that you saw before.

But, later on, once you’re ready after giving the above a few attempts, consider this instead: see yourself as a single point on Earth, wherever you fancy yourself, and look up at the sky above you.  See the limits of your own perception of the sky: is it a window, or the horizon, or the clouds, or your glasses-frames, or the limits of your field of vision?  Slowly take away each limit you come across to behold more and more of the sky, even unto the whole Earth itself if you have to, even your own body if you have to, so that all you observe is a clear sky in a perfect sphere all around you.  Once you get to that, start removing the very sky itself outwards, removing each layer of the atmosphere from your central vantage point, going outwards and outwards and ever outwards, all to see what continues to lie beyond.  Once you get to the point where you’re observing the entire observable universe all as one thing—well, what then?  Work on your own mental “field of vision”; what are you not perceiving yet, what lies outside your field of imagination (just like how you were trying to look to the right of your own field of vision above)?  Strip away your own perceptive and imaginative limits, strip away the thing even doing the perceiving itself, strip away the very thing stripping the notions of limits—and then dwell therein.

On Shrine-hoarding

I’m starting to slowly get back into my temple again for small tasks, hopefully leading up to bigger ones in the future (time and energy permitting, of course, and with the usual caveat that I need to spend my time and energy wisely between work, religion, home, friends, and the like).  As I mentioned in the last post, I’m slowly going through some of the stuff I have, either things I’ve procured or things I’ve made, and am putting some of them up on my Etsy store for others to buy and, hopefully, use in their own works.  Old woodburned placards, prayer beads, necklaces, altar supplies, even some stones and the like are things I’m putting up because…well, let’s be honest, I don’t need them.  I like them plenty, but most of these things aren’t things I’ll miss if I get rid of them.  The really important, vital, or precious stuff is going to stay mine and stay used, but then again, that’s the distinction, isn’t it?  If I use it, or if I know that I actually will use it, then it stays; if not, then it goes.

There’s a difference between stockpiling supplies for future use and simply hoarding stuff.  Raw supplies, stones, dirts, herbs, bones, beads, resins, and the like are all ingredients towards the Work that can be used in any number of ways; those are things that I can always use more of, even if I’m not running low or using at the moment, because they can come in use at the drop of a hat.  Those are things that we should all endeavor to hoard, absolutely, and use as needed.  The other stuff, on the other hand…spare crystal balls, unconsecrated statuary, beaded or otherwise handmade crafts meant for tools but never used for anything more than decoration, or other things that were made for a purpose but never really fulfilled it according to my desires, all those are things that I really have no desire to hold onto except for the sake of sentimentality or beautification.

One of the major hurdles in getting back to my temple work is that, in the…seven or so years I had to set it up, I amassed quite a bit of stuff.  Not a household’s worth, by any means, but I have shrines for the seven archangels, the Virgin Mary, my own guardian angel, the Three Kings, Hermes, Apollo with Asklepios with Dionysos, Aphrodite with Hephaistos, Saint Expedite, and Saints Cyprian, Justina, and Theocistus.  I have a small shrine to Hestia in the living room, and Demeter lives outside.  I have altars for my work for my conjuration/planetary stuff as well as my Mathesis work, and a more recent shrine to the planetary divinity of Saturn.  And all those are things I’ve kept; there are a handful of shrines or altars or other special working areas I’ve set up before and took them down either due to them having completed their purpose or things just not working out how I had planned or wanted.  And then there’s my initiation into La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (aka Santería), where I have a bevy of orisha shrines to maintain and work with (and which I’m marked to receive even more).  If I didn’t have a full-time job with a nontrivial commute, I could swing the determination and discipline to maintain all of these shrines and altars and work, but…I do have a full-time job with a nontrivial commute, and I don’t have the time.   Quite honestly (and it hurts to admit this), all the shrines I have is more than I can actually handle to maintain or keep up with.

To clarify some of my thoughts, let’s start with a bit of a distinction.  For me, an altar is essentially a working space, not meant for worship or veneration as much as actual spiritual or magical works to be done.  Conjuration of spirits, consecration of items, sacrifice of something, establishing crystal/energetic grids, those are all things apt and appropriate for an altar.  I only really have two of those, and while I like to keep them set up and ready to go, I can collapse them and set them up again or change them as needed and as desired.  Then there are shrines, which are meant for the veneration of spirits, gods, saints, or other divinities; shrines serve as a sacred seat or home for a spirit, in my mind, and are a physical representation of the relationship one has with them.  In that sense, for me to evaluate the meaning and need of a shrine is to evaluate the meaning and need of the relationship itself with the spirit of the shrine.  And that itself requires dialog with those spirits, recalling what pacts and vows one has with them, respect for and from those spirits, and honesty with oneself.

This is where my distinction between auturgic and lineage-based work comes into play.  Lineage is easy: you sign up for a specific relationship with a spirit, you’re given a set of terms and conditions to follow, you’re handed the powers and tools you need from your initiator, and boom, you’re set.  Just follow the vows you’ve signed up for, over which you have no say in except to say “yea” or “nay”, and you’re good.  Auturgy, on the other hand, is both easier and much more difficult: you establish your own parameters, vows, pacts, and agreements, and you determine how things work; you need to build your own tools and power and relationships, which can’t be handed to you because there’s nobody to hand them to you.  Most of my work is auturgic in that sense; I’ve built my shrines, I’ve consecrated my statues and talismans, I’ve set up my own protocols and rhythms of prayer and sacrifice for these spirits, and so I have say in how and when and whether these shrines should be established.  On the other hand, my Santería work is lineage-based, so I can’t just up and give Oshún a metal case to live in because I think it’d be more convenient for me; Oshún has what Oshún is supposed to have, what she wants, and what I’m obliged to give her.  More than that, I can’t ignore or just not work with my orisha, as that’d go against the agreements I signed up for with them; I don’t have say in those pacts, and to ignore them is to violate them.  That’s one of the costs—and strengths—of lineage.

But for the shrines (and relationships) that are of my own desire and design…well, there’s the hard choice of whether I want to keep them around, and if so, what really needs to stay on them.  I’ve taken down shrines before; for instance, once upon a time I wanted to set up a shrine to Hades and Persephone as part of a Hellenic approach to working with the spirits of the dead.  It never really got off the ground, even though I had all the supplies and niche set up and everything, so down it went into a box (and, if you’re interested, I still have the unconsecrated Hades statue and offering bowl, in case anyone ever wants to buy it off me).  Then there’s an erstwhile tronco I set up to begin initial work with Quimbanda spirits; I was able to make contact, such as it was, once I had my consulta, but…I never really got anywhere with that, and I didn’t have much of a purpose to work with them given the other works I had going on, and so I worked with them to disassemble the baby-tronco I had and to dispose of their implements in a way they directed and agreed to.  Point is, I’m not ashamed to acknowledge the decline or absence of a sufficiently necessary or stable spiritual relationship to where a shrine is no longer needed, and carry that through.  But, just because I’m not ashamed, doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad about it; sometimes I feel like I failed in maintaining my agreements and plans, and other times I feel bad because I realize that the designs and purposes I had in developing something didn’t turn out the way I hoped for and have to accept that keeping a shrine set up without maintaining it isn’t doing me or the spirit any favors.  I have a few such shrines at home that I really need to talk with to see about just that.

But even then, even for the shrines that I do want to keep set up, there’s the notion of clutter and hoarding things.  I’ve seen some beautiful shrines by other occultists and priests online, and some even in person, where there are these beautiful, intricate, elaborate setups girded by chains and beads and all sorts of everything.  You know, the highly Instagrammable/Facebook viral share-worthy pictures, the ones that are actually done up in real life and not just a temporary setup for a shadow-cloaked shot in the light of a single candle’s flame.  I love the aesthetic, but…I’ve come to realize that I have neither the space nor the means to actually do that for myself, but more than that, I’ve come to realize it’s not my style, either.  I’ve decked out some of my shrines in the past, but I don’t need to live in a city of multiple Parthenons, where each shrine’s district is filled like a forest with votive offerings or whatnot.  Especially with the influence of Santería now, I see the simple elegance of just giving what’s enough and what’s needed for a shrine.  If a particular implement is needed for the functioning of the shrine or the use of the spirit within, by all means, give it!  But decorating it like a Mardi Gras parade and accumulating everything under heaven that even has a shadow of a tangential relationship to that spirit for the sake of having it be pretty is…well, it ends up collecting more dust than it’s worth.

A shrine doesn’t need much to be effective: an image or physical representation of the spirit, maybe a place to set lights or incense, maybe some implements or tools directly associated with them that one has a strong feeling (if not an explicit or confirmed directive) to provide, perhaps some supplies to be left in the care of the spirit until it can be used in workings with or without them.  Space is at a premium, after all, in my temple room and house, and a shrine doesn’t often need that much space.  Barring specific protocols or vows, anything else is probably just decoration for the sake of the devotee and not the divine.  To accumulate more and more of those latter accouterments is just…hoarding.  Having more shrines than you need is likewise hoarding.  Both of which eventually become a burden, both to maintain the cleanliness of even a single shrine as well as to maintain your relationships with those spirits, and unless you’re actually getting something out of that arrangement, perhaps it might be better to cut back, both on the shrines as well as the stuff within them.  After all, you don’t need to be a dragon to be a devotee, and we’re not often worshiping dragons that demand devotional donations.  (Of course, if you are, then different rules apply.)

That’s one of the reasons why I’m going through my temple and cutting back both on the shrines and the stuff within them.  If I’m not maintaining a relationship with a spirit, or if that spirit isn’t maintaining a relationship with me, then there’s no real need for a shrine; it’d be best to disassemble it respectfully and confer with the spirit on how and where their sacred things should be disposed of, or if they can be given to another to care for them.  (Yes, Justice, I’m aware, and I haven’t forgotten, forgive me my lateness!)  If the spirit still wants to stay and I don’t want to maintain the shrine, then an agreement can likely be brokered to pare down the shrine to a minimum, shrink it, or hold onto something to make a temporary shrine with later as needed; temporary shrines, set up on unused or other working tables, are a great way to carry out devotional work every once in a while that aren’t otherwise a full-time thing.  Otherwise, if the shrine really is to stay as a permanent installation, then I’d go through all the things on it, see what’s not necessary or essential to the shrine, and consult with the spirit on how and where to dispose of the other things that they’re okay with parting with, whether it should just be thrown out respectfully, sold, given as a gift, or used for another purpose.  It depends, and it’s a careful, sometimes heart-scouring process, but a necessary one that I need to go through.  There are some things I want to get rid of, honestly, but the spirits are adamant I keep, whether for their own use or for my own in working with them, and it requires honesty and openness to be aware of these things.

I suppose that clearing out my temple room (and the other sacred spaces in my house more generally), taking a thorough account of my spiritual relationships with my courts and pantheons, and seeing what I really need for my Work is the first step to really getting back to working with them all.  After all, I can’t go into my temple for single-minded work if I dread walking in due to all the reminders of the missed offerings, forgotten festivals, and dust gathered on them distracting me for the purpose I walked in for.  If I don’t want to be distracted, then I need to fix the distractions, and in order to do that, I need to fix my shrine situation accordingly in a way that is best for both me and them.  Only then can I be really sure about my Work, my physical and spiritual spaces, and my spirits and the relationships I have with them.  And, hey, in the process, if I uncover any goodies that I don’t need or want anymore, someone else might be lucky enough to get them for something they need or want.  Besides, I have future projects I want to plan, and should any of those require shrines or a permanent installation of some sort…well, I’ll have to evaluate if I need to give anything else up to make the time, energy, and space for it, and whether I really need to go down that route, if nothing else will do.

If you’re facing a similar situation, then it might be well for you to do a similar disassembly and decluttering of shrines and shrine stuff.  We can’t all be full-time priests tending to and taking care of all these temples of our own design; with our limited time and energy, we can only take care of what we must and what we really need to.  Be honest with yourself, and be honest with your spirits.  If you need to limit your practice to just one or two things, then let your temple or sacred spaces look and function accordingly.  Hoarding shrines may make us look cool and hardcore, but as many occultists learn at some point, we’re in this for more than just looking cool.  If you can manage that while also getting the Work done, awesome!  If not, then simplify and focus on the Work.  They say, after all, that simplicity is the highest form of elegance; some people, like myself, could do with taking that to heart.

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.  Then there’s also the fact that 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.  For me, I took the plunge and made the decision to initiate; I entered willingly into that relationship with Ogun, and I had 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.