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.

Formalities of Ritual

One of the complaints my boyfriend has about my style of magic is that I’m way too wordy.  It’s true, I admit; a standard Trithemian-style conjuration has about five to ten minutes of preliminary prayer, not including the spiritual preparation and ritual space setup.  I like using the Orphic Hymns frequently, long-winded prayers, strings of barbarous words from the PGM, and so forth.  While he gets a bottle of rum and a cigar for his spirits and gets to work, I prefer my candles, incense, altar cloths, summoning circles, and so forth.  He’s not the type to get into heavy ritual, anyway, but that’s alright.  Someone’s gotta do the work, after all.

Thing is, though, he has a good point.  The stuff I do takes time and patience and perseverance, and with my life being already so full of spirits, not to mention commuting and martial arts classes and being social, my time is increasingly limited.  This got me to thinking about how I can do the same work with the same spirits I do work with in different ways, which led to my having to reevaluate the necessity of my ritual structure and format.  If I lived a court astrologer’s life, or some beneficiary of a magnate paying me to do magic, I could devote all my time to this stuff and not get enough; as it is, though, that’s not gonna happen anytime soon (regrettably), and I have to keep doing the work with the resources and time I have.  And since the time my rituals take is based largely in my habits of formality, perhaps I should reevaluate how necessary such formality is.

When you’re starting work with some new spirit, whether it’s the angel of a celestial sphere or a saint or a genius loci, it pays handsomely to be formal and proper in the beginning.  It’s like making a new professional contact: you want to make a good impression, so you get out your nice suit, you prepare your business cards and elevator speeches, you make sure you schedule the meetings at the right time and show up on time, and so forth. You go the extra nine yards to make sure communication is clear and effective and that you lay the foundations for a solid partnership; it’s a good time to get information on the contact, to make sure they’re who you think they are, and whether you want to continue working with them.  Likewise, it’s good for you to give them the right idea about who you are, what you’re capable of, how comfortable you are in meeting and discussing things with them, and so forth.  The same goes for spirits: you want to make sure they’re comfortable with working with you and you with them, so you make things as proper as you can when you start off with them.

But over time, as the relationship between you and the spirit develops, things can (but are not necessarily) get more casual.  The spirit might be more comfortable with calling on them whenever as opposed to a specific time, the use fewer tools if any at all, opening up to trying different offerings than the standard stuff, the use of special or true names, and so on.  Special permission might be given or agreed upon to work with them in different contexts than you may have been limited to in the past.  As a relationship develops, so too does flexibility and understanding between you and the spirit.  And that’s where things can get interesting for developing one’s own unique spiritual practice.  Of course, this is all dependent on the spirit itself, and sometimes they insist on the formality of something being done in a proper way.  It’s hard to generalize, but generally, formality isn’t as needed after building up a solid relationship.   Building up a solid relationship can take a good amount of time and trials, though.

Take the Trithemian conjuration ritual, for instance.  In the beginning of my magical career, I spent the time and built my own tools and put them to use at the proper time in a space I cleansed and prepared beforehand with the proper candles, incense, prayers, and so on handy and ready to go.  Hundreds of conjurations later, I still do this same thing, even after saying at the end of every ritual “return to me when I call you in His name to whom every knee bows down”.  The angels I work with largely agree to that; they don’t need the conjuration ritual to be present when a simple invocation of them will suffice.  Sure, the full ritual helps in communication and scrying and pathwalking, but none of the ritual is strictly necessary to do any of that, especially after the initiations I’ve received from them and the relationships I’ve built with them.  If I don’t need to do the formal ritual with them to do the same things when simpler, faster rituals will do, why not just go with the simpler, faster rituals?

Part of it is that I’m stuck in the habit of being formal.  I do enjoy donning my white linen robe and sitting down at a specially-prepared conjuration altar, but that takes a good chunk of time that I don’t always have.  I mean, I have my primary magician altar with all my talismans and tools of the planets and elements on it that I hardly use, when it fills all the same needs as a Table of Practice does and is permanently set up.  Why not just do the conjuration there on a slightly more informal level, sans robe and lengthy prep prayers?  I mean, the setup and preliminary preparation does have its good purposes which should never be overlooked, but after having done them so often for so long, maybe they’re not as needed as much anymore.  I mean, consider my ancestor practice: every Monday I get flowers, rum, water, and incense for them, and open up with an invocation and invitation for my ancestors to be with me.  Putting aside the fact that our ancestors are always already with us (they’re literally in our blood, after all), I also wear a pendant dedicated just to them and I invoke them every morning.  They’ve told me to cut the long-windedness and just sit down and chat with them, because they don’t need the formal prayers recognizing them when it’s part of a weekly observance and chillout.  The other spirits I work with, namely the angels of the planets and elements and stars, are more than happy to use a different means of contacting them besides a full ritual at a custom-made conjuration altar, especially if it means I get to still advance in my work without sacrificing my health or sleep too much.

For big rituals where I need the power for a specific purpose, or for a monthly or yearly observance celebrating the feast of some god or other, nothing beats a good formal ritual with all its attendant pomp and circumstance.  For general checkups or offerings, though, the formality isn’t as necessary, especially if I already have a good working relationship with the spirit.  So long as the rules and wishes of the spirit are abided by, everything else is pretty much up for grabs if we’re tight enough to be informal and casual.  Deformalizing rituals with spirits you’re already integrated with is one good way to simplify one’s spiritual life, and one I definitely need to work on.  Nobody’s gonna put more days in the week, after all, and I need as much time as I can get.

Another way to simplify one’s spiritual life is to condense altars and spiritual tools, but that’s a topic for another day.  Perhaps one when I’m not eyeing alternative furniture arrangements to fit in another altar to another spirit.

Divination and Magic

At this point in my life, I’m single.  My last significant relationship ended in June 2010, and though I’ve had a few flings and brief boyfriends here and there, and though I’ve toyed around with hookup- and dating-service websites briefly, I’ve largely been single since.  Don’t go feeling pity for me: it’s a nice life, and its simplicity and lack of drama don’t leave too much to be desired.  Plus, it’s cheaper (dating is expensive in this place).  My being single doesn’t exclude the possibility of hooking up, either, so that freedom’s also nice.

That said, it’s kinda getting boring now, and it likely will be for a while yet.  Back in 2010, after I graduated but before I started paying off my college loans, I did a few divination readings about my future with respect to two things: my capability to pay off my college loans and my love life or the lack thereof.  The good news is that I’d be perfectly capable, able, and willing to finish paying off my college loans by the end of 2012 (nine months left!).  The not-exactly-pleasing-but-not-bad-either news is that I also wouldn’t be in a signficant relationship before then.  So far, that divination reading’s been holding up, and other recent divinations have yielded the same answer: no relationship until at least the beginning of 2013.

Now, this is what divination says, but divination is a curious thing in the hands of a magician.  Other people who only practice divination are able to see what can happen; magicians who can use divination can see what will happen and affect what can happen according to their will.  They’re like two sides of a coin, and are both helpful in attaining one’s desire.  Consider life to be like a river, and we’re a bunch of people walking, wading, or swimming through it.  Parts of the river are shallow and calm, others deep or rocky or turbulent.  Good things like fresh fish, fruit that fell off orchards, or even gold coins flow down the river, and a lot of people want these things.  Some people are content to stay wherever they tend to be without much moving, while others walk or swim back and forth to try and get what they hope is their next big find.  With divination, one can figure out where that next big find will be and position themselves accordingly to either grab it all the easier or pass it by.  With magic, one can change the currents and eddies of the river ever so slightly to get things to drift in ways helpful to them.  Using both can be a powerful technique.

However, this model doesn’t allow for fate (using whatever definition or worldview you choose) and things that can’t be fixed using magical or mundane means.  Some things simply can’t be changed: someone with a terminal illness might live a little longer using magic, but they will still die of that same disease.  As I mentioned earlier, I’m getting bored of being single, and I was starting to count the days until the next New Year when I realized that magic might be able to help me out.  I did a reading about whether I could perform a magical operation to obtain and maintain a significant romantic relationship before the end of 2012.  The answer was technically affirmative: I would be able to do such a thing.  However, the reading was so completely unfavorable to the endeavor that it may as well have been a negative response.  Even if it worked, it wouldn’t have lasted and would have fallen apart anyway in a catastrophic collapse.  Better to wait, then, it would seem.

A better analogy about divination and magic relates it to the field of medicine.  Divination is to magic like how prognosis is to treatment.  Given a situation or symptoms, a doctor can look at a patient and figure out what’s going on in the patient’s system and what will likely happen without treatment or with a variety of treatments.  The doctor can then go on to prescribe medicine, operations, exercise, or other treatments to achieve a particular outcome to affect the prognosis, assuming the prognosis allows for treatment to affect the trajectory of predicted events.  In the same way, a magician can use divination to figure out what’s going on, what’s happened, and what may happen in a particular situation; using magic, the magician can try to affect the situation using metaphysical treatments to achieve a particular outcome, assuming the divination readings show that such an operation can work.

Using divination for any significant magical operation is as important as weighing different treatments in a prognosis of a medical condition.  You might think that the theory of some operation is sound, and you might think you have the backing of all the heavenly host, but there is the chance that (a) there are outside influences and external circumstances that you’re not taking account of (b) the very Almighty is going to put the smackdown on you with an apocalyptic “no” (c) you’re just dead wrong in your theory or understanding of the situation.  Even doctors figure out indications and contraindications alongside or even before figuring out possible things that could help or hurt the patient.  Conjuring a love-focused goetic demon to get you laid this weekend, when you’re already slated for getting bed-confining flu in two days’ time and when you accidentally use a spirit of Saturn instead of Venus, won’t end well.