Recreating Your Altar: Yes, it’s Okay

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This post is especially for pagans/Wiccans/witches still in their “year and a day” period.

So you set up an altar, and probably you felt connected to a particular goddess/goddess and god/pantheon. Maybe you set up a simple altar and didn’t put a lot of money into the components. That’s actually good and smart and not what I did. Well, I didn’t spend a great deal of money, but I did buy two beautiful goddess figurines based on an oracle card reading that told me that one goddess was trying to reach me and a fascination with another goddess. At first, I felt very connected and centered to the goddesses. After several months, I lost the connection. I kept doing all the things that I had done since the beginning, but I could not regain that feeling of presence.

At the same time, I was spending a lot of time outside in the spring preparing and planting my garden. It’s been a difficult year–I don’t have to say why, but add health worries and family issues on top of that–and I got to a point that if I didn’t touch a plant every day, I was miserable. I realized that the goddess whose presence I craved was nature.

You already know that you don’t have to have an altar. We don’t have dogma. But if you’re like me and you like altars and symbols–perhaps a carryover from Catholic school?–you can build a budget altar and save up for things that you love, like the mini cast iron cauldron that I just bought. Budget or altar of your dreams, if you find yourself pulled in another direction six months later, it’s okay to change. And it’s okay to feel drawn to another deity. If another goddess or god seems to tug at your heart for months, it’s time to sit down and try to determine if this deity should become a part of your life.

How do you know? Meditation, sitting or walking can give you insight. Tarot or oracle cards can be a great help, but try to stay away from god/goddess decks. Turning over a goddess card doesn’t mean that goddess should be your goddess. Different deities speak to us when they have something to say.

Reading books–NOT random articles online–can help you learn about the specific mythology associated with your deity. Serving a deity is serious and arduous. This is one reason that many modern pagans choose goddess and/or god symbols instead of a particular deity.

I believe that “God” is a part of our universe and appears to people in a form that they can connect with and understand. We are not so far from our BCE ancestors. We are sheltered from and understand rain, thunder, lightning, snow, intense sun, but we are still vulnerable to the elements. What is more elemental than the earth and the forest and the sea? Where to we go to “get away from it all?” To the sea. To the forest. Some of us camp out in the woods. Some of us rent beachfront condos. Most of us get as close to nature as we comfortably can.

What draws you, the mountains or the sea? The desert? The prairie? The forest? The wooded area a mile from your home? Your carefully cultivated garden, or the garden you let run wild?

I’ve felt on edge for months, as if I made a mistake in choosing particular deities, and that I would be doing some great wrong in making a change. I no longer believe that it’s wrong to change. I do think that the change should be done with great respect. I have a place picked out for my goddess statues. It will be, in essence, a second altar. My new altar will be dedicated to the Goddess in her persona as Nature. This goddess will be my garden. This altar will tide me over the winter, but I will of course include winter nature elements. This altar will be personal to me rather than dedicated to something outside me. I made a mistake with that, not a terrible, unforgivable mistake, but an error.

So I have big plans for this altar. I’m lucky to have space, and lucky to not have to pack up and hide my altar. I can grow plants on my altar. I can add things until my entire dresser surface is an altar.

Many teachers will caution against adding a lot of stuff to your altar. That depends upon the person. Does having a well fleshed-out altar aid you in your meditation, magical work, daily ritual? Daily ritual is so very important in our chaotic world. It helps us feel grounded and centered, or as much as is possible these days. Tending an altar is like tending a garden.

How do you tend an altar? That’s another post. This was a long post, and sunrise is in two minutes.

But yes, you can change your mind about your altar, and you can devote yourself to a different deity. Both should only be done after a long period of thought, meditation, and asking oracles for advice, at least in my opinion.

Fellow pagans, how do you respond?

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“Paganism/Wicca is a made up religion.”

What do you say? My impulse is to say that they’re all “made up,” human expressions of the Divine.

I was told today that we (all pagans of all traditions) are just having fun without having done any research into how ancient peoples worshiped. As this person’s comments were particularly foolish and presumptuous, I told them they needed to get their ass off their shoulders and stop assuming that none of us have done any research into our particular path.

Because we don’t have a holy book, because we’re all different, because we all have our own way of approaching our spirituality and we (largely) avoid dogma, we’re just playing around.

I’ve never understand why religion can’t evolve. I’ve never understood why a spiritual practice built on the foundations of ancient religion isn’t as real as, say, Mormonism, which is a very young religion.

Wicca isn’t easy. For me, it’s hard work continually chipping away at the fear installed in me by Christian school teachers. It’s hard work readjusting my thought patterns from a religion that says “Just pray and believe!” to a spiritual practice that is . . . real life. It’s birth, life, and death. It’s having a pragmatic view of daily living instead of walking around telling everyone MY GOD IS GOOD, I’M BLESSED by people who don’t seem blessed at all, just desperately trying to convince themselves that they are or will be if they keep repeating it. And research . . . the research never stops. New archaeological discoveries, fighting through the fluff to get to the blood and bone, trying to understand how my ancient Irish ancestors viewed their gods and goddesses. Trying to set aside my comfortable modern mindset. Trying not to be pushed into doing things the way that other pagans do them. Not hiding my beliefs and knowing that people think they’re silly and hearing things like this woman on this TV show just said, that she goes to church to feel like she’s part of something bigger than herself.

I don’t need to go sit in a building to do that. All I have to do is water my garden and monitor the growth of my plants that I planted from seed. All I have to do is pick up half of a robin’s egg shell and add it to my shelf of things I find around my yard. All I have to do is look at a modern interpretation of an ancient female figurine and feel that primal awe at how something so simple seems to hold all the meaning in the world.

What do you say to someone who just wants to feel superior and sneer at a “made-up” religion? Do you bother with them at all? Is it our jobs to try and educate them? Does that ever work? Do we have to be nice? I don’t feel like trying to set some kind of example. If someone is behaving like an ass, I want to say “you’re behaving like an ass.”

So how do you respond to the “made-up religion” comments?

A Common Question About Wicca or Paganism and Being Wiccan or Pagan in 2017

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Last year I used my oracle cards and asked if a particular goddess was trying to reach me. I turned a card over and it was Rhiannon. I already had an image of her on display, and my shrine to her grew quickly and naturally into a thing of such beauty that I’d like to share it, but I feel it should be kept private.

After a few months, I found my that my thoughts often turned to The Morrigan. I felt her as strength, autonomy, and ultimate feminine power. She is, after all, regarded by some as the personification of Ireland.

(Rhiannon is a Welsh deity familiar to most because of the Stevie Nicks song. I LOVE Stevie, but she wrote the song because she was inspired by a character in a novel, not the goddess. If you are interested in Rhiannon because of the song, research the goddess. Books are best. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a book just about Rhiannon as I did with The Morrigan. I did find and buy this book and found it eye opening. It has chapters about 13 Celtic and Norse goddesses including Cerridwyn, Brighid, Eostre, Freyja, Aine, Danu, Modron, Hella, Branwen, Maeve, the Valkyries, and Morrighan. If you want to read about the fictional character that inspired Stevie Nicks, you want this book. I found the hardback and paperback in the same used bookstore.)

Okay, now that we have the list of books out of the way, let’s talk Wicca, altars, and 2017. You can bet your buttons that anything with the words “religious freedom” in it no longer applies to us in the U.S.

I’ve been interested in Wicca since I was 12. I’m 44 now. I started my Wicca journey with The Mists of Avalon and The Spiral Dance. Guess I didn’t get the book list out of the way after all. What I learned from The Mists of Avalon was what it means to serve The Goddess. The library copy I read had an index listing The Spiral Dance as source material. Wiccans generally refer to “The Goddess,” “The Triple Goddess,” and, more popularly today, “The Spiral Goddess.”

What if more than one goddess seems to pick you? I believe in individual manifestations of The Goddess. Believe me, if She wants you to see Her as one or more particular deities, She’ll make you see it.

With my shrine to Rhiannon and then The Morrigan opening my door and announcing herself, I was concerned about having shrines to multiple deities, especially deities from different pantheons. This forum discussion helped me tremendously. I set up a separate shrine for The Morrigan. It’s much darker than my shrine to Rhiannon but, as with the construction of Rhiannon’s shrine, it almost seemed to create itself. I honor both of them on holy days and throughout the month, especially on the days/nights of the New Moon, Full Moon, and Waning Moon.

Now, 2017. They’ll use their religious freedom nonsense against us eventually. How do you want to live as a Wiccan, a pagan, a heathen in 2017? If you’re already out, you’re out. If you’re not, you must be knowledgeable about your religion and your REAL religious rights before you come out. Hell, if you’ve been out, you should have the ACLU’s phone number in your phone. Many of us are by nature solitaries and we despise dogma, and lately there’s been too much of that in Wiccan groups (and too much of men running groups and chastising women.) If you don’t want to be in a coven, don’t feel obliged to join one now. But consider a quiet support system. You can find your sisters and brothers on Twitter. You can find me there.

Beware of white supremacist, homophobic “pagans.” They’re out there openly now, particularly if you identify with Norse goddesses and gods.

Blessed be, Sisters and Brothers.

Ash Wednesday a Year Later

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I woke up early today, for a wonder, and started reading Twitter. I no longer keep up with the Christian calendar unless it’s Easter or Christmas. Those were our family traditions. Today is Ash Wednesday. I haven’t celebrated–or been forced to observe–Ash Wednesday since I was in private school.

A lot has happened over the last year, especially since September, to show me that Christianity is not my path. I’m on the outside looking in at people discussing getting ready early today to that they can go to church, and I’m reading tweets from countries in Great Britain where the Ash Wednesday celebrations are a much bigger deal that they are here . . . full of color, traditional costumes, and music.

The only reason I’m writing this post is that the happiness over Ash Wednesday is such a painful contrast to what happened today in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts.

Three women were interrogated on suspicion of witchcraft: Tituba, an enslaved woman, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne. And thus began one of the most obscene episodes of insanity in American history: the Salem Witch Trials.

We know now (at least some of us do) that it is 99.999% likely that none of the 19 people executed in Salem for witchcraft were witches. I’m leaving that less than 1% chance open because someone may have been quietly practicing an old belief system. Maybe they escaped the hysteria because they kept to themselves. Maybe they turned their faces from their accused neighbors in order to survive.

It’s 2017 and Salem now exists on tourism fed by false accusations of witchcraft.

When I put away my Mary Magdalene paraphernalia last September and turned back to what had lain dormant in my mind for thirteen years–that’s weird, thirteen years, isn’t it?–I felt sad, lost, forsaken, as if I thought I had a friend but didn’t. That’s how close I was to this heretical version of Christianity. I didn’t mind being a heretic. It felt right to me . . . except that it was causing me quite a bit of anxiety trying to understand it.I remember reading something in the Bible attributed to Jesus regarding divorce and thinking, surely this doesn’t apply to me. I didn’t want to leave. I had to.

It’s all simply too hard to fathom. I was amazed at how easily I slipped back into my old ways and how much pleasure there is in being an adult and not having to disguise my altars or put away my Tarot cards.

Then I remembered where I was. In the South. Surrounded by neighbors who, instead of listening to me when I tried to explain the reason for my lifelong OCD, told me “you know you did something wrong” and told me to pray. Where people wave crucifixes and proclaim “my God is good!” even though their lives, from what they tell me, are not happy.

It’s a pretense. And I have to keep my altars and my Tarot cards and my books in my bedroom, because at least down here people have some scruples about just walking into your bedroom.

Which brings me back to the point of this post: pagans still can’t be as open about their beliefs as Christians. And today is a holy day for many Christians, but it’s also a day of remembrance for 19 people who fell victim to a hysteria much like what is burning across our country today:

Victims of Salem in Order of Execution:

Bridget Bishop

Rebecca Nuse

Sarah Good

Elizabeth Howe

Susannah Martin

Sarah Wildes

George Burroughs

George Jacobs Sr.

Martha Carrier

John Proctor

John Willard

Martha Corey

Mary Eastey

Mary Parker

Alice Parker

Ann Pudeator

Wilmot Redd

Margaret Scott

Samuel Wardwell Sr.

Giles Corey

Several victims died in prison:

Lydia Dustin

Ann Foster

Sarah Foster

Roger Toothaker

Mercy Foster (daughter of Sarah Good, born and died in prison)

This obscene part of American history is more than just a list of names of the accused dead. There were a few people who escaped from the Salem prison. You can start here to learn about the real people behind the names:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_of_the_Salem_witch_trials#Convicted_and_executed

I’m going to spend Ash Wednesday in remembrance of all these many people who suffered and died as a result of hysteria, prejudice, and intolerance.

We would do well, when we turn on the news today, to remember that “witch hunt” isn’t just a catchphrase and, under the leadership of someone eager to harm those different from him in skin color, religious belief, and sexuality, it’s already happening again.

A Quiet Yule

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I set up a simple Yule altar with a handmade altar cloth made by my cousin and an ornament that she made, a pine cone, and a white reindeer. I placed tall jar candles, red, white, and green behind the reindeer and decorations. *Protip: seven-day holy candles are super inexpensive, safe, and readily available in dollar stores and at Walmart. It takes less than ten minutes to soak off the labels and pictures in hot water. It’s hard to find decent-sized votive candles, at least here, and then there’s the whole digging the old candle out of the holder issue. I use 7-day candles for almost everything except rituals requiring a small candle that burns down completely in a few hours.*

My mother isn’t a pagan, but she supports me being one. She liked the Yule altar. We exchanged gifts. I gave her a Three Birds of Rhiannon pendant that I bought on Etsy, and she gave me The Vintage Wisdom Oracle by Victoria Moseley (I picked it out.) We listened to holiday music, and then we put together a quick holiday meal of turkey burgers, seasonal vegetables, homemade gingersnaps, and cranberry sauce.

We will have our usual Christmas because my mother still identifies as Christian, although she has become a non-traditional Christian. She doesn’t go to church. She’s actively interested in my pagan beliefs and holidays. She kept saying “this is lovely. This is lovely.” There’s something about the simple Yule altar that speaks to the spirit. I included a gift exchange because we have had such a dreadful month so far, and I wanted to give her a gift in advance of Christmas simply to cheer her up.

Here are pictures of our Yule altar and gifts. If you celebrate Yule, I hope yours was a merry one like ours!

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The Shortest Day

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2016-march-sunset

Vampires love the short days of deep winter. Wolves aren’t the only hungry things out in the night in January under the Wolf Moon. I was born under January’s Wolf Moon; perhaps that is why I prefer the night to the day and can so easily slip into the minds of the werewolf and vampire characters that I write.

The Winter Solstice, the first day of winter, is December 21st. This day is also referred to as Midwinter. The week that contains both the Winter Solstice and Christmas would seem to naturally be at odds with old and new beliefs. The sun is reborn at the Solstice; after that moment, the daylight grows by the minute each day. The Christ Child is born on Christmas Day. New Year’s Day follows, with a lot of good wishes and merry-making and resolutions and plans for The Best Year Yet.

I don’t think very many thinking people are looking forward to 2017 as a year of positive changes. As our collective humanity fell yesterday with the decision of the Electoral College, the shadows that hunt under the Wolf Moon came to the forefront of my mind.

There will be hunger. There will be fear. There will be loss. It’s nothing that our ancestors, all of our ancestors everywhere, didn’t acknowledge and face at certain times of the year according to their calendar.

We don’t do that. All our Judeo-Christian and secular celebrations lean towards the bright side, except perhaps holidays like November 1st, All Soul’s Day. Other days that honor the dead and the ancestors, Día de los Muertos, the growing devotion in Mexico to Santa Muerte, the voices of women who work in the death industry, death doulas, are working their way into our mainstream consciousness. Death looks back at us from dolls and toys. We talk about death and what we want done with our remains openly, and radically, compared to our parents and grandparents.

We’ve had a year of death . . . people we all “knew” for decades, people whose names we never knew until hatred and fear cut short their lives, entire cities.

We aren’t looking to 2017 as a new start. We’re looking at it as dragging the old year  behind us. We wake up expecting a new nightmare. We’re collectively sick from it. Some of us are actually making appointments with our doctors because the depression and anxiety are paralyzing. People are preparing to die if they lose the government benefits that pay for their medications, the government benefits to which they are entitled.

My aunt died at 9:30 in the morning last Monday. I had to help plan a funeral for the first time. I had to approve a suitable dress. I had to view her body at the nursing home to make certain she looked appropriate for an open-casket funeral. I had to position her glasses just right and cover the bruises on her hands–she fell out of her wheelchair–with the flowing lace sleeves of her wedding dress. I noticed that her fingernails were freshly painted. She had this done at the nursing home, perhaps the day before she fell out of her wheelchair.

Cold and dead in a pretty box, like this year.

We look forward to the shortest day because the next day will be longer. At the same time, the worst of winter is less than a month away, January 12th. On December 21st, we are far away from the sun. In mid-January, the wolf is closest to the door. We talk about self-care and taking things one day at a time. Our ancestors sat behind barred doors with weapons in hand.

The daughters are becoming the mothers of the mothers. We turn back to cards and feathers and stones. The peppermint plant is dying, but it has born many seedlings in the cold window under the dingy infrequent sunlight.

After the shortest day, after we make it through January, we look forward to the first day of February, Imbolc, the birth of the early spring lambs, a holy day associated with the Irish Goddess Brigid. Then, in March, the Spring Equinox, because after that we become impatient for the last frost, and the same dirt that covers our dead becomes home to the peppermint seedlings, under the lengthening sunny hours, minutes, seconds, after the shortest day.

Wise Women

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I’ve noticed, since Tuesday night, more blog posts than usual from pagan women. Like this one I just happened across on Twitter: https://theshadowsanctuary.wordpress.com/2016/11/10/waking-up-in-trumps-america/.

It seemed safe, for a while, to be pagan in the U.S.A. Living in the Bible belt is different, of course, I never shared my beliefs with anyone but my mother, my favorite cousin, and my best friend. Other family members know but don’t understand because they’ve never listened TO me, just dismissed me as an oddball–but I digress.

The fact that pagan women are speaking out about their feelings about living in “Trump’s America” gives me hope. As I told someone on Twitter, women have always been the healers and the warriors. Apparently pagan women are feeling called in some way to deal with this monstrous situation.

At the same time, many of these women are queer, disabled, or both and are at risk in “Trump’s America.” They’re at risk due to their sexuality, because we’ve already seen threats against LGBT people, and at risk due to their health. They may be dependent on Obamacare to stay alive. They may lose Obamacare because of Trump.

So we should all be prepared to stand up for each other and help in any way we can. And put something on your altar to remind you every day to send energy to these brave women to help protect them.