Embodied Polytheism

Our teaching circle was working together on a garden one day, and there was much complaining about the smell of the compost we were turning into the soil. I quipped, “That’s the fecundity of the Earth that you’ve been worshiping.” Folks did not appreciate the spiritual lesson. To be fair, it was a hot Midwestern summer, and folks were more focused on sweat and smelly vegetable rot than they were on the spirituality of it all.

This was a divide I was noticing, but not fully aware of at the time. Being spiritual wasn’t affecting daily life much, for many of us. We’d grown up in a world where spirituality meant church and church was just on Sundays, and thus we’d absorbed some bad habits.

When I first came up in Paganism, in Iowa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a lot of focus on getting out of (or even beyond) the body. Sure, everyone was talking about earth spirituality and the sacredness of the body, but what people wanted to learn was all about the disembodied. Astral travel, otherworld trance journey, seeing spirits… It wasn’t so much a denial of the body as it was a “bodies, yeah, yeah… when do we get to the good& stuff?” People took their bodies and the physical world for granted. They were looking for something else.

This didn’t strike me as odd at the time–after all, I was part of it–but as time went by and the Weirdness became more an ordinary thing to me, I did start noticing a disconnect. It was as if the emphasis on the otherworldly put a gap between spiritual life and “real” life. We still celebrated the seasons and the gods (as we understood them then), and the celebrations were powerful for us, but I noticed that the actual contact with the spiritual was, increasingly, a during-ritual-only kind of thing.

It didn’t help that most of what we had in that place and time for contact with folks outside of our community was the early internet. Originally, I had for sources my copy of The Spiral Dance, Drawing Down the Moon and printouts of some vaguely relevant Usenet conversations. As the internet proper began to grow, so did the early Pagan forums, and ready access to advice from other Pagans. We welcomed it then, because for many of us, it was our first contact with folks other than those we’d been bootstrapping our practice with.

However, there was a serious drawback, at least for me. The distance inherent in the internet combined with the focus on the otherworldly in a way that hindered conversations about the spiritual more than it helped. There were a lot of conversations about what color energy one should be seeing and just who that odd figure in one’s dreams was, but very little on what one should actually be doing in the physical world to get there.

Someone once suggested I meditate while breathing through my crown chakra. I was becoming increasingly frustrated with my failure to achieve this, and I was sure I was failing, because I never managed to feel air being sucked in and blown out of the top of my skull. I know now that the instruction meant to breathe deeply while visualizing the energy of the breath going in and out of a spot on my skull, but neither I nor the person advising me had the language to explain either the problem or the solution. I took them literally, and they took my understanding of the physicality of the meditation for granted. Neither of us could see the disconnect.

The local (public) Pagan community in Iowa was centered around a student group at the University of Iowa, and while we did have some gender diversity, we were pretty much all more-or-less able bodied twenty-somethings (with a few thirty-somethings on occasion), and pretty much all white. Upon moving to the Bay Area and getting older myself, I had  greater range of race, sexuality, identity, age and physical ability in my Pagan circles.

Since moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, and after years of devotion to Dionysos, I began to see the gap, and I had access to teachers who could help me close it. Mostly, these weren’t people teaching Paganism, even if they were Pagans. They were yoga teachers, massage therapists, psychological counselors, lovers. Embodiment was something I had to bring into my spiritual practice from outside.

Holding community and sacred space with a diverse group also helped quite a bit.It was easier to see the relationship between  human life and sacred cycles when the bodies in front of me gave an experiential anchor to concepts that were rather abstract, before. None of these folks were defined or limited by my developing understanding of spiritual concepts, of course, but there was something in seeing diversity in action that helped me grasp the relationships stories about the gods had been trying to teach.

Another thing that helped me close the gap was shifting the focus of my personal practice from eclectic Paganism to relationship/devotion based Polytheism. The focus on interacting with the gods as individual persons, and the frequent focus on sharing food and drink in the spirit of hospitality with gods in much the same way one would with mortals, has helped me find a place for the physical in my experience of the spiritual.

This isn’t to say that food and drink weren’t part of my previous Paganism. They were there, but in a limited ritual, spiritual context. Just a bite of bread now, just a cookie and one shared cup of wine. The actual, physically satisfying eating was for after the spiritual work was done. Increasing the emphasis placed on sharing food and sharing space with the gods helped me personally bridge that gap.

The Polytheist emphasis on treating the gods as individuals brings my habits and instincts for dealing with mortal people into play, and at the same time helps me translate my spirituality into my relationships in the rest of my life. Gods aren’t mortals (nor mortals gods, however much they may wish), but the similarities and contrasts provide a deepening both kinds of relationships in my life.

This is what’s helped me. The mileage of others can and will vary. Still, when I visit online communities, I see others having many of the same problems I struggled with early in my Pagan life. Folks get lost in talking about talking about it, and don’t know how to talk about doing it. Folks talk about the great spiritual lessons they’ve learned, but demonstrate that they haven’t yet figured out how to apply them in their daily lives.

Without a solid grounding in lived experience and relationships with other people that go beyond forum debates, Paganism remains a mental thing, a thing detached from everyday life, even a place to which one can escape from everyday life. Spirituality and “real” life become antagonists, competing for one’s time and attention. One or the other may end up being mostly ignored.

Without spirituality being a part of everyday life, one is divided against oneself.

This is why I’m here, on Pagan Bloggers. This is what Cupbearer is about: sharing my experiences and my problems with living my Polytheism fully embodied in my life, in the hope that doing so will help someone who’s struggling with getting beyond talking about it into doing it.

About the Author

Lon Sarver is a Dionysian priest in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's been at this for 28 years, more or less, in the Midwest and California Pagan and Polytheist communities and is still functionally sane, or at least puts up a good front. Lon leads a devotional group, Thiasos Bakkheios, in monthly rites to Dionysos and annual public rituals at Pantheacon. He edits fiction and provides disability care for his paying gigs. His cat approves of his blogging activities, as it gives her more opportunities to climb up onto his shoulders as he tries to type.

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