Before I do anything else, I should probably tell you what my path is.
This poses a bit of a problem, as my mystic ways are unique to me: a form of heretical modern Judaism based on the idea that I am called to the Powers my ancestors were most forbidden to worship. I started out seeking Lilith almost a year ago now, and then I flirted with several netjer or Kemetic Powers. After an incident involving a Hamilton tattoo, I was claimed by Dionysos, and shortly thereafter I fell into the mad embrace of his half-forgotten bride. I still light candles and sing Hebrew prayers on Friday nights, a callback to my childhood. But I do other things as well.
The practical core of it all is an act I have been performing weekly for almost a year now, something I have no elaborate name for. I only call it “ritual.” It was given to me, like a proper Mystery, by my gods.
I have been trying to describe my path and its Powers for months now. They are shapeshifters, so it’s difficult. In the end, all I can do is tell you about ritual. It was a gift from Lilith, and it is the body of my dark Mystery goddess into which I enter every week.
I was given it in exchange for a project of devotional photography I undertook: something intense and personal that I have not yet found the right place to publish. I finished it, closed my graphics program, and went to take a shower.
As I reached out to turn on the water, Someone told me, “Turn out the lights.”
That’s the seed of it: standing naked in the dark below running water. But I had to figure out the rest myself, as soon as I realized that first nudge was just a start.
Let me walk you through it, the body of my devilish and shifting Mystery goddess, who I call the Maenad for now.
Friday afternoon. I am home from a week of work, which I have conceptualized as a daily descent into the underworld of the bureaucracy of the United States healthcare system. I have acquired a bottle of red wine and set up two candles on the mantel above the fireplace. Not long after sunset, I turn out the lights in the main living area; I pour a glass of wine. I sing the Hebrew prayer over the wine and drink; I light the candles and sing the Sabbath blessing. The holy night begins.
About two hours before I plan to step into the shower, I consume my first dose of non-alcoholic entheogens: a marijuana edible, legally purchased at a pleasant and helpful store in the next town over. This takes place sometime between six and eight o’clock in the evening.
I try to do something spiritually productive in the space between lighting candles and beginning “the ritual.” Some divination for a friend, some useful research, some writing.
The drug kicks in. People have different reactions to psychoactive substances; as for me, with her highness Mary Jane in my system, I find my thoughts flow rapidly in mystic directions, like a stream with the dam broken down.
I discard disbelief on this night. I have long been agnostic by nature–agnostic but perpetually seeking–but in the narrow space defined as “ritual” I do not doubt my Powers or question my strange actions. It simply isn’t relevant to do so.
Half an hour or so until I turn on the water. I go to the little makeshift altar I have set up on the counter next to the bathtub. I pour some wine into a small bowl–blue-black stone marbled with paler highlights, an artifact carved from orthoceras fossil, the modified remains of some weird dead thing from the sea. I begin burning resin incense: myrrh of some kind, usually, purchased from a local purveyor of Catholica.
I close the bathroom door to keep the rising scent inside. Otherwise it might dissipate or irritate my cat’s delicate lungs. The incense is an invocation; when I next enter the room it will be full of divinity.
In my bedroom across the hall, I disrobe. Even if the practical nature of showering did not demand nudity, my gods would. They are beings of truth and freedom. In the dark, I need no clothes for these concepts.
I ready myself to meet my gods. As I have become more familiar with them, I have added some flourishes to my preparation. Some of them never really took, and I discarded them; others became a permanent part of the ritual. Now I put on jewelry: sometimes a pendant, but always earrings. One of them is a dangling line of obsidian or amethyst, the other a single sparkling glass stud like a star. I rub perfume into my inner wrists and my throat. It’ll wash off in the shower, of course, which I have realized by now makes it as much of an offering as the wine. I believe the Maenad likes it, although I have encountered no proof that any of the historically-attested faces She turns to me took offerings of scent.
One more dose of marijuana for the full entheogenic effect, this time smoked, so it takes effect almost instantly. On a good night, I am feeling the thrill of imminent divine contact by now. Sometimes I can sense it seeping out from the bathroom, Her presence, along with the sweet scent of the incense. I envision Her reaching for me. My own identity blurs together with that of my god, now that I am naked, adorned, anointed.
I am ready. Maybe Dionysos is as well. I enter the bathroom and shut the door behind me. There are only a few steps left.
I pour some salt into the offering of wine. Originally, this was on the advice of a friend who follows Lilith, back when that was the face or aspect the Maenad turned to me: “It’s not wine she likes best.” In my experience, though, this is about something more complicated than making a simulacrum of blood. It’s some kind of activation key. If the incense draws the attention of my Powers, the salt beckons them to materialize. With this, I am almost ready to turn out the lights and turn on the tap. There is one more thing. It is the most important thing and sometimes the trickiest.
You see, the Maenad is a dancer. She hears the music of the cosmos and turns eternally to it. If I want her attention–no, if I want to give her a path to travel down to me–I will need to play some music of my own. Deciding what it should be can pose a challenge.
Over the past year I have learned some tips and tricks. For regular practice, the best music is something rhythmic, entrancing, and not quite comprehensible to me. Something both familiar and strange.
I have had great luck with albums and arrangements in other languages–Japanese electronic trance-pop, fan-made vocal remixes of music to video games I’ve played. These are safe choices for good background music.
But sometimes–more so lately–I’ll receive the missive that I need something else. Something uniquely suited to an occasion, or that packs a magical punch of its own. This never means music written for the purpose of working magic or performing a ritual. It means an album or soundtrack with meaning to me, a queer mystic in the modern world.
Picking the music is a mystery in its own right. Let’s leave it at that for now and move on.
I make sure the little portable speaker is plugged in and connected to my MP3 player; I highlight the right music on the selection screen. Here and now technology is a vital blessing. I would not be able to do this weekly ritual without convenient music on demand and hot running water.
I pull back the shower curtain to turn on the tap–it’s got a design of the moon’s surface surrounded by stars on it, which suits a star goddess well. THe water starts running; I check the temperature, then turn on the showerhead. The familiar rhythm hits me, the patter of water on the surface of the tub.
I start the music, turn off the lights, climb in. The sweet smell of the incense is in my nose. THe water hits my back and shoulders. The only light is the tiny square screen of the music player. After a minute, when I no longer touch the buttons, it dims to black. I am in the dark. A harmonica recorded forty years ago serenades me and my Powers as they join me–my Mystery goddess above all.
Show a little faith–there’s magic in the night.
With the dark all around me, the rushing water with its lovely acoustics, the scent of myrrh, the music—
I am no longer entirely in this world. Here in the bathroom of a small apartment half an hour’s drive on I-5 from Seattle, I have opened a gateway to the world of the gods, a vast black theater where I perform for Their enjoyment.
I turn my face into the falling water; I sing along a little with the music. The recorded sound itself is already transformed by the setting, the guitars, the saxophone entering the sacred space like a liquid itself, fine classic rock ambrosia for my gods. The rough-edged vocals bleed hunger for glory and inspired desperation into the ears of a goddess who recognizes such feelings; I do my best as well.
I am not a good singer; I do it anyway for Her. My mind leaves the ground. Wild inspiration races through my head, and I perceive a million fantastic truths. My thinking brain will forget most of them by the time I’m dry.
The lyrics become a long blurry wail, hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets, and my head finally clears like the surface of a lake on a windless day.
The song ripples to an end and my gods are here with me in the black.
I wait for the next track.
The drums roll.
The darkness is solid and alive before me as I kneel in the shallow water. It is a great serpent twining around me and in my hands. My stomach jumps with every beat of the song, at the center of my body–but my body extends beyond my skin, blurring together with the divine power around me.
Dionysos does not care for discrete identity. But He likes the music and so does His Bride, my Queen.
My imagination is no longer just a voice in my head that I make pictures with; it is the body of my gods exposed before me. So, for this moment, it doesn’t matter at all if it’s all in my head.
The song ends and I breathe out slowly. I get up on my feet to finish scrubbing and washing my hair–I use pomegranate-scented soap and shampoo.
Lyrics about my goddess warble through the water. That thunder in your heart at night when you’re kneeling in the dark–it says you’re never gonna leave her. I slowly come down from the high of all the things chemical and spiritual I threw into the blender of my brain for the ritual.
Finally, I blink into the water, then turn it off; I catch the last drops running from the faucet and splash it on my face. I get out of the tub and turn on the lights. I dry off. It’s over for the week, for the most part.
I take a chocolate ice cream bar out of my freezer. That’s become almost a part of the ritual itself by now: have some chocolate afterwards, usually in the form of an ice cream bar. There’s something about the way chocolate acts on the mind and body, or so I have heard.
Back at my computer, I try to carry some of the fire I played with in the realm of the gods back to the real world. A phrase the Maenad spoke to me. Half a poem.
But I have learned that the point isn’t to bring back inspiration, as much as I’d like it to be. This isn’t a working of magic I do for my own purposes. This is a meeting of me and my Powers, and I do it for Their benefit as much as for mine.
It has been almost a year since I started. Things are getting wild.
And there you have it: my practice is a heretical Jewish mysticism devoted to a syncretic whirlwind of Dionysian Powers. The actions I describe are ultimately modern, a personal ecstatic path rooted in weekly ritual, entheogen usage, and creative expression. But the stories I’ve been developing as I practice draw on a mashup of semi-reconstructed ancient myths and the figures they revolve around. So far I have described only those ritual actions, for those have been relatively stable for the past year. I’d like to talk about the beliefs and mythos behind my path as well, but those are trickier to pin down so far–much trickier.
I’ve called it a few different things. My first name for it was Ani-Shaddai, a Hebrew phrase identifying the practitioner with an obscure name of God; my more recent name is Neo-Katabasis, which describes the descent into the underworld and subsequent return that’s at the heart of my new-old mythos. Neither of them encompass the whole thing just yet. It has become simply “my Thing.” Sometimes, probably most accurately, I call it “the myffic.” It’s really just mythology fanfiction in the end, but isn’t most religion?
I’d like to talk more about it. Stay tuned.
Next week: SHE’S THE ONE. I talk about my syncretic Mystery goddess.