Danu

Let me admit something to you all

(I say, as though I’m in my living room, rather than a public blog…)

Once upon a time as a young teenager, I dabbled in Wicca.

Mostly I wanted to be special – special knowledge, special power, special techniques to have control over my world.

I read a little, I didn’t do much, I was mostly unsatisfied with what I found.

But in the middle of this period I had an experience that I still can call up in all its vividness.

(I don’t know when exactly it happened or what I was doing when it happened)

The image of a woman was dropped into my mind. She was matronly, impossibly tall, powerful, naked, carrying a blunt and unadorned staff, striding towards me over the crest of a hill.

I am the Goddess Danu, I heard, in a resonant voice that wasn’t what I heard when I read silently, come to reclaim my people.

I drew the image I saw, as best I could – “inspiration” for art was the only way I really could make sense of it. It came out extremely high-fantasy on paper.  I couldn’t convey the intensity of her eyes.  It sounded more high-fantasy as time passed, anyway, what was She talking about, people? I looked up Danu (and found things too far over my head to read) but I learned she was a river – Don, Danube, Dneiper – and the mother of the Tuatha de Danaan.

How strange, I thought at the time. It was not a perception that I knew how to make sense of.

I like my practice, I like that it’s heavy on organization and light on mysticism.

But sometimes I wonder. Danu.

Syncretism

I throw around the word “syncretism” a lot, but it doesn’t exactly fit perfectly what I do.

So I suppose I should try to describe what I do better.

First of all, I like holy images. They remind me to orient myself toward the world around me as a neighbor, they remind me to look for and honor the Holy Powers in my life. The attention I pay those images, the offerings I make – the incense and candles I burn, the drink I pour out and the food I offer, the prayers I say there – all empower those images to be better and better focal points of my devotion.

I particularly like holy images with faces. I’ve seen beautiful altars and shrines made of stones, or beads, or leaves and branches or pieces of antler, but the idols that suit me best are just that. I like the psychospiritual gymnastics of using the image of a particular human or animal face to reach toward something wholly Other.

But such images don’t necessarily exist. For a “well known” deity, who’s a major player in the myths-as-written there might be a statue or two floating around in the pagan and new-age world, but for a deity only remembered in their name – regardless of how widespread their ancient cult may have been, regardless of the depth of feeling a few modern pagans feel for them – there may be nothing accessible.

I learned this trick from African Diaspora traditions – the trick is to use someone else’s images.

Now, don’t steal images, borrow them from secure and open traditions. My favorite sources are Catholicism’s images, Tibetan Buddhism’s images, and the film and tv images that populate all of our unconscious minds.

I hope you’re blessed with a Latin American grocery store, because novena candles are the best (and most affordable) images to try this with. Look at all the images of the saints and angels on those candles, and try just for a moment to forget that Christianity exists. Don’t look at the names, don’t even look at the genders.

Who is that broad-faced woman with thick hair, destroying a tower with storm and lightning? Why, it must be Thrym’s Bride, Thor! (Santa Barbara)

Who is that richly dressed man standing on an ocean island and commanding the winds? Njord the Ship-King of course. (San Cypriano)

I’m not saying, of course, that Thor and Santa Barbara (or Tyr and Manjushri, Sigyn and Saint Claire or Sitatapatra, or Hela and Santa Muerte, or whoever) are the same, just that they have similar enough symbolic “hooks” that you can look at an image of one and see the other.

Syncretism, when I do it, is not blending deities or considering them the same, or “multiple facets of the same Reality”, but simply using images intended for one purpose for another purpose.

Flat symbolism isn’t the only way that this syncretism works – personal symbolism, and personal aesthetics play a part too. There’s a woodblock image of an adi-buddha at my work, white, with His hands in teaching mudra, which I know I could easily use as an image of Mani, but none of the other woodblock prints seem quite as suitable. It’s something about the face. (I should just buy it already)

My most well-loved shrines begin to look like 3-D collages. Njord’s space has a candle of San Cypriano, a resin Moshe (in Whose lap I’ve placed a fishing weight and the battleship from Monopoly) as well as a small blue lucky Hotei, holding a gold ingot which really really looks like a boat. There’s a brass sailing ship, a print of a replica stave church, a dish of coins and cobalt blue beads of recycled glass and red-dyed bone. None of those images are Njord, of course (one image alone, carved and named with intention, wouldn’t be Njord either) but they give an impression, they elucidate aspects; they are hooks to hang my mind on.

I don’t worry about the theology. I’m a pagan, I deal in actions and outcomes. If someone wants to consider the deity I’m praying to an emanation of the Enlightened Being Tara, or a facet of the Godhead which is One, or one face and name of the Great Goddess Eris, or generated by the energy of my belief, or a fantasy created by my psyche, they are welcome to, and I’ll keep doing like I do.

[edited to repair the doubledoubling]

So I haven’t been blogging…

I’ve been busy. I’m doing a lot of things that I’m proud of (and a lot of procrastinating) but the time and will to record any of it hasn’t occurred to me.

I’ve been working on a lot of things for my Kindred – we had an incredible dumb supper, for Winternights (the ancestor-centric holiday that synchs up most neatly with Hallowe’en/Samhain, for those what don’t know)

I met and was interviewed by three UW-Madison undergrads, who were studying the Sagas and Eddas and (separately) learning the basic methodology of ethnography. We (our kindred) were going to be their project. I was, I have to admit, trepidatious. But they were nice, asked intelligent questions, came to the dumb supper, and raised the horn to their dead ancestors. They’ve interviewed a few other friends as well, who all reported positive experiences. I hope they thought of us when they saw the Atheists’ “God Graveyard” that made a blog-o-stir recently, and the offerings left at Freyja’s image (I didn’t do it, and no one I know did, is the part that makes me smile.)

(Some of our members are addressing the racism and insensitivity to human suffering implicit in that display, privately, with the university. We will be hosting, in the nebulous near-future, a prayer and offering ritual for the 200 gods “buried”, as well. If anyone reading this would like to send in a prayer to be read, to any of the gods you happen to be close to, please do!)

I’ve started another project – audio recording of the stories in the Eddas, for the sake of greater accessibility. Right now it is just barely better than nothing, and if anyone would like to contribute even one recording, of any public domain translation of any Heathen primary source, (I know Saxo can get really long winded and dull…) it would be an immense help.

Gosh, what else? I’m working on illustrations (or ought to be) for a Pagan small press. 🙂 My editor keeps talking big about how I should do this that and the other to make a living on childrens’ books and even though I know he’s talking big, I’m terrified.

I’m working two jobs now, too! A Buddhist shop and a Nepali restaurant. I’m learning a lot about 1. Buddhist epistemology and meditation techniques, thanks to the shop’s bookshelf, and 2. what equitable religious intermixing can look like “on the ground”, so to speak, since my bosses’ religious preferences were set in turf where “the local goddess” was an idea everyone acknowledged, and traditions lived cheek by jowl in the same cities and families. My Buddhist boss joins in Laxmi puja for Tihar and keeps a small Ganesh on her prosperity altar, and my … well, Hindu is a undescriptive term, but my boss with a billion pictures of Sri Krisna behind the cash register lights candles before an image of the Buddha each work day, too. (and of course, everyone’s personal interpretation of underlying theology is their own damn business.) It sounds like a just-so story, but I don’t see enough of it in my own religious community.

(My restaurant-boss admired my Thor’s Hammer one day. “It’s, uh, related to the Dorje,” I said.)

Since starting there, a small image of Laxmi has gone up inside my Njord shrine (as though She were His honored guest), sitting atop a stack of business cards of the folks who send me my prosperity (and who know Her much better than they know Him), and a variety of Bodhisattva statues with small damages that make them unsalable have followed me home, sitting among the potted plants and receiving occasional mantras.

Anyway, that’s life. Busy and good.