This is part of a series of posts I’ve realized I’ve needed to write for awhile but am only now understanding why. This is also a review of Many Gods West, as much as an organizer can possibly review his own event. But also not a review–a report, and a revelation, and a manifesto.
Dahut, for those unfamiliar, is a Breton sea witch, daughter of the ‘Queen of the North,’ responsible for the drowning of the Isle of Ys, banished by St. Corentin for her ‘crimes.’ She’s likely a Mari-Morgan, and appears to have some relationship to the cults of Arianrhod.
Aranrot drem clot tra gwawr hinon,
Mwyhaf gwarth y marth o parth Bryth(r)on:
Dysbrys am y llys efnys afon,
Afon a’e hechrys gwrys gwrth terra,
Gwenwyn y chynbyt kylch byt ed a.
Aranrot whose beauty surpasses the radiance of dawn,
Her terrifying was the greatest shame by means of a wand.
A hostile river rushes about her court,
A river that assaults and injures the land,
Venom of the old world that circles the world.
(Kadeir Kerrituen/The Chair of Ceridwen)
I. What the Anarchist Saw
“It’s fucking awesome there’s an anti-Capitalist Pagan event in Olympia.”
I looked at the guy who said this, a local, not a named polytheist by any means, no one you probably know. And then I looked around to see who else had heard his enthusiasm, to see if someone else would correct him instead of me. I was exhausted, tired of words, my arm tired from carrying a shield no one could see.
But there was no one there to tell him otherwise, so it fell on me. Afterall, I was the one he’d spoken to.
“Uh–it’s not really an anti-capitalist conference. There are some here, yeah, but it’s a Polytheist event.”
He looked like he thought I was joking. “Polytheists are all anti-capitalists and anarchists, though…”
I shook my head, noticing a few people I’d previously run afoul of regarding money-in-paganism standing nearby. “No, not–”
And then I smiled, remembering what I’d been seeing all weekend. “They are. Just don’t tell them that.”
II. Leather, Wet From the Dragon’s Well
My boots were wet again. They were wet like the last time, though there’d been no rain. In fact, the heat in Olympia that weekend was brutal; the air-conditioning couldn’t keep up, but the building wasn’t old enough to have been constructed before conditioned air was a thing at all. Tall, square, soaking up the light and heat from the unseely summer torching our ancient forests, filled with sweltering gods-folk barely complaining.
In fact–no one was complaining, or not really. There were some snags, though. The hotel manager obviously didn’t like people, probably had hoped to be a good Capitalist instead of a servant of Capitalists. He treated some of us awfully, but the rolled-eyes of his staff hinted at a fierce class-war enacted behind the desk. As everywhere, the people actually doing work, rather than telling others to do work, were quite awesome.
And they wouldn’t have noticed my sopping-wet boots, because they left no puddle, no moisture. Only I could feel the leather wet from the chill waters of Llyn Dinas, and know I was elsewhere again.
This has happened before. A few times just before the conference, sitting in a scorched field feeding crows as I cried for something I realized couldn’t exist; once after, just as I was contemplating whether I could write any of this. One particular time in February, when a would-be king spewed words even he couldn’t believe he’d said, as the waves of Llyn Dinas lapped against the carpet of another hotel room.
My boots were wet again, as was the rest of me, face down in muck as a great army tread across my body to another shore.
Just before Many Gods West, I’d undergone some of the most terrifying transformations. I do not have the words for them; even poetry fails, though some of it is hinted at in the Notes From The Abyss and a Wild Hunt article. I don’t know if it’s a story I can ever tell, except to the few who guided me back out of the Abyss, as well as one to whom all these events eventually led. They ended all at once, a sprinkling of soil as fire coursed through my body and a shield, lit by candleflame, awoke within me as I awoke within it, and that thunderous laughter coming from below and behind yet still shaking through my parched throat.
A mystery that started on the shores of Llyn Dinas, seared through with a burning lance of light from within the Dagda’s home, finally became the Wheel and the World, and my boots were wet all weekend.
III. The Gates of the Dead Rattle
Other’s boots were wet, from lake water nearer-by. When one attendee arrived, he hurried to the shores of the drowned shanty-town to attend to the dead. Others shook in ancestral terror after Sarenth Odinnson’s ritual, the dead we carry with us suddenly both lighter yet more real.
The dead are everywhere in Olympia. The city sits upon a fault, just near the epicenter of the quake whose damage is still not fully repair in Seattle, 90 miles North. The giants are everywhere, too, and water pours freely and fiercely from a spring in the middle of the city, like those of the ancient European cities where our gods were most worshiped.
And there were gate-keepers for them, or rather, gate-openers. Sean Donahue is the most gentle giant of a man you might ever meet, yet wherever he stands there is also a gate of the dead, a power too many witches claim and too many more desire. To gain access to the realms of the dead is to gain power, and witchcraft and Paganism is too much about power. Therein’s also why polytheists are so hated, so belittled, and so feared–because they yet care nothing for power, and stab through the heart those who would rise above the others.
I’m getting ahead of myself, and painting this broad and macabre, but there are no brighter shades with which to hue this dying world. When the Mothers arrived in ritual the third day of the conference, they laughed as they said the same gods-damned thing we’ve already heard from all the other gods: a storm’s coming.
We know, because they’ve told us. Some fear the apocalyptic vision of the gods-folk, in the same way they deride Peter Grey’s manifesto without ever having touched the thing. Apocalypse is for the Christians, or the fools, or those who hate others, or those who hate themselves. But if you do not care for a world, than you will not care that it dies, anymore than you’ll notice the slaughtered Black folk in American streets until you decide they’re worth caring about.
That ‘storm’ is like the dying city the Singers in the Darkness showed me, or the ‘Ragnorak’ heard by some in the Troth, not some mere windy day when electricity clips for a few hours and we’re forced to stare into our own darkness, but the relentless slaughter of the world. But unlike the New Agers or the Christians, no polytheist I’ve met believes some magical figure or change of consciousness will be born from the withered husk of what we call the world. Each vision is more dour and dire than the next, the sense of urgency quickening, and a panic settling into a new routine of conserving water, saying good-bye to great mammals, and chastising ourselves for ever needing to travel.
The Mothers laughed and said it again, “a storm is coming,” and it seemed so predictable that it was a bad joke, and yet the threads they weave and cut are deadly serious.
IV. Knives in Streets as Forests Burn
The hotel had never endured such heat, the staff apologizing, the air conditioning unable to keep up with the 160 folks gathered to hear Morpheus Ravenna speak. Polytheists are anarchists whether they care to be or not–we’d run out of chairs in the room, before I finished asking for help gathering more 6 people rushed passed me into the other room to carry stacks of them back. None were paid to find seats for others, none waiting to be called specifically, merely a need to be met and a rush to meet it.
Stained-glass windows and light, the clothing of the gods; I felt almost I’d heard some of those words before, said better by her than ever by the fumbling poet who’d tried a year ago. This happened a few times, hearing words I’d tried to capture from echoing forests spoken by friends or strangers. We’d heard the same echo, caught the same threads, pulled strands to weave the tapestries of the worlds around us, the worlds with gods in it, the worlds inhabiting a dying, scorching, quaking earth.
The dead lingered on the shores of an artificial lake, the pillars of the earth uneasy, unsettled below us. Far to the west, forests climbing the face of the gods’ mountain smouldered, a rainforest parched, the last great ancestral towers of this land alight in flame.
When the Mothers spoke of the storm, they laughed; they certainly know we already knew. That’s why we were all there, so many of us from across the land, reluctantly riding carbon-spewing death machines through the air and across asphalt to speak on such things, to be near others with similar visions, to be near others to whom gods speak.
Stormcrows winged black-feathered flight through the words. Another mentioned it first–a narrative, a story unfolding from each speech. His on the millenarian Chinese, the revolts led by gods and heretics gathering the poor and trampled against rulers thought divine. It seemed familiar, he said so, we spoke of a story unfolding, each speaker weaving a melody out of the notes of the previous.
And something was inescapable about these presentations. I alternating between two utterly different speakers, Finnchuill and Heimlich A. Laguz, one speaking on Becoming Placed, the other on Heathen Cosmology, and yet as I left one in mid-sentence to check on the other, it was difficult to separate the two. One spoke of disenchantment, the other spoke of disenchantment; one referenced the capitalist un-godding of the land, the next referenced the same, just in different words.
Rituals for the dead, workshops for the dead. A purging ritual, a warrior ritual. Recovering the monsters, becoming the monsters, slipping between genders, slipping between worlds. It was rare not to hear a reference to the slaughter of Black folk in American streets, or the slaughtering of the forests, or the severing of our meaning, and in at least two presentations (including mine), these were all noted as springing from the same putrid source.
V. No King But Ludd…
So when the Anarchist lauded the event an an anti-capitalist, anarchist Pagan conference, it was dishonest of me to deny this.
I was wearing the same shirt as many others there, Alley Valkyrie’s mischievous artistic coup. At the Polytheist Leadership Conference last year (the direct ancestor to Many Gods West), we were all wearing her bees, as she’d sent them as her offering to the event. You’d think we were all some cult of apiarists, all devotees of the Melissa, but as Chakrabarty points out, academics miss the point when studying polytheists. It matters not the shape of our belief; rather, it’s our practice which worlds them into the earth, and so the PLC became devoted to bee-goddesses, and Many Gods West was an Anarchist event.
No Masters, says the second half of the slogan, and it’s actually this very thing (and not the worship of multiple gods) that sets the polytheists out from the rest of Paganism. Who are our rockstars? Our elders? Our regents?
We have none, because we thus far topple them.
The moment someone begins to claim power-over, we cut into their breasts and throw their nipples and body into the bog, because we’ll have no High Priests, no Kings, no Temple-school gay triads of publishing empires and empty promises and selfies taken in the asphalt court of a San Jose Starbucks.
That is, if we remember where that path leads.
Consider: In a few months in New Orleans a business-owner and marketing quean will host a high-priced event, despite having outed the legal identities of women and exhorted them to call out his name while they’re being raped. There’s money to be made, and influence to be had–we should not be surprised that several ‘famous’ witches didn’t withdraw from this event, protesting that ‘we should all just get along.’ In Brand-Named Paganism, the coin is all, and we can always claim oppression to rally the faithful, just like Evangelicals–and shut down any dissent that gets in the way.
A polytheist who tried that shit currenly would be publicly disembowled before being thrown from a cliff to be fed to the carrion-eaters, and as harsh as this might seem to bourgeois ‘let’s all get along’ Paganism, it’s a lot less harsh than the circling of power seen in the Covenant of the Goddesses’ response to Crystal Blanton’s call regarding Black lives. That anyone still reads so-called elders after their defense of racism should appall anyone but a Catholic apologist for pedophile priests, because they (and the self-proclaimed Kings) are playing at the same game.
This sort of polytheism is a revolt, regardless the politics of individual gods-bothered folks. An uprising both against the people who defend awful people just because they’re ‘Pagan,’ and an insurgency against those who’d argue we keep our heads down, be good workers, and choke down the shit-covered cock of Liberal Capitalism. It’s as much the Apocalyptic Witchcraft of Peter Grey as the loom-breaking of the soldiers of King Ludd.
I can only hope it will stay that way.
VI. Exclusively-Priced Sightseeing Tours of the Otherworld
Why bother calling out the merchant-witches, the ticket-sellers at the Gates, the money-changers in the temples? Precisely this: they are, more than anyone, the would-be Authority of Pagan belief, extracting tithes from the seekers of magic, barring the way of those who do not proffer money for a chance to see the Otherworld. It is they who would codify, they who would build the temples only if they might become the High Priests.
Thus far, we fear and tear down the institutions of Paganism both because we’d otherwise be institutionalized, and because we don’t need Authority. We may let some leaders around, mostly because they do good stuff, but when the time comes for them to abdicate, we’re ready with our pitchforks if they won’t.
Who are the masters of the gods-bothered? The gods themselves, and they are myriad, and are more often waiting for us to open the gates to the DisEnchanted Kingdom in cover of darkness so they can wreak their havoc, torch the plastic edifice and loot the treasuries stolen first from the graves. The Dead rattle at the gates, and we’re letting them in, dancing with them through the plague-ridden streets of the cities already crumbling.
You may think this dire, perhaps–even violent, but only because you do not look past the razor-wire border fences to our south, or the obliteration of indigenous peoples on the land we inhabit, or the blown-off faces of Muslim children in eastern deserts. That’s violent. This is compassion, the other edge of the sword of love.
The brutality of the gods-bothered is the severity of their hope, the madness of their poetry is a love letter to the world, and for that weekend I bore a shield atop a quaking fault for a weekend in a city of the gods.
What Brân asked of me was what was needed, laying face-down in a cold rushing river as others trampled my back across to the other side. I don’t believe I’ll be here for the next Many Gods West; I think my path lies across a larger body of water, the direction my own skull will one day face in burial unclear to me.
But I do not not think my struggle will be for much longer on these colonized shores, nor against those happily clinging to their cars and corporations, more so in the name of ‘witchcraft.’
Amusingly, perhaps, there were two intentional hexes on MGW, a third accidental but no less troublesome. Still more lesser ill-will from those fearful of the gates we’re opening. What the gods-bothered are doing is what the respectables warned for decades against–we’re refusing to shut up. The gods cannot be secret, their teachings cannot be hidden. Some have cut narrow paths through the forests of the Other and hidden the way; others wider paths with signs and wayside shrines.
A few have found great clearings, picked up rusty axes to appear responsible, and now charge a steep toll for their stolen knowledge.
To many of them, what we were doing that first weekend in August was a danger, an offense. If gods are real, anyone can know them. Their secret cults and training courses become irrelevant when you don’t need their gatekeeping to meet them, only a little help to learn to hear them. Riverboat cruises with over-glamoured celebrities are meaningless when the Dead will whisper greater secrets to you in rainy gloaming streets, and charms of summoning and binding are no better than the battery cages of factory farms.
Polytheists won’t fucking shut up about their gods, gods that witch traditions have long hoped to keep secret and exclusive so to glean and gain their power. But power for what, really?
Power to start a witch-cult with your two sexual partners and build glossy websites and post a selfie to thousands of adoring Facebook likes?
To work the pillaging Market to your favor and comfort?
Power to gain sex, or celebrity, or to make your business prosper?
Those who’d opened gates to the Other have been charging admission, forgetting that other gates can be thrown open, the doors ripped off the hinges, the Other flooding through.
And already I’ve seen the gilded glint in the eyes of some of the gods-bothered, and I understand Dahut, fingering the key to the floodgates.
VII. She Sends A Flood Over The World
I learned to unravel hexes not from some class or book, but from asking a few gods to teach me to do so. Nagas swept in from the sea to aid one of us, a few giants sloshing through those deep waters to offer their help, as giants are so often wont to do. The Kami blessed this thing because we asked them, not because we deserved it. The dead, the ancestors, the land itself all listened to our call, not because we were powerful, but because we weren’t trying to use them like petroleum or slaves.
And not using things like petroleum or slaves is precisely what should’ve been written in our doctrines, not “do as thou wilt” or ‘an it harm none,’ but ‘overthrow the rich and bring the forests back.’ The pleasant cottage witch poisons the landlord, the kind village elder arms the rebels. That we applaud ourselves for crafting a statement on the environment more pro-Capitalist than the Pope’s reveals how far ‘an it harm none’ has gotten us.
Things are breaking open, and this will not be pretty, and this will not be pleasant, and we have little say in the matter anymore.
The gods will show up to whom they will, more so than even those who’ve shepherded us this far will be able to track. And they will not look like us, and they may not be known as gods, except in the howling slaughter of a Carnivalesque uprising, the dead dancing through those gates we can no longer keep shut.
In fact, the strongest movements–like the best leaders, wisely destroy themselves. They throw themselves face-down into river-fords, they slice off the lips of horses and climb solemnly into the Cauldron, they laugh whimsically while caressing the levers of the floodgates.
All these things said of Polytheism will one day become untrue, if it does not first implode itself back into the raw earth and ancient forests, its gods-maddened heretics stumbling back into the cities with sharpened blades, poison roots, and feral visions of what the flooding torrents and lightning-scorched earth can become.
The Polytheists may one day become the new flaccid elders, searching for relevance, trolling for fresh voices to add to their empires, for influence, for power, and for the sacred coin, and three decades from now shake their heads at the new upstarts clamoring for revolution, hearing voices, wielding strange magics we thought we’d locked up behind gates.
All those clamouring for grip upon the flimsy “Pagan umbrella,” the older and venerable witch-cults, have failed to learn what the gods-bothered must:
There can be no Authority, there can be no complicity, there can be no Capital, there can be no Masters.
Peter Grey’s done better than I ever might to outline these failings, the diminishing of our danger in order to be respectable, the compromises with Capital while the earth withers around us. But even then, we needed none to show us this, only someone to say what we stopped letting ourselves say, to ask what we stopped allowing ourselves to ask.
We can all become this Jetzt-zeit, the gods-bothered leading the way, even as we are already this.
Or we can all stand pushing for space beneath a flimsy umbrella, a hastily thrown-together field-tent as the rains begin, hoping to be the center of attention, the center of a dying world.
The aluminum frame’s about to break, the plastic tent-poles are bending and soon broken. Soon, the people who’d been hoping for a weekend-social or a little comfort will be soaked, and we with them, as lightning streaks across darkened skies.
The gates above and the gates below have opened, and nothing can hold back the flood.
Not even us.