Neil Gaiman starts out his novel American Gods with a “Caveat, and Warning for Travelers” which ends with: “Furthermore, it goes without saying that all the people, living, dead and otherwise, in this story are fictional or used in a fictional context.Only the Gods are real”.
When you read his introduction for the tenth anniversary edition, he talks about how he had just moved to America and wanted to write a novel that captured all the parts of America that he found fascinating, most of which are never seen on film. He traveled while he was writing the novel and explored the back roads and the places he thought his main character Shadow would go.
One question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands. Irish-Americans remember the fairies, Norwegian-Americans the nisser, Greek-Americans the vrykolakas, but only in relation to events remembered in the Old Country. When once I asked why such demons are not seen in America, my informants giggled confusedly and said “They’re scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far,” pointing out that Christ and the apostles never came to America.
-Richard Dorson, “A Theory for American Folklore,”
American Folklore and the Historian
(University of Chicago Press, 1971)
Whenever we open ritual in my tradition, we start by welcoming “the spirits of this land,” even though I don’t know these spirits and I will be calling on the Gods and element that I work with, its always important to acknowledge the fact that I am doing ritual in a place where I don’t necessarily belong. It would be rude of me as a priestess to forget that the religion I practice does not belong to this particular place. My Gods are mostly British and Celtic, they certainly did not originate in the swamps of southern Louisiana and one always has to assume that they may not interact with the spirits here very well. After all, my Gods don’t belong here. American Gods touches on the very heart of this topic. I’ve always founds American Gods to be more than an exploration of America. Gaiman pulls apart religion and the idea of belief and places it in a modern context that I think we rarely get the pleasure of seeing put down in words. American Gods is not an easy read, just as America is not always an easy place to understand, but it’s a novel where I find something new and wonderful every time I pick it up.
In the last year, I’ve had to examine my own thoughts and ideas about belief in a very different way than ever before. As my community failed me entirely in the midst of one of the most horrendous personal situations you can imagine, I’ve had to really examine both my practice and place in the Craft.
I have been very grateful to find that through everything I’ve been confronted with and continue to be confronted with, my belief has remained one of the few strong pillars of my life. My community, my tradition, my friends, my acquaintances may have failed me, but the Gods never left me.
Whenever someone new approaches me about Wicca and the tradition I practice, I break down the practice and the training process, explain what we do and that the point of functioning within a tradition is all about teaching. I often get asked “but yeah, what are you actually doing in ritual?”. It’s at this point that I tell them that perhaps like or unlike many other traditions or practices, the main role of my ritual is worship. I worship deity while in Circle. I may do magic, I may create spells, but at the end of the day, ritual for me is about worship. When I train students, it is to train them as priests and priestesses who are in service to the Gods. I always tell them that I can teach them everything except belief. If you don’t believe in the Gods then there is nothing I can do to help you learn that and we are not the place for you.
You either believe or you don’t.
Belief is a tricky thing. Recently, a friend of mine who has been exploring Wicca, was confronted by her father about her exploration of Wicca and the insanity of believing in anything Wicca teaches. He used a blog I wrote about the service of invocation to browbeat her about how horrible religion is and how he assumed that drugs were involved. (It’s sort of hysterically funny, whatever else might be said about my household, we are a sober household. We may be monsters, but we’ll eat you while daintily sipping iced tea).
From the outside, invocation might look pretty outlandish. I could also sit here and draw parallels to the practices in many other religions that are similar to invocation or I could talk about it as a rational exploration of a deep meditative state that allows you to examine your innermost subconscious. But at the end of the day, for me, I believe that when I invoke Goddess, she is the one speaking through me.
Religion can be a terrible thing. So can belief. I left a religion that I felt was abusive and controlling. I get where my friend’s father was coming from and why he is worried. As Pagans, most of us who are out have probably had to confront family members about our belief at one point or another. My own father used to ask me about who would I be calling on when I was in the metaphorical foxhole. Jesus or my Gods? Believing that my belief couldn’t possibly hold up in a horrible situation. I can quite honestly say at this point that my faith did not fail me and as I’ve found myself in this metaphorical foxhole this year, my Gods have stayed with me throughout.
I think one of the important parts of my service to the gods as a Wiccan Priestess who is “out of the broom closet” is the ability to talk openly about being Wiccan. I am not some learned Elder who knows a lot, but I do think that being able to speak openly about Paganism is an important service to the Craft. If I can vocalize an issue as a student walking this path that someone else can’t openly ask about, then I think I have helped. I have the ability to speak and I think that therefore it is my duty to do so. I can question, discuss, and examine this somewhat crazy seeming practice that I am a part of. I am not afraid that my family will find out, they already know. My coworkers are aware that I’m a witch. My neighbors have seen me walking about in my robe and have probably heard the chanting coming from our temple room. In this, I think part of my service is to speak.
In the past I have always had something to say. Whether you agree with me or not may be another matter entirely. This past year, I have lost the words. Someone very dear to me has been held up as an example of everything horrible and wrong in the Pagan community, and I have been called a monster for knowing the actual situation and continuing to believe in him.
So, in order to try to get back into writing about the things I find important, I am going to start rereading American Gods and picking apart all the things that stand out to me throughout. I am not going to say that I will do so many chapters a month or set a schedule, I am just going to write about it as it pleases me and hope that it helps me to get going again. Life does have an unfortunate habit of continuing, even when we wish it wouldn’t, and after a certain point, there is only so much you can do. The beautiful thing about a blog is that no one other than the writer ever actually has to read it. And besides, as much as many may want it, I am not done yet.
“Hey,” said Shadow. “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”
The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
“Say ‘Nevermore,'” said Shadow.
“Fuck you,” said the raven.”
~ Neil Gaiman, American Gods