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Development of Spiritual Practice

Working primarily in the Proto-Indo-European and American traditions have made for difficult and exciting times trying to develop appropriate practices. Very little has been written on PIE religion, and almost nothing on practicing it in modern times. In fact, ritual has been almost ignored by comparative IE scholars. (Odd, really, considering how conservative ancient Pagans were about ritual.) That means I’ve had to do a lot of my own reconstruction, demanding the impossible task of learning everything about every Indo-European culture, while trying to learn the linguistics not just of PIE, but also the daughter languages. Like I said, impossible. Both the work and the difficulty of doing it is reflected nicely in the many changes in the PIE expressions on the ADF website. I’ve only recently changed the pronunciation of two words central to PIE public ritual, for instance. The result of the work is now in the form of an almost-finished four-hundred page book.

A lot of the book is understandably made up of accounts of the source materials and my arguments for my results. A lot more concerns topics that aren’t of much relevance to my personal work – weddings, funerals, kingly inauguration, and such. A lot of the rest affects me personally, though.

A lot of it does apply to my personal work, though, the names and characters of the Kindreds, for instance. Even more important in this miscellaneous category are matters of cosmology. Much of this is familiar to most ADF members – the Tree, Well, and Fire, and the importance of reciprocity, including the use of the word *ghosti-, for instance. The concept of the Xártus is also fairly well-known in ADF, although usually in the form “Artus,” an earlier spelling and pronunciation. (I’m proud to say that I’m probably the one who introduced that word, and possibly *ghosti- as well.)

The Xártus is an excellent example of how the development of a PIE tradition involves weaving together linguistic and religious data. The root of the word, *xar- (which linguists usually spell *H2er-) means “to join together in a proper and beautiful manner.” The *-tu- forms verbs of action (the *-s is just a case ending). This means that the word describes something that’s the continual putting together of things. It doesn’t give any precedence to either of those things which are put together, which expresses *ghosti-. From religion, we get the Vedic rta-, which is the Cosmic Law which lies behind the continual putting together of the Cosmos. When combine these (and some other things), we get the idea that the basis of the Cosmos is a continual constructing of all its elements in a *ghosti- relationship.

These examples, though seemingly academic, show how something as apparently non-spiritual as linguistics can become part of one’s spirituality. If the expression for the basis of the Cosmos is formed in a way that refers to the putting together of things, not that which is put together, and not that which puts together, then each of my actions is part of the cosmic order. That’s something which has to be taken into consideration with each of them, and has a great relevance to my ethical life. The linguistic side of *ghosti- tells me that my relationship with other people, and with the gods, is an important part of the right way of acting, and that it’s a reciprocal one. The implications for ethics again are great, but even more so for ritual, and for my understanding of who the gods really are. If both ghosti and the Xártus are legitimate ways to see things, then the gods aren’t beings beyond everything, they aren’t ultimate judges before whom I can come only as suppliant. They’re beings who live in this Cosmos, who are intimately related to it, and with whom I can have a relationship similar to those I have with other people. All this from linguistics, even if it is supported by other things, such as the tales and archaeology.

No surprise, that the ritual reconstruction, and their performance, have affected my personal practice the most. They’re the way I interact with the gods, and by performing them in a group, a way I interact with other people – we are united with each other because we’re worshiping in the same manner.

The American tradition doesn’t require looking as far into the past, but it means more original work. I’ve had to research areas that I’ve never looked into before, at least not in depth – the writings of the Founders, interpretations of their writings, artistic symbolism, the meanings of classical metaphors in history, political theories, etc. It has also been a more corporate effort. There may not be many people involved, but at least there are more than a tiny number. The corporate nature isn’t just nice, it’s necessary, because what’s being worked out is the way Pagans can relate to American culture in an American way. The ideas aren’t fleshed out enough yet for me to say much about the results, except that it’s made even more clear to me the importance of keeping the oath I swore when I was commissioned into the Air Force, to “support and defend the Constitution.”

So much for theory. How has my practice affected my practice? In other words, how has the actual carrying out of the work, particularly the rituals, affected the work itself?

Obviously, I’ve had to deal with practical matters: how does one measure out a perfectly rectangular space, can one really move from spot A to spot B without tripping, do I have someone needing three hands in order to do what I want them to do, etc. There is also the aesthetic part: are the words and actions beautiful, are they easy to say, should there be more motion and music, etc.

The most important question, though, is “do they work?” Do they accomplish what I mean them to? Are the gods pleased? Does performing them with a group actually bring the group together? Do the rituals that I’ve written speak to others so their own relationships with the gods and other people are strengthened?

This last is important. As a liturgist for a grove and then a protogrove, and the author of two books on ritual, I’ve had to develop a feel for how others can connect with the gods. That means that I’ve had to develop a feel for all the gods, for all the ways they like to be talked to, for all the festivals appropriate to them. This has deepened my understanding of the gods as well as other people.

There have also been direct influences on my practice by working with others. My favorite example is the beginning of the Nemos Ognios ritual for creating sacred space. We address the land spirits by my singing a song, and someone else scattering grain as they walk across the space. I wrote the ritual with those two parts separate and in that order. The first time I did it with Jenna, she started out across the space, scattering and praying, as soon as I started the song. My first thought was, “what the hell?”, my second was “how dare she; she’s changing a ritual before she’s done enough to understand it,” and then my third was, “that’s great.”

On an individual level, I had written a prayer describing the Indo-European cosmology, and expressing a desire to live rightly. I put it into an early Nemos Ognios ritual, and Jenni Hunt said, “it would be great if you had some actions to go along with it." I would never have thought of that, since I'm more of a word person than an action one. I put together actions, and that led me to think that setting the prayer to music would be nice. I now sing the prayer accompanied by the actions not just in grove rituals, but in my personal prayers.

Despite the efforts at pious practice I talked about in the ethics section, it might be said that the most important part of my religious experience is the writing of rituals, particularly prayers. I’m far more likely to write a prayer than to use one myself. Each time I write one, however, I get a little more understanding of what my own path is about.

Finally, not only has my writing required me to research and think about my ethnic tradition, the opportunities I’ve had to talk about it has helped me make sense of it. Things that make sense in my head don’t always make sense when I say them out loud. Or they may make sense to me, and then someone else says, “yeah, but.” Or someone might say, “do you have a ritual for...?”, and it’s something I’d never even thought about. Or they say, “you know, adding this would be pretty cool.” So talking has been important in fleshing out my tradition.

Much of my work has therefore been done in conjunction with others. Most of it, though, has had to be done on my own. That has its advantages, since I get to do what I want. It has the disadvantage of my being able to do whatever I want. At least as far as the single human participant is concerned. The gods sometimes have other ideas. Through our ghosti-relationship I continue to tweak and fiddle with my personal practice, continually involved in the development of my ethnic tradition. I love that.