Why I Quit Caring About Formal Ritual and How That Made Me Better At It

I’ve always loved the idea of formal ritual. There’s something so entrancing about saying sacred words and processing deosil in a circle, about setting up a beautiful altar, about inviting in the elements with their representations, and about blessing the sacred space. These things are wonderful for getting into a magickal headspace, and doing them repeatedly over weeks and months and years are what make ritual, well, a ritual!

The formal elements of ritual were essential to me when I was starting out as a solitary new Pagan. Having a tradition that others followed (in my case, Wicca, when I was starting out) with shared sacred words was an extremely powerful experience. It gave me a script to follow and served as a template to learn what was important in ritual. However, I got so caught up in the trappings of ritual that I almost never actually did one.

I felt like I needed to cast a perfect circle every time. I needed at least two hours that I could devote to communing with the Divine, after cleansing and consecrating the space and assembling my altar with my elemental tokens. I needed to say these particular words and do these particular things. With all of these requirements, ritual became a daunting task, instead of a happy celebration. So, years passed where I didn’t do a formal ritual because of various excuses: I didn’t have the tools, or the space, or the time.

When first I joined my Pagan community, my rituals had been few and far between for many years. Finally, I got to see how others did ritual – and everyone’s rituals were so different! There wasn’t a set script to follow, like I had been holding myself to all of those years. There were some common elements, yes, but no one did them in the exact same way. If the members of my community were presenting rituals with such variation, why couldn’t I mix things up in my own personal practice?

So, I tried to make my solitary rituals more regular, experimenting with the different components, trying out new things, and keeping what I liked. This worked well, for a time. I had a consistent personal practice, even if my rituals were just on Sabbats and Full Moons. I love the active participation (ritual is, after all, one of the things that drew me to Paganism in the first place), but something was missing. I almost never did spontaneous ritual, and when I did, it required a bunch of preparation, and didn’t end up being quite so spontaneous after all. I was still stuck in thinking that I had to do things a certain way or they wouldn’t be “complete.” That left very little room for Divine inspiration. My rituals sounded and looked pretty, but I didn’t feel very much of anything.

When I started to more seriously pursue a relationship with Aphrodite, I knew that something had to change. I needed to commune with Her, but I couldn’t take two (or more) hours out of my day multiple times a week to do so. It just wasn’t feasible. I was still in grad school. I was teaching. I had classes to go to, research to do, papers to grade, laundry to wash, dishes to clean, and I still had to eat and sleep. Formal ritual, as I knew it, just wasn’t going to happen.

Fortunately, Aphrodite helped me out with this one. She started interacting with me spontaneously – no ritual needed! I was ecstatic, if somewhat baffled. After all, wasn’t the whole point of ritual to facilitate the experiences that I was now spontaneously having?

This sparked some serious soul-searching about the purpose of ritual and how I was using it in my life and spiritual practice. For me, the purpose of ritual is to get closer to the Divine. I realized that all the fancy words and formulas I had been using were actually getting in the way of my connection with Divinity. I was having much more visceral experiences without those things than I had ever had with them. It was time for a change.

Perhaps the biggest realization I had about ritual involved time. For me to have a strong connection with the Divine, I needed to commune almost daily, if not more often. I simply couldn’t do that with the structured ritual I had been using, so I started to make new ones. Most of them arose capriciously. If I found a moment in my day where I was thinking about or communicating with Aphrodite, I thought about little things I could do to make the moment more sacred. Sometimes what I was already doing was enough (like happily dancing around my living room), and sometimes I discovered things that could be added (like lighting a candle in Aphrodite’s honor before sharing a meal with a friend at my table).

These spontaneous mini-rituals began to permeate my days, and soon started taking up more total time that what I would have previously spent in formal ritual. However, unlike the formal ritual, these moments were so much more meaningful. I felt connected to the Divine in a way I never had before. A few minutes here and there throughout my day meant so much more than a two hour chunk of obligatory fancy-words.

And I wanted to do it. Those mini-rituals brought me such joy – in a way that casting a circle from rote memory never had. It was a positive feedback loop. I connected with the Divine in seemingly small ways, had a profound ecstatic experience, and I wanted to do it again. My daily practice grew – not from reciting passages from books I had read, but from listening and leading with my heart.

When I quit caring about formal ritual, it allowed me to see more clearly the purpose of ritual: to connect deeply with the Divine. This completely transformed my personal practice. I rarely go through a full “ritual” with formal invocations for the elements and the Divine when I practice alone. My private devotions are much more conversational – and thus more strongly integrated into my day-to-day life. I believe this helps me to maintain a more powerful connection with Deity.

In a community, ritual holds an additional purpose. Not only do we want to connect deeply with the Divine – we also want to bond as a group. Having a somewhat-standardized ritual format does help bring a community together. Everyone knows what to expect and how to participate. Even with a general guideline, there are more and less effective ways to do this.

Going through a ritual revolution in my private practice made me rethink how to lead a group ritual. I cut through all the flowery words and expectations to get the the core – connection with the Divine and with other people. Approaching a group ritual with those things in mind was a totally different experience than following a ritual script. Sure, I have a general outline I follow based on the common practices in my group, but I approach these elements differently. If I can think of a way for a guideline to uniquely enhance the experience of the group, it stays. If not, anything is fair game.

While I would argue that the past few group rituals I’ve led haven’t been entirely written by me (Thanks, Aphrodite!), for the conscious parts of the creation process, I focus on the feeling I want to evoke with the ritual. For the Beltane Sabbat I led this year, it was joy and anticipation. For my post-Valentine’s Day circle, it was self-compassion. For the June Full Moon last year, it was courage and bravery through love.

Focusing on the feeling allows me to examine each aspect of the ritual and tailor it to the experience I want to facilitate. There are no words spoken just for ritual’s sake. Every sentence and every action in ritual drives toward the feeling and experience we create as a group. This approach to ritual has profoundly changed the way I lead and participate in group rituals. Throwing away the ritual formulas and expectations allowed me to get to the heart of the experience of ritual and to cultivate that deeper connection, both in my personal practice and with my community.

Making Soup for Cerridwyn

While my closest relationship with a divinity is with Aphrodite, I also have a close working relationship with Cerridwyn. Cerridwyn is the Welsh goddess of transformation and change. She is the keeper of the cauldron of knowledge, and she is frequently viewed as a “dark” goddess.

My initial introduction to Cerridwyn, and what sparked my relationship with her several years later, was my first shamanic journey/trance with my former coven. We had gone on a guided journey to find our magickal names, and Cerridwyn’s name appeared to me, spelling and all. I had not heard of her, so when I did research later, I was shocked to find that the name of a goddess appeared to me! I did not believe that was actually supposed to be my magickal name, and I was absolutely terrified of working with a “dark” goddess. So I pushed it aside, and didn’t think too much about it.

A couple of years later, signs started popping up a little before Yule 2017. Some of my friends and Pagan community members began to talk about how they were starting to hear from dark goddesses. I was reminded of my brief interaction with her in my journey several years before. I started seeing references to her again, and I blatantly ignored them. Eventually, it took the intercession of one of my friends saying “Hey, Cerridwyn stopped by with a message for you. She wants to talk.”

Mild panic ensued. I had never had a deity speak to me through someone else, and clearly she had been trying to get my attention. I spoke with a few different friends about it, trying to get over my fear of working with a “dark” goddess. I was very heavily in the realm of “love and light” at this point in time, and I would steer clear of anything I deemed “dark and scary.” I had avoided doing the personal shadow work that was necessary to see that both light and dark are essential to life, and dark doesn’t necessarily mean bad. I would figure this out in time.

I also didn’t know how to communicate with her. Clearly my own channels weren’t open enough if she had to go through one of my friends to talk to me! I asked the friend who gave me the message if she had any ideas for contacting Cerridwyn, and my friend (who is a kitchen witch) suggested that I make a big pot of soup, which paralleled one of her stories from the lore. What I thought my friend had said was “Make a big pot of soup after dark completely by candlelight,” when all she actually said was “Make a big pot of soup.” I discovered this discrepancy after the fact, and I had clearly gotten some divine guidance in a way that I was able to hear it.

So, I prepared to make some soup. I found a nice recipe, gathered the ingredients, and laid out everything in my kitchen. I had been studying trance, and I wanted to make the experience as fruitful as possible. I compiled a chant to sing while making soup from a song that my Pagan group sings at Yule. The original version contains sections on the Maiden, Sun Child, Mother, Father, Crone, and Sage (I usually sing the Maiden section at our gatherings). I edited the song to the Maiden, Mother, and Crone sections, since some research revealed that Cerridwyn is sometimes depicted as a triple goddess.

I turned out the lights and lit my candles. I didn’t have many – maybe five or six, so it was still rather dark. I could barely see the recipe, which I had printed out and was propped up underneath a cabinet. I could barely see the vegetables I would be chopping. It would definitely be a test for my OCD. I couldn’t tell what was dirty or not by sight. I had to just go with it.

I began to sing, slow and soft at first, but gaining in energy and momentum. I chopped vegetables and lost myself in the song, sometimes forgetting words, sometimes skipping a section, but I just kept going. I added the ingredients to the pot and stirred, feeling very much like the witch I knew I was. I had to learn to not be afraid of the dark.

After I had added all of the ingredients, the soup needed to simmer for 30 minutes. I gave it a final stir, finished that round of the song, and sank (a little lightheaded) to my kitchen floor in silent meditation.

The vision came almost immediately. I was in a forest glade at night. There was a single fire burning in the middle of the glade, with a cauldron hanging over the fire from a tripod. Cerridwyn was there. She had dark brown, almost black hair that fell around her face in messy waves. She looked to be in her mid-30s. The contrast between her pale face and her bright red flowing dress was made even starker by the firelight. She looked at me with deep brown eyes as I cautiously approached.

“Why did you call to me?” I asked her.

Giggles. “You’ll see.”

“But you’ve been so gentle with me. Not everyone has had gentle experiences.”

A combination of three phrases bombard my brain at the same time. “I have to do it this way. / You need it this way. / We do what we need to in order to reach out to each person.”

“What do I need to do?”

“Enjoy your soup.”

I looked at her, confused. I had expected some profound message. She stirred her own cauldron, and motioned for me to go, telling me once again, “Enjoy your soup.” The vision started to fade, and I was once again sitting on my kitchen floor, listening to the pot of soup bubble above me.

I turned the burner off, and ladeled myself a bowl of soup. I sat on the kitchen floor again to eat the soup by candlelight, somehow knowing that it was what I had to do. The soup was delicious, and helped ground me after the powerful experience.

As I rose again to clean my bowl and tidy the kitchen, I realized I didn’t want to turn the lights back on. It was beautiful – everything lit by candlelight. It felt peaceful. I also had a realization that I would not have been able to do what I just did a year ago. My OCD was so bad then that the idea of doing anything in the dark and not washing my hands a million times would have been impossible. But I had done it, and that was a victory in and of itself.

Cerridwyn is a goddess of transformation and change, and I got to see so clearly in that moment how much I, myself, had changed in the last year.

I continued to make soup for Cerridwyn, albeit somewhat sporadically. I discovered that she has to be called – She doesn’t just show up for me like Aphrodite does. She continued to be vague while giving me information and instructions for how to spiritually prepare for the upheaval that was coming, and she always told me to enjoy my soup.

She has appeared to me as the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. While I am not dedicated to her, she is still very present in my life, and has influenced so much of my spiritual growth. I tend to contact her during the dark half of the year, and our connection is stronger during this time.

Once I was initiated as a priestess of Aphrodite, I wasn’t quite sure how to navigate my relationship with Cerridwyn. I was pledged to another goddess. Connecting to her was more difficult than it had been at some points in the past, but she reminded me that “Even though you’re not my priestess, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing my work in the world.”

I was humbled. I was also reminded that my relationship with one goddess is not diminished by having a relationship with another goddess. Some of the lore portrays Aphrodite as being a jealous deity, but this is not my personal experience of Her.

I even reached out to Cerridwyn about my transition into priestesshood by talking over some of my fears with her. I was (and still am, to a certain extent) afraid of not being good enough. I’m afraid of letting myself, Aphrodite, or my community down. I’m afraid that I’m too young to have this role. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do what needs to be done. I’m afraid that sometimes being a friend and being a priestess will conflict, and I won’t make the right decision.

Cerridwyn told me that these fears are normal, and that it’s good to be concerned about these things. It means I care deeply about my service to Aphrodite and to my community. She also told me that I can’t let those fears get in the way, and that I’ll know what the right thing to do is when the time comes. I hope so. And I trust in Her, and I have faith.

My Experience of Aphrodite

Spiritual experiences are, by nature, very difficult to put into words. You’ve just experienced something transcendent – It’s no surprise that it also transcends language. Given that, I’m going to do my best to describe to you how I experience the Goddess Aphrodite.

My primary, everyday experience of Aphrodite is presence. Soon after I started working with Her, it became a regular, comfortable feeling. I interacted with Her so often that She was only ever a prayer away, some whispered words, a spray of rosewater, a moment of silence. I felt Her, not as an experience of the other, but as something both within and outside of me. I knew She could look through my eyes, and feel what I was feeling.

It was for this reason that I never had to go through big, elaborate rituals to commune with Her. She was just there. This was in stark contrast to Cerridwyn, the other goddess with whom I have a deep relationship. For Cerridwyn, I have to go through an elaborate ritual, reach a state of trance, and meditate on my kitchen floor to even just speak with Her. It was never so difficult with Aphrodite. Cerridwyn never pops up unannounced in my life. Aphrodite does so all of the time.

Impulses to Action

My first experiences with direct communication with Her, that went beyond the feeling of a presence, were impulses to action that were not my own. I spoke in my story of my Journey to Aphrodite about Her asking for my blood (but completely without words). The best word I can find to describe it is a propulsion. Since I have OCD, I have very intimate knowledge about what compulsions feel like. This is categorically different. It still feels like a very strong drive to do something, but it isn’t rooted in fear. It springs from somewhere deep inside of me, bubbling up to the surface of my conscious thought as some variation of “I need to do this thing.”

Another distinction is that these actions aren’t compulsory. I know I can say no if I want. (But I haven’t wanted to yet.) I also know that these impulses do not come from me, which sounds contradictory since I just described them as springing “from somewhere deep inside of me.” I know that these thoughts and feelings are not my own, yet somehow they still come from within me, instead of being dropped on my head from the Divine. I know that they are not my own because some of them have been things that I would never choose for myself (like jumping in the ocean in January during my initiation), or were things I would never have known about (like composing a song in the Greek/Eastern style with no prior knowledge of music theory or microtones). Some of these impulses to action have been to do things that pushed me very far out of my comfort zone. Some have been to serve Her in one way or another. Some have been to create.

Divinely-Inspired Creation

My divinely-inspired creation has ranged from composing songs, writing rituals, and ecstatic dancing, to giving advice, having sex, and even writing this blog. During my dedication to Aphrodite in January of 2018, I wrote a song for Her that I sing every morning and night. It riffed off of a familiar tune, but eventually took on a life of its own. I didn’t enter that ritual with the intention to write a song, but that’s what happened, and it was a beautiful experience. A lot of my ecstatic experiences with deity could be described as “I didn’t intend to do this, but this is what happened, and it’s beautiful.”

Another instance of divinely-inspired creation was the Full Moon ritual I led in June 2018. I put a disclaimer on the ritual (as I had for the Full Moon I led the previous year) that it was appropriate for ages 18 and up because I intended to talk about love and sex. I went into planning for the Full Moon thinking that it was going to be a fun, raunchy ritual. It was not that AT ALL. I started getting pings of ideas here and there, all around the theme of “it needs to be about love and fear.” I didn’t exactly know what that meant, until I sat down to write the ritual the week before.

Everything just flowed. People talk about flow states in psychology – about not being aware of the passage of time, about feeling equal parts competent and challenged, about that amazing feeling of creation. I felt all of those things. Time, however, passed differently for me than it does for those in flow. Typically, when someone is in flow, hours can pass and it feels like minutes. For me, what felt like hours and hours (very enjoyable hours, but still a long time) was only a single hour. My fingers moved across my keyboard as if they were not my own. And I’m convinced, at the time, they were not. Words I never meant to say to anyone appeared on the screen in front of me. I typed out my worst fears as if I were going to announce them to an audience. And I did. What I intended to be a fun, sexy ritual turned out to be a ritual about using the power of love to conquer your deepest, most closely-held fears.

I spoke openly about my OCD. I admitted that I am afraid to die alone. I almost cried in ritual. I was open and vulnerable, in a way that invited others in the ritual to do the same. I felt so raw, but it felt so right. It was what needed to happen. It was what others needed to hear. It was what I needed to say. And it just happened.

I also composed a song specifically for that ritual, though I have used it in other contexts since. The words flowed onto the page. The melody echoed through my brain. It was not a tune I, nor any of my friends, recognized. I invited my friend who plays music over to help me write it down, and she told me that I was using lots of microtones – notes that aren’t on the Western musical scale. That made transcribing it very difficult, and we ended up not finishing the transcription of the song because none of what we wrote sounded like how it was supposed to in my head. My friend told me that the use of microtones was common in Eastern music, including Greek music. I was dumbfounded. There was no way for me to know that, and the three years I spent playing the flute were all in the Western style on a traditional musical staff. I knew in the process of writing it that it did not feel like it came from me, but this confirmed it in a way that was unimaginably real.

The song was ethereal – haunting and beautiful. I felt it in my whole body as I sang. It evoked just the right feeling for the ritual. After the ritual was over, I had several people come up and tell me that it was what they needed. I was very happy to be able to serve my community in this way.

Meditation and Communion

I do see Aphrodite in a physical form when I meditate, and occasionally in everyday life. She usually appears to me as a woman in her late twenties. Her hair is usually blonde, though sometimes it is brown or a shade in between. Her hair is long, wavy, and always down. She is on the taller side (or taller than me, anyway), slender, but with some curves. (Though, She never appears blatantly sexual to me.) She is typically wearing a flowing robe or tunic, sometimes white, sometimes brightly colored, sometimes embellished with gold or silver. She is always barefoot. There is a light radiating from within Her, that cast sparkles in Her eyes and in Her smile. Her eyes are all different colors – blue, brown, grey, hazel, and all shades in between, depending on the day. She typically does not wear any jewelry, though occasionally She will have a bracelet or a pin in Her hair. She moves with indescribable grace and tenderness. Her form will often change in the little details while I am with her, showing that Her physical representation is mutable, though Her essence remains the same.

Aphrodite’s voice is melodic and comforting. It seems to come from all directions at once, though not in an overwhelming way. Sometimes I hear specific words, but it is usually more of a general feeling, or sometimes a few different phrases all at once. Her tone is typically gentle and kind, though She has been stern and even fierce with me, but never unnecessarily. Any time She has been less than gentle, it has always been in a “this is for your own good” kind of way.

Frequently, my interactions with Aphrodite in meditation take the form of some physical activity. We dance together often, one time very memorably leaving trails of blossoming flowers by our feet (Hers were red in color.) She has walked with me hand in hand, combed my hair, and led me through the woods. We sit next to each other and talk. She appears to me as a close friend.

Aphrodite will frequently pop in out of the blue. This takes various forms. Sometimes it is in the form of an impulse to action or a thought that I know comes from Her. Rarely, I will hear Her speak to me outside of meditation. Occasionally She will appear when I am not meditating specifically for Her. One time in yoga, when I was in shavasana at the end of class, She playfully tackled me, and completely threw me out of meditation! I had to try so hard to keep from laughing and disturbing the rest of the class.

In-Body Experiences

I’ve experienced Aphrodite in my body a few times. This is the experience for which I have the fewest words, because nothing seems quite adequate. It wasn’t full on divine possession, because I still felt that I had control and remember (mostly) what happened in those instances. The feeling isn’t as entirely overwhelming as you would think, but it still transcends most description. It is usually accompanied by a tingling sensation all over my body, and some lightheadedness that borders on a headache (but in the best possible way). I’ve felt Her do this during ritual. My voice quality will change a bit, my focus will sharpen or blur, and I appear taller (according to witnesses). I’ve also experienced it during sex, especially when I’ve extended my pleasure to Her as an offering. I feel a different energy coursing through my body (and the orgasms are pretty awesome, too). This sharing of my body feels sacred, holy, light, and powerful. That’s about all of the adjectives I’ve got.

Whether you’re ecstatically experiencing deity for the first time or the fiftieth, or if you’re hoping to soon, I hope that you’ve found something helpful here. The more we talk about our religious experiences, the more it normalizes them. The more we can find common ground. The more we know that others are going through the same thing. There aren’t very many resources about the modern day experience and worship of Aphrodite. Please share your stories. The world will be better for it.

When Books Aren’t Enough

Y’all, I love books. I have a long history with books. When I was growing up, I would voraciously read pretty much anything that was available to me. As a kid, it wasn’t uncommon for me to leave the library with a stack of books almost as tall as I was!

This love of reading wasn’t limited to a particular genre, either. I loved fiction – mostly fantasy, sci-fi, and coming-of-age stories (because even I could be a moody pre-teen/teenager sometimes). I also loved non-fiction. I had books on nature (naturally), a manual on quantum physics, a German grammar book, and a (hidden) stash of books on Wicca/Witchcraft.

I was a bit of an overachiever when it came to school and learning (I still am, to be honest). In high school, I took all the AP classes I could – Calculus, Biology, English Literature, Environmental Science, Physics, European History, and Psychology. I read A LOT. I studied A LOT. Books, and the information contained therein, were, in a sense, sacred to me. I learned mostly because I wanted to, not because I felt like I had to (with the exception of Mechanics in Physics, maybe). If I wanted an answer, it was in a book. Or on the internet, which had its coming of age in my later teen years.

I went to college, where I discovered research and the idea of discovering your own knowledge. This was amazing to me. I majored in Environmental Science, which more or less meant I had to be knowledgeable in all the science disciplines, and more. I took classes in biology, chemistry, physics, geology, ecology, mathematics, geography, and computer programming. I minored in Marine Science, so I took classes in hydrology, estuaries, and oceanography, too. And I doubled majored in Italian, so I learned a whole other language and culture, studied abroad, and even took science classes in Italian while abroad.

I. Love. Learning.

I even went to graduate school for a PhD, because I loved learning so much. It turns out that, as fascinated as I was with the idea of creating your own knowledge, I actually despised research. Or at least the research I did. But you need research when you get to the phase in your learning where books aren’t enough. We don’t know all the answers. So we have to find them ourselves.

I left grad school (with a Master’s Degree instead of a PhD, if you’re curious), and that’s when my spiritual journey really started to pick up. While I was in grad school, I started buying all the witchy books I would have loved to have had years ago when I was a fledgeling Pagan. I devoured them, as well as pagan blogs and any other media I could find. Once I left grad school, I started having experiences that they didn’t talk about in the books. And I didn’t know what to do.

I was lucky to have a very supportive community and a close group of friends that I could share my experiences with. A goddess started talking to me (well, two actually), that there isn’t much (if any) reputable modern scholarship on. And I freaked out. None of my science training had prepared me for this. I was in completely new territory – having actual ecstatic experiences of deity. No amount of reading in the world will prepare you for that.

Sure, there are things that you can do to be more prepared. Having a good knowledge base of your deity is an excellent place to start, as is having practice with grounding, shielding, centering, meditation, and trance. Knowing basic energy dynamics and how to move between different levels of consciousness is also extremely helpful. However, none of this adequately prepares you to truly encounter the Divine.

I think ecstatic experiences of deity are supposed to be overwhelming and slightly terrifying – Awesome, in the antiquated sense of the word. If you were able to prepare for it, the experience wouldn’t be as meaningful and profound. You are encountering something Otherworldly – it being alien and ineffable goes along with the territory.

One important thing to remember as you blaze the trail beyond books is to believe in yourself. Believe in what you are experiencing. Our perceived experience of the world is all we have to go on, anyway. It’s how we get to know the world, scientifically or spiritually. When we are children, we throw things off of high places to see how gravity works. There’s a learning curve, we experiment in different environments, our aim gets better, and maybe in a few weeks we can play trashcan basketball with a decent degree of accuracy.

Spirituality is no different. We have to experiment, to do our own research, to figure out what works for us and what does not. How can we have ecstatic experiences with deity more consistently? We can change the time of day, the chant we say, the phase of the moon, how recently we ate, how we construct sacred space, and a million other things, but we won’t know what works until we try.

Believe in your experiences, but be cautious in your interpretations. When something Big happens, we often want to jump to spiritual conclusions, especially if we’ve been putting in the work to help facilitate these experiences. Questioning is essential. A good dose of skepticism is what keeps us on the healthy side of delusion. Can the Divine speak to us through synchronicities? Absolutely. But is every coincidence that happens actually a sign from a Goddess? Probably not. Believe in your experiences, but use wisdom, intuition, and common sense when you interpret these events. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. (And Freud probably didn’t even actually say that.)

I am so grateful to my group of Pagan friends who helped me navigate my first visceral experiences with deity. They were my sounding board for all of the crazy things that had started to happen. I got to share my experiences, as well as my interpretations and concerns. Explaining my experiences to others helped me to sort out what was probable and improbable. I was able to draw on the spiritual knowledge of several other people, not just my own.

If you are starting down the path where books aren’t enough, I highly encourage you to find a group of like-minded spiritual seekers, ideally with varying backgrounds and experience levels, to help you navigate your new experiences. No one should have to do this work in isolation. You can do research and experiment together, and sharing in adventures such as this helps to create community.

What do you do when your experiences don’t match the lore? Or others’ experiences of that deity? Questioning comes in handy in these instances as well. Could it be another deity that you are communicating with? Do some old-school book and internet research and find out if your experience is more in-line with a different divinity. What would this deity look like in a modern context? Most of our original source material as Neo-Pagans is several thousand years old, and was written by humans and subject to their own (potentially erroneous) interpretations. Isn’t it possible (or even probable) that the Gods would present themselves differently to different people? I encourage you to think deeply and talk with others about these questions.

Unverified Personal Gnosis (UPG) gets a lot of airtime in Pagan circles these days, and I am heartily in support of it. I am not a Hellenic reconstructionist – I do not believe that we need to do things exactly the way they were done before. A thriving religion evolves over time, and I believe that our deities (and our relationships with them) do, too. I don’t experience the same Aphrodite that Homer wrote about – and that’s okay! I know people in my community who have experienced Aphrodite in a similar (though not exactly the same) way that I perceive Her. This gives me some confirmation of my own UPG. However, when I went looking for modern-day reference material for Her, I found very little. Part of the goal of this blog is to help build a resource for the contemporary worship of Aphrodite.

Eventually, you have to put down the books, stop reading, and start doing. You never stop learning, but you do start discovering. You do your own experiments. You have your own experiences. You make your own knowledge. It is a deeply personal and courageous journey, and it is so worth it.

What Does It Mean to Be a Priestess?

John Beckett, one of my favorite Pagan bloggers, recently wrote a post entitled “Priesthood Over A Lifetime.” It was a great read, as his posts usually are, and it inspired me to examine where I am in the various stages of priesthood that he outlines. The essential precursor to that, though, is to answer the question “What does it meant to be a priestess?”

I thought about this question for a long, long time before I took my official oath as a priestess of Aphrodite. I knew that being a priestess in a public Pagan community was not a responsibility to take on lightly, and I wanted to make sure I knew what I was committing to before I took that plunge. It is a holy office, and the mantle of priestesshood, while joyous and ecstatic, can be heavy at times and comes with a sacred duty to both your deity and your community.

For me, the actions and responsibility of priestesshood fall into two main categories: 1) Your individual relationship with Deity, and 2) Service to your community. Your relationship to Deity is a highly personal connection that is supported and maintained through both solitary and group practice. Service to your community can be many things, and it is dependent upon the particular community you serve.

Your Relationship With Deity

This is the foundation of priestesshood. Without a strong connection to the Divine, there is nothing for which to be a priestess. You may work with one deity or several. You may be a priestess for one or multiple deities. I think you can even be a priestess in a general sense in the broader Pagan community, though this requires an immensely powerful connection to the Divine. My personal experience is serving as a priestess for one particular deity, but having relationships with several.

My call and desire to become a priestess was born from my deep relationship with Aphrodite. I sought Her out, worked closely with Her, discovered that Her values align with my own, had profound ecstatic experiences with Her, felt the call to serve Her, started doing Her work in the world, and then embarked on the quest of priestesshood. A dedicated, meaningful, and reciprocal relationship with your deity is essential to priestesshood.

This Divine relationship has to be committed. You can’t just meditate and make offerings once a month. Your relationship with your deity must be an ongoing, daily relationship. This doesn’t mean that you have to do the same exact thing every single day, but ideally you are interacting with your deity multiple times a day. This can be through prayer, meditation, offerings, deep listening, or other acts of devotion. This encourages an open channel of communication between you and the Divine. The Gods are a lot more likely to speak to you if they know you are listening.

Your relationship with your deity needs to be profound. If you are going to serve as a go-between for your community and the Divine, your personal relationship must be deep and personally very meaningful for you. You can’t expect to help others connect with your deity if you don’t already have a profound connection. Part of being a priestess is being able to inspire others with your connection to the Divine. This will be difficult if your own connection does not inspire awe and wonder within yourself.

To enter priestesshood, your relationship with the Divine has to be reciprocal. You need to know how to honor and give to your deity, but you also need to know how to receive guidance and messages from them. This reciprocity is what helps to foster a profound connection. It helps others to see you as doing your deity’s work in the world. It helps you to bring your deity into your community.

Service to Your Community

A necessary part of being a priestess is sharing and interacting with others in your community. As a priestess, you are a representative of your deity’s values in the mundane and spiritual worlds. Your community will have certain expectations of you when you take on the mantle of priestesshood, and you must be able to address these expectations and provide resources to those who seek you out. You will need to be responsive to the needs of both your deity and your community.

If you take on the role of priestess for a particular deity, people in your community will begin to view you as an intermediary for your deity in the mundane world. This is a hefty responsibility. You must embody the virtues of your deity to the best of your ability, and try to walk as they would in this world. That said, you are not an avatar. You are still a fallible human, and no one can embody all virtues perfectly. Know that mistakes are going to happen, and make sure to practice self-compassion.

What does your community expect of a priestess? In some traditions, this may be codified and straightforward, but with more free-form pagan communities, the answer will not be as simple. How do you determine what will be expected of you? Ask the members of your community! I had an ongoing and very extensive dialogue with my fellow leaders and other members in my pagan community about the role of a priestess for months before I decided to take a formal oath. For my particular community, the aggregated basic expectations were:

1) To continue in formal leadership as a part of the Council of our group
2) To serve as a touchstone for Aphrodite, leading rituals for Her and meeting
     with people to help them connect with Her
3) To provide general spiritual guidance to new seekers and those looking to
      deepen their practice
4) To be knowledgeable about Aphrodite’s spheres of influence (primarily
      romantic love, sex, pleasure, and self-compassion) and be able to provide
      resources and informal/pastoral counseling to community members about
      these topics
5) To officiate rites of passage in my community.

For your community, this may look very different. Since I belong to a non-denominational Pagan group that has members from many different traditions, the expectations of my community are fairly general, and not locked into a particular path. The expectations of your community are also dependent upon your community’s needs.

How do you know what your community needs? Sometimes this will be a very intuitive thing. You will feel called to lead a particular ritual, only to find out later that it met a need you didn’t know was there (I’ve had this happen several times.) Sometimes it will be less straightforward. You will need to keep an awareness of what is going on in your community to determine what community members might need from you. At times, it will be what the whole community needs – something to unite everyone and bring them together. Other times, it will be the needs of individual congregants.

As a walker between the worlds, you must also know what your deity needs and asks of you. Oaths of priestesshood inherently involve a commitment to serve your deity and to do their work in the world. What is asked of you will sometimes be simple, and other times it will push the very limits of your capability and fortitude, or what you even thought possible. Your directives may not always make sense, though in the fullness of time, a larger purpose may be revealed. Carry out your tasks with integrity and virtue, and don’t be afraid to question. Just because a deity tells you to do something doesn’t mean you have to do it. Your relationship should always be an open dialogue, and you always have free will. Discernment is key. “I don’t feel like it” is generally not a good reason to deny a Divine instruction. Something going against your ethics most certainly is.

Where Am I?

In his post, Beckett outlines nine “stages” in the journey of priesthood: Responding, Training, Practicing, Deepening, Building, Nurturing, Preparing, Transitioning, and Overlapping. He states that these steps aren’t necessarily sequential and can be simultaneous. I didn’t exactly go in order, either. I did a fair amount of Training, Practicing, and Deepening before I made my formal Response to the call for priestesshood.

I think there is a lot of value to “trying out” priestesshood before making a formal commitment to your deity and your community. Figure out exactly what you will be doing, and do it. That will give you the best indication if this is the right path for you. I had a trial period of about a year where I told Aphrodite that I would “try out this whole priestess thing.” I learned a lot, and eventually decided to make my oath.

I trained by reading as much as I could about Aphrodite, Paganism, and magick. I practiced my personal rites, devotions, spellcraft, and communion with Aphrodite. I practiced serving my community through leading rituals, providing spiritual guidance and counsel for members of my community, serving as a resource for Aphrodite’s areas of expertise, and being an active member of our group leadership. Throughout this process, I was deepening my practice and cultivating my relationship with Her.

I’ve still got a long way to go. I am early in my priestesshood, and still figuring a lot of things out. As I recently had reiterated to me – You don’t have to be an expert to be able to help others. There is value in all stages of the spiritual journey.

Brightest blessings to you as you embark upon your own path!

Going Deeper – Connecting with Divinity

This is Part Two in a series on Going Deeper with your Pagan Practice. Read Part One here.

You’ve done some great personal introspection, feel pretty confident about your spiritual skills, and you’ve taken a look at the personal considerations in the previous blog post (Going Deeper – Are You Ready to Dive In?). You’ve done your research, and are pretty sure of the deity (or deities) you want to work with. You know about their lore, their traditions, and their holidays. Maybe you’ve even already started to reach out to them. These are all wonderful things! Here are some next steps on how to pursue a deeper relationship with a deity.

1. Pray

I have found that an easy access point to begin a Divine relationship is through prayer. Those of us who were raised in other faiths may be more or less familiar with the idea, and it’s something that most people have at least some experience with. If there is a typical prayer structure in your tradition, try that! If there’s not, invent your own, or find some inspiration on the internet. I’ve always found that spontaneous prayers spoken from the heart are the most connective, but don’t feel like that is your only option.

Written prayers are good for daily devotionals and rituals, and having specific prayers for specific occasions (like before a meal) also have special meaning. You may want to include some of your deity’s epithets in your prayers. This can help further connect you to their various aspects, and can give you a touchstone for when you don’t feel you have much to say.

2. Do a daily devotion

A daily devotional practice to your deity is essential to building a deep relationship. Start small! There are many different ways to do a daily devotion and many practices that you can incorporate into yours. I suggest that you start small, with one action a day, and keep doing that until it becomes a regular habit. Then you can build on that solid foundation with more elaborate practices.

A great way to start a daily devotional practice is with prayer. This can be scripted or spontaneous – something you say right when you wake up, before you go to bed, before a meal, or another time that feels right for your deity. You are more likely to be successful if you connect it to something you already do on a daily basis (which is why I’m a fan of the waking up/going to bed option). This could be something as simple as being mindful while you drink your morning tea and dedicating that time to your deity. Make sure gratitude, joy, and celebration are a part of whatever devotion you do.

3. Make offerings

Making offerings can be a part of your daily devotional practice, but it doesn’t have to be, especially not in the beginning. I do suggest you start making offerings of some variety to your deity, even if it is just once a week, or at the very least, once a moon cycle.

I think of offerings in two categories: physical offerings, and offerings of action. Your deity may have a particular preference (and even preferences within those categories), and it is important that you honor that. The gods and goddesses also know and respect your financial status and ability level. They won’t ask for offerings of gold if you can’t afford it. That being said, sometimes requests that seem like a stretch will be made. This may be a sign of something you need to work towards, and it’s good to open up communication with your deity about these requests to clarify what is really being asked of you.

Physical offerings are just that, physical objects that are given to the deity. This can be food or a libation, incense burned in their honor, flowers or other decorations, or something you have made. This is offered with love and respect for the deity, usually placed on an altar or in another special location, and accompanied by a prayer or expression of gratitude. If your offering is something that will spoil (like food or drink), the offering will generally be placed outside and returned to the Earth after the ritual is finished or after a day or so, if left on an altar. I live in a third-story apartment, so I don’t have access to an outdoor offering space. I also have a cat that will eat pretty much anything (including aluminum foil and staples), so I can’t leave anything out in my apartment. I also risk running into my neighbors and getting looks from dog-walkers if I go downstairs and out to the edge of the woods. There’s a modification for every living situation. My balcony is pretty private and faces the woods, so my solution for perishable offerings is to ceremoniously (though, some might argue unceremoniously, depending on my throwing skills that day) toss them off my balcony into the woods. Luckily, I work with a laughter-loving goddess who doesn’t mind me being a little silly when I make my offerings. You’ll have to come up with a method that works for you and your deity.

Offerings of action are things that you do in your daily life to honor your deity. They could be things you do that are within your deity’s purview, like attending a pole dancing class in honor of Aphrodite, or performing an activity that you enjoy and mindfully doing it for them. For example, I frequently dedicate my yoga practice to Aphrodite. For offerings of action, I refer to the line in the Charge of the Goddess (version by Doreen Valiente) “Let my worship be within the heart that rejoiceth, for behold: All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.

“All acts of love and pleasure” – that phrase just makes my heart sing. Because the gods want us to be happy. Yes, sometimes we will need to go through hard times in order to further our personal growth, but all with the purpose of developing our joyful, beautiful souls. Almost anything can be an offering, if it is done mindfully and with intention. Some of my favorite offerings of action are: spending time with friends, going for a hike, exercise of pretty much any form, making art, writing, cooking, cleaning (with intention!), singing in the shower, learning another language, studying a new subject, and reading magickal books.

4. Listen deeply

If you want to form a meaningful relationship with a deity, you want it to be two ways, which means you need to listen deeply to what they have to say. When I say listening, I don’t mean in the literal auditory sense (though that can also apply). Communications from the Divine can take many forms, including visions and “just knowing” things. Be mindful to listen as you are praying, making offerings, or doing devotions. Meditation can be a wonderful opportunity to listen, as your mind is quieter than normal, and you are open to different experiences. More on that in the next section.

Communications can also happen anytime the Divinity chooses. I remember having one particularly memorable Divine transmission from Aphrodite while sitting at a stoplight in my car. I’ve also had a quieter goddess go through one of my friends to get me to pay attention when I wasn’t listening to her. While setting up a spiritual context for listening greatly increases the likelihood of meaningful communication, it doesn’t always have to be “spiritual.”

5. Meditate

I’m sure there is no shortage of books or internet articles telling you how important meditation is for spiritual practice (or even just life in general), so I’m not going to bore you with another proselytizing speech here. You can find good research about the other benefits of meditation pretty easily as well. My reasons for including meditation here are mostly rooted in deep listening, but it’s also a pretty essential magickal skill for spellwork and raising energy.

Setting aside at least 10 minutes a day (or every other day – again, start small and work your way up!) to meditate in whatever way feels best to you will open you up to receiving Divine messages. I mentioned a few of my favorite types of meditation in Part One of this post, but choose something that works for you, and do it consistently. You may not hear anything right away. That’s okay. Keep up the practice. You may not hear anything at all. That’s okay, too. Your deity may communicate with you in other ways. If you consistently don’t hear/see/feel anything from a deity you have been trying to work with, you might consider exploring other options and seeing if another deity “clicks” with you better. Your relationship should be a two-way street. You can choose the deity, but the deity also has to choose you.

6. Perform acts of service

Acts of service are similar to offerings of action, but are more themed around doing the deity’s work in the world. This can be a lot of different things, but it is generally related to the deity’s sphere of influence. For me, an act of service for Aphrodite would be helping my friends out when they come to me for advice about romance or sex. For one of my friends who is devoted to Frigg, it can take the form of being an amazing mother.

Acts of service are extremely personal between the deity and their devotee, and it depends on your abilities and resources. Once you begin a relationship with a deity, they may ask you do certain things for them, give you tasks or a mission. Sometimes they do not. Sometimes you will need to seek those things out on your own. Sometimes the opportunities will just appear in front of you. You always have the option of saying no, but if you are trying to build a relationship with this deity and what they are asking for doesn’t conflict with your morals or go beyond your capabilities, I recommend you give it a try. Be honest and upfront about it with your deity, too. That’s what I did with Aphrodite. I told her I would “try out this being-a-priestess” thing, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

What is asked of you may not be easy. It’s okay to struggle, but you need to be honest with yourself and with your deity about why you are struggling (refer back to the “Have you dealt with your personal shit?” section of Part One of this post). Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance. If a deity wants you to do their work in the world, they will help you do it, but you also need to put in the effort.

7. Make the Divine a part of your daily life

This is my favorite part of all about “Going Deeper” into a relationship with a deity. My life, from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep (and sometimes even in my dreams), is filled with magick, love, and spiritual experiences. No joke. I’ve tried my best to merge my magickal and mundane lives as much as possible, and it has resulted in some pretty great synergy.

I do devotions when I awake and before I go to sleep. I’ve recently started a regular practice of blessing my food, particularly the rose tea I drink for Aphrodite. My purse at any point in time contains a myriad of crystals, charms, quarter calls, a candle, notes for rituals, and an emergency rosewater vial (yes, you read that correctly). My phone has pagan blogs bookmarked, inspirational goddess art, and an app to track the moon phases and astrological signs. My bookshelf is filled with books on witchcraft, paganism, personal development, relationship help, tantra, sex, and love. I have several spaces in my apartment dedicated to different spiritual purposes. Even at work, I have some covert spiritual things. I pray I don’t know how many times a day. I do a cleansing ritual every time I shower. The Divine has permeated my life, and I am so much better for it.

I hope these two posts have served as a good jumping off point for your own spiritual deep dives. I wish you the best of luck in your spiritual endeavors. May the Gods and Goddesses go with you.