I am a feral creature of strange habit and savage routine, and I am probably more grim than is needed (except in certain company, as was recently pointed out to me by a dear friend who has never perceived of me as withdrawn or overly solemn) and I frequently overlook the warmer, nicer, softer things in life. I suffer from the blessings of a critical eye and a disposition leaning toward the severe. As such, the “great American holiday season” is rarely a period where I find myself sliding into the warm-fuzzies and joyous celebrations that most people seem so enlivened by: I hunker down and do my Work, and historically slip away to a local pub or an all-night diner if I feel the need to be in close proximity to other people.
But historically I lived in a home, in a Temple. Now I am traveling through these lands in a van, which is gradually being outfitted as a mobile shrine, worship and ritual nexus and cult-center for my doings. When I envisioned this period of my life, some months ago, as I burned my Temple to the ground, I did not envision quite so many people being in it. All the time.
I have been made the target of an absurd amount of hospitality, especially since the first snowfalls happened, and while this has certainly put a damper on my brooding cave-dwelling-every-night plans, I can’t suggest it as a bad or unwanted thing. It is also a very traditional, sacred, and — dare I say it — polytheistic thing.
Polytheists and animists (“polytheanimists”) practice religions wherein we honor and in some way (whether through practice alone or direct experenced communion) many gods and spirits are greeted, hosted, honored, fed; these are expressions of divine hospitality, which in my estimation make up the primary function and backbone of what it is to be a polytheist. Forget everything else you’ve read, or written, or beaten into somebody with a rogue 2×4: being a polytheist is about intentionally navigating, embracing, and godsdamned living hospitality with your every breath. We receive hospitality, whether we want to admit it or not, every time that we step or sit or screw anywhere in this world: all things were Created and Blessed and are enspirited by some forces greater and infinitely more complex and holy than we. We are guests here. And in turn, our religious structures are a way of reciprocal hospitality: we provide in our home shrines a space to welcome those (sometimes invisible, sometimes terrifyingly visible) forces, powers, gods and goddesses and ancestors and holy powers into the center of our homes and lives and families.
There is no more sacred deed in all of human ken than opening one’s home and heart to a traveler. Whether that traveler is a beloved family member, a misplaced-by-decades vagrant Thracian priest, or indeed a god of the savage wilds or a queen of the mighty sea winds, there is nothing holier nor more profoundly telling of the interrelatedness of the myriad all and the pluralistic everythings than the warm welcome of properly abided ancient laws of hospitality.
And so when they say to me, “No, you’re coming back up this way on Tuesday. There is a meal, and you’re going to be there, because it is more food than one family can eat”, a part of my recoils because I want to be alone in my cave but another part of my realizes these humans are invoking me to their table, where a place is set, and food apportioned in offering. It would be an offense to deny them this, just as it would be an offense for them to not present the offer: and so I go. And I eat. And I repay their hospitality as best I can by being as blessed a guest as I can be. (There were an alarming amount of teenage girls, who I apparently became the subject of whispered gossip and theory amongst. It was almost as if they’d never seen a barbarian priest with goat blood stains soaked into his boots before.)
But the point in all of this is this:
I suck at calendars. Many (if not most!) of my regular conversations with PSVL involve discussing holiday dates and calendric structures, and the truth is that these are just things that don’t stick for me. They never have, and they never will. I don’t even remember my own birthday until somebody points it out. There are only three days a year that I remember to honor: the holiest night of my Thracian lineage, and two days held highest by another group of gods and spirits who I honor and serve daily, which mark the start of my formal relationships with them. Beyond this, I rely on other people to know what is going on. I’m not a “high holiday” kind of person, I don’t do “wheel of the year” countdowns and I’ve never been any good at knowing what day of the week it is. I measure time by bottles, by lovers, by friends, by sacrifices and by blood spilled to ashen stone in the name of the gods I hold in my every breath, as my every breath is held in ownership by Them. Which is all to say that the Winter holidays are not my favorite time of year, socially speaking: there is a lot of expectation for me to be “that” kind of priest, and I am not. I am another kind. A few other kinds, in fact.
But there is one thing that I get, during these weeks, and that is the holiest thing of all: hospitality.
It isn’t about being a perfect host (there is no such thing, for all guests have different expectations) nor is it about being a perfect guest (there is no such thing, for all hosts have different expectations). Infractions will happen with each. Some homes require shoes off when you enter, while others will scoff at this or (if they’re all wearing boots in the living room) feel slighted by your own removal. Some gods want all of their offered and apportioned gifts to be left entirely for them, while others want them to be consumed, or dropped into a specific pit in the side of a specific mountain, or left at a specific crossroads, and so forth. Some guests will leave the toilet seat up, some gods will make passes at your sister, some Thracian priests will accidentally make out with the pretty one that keeps serving him whiskeys and beers until he forgets that he is not in the wilds and the caves. Some hosts will have behavior that offends a guest, and some guests will have behavior that offends a host. The offense is part of the dance of hospitality, which itself is the act of receiving guests, be they blessedly known or entirely unknown and markedly strange in their nature or presentation.
I will track the wilds in with me, when I enter your home. I cannot help it. I try to help it, but I always miss something. I bring that which I am everywhere that I go. Sometimes I try to shield the civilized from myself, but at least around this time of the year, I am learning that it is very much the wildness that they are welcoming into their home in their gestures of offering, of place-by-the-fire, of plate-at-the-table: I am not expected to be other than what I am.
Similarly, when welcoming gods and spirits into your home and shrines and life, you are welcoming them as sacred guests: it is improper as a human host to make tremendous demand upon them in the name of domestic decorum. But it is also upon a guest, be they a god or a wandering polytheist, to navigate the norms of the spaces they are welcomed into with a mind for respect. Being a guest carries as much responsibility, in an entirely different sort of way, than being a host. When hosting the gods, it is important to also remember that we are guests in Their dominions, travelers through Their domains of influence, dallying upon the doorsteps of Their infinities. Act accordingly, as guest or host or hosted guest or guesting host. Pour well from the cups of having to the cups of giving, and know that someday soon, you will be without home, without table, without fire, without shrine, without walls and doors and curtains, and on that day you will rely upon the cup of another to take in your fill.
With no blasphemous intent or implication, I will end with this reflective statement: in these the darkest and coldest of days, I realize humbly once again that interacting with the gods and the spirits is not so very different than interacting with humans, which most today do not do with terrible skill. The laws of hospitality are ancient and to a certain extent elastic enough to stretch into different contexts, but always it is about the relationship between being welcome and being welcomed, and in this day, as I sit at a borrowed table, I find that this is as near to the heart of polytheism that I can perceive of in this moment.
I hope with full humility to succeed half as well in welcoming my gods and spirits — and those of others engaged along the way! — as I have been welcomed and warmed in my wanderings this week. I have often been the provider of hospitality — for humans and spirits alike! — but now is a time for guesting my way through this world, in a manner that I have never done, and in this way I learn the other side of this equation of essential relation.