The system and vessel of devotion in Polytheist and animist religious engagement is a lot like a cigar. This came to me moments ago as I sat puffing on a bargain-bin toro from the Dominican Republic. It cost me less than two dollars, which is cheap for a cigar. (My preferred cigar retails for $14 or so, which is still on the lower end of good. They’re cheaper when you buy them by the box, and cheaper still when you have somebody with wholesale connections hook you up.) But, I digress: the cheap toro was treating me well, right up until the moment it exploded.
I’m no aficionado when it comes to this shit, but I’ll do my best with what I’ve been given. Here goes:
A cigar is not at all like a cigarette, and not at all like a pipe. It is a work of art unto itself, which can be made well or made poorly, and it can be treated well or treated poorly, and it can be cut well or cut poorly, and it can be smoked well or smoked, well, very poorly. Treat a cigar right and even a poorly made cigar will treat you right. Treat a cigar poorly, and even a top-shelf churchill can split or spit or literally explode at your breath-and-touch. This last bit isn’t common and generally in my line of work is assumed to be an other-than-ordinary event; in this case, it was the touch of spirits inspiring the work you’re presently reading.
A cigar is made of three layers: a filler, a binder, and a wrapper. The filler is the tobacco that you are smoking, which provides the body and the flavor of the smoke. The binder holds that filler into a cylindrical shape. Too tight and the binding obstructs airflow, but too loose and it feeds the fires too well, producing more heat than the structure can handle. The wrapper, the outer most layer, is generally a single leaf wrapped at an angle around the inner two layers, closed at one end and open on the other. The wrapper holds the air and produces the container for the entire system.
A cigar is a system. (It is also a vegetable, but we’ll get to that later.)
Like all systems, it must be maintained. Most people who are not cigar-abusers will keep their cigars in a humidor of some kind, which is most traditionally made from a box of cedar which contains a humidifying element of some kind or another, to keep the contents from drying out (or becoming too moist). A gauge is found within these boxes to track the humidity level.
Too much moisture and the cigar will split apart as it smokes, as the moisture will expand and push the binding out through the wrapper. This is not only messy, but often obstructs airflow by causing leaks in the line from the burning end to the tip you’ve snipped and puff upon.
If you’ve cut it right, you create just enough of a “band” of airflow to pull the perfect body of smoke that is desired; a pleasing, heavy, flavorful smoke. This “ideal smoke” is the kind that on exhale hovers in the air as a foggy phantom which obscures the material and offers scrying glimpses into other places. If you’ve cut it wrong you don’t get enough air, or you get too much air and it causes the temperature to rise and the binding to split. A bad cut also leaves bits of tobacco in your mouth, which is… well, exactly as it sounds. (Protip: don’t eat it.)
A cigar that is stamped out or snipped halfway through to save for later will never smoke the same way again. There is a process to making cigars, storing cigars, cutting cigars, and smoking cigars. Sometimes a cigar will be rolled too tight and it must be tenderly massaged to open up the airflow.
Now, back to devotion. Sort of.
Cigar smoking doesn’t come easily to everyone, nor is every tobacco enthusiast a cigar smoker. (Pipes and cigarettes each have their own avenues of engagement as well, with pros and cons each.) But every method of smoking involves a combination of elements (vegetables, fire, air, care and process) which combine to achieve desired effect. Nobody likes a badly stored cigar, although many people smoke cigars badly without ever realizing it, as they’ve never experience it “done right”. And there is a “right way” to do it. (Well, actually, there are many right ways: a shallow cut, a deep cut, a triangle cut, an angled cut, a punch-cut, just to name the variations of that single stage of the process! Any of these can work out right, with the right cigar and in the right hands, and in the right climate and setting… because smoking a cigar outside is a lot different than smoking a cigar in a lounge reclined in overstuffed leather.)
There are a thousand “right ways” to approach devotional religion and spirit-work, but just as many “wrong ways”. It is easy to do something wrong and not realize it, if you’ve never known it any other way. That there are many right ways does not mean that there are no wrong ways; it means that there are even more ways to do it wrong, and all that many more reasons to learn the right ways to do it the right way for you in your practice with your gods and your spirits and your setting. (For example, if you’re claiming to be interested in spiritual teachers and authorities who walk their talk but then also claim that you don’t care if they’re racist or not, you’re probably doing it wrong. If you’ve recently been praying in the dedicated space of a sovereignty goddess and five minutes later are apparently violating the hospitality statements of your hosts which are posted less than twelve inches above your head by claiming that works around addressing privilege in social justice and safety pursuits are “nonsense”, you’re doing it wrong. Similarly, if you’re at an event talking about knowing thyself but refuse to acknowledge your privileges, you’re similarly doing it quite wrong, and might as well be smoking a cigar held together with fly paper.)
Every devotional person and every devotional act and every devotional lineage and every devotional relationship is composed of layers which act as vessel and delivery and structure for the process of devotion. At the end of it all, nobody wants a shitty smoke. They want a full-bodied smoke, which hangs in the air just right, whether they’re outside perched on the barracks wall or leaned back in the leathers of a lounge chair.
The trick to devotion is not to do it a single right way, but to accept that there are right ways, and to be open in the process to awareness of the layers involved in it all. Too tight, and the airflow catches; too loose and the binding might crack. And sometimes, whether you’re doing it right or wrong, the whole thing comes apart explosively and you know that one way or another, you’re in the fucking presence of the divine powers, and it burns you, and there’s no escaping that.
Because the reality is that devotion is a relationship to change, and change burns sometimes.
Devotion, as with cigars, is also never just about you, the human in the equation: the devotee is but one part of the equation, and often the least important part, following the subject of that devotion (the gods!) and the setting of that devotion (the literal place in which you are hosted by the local spirits!) and the peripheral relationships inherent between those and all other points intersected.
A cigar is never “just a cigar”, and devotion should never be taken for granted.
(A cigar is always, however, a vegetable; the only kind I trust implicitly.)