Last weekend I attended the second Many Gods West conference. I raved about it last year, and this year I was equally impressed.
Of course, it helped that I made several new friends and acquaintances through my involvement with last year’s conference, which eased my way into things this year…but I suspect I would have had a great time even if I had known no one. If that had been the case, I probably would have spent more time appreciating the amazing trees on the grounds of this year’s hotel — the Red Lion Olympia. Feast your eyes upon these beauties!
Even the conference rooms at the hotel were named after some of my favorite conifers — Spruce, Fir, Cedar, Hemlock — so my mind was drawn back to my love of these amazing trees of the Pacific Northwest time and again, which I appreciated.
As a non-driver, I was fortunate in that I was able to join carpools to travel both to and from the event. This saved me a lot of time, hassle, and money, and it was great to have travel companions too. I don’t travel often, and this is by choice; I’m a home-and-hearth witch who bonds with my living space, and I find travel difficult and draining. Companionship makes it much more tolerable.
I wrote last year that my only frustration was related to the relentless summer heat and the inadequate air conditioning in the hotel. This year, the climate both indoors and outdoors was perfect for me: cool, cloudy weather, and strong air conditioning to boot. As a lifelong sun-avoider who’d hide out in a cool cave all summer long if it were possible, this made me very happy.
This year, I did not build a shrine room nor a Black Tent Temple space at the event. I very much wanted to, especially since the shrine room was so deeply appreciated last year. Unfortunately, though, this time around I was simply too overextended to make it work. Logistical, health, and especially financial issues made it untenable for me. Even with my frugality and careful budgeting, it was all I could do just to cover my costs for admission, travel, lodging, and food.
However, I’m hoping my situation will improve and I will be able to build a shrine room for Skaði again next year. There’s been some talk about the possibility of holding the 2017 conference in Portland; if it happens, that would make the logistics much easier for me. It would also permit me to help reduce costs for a fellow attendee, or maybe two attendees, by hosting them at my Hermitage. I’ve also learned that I’ll need to ask for more community support next time around, as it’s a big project — it’s more than I can handle alone. In October I’ll be starting a new Patreon campaign specifically for the Hermitage (separate from the Patreon I already maintain for my Rethinking the Job Culture project), so that’s a start.
While I was happy with all the workshops and presentations I attended — including sessions on building polytheist community, sacred dance (Laura Tempest Zakroff), yoga and devotion (Lance DeMuth), sovereignty and the gods (Sean Donahue), how the land affects our art (Corinne Boyer), and building temples (Yeshe Matthews) — I’m not going to write much about the presentations, because I want to concentrate on the highlights of the conference for me: the grief circle, the shrine room, and the community tea room. Perhaps it’s no surprise that I would gravitate in these directions, given that my own path of monastic service involves similar work.
(I will, however, say that I’m sad that I had to miss the Santa Muerte presentation due to a time conflict with the sacred dance workshop. If a transcript of the Santa Muerte talk is available, please let me know!)
The community grief circle was originally planned to be a grief ritual, and I had put together a dark ambient music playlist (In Sorrow: Dark Ambient for Grief and Mourning) to accompany the ritual. However, plans were shifted, and we ended up with a grief sharing circle instead — which, I think, turned out to be exactly what was needed. (I was also kind of relieved, because I ran into technical issues with the playlist. Turned out we didn’t use it anyway, and I simply played a couple of Skadi tracks in the background for intro and closing times.)
The grief circle was incredibly moving, and so deeply appreciated. Even if I had done nothing else at MGW, I feel strongly that it would have been worth attending for the grief circle alone. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s the first space I’ve ever been in where I felt completely free to express ecological grief as an animist, and have that grief not only witnessed with compassion by others in the circle, but completely held and understood. In reflecting about the experience after the fact, I notice that I’ve become more aware of another layer of loss and grief: the fact that I grew up in a culture in which there was never a safe and acceptable place for me, or anyone else in the community, to identify and process ecological grief without fear of ridicule or gross misunderstanding. (“What? You’re grieving this intensely over a tree?”) MGW gave me that place, and I am immensely grateful.
Others in the circle, too, expressed their appreciation for the way the circle catalyzed deep healing, and allowed them to bring forth and express aspects of their grief for which they had never found space in other circles.
I’ve been enlisted to assist with creating a space of sacred endarkenment for a grief ritual that is planned here in Portland for October, and if a grief circle or ritual happens at next year’s MGW, I will certainly offer to contribute what I can.
There were several rituals scheduled in the evenings. Since I don’t really do public ritual, I didn’t attend any of them. There are a few deities for which I will make exceptions, such as Skaði and Móðguðr, but I usually opt out of public ritual practice because of the way I often react when I am moved spiritually: loud and full-bodied sobbing, tears pouring down my face, puffy eyes, red cheeks, nose running copiously. Better for me to opt out than to disrupt other people’s experiences at rituals with my messy visceral reactions to divine presences, I think.
As a contemplative polytheist I tend to gravitate toward quieter spaces in general anyway, so I opted to spend my evenings in the community tea room.
The tea room was just what I needed — a particularly lovely option for those of us who don’t drink alcohol. The space (which was also used for breakfast service) featured several round tables, making it easier to sit down alongside people I didn’t know and begin conversations. Thick curtains, a beautiful view of the trees, board games, little art displays, and dimmed lights helped set the relaxed mood in the room as well. And the tea was donated by an artisan tea shop and apothecary in Seattle, and served by two knowledgeable and friendly fellow tea nerds in both western and gongfu style. What’s not to love?
I’ll admit that I entertained a few thoughts about how I would decorate and set the atmosphere of the tea room as a space of sacred endarkenment if I were given carte blanche to do so. If I’d had my way there would have been colored LED lights, black sheer curtains, elaborate ceiling fabric drapes, shrines in little alcoves along the walls, overstuffed black and purple pillows…and dark ambient music, of course. That said, I was quite content with the space as it was, and also thrilled to hear that the community tea room will return to MGW for next year. I made the acquaintance of some wonderful people this way, and also over breakfast in the same space!
The other main interest for me was the Shrine of Asclepios, inspired by the Greek god of healing. It was incredible — definitely a highlight of the conference for me, my roommate Fjothr, and several other conference attendees I talked to. I visited twice — once on Friday, once on Saturday — and I had intended to visit Sunday too, but unfortunately I ran out of time.
The shrine keepers were providing not only a beautifully designed and arranged sacred space, but also hypnotherapy, massage, reiki, and sound healing techniques. Visitors could take with them a healing stone, or create a small clay votive figure to offer to Asclepios in thanks. There were snacks provided as well.
I know how much time and effort it takes to build a shrine room and hold the space for visitors all weekend, so I am deeply appreciative of their work.
With the shrine keepers’ permission, I took some photos of the space. Isn’t it gorgeous and evocative? They did a wonderful job! I also left a cash offering: bills that were taken directly from the offering bowl on Skaði’s shrine at The Black Stone Hermitage and delivered to the shrine of Asclepios at MGW. It was my way of passing some of the blessings I’ve received for shrine-building work along to others who are also building shrine rooms as a community service.
I would love nothing more than to have a whole hall of the hotel at future MGW events filled with temporary shrine spaces lovingly built by devotees for their deities!
At the end of the final presentation, I chatted with Erin Lund Johnson, Directress of the Nigheanan Brìghde Celtic Polytheist Order of Brighidine Flametenders, author of Her Eternal Flame, and advisory council member of Clann Bhride. Erin and I met with Yeshe Matthews, presiding High Priestess of CAYA Pagan Congregation, to discuss the Order of the Black Madonna, an affiliate of CAYA, in which Erin and I have both expressed interest. I must say that I am delighted to find that interest in Pagan/Heathen/polytheist monasticism seems to be growing, and that there are monastic groups forming that are focused on women/queerfolk/transfolk, emphasizing their commitment to intersectional feminism and social justice, worshiping the dark divine feminine, and centering darkness. This is just the sort of thing I was hoping to find when I first received the vision of The Black Stone Hermitage in 2011 and started blogging about my work of creating spaces of leisure and sacred endarkenment as a path of service. Eventually my work started to reach others who shared similar visions, and this is how the first Black Tent Temple (outside of the one at my Hermitage) was started by Priestess Gerrie Ordaz. If more of us are being called to take up this kind of work, it may be an indication that it’s time for even more monastic groups to form. I do believe Pagans and polytheists will have many monasteries one day, and they will take many forms. The Beguines are also one of my inspirations, as are the Sisters of the Valley.
I also met another devotee of Skaði who works with Her as his main deity (albeit briefly — I did give him my calling card for the Hermitage, but we didn’t have time to chat), and made a new friend who works with Njörd and has also expressed interest in monasticism. I got to chat with fellow writer Silence Maestas, whose Virtual Temple Project has been such an inspiration to me. I got to visit the vendors’ room (which was great!) and I picked up a copy of Ingrid Kincaid’s new book, The Runes Revealed. I enjoyed a Saturday evening dinner with three wonderful people: Syren (one of the organizers of MGW), Lo (of the rotwork blog), and Ealasaid the Book Roadie. And fellow introvert and writer Fjothr of Rebalancing Acts, who was my roommate at the event last year, agreed to be my roomie once again. Lucky me, ’cause she is awesome — it’s good to have a compatible roommate! I saw many others there I would have liked to chat with more, too — hoping there will be more chances next year.
Thank you to everyone who made this wonderful event possible!
Danica Swanson is a freelance writer, dark ambient music nerd, dark fusion dancer, and amateur polytheist nun. She is CEO (Creative Endarkenment Overseer) of The Black Stone Hermitage and co-founder of the Polytheist Monasticism discussion forum. Her first forays into paganism began in 1995; she has been a devotee of Skaði and other Holy Powers of Yggdrasil since 2004. Her life of contemplative solitude is made possible only by a web of thriving community relationships, human and non-human. She lives by the hands of the deities and spirits in all of her endeavors.