Hellfurian Liontari is a full time artist with clients around the world, co-owner and professional witch with The Vodou Store, and has been a practicing polytheist for almost 20 years. His primary area of study focuses on the cults of Greece and Rome, and traditional magic and folklore of the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, and Ireland.
On Household Cults to the Modern Polytheist
For many modern polytheists it is often hard to maintain and identify a sort of structured and lasting tradition. This ebb and flow in cult practice often leaves something to be desired spiritually, but can easily be rectified and before long, a viable and sustainable tradition will arise. There are several steps that one must take to begin the process, and often it begins with identification and the decluttering of current household cult practices. To start it may be terrifying and uncomfortable, but in the end the result will make the devotee much more spiritually and religiously fulfilled, and the connection with the Divine will be experienced like nothing felt before. One of the biggest challenges we face as polytheists is the lack of polis cult. There are, in most cases, no modern temples to worship in, and no state altars to sacrifice at. That leaves us with only our household cults and that is why it is so important to make sure we have a strong and firm foundation.
Let me first start by sharing my personal experience with household cults. I was raised Catholic in an Irish/Italian home. My father is strict Catholic, while my mother is more occult in interest. From an early age I was exposed to witchcraft, and at 12 I had my first altar which I set up and maintained according to Paul Huston’s “Mastering Witchcraft”, one of the first books I read on the subject. This structure of cult was one I maintained through my early 20’s. At 18 I began studying with an informal Wiccan coven and felt no need to deviate from what I had learned. I felt no need for any other gods as, at that time, I viewed all gods as facets of one god and one goddess. It wasn’t until I met my current partner that my cult radically changed, and it was all because a goddess showed Herself to me and challenged everything I believed.
That goddess is Hekate. When She came to me, I set a shrine for Her in the center of my altar with the Wiccan goddess on the left, and the god on the right. Shortly after, a familiar god from my childhood began to leave signs, the Great God Pan. Now, I had a new god and a new goddess expressing Their individuality to me when previously I would have never even considered it.
This manifested a huge conflict in my household cult. How would each of these gods play a role? How would my worldview accept this new scenario? The short answer, it didn’t. With the help of my partner, I cut all ties with my past cult, and started new. It was uncomfortable, but it needed to be done. I started slow. First, I moved the Wiccan gods off the surface of the altar and created shrines on one of the bottom shelves. That lasted about a week until I sold those statues to someone who would honor Them the way They deserve to be honored. Then I began to read and study how these new gods were, and are, honored and I put that into practice. The more I did this the more my household cult evolved, and before I knew it I was so connected, so fulfilled, and I felt and still feel my gods around me at all times. It is an amazing thing.
The first step is identifying need. This will often be reflected in the gods of the household cult. Each god should typically serve a function within the cult to help you perfect and achieve some aspect of your life. Now, what I am about to get into may seem simple, but it is far too often overlooked, even as some believe they currently fulfill this statement. As a Hellenic Polytheist, I will use my pantheon as an example. Let’s say you are a store owner, or work in the retail or customer service industry. An appropriate god would be Hermes, God of Merchants and Lord of Communication, if you are an artist or craftsman perhaps Heracles, Apollon, or Athena, and so on.
Your profession is not the only thing that can influence your patron and household gods. Of course you have the home itself which can have any number of gods to protect the entrances, certain rooms, etc. For those gods, I would refer you to sources for your individual pantheon. Practices and interests can also influence one’s household gods. If you practice witchcraft or divination, Hekate, Pan, or Apollon may be chosen, if you play sports or go to the gym, Hermes, Heracles, or Apollon would fit. The point in this step is to not just bring in gods at your whim, but to carefully think about how these gods can better your life, and when you feel your gods in what you do, it will create a far greater bond than just picking a god out of a hat or off the internet. Once you do find a god, look for any cult titles or epithets that will further refine your household cult and specify Their function.
Because modern polytheistic cults are broken, more specifically, traditionally unevolved, inherited gods are typically not customary. That said, sometimes you may be called to gods outside your ancestral ethnicity which often creates internal conflicts. I will use myself as an example. While I am fourth generation Southern Italian, a large part of my ethnic background is Irish and German. I maintain shrines to the gods of my Irish ancestors as well as those of the German ones. These are mainly honorary symbols and do not take up a large part of my ritual but I find it helps me connect with my roots and acknowledges the “clay” that has made me who I am today.
While on the subject, if you have a multi-pantheon cult, it is important to differentiate each god’s separate cult. One example I can use is the cults of the Romans. They had their gods, but they also had an interest in several foreign gods and would often bring Them home to Rome. No, they did not simply lump Them all together and call it a day. They maintained the “Roman rites” for their gods, and the “foreign, or Greek rites” for the gods that were outside their pantheon and observed the customs of the gods they imported. The key is to remain as respectful and knowledgeable as you can with each and every god you honor.
Another way of gaining patronage is to dream of or witness an apparition of a specific god. According to many ancient cultures, once you dream of a god, that god has made it known that They belong in your household cult. The same is true for any omens. Let’s say you see images of some obscure god everywhere to the point you find Their symbols or attributes everywhere around you. That may be an indication that you are to honor that god. I once knew someone who constantly saw images of the Madonna and Child everywhere they went. While I considered it coincidence as this image is fairly common, it proved to be an omen when I witnessed them discover a medal of her on the ground directly in their path, only to stand up in a swarm of ladybugs, an insect associated with the Virgin Mary. It is signs like these, very real and unmistakable, that should be considered when bringing gods into your cult.
A very common trend for the modern polytheist is acquiring multiple gods that hold dominion over one purpose. For example, death gods are a popular pick. You must seriously consider what exactly you intend to when doing this. Not only is this counterproductive, but it can confuse and muddy your household cult. For a more mundane example, let us say you have a leak in your sink. You call a plumber to fix it. That plumber arrives only to discover you have called 5 other plumbers for the same job. There is no point to it. We must separate what we are interested in from what we are devoted to.
Part of this problem comes from the accessibility of information in our modern world. We are constantly confronted with new and interesting gods, and, more common in the Western world, we feel the need to devote ourselves to them and experience them without care. My advice with this is to first, wait. Take one complete month off from researching or thinking of these interesting gods. After that month, if you are still interested, research and look for signs or omens that the god wants to be included in your household cult. Make sure you are not getting involved with a god because of trends.
One only need to look at social media to see how gods, saints, and spirits are constantly the rage one moment, and the next abandoned, leaving groups inactive, and altars and shrines dusty and unused. Remember, these are gods. They are not the next great cell phone, or trendy diet plan. They have been around for millennia and have witnessed cult worship for thousands of years. How offensive it must be to a god to be treated like a fad.
Once you have a firm and sure grasp on who your household gods are, it is time to construct Their altars and shrines. Remember, an altar is where sacrifices are performed and rites are held and are typically but not always outdoors, whereas a shrine is a space to honor a god or spirit, to make small ritual offerings. This step is where research comes in. While this is your personal cult, you should always be mindful of creating a space that god(s) is use to, a space that will invite that god to be present. Find a suitable surface, and try to make it a space that can be permanent. This is your first sacrifice to the god, a sacrifice of space. At least one surface should be dedicated as the household altar that will house your patron gods, your household spirits, and or your ancestors (although some keep them separate).
Cleanse the space, typically with incense. One custom of dedication is to bring all valuable family heirlooms to be stored within the altar. This creates a link to your familial history and invites future tradition. Once they are stored, set up the main image or object that will serve as your link to the god(s). This is often a statue or icon. One powerful custom is to create a fetish to house the deity, often in the form of a pot or vessel that will contain attributes associated with that god, often a central stone like a meteor or loadstone surrounded with sacred plants, oils, or other objects.
Another option is to prepare a statue as the fetish with the elements constructed inside it, or in small spaces made for the purpose. Once you have your image and fetish, you can invite or activate it by striking it lightly with a bundle of sacred herbs, or even a leather flail while chanting hymns or prayers of invitation. It is said that the difference between a cult image and a decorative image is the cult image is adorned with gifts of jewelry, cloths or silks, and anointed and prayed to while a decorative image is just that, so keep this in mind when considering cult images.
If you honor the same god under different titles or epithets, you can maintain separate shrines, or simply address that god under both names at the same one. It is personal preference, and has been done both ways authentically. Once these steps are done, it is often acceptable to write a formal dedication to the gods the altars or shrines are dedicated to, placing the document with the family heirlooms.
Here is where it gets tricky. Because modern polytheism in most cases did not have the option of evolving and adapting as time progressed there are several ways you can approach your cult. First, you can adhere to ancient practice through diligent research. This would mean you follow historical texts as a guideline of cult structure and maintain time honored traditions. There are many detailed sources and records of not only how to, but when to, as lists of festivals and customized calendars are readily available online. When you find a calendar that works for you, isolate the important dates and try to get in the habit of celebrating them as true to history as you can. Also, look for communities either online or in your area to help remind you of upcoming festivals, and share ideas on how to celebrate. Keep in mind, festivals were typically state ran events so community is important, even if that community is your family. Maintaining a historically accurate household cult is not always practical since times have changed, and we simply do not have the resources to do some of the things that were done in antiquity, but if you can make it work and it is comfortable, it is a respectable option and it is all about repetition.
Another option is to look to outside, yet similar religions to fill in the gaps on how to incorporate ancient religion and cult in a modern world. For example, the Roman Catholic Church retains much of its polytheistic Roman practices. Someone that honors the Greco-Roman gods could look to this religion and see how it has evolved and incorporate those elements into their cult.
Let’s say you have to maintain a perpetual light for a god. The traditional perpetual lamp was often constructed using an asbestos wick, something we would be hesitant to use today. In the Catholic church we find they are now using electric lights for the purpose. We also find this in Judaism with the ner tamid, and the like. Of course don’t just slap some 60 watt light bulb on an ordinary lamp, it is for a god after all. If you do prefer to maintain a fire, like an oil lamp or even a vigil candle, try to make sure not to let it burn out. This means timing it to transfer the flame, or making sure you have a reliable wick and oil source. Of course there will come a time when oil needs to be refilled and light bulbs need to be changed, but as long as there is always a light source dedicated to the god for such occasions, the continuity is not lost.
The same goes for altar lights. You can either us fire or electricity, or even a combination of both. The same can be said of offerings and sacrifice. Since many of us cannot regularly sacrifice animals or offer in a dug pit, we can pour red wine, and lay offerings out close to the floor dispose of them at appropriate places like a trash can at a crossroads if no other options exist. In regard to throwing sacred offerings in the trash, this is a controversial concept. I have seen circles dispose of the offerings that cannot be left in Nature, or buried, burned, etc. by wrapping them in a natural paper bag, making sure that at the time of disposal, the specially prepared bag did not just get dumped with all the mundane trash. Also, look to any gods that may accept and purify ritual trash to make the offering to. While this option seems self explanatory, I cannot stress enough however, a strong and knowledgeable historical foundation is required.
The last option I will suggest is a more adaptive one. Let us look again to the Greco-Roman religions. While many claim these religions died out long ago, that is not the case. The gods adapted to the new religion and became daemonic. While They are of course still gods, the new generation of devotees calls them “spirits” or similar such terms. This is a marvelous thing to consider, and we can see a continuation of polytheistic religion all over Europe. The goddess Diana is celebrated in Romania as Sanziana on June 24th, the nativity of John the Baptist. The goddess Hekate (in Italy named Diana Hecate, Trivia, or simply Diana) is celebrated at a walnut tree in Benevento, and flies with specters during Epiphany.
This is to say, your household cult can continue and adapt, almost assimilate into the religions most of us know from our childhood. Let us look at Christmas as an example. Here we can take the opportunity to celebrate Solar gods, or gods we honor during winter, and there is the example of honoring Hekate during Epiphany. Halloween is a great time to honor gods of the dead, any which are chthonic in nature, Easter and May Day, gods of rebirth and fertility (although in Germany, April 30th, Walpurgisnacht is also a great time to celebrate Infernal witch gods). This method of adaptation does not excuse lack of research and knowledge. To do it correctly, and with respect, you should always learn as much as you can about how cult was historically observed.
This is your household cult, and there is no right or wrong. You can mix and match how you observe your cult, you can add new traditions, all while staying true to the gods you honor. For example, I attended an Easter celebration where a place was set at the end of the table for Jesus, and offerings of food were placed on the plate at the empty seat. This is a great custom that can translate very well into household cult with any deity. You can also delegate tasks to each family member to make sure everyone in the home participates. For example, it is usually the father figure, or the masculine figure that recites prayers or hymns while the motherly figure, or feminine figure hold vigil. You can assign chores for maintaining the household altar to keep it clean and make sure offering are disposed of before they can attract pests. The point is to make it easy and comfortable, yet infused with powerful faith, and sincere devotion.
I can go on and on and write volumes on household cults. I think it is easiest to give a sample outline of how I honor my cult day to day. That coupled with the information about can substantially enhance your household cult.
I always wash my hands before attending the gods. In the morning I will get up and light my “daytime” gods, Zeus, Apollon, Aphrodite, and Hermes Krateros (among other cult titles). After that, I burn incense and greet each god with a simple prayer, and then suffumigate the door and home. I begin to work with a small shrine to Heracles overlooking my desk where I sketch and sculpt. At lunch, about 2pm, I light Pan and Dionysos. Then at night, after the candles of the daytime gods have been put out, I light the Chthonic gods, Hekate, and Hermes Khthonios, leaving Pan and Dionysos lit. I do all of my magical working at night, so I will typically do it at the time I light Their altars.
I observe ritual gestures. I will pour libations with my left palm gestured toward the statue or icon to Chthonic gods, and my right to Ouranic. When I greet Chthonic gods I will kneel and touch the ground bringing my hand to my chest three times, when I greet Ouranic gods I will gesture both hands to the sky and pull the air down and over my head and shoulders. When I pray to a god or petition a god I will gesture left hand toward statue for Chthonic, right for Ouranic, and other hand upon altar, or sometimes left hand palm down, right toward statue for Chthonic, and both hands palm up gestured toward statue for Ouranic.
As far as festivals, I mix. I celebrate relevant dates from antiquity, and I also incorporate my gods in modern holidays. I also celebrate my patrons at my birthday, and the day my household cult was established. I don’t observe the Wiccan Sabbaths, as those have actual history, dedicated already to ancient gods. The Christian holidays however, were borrowed in such a way they almost ask to be taken back. I pour libations whenever I celebrate, or petition the gods or partake of the vine myself. Although it sounds complicated, it is routine, and it has become something I can’t live without. My mundane life, and religious life have fused, and I attribute it to defining my household cult and refining my relationship with my gods.
While this post may seem very “101”, and while many readers may already be very fulfilled with their religious household cult, I hope this was able to help give some new ideas or suggestions to those who may be just starting out, who may be unfulfilled, or perhaps feel as though they do not have a strong relationship or foundation with their household gods. The important thing is make sure you are not only knowledgeable, but sincere and faithful in everything you do. No one has the right to judge you when you are behind your own closed door. What you do is between you and your gods, just make sure you do everything you can to make it fulfilling to you, that truly connects you with your household gods.