Last week, I had a frustrating dream, where I was very thirsty and kept trying to drink from different cups of water I had around me. However, every time I picked up a glass of water to drink from it, I found ants floating in it and had to move onto the next one. When I woke up the next morning, I walked over to my ancestor altar and found ants crawling on the altar and floating in their water glass I keep on the altar for them. Though I felt bad that ants were invading their altar, it was nice to have confirmation that my connection to my ancestral spirits is doing well, because I heard the message loud and clear: Clean our water!
Since I had that dream, I’ve had a few people ask me advice on how to receive clearer messages from their spirits and Gods, and how to build stronger connections to them (which is a question I have been asked in the past as well.) The answer to that question is really the heart of what Polytheism, at least traditionally, is really all about: relationship building. While this is actually very simple, is also very difficult for many people in our day and age of instant gratification.
Building a relationship with the Gods and spirits depends on a very simple paradigm shift, which is also difficult for many people to embrace: the Gods and spirits are real. In many Pagan traditions it is very popular to talk about the Gods in terms of “archetypes”, energies, or symbols, though it is not as often that I find people expressing behaviors and attitudes that would suggest that, for them, the Gods are very real personages who can have a noticeable effect on our day to day lives. When one person is relating to another person, whose reality is undeniable, there is a certain degree of formality and respect which we have all be socialized to appreciate: if you give someone a cookie, you don’t casually snatch it from their hands a few moments later and eat it in front of them. If you want to talk to a person, you don’t just think about talking to them as loud as you can and then become angry with them when they never responded to you. You don’t offhandedly talk shit about someone while you’re standing right in front of them (or at least you shouldn’t). I have seen Pagans of many stripes do all of those things when it comes to the Gods and spirits, be it taking back gifts or promises that were given to them, expressing anger at them for not anticipating your every desire, or speaking about them so disrespectfully that it implies a disbelief that anyone is actually listening. Though one can have an emotional attachment to a deity or spirit as a symbol, energy, or as a mythological character, this still isn’t the same as knowing that they are independent personages and treating them as such. I would say that the first step in building effective relationships with your Gods, spirit guides, and ancestors is simply thinking about them as if they’re real people, not just amorphous concepts.
In many modern Witchcraft traditions, a great deal of emphasis has been placed upon Witchcraft as a path of personal empowerment. While I fully support growing in one’s personal power, the Medieval idea of where a Witch got their power was quite different, and can be summed up in what was called the “pact”; the pact being either with the Devil himself or other (supposedly) demonic spirits. This paints a very different picture of traditional Witchcraft, where creating change in one’s world largely depended on a relationship between the Witch and the non-corporeal entities they served and allied themselves with. This idea is actually a very shamanistic one, where a person’s power is related to the collective power of their spirits and the pacts that bind them to those spirits. Conversely, I have heard many modern Witches and Pagans talk about their relationships with their Gods and spirits as if they are only latent aspects of their own personality that can be channeled in appropriate situations. In other words, when you are talking to a god or spirit, you are only speaking to an aspect of yourself that embodies that being as an archetype. While this may be helpful as a path to self-discovery, I have observed that it is almost completely useless when trying to build relationships with the Gods and spirits that can actually impact the physical world, and in comparison is little more than a colorful mental exercise. It is much more simple to skip the middle step of rationalizing your belief in the Gods to death before you work with them, and just proceed as if they’re actually real. Period. The end.
The next step, now that we have established that your Gods, spirits, and ancestors are indeed real, is also very simple. If you knew of someone in your life that you wanted to build a relationship with, what would you do? You would start by talking to them, inviting them to spend time with you, maybe inviting them over to your house for coffee. The Gods and spirits are no different. If you make the mental shift of treating non-corporals by the same rules that you would treat flesh and blood relationships, this becomes pretty self-explanatory. Praying to the Gods, spirits, or ancestors doesn’t always have to be a long, formal process. Communication can be simple as talking to them in the car on your way to work: “Hey, I’m thinking about you today, these are the things that are going on in my life right now.” You can set aside a small place in your house for a God, spirit, or your ancestors, where you can go talk to them or leave things for them. When you have a cup of coffee in the morning, pour a little bit into a small cup and give it to them and let them know it’s for them. Altars aren’t just for decoration; they’re supposed to be a special place, set aside for us physical beings to do physical things to help us commune with non-physical beings.
The next step is the most important aspect of this relationship building, and perhaps the most difficult to follow through with: consistency. You are never going to be able to attain powerful results in your work with your Gods and spirits if you set up an altar for them, dust it every once in a while, and forget that it exists most of the time otherwise. You will also never obtain results if you only bother to talk to the Gods, ancestors, and spirits when you’re in a crisis or want something from them. It’s not that the Gods and spirits don’t care, but part of their ability to work in the world for you depends and the energy and power that you build by continuously strengthening your relationship with them. If you’ve never put much work into developing a two-way bond with your spiritual allies, that umph isn’t going to be there for you when you really need it, and being able to receive clear messages from them is going to be much more difficult. The channel that connects us to our spirits is like a path through the woods, and the less effort you take in keeping that path clear and open, and the less you walk down that path, the more overgrown and difficult it will be to get through.
Now that we’ve talked about the hard part, what can a person do to stay motivated enough to build these strong connections that I’ve been talking about? The answer is the very crux of Devotional Polytheism: loving the Gods, spirits, and ancestors. If you’re pursuing these connections only as a way to obtain power, you are more than likely not going to possess the enthusiasm and dedication that is required to remain consistent in your efforts. Building these relationships with your spiritual allies should, ideally, feel as painless as it is to maintain your relationships with your friends, family, or romantic partners. Even if it takes work, you should feel excited about spending time with your friends, or setting aside time to spend with your spouse. If you have Gods or spirits in your life that you feel that kind of love for, it shouldn’t feel arduous to make time to spend with them, even if it’s only once a week. That could simply look like sitting in front of their altar and talking to them for a few minutes, maybe while lighting a candle for them or pouring them a fresh glass of water. The key is to do this consistently, even if you’re feeling distracted that day, or depressed, or tired. If each person would devote the same amount of time and energy building a relationship to their spirits and Gods as they do building relationships with people over social media, we’d have a lot of spiritual power houses on our hands. Honestly, the simple, simple solution to overcoming any kind of spiritual miasma is just giving a shit. Do something for your spirits and Gods once a week at least, preferably on the same day every week (don’t stress too much if you screw up and are a little late), and I guarantee you will notice results. They may not be instant results, and it may take many months of devotional work before the path you’re treading starts to become clearer, but it will happen eventually. This requires a lot of self-discipline, but if you want it and believe in what you’re doing, you can make it happen. I’m admittedly one of the most scatterbrained people on the planet (and a Lokean to top it off), so if I can do this, so can you.
Lastly, what do I suggest for people who don’t really know where to start with this level of devotional work, or maybe don’t have deeply established relationships with any deities or specific spirits yet? Again, this is very simple, and you will hear experienced spirit workers of all creeds say it over and over again: START WITH YOUR ANCESTORS! Perhaps because the ancestors were once undeniably human, or maybe because they are literally our family members, many people tend to overlook their ancestors in their spiritual work, or think about them as if they’re not very glamorous or exciting (or at least not as exciting as the Gods or the Orishas). It is, however, that familial connection that makes them so important and so powerful. Our ancestors (and especially our recent ones if you shared a good relationship with them in life) care deeply about us and want us to succeed in life. If you had a family member that would move mountains for you when you were alive, that hasn’t changed just because they’re dead. We wouldn’t even exist if it hadn’t been for the perseverance of our bloodline, and as a result the ancestors have a special interest on their continued success via their descendants. Because we literally are carrying a direct connection to our ancestors via our blood, they are also some of the easiest of our spiritual allies to contact. All that’s required is to open the path for them and empower them through our prayers and actions.
In my own practice, this means keeping an altar for my ancestors, where I put pictures, items they owned, some of my father’s ashes, and other items that remind me of them. I keep a glass of water and a light source on their altar (I was taught that spirits are attracted to both), and at least once a week I give them a cup of coffee and a shot of alcohol. If I’m making something to eat that I think they would like, I share a little bit with them on a small plate. I talk to them, tell them about what’s going on in my life, and say prayers for their strength, peace, and happiness.
For those of us who work with deities from broken traditions, such as the Pagan traditions of Northern and Western Europe, our ancestors may also serve as links of memory to the Gods and how they were once worshipped. Experience has taught me that a solid practice with your ancestors is the foundation that needs to be laid down before a stable structure can be build upward towards the Gods, and you may find that developing a consistent practice of ancestor reverence opens unexpected doors to the deities as well. If you’re interested in looking more into the whys and hows of ancestor reverence, I highly suggest the work of fellow columnist Galina Krasskova, who teaches and writes about methods of ancestor worship with a great deal of passion and understanding born from experience.
So there you have it. The secret to successful spiritual contact is actually very simple, and in many ways self-explanatory. The hardest part about building these relationships is simply just doing the work, consistently and with love. Extend the courtesy and effort that you would give a flesh-and-blood relationship to the Gods and spirits, and everything else will follow.