I recently got an ask on tumblr about Southern Folk Magic. I haven’t been able to post here lately cause of the move and starting grad school, so I thought I’d share it here.
Can you talk a bit about Southern folk magic? What’s that like? How’d you learn it? What makes it distinctly Southern?
So, I’ll start with a little background on the term “Southern Folk Magic.” Obviously, hopefully anyway, the term is to denote regional variations of folk magic practiced in the US South. That said, I use it as an umbrella term for the practices that happen Down South because there are TONS. We tend to talk about the South as a whole, but what many folks from outside the region don’t seem to realize is just how much diversity there is down here. Like I mentioned here, there are tons of subregions in the South and just as our food, accents, and dialects are different, so can our magical practices be. My personal experiences have been in Memphis/Mississippi Delta/North Mississippi and Knoxville/East Tennessee/Southern Appalachia. I’ll be addin Atlanta and hopefully North Georgia to that list soon, but not quite yet.
For those not from the Delta region, Memphis is often jokingly referred to as “the capitol of Mississippi.” This is largely cultural and demographic and I’ve long said “Memphis will always be more Mississippi than it’s ever been Tennessee.” And the older I get, the more true that seems to be. According to the 2010 census, Mississippi has a 37% Black population. It has also seen the largest increase in people reporting to be of “mixed race.” Memphis has a 61% Black population, with many of these folks bein the direct descendants of freed slaves who moved out of the rural South and into a city. And in West Tennessee, which runs from the Western border of the state to the western bifurcation of the Tennessee river and represented by the far left star on our state flag, even small towns often have 30%+ Black populations whereas Knoxville, the largest city in East Tennessee, only has a 13% Black population. So the folk magic I grew up around in Memphis is largely influenced by Black folks whereas East Tennessee Appalachian folk magic is much more influenced by Cherokee and Scots-Irish practices.
So, when I moved to Knoxville for college, it was absolute culture shock. I wasn’t actively or knowingly practicing magic at that point, but the foundations had been laid. I got a blue doormat for the front door because that’s what you do. Now I realize this comes from a West African idea that harmful spirits can’t cross water and the blue doormat (or painting the underside of your porch roof) will hopefully confuse em. I’ve since learned this is common in Carolina Lowcountry from the Gullah-Geechee people, so I’m not sure the exact lineage of me learnin it, but it’s somethin I still do. Little things like this abound and I honestly only think about it when I find myself doin one of em.
Another tradition I grew up around is water-witchin water dowsing. The first time I heard the term as a kid, I was confused, but both of my grandparents on my daddy’s side could do it and it basically involves balancin a forked stick and when it drops, that’s where you dig your well. Other people use 2 sticks or metal rods and wait for em to cross. Either way, it seems to work.
I also wear a dime on a red string on my right ankle for good luck and to avert “the evil eye.” This is somethin a childhood friend’s grandmother made for me the first time sayin, “honey, you just need it.” And I think she was right. This is a practice that, from what I’ve read, also comes from African tradition, but specifically what or where has been all over West Africa. But the red string also carries over into Irish lore on good luck and as a Gaelic Polytheist, it makes a perfect blend of practices for me.
There’s also what I feel like is a broder American tradition that comes to us likely from the Irish of hangin a horseshoe above the door. Modern folklore says to hang it points up so that the “luck doesn’t run out,” but it also seems to do have to do with the idea that horseshoes are traditionally iron and the fae don’t like iron.
In East Tennessee, it’s not unheard of to see a tree with ribbons or scraps tied to it. The type of tree varies, but the idea is similar to Buddhist prayer flags (for a more recognized practice) and seems to come from the Gaels that settled in the area. But over heard people say it has Indigenous ties, too. How much of that is true and how much is “Cherokee Princess Syndrome” as I like to call it, I just don’t know. That’s one thing about bein down here; we’ve created a string cultural identity that, regardless of how it happened, mashed cultural practices together that there’s just no tellin where some of em exactly come from. And that’s honestly part of what makes it “Southern.” Our culture is an amalgamation of various African cultures, Irish and German immigrants, Acadians, French and Spanish historical colonization and influence, and countless indigenous cultures. If the stories of how that happened weren’t so absolutely mortifying, it could be beautiful, but we’ll always carry the wounds and scars of the past, imo.
As for how I learned, it’s been a wild ride. A lot of things I just learned culturally growin up. When you’re “born in the South, given to a town raised on hand to mouth,” a lot of things I’d now qualify as folk Magic are just a part of life. But as I’ve grown and begun intentionally practicing, I’ve read everything I can. Lots of times, this means pickin through charlatans and pseudo-intellectual horseshit. It means often bein VERY wary of other white folks claimin to know anything about anything. I’ve talked to older folks who practice and try to learn what they’re willin to teach. But it’s been a tough road. And that, along with other historical factors, are why I don’t use terms like hoodoo for my practice. I think hoodoo is a form of Southern Folk Magic, but it also has its own specific history and practices ties to the Christianization and slavery of African peoples. I’ve found a lot of similarities in my practices and Hoodoo™, but I also have a much more heavy and specific Irish influence because of bein a Gaelic Polytheist than a lot of other folks.
So, as with most topics, it’s incredibly nuanced and I’m sure I’ve left somethin out or even said somethin that wasn’t super clear, so if there are any questions, shoot! And if there are any other folks that practice Southern Folk Magic or Southern-influenced Magic, hit me up! I’d love to hear from y’all cause lord does it feel lonely sometimes. We can pm here, send me asks, hit me up on twitter, or shoot me an email at TheModernSouthernPolytheist@gmail.com.
I prayed to Jesus for the first time in 16 years this week and it left quite the impression…
As an ex-Christian, as many of us are, I’ve worked hard to move past and let go of the anger and sheer hatred toward Christianity, Christians, and organized religion that I developed over the years of mistreatment I faced in a Christian church. But those emotions still surface from time to time. This time, however, felt different.
As I watched my grandfather lay in a hospital bed of the burn unit, I prayed to Brighid for healing. I prayed to Airmid to guide the nurses and let the medicines do their best. I prayed to Miach to restore his body. And I prayed to Jesus, the god of my grandfather, to see his child and heal him. This wasn’t somethin I did lightly or without a great deal of thought, both previously in the abstract and in the moment of need. But then Pap-ah died.
I knew it was comin. He’d gone from sittin up, talkin, and jokin to gaspin for breath even with an oxygen mask on his face. He was no longer able to understand why he had been restrained. And finally he had to be re-intubated, only to progress to multi-organ failure. I knew. I’ve worked in emergency veterinary medicine too long to not see the parallels. And then we made the decision that we never should’ve had to make to just keep him comfortable until the inevitable happened. Unlike my world, we couldn’t stop the suffering for him, but I’m also not sure I could’ve made it.
And then I was angry again. Angry st Pah-pa for bein his normal stubborn self and not listenin to anyone when he was told to just let the branches dry out some more before he burned em. Mad that he didn’t have the water hose out there like he normally does. Irritated that people kept blamin his strokes for the behavior and not realizing that he’s always been that way. Angry at myself for not takin it as seriously as I should’ve when we first got the call. And finally, furious that Jesus had failed to do what he should’ve done and saved Pap-ah. But then I had to stop. My gods hadn’t saved him either.
Havin now been a Polytheist of some sort for 13+ years, I know that my gods don’t intervene every time I ask. I know that this doesn’t mean they don’t care or arent listenin, but when it came to Jesus, that evangelical Protestant upbringin came rushin back. And I’d gone so far as to pray to a god that I still have some issues with! And for someone he supposedly loves. But just as quickly, I began to reconcile that how I viewed Jesus doesn’t line up with how I view any other gods and that I’d just never taken the time to purge that old thought process.
I don’t for a second buy the line that “it was his time” and frankly find that to be bullshit. No one survives scarlet fever, the Great Depression, more injuries and surgeries than can be recounted, and 4 strokes only to die from secondary complications from a burn. I’ll never believe that. This was all the result of a careless decision and denying that doesn’t make it any less painful or true.
But none of this changes the outcome. It’s vertically challenged my beliefs and worldview, but ultimately strengthened them as best I can tell. It’s revealed my views on gods in general, already there but non-verbalized. My worldview remains the same, but more concrete in its execution. Though I have no doubts that Pap-ah would’ve disapproved of my beliefs about most everything in life, I truly hope he’s now at peace and able to see me for who I truly am and how I navigate the world. I pray that he’s at peace and will forever keep a protective and loving eye out for me.
Saturday, we lay my last father-figure to rest. At 31, I’m now the oldest living male in my immediate family line and the seriousness and mortality of that is heavy. In just 4 years, I’ll be as old as my father was when he joined the ancestors; I’d be lyin if I didn’t admit that terrifies me. But I can’t do anything but keep movin forward. All any of us can do is keep movin forward and pray that when we join the ancestors ourselves, we’re ready.
When I decided I wanted to write about death last year, I don’t think I foresaw just how many things relating to death that I’d be writing about, but here we are again. This is about my own experience with this tragedy, faced 650 miles away from the actual events, but one that hit home in a way I was completely unprepared for. This is a pretty long post, but it was incredibly cathartic and hopefully helpful for other folks.
Today marks the 1st anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub Massacre in Orlando, one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history. This time last year, I was takin my final classes of my undergraduate career, Spanish oddly enough, and tryin to survive on a little over $500/month when my rent alone cost that much; I still can’t figure out how I made it. What little I was making came mostly from an employer who is homophobic, transphobic, ableist, full-fledged misogynist, and casually racist. I was also fightin my university for not protecting Queer, POC, disabled, female, or any minority status students; fightin with the state legislature for literally makin it illegal to fund the Office for Diversity & Inclusion (the law has now expired, but no clue what’s actually happenin yet); and tryin to lead a group of student leaders (who had been stabbed in the back days earlier by a now ousted member) in these efforts through “respectable” means while participating in a more radical organization that was willin to do whatever it took. I was at wits end, just tryin to make it to August when I would officially graduate, move home, and pay off some debt. I just had absolutely nothin left to give. And then it happened.
The massacre happened on Saturday night and I was working 12 hour shifts on Sundays, so I’d gone to bed fairly early. Sundays tend to be a pretty busy day in a veterinary ER, but for whatever reason, we were fairly slow that morning. I don’t remember what was on TV, but I got a Facebook alert that a friend had “marked themselves safe,” a feature I’d only seen a time or two before after some major event. I didn’t have a clue what had happened since I’d gone to bed early, so I googled and felt like I’d been slammed in the gut. At that point, no one had any idea what happened and there were *only* 12 victims or so. But over the next couple hours, the count climbed higher and higher until it hit 49. We stayed pretty slow and I later realized my coworkers just let me sit in front of the TV all day. They check on me, sat with me when we didn’t have anything goin on, andnever asked to change the channel. I was just floored. I had to go to the bathroom to cry a couple times, but I absolutely lost it when I got into my car at the end of the day. I sat and collected myself before headin back to an empty house since my roommate was in Norway for an internship to finish up his degree.
When I got home, the first thing I did was pop open my laptop. We’d cut off our cable to save money, so I stayed glued to social media and then news clips I could see online and kept my phone in my hand to look at multiple sites at once. I cried all night long and at 4am, realizing what time it was, I knew there was no way I was gonna be able to function in class, so I emailed my professor. Thank the gods, he understood and didn’t count the absence against me. He even moved the quiz that was supposed to happen that day so that I wouldn’t miss it. Turns out he’d seen several of the interviews I’d done on local news and could probably fathom how hard I was takin all this.
The next little bit was a blur. The recently fired director of our defunded Pride Center organized a vigil with counsellors present for Tuesday and I went to that. Of course, university administrators – some of whom had flat out laughed at student safety concerns – showed up and attempted to co-op the event in person and on social media as if they’d planned it, which only made it harder. We couldn’t even totally just grieve because we were all just so damn angry that they were there. At one point, through tears, I called out the university’s (now former) chancellor and told him that people like him were directly responsible for so much of the grief in the room; he rolled his eyes at me. Typical for him and the tone he set for pretty well the whole of admin.
All of this has led me to the decision I seem to have made without even realizing it. I think it’s important here to disclose, if you didn’t already know, that I’m a white cis gay man. As all the facts came out, it was obvious that the majority of the victims in this massacre were of Puerto Rican and/or Latinx descent and that the attack happened on Latin Night. Whether this crime was intended to specifically target Queer/LGBTQ+ Latinx PoC or not, they were the majority of the casualties and if this event impacted me so heavily, I can only imagine what people closer to the location or who shared more common identities with the victims felt. But because of the visceral reaction I had, one that I feel pangs of any time one of our siblings is lost, I’ve decided that I want to incorporate a special day of ancestral remembrance. Through honoring those that have preceded us all, many of whom have paid the ultimate price, I hope that we can truly unite the community more. June is already Pride Month (even though both my hometown and the city I’m movin to celebrate in October because of the heat, lol), plus the Pulse anniversary will fall in June every year, so it only makes sense to me. I’m also toying with the idea of a Queer ancestor elevation to help all those lost to violence or who never got to live as their authentic selves because of their Queer/LGBTQ+ identities, but because of everything happening in my own life this year, I’m gonna wait and plan to start that next year. Today, I’ll be honoring the victims of the Pulse Massacre by reading their names and prayin for them. I’ll be prayin that Brighid offers comfort to their families and/or to them as needed (especially the person whose father wouldn’t even claim their remains), that Airmid and Miach continue to heal those still with us, and that Manannán mac Lir casts his mist of protection around Queer/LGBTQ+ people the world over. It’s a small gesture that I hope grows with time, though not in terms of numbers or necessity. I want the ritual to have a feeling of breadth because, while spurred by the Pulse tragedy, they are far from our only siblings lost. Folks Leelah Alcorn, Islan Nettles, Matthew Shepard, and far too many others have been lost far too soon and we can’t forget them, nor the gains we’ve made as a community from the publicity of their deaths. We can’t change what’s happened, but we can honor them as we continue the fight to prevent it from happening again.
But the sad fact is that this isn’t one community, even though I wish it were a more unified one. The reality is that Black SGL folks don’t face the same struggles that Latinx Queer people do, who don’t face the same struggles as White LGBTQ+ folks do, who don’t…you get my drift. We all share elements of common identity, but that hasn’t stopped anti-Black or -Brown sentiment from it’s prevalent place in many Queer circles. To truly move forward, we (White folks) have to do the hard work of fighting racism in our worlds, listening to out PoC siblings, and making those changes despite whatever discomforts we may find in those moments.
May na Dé protect us all and may we grow together, move forward, and forge a new world for those who will call us “ancestor.”
Go and get my bones,
Bring ’em to the Deep South,
Somewhere they can thaw out,
Here in the the Deep South…
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never been a stranger to death. Or rather, Death™ has never been a stranger to me. My father passed away when I was 6 months old, his father following 6 months later. After that, it was a seemingly endless parade of funerals and funeral processions through the country roads of the North Mississippi and broader Mid-South until I tuned 19. At that point, I was seemingly granted a reprieve until 23 when my first close high school classmate left us unexpectedly. At this point, I feel like my dealings with Death and death have been at fairly ordinary intervals, but when you stare her in the face more often than not as a child, it leaves an irrevocable mark. This mark has led to my relationships with ancestor veneration, methods of divination, certain deities, and my practice in general.
Recently, my uncle passed away. It was somewhat unexpected and definitely hit me hard. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt cause it had been a while since I’d seen him. Then I realized that my younger cousin has never really faced the death of a close loved one, let alone a parent. Her older brother was ~12 when our grandmother passed away, but she was only 5. I know she’s been to other funerals, but that’s not the same. They’ve been amazingly strong, but I know hoe deep-seated that pain can be and how quickly it can come rushing to the surface with the force a tsunami without a moment’s notice.
This funeral was different for me in many ways, too. This is one of, though not THE first time I’ve attended a family funeral as my adult self. For my very rural family, sometimes this presents the issue of “explaining” me to their friends and neighbors as I walk in with blue hair, stretched ears, and a face full of metal. Now Daddy’s side could care less what anyone else thinks for the most part, but Momma’s is the opposite. Thankfully, as weird and wrong as that sounds, this was Daddy’s side, but it doesn’t change the way death always seems to mark me as an outsider since I’ve become an adult. Of course a funeral that isn’t mine isn’t about me, so it just leads to long-term suppression of those emotions that tend to erupt down the road in unpredictable ways.
The drive to rural North Mississippi alone gave me a lot of time to reflect on my own thoughts about death and afterlife. This was compounded by the times I had to zone out because the message that may or may not have been comforting to every other person in the room was doin nothin but grating my nerves. I found myself pondering the Greco-Roman nature of the rural funeral parlor, the motifs a mix of Christian and pagan elements, wondering if I was the only one to notice. It certainly allowed a much needed escape while pinned between in-law-esque family members that would likely string me up were they to ever learn of my religious practice or beliefs. I guess it’s worth noting here that I’m not actually related to these particular folks, but I know em well enough to know their thoughts on the matter. But these Greco-Roman pediments led down an ADHD trail of my own musings about what comes next. In that same vein, I always worry what family who pass will think of me as they view me from their Otherworld, but I swear if I didn’t feel a bit of comfort from my uncle, a Southern Baptist preacher, as if I felt him laid a hand on my shoulder and tell me he understands when envisioning adding him to my ancestor shrine space.
I firmly believe in an afterlife, but what that looks like, I frankly have no idea. For me, it feels natural at this point to think that I’ll spend some time with Donn after passin on before movin on to Tír na nÓg (or some other realm of existence) at some point. But do I think that same reality applies to everyone? I don’t know. Comin from an evangelical Christian background, a background that told me that everyone goes one of 2 places despite whatever religious convictions they held in life, I find it ridiculous to reassert that same belief system that forces everyone in to a cookie-cutter conception of an afterlife. So where does that leave me? Honestly, at an impassible juncture as of now. Ultimately, I’m not sure it matters; what happens after death is what happens, regardless of what I might like it to be. Maybe we each go where we believed we’d go in life. Maybe we can visit other peoples’ afterlives. Maybe we all go to the same place. Maybe there’s not anything after this. At some point, it becomes counterproductive for me to continue to dwell on the future in that capacity when there’s so much to be done in the here and now. And that’s where it’s left me.
But drivin those small town roads, a caravan of vehicles farther in each direction than the eye could see as we crested those Mississippi Pine Country hills, made me realize how much “home” is here for me. The casseroles, the funeral chicken, the good memories, all call to me in a time of death and remind me that Death will always be a constant companion, even if we lose touch for a little while. Despite what anyone else has to say about it, my home is here in the rituals, the landscapes, and the people of the South. Regardless of where I draw my breath, it always will be. I’d be just fine with an afterlife on the old family property, watchin the next generations learn and grow, protectin them, guidin them, and remindin them of those feelins of home. This is where I want to be, where I belong, and where I’ll hopefully one day rest my bones. Anything else is just gravy.
I feel like a lot has changed in the last year, and yet this was a ritual that felt familiar. I’m hopin by next year to have somewhat of a solidified liturgy, but I made the decision a long time ago to let that kind of thing develop as naturally as I could. I don’t wanna force somethin and end up hatin it or it feelin disingenuous.
That said, the format and connection to other holidays has really taken shape this year. I’ve come to a lot of realizations and, through talkin to other Gaelic Polytheists in various locations across the country and the globe, I feel like things are takin shape in more concrete ways. Discussions of local cultus in the South, most of whom seem to be Hellenic Polytheists, has also truly had a major impact. It’s helped me flesh out my own ideas as well as solidify the idea that we don’t all have to practice identically and never even did. The idea of true orthodoxy simply doesn’t fit into my understanding of a Gaelic Polytheist worldview.
Which brings me to this year’s ritual. In the last year, I’ve truly come to see Gráinne/Grain as Áine’s sister. I realize in retrospect that I’d somehow come to view her as an enemy or adversary. I think it has to do with my own struggles with winter that led to that, but one day it was like a light turned on and that idea just seems so foreign to me now. As such, I altered the idea of the ritual to be about transitioning from the time of Áine to the time of Gráinne rather than about somethin more akin to tolerating the winter.
In a Gaelic worldview, days begin with sundown of the calendar day before, similarly to the way Jewish days run. I was out of town visiting family for an early Christmas since I’ll be workin on the 25th, so I knew I couldn’t do a full ritual that night. Before leaving and while the sun was just barely still in the sky, I burned a stick of incense I reserve for Áine, thanking her for her warmth and wishing her a speedy return. Before I went to bed that night, I lit a small jar candle that I’d got to use that felt appropriate for Gráinne, said a quick prayer, and let it burn overnight. I’ll admit that I had more time and expendable income this year than I have in a long time and likely more than I’ll have again for a while, so I splurged a little. I found a gorgeous white candle that transitions to gold that I feel really represents the transition from the pale face of the winter sun, Gráinne, to the warm yellow summer sun, Áine. I doubt that I’ll ever find a candle that does the opposite (I looked and didn’t see one), but it’s given me ideas for ways to incorporate those color transitions in the future.As for the ritual itself, I started by lighting the gold taper candle and thanking Áine for her warmth and presence. I then used this candle to light the the two white votive candles. From these candles, I lit the white taper representing Gráinne, then lit the gold votives. Really, this was all symbolism of the rising and setting sun, the transition of the seasons, etc. Lastly, I lit the white and gold pilar candle, talkin to Gráinne and askin that she keep us warm, drive away the bitter cold the An Cailleach brings, and that my relationship with and understanding of her grow. I let all the candles burn until they burned out, except for the pillar, which I put out when I left for work tonight. I think I wanna burn it again, maybe every couple weeks or somethin and time it to be about done by the time Grianstad an tSamhraidh hits.
In the future, I really wanna repeat this ritual, in reverse, to welcome Áine at Grianstad an tSamhraidh. But at the same time, this doesn’t feel totally right. I don’t know if it’s cause I’m in the South and our days are longer or what, but by the time the solstices roll around, we’ve been in the swing of the season for a while. I’ve never been one to do much with the equinoxes, but I’ve been entertainin the idea some kind of small recognition of the beginnin of this transition. It’s not been more than a passing thought, but it’s definitely an idea I want to explore.
All in all, I feel like it was a successful ritual. As a side note, the little strings of lights were an impulse buy while I was at Target. They were just festive and on sale, but I really think they added a nice touch. They’re not somethin I leave on their shrine all the time, but in this year of transition and without any other holiday decorations, it just felt nice.
When Airmid’s herbs and Micah’s tricks
Can’t heal the pain and relieve the sick,
May I and Flidais comfort you
With whisps of pink and streams of blue.
While Brighid’s touch and loving caress
Gathers and holds who loved you best,
To the West, across the sea,
Let Manannán mac Lir carry thee
To Tech Duinn where Donn still dwells
An isle of stone among the swells
To rest yourself and mend your soul
After this life has exacted its toll.
And when it’s time to move again,
For Tír na nÓg to let you in,
Eat the fruit and draw your breath
And never again know pain in death.
This is my own original work. It’s a prayer I’ve been tryin to write for years now and haven’t been able to. However, in the last 48 hours, it seems to have just flowed. I found myself sneakin away to write as I felt it and now that I’ve compiled it, it feels…whole.
This is the 2nd part of my Deathwork series.
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins?
-Edgar Allen Poe
Content Warning: This post is very heavy and involves some macabre details of my occupation and practice as well as discussion of suicide. I’ve also decided that this will be a multi-part series, though I have no idea how many.
Many folks that have known me over the years know that I work in emergency veterinary medicine and have been in the industry for 13 years now. It’s an often thankless job, full of blood, violence, tears, and anguish. But hey, someone’s gotta do it.
All jest aside, my work is very dark. Just this weekend, I saw necrotic limbs, flayed abdomens, and patients full of maggots; it’s never a dull moment in the Heart of the Delta. These patients come in screamin, cryin, clawin, and gnashin. In these first moments, it’s part of my job to ease their suffering. Sometimes, that means pain meds and sedation so I can begin to help heal their wounds, but sometimes it means they’ve come to the end of their road – especially if they’re a stray.
A previous roommate of mine did a project when we both went back to college about death and about our role in it; that project has stuck with me. He’s a former veterinary technician and we talked about how many lives we had each personally ended. Not how many we’d witnessed or assisted, but personally ended. This was several years ago and after some basic math, we figured we were each up to at least 3,000. Continuing that math now and makin some minor adjustments, I realize I’m now well over 6,000. That’s 6,000 beating hearts that these hands have stopped, 6,000 lives I’ve watched leave the eyes, 6,000 paws (and a few wings) I’ve held in their final moments in this life. To say this has taken a toll on me is an understatement; there’s a reason you don’t see many vet techs older than 45.
As a testament to this, veterinary medicine has now overtaken all other professions in rates of suicide (X, X, X). And these articles are just about the vets, often completely ignoring the nursing and support staff. Compassion fatigue has become a huge issue, leading my alma mater to do somethin proactive for once and pioneer the field of veterinary social work (X, X). It’s not uncommon to come home, start to unwind, and end up in tears over a soup commercial because I’ve spent all day on the edge of fightin it back. It can lead to very dark places and a lot of prayer and soul searchin to make it through.
As you can see, there’s a lot of trauma in the work I do. Which brings me to the religious component; I’ve been doin deathwork for as long as I can remember, since long before I ever identified as anything but Christian or had more than an inkling about actual magic. And really, it should come as no surprise to me or anyone else.
I was born under the shadow of death. My father was sick when I was born and died six months later. His father followed suit 6 days after my 1st birthday. My life was peppered with death since I was an infant, never goin more than six months without attending a funeral. Comin from a rough neighborhood in a Grit ‘n Grind town, I buried friends, loved ones, and family my entire life. It was so common that when I met people in college who’d never attended a funeral, I was shocked. Death has simply always been there, loomin like a predator and yet a constant companion. Becoming an agent of that death seems like a natural progression.
My work in veterinary medicine is, in retrospect, I think what led me to Flidais, and possibly her to me. The short version is that I felt a presence for years, especially when I’d spend long periods of time contemplating my role as Death. After stumbling upon her name, I instantly knew who’d been there all along. Though not typically seen as a chthonic deity or psychopomp, my own UPG very much sees her with feet in those roles. In my world, she plays this role in conjunction with Manannán mac Lir, Donn, and to some degree Brighid, though that’s long, complex, and very UPG. As for Flidais, I pray each time I take a life, that it be in the creature’s best interest, that she helps them understand, and comforts them. I pray that Manannán leads them gently to the Isle of Donn, that they rest there comfortably, and eventually Manannán leads their souls to the place of their eternal rest.
This past weekend, I faced a particularly hard case. Where I work, we regularly take in strays, often in the form of random pit bulls and kittens. Many of the kittens come in sick, but not too worse for wear. One kitten, one that should have been destined to be a beautiful black domestic longhair, came in weak, thin, and sickly. Many times, that alone leads to euthanasia simply because there are so. damn. many. kittens at any given time. In fact, the city is so full right now that none of the shelters or rescue groups can even hold any more. But I couldn’t bring myself to make that call. Upon tryin to get a temperature on the kitten, I noticed a small wound with little white visitors poppin in and out. This is another point at which most people call the game, but it didn’t look all that bad and I just knew it would be fine. So I gave her some pain medicine, gloved up, got the hot water goin, and began to debride the wound, one maggot at a time. Once I was done, it really didn’t look that bad. The wound was just in the skin, there was no GI, muscle, or body wall involvement, but the kitten’s temperature was low. I settled her up with some warm water bottles and a heating bad, glad that she would make it. At that point, I went to grab a tube of in-house ophthalmic ointment, opened one eye, and my heart sank; the rump wound wasn’t the only place that other creatures had found a home. Her eyes were completely gone and there was nothing I could do. This explained so much else that was happening (that I’ve left out here) and I knew it was time. I swaddled her close and administered the final medication she’d ever need. I whispered to Flidais, finding a moment of silence comforting in a room swarming with chaos, and delivered her my latest soul harvest.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about my own religious practice lately. I’ll start by sayin that I’ve been in what I often hear referred to as a “fallow time,” or so I thought. See, I’ve been in a place in my life where I haven’t had much time to devote to religious practice. I just graduated with a BFA in Photography and BA in Religious Studies after a 12 year uphill battle. I was also simultaneously working 3 jobs and heading up a group of student leaders trying to save our LGBTQIA+ Center from a university and state legislature that are hellbent on forcing us back into the closet. Sure, I think it about religion regularly and a while back came to the conclusion that my life and decisions are constantly influenced by my religion (that’s another topic I’ve been meanin to talk about since right before Gods & Radicals really seemed to blow up. But that’s for another day) but I rarely had much time to do anything about it. But now that I’m taking a year off to prep for grad school, I should have more time for my religious practice, right? Well, that’s what I thought, too.
But I’ve come to a realization. As my life is so influenced by my view of my gods, what they would find pleasing, and what they expect from me, I noticed what had been in front of me all along. Just as my practice has and will change when shifting regions, it had changed without me even noticing. I was living my Polytheism. My activism, organizing, and protesting was inspired by and an honor to Na Mórrígna. My work with fellow Queer people was honoring Manannán mac Lir, forging new and liminal spaces and working with people transitioning in various ways. My attempts to create a safe space, a home away from home or in lieu of home as so many of us described it, honors Brighid. Working, existing, and forging new spaces in the South, upholding the almighty Southern hospitality honor my ancestors, both recent and ancient. My work in emergency veterinary medicine, my source of income and first passion, honors Flidais. My healing and nursing honor Airmid and Miach. My care of the suffering, even if it means ending their suffering, honors Donn, too. My studying and academic aspirations honor Ogma. Filling in the gaps and making everything work honors Lugh, the master of all trades.
All of these ideas act on my simultaneously and I act them out in return. They are a part of me. I am a part of them. While I have every intention of resuming regular offerings and prayers, celebrating holidays with big meals, and all the other things I’ve done in the past, I also realize that it doesn’t have to look like that. My Polytheism is just that: MINE. It is a lived tradition. It is an evolving tradition. One that I hope to grow and pass down, to share with others, but one that that is ultimately mine.
That said, I’ve already started setting up shrines in my new space and I couldn’t feel more at home.
I’ve been doin a lot of thinkin about local cultus lately. In fact, some of it even came up in my undergraduate thesis I submitted just a few weeks ago. But much of it is in relation to what I’m now realizing is a major shift in my life. As of August, I will officially be a graduate of the University of Tennessee with a BFA in studio art and a BA in Religious Studies, plus a minor in American Studies (I technically already graduated when I walked in May, but that’s another story). As this happens, more changes will happen. As with most college students, I’ll be moving soon after graduation, but I’m not your average college student.
I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, a proud graduate of Memphis City Schools in 2004. I then moved from the Mississippi Delta to Appalachia, attending the state’s flagship school on the other end of Tennessee in Knoxville, nestled in the valley just west of the highest peaks in the Eastern US. This was a culture shock in every way imaginable and it left a major mark on me. What I didn’t know then was that college would be a time of immense struggle, also in every sense of the word, and I wouldn’t graduate until 2016.
Though I’d begun explorin Paganism in high school, college was the first time I hadn’t lived under the almost literal Panopticon set up by my parents, finally bein able to freely explore and practice without lookin over my shoulder. We’ll skip the boring details and play by play, but it dawned on me the other day as I thought about moving back to Memphis that this will be the first time I’ll be practicing Polytheism for any length of time outside Appalachia. As that occurred to me, I also thought about what Allie, a local and friend of mine, said to me once when I commented about Appalchian identity: “You’re one of us now.” That simple phrase has stuck with me for a few years now because I recognize its truth; Appalachia has had a lifelong influence on me that I didn’t even see happenin. As much as I’m a Memphis boy and always will be, I’ve spent 40% of my life and all of my adult life in Knoxville. How could I not have seen the impact it had on me?
In turn, this made me mull over how much influence my time here has influenced my view of Na Dé. I so often feel Flidais in the mountain breeze, see Lugh in the storms comin in off the Cumberland Plateau, or seen Na Mórrígna in the faces of campus minority students fighting for our very right to exist at this hostile HWI in a violent, white supremacist state that gave rise to the first iteration of the KKK. Will a move change the way I experience the gods? Will it sever a link? Was it Appalachia that drew me to them? I see how my friend Mary conceptualizes New Orleans in her Hellenic practice, how perfectly fitting it seems, and try to imagine Gaelic Polytheism there; I can’t seem to. Will new gods call me as I move?
But as I think more, I also know that the hearth of the fires stoked here often lie in bricks and kindlin laid in West Tennessee, in a city that has struggled to exist since 1819. I then can see the ways I’ve maintained connections to the Bluff City, even in the ways I’ve left offerings, i.e. floating paper boats with fruit for Manannán Mac Lir down the Tennessee River because it connects to the Mississippi, flows past my hometown, and then into the Gulf of Mexico before bleeding into the Atlantic and touching the Gaelic lands. I see the random patches of tree in the middle of urban sprawl that team with The Cattle of Flidais. I remember my home, also the home to the National Civil Rights Museum built inside the Lorraine Motel after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. These things shaped the earliest me, even if Appalachia did some reimagining and refining.
In all likelihood, my practice will change, just as I will. That doesn’t mean I won’t remember and honor Appalachia, always carrying a piece of her with me and leaving a piece of myself behind. After all, I’ve been gone from Memphis for 12 years now, but I still feel connected there. It’s still home in a way I’m not sure anywhere else ever will be. Will I stay there? Not if things go as planned. My path will hopefully take me to Atlanta, an almost seemingly perfect mix of East and West Tennessees, but only time will tell. I’m both excited and terrified by the road that lays ahead, but I know I’m also gonna face it head on with Na Dé Ocus Andé around me, but in the mean time, take a moment to breathe.