Restin’ Them Bones

Go and get my bones,
Bring ’em to the Deep South,
Somewhere they can thaw out,
Here in the the Deep South…

A black and white photo of the grave of an unknown soldier in Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, MS, restin place of both Union and Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Shiloh. The grave marker itself stands upright, has a very slightly elevated point in the middle, and appears to have been white or light colored originally, but is now covered in a layer of grime. An equal-armed cross adorns the top and the word "unknown" is written in large block letter along a curved line in the middle of the marker. A large, gnarled tree root buts up against and then grows up the bottom right corner of the stone. Other grave markers can be seen, blurred in the background.

The grave of an unknown soldier in Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, MS, restin place of both Union and Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Shiloh.

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.

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Grianstad an Gheimhridh 2016

Image of an altar with candles on a white painted windowsill. On the far left is a large lit pillar candle, white at the top and fading to gold at the bottom. Next is a clear faceted glass candle holder holding a lit white taper candle. In the middle of the space is a gold arched candleholder with the silhouettes of pine trees on the front. This holds 4 lit votive candles; the left 2 are white, the right 2 are gold. In front of this sits a lit small white

TheModernSouthernPolytheist’s Grianstad an Gheimhridh altar for Gráinne 2016

Grianstad an Gheimhridh Shona, y’all! It’s hard to believe it’s that time again! Yet here we are.

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.

White to gold candle representing the transition from Grainne to Áine

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.

Local Cultus and the Winds of Change

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.