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Hands-On Worship

Many years ago, a goddess at a spinning wheel sat me on her lap and nested my hands within her own.

This did not happen during my waking life, but during a trance journey inspired by a a powerful dream; a goddess whose name I do not know placed the thread she had been spinning into my hand, and showed me how to spin.

Now, when a spinning goddess places her thread into your hands, you don’t have to be a specialist in mythology to begin thinking of possible layers of meaning. This happened in the years that I was a coven leader and a teacher of Wicca, and it seems clear that part of what I was being guided to do was to learn to take the threads of others’ lives into my hands, and to work with them with skill. Twenty years later, I hope I lived up to the work that I was given.

But it’s not the obvious, symbolic meaning of that vision I am thinking about today. In fact, as I look back, it’s the physical aspects of that journey that strike me most. It seems to me now that what I was shown couldn’t become real until it became physical. Until I learned to use my hands of flesh and blood to create threads from actual sheep’s wool, that vision was purely notional. It was something too abstract to bring me wisdom. For me, at least, it was only through my hands that I could come to own my experience enough for it to change me.

And that was inconvenient, at least at first.

These days, it’s not uncommon at all to find Pagan women (and men) spinning on drop spindles or spinning wheels, or knitting the resulting yarn into gorgeous and intricate designs. These days, anyone with a desire to can go on You Tube and find any number of video demonstrations of the art of spinning or carding wool. It’s a little harder to find good sources of fiber on the Internet–I still prefer to get mine at local sheep fairs–but it’s doable if you are willing to invest a little time and energy.

But this was the early 1990s. It took me a long while to find my first spindle–of a dreadful design, as it happens–and longer to find sources of fiber and instruction. Then came the hours and hours of teaching my hands to draft a thread. Some people are quick studies with handcrafts: I was a very slow learner, and it took me ages to progress from beginner lumpiness to anything approaching an even thread. But I got there in the end, and now I have some skill at hand spinning with a wheel or a spindle; I can spin different weights to suit my projects, ply on a wheel or a spindle, and knit cables and Ganseys, Fair Isle designs and socks, hats, sweaters, and shawls. I might not be the most talented of craftsmen, but I can spin and knit to please myself.

And my hands understand things–about yarn, about life, and about magic–I could have learned no other way. Not just my head: my hands understand what it means to spin out an intention with patience and with skill.

There are many subtle gifts that relate to the use of my hands. Like many Pagans, for instance, I hold a Reiki attunement, and I am aware of deep connections between my sense-memory of the way the twist draws out the fiber from my hands and the way that currents of healing spiral outward from my palms during that work. And then, when I do magic, or when I pray, I feel the life and heat of my hands shaping something as sensual as clay or bread dough, though less tangible. Magic does not feel like willpower to me, and prayers are not made out of words alone. Something far more palpable is involved–at least for me.

Deeper than that, however, is something our ancestors in the ancient Pagan past would not even have had to think about: without some experience of the physical work they did, our bodies, our physical beings, can never learn from the stories of our gods what their stories, their symbols, really mean. Without experiencing the physical elements of those stories, they remain abstractions to us at best, and intellectual and sentimental games to us at worst.

What does it mean to worship a god or goddess of smiths, but never to have worked with iron or bronze? What does it mean to worship a goddess of the hearth, but never to learn to bank a fire to last through a winter’s night? How can we understand gods of brewing or hunting or grain if we never make our own beer, clean our own game, bake our own bread or grow our own food?

Of course we cannot live fully the lives our ancestors did, and I’m not suggesting we become luddites and reject all modern things. I’m sure our gods have kept pace with us; I don’t believe Hermes is mystified by the intricacies of the Internet, or that the moon goddess lost her shine when astronauts set foot upon her surface.

But for those of us seeking to deepen our relationships with particular goddesses or gods, it is worth bearing in mind that our hands do not know what the hands of our ancestors knew. We can study the lore until our brains are stuffed, but if we do not engage our bodies in understanding what we have been shown, we can only measure a tiny fraction of the wisdom our gods are here to teach us.
We are not creatures of mind only, or even primarily. If we worship gods of winter, but have never known real, bitter cold; if we worship gods of harvest, but have never known either hunger or the sweat of an August day in the field; if we worship gods of the hunt, but have never learned to follow an animal’s trail; why, then, we may be notional Pagans only.

We can do better. We can enter into the stories and the worship of our gods with our whole selves, bodies as well as minds. Perhaps we will never enter into them fully enough to feel what our ancestors did, but we can at least begin to understand them with our whole beings–bodies as well as minds.

If you worship Demeter, till the earth. If you worship a god of oceans, go down to the sea and feel his waves. Sweat, cry, shout; get callouses on your fingertips. Live a little–and live into the myths and the stories you’ve been given.

I have come to suspect that is the only way we’ll really come to understand them in our souls.

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