Reflections on the Many Gods West Conference

The central shrine in Skaði’s shrine room at the first Many Gods West Conference, Olympia, WA (2015)

The Many Gods West conference, and the shrine room I built in my hotel room there for Skaði, were both successful far beyond anything I had imagined. I’m so grateful that I hardly even know where to begin.

Although I arrived home after the event exhausted from the summer heat and two nights of fitful sleep, as well as socially overloaded (this introvert isn’t used to cramming that much great conversation into three days!), it was a blissful kind of exhaustion filled with gratitude and appreciation. I started hatching plans for next year before I had even finished unpacking.

Never before have I been to an event where I, as a devotional Pagan polytheist and animist, felt so free to be who I actually am in a religious sense as well as a social, cultural, and political one. How refreshing to be in a such an accepting, respectful, affirming space with other polytheists of various gender identities, ages, class backgrounds, sex/relationship orientations, and abilities. It gave rise to an exuberance I’ve never experienced before in any kind of community space anywhere. Not in Heathen groups, magical orders, UU churches, goddess spirituality circles, deep ecology groups, or any other pagan or ‘alternative’ spirituality gatherings.

I once described myself to a friend as “basically, a radical left Pagan polytheist feminist mystic who feels trapped in a right-wing Christian corporate capitalist racist patriarchy.” To find that there is a place to gather where I don’t feel even the slightest smidgen of pressure to hide any of my religious beliefs and practice, my intersectional feminism, my opposition to coercive wage labor and support of unconditional basic income, or ANY of the work I do for that matter, is heady stuff indeed.

I once kept a fairly strict separation between my work with Rethinking the Job Culture and my Pagan polytheist/dance-related/artistic work. In retrospect I’m not entirely sure why. But for whatever reason, I went to a fair bit of trouble to maintain this separation — including using different variations on my name for each project (D. JoAnne Swanson for RJC, Danica Swanson for the dark Pagan polytheist and arts stuff.) A few years back, when I started my own business and became much less worried about what potential employers might learn about me, I finally decided I was done with all that, and began using the same author bio for each of my blogs, cross-linking all my online work, etc. Because all of these things ARE linked, for me.

So to learn that there are so many other gods-and-radicals folks out there is deeply affirming.

It was also a nice surprise to learn that there were several people I respect at the conference who had been following my blogs closely for quite awhile. I am not particularly well-known in the Pagan community and have no interest in becoming a Big Name Pagan — what introvert would want that? But it’s great that as a blogger I can work completely in solitude, yet still easily reach folks who appreciate the work I have to offer.

And not a single person asked me what I do for a living! Not one. (This may have been because some folks already knew me as the founder of Rethinking the Job Culture and the no-longer-updated whywork.org site, but still.)

The location of the conference was convenient — just two hours from Portland by car or train. And as a non-driver who enjoys walking, I appreciated the walkability of the area around the Governor Hotel.

My only frustration was related to the summer heat, and the woefully insufficient air conditioning. The A/C in the rooms was underwhelming at best even though I kept it on its highest setting around the clock, and it was non-existent in the meeting rooms. I did request a room on the east side of the hotel in the hopes of avoiding the late afternoon sun in the west, but in the end I got assigned to a west-facing room. I am easily overwhelmed by heat, so I was uncomfortable for pretty much the whole weekend. On the second day of the shrine room I was too hot to even wear my draped layers of shrine keeper garb during the open hours — I opted for a t-shirt instead. (At least the t-shirt had Skaði’s name on it, though. And that t-shirt drew several compliments and started some great conversations, so it certainly counts for something.)

The t-shirt that started some great conversations.

If the conference will be held at the same hotel next year (there WILL be a next year, right?), I’d love to see it scheduled at a cooler time of year, where the lack of sufficient A/C won’t be so problematic. October, maybe? Just an idea.

The other glitch I encountered was that the rooms weren’t ready at the promised time on Friday (1:00). I had arrived early in the hopes of having a leisurely lunch and getting assigned to a room well before the official opening of the conference at 1:30. My plan was to get everything unpacked and set up early for Skaði’s shrine room so that I might be free to attend either the opening ritual or Tony Rella’s 3:30 presentation on psychological support for polytheists (something I had very much wanted to attend.) As it turned out, I was unable to attend either one. I didn’t get the key to my room until 2:00, and it took me until 5:30 to get everything unpacked and set up properly for the shrine room which opened at 6:00. I barely even had enough time to eat dinner. Fortunately I had friends who were kind enough to bring me some food so I didn’t have to go out in my shrine keeper garb to get it.

And then on Sunday, I had to start packing up the shrine room right after breakfast in order to finish by the 11 AM check-out time, so I missed the morning presentation on the state of Heathenry, too.

Of course, the whole reason I was at MGW was to serve Skaði by building Her a shrine room. Everything else, I reminded myself, was icing on the cake. And there was, indeed, a lot of tasty icing on this cake: I got to see a talk on Heathen Cosmology by Heimlich A. Laguz, an ancestor workshop by Sarenth Odinsson, a talk on devotional polytheist practice by Silence Maestas, and part of Anomalous Thracian’s talk on Religions of Relation.

So even though I missed several of the presentations I would have liked to attend (I’m especially sad that I missed John Beckett), I’m still very happy about the event in general, because I accomplished what I came there to do: host Skaði’s shrine room. And Morpheus Ravenna’s brilliant keynote address was made available in writing after the conference, which I very much appreciated since I missed out on that one too due to my shrine room service hours.

Somehow — and I’m not sure how — it managed to escape my attention that, even if I couldn’t make it to the opening ritual, I could have left an image of Skaði on the communal shrine at any point during the weekend. I regret that I was unaware of that.

I had planned to record a video tour of the shrine room, and I brought my video camera for that purpose. Unfortunately, just before I was about to pack up the shrine materials and prepare to check out of the hotel, I noticed that I had forgotten to charge the battery. And there was no time to wait for it to recharge. Wish I had thought of that earlier. Oh well. At least I managed to get some photos! (My apologies for the poor quality of some of the photos; I chose the best one I managed to get for each angle, and some just didn’t turn out so well. I felt it was worth including them anyway, since this was a temporary shrine and this is the only record that it even existed.)

The central shrine, with offering bowl in front.
The extended shrine space. On the right is an idol from Norway, kindly loaned for the shrine room by Krei Obscura.
Wider view of the extended shrine space. On the right is the “Eliwagar” CD by the dark ambient project named after Her.
A view of most of the shrine space along the wall. It was a challenge to try to keep it darkened and cool in August!
The entryway area, featuring a binder filled with devotional writings, and a box for written prayers and petitions to Her.
A closer view of the lower shrine spot — perfect kneeling height.
A close-up of the central shrine.

A few comments about the shrine room from conference attendees:

“This is so, so beautiful…”

~ Niki Whiting

“The shrine was incredible…I was there for about 45 minutes, and really only left so I could make the keynote. It was simply a beautiful thing to have at this event.”

~ L. Phaedrus

“The shrine room was amazing to be in. It was beautiful, and I found it very restful…I think it would be fantastic if the next MGW has more such spaces! I would totally visit them. […] I did end up meeting Skadi…”

~ Fjothr Lokakvan

“I was very impressed at how you managed to create the exact same atmosphere of The Black Stone Hermitage in this hotel room. I recognized the intense yet simultaneously peaceful feeling immediately. You are a powerful conductor! The shrine was beautiful, you did an amazing job.”

~ Valerie Herron

When I do the devotional work of putting together a shrine space, it’s all about atmosphere. My intent is to create an emotionally evocative atmosphere to honor the deity or spirit by combining visual and auditory elements, and sometimes olfactory elements, too, although that didn’t apply in this case. So all of the feedback is very much appreciated. (I’m open to suggestions for improvement, too!)

There were a number of plans I had for the shrine room that I was unable to implement due to the physical limitations of the hotel room space (e.g., I couldn’t move the beds to make more room in front of the shrines for people to meditate, nor could I hang curtains to hide the beds). Fortunately I managed to disguise a few of the generic-looking hotel room things where appropriate, and thus conscript them into shrine service. I draped a long blue bellydance veil and white hip scarf over the flat-screen TV, for example, which transformed it into a lovely backdrop for the main shrine.

I’m so pleased that I had the opportunity to do this shrine room. It was an honor and a privilege. Building shrines is one of the most satisfying forms of service for me.

In addition to the organizers Niki, Rhyd, and PSVL, whose dedication and hard work made this conference possible, I would especially like to thank:

  • Arrowyn and Henry Lauer, two of my dearest friends, for hauling me and my two huge suitcases full of shrine supplies to and from the conference (and hoisting them into the car and up the stairs), for kindly bringing me dinner when it became apparent that I wouldn’t have enough time to go get it myself before the shrine room opened, and for all kinds of other logistical and emotional support throughout the conference. Not to mention consistently excellent company and conversation. Arrowyn also told me she received some communications from Skaði during her meditation in the shrine room; with her permission, I’ll be sharing them in a separate post.
  • Heimlich A. Laguz, for a most brilliant, inspiring, and well-paced presentation of sketches toward a Heathen cosmology. The man is truly gifted. I can’t wait to read his upcoming book! In the meantime, you can read some of his Heathen mystic writings at the recently revived Elhaz Ablaze website.
  • Fjothr Lokakvan, for being such a great roommate, for accommodating the shrine-space takeover of our shared hotel room so gracefully, for respectfully maintaining such a comfortable introvert-friendly silence in the mornings, for friendly and fascinating conversation throughout the rest of the conference, and for writing up such a wonderful blog post about her experience. She has many excellent writings on Gods & Radicals and her blog — be sure to check out her work, including “Snow in Summer,” her beautiful write-up about her experience of meeting Skadi through the shrine room!
  • Sarenth Odinsson (who happened to be the first person to enter Skaði’s shrine room after it opened), for bringing several thoughtful offerings for Skaði, including a small piece of deer hide sent by Nicholas Haney as an offering from the hunt. Though Nicholas had told me in advance that he’d be sending this, somehow I got distracted and forgot about it right up until the moment Sarenth showed up in the shrine room and gave it to me. When I realized what it was, I was so happy that I jumped up and gave Sarenth a big hug before I put it on Her shrine. What a great way to start off the shrine room!
  • Nicholas Haney, not only for the aforementioned deer hide offering, but for the lovely devotional poem he wrote for Skaði, which was included in the binder of devotional art and writing placed in the alcove in Her shrine room.
  • Carl Bonebright, for another beautiful offering of devotional writing that was included in the binder for guests to read — an evocative short story called “Encounter in the Snow.”
  • Silence Maestas, for the lovely handmade necklace he gifted me (with black stones!) which now graces Her statue on my home shrine, for the excellent presentation he gave on devotional practice, and for lots of friendly conversation and camaraderie. His book Walking the Heartroad came into my life at just the right time.
Skadi statue with beaded jewelry by Silence Maestas
  • Krei Obscura, for enthusiastically lending me her Skaði idol from Norway for display in Her shrine room. I loved it so much — it was just perfect!
  • Alley Valkyrie, for her many brilliant and inspiring writings (and for complimenting my Skadhi t-shirt). I’m glad we live in the same city, as I look forward to getting to know her.
  • L. Phaedrus, for joining Fjothr and I for breakfast both mornings for friendly and relaxed conversation. I’m happy to hear that the class Phaedrus presented on working with Anonymous Beings will be turned into a blog post, as I had to miss it since it took place at the same time as Silence’s presentation on devotional practice.
  • Valerie Herron, for her encouraging words, all-around bad-ass-ness, and friendship, not to mention her helpful impromptu bindrune. The witchcraft worked!
  • Tempest and Anaar, who were so friendly and gracious when I approached them to introduce myself and thank them for their influential work in gothic bellydance, a.k.a. dark fusion dance. I was so sad that I missed their sacred dance performance at Obsidian! I think MGW needs a ritual dance workshop taught by these two talented dancers. I’d be the first to sign up!
  • Alexander Leßwing, of the German dark ambient musical project named after Skadi, whose brilliant and evocative albums set the mood for the shrine room perfectly.
  • Abby Helasdottir of Gydja, whose generous donation of an exclusive track, “The Iron Pine Tree’s Daughter,” graced the shrine room so beautifully (and whom I interviewed for Heathen Harvest back in April.)
  • David Galli of the Portland Tea Enthusiasts’ Alliance, for the gift that made it possible for me to attend MGW, for bringing me a double-walled glass travel mug that was just what I needed to deliver my morning dose of lapsang souchong at the conference, and for our enduring friendship which is such a blessing and a mutual joy. David is one of my favourite people on the planet.
  • The wonderful person — I didn’t get her name, but in looking at the prayer box offerings I deduced that it may have been Rose — who spent more than an hour enjoying the shrine room, moving in that time through quiet sitting meditation to standing prayer, and then slowly morphing into beautiful improvisational dance. It was an honor to witness this process. It moved me so deeply that there were tears in my eyes, and even as I write this remembrance I am getting choked up.

And lastly, thank you to everyone who chatted with me about Skaði, visited the shrine room so respectfully, left offerings, sat in meditation and contemplation, and wrote prayers and petitions for Her. I was very moved by the whole experience, and I feel so fortunate to have been able to witness so many people paying their respects to the goddess Who stole my heart ten years ago and brought me into Heathenry.

The written offerings will be shared in a separate post.

This is long already, yet I wish I could write even more. In general I have so much writing I yearn to do, but so little time to do it, due to the many demands on my time. I’m happier when my schedule is less jam-packed, but for now it can’t be helped. At the moment I am in the midst of preparing for an upcoming hiring event. Then in September I will have family visiting me at the Hermitage for the entire month. So this blog will probably be rather quiet until October.

And once I have a full-time day job, it’s likely that progress on all of my creative projects, including the Endarkenment book manuscript, will slow down substantially. That’s fine for now, as it will permit me to focus on expanding my skills, which I’m excited about…but I’m also hoping that one day, later on down the road, I will be able to do monastic community service work at the Hermitage full time, including writing, shrine keeping, geomantic divination, Earth grief work through ritual dance, psychomanteum sessions, tea meditations, and hosting spiritual incubation work via the Black Tent Temple project. I would like my religion and path of monastic service to be integrated into my daily life in a more fundamental and community-based way.

Right now the only legally recognized Pagan monastery I know about in the US is The Matreum of Cybele. There are many things about what they’ve done that inspire me. They are religious Pagans living in a convent, serving their community, and sharing the responsibilities of daily life and caring for one another in a way that (presumably) reduces the need for their members to have full-time jobs elsewhere to support the nunnery. While the plans I have for the future of the Hermitage are more focused on solitary and one-to-one service work, I do hope to integrate what I do into the community more deeply, and thereby come up with some kind of variation on the “traditional” models of monastic life that will provide a suitable shared context for the religious work I do over the long term. Community land trust? Some kind of permaculture co-op? This remains to be seen.

In any case, I may one day start a Patreon account to support this work. I love Patreon, both as a fan/supporter and as a creator. A number of my blog readers have already encouraged me to launch a Patreon account (thank you for the vote of confidence!), so it may be that by the time my life circumstances permit me to do so, the transition will proceed smoothly for the Hermitage. We will see.

One last thing I want to comment on before I close this. I met someone at the conference with whom I’d very much like to make contact again, as I really enjoyed our all-too-brief chat. She approached me outside room B in the Olympia Center after the talk by Heimlich A. Laguz on Sketches for a Heathen Cosmology, and asked if she could take a photo of the back of my t-shirt. I was wearing my Cyclic Law t-shirt — on the back it reads “obscure ambient & industrial soundscapes.” She identified herself as a goth/industrial music fan who likes to explore new music, and she wanted the URL of the Cyclic Law website handy so she could check it out later on.

The back of my Cyclic Law t-shirt.

She appeared to be around my age, and she was dressed all in black with brightly dyed long-ish red hair. I complimented her on the unique serpent pendant she was wearing, and we briefly discussed dance, jewelry, the goth/industrial scene, and music.

A fellow polytheist, around my age, at a talk on Heathen philosophy, who has a history in the goth/industrial scene and likes to dance? Definitely sounds like someone I’d like to get to know.

Unfortunately I only got her first name, and none of her contact info. She may have mentioned where she was from, but my middle-aged memory is not what it used to be, so I don’t recall. And I’m not even sure about her name — I think it may have been Amanda? I did give her my card for the Black Stone Hermitage, so perhaps she will find me that way…but if you’re reading this and you happen to know who it is I’m talking about, would you point her to this post?

Thank you! Oh, and if there is anyone else who had an experience with Skaði in the shrine room that they would like to share, I would be delighted to hear it — please comment here or e-mail me at shrine.of.skadi at gmail.

P.S. If I misspelled anyone’s name, applied any inappropriate pronouns, or botched the linking in any way, please correct me. As I’ve mentioned, my memory is not as good as it once was. Thanks!

P.P.S. I will be hosting a “MGW-outpost” meeting at the Hermitage in downtown Portland in the autumn, and possibly also a geomancy (divination) study group. Feel free to contact me if interested!

(Note: This entry was posted at The Black Stone Hermitage blog in 2015; it’s been lightly edited for re-publishing on Medium.)


For more about my work, click on the image above to visit my main site — you’ll find links to almost everything I’ve published online!

(Thanks to Ilana Hamilton of Blackthorn Photography for the great photo.)

You can also follow the Hermitage on social media:

Pinterest *** Twitter *** Facebook *** Bandcamp***Playmoss

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Danica Swanson’s story.