I got a question from someone wondering how to get started working with a deity. While I’ve got other articles up about parts of this process, I realised I don’t have anything that walks through a way to go about this from the start. Here’s one way you could get started.
When should you start?
Recently, I’ve started seeing a lot more advice online that working with deities – even in the simplest versions I’ll talk about below – is advanced magic, and not something beginners should be contemplating at all.
I admit, I blink at that a lot. Because if you’re talking about a religious or spiritual practice that involves deities (as religious witchcraft in its many forms often does), doesn’t it make sense to start learning about that from the beginning, to some extent?
Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely some things I wouldn’t recommend for someone who’s just starting out.
But just like there are plenty of ways to start getting to know human people in a new area of our lives, there are plenty of ways to start getting to learn about and get to know deities that are respectful, appropriate, and not going to get you into difficulties.
Basic rule of thumb: Take it slowly. Don’t make ongoing commitments or promises about or to anything until you have learned the etiquette for promises in the relevant culture (learning how to avoid making promises or commitments you don’t want to make is a key related skill.)
Where are you right now?
In my experience, people come to deity work from one of three general places. Knowing which of these is the closest fit to where you are will help you narrow down some places to start.
1) You believe deities are central to religion
One reason people are curious about deities is that they think (not terribly unreasonably) that deities are part of this religion thing.
(I’ve often found that in this case, people’s assumptions about how this work are influenced either by their previous religious practice or exposure to religious practice, whether that’s cultural, personal, or familial. It may be useful to take some time to make sure you’re not getting snared up on having a narrow idea of what a relationship with deity can look like.)
If this is you, start by exploring some possibilities and see what sparks your interest. You might start with deities associated with your profession, your stage in life, or your major interests.
If you’re really not sure, one option is to start with deities associated with your ancestry, or a place/country/culture you have a particular interest in. (There are some codicils with this one, see below.)
2) You’re curious about specific deities
Many people come into deity work in a witchy or Pagan context having found specific deities interesting in the past. Sometimes that’s something that started in childhood, sometimes that’s more recent. Sometimes it’s that a particular deity or myth keeps coming up in their lives. Even more often it’s just a feeling, a pull in a particular direction.
If this is you, your next step is straightforward: learn some more about those deities. (See the next step for details.)
3) You’ve had some signs or experiences
Some people have some signs of a deity they’re not sure about, and they’re trying to figure out what (if anything) it means, and what to do about that.
There are lot of things going on in the world, and not all of them are omens or signs. Use your common sense to evaluate what’s going on.
If you’re seeing lots of birds, find out if those birds are normal for your area (even if that’s part of a migration pattern). Sometimes we just start noticing something a lot more, but it’s not actually happening more frequently.
Consider journalling, meditation, and divination as ways to help you sort out some of these patterns, and give yourself time to figure them out – don’t make major decisions based on one or two faint events.
A lot of people want to start with deities from the culture of their heritage, whatever that is. If that’s what draws you, fine. But there are plenty of people this doesn’t work for. Sometimes that’s because they have background from a wide range of cultures (and how do they pick one or two to focus on?), because there’s some break in the knowledge about their ancestry (as can happen due to war, trauma, or family events like adoption).
And of course, some cultural contexts have a lot more baggage that come with them, or are more complicate to navigate with them (for example, folkish or neo-Nazi use of Norse mythology, symbology, terms, and practices.)
So, if starting with a culture you come from works for you, go for it! If it doesn’t, though – don’t worry. Lots of other options also work out fine.
Finally, a word about being picked/chosen by a deity. Some people have this happen, but it’s vastly more common that people begin working with deities because they initiate the interaction – by learning, making some offerings, learning some more, integrating their practice and attention to this deity into their life.
If you do think a deity is showing particular interest in you, start by learning more about the deity, decide if you’re interested back, and go from there as I describe below. You always have the right (and responsibility) to figure out what your boundaries are, even with deities.
4) You want to explore the larger community
The last thing I’d mention is that if you want to take part in the larger community – going to rituals, workshops, festivals, conferences, and so on – there’s a lot to be said for learning how to learn about a wide variety of deities, enough to be comfortable going to a ritual that focuses on them.
The amount you need to know to participate respectfully will depend on you, the ritual, and the situation. (But it’s definitely less than the people running the ritual need!)
Being able to read a ritual announcement, find some reliable sources about that deity in an hour or two, and go to the ritual prepared in advance is a great skills to work towards, if you want to regularly participate in other people’s rituals.
This is the same skill that serves you well while you’re exploring specific deities to build and create a closer relationship with.
Learn some things
I am a big fan of learning more before you make any kind of commitment or decision. There are lots of ways you can go about learning more about deities.
I suggest a mix of book-and-information learning, but also trying out some different things to help you learn more about a deity in a more creative way. You can find more about this joint approach in learning about a deity.
This should take some time! Both in the sense of “don’t settle for a paragraph summary of a deity” and in the sense of “don’t make a decision in a single day” If you’re looking for an ongoing relationship or interaction with a deity, I strongly recommend giving yourself at least a month or two before doing any sort of regular practice with them.
There’s two reasons for this.
First, you don’t want to start with a grand flourishing gesture and lots of offerings and then find yourself losing interest two weeks later. Lots of people do that, and then have this weird little unattached relationship connection floating around them, energetically speaking. It’s untidy and can make it harder for you to figure out what’s going on with your practice later.
Second, I believe that the best research is cyclical. You want to give yourself time to read something, then come back to it in a week or two. You want time to try different kinds of materials (books vs. blog posts vs. academic articles vs. personal experiences, and so on.) Some of those are going to take more time to find or get access to or read through.
You want to give yourself time to try some journalling or divination or meditation.
I often find specific things grab at my attention when I’m doing this kind of learning – particular words or a desire to read specific kinds of books (or watch or listen to specific things). I want to give my brain and my soul plenty of time for that. It’s not a process you can rush.
This is often particularly true with deities, where their focus can change over seasons. A given god or goddess may be quite different in springtime than in autumn, or have particular festivals at different points in the year.
Learn about yourself
Are you a prayer person? An offering person? A regular ritual person? How are you getting information/senses of how thing are going?
The answers to this are going to be a bit different for everyone – and honestly, also going to be different at varying points in your life, or with different deities. You may want to try different things (see the list in deepening interactions with deities for some ideas, or see the next section below.)
What can you do to build your skills in the things that are showing signs of being useful? Some of the things on that list (or that you may come with on your own) are skills, and you’ll get better at them as you learn more and do them more over time. Others of them, you might find a general idea worth pursuing but need some time to figure out the particular form that works for you. This is where taking good notes helps, as well as having a couple of sources to go to to try.
Finally, this is a good time to check in with yourself about what you’re focusing on right now. How are you looking at this interaction? Are you looking at learning about one deity? Multiple deities? Specific goal? Long-term more interwoven interaction? There isn’t a right answer here, but some of the things you might do feed some of these goals more than others.
Do some things
Offerings are one of the most common ways people begin to build a relationship with a deity (especially in tandem with making a shrine, our next point.) Offerings of food or drink are particularly common. Exactly what these are depend on the deity and the culture, but here’s where to start:
1) Start with initial research.
Your goal is to figure out if there is anything they particularly favour or have a prohibition against.
Usually major items (either desired or forbidden) should turn up in any medium length (more than a couple of paragraphs) description of the deity. They might favour something because they are associated with it – or want to avoid something, because there’s a piece of their history that makes that distasteful or inappropriate.
2) Consider the staple foods of that culture.
If you don’t find anything arguing for or against a particular offering, try staple foods of that culture.
Do a little research, but fresh water, olive oil, honey, bread, rice, or maybe particular common flavourings are all a good place to start. In some cases other foods might be particularly appropriate – those will come up as you do a bit more research. Keep them simple. Wine and beer work, if you’re comfortable buying them and legally able to do so.
Many deities also like offerings of incense (commonly thought to rise to the heavens, where they can enjoy it). Frankincense is often considered a good general incense to try, if you don’t have another, but a plant native to where the deity comes from, or one native to where you live are both things to consider. (Again, check your research against known lore.)
3) Keep it simple.
Especially to start, make the offerings something you can do easily, and consider making regular but not daily physical offerings.
I do brief energetic offerings and prayers basically every day, but something with incense/simple food and drink options once a week when I have more time. (I set them out, say whatever I want as part of the offerings, and then spend some time in my living room with the shrine for half an hour or an hour, reading about magical or Pagan topics or doing things in my book of shadows.)
Don’t make ongoing or longterm commitments yet. (See the next section on what to avoid for why, and what to do instead.)
You can make offerings without making an ongoing commitment to make offerings – and I recommend that up front. If you decide you need to move in a different direction in a few weeks, it’s a lot easier to do that if you haven’t made specific commitments.
A shrine is a general term for creating a space to honour something – in this case a deity. (In my practice, an altar is a working space, a tool in its own right, and has some specific things that need to be on it to make a working altar. A shrine is much more flexible.)
You can put whatever makes sense to you on a shrine. If you don’t have lots of items, that’s fine – there are amazing, effective, beautiful shrines with just one or two beloved objects.
- Images of the deity or symbols important to them
- Something to hold food or drink offerings
- Incense holder and incense
- Perfume or appropriate oils
An image of the deity can be a drawing or painting, a statue, even a photograph of items that are symbolic or particularly dear to them. (For example, you might have a forge or holy well for Brigid, the ocean or horses for Poseidon, an olive tree or loom for Athena, etc.) Some people find Tarot decks or oracle decks to be a great source of small portable images that can evoke different things.
If for whatever reason you can’t use incense or candles, that’s fine – these are just suggestions. (Learn more about incense alternatives). If you use essential oils, make sure they’re suitably diluted in a carrier oil first.
For small offering of food or drink, it can be very helpful to have a small cup or bowl. Pinch bowls (used in kitchens for small amounts of spices or salt) or sake cups (from the Japanese wine) are both often a good size for this, come in many styles, and usually have some inexpensive options if you look for a little.
Consider having a regular practice in which you do something that makes sense as a way to honour that particular deity. Exactly what that is is going to depend on you and the deity, but some options include:
- Spending time at your shrine.
- Making offerings
- Saying prayers
- Listening to music or meditating
- Learning about the deity or things they care about
Many people like to include a practical action that’s relevant to the deity.
For example, some people make sure to make food shelf donations at the new moon, a time when food was left at the crossroads for Hekate. People who honour a deity with a particular interest in cats or dogs (or other domesticated pets) might donate to or volunteer at a pet shelter. People who honour a deity associated with knowledge might support their local library or literacy programs (with donations, help at book sales or other events, etc.)
This might not be something you do every week or even every month, but making it a part of your practice can connect you to a larger community that cares about similar things – even if they’re not Pagan.
One excellent way to deepen your understanding of a deity is to do some creative work in their honour or while focusing on them. This might be creating something for a shrine (a small sculpture, an offering bowl, etc.) but it could also mean doing a craft associated with them, cooking certain foods and exploring new recipes, writing prayers or poems or songs, or all sorts of other things.
One of the things that’s a custom in my tradition is that students research a number of deities, and do both a research summary (2-3 pages, covering at least one myth, plus other general information about the culture the deity comes from, other deities they’re particularly connected to, good offerings, if there’s anything to avoid, symbols, etc.)
The creative project can be any creative work they want (art, poetry, music, sculpture, people have even done things like essential oil blends in lotion.) The key is taking that academic information and learning to listen to intuition in putting it into the beginning of practice.
(This also fits with one of our teaching goals, that people learn how to do brief but reliable learning about deities so they can participate thoughtfully in other rituals and events in the larger witchy community.)
What to avoid
Of course, there are a few things to avoid.
Don’t stop at short summaries
So many intro witchy books give you a 2-3 line summary of a whole bunch of deities. As I said above, don’t settle for the short stuff. Look for material that is at least a couple of paragraphs long (for each deity) and look for sources that give you some context for that deity, their originating culture, and other relevant history.
For some deities, there’s going to be a lot. For others, a lot of research might turn up only a few paragraphs. But if you dig a bit, you can certainly find more about how even most obscure deities fit into the culture or pantheon they come from, what the common historical ritual practices were, how the things that are associated with them were seen originally, and so on. If they’re super obscure, spending some time learning about key deities in a particular pantheon can help you fill in a lot of gaps in general practice.
Give yourself a goal of having a meaningful amount of notes (maybe two pages?) before you move forward with trying any kind of offering or ritual, collected over at least a week or two (not all the same day.) As you get more experience (both at research and ritual), you can figure out what works for you going as you do more research.
Decide for yourself who to listen to
If you search some deities online, you may find a lot of people’s personal experiences with them (sometimes referred to as Unverified or Unverifiable Personal Gnosis, or UPG). These can sometimes be amazingly helpful in helping you sort out how to put something into practice. However other times they can flavour your own practice in ways that aren’t actually helpful to you.
The skill of “I have come across this thing, but I’m not assuming it’s right” is key here. Take notes on what you find, but don’t bring it into your practice (including your thoughts/assumptions about how things work) without spending some time examining it, learning more, and experimenting in small bits.
However, these sources can be really helpful on practical things – what modern offering items seem to go over well, how to handle historical offerings that are not practical or safe. For example, animal sacrifice was historically often a way of providing a major protein source for the community, as well as an offering to the gods, but it’s not one most people these days are set up to do appropriately.
Avoid promises you won’t keep
A lot of people want to rush into making big long-term promises to deities they’re getting to know. Don’t do that!
Make small manageable promises. By this I mean:
- Start with a short time frame (at a time you do not expect to have a lot of unusual scheduling/obligations)
- Make your promise small and something you can reliably do.
- Build in a clause for renewal if you want.
Short time frame:
Start with maybe a month. Don’t start it right when you’re about to go into a holiday season with a lot of extra social events, travel, and schedule disruption.
Don’t plan to start it if you’re about to go back to school (or have kids who are starting school). Give yourself a couple of weeks to get used to the new demands and schedule. Ideally don’t do it if you are dealing with something else big in your life (you can make an exception for major life needs, health issues, etc.)
Keep your commitments simple:
For simple commitments, don’t promise to do anything every day that you can’t do in about 5 minutes, without more tools than a cup of water. I always advise that you shouldn’t make a formal commitment to ritual you couldn’t do in a hospital room (yours or someone else’s), an airport, or a hotel room.
Even if most of the time you use tools and candles and incense, your core practice should be flexible, brief, and able to fit on your hardest days.
Or you should be clear that you’ll make offerings one way most of the time, and on the hard days, it’ll be something different, or tiny. If you’re not sure, don’t promise every day ritual actions, consider offering once a week, or some other longer time scale for your commitment. You can always do extra things when your life is going well and you have time and energy.
Expand the time if things go well
If a month goes well, try three months (a couple of times), then move to six. months. If you struggle to keep up your promise for a month, take a break, or try something different for your commitment. Keep to that timeframe until you’re sure it’s comfortable for you.
Don’t change both the length of time and the complexity of the commitment at once.
Start with small steady offerings
When you start making offerings, it can be tempting to do big showy things. Resist that temptation, most of the time. Your regular offerings should be things that are pleasing to the deities you’re offering to, but things that you can keep readily available. Save the bigger favours for when you need to ask something specific, or give thanks for particular help.
Think of this like the way you might cook or buy snacks when you have friends over. Most of the time that’s going to be the same sorts of thing you normally have around, just maybe a bit extra. Sometimes, you might do a little more. Once or twice a year you might go all out for a particular event.
Regular offerings might include things like offered energy, lighting a candle, incense, or small amounts of staple food and drink (olive oil, honey, bread or rice, cream or milk, etc.) Things you normally keep in the house anyway. My daily offerings are energy and a bit of time. Once a week I offer more – a candle, incense, some food or drink item (usually a tiny cup of wine.)
If you want to make a bigger event of it, consider adding something a little more fancy. Flowers, a food or drink item it takes time to prepare, fresh herbs. Things that are still mostly part of your routine for the day or week, but that aren’t something you’d do every day or even every month. I like flowers or appropriate baked goods, personally.
If you truly need a big favour, that’s the time to pull out all the stops – maybe a particular meal, designed with intent woven through all of it, dedicating a piece of jewellery to their particular use, or a statue or some other permanent object for a shrine.
(One reason to do this very rarely is that you’re going to need to leave that up/available for them once you’ve given it, and you will quickly end up with a pile of Stuff if you do this regularly.)
Learn about cultural appropriation
Cultural appropriation is a big and important conversation in modern Paganism, and it’s not one I have time or space to go into here. Many of the steps described in this article will help – doing your research, not offering or asking things that are inappropriate for that deity or culture.
In general, I believe that the gods interact with who they choose, but that many of them do have cultural homes and centres. Certainly, when we’re considering approaching them in a particular cultural context, we need to understand that those communities developed – and continue to have – customs, guidelines, and rules about what’s all right, who gets to do certain rituals, or how.
Taking those things out of context is not only a fast road to appropriation. But it can also be dangerous, since those customs and rules also often include key safety information. Physical safety, as well as more esoteric forms.
There are also many practices – including many around deities – which need to be learned from someone who is already a part of a particular culture, and who is willing and able to teach it (and where the person learning it must be properly fit by that culture or community’s standard to learn it.) These aren’t thing you can force or rush.
In general, I like the guideline that it’s okay to go as far into a practice as someone in the culture without additional training, rituals, or preparation would go. Making simple offerings of the kind described here is common in many many cultures, even for young kids. More complex practices, those that require someone to have gone through specific rituals or training or made particular ritual oaths would be different.
Short version: if you want to work with a deity who comes from a current living cultural context in particular, do your work to learn from and in that community respectfully. If you can’t figure out a way to do that, go focus on other parts of your path or other options.
Similarly, be careful you don’t water down a deity’s focus or interests, because some of them might be uncomfortable or challenging for you. Learn about all of the deity, just as you might want to learn about all of a potential romantic partner.
It’s not about good and bad – but it is about building a relationship with the whole being, not just the parts most attractive to you.
How to move forward
These ideas should get you started, but the final step in moving forward is finding communities and resources so that it’s not just you and your head figuring this out.
Find people online or offline (blogs, conversations, whatever) who either working with the same or similar deities. Or who are building relationships with deities in a way that you feel is appropriate and ethical. (If something makes you feel weird, sit with it and figure out at least some of why, before you do stuff they’re doing.) Having a variety of other people to talk to about this stuff helps us build better practices than if we work in isolation.
Find books, if you can, and other more in-depth sources of information. Don’t just focus on specific deities and ritual, but about the community that honoured them historically.
Explore foods from that culture, as well as myths, art, and material culture (how people lived and what their lives were like.) All of that will help deepen your understanding of where that deity comes from, and give you more solid roots for building a current relationship.
If you feel like you’re getting strong pushes or pulls toward a particular deity, know that you can and should set boundaries. Be clear if you need to be: “It’s really distracting when I feel these things during my work day. I’m going to set aside time twice a week for meditation if there are thing you want me to understand.” is an entirely valid and possible thing to do. (remember, you are probably not a full time priest or priestess of a given deity, even if they’re very important in your life.)
A deity who loves you and wants you to be happy will understand you need to do other things, in my experience and the experience of others. If they don’t care about your well-being, you can take the time-honoured approach of going a different direction. Do it politely, without adding insults, but set your boundaries.. Take things as slow as you need to. (Deities generally have tons of time. You don’t need to solve this stuff tomorrow – or even this year, usually.)
Beyond that, the road is going to be personal – no one else can decide what you’re comfortable doing, or how you do it. Focus on how to build something you can sustain long-term, and that you want to sustain long-term, and go from there.
Added December 2020.