Aztec gods. Art by Mostro.
In 2012 I began a journey across the Americas on a bicycle. I had several reasons for going: to become a writer, to fulfill a lifelong dream, and to learn something about heroism and adventure. But if I had one goal, one purpose for the whole trip, it was to meet the gods.
I’ve now covered 2,000 miles, and in that time I’ve said almost nothing about meeting the gods. That’s not because I’ve given up, it’s because the gods are elusive. I’ve sought them for two years and for two years I haven’t met them—not even a glimpse.
But I believe I have learned a few basic truths about what we call gods, and today I’m breaking my silence.
What Does It Mean to Meet the Gods?
When I began training in Vodou, one of the many phenomena I got to witness was possession. Possession is the central event of most Vodou ceremonies, as common in the temple as taking Communion is at church. Possession is a chance for the lwa, the spirits, to speak and move through a person and deliver messages to the people at the ceremony. It’s also a chance for all of us there to have direct contact with the divine. While the person being possessed may seem to be at the center of attention, they rarely remember anything that happens. They lose themselves in the moment and allow the spirit to come through for our sake. It is the community, not the person possessed, who benefits.
These possessions are poignant. Before I left New Orleans to bicycle to Texas, we held a ceremony for Papa Legba. Papa Legba is an old man who sits at the crossroads between the worlds. He walks slowly, with a limp, because he has supported his human children for so long. Now he leans on a cane, but he is still strong, and he will never leave our side.
During the ceremony Papa possessed one of our priests. He—Papa Legba, not the priest, who was for all intents and purposes checked out—lit a cigar. Cigars are common offerings in Vodou. Papa sat on his chair, like he does, and puffed. We kept dancing (Vodou ceremonies are mostly dancing, which makes them way more fun than other kinds of services). But as I passed by him, Papa stopped me.
He looked in my eyes, took a long draw of the cigar, and blew smoke on both my feet. Before I could thank him or ask him any questions, he gave me a firm push back toward the dancing. Papa doesn’t coddle.
Art by Brocoli.
Despite the gruffness of the act, there was no way I could miss its significance. I was about to set off for a 700-mile ride, not knowing where I would sleep or exactly what route I would take. And on practically the eve of my departure, this spirit—who had never talked to me at any other ceremony for him—blessed both my feet. The feet that would power me the whole way.
Or at least, that’s one way to read it. I think this is where many people would declare they have spoken to the divine, or that the divine spoke to them. Certainly I was overcome with a sense of awe. Being in the presence of the possessed, and having them single you out and touch you, is intense. In that moment, the priest looked and acted nothing like the man I know. He was Papa Legba.
But this is where I ask questions. It wasn’t the first spiritual experience I’ve had. When I pray, I get sense of a presence, a sense of guidance. That is “meeting the gods,” but I never took it on faith. And when I go into trance during meditation, I have vivid inner experiences, visions if you wish to call them that. I meet and talk to the gods there too, but I never took it on faith. Why would possession be any different?
I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting fraud. There is no denying that a tremendous psychological transformation overcomes those who are possessed. I believe fully that this priest was unconscious of what was happening, that his actions as Legba were out of his conscious control. But did a divine agent move through him? Or did this personality come entirely from his own unconscious mind?
Some people might answer, what does it matter? But let’s not let it go so easily. This is a really important difference, one that has a huge impact on what religion means: if a supernatural, independent being named Papa Legba moved through my friend, that means we are not alone; it means there is far more to the universe than we can see empirically; it means that maybe prayers can be answered, maybe faith has a power greater than the atom bomb.
And if Papa Legba is simply a state of mind, not a spirit at all, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that religion is pointless, or that Vodou is canceled. The experiences are just as vivid. Even if I knew for a fact that it was all in our heads, I would still want to dance at the temple and Papa’s blessing would still make me soar. But some things would be different: I wouldn’t expect prayers to be answered. The human brain can’t stop hurricanes, or heal cancer with a word, or protect Rogue Priests on bicycles from speeding trucks. That’s the provenance of spirit beings. So if those beings don’t exist, it makes a real difference.
You’re starting to see the problem. I can’t just declare I’ve met the gods whenever I get a vivid spiritual experience. I haven’t seen anything yet that couldn’t be explained by psychology alone. So I can’t be sure whether the gods are spirits, or in our heads.
I wasn’t always so cautious. I used to be really sure the gods are real. I was “sure” because I had felt them myself. I felt their presence when I made offerings.
But that sureness was a mistake.
More and more, I’ve come to feel that the greatest sin a religious person can commit is to act as if they know the answer. We don’t know anything about the gods. All we have are experiences—highly subjective personal experiences. A lot of those experiences don’t even look alike. So when no two religious experiences are the same, what does that mean? It could mean the divine is a big ol’ mess of noodles. Or it could just mean we’re all imagining things.
There are some safe conclusions you can draw from a spiritual experience. You can say, “I know spirituality is meaningful to me.” Or you can say, “I know that I have powerful experiences, and I know I’d like to keep having them.” That’s fair. But I used to go a step further. I used to say I knew the gods were real. And I was wrong. No one knows that.
This realization isn’t something that set in during my Journey. To the contrary, I started to realize this before my Journey even began. In fact, if I hadn’t admitted this uncertainty to myself there might be no Journey at all—I’d still be sitting at home saying I knew everything, instead of out in the world looking for answers.
So when I started out I had no road map. I really have no idea what it would mean to “meet the gods” (that’s part of why I rarely bring it up; how would I explain it to anyone?). I suppose it would be a good sign if I saw something that non-gods can’t do, like if that possessed priest had lifted right up in the air and levitated. But really, if I saw something like that I’d just worry I was schizophrenic.
So maybe I hope I’ll find the entrance to the other world, or that I’ll get some cosmic revelation. Or maybe I just hope to get some peace on the issue, to decide once and for all that the gods aren’t real or that it’s something we can’t know. But how heroic is that?
I plan to keep questioning and questioning, and experimenting and experimenting, until I have some kind of breakthrough. I can’t imagine what it would take, but one way or another I want an answer: are there gods or aren’t there? And if there are, I’m going to need to see them.
Goddess of the moon & queen of the stars. Art by Mostro.
I have had some revelations along the way. While I haven’t met the gods, I’ve learned a few things that seem important to tracking them down.
The first thing I learned is that even the religions you don’t like have an awful lot of good people in them. We can all find a religion we just don’t like. Even if you’re the most open minded person in the world you’ve probably made fun of some fringe sect or another. But for me, for a long time it was Christianity.
Many polytheists have hard feelings toward Christianity, and I won’t go into more detail than that. Suffice it to say that in the past my feelings toward Christianity have ranged from uncomfortable to hostile. I was aware that lots of individual Christians are good people, but that didn’t offset the problems I had with Christianity as an institution.
A few things changed this. For one, a brave friend explicitly told me I was bigoted. It didn’t even sting when she told me that, because the second the word left her mouth I felt it. She was right. The breath kind of went out of me, and I stopped whatever I was saying, and had to reflect on it for a long time.
Then, as I bicycled down the Mississippi, I had some extraordinarily warm experiences with Christians. It’s hard to be so judgmental when you’re personally on the receiving end of the generosity, kindness and love that Christians are taught to practice. Not all my interactions were this warm—sometimes the kindness came with a conversion hook, which ruined it, and once I was even turned away by a monastery. But in the experiences that were positive, I could see that Christianity done properly really does improve the world.
(I continue to have reservations because even the most warm, friendly Christian churches support missionary work that undermines other beautiful religions. The difference is that I’m better able to separate these two issues.)
And the last thing that helped open me up was Vodou. Despite many claims to the contrary, Vodou is not a branch of Catholicism. But the first year I formally practiced Vodou was also the last year I could say, “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” Christmas, Easter, and other bits of Christianity have been absorbed into Vodou and they’re there to stay. They may be primarily window dressings on a pre-Christian faith, but those dressings have forced me to confront my relationship with Christianity. Vodou, that ever-changing gumbo of a religion, has made me accept new flavors I never meant to try.
All of this has informed my view of polytheism generally. To many practitioners, polytheism just means “believing in many gods.” But it’s more than that. Historically, polytheism not only had multiple gods; it had multiple doctrines and clergy and belief systems. It is a truly pluralistic system in which there is a belief for everyone—in which you decide for yourself what you believe. That is polytheism’s great strength.
In such a view, there is no room for bigotry. Yes, we should discourage aggressive proselytizing, and we should fight forced conversion wherever it’s practiced. But when we embark ourselves on polytheism, we cannot close the door on anyone.
2. Amazing Things are Possible
My sister is also on a spiritual journey. In her case, she decided to commit herself to a Buddhist monastery. She has been there for five years now and, other than a few weeks one summer, we haven’t seen her since she went in.
I respect my sister’s path, but mine has always been in-the-world. I’m not interested in a spirituality that locks me away, that separates me from the love and the shit and the joys and the pain. So although I perform intensive spiritual practices, I balance them against a career, an art form, drinking, napping, and dating.
It’s not always easy. I think most of us are in a constant crisis of self worth. Why aren’t I a famous writer yet? What did I do wrong in that relationship? What if I lose all my clients? Is this journey a bad idea? Will I get hurt? And even if I make it, will I one day think this was all a waste of time?
Really, none of us are sure what we should be doing, or whether we’re doing it right. And we make that problem a lot worse by constantly doubting ourselves. We measure ourselves against others. We have so many wishes and regrets that we can’t even see what we really need to be happy.
When I underwent my Vodou initiation, I got to experience a life without that self-doubt. For a week after the ceremony my patron spirit stayed in my head. During that time I never second guessed myself. I was more charming and charismatic than I normally am. I moved with a grace I don’t normally possess. And most importantly, I understood what others really wanted or needed, even if they had a hard time saying it. It was all because I turned off the doubt.
Eventually the presence of that spirit passed and, with it, that glorious freedom from self-worth. Sometimes the spirit comes back into me, when I really need it. And sometimes, if I quiet myself, I can conjure a little of that mind state on my own.
But the weight of that experience is much more than whether it makes my days easier. It proved to me that we are capable of this change. The promises of mystic texts are not untrue. You really can transcend doubt and fear, you really reach a state that is almost superhuman in its grace. That switch was already in me, and my initiation proved to me that I could flip it. I believe we all have that capability.
We all can do amazing things.
Art by Brocoli.
3. We Carry the Gods With Us
Despite all my questions and doubting up above, I’m not in a crisis of faith about the gods. Oh, it’s true, I don’t have much faith. But the third and final thing my journey has taught me is how little that matters.
Earlier in this article, I asked whether the gods are “real” or if we’re “imagining things.” But I don’t truly think those are the right words. We know the gods are real: they are real experiences people have everyday. Whether they are real subjectively, and come from our psyche, or objectively as independent beings, the thing we call “gods” is a real force that humans live with.
As I came to understand that, it took away the terror of losing these deities. Once, the idea that the gods weren’t “real” was like a personal affront to me. I actually felt angry when other polytheists entertained this idea. Like they had betrayed our gods.
But if the gods are purely psychological—which they might be—that doesn’t make them meaningless. Lots of things are in our heads: love, memories, warm feelings of friendship. The brain creates those things. We wouldn’t say they don’t matter.
Whether atheists like it or not, our species has carried the gods for the entirety of our existence. They may not be out there, but they are certainly in here, in our heads, where it counts. We find them when we perform ceremony, whatever they are; and their guidance is useful to us, wherever it may come from. Psychological gods can’t perform miracles, but they can do almost everything else.
Despite my skepticism, I’m not 100% sure there are no objectively real gods. But thanks to my Journey, I am completely certain there are subjectively real ones, and they are powerful. We carry our gods with us, wherever we go, passed from generation to generation; and when one generation forgets them the next one finds them again, by different names perhaps, but finds them every time.
The Journey Continues
I may not have found the gods yet, but I have found their tracks. I know they are inside us, and I know that contact with them can be life altering. My hope is to deepen my search by practicing more spiritual traditions hands-on as I continue on my way, and to broaden it by speaking more openly to people about their beliefs wherever I go.
Most of all I hope to reach deeper into myself, to continue working toward that state of no self doubt, of being totally at home with who I am. And I hope to share this journey with others.
What are your doubts and questions about the gods? Sometimes the journey seems hard to me, like I’ve picked up a weight I don’t need to carry. Does a spiritual search like this ever have a meaningful conclusion, or does it just lead to more questions?
It’s possible that with my skepticism, no experience will ever prove to me that I’ve met the gods. But I hold out hope that eventually I’ll get an answer. Please leave a comment and let me know: what do you think it means to meet the gods?