This is part of the Pagan Experience 2016 prompts. Each month brings a new prompt with options for alphabetical weekly prompts tied to the monthly topic. For this blog, I’ll be doing a monthly post on the associated topic.
Ava Laetha (who is described here) appears to me at times covered in blood. At times she glows with a shimmering divine light, and still at other times she appears as a sharp-tongued, observant god masquerading as a child. She is most childlike when covered in blood: bossy, temperamental, vacillating between affection and enmity. Glowing in divine light she is a vision of eternity and hope.
During Reunion, however, I see her most as the small-figured god without trappings of death or overpowering divinity.
“Anne Blake,” she greets. I frown around ethereal pastries stuffed in my mouth, the sounds of the cafe out of place for when I usually meet the Laetha as Ava. Cafes are part of Reunion for me, though.
“Llewellyn,” I correct. “I’m a Llewellyn.”
She ignores my comment and sits across from me. Her Companion – the winged giant Erann – stands beside us, not taking a seat of his own. I don’t look at him. I keep my focus on Ava. She is not the type to simply visit.
“I have a task for you,” she says. She manifests a teapot and cup, snapping sugar into existence with her fingers and busying herself with the preparation of it.
Erann shoos away the barista who approaches us.
“I want you to take the new recruits on their Trial.” Ava sips her tea, and through the steam her pale, pale eyes meet mine. Her lips curl up. “Up to our Northern Neighbors.”
The ‘Northern Neighbors’ is slang, a phrase tossed around by Ava and myself and, daringly, in my own stories. They aren’t relevant to anyone besides myself, I suspect. But they are how I came to know Ava and how I came to cement her as my Antagonist.
Antagonism is a theoretical structure for god-human relationships within the Otherfaith. The Antagonist god disrupts the Other Person’s religious and spiritual life in some way. This includes mockery and criticism of a Person, tampering with one’s spirit body and energies, thwarting magic or magical-spiritual practices, or throwing difficult obstacles into a Person’s life. Antagonist gods have spirits at their call or command whom may also join the god in harassing an individual.
Antagonist gods are not universal among the People; Ava Laetha is my Antagonist, but she is not necessarily the Antagonist to another practitioner or devotee.
At first blush, Antagonism may seem entirely negative. We are being harassed by a god and their spirits, and they poke at our soft spots with glee and/or ease. For a long time, I could only describe my relationship with Ava as ‘awful’. She hated me and didn’t hesitate to point out how little she thought of me. She seemed to go out of her way to cause problems.
Problems that conveniently resulted in learning new skills, adapting a weakness to a strength, or a breakthrough in my practice.
That is the crux of Antagonism, beyond the frustration: growth through ordeal. Its opposite is the Beneficent: growth through aid. Both of these relationships are entered into through deals we make or reject with the gods.
Ava became my Antagonist shortly after she burned the Northern Neighbors entire land to ash. I had prayed to the Laetha, begging for them to bring absolute ruin. I’d barely known Ava then. She was just the shimmering golden child who was crowned and enthroned among the Laethas. It was a personal plea. The story of Ava burning down the ‘Northern Neighbors’ is personal, something I don’t consider ‘canon’ in any sense. It’s an in-joke between Ava and myself.
But when she came back from the North, dripping in blood as if she’d stepped out of a shower, it damn well didn’t seem funny.
“Blake,” she called to me. I’d been brought to the border of the West and the North by the Firebird. He was hovering over my shoulder, his head bent down and his beak touching my shoulder. Ava laughed joyously. I could see smoke streaming from the mountains behind her, mountains I had once known almost-well.
“I burnt everything down!” Ava told me excitedly. “Even the Firebird helped. The mountains are burning from inside!” She was practically screaming with glee.
There hasn’t been a moment I regretted praying to my god for it.
Ava wasn’t content just delivering the news. She had twirled and then held out her sticky hand. Her smile was full of too many teeth. I knew there was more than blood on her. I knew she was bigger and scarier than I could see.
“I can give you this power,” she offered. “I’ll teach you how to burn like I do without ever going out. All I want from you is worship.” Her grin split her face open. “Devotion. Piety. Absolute adoration. I’m a god, after all!”
With the Firebird’s feathers and heat against my back, I refused her.
Ava changed immediately. She became smaller and sharper.
“Excuse me?” she snapped.
“No thanks,” I repeated.
“Oh, is that so,” she said through her nose. “I’m a god; you can’t say no.”
And then I made one of the poorer decisions of my life and spat out, “Watch me.”
The catch was I couldn’t have made the deal with the Laetha Ava anyway. I already made a deal, years earlier, with another god. I’d signed away my soul to the god that accompanied me that day: the Laethic Firebird.
“Technically, they’re the same god,” I argue with myself. “Then again,” I tell myself, “they’re not the same god.”
the Firebird had come to me when I was still a teenager and proposed the deal that truly gave form to the Otherfaith. I didn’t realize at the time what sort of relationship I was setting up with him. ‘Signing away my soul’ isn’t quite accurate. It wasn’t nearly so severe. But I was from then-on intertwined with the fiery Laethic bird.
That day, as our goals and desires aligned, as I agreed to serve him and his divine family, he became the Beneficent in my spiritual life.
I didn’t have a word for either relationship at the beginning. ‘Antagonist’ and ‘Beneficent’ are possibilities. They fit perfectly with how I interact with Ava and the Firebird, and it may be that they work for the rest of the Otherfaith. (I’m acting as-if they will for the moment.)
The Beneficent relationship between god and human is rooted in the god’s cultivation of their devotee. They assist and guide the human under their care, creating situations for the Person to learn and grow. They teach spiritual techniques and skills.
Which isn’t to say that the relationship is always positive or even enjoyable. I’ve argued with the Firebird and rebelled against his advice. The best way to describe the relationship is as father-son. There were times when I trusted him entirely.
And there were times when I felt utterly betrayed, like when I found out about the other Laethas. There were so many. They all had personalities and goals and opinions on who and how I should be.
A Beneficent isn’t meant to be an endless font of praise. They give us challenges, just like our Antagonist. The Beneficent doesn’t try to stymie our efforts however. They give us, in essence, ‘homework’. They guide us along the path we desire to go on, the one we agreed to when making the deal with them.
With the Firebird and I, the deal was that he and his kin would help me create a religion if I worshiped them. A rather simple deal when it was said and done. So when I say I sold my soul or my life, it is in a joking way. I did give part of my life to them, but it was part I wanted to give. I didn’t know what that all entailed or how hard the work would be. There are days where I’m frustrated.
The deal was completely worth it, though.
The Firebird and I still don’t get on better than any father (him) toward a misbehaving son (me). When he advises me now, though, I listen. His presence is like a warm fire. He is a giant flaming bird and frightening plenty of the time, but for me he will always be like a hearth fire. He’s the oven and the stove, the fireplace I crave to have, and the small fire built when out camping. His heat flows through me, both through intent and happenstance. His lessons are mine to live and learn and often to fail at.
Each of the Laethas has their own specific domain. Alaria’s is warfare and combat. Asier’s is prosthetic and medical technology. Arabella’s is virtual reality. Aletheia preside over robotics. Arrise and Azure preside over spaceships and the like (as well as giant robots). Artois is a god of dissent, embodying it in a very real way for the Laethas. Alma is healing and medicine. Ava is presides over the throne and, in essence, cruelty.
The Laethic Firebird is all about immolation and apotheosis. I don’t view my practice as incorporating apotheosis anymore, though having read quite a lot about it within magical practices it did influence me. Instead, what the Firebird guides me toward is a constantly shifting self. Unlike the shapeshifting of the Dierne, which relies on such a strong sense of selfhood that it persists through the shapeshifting, transformation for the Laetha (and the Ophelia, who also has a large roll in my spiritual life) is about many selves. My selfhood and identity is always a little bit at risk when I engage in the spiritual-magical aspects of the Otherfaith.
Trusting the Firebird – that he will bring me back to my self even if I’ve undergone significant, devastating changes and experienced many different ways of being – is something I learned and what solidifies our relationship. I trust Ava to teach me lessons, but I also trust that she’d toss me aside if I was too frustrating. The Firebird sticks with me even when I obviously cause him irritation. He agreed to do so, just like I agreed to worship him.
“Taking the recruits to the North is a good idea,” he tells me when I visit him in his nest. His nest is more of a mountain, a huge crevice in the face of it full of orange-leaved trees and crackling branches underfoot. His giant eyes look up at me, his head lowered to my face. “You need to do it.”
“Ava was right to ask you. You’re old enough now.” He gathers himself back up, and his neck arches into the blue sky. Like this, he seems especially regal.
“I am old enough, aren’t I?” I muse.
“Go then,” he says, jerking his head. “You’ll be starting soon.”
A few years ago I went on my own Trial, an event every Nix initiate and spirit experiences. Originally, I thought every Trial was the same for everyone. But I learned better. They are essentially tests of will. You delve into your own mind and swim in your nightmares. You stay there. And then you see if you come back, and if you come back what you carry with you.
“Everyone has to lead it eventually,” Ava tells me. “I hope you enjoy it,” she chirps, all saccharine.
She knows I won’t, but I know it doesn’t matter. I don’t snip at her. Time passes. My positions change. Every experience, pleasant or painful, allows me to learn new things.
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