Last Friday, I started a novena for the first time. I had heard of them being done in contemporary polytheistic practice as a way of bracketing periods of increased devotion for specific Gods, and I had seen this mostly done by polytheists who were formerly Catholic. I have no connection to that frame of mind. As mentioned when I started discussing my Q1 2023 personal goals, I see this primarily as a way to supplement the devotional practice I already have, which I am very satisfied with — I like praying to Apollon and Eir together, and I like my household practice, and I like all of it the more and more I get into the rhythm I’m in.
I wasn’t honestly sure how fancy this was supposed to be because I’ve never done it before. The symbolism of “nine” is interesting, though, due to the Pythagorean number associations — the ennead “turns from the natural end to the beginning” and “is called ‘concord’ and ‘limitation,’ and also ‘sun,’ in the sense that it gathers things together” (Theology of Arithmetic, trans. Waterfield, 105 and 106) and the final fulfillment before counting restarts at the decad in our base-10 system. It is associated with many Gods, but what strikes me the most about the Theology of Arithmetic is its connection to Terpsikhore and the symbol of a revolution in a dance coming to its end/beginning. So, while I do not possess the cultural background to really have any strong emotional feeling about a “novena,” I prayed to Nantosuelta at my shrine in the evening for nine nights, and it did have some symbolic associations.
To prepare, I found a few prayers for her online, along with some vibe mood boards. There aren’t very many prayers out there for her, so the options were limited. I pulled what I found into a Notion board, and for the first three nights, I used the prayers that I found (two in English, one in French) during the prayer. I read them aloud and then talked aloud, in the presence of the Goddess, about what I thought each of the prayer creators was getting at and how the prayer expressed a connection to her. This poetic critique had a concrete goal in mind, as on the third night, I composed a series of hymns for Nantosuelta that drew from what I know about the Goddess and from impressions I had been having of her during the prayer cycle.
From a practical reporting-out angle, I used apple juice for the libation, and I offered frankincense. Every night, I started with a prayer from prayer beads. I decided to sing the bead prayer instead of simply to recite it. This is uncommon in my ritual practice — the only singing I usually do is a few verses for Artemis (this one, with a modified melody) and a song I wrote for Apollon when I was much younger. Singing has come up in several contexts over the past few months, and we are all definitely influenced by the people we keep company with — that’s likely why I made this change (see note). I started with a prayer to the household Gods, offered Nantosuelta the incense, offered the bead-song, poured out a libation, and offered another prayer. Following the closure of the novena prayers, I prayed to the Muses, whom I’ve been praying to in the evenings ever since deciding to memorize Proclus’ hymn to them late last year. Somehow I’ve never stopped. I think it’s because I really love that feeling of intimate closeness in that space of restfulness after saying the prayer, as if one’s soul is wrapped in a cozy blanket.
In the evenings, I usually do pranayama or 5-20 minutes of meditation before or after praying, depending on what time it is and when I judge that I have to be in bed. This is briefer on the weekends when my girlfriend is here because we usually only see each other on the weekends. It has usually been an after-prayer thing so I can rest in my breath and in that coziness, but over the past nine days, I did it before the novena because I sensed that I needed to do a longer wind-down. It was probably due to how busy with books and conversation I was in the earlier part of the week and how the start of the semester midweek impacted my focus.
I really enjoyed doing this, and I liked how it facilitates engaging more deeply with a deity within a bound amount of time. It’ll be fun to do this again next month. I’ll close out with one of the prayers I wrote for Nantosuelta (the others are coming in a separate post — this one is here because it’s not generic enough):
Nantosuelta, what survives from the past:
the house upon the pole, the hand clutching a sphere.
Some say the house holds birds, your companions.
Some say it is our house, hearth and place uprooted.
Some say your name leads us down winding rivers
as turbulent and rocky as scholarly references.
We had a house on the floodplain — anything grew
effortless, a paradise if we discount tornados,
the sediment-rich, brown floods that threatened us,
the way that cherry tomatoes tasted like earth.
Giver of abundance, nourisher, is the floodplain yours?
Would your skin smell ripe as the Mississippi?
If so, you must know the double edge of compassion:
the one that cuts and cauterizes our bad habits,
the other that welcomes us into a warm embrace,
the one that nurses us, the other that weans us.
Goddess, you must be the source of limitless joy,
bound by the limit of place, of possibility,
and the hard lessons we each need to learn.
Nantosuelta, as I look forward, the past passing,
may I come to know your guiding embrace.
Note: I have a lot of ambivalence about my singing voice. My range is soprano. I participated in community chanting after ritual as a kid/teen, and I really love chanting with others. When I was in my teens, I participated in a choir that did a summer enrichment music thing, and I was active in chorus for high school and my first year of college. I kept getting weird sore throats — probably dust mite allergy stuff — that first year in college, and I was having a bad bout of that during audition week at the end of my first year and was also worried about the time commitment, so I stopped. In high school, during music contest, I once got a II (out of V, with I being the highest score) for vocal contest, and I was briefly in voice lessons. It was hard, though, because my dad told me that my voice was shrill and awful and singing gave him migraines, and I wasn’t allowed to practice at home and always felt ashamed during lessons because I knew it was literally my only time to work on things. My dad didn’t say this about my flute practice. Midway through college, when I was studying abroad at 20, I’d sometimes sing along to music in my room (yes, I wore headphones). In the campus flat, one of the students would get very drunk and self-harm with knives, and after a month or two, I learned that I was responsible for it because she’d hear me singing through the walls and it would send her into a fit of self-loathing rage — her voice had dropped from soprano to tenor-range in her early 20s, and she’d had to leave theater itself for studying theater. Singing alone was a hard habit to break, and I struggled to not do it. I always felt guilty when I slipped up because it showed so much negligence and lack of consideration for others. One time, she disappeared for 24 hours, and we actually alerted campus authorities because we thought she’d done something to herself. I kept thinking, What if she’s dead and I am responsible? My voice isn’t even that good! What am I, a f—ing siren? In my 20s, we sometimes sang from the UU songbook when attending services at the local UU, but the key chosen for most of the pieces meant that I had to sing half of the piece 8va and drop down once the notes exceeded the top half of my range (my range is the B immediately below middle C to the A above the treble staff unless I’m sick). And more and more, it embarrassed me that I had do that because it sounded so bad, so I’d just stand and not sing at all. I do miss singing in groups like I did in my teens sometimes, and I really dislike that I have that desire — I worry that it’s related to wanting approval from others, and philotimia is a something that I am very focused on mitigating. Recently, though, I’ve decided that nobody is harmed if I’m singing alone in my apartment out of earshot of anyone else, and it’s actually enjoyable and nice. I feel less self-conscious about chanting, which is probably why it has a bigger place in my devotional practice. Time heals, and I’m happy that I’m now building better song-based experiences into my practice. As Proclus says, our efforts should be directed at hymning the Gods.