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Other People's Gods



Retail time is different than any other time. For many years, I worked in an indie bookstore and we were always trying to keep a little bit ahead of any "season", for sales purposes.  We weren't nearly as ruthless and fanatical as national retail chains who have the kind of strict retail cycle that actually puts swimwear on sale at the exact time you need it but has none to offer if you are going on a sunny vacation in January.

Now is the time when all the summer gear is remaindered and gives place to back-to-school and autumnal needs.  It has been Halloweeny here for a couple of weeks already but the massive bags of nasty candy haven't quite made their annual visitation as of yet.

All the "luau" themed party gear is thrown into bins by the door and I ponder them in wonder. I spent time last year thinking about what they mean but it took this summer's visit to the Museum of Natural History in NYC to bring it all home. There I stood before one of the moai and thought deeply about whether I should photograph it. I circled the case with shrunken heads in a wary manner, wondering about the energy I sensed there.  Was it the repulsed fear of so many gawking visitors?  Or was it something else--an aftershock of history and culture that bounced weakly off the plexiglass case?

You will be unsurprised to learn that I circled it widdershins, primitive that I am. And I muttered under my breath, sending garbled prayers to my native Divines.

I am a hard polytheist, the kind of person who feeds land spirits and Ancestors, who knows the Divines to be non-corporeal beings with whom I interact on several levels.  That's a hard one for some of my liberal and kind interfaith associates to understand sometimes.  Many of them have a less defined concept of the Divine than you might think and I have had several surprising moments over the years in which colleagues looked at me blankly when I explained what polytheism really is.  Many of them are barely theists anymore.

They often look faintly scandalized, as though I had transformed into something terribly primitive and slightly suspect. I am sometimes amused that I have more in common spiritually with snake-handling Pentecostals than I do with my beloved UU friends.

So I stand among the summer detritus--now 70% off!--and I wonder what it means to invite these powerful tiki figures to your summer barbecue. To place cups and plates and candle holders bearing their images on a wide table filled with food. What do we know of them?  Will they be enticed to the table by the smell of grilled meat?  Will the rum in our Cuba Libres appeal to their noses and bring them flocking to the cool mountains of western North Carolina?

This year--for the first time--I saw "tiki" torches that bore "tiki" faces on them. Roasted flesh, alcohol, fire and the sacred smoke of offering and sacrifice--what do so many people call to their backyards, unknowing?

That's only one example, of course. What of the souvenirs brought back from vacations? I acquire plenty of sacred statuary at the Goodwill, where neighbors have gotten a statue of Athena from a relative who visited Greece.  And what of those lapis-painted rams heads that now hold the corners of my Inanna altar?  Were they given to someone who raised sheep or to a Capricorn as a freaky birthday present?

I wonder if those good Protestant folk ever think what it means to bring someone else's gods into their house. Perhaps it is simply an kitschy gift from a pal--easily discarded when tastes and relationships change. Perhaps it is a museum replica and then has a different value, as a work of art.

Which brings me back to the remaindered Polynesian gods at the discount store, soon to be replaced in their bins with lopsided Santas and green-faced Hags.  In an effort to be fabulous and seasonal, we set a table before Them, make offering to Them but never speak Their Names. What must They think of our weak efforts at worship--that we were not well-trained or are simply foreigners to Their ways?

I wonder how many simply wait around, pleased at last to be remembered, curious about our pale faces and the lack of praise-songs, longing for the good old days.

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H. Byron Ballard is a ritualist, teacher, speaker and writer. She has taught at Sacred Space Conference, Pagan Unity Festival, Southeast Her essays are featured in several anthologies, including “Birthed from Scorched Hearts“ (Fulcrum Press), “Christmas Presence“ (Catawba Press), “Women’s Voices in Magic” (Megalithica Books), “Into the Great Below” and “Skalded Apples” (both from Asphodel Press.) Her book Staubs and Ditchwater: an Introduction to Hillfolks Hoodoo (Silver Rings Press) debuted in June 2012. Byron is currently at work on Earth Works: Eight Ceremonies for a Changing Planet. Contact her at,


  • Emily Mills
    Emily Mills Tuesday, 14 August 2012

    I've often thought about this subject in terms of museums, but never thought about the Tiki connection. There's an art museum near us that has some amazing religious artifacts from many time periods and many parts of the world. From some of these objects I get the sense that they resist being photographed, while others have a magnetic pull and I have to use my camera. It's not the beauty of the object deciding if I snap the picture, but an energy around it. I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking along these lines!

  • Brian Shea
    Brian Shea Wednesday, 05 September 2012

    I wonder if it's the same with leprechauns on St. Patties day?

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