An Underworld Focus

At this time of year, I pay a lot of attention to one part of my Focus*.

As altar-y spaces go, it is unquestionably the “witchiest” part of mine: bones, skulls, fossils of extinct species, a mummified bat, images of prehistoric cave paintings, megalithic spiral carvings and departed loved ones, a dried pomegranate. It is where I keep the black jar of rose water with which I have anointed several dead people, and the tiny jar of cedar oil, veteran of so many Hallows rituals, whose scent reminds me of the inside of a coffin.

It is The Underworld.

My Focus is built in a bookcase, with one shelf removed to make a double-height space. This area is The World, filled with all the symbols and reminders of what delights and moves me about life on Earth.

But on the shelf below The World is The Underworld, the place of grief, and memory, and ancestry.

This space is important to me because life is not all joy. It is loss and fear and the inevitable fact of mortality as well. Memory of what has forever gone away. And this, too, must be remembered and honored and reckoned with. And so I curate and care for this grim part of my Focus, and urge you, too, to create one on such themes, at least at this time of year: the time of Hallows.

Making an Underworld Focus is simple in concept but may be emotionally challenging. Gathering the images of your Honored Dead can be an experience of great sadness…or it can be one of fond remembrance. It depends on you.

Do you, like so many Pagans, have skulls or bones or Halloween decorations that set the proper mood? Gather those. Put down a black cloth as a base upon which to create your Focus. Arrange the objects and the pictures of your Honored Dead. Include a candle so you can “activate” your Focus when it is complete, and so it will be illuminated at night when you light it. You may want a small dish or incense burner so you can burn some incense there: perhaps the evocative, mood-altering resin incenses such as dragon’s blood or frankincense.

I keep some ritual tools in my Underworld, as well: a clamp and surgical scissors that were found in my mother’s apartment when she died (she was an RN), and a sprig of yew I gather in a cemetery each Halloween, dry for a year on the Focus, and then use to light the Hallows fire the following year.

You may wish to place an empty plate and/or drinking vessel on your Focus: symbol of the “empty place setting” that is often set for those who have died at Hallows feasts. You can make offerings on this plate: pomegranates are popular, or perhaps a red rose (fresh or dried).

When I light the candle on my Underworld Focus each night, I say the words, “The Honored Dead” (just as I say “The Sacred Earth” when I light the candle on The World Focus). This reminds me that I am of a lineage of organisms far beyond my mere nearby genetic neighbors and extending back billions of years. My Honored Dead are not only relatives and departed friends: they are ammonites and trilobites and bacteria.

Here, at this time of year when Pagans of all stripes contemplate mortality and ancestry, an Underworld Focus is a way to begin a practice of coming to grips with the fact that we will die, that all that arise from the Earth are subsumed within its Sacred fabric again, to be reconstituted as new life.


*An Atheopagan term for an altar, used as an alternative so as not to imply worship or sacrifice.

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Noble Ancestors

We have our real ancestors–blood relations, going all the way back to single-celled organisms if we go back far enough. 

But there are also those now dead whom we admire for their exemplary qualities: their courage, their intelligence, their wisdom. While they won’t have followed an Atheopagan path (as we’re just getting started), they still loom large in our memories.

I think of these “Noble Ancestors” as the equivalent of Atheopagan “saints”: they were once real people, and they exemplify various qualities we admire. In fact, I have been known to refer to “Saint Carl (Sagan)”, “Saint Galileo”, “Saint Nelson (Mandela)”, “Saint Stephen (Hawking)”, “Saint Charles (Darwin)” etc., with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but serious about the respect I feel for these historical figures.

Of course, who these figures are varies from person to person. We are certainly not going to have an Atheopagan pantheon of “saints”–you have to choose your own, if you so choose! But I know of a number of Atheopagans who honor such figures on their Focuses, and contemplate their examples as a part of their practices.

Reflecting on these “saints” helps us to understand: we CAN live exemplary lives. We can be brave, and kind, and honest, and curious, and joyous, and critically thinking, and committed to the truth. These extraordinary humans were, nonetheless, just human. Their examples reveal the extent of the possible, and illumine the way forward to a better world.

So think about it. If this concept resonates for you, consider putting an image of your Noble Ancestor(s) on your Focus. In fact, you can even buy Saints of Science Prayer Candles! (There are several sources for these, so shop around).

Ave Fortuna!

A guest post by Kaigi-Ron


Ave is the principle of gratitude.

Of recognizing, in each moment, how incredibly lucky you are…because it could’ve gone another way.  It could be so very much worse…but, fortunately, it isn’t.

Ave Fortuna!

It all started with the Focus to Fortuna.  In this world ruled by chaos, she rolls the dice.  They cannot be unrolled.  So it goes.

I added miniature decks (both standard playing card and tarot), a pewter ship (the winds of change), plus a full set of D&D dice.

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor…

…and I’m reminded of a passage from Leonard Mladinow’s book The Drunkard’s Walk – all about how we perceive randomness.  Think for a moment about rolling dice.

Is that process truly random?

Can you practice rolling dice and improve your game?

Can external factors “throw you off”?

(answers: yes, no, and no)

But even when I’ve asked my colleagues with science degrees, they often struggle against this illusion:  That external factors can somehow alter randomness.

That you can appeal to Fortuna – kiss her ass, give her what she wants, and she’ll reward you.  Hey, it works on people, so of course it works on Gods, right?

Sometimes the mere illusion of control is enough.  Thus I complete my ritual before my Atheopagan Focus.

Ave Fortuna!