This issue, we sit down for an interview with Anya Kless, the primary author and editor of Lilith: Queen of the Desert. Kless, who blogs at The Fruit of Pain, is also a devotee of Odin and Loki, Here, Kless discusses her introduction to Lilith, why Lilith has such a “bad girl” reputation, and the perils and rewards of being dual trad.
Eternal Haunted Summer: If you could correct one common misconception about modern Paganism, what would it be?
Anya Kless: There’s a stereotype that Pagans live in some kind of alternate fantasy world, that they invent a world of magic and gods to escape from reality. This is not an accurate picture of our community. Most Pagans have 9-to-5 jobs. We vote. We volunteer. We’re farmers and scholars. We can be intellectuals and practice magic at the same time.
EHS: Was your path towards Paganism straightforward or rather roundabout?
AK: I guess I would say that it began straight then zigzagged unexpectedly. My path began during my first week at college. A teacher passed around a small statue of the Venus of Willendorf. As I held her in my palm, something clicked for me. It felt like coming home. I practiced as a solitary for a year before self-initiating and joining a campus coven, which I later led. When I moved to a new city for graduate school, I started a coven with a good friend. We wanted something pared down and organic, back to the basics rather than overly ornamental and dramatic.
In retrospect, I can say that I was allowed to play in the spiritual kiddie pool for several years. I designed rituals, celebrated holidays, practiced spellwork and divination. Then Lilith turned up. She was the first deity with whom I had an intense, intimate relationship. She taught me for several years. Then Odin claimed me. It was a shock. I had come to terms with being a priestess of Lilith and assumed this was my path. Then I learned that while I’d always be Her priestess, my time with Her had been laying the foundation to be His.
EHS: How did you become a devotee and later priestess of Lilith? What is it about Her that drew you, and continues to hold you?
AK: She found me. As I mention in the introduction to the book [Lilith: Queen of the Desert] , I misidentified Her as a few different figures before I figured it out. I felt a presence, and once I knew it was Her, I went to Her in a ritual. The rest was history.
I don’t actually believe all people get to choose their gods, but Lilith is a goddess I would choose for myself. As a woman who came of age as a radical feminist, Lilith and Her stories have a lot of appeal. She’s strong, independent, and wise. She’s a source of both rebellion and justice. She protects the weak and abused. Frankly, She’s a role model for me, besides being my teacher and my boss.
EHS: Lilith has (to put it mildly) a bad reputation, not just among monotheists but also among many modern Pagans. What do you think is the source of that bad reputation? And, if the opportunity arises, how do you address it?
AK: I think people demonize Lilith for different reasons. For monotheists, She threatens patriarchal authority and the proper role of the submissive woman. She’s also been a sexual scapegoat for men’s illicit desires (the countless stories of men having “nocturnal emissions” due to female demon lovers). Pagans (and even secular, progressive Jewish women) embrace Lilith as a symbol of feminist independence and wisdom. They tend to downplay the parts they don’t like: her associations with demons and miscarriages, her role as an anti-fertility goddess, etc. Some pagans also avoid Her because She’s been taken up by modern Satanists. In all instances, it seems to stem from an unwillingness to take Lilith’s dark side with the light. Of course, many Pagans are also reluctant to believe that She’s not just a symbol or an archetype. She’s real, and She can make demands of Her people.
EHS: You recently edited and published Lilith: Queen of the Desert. Did you put out a general call for submissions or did you have particular pieces and contributors in mind? If the call was open, were you surprised by any of the submissions that came in?
AK: I put out an open call for submissions, posted in a cross-section of communities that tend to attract Her people: pagan academics, Sumerian pagans, feminist pagans, pagans involved in BDSM, etc. I did know of a few people who had worked with Lilith in one form or another (Raven Kaldera, Valencia Vaughn, Aiden Fyre) and asked them directly for a piece. They were gracious enough to submit.
I was surprised and gratified by the authenticity of the pieces I received. There were very few that seemed completely off-base. Even if the submission spoke of a side of Lilith I had not experienced personally, I could see Her.
EHS: Where did you find that awesome (and simultaneously unsettling) cover?
AK: The cover was a self-portrait taken by Pagan model and artist Katelan V. Foisy. I had worked with Katelan previously for her self-portrait project They Be We. When She heard about my devotional, She began to work with Lilith herself. That picture, along with several others, was the fruit of that work. When She showed it to me, I immediately asked her permission to use it as the cover. It’s the unsettling — yet inviting — nature of it that seemed so true to what Lilith is.
EHS: What kind of research went into Lilith: Queen of the Desert? Were you surrounded by piles of books? Did you come across any particularly fascinating historical tidbit?
AK: I was surrounded by piles of books! As a former academic, it was a very comfortable place to be. As I note in the introduction, however, one of the messages I received clearly from Lilith was “this is not an academic text.” Many academic texts have been written about her over the years, but none by anyone who actually worked with Her and knew Her in that way. I wanted the text to be both a personal devotional and a starter history for anyone looking for an introduction to how cultures have written about Her. I think I achieved a good balance in the end. In the future, I’m hoping to see more Pagan texts that straddle academic research and personal devotion. These two things are not mutually exclusive.
As for fascinating tidbits, I read a great piece of Jewish folklore about Lilith in Schwartz’s Lilith’s Cave. In this collection, he includes a tale about Lilith claiming a girl by coming through her mirror. I’ve worked with Lilith through mirrors for years, so it was gratifying to see it recorded in age-old stories.
EHS: You published Lilith: Queen of the Desert under theKnickerbocker Circus imprint through Lulu. Where did you get the name Knickerbocker Circus?
AK: Sadly, it’s not my publishing company, although I agree the name is great! Knickerbocker Circus is owned and founded by Katelan V. Foisy, and I believe she named it after a childhood rooster. After seeing the finished product of Katelan’s own collection, They Be We, and her Lilith-inspired self-portrait, asking her to publish Queen of the Desert was a no-brainer. I knew she’d give me the freedom to write the book I wanted.
EHS: Why did you opt to publish through Lulu? Would you recommend them to other self-publishers?
EHS: You are also active in the Northern Tradition. How has working with Lilith impacted your devotion to Odin and Loki? Do these different paths work well together?
AK: Through Lilith, I learned what it meant to communicate with a deity (speaking and listening), to work for a deity, to place my life in the hands of a deity, and love a deity. Lilith also guided me through some of my own dark places, forcing me to own parts of myself I deemed unsavory and to shed others. To be blunt, She whipped me into shape. Without Her teaching, I honestly don’t know if I would have survived being claimed by Odin. I needed the strength, the skills, and the openness She cultivated within me as Her priestess. She paved the way for my relationship with Him, and She is still an important figure in my life and practice. I owe Her quite a lot, and the least I could do was complete this project for Her.
Initially, I had a difficult time gelling my two identities: being Lilith’s priestess and Odin’s wife (even before Loki was thrown into the mix). Those two roles seemed completely antithetical. I eventually realized, however, that that struggle stemmed from my own preconceptions about Lilith and Odin rather than a conflict between the Gods themselves. As an unabashed feminist, who had left the patriarchal structures of Catholicism in my teens to embrace a Goddess-centered spirituality, being claimed by a male deity (much less as His wife) was just about the last thing I expected or thought I wanted. As I grew to know Odin, I soon realized I was selling Him short. I had relied too heavily on popular images of Him rather than my own experiences.
Now, my paths have tangled together. I can honestly say that having all of Them woven into my life has brought it a richness and complexity I could not have anticipated.
EHS: What advice can you offer to others who are “dual trad”?
AK: Don’t be discouraged by naysayers. I think a lot of people like the neatness of having one, clear-cut pantheon from which to draw gods. This is how most modern pagans and pagan groups define their identities, whether it be Heathen, Kemetic, Celtic, etc. A lot of people perceive the act of working with multiple pantheons as a type of dilettantism or cultural opportunism. This is always a risk – Gods aren’t just statues to be collected. One thing I’ve learned from this process, however, is that we do not claim our Gods – They claim us. My spiritual life probably would have been a lot more straightforward if I had been just Lilith’s, just Odin’s, or just Loki’s. For whatever reason, that’s not what They had in mind, and it’s not my place to question a logic greater than myself.
I usually don’t associate with pantheon-specific groups, if only because the realities of who my deities are tend not to fit in their practices. Working primarily with Lilith, Odin, and Loki often places me at the edges or crossroads, which does have its advantages. I interact with many communities and have a different perspective on their relations. Being “homeless” in this way also brings me closer to the Misfit or Exile face my Gods often wear. To me, They are Gods of liminality. Even Odin, the Sacred King, is a wanderer. His insatiable desire for knowledge never allows permanent stasis.
EHS: What resources (books, journals, websites, et cetera) do you recommend for anyone interested in Lilith?
AK: Besides my own book (shameless, yes), I highly recommend Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess. It is the most thorough, cross-cultural account I’ve read of Lilith in history. A lot of older Lilith websites now seem to be defunct, so perhaps a new crop will rise soon.
EHS: Which conventions, festivals, book fairs, et cetera will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
AK: The next large event I’ll be attending will be Free Spirit Gathering’s Beltane gathering in Darlington, MD. I may be involved in local book fairs in NYC, although I’m still working this out with the Knickerbocker Circus folk.
EHS: What other projects are you working on?
AK: I’ve just begun work on a book about my relationship with Odin, even though it’s a relationship that continues to unfold each day. It will talk specifically about walking the path of a godspouse and will have some input from other spouses I know, both in the Northern Tradition and in other pantheons. It’s the book I wish would have existed two years ago when Odin came calling. It won’t have all the answers, but it will be an honest account of my struggles to understand and love Him in those first two years.
In the meantime, I write regularly at my WordPress blog called The Fruit of Pain on the trials and joys of my spiritual life.