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Posts Tagged ‘Hellenic Polytheism’

I had a great time on Wyrd Ways Radio last night, and only wish we had more time to cover all of the things we didn’t get to cover! Thanks so much to Galina Krasskova and Sannion for having me.

If you want to listen to the show, you can find it in the archives here. The Wyrd Ways segment starts pretty much right at the 60 minute mark. Pay close attention to the part when I accuse my brother of Mariolatry on the air.

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Sannion and Galina Krasskova will be holding me “personally accountable for two thousand years’ worth of Christian atrocities” on Wyrd Ways Radio tonight! You won’t want to miss it!

Tune in at 10/9C. Or better yet, call in–the number is 347-308-8222.

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A couple of years ago when I was in the Army National Guard, we flew down to Puerto Rico for an excellent weekend of training that culminated in a live-fire exercise.

Before my squad ran through the live-fire exercise, we were (as is typical) sitting around our rucksacks, taking care of our equipment, sleeping, and generally bullshitting. Since our turn on the lane was coming up, I pulled out my white portable altar-cloth, lit a candle, and prayed to Ares. My pagan-friendly classics-major buddy joined in while our Christian platoon leader looked on. We sacrificed a bag of M&Ms from an MRE to the Lord of War, and at the end, I handed one of the M&Msto the PL. He got all nervous and said “If I eat this, will it make me pagan?” I told him that was ultimately up to him. So he ate it. Big shocker, it did not “make him pagan…”

The live-fire exercise was brutal, but it went well and nobody got hurt. The weather was dry and everything pretty much burst into flame. By “everything” I mean an entire mountain. I’m not going to lie; it was completely awesome.

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Paganism is about honoring the fundamental aspects of authentic human experience. It’s about looking at the parts of existence that are terrifying and overwhelming and trying to figure out what they mean: things like birth, death, sex, war, love, art, and even the powerful, capricious, and unpredictable forces of the natural world. The gods give rise to these essential facets of human experience (and/or are themselves born from them), and to deny one or more of the gods because there is no place in your life or your worldview or your schema for the things they represent is to deny a fundamental part of who you are.

War is a part of being human. It may be ugly, brutal, and horrifying, but it is omnipresent. To be truly human is to know war. To reject Ares because you reject war is to reject a part of what it means to be you. And to reject Ares because you reject war means also rejecting warlike aspects of many of the other gods as well: Athena, Aphrodite, Zeus, Dionyus just off the top of my head.

Who would Ares be without war? A god of mental conflict? A god of physical exertion? We already have those gods. Ares is a god of a lot of things, and there are a lot of lenses through which to view Ares, but he is primarily a god of war. Trying to edit the war out of Ares is like trying to edit the sex out of Aphrodite. I don’t know what you’re left with, but it isn’t the real deal. That kind of selective approach to the gods is apparently pretty popular among neopagans, but I honestly don’t think it’s a road that is going to take you anywhere worth being.

Think about it: the soldier knows both war and peace, but the pacifist tries to know only peace. The pacifist is rejecting an entire part of human existence because it does not suit him or her. Whether that’s a thing worth doing, or a thing we should be doing, is not actually the issue. But I would maintain that trying to edit human existence to remove the bits we don’t like is just not what any kind of real paganism is about. Christianity does that, with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Not paganism.

I also don’t think, with regards to Ares, that it’s a question of whether violence is necessary or justified, but merely whether it is an essential facet of human existence. Violence IS. War IS. We can play at quasi-Christianity if we want and imagine a utopia where violence no longer exists, but even in Christianity that requires massive divine intervention. The overwhelming, unanimous weight of human history tells us in no uncertain terms and with no exceptions that war and violence are fundamentally a part of the human condition.

Whether or not this reality is morally acceptable is a question that is, in my opinion, not even on paganism’s radar. Violence is a part of human reality, and paganism is about how we honor and respond to human reality. The ethics of paganism ask not whether a violent society is morally acceptable, but instead ask “given that violence and war exist as a part of the human condition, how do you respond virtuously?”

Look to the epics, the philosophers, and the myths. Look to the maxims. Tell me what the answer is. The world is violent–we honor that when we honor Ares. The question is how you respond with virtue when presented with that violence, whether you’re a kid in the hall at school getting beaten up by bullies, a young man who just got his draft notice, or a parent whose family is threatened.

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Zeus is our Heavenly Father, but let’s face it: most of us have shitty relationships with our fathers, and that can carry over into our relationships with our Heavenly Father.

It’s alright though, ’cause we’ve got Ares.

Ares is the older brother who tells you all about girls and the real deal about sex, who turns you on to heavy metal and cars and gives you your first beer and your first cigarette.  But he expects you to keep your cool, to be tough, to roll with the punches and not to be a mama’s boy.

Ares is the upperclassman you respect and admire, who lets you be one of the guys, who shows you how to tie a tie and button your cuffs, who makes you feel accepted and doesn’t treat you like a dumb kid. But he expects you to do the right thing, to study hard, to treat girls well, and to show respect and earn the respect of everyone around you.

Ares is the uncle who takes you camping and shows you how to build a fire, to hunt and fish, to shoot a rifle and take care of yourself.  But he expects you to do hard things, to not complain or whine, to learn fast, to try hard and to tough it out when things get shitty.

Ares is the team captain who gives his all, who holds the team together and who understands exactly what you’re going through because he is right in the middle of it too.  But he expects you to train hard, to play hard, to keep your head in the game, to take care of your teammates, and to win.  

Ares is the squad leader who laughs with you, drinks with you, teaches you to be a warrior, and leads you into battle.  But he expects you to fight hard, to have integrity, to have courage and a good attitude, to take care of your battle buddies, and to kill every last one of the enemy motherfuckers.   He does his damnedest to make sure you make it back home, but he makes damn sure you are never forgotten when you don’t.

Just because you’re born with a penis doesn’t mean you know how to be a man. Don’t worry; Ares will show you.

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Kate Douglas has written an article for the New Scientist on what the “ideal religion” would look like:

What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.

Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.

The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.

With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.

I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.

As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.

But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.

I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.

I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.

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In Euripedes’s the Bacchae, Dionysus, god of wine, intoxication, madness and the revel rolls into Thebes with a train or crazed maenads in tow. Thebes is Dionysus’s homeland, although that is not widely known. The Thebans go out to the wilderness to join in the frenzied worship, dressing the part and dancing the dances and partaking in the mad rites of the god. All of the Thebans, that is, except Pentheus, the king of Thebes and a cousin of the god, who is livid. To Pentheus, the god is a pretender, an interloper and a chartlatan who disrupts the social order, makes fools out of wise men, and makes the women of Thebes act… inappropriately. Pentheus fobids the worship of Dionysus, and orders the arrest of anyone who gets involved.

Pentheus has Dionysus detained and brought before him, and he peppers the god with questions in a scene not at all unlike Jesus before Pontius Pilate, and Dionysus gives the same kind of wise but evasive answers that we see Jesus give centuries later in the gospels. Pentheus is unhappy that Dionysus’s answers are not more clear to him, so he has the god imprisoned. Of course, Dionysus escapes easily; he’s a god after all, and in the process, he reduces Pentheus’s palace to flames and rubble.

Angry but curious, Pentheus is tricked by Dionysus into going out to see the maenads, and Dionysus inflicts madness on Pentheus because Pentheus fought against the god’s worship. The frenzied maenads tear Pentheus to pieces, and the king’s own mother parades his head through the streets, unaware that she holds the head of her son.

This is a work of profound spiritual and theological importance. If you have not read it, you need to.

Inside each one of us is a dark side, a shadow to the Jungians, a part of us that needs to break free from our bonds, break all the rules, go crazy, be wild, be drunk, and in short, to transgress the boundaries of civilization. That part of us can be tamed and channeled, but never destroyed and never completely suppressed.

Dionysus calls to that part of us—he is the living embodiment of that dark, beautiful and terrible shard of the human soul. When we give in to it, we are his. But Dionysus is not a jealous god! It is enough that we, like the Thebans, go out to meet him and join in the revel every now and then. Our shadows need to be expressed but they can be expressed deliberately, channeled into appropriate and healthy pursuits.

We don’t need to let our shadows devour us: that would be the end of civilization and the end of virtue, and that’s not, as a general statement, what Dionysus wants from us at all. He certainly does not demand it. But we have to give our shadows a place in our lives. We have to entertain Dionysus in order to stay healthy and balanced. Because when we suppress our shadows, war against our shadows, pretend they are not there—when we imprison Dionysus and threaten those who do give him the honor he deserves—we do so futilely and at our own peril.

Dionysus is a god; he will not be imprisoned. He will not be defeated. The god of breaking bonds will never be bound. And if we, like Pentheus, refuse to admit Dionysus into our lives, the results will be catastrophic. Dionysus will have his way with us one way or another. The choice is ours: either we give honor to Dionysus on our own terms, or he compels us to give honor to him. And he is a god who knows no limits. Dionysus does not use safe words or designated drivers.

When we suppress our shadows they gnaw at us from the inside, and they tear us apart just as Dionysus tore the king’s palace apart. Healthy appetites become unhealthy obsessions. When we do not engage with our shadows, our shadows make ever-greater demands from us; our psyches fester in ever-deeper darkness. And eventually, we lose. Eventually, because we refuse to bend to Dionysus, we are broken by him. The results are ugly, and they leave a wake of victims. Pentheus ended up dismembered and decapitated by his mother; the psychosexual implications are not accidental.

So we party. We dance. We fuck. We drink. We fight. We let our hair down and have a good time when good times are called for because we have to. Its built in to who we are. If we think we can suppress those urges all the time and conquer that part of us completely we are fooling ourselves, and the script for our destruction has already been written, centuries ago.

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I.
The sleepless Hours who watch me as I lie,
Curtained with star-inwoven tapestries,
From the broad moonlight of the sky,
Fanning the busy dreams from my dim eyes,–
Waken me when their Mother, the gray Dawn,
Tells them that dreams and that the moon is gone.

II.
Then I arise, and climbing Heaven’s blue dome,
I walk over the mountains and the waves,
Leaving my robe upon the ocean foam;
My footsteps pave the clouds with fire; the caves
Are filled with my bright presence, and the air
Leaves the green Earth to my embraces bare.

III.
The sunbeams are my shafts, with which I kill
Deceit, that loves the night and fears the day;
All men who do or even imagine ill
Fly me, and from the glory of my ray
Good minds and open actions take new might,
Until diminished by the reign of Night.

IV.
I feed the clouds, the rainbows, and the flowers,
With their ethereal colors; the Moon’s globe,
And the pure stars in their eternal bowers,
Are cinctured with my power as with a robe;
Whatever lamps on Earth or Heaven may shine,
Are portions of one power, which is mine.

V.
I stand at noon upon the peak of Heaven;
Then with unwilling steps I wander down
Into the clouds of the Atlantic even;
For grief that I depart they weep and frown:
What look is more delightful than the smile
With which I soothe them from the western isle?

VI.
I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself, and knows it is divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine, is mine,
All light of art or nature; – to my song
Victory and praise in its own right belong.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley (1820)

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I was navigating through my WordPress dashboard and once again I noticed the list of unfinished drafts sitting there. The familiar twinge of guilt came, followed by the old, habitual “You’ll get to it eventually” lie that I tell myself. It’s time I faced the truth: I am probably never going to finish writing those posts. That being said, there is no reason that the unposted ideas should simply die.

Therefore I have decided to do them all in one go, as “stubs.” A list of rough ideas for posts I never got around to actually writing and that I probably never will write, alsong with any bits of them that I think are particularly worth sharing.

So without further ado:

Are Wiccans Really Pagan?: After the hubub following the Parliament of World Religions, this is sort of a dead horse. My opinion is that labels are mostly just semantic, but they do matter because they influence how we think about things, how we generalize, and thus how we interpret the world. Despite the fact a Hellenic polytheist may pay lip service to some of the same gods as a Wiccan, I do not think that Wicca and Reconstructionist Polytheism are even in the same category of religions. The term “earth-based” gets bandied about a lot, but I think it’s bullshit rhetoric. What does it even mean to be “earth-based,” and what makes a religion “earth-based?” In what way is your religion (or mine, or anyone else’s) “earth-based?” It has been taken for granted by most that all of the disparate religions and spiritual paths that congregate under the broad umbrella of “Neopaganism” actually belong together, but it is my opinion that they do not. I think that Neopaganism as a conceptual category is a net negative: by thinking of all of these religions as related, it causes people to treat them as if they are related, and it pushes their adherents to practice them as if they are related, and in the end, I think that is bad for everyone involved. I think that a Hellenic polytheist without a neopagan background has a lot more in common with a Hindu than he or she does with most Wiccans or neo-druids.

BYU vs. The Bakkhai: Last year, Brigham Young University canceled a performance of Euripides’ The Bakkhai, because it had “adult material.” I think that’s lame for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is a kind of religious censorship. The Bakkhai, as originally conceived and performed, was a part of the Dionysian theater festival. It wasn’t entertainment; it was religion. By not allowing the Bakkhai because of its content, BYU actually censored the exprsssion of another religion. BYU is a Mormon university, so I guess it can do that if it wants, but it’s the kind of thing that strikes me as a petty and desperate form of ideological control. The best part about it is that one of the central messages of the Bakkhai is that by denying the place of Dionysus–by denying the wildness and the transgressory reveler within us–we give rise to tragedy. Our Dionysian natures will have their expression whether we want them to or not. We either drink the wine and dance with the maenads in a controlled and ultimately harmess expression of our untamed natures, or we try to deny them, and subject ourselves to savage backlash. And that is exactly what BYU has done, and exactly what Mormonism does: by trying to deny the Natural Man completely, Mormonism only invites him to come back and haunt us in far darker and more destructive ways.

Rolling Stone Is Kind Of Lame: I subscribed to Rolling Stone because I am a music enthusiast and because it was inexpensive, but usually I find myself irritated and disappointed by every issue. As long as the magazine sticks to music, it’s decent (although sometimes unnecessarily snide and nasty, as they were with the Taylor Swift cover story), but every time it ventures into politics and society, it does so ridiculously. News Flash, Rolling Stone: knee-jerk partisan support for the Democratic Party platform is not rock and roll rebellion.

I May Be A Civilian But I Will Never Be Civilized: My end of term of service date with the National Guard came and went, which means I am no longer even an active reservist. Getting out at that time was practical and prudent, but not a day goes by that I don’t wish I was back in. I had some bad times in the Army, but I had some incredible times, too, and for the last three years, being in the Army has made me happy. My heart aches to be a soldier again., and if I can figure out a way to make it happen, I will.

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I am a Hellenic polytheist actively working out my spiritually while keeping a balance between reconstructing the ancient ways and moving forward boldly in living faith.

I believe that the gods are alive, that they take interest in the affairs of mortals, that they are approachable, personal–they hear our prayers and are capable of responding with infinite might and ultimate softness. I believe that by entering into relationships with them we can let their divine passion into our lives and be changed forever. I believe that we live in a world full of gods, and that when we wake up and see it for what it is, then only can we begin to fully understand and experience its beauty and terror.

I believe that virtue is eternal. I believe in honesty, loyalty, courage, and temperance. I believe in the the significance of fatherhood, motherhood, sisterhood, and brotherhood. I believe in friendship that transcends affinity. I believe that what we do, what we accomplish, our reputation, our deeds–these things matter; these things can live forever.

I believe in meeting my fate boldly and unafraid, in walking the path that the Kosmos has laid out for me without reservation or trepidation. I am not afraid to love, to fear, to feel joy and sadness, and I am not afraid to hate. I am unafraid to live life to the fullest, and to meet death when it comes.

I am a father, a husband, a son, a friend, and a brother. I am a soldier. I am a mystic. I am a man.

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