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Posts Tagged ‘Pantheon’

I believe in the Hellenic gods.  I have personally experienced their presence and their effect on my life.  I think that worshipping an honoring them in a traditional way makes sense.  I pray to Zeus, to Hermes, to Ares, to Aphrodite, to Hera, Athena, Dionysus, Artemis, Hestia and the other Olympians.  And I believe that I should also be finding ways to honor Pan, the nymphs, and the other immediate, present land-spirits.  I think that Euripides’s The Bacchae is one of the most intense, meaningful, and wise pieces of literature ever composed.  I believe that classical ethics and the Golden Mean remain–as they always have been–the best and most reliable guide for human behavior.

I have a strong pull towards personal mysticism and inner work: I have a strong desire to explore the landscape of the unconscious.  I think there is immense truth to the work of Jung.  Somehow, rock and roll, Dionysus, the Holy Grail, Jim Morrison, and snakes are all tied up in this.  And probably tarot, too.  I believe that there is something to be accomplished, some Great Work, some journey.  A journey outward into the literal Wilderness that is also a journey inward into the Wilderness of the human psyche.  There’s something there that wants to be discovered.

I believe that the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads, taken together, are an unsurpassed work of spiritual genius.  Reading them is like drinking light and wisdom.  I think that the philosophy of Vedanta comes the closest of any human philosophy to explaining the universe as we are situated in it.  If there is such thing as enlightenment–and I have to believe that there is–then the path outlined in the Gita has to be the way to find it.

So what does that add up to?  I don’t cast spells, or do any magic(k), or even really believe that other people who claim to are actually doing anything.  I don’t celebrate the wheel of the year.  I’ve tried, and it just didn’t click like I thought it was going to–it always seems like it should be relevant and emaningful and important to me but I never am able to make it be anything other than awkward and ill-fitting, like an outfit that looked great on the mannequin but just fits me terribly.  I think.  Or maybe I was somehow doing it wrong.  I don’t believe in assembling a homemade pantheon of gods that I “work with.”  I don’t think “working with” gods is a very good term at all, if nothing else because it fundamentally  misunderstands our relationship to them and in a terrible act of hubris tries to convert them into tools for our use.  I do divinations with tarot–and have often had uncanny insights–but sometimes I think the randomness of drawing cards causes me to miss the power and symbolism that the tarot has as a whole and in all of its parts.  I believe in right and wrong, but I don’t believe that we need salvation from sin.  I’m not sure if I believe in literal reincarnation, or literal life after death (I don’t deny either one: I just don’t know).  I’m inclined to agree on a philosophical level with the revival Druids, but when it comes down to specifics, none of what they do really reaches out and grabs me.  I’m not an ecofeminist.  I’m not a pacifist.  I’m not politically very liberal. 

I don’t feel much in common with most people who get included in the boader umbrella of “paganism” or neo-paganism; I don’t even think that the broader umbrella is a meaningful category because it includes too many things that have nothing in common other than being-clumped-together-into-the-category.  I’m not a Christian, but I have no fundamental problem with or hostility against Christianity.

So what, then?  What am I?  How do these pieces fit together?  How do I move forward, given all of this?  What’s the next step for me, spiritually?  Who am I and what does this all mean?  What does it mean for me as a father, a husband, a lawyer, a brother, a human being?  How do I keep myself from getting pulled away into tangents and driven off-course and away from things I hold sacred by the countless diversions and slippery slopes and spectra of meaning and practice that all of these disparate threads seem to be tied to?

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One of the books I have been perusing lately is Ceisiwr Serith’s A Book Of Pagan Prayer. While I admit that the prayers themselves don’t really light my candle, the book is absolutely fantastic as a book about prayer: why we pray, to whom we should pray, how we pray, and so on. If you are a pagan and you don’t have this book, you are wrong.

But like I said, the Serith’s prayers don’t really set my incense a-smoldering, so I have taken some humble stabs at writing my own, with the idea being ultimately to construct a personal prayer-book along the lines of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (which just may be my single favorite thing about Christianity, to be perfectly honest with you–or at least it’s my second favorite thing after C. S. Lewis), but with prayers about subjects which are meaningful to me and directed towards the gods that are meaningful to me.

One of my biggest concerns with these prayers so far is that they seem kind of formulaic. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but I don’t really feel like these prayers are great poetry or anything. My other big concern is that they sound sort of… too Christian, I guess. I mean, I’ve spent most of my life praying Christian prayers, so it’s the way I know how to pray. There’s nothing wrong with Christian prayer–see my comment about the BCP above–but I don’t know how satisfied I am about just switching out the name of Deity and calling the prayers pagan. And I’m also worried that these prayers not only sound very Christian, but that they sound Mormon. Again, Mormon prayers are the only prayers I really know how to say.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve written:

For Brewing Beer:
O great Dionysus, giver of good gifts to mankind, inventor of wine and lord of passionate intoxication, bless this beer that I brew that it will bring happiness, joy, and release from the mundane world. I brew it as a sacred embodiment of your gift to humanity; I will share it in your spirit, I will revel in the delicious madness that it brings, and I will offer it to you in holy libation.

For Lovemaking:
Aphrodite, goddess of love, queen of passion and the night who rose from the union of Uranus and the sea, be among us and dwell and dance within us as we make love in your name. Grant us passion and ecstasy, make our bonds strong and powerful, and let us drink deeply from the cup of your divinity. We worship you with our love; be present, O Aphrodite!

For Inspiration:
Mighty Dionysus, god of spirit and passion, dwell with me and grant me divine inspiration so that I can live a life more full and whole. Enter into me, Lord Dionysus and fill me with passionate divinity such that my whole life is an act of worship and that my every act is one charged with divine power: a living, breathing testament to the reality and power of the gods.

For Children:
Queen Hera, mother of the gods, bless and protect my children as you protect your own; grant them your favor and guidance so they will grow up strong, healthy, and wise. Be present in their lives, O great mother; nurture them and hold them close in divine love.

For Courage In Adversity:
Terrible Ares, lord of war, god of battle and destruction, grant me courage in the face of danger, strength to overpower my enemies, and the will to continue fighting though the battle rages long and fierce and I grow weary. In return, O Ares, I dedicate my victories to you and I offer you my worship and loyalty.

For Victory:
Well-armed Aphrodite, lover of Ares, bringer of victory, guide me and give me strength and passion to emerge triumphant from this battle. Fill my heart with lust for victory and a love of conflict. Most beautiful and terrible of goddesses, be my ally and I will worship you and make sacrifices to you on the day of my victory.

For Protection:
O Heavenly Father, protect me with your divine might, watch over me and guard me from harm. Defeat my enemies, O son of Saturn, as you defeated the Titans and the Giants, and I shall fight alongside with you as the mortal heroes of old.

For Happiness:
Bountiful, laughter-loving Aphrodite, smile down on me with your lovely face and fill my heart with happiness. Lift my spirit with cheer and I will sing praises and worship you.

For Good Marksmanship:
Keen-eyed Sun God, shooter from afar, guide my aim so that I will strike my target, and I will give praise and honor to you before my fellow-soldiers.

For the Heartbroken:
Kind Aphrodite, I come to you unlucky in love and with a heart that is broken and sad. Lift me up and wash away my heartache like sand washed away by the sea-foam that gave you birth. Help me through these crushing depths, that my sadness might be replaced with joy, and that I might once again know the brilliant passion of requited love.

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In case it hasn’t been crystal clear yet, I believe in multiple personal gods.  I have personally had intense spiritual experiences with Dionysus and Aphrodite, but I am not necessarily set on specifically and exclusively honoring the ancient Greek pantheon.  However, I have also prayed to Zeus and Hera at different times, and I have some mental head-space reserved for Ares, Hermes, and some others.  Mostly, I am not trying to tackle too much at once, but to take the gods as they become important to me or relevant to me, or as I intuit that I should for some other reason.

I also have some hunches and intuitions about the Norse god Odin (not to mention a sweet tattoo of Odin on his horse Sleipnir on my calf), and I think I might have seen him on the Metro one time, but I was too chicken to ask.  He was an old bearded man with a brimmed hat and an eyepatch.  It was kind of spooky, and my brother was pissed off that I passed up my chance to talk to the All-Father.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that direct contact with Odin can be perilous.  I’ve read American Gods, after all.

I’m not sure how all of this necessarily fits together, although like I have said before, my wider position on cosmology and metaphysics is largely informed by a Vedantic interpretation of the Bagavad Gita, and I have some rough ideas about the nature of these gods that I am interacting with.  However, the whole thing is not developed enough for me to be able to define or label my religion/spirituality at this juncture, if I ever will.  But I have been grappling with “polytheist” as a partial spiritual identity, and I have come to grips with it.  I am cool with describing myself as a polytheist.

I realize that other people may bery well think I am uncool, delusional, crazy, weird, or pathetic.  The thing is, I’m not sure I care.  I mean, I care inasmuch as everyone wants to be well-liked and well-regarded.  But I’m not going to pretend to be something else so that other people are more comfortable.  I mean, I’m not going to wear a t-shirt that says “Hey You!  Deal With The Fact That I Am A Polytheist!” but I’m also not going to go to great lengths to conceal my spiritual position just because it is unconventional.  I am not ashamed of my gods.

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Mary Lefkowitz wrote an excellent article for the LA Times a little more than a year ago about the Greek gods that’s well worth reading.

Bring back the Greek gods

Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.

By Mary Lefkowitz
October 23, 2007 in print edition A-27

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion “poisons” human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn’t religion; it’s monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.

There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.

My Hindu students could always see something many scholars miss: The Greek gods weren’t mere representations of forces in nature but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as Zeus, his siblings and his children.

Zeus did not communicate directly with humankind. But his children — Athena, Apollo and Dionysus — played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception to make people see what’s not really there. He was worshiped in antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the god of psychology.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.

Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.

Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.

The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people’s gods into their pantheon.

What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.

The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles’ father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.

But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old Testament, God takes away Job’s family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God’s power.

The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn’t seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.

The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy — that characteristically Greek invention — had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.

Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.

Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

I’m not going to claim that the article is flawless: a quick Google search for “Hindu nationalist violence” will demonstrate pretty easily that polytheists are just as capable of violence in the name of their gods as monotheists are. However, I think you can make the case that Hindu religious violence is a primarily cultural rather than specifically religious affair–they’re not lashing out because people refuse to accept the truth of Vishnu, but because they perceive their culture as one that is under siege by a long history of encroachment by Muslims and Christians into India.

At the same time, I think editorials like Lefkowitz’s are important, if for nothing else than to make us think about the plausibility and, well, the utility of polytheism. In modern civilization, polytheism gets a bad rap, honestly. Most people would discard it as completely implausible, even ridiculous, but the only reason they think that is because monotheistic religions–religions that have had a privileged place in western culture and society for over a thousand years–ridicule them.

Even atheists who discard polytheism out of hand do so not because they have dealt with polytheism on its own terms. Instead they’re rejecting a monotheist caricature of polytheism. Polytheism is frankly not treated fairly.

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