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Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

The Not Even Once Club is a new children’s book by Wendy Nelson (who is married to Russell M. Nelson) about a group of kids who form a club where they pledge to never break the commandments, Not Even Once.

I think a book like that might be okay (if a little didactic) if it was a heartwarming story about kids with good intentions to do the right thing all the time but who inevitably fall short, because we all do, and learn a little something along the way about forgiveness, grace and the power of the cross.

But nope, it’s apparently just a story about choosing to never break the commandments and only hanging out with other kids who do, and it even comes with a certificate your kids can sign to join the club by pledging to never break the word of wisdom, lie, cheat, steal, do drugs, bully, dress immodestly, break the law of chastity or look at pornography. NOT EVEN ONCE.

There was a recent post about it over at Wheat and Tares but that post deals more with the psychological and sociological problems with making commitments like that, rather than the basic incompatibility of The Not Even Once Club with the gospel. (EDIT: there’s now a follow-up, cross-posted at Wheat and Tares and Rational Faiths that does address gospel issues more directly.)

The Bible is incredibly clear that we all sin, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because we are fallen people in a fallen world and heirs to a sinful nature, a promise to never break God’s commandments is a promise that we will invariably break. We are hard-coded to break God’s commandments, and we absolutely lack the power on our own to do anything about it. Personal perfection projects like the Not Even Once Club, whether we attempt them as little kids or as adults, get us off on the wrong foot from the very start. Are the kids in the Not Even Once Club really going to never break the “law of chastity,” not even once? What about when they hit puberty and their brains are flushed with hormones? They’re going to be able to never entertain lustful thoughts? Really?

How is the Not Even Once Club good news? “Good news, if you manage to never sin, you can be part of the club!” “Good news, if you manage to never sin, you can go to heaven!” That’s not good news for sinners like you and me. That’s really bad news. I’ll admit that I haven’t read The Not Even Once Club, and I’d love to be wrong about it (by all means, tell me if I am!), but everything I have read about it and everything I know about Mormonism leads me to believe that the book is nothing less than a false gospel aimed at children. I am confident that Wendy Nelson has good intentions, but they’re not enough.

The Good News is that we don’t have to join the Not Even Once Club, because we get to join a far better club. Despite our corrupted natures and our inborn tendency to sin, we are declared to be in the right with God, right now, by virtue of Jesus Christ. Not because we managed to never sin (no matter who we are, that ship has always already sailed–we literally can’t help it), but because he did. Through God’s grace we are given the ability to respond to God’s grace and submit to the reign of Jesus. He makes us good. We don’t.

We don’t have to worry about qualifying for the Not Even Once Club because we get to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. I promise you it is way better.

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I have been thinking about that widget over on the sidebar that shows my most popular posts. The problem with it is that it’s based on what people have been looking at over the last 24-48 hours, which means it is representative really of what google searches bring people here, and not what my best writing is. So I think I am going to add a new widget that indexes what I think are my best pieces of writing.

I’ll put it up later today, but for now, here’s my tentative tracklist for the “Best of Byzantium” album.

Postmormon Sexual Ethics
Shout at The Devil: Satan, Heavy Metal, and the Great God Pan
Say A Prayer For Lefty, Too
One Way Or Another: The Bacchae
Why It Matters Whether Mormons Are Christian
Eating Is Sacred
My Own Goddess
Aura Salve

Any of my readers think there’s any really good posts I have overlooked?

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Hansen’s moody historical novel chronicles the events leading up to the murder of Jesse James at the hands of his friend, Robert Ford, and then continues to follow the events of Ford’s life until his own murder years later.

That said, the book is not primarily a story. First and foremost, it is a dual character sketch of James and Ford. Hansen works hard to get into each of the title characters’ heads, and the results are powerful and stunning. James and Ford are starkly different–it is significant that in a scene where Ford names off all of the ways that he and James are alike, nearly every fact he mentions is superficial and ultimately laughably meaningless.

The book’s sole necessary evil is in the second chapter, where the narrative breaks and goes into a historical account of the life of Jesse James up to the book’s present. It’s good–for straight history it stays quick and pithy–but it is a bit of a jarring break from the semipoetic narrative of the preceding and subsequent chapters. The high point, however, of the history, is the focus on James’s relationship with his wife, Zee. It is sweet, romantic, dysfunctional, and heartbreaking. Jesse James was clearly madly in love with his wife, but he was also madly in love with himself, and as a result his wife spends her life in his shadow, and so after his death, is left with almost nothing.

The most striking thing about the book is how Hansen zooms in to sensory details–he draws attention to a gouge left by Robert Ford’s pistol on a chair, for example, so vividly that it is almost as if like Hansen is draping and weaving the narrative around these particular pointed, concrete details.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not encessarily a quick read, but the book is not overly long either, and it has a way of drawing you in and keeping you there. It’s a poetic, psychological historical character sketch about two fascinating outlaws, and I recommend it.

8.5/10

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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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Wicca-derived modern neopagan slang terms like “newbie” and “getting thwapped” have absolutely no place in even moderately reconstructionist pagan religions.

“Newbie” is a term implying resentment towards beginners. It’s appropriate in something like online gaming, where beginners can be annoying and in the way. Whether or not it’s appropriate in Wicca or other witchcraft practice is none of my business, since I’m not a Wiccan or any other kind of witch. But in [recon] polytheist faiths, that kind of attitude towards new believers makes no sense whatsoever. We should be embracing, welcoming, and guiding new believers, not resenting them and being annoyed at them. Why on earth would we want to discourage people from coming back around to the gods of their ancestors? Sure, just like new believers in any faith, their (our) heads are probably full of leftover ideas from wherever they came from, but the response there should be gentle (or firm, as the case may be) correction, not personal resentment. Direct your ire toward the religion(s) that gave them unhelpful ideas, not toward them for having them. New believers are not in the way; they are an essential part of a living, thriving faith community.

“Being thwapped” is a flippant and disrespectful term for a powerful and sacred revelatory mystical experience. It stems from an casual attitude towards the gods that is born from neopagan beliefs about the nature of divinity that have no place in a truly polytheistic (or any kind of true theistic) faith. But even if you believe that the gods are mere psychological archetypes, they still are potent and powerful archetypes that should be honored and respected. Being casual about them is dangerously disrespectful, if you believe they actually exist in any real sense.

Between the lore we have from the ancients and analogous modern living polytheist faiths we have plenty of vocabulary–specialized, tested, specific vocabulary that properly expresses what we are trying to say the way we should be saying it. Relying on modern neopagan slang to define our spiritual lives essentially allows modern neopaganism to set the terms, and it undermines many of the core concepts of our faiths.

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I have been turning into something of a tarot enthusiast here lately. I’ve been fascinated by the tarot since I first played around with a deck back in high school, but I didn’t have my own deck until I bought a Rider-Waite from a game shop during my first year of law school, near to the time when I first started to really broaden my horizons in terms of the scope of my spiritual search. I did a few spreads with it back then, but mostly just let it sit around until a few months ago when I finally started to grapple with the tarot in earnest.

I feel like I have a talent for the tarot. I have done spreads for myself, for my beautiful and sexy wife, and for my brother, and some of them have been shockingly insightful. I’m still using a couple of guidebooks to make connections and understand the meanings of the cards, but I am slowly gaining an understanding of my own through a combination of committing key-words and other peoples’ interpretations to memory, and also through meanings that have emerged from readings I have done. Not every spread I do winds up being useful or insightful, but enough of them seem to be so incredibly on-target that I think I have a lot of potential as a tarot-reader.

While I have not yet written the post I want to write about magic, I will say that I don’t necessarily think that the tarot cards are supernatural. A good deck of tarot cards is composed of powerful symbols that correspond to complex structures in the mind (conscious, sub-, un-, and probably super-), and can be used to make connections or better yet reveal hidden connections between emotions, ideas, and events. So my basic understanding of the tarot is that it is deeply psychological, but psychological nonetheless.

I’m kind of a purist as far as decks go. I’ve looked around at some of the alternatives, and I am generally not impressed. For most decks, I don’t even think the art is all that good, and I definitely would be hesitant to even bother with divination with any deck but Rider-Waite. On the other hand, I realize that my prejudice is purely a matter of personal aesthetics, snobbery, and a persistent nigh-insuppressible orthodoxy reflex. Which means I don’t think you’re an idiot for using a different deck, but I’m going to pretty much stick with the one I’ve got. Although I need a new box or bag for my cards, because the one they came in is rapidly disintegrating, since I habitually take my cards with me, stashed in a pocket of my backpack or rucksack.

Personally, I have grown to identify strongly with the Knight of Cups, and I am considering eventually getting a full-sized tattoo of the card, probably on an upper arm or back shoulder. I imagine at that size and in full color it’s not going to be cheap, so I will probably wait until at least next summer when I have a job and a steady income. Anyway, the Knight of Cups is the consummate questing knight, the grail-knight, on a journey of discovery that is a journey into the depths of the subconscious. Cups have a lot of water-symbolism, and water is an element of mystery and the subconscious. It’s also a strongly female element, particularly when associated with cups or the grail. So there are aspects to the quest and the quest’s object that are associated with the divine feminine, the deep places of the soul, and the mysteries of the unconscious mind, all of which are intensely relevant to me. It’s also the card that I used as a significator—purely because of the color of my hair and the instructions in the little pamphlet that comes with the Rider-Waite cards—way back in high school when I first started to become familiar with the tarot.

I plan on spending a lot more time and effort with the tarot. I’d like to have a deep understanding of all of the cards, even the tricky ones that elude me, and I would like to start moving past individual cards and out into the relationships between them. It’s exciting and compelling stuff for me. And also, it is just plain fun.

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Two stories, both of which I have told before:

1. Last fall, I had a kind of spiritual upset after seeing Amon Amarth and Ensiferum in concert at Jaxx in Northern Virginia. I realized that the Christianity I had been flirting with didn’t really punch all of the spiritual buttons that I felt needed to be pushed. There was (and is) something about mythology and my ancestry and heritage that boils in my blood–something that means more than a hobby-interest. Something there resonates as Truth and Meaning. Anyway, I was in this frame of mind, and thinking about Asatru again, and the Norse gods (even listening to Ravencast), and kind of wishing I could have an experience with the Norse gods. One day, on the way to school, I got on the Metro and there was this smallish white-bearded old man with a fedora and an eyepatch. I am sorry to report that was too chicken to approach him and ask him if he was the All-Father. I thought it was just silly at the time: “haha, a guy that looks just like Odin, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if that wasn’t a brush with something bigger. Right there, on the red line on the DC Metro.

2. Last November, when I first started thinking seriously about Hellenic polytheism, I was reading about Dionysus in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and listening to the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack, when I had this intense spiritual epiphany. All of a sudden, it all seemed so real. Dionysus was suddenly incredibly vivid, and incredibly significant. The total effect was a bit overwhelming and incredibly powerful. I had this sensation of Dionysus’s massive divine presence, something holy but out of control, like a spiritual hurricane.

So in other words, I have arguably had two different encounters with gods on the red line. I wonder if there is something special about the Metro. It is, after all, a place between worlds: the subway is its own little environment that moves between other environments–different neighborhoods, even different states in the DC area. It is a liminal place, a world between worlds, a halfway world that exists in different worlds while also maintaining its own existence. It is more than a vehicle, because it is like a room that you can move around in, like a place as much as it is a thing. I wonder if the liminal nature of the Metro makes it into a place where gods can more easily come through and enter the world of humans? Or perhaps it is that the Metro puts my mind into a liminal state, which makes it more receptive to the gods and their emissaries. I wonder if it’s just me, or if other people have had significant divine or spiritual encounters on trains or subways?

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It should be clear by now that I passionately believe that real spiritual/mystical experiences happen. People experience the presence of divinity. I don’t know for sure whether they are merely experiencing a neurological or psychological phenomenon, or whether they are actually contacting a real deity, or whether the distinction is meaningful. What I am sure of is that mystics throughout history have reported eerily similar phenomena and labeled them as divine contact.

Mormonism has taught since the days of Joseph Smith that such mystical experiences–jargonically termed “personal revelation”–are available to Mormons, basically on demand. Modern-day Mormon prophets have consistently promised that every earnest seeker who asks God for a personal confirmation of the truth of Mormonism and/or its components will receive it. The problem with these promises is that inasmuch as mystical experiences exist, that’s just not the way it works. No matter what your theology promises, God is not on tap. God is not predictable, as much as we would like it to be.

To reconcile the irreconcilable–theological promises about the availability of mystical experience and the unpredictable reality of mystical experience–Mormonism has lowered the bar on personal revelation. Mormons believe a priori that mystical experience is there for the asking, so when experience prove otherwise, experience must be wrong. Mormons tell each other things like “I think you have had personal revelation; you just don’t recognize it,” and they tell themselves stories about how subtle the Holy Ghost’s influence is.

But they’re wrong. They’re ridiculous, even. The real experience of the presence of God is not subtle. It is not difficult to discern. It is like a hurricane: massive, beyond control. Like a roller coaster, but you can’t really be certain that it is going to stay on the tracks. Real contact with God is total loss of sense of self, a total absorbtion into something so huge and so other that it can’t be described.

But like I said, that kind of thing is rare and unpredictable, and so it doesn’t really do a good job of fulfilling Mormonism’s promises about the availability of personal revelation. So, to make up for God’s failure to deliver on Mormonism’s promises (which can’t possibly be true because then Mormonism would be false, and Mormons assume that cannot be the case), Mormons recast completely mundane experiences as “personal revelation,” and thus save themselves from having to face the unfortunate disconnect between Mormon theology and the real experience of God.

What follows is a list of things that do not count as spiritual or mystical experiences, but that are often characterized as such in Mormon testimonies. They are in no particular order.

1. Negative Confirmations: These happen when I either want to do something or thought I should do something, and so I prayed for guidance, and God did not definitely tell me “no,” and afterward I felt an increased desire and/or obligation (as the case may be) to do the thing. But that’s not personal revelation; it’s what I wanted to do anyway. Silence from God can’t possibly be evidence of God’s influence in my life. The increased motivation post-prayer is just excitement or resignation in the absence of a contrary instruction from God, along the lines of “God didn’t say ‘no,’ so it is definitely the right thing to do, and it’s coincidentally what I wanted to do anyway! Hooray!

2. A Burning In The Bosom: Mormon scriptures describe prayers being answered by personal revelation in the form of a “burning in the bosom”: a warm sensation in the chest. This happens to Mormons, and it shouldn’t be a surprise at all, because it is basic Classical Conditioning at work. Let’s say that for my whole life I am told that I will feel a warm sensation when certain triggers happen (when I pray, when I read the scriptures, when I go to church, when I am with my family, whatever) and that this warm feeling is the Holy Ghost. When this warm feeling inevitably results, it is not the Holy Ghost at all. I have conditioned myself. I have spent my life looking for a particular sensation whenever the appropriate trigger is present, and eventually my body obliges my mind by producing said sensation. This makes me happy because it confirms my religion to me, and it is the thing I have been wanting to happen. Thus, my body learns that producing a warm feeling in response to certain triggers makes me happy. This is not called God. This is called Pavlov’s dog.

3. Intense Emotional Responses: When I watch a Church movie, I may indeed get choked up and emotional when something poignant and magical happens. But this isn’t personal revelation of the gospel truth being presented in the movie; this is my emotions being manipulated. TV shows and movies do this all the time. Filmmakers, directors, artists, composers, musicians, and writers can and do purposely arrange this stuff to tug at your heartstrings and make you feel certain emotions. And it happens in other situations, too (the kinds of legitimately emotional situations that these filmmakers are trying to artificially provoke): when I bear my testimony I might cry because I am sharing something deeply personal and emotional, so I have emotions when I talk about it. But that’s not the presence of God; that’s just having feelings.

4. Contentment And Happiness: Feeling generally happy and content about the spiritual tradition and related community that I have been brought up in is just normal. It’s a classic case of the grass looking greener on this side of the fence, and it results from a basic human complacency with the status quo. People are comfortable with what they know, and being comfortable feels pleasant. On the other side of the coin, converts to Mormonism may feel happy and content with their adopted faith tradition, but again, this comes from natural and expected feelings of gratitude and newfound belonging. Belonging feels good, whether it’s a church or a street gang. Being happy with your religion is a perfectly good reason to stick with your religion. But is isn’t a mystical message from God that your religion is the one true path, because pretty much everyone feels that way about their own religion.

5. “Impressions”: When I suddenly feel impressed to knock on a door, to approach someone on the street or a train, or to get up and bear my testimony, I may think something along the lines of the following: “hey, I just had a thought about doing that–I wonder if it was God telling me to do it. No, it was just a thought. Bt wait, what if I am talking myself into ignoring the Spirit? Is the Holy Ghost telling me to do this and I am just brushing it off? Why would I do that? Of course this was an impression; of course this was the Holy Ghost!” That is not personal revelation from God; that is a hilarious mind game you are playing with yourself.

6. Good Ideas: Sometimes, I suddenly have a great idea, out of nowhere. I might therefore want to attribute it to God, especially if it is related to church, religion, or my calling. But here’s the thing: people just have good ideas all the time.

All of these things are normal, basic humanity stuff. They happen to everyone. So the only way they come from God is if everything comes from God, and then we have to invent a new word for the mystical peak experiences that seem to be something wholly other, and from which these normal human life experiences are qualitatively distinct. And even then, if I have to concede that these things do come from God, they definitely don’t come from God in a “personal revelation that proves that the Church is true,” because they happen to everybody.

Even if I take Mormonism at its word and accept that feeling the presence of the Holy Ghost (i.e. the presence of God) is conclusive and unimpeachable proof that all of the Church’s truth claims are true–which I most certainly do not–these six types of experiences just don’t count.

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In response to the post wherein I declared my newly developed polytheism, some people understandably asked something along the lines of “Okay, you say you believe in gods.  But what do you mean by that?  How literally do you believe that?”  And it’s a fair question–one I intended to write about anyway.  To what extend to I believe in these gods, and to what extent to I believe that they are separate, distinct individual gods?

I don’t believe that Dionysus, Aphrodite, and other hypothetical gods actually live bodily on the top of Mount Olympus in Greece from whence they literally created the universe and currently control natural phenomena.  I am not an idiot.  I want to talk about other possibilities.

I am open to the possibility that these gods no not exist at all outside my head.  I’m not eager to believe that it is flat-out mental illness, but I am definitely open to the possibility that I am talking about psychological archetypes–either universal ones that transcend my individual experience or personal ones that are completely local to my own psyche.  Human beings think and reason in symbol and metaphor anyway, and I have no problem with the possibility that I am encountering symbolic representations of aspects of my own psyche or aspects of a universal human psyche if such a thing exists.

I am also open to the possibility–in fact, I actually believe–that these gods are actual spiritual beings that have independent existence beyond the borders of the individual human mind.  Nevertheless, I would still insist that the gods’ involvement in the natural world is largely metaphorical, but that such an arrangement is only natural since humans make sense of the world primarily in metaphor.  If I say “I believe that Odin made the world out of the broken parts of dead Ymir,” I think that is not necessarily inconsistent with the scientific explanation for the origin of the universe.  Again, I am talking about metaphor and the way we make meaning out of what we perceive.  And I also feel like there is more than one way to understand “the world”–it doesn’t have to be the natural world at all.  We inhabit a “world” that is composed by our own psychology, perception, and experience.  While I do not think that Odin carved out the natural world out of Ymir’s bones, I am interested in the possibility that Odin carved out a psychic, psychological, and/or mythic landscape in exactly that way.  It is still the creation of the world, just not meaning the planet.

If this seems vague and ill-defined, that’s because it probably is ill-defined.  Like I said, my understanding of the gods is still in the early stages of development.

In the end, I think that when dealing with religion it is important, on the one hand, to remember that your gods might all be completely fictional, but on the other hand, that they might in fact be real.  The former keeps you from being a fundamentalist (and a good self-check: are your religious convictions overriding your basic human compassion? because if they are, then you’ve gone too far over the edge, buddy), and the latter keeps you from being a secular humanist.  Not that being a secular humanist is the end of the world, but that there’s just no point in bothering with religion in the first place if you’re going to be certain that it’s all messed up.

The thing is, I believe in the existence of divinity.  I think that the divine is real, and I hunger for it.  I acknowledge the possibility that it’s all in my head, but because I am not a fundamentalist, whether there is in fact an ultimate reality to Divinity or it is all in my head is actually irrelevant, because I am going to act the same way with regard to it either way.  But for the record, I believe that there is a divine reality that transcends individual human experience.

In terms of hard polytheism (i.e., the gods, whatever they are, exist independently and in a fully distinct fashion from each other) versus soft polytheism (i.e., the gods are different facets or manifestations of a greater divine reality), my answer is that I genuinely think that the latter is more likely, as ultimately my cosmological picture is formed by the conception of Maya and Brahman in the Baghavad Gita.  However, that requires some more elaboration, because I am definitely not saying that the gods are simply masks of one true god (although since I have only personally experienced one male and one female god, I might actually be dealing with a Wiccan-style fertility dualism, but more about that later).  If this model of godhood holds, then I am only claiming that the gods are parts of the same divine whole to the same extent that human beings are all also part of that same divine whole.  And with gods as with humans, the compelling illusion of Maya–the deceptive illusion of separateness that enables us to function in the world of sense objects while also blinding us to our essential oneness–applies to the gods as well as to humans.  And that means that, like us, although they are facets of a greater whole, they act for the most part as if they are separate and distinct, if interrelated.

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This post by Sannion is excellent. I shall quote it in its entirety, because I want people to actually read it and not just follow a link, which I don’t think people are likely to actually just do. But if you do read it, be considerate and follow the link, so Sannion gets the hit and thus full credit.

The Other Aphrodite

Everyone knows the goddess Aphrodite, right? The blonde, buxom, bubble-headed beauty rising from the waves on a conch shell, surrounded by fat little flying cupids, flowers, birds, and golden sunlight gleaming off of her diaphanous gown that doesn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination. Her gifts to mortal-kind are grace, feminine wiles, the warmth of love, successful relationships, and everything that is sweet and pleasant about life.

This image of the goddess has been a favorite of poets and painters down through the ages and has become deeply imbedded in our collective unconscious. Even people who do not recognize the divinity of Aphrodite respond to the power of this image, as evidenced by the lasting interest in faded celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Anna Nicole Smith, who have both been likened to the goddess by lazy journalists more times than one can count.

And yet, this is only half of the picture. There is, literally, a darker Aphrodite lurking just beneath the surface, a powerful and dangerous goddess smiling enigmatically from the shadows, forgotten and scorned, but waiting to teach her mysteries to those unwilling to accept superficial appearances and easy answers.

We encounter this side of the goddess in a host of random passages scattered throughout the works of various Classical authors, usually alongside more standard representations of her. When the unsuspecting student first discovers them it is often a jarring experience, conflicting, as it does, with our accepted, sanitized notions of who the goddess is and what her realm represents. Some might be inclined to reject them outright, to say that the ancients were mistaken in giving the name of Aphrodite to this deity, that these ideas just don’t fit or make any sense with the rest of what we know about her. (Others may be inclined to reject them because then they’d have to take her seriously: it’s common in the Neopagan community to dismiss Aphrodite as frivolous, vacuous, unimportant and contrary to a conception of modern, powerful women. How different they might feel if they were aware of this other Aphrodite!)

I maintain that these images and ideas are fundamental to a true conception of the goddess, and that they make perfect sense with and can even help elucidate some of her other aspects. Aphrodite is not a patchwork, contradictory, hybrid creature – but a whole and mighty goddess who can only be understood in her totality, both light and dark, joyous and frightening, merciful and cruel – and I would like to help draw the reader’s attention to just how complex and wonderful a deity Aphrodite can be through the following pages.

To begin with, let us examine some of the unusual names that have been bestowed upon this goddess, both in poetry and cult.

In his travels through Sparta Pausanias described visiting a temple of Aphrodite Areia “War-like” where the goddess was depicted armed and wearing a full panolopy or suit of armor. (3.17.5) In Arkadia (8.9.6) he found a cult of Aphrodite Summakhia “Ally in Battle”, while elsewhere (10.19.6) he discovered an Aphrodite Nikephoros “Bringer of Victory”. What, one may reasonably ask, does a goddess of love have to do with warfare? This is precisely the charge that Homer has Athene bring against her sister when she urges her favorite Diomedes to attack the lovely goddess, piercing her with his spear, and driving her shrieking from the blood-drenched battlefield to cower at the feet of Zeus. (Iliad 5.297-430)

It is a naïve question. Anyone who has ever felt the stirring of a true and intense love understands what a violent and overwhelming emotion it can be. Eros, love, is a madness that comes upon us unexpectedly, disrupting our nicely ordered lives, throwing everything into confusion, making otherwise sensible men and women do things they would never contemplate in their right minds. People risk everything for love – wealth, status, family, even life itself scarcely matters in the face of this overwhelming mania. Look at how many politicians have been ruined because of sexual indiscretions; how many families broken apart because of infidelity; how many once-promising careers have been snuffed out because the person couldn’t let go of someone that was dragging them down into the muck; how many lovesick souls have been driven to murder or suicide after being rejected. And the Trojan War, the greatest event in Greek history, was caused by an illicit love affair. Love, as the Greeks well knew, was a powerful, dangerous thing – but it could also be channeled towards a positive, community-strengthening end.

Why, after all, do we do the things that we do? Why do we have families, go to work, live in cities, create laws, fight wars, aspire to improve ourselves and try to leave the world a better place than we found it?

The answer is: Love. That ephemeral, invisible, constantly shifting and impossible-to-pin-down emotion that lies at the heart of everything we do and are. Love is connection. It’s what brings two people together, an unbreakable bond that unites disparate souls as mysteriously as the force of gravity keeps the atoms from spinning out into chaotic dissolution. If there was no love, people would live by themselves in barbarous solitude, never sparing a thought for anything other than their most basic, primal animal needs. It is love that makes civilization possible. For through love we feel a desire to connect with our fellows, to find a way such as language to express our thoughts and understand theirs. Love causes us to place the other person’s needs above our own, to do things that inconvenience us so that their life will be improved, even if there is no more tangible reward for that labor than the person’s affection. Love, further, induces us to put ourselves at risk solely to protect our beloved and their property. Men brawl in the streets to defend the honor of their girlfriends; mothers find the courage to face ferocious beasts when their children are at risk; nations clash over ideals that they deeply cherish. It is love that inspires all of this – as well as honor and pride.

For what is honor, but the desire for the one you love to look fondly upon you? People change the way they act, the way they dress, their level of education, and even their professions simply to impress other people. They will suffer great indignities and even death solely to avoid losing face before countrymen, family, friends, and romantic partners, all of whom they love in different ways.

In his Life of Alexander Plutarch discussed how love made men better soldiers. The Sacred Band of Thebes, which was comprised of pairs of lovers, was considered the greatest fighting force in antiquity because they never backed down out of fear of appearing shameful and forfeiting the love of their partner. Death was preferable to that horrible fate. And when Alexander finally defeated them he wept for the loss of such glorious and unmatched warriors. It was Aphrodite who brought them such undying fame, thus proving that her epiklesis “Ally in War” was an apt one.

Equally appropriate are the names that portray Aphrodite as dark or nocturnal. This may strike some as contradictory – after all, Aphrodite was called Khrusee “golden” (Homeric hymn 5) and Olumpian “brightly shining” (Pausanias 3.12.11); she emerged from the oceanic depths into the joyous sunlit world attended by the Horai and Kharites who adorned her with radiant gowns, shining jewelry, and brightly colored flowers of every hue (Kypria frg. 6). Even her star – the planet Venus – burns the brightest of all the heavenly bodies. She is a warm, glowing, pleasantly intoxicating goddess – at her appearance our flesh flushes with her heat – so how can she be connected with something cold and desolate like the blackness of night?

Well, Aphrodite is a complex, paradoxical goddess with a strongly fluid nature. Her name is derived from aphrou “the sea foam” (Plato, Cratylus 400d) and in Sparta she was worshipped as Morpho “changeable of shape” (Pausanias 3.15.10) which is natural enough when you consider that she is a goddess of life, and like Aphrodite, all life emerges from the watery depths. Our bodies are over seventy per cent water, and the fluids we release in sex have about them a whiff of the ocean to remind us where we came from. Love is an oceanic thing, deeper than we can comprehend. Love, at times, can be serene and beautiful, like the gentle, rocking waves spilling over the sandy beach in an eternal dance of life – yet at other times it can be torrential and destructive, those same waves threatening to engulf us and carry us down to our deaths. This doubling ambiguity is the hallmark of the goddess.

Not only does this suggest that Aphrodite’s nature embraces paradox – but it also hints at a possible reason why she was connected with the night.

Pausanias, never one to be accused of being a deep thinker, provided a straightforward explanation for her epikleseis Melainis “black” and Philopannux “night-loving”:

“This surname of the goddess is simply due to the fact that men do not, as the beasts do, have sexual intercourse always by day, but in most cases by night.” (8.6.5)

And indeed, that is true. Night-time is very conducive to love-making. People seek out the warmth of other bodies against the chill of the evening; they desire comfort and release after the stress of a long day; there is the practical consideration that two people sleeping in the same bed have more of an opportunity to engage in sex; shadows help conceal one’s otherwise noticeable physical shortcomings; it’s easier to slip about unseen under the cover of night if one is looking for some adventurous extramarital activities; and the dark is mysterious, romantic, and a little dangerous, all of which helps set the proper mood for love-making.

But there’s more to this – quite a bit more, in fact.

Most modern people don’t understand what real darkness is actually like. We live in electrical cities and there’s always a light on somewhere: street lamps, television sets, signs in empty buildings, distant traffic, airplanes flying overhead. We have lived with all of this for so long that we hardly even notice it most of the time. Even if we happen to find ourselves out in the wilderness – and suddenly notice the stars shining more brightly since they don’t have to compete with the haze of light from our urban settings – we know that we will soon be back to civilization and surrounded by the comforting omnipresent electrical glow of our cities.

But things were different for the ancients. Darkness was total, all-consuming, and even the light from candles and lamps was fairly dim by comparison, centered in a single spot, a pool of illumination in the midst of eternal darkness. Think about what that darkness must have been like for a moment.

During the day everything is distinct, separate. You can clearly see that this is this and that that, and navigate your way through the world of form easily. But when the darkness came – everything changed. It enveloped the world of creation, blurring things together in an undifferentiated mush of shadows and even darker shadows. You couldn’t see what lay before you – whether you were about to stumble over a rock or if a vicious creature lurked on the side of the road, preparing to tear your throat out. Nothing existed, for nothing could be seen. It was as if the world had been returned to its original primal state – a yawning chasm, chaos and emptiness, everything in a state of potentiality before the process of creation unfolded, as it would when the sun emerged once more and things became distinct, manifest, capable of being seen and navigated through.

This is what night and blackness meant to the ancients – and it is significant that they associated it with Aphrodite. For sex is a chaotic force. It frightens us, deep down. We feel that we are about to lose ourselves, that we are going to dissolve into an oceanic state of undifferentiatedness. The contours of our personality begin to shift, just as our body becomes united to another person’s, and in the throes of orgasm there is no thought for all of the things that make us who we think we are – our job, our politics, our religion, our status within the family and society, rules, inhibitions, fears, hopes, the foibles of our personality – all of this dissolves, fades into the background. All that we feel is the rush of sensation flooding our synapses, the intoxication of pleasure that drives us closer and closer to the edge of the abyss and the looming darkness beneath – and in climax we finally are pushed over the edge and plummet down, down, down into that perfect, primal, emptiness from which we first emerged into life.

That place is where life is. It is also where death is. It is the home of Aphrodite who straddles both spheres – because in truth, they are one and the same. Life is flowing out of the chasm – death is flowing back into it. But in time each stream will change its course and flow in the opposite direction. During the light of day we see these two as distinct – but in the darkness, and those things which remind us of darkness such as love, sex, creativity, madness, ecstasy, and being in the presence of the divine – we intuitively sense their connectedness. Life and death haunt each other – you can not draw close to one without finding yourself in the proximity of the other. When a child comes into this world, it is a dangerous time both for infant and mother with the potential for death looming over every second. From the decaying husk of a fallen log an ecosystem emerges supporting flowers and grass and fungi and insects and other animal life. A couple survives a car crash and for some inexplicable reason find themselves incredibly horny.

And Aphrodite watches over all of this and smiles.

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