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Posts Tagged ‘Hera’

This morning, as my beautiful and sexy wife and I were lazing in bed, avoiding getting up and starting the day, our two wild beasts, by which I mean “children,” climbed (inevitably) into bed with us and started acting rambunctiously. I called them the beasts that they are, which my five-year-old son thought was hilarious, and so he proceeded to describe himself, dramatically, as a beast.

“I’m bigger than a house!” he growled, “Bigger than a temple!”

I tensed immediately and sat up. Where did that come from? I asked curtly, “What do you mean, a temple?”

“You know,” he replied “like the temple of Zeus and Hera.”

I smiled and relaxed and settled back down into my pillow. Mission accomplished.

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As I mentioned earlier this year, I am officiating at my sister-in-law’s wedding. To this end, I have written a nice, broadly nonsectarian spiritual-but-not-religious ceremony (from which I will post excerpts probably after the wedding), and I have done a bit of work to look the part. I bought a black suit (I needed a new suit anyway, as I am in a suit-wearing career), and even a clergy shirt with a tab collar (from Mercy Robes–great people to deal with by the way).

I’m not going to lie; I look smashing in my clerical duds, but I used the phrase “look the part” intentionally above. In my black suit and clergy collar, I don’t feel like a cleric; I feel like I am wearing a cleric’s costume. And I don’t want to feel like that, because all silliness aside, I take this kind of thing seriously. I’m not going to be playing a priest on TV; I am a priest. I don’t need an organization to validate my faith or my earnestness in acting in the name of the gods, and even if I did, I’ve got that in the bag.

What’s missing from the equation is my faith. Now, the wedding is not about me, and to my knowledge, nobody at this wedding shares my spiritual leanings to even the remotest degree. But if I’m going to perform the ceremony, my authority comes from my gods, whether I name them by name or not.

So to tack a short ending on a long story, I talked my mother into making me a clerical stole to wear over my black suit, in plain white, with peacock feathers for Hera, the goddess of marriage. I will be in her service when I perform this wedding, and I want to show it. But subtly, and tastefully. Because it’s not my wedding, after all. But if anybody asks, I’ll not hesitate to tell them: peacock feathers are a symbol of Hera, the goddess of marriage. But it doesn’t need to go further than that. The gods are a part of all of our cultural heritage, whether we call ourselves pagans or not.

So here’s my stole. It was sweet of my mother to make it for me, and on insanely short notice. She is both talented and skilled. The picture quality s not fantastic, but I will post a picture of me all dressed up soon.

Thanks, Mom.

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Quick English lesson for everyone. The word “God” is only capitalized when it is being used as a proper noun, not when it is used as a common noun. Capitalizing “God” but not “gods” is not a monotheist slight against polytheism that implies that Yahweh should be given some sort of orthographic reverence that all of the other gods don’t get. It’s purely because monotheists use the word “God” as Yahweh’s proper name.

This is exactly the same as the capitalization of the words “mom” and “dad.” When I write to you, “my dad bought me a unicorn,” I do not capitalize it. When I write to my brother, “Dad bought me a unicorn,” I capitalize it. I capitalize it when I am using it as a proper name. Ditto with “God” and “Goddess.” When you’re talking about someone named “Goddess,” you capitalize it. When you’re talking about someone else who just so happens to be a goddess, you don’t.

This is not oppression or lack of respect to the gods of polytheist religions. This is just how the English language works when you write it.

So, the following sentences are written correctly:

“I pray to God.”
“I pray to the gods.”
“Hera is a goddess.”
“Yahweh is a god.”
“Wiccans revere the Goddess.”
“Jim Morrison is God.”

And yes, that means the following sentence is also written correctly:

“My favorite god is God.”

The same goes for other words used as proper names for assored deities. This is why we capitalize “the Lord” when referring to Yahweh but not “a lord” when referring to an aristocrat in general. But when you directly address that aristocrat by his title–and manners dictate that you should–you call him “Lord,” capitalized. You might capitalize “Lord” when it is part of a title, such as in a deity’s honorific, but not when used descriptively. So therefore while you might say “Zeus is Lord of the Heavens,” and capitalize it, you would also say “Zeus is the lord of many awesome things, including, inter alia, lightning, meting out justice, Mount Olympus, fatherhood and the heavens” and not capitalize it.

Of course, the exceptions to this rule of capitalization are the same as with any other word. Continue to capitalize the common noun, “god” when you use it in the title of a work, such as Kerenyi’s The Gods of the Greeks or Gaiman’s American Gods (by the same token, do not capitalize it when you use those same phrases in sentences, such as, “the gods of the Greeks were sexually active,” and “money and celebrities are truly American gods”). Also, capitalize it when it’s the first word in a sentence, like always.

Overcapitalization is a sin punishable by ridicule and mockery.

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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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Taking a suggestion from the now-defunct (but excellent and accessible) Sponde: Hands-On Hellenism website, I decided to put together a personal calendar for prayer and worship. The idea was really to just get started and dive in, rather than to agonize over just the right way to set it all up. I can tinker later if I feel I need to, but nobody’s looking over my shoulder to tell me I’m doing it wrong (well, other than the gods). I have spent so much time dragging my feet and procrastinating getting serious about this, that it has been so refreshing to just get something down in a concrete form and start practicing. So, here’s how it stands at the moment: each day of the week I say prayers and make offerings to one (or two) specific gods and/or goddesses. I chose the gods that I did because of a combination of their personal meaning to me and their applicability to me (so, I chose Aphrodite and Dionysus because of significant mystical experiences, and I chose Zeus and Herakles because of their significance as household gods).

Monday: Herakles
Tuesday: Zeus
Wednesday: The Divine Twins (Apollo and Artemis)
Thursday: Aphrodite
Friday: Dionysus
Saturday: Hermes

Sunday is my day to choose a different god or goddess, for whatever reason, so I can rotate in whomever I need to (or even offer the odd prayer to Odin every now and then). In addition to my daily devotions, I add some other regular and irregular prayers and offerings. First, every morning, I light the tart burner in the living room (our hearth I guess–the trend among Hellenic polytheists seems to be to substitute the kitchen, but it just doesn’t seem central to our home) and say a short prayer to Hestia. Also, thanks to a reminder from my beautiful and sexy Christian wife who Pagan-pWn3d me, another prayer to Hestia goes at the end of the day when we blow the candle out to go to bed.

Second, when the opportunity arises, I also plan on praying to Hera with my awesome and incredibly supportive wife. I feel like it is important to pray to Hera as a couple, except maybe when you go to her with a specific particular concern. But general praise and honor seems like it makes the most sense coming from both of us, united and desperately in love despite our different beliefs. Third, since I do a fair amount of hiking and tramping about the woods, I plan on offering at least a quick prayer each to Dionysus, Pan, and Artemis whenver I do so. Finally, I will pray and pour out libations to the other gods and goddesses whenever appropriate (to Ares when I am headed out to military service, for example), and also in the context of seasonal rituals and celebrations, which are still seriously under construction.

So far, it has been pretty fulfilling. I feel like my faith is becoming better integrated into my life, even though what I do doesn’t really take up much in terms of time and effort. It gives me a sense of calm and of spiritual accomplishment, like I am building a real and meaningful relationship with the gods instead of just thinking about building a relationship with them.

I’m also thinking about composing a kind of set of written devotions/rituals to the gods that I pray to and worship, soemthing for me to use in my daily devotions but that will also let me change things up a bit. A sort of rotating program of Hymns and Devotions, maybe three to each god/dess in sets, one for each week to go in a three-week cycle. As I write them, I will post them here on the blog.

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I have thought a great deal about Hera over the past few months, and I must say that I am developing some fairly intense spiritual feelings about her. So intense that it’s like my heart can’t really pin them down. They’re too overwhelming for me to really be able to contain, so it’s like they slip out of my emotional fingers all of the time.

I haven’t spent much time in prayer or worship to Hera, and I have not made many sacrifices or libations to her. I think I need to change that, because I feel like Hera exerts a powerful influence on my family.

This is a spiritual experience that is different from what I have encountered with other gods and goddesses, because it relates to my whole family. Thus, I as an individual soul I am only tangental to Her presence, as opposed to the deeply personal way I have experienced Aphrodite and Dionysus.

On the other hand, I have the distinct impression that Hera is deeply and much more personally involved with my beautiful and sexy wife. When I see her in her gently soft but powerfully strong role as a wife and a mother, I feel Hera’s power crackle around her like some kind of divine lightning (a deliberately-chosen simile).

One odd thing is the extent to which I feel that Hera is a mother-goddess as much or more than (or perhaps as an inseparable part of) she is a goddess of marriage and of wives. This isn’t really a particularly significant aspect of Hera in classical sources, which is why it’s odd. Usually Demeter is the goddess most closely associated with motherhood.

I ran across one possible explanation on one of the Hellenic Polytheist fora I frequent (I’d love to give credit where credit is due,but for the life of me I can not remember where it was): someone explained that Aphrodite, Demeter, and Hera are all goddesses of Sex, Motherhood, and Marriage (the three are intimately connected, after all), but with each of the three goddesses, one of those aspects is primary and the others are tertiary.

If that is so, then perhaps my impression of Hera is not so odd (or heretical… a “Hera-sy?”) after all. It is possible that my wife and family have a specific connection to Hera that transcends her most typical godly attributes. I’m not necessarily claiming that we are special to Hera or chosen by her for favor (although given our stable family life and happy marriage it does seem like she has blessed us richly), but just that our relationship with her is particular and unique, in the way that all meaningful relationships are.

In any case, I find myself wanting to honor and worship Hera much more than ever before, and ideally to do so as a family, in response to the incredible blessings she has given us.

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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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Or, other ways of explaining the experiences I have had…

So, having personally experienced the presence of two separate divine figures–Dionysus and Aphrodite–I immediately assumed that the next step was Hellenistic Reconstructionist Polytheism.  Simply put, it didn’t work.  I have an intuition about where to go from here, but I am still assuming some kind of variation of ful polytheism, that (probably, I guess, more-or-less) multiple distinct gods exist and can interact with human beings.  But that is not the only possible explanation–there are others.

Before Aphrodite came on the scene, I realized that in many ways the story of Dionysus has stong parallels to the story of Jesus.  I recognized the possibility that I was getting at Jesus through Dionysus somehow, that Dionysus was a pagan step on the path to Jesus Christ.  This would definitely be consistent with C. S. Lewis’s assertion that you have to learn to be a good pagan before you can learn to be a good Christian.  Even with Aphrodite in the mix, this isn’t out of the question–Aphrodite, a divine female figure, could easily be a shadow of Mary or of the Mormon Heavenly Mother.  I’m not sure what to make of all of this, though.  My intuition says that my experiences with Aphrodite have been too… much like Aphrodite, too sexual and too warlike, to seem like a plausible aspect of a Christian divine female.  In any case, I think that if my paganism is a step on the road to ultimate conversion to Christianity, it’s more of a wait-and-see thing than a suddenly-realize-it-was-Jesus thing.  I’m not closed ot the possibility that I’m really talking about Jesus after all, but I’m also not really convinced.

Another thing I am acutely aware of is the fact that I really haven’t strongly experienced the reality of more than two deities–Dionysus and Aphrodite.  I could certainly be dealing with a male/female dualism, which is a hallmark of Wicca’s fertility religion, and probably some other variations of paganism aswell.  Even to the extent that I have intuition about other deities–Hera, Zeus, and Odin–I might simply be talking about various masks or manifestations of an ultimare divine male principle and an ultimate divine female principle.  I am also open to this interpretation.  Although my immediate reaction is to reject it, I realize that the rejection might be a knee-jerk product of my long-standing prejudice against Wicca and my age-old belief (really a product of Mormonism) that only Reconstructionist paganism–marked by decidedly hard polytheism–is valid and legitimate.  And furthermore, I don’t necessarily believe in magic (hmm… future post?  you can count on it), or feel any desire to practice any kind of magic as a part of my spiritual life.

At the moment, those seem like the most significant and plausible alternate hypotheses.  On the other hand, my spiritual life is still growing and developing in its infancy, and so whether my hard/soft polytheism or one of these alternates hapens to be true may not ultimately wind up mattering.  For now I am going to act the same way towards the gods regadless of what they really are and how they relate to each other.  Most important to me right now in terms of my spiritual development is how I experience them and how they relate to me.

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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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