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Posts Tagged ‘Language’

I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, which meant that I had very few Mormon friends and many if not most of the people I went to school with were some kind of evangelical Christian. I often secretly envied them.

Even so the words and phrases they used to talk about their faith often really bugged me. It was so alien, and so off-putting.

Turns out those words and phrases were almost always actually from the Bible.

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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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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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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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My problem when dealing with the existence of God isn’t about logic or reason, it’s about experience.  All my life I have been taught that you can talk to God through prayer like you can talk to a person, and that God will answer.  But I haven’t seen it happen in my life.  I’ve never felt like there was someone “on the other line,” and I’ve never felt answers to my prayers that were more than near-imperceptible subtleties, or “confirmations” of what I wanted to do anyway.

I was thinking, though… one of my issues is that I’m expecting God to reply to me in the same way that I speak to him, i.e. with words or something approximate.  I wonder is, assuming the existence of God, my expectation isn’t a tad unrealistic.

I mean, we’re talking about God here, right?  We’re talking about something that’s too big to wrap our minds around, and I’m expecting it to use human language?  I’m a law student with some linguistics background; I should know as well as anyone that human language is not really a very perfect method of communication.  Why would God resort to an imperfect and highly problematic method of communication when he ahs all existence to work with?  He’s not limited the way we are, so why should he restrict himself to the limits we’re subject to?

A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say, and symbol can speak so much louder than words.  They may be  problematic in their own way, and harder to understand, but they can carry so much more meaning, and deeper, multileveled meaning, than words can.

Maybe that’s the problem with scripture- you have someone trying to hammer concepts into words that aren’t really made to be expressed in words.  Anyway, my point is that God isn;t a person, so why should I expect God to communicate with me the way a person does?

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