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Posts Tagged ‘Strength’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A new blog focused on Ares, called Aspis of Ares, is up as of last weekend, and I am excited about it and will be following along faithfully except that, as is the case with many Blogspot blogs that use OpenID for commenting, I basically am unable to leave comments from the machine I usually use (and weirdly I cannot leave them as “Kullervo,” either). So I thought I would reformulate my thoughts on Peripatetic Pete’s blog in general and the issue he raised in his first post and post it here myself as a full-fledged blog post of my own.

Pete says:

I decided to dedicate a blog for Ares for a number of reasons. First is that, even in modern circles of Polytheists (Hellenic or otherwise), Ares gets a bad rap, and I want to discuss Him and his dominion and why it is important we continue to acknowledge and sacrifice to Ares. Second, there’s not much information available for the worship of Ares, modern or ancient, so I want to share my findings, musings, and UPG regarding practice. Third, since modern worshipers are few and far between, and online groups can be active only sporadically, I wanted to gather as many resources for Ares’ worship into one place.

On the one hand, it seems to me like bloggers with a strong bent towards Ares have been coming out of the woodwork lately (at the very least there’s me, Wednesday, and now Ophiokhos), so maybe there’s a change in the air, or at least a trend towards some kind of increasingly vocal minority.

On the other hand, you only need to glance through the pagan internet to see that a lot of people out there are very uncomfortable with Ares, don’t know how to approach him at all, or want absolutely nothing to do with him. Whether they ignore Ares, hostilely disparage him, or try to subvert him into some kind of symbolic god of moral struggle in the service of their favorite liberal political agenda, they do him an incredible disservice.

My thoughts on the reasons for Ares’s unpopularity are themselves demonstrably unpopular (given the knee-jerk reaction people have had when I have posted them in the past), but here they are:

(1) I think that for most modern western people, we live lives that are so insulated from the reality of war that even thinking of it as a real thing it makes us extremely uncomfortable. Make no mistake: war is with us, it has always been with us, and there is no indication that it will ever not be with us. We put it out of our minds easily because war is not happening right here, right now, and at the risk of spouting cliches, we often fail to remember the hard wars that have been waged and are currently being waged to try to keep it that way. And while I think fighting to keep our homes safe and peaceful is virtuous and noble, when there is a massive imbalance, virtue slides back into its enemy. We are lazy, weak, and complacent, and we resent the people who fight our wars far away because they remind us that war is real. What we have done inadvertently is to create an artificial world-within-a-world where we do not face the proximity of war, and that means we are cut off from what is honestly a fundamental facet of the human experience. In doing so, we have actually become less human–what an irony in how we talk about the dehumanizing effects of war, when freedom from war also dehumanizes us!–and consequently, we have distanced ourselves from the gods that reflect those parts of humanity.

(2) Ares is not only a god of war, but a god of manhood and masculinity, a concept that is not popular either: in much of modern cultural discourse, manhood either denigrated, ridiculed, conflated with boyhood, or dismissed as an entirely optional social construct that can be cast aside as a dysfunctional and useless relic in a modern enightened world. Or worse, masculinity is re-defined by the self-help crowd into something emasculated and more socially accpetable. I think this pattern closely connected to my point above: we inhabit an artificial and (in the long term) unsustainable sociocultural bubble of gross prosperity and opulence, where masculinity, and the pursuits associated with masculinity, are not necessary for individual, family or community survival. As long as we play along with our cultural milieu, we don’t really have to be manly in order to survive and protect and provide for our wives and children. But again, it means cutting ourselves off from our own humanity: by creating this social dystopia, we have isolated ourselves from part of what makes us human, and consequently from the gods–including most particularly Ares–that reflect that part.

(3) Ares is a god of physical courage, and we are a culture of physical cowards. For probably a dozen different related reasons, we have collectively granted ourselves permission to be weak, and have done our best to steadily re-engineer the rules and rewards of our culture in order to reflect that. Physical courage is now seen as unnecessary risk-taking, because the default position for far too many people is total spinelessness. And Ares stands squarely against that position, for men and women.

That’s what I think at least. Through our successes, we have swung too far beyond peace, safety and prosperity into complacency, neurosis and decadence, and we are less human because of it. And Ares, a stark reminder of what we have done to ourselves, shames us. We reject Ares because we are ashamed. And by the gods, we should be.

Hail Ares! Hail the fearsome lord of war, stormer of cities, feasted by women, who rallies fighting men and leads them brazen-armed into battle! Hail the golden-helmed master of the hounds! I give you praise and honor!

(Also, check out my other recent post about what Ares is all about)

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My top five favorite books of all time, in alphabetical order by author:

1. Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes: A dark carnival comes to a fictionalized Waukegan in a timeless October, bringing nightmares. It is a story about childhood and growing up, fathers and sons, friendship, and the good and evil in every one of us.

2. William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!: Unimaginably rich and mythic, a magnum opus about the South, chronicling Thomas Sutpen’s obsessive but doomed struggle to found–“tore violently a plantation”–an aristocratic dynasty in Mississippi before, during and after the Civil War, and about the destruction brought down on his bloodline and the land they inhabit as judgment that ripples through place and generations as a result. In the end, it is relentlessly a book about the dark places we should not go but that we ultimately cannot resist.

3. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: Lewis’s re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche is the most true book about God that I have ever read. It is the story of an ugly queen whose beautiful sister is taken from her by a god, and who unintentionally enacts her revenge on everyone around her by taking just as ruthlessly, until at last she is finally forced to come to terms with the true nature of herself and the Divine.

4. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove: An epic, episodic novel about a pair of grizzled ex-Texas Rangers and the men and boys they lead on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, for no reason at all, more or less, other than to be the first to be there. It is a powerful and poignant story about manhood, friendship, obligation, women, cattle and death. Uva uvam vivendo varia fit.

5. Jack Schaefer, Shane: A short but intense novel from a young boy’s perspective about a dark gunfighter who drifts into a Wyoming range war between farmers and an unscrupulous cattle baron. Shane is a cracking, fast-paced novel about courage, love, commitment, manhood and true strength.

6. T. H. White, The Once And Future King: A lush and quirky but immensely powerful retelling of the entire Arthurian legend. In a sense, there is nothing that this book is not about. If I had to give a boy only one book to live their life after, it would not be the Bible. It would be this book.

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Before you dismiss this post as just being about music and not spirituality (again), hang with me for a few minutes, because I’ll get there. “Pancho and Lefty” is a song written by Townes Van Zandt, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and like Jim Morrison, one of the tradition of young musicians who bit into something too intense somehow, too young, something too big for them to handle, and it raged through them, used them up, and left them dead too soon. If you haven’t listened to Townes Van Zandt much, shame on you.

This song is the kind of song that worms its way into your head and just gets more interesting the more you think about it. The lyrics have a gloss of conventionality, but it’s a trick–Van Zandt wrote a song that comes across as simple but is anything but. Once you get past the impression of the words, you see that the songwriting is far more complex and poetic. This is not a generic ballad. This is something interesting:

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath’s as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

Most interpretations of this song that I have encountered seem to assume that it is about two different people: Pancho, the Mexican bandit who is betrayed and killed by one of his own men, Jesse James-style, out in the desert, and Lefty, the one who killed him, who fled Mexico and settled down to an ordinary life in Cleveland, Ohio.

But I think they’re wrong. That’s much too easy, and it’s also not clear from the lyrics. Nobody heard his dying words. His death was told of by the poets, not the witnesses. Pancho “died” out in the desert, after a hard outlaw’s life, and then, from nowhere, this Lefty flees to Ohio. What’s Lefty fleeing from? Where did Lefty come into the picture? Was anyone chasing Lefty? Was anyone after him to get revenge? Does Lefty live his life nervously like the Ford brothers, reviled for killing a popular outlaw? The song says nothing about that.

That’s because Lefty is Pancho. Pancho let the poets tell of his death because it was the only way out. And he moved to Cleveland and lived under an assumed name and spent the rest of his life living in a cheap hotel with his demons and his regrets, wondering who he is and what could have been. And if anyone could have tracked him down, nobody tried too hard. They let him go because it was enough.

So what’s spiritual about this? Why does this matter? The thing is, this story is mythology. It’s not non-fiction, but there’s a bite and a life to it that crackles with something more than just a made-up story. It might not have actually happened, but it’s certainly true.

Wrapped up in this mythic ballad is some powerful stuff about strength, manhood, what it means to be human and alive, and living life close to the quick. More importantly, it’s about the hard choices that lead a man to give all of that up, and what’s left when he does, for better or for worse. There’s an authenticity to Pancho and Lefty that radiates significance because at the end of the day it cuts into the heart of the big things, the raw, the stuff that makes us remember we’re alive. And I say this over and over again, but that’s what spirituality is really about: making sense of mortality.

And then there’s this, from an interview with Van Zandt: “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it’s a real nice song, and I think I’ve finally found out what it’s about.” This song came to him from out of the blue. He put it to paper but he didn’t make it up. Don’t believe in the Mousai? This stuff comes from somewhere. Someone out there is trying to tell us something important and they are using people like Townes Van Zandt to do it.

Chew on that while you listen to a live version the song:

And then there’s the popular version by Willie Nelson and Merle haggard. Listen to it, too:

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Homeric Hymn 8 to Ares (translated by Evelyn-White):

Ares, exceeding in strength, chariot-rider, golden-helmed, doughty in heart, shield-bearer, Saviour of cities, harnessed in bronze, strong of arm, unwearying, mighty with the spear, O defender of Olympos, father of warlike Nike, ally of Themis, stern governor of the rebellious, leader of the righteous men, sceptred King of manliness, who whirl your fiery sphere among the planets in their sevenfold courses through the aither wherein your blazing steeds ever bear you above the third firmament of heaven; hear me, helper of men, giver of dauntless youth! Shed down a kindly ray from above upon my life, and strength of war, that I may be able to drive away bitter cowardice from my head and crush down the deceitful impulses of my soul. Restrain also the keen fury of my heart which provokes me to tread the ways of blood-curdling strife. Rather, O blessed one, give you me boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace, avoiding strife and hatred and the violent fiends of death.

I have been praying to Ares quite a bit lately. This is not a result of some personal mystical experience or powerful gnosis I have had. It’s just a growing understanding of the role that he plays in the human experience and in my life in particular. Ares gets painted in a pretty negative light in Homer, and Ares represents some powerful facets of humanity that are in extreme disfavor in modern liberal western society. But I think that by ignoring or downplaying Ares and the things that he represents, we have done ourselves a terrible disservice.

Ares is a god of war, and war is a part of being human. There has always been war, and there will always be war. Real paganism means dealing on a sacred level with the world as it really is: acknowledging and honoring all of the parts of human existence. War is violent and terrible, but it is part of who we are. By rejecting war entirely, we reject a part of humanity. I realize that this is a statement with strong implications, so I am willing to spell them out: I believe that real Paganism is completely incompatible with pacifism.

I utterly reject the notion that there are “different ways to be a warrior.” Social reformers and crusaders for justice are laudable and praiseworthy, and the struggles they face may well be like war, in a metaphorical sense, but it’s not war. They are warriors, metaphorically, not warriors, period. Ares is not the god of metaphorical wars; he is the god of physical violence, of blood and battle. Ares has no place for pacifists, and while he is also a god of strength and endurance and surely has respect for anyone who exhibits those characteristics, no matter the context, metaphorical warriors are not truly his.

Ares is also a god of manliness, of masculinity. As I said, he is a god of strength, power, and endurance, of mastery and skill. He is a god of those characteristics that men should exemplify at their finest. is a god of properly-channeled aggression, a god that knows anger but knows how to control his anger and save his wrath for the right time and the right place: thus there is nothing unusual about asking the god of war and anger for aid help to “abide within the harmless laws of peace.” Ares is not about being out of control. The experience of being out of control is the realm of his brother, Dionysus.

Ares is a god of courage. Fear and panic may be his children, but he expects us to act with strength and decisiveness even when we are faced with them. He does not expect us to be fearless, but he expects us to do what we have to do anyway.

Ares is a lover and protector of women. He makes women happy and women make him happy: Ares and Aphrodite are lovers for a reason, and their children include Harmony as well as Fear and Panic. While Dionysus teaches us that there is a place for exceptional individuals, unusual circumstances, and value in turning convention on its head, especially when it comes to gender expectations, that’s not what Ares is about. Ares shows us that there are expectations for manly behavior, that there are divine norms–not rigid, inflexible norms, but norms nonetheless–for how a pagan man is supposed to act.

I worship Ares: I pour libations to him, I make offerings to him, I sing his hymns. He inspires me to act with strength and courage, to be decisive, and to be bold. He is a god who is truly worthy of worship–so much more than the hateful, spiteful, unworthy portrayal that we see in the Iliad–and in worshipping him I find fulfillment.

Hail terrible, warlike Ares! Hail bronze-armed, spear-wielding stormer of cities who rallies fighting men and leads them to battle! Hail murderous, manslaying, bloody-handed Ares! Hail Ares the switft, the strong, and the violent! Hal abundant Ares, feasted by women! Hear my prayers and accept my offerings!

(Note: Over at Aspis of Ares, Pete Helms tackles some of this stuff unsurprisingly well)

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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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