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Posts Tagged ‘Venus’

There’s an excellent opinion piece at the New York Times by Sean Kelly on polytheism’s place in walking the road between Fanaticism and Nihilism.

Drawing heavily on Nietzche, Kelly discusses the waning role of objective, monotheist religious consensus in defining our social norms. We are quickly reaching the point where it is difficult for a rational, educated critically-thinking person to believe that a single, objectively knowable, unified supernatural moral order emanating from a single, all-powerful sovereign creator god is an unquestionably correct foundation to build society and give human existence meaning. Certainly we are past the point where a majority of people in our society can confidently claim that. On the most basic level, we are simply confronted too often with the reality of good people who believe different things to maintain the fantasy that there is only one true way to be good and right.

We are often cautioned by the religious that the alternative to monomorality is nihilism: if there is no sovereign god to set the rules, define meanings, reward the good and punish the evil, then there are no rules and there is no morality and we will have no choice but to descend into chaos and madness and a violent maelstrom of murder, cannibalism, rape and suicide until we are utterly annihilated.

And while the extremes of that scenario are unreasonably alarmist, I think the concern that nihilism is the alternative to monotheism is a legigimate concern. Particularly for a society that has held onto a dichotomy-worldview for centuries. When you have grown up believeing that the only alternative to the God of Israel os meaninglessness and despair, it is easy to slip into meaningless and despair when you lose the God of Israel. While this does not necessarily mean an orgy of destruction, it may mean depression and moral loss. While believeing in nothing may not mean you go on a killing spree, it is sort of easy to start justifying lesser immoral and even evil self-serving deeds.

So what’s the alternative?

Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived. The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped. Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.

Kelly goes on to describe this way of life that finds meaning and fulfillment in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” polytheism, and I think he is not wrong. Melville may not have been describing the Olympians, but I think he was only a stone’s throw from them. When we sacralize the fundamental mysteries and values of human experience–which is what Melville was talking about and what I understand to be the essence of real paganism–it honestly does not matter if we name them or not.

I believe that the gods are real personalities that have some kind of existence of their own. But I think that reality is not actually very far removed from the pieces of human existence that those gods are related to. In other words, while I do not believe that Aphrodite is merely a metaphorical anthromorphization of human love, I do think there is a fundamental closeness and a fundamental union between Aphrodite the goddess and the emotional experiential phenomenon of love. There’s a blur at the edges where the real gives way to the super-real, and somewhere within those borders we find the gods.

And while I think that a person can find happiness and meaning in “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country” as things in themselves, I think that the desire to engage with those things in a sacred way, to relate to the things that are most important and give our existence meaning in a way that is transcendant, because those very things by their very natures straddle the line between immanent and transcendant. They seem weightier than other things. Human intuition senses enhanced meaning and wants to make contact with it in some kind of fitting way.

Thus, I believe that Melville’s polytheism is a road that eventually leads to some kind of real polytheism. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with the New Age movement. It doesn’t even need to be connected with ancient paganism, although I suspect that at least connecting this new polytheism to the old polytheism, those gods of old that have held such power over our imaginations for so long despite the intellectual monopoly of monotheism, would yield an incredibly rich spiritual harvest, and might be the kind of thing that happens inevitably.

I think that this kind of Melvillian polytheism is probably developing spontaneously anyway. People increasingly identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and I think that identification has nothing to do with belief in a supernatural otherworld that exists in tandem with the physical world and everythign to do with an intuitive recognition that there is profound meaning and spiritual sustenance to be found in the fundamentals of human experience. Whether we worship a pantheon of gods or not, we as human beings experience the transcendent all the time. Life and death are everywhere, and I believe that there is an intuitive need to sacralize it somehow. Believing in the gods, engaging in spiritual practices and theology gives us a way to talk about that and a way to interact with it within a structure, and ultimately to develop a deeper connection to those things we feel that we feel; are important. But even without that structure, the fundamental recognition of meaning and fulfillment in basic human existence is still a thoroughly pagan experience.

As a side-note: Hrafnkell wrote some commentary on Kelly’s piece from a heathen perspective over on A Heathen’s Day. You should check it out.

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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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Today is Thursday, which means it is my day to pray to and worship Aphrodite (though truth be told, I pray to and worship Aphrodite much more often than just on Thursdays). Today I spent time meditating on the birth of the goddess, and then I offered my typical prayers, hymns, and offerings. When I was finished, it occured to me to do a tarot reading about my relationship with the goddess, so I sat down with my cards, I invoked Apollo as the god of oracles and prophecy, and I asked for the cards to reveal to me the nature of my relationship with the goddess, past, present, and future. This was the spread I laid out:

Ten of Cups (Reversed) Page of Wands (Reversed) Nine of Swords

(In case those links ever expire, those are the Ten of Cups reversed, the Page of Wands reversed, and the Nine of Swords).

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of it. The first card, the reversed Ten of Cups, makes sense. After my initial contact with the goddess, which blew me away and filled me with warmth, light, and love, my continued spiritual floundering has left the fulness of spiritual joy represented by the Ten of Cups, that I feel can be available to me through Aphrodite, has been truncated and stunted. My own hemming and hawing, whatever my reasons, has kept me from having the joy in the goddess that I might otherwise have had. Nothing odd or unexpected there.

Its the reversed Page of Wands and the Nine of Swords that have me troubled. The Page came up ecently in an extremely important reading I did for myself, and at the moment I am sort of getting ready to embark on a path of (spiritual) action: a very definite journey of spiritual work that I think the Page represents. So why is he reversed? Am I doing something wrong?

And the Nine of Swords? What does that mean? That my Page-of-Wands journey is ill-considered and abortive and will lead to regret and hearbreak, at least as far as the goddess is concerned? Or is the whole thing a warning? Could it not be saying that my present quest is in fact corrupted and askew, but that if I do embark on it like I have planned, but then I let it fall by the wayside, if I am lazy about it, then it will end in sorrow and tragedy, and a possible loss of relationship with the goddess altogether?

In other words (because I know I am being cryptic and confusing), is the reading telling me something definite or conditonal? Is it warning me that my present course is distorted and cowardly, and will result in anguish, or is it warning me that if I veer from my present course–reverse the Quest, in other words–that it will lead to anguish? It seems a bit vague about something that is kind of important.

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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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william-adolphe-bouguereau-the-birth-of-venus

To honor Aphrodite, Sannion has put up three goddess-related posts on his Livejournal, and as I am myself a devotee of the Cyprian, I wanted to share them with my readers. First, he shares a meditation he wrote on the cosmic significance of Aphrodite:

We think of her primarily in connection with our courtships and pleasant dalliances – and she is certainly there. But she is also a cosmic goddess (Aphrodite Ourania), driving on the heavenly bodies in their eternal dance through the bleakness of space, and she is the force that bonds communities together on both the familial and political level (Aphrodite Pandemos), and she governs form itself (Aphrodite Morpho), for all bodies are a collection of random molecules following an ordered pattern, and without her influence they would spin off into nothingness. And no less importantly, Aphrodite is the source for our yearning for the immaterial, for something greater than ourselves, something spiritual, eternal, beyond what we can see, and feel, quantify and categorize. The mystic fervently praying for union with god, the poet dreaming of another world, the philosopher seeking to plumb the mysteries of the universe – are not all of these, in their own way, under the spell of Aphrodite?

It is love that makes life worth living, love that allows us to conceive of “life” as something more than just biological existence, love that opens our eyes and hearts to the wonder of existence and fills us with a longing for more and more of it, until our souls are quenched and our being spills over with an abundance of experiences and emotions and everything else that makes us human and more than human.

I think there’s more to it than that, even, especially when you consider that some myths of the birth of Aphrodite have her emerge from the sea, spawned by the severed genitalia of Uranus himself. Aphrodite emerges from the most primal of cosmic sources (both from the ur-god of the universe and from the sea i.e. the murky and mysterious origin of life on earth), moreso than any of the other Olympian gods or goddesses, and that can be neither mere coincidence nor quirky, meaningless tale. As a goddess she is fundamentally connected to the primordial cosmos and the beating heart of what it means to be alive and a part of the universe.

Sannion’s next post of the day is an exploration of conceptions of Aphrodite in Greco-Roman Egypt, a natural place for him to go since he’s pretty much explicitly a Greco-Egyptian syncretist. Although I myself am not, I do think there is a lot of insight to be gained from ancient Egyptian religion, especially for a worshipper of the Hellenic gods. In any case, Sannion focuses on the funerary aspect of Aphrodite. As usual, I am interested in any conception of the goddess that goes beyond pigeonholing her as a living embodiment of Valentine’s Day (especially since I originally came to know Aphrodite in her aspect as a goddess of war). I think one of the trickiest things about the Hellenic gods in general is that most of them have an easy handle as “the god of [something],” and it is easy to forget that they are all complicated, multifaceted figures with diverse personalities, correspondences, and significances. Sannion explains, however, how these different conceptions and seemingly diverse or even unrelated aspects can be tied together:

Concerns with death are an organic outgrowth of being a goddess so intimately, so fundamentally connected with the processes of life. (You can’t have one without the other, and if you dig deep enough you’ll discover why.) The abundance of life that is her blessing was so great, so powerful that it could transcend the artificial boundaries of death – opening up onto an even greater fullness of life. This was done by aligning themselves with her, by becoming suffused with her divine identity until it was their own… [s]tuff like this really makes you wonder.

Finally, Sannion treats us with a description of his visit to a rose garden as intentional worship of the goddess:

As I walked down the rows and rows of flowers I was struck by the beauty and complexity of nature – and how much Aphrodite is involved in all of it. I mean, why are there so many different colors of flowers? It serves no definite purpose … except that it does, really. Seduction. The flowers are trying to attract the plump little bees to come and rub up against them so that their pollen will spread and their species survive. And further, they’ve learned to produce colors that appeal to us humans so that we will plant more of them and protect them and ensure that they thrive. I kept flashing back to things that Michael Pollan had said in Botany of Desire (which is a really great book that you should read if you haven’t already) and how charming Aphrodite was behind it all. I mean, those flowers first sprang up when her delicate feet touched the earth as she rose from the waters in primordial times…

So, I just sat there blissing out and overwhelmed with gratitude, and then all of a sudden I could feel Aphrodite, and she was so warm and beautiful and loving and soft, and I basked in her presence for a while, feeling so peaceful and content and happy.

The way he describes Aphrodite pierces me to the center of my heart because I know the feelings he is describing so intimately. Whatever the true nature of the gods is, I am certain that they are at least in some sense real in a way that transcends the individual’s purely subjective experience. While different people experience different facets of the same deity at different times, there seems ot be just too much that really is the same about people’s experiences. Sannion and I are tapping into the same force or presence, whatever we want to call it. She is real, and she is powerful, and she exists at the very quick of what it means to be a human being:

That is who Aphrodite is – one of the greatest and most important goddesses that man has ever known.

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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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So, I don’t really like just praying off into the air. I like to have a depiction or a statue or something. My shrine to Aphrodite features a framed photo of William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s La Naissance de Vénus, which I think is beautiful, powerful, and erotic–in short, perfect for the goddess. But I just can’t find a picture or painting of Dionysus that really captures the power, passion, and majesty that have surrounded my experiences with him. I am not sure what to do about this, because I feel like my relationship with the god is suffering because I find it difficult to pray to him, compared to Aphrodite–her shrine makes her much more accessible to me.

Also, the Judeo-Christian sin of “idolatry” is basically a Hebrew polemic. Nobody really actually thinks that the image of the god is in fact the god (except for pantheists and panentheists who believe their god(s) permeate everything and thus the image is a part of their god like everything else is, but that is not actually the same thing). In my opinion, Biblical condemnations of idolatry were a willful misrepresentation of the religious practices of ancient pagans–basically amounting to nothing more than religious propaganda, deliberately obscuring the subtleties in order to condemn and other-ize.

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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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