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Posts Tagged ‘Wisdom’

In Euripedes’s the Bacchae, Dionysus, god of wine, intoxication, madness and the revel rolls into Thebes with a train or crazed maenads in tow. Thebes is Dionysus’s homeland, although that is not widely known. The Thebans go out to the wilderness to join in the frenzied worship, dressing the part and dancing the dances and partaking in the mad rites of the god. All of the Thebans, that is, except Pentheus, the king of Thebes and a cousin of the god, who is livid. To Pentheus, the god is a pretender, an interloper and a chartlatan who disrupts the social order, makes fools out of wise men, and makes the women of Thebes act… inappropriately. Pentheus fobids the worship of Dionysus, and orders the arrest of anyone who gets involved.

Pentheus has Dionysus detained and brought before him, and he peppers the god with questions in a scene not at all unlike Jesus before Pontius Pilate, and Dionysus gives the same kind of wise but evasive answers that we see Jesus give centuries later in the gospels. Pentheus is unhappy that Dionysus’s answers are not more clear to him, so he has the god imprisoned. Of course, Dionysus escapes easily; he’s a god after all, and in the process, he reduces Pentheus’s palace to flames and rubble.

Angry but curious, Pentheus is tricked by Dionysus into going out to see the maenads, and Dionysus inflicts madness on Pentheus because Pentheus fought against the god’s worship. The frenzied maenads tear Pentheus to pieces, and the king’s own mother parades his head through the streets, unaware that she holds the head of her son.

This is a work of profound spiritual and theological importance. If you have not read it, you need to.

Inside each one of us is a dark side, a shadow to the Jungians, a part of us that needs to break free from our bonds, break all the rules, go crazy, be wild, be drunk, and in short, to transgress the boundaries of civilization. That part of us can be tamed and channeled, but never destroyed and never completely suppressed.

Dionysus calls to that part of us—he is the living embodiment of that dark, beautiful and terrible shard of the human soul. When we give in to it, we are his. But Dionysus is not a jealous god! It is enough that we, like the Thebans, go out to meet him and join in the revel every now and then. Our shadows need to be expressed but they can be expressed deliberately, channeled into appropriate and healthy pursuits.

We don’t need to let our shadows devour us: that would be the end of civilization and the end of virtue, and that’s not, as a general statement, what Dionysus wants from us at all. He certainly does not demand it. But we have to give our shadows a place in our lives. We have to entertain Dionysus in order to stay healthy and balanced. Because when we suppress our shadows, war against our shadows, pretend they are not there—when we imprison Dionysus and threaten those who do give him the honor he deserves—we do so futilely and at our own peril.

Dionysus is a god; he will not be imprisoned. He will not be defeated. The god of breaking bonds will never be bound. And if we, like Pentheus, refuse to admit Dionysus into our lives, the results will be catastrophic. Dionysus will have his way with us one way or another. The choice is ours: either we give honor to Dionysus on our own terms, or he compels us to give honor to him. And he is a god who knows no limits. Dionysus does not use safe words or designated drivers.

When we suppress our shadows they gnaw at us from the inside, and they tear us apart just as Dionysus tore the king’s palace apart. Healthy appetites become unhealthy obsessions. When we do not engage with our shadows, our shadows make ever-greater demands from us; our psyches fester in ever-deeper darkness. And eventually, we lose. Eventually, because we refuse to bend to Dionysus, we are broken by him. The results are ugly, and they leave a wake of victims. Pentheus ended up dismembered and decapitated by his mother; the psychosexual implications are not accidental.

So we party. We dance. We fuck. We drink. We fight. We let our hair down and have a good time when good times are called for because we have to. Its built in to who we are. If we think we can suppress those urges all the time and conquer that part of us completely we are fooling ourselves, and the script for our destruction has already been written, centuries ago.

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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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My belief in the gods is based largely on two things: 1. I find them compelling enough to believe in, and 2. I have experienced their presence, existence, and sometimes even immanence. Not so with Athena. Of all of the major Hellenic gods, Athena has just never seemed that real to me. She’s the goddess of civilization and wisdom, and as an almost-lawyer, she should probably even be my patron, but she just seems nonexistent. At the risk of being impious, I have even siggested on a number of occasions that I thought maybe she wasn’t actually real at all. Maybe the Athenians made her up in some kind of self-serving bid for a patron goddess they could make in their own image.

I mentioned it again today, in a series of text messages to my brother. Recently he ran for class president at his law school, and lacking any other real religious direction of his own, but also not really a commited atheist, he decided what-the-hellishly to pray for help from my gods. Among others (Hermes and Nike I think), he made an offering to Athena. He was a bit disappointed when he lost, and it wasn’t much of a religious conversion moment for him (the Hellenic gods didn’t come through for him, so he has been soured a bit as far as future faith goes). I tried to console him by suggesting that perhaps Athena did not answer his prayer because she is not real.

That was this afternoon, while I was hiking in the woods. Later this evening, I went running around the apartment complex. It was after dark, which is normal for me; I go running at night around the compex all the time, as it is challengingly hilly and conveniently one mile around. Furthermore, while I was running, I was talking on the phone. To my brother.

Suddenly this big bird flies down from behind a lamp-post. And not just any bird. An owl. A big gray owl flies from behind a lamp-post, right over my head, no more than four feet above me, and then flies past me and into a tree, sending terrified little birds scattering.

Now, I realize that owls probably live around here, even though I have never personally seen one. And I realize that I might be just engaging in magical thinking, or making connections that are not really there. But on the very day that I suggest the nonexistence of Athena, a member of a pantheon of gods whose existence I otherwise heartily affirm, I get a fly-by by a big owl. The symbol of Athena. The only time I have ever seen an owl in the wild in my entire life.

My brother pointed out a very real possibility: “Maybe Athena just isn’t interested in you.” Good call, bro.

I hereby publicly apologize to Athena for my impiety. I pledge to never again suggest or imply her nonexistence, and at the next opportunity I will make an offering to her to make up for being a pompous, arrogant mortal.

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I have been giving some thought to theology as of late. I know I think about and talk about religion all the time; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is giving thought to my own theology in a constructive way. Something more than “ZOMG I just don’t know what I believe.” The thing is, I am starting to actually figure out what I do believe, and I am starting to think about how to put all of the pieces together. So here goes:

My philosophical foundation is essentially Advaita Vedanta. I have read the Baghavad Gita and the Upanishads and I am blown away by them. When I read from those texts, I feel like I am hearing the voice of God–not “god’ as in a divine being, but GOD, the entire universe, the ultimate divine reality that is all things and is beyond all things. I believe that everything is a part of this ultimate reality, but that in total it is something entirely beyond out conception. Nothing is like God, and so no analogy or metaphor could possibly do God justice. The differences we perceive, the identities we imagine ourselves as having, are all ultimately illusions. The world of sense objects and empirical data is basically an illusion, called maya. On one level, the creation of the universe as we know it was the creation of this illusion of separateness. Maya is practically necessary for us to function, but it is nevertheless illusory, and it can mislead us powerfully.

In the deepest parts of our own consciousness, we are one with everything, even the gods. But we spend most of our time identifying ourselves as the tips of the fingers, as entirely bound in the world of the five senses. When we dream we withdraw into our own consciousness, which is further back but still a world of deceptive distinction. In dreamless sleep we come closer to our essential oneness, which the Hindus call Atman, the Self that is all-self, the ultimate divine reality of Brahman.

From a practical standpoint, however, this knowledge or philosophy doesn’t do much. Maya is powerful, and it is difficult to even be sure of the Atman, much less to be able to fully identify with it. Because we are out on the branches, functioning in the practical maya-divided world of sense and identity, we need to be able to thing in those terms, even when we think about divinity. The Hindu Vedanta thinkers do this, but their gods are culturally alien to me. Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, and Shiva are extremely interesting, sure, but they are not compelling to me the same way that Zeus, Aphrodite, and Odin are. And furthermore, the gods I have had personal contact with are decidedly Western.

So instead of thinking about divinity in terms of Indian myth, I choose to think about it in terms of the mythology that is compelling and accessible to me, and as an American of Western European descent, that basically points the way to three clusters of myth-tradition: the Celtic/Arthurian, the Norse/Germanic, and the Greek/Classical. The former two are the mythologies of my genealogical ancestors, and the latter is the mythology of my cultural ancestors. These three mythologies are extremely powerful to me. Their gods have spoken to me. I believe that their stories point to the ultimate divine truth that unifies and unites all of reality and that fundamentally explains and gives meaning to my existence.

In these mythologies, I find inspiration, wisdom, a guide to behavior, and a tangible connection to divinity. These are the gods that speak to me, and so when I try to connect to the Ultimate, these gods are my mediators. Why do I need mythology and mediator gods? I guess I could theoretically do without them, but practically, that’s not what my brain is hard-wired to do. And I need something practical that can serve as a kind of stepping stone towards the ultimate.

Even so, belief in these mythologies doesn’t fully carve out a path of action, at least spiritually speaking. I need a set of spiritual practices to serve as a vehicle to take me through the triple-lens of these mythologies and ultimately back to the Divine Self that lies behind everything. For that, I think I have chosen Revival Druidry. Revival Druidry is flexible enough to accommodate the theology I have constructed, and it gives me practices that take me places spiritually that I want to go. I intend to start with the AODA’s first-year curriculum, which includes meditation, regular celebration of the seasons and the position of the sun, and care for the environment leading to an increased awareness of my place in the natural world. In addition, I will probably do some extensive work on poetry.

Vedanta is the philosophy, my three chosen mythologies are together the conceptual lens that I use to construct meaning, and Revival Druidry is the way I will put it all into action. At least… that’s the idea.

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