I saw a passing question on twitter: ‘What makes a God worthy of worship?’
Here are my thoughts.
I believe it is hubris to even ask that question. As human beings, I do not believe it is for us to determine the worth or lack thereof of a God. Our portion rather is to fall on our knees and venerate.
Better that we should ask if we are worthy to approach the Holy, and what we can do to better prepare ourselves and to make ourselves so.
I woke up this morning to learn that RBG had died. While not unexpected given her health issues, it still comes as a shock. She will be remembered and she will be missed. May she be welcomed by her ancestors and may she eat honey out of their hands.
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(I had to read Beowulf for a class recently and I had this moment where I realized that as a Heathen, I had a surprising understanding of many of the practices represented in the text. The piece below encapsulates some of my initial thoughts upon reading through Seamus Heaney’s masterful translation (I had read his translation before, but not for many years, so I was able to approach it fresh). To be honest, I never cared for Beowulf before, but reading it this time has completely changed my mind. It finally hit me how important a text it is for us, and how Heathen and the whole thing just opened up. So, I share a few of my thoughts with you now. By the way, read Headley’s new translation. It’s absolutely brilliant and if I ever teach this text to undergrads, that’s the text I’d use).
In Chapter five of The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, John Friedman offers (in part) a brief analysis of Grendel and Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf, suggesting that their “heritage from Cain and Ham” is of particular significance in explaining both their monstrosity and their hatred for the “men in the mead-hall”(1). For Friedman, this biblical and cursed ancestry, adds a “moral dimension” to the story, one lacking even –as Friedman opines – in Beowulf and his allies (2). While not disputing the dramatic effect of such a lineage, this paper examines the way that lineage was likewise utilized by the author of Beowulf as a gloss for Heathen elements, religiously, morally, and culturally still extant, at the time of Beowulf’s composition, in English society (3).
What precisely makes Grendel and his mother monstrous? It cannot be their violence, because throughout Beowulf the reader is given multiple examples of equal violence and indeed treachery perpetrated by or against the Danes. After Beowulf’s victory, for instance, at the celebratory feast, the minstrel performs the story of Hildeburgh, Finn, and his sons. Truce is offered between Finn and the Danes but clearly only due to circumstances, not actual desire for lasting peace, and the feud is renewed at earliest opportunity with much attendant bloodshed (4). Another feud is detailed in the story of Freawaru’s wedding (5) and feud with violation of hospitality in the death of Heardred (6). Clearly, violence and bloodshed are not a determining factor in what constitutes a being’s monstrosity. Nor would inhuman appearance alone be enough to summon a group of heroic warriors. I argue that the monsters in Beowulf serve as the embodiment of the cultural anxieties inherent in society-wide conversion (7). In his book Monster Theory, Cohen positions “monsters” in part, as “harbingers of category crisis” and cultural difference (8). It is my assertion that the transition from indigenous Polytheisms to Christianity created just such a crisis of identity and category, manifested in a community that was neither fully Christian nor fully Heathen any longer. This religious (and cultural) ambiguity is reflected in the text of Beowulf itself (9).
The words used for Grendel are not necessarily reflective of this culture crises – with the exception of eotenas, a word whose etymology is connected to beings venerated in the Pagan world (10). Words like ellen-gaest(powerful spirit) andgrimma gaest (grim spirit) are colorful, but not specifically Pagan (though Heaney translates them most frequently as ‘demon,’ which has a much more specifically Christian and negative context than the original Old English terms). More significant is the note that such creatures, including eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas (ogres and elves and orcs and giants) strove with God (Þa wið Gode wunnon), indicating that they are part of an order set against the will of the Christian God, though whether this is by their nature, their ancestry, or their own will is left unspecified (11). Only in line 137 are the readers told that Grendel is “malignant by nature.” This in turn leads to a violation on the part of the men of Heorot: they sacrifice at Heathen temples, making offerings and oaths to Heathen Gods while praying for someone to save them from Grendel (12). To Whom are they praying? It is only after these prayers that Beowulf, their hero and savior arrives. Heathen cultusis momentarily foregrounded. Furthering this metaphor, in line 431, killing Grendel is described as “purifying Heorot” (Heorot faelsian) (13).
Equally important is the geography surrounding Grendel and his mother. They are outliers, in fen, moor, bog and other liminal places outside the community and specifically outside Heorot (14). Giving them a heritage descended from men who violated divine order, first Cain in the killing of his brother (already a child of Adam and Eve who violated the direct prohibition of their God), and then Ham who showed disrespect and impiety in his treatment of his father Noah, highlights that they have no place in a society defined by its Christianity. If Grendel and his Mother are in truth representative of indigenous polytheistic religions, then what is “malignant by nature” to the men of Heorot is not the beings themselves, but the larger Polytheism/Heathenry that they represent, a body of traditions that by the eighth-century had been relegated to the periphery of accepted society. In line 851, Grendel is even referred to as having a “heathen soul” (haeþene sawle).
This contrast between pre-Christian religion and Christianity is only one of many pairs juxtaposed within the text. After Beowulf kills Grendel, Hrothgar offers praises for Beowulf’s mother (15). This is then followed by the introduction of Grendel’s monstrous mother. In line 942, Hrothgar calls Beowulf the “flower of manhood,” in contrast to Grendel who was “demonic” (line 730) (16). The Danish queen Hildeburgh (17) who’s story presages bloodshed and feud, is contrasted with the appearance of Wealhtheow, who brings peace and hospitality to Hrothgar’s hall (18). Later in the text, Wealhtheow is contracted with Grendel’s mother specifically in the horror she shows when Beowulf returns to Heorot with Grendel’s head (19). Finally, Hygelac’s queen Hygd is contrasted with the terrible queen Modthryth (20).
Finally, in the end, despite Beowulf’s valor and Grendel’s mother’s savagery, it was “holy God” (witig Drihten) who unambiguously decided the outcome of the battle (21). When Beowulf dies, however in line 2574, it is fate (wyrd), not God who denies him victory. In his book, Friedman notes a powerful contrast between the classical view of monsters, one of curiosity and tolerance for “ethnic diversity” versus a later Christian view of “monsters” that is “hostile and harmful,” and that positions monsters as not only outside the accepted order of the world, but as cursed, corrupted, morally degenerate, and even evil (22). This reflects the shift from indigenous religions, largely polytheistic to monotheistic Christianity, which is in many respects a shift from a diversity of divine beings, to a worldview in which there is only one God, and one acceptable religious perspective. It should come as no surprise then that differing worldviews, those who embrace them, and those whose appearances violate the norm should be viewed as monstrous. Such a shift in perspective might well be considered inevitable.
1Friedman, 106. It should be noted that this descent from Ham would also make these “monsters” black. See Friedman, 101.
2Not having read Friedman’s entire book, I am not certain if he is implying that there was a lack of that aforesaid moral dimension in the cultures, communities, and community norms represented by Heorot and its men, one that could only be supplied by Christianity or not, but I do wish that he had defined what, precisely, he meant by ‘moral’ somewhere in this chapter and how or if he was tying it to religion.
3I know the date of Beowulf is contested, but if, like the Greek epic the Iliad, the text has oral antecedents, and if one takes into account that scholars like J. R.R. Tolkien argued for dating the written poem to the 8th, century, then that would place it within a generation (or two) of Christianization. Conversion is never a clean process and it is almost inevitable that holdovers and syncretization would have occurred. See R.A. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970, 182-3 and J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Boston, MA: Mariner Books, 2015, p. 328.
4See from line 1080.
5 See from line 2030.
6See from 2380.
7See Cohen, p. 4 for a discussion of the monster as a cultural body.
9While it is well beyond the scope of this brief response paper, religion and culture are deeply intertwined. This can be clearly demonstrated, for example, in a later Icelandic Saga, the 13thcentury Njal’s Saga, which contrasts the Pagan social code and legal mores with the newfound Christian ones. The action in this saga takes place during the conversion of Iceland (which actually occurs during the action depicted in the multi-decade story). The same type of agonistic tension echoes (or maybe lurks since we are dealing with a monster text) behind the monsters in Beowulf. I know I need to examine this more closely, especially since I’m much more familiar with later Icelandic literature (Iceland converted in 1000 C.E.) but I found the many of the echoes of indigenous Pagan religions in the language of Beowulf, which shared largely the same cosmology as Pagan Iceland, striking, particularly the dogged presence of Wyrd throughout the text.
10Eotenas is cognate to the Old Norse Jotun. The Jotnar were a tribe of divine beings in Germanic Paganisms, often associated with chaos, elemental power, and natural phenomenon. Their veneration in contemporary Norse polytheism today (Asatru, Heathenry) is a point of denominational conflict. See my own work on the subject A Modern Guide to Heathenry, Newburyport, MA: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2019. There is, despite modern theological controversies in the religion, ample evidence for their veneration in pre-Christian Scandinavia (particularly the deities Skadhi, Gerda, the moon God Mani, Sun Goddess Sunna, and Loki) and to some degree England. See Stephen Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England, Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2017.
11Heaney, lines 112-113.
12See lines 170-178.
13The word faelsian is particularly connected to liturgical purification of sacred space. Nathan Ristuccia, in his article (available here: https://www.academia.edu/4129419/Fælsian_and_the_Purification_of_Sacred_Space_in_the_Advent_Lyrics)notes that it is a relatively rare term, with over half its known uses occurring in either Beowulf or the Advent Lyrics. See Ristuccia, 6. The text likely existed for generations as an oral epic before being committed to text. It can therefore be viewed as an initially Pagan text later Christianized as the society changed. The Christian elements are marginal and it would be interesting to
14I think an argument could be made that Heorot itself represents the sacred enclosure of a fully Christian community, with outliers to that community also outliers to that creed.
15See from line 940.
16Heaney translates this line as “and his glee was demonic” but þa his mod ahlog actually means “then his heart laughed.” Regardless, Grendel is laughing over the slaughter of Heorot’s men.
17See from 1070.
18See from 1161. There seems to be a subtle connection between women and vengeance, both with stories like that of Hildeburgh but also Grendel’s mother and her quest for vengeance. I’m strongly reminded of a brutal line from Njal’s Saga, occurring when one of the main female characters demands vengeance for a kinsman: og eru köld kvenna ráð (cold is the counsel of women). Is the anonymous author implying that women are potentially monstrous because of this inherent desire for vengeance?
19See line 1649.
20See from line 1932. Many of the obvious contrasts are between the female characters. I cannot help but wonder if women were a point of particular anxiety when it came to Christianization. They would, as mothers, grandmothers, nursemaids, be in a very influential position when it came to inculcating religious values in children. Inter-generational transmission of religious traditions is crucial to creating a sustainable religious community. Might this point to anxiety over potential Pagan influences in women? Or is it simply that women were traditionally frith or peace weavers in the mead-hall, and brutality and violence are a violation of that traditional role?
21See line 1593.
22Friedman, 90 and 107. Moreover, monsters are now evil, not through any moral choice of their own, but through something completely outside of their control: their lineage, connected now, as in Beowulf,to Cain and Ham.
Cohen, Jeffrey, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis, MH: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Friedman, John. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
For C. by request.
Prayer to Arachne
Your children, Lady, bring terror in the dark.
They creep in, devouring that which is unholy,
that which is malignant, that which is unclean.
They purify, as Your sacred dance purifies.
The terror they inspire leads to You.
Hips shaking, fingers snapping, garbed in black
You haunt the dreams of women, and men too,
inspiring them, driving them, goading them
into Your dance, as generations before us
have been compelled.
Sometimes You wear the face of a saint.
But not today.
Your dance restores order to the soul.
Your dance awakens power. Your dance heals.
Your dance purifies, as only Your poison can.
It begins with Your bite.
You will drive out pollution.
And every hand doing harm,
every heart twisting into bitterness,
every mouth spewing hate,
You will silence.
You will wrack them
with their own poison.
Your dance will continue unabated.
You are the most avid Huntress.
You wait, patiently, stalking Your prey.
Your eyes miss nothing.
You will send Your children
to creep in and around those
who offend Your ways,
who target Your people.
There is no escape.
We are always within three feet
of a spider.
Wherever we are, there too
are Your children.
Be kind, I pray, oh Goddess,
and let me find my own way
into Your ancient dance,
knowing always that I honor You
and recognize Your glory.
Hail to You, Arachne.
(copyright G. Krasskova 2020).
Epicurean Piety –I like this one, though I’m not generally a fan of epicureans.
“Therefore, I think it is especially necessary to despise those who transgress or mock the traditional rites. Furthermore, it will appear that Epicurus loyally observed all the forms of worship and enjoined upon his friends to observe them, and not just be in accordance with the laws. For as he says to pray is right and natural for man, not because the gods would be hostile if we did not pray, but the act of doing so helps us gain a better understanding of those who surpass us in their power and excellence, enabling us to fulfill our potential. He also said that every wise man holds pure and holy thoughts about the divine, namely that the nature of divinity is great and august. And it is particularly at festivals that we attain our greatest understanding of things for during a festival all that a man can think about, and all that is upon his lips, are holy matters. He didn’t just advise others to participate in the worship of the gods – indeed, he was very active in religious matters, sharing in all festivals and sacrifices, and especially the Khoes festival and the mysteries celebrated in his city and elsewhere.” – Philodemos, On Piety 25-28
A Christian author discussing Polytheistic and Pagan piety –of course by “idol” he means the Gods, or images thereof:
“Pagans, when they daily rise from their sleep, go in morning to worship and minister to their idols; and before all their works and undertakings they go first and worship their idols. Neither at their festivals and their fairs are they wanting, but are constant in assembling – not only those who live close by, but many travel from a great distance to attend such assemblies and dramatic spectacles.” – Didascalia Apostolorum 13
A Polytheist On Polytheistic Piety and Asceticism:
“Aquila to Sarapion the philosopher, greetings! I was overjoyed to receive your letter. Our friend Callinicus was testifying to the utmost about the way of life you follow even under such conditions – especially in your not abandoning your austerities. Yes, we may deservedly congratulate ourselves, not because we do these things, but because we are not diverted from them by ourselves. Courage! Carry through what remains like a man! Let not wealth distract you, nor beauty, nor anything else of the same kind: for there is no good in them, if virtue is not joined to them; no without her they are vanishing and worthless. Under the protection of the gods, I expect to see you in Antinoopolis. Send Soteris the puppy, since she now spends her time by herself in the country. Good health to you and yours! Good health!” – P. Oxy. 42.3069
Finally, another Christian complaining that piety still existed in the early medieval period.
“You must give up the names and inform me of the nature of their crime of all those in our diocese who foolishly make and observe their vows by springs, trees and stones for reasons of health, protection or as some kind of devotion.” – Ghärbald of Lüttich, Capitulary 2.12
(“all those…” implying it was not an isolated set of practices).
I’ll post more as I come across them. They’re educational and a good reminder that piety and reverence didn’t begin with monotheism, not by a long shot. We need that reminder sometimes. The inspiration is helpful.
One of the amazing artists who has contributed to my prayer card project, Halldora, has a new project in the works: a tarot deck (which looks *amazing* omg) and game. She’s just got it to the point where the kickstarter is up and going (for the next 16 days).
Check that out here.
If you like her art or just want to support one of our own, or think this project is awesome, head on over to kickstarter and consider sponsoring the deck and game. This is a way you can become part of the project too ( also the tiered sponsorships look pretty cool). Check it out and feel free to share the link around.
Here is an example of her prayer cards. This is the Freya card she graciously did for us:
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My new Loki book is now available, the next installment in what I’ve taken to calling my ‘novena series.’ This small book fits neatly into one’s pocket and contains nine days of prayer, along with devotional suggestions for the Norse God Loki. While many of the prayers have been reprinted from my earlier book Hymns and Prayers for a Polytheistic Household, there is new material in this book, including two divination systems used extensively in my House. The book, Heart on Fire: A Novena for Loki, is available here.
I’m used to reading utter crap from wildhunt.org. They don’t represent polytheism, and they certainly don’t present anything approximating useful viewpoints for our community. At this rate, for the last couple of years they’ve been, more and more, a leftist propaganda machine. C’est la vie. Shit does flow downhill after all. I rarely read something there, however, that is as fucked up as their recently article on Catholic exorcisms.
Firstly, the article mocks the practice of exorcism equating it with child abuse, FGM, and superstition. Secondly, they allowed the claim – and it has thus far gone unchallenged – that Jesus invented exorcism. No, he did not. Polytheistic traditions were performing exorcisms, purifications, and banishings for millennia before the Christ movement ever happened. But then, we’re not neo-Pagan. We actually respect our theologies and traditions (looking at you, Patheos).
The issue we should have with Catholics doing this is that they retranslated the rite of exorcism. Why re-work a ritual that functions just fine? Moreover, why have it translated and amended by people who are not themselves exorcists and who cannot, therefore, gauge the efficacy of their needless emendations? I want more information on the translation process and who was involved.
Our world is filled with supernatural evil and pollution. We, human beings, who are no longer raised to cultivate virtue within themselves, let it in. Yes, there’s human malignancy but there’s also shit that goes well beyond that. Our polytheistic ancestors understood that. They understood that there are malefic forces aligned against the sacred and holy architecture that the Gods have created, and that if we venerate and love those Gods, then the corollary is that we stand against that evil, against that which would destroy and corrupt the order and beauty of Their divine creation. We don’t fucking help it along.
These rituals and techniques were given to us by the Gods to combat those malevolent spirits and exorcists, a very rare and sacred calling (and dangerous as hell) are the first line of defense, the shock troops, that go in and clean up when we do not hold the line and when we fuck up.
Paganism may be ‘do as you please’ these days. Polytheism isn’t. If the Catholic church is seeing a rise in exorcisms, I’m not surprised. Our world is burning. Forces of evil are running rampant, hiding behind movements and counter movements and attempts to abolish and transgress all social norms. Even what is good in and of itself can be twisted and corrupted under its influence. This crosses all religious boundaries.
Instead of bitching and whining and mocking those who hold to their traditions of exorcism, we should be praying for their success.
Here is a prayer I say weekly (I stole it and reworked it from the Catholics because I liked it and found it effective. Gods know, they stole enough from us. Turnabout is fair play). I encourage any and all of you reading this to write your own prayers in the same vein. Feel free to share them here. But pray, pray fervently as if your life and spiritual welfare depends upon it because maybe, just maybe it does.
Prayer for Priests and specialists
Oh, great good and immortal Gods, look upon our world and have pity upon Thy priests, spirit-workers, exorcists, specialists, and shamans (insert whatever groups of specialists you wish here). Oh, Compassionate Gods, remember that they are but weak and frail human beings. Stir up in them the grace of their vocation. Set them on fire with love and devotion to You. Keep them close, lest the enemy prevail against them. Grant that they may never betray, subvert , or shame their vocation. Keep them clean, oh great and merciful Gods.
I pray to all Good Gods for Thy faithful and fervent priests, spiritworkers, exorcists, and specialists –for those unfaithful and tepid, for those laboring hard, for those tempted, for those lonely and desolate, for the young ones, the aged ones, the sick ones, the dying ones, and all the souls of priests, spiritworkers, exorcists, and speicalists who have died. I pray for those facing initiation. I pray for those facing spiritual combat. I pray for all who serve. May they prevail and come out transformed by the Gods. Keep them clean.
Inspire them, oh Eternal Gods. Look with love upon them. Fill them with burning zeal for their vocations. Shelter them under Thy protection. Keep unstained their anointed hands. Keep unsullied their lips. Keep pure their hearts. Let Thy love and care protect them from contagion. Bless their labors with abundant fruit, and may they endure. May those to whom they minister be likewise fruitful in their devotions. May the laity who seek the Gods understand and undertake clean service. May they support their clergy and specialists. May they be sustained in their love of the Holy Ones. May they be protected and likewise nourished.
Please hear my prayer, oh good and glorious Gods. Please hear my prayer.
As many of you know, I pulled all my books that were published through Asphodel Press (not because of Asphodel — they have been great to work with–but because the publishing platform they use, lulu has been less than stellar of late) not too long ago. Several of those books will be re-released in new editions this year (The second edition of Sigyn: Our Lady of the Staying Power, for instance, available here, has already been released), but many will not. I’m making some tough executive decisions on that front and while remainder copies of the original works may still be available on amazon and elsewhere, that will not always be the case. Once those are gone, they’re gone. My updates are taking time, as I’m working around a rather full schedule of PhD coursework and GTA work.
One of the books that I had no intention of re-releasing was When the Lion Roars: A Devotional to the Egyptian Goddess Sekhmet (remainders available here). As many of you know, I was originally ordained a priest of Sekhmet in 1995 and She remains a powerful part of my spiritual life. She was the first Deity to take me up and I in turn remain deeply grateful. The book itself was fraught with problems from the beginning, with several pieces appearing in the finished and edited text but NOT appearing in the published book (yay lulu. you strike again). To this day, I have no idea what happened and with the way I work, once a book is done it’s done and I rarely revisit. So, it was a vexing work from the beginning for me personally. Sekhmet was deeply involved in my spiritual formation though, and I love Her dearly, and I owe Her equally dearly. I want Her to have all the devotionals. LOL. Or at least, I would like Her to have something from my hands as a sign of my gratitude and devotion.
Because of that, I decided late last night, to pull some of my prayers (and that of two of my colleagues who expressed an interest in being included when I ran this idea past them) from When the Lion Roars and incorporate them into a small, pocket-sized novena book. That book, tentatively titled Seven for Sekhmet: A Pocket Book of Prayer, should be out in a month or so. As of right now, it will not incorporate new material, but will be a portable iteration of a select portion of the earlier text.
So, keep an eye out her for updates. I plan to have another book related update for you, probably on Monday (not sure there will be a movie post. I’ve been too busy to watch any!). In the meantime, have a lovely weekend, and stay safe, folks.
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This week for one of my Patristics classes (1) we’re reading the letters of Ignatius of Antioch (2). I had only previously read his letter to the Romans, so I wasn’t prepared for the lush and sensual language of the others (3). He urges his congregation to “by symphonic in your harmony, taking up God’s pitch in unison, that you may sing in one voice…” (4) employs complex building and architectural metaphors (5), baking metaphors (6), and urges his people to take care in what they intellectually, morally, and spiritually consume (7). Finally, he talks about his service to his God using the metaphor of military service, positioning baptism as weaponry, faith as a helmet, love as a spear, and endurance in one’s faith as a full set of armor (8).
As I’m reading this, keeping the context always in mind: these pastoral letters are being written by a man being dragged to Rome, under guard and in chains, heading to a truly horrid death, I can’t help but wonder how our communities would respond today were our religions suddenly proscribed by the Government. Would we lay down our lives for our traditions and Gods? I hope this is never put to the test because frankly, I don’t think most would, not when they can’t even stand up against name calling by an anonymous online mob. Recanting and bending the knee is so much easier after all, regardless of what one truly believes. Why be good when one can put on a passable seeming?
Yesterday, I saw someone express a yearning for new temples. I thought, will our communities be paying priests, administrative staff, cleaning staff, those tending and raising sacrificial animals, attendants, oracles, etc.? No? Well, then you can’t have a temple. They don’t run themselves. They are community and community funded endeavors and moreover fully functioning micro-economies. We don’t actually have functioning communities, so we’re already behind that curve. We have way too many people who pay lip service to faith when it doesn’t impact their day to day lives or cause them inconvenience (be that latter of thought, of public image, time, or physical wellbeing). People who purport to love the Gods, but see no value in sacred service, are unlikely to lay down their lives in loyalty to those Gods, especially when they have zero respect for those who do serve Them. And oh, I can hear you all formulating your rebuttals about all the ways you’d keep your faith alive in secret. Why only in secret? How many of you reading this lack the courage to stand proudly as polytheists in your daily world? Yes, that comes with consequences and if those are too harsh for you to bear, what happens when you’re asked for more?
Don’t you want to give more? Is there any limit to what you would give the Gods that have made you, formed you, Who have stepped up to claim you, Whom you venerate, the act of which is our raison d’etre as creatures made by Divine will, heat, hands, and breath? What precisely should be the limit to honoring Those that gave us everything?
To be fair, I know how scary it can be to consciously ‘other’ yourself, as publicly claiming your polytheism openly in your world might do. I get it and there can be consequences. Just this year I lost a very good friend who finally expressed the contempt for my religion that had apparently been bubbling under the surface of his little agnostic mind for Gods know how long. It’s probably going to be a significant issue in my academic field when the time comes for me to find a job. I’m fully aware that it may preclude me from that actually happening (and this doesn’t take into account denominational differences and arguments within our religions). There are cases where I think silence is perhaps golden: if custody of one’s children is at risk, if you live in a country where you can be dragged out killed. We do not. Of course, then the question arises of how do you work to change those settings, situations, and laws to make it better for those who come next (9)? There is a point though where one has to just trust the Gods and do the work, whatever that work may be. It’s about learning to prioritize correctly, learning to value the right things, and developing good habits of living those choices day to day. Each day is a choice, an opportunity to make a new choice, a better choice. That holds true not only devotionally, but pretty much in every aspect of our lives.
Ancient polytheists saw virtue as something that could be cultivated, and as something that should be cultivated. This was in part, the purpose of philosophy and also of one’s education and civic training. We allow ourselves none of those arenas in which to train ourselves in moral virtue today. When we come to our Gods consciously, it’s without the external scaffolding that would encourage healthy mindsets, healthy behavior, commitment, and courage and a whole host of other good moral (and spiritual!) habits. Even the idea that one can cultivate good habits of devotion (whatever those may be for a devotee within a tradition with his or her Gods) is a new and possibly revolutionary thought to many.
So what do we cultivate in ourselves? Are we even kind and encouraging to new converts, some of whom may be going through a very natural grieving process for the religions and religious cultures they have left? Do we do anything to actually build in-person communities that will thrive in a sustainable manner after we are gone? Are we doing anything to actually repair those threads broken in the first century?
It starts with good, solid personal devotion, with household worship, with raising children in one’s tradition, with overcoming fear, and in a thousand other ways. It means changing how we think and most importantly of all, how we live in the world. None of that is easy and each of us will make mistakes, from which we’ll hopefully learn. We should be proud of our traditions, of what we are doing and what polytheists before us did. We should be joyous in glorifying our Gods through lives well lived in Their service. Let it not be said that Christians have better, stronger, more committed faith than we do. Let it not be said that they do more for their God than we do for ours. As our world is falling apart around us, we can’t afford to be complacent. Now is precisely the time to throw ourselves fully into our traditions, into our devotions, into our practices and to ask how we can do more. What “more” means, will be different for everyone based on health, wealth, calling, Deity, etc. But there is always a “more.” Complacency is the death of a tradition and maybe that’s the biggest lesson we can take from the first century and its interlocutors Polytheist, Christian, and otherwise. When we stop caring and moreover stop striving we might as well pack up our shrines.
- Patristics is the study of the early church fathers, writers of the generation after the Apostles, so roughly second century C.E., whose writings laid the groundwork for the theologically orthodox positions that became the early Christian church.
- Not much is known about Ignatius. According to what can be gleaned from his letters, he lived in the second century C.E. and was caught up in one of the sporadic persecutions against Christians. He was sentenced in his own province, but then for some reason (scholarly opinions vary) transported to Rome for the sentence (death by wild beasts) to be carried out. On the way, he wrote pastoral letters to various churches and at least one bishop of his acquaintance.
- Several of us have been known to joke that the letter to the Romans is torture porn, but having read them all as a set, I think it more a matter of a man going to a horrible death, writing pastoral letters to encourage his community but also pumping up his own courage so that he can go to his martyrdom (he’s already been sentenced at this point) in a way that does his faith proud.
- Letter to Ephesians, chapter 4.
- Ibid, chapter 9.
- He talks of good and bad yeast, and the preservative qualities of salt, and the aroma of healthy food in his Letter to the Magnesians, chapter 10.
- Letter to the Philadelphians, chapter 3, wherein he uses an agricultural metaphor.
- Predating the medieval ‘armor of God’ by several hundred years, this passage may be found in his Letter to Polycarp, chapter 6. I should point out that Ignatius isn’t in any respect without fault. One passage in this letter made me quite literally throw up (chapter 4). Instead of taking a stand against slavery – which in the Roman empire was a prospect anyone of any race, creed, or color might face—he uses language that goes well past accommodation. It’s sickening. I have never read a single early Christian author that challenged slavery. Many polytheistic Romans questioned the institution, philosophers positioning it as a moral stain on the slave owner. I have never – yet, there’s much I haven’t read – seen anything approximating this in Christian language. The slave owner may be told to “not be arrogant towards male and female slaves” but also is cautioned to “neither let them become haughty; rather, let them serve even more as slaves for the glory of God.” (letter to Polycarp, 4). It makes me sick. I don’t know if it was a matter of the apocalypticism that so defined early Christianity making temporal suffering seem unimportant, that Christianity spread through lower classes, especially slaves first, if they didn’t care, or if they thought suffering was bringing the people closer to Christ (This sickens me even more: If one is going to offer suffering to a God, one should have the option to fucking consent first, not have that forced upon one). None of this changed with Christianity’s ascension to imperial power in the 4thcentury, no matter what narrative you might read in Christian sources about how this improved people’s lives. Slavery wasn’t abolished in the Western Christian world until the 19thcentury. It continues today throughout much of the Islamic world.
- I don’t think it’s ever correct to disavow our Gods. That matters and, I believe, marks us spiritually in a way that is very hard to erase.