Addendum to “The Messy Matter of Divine Affairs”

My partner and I had a lovely dinner with a colleague tonight, who happens to be a Hellenic polytheist. We got to talking about the recent imbroglio***over Hephaestos and His epithet “Lame” and I mentioned the follow up piece that I had written here, in response to a blogger’s conundrum over honoring Gods who have stories of rape in Their canon. We discussed this for a bit and since our friend pays cultus to Poseidon, the conversation eventually turned to the Gods’ in general and Poseidon’s in particular sexual escapades.

Now, we were not being prurient. We were continuing the discussion of how to interpret these tales and my friend brought up a point that I had not otherwise considered and which I want to share here tonight. I mentioned that Poseidon was not originally an Ocean Deity. There are earlier records that pair Him with the Earth, and one, from Linear B tablets that links Him to an otherwise unknown earth Deity. Likewise we know from surviving inscriptions that He was worshipped by several desert peoples who never had any other engagement with anything approximating the ocean. (This came up in an academic class I actually took on ancient religion and we were all wondering why Poseidon was venerated in the desert!). There is even evidence that He and Demeter were once legitimately paired. That got me to thinking. What if some of the accounts of a Deity’s rape were really vestiges of earlier, much earlier traditions. What if, instead of attempting to rape a Goddess, what we have in some of these accounts is an account of a *licit* pairing otherwise lost to written record?

I don’t know if this is the case. I do know that it’s important to allow ourselves both consideration and nuance when we deal with stories of our Gods. These stories never carried the weight of Scripture. I think we must allow for the possibility of multiple interpretations. It makes the canon richer. It makes our relationship with the Gods richer.

Personally, i don’t think that even if my above hypothesis held true in some cases, that it would hold for all. I think instead that accounts of rape point to both a violence and a vigor that we too often forget lies within our Gods, it points to the danger and violent transmutation that can occur when taken up by One of Them. It points to the interaction of opposing Powers and many other things too and sometimes it is as it is, a rape. Still, I think we need to consider it all. The Gods are more complex and multi-faceted than we shall ever know. I think such contemplation makes us richer in our devotions and that’s a good thing, even if we don’t have any answers, even if we don’t agree, even if we’re made uncomfortable by where those contemplations lead.

AT any rate, I was delighted to have been given this nugget of insight courtesy of my colleague. It’s something I may have to research further and it’s not something i’d ever considered before. I really take a great delight in those things that make me think about the Gods in ways I otherwise never would have considered. I consider them great gifts.

***(While we may find such conflicts vexing at first, they can be productive, as here, when from this conflict we all started discussing *why* Hephaestos might be called lame, and what to do with that, and what it might mean. I’m grateful for the productive discussion that came from that, because again, it led me to an understanding of Hephaestos that I otherwise would not have had).

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Posted on June 20, 2015, in devotional work, Polytheism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I think that the gods change over time, just as we do, but in part They are influenced by the beliefs of Their followers. I believe this is *how* Poseidon became an ocean god. I think They adapt to the standards of the time in which They are worshiped; at least to some degree (though not entirely; primal deities remain very primal.) Odin, for example, no longer seems to demand human sacrifice, though He does seem to appreciate other forms of sacrifice and ordeal work. Rape was expected behaviour in Greek warriors; but certainly such a thing is repugnant to the modern Western mind. I doubt the Greek gods would be much inclined to rape anymore.

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  2. The older academics (late 1800’s to mid 1950’s) followed a thought that the Goddesses were far more sexualised during the bronze age. After the Greek Dark Age and establishment of classical mythology they lost their sexualisation and became virginal. This can be seen, in a sense, as a ‘disempowerment’ of the goddesses to give rank to the patriarchy based pantheon.
    Therefore according to this theory, Goddesses that were married either absorbed their spouses powers and epithets, for example Pallas Athena. Or the story was turned around into a rape tale, e.g. Hephaestus and Athena.
    It’s a contentious theory, but food for thought.

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  3. You make a very good point about the rapes or illicit unions being a method of absorbing into the national cult the divergent local alliances of deities. Regardless of how such unions are expressed in literature, I have little doubt that, for example, in Arkadia, the union of Demeter and Poseidon was seen as not only “legitimate”, but indeed as the primary and orthodox union for both Gods, with other alliances pushed to the periphery. Modern polytheists very much need to master once again this kind of focalization, which is how ancient polytheisms lived and breathed, never in a static national form.

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