Category Archives: community
Last week an academic friend and colleague, who is soon to be teaching a class on Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, asked me a rather complicated question. My friend L. plans to include a brief survey of contemporary Pagan and Polytheistic religions as part of the course, to show that these traditions did not completely disappear but continue to have import and impact in the modern day. As prep for the course, L. asked me, “What is the difference between Pagan (or Neo-pagan) and Polytheist?” I had previously mentioned that use of these terms is somewhat political and charged in our communities.(1) Here is what I told my colleague.
“Oh, it’s such a mess.
The two words, in my opinion, should be synonymous but in today’s communities, they’re not. Polytheist means someone who believes in and venerates the Gods as individual, Holy beings. The logical and necessary corollary then, is the rightness of regular devotion and cultus. One would think this is self-explanatory. The meaning, after all, is embedded in the etymology of the word itself: πολύ (many) θέοι (Gods). We have, however, had atheists who call themselves “Pagan” try to claim the identity “Polytheist” on occasion, but for now, every time they crop up, we manage to beat them back (rather like a demented game of whack-a-mole). It’s almost as though the moment the devout make space for themselves, it comes under attack, and this isn’t just an issue in polytheism (2).
While the definition of ‘Polytheist’ is self-explanatory, ‘Pagan’ is more complicated. Some polytheists will use the term. But maybe four years ago there was a huge inter community explosion over it.(3) There were growing attempts A) to allow for “Pagan” to include non-theist, anti-theist, atheists, etc. as well as pop culture ‘pagans’ who can’t tell the difference between fiction and devotion and other questionable um…characters (Mind you, L., I’m hardly unbiased in this and I was right in the middle of these arguments.) and B) to force polytheistic traditions under the “Neo-pagan” umbrella, which at its core was an attempt to erase our traditions, esp. the piety of our traditions, and to force them to open their boundaries to anyone and anything.(4) The “battle” raged over blogs and newsgroups and finally many leading polytheists (against my better judgment) decided to yield the term ‘Pagan’. So now anyone who has any connection to any god or goddess (regardless of whether or not they believe in Them to be archetypes as opposed to reality, or this nonsense about all deities being one, or whether they are only interested in nature or whether they’re Marxists interfering in our communities for their own political agenda, or whatever kind of trash you may have) can claim the word without having a core of any type of tradition or devotion. So, ‘Pagan’ has become a catch all term.
Most devout polytheists I know, especially those who fought through this, won’t use the term “Pagan” now. The Gods and Their devotion are at the heart of our practices. ‘Pagan’ has become a term where that is no longer necessarily the case. Of course, the moment we ceded the term, the non and anti-theists started trying to claim “Polytheist” too, but so far we’ve successfully beaten them back. It’s never ending but there are those of us who will hold that line until we are all of us dust. Our Gods and traditions deserve that at least, from us.
I’d also add that part of the problem is that Polytheism involves traditions, which are closed containers. Neo-pagans scream that this is elitist and amounts to policing devotion (unless we’re talking about one of the African Traditional Religions when they are less likely to complain, because that might be construed as appropriative and racist.). Polytheists respond: that’s the way traditions work, either adapt yourself to them or fuck off. And so it goes. It’s a nasty, ongoing feud with those who care about what their Gods might require and those who barely register that Gods exist.
So, unlike in the ancient world where ‘Pagan’ referred to someone practicing their ancestral tradition and/or initiated into various mystery cultus, today it refers to someone practicing any of the many …religions…which may or may not include devotion to the Gods…that grew out of Gerald Gardner’s explorations into Wicca and occultism in the fifties and later out of the counter-culture movement in the 60s and 70s in the United States. It may also refer to those practicing and restoring various Polytheistic traditions like Heathenry, Asatru, Kemetic orthodoxy, Hellenismos, Romuva, etc. but in majority quarters, it is no longer the term of choice, particularly in the US community for such.
Heathenry, (Norse polytheism), always eschewed the term because it was always an umbrella term for a mishmash of traditions and practices, many excessively liberal, or diametrically opposed to devotion, or containing ethical standards (or lack thereof) that Heathens and other polytheists found problematic. The problem is more complicated in Europe where the various romance languages have ONLY the term ‘Pagan’ to cover a broad spectrum of traditions.
Basically, the conflict is about modernity, religious identity, and a push back against devotion and piety.
As a caveat, you will still find people who aren’t very much online using ‘Pagan’ when they are very devout…it depends on how aware they were of the online arguments. Our hashing out of orthodoxy, because of how spread out our communities are, tends to happen online but one should not think that the online world encompasses the whole of any tradition or practice. There are many devout Polytheists (and probably Pagans too) whose practice centers around hearth and home, land, community, and their Gods and whose window into the greater world of practice doesn’t necessarily come through the internet.
It should also be noted that there are Polytheists who obstinately refuse to cede the term Pagan and still use it, solely to spit in the eye of the impious. I like these folks. 🙂 And newbies coming into the communities also tend not to be aware of the political fault lines either.
It’s always worth querying when someone says “I’m Pagan,” what they mean by that. The answers might surprise you.”
- Especially now since Isaac Bonewits is the one who originally pioneered usage of the terminology “Neo-Pagan.”
- The problem isn’t atheists per se. If someone wants to attend a ritual and behaves respectfully that’s fine. The problem is ad nauseum, atheists who come into our communities, demand leadership positions, but refuse to accommodate the traditions or bow themselves to the beauty of devotion. Instead, they endlessly attempt to twist the religion to their own lowest common denominator. This isn’t a problem only in Polytheistic traditions. It’s happening in various Monotheisms as well. For a case in point see here. (I particular love how the minister in question complains her church puts theology over ethics. Um, yes. It’s a religion. Theology matters and moreover, you’ve already proven you have no ethics by impersonating a Christian and minister).
- I would estimate between 2011-2014.
- Polytheisms tend to have far more traditional values, sexual ethics, and much more of a focus on devotional piety than any generic Paganism. They also tend to encompass mystery cultus, which are exclusionary by their very nature, solid lineages, and strict ways of doing things. They are not generally religions in which “anything goes” spiritually or morally, all too often unlike their Pagan counterparts.
Are you experiencing the following symptoms?:
• Depression that won’t go away
• Emotional responses that are massively out of proportion to the situation at hand
• Compromised immune system
• Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
• Feeling of isolation
• Feeling people don’t care
• Highly critical to the point that you think your work is meaningless and crap
• Frustration to the point of wanting to quit and throw everything away
• Terrible despair that doesn’t seem to respond to anything
• Thoughts and such that get you questioning and doubting everything especially your practices and whether the Gods care for you at all
• Possible suicidal ideation
Well, this seems to be going around right now. You are not at all alone. There’s resistance to what we do, and you see that in every account of shamans, saints, devout people (laity and specialists alike) – the more they progress, there’s resistance, shit, obstacles that rear up and have to be reined in. You’re not alone in this. Stay the course, my friends. Go to your Gods and ancestors even if it’s the last thing you want to do. They sustain and that which is lashing out at us all wants to isolate us from the very Powers that nourish our souls.
When it gets really, really bad, I suggest doing the Oration of Aristides. Even if you don’t have a devotion to Dionysos, make a small offering and ask Him to help you. This oration clears away miasma like nothing else. It works fine in English but it’s even more powerful in Greek:
The Oration of Aristides
Nothing can be so firmly bound, by illness, wrath, or fortune, that cannot be released by the Lord Dionysos.
Oὐδέν ἄρᾶ οὕτως βεβαίως δεδήσεται οὐ νόσῳ οὐκ ὀργῇ οὐ τύχῃ οὐδεμίᾳ, ὁ μή οἷον τ᾽ ἐσται λῦσαι τῷ Διονύσῳ.
(Aelius Aristides II, 331 K)
Sit and say this over and over again for ten-fifteen minutes. Even if you are resistant to any type of cleansing work, even if you think you have your practices already set (and normally they work), please try this. It will help. If what you have is not working right now, it’s time to try something new.
When this hit me hard, I prayed to Freya and asked for Her help and it was immediate. Consider Her, if you cannot invoke Dionysos for some reason (if you’re uncomfortable invoking a Hellenic God).
This does not mean that you shouldn’t seek out therapy if things are really, really bad. Our healing professionals are there for a reason, but don’t neglect the spiritual causes as well.
This does not make you a bad polytheist. It doesn’t make you bad at devotion. Quite the contrary. It’s a sign you’re doing something good, holy, and important. You’re not weak because you’re suffering. You’re strong because you’re persevering. If your work didn’t matter, if you didn’t matter, this wouldn’t be happening. One of the most important things you can do is reach out to people. If you can help reach out. If you don’t know what to say, just listen, and maybe pray for us all. Pray for each other. If you’re in need reach out. This is isolating people and we’re stronger together.
One thing that everybody, regardless of level of devotion or what you’re going through can do is to pray. Pray for people suffering. Pray for people helping them. Pray for the community. Pray that we can keep this out so that it’s not hurting our people because this is a broad spectrum spiritual attack. These are the times when community comes together to protect itself and its most vulnerable members. When you’re suffering like this, no matter how good you are, you’re vulnerable and there’s too few of us to lose anyone.
(Dionysos in the Underworld by G. Krasskova)
With Yule coming up, I want to take a moment to suggest that we shop within our community as much as possible. We should be supporting our polytheist artisans. What money we decide to spend on non-essentials should, as much as possible, be recycled back into our own communities. It’s one of the things that can help to make a community vibrant and strong. If i could, I would only do business with polytheists. Now, that may not be possible yet and probably won’t be in our lifetimes, but inasmuch as we can, I think we should consider doing so. To that end, here’s a list of some of the shops and artisans that I like and that I”ll be looking at as Yule draws near. (I’m tired — have been studying most of the day– so this is not a complete list. If you are an artist, artisan, shop owner and we know each other and your page isn’t here, post in the comments!! Any omission is not intentional and not intended to hurt. My brain is just fried from studying Syriac all day!).
Likewise Readers, if there are shops and artists you’d like to suggest, please post in the comments. If any of you reading this take commissions but do not have a formal shop, also post in the comments and let us know. ^_^
So i have heard from one of my Brazilian colleagues that a Candomble priest, who refused to desecrate his shrines has been murdered by Christians. Álisson (pictured below) stood fast in devotion to the Orixa and was butchered in the name of Jesus. We should remember his example when we face our own challenges in life, and to living as devout polytheists. This man was willing to die for devotion to his Powers. We should approach our own spiritual obstacles with that kind of courage and fortitude rather than fence-sitting with respect to our Gods. We should also remember this glimpse of the true face of monotheism.
For those who aren’t up to translating, apparently there have been several cases in Brazil of evangelical Christian drug traffickers … yes, you read that rightly…forcing devout Candomble practitioners to desecrate and destroy their shrines and temples, in the name of Jesus of course.
A monotheist is a monotheist wherever you go.
So I had a discussion this evening with someone about syncretism. Apparently, there had been some push back recently over certain Gaulish Deities having been treated to the interpretatio romana. It really made me think about the process of syncretization, how it works and why it’s an important way of engaging with certain Deities.
For the most part, the Romans were very respectful of indigenous religions. The times when they oppressed or legislated against a particular tradition it was never (despite how Roman propaganda may have spun the issue) purely about the religion. It was, without exception, due to political issues. For instance, four examples spring readily to mind: there was the persecution of Bacchic Cultus in the second century B.C.E. Southern Italy was a hot bed of resistance to Roman rule and much of that resistance was fomented by leaders of that particular cultus. Likewise with the Druids and the Isle of Mona. It was central to resistance to Roman rule. The cult of Isis was briefly prescribed by Octavian but this had little to do with the cult itself and everything to do with the aftermath of the civil war with Antony, in which Cleopatra (who positioned herself as an incarnation of Isis) was central. Then of course there was Christianity. That rather, in my opinion, speaks for itself. Romans were a bit horrified when they found out what the cultus of Cybele entailed but they never prescribed it. There was a period where Roman citizens were forbidden from becoming galli, but the cultus itself was otherwise allowed to flourish uninterrupted. For the most part, the Romans attempted to respect and engage with indigenous religion. They were very pious people. Quite often this was done through the interpretatio romana.
When Rome took over a province, they would often append the names of their Gods to that of local Deities. For instance, we have Sulis-Minerva, Mars-Lenus, and Tacitus in his Germania gives us an account of Germanic Deities where suddenly Odin becomes Mercurius, Tyr becomes Mars, and Thor becomes Herakles. This was not done out of disrespect but as a means of finding a keyhole, a window, a doorway to understanding and engaging with these Deities. This was especially true for those Romans who settled permanently in a territory. Looking at Britannia or Gaul or any other province, the syncretism became a meeting point for both the indigenous people and the Romans and it gave the Gods more power.
Moreover, insofar as the Romans went, this was done as a mark of respect, an acknowledgement of the Deity’s power. Gods are powerful and the Romans ever and always acknowledged that in their religious and military practices. They had several specific religious rites performed by their military to ensure that the Gods of those people they conquered would support the Roman cause, rites like evocatio, which invited those Gods to join the Roman side. In this respect, it seems the Romans used the names of Their Gods almost as titles. If they saw a particular aspect of an indigenous Deity that in their minds connected that Deity to one of the Roman Ones, then it was easy to augment that connection with syncretization. For instance, with the Gaulish God Lenus, there is significant martial symbolism. Therefore, the Romans logically
equated connected Him with Mars. In other words, They were putting Him in a place wherein He would receive the same attention and awareness as their own Deity Mars. It is almost as if the names were titles, markers, placeholders wherein the Gods might dance. It was also on the Roman point of view, a mark of respect. Rome was the greatest power in the world during its time, and to acknowledge a Deity with a Roman title was one of the most respectful things to the Roman mind that one might do.
Now, I will admit, as I once told my [academic] students: syncretism is not a simple term. When it comes up, it means that something happened. There was movement, interaction, migration, colonization and that might happen naturally and organically or it might be a matter of conquest. It should never be taken at face value. Where there is syncretism there is a story, and sometimes a bloody history. Like it or not, however, syncretism is part of the history of polytheism. Sometimes in fact, that syncretism was spurred by the indigenous peoples themselves and not always under duress. Points of syncretism became a point of weaving culture, religion, and a meeting point for the indigenous communities (be they Celts or Gauls or Britains, etc.) and the Roman people. Ignoring syncretism takes away a place of power from the Gods in question and ignores that complex history of Their worship.
All of this, of course, raises questions for us about whether or not we should include Roman imagery in our icons of various Deities and more importantly whether or not we should venerate syncretized Gods. I think it is important that we do. The syncretic form and space in which the God or Gods (because after all, we don’t know what deals the two deities in question might have made with each Other regarding that form) are honored is part of that Deity (or Deities’) history. It’s part of Their cultus. It is a huge part of how the ancestors for generations engaged spiritually. To cut that off, to ignore it, to demand that it be erased is deeply disrespectful not only to the Gods but to the ancestors as well. It is nullifying their religious experience of their own Gods. It is also nullifying a point of peace, neutral territory if you will, between the Romans and the various peoples they conquered. In some cases, it is nullifying the horror and pain our ancestors experienced (i.e. in the Middle Passage which gave us religions like Lukumi, Candomble, and Voudoun) and the fact that their Gods followed them into exile.
Returning to the question of specifically Roman syncretism, if nothing else, we should remember, I think, that we owe the Romans a debt. For Heathens at least, we know the names of certain Deities (including the Matronae) largely from Roman inscriptions. This is not because Rome destroyed sanctuaries (they didn’t) but because literacy was not widespread in the northlands until the Christian invasion. Knowledge of certain of our Holy Powers exists because Roman men and women were grateful to Them, prayed to Them, petitioned Them, and then left markers and offerings of thanks. They did this in their own vernacular. They did this via interpretatio romana. If the Gods in question could accept it and allow Their cultus to flourish, can we do any less?
Shutting that out and excluding all of that in the hopes of having some illusionary purity of religion shuts out all of these complex conversations that we could be having about the subject and ignores a very uncomfortable reality: there was never any such pure practice. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Religions and cultus always developed in conversation with each other.
If I were confronted with a syncretic form of a Deity I venerate, and I were uncertain as to whether or not I should venerate this God or Goddess via such a form, I would simply divine on it. That is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. Polytheisms ancient and modern were always religions of diviners. In the end, this isn’t a difficult question at all. It comes down to one thing, between the individual and their holy Powers: what do the Gods want? That answer should define practice not the opinions of so-called community members you’ll never meet face to face, who will always find something to be critical of in your devotion usually reflecting the paucity in theirs.
Apparently Emily Kamp, this month’s “Polytheistic Voices” interviewee, is getting a bit of harassment on her tumblr page because she was interviewed by me. Really pathetic, folks, but unsurprising (though I constantly marvel at the lack of nuanced reading comprehension in some of my critics. Wow. There are resources that can help you, folks, really. I’d look into that if I were you. I can hunt up a list of organizations that focus on increasing literacy if you like).
At any rate, one of the criticisms is that I apparently “devalued the Holocaust” by comparing it to “willing conversions.” Firstly, buttercups, I never said anything about the Holocaust. I said, if I recall correctly, that the destruction of our traditions, the destruction of our shrines, temples, groves, and sacred places, the forced conversion and religious genocide that occurred as a consequence of monotheism, specifically of Christianity marching through Europe and later Islam through the middle east (and for a time into Europe) was a holocaust. I stand by that statement. The destruction of these sacred covenants with the land, the ancestors and the Gods, the destruction of our traditions and the corruption of the world into monotheism was a terrible holocaust, one from which we have yet to recover. The word, my dear readers, existed long before World War II. A simple search of the term on dictionary.com yields the following:
- a great or complete devastation or destruction, especially by fire.
- a sacrifice completely consumed by fire; burnt offering.
3.(usually initial capital letter) the systematic mass slaughter of European Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II (usually preceded by the).
4.any mass slaughter or reckless destruction of life.
If I were to give a sacrifice to Odin, and after slaughtering the animal, commit it to full immolation that would, technically be a holocaust. The ruthless destruction of our traditions and those who practiced them is likewise a holocaust. Isn’t it interesting how context, indefinite articles, and capitalization (or lack thereof) actually matters grammatically? English is neat that way. (The emphasis in the above dictionary.com quote was in the original. It was not mine).
Secondly, if anyone actually thinks that Europe converted willingly, you all need to read your history a little more thoroughly. Moreover, if you think our polytheistic ancestors abandoned their traditions and Gods so readily then why are you even bothering to practice any type of polytheism now? Those who saw the rise of Christianity did not, in fact – despite generations of Christian propaganda to the contrary (including a deeply embedded idea of hierarchy of religions that places monotheism or atheism at the top)– go gently into that good night. I often wonder what it was like for the generation that was forced to bury their sacred items and images, or give them over to the bog in order that they might not be desecrated by Christian hands.
Let’s see, off the top of my head:
We all know about Hypatia, the philosopher tortured to death by Christians, but have you bothered to read about Olvir of Egg, a Scandinavian martyr tortured to death by Olaf Trygvasson (may he be ever damned) because he would not abandon the Norse Gods? How many of you know about Charlemagne’s continued persecutions against Saxon Heathens, culminating in the massacre of 2500 of them? Or the forced conversion of the Orkneys – let’s round up all the children while the men are out working and threaten to kill them if the village doesn’t convert? So Christian. So very, very Christian.
Then there’s Raud the strong, also tortured to death by Olaf Trygvasson, again for refusing conversion. Likewise there’s a Norwegian chieftain and priest – unnamed I believe in the sources – who was tortured to death by –guess who—Olaf Trygvasson again for attempting to protect the sacred images of Thor and the temple in Maeren when Trygvasson destroyed it.
We have the Stellinga, still practicing their polytheism under duress in the ninth century. There’s Eyvind Kinnrifi, tortured to death by…wanna hazard a guess? …Trygvasson again, for refusing to convert. No wonder the Christians canonized this fucker. He sure kept busy butchering the pious. May we be as efficient in restoring our traditions as he was in destroying them – and preferably without all the bloodshed.
Saints’ lives are always sickly entertaining reading, if one wishes to see what polytheists faced during the spread of Christianity. Take the life of Martin of Tours for instance. I can barely stand to read it (and I’ve had to multiple times in various theology classes). Just from memory, I recall he interrupted a Pagan funeral procession, desecrating the ancestral rites because he wanted to make sure the Gods weren’t being venerated. He destroyed multiple temples and shrines, and chopped down trees holy to the local Pagans. Each time, people protested up to the point of riots. This is not an isolated series of incidents. This was standard operating procedure for these missionaries and each time there is recorded resistance.
My favorite account is the wonderful resistance by the Pagans at Lyon in the second century who, frankly, were just sick of Christian bullshit. (Eusebius writes about this in his Ecclesiastical History and of course it’s framed as persecution of Christians. Yes, defending one’s ancestral traditions, refusing to abandon one’s Gods, and driving out the people who are desecrating one’s holy places is persecution, but monotheists coming into a place engaging in wholesale destruction of sacred spaces and attempting to force conversion isn’t? Obviously, these early Christians had the same literacy problems as some of my tumblr readers).
Blood was spilled to defend our Gods and our traditions. That Christian writers later presented conversion as inevitable and willing does not mean that it was in fact so. It was anything but.
Intrepid tumblristas are also protesting that I support human sacrifice. Obviously, this is ludicrous. What I’m not willing to do, however, is condemn our ancestors because it was occasionally practiced. They lived in a very, very different world and had reasons for doing what they did, reasons that we may now find abhorrent. I’m not suggesting we return to giving human sacrifice, but neither do I think we’re more advanced than our ancestors. We may have better technology but we’re so much more disconnected from the land, the dead, and the Gods that in no way do I think we’re particularly evolved. So take that for what it’s worth.
I do think it would be a good and holy thing if we were able to lay ourselves down before our Gods in offering and die in sacrifice to Them if that is what we wish, (you know, consent matters in some things) and how we wish to die but given the state of euthanasia laws in this country, that’s not going to happen in any of our lifetimes so what I think on this matter is largely irrelevant. Likewise, if I were a soldier, I would, in fact, dedicate my kills to my Gods. Why not? I belong to a God of war and I’m not wasteful. But you know, that’s all contextual, theoretical, and nuanced as opposed to blanket support for human sacrifice. No wonder my tumblr readers found it confusing to digest. (Though let’s be honest: given how our society treats its most vulnerable, the blanket callousness and cruelty with which we treat our impoverished, the pointless wars in which we’ve been engaged for what? Almost 20 years now…one wonders if we don’t’ have a culture that supports human sacrifice wholesale and for far less relevant a purpose than honoring the gods. In fact, I think we have very little room to condemn our ancestors when we have turned the world that we inherited from them to shit).
Remember, folks: reading is fundamental.
I first became acquainted with Ptahmassu several years ago when I commissioned a series of icons for my prayer card series. His work was stunning and it was very clear immediately that his icons were living embodiments of divine energy. The Gods had blessed him as a craftsman and artist. He is a fierce polytheist and I am delighted that he was able to take the time for this interview.
GK: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work. Who are you and what do you do?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: My life as a servant of the Gods has taken me on a very windy road. It feels like each stage of my life has witnessed the Gods calling me to another level or mode of service, and with each level has come a more wholesome understanding of who the Gods are and what They have to say to humankind. I was legally ordained as a priest of the Temple of Isis California in 2001 by the Rt. Rev. Lady Loreon Vignè, and a priest of the Fellowship of Isis by Lady Olivia Robertson. The spiritual visions of the TOI and FOI have played a significant role in the development of my spiritual work, which has become- more and more- the path of devotional service to the living Gods.
I regard myself as a devotional Polytheist, primarily in the Kemetic tradition, though there are other pantheons I serve with cultus. My direct experience has demonstrated to me that the Gods are unique and individual manifestations of the Divine. They each have Their own powers and spheres of influence, material and spiritual forms, personalities and methods for revealing Their presences to devotees. I reject entirely the rather New Age concept of the Gods as merely different faces of the same inscrutable god, and the ever popular neo-Pagan ideal that views all gods as one god, and all goddesses as one goddess. In these regards you could call me something of a hard Polytheist.
My calling to Kemetic Polytheism has found its most profound outlet in my work as a ritualist and an iconographer, both of which I see as two sides of the same coin. For me, Kemeticism is bound to our immediate relationship with our Gods, the Netjeru, Who engage humankind through the actions of cultus, which revolve around the divine presences inherent in ritually awakened images. It was through a very gradual process spanning a number of years that I was directed to use my priestly skills in conjunction with my skills as an artist and crafts-person. The result of this process is my vocation as a Kemetic iconographer, which is my sole vocation, in the place of secular work. My goal is to eventually establish a guild of Kemetic iconographers to carry out the continued revival of Kemetic ritual practices via the iconographic arts of the temple. Innate to this goal is the philosophy of Kemetic polytheism as a body of religious practices to which the living Gods are central. I want my work, more than anything, to be a voice for devotional Polytheism.
GK: How did you come to polytheism? Do you maintain venerative practice to any particular Deities?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I was raised in a very strict, conservative Christian family, one in which a fairly literal, black and white interpretation of the King James translation of the Bible held sway. My siblings and I were raised to fear hell as a physical reality for the damned, that Satan and his demons were a continual threat to every Christian soul, and that even to question the infallible and inerrant truth of the Bible was to jeopardize one’s soul. But even as a very young boy I found myself rejecting the very notion that only a single god existed, and had this overwhelming sense that Christianity was wholly flawed, and wholly incompatible with my intellectual and spiritual beliefs.
My father was a student of the arts and humanities and maintained a fantastic library, and it was in his library that I found books on the Classical and antique worlds, which introduced me to the religious art and architecture of the ancient Egyptians. I was about six years old when I had my first taste of ancient Egyptian iconography, and became fixated on this idea that these people were my people, and these gods were my gods. It happened very suddenly- upon seeing pictures of Kemetic deities- that I began to pray to the Goddesses and Gods of ancient Egypt, which felt more natural to me than I had ever felt in a Christian church. There was this powerful response whenever I looked at pictures of Kemetic deities, a response that embraced and answered me, and this became a solid call to follow these Gods as my religious path.
A few years later, through a mutual acquaintance, I was introduced to Lady Loreon Vignè, founder of Temple of Isis and Isis Oasis Sanctuary in California, and began a feverish correspondence that changed my life forever. Lady Loreon and her partner Paul Ramses had established themselves as pioneers of the metaphysical community, with a strong focus on the revival of ancient Egyptian spirituality. It was through their generous guidance and tutelage that I was able to access both mainstream academic, Egyptological publications on ancient Egyptian religion, and the more esoteric materials I desired to study seriously. They also introduced me to Lady Olivia Robertson, co-founder of the Fellowship of Isis, who took me under her wing and nurtured me in my budding relationships with the ancient Gods. Lady Olivia was especially vocal concerning the natures of the Gods, that They were physically real, not simply the spiritual archetypes of New Age thought. In a nutshell, that is how I came to Polytheism.
I maintain venerative practices, cultus, to all the Kemetic Netjeru, believe it or not. I’m very much a polytheist, and my daily life revolves around maintaining the practices of prayer and offering to the Netjeru as comprehensively as possible. There seems to be a trend among some Kemetics to choose one Netjer to whom they feel especially drawn, and focus an almost monotheistic zeal on this deity, while leaving the other Netjeru to the wayside or primarily as figments of lips service. I consider myself fortunate in these regards not to have fallen prey to this mode of thinking, which I feel is a carryover from monotheism, and is not authentic to ancient Egyptian spiritual life. I was ordained a priest of the Goddesses Auset and Sekhmet, and I have taken priestly vows to the God Ptah, Whom I regard as my patron and protector, and I am certainly faithful to the vows and levels of commitment I have made to these Netjeru as my most personal deities; however, I am a polytheist, and my polytheism embraces all the Gods, and sees offering and cultus to all the Gods as a joy and priority. I really want to emphasize that, that while my love and ties to my patron Netjeru are fiercely strong, I experience polytheism as the constant engagement of many, many gods, and perpetual service to many, many gods.
GK: Your art is, by your own words, a powerful devotional act. Talk to me a little bit about that. This is your service to your Gods. I think that’s an important thing and one that my readers would be very interested in learning more about.
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: Service is the perfect word here. The kind of polytheism I practice- the kind of polytheism I feel compelled to share with others- is devotional polytheism grounded in hands-on and active service. For me this means the worship of the hands, which cups my vows to the God Ptah, the Creator of substance, form, and all things crafted. It is said in the famous theology inscribed on the Shabaka Stone that Lord Ptah, as the Creator of all things and all words, carved the bodies of the Gods from all manner of wood, stone, and clay, and that He created the Kas or Souls of the Gods and established Them in Their bodies. He then organized the cults and festivals and temples of all the Gods, and because of this Ptah is known as the greatest of the Gods. Quite naturally my veneration of Ptah has called on me to use the cult of craftsmanship for divine service, to restore and perpetuate the traditional iconographic forms through which the Netjeru have made Themselves known, through which They have maintained a dialogue with the human world. Central to ritual and devotion from a Kemetic perspective is the cult of images, for it is the sacral image- sanctified and awakened to an inner spiritual life all its own- that connects us directly and immediately to the invisible world of the Gods. In essence, they, images, make the Gods and Their world visible, and establish a point of contact between human and divine.
In these regards I have been called to create my own practice of iconography, which at its heart is a devotional act, a cultic act, which, like prayer or ritual worship in sacred space, draws the Gods and myself together. Iconography is the practice of infusing material substances and forms with sacred meaning and power. It is the art that elevates human beings into the dynamic presences of the living Gods. So, as an iconographer, a craftsman of cult images, my vocation serves my personal spiritual aims of walking closely with my Gods, and at the same time fulfills part of my official duties as a priest of the God Ptah through service to His Royal Workshop.
Something I feel we’ve been separated from through the corrosive authority of monotheism is the vitality and sacred power of our Ancestral God-images. We’ve grown up in a culture that teaches the falseness of all images and falseness of all gods save the one god of the Abrahamic faiths. From the religions of the book we’ve inherited the prohibition and derision of images, and the fear of divine retribution for venerating forms crafted by the human hand. But our ancient polytheisms were all established on the knowledge that the Sacred, the Gods and Their powers, were directly manifest in the material world- not only in nature, but in reflections of the natural world as viewed through the lens of man-made forms. God-images have a central role to play in almost every polytheistic society our planet has known, and all of them have maintained that craft fueled by human devotion is abundantly powerful and fused with holiness. Only the Abrahamic faiths- which are relatively new to our world- have disdained human ingenuity and intuition when it is expressed through the sacred arts. This monotheistic disdain has been our inheritance, and it is an inheritance I am eager to smash in its entirety.
So, my work as a priest-iconographer is that of reintroducing the sanctity of our Ancestral God-images as the foundation of a living service and cultus to our Gods. Prayer, meditation, offering, sacrifice, ritual dance, the recitation of hymns and chants; these are all modes of sacred service that revolve around the holy presence of cult images, which are much more than symbols or reminders. Cult images that have been ritually awakened and received by a deity become part of the Gods they represent, and therefore have the power to listen, speak, and intercede for us. We have a persistent idea imposed upon us by monotheism that man-made images or idols are inert and powerless representations of false gods; and yet for thousands of years human beings have known through their intuitive faculties that our Gods have the power to transform inert matter into something living and vital, infused with a sacred life force that answers prayers and dispenses boons. This feeling is much older than monotheism, and my belief is that the history of God-images in polytheism discounts the prohibitions of monotheism absolutely.
GK: What would you tell someone just coming into polytheism? What do you feel are the most important points of attention and praxis?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: We’ve inherited so much spiritually obstructive baggage from monotheism, that my first and biggest piece of advice to polytheism newcomers is to avoid- at all cost- falling into monotheistic patterns of thought and belief, and projecting these onto the polytheisms they are trying to adopt. I see this happen so often. A person fresh out of monotheism comes to Kemeticism or Hellenic Reconstructionism or Polytheism in general, and instead of embracing the experience of pluralism that Polytheism is, they extract one deity in a pantheon and focus the bulk of their energy on worshiping that one deity. People do this for one big reason, in my opinion; they do it because although they’re unhappy with the concept of monotheism, and although they may sincerely wish to leave that way of thinking behind, it’s still what they’ve always known, what they’re surrounded by in the families and society in which they’ve grown up, so in a sense it’s what they’re most *comfortable* with.
The concept of Polytheism is no longer part of our social nature, because monotheism has overtaken our awareness of our own history and cultural identity, and erased any sympathy with other modes of thinking or belief. We’re automatically conditioned to believe that monotheism is intellectually and spiritually superior to any other form of belief; in fact, we’re taught that monotheism and veneration of the singular (of oneness) is the only valid perspective to have. Because of this preconditioning, people have a really hard time accepting the actual practice of Polytheism, despite their intellectual willingness to belong.
My strongest advice is to begin with a clean slate. Come to Polytheism prepared to abolish the entire framework of religious beliefs you’ve been conditioned to believe are valid, and open your mind to the vast experience that worship of many deities provides. Somehow people expect that if religion is overwhelming or uncomfortable or unfathomable, it isn’t good. Something you learn very early on when you adopt an ancient Polytheism is that the Gods are overwhelming and unfathomable and mysterious, and that a certain amount of bewilderment and discomfort comes with the territory. Don’t expect an easy ride, when you’re rejecting your monotheistic upbringing and adopting a very foreign spiritual framework.
Pluralism and multiplicity are by their natures overwhelming because they present us with unlimited possibilities of experience and interpretation simultaneously, and in our predominantly monotheistic society we’re used to the concept that ultimately there is and can be only one right way to believe, cupped by one right way to express that one belief. Polytheism presents us with the exact opposite; it shows us not only thousands upon thousands of deities who each have their own unique personalities and powers, but also, and perhaps even more overwhelming, the truth that truth itself is plural and vast, and cannot possibly be boiled down to only one point of view or creed. Polytheism is vastly flexible and fluid. It isn’t static the way monotheism can be. It bends and grows and demands a certain kind of resilience in our manner of expressing its many and imaginative forms.
What I advise any newcomer to polytheism is to avoid the monotheistic pitfall of choosing that one deity you feel closest to in a pantheon and stopping there- simply because it softens the edge of Polytheism and makes it more comfortable. In the end, this will only wind up cutting you off from the richness of Polytheism and the limitless blessings of its many Gods. I say dive right in, introduce yourself to your pantheon and ask the Gods to introduce Themselves to you. Don’t be afraid of feeling overwhelmed because feeling overwhelmed is actually part of the mystery and majesty of the Gods; a certain feeling of awe, and even terror, is part of what the Ancients experienced through the Mysteries, the process of initiation, of being adopted by the Gods into Their community of celebrants. Some awe and fear and bewilderment is good, because it means you’re connected to the sensation of feeling the Gods, instead of just parroting a belief in Them. Explore the presences of a number of Gods at the same time, and always resist the temptation to settle back into any monotheistic tendencies you may still be carrying with you.
By far the most important point I can make is praxis, that is, establishing a regular daily practice of offering and veneration of the Gods. One of the most common things I notice in contemporary Polytheist and Reconstructionist communities is an over emphasis on theory, on research and reading and intellectualizing the Gods, while seeing actual ritual, worship, and offering as somehow less vital than cerebral engagement. Yes, it’s important to study and embrace philosophy, to understand the roots of our ancient Polytheisms and strive to honor the Gods through the art of learning; especially in Reconstructionism, where the intention is to recover authentic texts and modes of worship via the historical, Ancestral record. I embrace this and understand its vital role. However, I see a less balanced dialogue taking place today between theory and practice in many Polytheist groups and individuals, and I think this needs to be addressed by our priesthoods and clergies. At the end of the day living religion means direct experience, not mere theory or book learning. No amount of study or research can replace the actual presence of sacred relationships as the fulfillment of our spiritual life. This means we have to open up our intuitive, emotional faculties to the existence of the Gods, which in devotional Polytheism is awakened and enhanced through cultic acts, praxis- ritual worship, offering, sacrifice, sacred dance, and the recitation of hymns or sacred texts.
Offering and sacrifice are what I regard as the key ingredients of cult and praxis. Truly, they are two sides of the same coin. Offering has to be a root part of how we establish active relationships with our Gods, and cultivate those relationships continually. Without offering, there is no energetic link between our human nature and the immortal natures of the Gods; offering provides the link of communication that ties us to the Gods, from which we give and They give in return. Our relationship with Them is based on reciprocity, and this exists in every single mode of Polytheism I have ever studied. All Polytheisms maintain this awareness that our Gods give because we give, and that They engage us because we engage Them, and that this cannot be taken for granted.
So, I tell all my students that the first framework we put into place is the devotional framework constructed through daily offering, which flows from the notion of sacrifice. Sacrifice is the offering of that which we hold most valuable, which can be our time, energy, and material resources. Our time is certainly, in the modern world, one of our most valuable commodities, so this is something we need to be prepared to give to our Gods. When we give up something that is precious to us, something it pains us to give, then we are performing sacrifice, and this is the holiest form of offering that exists. When we pour out a libation of wine or beer on the shrine, or make a presentation of food and flowers, we are creating an energetic bond between our Gods and our human life, and we are asking the Gods to enter into that life and partake of its essence. Without offering, without sacrifice…without this vital exchange of energy and intention, there is no connection between our life and the Divine world, and we cannot hope to benefit from it.
Secondly, I think it’s vital for us to establish some kind of Ancestor veneration, some legitimate recognition of those who have gone before us to pave the way for our sacred life and relationships with our Gods. This is another of the practices monotheism has stripped from our life in the contemporary west; but in all ancient Polytheisms, recognition of the Dead, the Ancestors, and the Forebears of the tradition forms a most significant part of daily spiritual life. I think this comes in two parts. The first is honoring ones’ immediate blood family and personal relationships with the dead, which is done through offerings and prayers, and actually talking to the dead through the medium of sacred space- a shrine, a photograph, or visitation to a grave site or memorial. The second form of Ancestor veneration, and the one which for me is most powerful in my Kemetic practice, is veneration of the Ancestors of one’s faith line, that is, the people who have served the same Gods you are serving now.
Since we as Polytheists are most often coming out of monotheistic families and monotheistic preconditioning, it’s often hard for us to feel *rooted* in our ancient Polytheisms in the modern world. It’s sometimes hard for us to maintain that feeling of immediate connection with very ancient traditions from which we have been separated through our upbringing in predominantly monotheistic modes of thinking and behaving; so, there is a need now more than ever for Ancestor veneration practices that bring us back into the framework of a daily experience of walking with our Gods. So, what I recommend is an investigation into the individuals and communities that have served the same Gods and traditions we are now striving to serve, and creating a regular practice of prayer and offering in order to generate the blessings of souls who have the advantage of being directly in the presences of our Gods, who can help us bring through those blessings more easily.
GK: What do you feel are the greatest challenges facing our communities and the restoration of our traditions today?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: One of the greatest challenges I see facing the restoration of our ancient Polytheisms is the currently trending notion that some way, somehow, we can circumvent the worship of the Gods and still call ourselves Polytheists or Kemetics or Heathens. The root of this issue is a heated debate over the very notion of worship and reverence, and the role the Gods have to play in our contemporary world. There is this deeply disturbing notion being voiced- especially on the Internet- that worship and devotion to the Gods is on a par with humiliation and degradation and subservience, which we as almighty, all important humans should be exempt from. Why should we serve the Gods? Why should we acknowledge the Gods, let alone acknowledge Their greatness as exceeding our own? Why should we bow to anyone or anything, since we are at the top of the food chain, after all, and see ourselves as the center of importance in the created world?
The Ancients lived in a very different world than our own. They saw the Gods as living through the natural world and its awesome powers, its life and changes and death; and the Gods were experienced through all the pangs and suffering life had to offer. There was no sense that human life was separate or could be separate from the influence of the Gods. But today we live in a very secular society, though a society still dominated by the influence of monotheism. This is a society in which human beings take precedence over all, and there is nothing so great as our mind, our ambition, and our will to control and change and harness our environment.
The restoration of Polytheistic traditions faces these attitudes en masse, and a profound part of that is this overwhelming sense of self entitlement, this sense that the human ego is matchless in the universe and deserves to take center stage. Polytheism as it was expressed for thousands of years is the polar opposite of this attitude. Ancient Polytheisms placed the Gods at the center of creation and humankind on the periphery, and urged that it was humankind’s responsibility to engage and honor the Gods, and to draw the Gods out into Their creation for the benefit of all life. The Ancients realized that humankind was in an interdependent relationship with its Gods, and one in which both sides of the equation had a vital role to play. This kind of interdependence- between Gods and the ongoing work of life as sacred creation- is the backbone of the Kemetic tradition to which I belong, but it can be seen in other ancient Polytheistic societies, where there is an acute awareness of the sacred law of reciprocity- the Gods giving because humankind gives.
But we seem to have cut ourselves off from this awareness possessed by our ancient Ancestors. We’ve replaced the Gods with ourselves, and have made giving to ourselves, and mass consumption, the modus operandi of our civilization. So, what I see happening to the discussion of Gods and devotion is more of a focus on what we- human beings- are going to get from it, and why the Gods are worthy of our worship in the first place, and even if the Gods are really necessary to the continuance of our spiritual life. What we’re fighting for right now, it seems, is the right to proclaim Polytheism as the veneration of many gods; Gods who are not only worthy of our worship, but entitled to it because of Their innate greatness as gods and the gift of life They have given us.
The reclamation of devotion, and of the rich thread of cultic traditions that go with it, is what I see as one of the greatest challenges facing our Polytheist communities today. We seem to be engaged in a fierce debate over the relevance of our Gods, and even over the simple dictionary definition of what Polytheism is, when I feel we should be strengthening the training of our laypeople and clergies alike in the process of reviving our devotional cultic practices. By practices I mean everything from daily rituals, offerings, and Ancestor veneration to rites of passage such as births, marriages, and funerary rites. We need more rites of passage and empowerment for those in military service and inmates in prison, and we need to strengthen our Polytheist communities, not just through open dialogue and discussion, but through inviting one another to actively participate in holy rites that unite us in service to our living Gods. But I see these things are being hampered and set back by this ongoing debate over why or if we should venerate our Gods in the first place. It should go without saying that actual worship of the Gods is what makes Polytheism a religious experience in the first place; but we can’t take that for granted when we have voices from within our communities that are striving to dismantle our devotional relationships with our Gods. This really needs to be the focus of our efforts if our traditions are going to survive.
GK: How do you pray? Why do you think it’s important?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I pray all the time! Prayer means many things to different people, but for me, from the point of view of a devotional Polytheist and Kemetic, prayer is a form of direct communication with the Gods. It is a vital tool for cementing and maintaining my relationship with my Gods, for keeping that channel of reciprocity open between my daily life and the boons of the Netjeru. My prayers come in many forms. There are my very personal prayers offered in front of our shrine to the Household Gods. These aren’t necessarily formal or eloquent or poetic. They take the form of whatever words I feel I need to say to my Gods; complaints and requests for healing, getting some worries off my chest, expressing gratitude, or simply calling on various deities to be present and commune with me. I come before the household shrine several times throughout my day, to light a candle and make an offering of incense or to pour out a libation. I’ll recite simple prayers during the day that are my own personal prayers, or abbreviations of the official prayers I say as part of my duties as a priest.
Of course, there are the official prayers of the Daily Ritual, which I chant in the ancient Egyptian language, and are accompanied by the formal gestures and offerings of the cult. These are some of the most ancient prayers of the Kemetic religion, which were chanted in every temple every day in ancient times. They are part of the devotional and energetic legacy handed down to us from the Ancestors of our tradition, so to speak these prayers today is to connect the actions of the present with the holiness of the past; and in Kemeticism, the past is part of an ongoing cycle of divine repetition flowing from Zep Tepy, the “First Occasion” immediately following the creation of the ordered world.
Prayer can be very formal and very solemn, a means of bringing my mind and consciousness into that space of resonance with the Gods, which I feel is essential in the modern world where we are so often asked to step away from any feelings of solidarity with the Sacred, with mindfulness on the realm of stillness and power that is the dwelling place of the Gods. It’s so easy to get caught up in the problems and momentum of our daily lives and lose our grounding in the Sacred, especially those of us serving very ancient Ancestral traditions and paths. So, my view of prayer is that it can be that tool for stopping everything and bringing ourselves back to the center of our holy practices. Through the vocalization or silence induced by prayer, we step back into the Sacred moment, imbuing the present moment with the immediate presences of our Gods.
These moments of devotion are- for me- what nourishes Polytheism and makes it the richest expression of religion. Our ancient Polytheisms are rooted in communion with legions of deities and Ancestors Who are accessible to us at any time, and prayer is the instrument by which we ask our Holy Powers to step into our sphere of life and fill it with Their essence. There’s such an awe-inspiring strength in this; speaking directly to our Gods and Ancestors and sharing a dialogue with Them that gives meaning to every moment of our lives.
I think one of the reasons you asked me this question is because of the push back against prayer that is part of a larger debate concerning the essential meaning of Polytheism and its relationship with its Gods. Enter our ever-present burden of baggage from monotheism. Those of us who grew up under the influence of evangelical strains of Christianity have a rather different and sinister experience with prayer that has nothing whatsoever to do with devotion. How many readers have been told by a Christian relative or acquaintance “I’ll pray for you” or “I’m praying for you”? We all know what I’m talking about here, and it’s not the kind of concern that prompts someone to sincerely pray to their deity on your behalf. This is the kind of statement evangelicals often make when condescending and talking down to those they view as sinners, and it’s an act that implies the superiority of their god and religious system above those they are trying to “help”- or rather convert to their way of thinking. For many Polytheists today, prayer is a dirty word, a word that carries with it an instant gut reaction of “no!”, and is synonymous with control. For many, prayer is a tool of abuse wielded by the Christian dogma they are desperately trying to escape, and it’s a very difficult process to transform the meaning of that word into something wholesome, let alone something that comes natural.
Something I feel is vital- if we are to succeed as individual Polytheists and as communities- is for us to make a concerted effort to reclaim our Ancestral traditions and practices from the oppressive hand of monotheism, and this means taking back words, too, and refusing to sacrifice vital spiritual meaning because of associations with systems of belief we’ve experienced as being destructive. We have to take back the concept and action of prayer, if not the very word itself; because in essence prayer is the action of communicating directly with our Gods, and is an active ingredient in the foundation of cultus and praxis, these two essential components of living the Polytheist life today. All our ancient Polytheisms use prayer in conjunction with offering and sacrifice; Polytheism is inseparable from these activities, and, from my perspective, there is no Polytheism without the three roots of prayer, offering, and sacrifice. Polytheism is a living religious system grounded firmly in the worship of many gods, and it is the Gods Who give us our spiritual life cupped by the physical life in which the Spirit dwells. Our physical and spiritual lives are two sides of the same coin, and they are joined together through the marriage of belief and practice. How else can we practice, establish praxis and cultus, without addressing our Gods directly? And how else can we address our Gods if not through the medium of prayer, which itself is a form of offering and personal sacrifice?
So, I want to encourage people to reexamine their fears or dislike of prayer, and to see prayer very differently from the agent of control that so many of us have experienced at the hands of evangelicals. The action of prayer predates the advent of monotheism by millennia. Our Ancestors used it as a tool of direct communication with Their Gods, to consecrate Their physical lives to the Gods, and to invoke the Holy Powers into the material world. We are following in Their footsteps, and we need Their guidance and empowerment if our reestablishment of Polytheism is to succeed. Prayer is and can be that binding thread between our current lives and the ever-present sacral past inhabited by our Ancestors. Prayer is and can be that source of divine inspiration that never runs dry or fails to revitalize; but, like anything, it takes work in order to make it grow and flourish. The effort has to come from us, and our Gods and Ancestors will never cease to meet us half way if our effort is sincere in the things we do for Them.
GK: You’re also an accomplished poet. Do you feel that there is a unique connection between the Gods, devotion, and practice of the arts? If so, please elaborate.
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: For me, the practice of the arts is, quite literally, the practice of my religion, and is a direct extension of my priesthood and the expression of my spiritual life. Since my namesake and patron deity is Lord Ptah, the consummate Creator and craftsman of the Gods, it so follows that the worship of the hands carries with it the Heka or Magick of my Netjer, Who created the very acts of sculpting, painting, and poetic expression. It is said of Lord Ptah that He created the Gods and all living things through the profession of words, which are His craft and carry with them the magic through which all created things came into being.
When I sit down to write my verses or engage in the holy craft of iconography, I am, in fact, engaging in powerful acts of worship that are- in a manner of speaking- emulating the divine and creative acts of the God Ptah. I am taking on myself the role of Lord Ptah, Whose actions and words wove the substance of the cosmos and gave breath to the Gods. The Ancestors of my tradition used hymns and poetry to celebrate the moment of the Daily Ritual offered by the cult of each god, and married to these holy words is the premise that words on their own contain the vibrational potency of the creative act. The ancient hymns are often complex poems containing elaborate descriptions of a deity’s names, epithets, and physical characteristics, which were echoed in the exquisitely wrought images of the cult in which the deity’s spiritual essence resided. The ancient temples were themselves massive pieces of sacred art, for lack of a better word; but these expressions of art were manifestations of the impersonal Sacred, not the ego of an individual artist. The Ancients saw all man-made artistic forms as carrying the potential for an inner divine life to grow, and when these forms were married to the ritual activities of the cult, they actually became the Gods resident in terrestrial matter.
Aside from my vocation as an iconographer, it is through poetry that I express my longing to see and experience the Gods directly. Writing sacred verses forms part of my daily practice of prayer and offering, since my verses are being given to the Gods as an aspect of veneration. The process of writing itself is an activity of profound meditation on the Gods, because it requires me to remove myself from the surroundings of the mundane world and enter into a frame of mind where the Gods hold sway and are the predominant reality. The result of these sessions is a form of religious ecstasy expressed in words, which can then be absorbed by others who desire to enter into the spiritual ethos.
It almost goes without saying that I believe all the arts can bring us closer to our Gods, and can be the springboard for achieving that ultimate relationship where our Gods are revealed as a physical, tangible reality in our daily life, instead of remaining abstract or distant. We are raised in a society where the pervasive monotheistic perspective is one of the separation of the Divine from the physical world of humankind. Christianity especially has given us an intellectual legacy of seeing the world of sight and senses as clearly divided from the ultimate blessing of the Sacred; it teaches the fall of humankind from god. But our ancient Polytheisms urge us into a very different understanding of the Holy Powers, one in which the Gods work directly through matter, the natural world, and the senses of the human condition. Neither nature or the world of the flesh have fallen away from the Divine, but have instead emerged from it, and are married to the Gods through a reciprocal relationship of give and take. It is through the arts- through painting, sculpture, poetry, music, and dance- that our senses and intellect are elevated and refined, and ripen into a deeper, more mystical consciousness of what it means to be human. The arts can unite us with our higher selves, and, at the same time, remove us from ourselves and into the presences of the living Gods.
GK: What projects do you currently have in the works and where can people find your work?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I am currently working on a new series of smaller icon panels I am calling the Aegis Series. These are more like *portraits* of the Kemetic Gods, whose purpose- aside from being the recipients of devotion and active cultus- is to serve as focal points for prayer and meditation on the Netjeru as personal protectors. So, these icons are magical images linking devotees with aspects of the Gods specifically attuned to healing, personal safety, defense from diseases or external enemies, fertility and creation, et cetera. Their main source of iconographic inspiration are the images of the head and shoulders, crown and regalia of the Gods seen on the prow and stern of the sacred boat-shrines carried in religious festivals, or worn as protective amulets.
Something I am very excited about is the idea to use the Aegis Series, together with my other icons, in a full color devotional art book being conceived by myself and Her Holiness Rev. Tamara Siuda (AUS), Nisut of the Kemetic Orthodox Faith. Tamara approached me with an inspiration she had had to compose guided meditations for each of my icons, which would lead devotees through the symbolism and sacred meanings resident in my icons. Her feeling is that people should experience my work not only through its aesthetic or artistic qualities, but more importantly from the perspective of going inward to meet the Gods directly, and thereby receive Their wisdom. Her idea for the guided meditations will be paired with prayers and hymns and other devotional writings that will serve Kemetics, devotional Polytheists, and students of sacred art in their desire to understand this vibrant spiritual tradition of cult images, and experience it through the lens of its initiatory symbols.
Secondly, I’ve just finished editing my new book “Sacred Verses: Entering the Labyrinth of the Gods”, which will be published by Asphodel Press in the near future. I consider Sacred Verses some of the best writing of my life, and it’s certainly my most profound exploration of devotional poetry to date. Interestingly enough, it is not entirely Kemetic in its tone or use of language, and is meant to be an experience of poetic initiation into the realm of recovering our Polytheistic memory. The premise I have is that if we go back far enough into our family tree, we will reach the time in human history when the civilizations of humankind were Polytheistic; and it is this process of reaching back, of journeying through the sacred tree of spiritual memory, that Sacred Verses presents to its readers. It gives us a set of keys for setting aside the paradigm of monotheism, and returning to our original and ancient spiritual traditions- which of course are those of Polytheism.
Interested readers will be able to find my work via the following links:
Official Icons of Kemet website
Official Icons of Kemet blog
Sacred poetry and verse blog
Kemetically Speaking blog
Kemetic deities prayer cards
Be sure to check out my other sites:
Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy
My academia.edu page
My amazon author page.
Walking the Worlds Journal
My art blog at Krasskova Creations
My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.
And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.
So having a discussion today with someone who is very much in support of NOLA taking down any monuments of the Confederacy (according to this guy, that’s not ‘destruction’). I’m very much against removing any historical monuments. I don’t think visible erasure of our history is a way of dealing with that history or of healing its wounds and I’m sick of seeing people accommodating this PC agenda. I question what’s next: desecrating the dead by removing their monuments? oh wait, that’s already happened in Confederate cemeteries.
Now I am no fan of the Confederacy. the history of slavery and human trafficking in this country makes my stomach lurch when I sit and think about it. it’s one of the most shameful periods of our history BUT it’s our history and I don’t think anything good ever came of denying one’s own history. We don’t learn by white washing and pretending things never happened, and we don’t learn by desecrating monuments to the dead.
I would be all for setting up monuments commemorating emancipation, the triumph of the Union, free black communities (NOLA had a thriving free black community since at least the eighteenth century) in the same locales but to erase history well, that leaves us with a generation that doesn’t know where it came from and so can be very easily led to where someone else thinks it should go. I’m never against adding more memorials. It’s the taking away that bothers me.
Someone asked me in one of these discussions whether we shouldn’t prioritize the needs of the living over the dead and I said absolutely not. The dead should and will always take precedence with me. A culture and a people’s worth is determined by how they tend their dead and here’s the thing, if you’re tending your dead rightly and well (which includes holding them accountable for the shit that they did), it will transform how you engage with the living. But in no world should the dead, our ancestors, take second place. Being a functioning human means being in right relationship with the ancestors, the Gods, and the land spirits and that impacts every other living interaction. We don’t achieve that by pandering to a group of PC fanatics who have no long term vision and preach only to sentiment and emotion.
If these monuments are being used by white supremacists to advance their agenda (real white supremacists, not people who refuse to feel guilty for being white), then address that, but don’t think it’s addressed by pretending that history never happened. If you don’t remember your history, you’re guaranteed to repeat it. We’re seeing that in the daily news. These monuments serve as much for warning as they do commemoration.
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This week I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and colleague Dr. Edward Butler. Edward has been doing crucial work in reclaiming our philosophical traditions as specifically polytheistic traditions. He’s a specialist in the Neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus and also one of the editors of Walking the Worlds Journal. Thank you, Edward, for taking the time to answer these questions.
GK: Please introduce yourself, Edward. I’ve known you for years and I’m familiar with your work, but I”ll bet a lot of my readers aren’t. What is it you do as a philosopher?
Edward Butler: When I first began to study philosophy in graduate school, I’d already been a practicing polytheist for a number of years. I had a notion of the need for defending and articulating polytheism, but I was by no means certain whether my work in philosophy would serve this function directly or only in a more oblique fashion. And I was comfortable with that, because I felt a vocation toward philosophy in any case.
But I found rather quickly when I started on my own initiative studying the ancient Platonic tradition, that if I ignored what all the secondary literature was telling me, and just read the philosophers themselves, that this was a philosophy that didn’t merely accommodate polytheism, but was radically polytheistic to its core. This was a very original reading in the context of modern scholarship. As originality is one of the principal requirements for a doctoral dissertation, I felt that if I could just follow through on what would be considered by modern scholars as a daring argument I would be successful.
The idea for what would become my dissertation, “The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus”, came to me as early as the first semester of my graduate coursework in philosophy, but everything I studied subsequently in the history of philosophy helped me to understand the significance of the argument, a significance beyond narrow religious interests, having to do with the most basic issues in metaphysics.
Metaphysics is a very intricate structure built up over millennia by many individual hands, and even a relatively small change in the understanding of a key concept can change the way this entire structure fits together; undoing a historic misappropriation of arguably the most important concept in metaphysics, namely the nature of unity and multiplicity, has the potential to change how a great many other pieces in this machine fit together.
GK: How did you come to polytheism?
Edward Butler: I was raised in an agnostic/atheist home, but I seem to have been on the path to polytheism already when I was very small. Two of the earliest books I remember reading, and I read them again and again, were the D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and Book of Greek Myths. When we had an Icelandic exchange student staying with us one year, I pestered her about whether people in Iceland still worshiped the old Gods (she said that some did). I also remember a book on ancient Egyptian art with images I stared at. I was fascinated with archaeology. All of these interests stayed with me, but I think that at a certain point they went into a kind of dormancy again until I was sixteen or so, when I began having numinous dreams. I was engaging in a bit of psychic adventuring, I suppose you could say, and it eventually resulted in a theophany from the deity I have regarded ever since as my patron. I’ve built up a diverse personal pantheon since then.
GK: I absolutely adore D’aulaire’s books. I think they were my introduction to both the Greek Gods and the Norse as well. I still treasure my copies! Seriously awesome children’s books aside, what are your thoughts on piety and polytheism? How does your awareness and education as a philosopher impact your devotion as a polytheist?
Edward Butler: I’ve never found piety and philosophy to be in conflict for me. On the contrary, it was engagement with the Gods that steered me in the direction of philosophy as opposed to the predominantly artistic orientation that I’d had before. And yet, at the same time, I saw philosophy as a fundamentally creative endeavor, and thus as an extension of the artistic search for expression. From this perspective, philosophy is just a unique and particularly demanding medium. One cannot simply make any moves that one likes. There is more constraint than freedom, and yet its very nature is liberating. My role as a philosopher is to seek truth; but I’ve never had the slightest notion that this would lead me away from the Gods, rather than toward Them—how could it? The notion that philosophy and piety should be in some natural tension is a product of the profoundly dysfunctional relationship established between philosophy and religion by Christianity, nothing more and nothing less.
GK: Seeing you approach philosophy as your vocation has certainly impacted my own respect for the field and my growing awareness of just how important it was to our ancestors. I know not everyone has had the benefit of engaging discussions with you so I’m going to ask: Why is philosophy so important to polytheists?
Edward Butler: Philosophy is more important for modern polytheists than it was for ancient polytheists, because there is no surviving polytheistic tradition which is not critically endangered by monotheism’s weaponization of philosophy. For those reviving sundered traditions, the need to be able to critique the intellectual legacy of hegemonic monotheism is even more urgent. People will come up against limitations in their ability to conceptualize their experience of the Gods and the nature of their relationship to Them, and that makes them vulnerable to the omnipresent dismissal of that experience in the contemporary world, the treatment of a relationship to real Gods as naïve or incoherent. Polytheists need philosophy in order to get past those bottlenecks in understanding that hinder their devotion, or threaten to undermine their worship altogether.
Philosophers were already doing this, so to speak, therapeutic work in antiquity, but it is more urgent today, where theism as such, which simply is polytheism, has been under sustained assault from what I increasingly see as a kind of atheism. That is, I increasingly see monotheism per se as atheism, because its founding moment is not any positive religious experience, but rather the moment in which that experience is understood to negate any other experience to the degree that it does not fall within certain intellectually defined parameters. This appropriation of primary religious experience makes monotheism as such distinct in a certain sense even from the actual religious experience of people in the monotheistic faiths, because insofar as they follow the logic of monotheism through to its ultimate conclusion, it will negate even their own religious experience. The proper understanding of philosophy’s purpose and implications is necessary to arrest this process.
Beyond this, however, there is the simple fact that polytheists invented philosophy, not only in Greece, but in India and in China and everywhere that we have a tradition sufficiently intact to see it. In all of these places there is a wisdom tradition that is at least nascently philosophical. These traditions were not separate from theology, but they expanded upon the basis provided by theophany, by the experience of living immortals, to perfect the arts of reasoned inquiry and to found the sciences. Polytheists must not let these traditions be alienated from them through the great historic lie that philosophy, reason, leads ultimately to monotheism. To believe this lie would in itself impair the flourishing of our traditions, and could even doom them, because it would cut us off from our own histories as well as from the innate faculties that have made humans such extraordinarily successful creatures. Polytheists have a duty, I would argue, to develop their wisdom traditions to the fullest extent possible. It’s not sufficient to worship with your heart, you have to worship with your head as well.
GK: I’ve been consistently appalled at the stripping of the Gods from the ancient philosophers, something I encounter all the time in academia. The first time I really came face to face with it in a theology class I think I walked out shell shocked. I don’t think until that moment, I truly realized what a crucial battle it was that you’re fighting. That being said, what advice would you give someone just starting out, both in exploring philosophy and in venerating the Gods?
Edward Butler: My own practice has always had an improvised quality, and so I can’t tell people that they ought to seek out a more structured tradition, but I do respect the work that people are doing to build those kinds of traditions back up, or maintain and strengthen those already in existence. Ultimately, it is one’s relationship with one’s Gods that is the beginning and the end of all practice, and so all I can really say is to pursue that with all the tools available to you and follow it wherever it leads you.
With respect to philosophy, I would say that I think it is important to be at least somewhat interested in all philosophies. You cannot say in advance what problems might end up being most important to you, and what approaches might prove fruitful. There will be plenty of time later to be dismissive of this or that approach, but it’s crucial early on to allow yourself to feel the force of arguments with which you may not intuitively agree. Have enough courage to recognize that while you may not yet have the tools to defend your intuitions to the degree you might like, you shouldn’t as a result hide from the arguments people have made. Learn to appreciate arguments for their elegance, even if you disagree. Seeing an argument in the purity of its structure, you will grasp its potential for application and transformation far beyond its nominal intent.
GK: Can you tell me a little bit about your current work? I know you have some fascinating things in the works. What projects are you currently working on and what do you have coming up?
Edward Butler: I’m currently working on a project supported by a grant from the Dharma Civilization Foundation, about ideological issues in Western Indology. It’s an adjunct to the book The Nay Science: A History of German Indology by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee (Oxford University Press, 2014). The short book I’m writing is designed to make that text more accessible to a wider audience, and especially for Hindus who want to be engaged in the intellectual defense of their traditions. It also broadens the perspective of the argument put forth in The Nay Science in the direction of the intellectual defense of all polytheist traditions, both continuous and indigenous as well as revived and diasporic.
In connection with that project, I’d also like to continue to deepen my engagement with Indian philosophy. I made a start of this in a conference paper (“Bhakti and Henadology”, available from my site), but there is further work I need to do in that area. A great deal of mischief has been wrought by monotheizing Western interpretations of Indian philosophy, and since these misreadings bear such close resemblance to the kinds of distortions that plague modern readings of ancient Greek philosophy, I believe that I have a particular contribution to make in disrupting them and helping to open a space for a more fruitful relationship between Indian and European philosophies. This is an effort to which polytheists of every tradition cannot afford to be indifferent; none of us can ignore the historical situation in which we find ourselves, and in which the fate of all polytheisms are bound up with one another. And in this, ideas and ideologies are as important as facts on the ground.
Other projects will, I am certain, pop up on their own. So much of my work recently has been driven by what others have asked me to do, and that will likely continue.
GK: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Folks, you can follow Edward on twitter @EPButler or at his website https://henadology.wordpress.com. He’s also the author of two books: “Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus” and “Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion.” His academic work may be found at his academia.edu page and also in Walking the Worlds.
Be sure to check out my other sites:
Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy
My academia.edu page
My amazon author page.
Walking the Worlds Journal
My art blog at Krasskova Creations
My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.
And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.