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.
I have known PSVL for several years now and have consistently been impressed with eir’s hard work in restoring the cultus of Antinous . E is currently one of the editors of Walking the Worlds journal and has been devoted to the development of the cultus of Antinous for many, many years. E is also a contributing member of Neos Alexandria and a practicing Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan in the traditions of gentlidecht and filidecht, as well as Romano-British, Welsh, and Gaulish Deity devotions, and continues to teach courses in these (and other) subjects to modern polytheists interested in taking them.
PSVL, thank for taking the time to answer my questions. To begin with, for those who may not be familiar with your work, why don’t you introduce yourself.
PSVL: I’m a lot less interesting than the work I am doing, and a lot less important, to be honest. Certainly, what I do is influenced by who I am and what my experiences have been, but one of the things I most detest these days is “making everything personal” and about one’s own peculiarities. This tendency puts the relevance of one’s own work, based on one’s own experiences, in a much lesser category than I think is useful, given that we’re trying to build vital practices that are relevant to a wide range of modern people who are nothing like me (or you, or anyone else who writes about polytheism!) and do not have the same experiences, etc., rather than on the work itself. The barometer for whether or not something might be useful for someone else is not whether my individual characteristics line up with theirs, but instead whether whatever is proposed will work for someone considering it, no matter where they are in their own progression of practice and understanding of these things or what sort of identity they might have and whether or not my own story resonates with theirs.
Not that that’s what you were doing in asking the question, by any means—but, I think it’s an important point to make! I’ve been in too many situations over the last few years in which I’ve been asked to make an appearance on a panel or some event, and I’ve done it understanding I’m there to address a particular (often contentious) subject, but then the moderators or organizers want me to tell “my story” rather than talk about what the topic of the day happened to be. Rather than “putting a human face” on the issues concerned, I find it does the opposite a great deal of the time (often then getting into side matters about my personal identity or life choices that then get focused upon by the audience and resulting in an elision of the main issue), no matter what the intentions those asking might have been. Certainly, my work arises from my experiences and the person I’ve become after having been shaped by those experiences, as is the case with everyone who has ever done any kind of work, particularly spiritually; but, rather than focus on this (which can lead into the excesses of “cult of personality” nonsense, or can set one up as the potential target for an assault of ad hominem arguments that entirely derail the discussion…and sadly, the more appropriate and happy medium between the two is rarely struck!), the validity of the work I’ve done has to stand on its own independent of myself in order to be relevant and effective for others.
I’m reminded of an incident in which I think the Deities got involved over this very sort of question last year. One of my friends, a Seneca/Mohawk animist, always talks about how sometimes he gives lectures or tells stories, and people try to record them, but for some reason the sacred songs, or the most important and powerful bits of the stories, don’t end up showing up on the recording, or the camera breaks or the batteries die, etc. When I went for my appearances on The New Thinking Allowed last year, I wondered if at any point we might stray into territory that the Deities might not like recorded in the course of the interviews, and thus something might go wrong. It did happen, once, in the 2.5 hours of interviews we did (which took more than 4 hours to do!), and it was at the very beginning of the very first interview, when for some reason, during the 4 minutes or so when Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove initially asked me about my name and some of my history. In the final recording there was a loud buzzing sound that made my words inaudible, and it wasn’t until later (when I was no longer there) that they discovered this in post-production, and couldn’t do anything to rectify it. That had never happened to their production team before, and thus I find it pretty interesting that of all the things I said, it was some of the most “personal” stuff that seemed to be blocked by Deities, or the technological failure, or both, with the Deities intervening via that technological failure!
Evasive, aren’t I? 😉
For those who are interested in some particularities of my own biography, feel free to have a look at that part of my website, which is complete with a picture of my ridiculous mug in full regalia.
As for my work, I’m a polytheist that primarily works in a spiritual capacity as a teacher (doctor in Latin) and theologian, but also in a specialist priestly capacity under various rubrics (propheta, sacerdos), and as a poet in the Irish tradition of filidecht. I am, first and foremost, a devotee, and I hope that the work I do is able to assist others in their own devotions to a variety of Deities.
GK: I tend to agree with you. I think there’s way too much focus on us and not enough on the Gods, the traditions and the work. I’ve always thought we should be hollow bones through which the work of the Gods may flow without impediment.
Anyway, to continue, what brought you to polytheism? Everyone always asks me this when they find out I’m a polytheist and I think it’s something that interests a lot of people.
PSVL: Probably what ought to be the thing which brings a lot of people to polytheism: my own experiences did not match, nor have their best meaning and relevance contextually, within the religious traditions in which I was being raised as a teenager. While I had an interest in Egyptian Deities since I was very young—about age three, in fact (and dreams related to them at that young age that I have only been able to fully understand recently)—and then Greek Deities and Arthurian myth from the age of four and five, and then Norse Deities from the age of ten and Celtic Deities from the age of fifteen onwards, it was really at the age of fifteen that I began delving very deeply into polytheism as a viable religious alternative and made some of my furtive first stabs with its practice. I have always had a very active dream life (as in the ones that occur in sleep!), an interest in myth and magic, a draw toward producing art of various sorts, and due to several ongoing health issues, enough near-death experiences and other altered states of consciousness that can accompany these conditions or their treatments to push me in a direction that the Catholicism of my teenage years didn’t make any efforts to address. Thus, I sought my own answers and began asking the further questions these answers lead to, which took me into polytheism. I generally count Samain of 1992 as the “no-going-back” point, and thus, I’ve been doing it for nearly twenty-five years at this point.
GK: Now you have been doing amazing work over the past…how long is it? decades?… in restoring the cultus and tradition of Antinous. Who is He? Can you talk a little bit about His cultus and what people interested in learning more should know?
PSVL: In early June of this year, I’ll have been doing devotional cultus for Antinous for fifteen years (since 2002), so yes, a decade-and-a-half!
Antinous is the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (who ruled from August of 117 to July of 138 CE); He was born on November 27th, between the years of 110 and 112 CE, and died on about October 28th, 130 CE. Very little is known of Antinous’ life, other than He came from Bithynia in Asia Minor, was probably of Arcadian (Peloponnesian Greek) ancestry, and…that’s about it. Many people try to say much more about His human life, but aren’t always willing to admit how much of it is conjecture based on almost nothing.
The one event in His life, other than His death, that we can be fairly certain of is a lion hunt He had along with Hadrian probably in the summer of 130 CE west of Alexandria in Egypt; the details of this, however, were mythologized almost immediately, and while the basic story of it is pretty believable and plausible—Antinous wounded but didn’t kill the lion, then was nearly killed by it, but Hadrian swooped in and saved him—almost all else about the story has enthralled poets, hymnodists, and devotees since the time after His apotheosis.
He drowned in the Nile near the city of Hermopolis Magna, and became the heroized eponym of the city of Antinoöpolis, which was founded by Hadrian on October 30th, 130 CE. Part of Egyptian tradition at the time—and over the previous several thousand years—was that anyone who drowned in the Nile achieved instant apotheosis and became syncretized to Osiris (if male) or Isis or certain other Goddesses (if female), though it should also be remembered that essentially all of the “afterlife” and funerary literature of ancient Egypt (and the practices implied by these) aimed toward the apotheosis of the one for whom it was created, whether they were a Pharaoh or a palace manicurist or a flute-player or any ordinary person.
This first syncretism of Antinous to Osiris in Antinoöpolis set the tone for much of the expression of His subsequent cultus in late antiquity, which involved syncretism to a wide variety of Deities and Heroes in a diversity of locations (including, but not limited to, Hermes, Dionysos, Apollon, Pan, Silvanus, Vertumnus, and many others). That cultus spread quickly, and was being celebrated in Herakleia Pontika on the Black Sea coast by the end of 130, less than two months after His death and apotheosis.
It is often said, even by historians that should know better, that Hadrian deified Antinous due to his sorrow over His death, but this isn’t correct: even if Antinous had been some random passerby, or a lowly servant in the imperial entourage who wasn’t the Emperor’s boyfriend, He would have been deified, at least in local Egyptian tradition. (The widespread nature of His eventual cultus, though? That is entirely due to who His boyfriend happened to be!) We have several other examples of drowned-deified individuals who were not especially high-status or connected to high-status personages receiving cultus in Egypt, including during the century of Antinous’ death and deification. Anyone who is interested in this and is near New York City can go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and see the Temple of Dendur, the temple to two Nubian brothers, Petesi and Paher, who drowned, were deified, and were given the temple during the reign of Augustus that has been moved to the museum!
What I think is most important to know for modern polytheists, as well as for the wider world—including academics—is that Antinous is not just some historical curiosity, and some reflection of the interesting sexual practices of the late antique Roman Empire and its ruling classes, nor is He merely a beautiful face and a subject of erotic contemplation for the emerging queer aesthetics of the late 19th century, or anything else that He has been portrayed as for the last century and more. The reason many ancient writers wrote about Him is because His was a legitimate theological phenomenon, and a very real and present religious reality; this is why the Christians wrote about Him disparagingly, because His cult was an alternative to and a rival of their own, and thus they resorted to all sorts of rhetorical tactics to make it as if it was only Hadrian’s “madness” and over-emotionality that brought it about, or that it was nothing but a reflection of the lustful and unnatural desires of the wider non-Christian gentile world…a trend with which, sadly, both supposedly non-sectarian historians as well as some queer-affirming modern pagans have identified and consequently over-emphasized, often to the exclusion of the religious base of our very knowledge that Antinous ever existed. No matter how important or liberating that historical identification and questioning of queerness and matters of sexuality might be, if it misses that Antinous and His memory and legacy were first and foremost a matter of religious reality for the people engaged with His devotion then, and likewise for those people who would do it now, then one is on a much better footing to practice honestly and with the right mindset in place as one begins to experience His presence and influence in one’s own life.
GK: Do you find key differences between an apotheosized (we better define that for our readers) God and a God Who was never human in veneration, approach, mysteries, the nature of their traditions?
PSVL: An apotheosized Deity is a human Who becomes a Deity after Their death. There are many options for humans who die to become more-than-human after their deaths: Greek Hero/ines are in this category, and tend to be distinguished not necessarily by their exemplary virtues in life or even their famed great deeds, but because their manners of death were unusual and required a recognition, or sometimes even an expiation, as a result of their strange circumstances of death. But, sometimes these Hero/ines even become Deities, or surpass the heroic category altogether and simply become Deities, and some even do both. Herakles is regarded as a Hero-God, as are the Dioskouroi (Kastor and Polydeukes, a.k.a. the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux). Ino and her son Melikertes drowned in connection with Dionysos, and while Melikertes became known as Palaimon and was considered both a Hero and a God in turn, Ino became known as Leukothea (literally, “The White Goddess”!), and was only considered a Goddess in cultus thereafter. Many of these cases of apotheosis are from mythic narratives, but some are known to have been historical personages. Deified ruler cults in ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, and in Japan (amongst other possibilities) are some other examples of this, though these deified rulers often rank a bit “lower” on the divine hierarchy than the Deities Who were never human, or—in the Roman case—slightly lower than Hero/ines, but still well above the general collective of human dead and individual honored Ancestors. A number of indigenous religions of a polytheist or animist theological nature, which existed in the past and are still practiced now, have possibilities for apotheosis for the everyday person. While it can never be said that to become a divine being is “easy” in any of these religious contexts, it happens with much more frequency than one might realize, which always occurs as a shock to those who are used to Christian (and particularly Protestant) theological norms.
To address your question now, as to the differences between apotheosized Deities and Deities Who were never human in various practical matters, and if there are noticeable differences: Yes and No.
To elaborate on the “No” portion first, the cultus and devotional approach, the specifics of Their veneration, and the varieties of relationship that are possible between oneself and an apotheosized Deity are much the same as those to any other Deity—one prays, sings hymns, makes offerings, builds shrines, holds festivals on Their sacred holy days and tides, and so forth—and apart from the particular characteristics of the Deities concerned (and thus the words spoken or sung, the offerings given, the images used, etc.) these activities are phenomenologically indistinguishable between these two classes of Deity. An anthropologist of religion would not be able to tell the activities of a cultist of Zeus or a cultist of Antinous apart on a structural and basic ritual-symbolic level.
As a second matter in which They do not differ from the never-human Deities, I draw on the work of Dr. Edward Butler to make a point that might seem shocking to some people, but this is mainly because the implications of these things have not been considered fully by most people, including polytheists (amongst whom I’ve encountered surprising resistance to even considering Antinous a “valid” Deity on some occasions).
GK: Ah, I once had some fool say the same about Sekhmet. NO Deity is a ‘minor’ Deity, in my opinion.
PSVL: In his work on “Polycentric Polytheism” as reflected in several different pieces of his published writing, Dr. Butler demonstrates that what makes a Deity a Deity is Their ability, more than any other beings in the universe, to embody the idea of “All things are in all things, but in each appropriately” (panta en pasin, oikeiõs de en hekastõi). That every Deity can be “all-in-each” is what sets Them apart from other types of divinized mortals like Hero/ines or Ancestors; it’s why Dionysos can syncretize with Osiris (and Osiris can syncretize with any justified mortal in death!), or Sobek with Ra, or Jupiter with Ba’al of Doliche…but the Hero Achilleus is always just Achilleus, though sometimes others (like Dionysos or Antinous, who are Deities!) can syncretize with him. This characteristic of being a Deity is no different for the apotheosized Deities than it is for the never-human Deities. It’s why, I think, Palaimon is a Deity and not just a Hero (though His fuller exploitation of this characteristic is not especially attested in ancient cultus—He is syncretized with the Roman Portunus, and clearly has sympathies with others, but further examples are not known), and likewise why Antinous is a Deity and not just a Hero. Antinous, like many Deities in late antiquity (e.g. Isis, Mithras, Serapis, Sabazios, etc.) was “super-syncretistic,” and it is not anomalous that such is the case if one accepts the validity of Dr. Butler’s idea on this matter as it relates especially to Deities, as well as the idea of the nameless “Pythagoreans” from whom the ancient doctrine of panta en pasin is derived.
As to the “Yes” portion, there are several things which make devotion to an apotheosized Deity different than devotional situations with never-human Deities. While such apotheosized Deities are not human any longer, at the same time, They have much more understanding of what it is to be and to have been human than other types of Deity, and thus all the more understanding, empathy, and compassion for one’s struggles, for example. They may not have the power or knowledge that the larger, never-human Deities have, and thus may not be able to effect one’s life in as dramatic a fashion in certain respects; and yet, They are present and have an understanding of the human condition that is born of having had a human nature at one point, and often in the midst of one’s difficulties in life, that’s enough. It’s the difference between having some trouble in life, and hearing from one person (here analogous to the more cosmic never-human Deity) “there’s a reason for this, but you may never know what it is, so don’t worry about it,” and from another (here analogous to the apotheosized Deity) “that sucks and I wish I could help you, but I’m here and willing to listen and be with you through it all.” By no means is that all Deities are meant to do in our relationships with Them, but if one has had an especially difficult life, this is often more impactful than having insights into the nature of the cosmos or touches of the miraculous that other Deities might be known for (though don’t underestimate the ability of the apotheosized Deities to surprise one and surpass one’s expectations, either!).
They can also have a much more close and even passionate relationship with humans, in some cases, as a result of this, and might become involved in many more aspects of one’s overall life than just one’s devotional activities. Read Philostratos’ Heroikos to learn more about this—though it speaks of Hero/ines rather than apotheosized Deities, due to the crossover and the “originally human” nature of each, there is a great deal of relevance for those engaged in these sorts of devotional relationships (particularly since many of the apotheosized Deities are not only Deities, but are Hero/ine Deities). While never-human Deities can have close relationships with humans and can become deeply intertwined in many dimensions of human life with Their devotees, the more cosmic and elemental Deities tend to have some degree of remove from the “merely human” and everyday concerns people have, including their limited thoughts and petty emotions—and while there are exceptions to that, this tends to be the pattern.
One of the other things which is simultaneously exciting but extremely daunting about being in a relationship with an apotheosized Deity follows from Their nature as apotheosized Deities: namely, it highlights the fact that if things go well (or, occasionally, go horribly wrong!), one might end up being apotheosized oneself. Antinous probably never aspired to becoming a Deity, and to do so might have even been thought hubris at the time; and yet, it still happened to Him, and there was very little He could do about it. Bellerophon tried to storm Olympos on Pegasus, and Aktaion lusted outside what was appropriate into the divine realm…and yet, both had an active Hero cultus in the ancient world, despite what we might think of them in terms of hubris based on their surviving mythological narratives. In this way, it should be obvious that divinization after death—particularly heroization, but also sometimes full apotheosis into the status of a Deity—can happen quite unexpectedly and without intent on the part of the one deified or heroized.
If one is devoted to a never-human Deity, one might hope to be in that Deity’s company in the afterlife and to continue serving Them in some capacity, which is wonderful and something to which I’m sure many of us who practice polytheist devotion aspire. But, consistent with the Egyptian tradition responsible for His deification, the Greek Hero/ine cults into which He was incorporated, and the various Mystery traditions (many of which were founded for apotheosized Deities, like the aforementioned Palaimon in Corinth, as well as Antinous, amongst many others), cultus to Antinous makes one hyper-aware of the possibility of post-death divinization. Whether one becomes divine oneself in the process of devotion to Antinous, or one only gets to be in His divine presence in the afterlife—while theologically quite distinct (and significantly so!)—is probably much the same for many of His devotees, and likewise for myself.
GK: Talk to me about prayer. you and I both pray but you would be amazed at the push back I often get on this idea from Pagans. So I’m going to ask what to us is likely a rather obvious question: why do you consider it important? As well as how would you define it?
PSVL: I’ll address the importance part of the question first, because there is so much misunderstanding and bad information about this that needs to be challenged. I’ve heard it said amongst some monotheists and atheists that “it’s fine to pray, but it’s not fine to think someone is answering you.”
GK: heh. That is the crux of their resistance isn’t it? It does complicate things when Gods actually answer back and They do answer back.
PSVL: Independent of how ridiculous that statement is, what one finds too often amongst pagans is the idea of “Christians have prayer, but we have magic.” Magic and prayer are not mutually-exclusive, by any means, but they’re also not interchangeable. If all one does is magic and doesn’t care about prayer, then one isn’t practicing a religion, one is simply being a magician—and while there’s nothing wrong with that practice or that vocation, it’s like mistaking writing fanfic about one’s favorite actor for having a friendship with them.
In short, the importance of prayer for a polytheist—and, I’d argue, for people in most religions that involve any sort of positive theism—is that it is the primary means via which one engaged with, creates, and sustains a relationship with the Deities and divine beings in question. (The other is offerings, but I’ll leave that aside for now—apart from saying that the very act of saying an important prayer in a given tradition can, in itself, also constitute an offering, especially if it is more of a hymn of praise than one in which one is praying, i.e. “asking,” for something.) Just as one cannot become acquainted with another person by standing next to them and never talking (or, at least, it’s rare to be able to get to know someone in that fashion!), so too is prayer the mainstay of communication between a devotee and that devotee’s Deities. I’ve heard the generalization that prayer is talking to a Deity, and meditation is listening to a Deity, and while I can’t entirely agree with that as a general statement, there is something to it.
The basic meaning of “prayer” is to ask for something—just as when someone says “pray tell,” and the old usage of “pray thee” (contracted to “prithee”)—and in the current world, it gets used almost exclusively for such a petition in a religious or spiritual setting. While not all prayers have to involve asking for something, or attempting to solicit the intercession of a divine being for one’s own favor, this tends to be a major part of prayer for many people…and is probably why a lot of pagans don’t have a good opinion of prayer. The assumption is that one asks the Deity to do something, and then that’s the end of it, which seems to be what a lot of Christians assume is the case when something comes up and they “take it to prayer.” There are other types of prayer, such as hymns, which I’d suggest are primarily prayers of praise, which extol the virtues and characteristics of a Deity, and sometimes include narratives of the Deity—the Orphic Hymns, the Homeric Hymns, and a number of other such collections are of this sort primarily.
GK: I really try to move people away from only asking for things when they pray. I think we can do better. Our Gods deserve better than to have us constantly (or worse only) calling Their names when we want things. It’s a bad habit to get into so I’m glad you’re mentioning other types of prayer as well.
PSVL: However, more free-form prayer is certainly possible, and suggested, simply as a means of communicating with one’s Deities to let Them know what is going on in one’s life. Shinto and many other animist or polytheist religious traditions have formal ceremonies for informing the Deities of, for example, that one has been hired at a new job, or has moved residences, and the reason for this is because it is not assumed that the Deities and divine powers involved are omniscient, and thus They must be informed of such things in an explicit manner, not only so They know, but also so that They can become involved in and favor one in these new endeavors or continue to be present in these new places, etc.
The latter is one of the reasons that I have emphasized in my own teachings on polytheism that prayer should be verbal, i.e. it should be spoken aloud. Outside of a limited number of devotional relationships (including but not limited to shamanism, Mystery initiations, and a few other contexts), in which a Deity has an ongoing or continuous presence in the fibers of one’s very being, Deities Who are not said to be omniscient cannot see or hear one’s thoughts, and thus do not know them unless they are properly verbalized and spoken aloud. The evidence of this being the a priori assumption in most ancient and modern forms of polytheism is obvious but unappreciated across the spectrum of practice: votive altars, temples, and other things in the ancient world, and special ceremonies and practices in modern Shinto, all involve the person or persons doing the ritual or offering the temple or altar or having the prayers and ceremonies done on their behalf being specifically named, and sometimes their parentage, their birthdates, or their places of residence also being named, so that the Deities involved know who is the recipient of the blessings following thereupon. The inscriptions on temples and altars in Greece and Rome are not primarily for self-advertisement, as some might assume, but to identify who created these monuments for the glorification of the Deities involved for as long as the monuments themselves continue to exist. They are semi-perpetual offerings and prayers, thus.
And just as it is important to communicate with one another as humans explicitly and to use our verbal abilities concisely and accurately in getting to know one another, in making our needs and desires known, and in conveying information back and forth—no one can be held responsible for treating one in a manner one does not prefer if one never says anything!—so, too, does the same apply to relationships with our Deities, and thus prayer is the primary mode through which this is done. The necessity of, thus, having to figure out what one wants to say, what one wants, what one thinks, and how one is feeling and the manner via which that can best be communicated, is unfathomably important in a conscious and disciplined religious practice; formulating such, and then saying it out loud in the hearing of one’s Deities can be an important and even cathartic experience in itself, independent of the connective function it serves in being the medium and the message of connecting with one’s Deities.
Whether one can do it anywhere or not, whatever words one uses, what posture one might adopt while doing it or the gestures punctuating it in the course of its recitation, and if it is a standard and well-known composition shared amongst many or something one develops on one’s own or is simply extemporaneous words only used on one occasion, prayer is one of the most important mainstays and cornerstones of one’s practices as a polytheist, in my view.
GK: What do you think has been the greatest challenge to you in your theological and religious work?
PSVL: Sadly, it’s time and energy and their limited availability. As I have become more and more financially stable and secure in my career over the last decade (such as that stability and security is, i.e. very contingent and uncertain!), I have had less of an opportunity to spend days-on-end writing poems, or doing hours of devotional practice, or researching various Deities and becoming familiar with Their cultures, due to the dependence of my income on my adequate performance of my teaching duties and the further responsibilities attendant upon those duties. As a result, I have made it my practice to pray when I arrive at work each morning, even if only for a moment; and before a challenging class, meeting, or some other matter, I will pray for longer, and have a small shrine in my office for this purpose (as well as the different tokens of Deities, Hero/ines, Land Spirits, Ancestors, and other divine beings I carry with me at all times when I leave my home) where I “check in” throughout the day, too. Sadly, with my teaching responsibilities often taking up an entire weekday, and sometimes five days a week, I have less energy at the end of the day to do as much as I’d prefer, and have to do things like sleep rather than working on devotional projects.
I could name hundreds of other things that have been challenging, either in an ongoing fashion or only temporarily, but most of these have reached some sort of resolution; the lack of time and energy is something that will continue to be an ongoing challenge unless I suddenly get a wealthy patron, spouse, or something else (all of which are equally unlikely!) that will mean I can give up the full-time-week-but-part-time-pay situation I’m in now as an adjunct college professor. And, if and when I become full-time in both pay and hours of work, while that will certainly be better, it still won’t lessen the time and energy deficits I currently have. If I didn’t need the relatively good health insurance that this job provides, which then allows me to have the medications I need to not only live but survive (insulin-dependent diabetes doesn’t care how good one’s diet is, it’ll still kill one if insulin doesn’t get into one in some fashion!), and thus make all of my devotional work possible, things might be different.
But, if I weren’t in this health situation that has made regular employment and its insurance benefits a necessity, I might not be a polytheist at all, and certainly wouldn’t have discovered Antinous and all of the other Deities and divine beings that I have become acquainted with over the last twenty-five years, so I’ll happily take that as a trade-off.
GK: and finally, what projects are you working on now?
PSVL: I am displeased with my progress over the last few years, because at this stage I literally have around twenty books that I am working on—around twelve of them actively at this point!—some of which I’ve been wanting to get out since 2011 or earlier, some of which have emerged over the last few years. After 2012, which I refer to as “The Year of the Three Books” (!?!), I had hoped I might likewise have more such years in the near future, perhaps even years of four, five, or six books. But, fuller employment for me began in 2012, with the resulting deficit of time (as mentioned above), and I’ve only been able to publish two books since then, despite working on around four throughout that time.
To get to what several of these are, though, I can give you a few titles and brief descriptions to whet your appetite.
I’ve got a three-volume set that will come out more-or-less together (I’m hoping), which is highest on my list of priorities, that is essentially something I’m calling the “Studies on Foundational Polytheism” series. The first book is Polytheism and Devotion (which is very different from your own excellent book on devotional polytheism!); the second is Polytheist Reconstructionism as Methodology; and the third is Understanding Syncretism in Polytheism. These works will be somewhat shorter, and are intended to be “workbooks” and 101-type books, and are based not only on some blog posts and articles I’ve written, but also on two of the more popular courses I used to teach through Academia Antinoi. Getting these out next will fulfill a promise I made to the backers of my 2015 IndieGoGo campaign (which was for my attendance at the World Parliament of Religions in October of that year) to include their names in a publication that they indirectly supported.
The one I’m still not done with yet, and have been trying to get in order since 2014, is called For the Queens of Heaven, and is a collection of all of the poems that I’ve written for, about, or featuring Goddesses, including some from my teenage years that few people have seen, and a great deal that no one has seen before which were written over the last four years. I expect this will be one of my more popular books in the future, and it’s a doorstop in size.
I’ve got two books on the Tetrad++ that I’m working on: first, Through All-Strife to All-Acceptance: Further TransMythologies, which follows the first book and gives origin myths for Paneris and Panprosdexia, plus a few other things; and second, TransGenerations: A Grand Grimoire of the Tetrad++ic Tradition, which will combine the previous book as well as the original Tetrad++ book, plus a great deal of further poetry, essays, and pieces by others who have been working with the Tetrad++. The main thing preventing those getting out is I’m still waiting on some art, and likewise the second book will take a great deal of coordination with the other contributors, which has not been able to take place yet.
Two books with alliterative titles that are nearly-done are: Eleusis and Eschatology, which collects a few blog posts and other articles I’ve written, plus poetry, and some new essays as well, into a book on the subject of eschatology and its connection to the Eleusinian (and other) Mystery traditions, particularly from an Antinoan perspective but with forays into a few other traditions as well; and Songs for Saturnalia, which is mostly a hymn-book of songs and poems I’ve written over the last seven years to be used on festivals from late November through late December, including Greek, Roman, Irish, Norse, and Antinoan festivals and their attendant Deities in the mix. I’m hoping the latter will be the shortest book I’ve put out yet, but we’ll see.
One of the books that I’m most excited about, but also most frustrated with, is The Meeting-Place of Many Gods: An Antinoan Syncretistic Aretalogy. I started that project on my blog on January 1st, 2015 as one of my devotional goals for the year, and then in 2016 started to compile it, only to find that I had a lot more work to do to finish it off…I originally thought it might be less than 100 pages with all I had written the year before, but now, it is getting close to 400! I’ve never done a book that has been so driven by ongoing divination and constant checking and re-checking different matters with Antinous, and I think it’s all to the good that such is taking place…and yet, it’s a lot of work. The final form is more-or-less set at this point, and it will comprise a great deal of the regular devotional work and practice I hope to do in the future, and that I hope might inspire others as well.
Several of the other works-in-progress are essentially efforts toward the compilation of the near-six years of writing I did on my old blog into different collections, plus some of the other published writings I’ve done meanwhile in anthologies and other publications. There will be one that is Antinous-related short fiction, and another that is various-other-Deities-based short fiction; there will be one that collects a number of the Celtic Reconstructionist Polytheism essays, stories, and poems I’ve written; there will be one of essays mostly from published anthologies (but a few new ones!) related to Antinous, Hadrian, Diva Sabina (Hadrian’s wife), and the Trophimoi of Herodes Attikos, plus other beings from the Antinoan pantheon; and, there are several others as well, including some anthology projects that are long overdue (alas!).
While I’ve also got some academic articles and other projects going as well, the next thing by me likely to come out (perhaps even before the three-volume series) is somewhat secret and rather unexpected (not unlike my most recent book that came out in November of 2016!), and is a book project, which is not entirely academic nor entirely spiritual, but is connected to both…and I can’t say much more about it now, other than look for it in the coming months, possibly as soon as mid-to-late-May!
My work contributing to anthologies, periodicals, and other publications I am not directly responsible for producing myself is at a trickle at this stage, which I think is not necessarily a bad thing. I suspect I’ll never run out of ideas for things to write, and will find different avenues for doing so well into the future, and alongside all of what I’ve mentioned above. However, the work of the moment seems to be concerned with making what I have already created more accessible and thematically-assembled for easier usage of current and future polytheists. If we are to have any viable traditions or foundations for them in the decades to come, this sort of work—tedious though it often might be—needs to be done, and thus it seems like a very good usage of what time I do have at the moment. This is the Kairos I have seized in the current Chronos, and I hope it is for the benefit of the Aion that I have done so!
GK: Thanks for answering my questions, PSVL. Readers, you can find all of PSVL’s books here. Check them out!
Check out the newest prayer card by Basil Blake. This prayer card should be available soon. I
f anyone honors the Cailleach and would like to contribute a prayer for the back of the card please contact me at krasskova at gmail.com. If i don’t hear from anyone by Monday, I’ll come up with my own. 🙂
I tell my students to avoid tumblr. I tell those who come to me to learn about the gods or for initiation and/or spiritual training to avoid people who don’t take their Gods seriously. I tell them to take care with whom they spend their time. I tell them to take care with what they pollute their eyes and hearts and minds. This is important. We inevitably become like that with which we associate. The choice of course, whether or not to take my advice is always left with the student, but I lay out my case early on.
Pollution is an actual thing and I don’t think that there’s enough discussion of it in our communities. As human beings, we are affected by those things with which we associate, by what we watch, by the character and conversation of our friends. If a person is serious about developing good devotional habits (and good devotional character), then early on, one learns to avoid those situations that diminish our spiritual worth.
Instead, it’s important to learn to cultivate the people, hobbies, habits, and things that encourage and nourish right relationship with the Gods. If you’re surrounding yourself by people steeped in piety, it will rub off! You’ll be influenced to likewise treat the Gods with respect. You’ll observe good habits and absorb them almost by osmosis. When everyone around you is modeling right behavior it’s a thousand times easier to cultivate that in yourself. The opposite is also true. Peer pressure, as it were, can work both ways.
Now I’m not trying to rain on anybody’s parade. If you like a particular pop culture TV show, for instance, go ahead and watch it, but be aware of the message it sends. Understand that you’re doing yourself no favors. You’ll have to take extra care to ensure that you don’t unconsciously (subliminally?) start copying the behavior and attitudes you’re seeing. That’s the problem with so much of this. It’s not that any person or thing is bad in and of itself (usually), but that we pick up unconscious messages from what we’re around. We imitate and often do so unthinkingly. We do things on auto-pilot, unmindfully and it’s mindfulness that is called for here. We cannot afford to assume that the structures of our lives automatically support devotion. Generally they don’t and very little in our immediate environments do.
I’ll admit that I find this sobering. It has, however, made me very selective about how I spend my time. We each have a great deal of power over our spiritual lives. We have the power to carefully choose that which will nourish our relationship with our Holy Powers or to choose that which does not. We can choose our companions. We can choose our associations, our hobbies, how much and what we allow in. We should choose—even if one takes away the spiritual imperative, we should always be selective about those influences that enter our personal orbits. I always encourage my students to ask: “What attitudes does this thing or person encourage? What is its/their message? Is this making me better as a human being? How does this further my spiritual goals? What does this contribute to my overall life? My character? What is it telling me about devotion? What does it cultivate in psyche and soul?”
It takes a great deal of personal integrity to do this work. It takes a great deal of personal integrity and commitment and yes, courage to resist the pressure to confirm and to water down our devotions to the silliest common denominator imaginable. We are charged, I very firmly believe, with being better.
Before our traditions were destroyed, we’d have all grown up in polytheistic households and communities. We’d have had ample opportunity to see right behavior modeled and we’d have been surrounded by numerous people and factors that would likewise reinforce it. We’d have had plenty of people to go to if we had questions and plenty of good models not just for how to do devotion well but how to become mature, engaged, mindful human beings. We don’t live in that world. Unfortunately, most of us are not surrounded by a community or family that models and reinforces right behavior. We have to learn to do it for ourselves.
So if you find yourself suddenly become flippant about the Gods when you generally know better, look around and see what might be influencing you. Take stock of your company and surroundings. Likewise, if you find yourself needing to cut jokes about the sacred, when normally you would quietly go about the business of devotion, as yourself why? Take a good, long look at the people with whom you’re surrounding yourself. Take a good long estimate of the media influences in which you are willingly steeped and ask yourself if it’s doing your devotion any good. Ask yourself if it’s beneficial or worth it. Then make your choice.
That’s what all solid devotion comes down to: learning to make the right choices, the most beneficial ones day after day, and that is something within all our reach.
EDIT: this card is now fully sponsored.
The Morrigan card is finished and will be available shortly (I will send it to the printer Monday). It is not yet fully sponsored. If you’d like to donate toward this card, please contact me at krasskova at gmail.com or paypal directly to firstname.lastname@example.org (please note your name, email, and that this is for the morrigan card). sponsors get six free cards and are credited on the back of the card.
This artwork is by Grace Palmer.
I have commissioned a card for the Morrigan. If anyone would like to donate to the card (I need to raise $400. I’ll cover printing myself), please contact me at krasskova at gmail.com or paypal directly to email@example.com. Please include your email and note that it’s for the Morrigan.
Those who donate will A) receive credit on the card; B) receive a setting of lights; C) and six cards of their choice.
Please consider helping
I’ve been offline for most of the past four days thanks to a vicious flu that really laid me on my butt and badly (my husband almost took me to the ER against my wishes and only a call to my doctor at home prevented him from doing so. It was *bad* folks. Take care of yourselves — there’s some nasty shit going around this season). Today is the first day where I’ve felt well enough to do anything really and then not much. It’s also the first day I’ve been able to eat. Weeee applesauce! joy. >_<.
Anyway, Sannion pointed out that this sickness occurred during Anthesteria when, for purgative and cleansing purposes, some devotees would chew purgative herbs that caused …gods help them…many of the symptoms that i had (you know that scene in the Exorcist with the pea soup…..). I decided as miserable as I was, to try to use it as a time of spiritual cleansing. I don’t know how successful I was, but today I felt well enough to putter around my shrines a little bit. I fixed my Odin shrine up, because doing so helps me to feel ordered and after the terrible miasma of the past few days, I needed to be so, and taking photos of a couple of the others which I had recently attended before I became ill. I’ve been moving things around, consolidating shrines, separating some others, making others still more elaborate. I was only about half done when i got sick, so I’m eager to get back to it.
Anyway, this morning I finally got my Odin shrine, which had been quite disheveled, into some semblance of order. I’d moved it up in boxes from downstairs to the master bedroom where I have better altar space.
here it is, also with sections for Loki and Thor and some of my working tools.
I’d also recently redone my small Dionysos shrine:
It’s small and compact, but in a powerful space and while you can’t see it here (i was too tired to take many photos), it’s surrounded by further images of Dionysos and a veiled icon of Ariadne. [The red altar cloth is a scarf, showing a stylized starry bull available here.] In the upper right, you can also see a snipped of a huge, hanging tapestry that belonged to my adopted mom. It shows Ran, Aegir, Njord, and the Nine Daughters of Ran and Aegir. The tapestry was made for her by R. Kaldera and I inherited it when she died. It takes up an entire wall and hangs over my collective working shrine here:
You can see just the bottom shadow of the fringe from the tapestry in the picture above. This is my collective shrine (many of the Deities here have shrines elsewhere in my home too). There is Odin, Loki, Loki’s children, Sigyn, Freya, Gerda, Nerthus, Frey, Mani, Sinthgunt, Sunna, and a tiny bit for Sekhmet, Dionysos, and Hermes. I don’t usually mix pantheons even on a shrine but…i’m running out of space and this is purposely a collective shrine and altar. Many of the pieces on this shrine were inherited from my adopted mom.
I also have, in addition to the tapestry, which serves as the primary part of Their shrine, a smaller section, an annex if you will, for Njord, Ran and Aegir, and Their nine Daughters:
There’s also the start of a shrine to Kari, God of the North Wind and His children and Siblings here, but that will most likely eventually have its own space.
Finally, I moved many of the Healing Deities into one space:
To the left, sitting atop a green turn of the century apothecary cabinet is my shrine to the Norse Healing Deities; Eir, Mengloth, Their Retinue, and Sunna. Right now, i’ve also put a statue of Freya here (it seemed appropriate when I was recently gifted a lovely statue of Her riding Hildsvinr), since She does bring vitality and passion.
The, on the table, which is, in reality, a nineteenth century French writing desk (a gift from a friend for Yule one year) there is the shrine to Apollo, Asklepius, and the Graces (I did div to see if I should put the Graces here and was told yes. The grace notes of living are part of healing and of living a healthy, rich life). Above, there are images of the Nine Muses (likewise, the gifts They bear are necessary to true health). Dionysos is also present because He handles mental health (or lack thereof), and finally on the small shelf is a shrine to Brigid, with Whom i’ve had something of a devotional relationship since my FOI days. There is also a symbol for Sunna (who has Her main image on the apothecary cabinet), a card for Sulis, and a plaque (also a gift) for Hygeia. The mortar and pestle on the table is one of a group that I was lucky enough to find at a local antique shop. they’re about 150 years old (perhaps older) and I got them for an absolute steal. I use the two smaller ones, and the huge one here is my offering bowl for the Healing Deities.
I’d struggled with what to do with all of these shrines for a long time. I don’t have a *strong* relationship with any of these Deities, but I do petition Them regularly, pray to Them if not regularly then at least with some ongoing consistency and it seemed They needed more than They were getting from me. Creating a shrine not to any specific Deity but rather to the Deities that I honor in a specific way turned out, at least for now, to be the right move.
Anyway, there it is. I’ll be posting more interesting things later this week hopefully. I’ve a couple of articles i’m working on and I want to give an update on Njord and Heimdall. We still need $350 for Heimdall and $175 for Njord. Contact me at krasskova at gmail.com if you’re interested in donating. I’ve posted perks in previous posts about this — i’ll do a separate one about it later. i’m tired now.
Not honoring Her as a war goddess is just as bad as only honoring Her as one, particularly when it comes from some overly feminized inability to accept Her battle aspects.
The Gods are glorious and that includes when They come as warrior Gods. For some of us, most especially when They come so, without softness, without sentiment, with nothing to elide the raw, shattering experience of Their presence.
It is not just the Morrigan with Whom this is an issue. I began my work as a priest of Sekhmet and I have seen hippy and new age desire to turn Her into a gentle mother Goddess for decades and it turns the stomach. She is power, terror, and a Goddess of war. That doesn’t change because we might like to ignore it. To understand and fully venerate a Deity means venerating all that Deity is, not just those aspects we might find most comfortable.
I belong to Odin. He is also a God of war, but funny, you never seem to see this discomfort with male Deities, only with Goddesses. You never see this denial of Their brutality and battle aspects or attempts to re-contextualize or explain away, not anywhere to the degree that one does with Goddesses. I think that says more about our assed upedness than it does about the nature of our Gods. and sadly, such attempts at divine erasure almost always seem to come from women (not always, but it seems, most often). As a woman, that angers me greatly. We should be better than that, but sometimes I doubt we are.
(edit: the question was raised on several blogs what are we saying about ourselves when we give something like a bullet as an offering. I think my colleague Kenaz Filan said it best: “What message are you sending Her by giving Her bullets? The message that you honor Her and respect Her functions as sacred? Which should be the message behind any offering.” I couldn’t put it better.)
I don’t talk about the Morrigan much but I have honored Her in personal devotions since the very early nineties. She is one of those Deities that I respect tremendously and while I am not in Her service, it is a deep pleasure to pay Her homage when the occasion permits and I do maintain a small shrine to Her in my home.
I recently read a bit of grumbling on Facebook because apparently someone made the comment in a discussion or post (I’m not sure which) that bullets make good offerings to this Goddess, the Battle Raven, a Goddess of (among other things) war. I was surprised that this would raise any eyebrows at all but apparently it did and thus I am moved to write this here.
Of course bullets, gunpowder, knives, blades, weapons of every sort make excellent offerings to Her and I’ve given them all over the past twenty five years that I’ve honored Her. She is a battle goddess. Why would the accoutrements of battle not be pleasing to Her? Just because someone may have personal issues with guns, bullets, blades and the like doesn’t mean that our Deities of war do. These things symbolize part of Their spheres of influence and power. I could say much more about those in our communities who want to erase certain aspects of our Gods’ natures because of their own personal feelings but I won’t.
Instead, I think I’ll be gifting the Morrigan with some jewelry, all made out of shell casings, and maybe a bit of ammo as well later on this weekend. She is a Goddess of sovereignty, a Goddess of justice, but She is also, indisputably, a Goddess of war, of the battlefield, and of fate. It is integral to Her nature and I, for one, and grateful for it.
(one caveat to the above: I’d also tell anyone asking to ask for themselves if a particular offering is what a Deity wants *from them*. Divine, meditate, pray. I come from a military family and have a particular relationship to warriorship, and I deal extensively with the military dead. I also deal almost exclusively with the Morrigan as a battle Goddess. For someone, say, who venerates Her more often as a Goddess of sovereignty, well, She may want other offerings. So I would put that out there as a caveat.)
A reminder to all my readers: I’m offering the three Manannan cards for free through May 1, 2015. I will ship overseas. All three cards are by artist Grace Palmer and are designed to work as a triptych.
If you’re interested, please don’t hesitate to contact me at krasskova at gmail.com.