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Ritual Modesty: A Response

A professor at my university posted this piece on twitter (he’s orthodox and this is a thought-provoking piece of relevance to modern orthodoxy) and it raised for me a number of thoughts concerning our own traditions too. First, go read the original article because much of this post was prompted by it or is in response to it and it’s nice to be on the same page for any discussion.

I work in a tradition that encourages head covering (of both men and women) during religious rites. I want to emphasize that it is encouraged, not required. Working in a blended tradition as I do, I find that in cultus deorumpractices, we almost always cover, and within Heathenry, generally only for ancestor stuff but this may vary depending on the way in which one is devoted to one’s Gods. I’ve known Heathen women who covered once they married, and Heathen men who do so out of respect for particular Gods but within Heathenry it’s not a common thing. In cultus deorumit was tradition for both men and women to cover their heads during offerings and religious rites, and that is one that at least within my branch of the tradition, we maintain. There are also times in which one might cover for purification purposes in general.

This piece piqued my interest, however, because over the past ten years I’ve come across a growing number of polytheists across traditions who are choosing to cover their heads, not just during religious rituals but out of modesty and piety, all the time (and kudos to any woman who can do this with a migraine. I’ve always wondered what those who veil or cover do when they get a migraine because I sure as hell can’t stand anything on my head then!). I think we should be encouraging modesty in our people (which does not mean that one need to cover one’s head to be modest) as a general rule, whatever that might mean.

One of the things that I very much appreciated in the article, which I otherwise found rather vexing, is the comment that modesty wasn’t about how long one’s skirts are or whether or not one covers one’s head, it’s a “line in the heart.” Some time ago, I read a Christian article on modesty by a mother of a young child. She said that her child had put on a new dress and was standing in front of the mirror commenting that she could not wait until her friends saw her and how nice she looked and the mother despaired. She despaired because she realized that no matter how modest the dress might be, the child wasn’t: her heart wasn’t modest. She wanted to show off for others and receive attention that way. It was one of the more nuanced discussions of modesty that followed, one that wasn’t about clothing, that I’ve read in a long time).  Our ancestors had a deep sense of morality and propriety. Unlike so much of modern Paganism, it wasn’t an ‘anything goes’ culture where every manner of sexual impropriety was encouraged. Multiple partners, promiscuity, immorality, molestation – all of which seems way too rampant in modern Paganism (Kenny Klein anyone? Or better yet, find me outspoken monogamists within the community—please. We need more of them.) were not held up as licit in the ancient world. Of course, all of these things may have occurred (we are a terrible species), but they did not represent the accepted norm. Instead, decorum, gravitas, piety, and modesty (for both men and women) were encouraged. What the hell happened to us? We have a culture in which women are proud to be called “sluts” and marriage is considered outmoded, young people are ‘hooking up’, a culture in which devotion is ridiculed, but reality TV a cultural pastime and we call this progress. I’m not going to rant too much on this – I think y’all know my feelings on these matters and I want to get to the article in question – but suffice it to say that I think in restoring our traditions we have a seriously uphill battle and not just because of monotheism, but because of the utter lack of focus on character building in our culture. We’re starting so far behind the starting line that I wouldn’t be surprised if our ancestors were  appalled.

To get back to the article, it discusses head-covering in Orthodoxy, past and present, between converts and cradle practitioners and the politics thereof. My initial reading of the piece is that the author elides what should be a nuanced and complex topic into something more black and white. She accuses converts who choose to express their piety by actually obeying the customs of their religion, as dismissing the experiences of grandmothers and older generations of women within the faith. In doing so, I think she dismisses the religious experience and devotion of the converts to which she is referring. Covering one’s head is not just a political act. It’s not about feminism or assimilation. First and foremost, in the context in which she’s talking it is about an expression of piety and submission to one’s Church/church doctrine. By presenting it in one light alone, she’s not only attacking converts, but eliding the deep complexity of this practice, turning it into a social or political action rather than a licit expression of devotion. She is asking (or rather demanding) that converts place political considerations and submission to the experience of other women, above the dictates of their conscience and faith. I find that…misguided to say the least. And, as one commenter on twitter noted, she’s turning this practice into a fashion statement (if others around you wear the scarf, wear it, but if they don’t, then you don’t either or you’re self-aggrandizing – my paraphrase) rather than an expression of religious piety.  Her own experience of wearing a headscarf (in Egypt) was one of convenience that she quickly abandoned when Egyptian women pointed out the struggles they and their mothers had endured in fighting against growing fundamentalism is not, in my mind, analogous to covering in Orthodoxy. She was covering in Egypt to avoid harassment, not as a religious mandate for herself.

To abandon a religious practice like covering one’s head in church because it is not popular, because it marks you out as religious, because it is not feminist-approved, or for any other reason, is ceding sacred space to modernity. It is saying that devotion and our Gods are not important enough that one is willing to be a bit uncomfortable. Devotion is always an embodied practice: through song, dance, ritual gestures, clothing choices, bowing our heads in prayer, prostration, and so forth. The act of putting on a head covering for some women can be a significant indicator that they’re shifting into sacred space and I wonder if some of the objection to that isn’t some of the author’s discomfort with drawing boundaries and elevating personal piety as a priority.

It always comes back to what takes precedence: the Gods or our own human bullshit. The author of this piece cannot even seem to conceive of a motive in the converts to which she is referring beyond wanting to draw attention to themselves and she focuses on them as a way to delegitimize the practice, a practice she herself apparently finds personally offensive. I do think that when we do those things that mark us out as pious we have to be careful that they are actually done for the Gods and out of devotion and not to draw attention to ourselves. She has a point there. One shouldn’t cover because it’s popular, not cover because it’s unpopular, but one should do what brings one closer to the Gods and what is mandated by one’s tradition. Next, she’ll be suggesting we engage in sacred dance by twerking in the aisles before the monstrance.

As to women who cover all the time, quite often it’s a desire to maintain some sense not just of appropriate modesty, but of connection to the sacred. It reminds them to privilege that, it brings their bodies into a space of accommodation with their devotion. Yes, we must charge ourselves to avoid immodesty, to avoid spectacle, to avoid showing off, (I’m all in favor of these things in devotion, when it’s for the Gods, but not ever when they are for the glorification of the person). but that doesn’t mean abandoning practices that have served since antiquity. Finally, if women are to have self-determination of practice and being-ness, which they should!—then we have to accept that sometimes they’re going to make choices with which other women may not agree. It’s never as easy as this author wants to make it.

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Close up of my Hermes shrine

My friend Carlton was visiting recently (we go to school together) and, not being a polytheist, he was fascinated by my various shrines. Since he’s teaching a theology class this semester, he asked if he could take photos to use in his class (and i’m ok with that). This is the photo he took of my Hermes shrine. I love the angle of the close up, and the drama of the black and white,  so I got his ok to share it here. 

Hermes shrine aug. 31 Carlton

(Photo by C. Chase. Used with permission).

The Next Prayer Card from the Mothers Series is Done

Grace Palmer just finished the next card in the Mothers Prayer Card series: Leda, with Zeus in Swan form. 

leda-painting-2x4

So far, about half the cards are finished: Semele, Maia, Leto, Metis, Thetis, and now Leda. We still have Penelopeia, Danae, Alcmene, and Pasiphae (i think I listed Them all) to go. 

Healing Prayers, Healing Gods

So many people seem to be getting ill lately. I half jokingly said to a friend that June was a really shitty month for people’s health! But no joke, my husband just got out of surgery last week, and I’m hearing of at least three people in my social circle who are either going in for quadruple bypass surgeries or have serious heart issues that were recently diagnosed and the friends I have with chronic pain are beyond number (and I myself live with it every day and it’s been bad of late). I think sometimes that our world is so out of whack that our bodies and psyches absorb it. We wade all the time in poison and pollution and while our bodies do their best, eventually there’s a cost to that, and not just for the patients themselves. The stress and exhaustion visited on their families is immeasurable. So if you’re struggling right now with recent or chronic illness, in yourself or a family member, my heart and prayers go out to you. I want to encourage you to reach out to friends, to your community for support. None of us should have to go through such things alone.

Likewise, I want to thank everyone for the outpouring of support during my husband’s recent illness. It really meant a lot to know how many people were there and holding him in prayer. Thank you.

You know, we have lots of healing deities and in the ancient world many of Them had extensive cultus. I’m surprised that isn’t the case today (though granted, They tend to not be the sexy Deities. Lol. They’re more about hard work and wading into sickness to find a way through). I’d love to hear from people who venerate Healing Deities specifically.

In my home, while I’m Heathen, my husband isn’t so we have a religiously blended household. The Greek and Roman Deities (especially the Roman in my case) get Their share of veneration. But I also honor the Norse healing Deities, and have sporadically for many years. Of course Odin does have “aspects” if you will that venture into healing – the Merseburg Charm for instance names Woden as a powerful healer—but overall that is in no way His primary area of expertise. (1) Or rather, I should say that it is not the way that He has come to me. I hope one day to be able to explore a relationship with Him as Healer, but generally, when one speaks of Norse Healing Deities, Odin is not amongst Those that immediately come to mind.

The most well known of our Healing Deities is probably the Goddess Eir. Many of us associate Her with combat medicine and surgery and She is referenced in the Poetic Edda as the “Best of Physicians.” If we plumb the lore well enough, it becomes apparent that She has many other colleagues in Healing and They’ve gathered a small cultus today. There’s Mengloth, the healer of Lyfjaberg, and an entire retinue of other healing deities with specialties ranging from respiratory care to pharmacy. Goddesses like Hlif, Hlifthrasa, Thjodvara, Bjort, Bleik, Blith, Frith, and Aurboda all have Their areas of expertise. Likewise the Goddess Sunna, governing as She does the healing power of the sun, may also be invoked as a healer. (2) I have also known many to go to the Vanir for such things, which makes sense since They are Deities of life, abundance, and vitality. I myself have two shrines to Freya: a personal one, and then Her image is also included in my shrine to the Healing Deities honored in my home.

I keep wanting to take a month with each of our Norse healing Deities and do intensive meditation, prayer, and devotional exploration with Them but I never seem to manage it, at least I haven’t successfully yet. I hope to do better in the future (I feel the same way about Frigga’s retinue – of which Eir is also a part).

Since I do live in a blended household (and I practice a bit of cultus deorum myself), my healing shrine also has a section devoted to Apollo and Asklepius. The statue of Asklepius came to me on a trip to London. I walked into this store and saw it and got hit with “I need that.” It was so strong a feeling that even though I didn’t have cultus to Him, I bought it and eventually incorporated Him into my shrine. I have great respect for Him. In the ancient world He had a tremendously popular cultus. Apollo, while a Greek Deity, had cultus in Etruria by at least the 6th Century B.C.E. and in Rome by around 431 B.C.E, the latter specifically as ‘Medicus’ or ‘Healer’. Asklepius is the son of Apollo who achieved that rare honor, one shared with Herakles: He was a mortal son of a God who was elevated to godhood, taking His place amongst the denizens of Olympos.(3) I also honor Dionysos on my healing shrine (plus He has His own shrine elsewhere in my home) since He heals issues of the mind, heart, and spirit.

It’s funny: neither Dionysos nor most of the Norse Deities seem to care overmuch for protocols of cleansing before one approaches Their shrines. I mean, one should be clean and of course I wash my hands but They don’t seem to want extensive protocol. Apollo and to some extent Asklepius (though by far especially Apollo here) do seem to require more in the way of cleansing before approaching Them. It’s a completely different mindset when I go to Their shrines and with Apollo at least, there’s much, much more formality.

Someone reminded me that one of the traditional offerings to Asklepius was a black rooster, noting that even as he went to his death, Sokrates’ main concern was that such a debt to this God be properly paid. This time, in exchange for His help I promised not a rooster (I have given Him such in the past), but cultus. I think I’ll use it as an opportunity to do the same for Eir and Her retinue.

Anyway, if you have ongoing cultus to one of our Healing Deities, or would like to share insights or prayers, please feel free to do so here. It’d be a grace and a blessing all around to see Their cultus grow.

 

Notes:

  1. The structure of this charm is strikingly similar to Appalachian healing charms. Likewise Odin (Woden) is referenced in the Nine Herbs Galdr, as a Healer driving out illness and pollution. It seems that He cleanses the situations that cause ill health, but again, while I discuss this briefly in my book “He is Frenzy,” I don’t generally relate to Him as Healer. 
  2. She is likewise noted in the Merseburg Charm along with Her sister.
  3. I’m more familiar with the Roman material than the Greek and Ovid in his “Metamorphoses” tells the story of Asklepius’ fateful birth and later transformation/ elevation into a God. See also the entry on Asklepius here

Roman Pietas and Pudicitia

Piety was the defining characteristic of Roman religion. It was a complex and multivalent term that intersected with nearly every aspect of Roman life and thought. It is essential to understanding Roman religion as the Romans practiced it and it is essential for those of us approaching Roman Gods today to at least have some comprehension of why this was so important a part of the religion and how it was put into play. Otherwise we risk disrespect to the Gods and a cognitive and spiritual disconnect with actual Roman cultus. This is an issue in Heathenry as well, which I’ll touch on below. Roman writers like Tacitus commented on the intense piety of the Germanic peoples in contrast even to Rome itself).

Let’s start first with what the word ‘pietas, pietatis” means. (1) Generally according to the OLD it’s translated as piety and first and foremost duty toward the Gods (christians retranslated that as love toward God), also loyalty, patriotism, duty, conscientiousness both to the Gods and one’s civic duties. (2) In many respects ‘pietas’ was inseparable from ‘civitas’, civic consciousness.

Pietas was also a Goddess. She had two temples at Rome as did the Goddess Pudicitia — Modesty. (3) Modesty is a loaded term for us isn’t it? For the Romans it was a matter of *self* regulation. One was expected to behave modestly, i.e. with moderation as part of being an adult and it didn’t matter if one was male or female, the expectation was the same.(4)

I think this is difficult for those of us who assume separation of church and state. It is impossible to separate Roman religious values from their social ones. The two were inextricably intertwined. Now what does that mean for a modern practitioner of cultus deorum? (and what does it mean for Heathens because the same thing could be said of the Germanic peoples)?. I think for one thing, it means that when we run into contemporary mores that are incompatible with those of our religion, or vice versa, religious mores that are perhaps incompatible with the modern world we must consider them carefully, not immediately expunging one in favor of the other without deep thought. A process of translation of religious culture comes into play and one would hope that the wishes of the Gods in these matters would also come into play as well.(5)

I was going to keep this going and bring in quotes by Cicero, and Livy, Tacitus, and Pliny, and certain modern scholars on the importance of piety and modesty in Roman religion but I’ve decided not to do that. I was telling my husband what I was writing and suddenly this question hit me and this is where I want to end this piece because for me, this is all that matters.

The Romans venerated the Goddesses Pietas and Pudicitia. They gave Them temples and cultus, in Rome, in the heart of the city. As we struggle to restore polytheisms today, (in this case Roman polytheism, but one can extrapolate for other polytheisms too), and as we are faced with discomfort as our modern values conflict with ancient religious ones here’s the question with Pudicitia:

Are all our gods worthy of veneration except Her?

Notes:

1. We cannot assume that simply because we speak Latin derived languages that we have the same religious understanding and mindset as the ancient Romans. To do so ignores two thousand years of Christian cultural and religious influences.
2. OLD = Oxford Latin Dictionary. See also the entry here. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=pietas&la=la#lexicon
3. In similar fashion, Eidos, shame was Deified among the Greeks and Pudicitia, modesty was deified amongst the Romans. Obviously modesty — self moderation—was rather important to their religion when they went through the trouble of ascribing it to a Deity. Given how often the idea of modesty is used to devalue women, it’s important to note here that modesty was not expected solely of women in ancient Rome. It was a virtue equally expected of women and men.
4. “Modestia” actually means ‘moderation.’ ‘Pudicitia’ is specifically sexual modesty and restraint. I suspect the role of pudicitia for both men and women had to do with a separation of public vs. private. Romans lived much more of their lives in what we would consider the public eye. The division between what was public and what was private was much more permeable than for us today, at least in American culture (my swiss mother used to lament this lol). I suspect pudicitia was connected in some way with delineating private spaces, including the space of the body.
5. There is a saying familiar to anyone working in translation studies: “traduttore, traditore” which in English means “translator, traitor” the idea being that once you translate a text, no matter how diligent you try to be, you run the risk of betraying the original text and intent of the author. We need to be certain as we translate our practices into the modern day that we don’t do this with our gods and ancestors. There is a way to do translation well but it requires care.

I love my cultus deorum

I’ve been thinking about my own personal devotional practices over the past few days — with the coming of the New Year, I figure it is a good time to reevaluate my practices to see how I can improve and go more deeply into them. It also allows me to think back over the previous year and find all the touchstones in my devotional work that may inspire me in the year to come. I need that because the last thing I want is to remain static in my practices. Two things in this examination became radically clear. Firstly, I’m being pushed toward a far more specifically Germanic Heathenry, particularly with respect to Odin. As to what that means, I’m not yet sure but it’ll probably be a wild and crazy ride. Secondly, for all that I’m Heathen, I have a healthy practice of cultus Deorum as well. This is what happens when a Heathen goes into Classics and Odin says “make friends with the Greek and Roman Gods”. LOL. Over the past seven years or so, I’ve developed quite an extensive cultic practice to Hermes, Dionysos, Juno, Hera, and certain other of the Roman Gods. They’ve been very good to me too over the years.

There are a lot of things about the Roman approach that appeal to me. There’s a conscious emphasis on careful practice, on being in proper headspace and properly free of miasma before approaching the Gods or even one’s shrines (what are shrines but the homes of our Gods after all?). Knowing these requirements has made me more mindful in my Heathen practice. I hate to say it, but with familiarity comes the occasional cutting of corners and that’s not something that we should ever do with our Gods (I do it, we all *do* it, but it’s a bad habit to get into!). The requirements for purity and mindful execution of praxis have forced me to really confront where my own Heathen practices fall short and to attend to that. In my book, that’s a good thing!

I also find that the Romans have values that I deeply respect and wish to further cultivate in myself. They were a warrior state so their citizens were expected to have a sense of their own value as part of a whole. When you read about Roman cultural heroes like Lucretia or Cinncinatus or Mucius, or even Aeneus they differ greatly from their Greek counterparts. Unlike say Achilles who fought for his own fate and his own personal glory, the Roman hero was always connected to something bigger and greater than himself, namely Rome. The glory of the Roman hero or heroine is inseparable from the glory of Rome and always, in some way, specifically furthers it. As someone working for the restoration of our polytheisms, I have to keep the ultimate goal of strong, restored deity-centric communities always at the forefront of my mind. It’s the big picture that guides me, even though I know i’ll never live to see it happen. A huge part of my community work is done to lay the foundation for those who will come after me and hopefully pick up where i’ve left off. There’s a certain amount of frustration inherent in that at times, and it’s good to have models in the form of hero cultus to whom to go when acedia or just plain depression over the whole thing and apparent lack of progress threaten. Plus, i think to build a sustainable polytheism, we all need to be looking toward the future, cohesive goal, not necessarily prioritizing the here and now individual pleasures. It’s hard though and exhausting.

The Romans also valued modesty as an ideal (sexual profligacy was not  encouraged in men or women). The ancient Romans took great pride in the strength and uprightness of their country and culture and considered lack of sexual discretion and restraint to be the equivalent of childish lack of self control and not the proper behavior of a citizen, male or female. That for me, stands in stark contrast to the excessive focus and over-sharing on sex and the crude behavior that so characterizes elements of our over-culture and sadly, elements of Paganism too (today, for instance, i read one of the most disgusting and misogynistic articles I think I’ve ever laid eyes on over at patheos talking about how women who refuse to have indiscriminate sex are puritanical and repressed and readers who disagree must be mentally ill. It was nauseating.). The Romans had a sense of their own value as people, as citizens, as pious individuals (and their piety went hand in hand with civic virtue). They had a sense of self-respect specifically as Romans that rather precluded the upstanding citizen from behaving as though they were public commodities. While their sense of privacy was very different from ours and in many respects far less than ours, their sense of personal modesty in their behavior was greater. Living in a culture where being a “slut” is apparently viewed as a positive thing to be cultivated, where people routinely over-share the most personal aspects of their sexual lives and attractions and talk about it endlessly, and where one cannot mention having some type of god spouse relationship without speculation arising as to the intimacies of how that works, this is a welcome relief. That’s not to say the Romans didn’t enjoy their share of raunchy, ribald, and hilariously crude literature. They did — we know, we have some of it surviving today and it’s a hoot to read—but that did not necessarily translate into the personal behavior of your best and brightest. I think we could learn a lot there.

Piety was also their defining virtue. I was talking about this with one of my classes this past term. The father of Rome, the Trojan hero responsible for founding the community that would eventually become the Roman empire, Aeneus was most often referred to not as ‘godlike’ (like Odysseus) or ‘fleet-footed’ (like Achilles) but as ‘pious.’ Piety was perhaps the most defining characteristic — if you asked an ancient Roman—of what it meant to be a good, upstanding Roman person. They weren’t ashamed of venerating the Gods well and often. I think many of us can be self-conscious both in our polytheism and in our devotion. No one wants to be thought less than, or foolish, or deluded after all and devotion in general and polytheism in particular is so often either pathologized, shown disrespect, or both in our society. Also, we’re most of us new to polytheism (most of us are converts after all) and there can be a pervading sense of awkwardness as we root ourselves in our new practices. I think that’s normal but also worth working hard to overcome. I like the ancient Roman model as an inspiration here. Piety was essential to the character of a good Roman. It wasn’t something to denigrate or dismiss, but was instead celebrated and enshrined in their national epic. It was an essential part of the character of a healthy, functioning adult.

And the ideal of an adult was one of character. There was equal emphasis on ‘virtus’, which for the Romans was valor or courage, but from which we get our world virtue. It was something the Romans tried consciously to cultivate in their youth but it was inseparable from piety and civic engagement. If you asked an ancient Roman what defined him as a Roman, the answer would very likely have been: “pietas, civitas, and virtus” and very likely in that order. So all in all, I am gaining a greater understanding of how to frame and nurture my engagement with the Norse Gods by my careful engagement with the Roman Ones. I’ve had more moments of “oh. OH. I never thought of that. I wonder if i should pay attention to that with Odin?” and sometimes the answer is no, but sometimes I find my Heathen practices deepening as a result and that is all to the good. I’m careful in ways I never before considered being now.

It’s good being a polytheist. (So many Gods, so little shrine space lol). The more deeply I go into my practices the more the way I see the world and everything in it changes, and the more I can see where things don’t align. It has allowed me to be even more rooted as a polytheist and even less likely to compromise on or hide my polytheism to make the secular or non-polytheistic world comfortable. There’s a line from a famous novel: “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” and I can’t help thinking that sometimes, in some ways, they did them far better than now.

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