I first met Emily through my husband’s tradition, the Starry Bull and over the years we’ve had quite a few conversations on honoring the dead, raising children in our polytheistic traditions, and the importance of building a hearth tradition. I was very glad when she agreed to be interviewed for this series.
GK: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, what do you do?
Emily: Hi there! I’m Emily, a polytheist and initiate of the Starry Bull tradition. I do a lot of devotional work for my Gods and Spirits, and most of that work consists of divination, education, development of local-focus traditions, ritual creation and adaptation, singing for the Gods and Spirits, and honoring the local Dead. I’m currently exploring face paint and stage makeup as ways of adding depth and drama to ritual.
When I’m not doing devotional work, I’m the social media marketing manager for a small tea company and a mother of a four-year-old who enjoys praying to the ancestors and rocking out to hair metal.
GK: How did you come to polytheism? What tradition do you practice?
Emily: I’ve been a polytheist (unwillingly, at first), since I encountered Hermes at the age of seven. I began exploring Hellenic polytheism as a teenager, and solidifying my practice in the late 2000s; 2013-14 found me stumbling into the Starry Bull tradition, which has been more or less my base of operations ever since. My praxis is usually Hellenic. I do find myself exploring the outskirts though, drawing from other traditions and regions that associate with Dionysian ones—off the top of my head, I can think of the Greek Magical Papyri, Ptolemaic Egypt, and even some Norse materials. (Congratulations on creating the Comitatus Pilae Cruentae, by the way! It’s been fascinating to watch its evolution. I’m really excited to see where that goes.)
GK: Why unwilling to become a polytheist? That’s interesting!
Emily: Not as surprising as you might think—I was raised in a Christian household. It was not an easy thing to see past my upbringing to the reality of the Gods—I felt Them calling me as soon as I started reading myths, but couldn’t figure out if these “storybook figures” were actually calling to me or just really vivid imaginary friends. Muddling the matter was the fact that I had channeled my interest in Divine Mystery and mysticism into my family’s church. I even (when still quite young) considered joining the clergy! Choosing instead to go with the Gods who called me meant turning a significant portion of my family’s culture and personal identity on its head, and eventually dealing with my family’s responses to my choices. It was incredibly rewarding, but not easy.
GK: You work a great deal with Pentheus. Can you tell my readers who he is and why you work with him and how that has impacted your spiritual life?
Emily: Pentheus was a king of Thebes and a first cousin of Dionysos. In life, he refused to let Dionysos spread his cultus to Thebes and, long story short, suffered the consequences. After being torn apart by a group of Dionysos’ maenads, his own mother among them, he became one of the Dionysian dead—death by dismemberment is a forced initiation.
As one of the Dionysian dead, and one of the Dionysian kings, he works a great deal with restoring right relations between the Dead, the Land Spirits, the living, and the Gods; as a Spirit, he is a sin-eater who can take the brunt of incredibly miasmic forces and still be okay. He is an incredible ally when I’m working to restore right relationships between the Gods, Land, and Dead of the city I live in; we have similar goals. In a way, he acts as a bit of a spiritual compass for me, giving me strong instincts regarding proper treatment of the local Spirits and Dead and a sense of when miasma needs to be cleansed.
On a personal level, he and his story have helped me break through some conditioning and perfectionism issues that were holding my devotional work back. I honor Him primarily through ecstatic dance accompanied by a specific type of music—usually something with a strong, driving beat, in a minor key, with lyrics that speak to all the emotions that accompany a need to be broken open. As I dance, I open myself up to Pentheus and allow him to see what has been troubling me. When he finds the thread he wants to trace, it feels like our emotions meld and my story fuses to His. The story gives me a way to feel my emotions and work through pain (particularly deeply-repressed pain) without getting stuck in a negative spiral—we know how Pentheus’ story ends, and it is a cathartic union with Dionysos. Maybe not the gentlest of cathartic unions, but it’s the kick in the pants I need!
GK: What challenges have you faced raising your child as a polytheist? Can you recommend any resources for polytheistic parents?
Emily: My daughter isn’t in school yet, so I haven’t had to face the things I’m most worried about just yet; I’m not looking forward to talks I may have with her teachers or helping her field/deal with comments about her beliefs. There have been challenges, though. Telling her grandparents about our beliefs was scary, and I consider it a blessing that they have been nothing but understanding. Now if we could just find a preschool in the area that wasn’t run out of a church…
As for resources, on a spiritual level I highly recommend forging a relationship with one’s ancestors if it’s not already there. The ancestors have a vested interest in seeing their descendants succeed, after all!
In terms of books, articles, and blogs, I’m still (always) looking for resources, but the book that introduced me to the Theoi when I was still little was Aliki’s The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus. I know other Hellenic polytheists who read D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Two of my favorite polytheist bloggers who also write about their experiences as parents are Camilla Laurentine and Sarenth—Camilla is great at giving details about how her practice and parenting shape each other and tips for how to include children in festivals (like her article on celebrating the Kalends with her daughter here!), while Sarenth has given some great advice on why raising our children in our traditions is important (like in this article here).
And for my unsolicited advice as a polytheist parent: use LOTS of images of the Gods in your home, and have illustrated mythology books oriented towards kids, so your children can get used to seeing and talking about the Gods. It’s a good thing to have even if the myths are from outside your tradition—that’s how I got introduced to Hermes to begin with. Researching local temples for other polytheistic traditions in your area (Hindu or Shinto in particular) gives children a great place to learn about living polytheism. It’s also a great opportunity to teach them about temple rules and hospitality!
And nothing beats having friends in the area who are polytheists or sympathetic to polytheists, especially if they’re parents themselves. Having a community to remind you that you aren’t alone is invaluable, especially given how isolating and stressful the attitude toward parenting is in the U.S. right now. If you can’t find friends in your area, finding an online community is still a big help!
GK: What would you tell someone wanting to begin a devotional relationship with the Gods in general and Dionysos in particular?
Emily: The same sort of thing I’d tell someone who was planning on making a big change to any part of their life—leaving their job to find a new career, or getting married, or having children, or any of the myriad adventures we can go on in our lives. You have to want it, you have to be willing to work for it and you have to be okay with it changing you. As with any other big change, you will change, and as old parts of your life start fading away you may see things and people you love go with it.
It’s up to you to decide where your boundaries are, where you aren’t willing to go, and what (and whom) you aren’t willing to give up. And it’s up to you to decide when and if the sacrifices are worth it. If you feel fear, don’t ignore it—but don’t succumb to it, either, because the times we most fear leaping are often the times our Gods will most want us to.
This sounds a bit cliched even for my tastes, but it’s true—I suspect anyone walking these paths will know exactly what I mean.
GK: I know that developing a devotional life is not without its challenges and Dionysos can be especially adamant about facing our weaknesses. How have you dealt with the challenges that have come up in your devotional life? What has worked for you, what really hasn’t, and what would you suggest when others hit those bitter, dark places?
Emily: Man, and I thought this interview was going to be easy.
Because of my particular blend of issues, my response to dealing with problems in my devotional life has largely been to pretend they don’t exist. It has gone about as well as you’d imagine. I do eventually scratch my way out, but it’s definitely a fight.
We all encounter times where we question why we’re doing this, what good we’re getting out of it, or why the Gods are treating us this way. Maybe your Gods have gone silent on you, or maybe They’ve taken an outright antagonistic role and you’re starting to resent your practice. Maybe your whole life got turned upside down and nothing feels stable.
My first and biggest piece of advice is: get a therapist. Get a therapist with whom you can get along—that part’s vital, and might take some shopping around. Particularly with Deities like Dionysos, the rough spots in our devotional lives often stem from things we haven’t yet faced in our lives outside of devotional work. (And vice-versa—problems in our devotional lives can and will radiate outward into our lives outside of that work.) It can make an incredible difference to have a therapist who will listen to your problems and help you spot the negative and/or unsuccessful patterns you’re stuck in. A therapist who’s worth their salt will listen to you regardless of religion and not judge you for it.
Outside of therapy: don’t be afraid to change how you do things devotionally; don’t be afraid to scale a practice back, or look for new ways to work, or to approach new Deities. You know how pharmaceutical commercials say “ask your Doctor if XYZ is right for you”? Ask your diviner if XYZ is right for you. And if your diviner says that this issue is for you to work out on your own…listen to Them. The Gods will sometimes back off to give you the space to work through matters on your own before regrouping.
If you’re outright feeling resentful to the point that you are refusing to engage in prayer, or if you feel repulsed from it…you probably won’t want to take my advice, but I’ll say it anyway: you probably have a larger unresolved issue going on that is starting to become miasmic. It’s like the psychological version of a wound that became infected instead of healing. You’ll need to do all of the above and consult someone who can help you build up a stronger regimen for cleansing your energy and that of your living space. Dear fellow perfectionists: I feel like we’re some of the most at-risk people for this. You’ll see the beauty in your high standards when it’s time to discipline yourself for a new and better devotional regimen.
GK: I very much agree with that. If you can find a polytheistic friendly therapist, go because old scars, wounds, issues, pain, insecurities — it’ll all be dredged up in the course of this work precisely so we can deal with it. Ignoring that can be devastating. That being said, can you tell us a little bit about the Gods and spirits that you honor and are there particular protocols that ought to be followed?
Emily: I primarily honor Dionysos, Ariadne, Hermes, Hestia, my Ancestors, the Gods and Spirits and Dead of my city, and the Gods and Spirits and Dead of the Starry Bull tradition (particularly Alexander of Makedon and Pentheus). I feel hesitant to speak on protocols, not because they’re unimportant but because I have little experience in recognizing and implementing them relative to the spirit workers I know. Here are some opinions on and examples of my personal protocols, though:
Dionysos tends not to be as heavy on protocol, but it depends on the capacity in which one is honoring Him. His protocols go up, for example, if you are honoring Him as Eubouleus, “He of Good Counsel” (a chthonic aspect associated with mediating relationships between the living and the Dead). Really, anything having to do with the Dead will be pretty high protocol because of the higher risk of miasmic contamination.
Ariadne is high-protocol during festivals. She is the High Holy one, and should be approached as such. To do anything less is to show disrespect to Her. I go through a multilayered cleansing to set aside ritual space for Her: delineating Her sacred space with a line of cornmeal or kaolin clay, asperging everything inside that boundary with khernips, walking its perimeter with a candle and inviting Fire to consume and transmute any pollution inside the boundary, and maintaining the purity of the space with incense. Cleansing baths are also a must with rituals to Ariadne, and I have even changed which beauty products I use and how I apply them if what I was doing didn’t feel “clean” enough.
Hermes is not usually high-protocol (unless you are honoring Him in His capacity as psychopomp—but again, that’s because of the influence of the Dead). He respects protocol as a sign of respect, and will happily receive it, but if I make too great or too formal an offering, especially on someone else’s behalf, the offering does not seem to go over well with Him. He values offerings made with a strong sense of situational awareness.
GK: i never thought about that, but you’re right. The only time He is high protocol with me is in that particular capacity and it’s very much on account of the dead. The dead can be *massively* high protocol!
Pentheus has given me a specific cleansing protocol for honoring Him—a cleansing bath that contains dry, tannic red wine. I find the Dionysian Kings value ritual purity pretty highly: Alexander favors white clothes and frankincense, while Pentheus favors black clothing and catharsis with blood or wine.
I clean and cleanse my house from top to bottom once a week to honor Hestia and the Household Gods and Spirits, and try to maintain that cleanliness as much as I can. Hestia Herself has never struck me as high-protocol. She is happy with a well-kept home that is comforting and inviting to others, and offerings that are associated with hospitality. Just as Hestia resides at the center of the home of the Gods, though, this practice is the center of all the rest of mine; it ensures that my living space is clean enough (physically and on a miasmic level) to accommodate my other practices.
On days with historic significance in my city, I visit graveyards and offer to the Dead there to help soothe Them and bring Them joy. I have a certain set of cemetery protocols I follow to help soothe the Dead and keep Them from following me home, involving offerings of tobacco and liberal use of kaolin clay.
I do divination once a month on behalf of the Gods and Spirits of the Starry Bull tradition and follow a strict protocol for setting up divination space and calling the presence of my Ancestors, Gods, and Spirits into it. Following this protocol makes my divination much, much clearer.
GK: Sannion mentioned to me that you do a blog on domestic cultus. Can you tell me a little bit about what that type of cultus entails, what got you involved, etc. and share the blog?
Emily: I do! The blog I run, Home, Hearth, and Heart, is dedicated to Hestia, and contains suggestions for all types of devotional work (for Household Gods and Spirits or otherwise). These are pretty basic materials; one of my target audiences is the group of people who are new to revived polytheistic faiths, who might not have much of an idea of where to begin and what all, outside of research, they can do.
I give themed devotional suggestions for each day of the week—creating Deity playlists on Music Mondays and dusting altar decorations on Cleanse-Day Wednesdays, for example. Alongside these, I include commentary on lunar calendar dates, links to hymns, important dates in the Hellenic month, festival descriptions, and the occasional Q&A. These are the things I wish I’d had when I was starting out about a decade ago!
For those of you who want to check it out, you can find it here.
GK: Thank you, Emily. I appreciate you taking the time to do the interview. For those reading, i’d love to hear what type of hearth cultus you all maintain, what you do at home, what challenges have arisen, and how you’ve dealt with them — especially if you’re laity. I don’t think we hear enough from our lay voices. So feel free to post in the comments.
Be sure to check out my other sites:
Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy
My academia.edu page
My amazon author page.
Walking the Worlds Journal
My art blog at Krasskova Creations
My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.
And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.
This month’s “Polytheistic Voices Interview” is with Lykeia of Lykeia’s Botanica. I”ve known her for several years now as a devout devotee of Apollon. She’s also a painter and sculptor who makes beautiful images and icons of the Gods (she’s working on a Mani statue for as I type this). She has several books on Apollon available and has done a great deal over the last few years to build and promote His cultus. Thank you, Lykeia for taking the time to answer these questions.
GK: Let’s start with something really basic for those who may not know you. Tell me a little bit about yourself. I”m betting most of my readers aren’t familiar with you. Who are you and what do you do? LOL.
Lykeia: Well my name is Lykeia, a name that was given to me in Greece during a naming ceremony. You know this ceremony for adults is adapted from household naming ceremonies that introduce new children to the gods of the household. You don’t realize just how adapted it has to be until you do it with children, as has been done with both of my youngest children following their seventh day. This name refers the wolf (and light) which is a pretty significant part of my relationship with Apulu (Apollon). After…wow 20 years (now that I think of it) of worship.. my gods and ancestors have requested that I used terminology and spiritual cues from my Etruscan ancestors. This has been a huge adaption for me I am sure you can imagine. All the same it doesn’t much affect what I do as a crafter and icon maker. It has taken me many years to get a shop started but I am pleased that it is finally having groans of growing pains. Slow as it be. When not crafting I write. I have a series of booklets gradually coming out (2 of which are currently published and available) dealing with devotional worship of Apollon. I am also working on finishing a novena for him and starting up a year long book of hymns and meditations for his devotees. Let me see, the only other pertinent information is perhaps that I am a married mother of three living in Alaska.
GK: How did you come to polytheism?
Lykeia: I totally fell in love with the gods when I was 12 and read my first book of mythology. They just made sense to me on a very instinctive and practical than an omniscient far away father god in Christianity. It wasn’t until I was 14 and doing research for a school report that I came across the goddess spirituality books of Starhawk. While goddess spirituality wasn’t my cup of tea as I had a fondness for several male deities, it did start the ball rolling in the right direction. I read everything related to Paganism that I could get my hands. I discarded popular Wicca for its duotheism and eventually Stregheria (which I got into as an attempt to embrace my heritage but left disappointed for some of the same problems I had with popular Wicca). Even before getting in with the streghe, in my teens I had already started abandoning Pagan texts for texts on ancient history and religion. So that kind of was the writing on the wall. After my stint with the streghe, I put all of my energy into Polytheism that was more in line with my initial passion…the ancient Polytheistic practices.
GK: Why Apollon? (I hate it when people ask me this about Odin, but it’s a question I find a lot of people are intrigued by). How did that relationship develop?
Lykeia: Actually it did not come about directly. I was initially a sworn maiden to Artemis from the age 14 until 18. All I had asked is that when I had children that the birth be quick and they be girls (on my third child I ended up changing my mind and petitioned Her with offerings to have one boy lol). Apollon did not enter my life until I was in my mid 20s. I joke and say often that She was preparing me for Him. My first experiences of Him were very raw and intense like a consuming fire. The Daphne myth was a very poignant one for me…that run instinct. Never had I felt something that direct in divine touch. It didn’t take me long to relish and celebrate those moments and then eventually surrender and devote myself to Him utterly.
GK: What would you tell someone looking to develop a relationship with Apollon devotionally? What do you feel are the key components to devotion?
Lykeia: First I would say examine your motivation. Are you wanting a devotional relationship out of direct experience and genuine pull to the god? Or are you seeking to get something out of it in particular. Be honest with yourself. There is nothing wrong with the latter scenario of devotion but in it you need to be clear as to your obligations in turn and DO IT. Cassandra is quite a good warning on that end. Also realize that being His isn’t going to necessarily make you an instant oracle…His domain is vast and you may have skills related an entirely different part. Everyone seems to want to be an Oracle though…except me. I just divine for my family lol.
GK: People wouldn’t want to be oracles, I warrant, if they knew what it entails. Now I know from following you on facebook and from our private conversations that you are looking into Etruscan practices and Deities. Why? What prompted that? How do you see it intersecting with your devotion to Apollon (or don’t you)?
Lykeia: Heh at first the Etruscan thing was nothing more than a “hey that is interesting” footnote to my ancestry. It wasn’t until when I was having divination done on an entirely unrelated note that the “look you need to focus on Etruscan stuff came through”. I put it on a mental burner and half forgot about it until another unrelated divination months later repeated it a bit more insistently. Well that made me pay attention, finally. I didn’t initially want it as it is hard to revive and gets poo-pooed by some who don’t understand why to even bother since we don’t have primary sources from them. Yet there is a LOT we are given by their very close Roman neighbors. Not to mention considerable archaeology so it is not as daunting as I feared. Hellenic polytheism just spoiled me a bit lol. As for Apulu…actually given that Apollon was borrowed from the Hellenes at a very early period it actually is in line with how I perceive Apollon and relate to Him in His early form a seasonal wolfish herding god of storms and plagues. So it has taken no significant adjustment outside of getting used to the name Apulu.
GK: You’re a vibrant artist and your work has been featured on several of my own prayer cards — thank you for that by the way. I do appreciate you allowing me to make them. Is this a devotional practice for you? Where does your inspiration for this work come from?
Lykeia: Thank you! And it’s certainly my pleasure to be helping out! Honestly I address the deity and stare at the canvas until inspiration comes. Sometimes this helped by reading on Them before hand…or even walking away. I can’t tell you how many times inspiration has hit while in the shower LOL! But it is quite devotional. It is part of my task from Apollon this relegation of the gods through art and poetry in parallel to oracle work others do.
GK: How do you balance having a family and doing the intense level of devotional work that you do?
Lykeia: It is not easy. As it is until I can get my business off the ground I work 3rd shift. This means I get a couple hours sleep in the morning before the kids wake up…and a couple hours in the evening after my husband gets home. I fit devotion around how the kids are behaving. If they won’t be too wild I bring them in the worship room…otherwise I wait for nap time. I have much more flexibility on my weekend! I can actually have private time in there!
GK: Because I”m a shit stirrer: what are your thoughts on raising your children polytheistic?
Lykeia: I think it is very necessary. It informs how they view the world and their relationship to it and those deities and spirits that occupy it. My eldest daughter was raised polytheistic and even though right now she is going through a period of personal focus the gods still make sense to her and impact how she relates to others and the world. My youngest children have the benefit of me having a more developed relationship with my gods and practices of worship and devotion. I was only 19 when I had my eldest and I was still working stuff out as I have mentioned. My babies are taught the names and told the myths. As they get older they will participate in offerings like my eldest did.
GK: I’ll admit to having no patience with Pagans or Polytheists who refuse to raise their children in their faith. How else are we expected to restore our traditions? It’s little enough to give back to the Gods. So it delights me every time I see a devout parent passing that on to his or her child. To continue though, what projects are you working on now? Where can people find your work?
Lykeia: I am working on so many things. I have two different booklets in the works. One deals with his maternal family and serpent symbolism. The other focuses on the herding wolfish Apollon and directs focus too to his relationship with Hermes and Dionysos. I have a novena almost ready to come out. The big project is the Book of Days, a 365 day litany of Apollon with brief mini discussions one can meditate on. I am hoping it will be ready by the autumn sometime. Artistically I am always working on something new. My current big project is to finish up the portrait of Apollon with his maternal family. I am also working on as donation to the Temple of Aphrodite two large paintings that will go in their temple when it has a roof. I kind of just go where inspiration directs me. Most of my original work, prints and products an be found at lykeiabotanica.com or at my etsy store.
GK: Thank you, Lykeia. Those sound like amazing projects and I know I”ll be picking a couple of those books up. Folks, check out her shop and if you don’t see anything you like, email her. She does take commissions.
Be sure to check out my other sites:
Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy
My academia.edu page
My amazon author page.
Walking the Worlds Journal
My art blog at Krasskova Creations
My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.
And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.
I first became acquainted with Ptahmassu several years ago when I commissioned a series of icons for my prayer card series. His work was stunning and it was very clear immediately that his icons were living embodiments of divine energy. The Gods had blessed him as a craftsman and artist. He is a fierce polytheist and I am delighted that he was able to take the time for this interview.
GK: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your work. Who are you and what do you do?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: My life as a servant of the Gods has taken me on a very windy road. It feels like each stage of my life has witnessed the Gods calling me to another level or mode of service, and with each level has come a more wholesome understanding of who the Gods are and what They have to say to humankind. I was legally ordained as a priest of the Temple of Isis California in 2001 by the Rt. Rev. Lady Loreon Vignè, and a priest of the Fellowship of Isis by Lady Olivia Robertson. The spiritual visions of the TOI and FOI have played a significant role in the development of my spiritual work, which has become- more and more- the path of devotional service to the living Gods.
I regard myself as a devotional Polytheist, primarily in the Kemetic tradition, though there are other pantheons I serve with cultus. My direct experience has demonstrated to me that the Gods are unique and individual manifestations of the Divine. They each have Their own powers and spheres of influence, material and spiritual forms, personalities and methods for revealing Their presences to devotees. I reject entirely the rather New Age concept of the Gods as merely different faces of the same inscrutable god, and the ever popular neo-Pagan ideal that views all gods as one god, and all goddesses as one goddess. In these regards you could call me something of a hard Polytheist.
My calling to Kemetic Polytheism has found its most profound outlet in my work as a ritualist and an iconographer, both of which I see as two sides of the same coin. For me, Kemeticism is bound to our immediate relationship with our Gods, the Netjeru, Who engage humankind through the actions of cultus, which revolve around the divine presences inherent in ritually awakened images. It was through a very gradual process spanning a number of years that I was directed to use my priestly skills in conjunction with my skills as an artist and crafts-person. The result of this process is my vocation as a Kemetic iconographer, which is my sole vocation, in the place of secular work. My goal is to eventually establish a guild of Kemetic iconographers to carry out the continued revival of Kemetic ritual practices via the iconographic arts of the temple. Innate to this goal is the philosophy of Kemetic polytheism as a body of religious practices to which the living Gods are central. I want my work, more than anything, to be a voice for devotional Polytheism.
GK: How did you come to polytheism? Do you maintain venerative practice to any particular Deities?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I was raised in a very strict, conservative Christian family, one in which a fairly literal, black and white interpretation of the King James translation of the Bible held sway. My siblings and I were raised to fear hell as a physical reality for the damned, that Satan and his demons were a continual threat to every Christian soul, and that even to question the infallible and inerrant truth of the Bible was to jeopardize one’s soul. But even as a very young boy I found myself rejecting the very notion that only a single god existed, and had this overwhelming sense that Christianity was wholly flawed, and wholly incompatible with my intellectual and spiritual beliefs.
My father was a student of the arts and humanities and maintained a fantastic library, and it was in his library that I found books on the Classical and antique worlds, which introduced me to the religious art and architecture of the ancient Egyptians. I was about six years old when I had my first taste of ancient Egyptian iconography, and became fixated on this idea that these people were my people, and these gods were my gods. It happened very suddenly- upon seeing pictures of Kemetic deities- that I began to pray to the Goddesses and Gods of ancient Egypt, which felt more natural to me than I had ever felt in a Christian church. There was this powerful response whenever I looked at pictures of Kemetic deities, a response that embraced and answered me, and this became a solid call to follow these Gods as my religious path.
A few years later, through a mutual acquaintance, I was introduced to Lady Loreon Vignè, founder of Temple of Isis and Isis Oasis Sanctuary in California, and began a feverish correspondence that changed my life forever. Lady Loreon and her partner Paul Ramses had established themselves as pioneers of the metaphysical community, with a strong focus on the revival of ancient Egyptian spirituality. It was through their generous guidance and tutelage that I was able to access both mainstream academic, Egyptological publications on ancient Egyptian religion, and the more esoteric materials I desired to study seriously. They also introduced me to Lady Olivia Robertson, co-founder of the Fellowship of Isis, who took me under her wing and nurtured me in my budding relationships with the ancient Gods. Lady Olivia was especially vocal concerning the natures of the Gods, that They were physically real, not simply the spiritual archetypes of New Age thought. In a nutshell, that is how I came to Polytheism.
I maintain venerative practices, cultus, to all the Kemetic Netjeru, believe it or not. I’m very much a polytheist, and my daily life revolves around maintaining the practices of prayer and offering to the Netjeru as comprehensively as possible. There seems to be a trend among some Kemetics to choose one Netjer to whom they feel especially drawn, and focus an almost monotheistic zeal on this deity, while leaving the other Netjeru to the wayside or primarily as figments of lips service. I consider myself fortunate in these regards not to have fallen prey to this mode of thinking, which I feel is a carryover from monotheism, and is not authentic to ancient Egyptian spiritual life. I was ordained a priest of the Goddesses Auset and Sekhmet, and I have taken priestly vows to the God Ptah, Whom I regard as my patron and protector, and I am certainly faithful to the vows and levels of commitment I have made to these Netjeru as my most personal deities; however, I am a polytheist, and my polytheism embraces all the Gods, and sees offering and cultus to all the Gods as a joy and priority. I really want to emphasize that, that while my love and ties to my patron Netjeru are fiercely strong, I experience polytheism as the constant engagement of many, many gods, and perpetual service to many, many gods.
GK: Your art is, by your own words, a powerful devotional act. Talk to me a little bit about that. This is your service to your Gods. I think that’s an important thing and one that my readers would be very interested in learning more about.
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: Service is the perfect word here. The kind of polytheism I practice- the kind of polytheism I feel compelled to share with others- is devotional polytheism grounded in hands-on and active service. For me this means the worship of the hands, which cups my vows to the God Ptah, the Creator of substance, form, and all things crafted. It is said in the famous theology inscribed on the Shabaka Stone that Lord Ptah, as the Creator of all things and all words, carved the bodies of the Gods from all manner of wood, stone, and clay, and that He created the Kas or Souls of the Gods and established Them in Their bodies. He then organized the cults and festivals and temples of all the Gods, and because of this Ptah is known as the greatest of the Gods. Quite naturally my veneration of Ptah has called on me to use the cult of craftsmanship for divine service, to restore and perpetuate the traditional iconographic forms through which the Netjeru have made Themselves known, through which They have maintained a dialogue with the human world. Central to ritual and devotion from a Kemetic perspective is the cult of images, for it is the sacral image- sanctified and awakened to an inner spiritual life all its own- that connects us directly and immediately to the invisible world of the Gods. In essence, they, images, make the Gods and Their world visible, and establish a point of contact between human and divine.
In these regards I have been called to create my own practice of iconography, which at its heart is a devotional act, a cultic act, which, like prayer or ritual worship in sacred space, draws the Gods and myself together. Iconography is the practice of infusing material substances and forms with sacred meaning and power. It is the art that elevates human beings into the dynamic presences of the living Gods. So, as an iconographer, a craftsman of cult images, my vocation serves my personal spiritual aims of walking closely with my Gods, and at the same time fulfills part of my official duties as a priest of the God Ptah through service to His Royal Workshop.
Something I feel we’ve been separated from through the corrosive authority of monotheism is the vitality and sacred power of our Ancestral God-images. We’ve grown up in a culture that teaches the falseness of all images and falseness of all gods save the one god of the Abrahamic faiths. From the religions of the book we’ve inherited the prohibition and derision of images, and the fear of divine retribution for venerating forms crafted by the human hand. But our ancient polytheisms were all established on the knowledge that the Sacred, the Gods and Their powers, were directly manifest in the material world- not only in nature, but in reflections of the natural world as viewed through the lens of man-made forms. God-images have a central role to play in almost every polytheistic society our planet has known, and all of them have maintained that craft fueled by human devotion is abundantly powerful and fused with holiness. Only the Abrahamic faiths- which are relatively new to our world- have disdained human ingenuity and intuition when it is expressed through the sacred arts. This monotheistic disdain has been our inheritance, and it is an inheritance I am eager to smash in its entirety.
So, my work as a priest-iconographer is that of reintroducing the sanctity of our Ancestral God-images as the foundation of a living service and cultus to our Gods. Prayer, meditation, offering, sacrifice, ritual dance, the recitation of hymns and chants; these are all modes of sacred service that revolve around the holy presence of cult images, which are much more than symbols or reminders. Cult images that have been ritually awakened and received by a deity become part of the Gods they represent, and therefore have the power to listen, speak, and intercede for us. We have a persistent idea imposed upon us by monotheism that man-made images or idols are inert and powerless representations of false gods; and yet for thousands of years human beings have known through their intuitive faculties that our Gods have the power to transform inert matter into something living and vital, infused with a sacred life force that answers prayers and dispenses boons. This feeling is much older than monotheism, and my belief is that the history of God-images in polytheism discounts the prohibitions of monotheism absolutely.
GK: What would you tell someone just coming into polytheism? What do you feel are the most important points of attention and praxis?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: We’ve inherited so much spiritually obstructive baggage from monotheism, that my first and biggest piece of advice to polytheism newcomers is to avoid- at all cost- falling into monotheistic patterns of thought and belief, and projecting these onto the polytheisms they are trying to adopt. I see this happen so often. A person fresh out of monotheism comes to Kemeticism or Hellenic Reconstructionism or Polytheism in general, and instead of embracing the experience of pluralism that Polytheism is, they extract one deity in a pantheon and focus the bulk of their energy on worshiping that one deity. People do this for one big reason, in my opinion; they do it because although they’re unhappy with the concept of monotheism, and although they may sincerely wish to leave that way of thinking behind, it’s still what they’ve always known, what they’re surrounded by in the families and society in which they’ve grown up, so in a sense it’s what they’re most *comfortable* with.
The concept of Polytheism is no longer part of our social nature, because monotheism has overtaken our awareness of our own history and cultural identity, and erased any sympathy with other modes of thinking or belief. We’re automatically conditioned to believe that monotheism is intellectually and spiritually superior to any other form of belief; in fact, we’re taught that monotheism and veneration of the singular (of oneness) is the only valid perspective to have. Because of this preconditioning, people have a really hard time accepting the actual practice of Polytheism, despite their intellectual willingness to belong.
My strongest advice is to begin with a clean slate. Come to Polytheism prepared to abolish the entire framework of religious beliefs you’ve been conditioned to believe are valid, and open your mind to the vast experience that worship of many deities provides. Somehow people expect that if religion is overwhelming or uncomfortable or unfathomable, it isn’t good. Something you learn very early on when you adopt an ancient Polytheism is that the Gods are overwhelming and unfathomable and mysterious, and that a certain amount of bewilderment and discomfort comes with the territory. Don’t expect an easy ride, when you’re rejecting your monotheistic upbringing and adopting a very foreign spiritual framework.
Pluralism and multiplicity are by their natures overwhelming because they present us with unlimited possibilities of experience and interpretation simultaneously, and in our predominantly monotheistic society we’re used to the concept that ultimately there is and can be only one right way to believe, cupped by one right way to express that one belief. Polytheism presents us with the exact opposite; it shows us not only thousands upon thousands of deities who each have their own unique personalities and powers, but also, and perhaps even more overwhelming, the truth that truth itself is plural and vast, and cannot possibly be boiled down to only one point of view or creed. Polytheism is vastly flexible and fluid. It isn’t static the way monotheism can be. It bends and grows and demands a certain kind of resilience in our manner of expressing its many and imaginative forms.
What I advise any newcomer to polytheism is to avoid the monotheistic pitfall of choosing that one deity you feel closest to in a pantheon and stopping there- simply because it softens the edge of Polytheism and makes it more comfortable. In the end, this will only wind up cutting you off from the richness of Polytheism and the limitless blessings of its many Gods. I say dive right in, introduce yourself to your pantheon and ask the Gods to introduce Themselves to you. Don’t be afraid of feeling overwhelmed because feeling overwhelmed is actually part of the mystery and majesty of the Gods; a certain feeling of awe, and even terror, is part of what the Ancients experienced through the Mysteries, the process of initiation, of being adopted by the Gods into Their community of celebrants. Some awe and fear and bewilderment is good, because it means you’re connected to the sensation of feeling the Gods, instead of just parroting a belief in Them. Explore the presences of a number of Gods at the same time, and always resist the temptation to settle back into any monotheistic tendencies you may still be carrying with you.
By far the most important point I can make is praxis, that is, establishing a regular daily practice of offering and veneration of the Gods. One of the most common things I notice in contemporary Polytheist and Reconstructionist communities is an over emphasis on theory, on research and reading and intellectualizing the Gods, while seeing actual ritual, worship, and offering as somehow less vital than cerebral engagement. Yes, it’s important to study and embrace philosophy, to understand the roots of our ancient Polytheisms and strive to honor the Gods through the art of learning; especially in Reconstructionism, where the intention is to recover authentic texts and modes of worship via the historical, Ancestral record. I embrace this and understand its vital role. However, I see a less balanced dialogue taking place today between theory and practice in many Polytheist groups and individuals, and I think this needs to be addressed by our priesthoods and clergies. At the end of the day living religion means direct experience, not mere theory or book learning. No amount of study or research can replace the actual presence of sacred relationships as the fulfillment of our spiritual life. This means we have to open up our intuitive, emotional faculties to the existence of the Gods, which in devotional Polytheism is awakened and enhanced through cultic acts, praxis- ritual worship, offering, sacrifice, sacred dance, and the recitation of hymns or sacred texts.
Offering and sacrifice are what I regard as the key ingredients of cult and praxis. Truly, they are two sides of the same coin. Offering has to be a root part of how we establish active relationships with our Gods, and cultivate those relationships continually. Without offering, there is no energetic link between our human nature and the immortal natures of the Gods; offering provides the link of communication that ties us to the Gods, from which we give and They give in return. Our relationship with Them is based on reciprocity, and this exists in every single mode of Polytheism I have ever studied. All Polytheisms maintain this awareness that our Gods give because we give, and that They engage us because we engage Them, and that this cannot be taken for granted.
So, I tell all my students that the first framework we put into place is the devotional framework constructed through daily offering, which flows from the notion of sacrifice. Sacrifice is the offering of that which we hold most valuable, which can be our time, energy, and material resources. Our time is certainly, in the modern world, one of our most valuable commodities, so this is something we need to be prepared to give to our Gods. When we give up something that is precious to us, something it pains us to give, then we are performing sacrifice, and this is the holiest form of offering that exists. When we pour out a libation of wine or beer on the shrine, or make a presentation of food and flowers, we are creating an energetic bond between our Gods and our human life, and we are asking the Gods to enter into that life and partake of its essence. Without offering, without sacrifice…without this vital exchange of energy and intention, there is no connection between our life and the Divine world, and we cannot hope to benefit from it.
Secondly, I think it’s vital for us to establish some kind of Ancestor veneration, some legitimate recognition of those who have gone before us to pave the way for our sacred life and relationships with our Gods. This is another of the practices monotheism has stripped from our life in the contemporary west; but in all ancient Polytheisms, recognition of the Dead, the Ancestors, and the Forebears of the tradition forms a most significant part of daily spiritual life. I think this comes in two parts. The first is honoring ones’ immediate blood family and personal relationships with the dead, which is done through offerings and prayers, and actually talking to the dead through the medium of sacred space- a shrine, a photograph, or visitation to a grave site or memorial. The second form of Ancestor veneration, and the one which for me is most powerful in my Kemetic practice, is veneration of the Ancestors of one’s faith line, that is, the people who have served the same Gods you are serving now.
Since we as Polytheists are most often coming out of monotheistic families and monotheistic preconditioning, it’s often hard for us to feel *rooted* in our ancient Polytheisms in the modern world. It’s sometimes hard for us to maintain that feeling of immediate connection with very ancient traditions from which we have been separated through our upbringing in predominantly monotheistic modes of thinking and behaving; so, there is a need now more than ever for Ancestor veneration practices that bring us back into the framework of a daily experience of walking with our Gods. So, what I recommend is an investigation into the individuals and communities that have served the same Gods and traditions we are now striving to serve, and creating a regular practice of prayer and offering in order to generate the blessings of souls who have the advantage of being directly in the presences of our Gods, who can help us bring through those blessings more easily.
GK: What do you feel are the greatest challenges facing our communities and the restoration of our traditions today?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: One of the greatest challenges I see facing the restoration of our ancient Polytheisms is the currently trending notion that some way, somehow, we can circumvent the worship of the Gods and still call ourselves Polytheists or Kemetics or Heathens. The root of this issue is a heated debate over the very notion of worship and reverence, and the role the Gods have to play in our contemporary world. There is this deeply disturbing notion being voiced- especially on the Internet- that worship and devotion to the Gods is on a par with humiliation and degradation and subservience, which we as almighty, all important humans should be exempt from. Why should we serve the Gods? Why should we acknowledge the Gods, let alone acknowledge Their greatness as exceeding our own? Why should we bow to anyone or anything, since we are at the top of the food chain, after all, and see ourselves as the center of importance in the created world?
The Ancients lived in a very different world than our own. They saw the Gods as living through the natural world and its awesome powers, its life and changes and death; and the Gods were experienced through all the pangs and suffering life had to offer. There was no sense that human life was separate or could be separate from the influence of the Gods. But today we live in a very secular society, though a society still dominated by the influence of monotheism. This is a society in which human beings take precedence over all, and there is nothing so great as our mind, our ambition, and our will to control and change and harness our environment.
The restoration of Polytheistic traditions faces these attitudes en masse, and a profound part of that is this overwhelming sense of self entitlement, this sense that the human ego is matchless in the universe and deserves to take center stage. Polytheism as it was expressed for thousands of years is the polar opposite of this attitude. Ancient Polytheisms placed the Gods at the center of creation and humankind on the periphery, and urged that it was humankind’s responsibility to engage and honor the Gods, and to draw the Gods out into Their creation for the benefit of all life. The Ancients realized that humankind was in an interdependent relationship with its Gods, and one in which both sides of the equation had a vital role to play. This kind of interdependence- between Gods and the ongoing work of life as sacred creation- is the backbone of the Kemetic tradition to which I belong, but it can be seen in other ancient Polytheistic societies, where there is an acute awareness of the sacred law of reciprocity- the Gods giving because humankind gives.
But we seem to have cut ourselves off from this awareness possessed by our ancient Ancestors. We’ve replaced the Gods with ourselves, and have made giving to ourselves, and mass consumption, the modus operandi of our civilization. So, what I see happening to the discussion of Gods and devotion is more of a focus on what we- human beings- are going to get from it, and why the Gods are worthy of our worship in the first place, and even if the Gods are really necessary to the continuance of our spiritual life. What we’re fighting for right now, it seems, is the right to proclaim Polytheism as the veneration of many gods; Gods who are not only worthy of our worship, but entitled to it because of Their innate greatness as gods and the gift of life They have given us.
The reclamation of devotion, and of the rich thread of cultic traditions that go with it, is what I see as one of the greatest challenges facing our Polytheist communities today. We seem to be engaged in a fierce debate over the relevance of our Gods, and even over the simple dictionary definition of what Polytheism is, when I feel we should be strengthening the training of our laypeople and clergies alike in the process of reviving our devotional cultic practices. By practices I mean everything from daily rituals, offerings, and Ancestor veneration to rites of passage such as births, marriages, and funerary rites. We need more rites of passage and empowerment for those in military service and inmates in prison, and we need to strengthen our Polytheist communities, not just through open dialogue and discussion, but through inviting one another to actively participate in holy rites that unite us in service to our living Gods. But I see these things are being hampered and set back by this ongoing debate over why or if we should venerate our Gods in the first place. It should go without saying that actual worship of the Gods is what makes Polytheism a religious experience in the first place; but we can’t take that for granted when we have voices from within our communities that are striving to dismantle our devotional relationships with our Gods. This really needs to be the focus of our efforts if our traditions are going to survive.
GK: How do you pray? Why do you think it’s important?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I pray all the time! Prayer means many things to different people, but for me, from the point of view of a devotional Polytheist and Kemetic, prayer is a form of direct communication with the Gods. It is a vital tool for cementing and maintaining my relationship with my Gods, for keeping that channel of reciprocity open between my daily life and the boons of the Netjeru. My prayers come in many forms. There are my very personal prayers offered in front of our shrine to the Household Gods. These aren’t necessarily formal or eloquent or poetic. They take the form of whatever words I feel I need to say to my Gods; complaints and requests for healing, getting some worries off my chest, expressing gratitude, or simply calling on various deities to be present and commune with me. I come before the household shrine several times throughout my day, to light a candle and make an offering of incense or to pour out a libation. I’ll recite simple prayers during the day that are my own personal prayers, or abbreviations of the official prayers I say as part of my duties as a priest.
Of course, there are the official prayers of the Daily Ritual, which I chant in the ancient Egyptian language, and are accompanied by the formal gestures and offerings of the cult. These are some of the most ancient prayers of the Kemetic religion, which were chanted in every temple every day in ancient times. They are part of the devotional and energetic legacy handed down to us from the Ancestors of our tradition, so to speak these prayers today is to connect the actions of the present with the holiness of the past; and in Kemeticism, the past is part of an ongoing cycle of divine repetition flowing from Zep Tepy, the “First Occasion” immediately following the creation of the ordered world.
Prayer can be very formal and very solemn, a means of bringing my mind and consciousness into that space of resonance with the Gods, which I feel is essential in the modern world where we are so often asked to step away from any feelings of solidarity with the Sacred, with mindfulness on the realm of stillness and power that is the dwelling place of the Gods. It’s so easy to get caught up in the problems and momentum of our daily lives and lose our grounding in the Sacred, especially those of us serving very ancient Ancestral traditions and paths. So, my view of prayer is that it can be that tool for stopping everything and bringing ourselves back to the center of our holy practices. Through the vocalization or silence induced by prayer, we step back into the Sacred moment, imbuing the present moment with the immediate presences of our Gods.
These moments of devotion are- for me- what nourishes Polytheism and makes it the richest expression of religion. Our ancient Polytheisms are rooted in communion with legions of deities and Ancestors Who are accessible to us at any time, and prayer is the instrument by which we ask our Holy Powers to step into our sphere of life and fill it with Their essence. There’s such an awe-inspiring strength in this; speaking directly to our Gods and Ancestors and sharing a dialogue with Them that gives meaning to every moment of our lives.
I think one of the reasons you asked me this question is because of the push back against prayer that is part of a larger debate concerning the essential meaning of Polytheism and its relationship with its Gods. Enter our ever-present burden of baggage from monotheism. Those of us who grew up under the influence of evangelical strains of Christianity have a rather different and sinister experience with prayer that has nothing whatsoever to do with devotion. How many readers have been told by a Christian relative or acquaintance “I’ll pray for you” or “I’m praying for you”? We all know what I’m talking about here, and it’s not the kind of concern that prompts someone to sincerely pray to their deity on your behalf. This is the kind of statement evangelicals often make when condescending and talking down to those they view as sinners, and it’s an act that implies the superiority of their god and religious system above those they are trying to “help”- or rather convert to their way of thinking. For many Polytheists today, prayer is a dirty word, a word that carries with it an instant gut reaction of “no!”, and is synonymous with control. For many, prayer is a tool of abuse wielded by the Christian dogma they are desperately trying to escape, and it’s a very difficult process to transform the meaning of that word into something wholesome, let alone something that comes natural.
Something I feel is vital- if we are to succeed as individual Polytheists and as communities- is for us to make a concerted effort to reclaim our Ancestral traditions and practices from the oppressive hand of monotheism, and this means taking back words, too, and refusing to sacrifice vital spiritual meaning because of associations with systems of belief we’ve experienced as being destructive. We have to take back the concept and action of prayer, if not the very word itself; because in essence prayer is the action of communicating directly with our Gods, and is an active ingredient in the foundation of cultus and praxis, these two essential components of living the Polytheist life today. All our ancient Polytheisms use prayer in conjunction with offering and sacrifice; Polytheism is inseparable from these activities, and, from my perspective, there is no Polytheism without the three roots of prayer, offering, and sacrifice. Polytheism is a living religious system grounded firmly in the worship of many gods, and it is the Gods Who give us our spiritual life cupped by the physical life in which the Spirit dwells. Our physical and spiritual lives are two sides of the same coin, and they are joined together through the marriage of belief and practice. How else can we practice, establish praxis and cultus, without addressing our Gods directly? And how else can we address our Gods if not through the medium of prayer, which itself is a form of offering and personal sacrifice?
So, I want to encourage people to reexamine their fears or dislike of prayer, and to see prayer very differently from the agent of control that so many of us have experienced at the hands of evangelicals. The action of prayer predates the advent of monotheism by millennia. Our Ancestors used it as a tool of direct communication with Their Gods, to consecrate Their physical lives to the Gods, and to invoke the Holy Powers into the material world. We are following in Their footsteps, and we need Their guidance and empowerment if our reestablishment of Polytheism is to succeed. Prayer is and can be that binding thread between our current lives and the ever-present sacral past inhabited by our Ancestors. Prayer is and can be that source of divine inspiration that never runs dry or fails to revitalize; but, like anything, it takes work in order to make it grow and flourish. The effort has to come from us, and our Gods and Ancestors will never cease to meet us half way if our effort is sincere in the things we do for Them.
GK: You’re also an accomplished poet. Do you feel that there is a unique connection between the Gods, devotion, and practice of the arts? If so, please elaborate.
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: For me, the practice of the arts is, quite literally, the practice of my religion, and is a direct extension of my priesthood and the expression of my spiritual life. Since my namesake and patron deity is Lord Ptah, the consummate Creator and craftsman of the Gods, it so follows that the worship of the hands carries with it the Heka or Magick of my Netjer, Who created the very acts of sculpting, painting, and poetic expression. It is said of Lord Ptah that He created the Gods and all living things through the profession of words, which are His craft and carry with them the magic through which all created things came into being.
When I sit down to write my verses or engage in the holy craft of iconography, I am, in fact, engaging in powerful acts of worship that are- in a manner of speaking- emulating the divine and creative acts of the God Ptah. I am taking on myself the role of Lord Ptah, Whose actions and words wove the substance of the cosmos and gave breath to the Gods. The Ancestors of my tradition used hymns and poetry to celebrate the moment of the Daily Ritual offered by the cult of each god, and married to these holy words is the premise that words on their own contain the vibrational potency of the creative act. The ancient hymns are often complex poems containing elaborate descriptions of a deity’s names, epithets, and physical characteristics, which were echoed in the exquisitely wrought images of the cult in which the deity’s spiritual essence resided. The ancient temples were themselves massive pieces of sacred art, for lack of a better word; but these expressions of art were manifestations of the impersonal Sacred, not the ego of an individual artist. The Ancients saw all man-made artistic forms as carrying the potential for an inner divine life to grow, and when these forms were married to the ritual activities of the cult, they actually became the Gods resident in terrestrial matter.
Aside from my vocation as an iconographer, it is through poetry that I express my longing to see and experience the Gods directly. Writing sacred verses forms part of my daily practice of prayer and offering, since my verses are being given to the Gods as an aspect of veneration. The process of writing itself is an activity of profound meditation on the Gods, because it requires me to remove myself from the surroundings of the mundane world and enter into a frame of mind where the Gods hold sway and are the predominant reality. The result of these sessions is a form of religious ecstasy expressed in words, which can then be absorbed by others who desire to enter into the spiritual ethos.
It almost goes without saying that I believe all the arts can bring us closer to our Gods, and can be the springboard for achieving that ultimate relationship where our Gods are revealed as a physical, tangible reality in our daily life, instead of remaining abstract or distant. We are raised in a society where the pervasive monotheistic perspective is one of the separation of the Divine from the physical world of humankind. Christianity especially has given us an intellectual legacy of seeing the world of sight and senses as clearly divided from the ultimate blessing of the Sacred; it teaches the fall of humankind from god. But our ancient Polytheisms urge us into a very different understanding of the Holy Powers, one in which the Gods work directly through matter, the natural world, and the senses of the human condition. Neither nature or the world of the flesh have fallen away from the Divine, but have instead emerged from it, and are married to the Gods through a reciprocal relationship of give and take. It is through the arts- through painting, sculpture, poetry, music, and dance- that our senses and intellect are elevated and refined, and ripen into a deeper, more mystical consciousness of what it means to be human. The arts can unite us with our higher selves, and, at the same time, remove us from ourselves and into the presences of the living Gods.
GK: What projects do you currently have in the works and where can people find your work?
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa: I am currently working on a new series of smaller icon panels I am calling the Aegis Series. These are more like *portraits* of the Kemetic Gods, whose purpose- aside from being the recipients of devotion and active cultus- is to serve as focal points for prayer and meditation on the Netjeru as personal protectors. So, these icons are magical images linking devotees with aspects of the Gods specifically attuned to healing, personal safety, defense from diseases or external enemies, fertility and creation, et cetera. Their main source of iconographic inspiration are the images of the head and shoulders, crown and regalia of the Gods seen on the prow and stern of the sacred boat-shrines carried in religious festivals, or worn as protective amulets.
Something I am very excited about is the idea to use the Aegis Series, together with my other icons, in a full color devotional art book being conceived by myself and Her Holiness Rev. Tamara Siuda (AUS), Nisut of the Kemetic Orthodox Faith. Tamara approached me with an inspiration she had had to compose guided meditations for each of my icons, which would lead devotees through the symbolism and sacred meanings resident in my icons. Her feeling is that people should experience my work not only through its aesthetic or artistic qualities, but more importantly from the perspective of going inward to meet the Gods directly, and thereby receive Their wisdom. Her idea for the guided meditations will be paired with prayers and hymns and other devotional writings that will serve Kemetics, devotional Polytheists, and students of sacred art in their desire to understand this vibrant spiritual tradition of cult images, and experience it through the lens of its initiatory symbols.
Secondly, I’ve just finished editing my new book “Sacred Verses: Entering the Labyrinth of the Gods”, which will be published by Asphodel Press in the near future. I consider Sacred Verses some of the best writing of my life, and it’s certainly my most profound exploration of devotional poetry to date. Interestingly enough, it is not entirely Kemetic in its tone or use of language, and is meant to be an experience of poetic initiation into the realm of recovering our Polytheistic memory. The premise I have is that if we go back far enough into our family tree, we will reach the time in human history when the civilizations of humankind were Polytheistic; and it is this process of reaching back, of journeying through the sacred tree of spiritual memory, that Sacred Verses presents to its readers. It gives us a set of keys for setting aside the paradigm of monotheism, and returning to our original and ancient spiritual traditions- which of course are those of Polytheism.
Interested readers will be able to find my work via the following links:
Official Icons of Kemet website
Official Icons of Kemet blog
Sacred poetry and verse blog
Kemetically Speaking blog
Kemetic deities prayer cards
Be sure to check out my other sites:
Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy
My academia.edu page
My amazon author page.
Walking the Worlds Journal
My art blog at Krasskova Creations
My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.
And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.
I’ve known Kenaz for years so it was a pleasure doing this interview recently for this series. Like me, Kenaz straddles the line between two polytheistic traditions: Voudoun and the Northern Tradition. The Gods do send us down some interesting roads. He’s written several books including “The Power of the Poppy,” and (with Raven Kaldera) “Dealing with Deities,” and “Drawing Down the Spirits.” Thank you, Kenaz for agreeing to participate in this interview.
GK: Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you come to polytheism?
Kenaz: I was interested in magic and the occult for as long as I can remember. From my early 20s onward I was involved in Ceremonial Magic and Neopaganism. Because I have also long felt an affinity for darker Cthonic energies I became involved in Satanism and Goetia. Had I been born 30 years earlier I’d be what the kids today call an “Edgelord.” I found Chaos Magic thought-provoking at times and loved the intellectual aesthetic of Ceremonial Magic – but I never felt comfortable reducing the Gods to thought-forms, archetypes or things that only existed between my ears. I always knew there was Something Else there and that They were worthy of worship. I also never bought into the idea of a Golden Age when the Gods walked among us. I felt like They were as present now as They were 10,000 years ago and that They still had an interest in us: They did not cease to exist when we stopped worshipping them any more than a rock disappears when you turn your head.
While I have always felt compassion for the poor and disempowered I have never been particularly egalitarian. An important part of our American psyche is that all men are created equal before the law. There has been considerable debate about what that means. For me it means whatever your social class or lifestyle choices all citizens should be given a chance to achieve to the best of their abilities; that all accused of a crime deserved a fair trial before an impartial jury; that all should be treated with respect and courtesy until they prove undeserving of same. (I understand that we rarely live up to these tenets, but that reflects more poorly on us than them). But I also understood that people were not equal. Strength, intelligence, skill, passion, piety – these things were not evenly distributed among humanity. Neither did I have a problem that there were some people who were Called (had a Vocation in the language of my Roman Catholic youth) to the Priesthood while others served the Divine by living their lives honorably and doing your duty to your family, your community and your Gods.
In 1994 I had a psychotic break that left me homeless on the streets of Manhattan for several months. During that time I made contact with a spirit that called Himself “Legba” and who told me, among other things, that I would become a Vodou initiate. At the time I thought this impossible: in March 2003 I was initiated as Houngan Coquille du Mer in Societe la Belle Venus #2 of Brooklyn, New York by Mambo Azan Taye (Edeline St-Amand) and Houngan Si Gan Temps (Hugue Pierre). Since then I have continued to serve the lwa and much of what I have learned in Vodou has influenced my way of dealing with my ancestral Gods. Then, in 2004 Loki showed up and, unsurprisingly, things got very … interesting.
One of the defining moments in the modern Polytheistic revival was Kenny Klein’s arrest on child pornography charges. The Pagan community’s response to that left me – and just about everybody else in the community who identified as a Polytheist – furious and disgusted. I realized then that contemporary Neopaganism’s atheism and relativism were fatal flaws which have real world consequences. I ceased to identify in any way as part of the Neopagan community and began calling myself a Polytheist – and many other Polytheists did the same thing. Today’s Polytheism shares very little with modern Neopaganism: we certainly don’t share our Gods. I’d say we have become a different religious tradition but it’s more accurate to say that we have become a religious tradition since what they are doing owes more to psychotherapy than theology.
GK: You’ve been a staunch defender of Loki over the years (something that I particularly appreciate). Can you tell me a little bit about your devotional relationship with HIm?
Kenaz: My first experience with Loki started as a meditation on Freyja as I attempted Seidhr: instead of finding myself in the presence of Freyja I found myself in the cave. Since that time Loki has been a constant presence in my life. I followed His instructions when he told me to live for several years as a woman. I believed Him when He told me that I would have a child even though the hormones should have rendered that impossible. And in return Loki has brought nothing but blessings into my life, including the greatest gift of all – my daughter, Annamaria Sigyn Estelle Filan. I am eternally in His debt: speaking up on His behalf when he is wronged is the least I can do to acknowledge all He has done for me.
Most Loki-detractors make several fundamental errors about the nature of pre-Christian practices in northern Europe. The idea of “Lore” owes more to Protestant sola scriptura than to tradition. It prioritizes the work of Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic Christian, over the disparate practices of a region which stretched from northern Scandinavia to the banks of the Volga River. It gives the Eddas a Scriptural authority which Sturluson never intended: it also anachronistically applies the Manichean “Good/Evil” axis to traditions which (unlike Christianity) were never touched by Manicheanism or by any other Gnostic tradition. There were certainly evil wights and evil men in the myths of northern Europe. The Gods could be benevolent, hostile or some combination thereof depending on the situation. But there was no idea of an elemental Evil or of an infernal Adversary eternally warring with the Divine and with humanity: Loki was never a “Nordic Satan” any more than Odin became a “Nordic Christ” because he hung on Yggdrasil.
I identify Loki with Lóður and with the force which makes the blood flow and which animates our world. I believe there may also be some cognate between “Lok” and the low German gelücke from whence our word “luck” derives. I don’t think it is a huge stretch to identify Loki with a generally benevolent but unpredictable bringer of blessings and good fortune. And given how Loki appears in almost every story preserved in the Eddas, I think He was a major God within the traditions of northern Europe. I also think His binding is one of the major myths of our Lokean tradition. His long agony on the rock and the eternal fidelity of His wife Sigyn are powerful if painful foci for meditation and contemplation. And while it sometimes seems that for every step forward we take a dozen steps back into Lokiswives of Tumblr, I am confident that we are seeing the birth of a Loki cultus which will survive and thrive long after we are gone.
GK: Late 2016 you started the rather controversial website polytheism uncucked. What prompted that? What is it’s focus? What do you intend /hope to accomplish here?
Kenaz: Polytheism Uncucked started out with tongue firmly in cheek. After Rhyd Wildemuth declared that Paganism was under attack from the shadowy forces of the Alternative Right, I figured I might as well be the devil they claimed me to be. But as I continued studying I began to understand that I am the product of European culture and a child of the European Diaspora. I realized that to honor the Gods of Europe I needed to protect my ancestral European homeland and my European brothers and sisters. And so I began talking about impolite topics like the Islamization of Europe and the plight of poor White America. I began speaking out against AntiFa thuggery and pointing out the deleterious effects of Postmodernism and Cultural Marxism on our art, culture and interpersonal relationships. Which means, at least to some people, that I became the worst sort of racist. (Insert pearl-clutching here).
Parenthood also played a major role in my “Dark Enlightenment,” “Redpilling,” or political development as you prefer. We live in a working -class area of Newark where we are an ethnic minority. We have never experienced any problems and our Black and Latino neighbors have never been anything but kind and helpful. But when they look at us they see White people: our roots and our culture share many commonalities, but there are also many differences. And so I began wondering what it meant to be White for us and for Annamaria, and realized White was something more than an absence of Color.
Necessity and desire drove our ancestors from their homes: history transformed them into White Americans. We are the European diaspora; we are Europa’s children; we are part of a process that was ancient when the first English settlers landed on Plymouth Rock and part of a people who are committing demographic and literal suicide. Those who came before us may have done great evil but they also did great good. We have lessons to learn from their triumphs as well as from their mistakes. And in any event we have a responsibility to honor our ancestors not because they were good or because they were triumphant but because they are our ancestors.
Vodou, Lukumi and other African Diaspora traditions preserved African religious traditions through the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery. I believe folkish Heathenry is one means by which we can honor our European Gods and work to preserve our European identity and our European culture. This has nothing to do with disparaging the ancestry of others: it is, rather, about honoring our own. “Woke” Black people and White people have a great deal in common. Both wish to preserve their culture; both place enormous importance in the family and community; both know their people face enormous challenges like poverty, unemployment, violence and despair; both believe the solution to their communities’ problems will only be found within their communities; both believe a spiritual awakening is a necessary precedent to any material improvements. The answers to our problems lie not in eternal conflict and hatred but in mutual respect. “Different” does not have to mean hostile.
GK: Now how do you balance working in two traditions (I do as well): Norse and Voudou?
Kenaz: Vodou is the central pillar of my practice: I use so much of what I learned about approaching the Lwa in my service to Europa’s Gods. My wife (also a Mambo) and I have both had the maryaj lwa: we abstain from sex on Tuesday through Thursday in honor of our divine Spouses (Ezili Freda and Danto for me: Ogou, Damballah and Zaka for her). We have shrines for the Rada, Petwo and Ghede in our home: we have Legba standing at the door to protect us from evil and bring in blessings. I have refrained from writing publicly about Vodou for some time, but that is only because I wanted to make space for Haitians to document their own faith. Right now there are several open Haitian houses were people can be initiated and learn how to serve their lwa: Haitian and Haitian-American artists and academics like Hersza Barjon, Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith are writing books on the subject. I have 15 years as a Houngan: these people were raised in the culture and have far more to teach than I do. My services in that arena are no longer required: there are better people out there for the task.
By contrast, the contemporary Polytheist movement is in its infancy. We are still building that community and defining what it means to be a Polytheist. (See the ongoing flap about “archetypal Polytheists,” otherwise known as “Neopagans who want to call themselves Polytheists”). I am focusing my attention there for now as I feel that is where it is most needed. There is an enormous hunger for the Gods in our culture, a burning desire for something more meaningful than hollow materialism and blind nihilism. We are a society riddled with impietas: our relationships with our Gods, our communities, our families and ourselves have all gone off the true. The center no longer holds and things are falling apart.
Our only chance is to establish islands of piety amidst the spiritual pollution and to work to right those imbalances – to re-establish what the Romans called pietas. I believe that when we do that we will discover there are many others who are seeking desperately for what only the Gods can give them. Make a fitting place for the Gods and fitting priests who serve Them properly and They will do the rest. That is the public task to which I have set myself: to lead Europa’s children back to Europa’s Gods.
GK: what advice would you give newcomers to polytheism?
Kenaz: The Gods are many, the Gods are real, the Gods are here. Everything else flows from that.
Many people will tell you that you are crazy, that you are delusional, that you are taking this too seriously. This includes many people who claim to be serving the Gods but who are really engaging in psychodrama or in an elaborate live-action roleplaying game. Real piety terrifies them: it implies the Gods they use for window dressing might be real, and might make real demands of them. Their input is less than useless and should be ignored.
This is not a contest. Ordeal workers, horses and Godspouses are neither better Polytheists nor better people simply by their office. The most important task facing every Polytheist is to honor the Gods and to live a life befitting Their worshippers. A sincere prayer offered in gratitude is a greater gift to Them than an agonizing Ordeal performed only to impress the crowd. Ask what the Gods want you to do, then do it. Sigyn assuages Loki’s pain with a battered bowl: your simple life and your humble tools may do greater service for the Gods than you could ever imagine. Live for the Gods and you will live a Godly life.
I have heard many variants of the question “so what does a Spirit-Worker get out of this?” The answer is simple: you get to live your life in the constant and knowing presence of the Gods. There is no greater reward.
GK: What do you consider the most important elements of praxis?
Kenaz: Repetition is very important. The ancient world set its calender by seasons of worship. When you establish a regular cycle of service for your Gods, you create an axis around which your world can revolve. Your “mundane” tasks – I put that in quotes because in Polytheism there are no mundane tasks: every word, deed and thing is infused with the Gods – become part of your ongoing encounter with the Divine. Serve the Gods even when you don’t feel like it, even when you don’t see the point, even when you doubt Their very existence. In time you will internalize this service and it will become second nature to you: you will know Their presence in your heart and in your bones.
GK: There’s an old Russian saying that “repetition is the mother of learning” and I have certainly found that true, most especially in spiritual work.
Kenaz: Cleansing is vital. We live in a society that is full of miasma, where piety is conflated with fanaticism and delusion, where blasphemy is lauded and reverence is scorned. If we don’t cleanse ourselves from that spiritual sewage we will inevitably choke on it. I start and end my day by washing my head, breast, solar plexus, genitals and feet and praying that the Gods may take away that which pollutes me: I would recommend that every Polytheist do something similar. When you start doing this you will become increasingly aware of miasma and be able to either avoid or deal with it as the situation warrants.
Understand that your life is an ongoing prayer. The Christians who ask”What Would Jesus Do?” are onto something. When you live in the constant presence of the Gods you find yourself asking how They might feel about a particular course of action. This is not the “super friends” relationship you see in too much Tumblr spirituality – the kind where Loki is a whacky neighbor and Odin trades off with Dr. Who in telling you about your Important Cosmic Destiny. Rather it is the knowledge that you stand before the Creators and Shapers of Being and the deep understanding of how you should carry yourself before Them. Colored by this understanding, your life and your spiritual practice cannot help but move toward greater piety and balance.
GK: What projects do you currently have in the works?
Kenaz: I continue to work on Polytheism Uncucked and am toying with the idea of writing Europa’s Children: Toward a White American Polytheism. I would like to create a framework whereby Europa’s children can honor Europa’s Gods and recognize their role and responsibility as members of the European Diaspora. I would also like to see an American cultus which would allow Americans of all faiths, ethnicities and political leanings to honor the American spirit and America’s gods in the same way citizens of the Roman Empire venerated the Gods of Rome and the Roman government. And I continue in the most important project of all – raising Annamaria to be a happy and healthy child and teaching her to serve and honor our Gods.
Be sure to check out my other sites:
Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy
My academia.edu page
My amazon author page.
Walking the Worlds Journal
My art blog at Krasskova Creations
My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.
And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.
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!
This week I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and colleague Dr. Edward Butler. Edward has been doing crucial work in reclaiming our philosophical traditions as specifically polytheistic traditions. He’s a specialist in the Neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus and also one of the editors of Walking the Worlds Journal. Thank you, Edward, for taking the time to answer these questions.
GK: Please introduce yourself, Edward. I’ve known you for years and I’m familiar with your work, but I”ll bet a lot of my readers aren’t. What is it you do as a philosopher?
Edward Butler: When I first began to study philosophy in graduate school, I’d already been a practicing polytheist for a number of years. I had a notion of the need for defending and articulating polytheism, but I was by no means certain whether my work in philosophy would serve this function directly or only in a more oblique fashion. And I was comfortable with that, because I felt a vocation toward philosophy in any case.
But I found rather quickly when I started on my own initiative studying the ancient Platonic tradition, that if I ignored what all the secondary literature was telling me, and just read the philosophers themselves, that this was a philosophy that didn’t merely accommodate polytheism, but was radically polytheistic to its core. This was a very original reading in the context of modern scholarship. As originality is one of the principal requirements for a doctoral dissertation, I felt that if I could just follow through on what would be considered by modern scholars as a daring argument I would be successful.
The idea for what would become my dissertation, “The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus”, came to me as early as the first semester of my graduate coursework in philosophy, but everything I studied subsequently in the history of philosophy helped me to understand the significance of the argument, a significance beyond narrow religious interests, having to do with the most basic issues in metaphysics.
Metaphysics is a very intricate structure built up over millennia by many individual hands, and even a relatively small change in the understanding of a key concept can change the way this entire structure fits together; undoing a historic misappropriation of arguably the most important concept in metaphysics, namely the nature of unity and multiplicity, has the potential to change how a great many other pieces in this machine fit together.
GK: How did you come to polytheism?
Edward Butler: I was raised in an agnostic/atheist home, but I seem to have been on the path to polytheism already when I was very small. Two of the earliest books I remember reading, and I read them again and again, were the D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and Book of Greek Myths. When we had an Icelandic exchange student staying with us one year, I pestered her about whether people in Iceland still worshiped the old Gods (she said that some did). I also remember a book on ancient Egyptian art with images I stared at. I was fascinated with archaeology. All of these interests stayed with me, but I think that at a certain point they went into a kind of dormancy again until I was sixteen or so, when I began having numinous dreams. I was engaging in a bit of psychic adventuring, I suppose you could say, and it eventually resulted in a theophany from the deity I have regarded ever since as my patron. I’ve built up a diverse personal pantheon since then.
GK: I absolutely adore D’aulaire’s books. I think they were my introduction to both the Greek Gods and the Norse as well. I still treasure my copies! Seriously awesome children’s books aside, what are your thoughts on piety and polytheism? How does your awareness and education as a philosopher impact your devotion as a polytheist?
Edward Butler: I’ve never found piety and philosophy to be in conflict for me. On the contrary, it was engagement with the Gods that steered me in the direction of philosophy as opposed to the predominantly artistic orientation that I’d had before. And yet, at the same time, I saw philosophy as a fundamentally creative endeavor, and thus as an extension of the artistic search for expression. From this perspective, philosophy is just a unique and particularly demanding medium. One cannot simply make any moves that one likes. There is more constraint than freedom, and yet its very nature is liberating. My role as a philosopher is to seek truth; but I’ve never had the slightest notion that this would lead me away from the Gods, rather than toward Them—how could it? The notion that philosophy and piety should be in some natural tension is a product of the profoundly dysfunctional relationship established between philosophy and religion by Christianity, nothing more and nothing less.
GK: Seeing you approach philosophy as your vocation has certainly impacted my own respect for the field and my growing awareness of just how important it was to our ancestors. I know not everyone has had the benefit of engaging discussions with you so I’m going to ask: Why is philosophy so important to polytheists?
Edward Butler: Philosophy is more important for modern polytheists than it was for ancient polytheists, because there is no surviving polytheistic tradition which is not critically endangered by monotheism’s weaponization of philosophy. For those reviving sundered traditions, the need to be able to critique the intellectual legacy of hegemonic monotheism is even more urgent. People will come up against limitations in their ability to conceptualize their experience of the Gods and the nature of their relationship to Them, and that makes them vulnerable to the omnipresent dismissal of that experience in the contemporary world, the treatment of a relationship to real Gods as naïve or incoherent. Polytheists need philosophy in order to get past those bottlenecks in understanding that hinder their devotion, or threaten to undermine their worship altogether.
Philosophers were already doing this, so to speak, therapeutic work in antiquity, but it is more urgent today, where theism as such, which simply is polytheism, has been under sustained assault from what I increasingly see as a kind of atheism. That is, I increasingly see monotheism per se as atheism, because its founding moment is not any positive religious experience, but rather the moment in which that experience is understood to negate any other experience to the degree that it does not fall within certain intellectually defined parameters. This appropriation of primary religious experience makes monotheism as such distinct in a certain sense even from the actual religious experience of people in the monotheistic faiths, because insofar as they follow the logic of monotheism through to its ultimate conclusion, it will negate even their own religious experience. The proper understanding of philosophy’s purpose and implications is necessary to arrest this process.
Beyond this, however, there is the simple fact that polytheists invented philosophy, not only in Greece, but in India and in China and everywhere that we have a tradition sufficiently intact to see it. In all of these places there is a wisdom tradition that is at least nascently philosophical. These traditions were not separate from theology, but they expanded upon the basis provided by theophany, by the experience of living immortals, to perfect the arts of reasoned inquiry and to found the sciences. Polytheists must not let these traditions be alienated from them through the great historic lie that philosophy, reason, leads ultimately to monotheism. To believe this lie would in itself impair the flourishing of our traditions, and could even doom them, because it would cut us off from our own histories as well as from the innate faculties that have made humans such extraordinarily successful creatures. Polytheists have a duty, I would argue, to develop their wisdom traditions to the fullest extent possible. It’s not sufficient to worship with your heart, you have to worship with your head as well.
GK: I’ve been consistently appalled at the stripping of the Gods from the ancient philosophers, something I encounter all the time in academia. The first time I really came face to face with it in a theology class I think I walked out shell shocked. I don’t think until that moment, I truly realized what a crucial battle it was that you’re fighting. That being said, what advice would you give someone just starting out, both in exploring philosophy and in venerating the Gods?
Edward Butler: My own practice has always had an improvised quality, and so I can’t tell people that they ought to seek out a more structured tradition, but I do respect the work that people are doing to build those kinds of traditions back up, or maintain and strengthen those already in existence. Ultimately, it is one’s relationship with one’s Gods that is the beginning and the end of all practice, and so all I can really say is to pursue that with all the tools available to you and follow it wherever it leads you.
With respect to philosophy, I would say that I think it is important to be at least somewhat interested in all philosophies. You cannot say in advance what problems might end up being most important to you, and what approaches might prove fruitful. There will be plenty of time later to be dismissive of this or that approach, but it’s crucial early on to allow yourself to feel the force of arguments with which you may not intuitively agree. Have enough courage to recognize that while you may not yet have the tools to defend your intuitions to the degree you might like, you shouldn’t as a result hide from the arguments people have made. Learn to appreciate arguments for their elegance, even if you disagree. Seeing an argument in the purity of its structure, you will grasp its potential for application and transformation far beyond its nominal intent.
GK: Can you tell me a little bit about your current work? I know you have some fascinating things in the works. What projects are you currently working on and what do you have coming up?
Edward Butler: I’m currently working on a project supported by a grant from the Dharma Civilization Foundation, about ideological issues in Western Indology. It’s an adjunct to the book The Nay Science: A History of German Indology by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee (Oxford University Press, 2014). The short book I’m writing is designed to make that text more accessible to a wider audience, and especially for Hindus who want to be engaged in the intellectual defense of their traditions. It also broadens the perspective of the argument put forth in The Nay Science in the direction of the intellectual defense of all polytheist traditions, both continuous and indigenous as well as revived and diasporic.
In connection with that project, I’d also like to continue to deepen my engagement with Indian philosophy. I made a start of this in a conference paper (“Bhakti and Henadology”, available from my site), but there is further work I need to do in that area. A great deal of mischief has been wrought by monotheizing Western interpretations of Indian philosophy, and since these misreadings bear such close resemblance to the kinds of distortions that plague modern readings of ancient Greek philosophy, I believe that I have a particular contribution to make in disrupting them and helping to open a space for a more fruitful relationship between Indian and European philosophies. This is an effort to which polytheists of every tradition cannot afford to be indifferent; none of us can ignore the historical situation in which we find ourselves, and in which the fate of all polytheisms are bound up with one another. And in this, ideas and ideologies are as important as facts on the ground.
Other projects will, I am certain, pop up on their own. So much of my work recently has been driven by what others have asked me to do, and that will likely continue.
GK: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Folks, you can follow Edward on twitter @EPButler or at his website https://henadology.wordpress.com. He’s also the author of two books: “Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus” and “Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion.” His academic work may be found at his academia.edu page and also in Walking the Worlds.
Be sure to check out my other sites:
Wyrd Curiosities at Etsy
My academia.edu page
My amazon author page.
Walking the Worlds Journal
My art blog at Krasskova Creations
My blog about all things strange, weird and medieval.
And if you like what you see, consider becoming a sponsor at Patreon.