I saw this on twitter (courtesy of Astro Museum). It’s a medallion with Hermes (Mercury) holding the infant Bacchus. It’s electrotype by E. Hannaux, French. c. 1895-1905. I just love this image so much, the strength and tenderness in Hermes comes through so palpably.
I love this quote so much. I think it exemplifies qualities that as polytheists (of all stripes) we are called to develop. I know that I return to this again and again, when I think about the type of person I want to be, in relation to my Gods, my family, my world. What touchstones do you, my readers have as you do this ongoing work of devotional living?
Yes, I do. I think it’s important on a number of levels to bless our food and to give thanks. In my home, there are a few preparatory blessings of cooking ingredients that I do: all salt is immediately poured into a large salt jar and blessed and that is the only salt we use in the home. So, anything made from scratch, uses blessed salt. Then, as I cook, I’m usually praying over the food. For anything we order, I bless it as I’m unpacking it and usually again when I plate it. Pretty much any meal I eat, I first say grace over it, and I do this for two primary reasons.
Firstly, I think it’s important to give thanks to the Gods and spirits that nourish us, and building that habit with respect to the food we take into our bodies is a good place to start. It keeps us mindful. It connects food and nourishment with the Gods and puts us in a receptive headspace of gratitude and respect. Those are good things. This also connects the mundane task of nourishing our bodies with something holy and properly elevates it. Food is sacred after all. It is key to the connection between Midgard, Vanaheim, and Helheim. Our physical bodies too are part of our soul matrix and giving them proper nourishment then becomes a sacred task. Cooking is also a powerful connection to our ancestors. So, there’s a lot bound up in food. Plus, we are blessed to be able to nourish ourselves and our families and the Gods pour Their grace into the very food we eat always.
Secondly, as a culture we pollute our food: GMOs, pesticides, and all sorts of unnatural things. Sometimes these things damage the spirit of the food itself, and I think praying over our food restores a natural balance, inasmuch as it can be restored.
Whenever and whatever I eat, I will put my hands over and it ask for blessings. I’ll say something like, “I thank you Frey, Freya, and all Good and Gracious Gods for the food I’m about to eat. Please bless it and fill it with Your odhr that it may restore and nourish both my body and soul. Blessings on this food and the hands that prepared it.” If I’m feeling the Roman Gods more strongly, I might include Pomona and Ceres in the prayer as well. Then I’ll make the hammer sign over my food and eat up. It’s that simple and I do it whether I’m alone or eating out.
If anyone else here says grace, do you have particular prayers that you like to use? Please feel free to share in the comments.
I don’t usually advocate reading our sacred stories for moral exempla. I think that in polytheistic religions the relationship between lore and living morality was complicated and polytheists tended to draw their moral code from their community and country values more than from their cosmological stories (1). In many cases, they were sensible enough to know that in no way can the Gods ever properly be submitted to human morality or authority. Our insight is too narrow, our understanding too limited. For us to drag our Gods down to our level is often gross impiety. Now, that’s not to say we shouldn’t examine and work out various types of exegesis for our myths. We may infer, examine, and certainly, I think we are also expected to use our reason. After all, Hoenir gave us cognition and just as we engage with our world through the corporeality of our sensorium, we also engage with it through our capacity to reason, through Hoenir’s gift; and it is by means of that engagement that we hone our characters. To submit the Gods to our morality though, is to elevate ourselves above Them in the cosmic architecture. That is something that twists that sacred architecture out of true. It is not our rightful place, and we are not equipped to hold it—no matter how arrogant we may be, we are not equal to the Gods (and that this needs to be said every so often in our communities just fills me with sadness). So, while I usually wouldn’t engage in the type of reading that is shortly to follow, every so often, there is a story that stands out, either as a positive exemplum of piety (Lay of Hyndla, where we see Ottar praised and rewarded for the incredible devotion and depth of his piety to Freya) or, to turn my attention to the Greco-Roman world, where we are given a clear warning of the dangers of impiety (the story of Hippolytus). It’s this latter that I would like to discuss today.
The lesson in Hippolytus is one that some of us take for granted, but it’s also one that I know I’ve struggled with in the past. It’s not immediately intuitive. I’d like to say that’s because of the way monotheistic religions permeate our culture, or because of the influence of modern popular culture but I don’t think that is actually the reason. If it were, we wouldn’t see this being teased out as an issue by ancient authors. I just think it’s possible to love one’s primary Deity or Deities so much, so deeply, that it can be very, very difficult to also see other Deities as equally holy—especially if those other Deities have areas of expertise diametrically opposed to our own “Patron” Gods. We are shaped and formed after all by those Gods that we love and to Whom we are especially devoted. One of the beauties of polytheism is that there is no expectation of devotional exclusivity. Moreover, often what is correct for one devotee to a particular Deity is forbidden to another devotee of that Deity. It can be confusing. It can be difficult to say: “these practices that my God encourages are holy but so are these diametrically opposite practices the devotee of God X is doing over there. Those things just aren’t holy for *me*.” This was a powerful lesson that I actually learned by reading a medieval Christian mystic.
Years and years ago I was taking a medieval studies class wherein I had to read the works of Italian mystic Angela of Foligno (1248 C.E. – 1309 C.E.). While I love my medieval mystics, I’m not a huge fan of Franciscans in general (she was a Franciscan tertiary) but that wasn’t where the lesson came in. Angela often worked with lepers. These were the lowest of the low in the society of the time. They were marginalized, forced to live away from the community, and generally treated like garbage. (This was partly because there was, at the time, no cure for leprosy and people feared contagion. For those wondering, a cure was discovered in the 1940s and 50s). Angela would go and minister to them, bringing food, treating their wounds, even bathing their wounds. At one point, while she was washing a leper’s legs and feet, she had this interior vision of Christ, and she realized that the leper was Christ, that she was never closer to her God than when she was caring for these men and women. Some of the damaged tissue had peeled off the leper and had fallen into the bowl of water she was using to bathe him. Get ready for it. In devotion to her God and in a moment of ecstatic revelation she drank the water. The first time I read that I was utterly, thoroughly, and in every possible way revolted. I think I even got physically ill from reading it. I still find it one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever read. At the same time, for Angela, this was an intensely holy thing. It was sacred. It drew her closer in devotion to her God. It was not holy for me, but it didn’t have to be. This was something between Angela and her God. Learning to hold that paradox (?) in my head, to acknowledge that something like this was sacred work, a sacred act, but just maybe not for me personally with my God was a huge insight. For one thing, it’s been a tremendous help when I acquired an apprentice who was as far away in her devotional orientation from the ascetic practices I prefer as one could possibly be. I was having the same aversion and disgust that I had with Angela when the same lesson hit me like a two-by-four again: this is holy for her and her God. It isn’t for me and that’s OK. It’s that last part that I think a lot of us struggle with, the part about that difference being OK.
Why am I bringing this up now? Because one does no honor to one’s God by spitting on the mysteries of another Deity and recently I’ve been seeing a lot of that in various fora. I’ve already written before about how none of us get to speak for our Gods with impunity. If we aren’t willing to qualify our statements, to acknowledge the fallibility of our humanity, and to step back from using our relationships with our Gods (be it as devotee, mystic, godspouse, god-servant, priest, or shaman – or anything else) as a club to attack the cultus of other Deities then we are betraying those self-same Gods and our work is deeply compromised. See my previous article titled “Theological Integrity.” It’s quite easy to share one’s religious experiences and even to discuss and argue about what our own experience has taught us about our Gods provided we qualify it instead of making normative statements intended to shut down religious discourse and silence other devotees, specifically if this latter is done by calling into question the integrity of their Gods. It is never our place to assume the right to submit our Gods to our puny authority (2). This is where polytheism gets really complicated, though I suspect every religion faces this in some way, shape, or form, especially with practices labeled as falling into the ‘mystic.’
While we have plenty of positive exempla in the Norse lore exhorting piety and devotion, exhorting humility, and common sense. I’m going to look instead at a Greco-Roman story to make my point, because it is very well known and very, very obvious in its intended interpretation. I would like us to consider the story of Hippolytus.
Hippolytus was the son of Theseus. He was an ardent, passionate, deeply devout devotee of Artemis. Because She is a virgin huntress, Hippolytus wished to remain chaste and virginal for Her. He was disgusted by sex, dismissive of marriage, and deeply contemptuous of Aphrodite and Her mysteries. He was so contemptuous that Aphrodite grew angry at his hubris. She cursed him (and one may infer that She had the consent of Artemis in this matter). His stepmother Phaedra fell madly in love with him, pursuing him to the point that she was physically ill in mind, body, and spirit. Hippolytus, utterly revolted, rebuffs her so violently that in some versions of the story, she kills herself, after leaving a suicide note accusing Hippolytus of rape. Theseus, who has been granted power by Poseidon, curses Hippolytus and Poseidon sends a sea-monster to attack the young man’s horses. Hippolytus is flung out of the chariot, and tangled in the reins, is dragged to death. Artemis reveals the truth to Theseus and establishes cultus for Hippolytus so that his memory and story will not fade.
What is the lesson we ought to take from this? Well, I think it shows us that while it is right and proper to venerate and love our Gods, to have deep and specific devotion to a Deity (as Hippolytus did to Artemis), it is NOT ok, and is in fact a polluted and curse-worthy act to use that devotion to revile the mysteries of another Deity.
We should not ever diminish the relationship between Deities to petty, human relations. They are GODS. It’s not for us to ever criticize our Gods. It’s for us to look for wisdom in Their stories. To think that we are equal to the Gods, to think that one can be a God is the height of delusion. It is a moral and spiritual sickness. Avoid the impious. Avoid the contamination they put into the world like shit with every breath.
- Herodotus for example, in talking about what makes a people, clearly separates “honoring the same Gods,” from “following the same nomoi, or customs and laws.” This is picked up by multiple ancient writers and reflects a different hierarchy of understanding. Religion did not do the work of defining our morality (upbringing, paideia, philosophy did those things, albeit it in many cases likely informed by devotion). Religion was protocol for engaging with the Holy Powers, for engaging with the sacred and the holy.
- Each God or Goddess is equally holy. What is complicated for devotees is that They don’t often agree, are often at cross-purposes, and sometimes have opposite agendas for Their devotees, or opposing taboos, etc. This is messy but that’s polytheism. We don’t have a single holy book telling us precisely how to do things from which there shouldn’t be any deviation because we’re not monotheists. (Hell, they don’t even have perfect accord over how to interpret their own holy writings). Heathenry is not, as much as some people would like it to be, Protestant Christianity. Something a God gives to a person can be perfectly right and true *for that person*. There are few universals save that piety is good and we should cultivate it.
ISAW, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, currently has a fabulous online exhibit about Galen up. It talks about Galen’s life, education, and contributions to the field of medicine, what medicine was like in the ancient world, the pharmaceuticals, tools, and surgical techniques available to physicians, women’s medicine and female physicians, and Asclepius among other things. I had a blast going through it and learning things last night. For those interested, Check it out here.
I am running a 20% OFF sale on all art, books, bookmarks, and prayer cards in my etsy shop Wyrd Curiosities through January 31, 2021. Use this code to redeem: TGI2021 (or click the link). There’s more than 300 prayer cards available for our Gods and Goddesses across a range of polytheistic traditions: Norse, Germanic, Celtic, Gaulic, Welsh, Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and so much more.
My household sits down together each Sunday night and does divination for the week. It gives us a guide, shows us where potential spiritual weaknesses are, where we can better focus on the Gods, where we might fall flat –which provides the opportunity to take reparative steps beforehand—and often brings up other issues that are good to know in advance. It helps us prepare and to be more functional and effective during our week. Usually, we just use a lithomancy system and then move on to various sacred sortilege systems as needed but this week, for the bulk of the divination, we were using a system devoted to Frigga. As always, we ask the God’s permission – whichever Deity Whose system we’re using –before closing out the session for the night, and we were told She had more to say. What She said, which was crystal clear through the lines that came up, was unexpectedly all about modesty.
Without going into any specific detail, we had been reading about an issue that might involve greater purity/purification taboos. So, the person in question was facing a potential uptick in their obligations and, since these can be difficult and inconvenient to navigate sometimes, there was concern (1). Frigga answered this by a discourse on modesty. I’ll recap key points here.
Like many of us, my housemate had an automatic connection in her mind between modesty, purity, and sex. I think this is part of the paucity of our language, and also the inheritance from two thousand years of Christianity that positions both modesty and purity specifically (and pretty much only) in the body and sexuality, and particularly in women’s bodies and sexual expression (2). This makes it difficult for us to discuss these things without that shadow impinging on our understanding. The first hurdle was putting aside those presumptions.
In the divination, were told that modesty and purity are essential to proper living. It’s not about sex. One could work as a prostitute and still have massive purity taboos (3). Modesty is about integrity, about reflecting our devotion to the Gods in a way that impacts everything we do in our world. To make sex alone the locus of purity or modesty puts a terrible pressure on these things, unfairly, and colors them in ways that are more damaging than not. Our job is to expand those categories again.
In ancient Rome, there was a Goddess Pudicitia, Who goes hand in hand with the Goddess Pietas. Both of these Holy Powers were so important that Their temples were central to Rome. Their names mean “Modesty” and “Piety” respectively. From Them we learn that purity is integrity of action and behavior. It may include the body, but it’s not about the body alone. Integrity is how we follow our Gods, allowing Their guidance to seep into our lives. Tying purity to the body, to sex alone renders any other outlet for it illicit. It is then granted no purchase in any other sphere. By putting too much weight on sexual purity alone, we go to one extreme or the other because we’re overburdening this one thing. Because of Christianity, purity weighs everything towards reifying sex and then denigrating it. That is not correct, certainly not for us.
Now, of course our body, our dress, our conduct will likely be impacted by our awareness of proper modesty (which will be different for everyone based on their sacred work, their Gods, their tradition, etc.), because it is through the body that we engage with our world. It’s the most obvious and apparent marker of our individuality, our physical presence, our agency. We’re corporeal beings, so of course our corporeality will come into play as we contemplate modesty and purity. It’s important, however, to remember that just because our sense of modesty may be demonstrated through the body, that the body is one of many ways this can be enacted, it’s not solely about the body nor even primarily so. The body is just one physical marker of many in which this virtue might play out. It deserves no more weight than any of the others.
In fact, putting too much emphasis on appearance and dress as markers of modesty or purity is problematic in another way too. It can lead to one appearing to be modest but not actually being so. When we focus on trifles, as a friend of mine once said, we become trifling. It is far better to actually be virtuous (however one defines that) than to seem to be so. Authenticity is crucial in our spiritual endeavors.
We had a lively discussion about these things after the divination concluded, the results of which you see here in this post. One thing I haven’t done here is clearly define either ‘modesty’ or ‘purity.’ This is, in part, because those things will always be shaded by our Gods and traditions and those devotional worlds are different for each of us. For instance, the very things that help me to maintain spiritual purity within my devotions to Odin pollute my friend who is a Freya’s woman. Likewise, the very things that help her to maintain purity, pollute me. This is one of the main reasons why it’s so important – at least I think it is—to understand these concepts broadly, leaving room for the Gods to move, act upon, and inspire us in our understanding.
If I had to define it, I’d say that modesty is right conduct, living in a way that best reflects our commitments to the Gods and ancestors. Dictionary definitions often define this as ‘decency of behavior’ and I think that is correct. For us as polytheists, what is ‘decent’ is shaped by our tradition and its values, and the Gods we venerate (4). Purity is remaining free of miasma and keeping ourselves properly receptive to the Holy Powers and Their inspiration. Dictionary definitions include “careful correctness,” “freedom from evil,” and “freedom from anything that debases, contaminates, pollutes” (5). Maintaining these things, modesty and purity, means keeping ourselves as closely aligned as possible with the architecture of creation our Gods have crafted and of which we are a part, and as cleanly and closely entrained as is possible for a human to be, in devotion to our Holy Powers.
I really like the idea of “careful correctness,” in part because there is nothing nebulous about that. It puts the locus of agency on the individual both for determining what is correct and then doing it. I think there’s also something about ‘modesty’ that speaks to one’s interior life, interiority of practice but I haven’t yet parsed that out fully. I do know that it starts not with external seeming but with deep, internal compunction to do and be that which is most pleasing to our Gods – whatever that is – and that within our traditions, we have remnants of ways in which to figure that out.
This to the best of my ability, was what we received from Frigga, Sunday evening, October 25, 2020.
- Taboos happen naturally sometimes. One is told by a Deity or simply gets a powerfully strong sense that is later confirmed via divination that an action should be done or not done from here on out. These things are given by the Gods and spirits and I think part of the reason is to help us to cultivate specific aspects of our practice, or as a logical outgrowth of such cultivation. They’re not things to seek out or obsess over. When they happen, they happen. If they don’t, great.
- To be fair, at least as far as the sixth century where I tend to live academically, men are also exhorted to be modest and sexually chaste almost as much as women are. I think problems arose in places where Christian identity came into conflict with Roman identity, the latter of which put a great deal of emphasis on the generative and procreative power of the man. It’s a complicated issue beyond the scope of this brief post, and it got significantly more complicated once Christianity achieved political power with the Edict of Milan.
- I would point out that prostitution can be considered sacred and healing work and in a proper society it would be openly positioned and respected as such.
- It is likely also impacted by whether we are laity or called to specific specialist jobs like priest, diviner, or spirit-worker, etc.
- These are based on definitions proffered by each entry here.
What a beautiful thing! Someone did a bit of guerilla art: this person put up a shrine to Hermes in the Brooklyn subway. My friend M. sent me the link yesterday and you can check it out here. I think this is just wonderful (and I particularly like that it looks like some offerings have been made). We need more of this! May Hermes and all our Gods ever and always be loved.
Here are some pictures from the link above of the shrine. May Hermes smile upon whoever did this. Bravo/a.
Here is a sneak peak at the cover of the next novena book. This image is courtesy of Lynn Perkins. I expect this book to be available in early September. Stay tuned. 🙂
Affiliate Advertising Disclosure
I have paid my debt to this God. The small novena book I promised Him is now available. Like my other novena books, it is pocket-sized and offers nine days of prayer to Aphrodite’s son, Anteros, the God of requited love. It’s now available here. Thank you, Wynn, for coming up with the title. ^_^