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. ^_^
A reader asked me recently asking whether or not it was really possible to experience the Gods through our senses, to have some type of direct engagement, where we sense, hear, or see the Holy Powers, what is called theophany (from two Greek words: φαίνω “to see” and θεοί “Gods” and meaning essentially to see or perceive the Gods). It was a very good question and forms, I think, one of the most difficult chasms to cross from 20th century post-modernism into actual devotion, and certainly to the type of devotion that informed the world of our ancestors. For our ancestors, including our medieval Christian ones, it was acknowledged that one might experience the Gods via the senses (how else would one experience Them? Our sensorium is the way that we experience every aspect of our world, after all) (1). They set up temples where one could go to pray for dreams, developed mystery cultus to allow for cathartic experience of the Powers, and worked this awareness into their philosophies and literature (2).
I will preface this by saying that I think everyone who experiences the Gods directly does so a little differently and that’s because our brains are not wired to take in something that inhuman and immense. The experience, the Being, the Presence gets filtered through our consciousness, so if person x sees but person y feels or hears that’s a matter of their own inborn facilities/predilections (some people learn better visually, some by hearing, etc.) and how their brain is processing the stimuli. One modality isn’t better than the other. Now onto the actual question!
One thing that I realized with this question is that I didn’t come to Heathenry or even to polytheism unprepared. I had a very good devotional upbringing. I was encouraged to pray, to do novenas, the idea of “God” being able and willing to engage with devotees was not a foreign one so I never self-censored there. I didn’t close that off, the idea that engagement was possible, but I think like a muscle one might work at the gym, the facility to sense the Gods was actively developed through years of prayer and meditation and later shrine work, devotional work, study, etc. Also putting myself in space where it was more likely such contact might occur didn’t hurt, and a couple of years of ritual work further developed that awareness.
I think many times the Gods show Themselves not through the raw impact of visions or direct theophany but through small graces, gifts given through the natural world or one’s daily life and that is potent and powerful too. Learning to see all things as sharing in that connection, that capacity for engagement is important because if we are always looking for the big explosion of Presence that overwhelms, we may miss the small whisper of grace that opens. Both are important and maybe, just maybe it’s the latter that prepares one for the former.
I’ve argued with other spirit workers about whether or not the capacity to experience theophany is part of one’s inborn psychic or spiritual wiring or whether it is something that can be developed through consistent prayer, meditation, and devotional work. I default to the latter and perhaps that is because I was a priest long before I became a spirit worker. It’s also though that I have seen ecstatic ritual move people away from the tightly locked down headspace of their daily lives and into receptivity toward the Gods. I also think that saying one can only experience the Gods directly if one has the inborn talent for it negates the agency of the Gods in this equation, and without that agency no one is going to be experiencing anything!
As a spiritworker I have to say, don’t be upset or discouraged if you don’t immediately receive the feedback of direct experience. You are having experience just by engaging in devotional work and there is far, far more merit in doing that work without the bold and obvious interaction/theophany/etc. than in doing it solely to receive that. Pray without expectation without preconception and you will be opening all the doors of your heart and senses to the glory of our Gods. Besides, theophanies usually come with work. The Gods are there and will usually meet us more than half way if we but start in whatever fumbling capacity we can down the road of devotion. In the end, that’s all that matters.
- Even in omens, prodigies and κληδόνες, the person receiving such a gift is experiencing that through their sensorium: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.
- One of my favorite passages in the latter is found in the Virgil works in a powerful description of a priestess of Apollo being possessed by Her God:
“But the prophetess, not yet able to endure Apollo, raves in the cavern,
swollen in stature, striving to throw off the God from her breast;
he all the more exercises her frenzied mouth, quelling her wild heart,
and fashions her by pressure.”
At, Phoebi nondum patiens, immanis in antro
bacchatur vates, magnum si pectore possit
excussisse deum; tanto magis ille fatigat
rabidum, fera corda domans, fingitque premendo.
Virgil’s Aeneid, 6 77-83.
I love this description of possession because it so aptly depicts the partnership required and, while it’s been awhile since I’ve read the Aeneid in Latin, I believe in at least one other place, it’s actually described with vocabulary that conjures up the horse and rider paradigm that is used in modern Afro-Caribbean religions to describe the process of Deity possession, a metaphor that many polytheistic traditions use as well.
Note that the word that is here translated as ‘raves’ is ‘bacchatur’ and means to ‘behave in a bacchic manner,’ i.e. to be taken over completely in divinely inspired ecstasy, possibly violent ecstasy. It may also be translated accurately as ‘rave’ or ‘rant’.
I could have translated ‘fingit’ more as ‘tames’ rather than ‘fashions’ though either is an accurate translation. (this isn’t my translation — I’m not sure whose translation this is, but I liked it. I would probably translate it this way: “But, not yet fully opening to Apollo (or enduring Apollo, or allowing Him in, but the sense is that Apollo has not yet seated Himself fully on the prophetess because she is instinctively resisting), immense (vast) in the cave she raves, trying to drive out the great God from her breast; He exhausts her mad fury, taming her wild heart, instructing her by seating Himself fully (this is one of the possible poetic meanings of premendo).
So, just looking at this quickly before I hit ‘post’, I could make several choices in the translation and I’d probably have a half page of footnotes lol.
One of my readers contacted me a couple of days ago suggesting that a bunch of us commit to doing a seven day “novena” for Apollo, praying for protection and health in the face of Covid 19. I think this is an excellent idea (and we’re calling it a novena, even though it’s only seven days, seven being a number sacred to Apollo). Here is the email I received:
“During my nightly prayers, an idea came to me. What if a bunch of us polytheists started a sort of Novena to Apollo to combat this virus? Well, maybe Novena isn’t the right word but I was thinking light a candle and using the prayers from your ‘Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheist Household.’
Thought I’d pass the idea on to you and maybe your household and others would like the idea.
Obviously, we’d keep doing the common-sense stuff, no hoarding TP, wash hands, etc. What do you think?
I think it’s an excellent idea. As JR notes, it doesn’t take the place of common-sense measures like hand washing and social distancing – our Gods created medicine and gave us common sense after all!—but it is a spiritual measure that we can take in tandem with these things. Since JR suggested the prayers from my book ‘Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheist Household,’ I’m including the Apollo prayers here.
I plan to begin this cycle tonight and I invite any of you, my readers, who are interested to join me. Thank you, JR, for a wonderful suggestion!
(image by Lynn Perkins)
Seven Day Cycle for Apollo
Day 1 – for Apollo, Whose Arrows Never Miss Their Mark
It is to You Whom I turn when the night is darkest.
It is to You, Whom I cry when I am beset and surrounded,
by enemies as thick in number as an unkindness of ravens.
When I call, Oh my Lord, Your arrows gleam so viciously bright in the shadows.
I know I have nothing to fear.
You, Far-Shooter stalk those Who would harm the Gods’ servants,
Your arrows rattling in their quiver, their rhythm making the Moon smile.
You protect what is Your own. You keep pure Your sanctuaries.
You dance across the field of battle before the opponent
even realizes their last dawn has come, splendid in Your wardance.
You, Mighty One, avert all evil, all miasma, all pollution, all harm.
The glorious swan cries a paean to herald Your coming.
Great shooter from afar, Your arrows always find Their mark.
You restore, Lord of the ash, Lord of the bow, Lord of restoration.
May You always be praised. May I always praise You,
and know my place before You in service.
For Apollo – Day 2: Who Protects His People from Evil
You are terrible in Your wrath, Son of Leto,
when You stride into battle, gleaming arrows
rattling in their golden quiver.
Rage is too small a word, for the fury
that radiates from You,
more fiery than the sun,
deadlier than any blade.
You protect Your people,
raining plague upon those
who trample upon Your servants.
You strike down the impious,
and stop the evil-doer in his wake.
With Your raging war-cry,
You shatter pollution,
scattering to the winds,
all who would oppose You.
When You let fly Your arrows,
Your aim is ever true
and You destroy them.
None may escape You.
Howling Ares in His battle frenzy
may indeed match Your war-dance,
but You are cold precision, ice to His fire.
You never miss Your mark and when You take
the field of battle, Your heart is empty of mercy.
Agrios, best of hunters,
let Your fury fall upon all
that would seek to challenge divine order.
Set loose Your ravens, turn lose Your wolves,
that they may rend and tear Your enemies,
until You stand unopposed and triumphant.
Be our shield against evil, Bright Son of Zeus.
Hail to You, Apollo.
We will reverence You always,
not out of fear – for we will be ever pious—
but in love, and awe at the terrifying beauty
of Your majesty.
Hear our prayer, we pray.
Day 3 – for Apollo: Who makes Whole that which has been Broken
Hallowed One and hallowing,
You make whole that which is broken.
Your gentle hands bring healing,
tenderly encouraging growth and restoration.
Medicus, by Your grace and generative power,
You gifted Asklepius to the world,
and from His children, Mighty Sons and Daughters,
struck a blow against miasma and hurt.
Your temples are sanctuaries and so powerful Your blessings
that even the Christians hailed You, calling You angelic,
and best defender of the heavens.*
On this, they were not entirely wrong.
Yours is a purifying healing force against which
no possible pollution, illness, or malefic spirit may stand.
Your face is glory. Your touch a beautiful solace.
Your very presence is undiluted joy, ecstasy of mind, heart
and most of all, spirit. You move our tongues to praise,
our hearts to reverence, our bodies to celebration.
Enfold us, oh God, sweet and noble Lord, in Your light.
Restore us, Brightest Lord, we pray.
Renew us in all ways, that we may praise You more fully,
and every day with greater joy.
Preserve us, Holy Lord, from all the dank, impious places
we must walk in this world.
Fill us with Your light until no pollution remains
nor the possibility for it to fester and grow.
With this prayer, let us be aligned with our Gods,
with You, mighty Healer, as our advocate.
Hail to You, Apollo, may the warmth of Your blessings flow.
Day 4 – For Apollo, Who Bestows Prophetic Power
Frenzied speech You give, the oracle-woman bowed back
with the force of Your Presence in her head,
with the force of Your words erupting like a volcano
from her heart and mind, dancing and blazing on her tongue,
every synapse burning bright, as though she had fallen into the sun.
Frenzied speech and prophetic power You bestow, Great Lord,
weaving like a serpent through the brain, opening doorways
through which Gods and spirits might howl triumphant.
This is a high art, and You train Your women to wield it
swift and sure, mercilessly and sometimes cruelly,
like a surgeon’s blade, deployed keenly and without hesitation.
It is this Power, like the blistering force of a thousand suns,
that shines the wisdom of the Gods into mortal lives.
Those who heed it uphold the will of Zeus,
the immortal hierarchy of the heavens, the glory of the cosmos.
Those who ignore these whispering women glory-sent,
wreak their own destruction and order is again preserved.
It is the pristine ratio dancing, ever turning, ever re-harmonizing in Your hands.
You maintain the radiance of its song, the cosmic majesty of its dancing sequences
through which worlds are born, pass away, and are born again.
Preserver, Savior, Eternal God, Your songs soar in the hearts of those who love You,
and through the cosmos too, restoring order to all things touched by the sourness
of spiritual decay.
May we too join in this dance. May our hearts be patterned for Your song
that like wood in the blazing fire, we may be transformed, into light and heat
and conduits of Your goodness to our sad and broken world, every day of our lives.
Hail to You, Apollo.
Day 5 – for Apollo, Whose Love is Fierce
Your love is a terrifying thing to bear,
Sweet and searing, You penetrate to the core.
It is like walking off a precipice,
and whether we fly or fall is all the same
when the ending is You
and the conflagration of Your affections.
Oh Sweet God, burn away all that keeps us from taking that leap.
Let us not be like Kassandra, inconstant, aching,
so hungry for You and yet so afraid. She was a slave to Her fear.
Let our fear never win. Let it instead be the spice
that flavors the feast of the senses You proffer.
Free us from the chains of our terror.
Let us rise proudly into Your embrace
counting as small the consequences of such devotion.
There are always consequences to devotion.
Let us pay the requisite price gladly;
and then let us throw ourselves madly
into the heat of Your Presence.
Hail to You, Apollo, most-longed for God.
Hail to You, and all Your hungers
that fuel the fires of our veneration.
Day 6 – Apollo, Who Ever Purifies
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl
away from every evil thing.
Bright Apollo, far shooting God
of healers and prophets,
I offer this prayer to You today.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl
away from every evil thing.
Most Holy Apollo,
Klarios, Oulios, Alexikakus,
Who averts all harm,
protect me, oh my God.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl
away from every evil thing.
In Your Presence, oh my God,
nothing impure may stand.
In Your Presence, oh my God,
nothing impious may find purchase.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl
away from every evil thing.
keep my boundaries strong,
that no pollution may affect my mind,
my heart, my soul, my work.
Boedromios, preserve me,
as I wade into this filth.
Holy Lord, cause my skin to crawl
away from every evil thing.
I lay my petition before You, Shining God,
that I may stand in the light of Your protection.
To You, Lord Apollo,
Day 7 – For Apollo, Glory of Olympus
You, Kyrios, are the glory of the Sun,
washing the world clean with Your light
every moment Your horses thunder across its heavens.
Your very presence restores, as light drives out darkness.
Your very song reorders, as its resonance shatters stagnation.
In Your hands lies the balance, the ratio of all the spheres,
A scaffolding of perfection, a purity of sound,
Divine harmony resolving into beauty, through Your music,
You keep those holy chords whole and add to their substance,
filling the world with Your whispered descant,
the potential for regeneration. So, it is with You, oh Medicus.
Your hands bring healing and restoration to us too,
Restoring the harmonies of our flesh, our bones, our rattled synapses.
You hear our most desperate cries, driven by pain and fear, lost in illness,
You hear and the moment Your attention is caught, pain begins its retreat.
The sound of Your attention, the gentle and firm touch of Your power,
Begins again, a dance in which illness has no place save its flight,
Alexikakos, from Your power.
You are the glory of Olympos,
And Your blessings fill the world with beauty.
Hail to You, Apollo Medicus, Father of Healers,
Whose charmed arrows never fail to hit their mark.
(All prayers here written by Galina Krasskova, published in “Hymns and Prayers of a Polytheist household” copyright 2020).
Lately I’ve seen some egregiously bad advice percolating around tumblr (no surprise). The most recent is the idea, articulated as though it was historical fact, that to refer to the Gods as ‘my God’ or ‘my Goddess’ is hubris.(1) I’m not sure where this nonsense is coming from but it’s just that: utter, misguided bullshit.(2)
Each devotional relationship with a Deity is unique. To indicate ownership of that relationship by using the possessive acknowledges that reality. It articulates responsibility for one’s role in that relationship. It acknowledges that someone else may have a very different relationship with the same Deity, that the Gods are independent Beings, capable of relating to Their devotees as individuals, unrestricted by the narrow confines of anything written about Them.
To say “my God …” also articulates an essential difference between one’s own tradition and that of whatever interlocutor with whom one might be speaking. It expresses uniqueness, as each Deity is unique and each devotional relationship is unique, while at the same time giving voice to the tremendous power of such relationships. It is indeed possible to engage with the Gods in significant ways. One’s own engagement does not impinge upon someone else also having an equally significant devotional reality. Language is often problematic when it comes to discussing spiritual reality, the Gods, or indeed anything Holy but I do not believe that this is a situation that falls under that particular rubric.
If we rule out such intimate language than we are tacitly agreeing with the idea, promulgated so frequently in academic circles, that polytheists in the ancient world had no personal devotional relationships with their Gods. This is, of course, also nonsense. Use of the possessive acknowledges the unique nature of each devotional relationship and the rich complexity such relationships bring to one’s devotional and religious life. The only hubris lies in not acknowledging that.
- Not only is it anything but hubris, in many indigenous religions, particularly certain ATR, it is common parlance to refer to “my [insert Deity name here]” precisely as a matter of respect, and a reference to certain initiatory realities. If using such language is “hubris” in one tradition, then the implication is that it is “hubris” in every tradition, which I’m sure was not the intent of the original tumblr post. Still, language is a precise instrument, a tool to foster clarity of expression and sentiments like this matter. Now the main focus of the tumblr in question is a rather narrow type of progressive politics, and I cannot help but wonder if the idea of articulating distinctions in one’s devotional and religious worlds bothers the poster because it is creating a border, distinguishing clearly between your tradition and mine, your Gods and mine, your praxis and mine. I don’t think such distinctions are bad things. I think, for the integrity of traditions, they’re necessary. It also brings clarity to any conversation about these topics; after all, one is not by such possessive usage speaking for the Gods, which would indeed be ethically problematic.
- So is the same poster’s advice on miasma. Katharmos (cleansing) is NOT just for murder/killing. There are many, many reasons that some type of cleansing might be required. I would suggest R. Parker’s classic text “Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion” or “Inner Purity and Pollution in Greek Religion” by A. Petrovic and I. Petrovic. My Gods, I wish people would read and critically consider what they read. Also, maybe go beyond Homer, ffs.