25 August 2015

A Moment of Practice: My Journal

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On Sunday, I finished writing in a journal.

I spent the first piece of my journal (when I started the volume on 23 February 2014) creating a dedication to the gods. It came out of the tradition for asking for blessings on projects. I think that introspection is definitely a project.

When I arrived on the final page of that blank book, I ended in very much the same way I had begun, but instead of prayers, I gave gratitude. The gratitude went to various gods: Apollon, Athene, Hermes, Dionysos, and all of the Gods and Daimones. For the purposes of a journal that I primarily use for a five-minute positive psychology technique (but not using their official journal or app) with occasional additional paragraphs and long-form entries, those Gods seemed like appropriate guides to thank.

The words on the cover page of my new journal, as with my previous one, come from the Homeric Hymn to Apollon.

I love these words because they conjure up images of striving and of the connection between materialistic satisfaction and approaching the gods, who are outside of the quotidian rhythms of our lives, yet embedded in everything that brings us sustenance.

My journal is not explicitly a spiritual practice, but at the same time, it is important to remember the gods in my daily life. I sometimes talk about the Gods while writing in my journal, and at beginnings and at endings, it is best to remember them.

I wrote out a prayer. I recited the prayer. I lit incense.

Here is a moment of practice. It’s not radical, but quotidian, personal, and embedded in my morning routines. Even in professional and mobile practice, the Moleskine-style ones I use have inscriptions.

I will know that I made that dedication every morning and evening when I open this journal to keep track of my thoughts, to reflect, and to hope for the future. Polytheistic practice isn’t rocket science, and the barriers to entry are surmountable. Creative choices to honor the Gods in my writing are small acts of devotion, piety, and reflection, but they are important to me.

13 August 2015

Zeus Ktesios and the Storeroom

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A few weeks ago, I purchased and read Hellenic Polytheism: Household Worship. It is an excellent and useful book to have on hand.

One thing that struck me from the book is the following passage:

During the Classical Era, His altar was commonly found in some storage space of the house (usually an outdoor structure) where mainly libations were poured in His honour. Goods such as food and perhaps items of clothing, material, wool and animal skins, etc, were kept in such storage rooms until recently (in some villages up to the previous generation). These storage areas held the essential goods of the household. They were not contemporary store rooms (especially in cities) teeming with broken and useless items (p. 26).

I started a journey towards a more minimalist lifestyle when I moved to my current city. I culled a hundreds-of-books collection down to under 300 physical books. I edited down my wardrobe. Over the past few years, I have interrogated things that I own because I was sick and tired of carting them from home to undergrad, from undergrad to my mom's house, from my mom's house to graduate school, to Connecticut, and then on to a second apartment when my sublet failed a few months after moving here three years ago.

Too many possessions means more dusting, more difficult vacuuming hurdles, and less time spent doing things that I enjoy. I am also easily overwhelmed by clutter and things that need to be done.

I quoted the passage above because I disagree with the assessment that we might want to recuse ourselves from honoring Zeus Ktesios in the storerooms because we keep our broken and twisted things there. Maybe a better way to move forward would be to evaluate those spaces and purge the things that do not honor Zeus. It may be easier in an apartment where there is more pressure to purge items that no longer function than in a house where there are so many spaces to squirrel things away.

One of my upcoming tasks is to attend to a box of ritual supplies that I have rarely opened since moving into my current apartment over two years ago. It might even be the last packing box I have to go through. All of the others have been assimilated or donated. I know that when I open that box, I will find candle holders and other things that I don't need because my family has been buying me candle holders since I was twelve. Almost everything that I use for ritual is cleanly and simply on my shrines, and I only need a small number of other supplies for festivals and other events.

There are things that we do need to keep on hand. There are reasons for having storage areas in our households. Extreme minimalism, as one opinion news source reported (well, it's actually almost a roundup of sources), is a luxury of people with enough disposable income to make up for what they don't own.

Reasonable minimalism, though, is more like going back to one's roots and bringing honor and order to the idea of what we own and how it belongs in a place that is sacred: Something that should function as a place to keep our sweaters, winter coats, dry pantry items, power tools, incense, and other necessities of life.

If it doesn't have a function in our lives and if we don't care about what's there enough to ask Zeus Ktesios for protection of our things, what good does it serve being brought into our homes or kept in the first place?

09 August 2015

Impermanence, Internet Discourse, and Empowering Future Polytheists and Scholars

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It is 2060. Madeline Perez-Cho is a second-year graduate student in history, studying online through the Distributed Education Network (DEN). Her advisor, Edwin Norton, is a prestigious historian of religion who focuses on religious movements that began in the final decades of the 20th century. Professor Norton has done extensive work in citation networks among members of the polytheistic and pagan religious communities, and he is most famous for a Digital Humanities project in which he mined the corpus of Wiccan, pagan, polytheistic, and African diaspora religious texts to develop a co-citation network over a century deep. His work has been used by sociologists, theologians, and other academics studying the transmission of ideas among members of minority religions over time.

Madeline majored in sociology with a focus on Internet communication. In the early 21st century, people used "blogs" — which are precursors to the modern eCommentaries — to communicate to their audiences informally. They replaced mass mailings and letters. Instead of sending an email or writing different analog mail pieces to different individuals, you could mass-disseminate your opinions to people whom you didn't even know. Madeline made an effective DEN graduate studies campaign a year and a half ago, soliciting bids from advisers, and she's happy that Professor Norton made a bid because she respects his work. His mentorship will be very useful for what she wants to do.

Madeline is studying history. She knows that the narratives that end up in books are artificial, the products of many years the Movement Leaders — a technical term she uses for the people who author books and lead religious communities — spent solidifying their ideas about various concepts. She can find a bit more personal information in the archival interviews made in the 2040s, shortly after a few stroke and heart attack deaths in the polytheistic and pagan movements. Those interviews are heavily used in pagan and polytheistic studies. Madeline isn't interested in solidified opinions, though. For her dissertation, she wants to mine blog corpora and email archives from 2000-2030 to identify the relationships between Movement Leaders and identify Silent Leaders — those people who never published books or led groups, but who had strong community impact through their blogs and/or comments. Once she mines the comment and email corpus, she can apply Digital Humanities methods to the blogs themselves to identify terminology and idea transfer among people. The project is underfunded, but she hopes to attract attention to launch her career in humanities research and teaching.

Professor Norton told Madeline that this is an ambitious project. Madeline has made lists of blogs referenced in the movements' literature, which she will use as her primary search target. It is estimated that she will only find archives for about 10% of them. For religious movements, most special collections only have the email archive for about 1-5% of the leadership. They rarely have email archives for community leaders. It's a huge problem, especially before 2035. People just didn't know that someday, individuals like Madeline would want to study them.

I wrote the above narrative because I want to talk about the Internet, impermanence, and the importance of archiving our ideas and opinions while they are in formation. This thought problem was prompted by something that PSVL wrote about sunsetting eir blog in 2020,* but also by my experience managing my own Internet bookmarks, sifting through the Internet Archive in the hopes that various sites gave an Internet Archive exception in their robots.txt file, and coping with the reality that people can delete their unfinished ideas from the Internet at any time they want in pursuit of curating their public identities.

For leaders in polytheistic movements, I would like to know that you all have a plan for keeping your commentaries and evolving discourses available to future generations. All too often, I think that we consider how poorly our opinions from 10 years ago match how we think now, and we want to get rid of things. We delete web sites because we have moved on. We take down blogs because we think, oh, if I'm not using this, I don't want to keep a static thing on the Internet. Some of these instincts are good as long as we think about what people might need in 50 years, 100 years, or 200 years. The types of questions people ask might not be the ones that we want our materials to answer. They might not be interested in the narratives we tell about ourselves, and they might want to extract different types of meaning from what we do.

If you do consider yourself a leader in the polytheistic movement, you have several options for archiving your content. One, you can trust the Internet Archive and let it scrape your web site and blog. Two, you can contact your alma mater(s) to see if they would be interested in a deposit. Three, you can inform your friends and kin about your wishes concerning materials that you have created: where you want them to go, what should be kept within your personal correspondence, and how to manage your public-facing sites once you are gone.

Of course, not everything needs to be kept. A small number of authors have had their hard drives imaged and accessioned into archives, although archives are stressing this now because software is just as important as the documents written in it. A larger percentage of authors archive disks or external drives filled with files. Still more people will be relegated to photographs and brief mentions in broader archival content.

And don't worry: Archives will let you specify how you want your information to be kept secure. For many, this means that the hard drive images don't leave the archives.

The important thing is to think about researchers and practitioners in the future and what they might need from us today to make the best decisions and to generate the insights they need to continue our stories and understand how we conceptualize our relationships with the Gods. We live in the Age of Information, the Age of Loneliness, the Age of Social Media, and a pivotal moment in our planet's history with regards to human-caused climate change. There are a lot of questions that people will want to ask that we haven't even thought of yet. Think of it as an offering to Mnemosyne.

Some helpful links to get started:

* This post has been sitting in my queue for the better part of the week, so I should just say right off the bat that it's unrelated to what has happened on the Internet over the past 24 hours. I know that blog posts have been deleted as part of the current Internet drama, which is why I feel like making this disclaimer in a footnote before I talk about why it's so important to keep dialogue on the Internet.