29 June 2008

Shoyeido Incense

Upon arriving in DC for my summer internship, I asked Apollon if he would guide me to a place where I could buy incense for the weekly offering to him. Turns out he answered my prayers, because by coincidence there is a random new age shop across the street from the Takoma Park Metro Station, the one I use for commuting purposes. While they don't have much normal incense, they do have some Eastern blends with New Agey themes manufactured in Japan, and these are incenses that list all of their ingredients clearly on the side. This incense is made by the Shoyeido Corporation. Many of the varieties in the store have a sandalwood base, but I picked up two different ones with frankincense and myrrh as the components. The web site does have actual frankincense listed as something one can order, but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing the New Age store would carry.

The incense smells spectacular, and it's made in a slightly different way from incense I've used in the past, so it's pleasing to burn and it isn't very smoky. I find it funny that the English packaging has very New Agey tones, with an emphasis on the benefits the incense brings to the person instead, while I'm interested in giving my Gods something nice. While burning the Diamond-Power incense (Sandalwood, Frankincense, Cinnamon, Ginger Lily, and spices) for Apollon last night, I had a feeling that he would also have liked what I got for the myrrh-liking Gods, the Peace incense (Myrrh, Sandalwood, Clove, spices), so I will offer him that next time as a test to see if he likes it.

But seriously, there's something really bizarre about incense that smells good enough to eat. I hope that it helps take the edge off the Gods' hunger for offering-smoke.

28 June 2008

Gods Behind Glass

My mother attended many summer library conferences in Chicago when I was a child, and she’d take the family along because Chicago is four and a half hours away by train. My father, sisters and I visited the Field Museum when we went, and I remember the first time that I made my way to the shrine of Bast, filled with glass cases containing artifacts. Below the statue of the goddess, a small gap between the glass and the faux stone (or whatever they had tried to imitate) left enough space for people to make offerings of pocket change, and many had taken advantage of this design oversight. They had dropped pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters in while the guard had his or her back turned. The next time I went, the museum officials had taken the box and all the articles within to be relocated, as the coin offerings had become a problem. Nothing remained on the barren slab beneath the statue.

I’m in DC until the end of August, so on weekends I have decided that I will do touristy things. Today, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian for a few hours, followed by a brief sojourn in the National Gallery of Art. The former building had little or no spiritual interest for me, but I feel sympathy for the Natives’ plight at the hands of Christian missionaries and conquistadors.

When I entered the National Gallery, though, I went through the bizarre security checks (that London doesn’t have, by the way) and found myself facing a rather sizable fountain in the Rotunda, and brought my hand to my lips in a salute to Theos Hermes. As I stood there looking up at the metallic statue, I realized how terrible it was to see images of my Gods in a museum instead of in a temenos where I could offer them something. It makes a profound statement in the West to see our Gods given this relic, museum-worthy status, yet these Gods live still and have inspired countless artists, musicians, and writers.

And, quite frankly, it discourages me that worshipers need to go to information and cultural graveyards to view old images of the Deathless Ones, and I wish we had more of a community in the outside world with which to restore the temples and build new ones. It would annoy the capitalist tourists and museum staff less. It also discourages me that museums that know people will squeeze coins between the cracks of a display case refrain from putting donation boxes beneath the figures in question. They avoid this because the dominant United States culture is Christian, and any hint of the old worship must be stamped out.

Of course, some may see this as needless complaining. After all, I have a place to light incense at home, and Popsicle sticks with Gods’ names written on them in lieu of beautiful statues. While a container in which to burn offerings would be nice, I need little else to engage in my personal worship. However, a small temple to one or all of the Twelve Gods in public transit distance would be a bit better than doing sneaky things in a museum.

22 June 2008

Comments On Speaking of Faith's "Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning"

While I do keep tabs on the radio/podcast program Speaking of Faith (NPR), much of their programming is oriented towards the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim populations. That was not the case with this episode, "Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning." Tippett talks with an Ojibwe named David Treuer about his efforts to revitalize the Ojibwe language, and the relationship the language has to the cultural identity of this Native American nation. For language geeks like me, this interview melts in the mouth like European chocolate. Those of us who have a more spiritual bent will hear a refreshing perspective on faith.

One section I found particularly neat makes me think of the relationship between Hellenic values such as kharis and eusebia, or traditions like the first fruit offerings, and Native practices. Treuer says:

And people shouting things, my favorite epithet, shouted at Ojibwe people spear fishing in a treaty area, "Indians, go home," which I think it's just so funny (laugh). In any event, so it's political and spiritually too. Whenever an Ojibwe person takes something — this is one of our few instructions — is to, you know, always, at least in our cosmology, honor the other beings. The fact of the matter is that those fish were here a long time before we were, right?

I mean, humans evolved many millions of years after these fish did. So the fish are our elders in a sense and respect is owed them as elders in a way. So you harvest the fish. You kill them with spears is probably the best way to put them or you trap them in nets, which also kills them. You fillet them and then the first bunch you eat for the season, you'll have a feast and a small ceremony, usually it's just a family thing, where you'll give thanks to and for the fish. But it's a way of becoming closer to them.

[. . .]

It is counterintuitive. So there's a sense that, you know, you can become closer, if you want to put it another way, by killing.
While I of course wouldn't call their practice Hellenic, it does show striking parallels between these religious practices that predate Christianity. In Hellenic Polytheism (and Reconstructionism), people will traditionally offer a piece of their meal to Hestia, who keeps the hearth, and libate to the Agathos Daimon, as a way of honoring the Theoi. The difference is that, according to Treuer, the honor and thanks goes to the animal instead in Ojibwe practice (and do correct me if I'm wrong).
To really know them, you become related by the taking and the giving, because then the fish is disbursed to people who don't fish, and it's also a chance for one's ancestors to come back and to eat the food that they would have eaten in their lifetime, to feed them. So this is done for fish, it's done for the first batch of maple syrup, it's done for first kills in the fall, you know, in terms of animals that one might shoot, deer, ducks, rabbits, things like that. It's done particularly for wild rice, which is our biggest food and probably our most important food.
First fruits, anyone?

The Speaking of Faith web site also posts the raw interview feeds, complete with microphone problems and feedback issues, for those interested in hearing the unedited conversations. If you prefer reading to listening, they also have a transcript available. The link for the fifty-three-minute-long NPR radio podcast "Sustaining Language, Sustaining Meaning," is here. I encourage you to check it out and see what you think of the program.

10 June 2008

Comic Relief

I know that tensions have been running high in the Hellenic community lately (between "Conservative" and "Reform" Hellenic Polytheists and Reconstructionists). While I did engage in the debate for a while, the situation frustrates me, especially since it doesn't seem that anyone wants to work towards a resolution. Therefore, I am pouring water on the burning rulers so that the steam may rise and clear my thoughts. Let there be humor!

03 June 2008

“O Gods, My Gods!”: The Twelve in My Practice

When I was a toddler, my parents exposed me to Greek mythology. They gave me a film called Pegasus, along with an illustrated book that many may find familiar: D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths. In this book, I learned about the importance of the Twelve, and this first introduction has influenced me to this very day. As a Hellenic Polytheist, I consider the Twelve the most important members of my pantheon, and I honor them above all other Gods. This is a basic prerequisite to claiming this religion.

Yet this is a very simplistic way of looking at my religion, and the way I honor my Gods. I have been known to honor Titans. I worship the Muses. I have given grain to nymphs. I have also given cult to Persephone, and I hold Haides in high esteem. Hephaestos, Poseidon, Demeter, and Dionysos don’t receive as much attention in my life as other core Olympians—but wait, did I just include Dionysos in my version of the Twelve? What about Hestia? And how can I say that I honor the Twelve when I have just admitted that I don’t honor them all equally? Won’t honoring the Titans anger Zeus or something?

For something that seems so innocent-sounding, “I honor the Twelve” has suddenly become a complicated and nebulous phrase, and it doesn’t serve as an accurate description of my religious practice. Look over that last paragraph. Flame wars have started over less. Read it? Good. Dissection time.

We will begin with the definition of honor (v). The Oxford English Dictionary gives us the following: [1] to do honor to, pay worthy respect to (by some outward action); to worship, perform one's devotions to; to do obeisance or homage to; to celebrate; [2] to hold in honor, respect highly; to reverence, worship; to regard or treat with honor or respect. When I say that I honor the Twelve, it means that I acknowledge them as the core Olympians, and I observe them in proper cult celebrations spaced out over the course of the Hellenic year. Or, in addition to our modern Western calendar, I follow a religious calendar that consists of twelve or thirteen lunar months. It is composed of both both ancient holidays and modern ones that have been adapted to conform to Hellenic ritual orthopraxy.

As a young child, I learned that Hestia had surrendered her seat to Dionysos, and I still maintain this belief. I do not consider Haides a member of the Twelve, either. To me, the core pantheon members are Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hephaestos, Demeter, Dionysos, Hermes, Apollon, Athene, Artemis, Ares, and Aphrodite. Other Hellenic Polytheists rotate Hermes out in favor of Haides, or switch Dionysos with Hestia, and they do have enough mythological and historical precedent to do so. These deities are crucial to public worship, and I honor all of them—with some additions—as the year goes by.

Something happens, though, when I turn away from public, calendar-oriented worship and towards my personal relationship with the Gods. I am a writer, poet, flautist, artist, singer, and world-builder. I attend a prominent women’s college, where I study English and Astronomy. One of my friends, a sorcerer, claims that I have some sort of gift that results in him attempting to use me as a sort of divine telephone. I enjoy making people laugh. My professional goals involve becoming a published author and working to advance astronomy. Therefore, some deities among the Twelve have more bearing than others in my personal life—namely Apollon, Athene, and Hermes. Developing a relationship with Ares fuels my decision to start martial arts this fall. I pray to Artemis, Athene, and Ares before or after I work out, depending on the circumstances. For Hera, I have decided to make fidelity my goal when in a relationship. Reclaiming Zeus from radical feminists is one of my minor obsessions.

Among these, Apollon holds the most sway in my personal life. He was there for me as I decided to convert to this religion after years of staring into the window and pawing at the glass. This past summer, I started to have panic attacks about what will happen when I die, and during those dark times I felt him take me in his arms and hold me. While I won’t go into detail here, things are better now. I do listen to some Christian Rock, and he is the God I think of when they refer to “the Lord.” I could not honor him enough in thanks for all he has done for me. Metaphorically speaking, Apollon is #1 on my speed dial. I honor him in the middle of the night every Saturday/Sunday, and think of him on sunny days.

Even though I focus on specific deities, Demeter, Poseidon, Hephaestos, and Dionysos are very important. They receive worship—at the proper times—and influence my life. I did theater all four years of high school, and I will be returning to the LARP scene this fall, so Dionysos will receive honors. I celebrated the Great Dionysia in his honor just a few months ago. Demeter has received barley from me. I have reflected upon Hephaestos, especially when studying myths associated with Hera, and will pray to him when it comes time for me to replace this worn-out laptop. I composed a hymn to Poseidon upon my return to the UK after taking the chunnel to and from France, and I will honor him again when I fly back to my native USA in three weeks.

Let’s look at those minor Gods now. My study of English poetry and literature has led me to a certain fondness for Prometheus, and I sometimes wonder whether he would like a small festival to honor him. Probably not. From the myths, he doesn’t seem like that kind of God. (Maybe I should ask an oracle?) Due to some Unverified Personal Gnostic Experiences, I give a nod at Mnemosyne every now and then, and I chuckle at people who consider her solely a personification of memory. She’s not. Growing up, Persephone maintained my interest in the Greek gods, creating a bridge between the Unitarian Universalist Paganism I was raised in (beginning when I was ten) and Hellenic Polytheism. I have a relationship with the Muses, and if you don’t understand why you haven’t been reading carefully enough. Haides is honored as Lord of the Dead, and I make frequent offerings of food to Hestia. I hope she likes garlic.

Now, I have hopefully clarified what I mean when I say that, first and foremost, I honor the Twelve. I don’t mean that they receive cult equal to one another, or that minor deities don’t have a place in my regular worship. This assertion only means that I recognize their central importance to the faith. Another Hellenic Polytheist may honor the Twelve differently—perhaps he or she has a close relationship with Hephaestos, counts Hestia in and Dionysos out, or worships according to a different festival calendar—but this common ideology unites us and identifies us as members of the same religion.

02 June 2008

On Zeus

The Daryl Hine edition that I mentioned earlier is really quite good. I read some of the hymns last night, along with a good portion of the Theogony―and the latter is also fantastic. I appreciate the meter, because it helps me stay attentive to what the text says. The Oxford Classics Hesiod does not do this for me, and I sometimes struggle to keep my mind from wandering.

Now, one may wonder what this has to do with Zeus . . . but the reason why I decided to read the Theogony last night lies in my realization that the surviving Homeric Hymns do not contain much on the King of the Gods.

I do not have as strong a relationship with Zeus as I do with Apollon Musagetes, Apollon Paean, Hermes (Mekhaniotes), or Athene Sophia. Before or after I work out, I usually make offerings to Ares, Athene, and Artemis. I am enrolled in a Tai Chi course this fall at Smith because I want to connect with Ares, even though I am a pacifist and he's . . . not. (That's putting it lightly!) As I continued to think about it, I realized that I do very little that's specifically Zeus-related in my daily practice.

However, reading the other Homeric Hymns makes Zeus's position very clear: the Thunderer is mentioned in many of the longer hymns, and some shorter ones, simply because all of our Gods are tied to him. When we sing or recite the hymns to Apollon, Demeter, or Hermes, we sing of Zeus; when we discuss the birth of Athene, we pay homage to his power. In honoring them, we honor him and the hierarchy he set up among the Gods, for he presented each deity with his or her niche in the universe after the overthrow of Kronos. Does this mean that we should not honor him as an individual God? No. In fact, I intend to write or compose something in honor of him, simply to achieve balance in my practice.

On a final note―well, this may be a tangent―I know that some in the community of Goddess Worshipers honor their feminine power without the masculine one, justifying this behavior by citing the many religions today that hold a male God at the core of their practice; and many Wheel-of-the-Year Pagans, for lack of a better term, choose not to worship Zeus, Jupiter, Odin, Ra, et cetera, to distance themselves from ancient patriarchal cultures. While each religion is entitled to their own opinion and way of honoring the Gods, I dislike that these views make core Zeus-specific texts such as the Orphic Hymns to Zeus less available online (unless you know where to look or are content with iambic pentameter―yes, I know, I seem obsessed with this). In light of this, I'm linking to some Zeus stuff.

Theoi.com: Zeus - so comprehensive that it makes my brain hurt.
Zeus (from Neokoroi) - another very good resource, this gives more information on worship.
Zeus: A Journey Through Greece in the Footsteps of a God - while I haven't read Tom Stone's book yet, I plan to; it's been given great reviews. For more, read what The Wild Hunt has to say.
Zeus Immortal: The Presence of Zeus in the Modern World - an interesting essay by Melissa Pagliaro.
About Zeus - on
El-Sharra-ELSWheRe's deviantART.