30 June 2009

Walking the Middle Path

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Ethical postulates can never succeed in mastering the whole reality of nature and society; they achieve no more than partial clearings amid the impenetrable, chaotic mass; moreover, morality is always in danger of cutting off the roots of its own life. In ritual and mythology there is obviously a no to every yes, an antithesis to every thesis: order and dissolution, inside and outside, life and death.

- Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (p. 248)

Control yourself (Αρχε σεαυτου)
Cling to discipline (Παιδειας αντεχου)
Respect yourself (Σεαυτον αιδου)

- Delphic Maxims

“Know that all these things are as I have told thee; and accustom thyself to overcome and vanquish these passions: first gluttony, sloth, sensuality, and anger.”

- Golden Verses of Pythagoras

Polytheism provides multiplicity of belief and practice, a suite of diverse divinities with different ritual practices and spiritual language. Through ritual and worship, we honor the Deathless Gods and contribute to our personal human development. Self-empowerment is a pagan value because, through the pursuit of arete in our mental, physical, and emotional lives, we become idealized versions of ourselves capable of extreme courage and important contributions to society.

In a roundabout way, we can say that freedom and self-empowerment are Pagan (and Hellenic) values because they challenge us to examine tried-and-true ethical systems and ways of approaching divinity, to balance nomos arkhaios with modern culture, and to develop conceptions of the divine based on reason. To some—more explicitly, the people who run polytheism.net—this idea seems daunting, spawning claims that “although polytheistic systems provide flexibility and a relativistic lack of accountability, they often leave followers with no sense of ultimate purpose and no prospect for eternal hope.” Truly, freedom without self-moderation can lead to rampant sexual congress without emotional connection, overindulgence in food and drugs, and an abandonment of frugality, but this problem is not endemic to polytheism. Rather, it is a side effect of modern life and the conflict between Christian notions of morality and the postmodern concept of the self.

Self-empowerment is as much about setting limits and boundaries as it is about reaching for one's true human potential. It does not mean saying yes to every desire and temptation, and it does not mean abandoning the physical world in favor of an ascetic life. Everything must be taken in moderation. Opportunities to overindulge in good things have always existed and will always confront us. A great deal of liberation comes from the ability to say no to individuals and forces in one's life that damage us and prevent us from engaging with the Gods and with our own selves. Denial sets us apart from those who don't think about the long-term consequences of their actions, and it proves that we have retained integrity.

Hellenic Polytheism attracted me for its old feel for most of my teen years, but I didn't convert until I finally read Sallustius. Hellenic Polytheism also attracted me because it has a tremendously valuable ethical system that addresses the balance between indulgence and abstinence. We have the freedom to worship and the freedom to think—the former a Constitution-given right, the latter something that most Americans have stopped doing. The diverse ethical systems in the community, ranging from the Delphic Maxims to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, provide different ways of addressing similar concerns (honor/duty, piety, temperance, and wisdom).

In Hellenic Polytheism, “man is left a sphere of freedom beyond the satisfied claims; for this reason law and ethics could develop among the Greeks as human wisdom, free and yet in harmony with the god; wise sayings and laws are engraved on temple walls, but they are always regarded as human endeavour, not divine revelation” (Greek Religion, 248). The idea of a solid, humanistic ethical system confuses Christians and others with divinely-given ethical codes. Indulging and making mistakes does not make us sinful or cursed in the eyes of the Gods, but in the eyes of the community—a human crime that must ultimately be judged by other members of our species. Divine regulations are but shadows, confined to situations and places in which one or more deities may have something at stake.

Learning to say no is frighteningly individualistic and contrary to a lot of things we have been taught, a word that many have stopped taking seriously. It is a human solution to human-caused problems in modern society and the environment. It means choosing moderation, not abstinence or indulgence, and embracing the courage to stand out from one's peers.

28 June 2009

Hermes Loves Digital Divination

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It is my personal UPG that Hermes and the Internet are like strawberries and chocolate (and, from talking to people, I'm probably not the only person who thinks this way). For as long as I can remember, I have used dice and coin divination to inform my decision-making; after converting to Hellenic Polytheism, I found a coin divination outlined by Sannion at wildivine.org that made considerable sense to me.

Now, I am also incredibly bad at flipping coins. Flipping coins on the Internet with Hermes's good guidance brings together the best of two of his realms.

This is where RANDOM.ORG comes in. The organization
offers true random numbers to anyone on the Internet. The randomness comes from atmospheric noise, which for many purposes is better than the pseudo-random number algorithms typically used in computer programs. People use RANDOM.ORG for holding drawings, lotteries and sweepstakes, to drive games and gambling sites, for scientific applications and for art and music. The service has existed since 1998 and was built and is being operated by Mads Haahr of the School of Computer Science and Statistics at Trinity College, Dublin in Ireland.
So ... if people already use a truly random service for so many things, why can't we add divination to the mix? ... especially since RANDOM.ORG has a section for virtual coins. More importantly, one can decide on the kind of coin. It currently offers six coins from the Roman Empire and one from the Bactria Indo-Sythican Greek Kingdom. One can decide the number of coins to flip as well, so you can use any coin divination system you feel comfortable with.

Personally, I'm 100% Bactrian.

20 June 2009

On Hyperborea, Deities, and the Book that Unites Them All

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Individuals may remember that, once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, it was ordained that a book about Apollon would be written as part of Routledge's Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World series. Little did any of us know that it would take so long to receive the data transmission from the Andromeda Galaxy.

Seriously. If you take one thing away from this post, make it this: never, ever trust release dates put out by Routledge. Ever.

Hellenic Polytheists—specifically those in love with Apollon—have awaited this book for a while. Many people had many questions about it. Would Fritz Graf acknowledge that people still believe in the deity? Would the representation of Apollon take the form of a broad sweep of the god's cultus or would it contain original critical work? And what, pray tell, took Dr. Graf so long?

I was not disappointed with Apollo. While Dr. Graf places Apollon-worship squarely in antiquity, and while the book is actually just a sweep of the god's cultus with some poetry analysis thrown in at the end, I do not bemoan the loss of the money I used to pay for this paperback. The information it yields is better, if slightly more biased, than that on Theoi.com (because, as we all know, scholars have very strong opinions that are seldom unbiased). When used with Burkert, I'm sure that it would provide a rewarding and interesting resource to use in ritual.

Some interesting things I learned—some of which raise more questions—are that the shout ié paián was used by men only because Greek exclamations are gendered; that Apollon can be considered an ecstatic god based on actual sources instead of UPG; and the extent of Apollon's involvement with the Dorians—especially the Spartans (43; 50; 137). Reading about Apollon helped me understand his connection with male youth, something strange to me as a female votary, and the time between childhood and adulthood. I found comfort and reconciliation in the tales of Hyperboreans and Dionysian ascendancy at Delphi, a reconciliation between two deities that have come to represent a binary opposition between reason and irrationality in modern society.

Anyone who gives Asklepios cultus may also want to read parts of this book. As Apollon's son, Asklepios receives no small amount of consideration in the chapters relating Apollon's connection to medicine—a fitting inclusion, as Asklepios received healing as his sphere of influence upon deification.

Dr. Graf provided little explanation for why the book was so late, so I will provide a hypothesis: as he needed to interview and refer sections to Apollon, the Hyperborean season being the only time Apollon deigned he could sacrifice to the volume's creation, the book proceeded more slowly than Dr. Graf and Routledge Publishing had anticipated.

So now for my ratings:

Layout - 5/5
Editing (Grammar, spelling, formatting) - 4.5/5
Content - 5/5
Readability - 4/5
Overall - 4.5/5

19 June 2009

A Reaction to Kirsch's God Against the Gods

If you like reading about Emperor Julian, you might like this book.

I began to read God Against the Gods in the basement of the Smith College library during thirty-minute breaks between classes as a reward for making progress on some of my papers, and I consumed much of it in the B-level room with the snack machines and whirring heating systems as people walked in and out for their paper-writing fuel. I read a chapter at a time, never checking it out because I needed to barricade my room against distractions, haunting the BL 200 section. The copy I secured afterward came from an Amazon.com used books associate; it contains a lot of notes for the first two chapters before the original reader fell silent or stopped reading. This is a sampling of what the previous reader underlined:
  • “[M]onotheism insists that the other gods to whom worship is offered are not merely inferior in power or stature ... they are false ... even demonic .... there is but one God” (10).
  • “To worship the wrong god ... is punishable by death” (10).
They underlined only the portions that describe the Christian world view, a summary of everything many polytheists find objectionable or even downright rude about intolerant monotheism. The original reader elaborated on his or her writings in the margins: “monotheistic approach to faith is cruel,” s/he says and—one of the most perplexing statements I think I have found in a used book—“This snobbism, this SUPERIORITY ATTITUDE → Repulsive!” Perhaps a fellow polytheist decided to vent at the naked portrayal of monotheism's flaws, but the individual could have been an irate monotheist. Some Internet reactions state that Jonathan Kirsch's arguments in God Against the Gods are anti-Christian; perhaps this reader, too, expected something that glorified monotheism at the expense of what came before.

“Anti-Christian” can sometimes be a synonym for “balanced and BS-free”; the arguments and ratings given by those inflamed people do not provide effective arguments against the book. In fact, any argument criticizing the book for sympathizing with polytheism makes it more valuable to me, and I agree with one of the book's goals: to highlight the struggles of the past with an aim to speak out against present-day extremist monotheism. “[T]he roots of religious terrorism are not found originally or exclusively in Islamic tradition,” Kirsch writes. “Quite the contrary, it begins in the pages of the Bible, and the very first examples of holy war and martyrdom are found in Jewish and Christian history” (3). As Kirsch develops his argument, he pits the intolerant monotheism against an open, tolerant polytheism, reflecting many opinions Pagan bloggers have made this month about the value of spiritual inclusiveness in our various pagan and polytheistic faiths. One-True-God exclusivity has no place in polytheism, even for mystery sects such as the Orphics, because all gods deserve some consideration.

The section of this book I found most enjoyable was Chapter Two: What Did Pagans Do? In fact, I recommend any individuals interested in understanding the polytheistic world view to check out these pages. Kirsch argues that most arguments about classical paganism are wrong. “The awkward and ironic truth is that the rituals against which the biblical authors rant and rave bear a striking resemblance to some of the approved beliefs and practices of monotheism as they are depicted in the Bible. What pagans did, as it turns out, was not so very different from what the pious worshippers of the Only True God did” (59). The assessments he makes—while some who believe that every folk magician is a Medea waiting to happen may disagree—are generally well-founded and illuminating.

And then the rest of the book happens. Reading it made me feel anger sometimes, but also horror and resentment. Towards the end, I felt despair at the death of Julian and anger at the person who killed him—most acutely at the Church, which flaunts his death, and the people who consider him a depraved person instead of the brilliant philosopher and defender of the old religion he was. The rise of monotheism seems so improbable and against reason, yet here we are today living in a world where people murder one another for believing in the wrong god and children learn intolerance from an early age. Monotheists, too, must feel uneasy and even angry when they read this because Kirsch does not give them the glory they found in the state-mandated history texts and Sunday sermons.

Layout - 4/5
Editing (Grammar, spelling, formatting) - 4.5/5
Content - 3.5/5
Readability - 4.5/5
Overall - 4/5

04 June 2009

Personal Values Inspired By Hellenic Polytheism

If you didn't know already from the awesome posts cropping up everywhere, it's Pagan Values Month in the blogosphere, a time for pagan and polytheistic bloggers to tackle issues that we see as important to us from a religious perspective (or, at least, that's my initial take on what that means). Executive Pagan writes, “[T]he first thing that comes to mind is that I’m not clear on what 'pagan values' necessarily are” [link]. I think that's an apt assessment of pagan values, but with that I think it proper to also question which values we mean when we say “Pagan Values.” Realistically speaking, value systems range from the “An' it Harm None” law of modern Wiccans to the strict values in Kemetism (the list of “I have nots” being the thing that first comes to mind). In Hellenism, we have a lot of moral, ethical, and social values to choose from because Ancient Hellenic Polytheism was practiced in so many culturally different city-states, and while we can talk about pan-Hellenic values (such as xenia and eusebia), the specifics varied from region to region.

What about modern values? Where do our religious values end and our cultural sensibilities begin? If we value tradition and nomos arkhaios, if we believe in following the ancient practices and divisions, what does that say about modern Hellenic Polytheists? Where must valuing tradition end and modern innovation begin so we can respectfully acknowledge (and correct) our spiritual ancestors' mistakes? As an individual, I do value many of the same things as other Hellenists and consider myself a religious moderate. The values that I look to promote in modern Hellenic polytheism other than the traditional ones are women's empowerment, religious self-determination, and respect for the environment. I would like to talk about the first and last of these here.

Women's Empowerment

Most of my readers know by now that I am a feminist. As a feminist, I am looking to get specific things out of my values system and religion. While the Ancient Greeks didn't grant women a lot of social or familial liberty, I strongly believe that a system that contains gods and goddesses already contains the basis for equality of the sexes. I don't have problems knowing that Zeus is in charge of the pantheon because I place Hera on equal footing with him (yes, I know there's that anecdote in which he strung her upside down from the Heavens when she tried to rebel against his new regime). Moreover, I believe that women can and should perform roles in modern society that were traditionally given to men in most things (except for fertility-specific cultus, which in most circumstances would just be a bit weird). The man doesn't need to control the household rituals, and young women have as much right to offer their hair to river gods/goddesses or other deities as young men did upon reaching adulthood (or a major life change). This stance is a value because it presumes what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior: I don't have much patience for people who want to degrade women on religious platforms, and they don't hold the same values as me.

Respect for Gaia

Many Neopagan faiths consider themselves “Earth-centric,” revering the Earth (and/or as a living organism). Hellenic Polytheism, by contrast, is “deity-centric,” meaning that reverence for the Gods and cultivating relationships with them takes precedence over that kind of worship. However, we can synthesize the platform and come to understand and consider ourselves as Earth-respecting if we think of the Earth as Gaia, or Ge. Ge and Ouranos are the Mother and Father of most things on the planet. Even if we consider Ge a primordial nonspecific planetary entity embodied in each habitable planet in the universe (we can make a substantial case for the possibility of extraterrestrial life, so I'm adding this statement just in case we find something), the rocks, soil, caves, mountains, hilltops, are sacred to her. In a modern interpretation of eusebia, we have a religious obligation to make sure we don't pollute this sacred world. Littering and environmental apathy bring miasma into the world. With everything that Ge has given us (because without her, we wouldn't exist), how can we not pay the world respect in turn?

These values commit me to several things. Firstly, my belief in the sanctity of Ge will make me more likely to vote for electable candidates with strong green records; my belief in the equality of women motivates me to blog about my faith (because women need a voice) and say things in public that may expose me to criticism in some circles (but still need to be said to bring issues to light). Where voting is concerned, this means that I am more likely to vote for Democratic candidates even though I'm a social democrat (and no, they're not the same thing).

Values are things that really matter to us. If other people violate them, we feel offended and may sometimes lash out like the Erinyes. Religious values create stronger feelings of attachment because religious values are even more closely tied to our worldviews. We use passages from holy texts to justify them and unverified personal gnosis to feel solid in our convictions. Yet ... people of the same religion can get different things out of the same texts. Some people in a religion can believe that magic is hubris based on one holy text, whereas those who believe it is OK can cite a different text from a different historical period. Some people are no doubt using Hellenic Polytheism to perpetuate misogynist views, or they use our differences with Neopagans to trash the world. No doubt someone finds something offensive about what I have written.

Before the summer solstice, I committed to getting my review of God Against the Gods up, and I think that Pagan Values Month couldn't have come at a better time. Also coming is a look at what I believe about more traditional ethics in Hellenic Polytheism, but I haven't finished going through texts for source material. Again, when you read it, keep in mind that I'm approaching this subject from my personal experience. Others are likely to have an entirely different opinion on the interpretation of Hellenic vaues.