31 December 2010

All Things Shining or, I Knew That Greek Gods Google Alert Was For Something Other Than Yogurt

A new book is coming out on 4 January 2011 (which incidentally is also Hekate’s Deipnon, so you should leave out leeks or something) called All Things Shining. Hubert Dreyfus at Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly at Harvard are both professional philosophers, which makes them either very qualified to talk about the Ancient Greeks or not qualified at all. This is what the Amazon product description says:
In medieval Europe, God’s calling was a grounding force. In ancient Greece, a whole pantheon of shining gods stood ready to draw an appropriate action out of you. Like an athlete in “the zone,” you were called to a harmonious attunement with the world, so absorbed in it that you couldn’t make a “wrong” choice. If our culture no longer takes for granted a belief in God, can we nevertheless get in touch with the Homeric moods of wonder and gratitude, and be guided by the meanings they reveal? All Things Shining says we can.
The review that clued me into this book’s existence, written by Eric Ormsbry at the Wall Street Journal, focuses primarily on the strangeness of the valuation of polytheism. (He also thinks Hera is the goddess of the hearth for some reason, which is pretty sloppy journalism that makes me wonder if anything else in his review is wrong.)

“It has long been customary to dismiss these gods as mere stage presences, as convenient explanations for random catastrophes or as fall guys for human motives,” Ormsbry writes, followed by some nice prosaic buildup about Aphrodite and Helen. The writers, Ormsbry thinks, “view the ancient Homeric gods as hidden presences still susceptible of invocation” — which I think is an exaggeration made by the reviewer to sell copies/piss off the Religious Right because I have seen neither Dreyfus nor Kelly at our Dionysian orgies (and most academics are on the atheist or believer side of the Christian paradigm). But whatever ... it’s not like I have actually read a fragment of this book yet.

I probably will look at it sometime after the book comes out (likely this summer), but thought I should give people who aren’t in graduate school a heads up in case they wanted to jump in earlier.

Update: I have since looked at some of the comments on this review, so I would definitely say that this book has offended some Christians. Apparently we’ve forgotten that Christianity already provides all of the solutions to emptiness &c. the authors suggest the Gods satisfy. There’s even an annoying person who quotes relevant Biblical verses.

21 December 2010

Happy Heliogenna!

Phoebus sat
in robes of purple high upon a throne
that glittered brilliantly with emeralds;
and in attendance on his left and right
stood Day and Month and Year and Century,
and all the Hours, evenly divided;
fresh Spring was there, adorned with floral crown,
and Summer, naked, bearing ripened grain,
and Autumn, stained from treading out her grapes,
and Winter with his grey and frosty locks.
– Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book II.29-38
Hope everyone is having a happy Heliogenna!

The evening ritual went really well, and I think I know why. The solstice actually occurred at 6:38 PM, or three to four minutes after I started the ritual. Due to the number of deities involved, the aroma of frankincense left me a bit buzzed.

Barring any unforeseen alarm issues, I will be up tomorrow morning at 7:32 AM to greet Helios, light some incense, promptly fall back to sleep again until nine or ten, do some work/in-town errands, and watch the last half of Hogfather (a solstice/Christmas film based on a Pratchett novel that I highly recommend).

That Devotee

Sannion just wrote an interesting post from the perspective of someone who performs oracular services in which he provides guidelines and information about how not to be that devotee. (Side note: I love reading his stuff because it is almost always thought-provoking. Good job, Sannion.) So obviously, while brushing my teeth this evening, I thought a few more times about something he wrote:
But on the other hand, don’t keep asking the same question over and over again hoping for a different result and don’t expect your situation to change if you’re not willing to act in a manner which they indicated will have a favorable outcome. Sometimes, a lot of the time actually, you’ve got to put in the work first before things will make sense to you.
And it’s like ... oh my Gods I do that — not to oracles, mind you, but in smaller ways. No one among us is a perfect being, and there are always character flaws we can work on (or let slide, as the case may be).

I have this compulsive perfectionism about really important school assignments and other things. I feel anxious if I submit the item until I have gone on the Random coin toss (and I always choose the Bactrian coins). The anxiety lessens if I feel like I am placing the worth of whatever it is in someone else’s hands, like how when you’re five you sometimes really want to have an adult around just in case something bad happens. On another level, I suppose it is about reaching out towards someone or something I trust.

My reaction to very important things involves using the 3-coin setting. If fewer than 2 out of 3 come back heads, I will go back to the writing and painstakingly analyze my thesis statement, closing paragraph, dialogue, or prepositional phrases for errors before asking again about ten minutes later. And this goes on. And on. And on. And on. Finally, it becomes done enough ... and this compulsion has worked well so far. I mean, I did excellently on my term paper about metadata practices in astronomy.

Which leads me to this narcissistic indulgence:

Athene: What are you doing, bros?
Hermes: We're watching Kayleigh agonize over coin tosses again. It's really hilarious. She does this every time before a pap —
Apollon: Shhhh! She's about to go to the site again!
Hermes: — paper or writing submission because she's too insecure about its intellectual and/or creative content to just submit it.
Athene: And ... you guys watch this?
Apollon: Yeah, it's really funny.
Hermes: My favorite thing is watching the dismayed expression on her face whenever I tell her NOOOOOO. It's like eating shrimp in front of a kitten, let me tell you.
Athene: ... isn't that a little, well, cruel?
Apollon: I make him stop before she gets depressed. Besides, it helps her run that last lap.
Athene: And you watch her every time?
Hermes: No, only for final papers. I make the daimones take care of it otherwise.
Apollon: She usually gives us a lot of incense when it's over, so it's worth it.
Athene: She doesn't give me incense.
Apollon: That's because it's been a while since she had a real exam. You should inspire her professors a bit more.

Ah, the joys of thinking while getting ready for bed and holiday madness.

15 December 2010

Death and Beyond

The Warden of the Larvae (Shades) [lord Hades] and the third heir of the world, after the lot’s unkind apportioning, leapt down from his chariot and grew pale, for he was come to Tartarus and heaven was lost for ever.
Statius, Thebaid 11. 444 ff
I have had an unsettling fascination with death ever since I was seven and learned during bedtime reading that the sun would expand and obliterate everything I knew in roughly 4.5 billion years. It’s very unsettling to learn that death extends beyond individuals to entire star systems and (in the case of supernovae) larger regions of space — especially when one has never come face-to-face with a dead animal (um ... in non-butchered form) or human corpse. Every adult I knew responded, “We won’t be here to see it, so don’t worry about it too much.”

The death of our solar system, barring human colonization of other planets, is also troubling from a Hellenic perspective. Some of our holidays, such as Anthesteria, have time set aside for honoring the departed. Ancestors’ memory must be kept alive to create a connection with the past. In religious stories like the Odyssey, the dead hunger for sacrifice and need it to regain some semblance of who they were while alive:
‘Oh Tiresias,’
I replied as the prophet finished, ‘surely the gods
have spun this out as fate, the gods themselves.
But tell me one thing more, and tell me clearly.
I see the ghost of my long-lost mother here before me.
Dead, crouching close to the blood in silence,
she cannot bear to look me in the eyes —
her own son — or speak a word to me. How,
lord, can I make her know me for the man I am?’

‘One rule there is,’ the famous seer explained,
‘and simple for me to say and you to learn.
Any one of the ghosts you let approach the blood
will speak the truth to you. Anyone you refuse
will turn and fade away.’
Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles. Book 11: 157 - 169
Of course, the Orphic and Platonic traditions tell slightly different versions of this. In Plato (and forgive me, but I am visiting my mom and my Plato did not fit in my luggage, so this paraphrase may be weak), the dead are reincarnated after drinking from Lethe. Some of the dead must purify themselves of poor behavior in life, some have a good rest in the afterlife, and the select (or good-plus) have a really awesome time in the afterlife. In the Orphic stories, those who have received initiation learn how to retain one’s memory after death. The Bacchic tablets discuss a white cypress tree, certain words for the guard of Lake Mnemosyne, and a blessed existence with Queen Persephone. The mysteries of Demeter and Persephone provide a good afterlife experience to the initiates.

Life is most likely ubiquitous in the cosmos. Self-aware beings with critical thinking skills and highly developed brains (or whatever strange alien equivalent could exist) might be less common. As much as we think we know about ourselves and the world beyond, limitless other options exist that challenge our opinions of life. Moreover, the death of the solar system makes me wonder what will happen once Earth ceases to exist and whether anyone elsewhere in the cosmos will care about the rich traditions swallowed by the bulging (and eventually nova-ing) Sun. It makes me wonder how any resultant life incorporating the rocks and dust from our spent world will honor those of us who came before in cosmic time, or if it will even gain the curiosity to learn and care. Moreover, if our “souls” return to bodies in the end, where will they go when there’s no Earth to hold them?

This is the reason why “we won’t be there” never worked for me as a child. I have always liked the idea of reincarnation, even before I knew the word. And, as polytheism comes back in the West, I think we need to find our own answers to these questions. We could always appropriate ideas from Hinduism or any of the other world faiths Hellenism resembles, but that won’t make it resonate with the way we view the cosmos and the gods within it. In the end, as with every revolution, ideas must come from within.

We must be doing something right ...

... because Apollonius is appearing in the iPhone’s autocorrect. And guess what? He’s the new w00t.

09 December 2010

Because We Have and They Have Not

New post up at the Hellenistai Media Blog.

This post is part of my “Highway to Hades” series about depictions of the Underworld in film, literature, music, and theater. As those who read my blog often know, the following things frustrate me to no end:

  1. Hades as the Ultimate Evil. See Disney’s Hercules, the movie version of Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, and other items of pop culture interest for details.
  2. The Underworld = Christian Hell. Excuse me, but our afterlife has more alcohol.
The series is a way to mediate these many feelings of anger and rage that have built up in my system. I am currently talking about Hadestown (and will be for yet another post), but will move to a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice on Valentine’s Day because I have a sick sense of humor.