30 June 2011

Pagan Values Month: The Human Touch

The posts that have come out of the Pagan Values Event this year are all good, and I recommend you go here and read through the ones that catch your interest.

One of the undercurrents I have read about elsewhere is “whose” values these are, most notably from the Witch Kitty:
Have I adopted different values as a result of being Pagan? Not really. Instead, Paganism held me to solidify and understand my values and how those values fit into the context of my community – both Pagan and secular.
Granted, Kitty and I most likely have very different spiritual paths — I am a Hellenist and she seems like more of a generic Witch/Pagan. Ideas like this exist elsewhere, though, and it’s something that goes with the entire philosophy that I am working to adopt (which is already starting to lower my stress levels). Over the course of the month, others have also questioned whether we are all just reaching for pagan and polytheistic texts that affirm, but never challenge, our preconceived notions about human conduct and divine interactions.

All of us posting during the Pagan Values Event come from very unique places, and most of us have spent the month writing from an authoritative standpoint about ideas we think that all of us should share. David Salisbury wrote about animal rights from an activist vegan perspective, saying
I believe that Pagans can be some of the best stewards for the Earth. Our connection with our environment (both seen and unseen) is a uniqueness rivaled by few other paths. Because of this, we have a responsibility to ourselves and our surroundings to be the best guardians of the planet and the creatures within that we can be. Because of our access to information and our blessed array of choices, we have the chance to truly practice compassion for all.
On the Hellenic Polytheistic Community Facebook group, we had a discussion about how valuing the Earth fits in with our religious perspectives, with the founder of Kyklos Apollon, Todd Jackson, arguing that Hellenism is not Earth-based because worshipping the physical vehicle for the goddess Gê/Gaia means that we get lost in the representation of her instead of looking right at her — even if we worship the nymphai, the potamoi, and other divinities, it's about them, not the planet.

Like it or not, having somewhat similar outlooks on religion does not mean that two people have to share political or social ideologies as well. That stinks of One True Wayism, the idea that the specific ideologies adopted by a particular group are the only way to approach an issue. Values that seem common sense to me — marriage equality, women’s reproductive freedom, or even environmentalism — are still foreign to some people in our communities. Likewise, deeply-held convictions regarding the President’s “socialism” or whatever leave me completely baffled and wondering if the other person is even speaking the same language.

For example, Salisbury mentioned giving up eating animals. Animals have consciousnesses. They feel emotions, and while I can’t vouch for mental complexity, many species probably plan actions and are capable of some (albeit nonhuman) reasoning. On the other hand, everything on this world — every blade of grass, deep-sea worm, or stately maple — comes from the same genetic stock that we do. Since then, life has sectioned itself off into a variety of different roles. It’s only easy to kill plants for food because we branched off from them so early on. It’s harder for us to feel compassion for them than for a species that shares more physical features in common with us, such as a cow or turkey. I respect his opinion, and I definitely agree that raising animals for slaughter in the quantities we do is insane, but the other arguments do not really resonate with me as an audience due to my different worldview. If I ever were to adopt vegetarianism or veganism, I would do so because I joined up with the Orphic or Pythagorean Hellenists, but for now I’ll stick to buying my meat from the local farmer’s market.

The same goes for what Todd mentioned. I do regard the physical world as sacred. It doesn't matter whether it's an image of Gê or Gê herself. I wouldn’t profane an image in a temple, and the planet isn’t any different. Philosophically speaking, I believe that connecting with physical images and symbols can actually bring people into a sort of resonance with the divinities connected to them.

It all comes down to everyone developing opinions and testing them against the world. We are all seeing shadows reflected on the cave wall, and living according to our values helps us refine and change them to meet the outcomes of our observations. We need to spend some time every once in a while at the white board communicating ourselves to the rest of the group so our values are heard.

But living them and thinking about them goes way beyond Pagan Values Month. It goes beyond associating with a homogeneous ideological group. We need to experience different people and stretch our comfort zones. We need to apply our values to new situations.

The values and ethics communicated in the ancient Greek and Roman texts are so basic and so human. I have tried to give a sense of that over Pagan Values Month this year. In an era when every voice wants us to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to one ideology or another, reading, reflecting, and acting according to what we find in the ancients grounds us in our commonalities. This, in turn, will help us move away from our differences and refocus on the core of our practice: the Blessed Ones, the Makares — the Gods.

11 June 2011


While writing the last post, it occurred to me that providing more information about death in Hellenism might contextualize things for people. I have already shared one web site that depicts Ancient Greek thoughts about death and another about some uncertainties concerning the afterlife.

Our lives are so small and insignificant when taken as part of the cosmic whole that envisioning something that caters to our own interests seems almost narcissistic. Rather, whatever happens to our minds must benefit the cosmos as a whole, and I am just not sure what that is despite spending considerable time contemplating it.

But I digress.

Here’s a 2006 post from the blog Tropaion, which posts scholarly information relevant to modern Hellenic Polytheists and people who like Ancient Greek religion, “Purgatory: The Hellenic Acherontas.” Unlike the link I posted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s resource about death in the Ancient Greek worldview, which emphasizes the burial of a physical body, this blog post emphasizes cremation:
From the early Bronze era the most respectful burial custom was the cremation of the dead. We meet that custom in the Homeric epics and, throughout, the ancient Greek history we have examples that when a katharsis was needed, cremation was used. [...] The reason for cremation’s use is not, only, the environmental and hygienic efficiency and economy but a matter of metaphysical importance.
Nikolaos Markoulakis makes a very interesting case for cremation, complete with sources, over the remainder of the post. Cremation is something that many modern Hellenists and Ethnikoi Hellenes tend to value above burying an intact body. It’s definitely something to think about.

Returning to the shrine ...

Today, I made a quick ritual purification offering to the Erinyes and to Apollon. I am in Eastern Massachusetts until the end of July and did not think to pack any of the ritual items that are strictly for Chthonic use, as I believe in segregating the two. Thus, I had to improvise a bit with what I had.

The death of my uncle came as a shock, and while we are not related by blood, I did go to his funeral to support my bereaved aunt.

Her situation concerns me because a deep traditionalist mindset has made it difficult for her to come to terms with his death — moreso than many other women who have lost their husbands. She also remained with him for more than 40 years. My mom has told stories about how my aunt believed that the man was the appropriate head of the family and that the woman should let him lead on everything (and she passed these opinions on to my mother in the early years of my mom’s marriage). Being alone and truly in control of oneself must be incredibly frightening after a lifetime of valuing another’s desires and opinions over one’s own.

Due to miasma, I did not participate in any rituals to the Athanatoi or touch the few ritual items I brought with me between learning of my uncle’s death last Wednesday and today. I made an offering to the Far-Shooter and the scent of incense was heavenly.

Not permitting myself to worship at my usual place made me realize just how much I value moments of worship at the shrine. I missed the aroma of frankincense and the flickering candle flame. I missed the prayers and tossed barley. Following protocol surrounding miasma sometimes frustrates me, but deep down, I know that I am just not in the appropriate mental space to properly perform cultus to one of the Theoi when my mind races with too many mortal concerns.

05 June 2011

Follow-Up: Bad Things

There’s a reason why I looked a lot at the natural world in my last post to this blog.

Three tornadoes hit the Springfield, MA, area this past Wednesday. I remember reading my aunt’s Facebook status from earlier on Wednesday. It sounded so relaxed, as though the thunderstorms coming in would not be a big deal.

I wrote something on her Facebook wall after hearing that a tornado (which was later increased to two tornadoes and then to three) touched down. The Facebook wall message wished her and her husband well, and I wanted to hear from her. The power was out in Springfield, so I figured that I should wait to call.

About half an hour after I wrote that, I received a call from one of my sisters. My aunt’s husband died of a heart attack during the tornado watch/warnings. It didn’t happen during a tornado, but the stress of the storm probably contributed to the suddenness of the attack. So I called my aunt at 11 PM. She was in a deep place of grief. Additionally, they had no power. How would they after this?

You never think when you hear about fatalities that any of them are people you know, and it’s statistically unlikely that they are. But it happens sometimes.

One of the hardest things about consoling a family member who has lost someone is not sharing a belief system. I can’t genuinely say that her husband has gone to a Heaven.

Some of the things I learned in a class on modern cosmology during college have stuck with me over the years. Among them is the idea that life is the universe becoming conscious and aware of its own existence, that we are woven into it and cannot be separated from it. The fact that observers exists makes something in flux resolve into a recognizable pattern. We are the ones ultimately endowed with choice.

I believe that people continue in some form, and on good days I take comfort in the Hellenic texts describing reincarnation and the Orphic mysteries, but I am unsure whether that would provide any comfort to people unfamiliar with what they mean. Death is still death, and no matter what happens to our consciousnesses, they will never be in the same body environment that they have lost.

Values: Bad Things

A lot of the translations of Solon's tenets or commandments that appear on the Internet do not really satisfy me. Firstly, I had no idea what context they were taken from; secondly, I decided that seeing them as they originally appeared in the text they were taken from could do a lot for learning about the ethical statements and values he thought we needed to follow.

Solon's tenets aren't actually described as tenets in the original text, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers. In fact, Diogenes calls Solon’s commandments “counsel”:
His counsel to men in general is stated by Apollodorus in his work on the Philosophic Sects as follows: Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath. Never tell a lie. Pursue worthy aims. Do not be rash to make friends and, when once they are made, do not drop them. Learn to obey before you command. In giving advice seek to help, not to please, your friend. Be led by reason. Shun evil company. Honour the gods, reverence parents.

τοῖς τε ἀνθρώποις συνεβούλευσεν, ὥς φησιν Ἀπολλόδωρος ἐν τῷ Περὶ τῶν φιλοσόφων αἱρέσεων, τάδε: καλοκἀγαθίαν ὅρκου πιστοτέραν ἔχε. μὴ ψεύδου. τὰ σπουδαῖα μελέτα. φίλους μὴ ταχὺ κτῶ: οὓς δ᾽ ἂν κτήσῃ μὴ ἀποδοκίμαζε. ἄρχε πρῶτον μαθὼν ἄρχεσθαι. συμβούλευε μὴ τὰ ἥδιστα, ἀλλὰ τὰ ἄριστα. νοῦν ἡγεμόνα ποιοῦ. μὴ κακοῖς ὁμίλει. θεοὺς τίμα, γονέας αἰδοῦ.

Diogenes Laertius,
Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 1.60. (English) (Greek)

Groping with the Greek version of the text on Perseus to see what some of the original words mean brings it a step further — the original word for “counsel” seems to be a verb (not a noun) that generally describes advice. I don’t actually know Ancient Greek, so checking things is a bit uncomfortable for me, but I believe that I have pulled most of the appropriate section.

Already, the presentation in the English version of the text varies from the blocked-out ten statements we see all over the Internet as evidence for a better alternative to the Christian commandments. Through twists and turns, Christianity’s privileged place in society makes even things that came before it require placement in relation to that religion’s narrative. They must be constructed as numbered lists instead of freely in paragraphs.

One of the things I found most interesting about groping around in the Greek was the word κακοῖς, a form of κακός. YSEE’s Lexicon translates the concept of KAKON as more than just “bad.” KAKON relates to the asymmetry and disharmony. People who express this (which the lexicon refers to as a KAKOS or KAKIA, depending on gender) degrade themselves by expressing this principle, submitting to a less human way of dealing with the world. Thus, shunning people who behave wrongly isn’t just about avoiding guilt by association — it’s about making sure that one is in an environment conducive to growth, one that promotes things that are fundamentally good.

Yet KAKON is a part of the universe, the shadow and inverse of the Good. It makes me uneasy to think about how crucial adversity and bad things are to the universe and how subjective our distinctions between good and bad people and actions really are. Tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, mass movements, and floods are not the result of a cruel universe; they’re just the price we pay for life on an amazing planet where moisture precipitates from the atmosphere and where the mantle miles and miles below remains supple and elastic despite the billions of years that have passed since the molten world we live on coalesced from the blackness. The things that make this world so precious are also what makes it so unbelievably dangerous to live here.

The Theoi are fundamentally good, but they still exist within the universe or the multiverse or what have you because nothing — no man sitting in a cloud and definitely no invisible pink unicorn — can exist outside of it. Their goodness means that there must be something unaligned with it — something bad —— it means that they must cast a shadow.

It’s probably best to stay as far from the shadows as possible. That is why Solon advises to stay out of bad company. Bad people have a habit of pulling us down and placing us in situations that take us out of alignment with the Gods and the Cosmos.

01 June 2011

People Are Strange (It Seems So to Me ...)

When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, ‘It seemed so to him.’
The Enchiridion, 42.

I want to kick off Pagan Values Month not by talking about Zeus et al., but by talking about human beings. The quotation from Epictetus above comes from the Enchiridion, a very practical outline describing how we need to approach life with if we ever want happiness.

This quotation describes something very fundamental to the mortal experience: being fallible and human. As human beings — not even as polytheists or pagans or pastafarians — we will come across times when we make mistakes, and we will bump up against people who either make incorrect actions or hold incorrect opinions (and sometimes even a combination of both).

People behaving incorrectly might be doing it intentionally or because they don't know any better. We are vulnerable to both. After all, there is a proven biological response to perceived transgressions of social norms, and the way we interpret language sometimes leaves us vulnerable in an age when inflection cannot be determined by the words on a page. (How do you know I’m not shouting?) People who have bad ideas/opinions — at least, according to our own limited understanding of ourselves and the world around us — may frustrate us because they don't “get it.”

If we disagree with someone — if we are reviled or things go poorly, or even if we manage to agree to disagree — Epictetus rightly assumes that this difference arises out of having different perspectives. This has nothing to do with moral relativism or reality. Rather, it goes back to the figures on the cave wall. Neither of us has a perfect image, and while one of us may be slightly more informed, it doesn’t mean that what the other person says or does lacks any value. People need to learn about right and wrong on their own.

Of course, sometimes this fails. We are not only intellectual animals, but ones with strong emotions and ingrained instincts that react to challenges in our environment. I do it. You do it. The old woman down the street does it. By Herakles, as a kid I was a fucking nightmare.

The ideas expressed in the Enchiridion do not want to turn anyone into a dispassionate automaton, but make us aware of our limitations. Mindfulness isn’t just a Buddhist concept; it’s very clear from Epictetus that remaining aware and in the moment is something that even ancient Western people thought about. Philosophical thinking and mindfulness are two non-innate tools that can teach us to reflect on our experiences. Philosophy breaks open our skulls and teaches us about the uncertainty of the ground beneath our feet. Mindfulness puts certainty back in and teaches us about other people. This is how one goes from being an asshole to a well-rounded individual.

It’s the learning how to value other people part that I want to stress here — that, of course, and using what we learn to enrich our experiences with one another.