A brief Samhain memoir

An apple cut starwise

The leaves crunched underfoot as we trooped into the small tract of woods we’d selected for its privacy.  In my pocket I had a bunch of notes that I had scratched down from a friend of ours who had done this sort of thing before.  We had a cup and a beverage, an apple and a knife, and four of us who would each be celebrating our first Samhain this night, twenty-five years ago.

I was excited.  My stride, already quick, lengthened to use my entire leg, and threatened to leave the women behind.  We were about to hold a Pagan ritual on the most Pagan night of the year!

We didn’t write down exactly what we were going to do.  I had those notes, but none of us were acting like priests or officiants.  We just wanted to celebrate nature, honor the unseen spirits, and join the Pagan community.  We didn’t know anything about “books of shadows” or training or manipulating energy or even really what gods, if any, we were planning on honoring.  We just knew that Halloween was also Samhain, and wanted to be part of that.

Until that time, my life’s priorities had to do with being in the woods as much as I could, preferring trees to people.  Making the transition from loving nature to worshiping it came easily.  We called the quarters, one for each of us, and we called for those gods who wished to witness our rite to do so — but we were cautioned to word that carefully, since some gods enjoy possession, and none of us were even remotely prepared for that.  We shared a beverage — I couldn’t recall what it might have been but it certainly wasn’t alcoholic — and we cut an apple in half horizontally, starwise, so named because of the design thus revealed.  That was a new trick we had learned, and were eager to try.

There was no libation, no fire, no songs, no remembrances.  Just four college kids, trying to connect with the world in a way that made more sense than other things we’d each tried.  It was a simple rite, performed simply by people who had never laid eyes on a Pagan book, and had only met a self-identified witch for the first time a day before, at a Halloween talk in one of the dorms.

A quarter-century later, I think at least three of us identify as Pagan.  I know the years have a surprising way of changing some world views, while leaving others untouched.  I still think the woods are most excellent, and that the earth and nature are worth worshiping, but now I have a regular practice focused on the Hellenic gods, which include Gaia herself.  I still feel like I know very little, but I am far more aware of the wider Pagan community, and it asks a lot more of me.  Samhain is not one of the important holy days of my present Pagan path, but it is still one of my favorite days of the year.

I’m incredibly grateful that I had friends who were willing to start down this path with me; I could not have taken that first step alone.

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Vote like a Pagan

Here in the United States, Election Day is looming.  It’s what we call an “off year,” which makes it more important than ever for Pagans to come out in force and vote according to their values.  Why?  Because most of the offices up for grabs in an off year are local, and it’s by winning seats in local government that we begin the process of changing the political discourse.

How else would minority religions like fundamentalist Christianity wield influence so disproportionate to their numbers?  It’s because their adherents are regular voters, and get behind one candidate.  Pagans, since we range from hunters who put magical sigils on their rifles to committed vegans who would never take a life, might have a harder time getting behind one candidate, but I’m less concerned with the big picture and moreso with the small one:  you, in a voting booth, on the fifth of November.

Vote like a Pagan, I say, knowing full well that Pagans probably hold even more widely diverse political views than Christians do.  Vote like a Pagan, I say, because I believe that we despite the differences we love to discuss, we have more in common with each other than we do with the rest of the world.  Vote like a Pagan, I say, because local elections frequently hinge on a handful of votes, and your vote can start someone off on a promising political career, or stop an evil person in their tracks.

It can be frustrating to decide on candidates at this late hour, but your quality of life is impacted every day by those in office, so it’s worth the effort.  If you’re unsatisfied with the choices, we can talk about how to identify strong candidates for next time around.  But voting is powerful — not only do you participate in democracy directly by casting a ballot, you also become more noticed if you vote more often.  Candidates sift through voter rolls, seeking “super voters,” those who vote more often than every four years, and bend their ears.  Voting makes you part of the process.

Get out there and vote this November 5.  Vote like a Pagan, whatever that means to you, but by the gods, vote!

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project, a yearlong exploration of spirituality.  This specific post is brought to you by the letter U.

Unboxing Ares

As I posted with great anticipation last week, in the mail yesterday I received my prize for winning the Aspis of Ares essay contest over the summer with Understanding Ares.  So today, it’s time for some unboxing.  The photos will literally unbox what I received, while I take some time unboxing my relationship with the god of war.

Can’t have an unboxing without a box.

The title of that essay, Understanding Ares, could be a bit misleading.  It wasn’t written to help others understand him at all; writing is my way of understanding things myself.  This particular essay was written as an assignment for the Basics of Hellenismos class I was taking at the time.  I don’t recall if my teacher assigned Ares specifically, or if I selected him because it was his fault I was taking the class at all, but I really needed to get a handle on comprehending this deity who, frankly, scared the piss out of me.

Rather than a blade, I opted to tear it apart bare-handed.

Yes, my embracing of Hellenismos is something I place in Ares’ hands, because he was the god who got it through my thick head that it was time.  Polytheists often speak about this god or that god not being particularly subtle with their signs and messages, but I think that’s not the case.  Sometimes, two boats and a helicopter aren’t enough for we mortals to see through the veil of our preconceived notions, and a much more direct approach is needed.  Of course, there’s also the possibility that watching one of us jump out of our skin is just really, really funny . . . but, I digress.  Ares was not subtle.

A handwritten note!

When I discovered that there were people reconstructing the ancient Greek religion, I was excited.  This was what I had envisioned Pagan religion to be!  These were the gods whose tales fired my imagination as a child, the powerful deities who, despite the negative light in which they were portrayed in the first translations I read, seemed far more approachable than the God of my church.  These were not abstractions, the archetypal pantheistic faceless powers that so many of my Pagan friends described as being central to my theology . . . these were the gods!

Snugly packed as a womb . . . but two treasures, not one!

But reconstruction is intimidating.  I barely made it through high school French, and you want me to learn the ancient form of a language that doesn’t even use the same alphabet?  Isn’t that one of the reasons I never became a Druid?  I consider myself a language specialist — I’m pretty good at the one, with virtually no knack for picking up another.  I considered the idea briefly and discarded it.

It was a long, summer day that I spent alone and lonely.  For various reasons, it was one of those days when introspection turns to deconstruction and then to self-destruction.  I sat on my couch, wrapped in a blanket against the cold I felt in my soul, Xena on the television, feeling memories of the many conflicts in my life wash over me.  I felt tired, I felt like a failure, I felt like I wanted to give up and finally know peace.  Life had kicked my ass and I was done.

“Consider the second piece an apology for the tardiness.”

At some point I looked up at the screen and saw Ares, as portrayed by Kevin Smith, stride across my field of view.  And somewhere deep inside, I felt Ares, god of war watching me.  How long he’d been there, I could not say, but I knew who it was and I knew what he wanted:  to bring me into the fold.  Maybe it’s time to stop fighting conflict.  I shot bolt upright, sweating and shaking, knowing that I’d gotten a message from a god for the first time in . . . ten or twenty years, I would think.

Like unraveling a cocoon.

Thing is, I don’t like fighting.  Or confrontation.  Or stirring up trouble.  Mind you, this stuff happens to me . . . a lot.  But I don’t like it, and I had some seriously mixed feelings about being tapped by the god of war.  But I sought out a teacher.  I started making regular offerings.  I’ve constructed shrines, do a much better job of keeping up the family altar, and the experience is starting to transform me into a better person, a man who is in touch with the gods.

The “apology” was to give me the poetry prize, too!

Ares, however, does not get much honor from me.  He is not one of the deities that I reserve a day of the week for, in keeping with modern practice.  Nor do I pour a libation to him every single month on his day of honor.  He gets from me offerings of blood and rage, when they occur, and nothing more.

That’s about to change.

Thrakian rider
It’s been in the back of my mind for a month or two that I should be working harder at building kharis with my gatekeeper god.  I know why I haven’t:  he still scares me.  Reveling in conflict is something I have shied away from, despite the fact that I’m drawn to it.  Resisting one’s nature causes more problems than it has ever solved, but the cool logic of that observation doesn’t make the plunge easier to make.  Part of me thinks embracing Ares will turn me into a bloodthirsty madman, and even though I know that’s nonsense (Dionysos is much more likely to strike me with madness), it’s still hard to overcome.
But now I have beautiful icons of Ares, lovingly crafted by his devotee, and they will not be shoved into a drawer.  And I have regular contact with other Ares worshipers in the Shrine of Ares, a Facebook group which has really helped me put things in perspective.  Through them, I’ve learned that Ares often comes unbidden, and acceptance of his path is not always a simple thing.  Ares has much to teach me, and the first step towards understanding him is understanding my own warrior nature.

For the record, I was expecting them to look like this.  Mind = blown.

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project, a yearlong exploration of spirituality.  This specific post is brought to you by the letter U.

Understanding Ares

A mighty god who can bellow like nine thousand men, Ares knows both the victory and defeat of battle. He arrives in battle in a war-chariot drawn by golden-bridled horses, wearing his golden armor and helmet and brandishing a gigantic bronze spear. Perhaps moreso than the other gods, he dwells within those who worship him, being those who are drawn to or faced with battle and conflict. The Iliad explains how difficult it could be to govern war, particularly when other gods choose to get involved:

“Ares was indifferent to taking sides in the Trojan War, and his promise to fight alongside the Greeks was not one he gave great weight; Aphrodite was able to persuade her lover to change sides, much to Athene’s consternation.” 

This depiction of Ares from the Iliad reminds us that he cannot be bound to a single belief or philosophy; Ares comes to all who feel embattled or filled with anger. Unlike those gods who largely received their offerings at temples, Ares accepts his due whenever, and wherever, it manifests. It is no surprise that he was indifferent – Ares is needed by soldiers regardless of their cause or king, and he is arguably the most egalitarian of the gods.

In ancient times, Ares was not the subject of many statues, nor were many temples built to him. This makes it difficult to study how he was worshiped. References to the god in the Iliad and Seven Against Thebes interpret mention of Ares’ name is metaphor in most cases: “secure the city before Ares’ blast storms down upon it” is seen as a synonym for an invading army. What is more likely is that Ares was believed to reside in the heart of each soldier in that army, making it less about colorful language and more about the action of the War God himself, through the swords of his followers.

 Ares has never required temples to be worshiped; he is present whenever anger and the possibility of battle invite him to be.

So it was unfair of his fellows to ask Ares to limit his influence over such a war by committing to but one side. Battle and anger are sacred to Ares, and one does not expect a god to forsake something which is sacred to him. Ares also holds the poisonous serpent, the boar, and the vulture sacred; although they are not even closely related, the turkey vulture serves a similar role as the vulture and is probably also sacred to him. He is the ancestor of Thebes through the Spartoi, children of the dragon’s teeth, and serves as a Cthonic god there, worshiped as ancestor.

His names and epithets, not surprisingly, refer to his warrior aspect. He is called Aatos Polemoio (battle-insatiate), Brotoloigos (destroyer of men), Deinos (the terrible), Enkhespelos (spear-shaking), Enyalios Andreiphontes (the murderous Lord of Battles), Khrysopêlêx (god of the golden helmet), Loassoos (who rallies men), Miaiphonos (bloodstained), Obrimos (the mighty), Oxus (sharp or fierce), Polemistes Talaurinos (the god who fights under the shield’s guard), Teikesipletes (stormer of strong walls), and Thoos (swift), among others. These examples are mostly drawn from the Iliad.

Ares oversees many aspects of battle, and these can appear contradictory. He is God of War, War Averted, Rebellion, Civil Order, Brigands, Banditry, Violence, Rage, Anger Controlled, Courage, Manliness, Cowardice, and Fear. This means that Ares is the god to turn to, both to encourage and avert any of these things. Ares can be appeased to prevent war, control anger, and master fear; thankfully the same god that governs manliness understands cowardice!

The Spartans had a statue of Ares bound before Nike, which was intended to keep the warrior-god’s spirit in the city. Together with offerings to appease his bloodlust, this sort of binding is the most common form of ancient worship that we’re presently aware of. Ares was, and is, a god with very clear motivations, and appears to have been honored in much the same way that an earthquake or hurricane might be: to ask that the power be directed so as to avoid harm, or at least to cause that harm to someone else.

It is not nearly as common to go to war as it was two or three millennia ago, but Ares still has much to offer the world. He can be seen in the political strife that tears our country apart: debates over same-sex marriage, gun control, and health care come to mind. His hand is the one that defeated the Nazis and tore down the Berlin Wall. His rage protects women from violence and punishes the rapist. He gives courage to the oppressed, stays the hand of the potential suicide victim when all seems lost, and gives mothers the strength to protect their children against the dangers of the day.

Perhaps it is put best in Hearthstone’s Devotion: Prayers to the Gods of the Greeks:

“Grant me strength, son of Zeus, guide my hand at need, my heart at impact.”

This is an award-winning essay on Ares that I wrote some months ago, and present here now, because I just got word yesterday that my prize should be arriving imminently.  Hail Ares!

This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project, a yearlong exploration of spirituality.  This specific post is brought to you by the letter U.