My personal practice: the beginning

Getting started as a devotional polytheist can be tough, because there’s a lot to learn and there seem to be some landmines, too.  “No, you’re doing it wrong!” is something no one wants to hear.  There’s also the problem of trying to dip one’s toe in while having no one but Olympic swimmers as role models.  Sure, they may be doing things right, but do we all need to be uber-worshippers or just go home?

Nah.

My personal practice might seem overwhelming to some people, but I know it pales in comparison to what others do.  That’s okay, but nothing makes that point clearer than sharing what my practice looked like six years ago, and then in future posts, if I’m so inclined, to talk about what I built on from there, and why.

Home Hermes shrine

Home Hermes shrine

I was introduced to Hellenic polytheism by Ares, but Hermes was the first of the gods that I tried to honor in the Hellenic style.  There was a need, I asked for assistance, and in turn, I promised to make three types of offering every third day for a month:

      1. I burned some frankincense,
      2. read a prayer written by Hearthstone (I’d link to the exact one, but the site’s built with frames so I can only link to the home page), and
      3. I poured a libation of grape juice because I didn’t like the taste of wine and didn’t have any in the house, and figured it was close enough.

It was close enough.  I fulfilled that vow by doing this for the stretch of a calendar month, never even bothering to notice the phase of the moon.  When I was done, I just stopped.

It was a pain keeping track of every third day, but I agreed to it so I wrote it down and made sure I followed through.  The end.

How’s that for a start?

Throwback Thursday, polytheist edition

Last night, I lugged home the granddaddy of all throwbacks as my worlds collided in a delightful crash of divine will upon the more mundane aspects of my life.  The result of that collision was this 18.8-pound beauty:

2016-06-22 23.50.32

Pictured is a hunk of long-disused trolley track, which was removed from a crossroads about a quarter-mile from my home.  Two state roads intersect there, and they are each in really bad need of repaving.  It got so bad, in fact, that the old street car tracks were clearly visible in the crossroads, so when workers were finally dispatched to effect repairs they first had to remove them.  Road-milling machines don’t take kindly to big hunks of steel, or so I understand.

The state workers took it upon themselves to cut them into roughly foot-length pieces, and passed them on to the mayor to do with as he wished.  I go to all the village board meetings because I’m a reporter and it’s part of my beat.  The mayor brought up the idea of using the pieces as a fund raiser — for the village or a local non-profit — or giving them to local museums, or at least the one area business owner who had expressed interest.  Board members mostly didn’t care, and decided that the mayor could dispose of them on his own.

“I want one,” I said from the front row.  It’s not my job to talk at these meetings.  What I do is write down what other people say.  Nevertheless, I was looking at a piece of a friggin’ trolley track that had been sitting under a major crossroads for over a century, and I wasn’t going to keep quiet.  Nope.

The bad news is that I walked to the meeting last night, and had to carry my baby home without so much as a papoose.  The good news is that I got this amazing Hermes artifact for my home shrine.  It wasn’t until this morning that I remembered that it happened on a Wednesday, which some Hellenic polytheists (including myself) keep sacred for Hermes.  I had the days scrambled up all morning, and very nearly did not make him an offering.  I’m glad I did, because this is exactly the kind of super-local polytheism that I want to be about.

Things to do:

  • Come up with a thank-you offering worthy of this gift.
  • Figure out how to preserve this artifact as part of my outdoor Hermes shrine.
  • Pay for it.  Scrap metal is about two cents a pound, and I have every intention of paying the village treasurer.  It was a gift from (or to) Hermes, but I feel the secular books ought to be balanced.
  • Gloat.
  • Take more pictures of the shrine once I figure out how to include this upgrade.

Offerings to Poseidon

The theoi, in Hellenic practice, should be given offerings that stimulate the senses, be it a sumptuous feast which delights the eye, nose, and tongue, a prayer said aloud with heartfelt intent, or a few granules of incense strewn over charcoal. Tangible offerings are what these gods have been given for millennia. Poseidon is no different, so I have compiled a list of offerings that I have myself made, which might serve as a launching point for the reader’s relationship with him.

Poseidon shrine

Shrine for Poseidon

While a table listing the astrological, animal, herbal, seasonal, lunar, and syncretic correspondences for each of Poseidon’s epithets would no doubt delight some readers, no such resource is being proposed by me at this time. Below is simply a list of offerings and, when appropriate, the epithet(s) with which I have personally found them most strongly associated. Other devotees might provide different suggestions. For more information, consult an oracle or perform divination to discover what Poseidon asks of you.

Animals were more commonly sacrificed in antiquity than they are today, although a skilled sacrificial priest treats a sacrifice with caring and dignity, far different than the fate of animals in modern factory farms. Cookies or votive objects in the form of horses are suitable for Hippios (and yes, that includes animal crackers). Likewise are representations of bulls something which could well delight Taureos. I also have been known to offer duck figurines for reasons that are beyond words; therein lies a mystery as yet unfolding. If an actual animal sacrifice is desired, one should seek out someone who has training and experience in making this kind of offering; a trained sacrificial priest will ensure that all legal and ethical requirements are complied with, and will also be trained to recognize if such an offering is not ultimately desired. I have never asked for or attended such a sacrifice.

Barley is a good, basic offering in and of itself, and is often the first one made to any of the theoi. It is also used for purification, and cast upon another object to signify that it is also an offering (such as a votive object or food).

Coffee is my main libation. The association I have between Poseidon and coffee comes from the Moby Dick character Starbuck, whose love of coffee has permanently associated the brew with the sea in my mind, which is why I offer it to Pelagaeus, Asphaleios, and Labrandeus.

Epithets, as many as one wishes to include, are often part of the invocation to any of the theoi. To a mortal, there is no sweeter sound than one’s own name said with love; I feel that so too is it for the gods, and that their names are thus a worthy offering in their own right. If epithets are included, it’s good to make the effort to pronounce them correctly, whether they are ancient Greek or from a more recent language. (I had to train myself to pronounce “Poseidon” with a long a sound rather than a long i in the second syllable; it turns out is really is all Greek to me.) It’s a common Hellenic practice to a phrase like, “or whichever names you wish to be known by,” to the end of a list of epithets.

Fish is an offering I reserve for really big things, like the swearing of oaths. Fish are imperiled and precious, and a worthy gift, particularly for Prosclystius and Basileus. Because I do so rarely, I have not noted that some fish are more appropriate for certain epithets, but this is quite possibly the case.

Grape juice was my go-to libation beverage of choice for a long time, and I never received complaints. Go for the 100% juice, if possible. If I were avoiding alcohol, I would offer grape juice especially to Phytalmius because of its association with plants.

Ground coffee can be used in conjunction with, or as a replacement for, barley when offering to Poseidon Psychopompos or Poseidon Kthonios. (Note that this is not the same as coffee grounds, which are the remainder after one brews coffee.) I drew this conclusion based on the practice in antiquity of offering white things to ouranic theoi, and dark things to the kthonic.

Hymns, be they ancient, those offered in this humble volume, or something of the reader’s own creation, should always be read or recited aloud. While it’s commonly believed that reciting the hymns which have survived from antiquity in the original ancient Greek is preferable, it’s probably better to use one’s native tongue unless one has mastered the pronunciation. The gods are not omniscient, and could well struggle if one’s accent is thick.

Mint was suggested to me by another devotee of Poseidon, specifically in the form of chocolate mint candies. The plant’s protective properties makes it suitable for Domatites, and the coolness it evokes brings to mind Glacius and Pelagaeus. Mint is also strongly associated with Haides, suggesting that it’s an appropriate offering to Poseidon Kthonios.

Incense is an ancient offering. Myrrh and frankincense are perhaps the most common ones to burn for Poseidon.

Ocean water can poured as a libation, if easy to acquire, or left in a sealed container as a votive offering, if it’s a more precious item in one’s locale. As I live inland, I hope to get water from all the world’s oceans, and especially the Mediterranean Sea, to leave on my altar.

Salt is something I occasionally get asked to provide, and when I offer salt, I go for the very coarse-grained varieties. Prosclystius, Katharsios, and (curiously enough) Petraios have all asked sea-salt of me.

Water is a perfectly acceptable offering. I have not yet been asked to mix salt into the water, but I’ve heard that others do this. Hudsonios may well ask for some salt in the water.

Wine mixed with water is the traditional Hellenic libation. I offer it at my shrine to Poseidon Phytalmius, to Poseidon in all his epithets on the eighth day of the lunar month which is sacred to him, and during my priestly devotions. I don’t mix the wine when I offer to Poseidon Kthonios or Psychopompos, pouring the cup out completely upon the ground as a holocaust offering, one that is destroyed completely and not shared with the god. I’ve also made libations specifically of white wine for Pelagaeus; I picked up the notion that it’s more evocative of the ocean than red, and that resonates with me.

Note:  this post is an excerpt of my upcoming book, Depth of Praise.  It is being provided now in answer to a reader’s question.  Do not share without linking back to this post as the source.  Thank you.

Why I need gods

There are plenty of people who turn their attention inward for their religious practice, or to the energy of the Earth or universe.  Not me; I need gods.

godsI have tried life without gods.  I’ve been the sort of Wiccan who honors archetypal forces.  I’ve communed with nature and its spirits directly, without any sort of worship.  I’ve meditated on my strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve taken responsibility through the use of magic and by acting in accordance.

For me, life without gods is life without hope.  It’s life without purpose.  Life without gods is no life at all.

What I cannot and will not claim is that worshiping gods leads to a life free of pain.  I screw up plenty, and bad things definitely happen.  I know of no god that offers me a mortal existence that is free of peaks and valleys.  My prayers are sometimes answered in ways I see as beneficial, but not always.  The purpose of giving offerings is not to obtain divine favor, and anyone who thinks otherwise is sure to be disappointed.

Gods — external, independent, immortal, inscrutable gods — provide for me a scaffold upon which I can build my life.  I’m not looking for some reward after my death for being a good worshiper; for me the gods are shining lighthouses by which I try to navigate life’s voyage.  It’s not enough to simply head towards one of those beacons, because I know I can’t actually reach them.  Maybe it’s better to describe them as the stars a helmsman uses to set a ship’s course.  They are fixed points, and so long as I keep some in front, some behind, and certain ones to each side I know I am headed in the same direction.

The periods of my life without gods — when I considered myself some amorphous sort of Pagan who didn’t actually worship — have been when I drifted without purpose.  Drifting isn’t necessarily a bad thing:  when the current is sending you in the direction you wish to go and the skies are clear, what could be better?  Without a destination or even a direction in mind, I have found that my drifting brings me through times good and bad, yet drains me all the while like someone on a raft in the sea is drained.

I respect those who don’t feel the need for the support of gods.  Yes, I get irritated by language that suggests that those paths are either superior to or in fact actually supplant my own, but when they do their thing and it works for them, who am I to judge?  I’ve tried that way, and I know I’d rather have those lighthouses, those stars above me.

Miasma can be likened to those stormy times when navigation is impossible.  Clouds blot out the sky.  No shore is close enough for a lighthouse to be visible.  I can but batten down and hold on.  Sucky things happen whether or not I worship gods.  The difference for me is that when the clouds part, I can again look to those stars and get my bearings.  When the way to the gods is restored, I can rebuild and retool.  I can resume my prior course, or set a new one as I choose.  I know I am not alone, even though I’m not expecting the stars above to hold a conversation with me.

There are many other things I need to thrive as a human being:  food, water, air, community, love, and shelter come to mind.  All of these dim when I do not have in my life gods as well.  Joy is more fleeting and pain brings more uncertainty and fear when no gods are present.  My ability to set goals and strive to be better is clarified and focused when I have the gods to steer by.

It is for this reason that I need gods.  Any questions?