Archery lesson

The week was nearly at a close.  Friends — Quakers, in the common parlance — had met in worship to conduct business as a body.  Despite simplicity being one of the testimonies which should be followed, business follows a process which can appear anything but to those unfamiliar.  Thus there are “whisper buddies” who explain what’s going on to anyone who signs up for one, but younger folk often find the seeking the “sense of the meeting” — what I think of as consensus with divine participation — is quite boring.

archery boyMy role was as a leader of what’s called the Junior Yearly Meeting, religious education and activities for kids.  I was assigned with two others to a group of 14 ten- and eleven-year-olds for three hours each day.  Over the week many of them grew close to each other, and some of them to me or another of the adults as well.  I was impressed by their joy, their maturity, their discernment.

The week was nearly at a close, and my role as a guide and counselor was complete.  Nevertheless I still tried to take at least one meal each day with someone new, often family of one of my charges.  I joined three of the boys for lunch Saturday, but by that point in the week they were sitting with each other rather than their grown-ups.  It was nice to talk with them without a sense of authority over them.

One of the boys, C., asked if we could go together to the archery range after lunch.  It was late in the week for that—we were all due to leave the camp entirely by five o’clock.  Since I hadn’t been there at all myself, I figured I was being asked as an adult escort.  My car was packed, and C. wasn’t due to rendezvous with family for a couple of hours, and there was no reason not to agree.

We’d all been issued name tags on lanyards for the week, and some people enjoyed shooting their own names full of holes in a show of archery prowess.  That’s what C. was after, on the last day:  piercing that name tag.  The ten-year-old nodded to staff members with familiarity, signing for the equipment and setting up on the range.  C. clearly knew the protocol, listening closely to instructions on when to fire and when to retrieve arrows.  I watched for about 20 minutes until a slippery “thunk” signaled success.  C. was a walking smile when showing me this badge of honor.

The walk back to the main part of camp was about 10 minutes, time enough for my curiosity to find voice.  “You didn’t need an adult to shoot, did you?”  I asked.  C. nodded, and I continued, “Why did you want me to come with you?”

“Oh, because when I show my brothers, you’ll be able to tell them I didn’t fake it.”

I did indeed bear witness, to the brothers and the grandmother, too. Technically Quakers are supposed to tell the truth all the time, but I didn’t ask C. why anyone might doubt the accuracy of the report. It wasn’t until a good way along the drive home that it occurred to me that I protected a child’s honor over an archery feat.

That’s when I started wondering how long Apollon had been involved in this part of my spiritual life. As with many questions I ask, once I did I could see the bread crumbs stretching back years. My encounter with C. that afternoon was only the most recent attempt to get me to put it all together. The prior winter I’d gotten another, when helping set up the annual “buy nothing day” event. People donate new and like-new items, and anyone looking for gifts to give can show up and take what they like. Gifts can even be wrapped, free of charge. A member of a nearby Quaker meeting, in the midst of downsizing, donated a variety of objects collected traveling the world. One was a rustic statue of Apollon, holding a lute.

One of the things that I have learned from the Quakers is that spirit often moves quite slowly through humans. We have a lot of ego that gets in the way, and drowns out the divine voice which is often as soft as it is insistent. Once the body of worshipers is united in their understanding of what is asked of them, everything is suddenly clear, but that process can take months, or even years. It’s much the same as how gnosis can be transformed from something personal and unverified, to a general understanding that’s part of the accepted lore. In both cases, the divine guidance is received by a community, rather than an individual. Getting through to a distracted, individual mortal can take repetition or, in Apollon’s case here, variations on a theme.

In this case, the theme was struck first in the nature of the Society of Friends itself: it’s all about cultivating the “inward light” or “being in the light” of spirit or divinity. The use of “the light” as a term dates back to founder George Fox, and it’s shared among all branches of Quakers, from the ones who listen to a pastor’s ministry about Jesus to the non-theists who never utter that name. Yes, I was well aware of Apollon’s associations with light and truth, but sometimes you don’t recognize a connection just because you didn’t think to look for it. My bad assumption was the belief that I was urged to go to a Quaker meeting by Poseidon, and Poseidon alone. Sometimes, the truth is overlooked just because we think we already know it.

worship creep

The gods rather enjoy being worshiped; my evidence for this is how my devotions expand in length and complexity over time. While devotion is a good thing, I don’t believe that the gods think of time as a finite resource. The result, if I allow it, would be a life focused on devotion to the exclusion of all else. I call this the propensity for worship creep.

In worship creep, devotional practices get expanded incrementally, and slowly enough that it’s not immediately obvious. I might well have quailed at the suggestion that I should devote time to my gods every single day had it been proposed to me at the beginning, but now that’s a standard part of my life.

Sometimes, the amount of time nourishes me. When my secular schedule builds up, it can feel overwhelming; I wrote about that in my upcoming book, Empty Cauldrons. From time to time, I find it useful to review my regular practice and consider the ways in which is shores me up, and likewise how it taxes my resources. That usually involves some cutbacks. Choosing to lay down or reorganize how I worship is something I try to do in cooperation with the gods, but if I feel that changes need to be made immediately, that is what I do. Divination is how I navigate it in either case, whether it’s to work out an understanding or learn about consequences after the fact. All actions have consequences, and divination is a means to understand what that means in a given situation.

Not everyone may find the need to take stock like I do, but it’s still important to remember the wisdom of starting small. Why tell seekers and neophytes what’s involved in more complex daily practice? That could scare away people who, in time, could be more devoted than than their teachers were. Systems tend to become more complex over time, but the basic worship practice of Hellenic worship, at least, stays the same: make offerings to the gods because they are the gods, and for no other reason; the gods, having noticed, may from time to time choose to bestow blessings for reasons of their own. We offer what we deem valuable, if we value the gods. I think the reason gods ask more of their most devoted followers is because attention is love. Scaling back can feel hurtful, because it’s withdrawing some of that attention, but to love someone is to be willing to let them do their own thing from time to time. Gods leave us alone at times of their choosing; it’s okay humans to do the same. (This is why it is wise to think twice before swearing any oath to a god: “give a pledge, and ruin is near.”)

I have personally driven a person away from honoring the gods by oversharing how I perform my devotions. A friend who agreed to feed my cats said, “If I have coffee with me, how would I make an offering at the Caffeina shrine?” Instead of answering with something simple like, “Oh, just pour a libation in this bowl,” I explained my personal practice at the time, which included particular gestures, as well as phrases in ancient Greek. I do not think my friend made any offerings at that shrine. My friend does not need to start where I am right now, and I would have been more thoughtful to suggest something extremely simple, like leaving some coffee beans or brewed coffee and clearing it away the next day.

Scaling back on devotion is sometimes the best way to serve the gods, too. We must care for ourselves before we can be fully present in service to another, for one. Our work in the world can also be the work of our gods: “sing through my voice/pray through my hands/let the way be open,” wrote Abbi Spinner McBride. If we break no oaths and treat the gods with respect, I would be surprised to know of anyone who has found the way closed to more devotion or service.

not the best ambassador

This past week, I wasn’t a particularly good ambassador for polytheism. No one has appointed or anointed me in the role, but I may be the only polytheist a particular person might ever talk to, and I try to keep that in mind. I don’t think I’m the only person ever to let my ire shape my words, but once upon a time I imagined that if I lived to be this old, it would mean that I’d mastered my emotions. Instead, I’m not sure if “mastering” is a good approach at all.

I was listening to a podcast, some deep-geek stuff about a particular fictional world and the stories told within it. The plot in question involved adherents of several different fictional religions. What got my gears grinding was the host’s observation that when two people are engaged in a religious discussion, “there is an assumption that the other person is wrong.” That is often true when monotheists are involved, because positing an all-encompassing god presumes that no other gods exist, and thus religions focused on those gods are invalid. For some reason even agreeing on the existence of one and only one god also can lead devotees to squabble over any differences of experience of that deity, leading to reformations and internecine wars and inquisitions and crusades and all manner of violence. However, polytheists don’t dismiss the existence of foreign gods, whether or not we pay them cult. We are also sometimes willing to accept that a particular god might be honored and experienced in a diversity of ways. Our religions are not invalidated by the existence of different practices.

Does the preceding paragraph seem calm, thoughtful, well-considered? My email to the host, drafted in the moment of reaction, could be better described as “inchoate.” Instead of expressing that conflict is not a necessary component of religion, I left the host with the impression that I am a bespittled zealot of some kind. Profanity is not my style, and I don’t need that handful of words to convey rage and offense. It was not my best moment.

Poseidon is known for the anger expressed in some myths, but Poseidon is slow to anger. I like to think that I am as well, but my emotional reservoir is not as deep as my god’s. In this case, my emotions overflowed while listening to a podcast because I hadn’t been roused to anger by a thousand other small events. It’s possible and preferable to let off some of that pressure before it wells over as it did this time, and that’s actually something I have learned as a devotee of Poseidon, that the secret to be slow to anger is actually to release microdoses of anger throughout the day. Something kept me from doing that, and I didn’t realize the problem until I made something of an ass of myself. I should be able to recognize the warning signs the next time.

For me, the challenge is that I learned young to equate anger with strength. One may marshal strength through anger, but for any sustained effort anger must fall away. To be grounded in purpose is one way to find strength without relying on anger, and that’s been my path for over a decade. It was disconcerting to fall back into poor habits when my defenses were down, but it’s spurred a redoubling of the deep work of rewiring how I respond in that moment between the formation of emotion and thought. I am grateful to have my rock, Poseidon Petraios, as a truer source of strength than the blaze of rage. I do wish I was better at reaching for the rock first, rather than the flame.

Flag rescue

Rescuing American flags from display and releasing them by retirement is an activity I take up in service to the spirits of this country. It’s my belief that these flags are infused with an amalgam of a great many spirits of this land, not just the ones connected to colonists and their descendants. I know that there are others who see things differently.

This flag was flown continuously over a machine shop for as long as a year, before I offered to replace it. To respect a flag is to inspect a flag, after bringing it in before dark, and repairing any damage.  Flags require care, as do any spirits.

This flag haunted me for many days before I was finally able to free it from its bondage. During my mother’s final days of life, I traveled to visit nearly every day; the trip takes about two hours. I would catch a flash of flag colors in my headlights on my way home each time, but I was always too tired to try to figure out if there was any way to access this pedestrian bridge. The day after my mother’s funeral, I took the trip one more time. I brought with me a variety of cutting tools, because I was not sure how this flag was secured to the fencing. My first problem was finding the flag on purpose. I was always very tired, and it was dark, and I never made note even of which road I was on when I spotted it. I knew I was headed northbound, but the two major north-south roads on my route were on different sides of the Whitestone bridge. I was nearly ready to write it off as hallucination before I found the location. After that, I had to do another smaller loop off and on the highway to get to a safe place to pull off, because by the time I saw the flag, the best exit was behind me. It was an access to a well-used waterside walking path, about half a mile from the pictured pedestrian bridge. When I headed out on foot I discovered that the section of path leading to my destination was closed for repaving. The temporary fence blocking my way extended to the berm along the shore, leading to a rather exciting rock scramble. The smell of the Long Island Sound filled my nose, and at times I wondered if I’d slip and fall in, perhaps braining my fool self in the process. I did not. My final obstacle was removing this poor wretch of a flag. It was secured with those evil plastic zip-ties, securely tightly enough against the chain links that I could not easily get any of my clippers in between. What I needed was a utility knife, but I had to make due. Tattered as it was, the flag was tangled and snarled worse than my hair when I locked it, and it took about 20 minutes to pull it down. All the while, I was fearful that I’d accidentally drop it to the ground below. There was also the possibility that a police officer would come to find out what I was all about, but that was a conversation I gladly would have had.

These flags were respectfully released from service; I attend a pagan conference every October where a flag retirement ceremony is held. Among the many misconceptions around flag lore is the belief that military members and veterans are uniquely qualified to retire flags; this is untrue. Anyone who reveres the ideals infused in the American flag may perform this final act, even those of us who are well aware how far short we are of achieving those ideals.

How we treat American flags is a reflection of our society. We actually have laid out the rules for proper conduct in law, but often the people who display flags are ignorant of how to do so with respect. Hanging one on an overpass is akin to leaving a prisoner’s body out for the crows. We can do better.

Even though anyone may retire a flag, I find that I enjoy collecting and retiring flags in a ceremony at a fire made sacred to the many gods and spirits of this land. Readers who possess flags beyond repair may always contact me for tips on conducting a respectful ceremony, or to arrange to send me a flag to retire.

This post comes from my accidental archives, also known as the drafts I forgot I had started and figured it’s high time I finish.

books to read to learn about Hellenismos

I was quite blessed when I was first called by my gods, because I found a teacher. I do a tremendous amount of reading and practicing on my own, but having a framework — even one that I bend out of shape from time to time — has made all the difference.

Not everyone is as fortunate as I have been. Some people coming to this path must rely entirely upon written materials, which is a more challenging way to absorb the culture that’s infused therein. Moreover, because reconstructing or reviving an ancient religion requires research, there is a fairly heavy bias toward the academic. That’s appropriate, but if my first forays into Hellenismos had been met with some of the suggestions I see offered to newcomers, I would probably have thrown up my hands in frustration and moved on to learning how to play the ukulele.

Okay, that was hyperbolic. I would never try to learn the ukulele.

Nevertheless, not everyone who hears the call of the theoi is ready to dig into primary sources right from the start. To that end, here’s a list of books often recommended for beginning reading, and my thoughts on where they belong in the process for people who are not scholars and also don’t have a lot of in-person support.

  1. Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored
  2. Hellenic Polytheism: Household Worship
  3. Greek Religion

I’ve listed these in the order I would recommend them to students.

Kharis is an excellent place to start one’s journey into education. Sara Kate Istra Winter provides the reader with an overview of what Hellenic religion might have in store. Winter touches on reasons one might be interested in or called to this path, and sketches a general pattern of ritual which at least makes these forms comfortable and recognizable. I found the take on prayer and how gods speak to us to be particularly meaningful, because in them I found a commonality of experience.

The book includes results of a survey which some have found less meaningful than intended. I’m not much of a statistician, and I found the results to be of passing interest. It’s certainly not the most profound controversy to sweep through Hellenic polytheists, and I haven’t seen the third edition of this book (2019), with survey data that are likely reflective of the maturing of this community.

Household Worship is a fascinating glimpse into the local practices of the Labrys community, members of which are practicing this religion in Greece itself. Some of the rituals contained therein are in heavy rotation at Temenos Oikidios, my spiritual home. When dealing with a broken tradition and trying to apply it in modern context, it’s valuable to have insights from people who live in its land of origin. The folk practices of Greece and presence of ancient temples most assuredly gives the traditions of Labrys well-earned gravitas.

I would never, ever suggest this as the first book someone reads about Hellenic religion, however, unless they happened to be part of the Labrys community already. The reason is simple: it was written for members of that tradition rather than the wider audience it has since received, and as such the authors did not contemplate concepts such as “your mileage may vary.” It’s perfectly acceptable for leaders of a tradition to tell their students, “This is how we do it, end of story,” but someone picking this book out on Amazon could easily interpret that orthopraxy as universal, which is not true and never has been true. A seeker should be aware, by the time they read Household Worship, that Hellenismos is always a local religion and has had regional variation since the very beginning. They should know that divination is an important tool to help discern which practices the gods are asking them specifically to employ. For some, that might mean joining Labrys and adopting that tradition whole cloth. Others might be advised that the gods find two-dimensional images of them in shrines to be acceptable, while that’s never okay for a member of Labrys if I understand the book correctly.

This is a good book, but it needs to be introduced by a teacher to a student lest discernment not be applied during the reading.

Greek Religion is an incredibly valuable resource. It is also a large and intimidating tome; I read the whole thing because I heard a rumor that most of us don’t. Now I wish I had taken more careful notes, because this is the go-to academic text on ancient practices and when I’m sucked into an online debate, I find myself flipping through it frantically to recall what author Walter Burkert said about a particular practice.

If this was the first book assigned to someone seeking to worship the theoi, that someone may well vanish and never be heard from again. Certainly there are people who revel in a dense, academic tome, but I wouldn’t recommend this one to a beginner unless I intended on scaring that person off (which is a technique some of my college professors used to winnow down the number of students in a popular class). I do believe every hellenic polytheist should read and even own this book eventually, but it’s a crappy introduction for anyone who wants to participate in the religion, rather than just study it. I do not wish for our religion only to be available to scholars.

While I think most people offering suggestions to newcomers have good intentions, what they often lack is an understanding of the beginner’s mind. The books we suggest to a seeker must be placed into some kind of context, else we could be scaring people away from a very really calling by our gods. I’ve looked only at these three books because their titles crop up on beginning reading lists. I would recommend each of them—but not necessarily as a first book to read. If readers have different ideas about the books we should be suggesting and when, I’d be curious to learn.