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.

the cloud of depression

I exhale a black cloud that lingers around me, and inhaling, I taste the bitterness all around me. I exude malignancy, and all who can avoid the toxic stink that heralds my presence.

depression has many of the qualities of air, for good and for ill

With herculean effort, I push off the covers and sit up in my bed. It’s past noon, and I’ve been mostly awake for four or five hours. Climbing over a pile of laundry that has given up hope of ever being washed, I pull on my robe and stumble to the bathroom to relieve myself. I glance about the cramped space as I do, noting that my toothbrush holder has fallen to the floor, and that the towel rod remains empty. Neither concerns me. I recall that there’s maybe a half-squeeze of toothpaste in the tube, but I haven’t replaced it because toothpaste lasts a very long time when it’s never used. The absent towel is similar; it’s in the laundry pile with all the others, but there’s no sense of urgency to clean them because it’s not like showering is a priority. I haven’t left the apartment in days, and the only person who enters without wrinkling the nose is my roommate, who must be used to it, or perhaps is in the same state; my view of other people is obscured by the emotional cloud that hangs over me.

This cloud of pain makes it impossible for me to see others clearly enough to feel empathy, and at the same time it feels like it pushes others to avoid me entirely even though they cannot see it. What’s more, it’s often invisible to me, too. It’s a cloud that bequeaths and withdraws invisibility for powerful effect. There are times when I feel utterly exposed and wish for nothing more than to disappear, yet at the same time it feels clear that no one can see my suffering. At others, what I crave is human contact, but can’t get even a smile to acknowledge that I exist at all. I can’t recall how long I’ve felt this way, or why I should even care, because thinking is the first thing to be abandoned when one is just trying to survive from minute to minute.

Social invisibility, poor hygiene, and brain fog are all aspects of depression that align with air. Depression is stale, stagnant, and still. Technically we can see air—blue skies, for example—but it usually doesn’t register consciously. That’s also true of depression: we want to look away, as if it’s got a somebody else’s problem field around it. Air is the element of intellect, which is seated in the conscious mind; depression reorders intellect such that to the conscious mind it’s unnoticeable. Our brains take in vastly more information than is ever noticed consciously, as anyone who has taken a psychedelic likely understands. We tune out what is distracting and irrelevant, such as the afterimages of moving objects, but we also train ourselves to ignore other information—such as the presence of homeless people, for example. Depression taps into that tendency and hijacks it to avoid detection.

Reduced hygiene is a brilliant choice. It’s one of the reasons why so many among us don’t see the desperate people without homes who live in nearly every community. We have come to equate unwashed with unclean, and unclean is something to be avoided. Someone experiencing depression might reduce their grooming routine in subtle or profound ways, contributing to the erosion of social ties that the spirit of depression desires. Curiously, modern attitudes about hygiene are less than 200 years old, although covering oneself with pleasant-smelling unguents is an ancient practice. We do not care for unpleasant smells, and that’s reason enough for many of us to avoid some of our brethren. Smells speak to a deep part of ourselves, and depression hacks into that system as part of a strategy of separation.

Purification is a way of clearing out the spiritual gunk and mental clutter that can make healthy thinking and living difficult. The first step in any spiritual cleansing is a physical cleaning, which can include scrubbing toilets and sorting socks as much as washing behind the ears and remembering to floss. It won’t rid someone of the spirit of depression, but it’s a good way to set it back on its heels and give some time to take stock and decide what kind of help is needed. Let’s be clear on that point: help is needed. All of that stigma about mental health, the values around self-reliance, being told to keep a stiff upper lip and never let them see you sweat is setting up for the environment in which depression best thrives. Pandemics that can only be controlled through isolation are a dream come true for this spirit. That’s because the best balm on the wound of depression is other people.

Just being around others isn’t going to wipe away the harm brought by depression, but it’s the opposite of what this spirit desires. Being around the same group of people—community—several times a month makes it much more difficult for symptoms to go undetected. We don’t have much in the way of natural communities any longer; these are people whose lives are interwoven because they depend upon one another for their livelihoods. With increased mobility, we must choose to be in community in order to gain those benefits, which gives depression more of an in. The condition is increasingly identified: those of us born after 1955 are three times more likely to experience depression than our forebears. The average age of the first onset was 30 back in 1980, but now it’s in the teen years. Worldwide, 350 million people are living with depression.

It seems that circumstances have made it much easier for humans to become susceptible to depression. Stress factors are more varied, and the human relationships which rattle this spirit’s cage take more effort to form and maintain. Let us not forget that the invisible bonds we share with all of our kind is essential to addressing the invisible shackles visited on us by the spirit of depression.

New book release: Hymn to the Many Gods

I am thrilled to announce the publication of Hymns to the Many Gods, my newest devotional book.

I give this work in offering
to the many gods.
You, who are rightly worshiped
by my people and others,
and may delight in this offering.

This is a book that is centered not on specific gods, but on the many gods that one may encounter, be touched by, worship, pray to, beseech, entreat, fear, or love. I do not know the names of the many gods, and I did not seek to know all of their names as I wrote the core text. With one stanza per page, the reader is invited instead to explore the many gods through the ways that they relate to humans.

Hymns to the Many Gods also includes another hymn, written instead as a reflection of personal practice. Where the main hymn is an invitation into a different way to honor the gods known and unknown, this introductory hymn is instead an example of how one might compose a personal litany.

It is my honor and pleasure to bring this work into the world.

Depression, food, and the gut

I eat my pain. I eat my stress. I eat my sadness. I eat, gain weight, and eat my self-esteem.

Food is far more than a source of physical sustenance, and the human digestive system reflects that truth. Feeling things in our gut is not simply a metaphor; the bacteria in the digestive system interact with the brain. Hippocrates is purported to have observed that “all disease begins in the gut,” and it appears that the scientific method is beginning to catch up with that idea. The way I frame it is that the mind is not wholly housed in the brain. Instead, it’s comprised of all of the thinking and feeling and experiencing that all parts of the body undergo. The fact that the brain and the eyes—which captivate our sense of understanding and self, when they are working—are both in the head makes it easier to imagine that the mind is, too.

Some very powerful parts of the mind are not in the head much at all. Specifically, I’m talking about emotions. The reason that we can control our emotions by using breathing and the tightening of muscles is because the emotions themselves are housed largely the muscles that power our physical aspect. Emotions are the body’s physical response to stimulus such as injury, danger, hunger, arousal, affection, loss, and abundance. They arose to help us navigate a dangerous world, and to be effective they cause reactions in the body, often before the brain receives word of what’s going on. I might have thought that “gut feelings” were largely a muscular reaction, but for this research into bacteria. Given that there are 1.3 bacterial cells for every human cell in the body, this shouldn’t be surprising. Our companions understand the world in different ways than our brains, and might even make up part of our mind if we are essentially a colony. The chemicals they produce can indeed influence mood, for one thing; the wrong mix of bacteria can release a mix that impacts what chemicals get churned out in our own brains. That’s why eating yogurt or sauerkraut can actually have anti-depressive effects. I don’t care for either of these foods, and I think it might be interesting to study food preferences in people experiencing depression to see if the messages from the gut biome are providing good advice on how to care for ourselves.

Certainly our relationship with food is more complex than simply obtaining energy. We don’t call them “comfort foods” for nothing! Our emotional state is closely linked to hunger and nutrition. It’s not a good idea to shop for food while hungry, or you might come home with a lot of calories instead of ways to provide nutrition. Stomach rumblings are connected to bad mood. What we eat can absolutely influence how we act, too: loading up on carbohydrates and other forms of sugar is extremely satisfying in the short term, but that’s a craving that feeds depression even as it fills the stomach. There are researchers who focus on nothing but nutritional psychiatry, trying to unlock the relationship between diet and mental health. This is only a surprise, I believe, because we have chosen in our language to separate the whole self into “mind” and “body,” suggesting that something which begins in one of those arbitrary areas can only be treated in that same area. One person I interviewed for my upcoming book Empty Cauldrons: Navigating Depression Through Magic & Ritual, Kari Tauring, blames Descartes for this, and calls “I think, therefore I am,” the most dangerous of thoughts in the western world. The self is an integrated whole, and the conditions we think of as mental in nature can emerge and also be addressed in other parts of the body. Yes, diet is important.

We can decrease the risk of depression by cutting back on things I find delicious, like red meat, mystery meat, candy bars, chips and biscuits (including both the American and British definition of both words), buttery potatoes, ice cream, and a lot of the sort of rich foods that are all over the place during the holidays at the end of the year. The cravings we feel when we are low on energy are the same whether it’s physical or emotional energy that is depleted. What’s tricky is that what seems like listening to the body, in this case, is actually feeding the spirit of depression instead. Over time the body’s cries for help can become more pronounced, but these quick cravings do not often serve us well to heed. This must be replaced with more plants, including whole grains. For some reason the meat of fish tends to be on the healthier side, but since fish tend to eat or absorb much of the garbage generated in our disposable culture (such as mercury and plastic), I can’t say I recommend it personally at this time.

The messages our bodies send us can give us a lot of insight into our spiritual and mental condition, and what we put into our bodies is both a symptom of that condition, and a cause of it. While it’s common and easy to describe the body as separate from the mind, or the soul from the body, or the conscious from the unconscious mind, all these different aspects are part of the same whole, and anything that affects any part will always affect all parts. The digestive tract, having a direct connection to the brain, bears important messages about the condition of the entire self. Heed its wisdom, for it is your own wisdom, the wisdom of your gut.

Life under Earth Day

The first Earth Day was celebrated April 22, 1970. If the environmental movement was conceived with the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, it was born on the first Earth Day. I was born not long earlier into a world where rivers burned and people were starting to ask what sort of life children of the day would live.

I had no idea in 1970 the level of existential dread and hopeful expectation I and everyone in my generation would face. I wasn’t even a year old, and the idea that humans had turned to planetary destruction—in part because of another existential threat that had been posed in the 1940s—was beyond me. However, while my parents struggled to keep me in the suburban comfort of my schoolmates, they succeeded in sheltering me from what all those beatniks and hippies were preaching: I was 19 years old the first time I heard the term “earth day” at all. Pollution was a problem facing the poor, and in the time and place of my rearing there were two important truths: no one was poor if they worked hard, and my family was in the middle class (just like everyone else).

By the time I learned about Earth Day, I had already realized that beyond the chemically-manicured lawns of my home town was a world that paid the price for my upbringing. That didn’t make it easier to know how to change the course of history. The weight of humanity upon this incredible planet felt like it pressed upon me personally. The question that faces each of us individually is, “What can I do?” A lot of the answers are contrived: we are told to focus on recycling instead of rejecting plastic, for example. It’s easy to claim that individuals can do nothing, but when we’re asked to take buses and trains instead of buying cars we reject it because, again, that’s an issue for the poor. Automobiles are a sign of success and independence and on a planet where it’s increasingly obvious that all life is interdependent. When we are asked to take on larger, more collective actions like expanding mass transit and giving up the convenience of sitting in traffic in our own vehicles, we resist.

Despite our incredible advances in the understanding of the world around us, we remain driven by instinct. We have an endless number of ways to rationalize it, but our individual and collective decisions are based on securing food, and shelter, and making babies. Mind you, we are making babies as if there was still a 50% infant mortality rate in the world. I adore kids, but I haven’t forgotten the existential dread of living on a planet that might be doomed by my own species. I have chosen not to bestow that curse on a new life. Having no children of my own means not having to figure out how to shelter my kids from that difficult truth. Unfortunately, the instinct to breed is powerful and usually unrecognized in our discussions about the environment. The only people who seem to talk about not having children are the ones who dislike children. I definitely think anyone who doesn’t like kids shouldn’t have them, but it’s those of us who love children who really need to cross our legs. While it’s true that your next child may find the solution to all of our environmental problems, it is absolutely true that your next child contributes to those problems by existing.

Inevitably, the instinct-driven arguments involve misrepresentations and absurd distortions. I will be invited to kill myself, for example. I will also be accused of supporting genocide or eugenics. These are not rational positions, and I hold none of them. All I know for certain is that if we continue to ignore the simple math of an expanding population on a planet with finite resources, there will come a time when human suffering will outstrip all the horrors of history combined. I reason I don’t have children is because I love them too much to make them part of the problem. I’ve lived under the weight of Earth Day all of my life, and I know that the most important thing any human can do to protect our children is not to have them in the first place.