Acquainting with Artemis

I’ve become a bit of a deer hunter in recent year, if by “deer hunter” you mean “person who kills deer that leap in front of his vehicle.”  Or maybe my car has a thirst for Cervidae blood, and exudes pheromones that lure them in.  Although I have never been injured, it’s a painful experience, and one that I’d prefer to stop repeating.

A statue of the goddess Artemis, holding a bow and arrow and carrying a quiver, with a small deer behind her.
My statue of Artemis, repaired.

Perhaps two years ago a wise friend of mine suggested that there might be a lesson in these fatal collisions, and I listened.  I have focused on altering my behavior behind the wheel to minimize the chance of deer death:  it began with tearing my eyes away from even glancing at that stupid phone, but I have striven to become more cognizant of anything that took my attention from the road ahead, no matter how small.

Among those distractions, however, are things like looking in the mirrors behind, and the one or two seconds lost to such defensive driving techniques can prove fatal.  With no large predators (human or otherwise) culling their numbers in a meaningful way, driving mountain roads can always prove dangerous.  My own behavior can reduce the risks, but not eliminate them.

Over this same period of time, I have considered whether or not this is a not-so-subtle message from Artemis that I should be heeding something she’s trying to tell me.  This is not a goddess I have built much kharis with, so it seemed like it was worth a try to do something to please her.  I purchased a statue of the goddess and identified a place to put it, but my Artemis statue arrived broken, and I wasn’t sure what to do, so I seasoned my concern for awhile.

The Hellenic tradition I learned teaches that a particular deity may take an interest in your life for the span of a month, with divination being used to determine who that might be.  For the month of Poseideon, Hephaistos took the lead, which gave me the courage to fix my broken goddess.  My hands are not generally so nimble as to make delicate work such as that possible, but over the course of several days I made her whole.  First I straightened her golden arrow, then I replaced the fletching on the ones in her quiver.  The deer’s tail was restored, and lastly I placed the bow back in her hand.

Artemis’ day in the Athenian calendar was the sixth of the month, which will fall on January 7, more or less.  I will then make this statue a gift to her, and have a place to pour her libations.  May she never again see fit to put a deer in my path.

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Yes, no, maybe so?

So I find myself with a bit of a divination dilemma.  I’ve been dutifully practicing coin divination, and to make sure that I’m actually paying attention to meanings rather than assigning significance after the fact, I’m thus far being very careful to do so in a manner that I can test and verify.  Silly me, I thought that would make things easier.

Coins readily lend themselves to yes/no questions, which are often best avoided for divination, so I was willing to use one for these tests.  Because I’m a little money obsessed anyway, the question I have been asking each morning is a simple one:

Will I have more cash in hand at the end of today?

Count the cash at the beginning and the end of the day, and bam! an answer.  Put the results for a selection of coins in a spread sheet, and after awhile I should be able to see if any of those coins are better at answering the question.  Simple, testable process.  Easy peasy.

My problem stems from having multiple money-focused activities going on at once.  Today (yesterday, in some time zones), one of those came into conflict with my coin divination, and I think it won.

Herm encircled by ribbons and wreath for Hermaia Agoraia.

What I did today was celebrate the Hermaia Agoraia, a festival of the opening of the markets for the holiday season.  It was a fun time, replete with:

  • decorating my herm (upright stone used as a shrine to Hermes), which somehow made it seem more phallic than ever;
  • buying stocking stuffers for the people in my household;
  • making some tasty no-cook mints as an offering to Hermes; and
  • ensuring that my family’s anonymous gift jar got to its recipient.
It’s that last one — the gift jar — that screwed me up.  You see, we’ve been putting cash in this jar for almost a year, a little at a time, whenever the mood strikes us.  For me, whenever I had a stroke of luck or some extra change, it went into the jar, which was then wrapped up like a present and delivered.
So I have no clue how much money was in it.  That didn’t matter to me one whit — I knew it was going to a family that could use the money — until I started on this divination project.  I chose my daily question because it’s easy to measure how much cash goes in an out, if you just pay attention, but the jar defied that attention.  I know cash left my possession today, but by the very design of the thing, I don’t know how much.  It’s supposed to work that way, and it did.
So now I’m stuck, because I was clever.  I know that if you don’t understand that the results to divination, you can look for a sign or ask another question to clarify the result, but that still won’t give me the dry, academic datum point that I was hoping for.  I’m fairly certain there’s a lesson in this, and absolutely sure that I deserve it, but the best thing that came of it was a topic to use for the letter “Y.”

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

Xtian

The abbreviation “Xtian” for “Christian” is second only to shortening “yeah” to “yh” in my Ten Best Ways to Express Laziness.  Is it really so hard to type those four extra letters?  Or to find a short version that makes some phonetic sense?

Because it irritates me, I decided to do some digging into the history of Xtianity (which, for someone who actually knows how to type, is much more annoying than Christianity, which uses fairly common letters).  Unfortunately, some of what I learned undermined some of my reasons for disliking the term.

Why I dislike the term Xtian:

  • As I said right off, it’s lazy.  It’s shorter to write by hand or if you look at the keys, but with touch screens not looking is a dying art.  However, if it’s lazy, it’s a laziness that dates back a hundred years or more.
  • It’s also not phonetic.  Nothing about the English pronunciations of “Chris” and “X” is similar.  However, to the learned of a bygone generation, Greek letters were nearly as familiar as English, so the nifty diagram provided here wasn’t needed.  There may not have been a phonetic connection, but there was a common understanding nevertheless.
  • It’s disrespectful.  Well, that was not the original intent of the term, but today’s views are mixed.  Some wear it like a badge of honor, but further definitions down that same page suggest it refers to Christians in name only, or that it is, indeed, derogatory . . . but that’s not the most common definition by far.
  • It’s divisive, because it’s used by those of us outside the religion to refer to its followers, in something of a dismissive manner.  Except for those self-described Xtians, of course.
So the term is older than I expected, is used by knowledgeable Christians, and isn’t actually considered insulting by most.  But I’m stubborn, and I still think it’s lazy, so don’t expect me to start using it anytime soon.  I was the last person I know to start shortening “cellular phone” to “cell phone,” and I only started typing “lol” five years ago.

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

Vacillating on a public Pagan life

One of the most important things I think any Pagan can do to further the aims of the Pagan community is to publicly acknowledge our religion.  That’s a hard pill to swallow, for a lot of very good reasons, and it’s not something I have even been consistent about myself.

As I see it, the problems revolve around proselytizing and privacy.  Anyone who was brought up in, has encountered representatives of, or even swapped jokes about people who witness their faith door-to-door should make it obvious why most Pagans don’t want to be associated with proselytizing:  while the behavior is rarely more than annoying in the modern United States, it raises the specter of Indian schools and missions to “uncivilized” parts of the world, complete with the disastrous results which usually ensued.  For many years I wore my pentagram under my clothes because I was wearing it for me, not to advertise.  Large, flashy religious jewelry of any type is somewhat of a turnoff to me.

We who practice this group of minority religions lumped under one umbrella label tend to share a desire not to proselytize, so much so that I’ve met people who proselytize about the fact that Pagans don’t proselytize.

Privacy is about how one’s religion impacts one’s personal and professional lives.  There are still parts of the country and world where one’s religion matters a great deal, and being a member of the wrong faith can bring very real risks.  If you could lose your job and compromise your standing in the community because you’re Pagan, you are going to think twice before telling anyone you’re Pagan.  And the more enlightened regions have their own form of discrimination, marginalizing people of faith as superstitious throwbacks in a secular world.  They consider anyone who practices a religions as being just a tad nuts, be they Wiccan or Christian or Zoroastrian or Rastafarian, and really don’t want to know what you do in the privacy of your own home.

Being publicly Pagan, on the other hand, can help fix those problems in the long run.  The more people who practice a spiritual, secular, or mainstream religious lifestyle encounter Pagans and find commonalities with them, the more normalized a diversity of religions becomes.  That helps reduce the formal and informal discrimination that minorities, even those of choice like religious minorities, can be faced with when ignorance abounds.

But does that make me want to “wreath up” and perform a public offering to my gods?  Nosiree.  There is percentage of our community trained and driven to be the public face, but we do not all need to step up quite so high.  Maybe it’s enough to pick “Pagan” on Facebook, or make food bank donations in the name of one’s goddess from time to time.  I don’t want people to feel that I’m telling them how awesome my religion is — that’s a skill that 19-year-old me mastered and 44-year-old me is happy to discard — but it guides many of my decisions, and I’m not ashamed of that.

It’s a balance that we all have to strike, because being completely private and secretive is as problematic to the wider Pagan community as being a pushy recruiter for Thor would be.  We should not be silent, nor should we be so loud that people tune us out.  What balance do you strike in your life?

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

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.

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.

Strangers

One of the Delphic maxims exhorts us that “if you are a stranger, act like one.”  The learned Elani Temperance does her usual amazing job of explaining the historical context for that bit of wisdom in the post I linked, but I have been trying to practice this particular maxim in a modern context.  The result is that I sometimes gives the impression of being slightly old-fashioned, and I don’t think that’s a terrible thing.

Strangers are people who are neither friends nor enemies.  In her book Longing For Wisdom: The Message of the Maxims, Allyson Szabo says that in ancient Greece, “Strangers were treated with cautious courtesy, as they could easily slide into the ‘enemy’ category, but could also be a god in disguise.”  She goes on to say that, when meeting someone new, the Greek “would be warily friendly.  He was a stranger.  He would not presume to act like a close friend.  Even if he knew a mutual friend, that did not give him the rights of a true friend.”  (I hesitate to impose upon Ms. Szabo by quoting more liberally from her work; she is a stranger to me, so I wish to act like one.)

The wisdom here is we should not presume the comforts of familiarity where none exist.  After considering this maxim for some time, I reached the conclusion that American society has been stripped of linguistic cues regarding relationships.  The French language has two forms of “you,” the formal vous and the intimate tu; we have forsaken the English thou as archaic, so that one’s out.  In my father’s day, people outside of close friends and relations were address with titles, such as “Mr. Smith” and “Reverend Jones.”  Perhaps because those titles frequently announced a woman’s marital status while leaving men to their own devices, the entire convention was discarded as sexist.

All my life I have addressed employers, powerful political figures, priests and priestesses, doctors and diplomats by their first names.  I think early Quakers used plain speech in part to honor that difference; I may be wrong about their intent for using “thee” and “thou,” but the practice has largely fallen by the wayside, and is more of a peculiar distraction than anything else.

But the use of titles, and particularly the avoidance of first names, is something I believe can reinforce the relationship of courteous respect that we should have with strangers.  When we all refer to each other by first names, we get a false sense of familiarity that begets a false sense of privilege.  I use titles and last names as a way of reminding myself that I am a stranger, and should act like one.

Sometimes this raises someone’s hackles, and they ask me to call them by their first name; I have thus far respected the request rather than cause more problems than this practice is designed to solve.  Perhaps if the practice becomes more common, I won’t get quite so many peculiar looks.

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