Finding Ares

IMG_4099

Ares icon created by PT Helms

It is no small thing to find a god, for deities are as elusive as a reflection on water, as insubstantial as the mote which dances before the eyes, as subtle as the shift of late winter to early spring. Many religions teach of a “God” or “Goddess” who is imbued in all things, or oversees each and every working of the universe, or whose omnipresence transcends the concepts of “within” and “without” and makes those words feel meaningless; while such teachings suggest that a deity which is everywhere might be easy to find, it is remarkably difficult to focus on the everywhere. Gods, while rarely far from us, can be easily overlooked.

Indeed, the very decision to seek out a god is a difficult one to make: this is a secular world, and belief in the unseen increasingly is looked at askance. Aside from religious services, citizens of the western world are counseled to trust their eyes, to be pragmatic, to shunt aside their emotions and focus on rational experience. Any deity, from a monotheistic father to the god of a tiny spring which wells forth only once in a generation, can have its voice lost in the cacophony of marketing messages, career choices, and family dynamics of 21st century life.

So it is no small thing to find a god, especially if one is not seeking to do so. It is no small thing to find a god, particularly if the god one seeks is not the god who wishes to be found.

I was not seeking a god, nor a religion. I believed I had both: I was Pagan and I embraced the pantheistic, multi-faced One through many faces. I was not Wiccan, although some of their teachings resonated with me. I understood that all deities were simply aspects that my limited mind could best accept and relate to, with distinct personalities and histories. My beliefs were broad, inclusive, and only slightly more meaningful to me than the Catholic teachings of my youth. Intellectually, the message of love and healing was important, but it didn’t speak to my emotional self. Paganism became more of a label than a life for me.

No subtle nudge would have roused me from this torpor; no whisper at the edge of my awareness could get me to take step back and reconsider my path. I was entrenched in a life as full of activity as it was devoid of meaning, a comfortable place in which a man to find himself.

Only a roar as loud as nine thousand men could have gotten my attention, and only a god that terrified me by virtue of what he represented could utter that cry. I heard it from the bottom of the pit into which I had crawled I knew not when. I heard it even as I became aware of the maggots gently consuming my diseased self, and preparing to consume those parts which remained healthy. I heard it with my ears, my eyes, my follicles, my soul. I heard it, and I obeyed.

Get up.

Get up, and show some respect for this gift you have been given.

Do you think I, steeped in the blood of the slain and crusher of the defeated underfoot, know nothing of cowardice, nothing of failure? You are wrong. When the faithful lift their craven thoughts up to me, unable to continue without my aid, I take them up and wrap them like a cloak about my shoulders. Your failings, your weakness, your whispered words of self-defeat, your limiting beliefs; these are my mantle as I wade into battle.

You, who feel the weight of all your mistakes and missed opportunities, know nothing of the burdens I carry for you and your kind. Without me, you would have been ground to dust long ago. I shoulder it precisely because you are frail, you are mortal, you are a passing mote blowing hither and yon.

Get up, for you are strong enough to carry what is left to you. If it remains too much, than either you hold back my due or you protest too much.

Get up.

I got up. I obeyed: studying Hellenismos, discovering my patron and others among the theoi to whom I am drawn, and eventually taking up the mantle of priest after some years of preparation and instruction.

Ares has not spoken to me since. I still make offerings to him as I am led, but to him I have sworn no oaths. He was and is my gatekeeper, and I feel him near when my blood boils or runs like ice, but for the most part his work on me appears to be done. The way was opened with violence and fury, and only now am I able to do work of healing, and peace.

My personal practice: adding layers

To look at what some Hellenic polytheists do to honor their gods can be more than a little overwhelming; must everyone devote so much time, energy, and resources to this path?

Of course not.

I doubt there are very many people who begin with a full-blown, life-altering schedule of personal devotion.  I also doubt that those people who follow a full-blown, life-altering schedule of personal devotion are in the majority; we’re just the ones who care enough to write about it in the first place.

As I detailed in my last post, initially I only committed to make a certain number of offerings in a specified period of time.  When it was over, it was over.  I could have walked away at any point, no harm, no foul.

I had a desire to figure this thing out, though, and set out to learn more.  Ares seemed cool but also freaked me out a bit, but Hermes was all right.  What other gods might I care to know better?

After a time I consulted with a priest who agreed to teach me about Hellenismos.  Heck, I’d never even heard the word before, so it was obvious I had a lot to learn.  He performed some divination and determined that while Ares might have been my gatekeeper, and Hermes an able messenger, it was Poseidon who claimed me as his own.

Elsewhere I have chronicled my initial unease with that revelation.  Nevertheless I set about to try, and my wife gave me use of a horseshoe to place upon my nascent shrine as I could not afford some crazy-expensive statue.  I learned that the eighth day of the month is sacred to him, and so too is Thursday in some traditions.  The whole lunar-calendar thing was way too complicated, so I poured a libation on the eighth according to the calendar, and on Thursdays as well.  Later on, as I learned about stuff like khernips and miasma and barley, I put out a bowl of the lustral water and another one to put barley in, but I kept it quite simple.

I had begun a regular practice, with about five offerings a month according to the same calendar I’d used all my life.  Anyone could remain at that level of regular devotion and add richness to their lives; their offerings would surely be accepted and please their gods.  Spoiler alert:  that is not what I did, but I certainly could have.

About Nepal . . .

Dear Poseidon,

This whole Nepal thing has really been eating at me. I feel like I understand, and yet I don’t. These people, clinging to life on the sides of mountains, surely have enough challenges without the touch of Ennosigaios to wipe nearly everything they know from the face of the earth.

But.

Science makes clear what living on the slopes of the Himalayas brings with it. Nepal’s earthquakes are some of the most regular tectonic disruptions known. So regular, in fact, that I expect the eldest Nepalese remember a time, when they were young children, that the otherwise solid rock beneath their feet shook like curtains and rippled like water. The sharpest among them might even recall that their own grandparents and wizened elders told tale of the time when this happened when they were young children, skipping two and three generations, but never so many that none living could recall that earthquakes are nothing new. This greatest of mountain ranges is built upon plate tectonics, as India dives down beneath Asia, and such majesty does not arise without violence. In a way, the Nepalese are blessed like no other people, because they at least have a sense of when the inevitable shall occur. No one in California can say that.

But.

Widespread disaster never seems to touch our shores. The worst losses of life in my country have always been created by us, not the gods. In the United States, we have the knowledge and resources to prevent so many of the deaths once caused by earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods . . . and yet countless thousands die in Ares’ name, or by human folly. Passion drives us to create more powerful weapons, more effective medicines, more troubling food systems, more potable water, more disconnection from the gods, and simultaneously more skepticism for the science that was supposed to replace them. I live in a great bubble, Basileus my king, that tries to muffle your influence but creates new forms of suffering to balance accounts. My life is nothing like that of a Nepalese family living high in mountain village that can only be reached by a thin ribbon of road, or perhaps a helicopter if one is available. Their struggles are not my struggles. The amount of money I make, the amount that sometimes keeps me awake at night worrying what the future might bring, is still more in most weeks than many Nepali workers earn in a year. Sheltered by industry and empire, even if I am ever in the crosshairs of your rage, Labrandeus, my life will still materially rebound much, much faster than it will over there. Part of me wonders if the people of Nepal haven’t been kicked in the teeth, either for no reason, for because they deserved it for reasons I cannot fathom.

But.

Death by landslide or cholera or malnutrition is not all that face the people of Nepal. As unwelcome as their suffering surely is, this quake is the sort of disaster that can bring humanity together, because its onset was sudden, its victims blameless, and its destruction is being relayed around the world. Whatever money is pooled to aid the Nepalese may or may not be enough to rebuild what was lost, but it’s arriving much faster than did relief for Ebola. Stories of aid supplies backlogged and not arriving in the remote villages where they are desperately needed is still better than stories of people dying because no help has been sent at all. Managing the logistics of compassion is worthy work, and I cannot help but believe that each attempt to work together on missions of aid elevates our entire species. Humanity’s spirit needs opportunities for elevation, but we are probably missing a lot of them. Are we so deep in our ruts that thousands of people need to die in a distant land before we are shaken out of our complacency, Ennosigaios? And why did you choose Nepal to set your clock by?

You are god of sudden change, Poseidon, and it can take a long time to learn the lessons that you unexpectedly bestow. May you grant at least the full eighty years to allow this one to sink in.

Thinking of you always,

TPW

My gods are stronger than fiction

I recently started reading Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  I was kind of aware of these books, but only barely, and it wasn’t until I was poking around Amazon for tridents and had it vomit up a lot of Percy Jackson stuff that I had any clue that Poseidon is a significant force.  Being that I didn’t even know what the books were about, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I had no clue how much some of my co-religionists hate them.  As it happens, I don’t hate them, but what’s worth exploring is why.  I’ll start with the problems noted in that Tumblr post I just linked.

  • Rick Riordan misrepresents the myths and/or the gods.  One word here:  Homer.  You can’t tell me that the way he depicted the gods, particularly in the Odyssey, didn’t tick a few people off.  I don’t know if Homer believed in the gods, but he certainly wasn’t afraid to cast them in a bad light, and frequently.  My gods are stronger than the ones Homer depicted, and the ones Riordan depicted, in part because they understand that any press is good press.  Get people thinking about the gods, and some of those people are going to start worshipping the gods.  If Homer didn’t cross the line of hubris, Riordan probably hasn’t either.  (Although, if Homer really was blind, perhaps that wasn’t an accident, hmm?)  Myths are stories from a long time ago.  Stories = fiction, fiction = made up, made up= not true, not true = I’m not expecting them to reflect my personal experience with my deities.  I get why some of the depictions inspire rage, but my gods are stronger than fiction.
  • These stories are damaging to people with dyslexia and ADHD.  I have neither, so I can only express a personal opinion here:  the author is positing that those with divine blood have these conditions, not that those with these conditions have divine blood.  I can’t say if that depiction was insensitive, or ignorant, or hamhanded, because for some reason I can’t find the links the original poster embedded.
  • The author doesn’t believe in these gods.  Um . . . so what?  The gods do not require our belief, and can use someone to their own ends whether or not they have belief.  If the theoi restricted their work to only those few of us who actively honor and praise them, well, it would be a pretty small field.  Perhaps they wanted to plant the idea in thousands of young kids that the Greek gods are real, knowing that some portion of Riordan’s readership would begin sneaking offerings off of their plates to those gods.  The gods are stronger than fiction, and know how to use it, and its authors.  I think that’s awesome.  It reinforces my belief, my awe, my love.  It’s much more clever and subtle than any mortal mind could have orchestrated.  It’s brilliant in that vaporize-me-if-I-look-too-close kind of way.

Remember what happened to the Panchem Lama?  After the Dalai Lama declared his next incarnation, the poor tyke and his family disappeared, and the Chinese government declared another boy to be the next Panchen lama instead.  It’s an obvious attempt to stifle Tibetan resistance by controlling its religion, rear a child that is a mouthpiece for Chinese control.  But what if the Chinese, much to their chagrin, actually have the true Panchen lama on their hands?  Isn’t that what an enlightened being might do?  Might it not screw up Chinese designs a bit if their fake turned out to be the real thing?  It could happen that way, because the gods are stronger than fiction, even fiction manufactured by the state.

I was relatively comfortable in my ill-defined Paganism, which included a ritual every year or so if I was with people, but no obligations, no offerings, no calendar, no nothing.  I was also quite content in my decision to watch the series Xena: Warrior Princess from start to finish, knowing how wrong they got the myths and how annoying the characters (mortal and immortal alike) are in that show.  My took me out of my comfort zone was an encounter with Ares while I was watching:  the god Ares, not the leather-bound sex symbol who portrayed him.  It led me to seek a teacher in Hellenismos, to learn about ancient and modern practices, and to honor the theoi on a daily basis.  If the gods could use a dog of a show like Xena to get to me and transform my life, how much more can they do with a series like Percy Jackson?

Mark my words, many of tomorrow’s Hellenists will be born of these books.  It doesn’t matter what they “got wrong,” what matters is that minds are opening.  The gods are stronger than fiction, and they know how to use it to their own ends.  Hail the gods!

And, not or

The title of this post is how Anomalous Thracian describes the relationship of the terms “Pagan” and “polytheist” in his life, a concept he reminded me of when I interviewed him about his latest project.  E is unusual insofar as e adopted the polytheist label first, while most of us who consider ourselves both used Pagan before or concurrently with polytheist.  (In this context, I’m using “polytheist” to describe those folks who do not experience their gods as being facets of the One; we have been called “hard” and “devotional” and “immersive” and “traditional” polytheists, but no one term really encapsulates the mindset and also disincludes all others, so expect other adjectives to be proposed as the conversation continues.)  AT recognizes that not all Pagans are polytheist as e understands the term, and that not all polytheists think Pagan is meaningful to describe their path, but they aren’t mutually exclusive.

While I’ve been tentative about the language lest I inadvertently offend, I”m very much in tune with calling myself a polytheist and a Pagan.  The concept of deity is simply beyond human understanding, and any cosmology we construct is going to fall short.  The concepts of “separate” and “individual” may be utterly meaningless to the gods, or their individualness may be so far beyond my own that it would make my brain melt.  How separate (or not!) the gods are from me and each other is far less important than having a cosmology in place so I can relate to them.  I relate to the gods as individuals, but I’ve given up any hope of knowing if that’s the “one true way” or not.  In fact, a good amount of my experience contradicts that worldview, but I’m not about to be confused by the facts once my mind is made up!

Considering how Pagans react to one of our own choosing a different path, I want to be quite clear that I didn’t turn my back on the last 26 years of my faith journey this past Sunday morning.  I also didn’t accept Jesus as my lord and savior, nor did I make a bargain with any particular god that I am going to worship no other before em.  In fact, what happened the other day technically wasn’t something that I did at all.  Rather, it was done when I was in another room.

During its monthly Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business, the members of the Society of Friends in my town decided t290px-Quaker_star-T.svghat yes, I was clear to become a Friend, or Quaker, and that they in fact welcomed such a thing.  The decision was recorded as a minute, which will be published in the local Quaker newsletter (which I have edited since the beginning of the year).  The reading of the minute is the only ceremony involved, and I missed it not because it was secret, but because I had committed to teaching First Day School to the kiddies this morning.

Of course, there are likely questions about this.  Because I don’t have frequent readers, and thus no frequently asked questions, I’m going to guess what they might be:

  • Did you just convert to Christianity?  Well, no.  Quakerism was definitely founded by a Christian named George Fox, who preached about the direct connection with deity.  Most Friends are Christ-centered, but they include nontheist, humanist, and even Quaker Pagans among their number.
  • Do they know you’re a Pagan?  I haven’t hidden that fact, but Quakers don’t exactly wear their beliefs on their sleeves, either; for one thing, it would probably not be appropriate to the spirit of plain dress.  I made it a point to mention that fact when I was meeting with a clearness committee about becoming a member.  That led to questions about how I might relate to Friends who were uncomfortable with my Paganness, but I wasn’t asked about those beliefs, nor was it suggested that I should renounce them.  One elder in my meeting (mine!  that’s exciting to write!) said that I don’t have to speak in that language, but I do need to be able to hear it.  Another Quaker I met at a Pagan event called it “listening in tongues.”
  • How does this relate to your Pagan practices, anyway?  Considering that Hellenismos is a religion of spoken prayers, offerings, and outward ritual which I perform daily in solitude, while Quakerism is a path of silent worship in groups, the two dovetail surprisingly well in my life.  I was led to each in times of emotional turmoil.  While I cannot always be sure what voice I am hearing in meeting for worship, I am able to more easily listen to my gods there then when I am pouring libations and reciting prayers as offerings.  In fact, both are orthopraxic, focusing more on the practice than on the belief, and each requires discernment to tell what’s a sign (or message, in Quaker parlance), and what just an interesting coincidence or one’s own desires (the rush to interpret such as a message by a Quaker can be called “notional thinking”) be presumed to be more important than they really are.
  • Didn’t you get a sign from Ares to follow Hellenismos?  And now you’ve gone and joined one of the historic peace churches?  That did happen, yes.  Ares looks over my shoulder as I write, because he’s my gatekeeper god and reminds me of my faith.  Having never been to war, and not seeing any benefit to the enterprise, I can relate to the fact that no small number of the offerings my ancestors made to him were likely to turn war away from their shores, because they wanted peace.  I believe in peace, and there is a long tradition of asking Ares for peace.  I don’t see a conflict here.
  • But are you sure this isn’t just the first step down the slippery slope of betrayal of the Pagan community?  On one hand, I haven’t a clue.  I trust my gods.  I listen to them.  Jesus appeared to me exactly once during my years as a Christian, to tell me that he was cool with me giving him up so long as I didn’t give up the gods.  Ares showed up to tell me that I had done just that, and to pull it together.  This is my path, and I’m going to follow it towards wisdom, betterment of myself, and to serve them the best I can.  On the other hand, ordinary Pagans probably come and go all the time without eliciting feelings of betrayal.  I’m not Star Foster or Teo Bishop, I haven’t made waves, so I doubt anyone would feel personally wounded if I did leave Paganism . . . except for those gods I’ve sworn oaths to, of course.
  • Aren’t oaths a problem for Quakers?  My short answer to this is, “These aren’t the oaths you’re looking for.”  The Quaker opposition is to swearing to tell the truth as in a court of law, because it creates a double standard of truth.  I agree, so far as that narrow understanding of oath is concerned, but oaths signify much deeper commitments than truth-telling, and to reject them entirely is to throw the baby out with the bath water.

So I’ve gone and added another religion to my identity.  I do so with humble respect for the long tradition into which I have been accepted, and with profound thanks to the gods who led me to attend a meeting in the first place.  It may take me a lifetime to express in words what I know to be true:  that this decision allows me to better serve gods and mortals alike.

Have you ever found it difficult to uphold your end of a bargain with the divinities?

I had a friend once who used as his motto, “No promises made, no promises broken.”  That may be the only way one could honestly answer “no” to this question.

The bargains I have more trouble holding up are the open-ended ones.  Sometimes I will get clear direction to give up or modify a behavior, without it being tied to any specific bargain on my part.  Not knowing the higher purpose of what’s being asked is tricky, but that’s what I generally have to deal with when I don’t initiate the bargain myself.  That’s one of the reasons I never felt particularly led to give anything up for Lent when I was Catholic; the church at that time did a really bad job of explaining why I sh9uld, no one in my family modeled the behavior, and I was never motivated enough to find out why the priests thought it was useful.

When it’s my idea, though, I know what I’m offering, and I know what I’m asking for.  A little concrete thought goes a long way for a practical guy like me.  So I make bargains with Ares to avoid conflict, or to gird myself if it’s inevitable, and I deal with Hermes to protect myself and my home from thieves.  I have a clear goal in mind, and a clear idea of what I want to offer in return — which is subject to negotiation, of course.

Folks who are more sensitive to their gods’ words likely have more productive conversations, and doubtless find bargains initiated by those deities to be less trying.  I don’t hear my gods well, so I make do with what I have.

This post is part of a series of devotional questions for polytheists which were developed by Galina Krasskova.

How does your tradition handle wrathful, savage and destructive divinities?

The theoi — gods of the Hellenes, or “ancient Greeks” — are a study in opposites.  Poseidon rules earth as well as sea.  Zeus is progenitor of many offspring by many mothers, but is also god of marriage.  Hermes is swift as thought,yet his oldest representation is as a standing stone.  Demeter brings forth crops, and takes them away. Dionysos can bring sanity as well as madness.  Haides and Persephone hold the promise of life in their dark kingdom.  The Hellenes prayed to Ares not only for victory in war, but also to keep war far from their gates.

There is no wrath without calm, destruction without creation, death without life.  I believe that this understanding of the nature of the gods resolves the above question quite nicely:  the way to day with wrathful, savage, and destructive divinities is to appeal to other aspects of those very gods.  The myths also speak about involving other gods, but that usually doesn’t end well.

This post is part of a series of devotional questions for polytheists which were developed by Galina Krasskova.