Review of Hearthstone’s books

When I started my formal study of Hellenismos, Hearthstone was required reading. Eir two books of interest, Devotion: Prayers to the Gods of the Greeks and In Praise of Olympus: Prayers to the Greek Gods have become some of the most well-used books in my collection. Almost daily I read a Hearthstone prayer to one deity or another. I got Devotion about six years ago, but when I bought the other recently I decided that these books deserve a review before I wear them out and have to buy new copies.

It’s with Hearthstone that I first learned to appreciate poetry. What’s otherwise stopped me is what seems like rampant pretentious behavior in and near poems and poets; these are written for the gods, which perhaps makes such ego exercises impossible. The turns of phrase make my heart flutter with their elegance. Here’s an example about Hermes:

In any land, in any age, your people prosper; in any land, in any age, you find a place; in any setting, you belong.

There’s just a flow created by the word choices which carry the reader on. That’s particularly important for reading aloud; many writers — myself included — don’t think about how long sentences challenge the voice. Yes, there’s a few really long ones among these prayers which might leave the unprepared reader gasping for breath, but Hearthstone is more than generous with commas, semi-colons, and dashes to help us through the tough times. Silently or aloud, the words drip with passion for and power from the divinities thus celebrated.

There are other things about Hearthstone’s writing to make me swoon; for one, the use of semicolons is correct. For another, the word “god” is not capitalized in any of these prayers, for Hearthstone (or her editor) knows that it never should be. It’s no wonder reading these works makes me feel faint after a day scrolling through Overcapitalized Blog Posts about Important Subjects.

At the core of Hearthstone’s work, though, is an insistent power. The reader may not feel it by browsing the book, or reading it cover to cover. It may take actually using these prayers, speaking them aloud, to sense it. It may take reading them over and over again, but the power is there, and it becomes more evident with each pass through these words. If it weren’t for my robust mustache, I’m certain I’d detect sweat on my upper lip. These are prayers that get the attention of gods in part due to their muse-inspired beauty, and in part because many English-speaking Hellenists are using them.

The author explains in the introduction to Devotion that she began writing these prayers in part because there weren’t many out there at the time. Many others — myself included — have composed and even published books of prayers to the theoi, but only rarely do these more recent offerings match the passion expressed by Hearthstone. For beginners on the path, those only passingly curious about Hellenic worship, and seasoned devotees alike, these books would only enhance a library to which they were added.

Real money magic: searching for the golden apple

Gold plays an important role in the mythology of ancient Greece. Its deposits were guarded by fierce creatures such as Myrmekes Indikoi (dog-sized ants) and Grypes (gryphons), and love of it left Midas in a difficult predicament. Its association with magical and divine power is unmistakable in the tale of the golden fleece, the union of Danae and Zeus, and the works of Hephaistos; of its daimon, Pindar wrote, “Khrysos (Gold) is a child of Zeus; neither moth nor rust devoureth it; but the mind of man is devoured by this supreme possession.” Perhaps the best example of how gold influences the “mind of man” comes from the tale of the golden apple produced by Eris, which is recounted in the Aldrich translation of Pseudo-Apollodorus thusly: “Eris (Strife) tossed an apple [at the wedding of Thetis] to Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, in recognition of their beauty, and Zeus bade Hermes escort them to Alexandros [Paris] on Ide, to be judged by him. They offered Alexandros gifts: Hera said if she were chosen fairest of all women, she would make him king of all men; Athena promised him victory in war; and Aphrodite promised him Helene in marriage. So he chose Aphrodite [which led to the Trojan War].” In short, gold was considered something that was highly valued, yet could easily bring chaos and strife.

Of the items associated with gold in Hellenic antiquity, the apple is the most likely to be recognized in the modern, western world. As useful as wool is, most people don’t encounter it in fleece form, and wonders such as dogs crafted of the stuff don’t get nearly as much play on movie screens as the might Talos. It may be that Eris somehow obtained her legendary apple from the tree guarded by the dragon Lados, the same which Herakles harvested to complete one of his labors. Apples represent prosperity and abundance, and are associated with immortality, and they remain objects into which many generations have infused deep meaning. When Eris cast her apple into the midst of the gods with a cry of, “Kallisti!” (“for the fairest,” according to Robert Anton Wilson), that act can easily be taken to represent the unimaginable disruption brought into the world by the introduction of money, as represented by gold, its most successful form to date. Where the free exchange of offerings and blessings were the primary expression of kharis in pre-Helmonetary Hellas, it surely must have been a radical change to trade instead in lumps of metal which had little other purpose than to lubricate the gears of trade itself. Indeed, is not Hermes a trickster and thief, as well as god of commerce and lies? What an incredible shift of paradigm it must have been, to instead of trading wool for fish or skins for boards, one could drop a few shining bits of gold into a waiting palm, and walk out with cartloads of goods in exchange. Trade and, by extension, communication would become more extensive, and wealth could be both measured and taxed with greater ease. While money has taken many forms since it emerged as a medium of exchange, gold has time and again been used as the standard form, so it is not unreasonable to assume that the power of money is ideally expressed when it is minted in gold.

The associations gold had in antiquity point to the value placed in this soft metal, which “neither moth nor rust devoureth.” Seemingly immune to the decaying touch of Kronos, Khyrsos is also far too soft to do the work expected of other metals; gold is not beaten into swords in the forge, nor is it fashioned into helms, chains, or locks. As the power of human ambition has been gradually distilled into economic terms, gold has at least metaphorically become a far more effective weapon, shield, or prison than could ever be fashioned by the soot-blackened hands of a smith, but gold’s value was recognized long before its power became so pervasive as that. Having no need to be polished, the purity of gold could be at least estimated by the eye (and sometimes tooth, or other tool to make a notch), so anyone asked to take such a coin could be reasonably sure how much it was actually worth. That worth transcended the name and authority of whoever minted the coin, because the value of gold itself was — and is — very stable. That stability comes not only from its beauty and incredible durability, but from the fact that pulling more gold out of the ground was, and is, a laborious process which doesn’t add very much to the supply from one year to the next. Every item which is traded, even money itself, is subject to the law of supply and demand, and because the supply of gold rises slowly and decreases virtually not at all, the price of gold remains quite steady. In fact, changes in the price of gold are actually changes in the price of the money being used to buy or sell it, not the other way around. Industrial uses have been found for gold in modern times, but it remains valuable largely because it is pleasant to the eye and is as close as humans can generally get to a material which is neither created nor destroyed. Once it was universally recognized for its testable purity and reasonable amount of rarity, its role in economics was all but guaranteed. It is small wonder that the apple which Eris hurled was golden, given her role in chaos; any change, even when ultimately for the better, is a strife-bearing gift.

Hellenic tradition, however, is not one which takes its myths as literal truth. Given the number of ways that the old tales seem to contradict each other, this is probably for the best. Myths are written by humans, mortal beings trying to comprehend and explain the gods. The gods are not unknowable, but neither is a human being unknowable to an ant which clambers upon one’s foot. That ant could learn well the layout of the hairs which are rooted deeply in the human’s flesh, and the lines of old scars. It could seek to determine patterns in the upheavals which shake the vast body into motion. If others of its kind were swatted away or too their deaths, an ant might be quite concerned in ascertaining what caused such destructive events to occur. Likewise, we humans seek to propitiate the gods and please them, as well as understand them, but even our deepest knowing is unable to glimpse but the tiniest portion of the whole. An ant crawling upon a human leg may face death for causing a tickle, but it could be equally imperiled by the putting on of pants; so too is our behavior only sometimes directly related to how the gods influence our lives. Mortal understanding based on observation, divination, and communication results in myths which give a passing sense of the fullness of the gods. They are limited by the finite, linear perspective of those who write them. Ergo, while the tale of Eris and the apple may indeed contain some amount of truth, it could be off on important details, such as the sequence of events, to wit: what if the Trojan War precipitated the casting of the apple, rather than the other way around? If fixed in history, the war is believed to have taken place in the 12th or 11th century BCE, while Herodotus gives the Lydians credit for first using gold coins in his Histories, a practice which likely started sometime from 650-600 BCE.

The effects of reversing the sequence of events are significant, even if only considering the implications are regard to money itself and its role in the world of mortals. Rather than setting off a chain of economic consequences which led to a war tales of which have echoed down through the halls of time itself, forever changing the way life is lived on the surface of the earth, the cast apple might instead be a consequence of the actions of men — and “men” is the right word, given the gender roles of that time and place. Men plied the seas and overland routes with goods to trade. Men engaged in diplomacy between city-states. Men brought the war between Athens and Troy, and in doing so, offended Eris in some deep way, so much so that she swore to forever change their society. True to the chaos which is implicit in her nature, what Eris wrought was neither entirely curse nor blessing, but could represent itself as either, and sometimes as both. We know from what 5th-century BCE fragments of Pindar we have that Khrysos is child of Zeus, but no other parent is named. Eris could well be the unnamed mother of gold.

A mother does not necessarily visit her child upon others solely for the purpose of torment, and it is true that gold — or, more generally, money — has indeed been a mixed blessing, allowing humankind to engage in types of industry which would not have been possible in the absence of a medium of exchange. The results of that industry have included, among other things, a marked increase in the mortal lifespan, the development of new fuel sources that have accelerated human domination of the planet, and the ability of groups of people to exert economic pressure on other groups of people for good or ill. Money’s birthright of chaos is usually expressed as a result of the very human assumption that since money was invented by mortals, it must also obey rules imposed by mortals. One cannot appreciate the power of chaos fully without watching expert economists backpedal during a crisis which was not predicted by their number. It brings peace, and violence, and life, and death, and obscene wealth, and unimaginable depths of poverty. The spirit of money was given corporeal form in Khrysos, and by extension all money which is, or was once, linked to gold, and the laws it obeys were in force long before our eldest ancestors imagined that there are gods at all. To believe humans can control money with any more likelihood of success than the control of weather is, or should be, considered hubris; looking at the results of economic manipulations, it appears that Eris is no fonder of that level of arrogance than any of the theoi.

Returning to Eris is essential, for if the apple for the fairest was her greatest known act of chaos, it is only because her hand was not recognized when she took that apple back again. As with the first incident, this act can be closely associated with a war that was destined to change the course of history: the Great War, World War I, the War to End All Wars. Again, it is not entirely clear if her act was precipitated by some consequence of the war offending her, or if it was by her action that the war itself in motion. The year is 1913, the apple is the gold upon which human trade and endeavor was built, and the act was to take it away through the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank. This was not the first “central bank” created in order to give a government more direct control over the spirit of money, but the United States was about to embark on a period of war-driven expansion that would secure it as the supreme economic power, so its central bank’s acts would come to have consequences throughout the economies of the world. In fact, Eris did not so much act at this time, as choose not to prevent men (and again, in this time and place, it was indeed men making the decisions; one can only speculate how a more diverse group might have acted) from getting what they wanted. The goddess of chaos permitted the creation of a bureaucracy that would, in time, take away the gold she had introduced milennia before. For while it was not so common for gold to be used to buy and sell directly, every paper bill printed in the USA could, upon presentment to the United States Treasury, be redeemed for an amount of gold, set for many years at thirty-five dollars per ounce. Because of this obligation to have enough gold (which again, is not and never has been particularly easy to extract from Gaea’s grasp) on hand to redeem for every bill printed, the amount of money in circulation was capped. For the period of time that dollars were tied to gold in this fashion, prices as a whole did not particularly rise or fall, although the prices of individual goods and services would change based on supply and demand. That was particularly a disadvantage to anyone wishing to borrow money rather than saving towards a goal (the latter being the essence of the old American value called thrift), because borrowed money must be paid back with interest, and that becomes quite costly under such a stable currency, and is thus thoroughly discouraged.

The gold standard was actually eroded over several decades, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt demanded citizens turn in all gold for dollars (and the ownership of gold by those citizens made illegal for many years), the replacement of gold certificates with those redeemable in silver and then with notes that are stamped “legal tender” (back by the declaration, or fiat, of the government, rather than a durable commodity with an easily agreed-upon value), and the final abdication to pay obligations to foreign banks in gold in 1971 by Richard Nixon. The concept is largely now the purview of a certain subset of right-wing ideologues, and ignored by the experts of the economic community, who are quite comfortable that modern understandings of the working of money allow it to be more thoroughly controlled for the good of all. By freeing money from a standard measure, the government gives itself permission to simply print as much as is needed to pay off current debts. Money is thus subject to supply and demand: the more of a certain type of money that is in circulation, the less value it is given by those using it. Inflation, as an economic term, refers to inflation of the currency supply, not prices, despite the fact that the consumer price index is the only statistic usually cited regarding inflation’s existence. Prices are affected not only by the supply of money (which, all things being equal, would see prices of all things rise at exactly the rate the currency supply was being inflated), but by all other demands, and all other supplies. Because of the power of psychology, prices are even affected by the anticipated future supply and demand. Inflation does not affect those prices evenly, and couldn’t possibly. It does, however, make it easier to borrow, because without something to measure money against, it becomes easy to create bookkeeping gimmicks to create more out of nowhere. For example, the reserves that banks must hold, to make sure that every person seeking to withdraw money can get it, hover around ten percent. In other words, if a bank holds $100,000 in deposits, it must keep $10,000 on reserve, and may lend out the other $90,000. While a rational person might assume that this would result in a bank lending out ninety dollars out of every hundred deposited, in fact that bank may lend out nine hundred dollars for each hundred deposited, because the $100 is the 10% needed to keep on reserve out of a thousand. This kind of borrowing distorts where money is invested, and twists capitalism into a grotesque mockery of itself. Wealth is accumulated based more on being in the right place at the right time, rather than through hard work and industry; that results in the wealth being consolidated a minority that benefit from happenstance or inheritance.

Over years of reeducation, the idea that inflation is natural, or even desirable, has become commonplace. It is not. It is disrespect for the spirit of money, and results in a spiral of economic booms and busts as the supply of cheap money creates bubbles of speculation only incidentally connected to true economic activity. Moreover, the incentives to continue inflating a currency do not abate as time goes on. Granted, the United States has not suffered from hyperinflation since the days of the Continental Congress, but even the more sophisticated ways that money is injected into the economy have enduring impacts. The very concept of the need for infinite growth in capitalism is based in perpetual inflation of the money supply. Stocks are considered necessary for long-term investment because, as a class, they are most likely to beat inflation. Unions constantly argue for cost-of-living increases and minimum-wage hikes because without them, workers would see their accumulated savings eaten by inflation. Saving itself suffers, because in an inflationary system one actually pays back debts with dollars worth less than those borrowed, so with a fixed-rate loan in particular the lender is not actually going to reaping nearly as much profit as it seems, because with inflation at the Federal Reserve’s target rate of 2% a year, the dollar loses half its purchasing power every 35 years, a little longer than the standard term of a home mortgage. Deflation, which would certainly result if the country returned to fixing 35 dollars to each ounce of gold, would result in borrowers paying back more than they withdrew, which is what they actually agreed to, at least on paper. This is how virtually all modern governments actually fund their operations, particularly expensive wars, because to tax the citizens enough to support the actual expenses of a vast military-industrial complex would result in immediate and complete revolution. Instead, the money supply is increased, and that value which is lost to the citizens is transferred to the newly-created money, with which the government pays its debts. Inflation is but a hidden tax, one that impact the poorest most severely, and allows governments to carry on insanely expensive and mostly unpopular programs, such as drone warfare and enhanced interrogation.

This is the legacy of Eris removing her gift of gold: the chaos and suffering created by its introduction pale in comparison to that which has resulted by its elimination. It is possible that capitalism, were it allowed to function under the auspices of an honest money, may be salvageable, and its remaining flaws mitigated so that the markets would only be allowed to run free to the extent that it benefits all living beings. Perhaps this is not the case, but in the atmosphere resulting from Eris’s second gift, it is all but impossible to say. To truly understand if capitalism must fall, it is imperative to first seek out the golden apple, and restore it to its rightful place on the table. Finding it may require supplication to Eris and the wounded Khrysos, who may not wish to be abused any further. Without the restoration of the apple, the gold, to our system, it will not matter if capitalism is at fault for the many woes plaguing our species; for good or ill, it will inevitably fall, and what shall be generated from the resulting chaos is impossible to predict.

Finding Ares

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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: epithets

When I look back at how terrified I was to get things wrong as I attempted to honor the theoi, particularly around the use of ancient Greek, I’m amazed that I didn’t simply smile and decide that this path wasn’t for me.  I did before, when I was invited to join a group of people who aspired to Druidry and ADF membership.  Yes, I’ve probably got more Irish blood in my veins than anything else but no, I didn’t have any interest in wrestling with Gaelic or whatever language it was that I’d have to master.  I’m good at one language, and I don’t believe for one second that specialization is for insects; in fact, I think it’s one of the great strengths of humanity to be able to specialize.

Beham, (Hans) Sebald (1500-1550): Der Narr und die Närrin.

Long before I ever thought about Hellenic gods, I was a fool, and I still take the job very seriously.  I’ve assumed the office of jester in a coven, inducted people into the mysteries of Bill the Cat, and tales of what transpires when I draw down the Lord of Misrule are recounted years after the fact.  Being a fool is to master the art of applied ignorance, and I always considered Socrates to be my role model in that regard.  (Yes, writing this makes me realize I probably should be paying him hero cult, but I don’t wish to get ahead of myself.  Baby steps.)  One step that I took in my Hellenic education would be considered quite foolish to some of my co-religionists:  I joined Tumblr.

Here’s another thing I’ve learned by being a fool:  you can’t consider the source.  More specifically, there is no value in dismissing a source because they happen to use a lot of profanity, or they were born in this century, or even because they got started in their religion because of some guy’s books.  If I considered the source, I would never have found a particular blog on Tumblr, written by a particularly potty-mouthed someone who clearly reveled in blog-battle.  As it happens, one of that really nasty blogger’s posts laid out the structure of a basic Hellenic ritual in a way that, for some reason, clicked with me.  I was probably at close to two years of formal instruction by this point, but the presentation spoke to me in a new and important way.  I can’t find the post, and frankly I’d rather not link to it anyway because there’s no need to invite trouble, but it got me thinking about epithets.

It was the notion of calling a god by many epithets, “or whichever name you wish to be known by,” that got my gears grinding and enabled me to level up.  This is something I can anchor in time, because I distinctly recall that when I attended the Polytheist Leadership Conference, I was proud that I had memorized seven for Poseidon.  It took a few weeks to commit all of those to memory, and to be honest I’m still not convinced I’m pronouncing most of them correctly.  Still, that was the beginning of a process which has exploded for me.

Poseidon, by Grace Palmer

Poseidon, by Grace Palmer

Honestly, I would have been quite content calling Poseidon by seven epithets important to me, reading a simple hymn of my own creation, offering barley and a libation of coffee.  Longtime readers may recall that I was challenged — from several sources — about whether I was doing enough for him, and that ultimately he assigned me the task of writing hymns for each of those epithets, and a whole lot more besides.  Those hymns are the core of my book Depth of Praise, promised for well over a year but finally in the design phase.  That’s exciting in and of itself, but I expected that my daily practice would calm down after I wasn’t writing something new every day.  The creation time did fall away, but somewhere along the line the number of epithets that are part of my standard practice ballooned to 29 different titles.

That means that over the course of roughly five years, I went from making a fixed number of offerings to one god in return for a favor, to layers upon layer of daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal practice.  There is no question in my mind that I could not have and would not have started on this path if I was told that this would be expected of me down the road.  He who shakes the earth also knows how to move the ground with an imperceptible slowness, allowing me to feel like it was no change at all.

The task for me, and for anyone with a few years of practice, is to see one’s own practice through the eyes of a neophyte, and understand that this is not where anyone should begin.  Even if they take on a multilayered calendar of offerings with zeal, they are likely to burn out.  Even more common is what I decided about the Druids:  “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Who knows what opportunities I missed?  Who knows how many doors I might close to someone simply by showing them what I do on a regular basis?

By the word of Hermes, I will lie and deceive to avoid scaring a seeker.  I will hide my practice and reveal my knowledge only when it requested, and then in appropriate measure.

By the word of Apollon, I will try to recognize how much truth a seeker is ready to know, so I dole it out at a pace the gods decree, rather than let my passion and excitement trample over the curiosity of another.

By the word of Poseidon, I will root myself in the patience of the tectonic plates themselves, and trust that it is through me, and not from me, that wisdom may flow.

There is more to tell about my personal practice, but it’s mostly frills and shiny things.  Stay tuned.

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.

Unboxing Ares

As I posted with great anticipation last week, in the mail yesterday I received my prize for winning the Aspis of Ares essay contest over the summer with Understanding Ares.  So today, it’s time for some unboxing.  The photos will literally unbox what I received, while I take some time unboxing my relationship with the god of war.

Can’t have an unboxing without a box.

The title of that essay, Understanding Ares, could be a bit misleading.  It wasn’t written to help others understand him at all; writing is my way of understanding things myself.  This particular essay was written as an assignment for the Basics of Hellenismos class I was taking at the time.  I don’t recall if my teacher assigned Ares specifically, or if I selected him because it was his fault I was taking the class at all, but I really needed to get a handle on comprehending this deity who, frankly, scared the piss out of me.

Rather than a blade, I opted to tear it apart bare-handed.

Yes, my embracing of Hellenismos is something I place in Ares’ hands, because he was the god who got it through my thick head that it was time.  Polytheists often speak about this god or that god not being particularly subtle with their signs and messages, but I think that’s not the case.  Sometimes, two boats and a helicopter aren’t enough for we mortals to see through the veil of our preconceived notions, and a much more direct approach is needed.  Of course, there’s also the possibility that watching one of us jump out of our skin is just really, really funny . . . but, I digress.  Ares was not subtle.

A handwritten note!

When I discovered that there were people reconstructing the ancient Greek religion, I was excited.  This was what I had envisioned Pagan religion to be!  These were the gods whose tales fired my imagination as a child, the powerful deities who, despite the negative light in which they were portrayed in the first translations I read, seemed far more approachable than the God of my church.  These were not abstractions, the archetypal pantheistic faceless powers that so many of my Pagan friends described as being central to my theology . . . these were the gods!

Snugly packed as a womb . . . but two treasures, not one!

But reconstruction is intimidating.  I barely made it through high school French, and you want me to learn the ancient form of a language that doesn’t even use the same alphabet?  Isn’t that one of the reasons I never became a Druid?  I consider myself a language specialist — I’m pretty good at the one, with virtually no knack for picking up another.  I considered the idea briefly and discarded it.

It was a long, summer day that I spent alone and lonely.  For various reasons, it was one of those days when introspection turns to deconstruction and then to self-destruction.  I sat on my couch, wrapped in a blanket against the cold I felt in my soul, Xena on the television, feeling memories of the many conflicts in my life wash over me.  I felt tired, I felt like a failure, I felt like I wanted to give up and finally know peace.  Life had kicked my ass and I was done.

“Consider the second piece an apology for the tardiness.”

At some point I looked up at the screen and saw Ares, as portrayed by Kevin Smith, stride across my field of view.  And somewhere deep inside, I felt Ares, god of war watching me.  How long he’d been there, I could not say, but I knew who it was and I knew what he wanted:  to bring me into the fold.  Maybe it’s time to stop fighting conflict.  I shot bolt upright, sweating and shaking, knowing that I’d gotten a message from a god for the first time in . . . ten or twenty years, I would think.

Like unraveling a cocoon.

Thing is, I don’t like fighting.  Or confrontation.  Or stirring up trouble.  Mind you, this stuff happens to me . . . a lot.  But I don’t like it, and I had some seriously mixed feelings about being tapped by the god of war.  But I sought out a teacher.  I started making regular offerings.  I’ve constructed shrines, do a much better job of keeping up the family altar, and the experience is starting to transform me into a better person, a man who is in touch with the gods.

The “apology” was to give me the poetry prize, too!

Ares, however, does not get much honor from me.  He is not one of the deities that I reserve a day of the week for, in keeping with modern practice.  Nor do I pour a libation to him every single month on his day of honor.  He gets from me offerings of blood and rage, when they occur, and nothing more.

That’s about to change.

Thrakian rider
It’s been in the back of my mind for a month or two that I should be working harder at building kharis with my gatekeeper god.  I know why I haven’t:  he still scares me.  Reveling in conflict is something I have shied away from, despite the fact that I’m drawn to it.  Resisting one’s nature causes more problems than it has ever solved, but the cool logic of that observation doesn’t make the plunge easier to make.  Part of me thinks embracing Ares will turn me into a bloodthirsty madman, and even though I know that’s nonsense (Dionysos is much more likely to strike me with madness), it’s still hard to overcome.
But now I have beautiful icons of Ares, lovingly crafted by his devotee, and they will not be shoved into a drawer.  And I have regular contact with other Ares worshipers in the Shrine of Ares, a Facebook group which has really helped me put things in perspective.  Through them, I’ve learned that Ares often comes unbidden, and acceptance of his path is not always a simple thing.  Ares has much to teach me, and the first step towards understanding him is understanding my own warrior nature.

For the record, I was expecting them to look like this.  Mind = blown.

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.