So, I’m really not that invested in the term “Pagan”, eh?

I’ve read a few of the recent posts around the pagan blogosphere on the relevance of the word “pagan” and the “pan-pagan” community. Normally, I try to eschew simply re-stating the thoughts I share with others, especially if they’ve done a perfectly adequate job — and indeed, many already have.

My first forays into “the pagan community” as an adult were very focused: Hellenic polytheism, Hellenismos, the religion of the ancient Hellenes — and about a dozen or so other terms, some of which have been downright goofy (like “gentile Hellenes”, as I noticed a few people tossing around for about ten minutes, in Internet Age™). By and large, it stays that way. I read a few “pan-pagan” blogs, or at least the few I consider intelligent-enough (well, OK, I read The Wild Hunt and it’s “family blogs” and Patheos: Pantheon, and occasionally, I’ll read something else), but I don’t really go to “pan-Pagan” events, and I find most “pan-Pagan” message boards to be equal parts dull and insipid and occasionally incredibly irritating (the primary exception being The Cauldron; The Pagan Forum isn’t bad, but it also is lower in activity than some).

For as much as I find it hard to interact with other Hellenes (I’ll get to that in a mo’), I find it ten times harder to keep my head around most people of other paths, especially very individual-focused paths. The few articles I posted to WitchVox, several responses I got in return, though well-meaning and generally positive, offended me on many deep levels that left me wondering if they’d even read the article, much less the person information I’d posted in my WV profile about my path — one quote that especially sticks out in my mind, in response to an article about Urban Spirituality where I mention the compatibility with my own path, was from a woman and she had congratulated me on “discovering [my] goddess forms in a concrete place” — I had made no mention of such, first of all, and only have the vaguest idea of what that might mean, that I find it hard to imagine why she felt the need to congratulate me on something she had no real idea if I’d ever done.

I have some local friends who some may refer to as “scene pagans” as opposed to “religious pagans”. Before moving to the area, I spent a weekend at the house of one of them and was met with flabbergastion that I’m in an automatic habit of burning incense daily — now, I’ve since re-thought the idea of bringing said into another person’s home before assuming it would be fine-and-dandy, but the feeling of my throat leaping gutward never quite shook, and the tension felt when at first it was assumed by the friend in question that I was somehow just randomly lighting things on fire in the guest room was immediately clear. To me, this is “what pagans are supposed to do” — to them, this was something pretty far “out there”, especially as it was simply a Friday and not a religious festival for either their tradition or mine.

While I clash with other Hellenes, this is usually just personality clashes, or arguments about nuances of belief or interpretation of primary sources — the kinds of arguments that even a lot of people in the same sects of Christianity or Hinduism may have (as a quick example: I’ve met Hare Krishna who advocate veganism, and I’ve met those who prefer to be semi-vegetarian, eating mostly vegetarian, but occasionally having meat, especially if offered some as a guest in another’s home; my father, though generally easily described as Irish Anglo-Catholic had been married four times, including two divorces, and supported abortion in many circumstances that even many other abortion-permitting Catholics would have found excessive). Little, if anything I do, will seem “foreign” to the average Hellenistos or Helleniste. Where we differ is regional focus (I prefer the Boeotian region, while most seem to be focused on Attika, and at least a highly visible minority may be described as “Hellenistic”), semantics, philosophy (Diogenes, FTW!). We don’t tend to differ in what we do, and we don’t tend to differ in the broadest areas of belief. We have a generally shared mythology and religious culture, even if the details may serve as bone-picking moments.

Now obviously, I disagree with the sharp and strict sense of “separatism” that some vocal Hellenists seem to favour — I don’t give honour to Aegyptian deities, and I don’t generally give much thought to Roman deities outside of Britannia, whom I’ve adopted strictly as an ancestral deity or daimon, but I generally don’t mind Hellenic syncretics, and simply regard them as another sect or as giving cultus to deities whom I simply do not. As said Burkert, “Polytheism is an open system” and it’s hard to have contact with so many cultures and their gods without seeing the occasional deity who simply can’t fit into a mould previously set by one’s native pantheon, and thus finding a moment where one may consider that deity’s validity. And, like Sannion, I find it peculiar that so many who seem to give emperor Julian so much regard fail to take into account that the man’s own religious practises would be “eclectic” by the standards said people have established. I can live with where Hellenes and I tend to differ, whether I like said people on a personal level or not, but it becomes harder to find a comfortable area of common ground with the average American individuality-focused pagan.

In theory, I have no real problem with Eclectic practises — again, it’s usually just something that I simply don’t do. I know that Eclectic and other individuality-based pagans can take that approach intelligently, and give some amount of respect to cultural traditions whilst creating something unique and spiritually valid. Where it becomes problematic is when it’s assumed this is the “Gold standard” for the pan-Pagan population — and indeed, every time I’ve ventured into certain more-unsavoury areas of said community, I find people taking things and tossing them together all willy-nilly, a downright perverse sense of pride in collective anti-intellectualism and anti-academia, and an acute lack of self-examination with some ideas that, at best can be a sign of unhealthy narcissism and, at worst a charlatan. The _michigan_pagans e-mail list features people who will mock you for any amount of book-learning (outside certain publishing houses often decried as “fluffy”), and also boasts a moderator who will harass you over personality differences — apparently some find an informed spirituality “incredibly shallow” or one that “can’t possibly be real” and some men in their late forties with have such a downright infantile response to men in their twenties being so flabbergasted at the “enforced fluff” around one that after the latter unsubscribes, the former will forward the latter every single nasty post made by list members to the now-unsubscribed party, requiring one to alert Yahoo to the harassment.

As best as I can tell, once I start travelling outside my own tight-knit community of Hellenes for the “pan-Pagan community”, there is little incentive for establishing common ground. Even “ex-community, please-don’t-call-me-Hellene-I’m-my-own”-types are noticeably different to interact with than the “spiritual anarchists” than dominate, well pan-Paganism, likely because of that commonality of experience, not just with other Hellenes, but with dealing with pagans on the outside of that community — they seem to understand what the other “doin’ my own thing” Pagans are doing wrong when interacting with recons, and so have a relaxed approach to sane recons (and tend to avoid the nutters). Furthermore, I’ve noticed a trend, whether this is relatively new or long-established, I cannot say, of “scene pagans” who tend to be more eclectic and “religious pagans”, who tend to be more recon in practise*. You know what I mean when I say “scene pagan”: They tend to venture out to public rit and maybe even set up a shrine or altar for major festivals, maybe even go to regular pan-Pagan meet-ups, but even on deeper glance, it’s apparent that spirituality and practise are dead last in their approach to religion, behind going to events and conventions, behind “polyamoury” circles, behind organic foods, getting wasted, and so much else. What makes them “pagan” seems rather superficial, and it’s like “pagan” is the new term for “hippie”. This is different from those who may be deeply religious but make efforts to keep different aspects of their lives “superficially separate” — after all, a deeply religious or spiritual person naturally is influenced by their religious culture in all other aspects of their lives; and obviously quite different from those who are deeply religious and very obviously flaunt their religion’s influences on one’s life. I know it’s not my place to judge, but most of the people I tend to designate as “scene pagans” will actively eschew religious or spiritual discussions, even when things are obviously going to remain civil, and give no real signs of even having a religion except a few times a year — and some of these people are quite lovely folk, but I just tend to have even less incentive to look for any religious or spiritual common-ground, and am always left wondering just what got them interested in paganism, anyway.

As for the term “pagan” itself, as I’ve said before, I’m not married to the term at all. I think it’s become a little too “unloaded” in recent years and don’t blame any one pagan grouping more than any other for this. While, ideally, I’d like to retain a “rather Victorian” impression of the word, I lament that I cannot. Perhaps this is due to ultimately coming to paganism as an adult, and an adult long-jaded by a perceived superficiality of the “pagan” community? I know not, and ultimately, it matters not, because even if I came to Paganism in my idyllic youth and stayed pagan through into adulthood, and thus retained a benign mental image, this isn’t the common mental image held by the overculture, and this isn’t the common mental image held by most within the “pagan” umbrella. The cultural drift is, at this point in time, quite deeply rooted — perhaps in time, it will loosen, and perhaps continuing to fiddle with it will loosen, or perhaps the root will react by digging itself deeper, as a means to try and protect itself. I care not for strategies to get rid of this trend, cos I’m not especially bothered by it — after all, “polytheist” means something, and even in ancient times, when “paganus” was especially pejorative, it was vague.

So was there a point to all this? Probably not. This may, in fact, just be another cantankerous polytheist shouting into the cold unforgiving (and not to mention paradoxical) Khaos-Kosmos of the Internet that is both a formless void while being everything and anything, and this shouting is destined to fall on the ears of a few. Perhaps it will be the start of yet another useless bickering. Perhaps I’m just putting too much thought into what’s essentially nothing, what with this widespread meme that somehow words don’t actually mean anything. If anything, I hope that perhaps religious communities are being and will continue to be forged for the better.


*as always, these are not absolute judgements, there are those of each in each group

Painting

It’s been a while since I’ve done a painting for the theoi — perhaps tellingly, my last one is Narkissos, left unfinished after my surgery in 2008 went awry.

I’ve been feeling the push to paint again quite recently, and the image I’m getting is for Britannia, and will most likely be in watercolours — indeed, one of the main things holding me back this last week is the search for where I unpacked my watercolours to.

“But Ruadhán!” you might wish to interject with, “That’s not a Hellenic goddess!”

Well, I suppose in the strictest sense, you’d be correct, but my reasons include ancestor-worship (definitely an ancient Hellenic practise) and the name “Britain” ultimately comes from Hellenic etymology. Of course, I’m only really justifying myself in public because I’m sure my #1 fan would love nothing more than to use this and the forthcoming painting as “evidence” that I’m somehow “not practising Hellenic religion/reconstruction” anymore, possibly ever (as he’s done this to others in the past, for lesser reasons) — which is hilarity-on-a-stick, true, but best to make such lunacy apparent from the start, den eínai?

My envisioning of Britannia is based part in the traditional Roman and part in the Mod subculture, and may even seem reminiscent of a certain scene from Derek Jarman’s Jubilee — and I’m sure at this point, you probably have the same mental image I do, especially if you’re familiar with my painting style.

One thing that I regret not posting about this year is my ritual and prayer for my re-envisioning of Shrove Tuesday as Pancake Feast of Britannia and St. Patrick’s Day as Bacon & Cabbage Feast of Hibernia. I intend to remedy this, but at a more seasonally-appropriate future time.

A pair of quotes

From Hellenismos Today by Timothy Jay Alexander (context: introduction to Hellenismos):

“Hellenic Reconstructionism allows for a great deal of diversity in beliefs and practice because of the very nature of ancient Greece.” (pg. 19).

and in the following paragraph (also pg. 19):
“Each city-state [polis] had a unique religious calendar. They had their own versions of the myths. The practices of each city-state could almost be described as separate denominations or even religions.”

See for yourself, this page available on Google Books preview (also, screen-cap taken for when he re-sets his Lulu preview permissions).


From this, we can conclude what I and others have been saying all along; indeed, it supports my theory that Hinduism is the way that polytheistic religions evolve naturally (after all, Shinto shows many parallels, albeit with a uniquely Japanese take on it), and that Hellenismos will be best served through the establishment of diverse sects and philosophies, Thiassoi to specific deities (including less popular minor deities, such as Kirke [for you modern-day Pharmakoussai]).

If this was a “one size fits all” religion, then why, when looking into the actual history, do we discover that different poleis did things differently? And if all these thirty-odd Hellenic tribes allegedly respected each-other as equally Hellenic (as one kid recently dared to alleged to me, a philoboeotian, in an e-mail), then what was the deal with Athenians regarding Boeotian Hellenes as “barbaros” (non-Hellenic speakers — after all, such chauvinisms usually come from Athenians, both past Athenians and modern Attic-focused polytheists)? There is a wealth of Hellenic diversity that should not be ignored or cast away because of the agendas of an extreme minority.

Who is a “Recon”?

The dictionary defines reconstruction as:

1. to construct or form again; rebuild: to reconstruct a Greek vase from fragments
2. to form a picture of (a crime, past event, etc) by piecing together evidence or acting out a version of what might have taken place
[World English Dictionary]

It can therefore be fair to say that Religious Reconstruction is hardly the act of making something exactly as it happened or was done before. That’s not to say that reconstruction is not sometimes meticulous, but it’s also not the act of making a broken vase unbroken — after all, more often than not, you can see the glue holding the fragments together, and most significantly, you can almost always see that there are fragments being held together. Another popular analogy is to take a house that has been damaged by flood or by fire and rebuild it. You’re not going to make it exactly as it was before, you know this. If the house was old enough to have lead paint in it, well, good luck making it exactly like it was before. If it was that old, then there was probably some electrical wiring and water or heat piping that would not fit with modern codes — again, good luck with that. A thing that is reconstructed is never exactly the same as it was before — if it was, then it wouldn’t need to be reconstructed, that’s just basic facts.

Furthermore, how to reconstruct, say, ancient art is often debated by art historians, art restorers, and archaeologists. A basic Google search for “reconstructed Venus de Milo [Aphrodite of Milos]” will turn up many different ideas of how the statue’s arms should be positioned and what, if anything, she’d have in her hands. Some of these ideas are obviously not supported by easily sourced evidence of how the statue was originally found and what she was found with, but some of the photo-manipulations obviously show skill and knowledge (albeit, knowledge of basic art) that these would be fair hypotheses if there was no other evidence.

Religious reconstruction is nothing more than forming a hypothesis, an educated guess, and more often than not, forming several hypotheses of what could have been, or what upgrades to the electrical wiring would need to be made. While there is a wealth of evidence in existence of what the ancient Hellenes (and other tribes) did and did not practise and believe, there are still a lot of gaps that could use some putty, a lot of corroded pipes that need replacing, and a lot of questions whose original answers have long crumbled away into dust, but those questions still need answers.

The long and short of it is that arguing over who is and is not “recon” is no less mental masturbation than any other mental exercises that have no real-world applications. It’s not as important as actual practise; if you’re actually practising your religion in a form and spirit consistent with that of ancient Hellas, then this will speak for itself. If you are not, then that is between you and the Theoi to judge whether or not it is improper or impious.

After the shower

shower prayers and ritual

The following came to me, pretty much as-is, fresh from my shower:

I shave my face in honour of Apollon
Preserving the face of an eternal kouros
Keeping the passions for life and art and love
Eager to learn the wisdom of self-betterment

I, too, care for my hair in honour of Apollon
Its strands long in honour of The Eternal Kouros
May its length take my passions and desires
On the breaths of the Anemoi to yourself
And the Mousai, high on Mount Helikon
And may you all instruct me how to mould my passions
In the ways that best honours You.

I perform these tasks daily before my mirror
Which reminds me of how the Thespian youth,
Narkissos, finally wept, and may He, as a beautiful Daimon,
protect me from destructive self-love.

[extinguish candle lit before shower]

Bedtime prayers

I have my evening devotionals, which are taken partly from the outline offered by Drew Campbell to Hellenion (link); the slight changes i have made are:
1) where is says “Hymn to patron/matron deities, I keep it simple: Eros and Apollon. Apollon was the Theos whose reverence “brought me back” to Hellenic polytheism, and Eros is He whose cultus I feel ever so slightly closest to. If this makes Them “patrons”, then fine, but there are several reasons i don’t apply that word to my relationship with Them.
2) at the point in the outline for “supplications and thanksgivings”, I first offer a simple praise to many Thespian and Theban deities and legendary kings.
3) I don’t offer the Orphic Hymn to Zeus, but instead a prayer of my own device to Zeus, as king of the Gods and thus God of kings, and to Posiedon, the mythological father of Boeotus, for whom Boeotia was named.

As I crawl into bed, I turn on some music (an old habit going back to my childhood; when i was very young, my mother used to sing me to sleep, and later she got in the habit of putting on a record or turning on the radio), and then I wind my watch and my alarm clock. As I wind them, I say this prayer:

Holy Khronos, Father of Time, I ask that you see these ieces run as they should, and not a minute too fast or too slow,
And I ask that The Most Revered Moirai, Mothers of All Destinies, please see that i may have the honour to wind them again.

Shower Prayer to Asklepios & Hygaeia

So, here’s my shower ritual — everybody has one, mine just involves lighting a candle and saying a prayer:

*procession (head into bathroom)
*light candle at shrine to Asklepios & Hygaeia
*turn on water, sun a bar of strongly scented soap under tap to fill the room with the scent of lavender & anise (serious, that Zuma(?) slice-off stuff from Whole Foods is not only expensive enough to serve as an offering, but it’s got a strong enough smell that this is all you need to do to make the whole bathroom perfumed for hours)
*step into shower
*recite prayer as I wash

O Athanatoi,
Praise of the highest to Apollon, His son Asklepios, and to Hygaeia and Her sisters, daughters of the first doctor,
As I shampoo my hair, i ask that it be free of grit, superfluous oils, and excess dander,
As I condition my hair, I ask that it shine and be full of body, attractive enough to approach the Theoi who preside over the aesthetic arts,
As I wash my face, I ask that the pores be free of grit and excess oils, and that the hairs of my jawline and brow be pleasing to the Theoi of the aesthetic arts,
As I cleanse my body with mildly-scented soap, I ask that my skin be free of grit and excess oils,
I ask that my arms and shoulders be strong enough to display my virility when needed but yeild to the embrace of a lover,
I ask that my belly become full at no later than the necessary moment,
I ask that my back stand up to the demands of the day,
I ask that my legs and feet be strong enough to carry me on the day’s journeys,
And I ask that my groin and arse prove fulfilling to what-ever mortal man may lie with me, and even more so if he should prove a god in human form,
As i stand and rinse my body clean, I ask Hygaeia to kiss the water with her blessings,
And I ask the Moirai to see that I may enjoy this pleasure again tomorrow.