“America’s strength is not our diversity; our strength is our ability to unite people of different backgrounds around common principles.” — Ernest Istook
Titles and Epithets of our Fellow Pagans
The Fluffer-Nutter. The Elitist. The Drama Whore. The New-Ager. The Gullible. The Snob. He or She of Bad Lineage. The Poser. The Insane. He or She of Too Much Baggage. The Big Mouth. The Cult Leader. The Slut. The One With A Stick Up Their Ass. The Gossip. The Power Monger.
We have a thousand names we use for explaining why we won’t work with someone in our community, even if they may share with us a passionate love for one, or several, of our deities. We know that the gods want a strong community that can do things like build freestanding temples for them. We know that such undertakings require lots of people cooperating. Yet, it seems that places where “Pagans” meet are too often filled with cold and haughty stares, poisonous gossip about the faults of others, and anything but unity.
How very strange this seems to me when I consider the truths of polytheism:
- No two deities in a pantheon ever see a situation exactly the same way. For example, Athena and Aphrodite do not think of sex in the same way.
- In the ancient world, major deities had cults, in addition to the mainstream religion, which had different ritual practices
- A single deity might have many different faces, or might have a different outlook depending on the time of the year, the place, or the context.
- Despite all this, Pantheons function. The gods are able to put their differences aside, be civil to one another, and get a thing done.
And particularly, the truths of Hellenic Polytheism in particular:
- Humility is important to us. To believe that you are without fault is a challenge to the gods.
- Hospitality is important. If someone shows up at your door, unless you know that they will do you active harm, you must open your door and give that person comfort.
- The longest and bitterest of wars began when Eris was not invited to a party.
- Khelone was punished for snubbing a gathering. (If you believe Virgil, the cause was thinking she was too good to go. Aesop claims that Khelone was doing some epic spitching)
1. A person who has the option of going out with friends but instead makes the bizarre yet conscious decision to remain indoors for the night to indulge in activities involving sweatpants, Funyuns, a High Definition television or all three simultaneously. Many times the subject cannot establish a decent justification for his or her actions (ie. citing poor weather conditions) and instead fumbles with their words and mannerisms, often speaking in senseless sentence fragments and avoiding eye contact entirely.
When we find fault with one another, we turn a blind eye to our own faults. When we refuse to invite members of the community who live within driving distance of us to gatherings, we are violating the laws of hospitality. When we shun gatherings because of who is involved, or the specifics of the event, we are giving offense to the gods who would otherwise be honored at that gathering, especially if the event is cancelled due to lack of attendance.
Sympathy for the Spitchers
Look, I get it. I’m not innocent of this. I’ve got all sorts of baggage and bitterness because of people who have talked about me behind my back, or who have said cruel things directly to my face. But I realize that if I want the world to be different, I have to be the change I seek to create. I have to forgive those people, because they’re just a part of a larger, problematic trend, which in turn, is a sub-cultural problem in our community.
It starts with realizing that mortals aren’t deities, and that they aren’t expected to be perfect. I have to realize that the problem is bigger than just me not getting along with two or three people: it’s a divided community, filled with hundreds, if not thousands of such petty squabbles that people can’t seem to get past. It also starts with realizing that unifying the community may be the single biggest service we can render to our gods. You’d do anything for your gods? Do this.
Our paradigm turns a very harsh light on our fellow human beings. Our paradigm, in turn, can be re-shaped by language. By changing the way we use traditional formulas, and shifting the emphasis, just slightly, we can draw our awareness toward the diversity inherent in whatever deity we are calling, and if even within one deity, all the more so within the pantheon.
The shift I am proposing is to promote inclusion over exclusion, with the hopes that we may eventually benefit from the talents of people that we would otherwise discard, based on the epithets which we give them.
Diversity Within A Deity
“As it is our custom in prayer to call the Gods by the names and places which They prefer.” — Plato, Cratylus, 400e
Let us be honest with ourselves about mythology. A single deity is like a world unto him or herself. Each god or goddess contains many abilities and wisdoms, many truths, and as well, many stories of things they maybe shouldn’t have done. I’m going to pick on Athena, for a minute, because I think She can handle it. She seems a sturdy sort. Much armor and all that.
“Next one of the many princes asked why Medusa, alone among her sisters, had snakes twining in her hair. The guest replied ‘Since what you ask is worth the telling, hear the answer to your question. She was once most beautiful, and the jealous aspiration of many suitors. Of all her beauties none was more admired than her hair: I came across a man who recalled having seen her. They say that Neptune, lord of the seas, violated her in the temple of Minerva. Jupiter’s daughter turned away, and hid her chaste eyes behind her aegis. So that it might not go unpunished, she changed the Gorgon’s hair to foul snakes. And now, to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear, the goddess wears the snakes, that she created, as a breastplate.” — Metamorphoses, Ovid, Book 4: 753-803
Violated her. I want to be clear: violated. So, here, we have a deity who responds to a rape. First, she turns a blind eye, and then, she punishes the victim. Yet, does anyone ever recount this when invoking her? FUCK NO. Back in the day, when this was a credit to her chastity, maybe. But in modern times, when blaming the rape victim is counted a socially backward atrocity, not so much.
Athena bears many, many gifts. She gives freedom to the asexual woman, giving her permission to exist. She grants skill in battle as well as in strategy. She is a goddess of Democracy, of justice, of civility and wisdom. If you choose to focus on the negative, you will never, ever, ever see benefit from her wisdom, her strength, or the freedom which she seeks to give you.
Athena has about a hundred titles and epithets. Among them, one can find the paradoxes of her existence. She is Worker and Thinker, War-Monger and Healer. She is goddess of Athens, and goddess of Troy. She is a goddess of the city, and of politics, yet several of her epithets refer to nature, such as, rather shockingly, “Of Growing Ivy,” connecting her, bizarrely, to Dionysos.
Which goodness of hers will you receive? I suppose that depends on what names you choose to call her. In the mortal world, this has a parallel. I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you met someone cool, and then heard tales that they had done something awful, and decided not to work with them. But maybe Athena’s version of the story is different from that of Perseus (visa vi Ovid). Maybe she doesn’t view it as her most shining moment, but it was the best decision she could make at the time. Even if it was something really horrible that she did, it doesn’t mean that we should shun Athena. Obviously, the good in her character far outweighs the bad.
Very few humans are entirely bad. If we choose to focus on the negative, we do not benefit from their gifts. Furthermore, we need to give human beings more slack than gods. Humans are less wise, less perfect, less powerful than deities, not more. They are expected to make more mistakes.
“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behavior. Keep your behavior positive because your behavior becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.” — Mahatma Gandhi
How do we call Her? The Theory.
“Athena, Queen of the Aegis, by whatever name Thou lovest best, give ear.” — Cicero, “De Nat. Deor” ii. 36.
The formula “by whatever name Thou lovest best” is meant to stand in for every epithet of the goddess, so that one may benefit from brevity, without offending the deity by leaving out some important aspect of her being. On another level, this formula is an invitation for the goddess to let her tell you about herself. It opens the dialogue by saying, “I know you by reputation, but my ears are open, if you’d like to show me something new.”
The formulas on invocation, according to ancient Greek tradition, have a three part scheme. There is a great deal of primary source text material that supports this idea, but this is beyond the scope of my article. A good article on this topic by Hellenismo can be found here.
The first part is establishing contact. If you look at many of the Homeric hymns, you’ll see this. It is the “give ear” part of the invocation, usually also including a few of the following.
• Their name or names
• Epithets and titles
• Deities in their ancestry, or that they hang out with
• Places they prefer
The second part is stories in praise of the deity. These can be traditional stories, or personal ones.
Lastly, you want to tell them why you are calling. This is the part of the invocation that is actually called the “prayer.”
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” — Kierkegaard
Writing Our Invocation With Diversity and Unity In Mind. In Practice.
“In diversity, there is beauty and strength” — Maya Angelou.
Part I: Attributes. When we choose the titles and epithets of the deity, we should choose aspects that seem particularly contradictory. If the deity can reconcile these aspects in herself, certainly, she can assist us in reconciling them in the community. Choosing, also, those attributes that remind you of people you find problematic, to remind yourself that this, too, is holy.
Part II: Stories. I like to choose a personal story and a traditional story. It is also perfectly acceptable to choose two that are traditional. Choose two that exist as point and counterpoint regarding the deity’s nature. For example, consider a story where Athena shows her warlike side, and contrast it with the story where she breathes life into human beings, or invents the flute. Consider, also, the familial connections. Is there a story where the deity works with another deity that you have a hard time imagining her getting along with?
Part III: Prayer. Whatever the occasion, whatever your need, be certain to close with a request for peace. “All this I ask, and lastly, for your aide in unifying those who call your name, regardless of their path, their sin, or their burden. If they do not come together with me because of their path, then broaden their path, and mine, so that we may serve you together by the wayside. If we are separated by sin, bring us to understanding. If we are separated by burden, then lift that burden, for the sake of the community of your followers, and for the glory of your name.” Or something like that. Obviously, you can tailor the ending request to suit the deity in question.
Don’t be afraid to make this extra request either. At the end of the day, you are asking the deity to act through you, on their own behalf. While they can’t do this without your knowledge and consent, they certainly won’t mind helping to bring unity to their followers, because in doing so, they multiply their influence in the world.
The Healer. The Organizer. The Cheerful. The Learned. The Hard Working One. He or She of Open Mind. The Creative. The Honest and Outspoken. Lover of All People. The Free. The Brave. The Passionate. The Follower of Important Rules. The Deep Thinker. He or She Who Brings People Together. The Legally Savvy. The Generous. My fellow Hellenic Pagans: I salute you.