This morning, while I was half asleep, Hermes descended with rays of light, as when the sun, peeking from behind a cloud, lets radiant golden streams tumble from the sky like waterfalls, warming all that is beneath is with effulgent glory. He greeted me (details unnecessary), and then, with characteristic quickness and a burning sense of purpose, picked up, pulled apart, and discarded all of the energy and power that had accrued on his altar.
“Thoughtforms,” he explained, and shook his head with faint exasperation. Then, he picked up a few squalling spirits by the scruff of the neck. “B.R.B.”
And then he descended to the Underworld with them.
Now, of course, this is my bedroom altar. My temple space is not warded (rather, it is regularly exorcised and purified), because of things I explained earlier, but my bedroom certainly is. I sleep in there. The last thing I want is anything unexpected visiting me while I sleep. I do not need to be doing transformative work between the hours of 11pm and 7am. What I need to be doing during that time is sleeping. The wards are set simply: “Only Hermes and whomever he wills to be in there, so long as it isn’t (three entities whom I find particularly annoying).”
I had an obvious question: “How did those dead people get in here?”
“Well…” Hermes began, “If something is tucked up inside your aura, wards don’t influence it. Common loophole. That’s how casting a circle doesn’t keep out Fauxdin, and why, when Dionysos wants to attend one of his own devotionals, he sometimes rides someone into the space and camps there till after the circle is cast.”
“I… wait, Dionysos?”
“Contrary to popular opinion, the falling down drunk guy who sleeps with tons of people that aren’t his wife is Comus. Or Zeus, on the odd Saturday night. When the god of inclusion, performance art, and psychology wants into a space, he finds he’s often not recognized as Dionysos.”
“I see. What happened to the altar, though? I was calling you there. That wasn’t you?”
“It was. Then it wasn’t.” He shrugged. “This is me. Do you believe me?”
I looked at him. I put an astral hand on his chest and scanned him. He seemed purer, for sure, than how he seemed the day before. There was something missing from him. I searched my brain, thinking about that particular etheric scent, what it was and what it meant. The missing thing was aggressive, hungry, ruthless, insecure. It wasn’t from him. It had never been. It was me projecting my unconscious expectations onto what it meant to be successful at commerce. It served him to a point, and then it didn’t. He discarded it like the skin of a snake.
What I now know: taking inventory of your beliefs as they connect to your deity’s domains is important. If you are working with Zeus, your beliefs about what it means to be a father or a king are going to color how you see him, perhaps preventing you from seeing him at all.
This revelation put me in mind of something my sister said: that all of these people who swear up and down that they are no longer qualified to decide when they are being harmed by their deities, that their will no longer matters — the words of their deities strangely echo a lot of toxic American parenting norms. The presumptions of parents, that a parent owns their child’s body, that beating their children is somehow for their benefit, that humiliation is education, that a child isn’t qualified to decide when they are hurting, are not dissimilar from the presumptions that these people hear divinities making. Likewise, those followers to cast themselves as being “at the mercy of domineering, socially inept aggressors who control the relationship” are simply casting their deity in the role of the abusive lover, which many of us fail to recognize as problematic. Our larger society has completely fucked up ideas about love, sex, power, and authority, and the way religion manifests in the United States, in every religion, is poisoned by it.
Worship at an altar is a bread and butter practice of most Polytheisms, and the energy we build there can help our gods connect with us. A side effect is that we empower our ideas about the deity, sometimes causing those ideas to shine brightly enough that we can mistake what they are saying for the deity’s voice. There is a turning point, sometimes hard for a human to spot, when what we hear at the altar is more us than it is the deity, owing to how much of ourselves we have put into it.
Take inventory of your beliefs and take your altar apart periodically. Give that space and your icons a good cleaning with something disruptive to etheric power. As uncomfortable as it may feel, it’s probably for the best in the long run.
Dear Neophyte Mystic,
Welcome to the path, and congratulations on choosing experiential religion. I’m happy to have you along on the journey.
I have been walking this path actively for about twenty years. I started using the astral as a child, began formal training as I entered legal adulthood, and I have a lifetime of injuries, battle scars, and mistakes to show for it. I have also experienced moments of profound joy, learned an incredible amount from my wanderings, and made many friends.
I’d like to impart to you some advice which will hopefully save you some headache and heartache. It is the advice I wish someone had given me when I first got started. It’s going to, in some places, contradict what people will try to teach you, but I will get into that soon enough.
Don’t believe everything you read.
Reading books written by modern people, with some notable exceptions, is not the best way to learn about mysticism. Talk to fellow mystics — a lot of them. Listen to the plurality of opinions and experiences, and keep an open mind. Use your reason, not someone else’s reputation, as a guide.
There Are Monsters
The astral is full of monsters, most of them made by humanity. The first monsters you encounter will be your inner demons.
Everything on the astral, with no exception, is made of thought, idea, and emotion. When you first open up your mind, your fears, traumas, social programming, low self esteem, anxieties, phobias, and insecurities will approach you, looking very much like independent beings.
You need to tame these monsters. They are parts of yourself. You can only tame them by mastering your own mind and processing your own damage. Think about what they are doing to push your buttons. Dig through your memories. Find peace with your narrative through forgiveness, or by resolving to make the world better in a way that addresses the source of the injury, or in any other way that makes sense to you.
Sometimes, other people will make their inner demons your problem. If you have a fairly good grasp of your own inner landscape, you’ll start to get an intuitive sense of where other people have damage. If their monsters become your problem, you have two basic choices: disengage, or become their therapist. Pro-tip: don’t become their therapist.
Psycho-Therapy and mysticism are deeply related. Israel Regardie recommended getting a therapist if you want to practice mysticism, and it’s really not a bad call.
Sometimes, the person making their inner demons your problem is a dead person, in which case you can scare them off or help them to cross over. Once you begin that work, exhausted deities and desperate spirits will find an infinite and bottomless amount of this work for you to do. These dead people are pretty fucked up, too. Vets get bitten, peed on, puked on, and scratched in their line of work. Being a psychopomp can be that way, too. The dead hate you for being alive, hate themselves for getting stuck, hate whatever deity or deities they believe in for not being exactly who they thought they were. Being bombarded by constant fear and hatred will take a toll on your health. Decide carefully.
Wards are basic bullshit
Remember the dead people I mentioned who failed to cross over, in part because whichever deity they worshipped in life failed to conform to their narrow expectations?
Don’t be that person.
If I send you a text message to come over, then put my phone down, draw the shutters, lock the doors, and then start having a conversation, who am I talking to?
My damned self, that’s who I’m talking to.
When you make wards that only allow a deity in, what it allows is whatever your pre-conceived notions of the deity are.
How do I know? I’ve seen improperly tuned wards keep human beings out of a space, because the person setting the parameters didn’t know enough about a potential house guest. Wards are just constructs. They can only do what they’re told. Even if you hire a bunch of spirits to protect your space, they don’t necessarily know your deity any better than you do.
Deities are never quite who you think they are. Uncovering their full selves takes time and dedication. If you always work with a ward, you will always experience them exactly as you expect to. See what I’m getting at, here?
Instead, try purification and banishing. Then pray to the deity with whom you wish to work for protection.
Everyone wants to sell you something.
Let me explain what I’m selling. What I really want to be when I grow up, is Gandalf. I want less of a separation between the worlds, and for magic to easily manifest physically.
To sum up a complex belief system succinctly: the easiest way to protect yourself from bad magical shit is to opt out. That is why most people don’t believe in magic and automatically discard any evidence they see to the contrary: they are trying to keep themselves safe. And it works.
Here’s the rub: in order for magic to be robust and healthy, people need to opt in. Mostly, magic is less than healthy because of people profiteering off of your fear. Eternal damnation, insane and violent deities and various other “concerns” are a way of controlling people.
What I’m trying to sell you is fearlessness and independence, so that you can safely opt in, a sense of proficiency so that others watching you get the sense that the magical world is more fun than scary, and generally, improved participation in the magical world, so that magic will be stronger. Then, I believe, it will be easier for me to physically teleport, or whatever.
This gives me some blind spots that I’m aware of: I tend to see everyone as magically and mystically capable, which I admit may not be true 100% of the time. I’m eager to get them off the ground, and disappointed when they don’t become independent as quickly as I hoped.
Different people may have other needs and desires and may have different motives or blind spots.
Some people love their tradition and they need warm bodies to keep it going. Your body. It is warm.
Others are just trying to fill the bottomless pit of their own insecurity with neverending validation. They need you to need them. You not needing them anymore feels bad, and they will sometimes, consciously or unconsciously, create problems for you so that they can solve them, or describe the astral world as far more complicated and dangerous than it really is so that they can keep the gravy train running. Always remember: exactly zero people have died in astral accidents. Don’t freak out. The fear is more dangerous to you than any astral baddie.
Some have pain, need you to hear and see it, and use their position in a community as an outlet for that.
Still others literally make actual money from other people’s mystical problems. If you are skeptical of big pharma profiting off of illnesses, and maybe being less interested in easy cures as a result, you’re not totally wrong. Doctors really do want to help people. But they’re likely to prescribe the drugs they get kickbacks from, and maybe not always the best drug. Practitioners who make money off of your demonic infestations are more likely to see a problem, and more likely to give you a quick fix rather than investigating the underlying cause. Incentives can change the way you think. Be careful. Be skeptical. And be aware that I’ve literally never had one of these paid cures work as well as the DIY version. No practitioner is closer to you than you are.
Motives and desires are as diverse as humanity is. Having a good grasp of your own damage will help you suss out what others are after. Having motives doesn’t make people bad, but knowing their motives will help you to understand their perspective and why they might be saying what they are saying, or doing what they are doing.
There is an off switch.
Oh my gods, there is an off switch. I wish someone had taught me where it was on day 1.
Your physical body has a sort of dark, inky envelope. Depending on your spiritual background, yours may start out a little too small for you, but you can build it.
Close your eyes, and just focus on the darkness that is inherent in having your eyes closed. Imagine pushing forward through that darkness, and into light. Welcome to the astral!
Now, allow yourself to sink back into that darkness, and draw all of your senses into it. Draw your hearing into the gentle thrum of your heart and breath. Welcome back to your body and it’s native, personal imaginative space that belongs to only you.
If this doesn’t work for you, your astral body may need a little waking up. Take your projective hand (usually the same hand you write with) and project energy at your receptive hand to form an energy circuit, and try again.
Only you can decide if deities are worth your time
It’s weird that some people still believe that we don’t have a choice about relationships with divinities. I mean, I’m not sure how they explain the ever-growing number of atheists. But trust me, you have a choice.
If a deity, to your perception, is being pushy and “won’t take no for an answer,” just swear an oath never to work with that deity. You won’t have to do that with more than one or two deities before you stop having deities push your buttons in that way. Experience speaking, here.
Spirituality does not require deities. You can be an animist. You can be a monotheist or monolator. No, rejecting a deity won’t destroy your soul, or whatever other fear-mongering bullshit the piety police are peddling today. You’re fine. Relax.
Ignore the piety police
Some people are going to try to bully you about your practice. Ignore them. They’ll talk down to you, tell you that you are doing your spirituality wrong, that there are going to be horrible consequences for not doing what they say.
These people are generally miserable because their own spirituality isn’t serving them. They want to hurt other people because the very existence of competing viewpoints threatens them. They are insecure and need to work on their inner shit. They are not role models to be looked up to.
If your practice makes you happy, serves you well, meets your personal spiritual goals, and doesn’t hurt innocent people, you are not doing it wrong. There is no wrong way to have a body. There is no wrong way to have a soul.
You’ll know if you are doing it wrong because you will feel helpless and miserable. If you feel happy and empowered, you are probably on the right track.
On that note, the people who attempt to muster community resources to attack people they don’t agree with are wasting everyone’s time and effort. It might be better spent on, oh, I dunno, building temples and creating community resources, rather than struggling to keep the pond small so that they can feel more important.
Someday, dear Neophyte, I hope you will turn around and write your own letter, to your students, or maybe your children, so that they can bennefit from your wisdom. If every generation of mystics makes new mistakes, rather than retreading the old ones, we will all be the richer for it.
Thenea (of 2017)
In my previous post in this series, I explored a text quote which demonstrates how the absence of purity is not a deal-breaker if you are a human calling out with an earnest heart to Hellenic deities.
In this post, I’d like to look at a quote very often cited as evidence that one should never make prayer in a state of impurity.
…and with hands unwashed I would take shame to pour the glittering wine to Zeus; there is no means for a man to pray to the dark-misted son of Kronos, with blood and muck all splattered upon him
— Homer’s Iliad, 6.266-8
When you take this quote utterly out of the context of the surrounding story, it seems pretty clearly supportive of the idea that you can’t pray, at all, without ritual purity. Strange, considering the anecdote about Glaucus that I explored in my last post.
Let’s zoom out a bit and get some context. For those who aren’t familiar with the Iliad, it is a story of a war. That war has “good guys” we are supposed to be rooting for, and “bad guys” who everyone knows lost.
Who, here, is speaking? Where are they? How did their actions turn out? Did their concern for purity help them?
But when Hector was come to the Scaean gate and the oak-tree, round about him came running the wives and daughters of the Trojans asking of their sons and brethren and friends and husbands. But he thereupon bade them make prayer to the gods, all of them in turn; yet over many were sorrows hung. But when he was now come to the beauteous palace of Priam, adorned with polished colonnades —and in it were fifty chambers of polished stone, built each hard by the other; therein the sons of Priam were wont to sleep beside their wedded wives; and for his daughters over against them on the opposite side within the court were twelve roofed chambers of polished stone, built each hard by the other; therein slept Priam’s sons-in-law beside their chaste wives—there his bounteous mother came to meet him, leading in Laodice, fairest of her daughters to look upon; and she clasped him by the hand and spake and addressed him:
— Homer’s Iliad, 6. 238-252
Stop. Where are we? This is the Trojan War, but we’ve suddenly entered a domestic scene. Hector has left the field of battle, and entered a place of domesticity and beauty. In terms of which side of the war this is? It’s the side that has stolen Hellen and is destined to lose. Who is Hector? He’s the greatest warrior of Troy, and in this war, before it is over, he’ll have killed 31,000 Greek fighters, at least if you believe Hyginus. Ancient people listening to and reading this story will know in advance that the Trojans are going to lose. The mythology and relations with the gods portrayed in the story are there to explain both how this war lasted so long, and also why the Trojans were ultimately defeated.
But let’s continue.
“My child, why hast thou left the fierce battle and come hither? Of a surety the sons of the Achaeans, of evil name, are pressing sore upon thee as they fight about our city, and thy heart hath bid thee come hitherward and lift up thy hands to Zeus from the citadel. But stay till I have brought thee honey-sweet wine that thou mayest pour libation to Zeus and the other immortals first, and then shalt thou thyself have profit thereof, if so be thou wilt drink. When a man is spent with toil wine greatly maketh his strength to wax, even as thou art spent with defending thy fellows.”
— Homer’s Iliad, 6. 254-263
Ah yes. Wine. His mother is offering it to him. The primary reason isn’t to honor Zeus, but to soothe a man who is “spent with toil.”
The idea that one should not drink wine without making a libation offering first is one we encounter in Plato, also. Socrates, even, ponders whether he might be allowed to make offers from his hemlock before drinking it. But Hector is not staying long and puts his mother off.
Then in answer to her spake great Hector of the flashing helm: “Bring me no honey-hearted wine, honoured mother, lest thou cripple me, and I be forgetful of my might and my valour; moreover with hands unwashen I have awe to pour libation of flaming wine to Zeus; nor may it in any wise be that a man should make prayer to the son of Cronos, lord of the dark clouds, all befouled with blood and filth.”
— Ibid, 6. 264-268
What does Hector mention first? That he doesn’t want to get drunk, because it will make him clumsy and behave like a fool. And anyway, he’s all dirty. He’s got the capacity to go get clean, but not the inclination. That he doesn’t have time to bathe and purify is secondary to “I don’t want to get drunk.”
Far from being an example of religious piety, this episode with Hector demonstrates an unwillingness to personally engage with the gods. He is making excuses. The pretense at piety fools No One.
Nay, do thou go to the temple of Athene, driver of the spoil, with burnt-offerings, when thou hast gathered together the aged wives; and the robe that seemeth to thee the fairest and amplest in thy hall, and that is dearest far to thine own self, this do thou lay upon the knees of fair-haired Athene and vow to her that thou wilt sacrifice in her temple twelve sleek heifers that have not felt the goad, if she will take pity on Troy and the Trojans’ wives and their little children; in hope she may hold back the son of Tydeus from sacred Ilios, that savage spearman, a mighty deviser of rout. So go thou to the temple of Athene, driver of the spoil; and I will go after Paris, to summon him, if haply he will hearken to my bidding.
— Ibid. 6. 269-280
So what happens? Does Hector’s notion that he’ll be better off getting someone who is ritually pure to pray to Athena for him pan out?
Now when they were come to the temple of Athene in the citadel, the doors were opened for them by fair-cheeked Theano, daughter of Cisseus, the wife of Antenor, tamer of horses; for her had the Trojans made priestess of Athene. Then with sacred cries they all lifted up their hands to Athene; and fair-cheeked Theano took the robe and laid it upon the knees of fair-haired Athene, and with vows made prayer to the daughter of great Zeus:
“Lady Athene, that dost guard our city, fairest among goddesses, break now the spear of Diomedes, and grant furthermore that himself may fall headlong before the Scaean gates; to the end that we may now forthwith sacrifice to thee in thy temple twelve sleek heifers that have not felt the goad, if thou wilt take pity on Troy and the Trojans’ wives and their little children.”
So spake she praying, but Pallas Athene denied the prayer.
Ibid. 6. 299-310
So, in summary, comparing the situation of Hector to that of Glaucus:
Looking at the consequences, I draw a very different conclusion about this textual evidence. It seems to me that a better consequence comes of crying out to the gods honestly and directly, irrespective of purity status, than to get a third party to do it for you, no matter how perfectly the ritual is done.
Granted, Athena might have just decided “fuck the Trojans” well in advance. In fact, we know that she did. But she could have easily said, “my will is that you should lose the war, but I will answer you and protect all the women and children.”
Regardless, the initial quotation is not the slam dunk it initially appears to be. The gods may choose to answer the prayers of the impure, and deny the prayers of the pure. They may answer those who earnestly pray with empty hands, and they may ignore even the most perfectly executed rituals.
Consider this when next you hear someone beating the war drums over ritual purity. The gods care about purity, but they don’t care nearly as much about it as they care about justice, politics, fairness, love, honesty, and genuine sentiment.
And if you put off making genuine contact with the gods because purity is too much overhead right now, you are making Hector’s mistake. It is better to pray for yourself, empty-handed, bleeding, surrounded by corpses and covered with grime, than to have someone else — even if they are pure and excellent with ritual and capable of bearing precious gifts– do it for you.
Note on this: I’m having a hard time with thinking clearly about how to deal with literal, swastika-flag flying Nazis in my country. I’m Jewish, I have ancestors who died at the hands of the last people who carried that symbol, and I’m enraged. Impassioned thinking isn’t the best, so I’ve been in conversation with Hermes for the last few weeks.
I don’t feel comfortable publishing all of that conversation. It’s long. It’s expletive-laden. It’s one of those circumstances where you can really see the veneer of modern deity fall completely off of him. It’s more vulnerable than I want to be. It’s more vulnerable than I want him to be, too.
This part, however, seemed like it might be really useful to people. Here, he dishes on a technique for consecrating your space so as to facilitate the protective presence of a deity (or deities).
Hermes: You need to first feel safe, in order to get centered. And you need to be centered to do any other kind of magic.
Start with your home. Consecrate the place you live to spiritual allies whom you trust. You have deities and spirits whom you know will go to bat for you. Let me repeat that: your gods will go to bat for you. You can facilitate that by consecrating your home to us.
Following all the ritual edicts associated with a proper temenos is… with all due respect to Comrade Themis, on the side of impractical. What with all the living and fucking and dying you do. And really, consecrating a temenos is really just about setting aside a place where you don’t do things like that, which is pretty damned unhelpful. I’ll give you an alternative.
I’m going to start with the assumption that you have a shrine to your household deities or at least a shrine to your household deity.
First, you choose a stone that represents the deity to you. A rose quartz for Aphrodite, a citrine for Apollon, a carnelian for Ares.
Next: place that stone beside the icon, and say whatever prayers you are accustomed to say. Ask particularly for protection, and as a part of your prayer, ask the deity to consecrate the stone to that purpose. You, Thenea, have like 85 Hermai all over your home. Any single one of the constituent stones would work for what I’m about to suggest.
Then: Place the stone in water overnight. In the morning, sprinkle the desired area or areas with said water.
While doing this, say a prayer, such as, “My Lady Athena, by these waters, I consecrate this space to you, that you should watch over it, and me.”
You can also consecrate something you will wear, and take the protective power of the deity with you.
Be safe. You are loved.
A word oft misused, a concept sorely misunderstood. Miasma is the Greek word for ritual impurity. I have decided to explore the topic of miasma in hopes of demystifying the concept and making the topic less frightening to the less experienced practitioner.
It being me, I’m not just going to write about my feelings on the subject. I have sequestered 10 quotations from primary sources, 15 journal articles from JSTOR, and 5 passages from this book by the Petrovics and this oft-cited book by Robert Parker. I recommend both books to anyone who wishes to follow along at home.
Both of those books will tell you roughly the same thing: while purity and purification are well attested, references to miasma are sparse, and evidence for beliefs surrounding the concept of baneful impurity are overwhelmingly from Greek Tragedies.
To put that in perspective, imagine what kind of a practice a Christian might have if they reconstructed their practice from the writings of Shakespeare. Playwrights take liberties for the sake of plot. They are not theologians. What they write *is* evidence of how people in their culture thought about the world, but it must be taken with a grain of salt.
I’m going to start with a quotation from the Iliad, as a way of framing this exploration.
But upon Glaucus came dread grief as he heard the voice of Sarpedon, and his heart was stirred, for that he availed not to succour him. And with his hand he caught and pressed his arm, for his wound tormented him, the wound that Teucer, while warding off destruction from his comrades, had dealt him with his arrow as he rushed upon the high wall. Then in prayer he spake to Apollo, that smiteth afar:
“Hear me, O king that art haply in the rich land of Lycia or haply in Troy, but everywhere hast power to hearken unto a man that is in sorrow, even as now sorrow is come upon me. For I have this grievous wound and mine arm on this side and on that is shot through with sharp pangs, nor can the blood be staunched; and my shoulder is made heavy with the wound, and I avail not to grasp my spear firmly, neither to go and fight with the foe-men. And a man far the noblest hath perished, even Sarpedon, the son of Zeus; and he succoureth not his own child. Howbeit, do thou, O king, heal me of this grievous wound, and lull my pains, and give me might, that I may call to my comrades, the Lycians, and urge them on to fight, and myself do battle about the body of him that is fallen in death.”
So spake he in prayer, and Phoebus Apollo heard him. Forthwith he made his pains to cease, and staunched the black blood that flowed from his grievous wound, and put might into his heart.
— Iliad, Book 16, 508-529
Follow this train of blog posts until its conclusion and you will be quite satisfied that corpses are ritually impure. You will also be satisfied that purification before prayer is a well-attested practice and a Good Idea.
Here, we have a prayer spoken to Apollon, a god renowned for his concern with purity. The prayer is spoken amid corpses and filth. No hands are washed. No ceremony is observed. No physical offering is made. No physical offering is promised.
There is no concern that anyone other than Apollon may answer. Not only does he answer, but he answers with a miracle. He answers, in no small part, because he cares about the outcome of this human war.
No matter what else I may write on this subject, and no matter what else you may read, know this: Hellenic deities are deities who answer prayers. They are beings deeply invested in human life and human societies. They care enough to answer even when the prayer is spoken in the midst of the direst miasma. Caring about human affairs and human opinions is a defining characteristic of this pantheon.
Miasma need not be feared. We need not fear that we will be rejected by our deities in times of need because of our inability to do enough ritual.
Purity, however, is a manner of showing respect, and the more we know about it, the more we are able to do to honor these gods and make them feel comfortable in the spaces we invite them into. It need not involve shaming other people, it need not be coercive or done out of fear. It can simply be adhered to as a way of showing a deeper respect, offering a better quality of hospitality, and expressing our friendship by showing interest in their customs.
Apparently, there was a war on Tumblr between Hellenes and Otherkin who believe that they are incarnations of Hellenic deities. It was a while ago. I’m just catching up.
Mostly, the argument went like this:
Deity-kin: We are your gods!
Deity-kin: But we are, tho
Hellenes: Are not!
Deity-Kin: Are too!
Hellenes: Are not!
Reasonable people: Maybe we should just agree to disagree and not waste our time arguing about this.
This was such a fascinating issue to me. It’s really a perfect quandary for philosophical inquiry. The issue begs some essential theological questions which, regardless of what side of this you are on, you’d do really well to ask yourself.
- Are deities, by definition, non-physical?
- How do we know what/who is a deity? What are a deity’s responsibilities? Who gets to decide that?
- Do deities have the right to demand worship?
I’d like to explore these questions one at a time and to opine on them, because that sounds like fun.
Are Deities, by definition, non-physical? (No.)
Can a deity choose to stop being a deity? Are they allowed to quit? Are they capable of incarnating? This is sort of like the “Can God create a boulder so heavy that he cannot lift it” quandary for Polytheists.
If a deity cannot stop being a deity, are they not prisoners of their own apotheosis? If they can quit, then where do they go? Will you really claim that a deity can ride in an ill-fitting, borrowed human form, but not inhabit one that they grew up in?
Obviously, it is possible. Gods take human guise, they tool about in borrowed human bodies, and if they really wanted, they could incarnate. We have myths about deities like Harmonia leaving the world of deities, living human lives, and giving birth to mortal children.
Gods in human form are found in many cultures. The Pharaoh of Egypt, or any other God-King, is an example of this. The Kumari Devi of Nepal is another example. Gods can be physical, living beings.
How do we know who is a deity? (Because they are best able to contribute to their community in that capacity)
There is a problem with saying things like, “the gods don’t have to answer our prayers to be gods.” Sure, that’s true. But if they never answer your prayers, or respond to you in any way, how do you know you’ve got the right number?
Think about this from the deity’s perspective for a moment. Let’s pretend you are a god. Someone calls you. They actually get you, but they are trying to venerate you as a deity of something you find properly loathsome. You try talking to them, but while you are certain they are aware that you are talking, and feel your presence, they persistently mishear you in order to bolster their own belief system.
People stop in and question the person, but the person basically tells them to shut up, and implies that once they are able to surrender to the gods more, they’ll understand.
You can’t ignore the situation because if you do, someone will fill that empty space you left.
You don’t want to hurt the person, and furthermore, fear that any divine punishment may be taken as verification of their incorrect views. They’ll just say that you’re “initiating” them, or that it’s Shaman Sickness. Besides, you’re pretty sure that they’re just confused and fragile, rather than malicious.
Some deities are ok with hurting a single person to prevent spiritual harm from being done to a large number. But most bad stuff that happens to priests is interpreted as confirmation, rather than condemnation. “The gods just like to fuck with us,” or “this is the price of their attention.” Or, “God tests those whom he loves.”
So you create a magical dead-zone around the person so that there would be zero manifestations of you, false or otherwise, with any energy or force behind them. You incarnate any spirits who tried to impersonate you into human form. You make damn sure that, even if this one person had some wrong headed ideas about you, that it won’t spread. The only thing that isn’t taken as confirmation is absence.
Except then, people start making excuses. The gods don’t *have* to show up when we call them. We have to worship them anyway. The problem is clearly with the people who didn’t feel anything. They just need to crack themselves open wider. They need courses in using their psychic senses correctly. People start legitimately doing themselves damage by ripping open their energy body in unnatural ways.
So maybe you just decide to give up on the people misunderstanding you, and bless the people who are hearing you correctly. And then the unwashed, hungry dead just sort of pile in and collect the offering cookies from the people you are ignoring. And people are possessed, and the community leaders declare victory. And if anyone has their consent violated, or gets a really toxic message? Well, that’s just their filter that they need to work through, and maybe they should (insert line of ideological bullshit).
Or, so my deities tell me during their frustrated pacing and ranting.
So long as we have no criteria, any person, no matter how off-base, no matter how unsuccessful they are at connecting with the gods, can claim success, or at least blame failure on other people.
These criteria don’t seem unreasonable to me:
- Gods know more.
- Gods can do more.
- Worship facilitates their contributions to their community.
And so, if a person claims to be a deity, but they have not, as yet, answered anyone’s prayers, nor performed any miracles, nor shown themselves capable of sending omens as deities, then they are equivalent to the dead who show up and eat the offering cookies of a deity.
It’s kind of like the old riddle, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it… does it make a sound?”
If a deity is neither wise, nor kind, nor miraculous… then who really cares?
It brings us to a more essential question: why worship anything at all?
Apollon will always be Apollon, whether he is worshiped or not. His passionate connection to Truth and Nature and various other things assure that. However, unless we invite him to share what he knows and hear what he says on those topics, he cannot fully contribute all that he has to give.
If worship, however, facilitates a physical human’s contributions and makes the community a better place, then that’s a great thing to do. If the community is wasting their time, energy and resources on the worship of a being, physical or non-physical, then that is a poor choice to make.
Which brings us to:
If someone is a deity, do they have the right to demand worship? (No!)
Do you have to worship Jesus? Did you not get the memo that he threatened you with a bad afterlife if you didn’t? Why aren’t you Christian? Are you crazy?! He’s a god!!
I mean… I shouldn’t have to say more, but I will.
I dislike the idea of Vocation, and basically every other Puritan theological belief. However, let’s just start by assuming that a deity can truly call someone to a profession against their will, or even to their own service.
Under such circumstances, you would be incapable of saying, “no.” So, try it. Try saying no. Say “no” early, and often, because it is the surest test of a being’s divinity.
Of course, the ideas of vocation and pre-destination are based upon the notion of a singular, omniscient, omnipotent deity. Polytheistic deities are neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Don’t ask Apollon to bake you a cake. Don’t ask Hestia to forge you a suit of armor. Don’t ask Hephaistos to foretell the future. Dionysos isn’t much of a philosopher, and Hera doesn’t know much about metallurgy.
Moreover, even if we posit that the entire pantheon together was collectively omniscient and omnipotent, then what the hell happened in Europe?
To continue the earlier example, Apollon will be a god no matter what. However, not until he has a cultus does he have anyone to actively be a god to. That is the difference between someone saying “I am a god,” and saying “I am YOUR god.”
If you are my god, then it’s because I’m worshipping you. You can no more be a god to a non-participating person than you can be a lover to a non-participating person. If you even try, things get really gross and very rapey very fast. Rape is not sex. Kidnapping is not marriage. Hounding someone is not the same as being worshiped by them.
Communities choose their deities, and how. Historically, they wrote out, deprecated and delegitimised deities all the time. Saying that a community cannot do this is ahistorical. So, no. As much as a deity might like to, they can’t actually make a living by demanding worship. A group of humans has to actively choose them, or their cultus dies out.
I hear a lot from certain friends of mine about how we are “addicted to outrage.” That being offended makes us feel powerful. Many of the stories cited about how people are getting unreasonably offended are told about women, people of color, trans people, people of minority faiths and people with disabilities who “just need to relax.”
No, we should not relax. It will negate our sense of personhood and our inner divinity. Allow me to explain.
At Pantheacon, there was a con-suite ritual which has sparked much thought for me. It is a devotional for Ares, Athena and Hephaestos.
If you follow my blog, you know that I love Ares, and I love Hephaestos. If you follow Greek mythology, you know that they don’t so much love eachother. And it goes a bit beyond mere sibling rivalry, or the rivalry between lovers.
Just as Apollon is a living emblem of masculine beauty, Ares is the pinacle of physical ability. He is called “The sceptered king of manliness” in the Homeric Hymn to Ares.
Heracles might be physically stronger than Ares, and Hermes is certainly faster. But Herakles has trouble with his temper, and Hermes has a brain and body that are often on about two completely separate things.
Ares, however, represents a sublime unity of body and spirit, and control over both. He’s that guy who can always will himself to do one more rep. He is the will to keep crawling when death is almost certain. He is the ability to feel fear and behave in defiance of it. He is also the god you call to crush the evil impulses in your soul. No, I’m serious. Read it:
Shed down a kindly ray from above upon my life, and strength of war, that I may be able to drive away bitter cowardice from my head and crush down the deceitful impulses of my soul. Restrain also the keen fury of my heart which provokes me to tread the ways of blood-curdling strife. Rather, O blessed one, give you me boldness to abide within the harmless laws of peace, avoiding strife and hatred and the violent fiends of death. — Homeric Hymn to Ares #8, Lines 15-17
If you have ever suffered impulse control issues. If your emotions have ever gotten the better of you. If you have ever called it quits because your body was screaming at you to stop. If you have ever known the pain of shouting at limbs (or a brain, or a pounding heart) to do as you will and had them straight up laugh at you. If you ever started to do one thing, and then found yourself ten minutes later doing something completely unrelated. If you have ever experienced a lack of emotional regulation. You understand the gap between spirit and body. Ares does not have that gap.
Hephaestos, by contrast, stands in that gap and sanctifies it, reminding us that we can find beauty and creativity there.
Both of these things are needed. We need to be able to call on divinity to help us do more than we can do. And we need a god to help us love ourselves when we realize our hard limits.
But the relationship between those two gods is understandably fraught. Ares would tell you in a heartbeat that he respects his brother. And Hephaistos will tell you that casual ableism is rampant in the world, and that Ares, with his “no excuses” and “no mountain too high to climb” rhetoric is exactly the embodiment of why. Our culture loves a good story of people overcoming all obstacles without help. It dislikes admitting that not all context accommodate all bodies. It even dislikes admitting that some bodies, no matter how much willpower is applied, can ever be included in a space without accommodations.
Every person suffering from depression who is told that they don’t need medication if they have art or nature or unicorn farts by a neurotypical person, or that they should try yoga for their panic disorder instead of a benzodiazepine knows the feeling of being Hephaistos interacting with Ares.
Every person who suffers from chronic pain or illness and has been told to “just” do that one more thing, or has been interrogated by people blissfully unaware of the struggle about why something didn’t get done, knows that feeling.
Every fat person who has ever been invited to go clothing shopping with straight-size people knows that feeling, too.
It’s being “invited” into spaces where you cannot reasonably participate. It’s the feeling of your struggles being simply invisible, and not because they are hard to notice. It’s being born into a body that society problematizes, even as it gives lip-service to your equality. It’s trying to struggle through spaces and contexts that are harder for you than they are for other people, even as you are told that the playing field is perfectly level.
“It’s perfectly fair, Hephaistos. Everyone has to go up the exact same flight of stairs.”
“Hey, everybody, let’s race to the summit! The slowest off us is a rotten egg! — Oh, come on, Hephaistos, it’s just a game! Lighten up!”
We cannot ask him, nor can we be asked, to just “lighten up” about being disrespected for what we can never change about our bodies. To do so is letting go of the idea that we deserve to be treated equally, to be respected, to be loved, and to be included.
To pray for the reconciliation of Ares and Hephaistos is also to pray for the perfect inclusion of people who daily experience the gap that Hephaistos embodies. To suggest that there is no animosity between them is to suggest that society has done as much work as it needs to already on recognizing, honoring and accommodating people with physical limitations, visible and invisible.