T – Theology, Theoi, and the nature of the Gods (PBP week 39)

Used without permission. 
If anyone knows the owner of this image, please let me know.

The variety of religions that fall under the pagan umbrella have very few things in common.  One thing that many of them do seem to share is that idea that religion is orthopraxic (meaning “right practice” as opposed to the orthodoxy – “right thought” – of the great monotheistic religions.)

Basically, what this means is it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you perform the appropriate rituals.  This is why hard polytheists, soft polytheists, animists, atheists and others can all partake in the same circle or rite and have it be a success for everyone involved.

It also means that for any group of ten pagans, you’ll have at least fifteen differing opinions on theology.  I know I’m occassionally responsible for two or three conflicting ideas all by myself.

Take the basic question:  “What are Gods?”

My concept of divinity has changed greatly over my life.  I’ve gone from the pure monotheism – or tritheism? – of Christianity, to a very soft polytheism of a neo-Wiccan variety: all gods are one god, all goddesses are one goddess.  For a long time I embraced the idea of a sort of a monotheistic polytheism: there is one divine essence and each individual deity is a different facet of that Being.

After interacting with a few individual deities, I adopted a fairly hard polytheism:  everybody’s their own person, period.

Lately I’ve been fascinated by liberal Christianity (something I was taught was an oxymoron during my church days) and the idea of a supreme force for “love and logic.”  But I also know my own Gods are real and unique.  And I know that they are truly Gods, not spirits masquerading as deities as some Christians would have me believe.

This is where my beliefs are right now: 

There is a divine essence that pervades everything:  Gods, people, poodles, dahlias, rocks, styrofoam.  Some entities are closer to this essence, or contain more of it than others:  Gods more than people, people more than poodles and dahlias, everything more than styrofoam.  This essence may or may not be sentient, may or may not be what created the universe, may or may not be what the monotheists are referring to when they speak of their one God.  It is almost certainly Bono’s* force for love and logic.  But it is not the God of the literal Bible or Koran, not concerned with laying down laws or how individual members of humanity live their day to day lives.

The Gods that we know are exactly what They appear to be.  Powerful and unique entities with Their own personalities and agendas, responsible for parts of the workings of the world.  They are not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent except in their own areas of interest.  Many of these Gods do take an interest in humanity, wholesale or retail, and therefore can be petitioned or appeased.  Like any individuals They can and do form various types of relationships with other entities.

Some believe in a single pantheon – sun god, fertility goddess, gods of war, thunder, wine, death – and that every war God, for example, is actually another name for Ares and every thunder God is Zeus.  It is not uncommon among Hellenic pagans – there is one pantheon and that the Theoi are the most perfect conceptions of it.  I toyed with this idea, too, but in the end its not how I see it.  I’ve interacted with Odin.  I’ve interacted with Hermes.  Many ancients equated the two.  It is obvious to me, having “met” the both of them, that this is most definately not the case.

Nor do I think that every time humans come up with a new divine name that a new God is born.  Its complicated.  Sometimes its just tribal migration and language shift.  Sometimes they actually are talking about someone completely different.  When the Greeks discovered Egyptian religion and began worshipping Aset as Isis, they were honoring a completely new goddess.  I’ve talked to enough followers of both deities who attest to their differences that I strongly believe this.  Yet in my own UPG Dionysos and the Roman Bacchus are identical (but not the same as the Roman God Liber, who was equated with Bacchus by the Romans.)

I’m sure there are many who disagree with me, particularly on that last bit of UPG.  But because of orthopraxy, it would not interfere with our worship.  I and my friend can both partake in a ritual for Bacchus, and if I believe He is Dionysos and my friend believes He is Liber it makes no difference to the rite.

This is what I’ve come to believe at this point in time – my personal theology.  I’m fairly sure it will continue to change and evolve as I do.  Because in the end, I am an agnostic – I believe that the Divine is truly incomprehensible from our point of view, and that while some ideas may come closer to the truth than others, that Truth is bigger than all of us.  Combined.

*No, I am not an advocate of the idea of rock star as religious role model – and this particular rock star would be the first to agree with me – but I do like the way he talks about God and faith.

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Reverent Irreverence

(A rewrite of an old blog post  from 2006 that is still relevent…)

“Thankfully, our Gods have a sense of humor.”

This is a phrase one hears regularly in our home.  Francis and I will often find ourselves giggling uncontrolably in the middle of a fairly serious religious discussion.  Or taking an amusing mundane conversation in a bizarre theological discussion – like reinterpreting the old Christian explicative “God’s Blood!” for polytheists:  “Annwn’s Nipple Hair!*  Horus’ Beak!  By the Holy Pancreas of Aphrodite!”  (We share an odd sense of humor, its one of the reasons we’ve been together so long.  No one else will have us.)

Many share our belief that we humans should not take ourselves too seriously, but including the Gods in this practice makes most people uncomfortable.

So I’ve coined the term “Reverent Irreverence.”  (I’ve since seen the term used by others, though in a different context, so I don’t know if “coined” is the right word here.)

I don’t know how Francis came by this approach to divinity, but in my family growing up, a gentle teasing was a way of showing affection.  I love my mother, I have tremendous respect for her, and gratitude of giving me life and helping me become the woman I am.  I will also tease her mercilessly when she does something silly.  We never get mean, but we do remind each other of our more amusing imperfections.  I guess it keeps us humble.

Of course, the Gods don’t need to be humble, at least where humans are concerned.  They’re Gods, after all.

Still, this is one way that I show Them my affection for Them.  I’ve always gotten the feeling They were in on the joke.

(Some Gods, anyway.  Others, er, not so much.  Odin, for example.  While I do sense a sort of wry wit about Him, and I do have a deep love for Him, there’s no way I’m going to make the Allfather the subject of even the gentlest mocking.  Nope.  Wouldn’t be prudent.)

Anyway, it could be argued that there is precedent.  Anyone who’s read Homer knows the story of Aphrodite’s affair with Ares and how Hephastus caught Them.  A story, I assume, the Gods would prefer wasn’t widely told.  Yet no one was smited.

To date, neither Francis nor I have been smited either.

*If I ever start a band, this will be it’s name.

S – Semele’s Story (PBP Week 38)

To Semele, Fumigation from Storax. Kadmeis (daughter of Kadmos) Goddess, universal queen, thee, Semele, I call, of beauteous mien; deep-bosomed, lovely flowing locks are thine, mother of Dionysos, joyful and divine, the mighty offspring, whom Zeus’ thunder bright forced immature, and frightened into light. Born from the deathless counsels, secret, high, of Kronion Zeus, regent of the sky; whom Persephone permits to view the light, and visit mortals from the realms of night. Constant attending on the sacred rites, and feast triennial [the Orgia], which thy soul delights; when thy son’s wondrous birth mankind relate, and secrets pure and holy celebrate. Now I invoke thee, great queen Kadmeis, to bless thy mystics, lenient and serene.”

Orphic Hymn 44 to Semele (trans. Taylor)

I chose to write this post because I wanted to learn more about Semele, the Theban princess who was the lover of Zeus and (one of the) mother(s) of Dionysos, and later became Thyone, Goddess of the Bacchic Frenzy.

I know many Dionysians honor Ariadne, the wife of Dionysos who was also deified –  or died tragically – or both – but I’ve seen little mention of his mother.  Lately I’ve been feeling the need to honor her in some way, so I am beginning by learning what I can about her, and sharing it.

Semele’s story begins in Thebes, where she is born to King Kadmos and Harmonia, daughter of Aphrodite and Ares.  The youngest and most lovely of four sisters, she caught the eye of Zeus, and when He came to her, she did not refuse Him.  How she became pregnant by Him is a matter of question. In the usual way of things, mortal women always conceive when they mate with one of the Gods.    But there is another story in which Zeus and Persephone had a son, Zagreus, who was torn apart by Titans while still a child.  Father Zeus saved the pieces of the child’s heart and gave them in a potion for Semele to drink, and this is how she conceived.

Queen Hera, upon hearing of this pregnancy was outraged.  Yet another petty infidelity she might bear, but this woman intended to become a mother by Zeus.  (Given that all His affairs with mortals would result in pregnancy, could Hera’s wrath have  been disproportionate due to Semele’s divine mother?  And therefore the possibility that, half-divine though mortal, she might be capable of giving birth to a true God?)

The Queen of Heaven chose to enact Her justice in this way:  taking on the form of Semele’s trusted old nurse Beroe, She convinced Semele to ask Zeus to come to her in his true form so that she would know it was really a God who was her lover and not some mortal trickster.  Semele asked this boon.  What happened next is unclear.  Zeus was either outraged at the hubris of her request and struck her dead on the spot with His lightning bolt, or He truly loved her, and had sworn to give her anything she asked for.  Bound to His oath, Zeus appeared before Semele in his true divine form, and “her mortal frame could not endure the tumult of the heavens, that gift of love consumed her.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 3. 255 ff (trans. Melville))

(Of course, her jealous sisters spread the rumor that Semele had known only a mortal lover and when Zeus caught wind that she had been claiming it was Him, the God struck her with lightning as punishment for her lies.)

Zeus saved the child, who was to become the God Dionysos, from His mother’s womb.  When Dionysos grew to adulthood, he descended into Hades’ realm and brought out Semele, to whom he gave the new name Thyone, meaning “inspire frenzy.”  He took her to Olympus where Zeus granted her immortality with these words:  “Europa glorified by Zeus’ bed went to Krete (Crete), Semele goes to Olympos. What more do you want after heaven and the starry sky . . . you bring forth a son who shall not die and you I will call immortal. Happy woman! You have conceived a son who will make mortals forget their troubles, you shall bring forth joy for gods and men.” (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 7. 352 ff (trans. Rouse))

But, immortality being what it is, the story doesn’t end there.

Thyone now reigns, as She always has, as Goddess of the Bacchic Frenzy.  There is evidence in the primary sources of cultic worship from Homeric times through at least the 2nd century CE.  In many areas, She was worshipped right alongside Her son, sharing altars and even sacrifices.

I’ll close with a quote from Otto: “Thus the human mother of the divine son was crowned with immortality and received her share of cultic honors.  That is the magnificent finale of the myth of the birth of the son born of lightning from the womb of a mortal woman.”   (Otto, Dionysos:  Myth and Cult, p.68.  (trans Palmer))

Sources:

http://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Thyone.html  (Where direct quotes from ancient texts were used I have given the primary sources provided by Theoi.com)

Dionysus: Myth and Cult by Walter F. Otto

10/4/12 – Discovered this article on Boetia on wikipedia, that currently has some interesting – and well cited – information on the myth of Semele and Dionysos.

Pagan Quiz

I found this in someone’s old blog post and decided, what the heck.  I’ve got nothing better to do right now.

B A S I C S //
Do you have a magical/Pagan name? No
What does it mean? No
How did you find Paganism? A combination of Ray Harryhausen movies, Janet & Stewart Farrar’s “Witches Bible” and high school mythology classes.
How long have you been practicing?  20+ years
Solitary or group practitioner? Solitary, but not entirely by choice.
What is your path? Hellenic inspired polytheism
Are you out of the broom closet? Erm, as much as I would be if I were of any other faith.  I don’t discuss religion with people unless I know them well.

D E I T Y //
Who is your patron God?  Dionysos
Who is your patron Goddess? One patron’s plenty, thanks.
What Gods do you worship?  I worship the Greek pantheon, but also pay honor to Brighid for past assisstance.
Do you fear darkly aspected Gods/Goddess, or rather respect them? All of my Gods have both bright and dark aspects.  I believe both fear and respect are appropriate.
Do you worship the Christian God? No, not as such.
Do you ever worship animals?  Why would I?  I wouldn’t worship animals any more than I would people.  I believe there is a lot I can learn from them and I honor and respect their spirits
Or plants?  See above, re: animals.

N A T U R E //
Do you regularly commune with nature? Yes.  I live down the street from a redwood forest.
Ever walked barefoot in the woods? I’m sure I have, but my toes are too tender these days.
Taken a camping trip just to talk to nature? Oh, hell yeah.
Describe the moment you felt closest to Mother Earth? If by “Mother Earth” this means nature and not some specific goddess, it would probably have been hiking in the redwoods when I was a girl.
Do you have a familiar? No.  Though I once had a cat who liked to sit on my shoulder as I read occult books.  (And only occult books.)
Have you ever called upon the powers of an animal in ritual? No.
Or a plant? No.
Do you hug trees? Yes.
Give them gifts? Yes.
What is your favourite flower to work with? Rosemary.  (Hey, it flowers!)  Or, for something more floral, lavendar.
What is your favourite tree to work with?  Haven’t worked with trees much, but I am very partial to redwoods.

W H E E L . O F . T H E . Y E A R //
What is your favourite holiday?  I don’t celebrate the wheel, but when I did it would have to be Samhain.  Come to think of it, it still is.
What is your least favourite holiday?  The equinoxes, I suppose.  Never found much meaning in them.
Have you ever held a ritual on a holiday? Isn’t that kinda what holidays are for?
Ever taken a day off work to celebrate a Pagan holiday? No.
Do you celebrate Yule on the 21 rather than the 25? Depends on what day the solstice falls on.  The 21st or thereabouts.
Have you ever felt the veil thin? Yes.
Ever danced the Maypole? No.  But I’d like to.
Know what the Maypole symbolizes? Yes.
How do you usually celebrate the Pagan holidays? As I said, I don’t celebrate the Wheel of the Year.

D I V I N A T I O N //
Do you use Tarot? Yes
Do you use runes? No, but I think they’re pretty.
Do you use a pendulum? No, but I’m planning to learn.
Do you use dowsing rods? No.
Do you use Astrology?  Not as divination.
Any other form of divination? Bibliomancy is fun.

S P E L L S //
What was the first spell you did? Protection spell for a friend who thought a Satanist had cursed her.  (We were very young.)
What was the latest?  Money spell.
Ever done a love spell? Never had cause.
A job spell? Not yet.  May do so soon.
A healing spell? Yes.
What was the most powerful spell you’ve ever performed? Erm.  There was that time I changed my brother into a newt.  Seriously?
What deities do you usually call on? I don’t usually call on deities for magic.  If I need Their aid, prayer and offering is much more respectful, IMO.

C R Y P T O Z O O L O G Y //
Do you believe in Vampires? Energy vampires, maybe.  Humans who like blood, yes.
Werewolves? As in people who physically turn into wolves?  No?  See below.
Shapeshifters? Yes, it’s a technique used by spirit workers.  The change in form is (usually?) psychic, not physical, though.
Elves? Yes, I believe in a variety of nature spirits that have been called many things by different cultures. 
Faeries? Yes.  My Irish ancestors would not forgive me if I disrespected the sidhe.  Neither, of course, would the sidhe.
Dragons? Yes, but more the Asian interpretation than the European, I think.
Nymphs? Absolutely
Sprites?  Yes
Mermaids? Yes
Satyrs? Yes – would love to meet one
Ever “seen” any of the above? I don’t think most of these entities have a physical presence in our realm.
Ever talked to any of the above? Sort of.  When I talk to trees, I think of the dryads living within them.
Ever used any of the above in magic? “Use” sentient beings?  Very much no.
Do you have one of them as a personal guardian? No.  I imagine they have better things to do with their time.

R A N D O M //
Do you see a rabbit, a man or a woman in the moon?  I’ve always seen a tree.
Own a cat? Three of them.
When you meditate, what does your happy place look like? A forest
Do you work with Chakras? A little, when I work with Auyervedic herbalism.
Do you believe in past lives?  Yes.
If so, describe a few briefly:  “Believe in” and “have a clear memory of” are two different things.
Do you believe in soul mates?  Yes.  I married mine.
Do you have a spirit guide? Maybe.  We haven’t met.
Is it always love and light?  Take a look at the world and you tell me.  I think it could be someday, but it’ll take a lot of work.  In the meantime, some folks just need hexing.

S – Science and Faith (PBP week 37)

I’ve never understood the problem people of faith have with the theory of evolution.  Or with any other well established scientific principle for that matter, but evolution is what is in the news lately.

In my understanding, science and religion are not inherently in conflict.  They cannot be – they are operating in very different spheres of thought:  a scientific theory has to be disprovable, while a religious tenet, by its very nature, cannot be disproven.  A belief in miracles allows one to argue for anything without intellectual dishonesty.  This makes them impossible to compare. 

But more importantly, there is no reason for a conflict.  It is true that science and religion both attempt to describe the nature of the universe, but they do so by asking different questions.  To perhaps oversimplify: science tells us about “how” the world works, while religion is concerned with “why.”

I can understand why someone with a purely scientific mindset would see a conflict.  Looking at religion from the outside, it is easy to dismiss the complexities of belief.

But when religious people insist on denying scientific fact because it threatens their faith or contradicts their mythology, I believe they are severely underestimating their Gods and taking their myths far too literally.  We see this all the time with Christianity, with the furor over Creationism and Intelligent Design in the US, but it arises from time to time in paganism as well.

Myths are stories told by humans to illustrate the truths we’ve learned about the Gods.  The details may vary from telling to telling, but the truth behind them remains constant.  If I believe, for example, Prometheus created mankind, it matters little or nothing to me to me if he made us from whole cloth (or clay), or if he did it by tinkering with the DNA of some apes.  If I believe Helios is responsible for the sun rising and setting every day, that shouldn’t change because I know that it is the Earth that moves and not the sun.  I shouldn’t need to see a literal flaming chariot to be grateful to him for making life on this planet possible.

The ancients imagined clay and chariots because they knew sculptors and charioteers.  Moderns think in terms of DNA and spheres of flaming gas because we have microscopes and telescopes.  These are the human details that allow the myths to fit within our understanding.  The truths they illustrate remain unchanged.  To remain adamant about the human details is to limit the Gods abilities to what we can wrap our heads around.  This is doing Them a great disservice.

The more I know about the complexities of the universe, the more I see how miraculous and mysterious it truly is.  Scientific learning adds to my sense of awe and wonder.  It takes nothing away.

Ill Omen?

Some people tend to see messages all over the place. 

That’s not me.  I’m not the sort of person who thinks the gods are constantly talking to her.  I’ve always been far more likely to attribute something to coincidence than omen.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t find meaning in a given coincidence, just that I like to keep things in perspective.  Just after my first contact Dionysos, I began noticing grape vines and fig trees everywhere.  While I knew that the plants had been there all along and my noticing them at that time was because I had Dionysos on my mind, it still felt as though he was assuring me “Yep, you’re not delusional.  I’m really here.”  I was able to take comfort it that, despite the objections of the logical part of my mind.

Last weekend, I was feeling particularly frightened and agitated (due to some mundane stressors I won’t go into here.)  I decided to go for a walk to help me calm down.  As I was passing the small redwood grove down the street from my house, I came across three dead raccoons by the side of the road.

As you can imagine – this did not help with my anxiety.  I am ridiculously fond of raccoons.  I’ve never done any work with animal spirits or explored the idea of totem animals, but if I had a spirit animal I would not be surprised if it was a raccoon.

Now here’s the thing:  raccoons are very common where I live.  Especially in forested areas, like the one I was walking  past.  They are scavengers and will often come into human areas to see what our garbage cans have to offer them.  (I’ve had to clean up after them more than once, and it is irritating.)  Because of this, some people consider them vermin, and will do all manner of nasty things to get rid of them.  These animals did not appear to have been injured.  My best guess is that someone poisoned them and then dumped them by the roadside.

So, totally a coincidence.

But, though I grew up in this area and have seen many raccoons, I’ve never seen more than one at a time.  (Its not that they’re solitary animals, its just that my own experience has been with isolated individuals.)  If I’d come across one dead raccoon, I would have been saddened but thought little more of it.  But the fact that there were three has been nagging at me.

The stressors I mentioned earlier have to do with my family.  There are three family members, including myself, that are threatened by this problem.  And there were three raccoons.

Yes, its a coincidence.  But I think maybe I should still do some research into animal symbolism just in case it was also a warning.