B – Brighid (PBP week 3)

Imbolc is approaching, and it is one of the only neo-pagan holidays I still celebrate.  This is because of its relationship to Brighid, and the special place She holds in my heart.

If Odin was the first pagan deity that I had direct experience of, Brighid was the second.  And it was a far more pleasant experience.

Several years ago, I had decided that I needed to strip everything down and go back to basics.  My soft polytheistic theology wasn’t working for me any more.  I realized I had come to think of the Gods as unique individuals, or perhaps I always had and was only then comfortable with going my own way.  Either way, I needed to work this epiphany into my faith and practice.

When I started re-reading mythology with an eye towards finding a deity to approach, Brighid’s name just jumped off of the page, and I had what I think of as a “well duh” moment.  I had studied Celtic mythology years earlier – thought it would be a good fit, since so many of my ancestors were from Britain and Ireland – but it didn’t resonate with me.  I didn’t feel a connection with any of the Gods.  Except Brighid.  So here I was, years later, and the same Goddess was speaking to me.

I decided to start worshiping Her.  I set up a small shrine and burned candles and incense to Her nightly.  I learned prayers in Irish that I would say throughout the day as needed.  I joined a flame keeping cill.

And, unlike when I called to “the God” or “the Goddess,” I felt something respond.  I never really saw an anthropomorphic image of Brighid in my mind, but I came to know Her presence – a feeling akin to the heat of the sun, or of a forge.

Time went on and I was feeling very good about the way things were going.  I began to seriously consider becoming a devotee, pledging myself to Her.

That’s when things got weird.

Brighid had became more distant.  Though She still responded to my prayers, I would often find my thoughts directed to the Roman goddess Minerva, then the Etruscan Menrva, and finally to the Greek Athena.  (At this same time, and completely unrelated to my spiritual practices, I had been developing a strong interest in Roman history and culture.  I blame James Purefoy and Ciaran Hinds.)

At first I was confused – it almost seemed like She was trying to direct me back to the “all goddesses are one” perspective.  Except the experiences I was having with each of these goddesses, brief as they were, showed me entities with very distinct personalities.

I finally guessed what was going on was that Brighid didn’t want me as a devotee.  I didn’t belong to Her.  She was basically taking me by the and, and step by step, through my Roman interest and paths that I would understand, was showing me where I did belong.

Remembering my childhood love of Greek mythology, I tried meditating on that pantheon, Athena in particular.  The response I got from Her was welcoming, but a little stand offish.  As though She were saying “No dearie – you think you’d be mine, wouldn’t you?  A studious little girl like you?  But no.  Have you met my little brother?”

And that, as they say was that.

I suspect I’m not the only one who had this sort of experience with Her.  Brighid is extremely popular in neo-paganism.  I think, perhaps, one reason might be that She has taken it upon Herself to welcome many of us into the fold while we become acquainted with how polytheism works.  Just speculation on my part, but it’s a comforting idea.


X – Xena, Warrior Princess, or “Gee, I hope my Gods Have a Sense of Humor” (PBP week 47)

I have a confession to make.

I am a huge fan of Xena: Warrior Princess, despite its horrific history and its ridiculously inaccurate costumes.  Even despite its questionable to horrifying portrayal of the Gods.

So, I sincerely hope the Gods have a sense of humor about stuff like this.  They’ve been portrayed badly in pop culture long before this show came along and I don’t remember any reports of mass smitings going down, so maybe I’m OK.  I take comfort from the Odyssey, and its scandalous tale of Ares and Aphrodite told for amusement.

The characterizations of the Gods in the show range from refreshing (Hades), to questionable (Athena, Ares), to horrific (Aphrodite.)

Ares is the deity that appears most often in Xena, and I don’t imagine He would mind His characterization much at all, despite being the chief villain.  He’s pretty much used to that, I’d think.  He is shown to be a serious badass (though, of course, Xena always gets the best of Him) and He gets all the best lines.  On top of that, the actor Kevin Smith (no, not THAT Kevin Smith, this Kevin Smith) is one big hunk ‘o’ tasty.

When I envision the real Ares, it’s this image that comes to mind.  Haven’t noticed any objections so far.

Hades, too, comes off pretty well compared to other modern interpretations.  He is a little on the wimpy side, what with getting His helmet stolen and losing control of His realm and all, but He is refreshingly not evil.

Athena’s characterization isn’t too bad either.  She’s sympathetic, but cold, and in the end completely daddy’s girl.  She cares about humanity, but when it is “Us vs them” She unashamedly takes the side of the Gods.  The actress, Paris Jefferson, is gorgeous and has the most amazing grey eyes.

I can’t imagine Her being at all happy about that outfit, though.

The same is true of Artemis, costume wise.  All that skin cannot be good.

I haven’t seen the episodes She appears in – they are part of the “Twilight of the Gods” storyline which makes me incredibly uncomfortable (even my fangirlishness has its limits.)

So I can’t speak to how She is portrayed, except that the actress is too old, but I have no problem seeing Artemis in this image.

Cupid is shown as a teenage momma’s boy and Discord, well… Discordians may approve of Her portrayal, actually, though she is a bit petulant.  Dionysos, called Bacchus, appears in one episode “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”  I honestly don’t remember how they wrote Him, as I was too busy being alternately horrified and amused by the demonic vampire maenads.  Many other Gods make appearances in the series and I haven’t seen them all.

Now comes the real trouble.  The second most divine appearances in the show are from Aphrodite.  I really, really hope Aphrodite has a generous sense of humor.I suspect She does.  Otherwise the regular portrayal of Her as a lingerie clad air-headed mean girl would have resulted in some serious smiting.  (*Note to self:  see if you can find out how Sam Raimi’s, Alexandra Tydings‘, and Lucy Lawless’ love lives have been going.)

Then there’s that whole “Twilight of the Gods” story line I mentioned earlier.  Xena gets the power to kill Gods and does so with abandon, in order to protect her daughter Eve (this is when the show decided to throw Christian mythology into the mix.)  Ares and Aphrodite survive, having become mortal (temporarily) but that’s about it.  There’s more to it than that, but as I said even my fangirlishness has it’s limits.

And yet, I can’t resist Sam Raimi‘s ridiculously campy style, I adore Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor, and I am delighted by the occasional appearances of Bruce Campbell as Autolycus.

Most of all I love the story of love and heroism among women.

So still a fan, even though I watch it less than I did before becoming a follower of the Greek pantheon.  And even though occasionally when I do watch, I sometimes feel I should take a shower to clear away the miasma and then make conciliatory offerings.

Are your Gods often portrayed in fiction?  If so, how well?  Do you approve, ignore it, or take offense?  Do you disapprove and watch anyway?

U – Unknown and Unknowable (PBP week 41)

The religion I grew up with, conservative Christianity, was a religion of certainty.  Sure, you had to have faith to believe in the first place, and the facts would vary depending on your particular sect, but once you made that leap it was all spelled out for you.  What happens after we die?  What is God like and what does He want from us?  What should I wear this Sunday?  Its all right there in the book.

Certainty makes me uneasy.  I was one of those kids who imagined a dark vasty nothingness just beyond my peripheral vision, wondered if the world went away when I blinked.  This wasn’t egoism, is was a basic mistrust of my senses.  When I say an apple is red, and you also say it is red, are we really seeing the same thing?  Or have we simply learned that “red” is the color of that particular apple, regardless of the wavelength of the light reaching our eyes.  And speaking of that, do we really have eyes and does light really have wavelength?  And speaking of light…

I’ve never been that comfortable with objective reality.

Most forms of paganism don’t deal with much in the way of certainty.  We don’t have a single revealed text.  Even in those faiths that do have an established lore, it is incomplete.  And that’s on the practical issues – how to perform this ritual, what offerings are appropriate in this circumstance, how was that holiday celebrated.  When it comes to more esoteric questions of philosophy and metaphysics, the lore is often contradictory.  It comes back to the idea of orthopraxy.  The ancients probably thought about these questions in the same way we do – some finding them very important, others completely irrelevant.  But it seems they were expected to find their own answers; it wasn’t the purpose of their religion to provide them.

This is how philosophy was born.  And, though I sometimes miss that comforting certainty, it pretty much works for me.

While I’ve mostly gotten past my weird idealist existentialist phase, part of me remains intensely agnostic.

I’ve written a lot in this blog about my ideas on the big questions.  Mostly, so far, about my ideas of who and what the Gods are and how best to honor them.  But I’m the first to admit I could be completely wrong.  My interactions with the Gods may just be wish fulfillment fantasies, or They could be something completely different than I imagine Them to be.

I don’t really know these things, any more than I know that my red is your red. What matters is that we have all agreed upon what “red” means, so we can function as if we were all living in the same objective reality whether or not that is actually the case.  As Kafka once said “it is not necessary to accept everything as real, one must only accept it as necessary.”  Meaning when it comes to day to day existence, a difference that makes no difference is unimportant.

What matters is that my ideas of the Gods fit my perceptions and work for me on a practical level.

For me, that is where my leap of faith comes in:  choosing to believe when doubt comes more naturally.  Choosing to believe red is red and the Gods don’t disappear when I close my eyes.

T – Gods, Technology, and the Modern World (PBP week 40)

(So far I’ve been doing these posts a few days ahead and scheduling them for Friday.  This is the first time I didn’t do that and, what do you know?  My family decided they really needed my undivided attention yesterday.  Ah well, so I’m a little late.)

There are those who believe that new Gods have been born, Gods of the information age, Gods of the Industrial Revolution.  That television is our new God.  Or the Internet.

This might be true, but when I look at these marvels of the modern age, I don’t see new deities emerging.  I see instead proof that the old Gods are still actively educating and inspiring mortals.

From a Hellenic perspective, I can’t use the Internet without thinking of Hermes.  Is there an invention out there that speaks more of Him?  I mean, worldwide instantaneous communication?  Come on.  As a God of Travel, I imagine He delights  in the automobile and the jet airplane.  I see His darker side in the spread of cyber crime.

I believe Hephaestus gave us the modern steel that supports skyscrapers, as well as the internal combustion engine.  I see the hand of Demeter in the new strains of wheat that have helped ease famine in many parts of the world.  And if Prometheus stole fire from the gods for the benefit of mankind, could he not also have stolen nuclear power from the sun itself?  I imagine Ares delights in the use of automatic weapons and patriot missiles.  Dionysos taught us to make not only wine, but I believe the modern entheogens like LSD and MDMA as well.  (I mean the drug is even called ecstasy!  Seriously.)

Just because we know the names of the historical figures who invented our modern tools, does not mean they weren’t divinely inspired.  And just because humanity has misused so many of them doesn’t make them less divine.  The holy is dangerous, almost by definition.  How may have died by Prometheus’ fire over the millenia?  How many lives ruined by wine?

In the end, I don’t believe we need new Gods.  Whatever the future brings us, the Gods we know are already on it.

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.

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.