W – Wimmin’s Religion (PBP week 46)

There’s been a lot of controversy in the pagan world about inclusion and exclusion and if one’s identity is defined by genetics, physiology, or something more elusive.

This all stems, as I’m sure some of you know, from a Dianic Wiccan group’s rituals at Pantheacon the last couple of years. In a public ritual, advertised as for women only, some women were turned away for not meeting the group’s criteria of womanhood. (It actually stems from deeper problems with our community, but this is what seems to have gotten the pot bubbling this time around.)

This is all old news, I guess, to many in the pagan blogosphere. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, as I’m of two minds. I figure it’s time for me to speak up and add my voice to the fray.

First, and most importantly, I believe that gender is a useless descriptor – a false dilemma created by society to tell us which roles we should play based on what shape our bodies take. I believe that we have four equally important elements that make us who we are: heart and soul, body and mind. Of these, only the body has a sex and that biological sex is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. Even on the most basic chromosomal level, not everyone is XX or XY. One just can’t put people into convenient little pink and blue boxes based on outward impressions.

But I get that I’m in the minority opinion when I say gender is meaningless. I get that it could very well by my privilege that allows me to see things this way. I am a cis woman which, for those unfamiliar with the term, means that though I have many “masculine” traits as well as “feminine” ones, I am psychologically OK with the gender assigned to me. This gives me the privilege of being able to ignore the issue if I choose. The social norm is with me. But there are a lot of people who don’t have that option. The women turned away from the Pantheacon rituals, for example, were trans*. Meaning their anatomy at birth, and thus the gender assigned to them, was different from what they knew themselves to be.

Gender identity is important to the vast majority of people. While it is a social construct, it is one that is impossible to avoid. And it can be a life or death matter for those who are constantly being told their identity is at best mistaken, at worst a lie.

What all that boils down to for me is the fact that I believe the people running the rituals in question were being bigoted. Neither they, nor I, have the right to tell someone else who she “really” is. If someone tells me she is a woman I’m going to trust her word – she knows herself far better than anyone on the outside can.


I also believe in a group’s right to set limits on who participates in their rituals. In fact, I think exclusivity is not only permitted, I believe it is absolutely necessary in many cases for meaningful spiritual experiences.

I am a devotee of Dionysos, who famously had rites dedicated to Him that were forbidden to men. Pentheus and many others suffered terrible death for daring to view what they should not have.

Dionysos is also the most gender fluid of the Gods. While undeniably masculine in many ways, in others He plays with the idea of gender in ways that had to make the defenders of the status quo very uncomfortable: wearing female garb and hairstyle, taking a receptive role in some sexual encounters, and basically not seeming to care a whole lot about being “manly.”

Dionysos likes to liberate us from these assigned roles. He gave women who were housebound for most of the year the freedom to run wild on the hillside. He gives those of us who spend our lives trying to live up to what others want of us be the freedom to relax and be who we are truly meant to be.

So what about Pentheus?

It is my belief, and I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, that if a trans* woman were to join in the Bacchic rites, the God would have no problem with it. The other women, however, might not have been so accepting. I suppose it could have depended on whether they knew her, saw her living her life as a woman – which was unlikely as this would have been even more dangerous then than it is now – or whether she was a stranger to them, or someone who was closeted. It’s likely they would have been like the Dianics at Pantheacon and sent her packing. But the God, I believe, would have been welcoming to Her.

Pentheus, on the other hand, was not a woman by anyone’s definition. He was, in addition, a representative of the status quo the rites were rebelling against and an enemy of Dionysos. He did not belong.

Exclusivity, in my opinion, is necessary when dealing with religious mysteries. A mystery is something that one can only understand through experience, and not everyone can have every experience. If when someone speaks of “women’s mysteries,” they only mean menstruation, childbirth and menopause, they need to be clear about that. There are a lot of women who would get nothing from such a ritual.  (I personally think it’s an unfortunate definition that limits all of us to our reproductive biology.  Something women have been trying to get away from for a very long time.)

If they just say their ritual if “for women” then I’m going to assume they are addressing the myriad of experiences unique to being female in a world that places more value on maleness.

I’m all for exclusive rituals for women, for trans* people, for people of color, for GLBT* people, for diabled people, for any group that shares unique experiences that they wish to explore.  (I’ll even support the right of privileged groups to come together and celebrate their privilege, though I wouldn’t approve.  Free speech and assembly and all that.)

I think maybe a large public gathering focused on inclusiveness and pagan ecumenicism, like Pantheacon, is the wrong forum for such a thing.


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))


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.

P – Pagan Piety (PBP week 32)

Piety gets a bum rap these days.

When someone is described as “pious” the intention is usually derogatory.  It is taken to mean that they have a holier-than-thou attitude or are hypocritical – faithful in action, but not in spirit. Also, because it is usually used to refer to members of the majority faith (Christianity in the US), members of the pagan minority who have had bad experiences with that faith or it’s members can sometimes react negatively to the word, even when it is intended to be complimentary.

Yet in pagan religions that place a large emphasis on practice, piety again becomes a real virtue.

To use the ADF definiton, piety in a pagan sense is “correct observance of ritual and social traditions; the maintenance of the agreements, (both personal and societal), we humans have with the Gods and Spirits. Keeping the Old Ways, through ceremony and duty.”

I like this definition, though I would prefer one that also addressed intent, (though not belief.) Because most neopagans come from cultures heavily influenced by the monotheistic faiths, we often bring with us their idea of pious intentions in addition to pious action. This may not be historical, but I believe it is a good addition. A proper relationship with the gods begins in the mind and heart of the individual.

As for societal traditions and agreements, that’s complicated.

In ancient times, piety was an important civil obligation, not just a religious one. The success or failure of the society as a whole depended on every member maintaining their proper relationship with the gods.

Today it is different. Worshippers of the old gods are a tiny minority in their communities. In the west, our societies are either purely secular or are under allegiance to the god of Abraham. If I believed that I was responsible for maintaining the agreements that my society has made with the divine, I’d be obligated to be Christian and to follow the rituals and traditions of that faith.

So how to be properly pious in a social sense? A few ideas come to mind. We can define our society more narrowly – taking on the obligations of our family, coven, or other group. We can, in the course of honoring our ancestors, try to make good on obligations that they weren’t able to fulfill. We can also partake in the religious festivals of the community in which we live, as much as outsiders are welcome to. Because of the pluralist nature of much polytheism, many pagans have no issue attending rituals for deities that they do not personally worship. For those of us comfortable with the idea, this courtesy could be extended to the God of Abraham – for example, by attending mass on Christmas and Easter without participating in communion.

I think the most important aspect of piety for modern pagans is the reminder that we should be actually practicing our religion. It is easy for so many pagans, myself included, to get wrapped in study, in learning what the ancients did (and then blogging about it). But it cannot end there.

A religion that exists only in the mind of the believer is not a religion.

And, to borrow a Christian aphorism, the road to Hel is paved with good intentions.


(Post written and originally published 9/29/12.  Backdated to reflect PBP due date.)