I like most Hellenic Polytheists that I have met in the bloggosphere, I even follow some HelPol blogs. However, one thing that irks me to no end is this trend I have seen for many of them to look down their noses at how other pagan/polytheist religions deal with gods and spirits, and scoff even harder spirit workers’ and necromancers’ relationships with deities. Honestly this is not an issue I’ve seen too much of outside the internet.
The biggest disagreement I’ve had with a HelPol in meatspace was with a millionaire friend of mine who petitioned Zeus at an old cult site in Greece while on vacation in Greece to fix some problems with a company she is the CEO of, and she was insisting to me that somehow Zeus should be a go-to prosperity deity for everyone, to which my answer was “Tell that to all the poor Greek peasants who died poor and starving though they worshipped him every day.” Millionaires really live in another universe. My feelings on that subject can be summed up in Gordon White’s recent post about why he feels like Jupiter is not the best choice of spirit for money magic for those of us not born with a silver spoon in hand:
“There is a famous insult among the blue-blooded, and it is that someone has ‘bought all their own furniture’. REAL money inherits it. Inherits it and keeps it in offshore tax havens with the rest of its loot while closing public libraries and instituting mass layoffs. There is a reason The Chaos Protocols has a crossroad pact with the Devil in it. If you were to bundle up everything I don’t like about this world, about monoculture, and build a temple to it, it would be the temple to Jupiter I see in the Roman forum whenever I go there[…] As for ‘functional Jupiter’, “caring for the common good of citizens,” would this be in the greatest slave city in the history of mankind? Where women’s rights approximated those of modern day Saudi Arabia? (Itself a monarchy and Obama-endorsed champion of human rights.)[…] THAT is Jupiter. It is the planet of centralisation overlaid on the very archetype of patriarchy in the completely literal sense of that term[…] It seems disingenuous to me to conflate ‘doing what you’re told’ with wealth accumulation… especially in today’s world where our actual ‘kings’ do the precise opposite -tax avoidance, corporate sponsorship of public office- and become vastly wealthy while YOU foot the bill for their expenses and their wars. Jupiter is the god of rules for YOU, not for him and his 1%. Besides, It’s always the trickster or the dragon that seems to end up with the king’s gold or his wife in the end. So behold the king of the Gods, patron of the male members of slave-owning bloodline families who raised taxes to such an extent that the common people simply abandoned their houses for the countryside, thus beginning the exciting millennia of feudalism.”
Anyway, I digress, the issue I am discussing here is the evangelical attitude certain bloggers have about the concept of piety. You can’t just “format paste” a culturally specific religious concept to other gods and practices. Piety is not a concept in Nordic orthopraxy or the “Faery Faith” as W. Y. Evans-Wentz affectionately dubbed the surviving strain of Gaelic religion in his time. Shit, it’s not even a thing in Egyptian theology. Unfortunately I am on vacation and separated from my library, so I’m gonna quote The Twisted Rope quoting Geraldine Pinch:
“A peculiar feature of Egyptian magic was that threats might not be directed only at forces causing the problem, but at the deities who were asked to intervene. Once spell warns that no offerings will be made on the divine altars if the gods don’t make the magic work. A love charm ends with a threat that Busiris … will be burned if the client does not get what he wants.
In myth, Osiris was the most vulnerable of the gods and this is exploited in magic. In the Book for Banishing an Enemy, Osiris is threatened with not being allowed to journey to his two sacred sites (Busiris and Abydos) … The magician even threatens to take on the role of Seth and destroy the body of Osiris. …
The most direct way to influence a god was to interfere with their cult. Deities are sometimes threatened with the pollution and desecration of their temples and the slaughter of their sacred animals. …
The magician usually protects himself by saying ‘it is not me that is saying this but X’ – X being the god whose role he is playing in the rite. This suggests that even though it was only role playing, the Egyptians themselves had doubts about this procedure. Words were powerful, so such formulae might actually damage Ma’at.
Possibly these formulae are not so much threats as predictions. The magician is speaking on behalf of humanity; reminding heaven that if people are not regularly cured and protected that they will lose faith in the gods and cease to make offerings, maintain the temples, and respect sacred animals. The magician is only demanding the enforcement of a kind of divine contract. If the gods do not help mankind, the whole divine order will collapse.” (Pinch, pg 73-75)
This attitude aligns with all the Egyptian texts that I have read, and to be quite honest, the Greek Magical Papyri, while being from Egypt, is technically Greek and involves a great deal of telling Greek gods what to do. “But that’s a result of syncretism!” Okay, but what about Medea?
“O faithful Night, regard my mysteries! O golden-lighted Stars! O softly-moving Moon—genial, your fire succeeds the heated day! O Hecate! grave three-faced queen of these charms of enchanters and enchanters, arts! O fruitful Earth, giver of potent herbs! O gentle Breezes and destructive Winds! You Mountains, Rivers, Lakes and sacred Groves, and every dreaded god of silent Night! Attend upon me!—When my power commands, the rivers turn from their accustomed ways and roll far backward to their secret springs! I speak–and the wild, troubled sea is calm, and I command the waters to arise! The clouds I scatter—and I bring the clouds; I smooth the winds and ruffle up their rage; I weave my spells and I recite my charms; I pluck the fangs of serpents, and I move the living rocks and twist the rooted oaks; I blast the forests. Mountains at my word tremble and quake; and from her granite tombs the liberated ghosts arise as Earth astonished groans! From your appointed ways, O wonder-working Moon, I draw you down against the magic-making sound of gongs and brazen vessels of Temesa’s ore; I cast my spells and veil the jeweled rays of Phoebus’ wain, and quench Aurora’s fires. At my command you tamed the flaming bulls which long disdained to bend beneath the yoke, until they pressed their necks against the plows; and, subject to my will, you raised up war till the strong company of dragon-birth were slaughtered as they fought amongst themselves; and, last, you lulled asleep the warden’s eyes — guards of the Golden Fleece—till then awake and sleeping never—so, deceiving him, you sent the treasure to the Grecian cities! Witness my need of super-natured herbs, elixirs potent to renew the years of age, giving the bloom of youth.—You shall not fail to grant me this; for not in vain the stars are flashing confirmation; not in vain the flying dragons, harnessed by their necks, from skies descending bring my chariot down.” – Medea, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 7
What’s that? Oh just a famous sorceress from Greek mythology telling gods what to do. Clearly the Greeks seemed to believe that humans held some sway over the gods:
“As with all Greek temples, the Temple of Athena Nike would have housed a cult statue in its cella. In Greek mythology, Nike deities were often depicted with wings. This was not the case with Athena Nike. The wooden cult statue was wingless, and thus dubbed Apteros Nike, or “wingless victory”. This was perhaps to ensure that Nike (and hence and military victory or supremacy) would never abandon Athens.” – from“The Temple of Athena Nike: A Small Shrine Dedicated To One of Athena’s Many Incarnations,”Ancient History Encyclopedia (via theheadlesshashasheen‘s Tumblr)
Binding a spirit by altering or controlling their image (and therefore manifestation) is a common theme throughout many magical practices. Now I, personally, am quite a fan of Athena (though I do not work with her nor venerate her myself) and would never presume to bind a WAR GODDESS by anything other than a contract of mutual oaths (make promises to each other and keep them), but that may not have been how Athenian priests felt.
Speaking of priests, there are none these days. There is no unbroken line of initiation going back to ancient Greece, Egypt, Ireland, Norway, Babylon, etc., etc. No “Western” polytheism has a surviving clerical authority. We have no pagan high priests or arch-druids (despite how many people claim to be such) who dictate how the “laity” must address the gods. There are no living humans who can act as intercessors between other mortals and the divine. There is no one alive who took part in the ancient mysteries and secret initiations but the gods themselves.
Likewise, there are no Western magicians, witches, etc. who can truly and accurately claim an unbroken line of initiation back into ancient times.
The only people in the West who can speak with the authority of an unbroken line of initiation are the ones who traveled many miles and disappeared for many months to get initiated by sorcerers in the jungles of South America or the mountains of Tibet…but the arts taught there are not “Western” magic, so that’s beside the point.
The point being, there are no laypeople in pagan/polytheist religion because there are no priests. As a magical practitioner, pagan, and/or polytheist, there is no central authority that dictates your doctrine. You have no pope, no high priest, no central cult authority, no one agreed upon interpretation of some central holy text. You are free of that shit, you must rely on your own interpretations of the myths and your own interactions with the spirits. You have the authority to address your gods directly.
If we give in to the belief that one interpretation of religion is more objectively true or relevant than another then we are engaging in the same dogmatic prejudice that has caused millennia of war.
Spiritual experience is highly subjective, and each human will experience the spirit world differently, the same way two people having a conversation will remember the conversation differently.
Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it, we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality.
– Robert Anton Wilson
I’ve often said that I have far more interesting theological discussions with Muslims and Jews (especially those from the Middle East) than I do with Christians and ultimately it comes down to the fact that the former two groups are not trying to proselytize or win me over to their opinion during the discussion, whereas Christians are. It’s impossible to have an intelligent spiritual discussion with someone who is convinced that theirs is the One True Path and want to convince you of that as well. Neo-Wiccans often exhibit the same obnoxious behavior.
Let me me make it simple: HelPols yelling at everyone else about “piety” and “hubris” is the same as Neo-Wiccans saying that “All real witches must follow the Rede!” or Christians telling us if we don’t believe Jesus is our “Lord and Saviour” then we are all going to Hell. Do you get it yet?
To say that all gods behave in the way the Greco-Roman ones do is downright imperialist. Although, historically speaking, we do have Greece and Rome to thank for modern imperialism. The truth is Europe (especially Britain) over-romanticizes “classical” cultures, and this is one of the many things that America picked up from her mother. When I went to college I took a class called “World Mythology” and I expected it to be about world mythology…turns out it was just one whole semester of Greek myths.
Think about the word “barbarian” in modern English, as a noun it means “an uncultured or brutish person” and as an adjective it means “savagely cruel; exceedingly brutal, or primitive; uncivilized”. In ancient times it meant “a member of a community or tribe not belonging to one of the ‘great civilizations’,” those “great civilizations” being specifically Greek and Roman. It is a Latin word borrowed from Greek (barbarous), meaning “foreign”, but took on derogatory connotations as the Roman Empire and Latin language grew and evolved.
Just looking at the etymology of our language you can see how we in Western society are conditioned to believe that Greco-Roman culture was the pinnacle of the ancient world and history teachers gloss over the great civilizations of the Middle and Far East. We’ve even reached the point where the fucking history channel passes off “aliens built the pyramids” as a viable theory rather than accept the fact that real flesh-and-blood Egyptians with their advanced math and complex spirituality built them just like they said they did. It’s imperialist, racist bullshit. While Europe was in the Dark Ages the rest of the world was advancing technologically and artistically. The Romans fucking romanized Christianity, which was a peaceful religion at its inception, and then used it as a tool to dominate Europe. What about that is the pinnacle of culture and intellect? I could also go into how Alexandrian and therefore Hellenic thought ruined Judaism, but that is a whole other historical can of worms.
The point is, Western monotheism (this excludes Islam and Zoroastrianism), and all of Western society is undeniably built upon Greco-Roman ideas. Yes, all Christianity has Roman influence, not just Catholicism (sorry Martin Luther). Some of these Greco-Roman ideas we inherited are great, like democracy and republics (at least in theory). Some of those ideas are obviously not so great, like imperialism and the military-industrial-complex. All of us here in the US were raised influenced by these ideas, be they religious or secular. It shapes the way we see culture, nature, and religion.
The problem I see with a lot of pagans and polytheists is the superimposing of the theology and philosophy they were raised in upon their newfound spiritual path. Unlearning modern, western religious biases is hard…and I think it takes a great deal more than saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards (my apologies Paul Hudson). If you’re a Christian witch or a Hellenic or Roman polytheist you don’t have to, the rules pretty much stay the same, but you do need to stay in your lane and accept that that is not how the rest of us interact with our gods. As for the rest of us, there is a lot of de-programing to be done because dropping dogmatism does not happen overnight. What I advise is to study as many religions and mythologies as you can find books on, it will give you a broader, more compassionate, and better informed perspective on the world. Maybe dabble in Discordian philosophy for a bit as well, at the very least maintain a heathy pinch of agnosticism in regards to the spirit world.
What I have learned in my studies of broader world mythologies is that many gods prefer a very hands-on approach to humans. These gods like to wheel and deal, make bets, make pacts, play jokes, even get into arguments with humans. As Korrigan once aptly said “The Morrigan probably wants you to fight her.” When on a path of warriorship and sorcery how else is one supposed to grow stronger but through sparring with their mentor? The Tuatha Dé Danann conceded to the Sons of Mil (humans) in a truce and go to live underground and honor that truce to this day. Mesopotamian and Canaanite deities are all about deals, pacts, and bargains, you can see this reflected in the styles of akkadian petitions and in some of the old gods who made it into grimoires like the Lesser Key of Solomon. Many a “shuilla” (an Akkadian prayer/petition) begins with yelling directly at the deity for not paying enough attention to you. Even in the Tanakh/Old Testament of the Bible Jacob gets into a wrestling match with an archangel and wins, and then gets a blessing from the angel afterwards (Genesis 32:22-31)! There is quite a history of gods and humans going toe-to-toe and the humans winning.
What answersfromvanaheim said was also quite apt:
“Relationships with Heathen deities are built on reciprocity. If a deity is not upholding their end of the bargain, or making you feel like shit, or it feels like they’re ignoring you, you have every right to take your offerings elsewhere unless oaths are involved (they can get tricky).
Seriously, we have stories of people who flat out reject the deities because they’re tired of putting up with their crap. The term for them is “godless” (yes, “godless Heathen” isn’t just something Christians say) and nothing bad happened to them for telling the deities to fuck off.”
Ever heard of a banishing ritual? It’s when you tell spirits to GO AWAY.
Basically, the way many petitions and bargains work cross-culturally is as follows:
- Summon spirit with a prayer or incantation and present a small offering such as incense or a libation
- Tell spirit what it is you want and why
- Tell spirit if they give you X thing by Y time you will give them Z offering
- Wait for spirit to do the thing for the agreed upon amount of time
- If they do the thing then you give them Z offering – If they do not do the thing dispose of or destroy their sigil, image, candle, etc., and tell them they are never getting anything from you again (unless they give you a really fucking awesome apology gift and a good explanation as to why they could not do the thing)
- If the spirit gives you the desired results every time you ask they might just get their own shrine in or around your house
- New magical business partner who teaches you magical things
Now there are some in the bloggosphere, especially on Tumblr, who think that the idea of a “personal relationship” with a deity is “too Protestant”. Those people can suck my strap-on. A brief look at European history will show these fuckwads why throwing the words “Protestant” and “Catholic” around like slurs is a truly dangerous and toxic practice and attitude. Wars have literally been fought over that and less. (The Irish civil war? Mary I of England, aka “Bloody Mary”? Any of this ringing a bell?)
There are gods, who if they catch you groveling at you will scoff in your face. There are gods who abhor worship. There are gods who don’t even require offerings to fulfill requests. There are gods who will tell you to save your food offerings for a starving mortal. There are gods with flaws that give them depth. There are gods who want their authority to be challenged. There are gods who want you to catch them in a lie to prove how discerning you are. There are tricksters and thieves and warriors and oath-takers and deal-makers, and all kinds of gods who prefer getting down in the mud with humans, getting their hands dirty. Gods who require no intercession.
In the past two years, thanks to Facebook and the advent of the internet I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with and teaching a few formerly Muslim girls interested in the occult and paganism and that’s part of what made me realize how much those of us raised in the West have to unlearn about religion. It seems easier for an ex-Muslim in Malaysia to look at her new gods with fresh eyes than it is for an American raised in a mostly secular household to do the same. Perhaps it’s because she’s seen the damage true religious persecution can do, maybe it’s because Mohammed never tried to claim that other gods were not worshipped in Mecca by the polytheistic Arabs, perhaps it is because Islam is younger and therefore its evolution from other religions is apparent. I don’t know. I do know that in recent years there has been an increase of Kurds converting to Zoroastrianism as a response to Daesh, so I suppose a full-hearted embrace of older religions might be a result of recent events.
Anyway, as I have said before, the idea-policing, rhetoric, and misinformation I see spreading like a virus online is detrimental to the growth of young witches and pagans. It fills them with fear of spiritual exploration and original ideas. So go on little witchlings and baby polytheists, go cultivate a working relationship with a deity.