For the next series of posts on this blog, I want to focus on identities and religious obligations. This is something that I have thought about for the past few years privately, and I have said some things publicly that haven’t really done justice to how complicated this is. Most of my experience is as a Hellenist, so this is to be read with that background in mind.
I felt very out-of-place at the Polytheist Leadership Conference back in 2014. 2014 was two years into my professional career as a librarian. 2014 was the year we got marriage equality and I started wondering if I could come out at work and to my mom despite having gut-wrenching panic every time I thought about it. 2014 was the year that many of us came into the same room together for the first time, after we collectively pushed back against the generic pagan umbrella, yet before the conflicts of personality and ideology split and fractured us for good or ill.
I decided to go to PLC because I wanted to meet actual people. There is a significant difference between knowing a stranger’s semi-intimate blog-thoughts and seeing ler body language when le speaks. As an ENTJ, it’s really hard to judge character and sincerity without it. One of the judgments I made is that I was right in many ways about how misplaced I felt. One of the other judgments I made is that that didn’t matter so much for enjoying the weekend.
As a religious professional and not a professional religionist, honoring deities beyond the Hellenic lunar calendar and a few Ancient Greek holidays is not something I do often. By “professional religionist,” I mean that I don’t sell books on Hellenism or polytheism. Beyond my work reviving some of the worship of the Eumenides, I wouldn’t call myself a specialist in the worship of any deity.
In 2008, my blog was one of extremely few Hellenic blogs online that focused on Hellenism outside of the TJA-sphere. I had a religious obligation to raise my voice and be vocal. In 2014, it was one of many. My major takeaway from that conference was that someone (not me) needed to raise a voice about polytheism as a component (not sole focus) of a professional and personal life. This post is absolutely not about a non-theistic polytheism, nor is it about devotional polytheism in the same way that others have discussed it. This is about culture.
One definition of culture is “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group” (Apple Dictionary). I want to discuss Hellenic polytheism in terms of its impact on my personal and professional life and how a polytheistic mindset informs the way I interpret my experiences. This is about religious customs and personal practice.
This is not about religious fervor and living only for god(s). This is about a perspective overhaul. It’s getting rid of a moldy, filter-based coffeemaker in favor of an Aeropress with a metal disk so you have delicious, portable espresso forever and ever. I spent a lot of time in my early- to mid-20s rooting out hidden Christian influence in my worldview, and I have a strong reaction against a lot of vocabulary that reminds me of the things I burned to ash in my psyche. In my interpretation of Hellenism, there is a gradual uncovering of gods in my day-to-day experience. Some of these gods need to be honored. Some of them need to be appeased. A few of them hardly need acknowledgment at all beyond basic obligations.
I will start this series by looking at my hobbies: Creative writing and linguistics. In a later post, I will talk about the ethics of my professional identity as a librarian and how that intersects with the idea of religious obligations. In the third and later posts, I will talk about a grapeshot of related topics that are on my mind. It’s going to be a wild ride, like that time Google Maps was possessed and my mom made a 90-degree last-minute turn that would have sent us flying into the windshield if we hadn’t had seat belts.
“Hermes himself honors Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses, first of the gods, because she is his patron (429-30), which might even seem to put him on a higher plane than Apollo, who calls himself a companion (ὀπηδός) of her daughters, the Muses (450).” – NJ Richardson, “The Homeric Hymn to Hermes,” in Hesperos: Studies in Ancient Greek Poetry, 2007
My mother says that I started talking within the first few months of my life, way too early. It wasn’t something ambiguous, either: I pointed up at the full moon and said “MOON.” I have always had an exceptional talent for language. We studied grammar in school, but I hardly ever paid attention because I could get perfect-or-above scores on grammar tests without preparing. I discovered the International Phonetic Alphabet on Wikipedia in my late teens and was absolutely blown away. I started writing constructed languages for my science fiction when I was seventeen and eighteen. It was the first time I actually had to learn grammar, and it was addictive. Grammar and sound structures make so much sense when one looks at linguistics. In college, I skipped from basic French to French literature courses because my basic French teacher told me I would be bored in intermediate. It was a good decision. I have something like eleven constructed languages now, all for my creative writing. Two of them have been extensively developed because they’re the primary languages of the Sabaji Tveshi and Ịgzarhjenya people respectively. I conjugate verbs when I’m stressed and am trying to decide if I want to learn Mandarin, Hindi, or Korean because I want to know a few more real languages.
The writing project I started in my late teens finally came to maturity a year and a half ago. I am now experienced enough in institutional bureaucracy and life to do justice to the task at hand. I started redlining an immature manuscript from my early 20s, the first book, and overhauled it into a thing of beauty. (No, really. I made a beta reader cry.) It follows a 5,000-year span of non-Earth history and will be about 1.5 million words long when finished, broken across nine books. It is a linguistically-charged, polytheistic political thriller. I ragequit respectability politics a few months ago and decided to use gender-neutral pronouns for every single character, and that is one of the best decisions I ever made. It doesn’t other the what-we-would-consider-queer characters, which would be culturally inappropriate, and gender cues for everyone else still work out just fine.
This is where the uncovering comes into play. On 5 November 2015, I was dusting my apartment. I am awful about dusting and usually fake-dust with the “small spaces” attachment on my vacuum. No. This was real dusting, with real microfiber cloths. I even dusted all of my shrines using a separate microfiber cloth. Unfortunately, this is how I found out that my agalma for Hermes has a very precarious caduceus. It fell out of the statue’s hand and impacted on the ground, sending one of the wings flying. I stopped winning at adulting and started swearing.
I actually made a formal apology to Hermes in which I made offerings after purchasing Krazy Glue, and I committed to reading a sacred work about him. I chose C. Kerényi’s Hermes: Guide of Souls.
It has never been my intention to censor what I put on the old KALLISTI, just to stop a blog that I felt was not wholly representative of where I am in 2016. Here’s what I wrote last year:
Reading this is something that I should have done a long time ago, perhaps immediately after identifying Hermes as a professional patron. Hermes is a slim work, but it speaks volumes. It’s based on a lecture that Kerényi gave about three quarters of a century ago. I was struck in the foreword by what M. Kerényi said about Kerényi’s relationship with Hermes and that it was devotional in many respects. I continued to be struck by little things as I started moving through the actual content.
Since Sunday morning, I have been thinking a lot about two of the work’s themes: loss and rediscovery. There is a liminal place that is a place unto itself. You lose things, and you regain them or something else that is like them eventually.
Reading about Hermes this weekend has led me to understand that [the journey focus] makes [the Seven Papers] a deeply Hermetic work. Until this weekend, I was actually a bit worried that there wasn’t any depth to it and that it was actually just a trivial, yet ambitious, writing and world-building exercise.
I spent years praying to Apollon and the Mousai, and it turns out that through a series of accidents, the work I am writing is not an Apollonian work, but a Hermetic one. Realizing that it fell under Hermes’ aegis reinvigorated my writing. This May-July, I wrote the entirety of Book 2, Draft 0. I took two 2-day vacations to pray and write in July. Hermes received honors, as did the Mousai and their mother — as did Apollon — and I wrote 25K during both 2-day breaks (total of 50K). I spent between 6-8 hours/week writing during evenings, too, which brought the total to 150K.
On 4 November 2016, I ran into a work in one of our online databases about Hermes purely by happenstance. There, on the page, I read those lines that I put at the beginning of this section. So many things clicked for me, especially the efficacy of realizing which god I needed to bring into my work. This opus is not a devotional offering, but it is definitely an expression of devotion. It is writing that I would have attempted even without being a Hellenic polytheist, but that experience gives me the frame of reference that charges my hobby and my struggle with meaning. It’s the same with linguistics. Hermes is the one whose words fly to his target like quick-flung arrows. He is a translator and interpreter. He is the master of language. Over the past year, we’ve deepened in this newfound relationship. It wasn’t something that I was looking for or that I had even expected. I call him a friend and guide. As (perhaps philosopher Edward Butler on Twitter?) said, a god can be all things to a devotee. I think that this is broadly accurate in many ways. A worshipper does not know all things a god is until le gets to know lim.
The creative work also has personal and social justice aspects, as I want to see more science fiction that takes polytheistic societies seriously. I think that such a work needs to be written by a polytheist. It is also true that our Great Umbrella Community needs something other than religious leaders and those religiously sworn to god(s) as part of their devotions. We need polytheists who write non-religious works, who perform non-religious jobs, and who do it conscious of our identities and of the gods waiting to slip in — those of us, like me, who might not ever consider limself a Hellenist or a Heathen or Kemetic over all other aspects of a complex identity. We need everyone.
As I said at the outset, this is just Part I. I still need to talk about my professional obligations and how they intersect with my religious identity. I have a mess of half-formed other ideas for this series, too.