Coda: Blood Crimes, Purification Ceremonies, and the Eumenides

The first time I encountered an awkward situation talking about social justice, I was somewhere around 10, and we were watching Disney’s Peter Pan (1953). A girl from outside of the home was there on this fateful afternoon, connected to either me or to my siblings.

My sisters and I didn’t watch Peter Pan in the usual way. Ever since I was a small child, prompted by my mother’s disgust at the “What Made the Red Man Red?” song, I had dutifully fast-forwarded over the entire musical number. I taught my siblings that we did this, and we all agreed that the song and gratuitous war whooping throughout the entire film were offensive, but we didn’t like the live action film because Tink was basically a flashlight.

By the time I was a preteen, I could more or less hit the exact ending of the song by pressing Stop-FFW until we were back at Playtime Child Antics. It was an autopilot moment and a ritual.

Outsider Girl had no idea what was going on. When I stopped the film and pressed fast-forward, she asked, “What are you doing?” and I explained that I was fast-forwarding through the song. She then said, “But that ruins the movie. You can’t fast-forward through the song. I want to see it. I like this movie.” And then I said, “But it’s not right,” in the extremely bemused tone of a child who thought that her mother had fixed this problem already by her repeated altercations with the school over war-whooping during the Thanksgiving unit.

I think that I have said elsewhere, probably in blog comments, that my mother is a white ally to Native rights/sovereignty. For years, I watched my mother sweat through her FREE LEONARD PELTIER shirt on her Nordic Track while listening to Robert Mirabal and Robbie Robertson and Joanne Shenandoah and all of the other big names that I didn’t realize few knew. We watched Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and loved the film, so my siblings and I would bring it to sleepovers because we knew no one else had seen it. My mother owns God Is Red and a host of other nonfiction and fiction works by Native authors of various nations. When one writer came out with a book about skin-walkers, my mother instantly knew from the topic that the writer was not Navajo.

On 20 April 2010, I wrote a blog post about colonialism and the nymphai that evolved out of reading some Thomas Taylor footnotes. Towards the beginning of April 2010, I read a prescient post about alt-right Asatru on The Wild Hunt, to which I commented:

Right now, I’m reading Iamblichus and looking at a really interesting take on imperialism in the footnotes written by Thomas Taylor. He quotes another ancient source to compare to something Iamblichus says, and that entire quoted section is about how cultural genocide/imperialism causes the Erinyes to haunt the offenders until their descendants make amends. It is very stupid to be this worried about the future of “whiteness” in America when a good number of us have ties to people with indigenous blood on their hands!

I include myself in the us in that comment. My ancestors literally conquered Québec.

The footnote quotation, which the person asked me for, was subsequently posted on KALLISTI. In this Thomas Taylor footnote to On the Mysteries‘ Section III, Chapter X, Taylor refers to the Phaedrus and to Hermias’ commentaries on it:

In the greatest diseases and labours (says Plato in the Phaedrus) to which certain persons are sometimes subject through the ancient indignation of the Gods, in consequence of former guilt, mania when it takes place, predicting what they stand in need of, discovers a liberation from such evils by dying to prayer and the worship of the Gods. Hence, obtaining by this means purifications and the advantages of initiation, it renders him who possesses it free from disasters both for the present and future time, by discovering to him who is properly insane, and possessed by divinity, a solution of the present evils.

And the Platonic Hermias beautifully unfolds the meaning of this ancient indignation of the Gods, through former guilt, as follows: “Offences which have been committed for a great length of a time, are more difficult to be washed away, and a liberation from them can alone be effected by the telestic art ; but those that have been committed for a shorter time are more easily cured. Thus, also, we see in the medical art, that maladies which have existed but for a little time, if they are paid attention to at their commencement, are easily remedied, but that when they are of long standing, they are more difficultly healed. For the evil in this case becomes as it were natural and confirmed by habit, and resembles an indurated ulcer.

A similar thing to this, therefore, takes place in guilty conduct. Hence, if he who has committed an injury, immediately repents, and acknowledges his guilt to him whom he has injured, he dissolves the injury, and renders himself no longer obnoxious to justice. But when some one dissolves an injury committed by his father, by restoring, for instance, land which he had unjustly taken, he then makes himself to be unobnoxious to justice, and lightens and benefits the soul of his father. These things, however, the telestic art more swiftly remedies.

Moreover, if it should happen that the whole race of some one successively use land which had originally been plundered, in this case, the injury in the first place becomes immanifest, and on this account is more difficult to be cured ; and, in the next place, time causes the evil to become as it were natural. Hence the Gods frequently predict to men that they should go to such or such places, and that an apology should be made to this man, who was never known to them, and that he should be appeased, in order that thus they may obtain a remedy and be liberated from their difficulties, and that the punishments inflicted on them by the Furies may cease. The Gods, however, predict, not for the purpose of taking away punishment, but in order that justice may be done, and that we may be amended. The telestic art, therefore, renders him better who possesses the mania which it imparts, and through him saves also many others. Thus, for instance, it is related of one who was cutting down an oak, and though he was called on by a Nymph not to cut it down, yet persisted in felling it, that he was punished for so doing by the avenging Furies, that he was in want of necessary food, and that if at any time he met with it, it was immediately taken from him, till one who possessed the telestic art told him to raise an altar and sacrifice to this Nymph, for thus he would be liberated from his calamities. Another person, likewise, who had slain his mother, was freed from the punishment inflicted on him by the Furies by migrating to another country, conformably to the mandate of divinity, and there fixing his abode …”

On 20 April 2010, I made offerings to the nymphai in Ithaca, New York, where the Sullivan Campaign murdered thousands of Haudenosaunee women and children to make way for all of the tracts of land promised to the men who fought in the American Revolution. Ithaca, New York, is a deeply numinous place. The offering to the nymphai went well.

There is a place between ancestral crimes and the reality of being a person and an individual who was not personally present, and that is awareness. Still, not all nymphai, potamoi, and other spirits will offer forgiveness after the Erinyes have been pacified. Not every god will open ler arms to a person seeking to be a devotee. Not everything we are called to do as religious people is easy, nor is it always hard or weird.

The middle ground I found in Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism [note: I edited the terminology from “Hellenism” on 31/5/21] was to assess what the land and its spirits expected of me and to warn people, as Cassandra warned Troy, that they need to care about purification and pacification. I haven’t written anything detailed on New KALLISTI about practicing in the Americas, but I was prompted to after reading something on Gods & Radicals earlier in the week. I do think that their frequent discussions of cultural appropriation and the historical realities are really important to read, even if they can be hard to process for individuals who haven’t grown up doing that.

Not everyone can have a mother who serves her children a dark brown sheet cake and describes — while I realized mid-bite that the dark color was not chocolate, but lie-filled molasses, and stared at my mother in abject betrayal — the realities of life at American Indian boarding schools where the dish was served. It’s confusing to me as an adult who was raised the way I was raised that things like this are controversial — another Peter Pan moment — or to hear the rhetoric that acknowledging that some of my ancestors were the foot-soldiers of conquest somehow means I have less pride in my heritage. (It’s pretty cool that some of my ancestors served in the Québec government.)

My 2017 position is this: For a polytheist of European descent who worships the Hellenic Gods, I strongly suggest a purification ceremony involving Apollon and the pacification of the Erinyes/Eumenides before starting to worship nymphai and land spirits in the Americas. Even then, I don’t recommend doing so in a new location without divination. That said, I do not think that (most) crimes are beyond the Eumenides to purify because I have faith in them.

Ideally, purification is accompanied by advocating for the religious and cultural rights (and hopefully political sovereignty) of Native nations. While Wicca was getting started at reviving gods in the mid-20th century (which enabled a pathway for the rest of us), Native children were in boarding schools to erase their indigenous religions and their cultures, and at times, Native religions have been illegal. American religious freedom pretty much meant (and still means) religious freedom for white people, with everyone else subjected to Christian Dominionism. If you want more information on this, you can watch the 2004 Native Spirituality panel from the Parliament of World Religions. If we are serious about reviving the worship of gods, we help all gods.

I do not recommend worshipping Native gods and adapting their religious practices, however, unless you’re actually involved with tribal citizens’ institutions and have been granted permission by people who clearly have the authority to do so. That’s a bit different from occasionally honoring land spirits as part of a basic polytheistic practice. (As much as I like Xochipilli and Xochiquetzal, there are boundaries.)

I’m going to close this post with something I wrote on the old KALLISTI in October 2011.

Wherever I turned, I found [the Erinyes]: in the Oresteia, one of the most numinous pieces of writing about Apollôn that I own (and I fully believe that words when brought into the right order can be just as numinous as Delphi); in the words of God Is Red; and finally within myself.

“It’s funny. You don’t know what’s going to be in your room until you see it. And then you realize it could never have been anything else.”

– Lucy Hayward, “The God Complex,” Doctor Who Series 6

A god loves someone who resembles him or her [or lim], no matter how deeply we hide the connection. Every god who seeks our attention sees a little bit of themselves within us that they latch onto in sympathy — a sort of resonance that, with devotion, becomes amplified until it’s difficult to see the fuzzy difference between the human and divine, a profaned sacredness and a sanctified profaneness.

It’s easy to go after the Ouranic gods and see if they turn and look you in the eye — the penultimate one being, I think, the Far-Shooter because he keeps his distance and everyone loves a challenge.

I have prayed to the Erinyes every night for the past few weeks and have had a lot of time to think about the strange, impulsive decision I made to worship them — a decision I have no memory of making, just as I remember not using chopsticks as a toddler and suddenly using them at seven or eight with no recollection of how I got from Point A to Point B.

They make me remember all of the things about myself that have made me uneasy forever, and they have teased out a lot of anger. It’s not easy to have that kind of passion again (which I think I repressed a lot while growing up because I lived in such a toxic environment), but part of worship is coming to gods on their own terms and bringing oneself into resonance. It’s easier to explain this way:

When we worship and pray to gods,
we make spaces for them to slip in,
smooth as eels, persistent as water
dripping from caverns and the heat
pulsating invisible in the universe.
Neurons crystallize into agalmata,
and the consonants on our tongues
ring like the cymbals and drums
bringing Rhea out of the mountains.

With the Erinyes, this means accepting the snakes, the venom, and a sense of pompous righteousness that sort of reminds me of King Kong. (Does anyone else who worships the Erinyes know a better way to say that last part?)

And did I mention the snakes?

At once the ominous Tisiphone
selected a torch that had been steeped in blood,
put on a robe reddened with dripping gore,
and a belt of live snakes. And so appareled,
set out from her home accompanied by Grief,
with Fear and Terror and convulsive Madness.
They say the doorposts shuddered when she stood
on the threshold of the house of Aeolus;
the polished oaken doors lost all their luster,
and the Sun went in. Ino and Athamas
were blocked, when, terrified, they tried to flee
the ill-omened Fury there before them,
who spreads her arms, alive with tangled snakes,
and shakes her locks out: stunned, more serpents fall,
some to her shoulders, others to her breasts,
hissing and vomiting their deadly silver.
– Ovid, Metamorphoses Book IV, ln. 660 – 675, trans. Charles Martin

Worshipping them has also helped me get over my fear of honoring the local spirits. I live where the Iroquois were massacred just after the Revolutionary War, which colors my assumptions about what is proper and good when relating to local spirits. I don’t know if other European Americans who practice traditional European religions feel the same way, but the land in some parts of the country is still rightfully angry. I have made so many offerings to these goddesses that I started worshipping some of the local potamoi and nymphai, who seem to have grudgingly accepted my offerings, earlier this year.

I do not have as much access to the potamoi and nymphai in coastal Connecticut, where everything is a city — but I do still go onto the trails when I visit my mother, and I make offerings there when I can.

6 thoughts on “Coda: Blood Crimes, Purification Ceremonies, and the Eumenides

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