On approaching polytheism as a system

The world today is a different place from the one we lived in fifteen hundred or even twenty-five hundred years ago. One of the issues we need to confront in modern polytheism is how to account for those changes. The feminist movement of the 1970s changed much of the way the West sees gender dynamics; the modern #MeToo movement has reactivated conversations about gender, privilege, and sexual assault. Science, medicine, and technology have advanced considerably.

A tangled web of thoughts about modern society has led to this post, and when we get down to brass tacks, most of it is the way that many people in the West — specifically in America — are raised, specifically when it comes to engagement with pre-Christian religions in the Mediterranean and Europe.

Ultimately, this post is about feminism and approaching polytheism in terms of systems science.

It’s going to start with something that is seemingly unlinked with feminism and Hellenism, Sephora, because that’s how I brain.

Sephora, Smudging, and Discomfort with Antiquity

The Sephora witchcraft kit conversation about the smudge bundles is the latest in a long run of strange things on the Internet done by other white people that are extremely inappropriate. Smudging is a sacred practice in some First Nations cultures, and those practices are closed to most outsiders despite the rampant appropriation by the New Age movement.

Dr. Adrienne Keene, a professor who runs the blog Native Appropriations, wrote about the Sephora situation and implored that people appropriating Native smudging methods “find out what your own ancestors may have burned for cleansing, and use that.”

Sephora: Have you considered rosemary-scented bath salts and a starter incense kit?

I grew up in Wicca-informed Neopaganism (a term I’m using because the group I was in was not initiatory), and smoke purification* was a part of the pre-ritual ceremonies. One would use smoke purification — often sage — to purify the body of miasma. It was done in the yard before processing down to the area where Circle was held. I stopped doing it when I was about twenty because my worship of the Greek gods led me to more historically-based practices in Hellenic polytheism, where katharmos** rituals are the norm.*** While I’m a polytheist, not a witch, white witches who want to follow Professor Keene’s request may need to engage with recon lit when they decide to make their practice less appropriative. The books recons publish and the blogs some of us write frequently contain detailed information about purification practices that predate Christianity (although I will say that at least in Hellenism, we’re a tad tepid about magic and witchcraft).

Most Indo-European-descended religions (once you get out of NRMs like Wicca that are heavily influenced by 19th century Western occultism and the 20th/21st-century New Age movement) do not use burning herbs, resins, and incenses for purification per se. I searched for smoke/smudge purification methods in Etruscan, Roman, Hellenic, and other Europe/Mediterranean-endemic religions just to be sure. I verified that the primary method of religious purification is via water, not smoke (and, um, historically via animal blood sometimes, too).

There is a mention online of thyme being burned in temples to purify them, but as far as I can tell, the original source is neither from a surviving written text nor a peer-reviewed book/article, but a modern herbalism book. However, I will allow that I may have missed something in British traditional witchcraft because I’m not familiar with it. I have also seen some anecdotes (not backed up by specific citations) that Asatru practice includes some bundled herbs being burned for purification.

In the Mediterranean, smoke is/was used via incense offerings in temples to gods, and by Late Antiquity, it was considered a higher form of sacrifice than blood/animal sacrifice because culture at large was moving away from that practice. The reason incense wasn’t heavily used in Christianity for centuries after polytheism was outlawed was that many Christians really freaked out over incense. During the period, many Christians believed that our gods were demons and that visiting a house that the aroma of sacrifice permeated would open them to demonic forces. It’s actually really interesting to think about colonialism in the context of Late Antiquity because the bullshit that was done to destroy polytheistic cultus back then was like a practice round for what has happened to conquered/colonized non-Christians from ~1492 onward.

The use of burning aromatics as sacrificial offerings more closely resembles what’s happening in the specific smudge ceremony ritual described in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the experience with college policy is relatable. Not being able to offer incense in my dorm room in college was also a problem; it’s a higher form of honor than a libation or first fruits offering. I looked forward to graduating so I could be in my own space and make incense offerings again. It also feels extremely weird to go to a college chapel designed for Christian and Christian-like practices when you want to pray to gods Christianity attempted to wipe out.

Much of the information people need, to be honest, has historically been trapped within paywalled journal articles and expensive scholarly monographs. However, with the resurgence of reconstructionisms of Mediterranean/Euro-located religions, people have spent hundreds and thousands of dollars on monographs to research on our behalf, producing scholarship-grounded books in the $10-20 range that many individuals and public libraries can afford. There are dozens/hundreds of books on recon practices now extant on Amazon, many of them self-published because traditional publishing has not seen a large enough market for them until recently.

The big question is why people are not using these resources.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Zeus

What do you think about when I write the name Zeus?

I’ve practiced Hellenic polytheism since early 2008, and here are my mental associations:

  1. Duvets that still smell like storage closet cedar chips. One aspect of Zeus guards storerooms. The first thing I generally think of when I think of Zeus is hygge-like coziness and cupboards filled with tea.
  2. Zeus as the household serpent, as he was widely-syncretized with the Agathos Daimon, the “Good Spirit” who is the guardian of the house in Hellenism. One place where you can see this play out is the Daimon’s prayer in the Orphic Hymns.
  3. Aratus’ “In the Beginning,” a poem about Zeus written in antiquity.
  4. Daemonia Nymphe’s “Dios Astropaiou,” a song performed with traditional instruments.
  5. Friendship and hospitality, Zeus Philios and Zeus Xenios.

The majority of people who read/hear the name do not think of any of that. The average American’s introduction to Greek gods is through mythology in school. Based on Twitter conversations/callouts I have read about Zeus, the only thing people talk about is him being a rapist.

This depiction of Zeus was a frequent subject in morality & ethics conversations among philosophers in antiquity and a reason why many of them were not enthusiastic about popular mythology. Herakles, a major hero, also has a strained relationship with women that is evident in both his mythology and actual ritual practices. Back in the 2000s, there was a translation of the Orphic Hymns online that omitted Zeus and Herakles because the site did not think either god was worthy of worship.

Apollon, the god who presides over purifications in Hellenism, is known in mythology for his failed liaisons with nymphs. A Dianic Wiccan once told me that I was a traitor to my sex for worshipping him (or any male god). When I was sixteen or seventeen, I was told by a ceremonial magician (a person I respected) not to go into Hellenic polytheism because it was a dead tradition and that it would stunt my spiritual growth. On Tumblr, I have frequently seen young people, primarily girls who are uncomfortable with Greek mythology and patriarchy, question whether they belong.

I’m using examples from Hellenism because I’m a Hellenist and know what I’m talking about in this arena, but if you’re in another polytheistic tradition like Religio Romana or Asatru, you probably have your own examples.

I think that modern discomfort with things like this, when combined with white privilege and colonialism, leads to a toxic place where people are turned off from where we come from, but still yearn for an intimate religious experience and meaningful ritual practices that aren’t tied to the Christian concept of “religion” — hence why I didn’t mention Christian purification rituals in the opening. They feel that spiritual practices, be they yoga or smudge ceremonies or really anything, are “wisdoms” that they can take and rehash into something that feels comfortable to them regardless of how they do it. This, incidentally, is how Durga ended up in a book called 365 Goddess and how teenage me learned a valuable lesson about praying to deities I hadn’t done background research on.

Sometimes, we have to deal with uncomfortable things. We have to look beyond surface-level glosses we were taught about belief systems close to home and see the complicated beauty within them. Sometimes, one is inheriting a practice that was appropriated in a previous generation, and that can get even more complicated and painful to confront because it wasn’t le who originally did it.

It pays off to know exactly what you are doing and why. My ancestors are from Scandinavia and Gaul, and yet I’m a Hellenist. I know that part of this is due to the pervasiveness of Greek myths in American culture, but also Roman military activity and colonialism in Gaul and my interest in philosophy. I came to Hellenism because I worship Greek gods and wanted to honor them properly; my ancestor worship practices are syncretized, and my family still does things for St. Lucia’s Day. Further, the Greeks conquered (and, um, were also conquered) and traded on three continents, and Greek gods spread to Africa, Asia, and other parts of Europe. This is how you get Bactria and Greco-Egyptian Alexandria. Much of Hellenic religion has historically been open and syncretizable.

Systems Science: Tradition-Grounded and Forward-Thinking

I worship Zeus daily as part of my household routine.

I am very aware of the moral complexities of mythologies developed by patriarchal cultures. Why is it that feminists who are Western recon polytheists or Hindu or in other traditional religions are singled out as having unique problems with our gods and feminist ideals? Why do we in Hellenism offer young people tepid responses when they ask difficult questions about the status of women, Greek mythology, and the like?

We’ve always had gods of many genders. Women ritual officiants and priestesses possessed enormous power in antiquity. Surely we can talk — loudly — about how we engage with difficult material and transform it into something positive? People in other religions do it.

Systems science is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to understand the world as a complex network of systems. Western polytheists who use reconstructionist methodologies are adapting a religious system that needs updating. Our reconstructed religions are semi-preserved as they were in the 500s CE. The challenge is to press ahead with something that remains recognizably itself, retaining the core practices of the pantheon system and its ritual language, while (a) catching up to civil rights and (b) developing culturally relevant responses to modern problems.

One example of (a) is the feminist movement. Speaking from my experience as a cis woman, we now have access to better health care, our childbirth survival rates are quite high, and we have access to education. I think that the feminist movement would have happened in a polytheistic environment with those inputs, albeit in a different way. One example of (b) is how miasma and ritual impurity can be adapted to describe the effects of social media on the psyche.

Patriarchy is one piece of antiquity’s system that is a problem. You can see it in how popular culture talks about the gods of various pantheons and the reasons people give for not learning more based on what is said.

So the challenge becomes this: What exists in the primary literature about religious experiences in antiquity within a specific religious tradition for those assigned female at birth (AFAB)? Which pieces of that experience match cultural practices in society today, while accounting for women’s rights and gender diversity, and which need to be updated? What, from a religious perspective, are women’s milestones when marriage and childbirth are no longer seen as requirements for (cis) girls to become “true women”? What are the milestones for nonbinary/agender/&c. AFAB people and trans women? How does gender and marriage equality impact the way household worship is conducted?

For a while now, I’ve thought about writing a series of posts about feminism and Hellenism, and I’ve slowly acquired a lot of source material to do this and written up notes on them. This includes a few source books for translated quotations from Ancient Greek and Roman sources on women’s religious experiences, veiling practices, and life pathways.

I’m going to do that starting now.

I want to make something publicly available that is not ephemeral — social media is not good for persistence.

It will focus on Hellenism because that’s what I practice. As a cis woman, you can expect that much of it will come from that experience. Non-cis people of any gender are welcome to take from all of this what you will, but it may need some adaptation because the Ancient Greeks were very essentialist. One thing I find endlessly uncomfortable as a childless 31-year-old cis lesbian woman is that women were not considered adult adults until childbirth had rounded out their figures. Um. Yeah.

Conclusion

We’ve traveled far in this twenty-five-hundred-word post, so I’m providing a summary. I started with the recent Sephora witchcraft kit incident in order to talk about more appropriate purification practices. Then, I raised a question about why these practices are less well-used from the perspective of an outsider to witchcraft (someone in a recon polytheist religion). I used an example of how modern culture thinks about deities from the pantheon I worship, primarily Zeus, to talk about the widespread discomfort with pre-Christian religions and associated practices (specifically those endemic to areas that colonizers like myself come from) and how that can create a toxic storm when combined with our white privilege and a desire for spiritual fulfillment. Finally, I did as promised and described systems science, feminism, and a series of future posts that I have been working on.

Stay tuned next time for a post on menstruation.

————————————————

  • I’m using the term “smudge” here because the Oxford English Dictionary references it as a term applied to thick smoke in a space. It was apparently a way to keep mosquitoes away. When I say “smoke purification” or “to smoke purify,” I’m referring to Wiccan and Wicca-based Neopagan practices; when I say “smudge ceremony” or “to smudge,” I’m referring to the practice in many First Nations. There’s an alternative term for the Wiccan/Witchcraft practice, “smoke cleansing,” that is popular among people on Tumblr. I prefer the term purification to cleansing because it’s a more accurate translation of katharmos, the Hellenic ritual practices for purification.

** Katharmos is a purification process that begins with a shower (or washing the hands and face) before going to the ritual area. In the ritual area, herbs — usually rosemary or thyme — are set on fire and extinguished in water, preferably seawater or spring water, and used for a second washing of the hands/face or just sprinkling over the body. In the ancient world, sulphur was often added to purification water during the process, too. The prepared purification water is called khernips.

*** Yoga, which I do to this day, is an entirely different matter — I have been in classes where a teacher will burn sage smudge-style during the final śavāsana (corpse pose) before the practice ends. If it were used as purification, the teachers would have done it at the beginning; yoga is a Hindu-derived practice, and as far as I know, Hinduism uses incenses. Yoga has its own issues with appropriation that I won’t get into here, but I’ve listened to a horrifying podcast interview with a Western yoga teacher who calls limself a pirate entering specific Yoga traditions and taking what le wants from them as if it were a positive thing, and le wasn’t joking.

2 thoughts on “On approaching polytheism as a system

  1. Wow, I’m really glad to see this. In the past when I practiced Hellenismos, the general community seemed to shut down any feminist concerns about Greek mythology & ancient culture, and part of that was I believe a reaction to feminism in wider paganism being so associated with totally re-writing myths. That tendency seems to have continued. Discomfort with Zeus was a big reason why even though Greek myth was the first kind of mythology I came across & led me to being a proto-pagan, I avoided Greek traditions. It was frustrating to have that discomfort dismissed as a modern hang-up when rape is still a problem in modern society even if the cultural context differs. It’s also interesting to see discussions of consent with regards to sex with gods & spirits, though it’s something I’m not sure I believe in & same with god-spousery.

    Liked by 1 person

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