I’m about to go on hiatus for a bit, so now is as good a time as any to say some of this.
For those of you who are not on Twitter, over the past 3-4 months, there have been discussions (and many arguments) about Hellenism(os), cultural appropriation, Hellenization/Americanization/*-ization, who has authority and in what contexts, and other topics. These conversations have taken place among Greeks and non-Greeks who worship Greek gods.
For those who are not on Twitter, I think it’s also important to think about many of the issues that have been raised. You will get a sense of them from the headings, and I encourage you to think about them.
Generally speaking, emotions and stress levels have been running high. Few conversations have gone well by any definition of “well.” I reflexively mentally model most people I know — I hate watching interpersonal fights because feeling those emotions on a visceral level is gut-wrenching. I literally take everything in and have to process it. I have cried more than once.
To get more personal, I have watched our communities eating themselves alive on the Internet since I was quite young. It never stops cutting at my heart no matter how old I get. Nobody seems to be doing the difficult diplomatic work that should be done — apart from the few academics who are, in fact, shifting the window of acceptable discourse so that polytheism is no longer as ridiculous to talk about in academia as it was 10 years ago, and those activities should be commended —— and that context is not this context.
I also deeply care about what is happening to bystanders watching these fights — the ones who see tweets and arguments in their timelines and feel their guts clenching and their throats closing, who go to their shrines during the few minutes they have in their hectic days and who now have to fight not to think about what they saw, which puts them in a state that is not ideal from a ritual purity and efficacy standpoint.
Diplomacy, tact, and asking questions all matter. It is important to assume good intent with everything people do.
My goal here, and everywhere, is to treat people with empathy and to figure out how to communicate about things in a way that removes barriers — cognitive, time-based, physical — so that the information is actually helpful and actionable. I know that I need to be gentle to do that, like the Sun in the fable of the Sun and the North Wind. It’s the reason I focus on non-mystical things on this blog — I noticed that the perspective was missing.
So: In addition to providing positional statements, I’ve included italicized text with some preliminary recommendations.
This absolute stranger on Twitter gave me all of the feels when I read what le said about being human, the gift of imperfection, and how we all need to be human with one another. It’s a short thread — feel free to click on the date to see the whole thing.
We all make mistakes. None of us are perfect. We are all learning. It is okay to acknowledge and honor your arc of learning and how you have changed. This doesn’t make you bad, it makes you human.
I don’t want perfection, i want us to learn how to be more human with each other.
— Mia Mingus (@miamingus) July 30, 2019
I also made a playlist mixtape. It’s on YouTube. This piece is 3500 words long, so you may want it.
Here we go.
#1: Nobody has said that others cannot worship specific gods.
This came up very early in the Twitter argument, and it’s what confused me the most. Nobody ever said this. What people said was that Hellenism(os) comes with a specific set of mores (customs and conventions) that need to be observed in order for something to be called Hellenism(os).
My mother worships Hekate. She is an initiated Wiccan. Do I agree with everything she does? (No — otherwise, I’d be Wiccan.) We have a high genetic pregnancy mortality risk in my family. My mom was praying to Hekate a lot during my sisters’ pregnancies, and despite complications, both of them survived the medical complications they had. Wicca is an NRM. The worship of Hekate in Wicca, her theological role, &c. is just different. It’s not a judgment; it’s a fact, like noting that houses can have many types of architecture.
From the Greek perspective, what I am hearing is that they have a strong and firm belief in their own esoteric traditions. This makes perfect sense. Why would anyone advocate for something le didn’t wholeheartedly believe was the best way forward?
Clarifying terminology and correctly describing what one is doing are the best ways to help people self-sort themselves and know what they are getting. Sometimes, this will mean that someone will want the Greek esoterica. Sometimes, someone will want an NRM mystery.
If someone is working in a syncretic context, it’s not appropriate to use the term Hellenism, although someone in that context can definitely have good information. A polytheistic NRM mystery tradition is not Hellenism.
Saying that an NRM is not Hellenism is not an attack on the NRM teaching itself. In library science, we have a Frame that says “authority is constructed and contextual.” Reputation is context-specific — it would be weird in a bad way if someone in a religion were to instantly demand insider respect from someone in another religion. As for reputation-building, most mystery traditions were NRMs at some point. The way the teachings impact the students themselves and whether or not the teachings bring a student into better relation with the gods and the world we live in is, in my opinion, the litmus. That cannot be judged overnight. (Incidentally, I’m also a late tech adopter. I was one of the last people I know to have a smartphone.) Personally, I also judge whether teachers conduct themselves ethically in public and how they manage conflict.
In addition, there are dynamics with colonialism — properly describing things (e.g., Hellenism vs. a NRM that just looks a lot like Hellenism) is crucial. Displacing Greeks is wrong. So is saying that they’ve lost the right to self-determine what 21st century Hellenism(os) looks like. (I once erroneously thought this, too, so it’s not like I’m excusing myself. Everyone has things that they need to unlearn.)
I’m familiar with the modern history of Greece, and Greeks have been treated like shit — I’ve said elsewhere that claiming Greece as the foundation of “Western culture/civilization” is an imperialist project. It’s a piece of propaganda that functions by severing Greeks from their own history so we can create a mirage of Western history instead of dealing with the messy, disjointed complexity that actually exists. The Greeks have been victims of xenophobia and othering. It’s no wonder that they’re angry.
There is a lot of Hellenization that comes along with doing Hellenism(os) — it requires engaging with Greek community, language, and culture, not just Greek gods.
Even if one is just worshipping Greek gods in a new context and not doing Hellenism(os), it is very important to have respect for the place and the people from whom the gods originated — in the USA, this can mean small things like donating to archaeological nonprofits to keep sacred sites in good condition or big things like contacting your representatives over Cyprus. One should read important things like State Department reports on religious freedom in Greece, which have been documenting the Hellenic religion’s struggles for a while now.
It’s similar to how, in yoga, there’s a divide in the USA between yoga teachers who will and will not acknowledge Hinduism. Even if one is doing yoga that is very different from yoga as it is practiced in India and its diaspora communities, it matters that one goes to a yoga teacher who at least acknowledges India and Hinduism, and it is even better if that yoga teacher is actually engaged with them. The same principle applies here.
Recommendation: If you do not want to join YSEE or another organization, why not just be more accurate with your terminology?
To that end, if you look at the About Me page, I’m now using the term “Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism.” This reflects that I worship Greek gods, but in a way that is syncretized with something else.
In my case, the syncretized nodes are that I do a different type of ancestor worship, and many of the theological questions I have deal with things that are more appropriate for my cultural background — for example, I’m very interested in the implications of some types of enagēs situations for the colonialist project in the Americas, and that involves a lot of novel interpretation of purification, Platonism, and the Erinyes/Eumenides. I’m also interested in hieropoeia and how to do it in genres like speculative fiction to play with theological questions in the dance hall of ideas. Would a Greek person care about my insights or be in the audience for them? Most likely not.
You can add [American, Brazilian, British] as a prefix to make something like “American Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism.” You have an idea of what you are getting with a term like this. It is honest. ISKCON and Hinduism both involve the god Krishna, and the terminology difference helps one know what one is getting.
The most ethical and just thing to do is often not the easiest on an emotional or practical level, but the longer one waits, the more difficult it becomes to change.
BTW: You can pronounce “HeSP” like “hesp,” AKA the first syllable of hesperos, and that is extremely apt.
#2: Those of us who are not ethnically Greek should not be calling ourselves Hellenes.
I don’t really have much to say about this. I’m of Scandi and Québécoise ancestry, and it is extremely weird to me for someone to use an ethnic term when one is not that ethnicity. (There’s obviously some ambiguity with the word Québécoise because it can mean both an ethnicity and someone who lives/grew up in Québec, but that’s true of a lot of terminology.)
Why do people mis-identify as Hellenes, then? It goes back to colonialism and the construct of Western civilization. In school, our survey of Western history began with Attica. It’s deeply ingrained in the education system, and nobody ever tells us not to do it.
Apollon will accept my offerings if I do them properly and in a ritually clean state. My Scandi-Québécoise American ethnicity has nothing to do with worshipping him.
Recommendation: Don’t do this.
If you’ve been doing this, it’s never too late to stop. Everyone makes errors and mistakes, some more grievous than others. We all have the ability and the opportunity to learn from them and become better people. Time and 20/20 hindsight are a gift.
#3: The polytheist NRMs in places like the United States are not the same as the revival movement in Greece (and the Greek diaspora), it is important to acknowledge that, and yes, it does mean that those of us in polytheist NRMs should change how we refer to ourselves and leave it to the Greeks to decide what Hellenism(os) is. Doing anything else is cultural appropriation.
I think I’ve said everything I need to say about this above, but having a single non-bolded sentence is a bit weird. Let me talk about sage smudging instead as an analogy.
In various witchcraft, occult, Wiccan, Neopagan, and other contexts, people have been using sage smoke cleansing for decades. They’ve been calling it smudging, which is an appropriative term, and using white sage, also wrong. The power dynamics make the ethical issue unambiguous.
Recently, there has been a movement to come into right relation with Native American cultures that have smudge ceremonies. Neopagans, Wiccans, &c. are still cleansing with smoke. They’ve renamed smoke cleansing, and they’re increasingly using other herbs to make these bundles — ones that make more sense in the cultural context they’re in, such as rosemary, thyme, or bay. It is a Herculean effort to shift popular culture to do anything ethical, but the end result has been positive. Neopagans get their smoke cleansing, and people from Native cultures that have smudge ceremonies have their voices and wills heard. This is important reparative work. It’s not a finished project. Moving the cultural needle into a truly ethical place will take years, maybe decades. There are no quick fixes.
Recommendation: See my first recommendation. To add to that, if we are in an American NRM polytheist group, we should advocate for it to do better and be less appropriative from the inside. This could take months, years, or decades because going through bureaucracy is like watching paint dry, but it is the correct thing to do.
#4: Islamophobia and racism are morally wrong.
On Islamophobia: Yes, predatory proselytization and predatory conversion are human rights violations. Yes, as polytheists, we have fundamentally different beliefs about divine number and things like the role of images in worship. This does not give you license to be Islamophobic. Do not dehumanize people. Period.
On racism: It is wrong. Fuck white supremacy. Please stop associating with white supremacists.
Now, I’m about to go on a tangent that is probably very unexpected. It involves ethics, friendship, and difficult choices.
There is a tenet of Solon that goes like this: Do not be hasty in making friends, but do not abandon them once made. I like ethics, and it is important to stick by one’s friends. But what do you do when someone whom you’ve known for a long time is being radicalized into toxic beliefs? When do you intervene in private? When do you leave the door open to help lim? When do you cut lim off completely? These are not easy questions, and they have no easy answers.
The only thing that I know about it is that the situation sucks. It can be very easy to make mental justifications for why some things are OK, others not. The most difficult thing about every person who holds damaging beliefs or who does something awful is that nobody started out that way. We’re all born good, which means there will always be a tragic backstory as someone slides towards what is not good.
Proclus described these issues while commenting on the First Alcibiades — if Socrates is holy, and if he may know how Alcibiades is going to turn out, why does he try to help him towards philosophy? Is it an utterly useless gesture? Does it change things if someone is not in a position to harm you (AKA, you’re in a privilege position) and you can potentially make a difference later?
In polytheism, this mean that we are vulnerable to excusing behavior because someone is pious or because we know and like lim. We have strong personal ties, especially if we’ve ever confided in a person, because sharing religious experiences with another person in vivid detail is a highly intimate thing.
I understand that human lives are more complicated than tweetable short sentences. Difficult dilemmas like this can really suck, but they are important. Resolving one will always hurt. (I am making a difficult choice by writing this post.) Figure out what you have to do.
Recommendation: If you engage in bigoted behavior, it is wrong. However, it is never too late to change. Please do the right thing.
#5: Mudslinging on the Internet is wrong.
This is probably not something that anyone in these arguments wants to hear, but they are not my primary audience.
It takes a lot of self-reflection and self-control to not react badly during something as heated as a conversation about religion and belief. There are only 2-3 people in these recent Internet arguments who have not done it.
For years now, I’ve seen people go low with their blows instead of actually sticking to the contentious topics. It doesn’t help. It makes things worse, it is bullying, and it is wrong. I include a lot of things in “mudslinging,” from the literal definition to other things like deciding to use misogynistic or homophobic remarks. I was school bullied as a kid. This kind of stuff is a hard nope for me. There is never an excuse for this.
Some, but not all, of the people doing these things are people whom I would consider in the “elder” category — I’m a Millennial, and they’re Gen X or Boomers. I hate correcting people elder to me whom I recognize as having some kind of experience and expertise. Please just stop.
There are also people who have been baiting others to fight with them in replies on Twitter just for fun. That’s not mudslinging, but yiiiiiiikes, why?
I have no recommendation because everyone already knows that they shouldn’t be doing this. I’m sure we all have that feeling in our gut of no, don’t, this is not right, when we think or say anything awful about anyone else, right?
(What I exclude from “mudslinging” is giving facts — I don’t keep it secret that I do not like Timothy Jay Alexander, I give clear reasons for that, and I always admit that he could have changed over the last 10 years. Other people do the same thing, yet some miss the “please check to see if le’s changed” piece.)
#6: Yes, there are mental health and spiritual bypassing issues in modern polytheist NRMs, and we could be dealing with this better.
Hellenes in these conversations have observed that there are many mental health issues unaddressed in our communities.
This is not unique to polytheist NRMs in the USA, but an American thing. US mental health care is a mess. We have epidemics of depression and anxiety, and many people cannot access care due to the insurance issues. In addition, members of NRMs can face unique challenges accessing services with providers who will be respectful of their religions in the process of administering care — our healthcare system has a lot of Christian privilege.
I agree with Hellenes when they say that having a grounding in a worldview and tradition are crucial for evaluating intense experiences. They do help people discern between when they may need a healthcare intervention, when it is just an active imagination, and when it is a spiritual thing. Many people in the USA do not have the benefit of growing up in a polytheistic tradition and have had to figure out discernment for themselves. Some have not succeeded.
Others have discerned that they are having spiritual experiences, yet lack the vocabulary to describe them in a way that is appropriate. I would put the “chosenness” vocabulary in this bracket. Without knowing someone and how le thinks, I never know if le is saying le’s been chosen by a deity due to an unaddressed, medically treatable condition, an active imagination, or if le’s trying to express ler impressions of a spiritual experience in a way that is just not accessible to me as a listener. From a health statistics standpoint, most people are probably in the “experience” camp, so I try to hear everyone out.
There’s also something that Hellenes did not point out, spiritual bypassing. This refers to using spiritual or religious things to address stuff that should really be handled in a mental health care setting or just acknowledged and dealt with in a secular sense to heal. A lot of people do this, too.
Not all experiences or activities in religious settings are spiritual bypassing. I had a religious experience back in May that dissolved about 90% of the anxiety and issues that I had been struggling with for a long time. It was very powerful. But did I quit therapy? No. I didn’t bring it up with my therapist for weeks, and we continued to meet for a bit after I did mention it because we both wanted to be sure that everything was actually okay. It would have been bypassing if I’d used that experience as a substitute for dealing with my health needs.
As per Iamblichus, harrowing (for lack of an easier term) encounters with gods (or, more likely, a being who is part of their series), can be deeply healing, and they do change people — but only goodness comes from the gods, the gods themselves need nothing. A religious experience does not mean a god has “chosen” someone. We make the choice towards happiness and moving deeper into alignment with them on our own when we come back and process those experiences, discern what they mean, and what needs to be done going forward.
In the end, though, most of us in this world have to take out the trash, go to work, and clean the kitty litter.
Recommendation: I can’t give medical advice because I am not a licensed healthcare practitioner. All I can say is to try to find grounded things to read and contextualize things against, like Iamblichus or other authors who include practices of discernment in their writings.
A Brief Conclusion
So, those are the topics, and those are my current perspectives on them. My positions will probably change or be refined over time.
I encourage anyone with questions to reach out to me. Sometimes I hit the mark, sometimes I don’t — I know I’m delving into a contentious topic and don’t want people to shut down before considering it to its telos, so it’s possible that I haven’t stated something clearly — but that is okay. Nobody is infallible.
Thank you for reading through my thoughts. The Noumenia is starting, and I mean it sincerely when I say that I pray for good things for the communit(y/ies) and for all of us in it/them.
15 thoughts on “A Positional Statement on Some Recent Twitter Things”
Excellent. In a way our life in India matches a lot due to polytheist nature. But the philosophy of Advaita is answer to all suffering.
Such a great article, and possibly applicable to other communities too. I’m not a Hellenistic polytheist, and I still learnt from it.
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Thank you! I’m happy that it was helpful — I spent a lot of time on it.
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Thank you for posting this article. I had no idea this was happening at Twitter. This discussion has been ongoing at Tumblr as well, but perhaps fewer people are involved – which makes me grateful not to have followed the crowd to Twitter!
Incidentally, had to look up the meaning of NRM.( ᐛ )
The discussion at Tumblr has mostly been between non-pagan Greeks and non-Greek pagans, which bothers me because Greece doesn’t have a great record for accepting native practitioners of Hellenismos. Tumblr Greeks, pagan and non-, don’t even agree among themselves about accepting/rejecting the terms “Hellenismos” and “Hellenic”. I generally find native practitioners to hold more nuanced opinions and more open to discussion than do non-pagan Greeks. Furthermore, I get the feeling that most non-pagan Greeks in the discussion haven’t actually talked to any native Greek practitioners of Hellenismos, so I’m not certain why they’re involved in the conversation. I’m starting to suspect that the real issue isn’t “what xenoi who worship the Theoi should call their religion” but “how do we make people stop practicing idolatry”.
Interestingly, it doesn’t seem that the non-pagan Greeks would accept “NRM” as a description of what is commonly known as Hellenic Polytheism; they tell me that modern Greek culture and understanding of the ancient religion and of the Theoi is unchanged from the past, in spite of the imposition of Christianity, and that “foreign scholars” can never hope to understand ancient Greek religion as well as a typical modern person born and educated in Greece. I’m fairly sure native practitioners would not agree – and it smacks of nationalism to me.
Some non-pagan Greeks on Tumblr have, in fact, said that non-Greeks need to stop worshiping the Theoi. They disbelieve that the Greek gods were historically worshiped in places like India and Africa, and that historical depictions of the Theoi as non-white exist. Several non-pagan Greeks insist that people must even stop imagining</> the Theoi as non-white. Given the rise of the alt-right in Greece, I find this troubling. Is it truly a benign patriotism that makes non-pagans focus on policing the imagination of pagans? Or is it far-right politics?
Support of the land and people of Greece is very visible on Tumblr, from posts about Greek history to support of the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles, solicitations of contributions to help the victims of the Greek wildfires, support of archaeological sites (and the feral cat colonies inhabiting them,!) and encouragement of purchases of devotional items from Greek artists and shops. I think part of the reason this activism goes unseen may be the tags used by pagans and classicists or those searched or followed by critics.
I do think we non-native worshipers of the Hellenic deities need to come up with a better name, and “Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism” is a good proposal. One of my friends uses “Graeco-Roman Syncretic Reconstructionist Polytheism”. Whatever we settle on should be somewhat intuitive, though, so that newcomers can find us easily. It may take a little more brainstorming, because those who come to us from having consumed various media sources generally aren’t aware of the naming controversies.
Again, thanks for this post.
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Sorry for the random italics, but I can’t seem to edit the comment to fix it.
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Oh, yikes! I thought I had defined NRM, but I guess I removed the sentence where I did by accident! It’s interesting that these conversations are happening on Tumblr. I wonder what polytheistic Greeks would think about the situation.
I went with HeSP because it had an easily-pronounceable acronym, and it is short. 😂 I agree that terminology needs to be intuitive, but I think that newcomers just need a bunch of easily-discoverable terminology primers in general. We don’t do a good job of pushing out content that isn’t in blogs, and not everyone can afford books.
Hi, Greek polytheist here (Ethnic Greek as we say)
“Interestingly, it doesn’t seem that the non-pagan Greeks would accept “NRM” as a description of what is commonly known as Hellenic Polytheism; they tell me that modern Greek culture and understanding of the ancient religion and of the Theoi is unchanged from the past, in spite of the imposition of Christianity, and that “foreign scholars” can never hope to understand ancient Greek religion as well as a typical modern person born and educated in Greece. I’m fairly sure native practitioners would not agree – and it smacks of nationalism to me.”
Anthropologists use the terms Etic and Emic (outside/inside) to describe how one studies culture and it is clear in the profession that outsiders of any culture can never fully embrace the emic perspective. I am not sure what makes you conclude that this is “nationalism” – it is anthropological fact. Maybe it’s because there a country called Greece that Greek occupy? Culture moves with the people though, I was born in NY and still retain the culture so this isn’t nationalism. I think it would help you to separate the country from people and the culture.
Also, if you have not met any Greeks IRL, let alone religiously ethnic Greeks it is a bit rash to assume anything about the culture and what has survived and how. You will actually need to engage IRL to actually experience this. So if you have the means to come to NY to our Temple feel free to visit and meet some.
There are non-Greek scholars who do come very close to adopting and seeing from the emic perspective. It takes a brilliant mind to really put yourself and the other’s shoes and only a few can do this. Jane Harrison is a good example of an admirable scholar. Because I am a graduate student in History, I see the shortcomings of academia – the common lack of imagination for one thing. Over the last few years, being both a grad student and practicing/living Hellenism I’ve learned not to put fewer eggs in the academic basket.
The reality to the world is that with every culture you cannot replace/substitute the lived experience of a native with secondary sources, written by foreigners who rely on translations and learn the host language as a second language… To say that they are equal to or better is colonialist. We need to let people speak and represent themselves.
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I would like to continue this conversation with you but, since Kaye wishes specifically to step away from the topic, it would be inappropriate to do so here. I will only add that though I’ve had insightful online discussions with religiously ethnic Greek practitioners, the comment of mine which you cited concerned less pleasant online encounters with white supremacist, homophobic, and transphobic persons. Though describing themselves as atheists, they claimed, by virtue of their Greek heritage and an extension of neo-nazi “blood and soil” ideology, the authority to “correct” and direct the beliefs and practices of all those who piously worship the Theoi. I think “nationalist” is the correct term; in any case, I dispute their “right” to impose themselves, in the pursuit of their political agenda, in the worship of deities in whom they do not believe.
I agree with your remarks about the shortcomings of academia and the failings of translations. I absolutely respect the lived experience of native Greek practitioners and academics. My disastrous experiences highlight the importance of their knowledge and work. Your comments have given me food for thought, and I appreciate your kind invitation to visit your temple in New York. May the holy gods bless you and your religious community.
I’m sorry that you had to bear those emotions simply in order to participate in the community. You’re right about the lack of diplomats. Not that I think we should necessarily ask that of the same people- our priests, theologians, shamans, etc. have quite a bit else on their plates. I’m not sure what the solution is.
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I think that everyone in a leadership/”public figure” role can learn basic de-escalation and diplomatic skills. Such things do not come naturally to all people, admittedly, yet basic social first aid is especially important in a society that is growing increasingly polarized.