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.