On that way was I borne along; for on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car, and maidens showed the way. And the axle, glowing in the socket—for it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each end—gave forth a sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils from off their faces and left the abode of Night.
(Parmenides’ Proem, ln. 4?-10, trans. John Burnet, 1892)
I like the phrase threw back their veils / from off their faces and the transition from distance to intimacy the proem signifies in these lines. This has been stuck in my head as an earworm for weeks, specifically from this section as recited in a Sombre Soniks piece. Working the lines over and over in my head got me thinking about veiling, binding one’s hair, and modesty, and then about a cluster of other issues that arboresced out from there.
This post is a product of that.
This is the part of the post where I share a lot of my opinions. Many struggles I have with personal presentation are related to wanting better and clearer social signaling even though I know that, at least where I grew up, things like etiquette and proper presentation for signaling are not taught. (Conversely, I’m a progressive, so I know that there are — and have always been — issues with who has access to the resources to even do social signaling at all.)
Growing up Neopagan, there was also a lot of emphasis on sexual/physical freedom because of Neopaganism’s relationship with American counterculture in the mid-20th century and some ideological things that came into the movement from initiatory Wicca. I knew that one of the larger groups downstate from us had clothing-optional events, for example. The Circle I grew up in did not allow nudity, but people dressed as they liked, often in a “free spirit” kind of way. Culturally, it was easiest to fit in while wearing a tank top with a floor-length hippie skirt, so that’s what I did. I dressed a bit tie-dye (or in jeans and Threadless T-shirts) until I had to plunge into the WTFery of “is this business casual?” in my mid-20s.
Even before I started working as an academic librarian, I had started making changes in my wardrobe. Because I worship Apollôn and other Greek Gods, and because I’m exposed to a lot of ideas from the ancient world that include discussions of modesty, things like necklines, fit, and length were shifting more and more modest every time I shopped.
The more modest direction started converging with minimalist ideas in my mid-20s. I discovered the idea of capsule wardrobes. At that time, I also read a Rachel Maddow interview where she described her curated wardrobe and its intention. She wanted it to be a backdrop so people would focus more on what she was saying and thinking.
I wanted the same. Being treated as a sexual object in public is something I’ve always found challenging. American culture focuses on sexiness, youthfulness, and “fuckability” as proxies for deciding on a person’s worth. Many people internalize this and then think that, to be seen as a person by someone else, someone must think le’s fuckable, sexy, and youthful. In reality, everyone who is human should be treated as a human being regardless. One of the advantages of modesty is that it forces one to confront all of the unhealthy ways we place our self-esteem in something as constantly-changing as a body. Much of what we have today, we will not have tomorrow; when we die, no matter how old we are when it happens, the body will be nothing at all.
Modesty doesn’t fix how people — especially women — are objectified. Repetitive, monotonous wardrobes only have meaning when you see the same people day in, day out. It’s great for being in office and community spaces, not for reducing catcalling. (I’ve literally been catcalled while running a high fever and stumbling to the store for cold meds, so I’m not sure that anything will fix catcalling.)
In my late 20s, I built much of my wardrobe around unpatterned dresses in solid colors — all A-lines, as it’s easier to size for pear-shaped bodies when just sizing for the waist. After the 2016 election, that capsule wardrobe turned all black. I was upset about the election, and in the years since, the world has disintegrated like we’re in Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness,” so deep mourning hues were a way to express feelings that I didn’t know how to unpack in any other healthy way.
The capsule wardrobe was destined for rocky times. After I read The Darkening Age, I couldn’t wear all black anymore without thinking about Christian priests destroying temples and smashing agalmata in Late Antiquity. I bought four colorful scarves to mix things up so I wouldn’t have invasive mental imagery when I thought about what I was wearing, AKA every time I washed my hands and looked into my own eyes in the bathroom mirror at work. The next time I made a purchase from eShakti (last October), it was mostly navy, brown, and denim. One of the dresses has a neckline that’s lower than I like, but not egregiously. Then came my interest in natural fibers — especially linen (because global warming summers are getting too hot for cotton).
This autumn, I realized I’d fallen off of the capsule bandwagon, and it’s pretty much all due to Catherine Nixey and the disruption from how my brain processes things. I can definitely do better.
Overall, I think that minimalist wardrobes with a good degree of repetitiveness capture the spirit of what modesty should be, especially in a feminist sense, based on the things I’ve read. Modesty is meant to be a conceptual framework for living so that we can focus on things that matter, like human relationships, personal growth, philosophy, and the Gods. When we talk about the Gods, perhaps there are other things, too — the fabrics we wear, the way we moderate embellishments — perhaps inspired by temple restrictions ——
They are not to carry iron weapons. They are to wear pure clothes, without head-gear. Without shoes, or in white sandals, but not made of goat skin. One should have nothing goat-y. And no knots in (one’s) belts.
(Petrovic, I., & Petrovic, A. (2018). “Purity of Body and Soul in the Cult of Athena Lindia, in Purity and Purification in the Ancient Greek World: Texts, Rituals, and Norms, ed. Carbon, J-M. & Peels-Matthey, S. Presses Universitaires de Liège: Liège, Belgique. P. )
—— perhaps by philosophy or by a God or Gods to whom Erôs has bound us. But of course, a temple is not the quotidian state of being for anyone but its officiants.
Beyond that, I could point to Melissa’s letter to Cleareta (3rd century BCE) on how a woman “should be clad in white, neat, and simple clothes, not extravagant and expensive ones. […] her way of life is her adornment, not her dresses” (p. 83, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, I.M. Plant) — however, much of the language in the letter centers on her husband as an extrinsic motivator, and I think such things should be intrinsically motivated. Perictione, in On the Harmony of Women, writes, “[f]or the body wants neither to shiver nor to be naked (for the sake of decency), and needs nothing else” (I.M. Plant, p. 77). I could also point to philosophical texts written by men or to more temple prohibitions. I could broaden out to other cultures’ understanding of the relationship between virtue and modesty.
In the United States — and especially in a HeSP (Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism) environment — there is a lot of nuance as to how modesty as a whole can and will play out. Ultimately, the end product will be a fusion of what must be done to honor the Gods (based on who they are, what their myths say, and how they are/were worshipped in the places that are most dear to them in a way that honors that cultural context, &c.) interacting with the cultural substrata we have.
There are echoes of this other discussion, perhaps, in the philosophical garments of antiquity (shoutout to Megillus for clips [1,2] posted about the tribōn) — a combination of social signaling, repetitiveness, and simplicity. Weeks ago, I should not have been as surprised as I was to find that a modern Stoic philosopher draws inspiration from Project 333 in his modern implementation of a philosophical uniform. The modern Stoic also said that he was grappling with the resurrection of Stoicism and how to social signal an ingroup/outgroup situation — I’m paraphrasing heavily — so it’s interesting that modern polytheist NRMs and people returning to pre-Christian philosophical schools both see this need.
On Hair Binding and Veiling
Over the past few years, many people have discussed veiling and/or hair binding, and I have increasingly encountered polytheists who do it. People often do one or both as part of a devotional commitment to a God or (increasingly, based on anecdotal evidence from Tumblr) to engage in the symbolic landscape that veiling provides.
The topic mostly interests me for symbolic reasons. No God has ever told me to do anything with my physical appearance (except I did have a dream about the most appropriate tattoo to get for Apollôn). For the past few years, I’ve wondered if there is an advantage — in a spiritual sense (speaking only about the polytheistic community) — to doing either or both of them given how many people are adopting the practice. On average, does a person who binds ler hair have fewer difficulties with miasma (ritual impurity) on days when le binds? Is there a psychological advantage or comfort in having the space between the self and externals clearly marked off?
For women worshipping Greek Gods, does it have anything to do with being able to mark devotional practice by gesture, i.e., by unbinding the hair when approaching a statue of Dionysos or removing head accoutrements before Athênê, which are each gestures that require binding or veiling to have been there in the first place?
Drawing back a veil and pulling the bands out of one’s hair do serve to bring the body into a ritual space in a physical way. They’re less mobility-intensive than dancing or shaking a tambourine. Depending on how one defines modesty, this can also fit into ideas we all have about how to signal that.
Of course, the other side of social signaling is that the others around oneself have to be aware of what precisely one signals. And that — especially with things like modesty and hair binding/covering — can get tricky. Sourcing materials for veils (or even finding good pain-free headbands) can be just as hard, especially with ethical decisions surrounding how one sources them.
Those questions aside, the best way to figure this out is to do it and see what happens. I have been experimenting with hair binding and have occasionally even covered my hair during ritual. I find that (from a one-person-sample-size perspective), such things do improve focus and coherence. Using pins, mousse, styling clay, and headbands — I have short hair — provide grounding when I go out. I’m engaging in a space where they do mean binding, constraint, and separation, and I know and think about this when I do the styling itself. In ritual, the process of veiling and unveiling (or, depending, just using a headband) is useful as a marker — to return Iamblichus’ On the Mysteries, immersing oneself in such symbolic measures deepens the resonance and the beauty of the theurgic and sublime.
I like the outcomes of both enough to continue doing them — in the day-to-day, to feel bare without a headband or styling clay in my hair; in ritual, to observe that the process itself is enriched.
Some Final Thoughts
This post is (hopefully) a good intro to some of my perspectives and open-ended questions about things like modesty, binding/veiling, and polytheism. They’re not final thoughts, and I’m not an expert on any of this. However, I do think that sharing experiences, musings, and experimentation is important, and I hope that reading this has been useful.