In polytheism, a conversation happened several years ago that Yvonne Aburrow reminded me of recently — something about devotional versus relational polytheism. I now remember my brow furrowing when I saw it in 2015. The distinction seemed nonsensical to me, a way of slicing up and fragmenting a fundamental position about Gods being many and turning it into an ingroup identifier.
While I had forgotten about this conversation, I do notice — and remember — many other group signifiers. (You can tell where on the Internet someone is from and whom le reads based on the language le uses, e.g., how some people say Holy Powers, and I say divinities.) Devotional is never something I use as an ingroup identifier. I use it to describe acts of giving offerings to honor the Gods and many related activities, often as a synonym for the concept behind the word bhakti, rarely ever as a modifier for the word polytheism itself. Relational, too, is never something I would apply to polytheism. Every system with an n>1 has relational dynamics.
Descriptive language is helpful as a shorthand for communicating what one does; however, those terms are very ambiguous (like, I was going to succinctly summarize definitions and ended up in an Internet rabbit hole). Imprecisely, relational means standing beside the Gods with an assumption of equality and, from the sounds of it, a flat structure. Devotional is built around a core component of offerings, and any characteristics of the divine hierarchy depends on theological position and religion. I just call myself a polytheist because I do not find either of those terms useful.
Usually, when I talk about theology, I couch what I say in numerous qualifiers. Making assertive statements is dangerous on the Internet, especially for women (The Guardian covers this very well at 1 and 2, and NPR interviews someone about a study here), and making statements about Very Fundamental to Our Identities Things like theology by default means excluding because making positive statements about belief and reality means denying counterarguments and incompatible perspectives. I understand what Plato meant when he said men who were not driven would reincarnate as women. When viewed against the (mostly) relatively progressive views Plato held about women ourselves, that comment does begin to makes sense in the context of the constant, low-grade fear and the significant social repercussions that accompany stepping out of bounds to force someone to learn to get shit done and how to manage emotions like anger. In short, many apologies for getting blunt about where I am at the close of 2019.
So, with that out of the way, some essentials:
- I do believe in a hierarchy; devotion is a fundamental part of that.
- I do believe that human beings are relatively insignificant, and yet subjectivity, specifically the act of observation and interaction (acknowledging the Gods and doing cultus and devotional activity), empowers oneself within the system. True happiness, as Iamblichus said and as I have quoted several times on this blog, comes from the Gods.
- I do believe that many of the processes within the physical cosmos are symbols for the activity of specific Gods. As scientific knowledge increases, we need to examine the symbols (and analogies) we use and determine if new things are more effective through mindful extrapolation and experimentation.
- I do believe that the Gods crown all things.
Let’s get started on the meat of it, then.
(As a warning, I do not use terminology in the same way that specialists in-field would use it. While writing this, I was like, “I’m pretty sure my definitions of subjectivity and subject are not how Humanists would use the terms. That should make this a horrifying read for them, but I’m not changing anything, so they will have to tolerate this clusterfuck of polysemy.” So: whenever I say subject or subjectivity, it’s similar to the term observer/actor/reference point, typically a person or group. Remember: Clusterfuck of polysemy.)
On Human Insignificance
When I was in my teens, I played the flute, and my lesson teacher advised that I go to several orchestral concerts a year to hear what was done. From the balcony — because I love watching things from vantage points — I would listen to the music as it unfolded, and if that couldn’t hold all of my attention, I would do a meditation as the sound of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion lifted me up.
My favorite meditation came out of either a meditation book that had been deaccessioned from the public library due to water damage (that I salvaged) or one of the Wiccan study books that I used. In the meditation, starting from the physical body, one expanded ler attention in stages — building, block, neighborhood, city/area, state, nation, continent, globe, orbit, solar system, solar neighborhood, galaxy, et cetera. I would hold my attention at the most expansive level I could manage at that age based on my knowledge, then come back into myself. Later, as I learned more and more astrophysics, the complexity of such visualizations — often reflexive at that point — felt a lot like drowning. You cannot hold the entire cosmos in your head, but when I was younger, I tried.
Later — in the cosmology class I took, a class that taught me that I could work hard and do math I had never seen before and come to some understanding of the universe — I really struggled with religion because that scale was so massive, and time was so, so deep. The proofs the other Smithie and I stayed up late writing left pressure indentations in our notebooks, and there was so much beauty in the crackling, spent pages. I wondered about consciousness and our ability to understand it — the uncanniness of subjectivity, of awareness. Perhaps, had I read more philosophy at 20, the ink would have spilled out. It was ultimately Sallust who set fire to my mind after several years of feeling like my feet had been knocked out from under me. In winter 2008, early on during my semester abroad in the UK, the sense of peace and of being held close was a God, or something like one — comforting and reassuring.
Any God is beyond our understanding. Le is a crown, a glory, and a goodness.
One of the things I learned from doing an astronomy minor was humanity’s smallness — the scale at which astrophysical phenomena happen is so much larger than us, and we are but a mote within this vastness.
I never felt what the Romantic Sublime even was until I started contemplating the scale of the physical cosmos, the shape of time, or the future of the universe. Sometimes, when I watch cosmology talks at work, it is like looking down from a great height, and I can feel the tension sublimating from my arms into the air and the excess coming to coalesce in my midsection. I know that when I read Proclus, I update some of the analogies in the margins based on what I think he’s saying. I’ve gone back to reading more science writing to find the place where the synthesis of ideas sings, and a part of me even wants to remember how to do the math I struggled so hard to master when I was younger.
John Halstead said a few years ago during the initial argument about polytheism that he doesn’t want Gods if they will not help fight climate change. If a God is astounding and to contemplate the universe is to swell open with life immeasurable, is this really their fight? It is ours. We will lose the symbols, the agalmata, and the numinous places we hold dear as the world warms and as we burn ourselves and everything we have consumed and violated to cinders. It harms us, not them. It destroys us and the life we cohabit with here. The nymphs and other spirits in our world full of Gods are impacted. Definitely, divine beings in a God’s series may be impacted and may prompt action insofar as they are connected to Earth and the horrors we have unleashed here. (Definitely, some of us are more at fault for this situation than others.)
I pray to Athênê to guide climate crisis change-makers to have the statecraft, acumen, and diplomatic grace to sway governments and do what must be done, and perhaps she listens. I pray to the Erinyes to do what must be done, and perhaps that is why we are eating ourselves alive.
There is a level on which we do matter, and that is from a subjectivity standpoint during devotional cultus.
On Justifying Our Actions by Citing Gods
Roughly 100% of the time, if we look at the Iamblichean cosmology, the divine beings we interact with are not Gods, but Heroes, Daimones, Angels, and other beings within a God’s series. According to the Platonists, these beings delight in being called after the name of their leader.
We mostly interact with daimones and other classes closer to us in the hierarchy. Functionally, it doesn’t matter to anything but our own egos that these divine beings are not Gods, and it does not diminish legit experiences at all — it enriches them and gives them higher degrees of specificity. Sometimes, the interactions between us and a specific divine being are not appropriate or harmonious, and those ones are bad for us. Sometimes, we can fall out of harmony with where we are supposed to be. That dissonance will make us miserable in and of itself.
Yet, even with that, we can know what the Gods “want.” Sort of. Vaguely. It isn’t simple. Apollôn draws everything into harmony, and to come into alignment with him means striving for that attunement in one’s actions here — but what does it mean to do that? I’ve tried to express something in words that are so imprecise that the statement makes my stomach churn. The Erinyes are the exacters of justice in the court of souls — they punish genocide, murder, and horrific acts. They’re a bit easier to describe, but that’s also not it, not exactly. (Recently, I learned that they have sometimes been considered Apollôn’s children in addition to their many other parentages, which seems oddly perfect?) How do you find a path in matter, in embodiment, that accomplishes a goal in the service of something so ineffably perfect and beautiful that words themselves are inappropriate, and any action you could take is only an approximation?
Correct action doesn’t mean adopting a specific set of political or social beliefs or supporting this candidate for President over another. It means making judgments about what you think you must do based on what only you as an individual could do, built up by a bedrock of your life experiences, devotional activity, and any divination, and using trial and error to see what must be discarded, adapted, or introduced along the way.
Developing aretê plays a crucial role in this — learning how to do the correct thing, unlearning toxic habits seeded when we were young, being compassionate towards those who are less virtuous even when we need to act against them, and not clinging to jealousy or shame towards those who are more virtuous than us. Maxim #26, ἐπαίνει ἀρετήν, is one that I received this week, and virtuous activity could not be praised enough. We all have the capacity to get better. I think The Unfolding Wings (Tim Addey) is a great read for this, as mentioned previously on this blog.
Unfortunately, we often mistake ingroup thinking or our fear of outgroups for virtue. Also, doing a correct thing that is against the grain can be brutally hard to bear no matter where we are — in our intimate relationships, among our associates, or in the merciless agora.
Some Things About Souls
I believe in reincarnation, in a series of lifetimes. I also believe that you do not take any of this with you, so one had better be damn well sure that what le is doing is the kind of thing le wants to leave for others. Almost none of us knows what we achieved in previous lives. The majority of people who think they do are either lying to themselves or others. I also believe in personal daimones.
I do not believe that souls vary by species or sex. It does not make sense when one considers the sheer variety of life on our world and the possible evolutionary pathways of life on other worlds. Positing a specific type of soul for each species of microbe, plant, animal, et cetera, is just as rickety as the circles within circles of Ptolemaic Earth-centered physical cosmology. Species of fungi can have many thousands of sexes. Ergo, most dynamics come out in the specific life context of an organism — in the case of humans, the intersection of physical, social, mental, spiritual, and other variables. (BTW, while I read it a while ago, I’m certain some of my thoughts are informed by Edward Butler’s paper “Animal and Paradigm in Plato.”) Also, to borrow something from the Yoga Sūtras, the puruṣa, or the core of the soul, misidentifies itself with its embodied context instead of identifying the mind, incarnation, &c. as an instrument by which it experiences.
Traits that do not arise from an incarnation would have to be related to which God a specific soul is suspended from, as described by the Platonists. Mentally, I conceptualize this similar to how one thinks of irregularities in the cosmic microwave background — the irregularities being the things that become specific attributes of a God, such as the difference between Mousêgetês and Pythios, and the irregularities themselves become more pronounced at a greater “distance” (hello, approximation quotation marks) from the God. A God is even beyond smoothness, definitely.
I am not quite sure how ancestor worship works with reincarnation. I pray to my ancestors. When my maternal (mat-) grandpa died, it was from anesthesia complications because the doctors had gone against my mother’s wishes about the type of anesthesia to use, and he was in very bad shape. They took him off of food to speed along dying in accordance with his wishes. That night, I prayed to Hermês for him to die swiftly because he was suffering, and Hermês made the death swift. A few years ago, my midsis had a dream that my mat-grandpa told her that my mat-grandma reincarnated. The last time I prayed to my mat-grandpa to intervene in a family situation, I knew he would hate what was going on, and there was a positive change within 24 hours.
Despite my bluntness about ingroup/outgroup politics, groups are not bad. We are social animals. We need groups, and we collectively benefit from the harmony and cohesion that functional and nontoxic ones provide.
Recently, I heard someone say in a presentation that the 21st century was the time when we would be negotiating data rights and privacy for groups — individual human beings already have robust privacy rights, and many of the issues we see with microtargeted ads, AI-driven decision making, and the like, are the assimilation of individuals into cohorts of similar people that are then all treated as an indistinguishable mass regardless of who each of them is. These are the profiling behaviors that led to Cambridge Analytica exploiting fear to radicalize people in swing states.
It’s ironic that in a time when more and more people are feeling isolated, computer programs are cohorting us together with absolute strangers.
Listening to that got me thinking about groups — pantheons, human group identities, and the like — and them as subjects, probably in part due to reading Damascius and Butler’s comment on what I quoted. Pantheons provide structure and context to Gods who would otherwise be unfathomable. Human group identities lead to traditions — norms, etiquette, and customs that govern appropriate behavior towards one another and the Gods. Something is always given up via group identity, symbolized by the social contract; the sacrifice is done for cohesion, grounded in mutuality. All groups will have toxic moments. The ones that use such things as learning experiences to mend, heal, and mature are the effective ones. A group can have a much longer life and identity than each of the individuals within it, and that is normally the goal.
Ingroup identity is something I struggle with. Despite being enthusiastic and mildly extroverted, I am a very aloof person.
Here are some examples. “Veering towards Platonism” is a safely noncommittal way to say that I have drunk the Kool-Aid and like it, but do not want to impose. Devotional polytheism is a label that would fit me if I didn’t get nervous over the complexity that the term loses. It took me four years between learning about modern Hellenic Polytheism at 16 on Sannion’s Sanctuary and deciding to go for it after reading Sallust at 20. It took me (6?) years to come out to myself as a lesbian because the struggle and the cognitive dissonance were destroying my integrity and sense of worth. I decided I could not be a virtuous, intact person if I did not admit it after four years of attempting to be straight when I knew I wasn’t, two years of hoping I was bi when I knew I wasn’t, and one moment of clarity at 21 when I looked at the future, its two branches, and self-intervened. It took another 6-ish years after that to come out to my family and workplace.
Still, I do want community — otherwise, I wouldn’t be blogging, and I wouldn’t occasionally get starkly lonely for coreligionists and log onto Twitter even though I’ve decided not to be there. Apart from occasionally going to Wiccan things with my mom, I haven’t done group ritual that wasn’t a Zoom conference call since college, I am rusty on the interpersonal logistics involved in being physically present in a religious space with others, and that — to me — is a problem. Loneliness is awful, and some things should not be done alone.
I’d rather voluntarily cohort with others than be shoved into others’ company via an AI that I don’t even trust, though.
With group identity, something is always given up.
Devotional Activity is Beautiful
The beauty of devotional worship is the act of sacrifice. It is what words we utter — the prayers we recite, the chants we intone, the hymns we sing. It is the spilling of liquid, the lighting of fire, the scent of incense, fragrant oil, and whatever else we have offered as it burns. Theurgy is cultus, and cultus is theurgy.
It is also like being startled into connection with a God, and it is an intimate and personal connection that is at once fleeting and indefinite. Despite all I said above about our insignificance, the fact that we are conscious actors who can look up is a beautiful thing. Ritual, alone or in a group, accomplishes this, and it connects us to the frameworks and divine symbols that facilitate slipping into a space of right relation with the Gods and the cosmos. (I will not say what has been said elsewhere, so see this post on Iamblichus’ De Mysteriis and this other one on theurgy.)
Even when there are some things we can’t participate in due to restrictions of sex, gender, and social context, there is always something we can do instead — for example, some aspects of Apollôn’s historical worship would be weird for me to do because I’m a woman, but there are plenty of other ways for me to be a devotee.
The reason mindfulness and focus are important in worship is due to subjectivity. One must be as present as one can even though keeping the mind on task can be like herding cats. There is something absolutely beautiful about consciousness, especially when it is focused on something — viewing the world from a specific perspective, in a specific place, time, and culture. It is a co-creation in some senses, albeit a hierarchical one where yielding is the way up. We are not small at all here.
Universality is at play here, too. Radically different people — many who hate one another and who fight — experience these moments of completeness and beauty in ritual at the same time. If you look at the Hubble deep field again without becoming lost in the vastness, imagine the number of other beings engaging in similar actions, until the completeness is a melody.
Thank you, Yvonne Aburrow, for getting me thinking about this, and thank you to those I have read and do read and have learned and do learn from. And thank you, anyone who has read all of these meandering thoughts.