“Prayer to All of the Gods I” was designed to incorporate deities whom I judged to be important to acknowledge overtly in prayer. The choices of Gods grew out of previous decisions that I made while writing Acts of Speech (availability info here), specifically for the poems addressing public speech, good conduct, and civility.
There is a section in “Prayer to All of the Gods I” when the prayer shifts from the main Olympian Gods to other deities. (The most updated version of the poem is in the free one you can download on Gumroad in a beautifully-formatted PDF or ebook, btw, not the blog post.) Reciting it over the past few weeks as my core prayer has heightened awareness that most of these Gods are, in fact, Goddesses — the Kharites, the Horai, the Moirai, Iris, Nemesis, and Hekate. What’s more, the section to the Olympians themselves is divided into three sections, and in the second section, Athene, Ares, and Hephaistos are highlighted. Ares and Hephaistos are often said to be born from Hera apart from Zeus, and contemplating that during this recitation prompted further thoughts about the relationship between Goddesses and the material world.
No thoughts are isolated. I started thinking intensely about this because I had been reading Shakti Rising by Kavitha Chinnaiyan. The book focuses on ten South Asian Goddesses and their relationship to the soul’s liberation, which (according to the doctrine in that tradition) can be accomplished through contemplating each Goddess and experiencing growth through the gifts she provides.
This was not a book I had intended to read. I had an eye exam on February 3, and due to the pandemic, I did not bring reading material beyond what was on my phone. Mystifyingly, I had apparently purchased Shakti Rising in one of my ebook apps a while ago without reading it, and it seemed like interesting enough material to keep me company for the next 90 minutes. (It has, incidentally, taken me years to get this appointment. My prescription has been too weak since at least mid-2019, and for a while, I thought it was just me having unreasonable expectations about my eyesight. That October, my girlfriend and I visited my mom for what would be the last time before the pandemic, and let me tell you, being the navigator is great when you can’t read the road signs. My original appointment was scheduled during the early pandemic, so it didn’t happen. My feeling while standing in the waiting area on one of the little social distancing floor stickers was one of triumph and relief. Walking home with the snow shining blinding light into my dilated eyes was significantly less pleasant. The sunglasses did absolutely nothing.)
After reading Shakti Rising, I think I remember why I purchased it — I wanted an introduction to South Asian Goddesses written by a woman who wasn’t a New Ager. I had also been curious a few years ago about yonic religious iconography and its usage in the worship of Goddesses because nobody discusses this with regularity like phallic iconography, so whatever algorithm powers Internet serendipity must have surfaced this book due to an unknown-to-us-of-flesh-and-blood AI-powered conceptual link.
Reading Dr. Chinnaiyan’s book was useful to see how another religious/philosophical tradition conceives of Limit, Unlimited, and Mixture; the unfolding of what we see in the physical cosmos from the activity of Gods; and the metaphor of reproductive sex for characterizing Gods based on the type of activity they engage in, in this case Shiva and the ten Goddesses described in the book. As readers, we bring our texts and accepted doctrines into conversation with everything we read, so my reading experience was definitely a world away from the experience of someone more well-versed in South Asian religious and philosophical texts. My mind made fireworks-bright connections to concepts in Proclus, other commentators, and in modern scholarly conversations (mostly E. P. Butler, G. Shaw, D. Layne, and content from the Prometheus Trust). I also appreciated the book’s attention to problems like spiritual bypassing and overattachment to scripture/dogma.
It wasn’t all a smooth read. Greg Goode writes in his foreword, “[…] ten aspects of the divine feminine that manifest as distinct cosmic personalities or wisdom goddesses […],” and I was like, okay, here we go, my teeth gritted beneath my face mask unbeknownst to the woman at the flu shot pop-up table ten feet away or the medical staff wandering through the de-densified building. Placing a God in a theological schema needs to be done reverentially, like welcoming a God into a statue that has been placed in a beautiful temple. The God is not furniture. Shortly thereafter, he wrote, “A Mahavidya is a complex persona and a ray of divine light. She has a certain look, which may or may not be pleasant. She also has a strong, uncompromising personality,” which was a bit better.
Thankfully, Dr. Chinnaiyan’s writing itself does not reduce the Goddesses to archetypes (for the most part). She gives them their full identity status fitting to their divine status and roles, writing, “Each deity is a path unto herself, and hence they are called ‘maha,’ or great. The light of any one Mahavidya opens to that of the remaining nine, just as working on one ethical code or virtue opens us to many others.” Dr. Chinnaiyan writes that people often only see the negative side of the Goddesses, falsely blaming them for the side effects of embodiment — the way that the Goddesses are experienced is distorted by each individual’s experience of embodied forgetfulness and suffering. Said experience can go through a substantial shift when people release certain kinds of attachment (unique to each Goddess), when the relationship between the embodied person and the Goddess blossoms into something beautiful.
As the path she outlines focuses on spiritual exercises related to each of the Goddesses that can lead to a better state, she also emphasizes the uniqueness of these relationships: “The intimate relationship that we develop with the deities serves to break the heart open in exactly the manner that is needed for our unique metamorphosis.” This is something that I have found true throughout my life worshipping the Hellenic Gods, too — the Gods I worshipped heavily at specific times of my life have always been the exact ones I needed to worship.
Which leads me to a dream.
The morning of February 8, I awoke from a dream. If you live in the United States and have ever seen Susan Lordi’s Willow Tree figurines, in the dream, there was a line of those figurines for the Hellenic and Roman Gods. I was in a store — or online, because it just shifted back and forth between being there and being in a browser — trying to find these to-be-agalmata, and then I came face-to-(screen/face) with a wooden statue of Nemesis that seemed to be my brain’s warping of a wooden, hand-carved Eris statue that I have actually seen on Etsy. It wasn’t part of the Lordi line of figurines, but something made of a beautiful, naturally-stained wood.
What ignited in me after I awoke was related to some notes I wrote early on in Shakti Rising about how Kali’s iconography reminds me of various Goddesses. I wrote in a note, “It’s interesting how the iconography and the symbolism remind me of Hekate, but also fearsome Nyx and the Gods Aion and Khronos. The feminine aspects of those deities leave so much food for thought given that Kali, time, is seen as female. I can also see how she is connected to Rhea.” In modern paganisms, many are attracted to the idea of pantheons having baddies to be shunned, with all of the harm and suffering projected onto them. (This is an echo of colonialist, imperialist, and Christian baggage surrounding South Asian Goddesses, like in that Beatles film Help! that exoticizes and demonizes Kali.) Similar things happen when a person reads too much into the myth of Zeus and his siblings fighting the Titans and declare those Gods to be baddies, too — taboo evils instead of divine goods — and refuses to understand the esoteric meanings of the myths even when Proclus’ Platonic Theology is available for free on Wikibooks and in a beautiful print volume from the Prometheus Trust.
In Proclus and the Platonic commentators, Hekate gives soul and virtue from her flanks. She is conversely associated with the material daimones and the sublunary sphere, which people often experience negatively. Below is a PGM prayer to Selene, excerpted from PGM IV.2785-2890, trans. Hans Dieter Betz, who is syncretized with Hekate and other Goddesses and a great starting point for looking at what we perceive as negative and positive aspects of any God.
Three-headed, you’re Persephone, Megaira,
Allekto, many-formed, who arm your hands
With dreaded, murky lamps, who shake your locks
Of fearful serpents on your brow, who sound
The roar of bulls out from your mouths, whose womb
Is decked out with the scales of creeping things,
With pois’nous rows of serpents down the back,
Bound down your backs with horrifying chains
Night-Crier, bull-faced, loving solitude,
Bull-headed, you have eyes of bulls, the voice
Of dogs; you hide your forms in shanks of lions,
Your ankle is wolf-shaped, fierce dogs are dear
To you, wherefore they call you Hekate […]
Note the language here; I could have reproduced other sections of the prayer, as they contain similar juxtapositions of power/grace and fearsomeness/danger.
On February 9, my MyBook copy of Proclus’ Hymns and the commentary/context by R. M. van den Berg came in. Serendipitously, I opened it to a page that discusses connections between Hekate, Rhea, and other Goddesses within Platonic theology. (Honestly, I thought the MyBook copies were lost in the mail because it had been over a month since I ordered them, but perhaps “found words in the agora” takes on new meaning in the pandemic era.) Hekate, van den Berg writes, is a Goddess of boundaries who stands at the dividing line between life and death. She has the full run of the cosmos, from air to sea to earth, and investment in purification reveals her luminous side. She “controls the iynx-daemons, beings that constitute the link between the celestial and terrestrial realms” that theurgists need “for their ascent towards the celestial realm” (p. 258). The way this comment on Proclus’ hymn interweaves the Goddesses reminds me of Dr. Chinnaiyan’s emphasis on the interconnectedness of all of the Goddesses in Shakti Rising.
What’s more, Hekate is worshipped very differently in Wicca than she is in American Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism or in Hellenism proper. I read one Greek online who was horrified at the idea of someone setting up a shrine to her in the home due to taboos; I’ve encountered Wiccans who don’t see her as the young Hekate accompanying Persephone and whose worship of her centers on death, old age, and the resilience of female power; and I’ve digested words about luminaries like Proclus and other Late Antique Platonists whose engagement with the Chaldean Oracles led to a fruitful, lovely devotional relationship with her. None of these approaches is wrong, as the worship of a Goddess is always contextual. What matters is having that context to anchor religious practice. Curiously, in each of these approaches, there is always an echo of this dual nature.
Similarly, in popular discussions, Nemesis and Eris are seen as bad. Nemesis is a punishing Goddess; however, in the Orphic Hymn, she is described in very positive terms in ln. 9-13, trans. Athanassakis and Wolkow:
O sublime deity,
in whom dwells justice for [people],
come, blessed and pure one,
ever helpful to the initiates,
grant nobility of mind,
put an end to repulsive thoughts,
fickle, and haughty
Damascius writes in his Commentary on the Phaedo I §404:
Nemesis is the Goddess who curbs the excesses of the soul, and her wrath more manifestly visits the boastful, because the humble are more clearly aware where they fall short of the standard; in the lowest regions she must obviously have created jealous, malicious demons, who exert a baleful influence even on seekers for truth, so long as they are still trying to find their way to wisdom, as well as on those who follow the hieratic art. As for Socrates, he is wary of this malicious brood at least for the sake of his disciples.
I feel like I have actually encountered a place in Plato where Socrates does state worshipping Nemesis is something he is wary of (except it’s possible that I am also reading Plato while asleep and am vividly dreaming of dialogues that never happened). That aside, the point about the daimones is an important one. As Iamblichus and others reveal, people attract daimones that reinforce their thoughts and behavior, and the daimones are going to do what is in their nature to do. Long before a person has ordered ler interior self through the virtues, but while still on the path to doing it, there are still lingering resonances with such daimones. This is much like how Dr. Chinnaiyan discusses how we can entrap ourselves into a resonance (for lack of a better term) with the aspects of the Goddesses in her book that are discordant and divisive and painful.
Eris is seen negatively due to the discord she brings, and curiously, she isn’t given an Orphic Hymn despite other Goddesses with similar negative connotations (e.g., Nemesis, discussed above) receiving attention. This is one of the reasons I decided to write a prayer to her; the way that her discord shakes us up has a direct role to play in our ability to strive for good things and become better people. Hera is also seen negatively, as she punishes heroes in myths and drives them on to do great things through strife; it is interesting that Ares is described as her son born alone due to Ares’ strong association with the warfare of generation and the process of division and to Hephaistos’ role as the demiurge of bodies. Thus, these Gods both have a strong material-world element.
This brings me full-circle to contemplating the prayer I wrote and my realization that there was this cluster of Goddesses. The way that I have constructed the poem associates many of these Goddesses with common notions and civic virtues, and what strikes me about that is these Goddesses’ involvement in ensuring that the dynamism of how we move through the world is graceful and robust. Helios is the only non-Goddess prayed to in that section, and even he is ambiguous because the way people view that deity seems more related to whether one views the sun as nurturing/soothing or blistering/fertilizing, an echo of the androgyny of the entire elevating triad.
Reading Shakti Rising laterally gave me important conceptual tools for understanding how the femininity of these Gods relates to the material world and the outpouring of divine providence within it. From the perspective of the descent and ascent of the soul and the path of theurgic bliss, the book heightened my (again, comparative, as this is a lateral read) awareness of the roles of these Hellenic Goddesses and gave me a new approach for considering how to “work on my statue” (to quote Plotinus) by addressing unhealthy thoughts, compulsions, and behaviors and why they crop up in the first place. The Gods who give are the Gods who take, after all.
I think it is beautiful that people are capable of engaging with the divine on all levels — from the parts of each God that coruscate and pool and convalesce in the depths of matter, overflowing to the point of being the cause of material daimones that philosophers like Proclus prays to be delivered from in his hymn to the wisdom-bringing Gods, to the immaculate daimones that link us directly to the Gods and cultivate a yearning in the soul for virtue and goodness. And it is beautiful and dainty to uncover layers of meaning like this that can enrich our worship at shrine, encountering the Gods with sharper vision.