In Marinus’ Life of Proclus, one moment that I never thought too much about was the part when Proclus is described as having a vision of Athene.
Proclus had preternatural levels of endurance, driven by his writing, teaching, and devotional worship, at a time when it was becoming very clear just how much needed to be documented now that Christianity had full imperial authority, thousands-year-old cultures were besieged, and people were being forced to discard their traditional Gods. It seemed like a passage that highlighted just how much he was beloved of the Goddess:
His choice of the philosophic life amply proves how dear he was to the goddess friendly to wisdom [Athena], But the goddess testified to that herself when the statue of the goddess which had been erected in the Parthenon had been removed by the [Christian] people who move that which should not be moved. In a dream the philosopher thought he saw coming to him a woman of great beauty, who announced to him that he must as quickly prepare his house “because the Athenian Lady wishes to dwell with you.”
Recently, a conversation with Kristopher (who blogs at Heathen Field Guide) had me thinking about this a bit more closely, albeit in the context of why the Hellenic Gods can seem so formal in comparison to other deities, like some/many Nordic or Celtic Gods.
I realized during that conversation that there is another way to read Marinus’ comment about Athene moving in with Proclus, and that is as a factoid that sheds light on the shift from temple-based cultus to (the much harder to stamp out) home-based cultus. As temples were destroyed or profaned by becoming churches, worshippers could no longer convene in large numbers in temple worship or at city and community-based festivals, and anyone who did still do it assumed a high level of risk — not to mention that Christians profaning sacred sites with human remains (saints) when temples are converted into churches brings in some additional sacrilege issues.
In temple-based cultus, many sanctuaries had long-standing sanctuary rules that described prohibited and allowed states (and which sometimes told people what they had to do to become pure), following the general maxim that devotees want to be as pure as possible externally and internally when approaching a God’s sanctuary — ler home. Honoring the Gods in other contexts definitely has some purification and acceptability protocols, especially for households dealing with childbirth or death, but not — to my knowledge — to the extent that people needed a wall of reminders. In a liminal space between “house of the God” and “your house” would be the deity-focused thiasos, where personal devotional needs are embedded in a like-minded community. The Hellenic Gods are definitely procedural regardless of the level of formality, though.
So, what about a (predominantly) post-temple context when Gods have symbolically “moved in” with devotees, transforming household shrines into the default space for honoring the God? Is this why the Gods can seem formal?
Yes and no.
First, to do mysticism and some types of devotional practices, formal, sanctuary-level protocols may be important. That goes without saying — “pure approaching the pure” and all of that.
For those of us worshipping the Hellenic Gods without a direct cultural connection to Greece, there are some additional ways in which the Gods may be seen as highly formal. We do not generally grow up immersed in an environment where the Gods are referents beyond the confines of mass media franchises. Someone who is a part of Greek culture may have a completely different mindset about formality, especially when one is literally surrounded by the landscapes mentioned in the praise-poems of Homer and Callimachus, can find the locations of family stories on a map of Greece, and/or grew up with the religious practice. In this day and age, though, absolutely anyone can struggle to grow a mindset that sees aspects of a home in less of a materialist or utilitarian sense and more in terms of a holistic unity — the world is full of Gods, and our world includes showers and particle accelerators and the laundromat and awkward apartment complex elevators and so on.
There are sometimes additional issues in that religion is seen formally, especially in the USA, where as recently as my teen years (early 00s), people still dressed in nice clothes to attend a Unitarian society, and the UU was far less formal than the Christian churches in the area. In areas of the country that are less religious than the one in which I grew up, someone may subconsciously exoticize religious practice and/or treat it like a club rather than as an important active engagement with the Gods and the living agalma that is our universe. The Gods are grafted into one’s life via a shrine, which can seem like it is separate from one’s life and the remainder of one’s home. Sometimes, too, people want to worship the Gods, but feel burnt out from all of the soul-sucking bull—t we encounter on a daily basis, which has an effect of making the world feel even bleaker and even more disenchanted.
Among people who worship the Hellenic Gods, one will see more people coming online to process heavy experiences in public on social media (likely due, in part, to not having a private group of worshippers of the God(s) who can hold space for one another while at the same time compassionately calling out warning signs of spiritual bypassing or escapism) rather than casual polytheists who libate a bit of their to-go tea or bake bread while humming along to Daemonia Nymphe or go on a hike to leave some small offerings for Pan, Hermes, and the Nymphs without turning it into pageantry. This can lead to the mistaken assumption that the formal is the default, and human beings often conform to expectations even without realizing it.
There are multiple Gods who preside over parts of the homes, over the interface between the home and public places, and so on — they are generally not discussed as much online as mystical experiences or devotees gushing about the God we adore with offerings of incense and life changes. I mean, Storeroom Zeus literally presides over your duvet and blanket storage and your cabinet of cozy teas, so in that guise, he is as hygge as soft pants and fuzzy socks.
Kristopher pointed out that part of the formality could be that a lot of home epithets survive in Nordic texts, whereas the Hellenic epithets are well-documented across a variety of domains, and I think that is a good point.
What about a Goddess making your home her home away from home? Almost every God is honored in a home-based shrine or outside of a temple nowadays, so while everyone’s worship situation is particular to that person, this is definitely not special in the same way that Athene’s relationship with Proclus was. However, we can use that example from his life as a springboard to thinking about how we worship Gods today and how different that may be from yesteryear.
Note: Generally, when I say in advice I give that I recommend that people at least wash their hands before praying, that is my way of saying that people should do some kind of purification because protocol requires it, but that I recognize that my admonitions are not enforceable — I am not hovering over you in your own space, as you are a free human agent who is capable of adapting purification guidelines to your specific situation. What matters most is having a cohesive system of purification, but I have faith that trial and error will guide people to realize that shrine prayers tend to be more cohesive when you wash your hands or shower. You will have the best results showering if you have had sex or if you’ve, like, been to a gravesite to leave flowers for a relative or something. Mentally, I’m in the best headspace for prayer in the morning before I have a million and one things buzzing around in my brain, but I know others who pray later in the day and for whom that seems to work out fine.