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.
6 thoughts on “When a God Comes Into Your Home”
you are the best!
I took your advice and started reading the Chlup book on Proclus which I like a lot. It still leaves me with the question — for Proclus — or for anyone — if I make a statue to Athena and have a dream with a beautiful Greek woman who says she is Athena — why do I believe that that being is in fact Athena? She could be an aspect of the One. She could be Sophia. She could be an unknown being presenting in this way? If they are beyond discursive thought, how do we identify them?
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Hi Eric — it’s good that you’ve started on the book. I think that many of your questions will be answered or will become more focused when you reach the section where Chlup is going through the unfolding of reality from the One, as the metaphysics described there are essential to understanding what is happening when someone has a dream/vision/&c. of a Goddess. I’ll give a preliminary response here.
First, “she could be an aspect of the One” misinterprets what is happening at higher/interior/central levels of the metaphysical hierarchy. The One is an ineffable concept much like an empty jar that is constantly overflowing — it is the principle of individuation and unity, and yet it neither is, nor is One. Gods/Henads are at the level just after the One, and it is they who interweave at different stages of the unfolding of reality to produce the world in all of its essence, power, and activity. (One of the reasons Plato uses so many weaving analogies in his dialogues is that he is trying to explain this quality, but it also evokes the image of Persephone weaving the tapestry of the world before she gives birth to Dionysos, who is divided by the Titans and who is the patron image of the embodied soul attempting to approach unity once more.) To contemplate what is happening at these central parts of the unfolding of reality is very difficult, as it is beyond all sense of times and space; from that perspective, all that ever is or was in our universe is intact and unitary, a moving image of the Gods and an expression of the One’s overflowing goodness. Thus, “she could be an aspect of the One” is nonsensical — first, it gives the One attributes when that is not possible; second, it ignores the real relationship between the One and the levels of reality that immediately follow. This is a common misread because people have been conditioned by pop culture spirituality with phrases like “all of this is like facets of a diamond that is God” and similar things; this is a conceptual error because it removes individuality and collapses everything into a monistic pantheism that would fail at passing the tests in Plato’s Parmenides.
Second, Sophia is actually an epithet of Athene, not to mention a concept related to a variety of wisdom-related Goddesses. Furthermore, the threat of the dream-Athene actually being an unknown being is not that much of an issue, especially since any experience of the Goddess Athene could never be the Goddess Herself for mortals, but is always an intermediary spirit that belongs to Athene’s retinue. There are three types of souls that are above humans in the hierarchy: angels, daimones, and heroes, and it’s generally a daimon that would be visiting someone; an angel would be unlikely, and heroes are a bit complicated. The only danger would be if someone were to attract a material daimon, as material daimones’ function is to keep various aspects of the material world going, and people who have not purified their intellects and who have not moderated their desires and emotions are more vulnerable to their influence. The daimon isn’t evil or a malicious unknown entity; like the cleaners scene in the movie Labyrinth starring David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, the daimon will do its thing, regardless of whether or not there is a person in its path. There are occasional stories of philosophers like Iamblichus going to occult parties and saying that called-up deities are actually restless-dead ghosts pretending to be that deity, but that says more about pop culture occult diversions than it does about the divine hierarchy. A deity will never tell someone to do something harmful.
Third, the Henads themselves are beyond human comprehension, and the closest we can come to understanding a God is through theurgic prayer, which uses a foundation of ritual to support contemplative contact with the God. As I said elsewhere, it is impossible to truly know Hephaistos through studying Hephaistos; at some point, one would have to start praying and see what happens. Someone can also do a contemplative exercise in which le traces the divine hierarchy from a specific God’s perspective from the highest to the lowest levels; this can be hard for people without a good theological understanding of a God. Hephaistos is the demiurge of bodies, for example, with a lot of complex symbolism. Theurgic prayer uses common sensory images of the Gods to produce a mental state that is ideal.
At some point, though, one will just have to trust and see where it takes lim. There is an aspect of surrender in Platonism, just as in any tradition with a heavy amount of mysticism, with the caveat that Platonism uses more dialectical and logical techniques than some other traditions.
Here’s something Proclus wrote in the Platonic Theology:
Brisson also wrote a really good essay in the scholarly work Platonic Theories of Prayer that is useful.
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Thank your for this. I had never really reflected on the connection between Athene coming to Proclus’ home, and my own home shines, despite being well aware of the story in Marinus’ biography.
(Side note: Is there a word missing in the antepenultimate paragraph? When you write “…a lot of home epithets survive in Nordic texts, whereas the Hellenic epithets are well-documented…” my mind is looking for one more word to emphasize a contrast.)
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I just edited the post to provide clarity. Hellenic epithets across a wide variety of domains!
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