This post begins with some personal background of why I want to look at Sallust. Its middle section is an exhortation to anyone who may be on the fence about worshipping a God to just try it out without pressure. The final section is a glance at Chapter 1 of Sallust’s On the Gods and the World. I pray that Apollōn and Athēnē guide these words as they unfold, both today and into the future as I embark on other chapters.
I Did Not Have My S–t Together in College. Enter Sallust.
The overall gist of this section is something I have mentioned on my blog before. Sallust’s On the Gods and the World is a text I first encountered when I was twenty. It was during the 2007 fall semester when I was a college junior. Over the course of 2006 and 2007, the yawning-darkness terrors that I had known when I was about seven or eight years old (just after learning that the Sun would swallow the Earth and destroy every beautiful thing, from the Finger Lakes’ gorges to sweet-smelling grass) had returned with a vengeance. The Wiccan altar I had on the top of a bookshelf was gathering dust, a casualty of a college student’s bad logistical planning and a feeling in my gut of wrongness and listlessness.
In high school, I had spent at least 30-60 minutes doing prayer and meditation every day, occasionally lapsing when the workload of college courses I was taking got rough; in actual college, the combination of overwhelm and fear of missing out and the creeping vines of the Internet were all fast-becoming an unceasing howl in my head, that feeling we all get occasionally when we have too many obligations and not enough free time to prioritize them. The Association of Smith Pagans that I had joined — and the pagans on campus I knew beyond that — consisted of a mixture of people with sincere beliefs and young adults rebelling against going to Catholic School who called themselves pagan without actually understanding that the term meant more than being antagonistic to the Church and loving nature.
I had a hunger for guidance and answers on how everything fit together that went beyond the tepid theological explorations in Wiccan books. I wanted to know what the actual relationship was among the science that I loved, the transcendent stillness of prayer, and the cyclic repetition of pagan ritual. My mind was detoxifying from inappropriate beliefs (to be honest, some conspiracy/New Age-adjacent, but nothing as dire as many of the errors in circulation today) that I had either held or had been too shy to speak up against within my online peer group in my late teens.
The same things that can be detoxifying — reason, critical thinking skills, and so on — can be dissolving, and I wanted certainty that there would be something left when those things had been chiseled away. The only certainty in my heart was the brightness of the Gods and the inner unity of everything. I was inarticulate and flailing to explain how that inner light functioned when rubber hit the road. I saw the New Agers with their 2012 conspiracies, reptilian overlords, starseeds, and aliens channeled from Zeta Reticuli and wondered how anyone who tried to touch on truths could be led into such shockingly wrong woo. Apart from them, I noticed the inaccurate claims about the structure of atoms and the ways galaxies rotate in the work of respected Wiccan authors and teachers like Christopher Penczak, and I realized that there were degrees of error. How do you follow the Gods and trust that the insights you receive are true things and not just deceptive delusions of the mind? What actually makes sense for how reality is constructed? What in the world is even real at all?
This dissatisfaction with the Neopagan, non-initiatory Wicca I had been raised in was what led me to wonder if the reconstructionist polytheists on the Internet had a better approach. I worshipped Apollon, the Muses, and related Greek Gods, so it seemed like the best place to start. I purchased a book and got to reading it. At the end of the book was appended a public-domain translation of Sallust, and it was Sallust — not the book itself — that relit the extinguished hearth in my heart. It would still be years before I realized that reconstructionism was partially based on supersessionist ideas about Greece and Greek history and that having a history-informed approach that acknowledged these dynamics was the only morally viable route, but in the context of my personal history, the best life raft in an unsteady ocean is the one that keeps someone from drowning.
Anyone who gives others advice on polytheistic religious matters will recognize the issues I have outlined above. (Yes, had I had a mentor who encouraged me to maintain a more consistent religious practice while I was in college, things would have gone differently.) Some of the issues were a side effect of how nascent polytheism was at the time. You couldn’t just follow someone on Twitter or subscribe to a newsletter or grab an epamphlet from Gumroad or ko.fi or another self-published pop-up shop in 2007. By January 2008, I was ready to divorce Wiccan practice and take a new route, bolstered by the impact of Sallust and a private religious experience that had eased those universe-yawning-open panics.
It occurred to me recently, while being disturbed and disappointed that people new to polytheism sometimes flee the religion for New Atheism or non-spiritual agnosticism after their lofty expectations for divine contact are not met, that discussing Sallust would be a useful contribution to online polytheistic discourse. It will benefit many people, especially those who are on the fence about religious devotion in general or who do not see themselves in the “Astrology, Crystals, Spellcraft, and Pop Culture Occultism” demographic.
You can be a polytheist and have a valid religious practice by lighting a candle for Hera or Frigga or whomever, making fancy dinners for the new and full moons, and doing low-key devotional activities that don’t require you to engage with occultism at all. Being a polytheist can be as normative as being a practicing member of any other religion. You can spend as much or as little time on mystic union with the Gods as you like. You can do pop culture occultism or you can avoid it.
Occasionally, you may identify opportunities for deeper practice when you develop fondness for a specific God, and just like falling in love, it can change you — but it is, again, your choice whether or not to travel that road of devotion to a God or several Gods.
It is also important to listen to your gut and know when “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO) is clouding your judgment. Humans are social animals, and when we feel alone, we can crave community so much that we get caught up in consumerist subcultures and lose track of our own selves.
To sum: Beyond the basics, it’s up to you what you choose to include or exclude from your life.
To that end, over a decade after I initially read it, I have decided to post the chapters of Sallust on my blog and provide commentary on each of them.
On the Gods and the World Chapter 1
On the Gods and the World is a concise Platonic treatise on how to approach polytheistic religion in general, with a focus on worshipping the Hellenic Gods, written in Late Antiquity. I am not skilled in Platonism; I am reacting to Sallust in a way that makes sense to me as a practicing polytheist, and I believe that the Platonic interpretation is true based on my experience and studied efforts. My goal is to communicate the delight — and the work’s grounding power — to readers. It is also a fresh and exciting thing for me because I’ve read many Platonic primary texts since I was 20, and I’m excited to see where this goes. I hope that these exegeses help you in your sensemaking efforts, steadying your journey on the rolling sea.
Chapter 1: What the Requisites are which an Auditor concerning the Gods ought to possess: and of common Conceptions.
It is requisite that those who are willing to hear concerning the gods should have been well informed from their childhood, and not nourished with foolish opinions. It is likewise necessary that they should be naturally prudent and good, that they may receive, and properly understand, the discourses which they hear. The knowledge likewise of common conceptions is necessary; but common conceptions are such things as all men, when interrogated, acknowledge to be indubitably certain; such as, that every god is good, without passivity, and free from all mutation; for every thing which is changed, is either changed into something better or into something worse: and if into something worse, it will become depraved, but if into something better, it must have been evil in the beginning.(full text of Sallust’s work here)
It is not uncommon in Platonic texts in Late Antiquity to see information about what the author hopes each reader has as a background. If a reader (auditor?) is very sensitive, reading something like this can cause self-doubt: Do I measure up? These declarations of prerequisites are like a philosophical/theological shut. the. doors. so that people who aren’t ready for something can prepare themselves. Helpfully, most times this comes up in a Platonic writing, the author will helpfully describe what one needs to work on.
“It is requisite that those who are willing to hear concerning the gods should have been well informed from their childhood, and not nourished with foolish opinions.”
Especially in this day and age, it is important to approach the Gods and theology as if one is entering a sacred place. There is so much pop culture and media franchise noise about Gods of any pantheon that it can be hard to investigate the Gods themselves without becoming covered in the agora’s mud, and so much has been desecrated for the sake of consumerism. The Gods are not their myths alone, and being “well informed” from childhood means that it is easier to understand theological underpinnings when someone has been raised with ritual and exegesis from a young age; myth alone is wobbly. It is even harder when one has been conditioned to view Gods as demons or when one has been nursed on vitriol about “primitive religions” from one’s youth.
“They should be naturally prudent and good” is a paradox. In Platonizing polytheism, everyone is born good, but specific circumstances of embodied life may draw people to think that something is good when it really isn’t. The climate crisis exists in part because, 100 years ago, people thought that fossil fuels and consumerism would lead to human thriving (and yes, rich people wanted to get richer due to thinking money was a good). Sometimes, in seeking to improve self-esteem, an individual may indulge in or deprive limself of things like sex and food to the point that what was meant to heal becomes harmful. Online radicalization and hyper-segmentation do their worst by hijacking our sense of right and wrong until what we have within us is a twisted image of reality.
If you read that you need to be prudent and good and the phrase makes you anxious, it is important to explore why. Is it because you were taught that you were not adequate as a kid by toxic adults in your home and school life? Have you been avoiding something uncomfortable about yourself that is causing you to have distress about your moral self-image? What do prudent and good mean to you? What do you think they may have meant to the translator (Thomas Taylor) interpreting Sallust? What are the histories of these terms? We can always work on ourselves, either alone through self-help or through formal processes like therapy and support groups. It all starts by asking questions and being willing to sit with uncertainty and uncomfortable conclusions.
Prudence and goodness are also keys for looking beyond the surface of myths to hunt for the Gods behind them. We can all agree that rape is bad, and it is shocking that some Gods are depicted as rapists in mythology. “If every God is good, how can these stories be?” is a threshold that we cross to plunge deeper into a God’s mysteries, where the stories are revealed to be biased human ways of conceptualizing things about a God that are hard to describe. Human beings draw from symbols and analogies driven by the cultures we are steeped in. The drive for the Good, when we listen to it, can be a first step to cutting through the lies to uncover what is true.
“Every God is Good, without passivity, and free from all mutation”
In Platonism, and in Platonizing forms fo polytheism, each God being wholly good and incapable of doing anything bad. This idea of divinity leads to an understanding of the Gods as unchanging.
The Apollōn whose images occupy my mind in contemplation — a yawning abyss of plucked strings, serpent-skin traces, the iridescence within black holes, male and female and cloaked in quantum harmony, leader of the Fates and the Muses who leads each of us up from the shores of generation to the summit of all things through the power of the song he seeds in our souls — is sometimes very alien from many surviving myths and from much of his anthropomorphic iconography. Apollōn himself does not change. What the ancient Hellenes praised in him, what the British Renaissance poets flirted with, what the Hellenes living in the shadow of Delphi see, and what I have within my mind all have a unity that is impossible to describe. They are all Apollōn.
The Gods are each anchors for our present reality. They are the root of all, and the permutations are what happens when an individual God who is unchanging and beyond spacetime is experienced by those of us bound by time and space.
Similarly, the Gods overflow with abundance and are constantly active. They cannot not be productive, and they produce and enform everything that we see around us. There is nothing in this world that is not filled with them or the intermediaries suspended from each of. The opening of the flowers on the tree outside my window is as much a theophany as a dream about receiving a statue of Athēnē. Proclus writes that the heliotrope’s turn towards the sun is itself a hymn. Human beings have the rational power to be selective about how we hymn the Gods and the agency to make deliberate choices about which Gods receive the most active attention from us.
But what is a God, if le can be so wondrous, and if I can say such astonishing things about theophany? What is the difference between a polytheistic mindset and the (supposedly) more respectable modern view of pantheism or panentheism? How is understanding everything as a theophany any different from a nontheist waxing poetic about the beauty of the natural world?
Sallust does not disappoint. Stay tuned for Chapter 2.