Becoming Fire: Symbolizing Polytheism with Fire to Represent Our Commonality — Household Cultus

[T]here are many aspects of Prometheus: on the intellective, the supra-mundane, and the intra-mundane level, each transmitting the divine gifts to the world accordingly. We must also add, he says, that the distinctive character of this deity is to reveal the good that is hidden within the Gods; therefore he is said to have stolen the fire, that is to say, to have disclosed the mystic treasure.

Damascius, on the Philebus, §58
House of the Lararium,” Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Religions and spiritual systems, in the modern world, typically use symbols — it’s like flags, where the symbol itself establishes some form of respectability. Unitarian Universalists, for example, didn’t have a symbol until they needed to prove their (well, Unitarians’) legitimacy as a religious organization during World War II, and the chalice with the flame within it was their “legit religious org” ticket to saving thousands fleeing Nazi persecution. Online boards are filled with pagans and polytheists trying to agree on the “right” symbol for the form of polytheism they want to practice. The pentacle rapidly solidified itself as the symbol for pagans who derive their theology and practice from Wicca, and Thor’s hammer has rapidly done the same for Asatru, Heathen, and other Northern traditions — so much so that these are now symbols available on military grave headstones, so the faith of pagans and polytheists who have sacrificed their lives in the various wars our politicians throw us into is recognized and not silenced.

In other words, these symbols mediate our interconnectedness with one another and our access to “legitimacy,” however legitimacy is defined. One of the common issues among those of us polytheists who are more generic, those of us who do not feel that the Wiccan or any other specialized symbol is appropriate for us, is this: how do we signal to others that we have a similar, even if not identical, outlook on Gods? how do we achieve that bureaucratic legitimacy, which is cringe to realize we need but important to acknowledge that we do?

This is an important question, especially in thinking about unplacing and about the cultural amalgams we find ourselves in. Many of us, even those of us whose practice is centered around a specific “pantheonic” grouping of Gods, want to avoid using terms and symbols that identify us too much with Society for Creative Anachronism-style imitation of the past or, in my case, with the occult. I do not think that anything I do is occult, not even the polytheistic mysticism I do, and I want to make sure that there is space for those of us who worship many Gods who are of that persuasion to communicate the core of what we do without ambiguity.

We want to learn from the past and move forward. We want to figure out what being a polytheist in the 2020s means and what our household and civic worship look like in and of itself. We want something that communicates that placement of the Gods at the core of our lives, our creation of that fire within the fennel-stalk of our bodies, the wind within the flute, the shelf or shelves or table or makeshift opened box or wherever we pray every day. Relative to my own practice, many symbols for Hellenic Gods created by Americans seem forced and don’t exactly capture my practice. If I wore Thor’s Hammer in acknowledgment of returning to my roots, it implies that I do cultus in a specific way, that I observe holidays that I do not observe, that I have an outlook that I do not have. If I wore a pentacle, it would also miscommunicate what I am about — I am not Wiccan, nor do I do magic or occult things.

I’ve approached this issue on and off for a while, especially during the reopening of everything following the pandemic when I was taking stock of my onsite work clothes and thinking about attire after we all got the digest email from HR reminding us what professional attire meant. There are a lot of beautiful pendants on Etsy with a whole host of meanings.

At midmonth, when my mother visited for my birthday, she gave me a wood icon of Hestia. I was meditating with a Headspace track one morning a few days later when I suddenly felt held, cozy, and a great sense of peace — and, as is typical in such experiences, one knows who the God is, but it’s not exactly easy to communicate something experiential to people after the fact, so I will spare you the rambling details. What I left that meditation with was a powerful sense of the hearth, of the devotional center of all things, and of the words Proclus uses in the Platonic Theology to describe the Hestia of all things (Thomas Taylor renders her name as Vesta).

For essence itself is the summit of all beings, and is as it were the monad of the whole of things. In all things therefore, essence is the first. And in each thing that which is essential is the most ancient, as deriving its subsistence from the Vesta of beings. 

Book III, Ch. 9, Proclus’ Platonic Theology

Moreover, [the Demiurge] fabricates all the multitudes of mundane Gods and dæmons, and all celestial and sublunary natures, in order that he may evince this only-begotten and self-sufficient God [the world] to be the image of the intelligible and all-perfect God; fixing the earth indeed, as a firm seat or Vesta, in it, but distributing by lot the other elements to divine souls and dæmons.

Book V, Ch. 20, Proclus’ Platonic Theology

After months of trying things out with a combination of hearth Goddesses to represent all of the flows from the Gods to me now, ancestral and affinity-based, I came to a realization that it was her who was, and had always been, at the center. It was a very powerful realization. It felt like a return to what was abiding, and the clarity of that was immense. So I started honoring her as the singular hearth Goddess again, and then Frigg and Nantosuelta in other household Goddess capacities. It felt right.

The more I reflected on the coziness and the omnipresence of the hearth, the more I started to wonder if a stylized fire symbol was the best symbol for those of us honoring many Gods to communicate what we are about. As a symbol of both the hearth and the divine fire — and in the latter, it becomes a crucial symbol within theurgy for elevating the soul to the Gods and the contact between us and them — it focuses on what we all do, not the specifics of our different philosophical schools, doctrines, deities, and so on.

We are anchoring ourselves in the Gods and consciously inviting them into our lives. The core of this effort focuses on the act of establishing that small space (however it looks for each of us) where we honor the Gods. It emphasizes what I hope was communicated in The Soul’s Inner Statues — that this home-based, private practice is where we have the most agency in our spirituality and that we can anchor ourselves securely. Regardless of our experience in groups and with other people, we have this foundation.

Someone like me who primarily worships Hellenic Gods with some ancestral Gods (for example, Belesama, Frigg, and Eir) has a household shrine. Someone unlike me who primarily worships Gaulish Gods with some Roman and Norse has a household shrine. We have the shrine in common even though our practice may look very different. We all have fire — in the candles we light or the divine fire brought to focus during our prayers or both. Regardless of what we make our stylized fire pendants look like, as I imagine different people would have different takes on this, they communicate that same shared value that having a household shrine — that making offerings to Gods and inviting them into our lives — is a core thing for all of us.

After looking online for a bit, I settled on a necklace with the astrological symbol for Vesta (note: I love all of the artist’s stuff, and it’s polytheistic jewelry that has a professional look in line with many HR attire policies for women; this is the second time I’ve purchased something from her, and she has great customer service) — a symbol with little baggage because it’s modern, as the asteroid was discovered in contemporary times. Beyond my pet peeve that astrologers seem to emphasize the materiality of Gods as planets (which I think is theologically clumsy), I do like the symbolism that they’ve attached to this and what they say about the Goddess, and I don’t mind the overlap§ in messaging because it’s pretty much the same message I want to communicate about the centrality of devotion and the home shrine to my life and sense of religious and spiritual identity.

Vesta symbol. Kwamikagami, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The asteroid Vesta is said to be associated with devotion, with the household, the home, and so on … and isn’t that what we are all looking to do? That anchoring, that acknowledgment that cultus is at our core, that completion of the circle? I resonated more with it than a Hestia tripod necklace, at least, which looked too large and a bit pokey. And, at least with celestial bodies, Greek and Roman names are used interchangeably§§ due to the common practice of name substitution, so the asteroid is also Hestia.

So, I present this for thought — do with it what you will.

§ As with the major components of my natal chart, I don’t think Vesta in the 8th house describes me all that well because it emphasizes sexuality too much. (The Gemini description is a bit better, as that’s the sign where Vesta is.) Beyond being an astronomy minor and feeling duty-bound to be reserved about astrology, one reason I’m skeptical of astrology — although keep in mind I’ve never had a consultation and have just auto-generated a chart and read the description — is that Libra Ascending Gemini Sun Pisces Moon seems like a shallow person who likes partying and casual sex, whereas I don’t drink, and I am a prude who likes modest necklines. I’m into theurgy and philosophy and writing and poetry. A decade and a half ago in college, I called my Friday nights looking up fun stuff in scholarly databases alone in my dorm room “JSTOR parties,” for crying out loud. I can’t speak for or against the shallowness, though, because I’m average intelligence-wise, and I do weave small talk into serious conversations because I think rapport is important. I downloaded Co-Star out of curiosity, and it keeps telling me things about how I conduct myself that are actually the opposite of what I do in those situations, although the transit stuff about situations is a bit more related to how things actually go for me, much like how some of the minor stuff in my natal chart actually did reflect the toxic environment I grew up in and how hard it was to get out of that. I do, however, like the theurgic aspects involved with this specific fire symbol and how it relates to the hearth of devotional cultus (and how it puts Hestia first), so I do feel a strong affinity for it.

§§ I know there is another Hestia in the sky, the asteroid and clump of asteroids that go by that name. That is irrelevant.

4 thoughts on “Becoming Fire: Symbolizing Polytheism with Fire to Represent Our Commonality — Household Cultus

    1. Interesting! I have several deity pendants, and they’re starting to be “in fashion”, so there are a lot of options out there for someone. I’m thinking of something that communicates the presence of hearth cultus. I don’t identify as a Hellenic Polytheist anymore and am just calling myself a polytheist or a Platonizing polytheist whose primary practice involves worshipping Hellenic deities, as my experiences over the past few years have changed how I relate to many terms that are used in the communities of people who worship many Gods.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Very interesting! I’ve often pondered this subject myself. I frequently wear an olive (or perhaps laurel) leaf wreath pendant to signify my Hellenic Polytheism.

    The stylized flame, however, is an established Jewish symbol. Go ahead, google it!

    Round coin pendants with various Greek and Roman deities, especially goddesses, are available from several jewelry designers (Awe Inspired and Common Era, just to name two) and seem to be trending at present.

    The torch is a trademarked symbol of the Olympic Games – and of the United Fund charity in the U.S. The lit oil lamp is a symbol of the nursing profession, and maybe also of an academic honors society.

    A stylized temple is a definite possibility, but it would have to be done in such a way as not to look like a bank or neo-classical government building. Maybe with the sun and moon above it?

    A kylix,or other vase shape, is another prospect.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So, it took me some Googling to find something that was a flame, and it seems that, in Judaism, it’s either the menorah or a candle flame or a single flame point, whereas I was thinking of something a bit more hearth-like — the modern Hestia symbol is one variant, the Vesta asteroid symbol another, and the emoji that is the symbol for “hot springs” ♨ is one one that could be a flame symbol if the edges of the lines were sharp rather than curved. (I actually sometimes use the hot springs symbol to symbolize offerings.) I think something with a V-shaped base that has flames in it would work well, or perhaps an oil lamp (as you said) that faces a specific direction or that takes a specific style with the oil lamp base for the flame

      Liked by 1 person

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