Antinous for Everybody

Many gods, no masters–and that includes you

It’s time for me to be brutally honest again, gentle readers. Today’s uncomfortable truth: Every spiritual authority I have relied upon has let me down.

Every. Single. One. Whether Christian or Pagan or Buddhist. Whether I have known them personally or only at a distance. Whether they called themselves priests or teachers or some other title. Every time I gave my power away to someone in the name of religion, it was to my loss. My power was used for someone else’s self-aggrandizement.

On the other hand, I have had brilliant, empowering teachers who did not try to usurp their students’ personal power and authority. I have seen people who shared their knowledge with joy and enthusiasm, in the hope that others would catch fire. I have known teachers who possessed the teacher’s greatest virtue: The goal that their students would someday equal and even excel them. A Catholic nun with a Ph.D. teaching theology. An Irish Catholic woman teaching English literature. A Hermetic magician and a sorcerer sharing their magical learning. Music teachers who showed their students how to enjoy music and how to create their own.

French anarchists coined the phrase, “No gods, no masters!” Pagan anarchists at Gods & Radicals came up with the variation, “Many gods, no masters”. I am here to tell you that if you want to share your knowledge, if you want to teach me, if you genuinely know more than I do, and if you wish the best for your students, I will listen to you, learn from you, respect you, and be grateful for you. But if you try to claim authority over me, if what you have to tell me is that safe spaces are ridiculous and there is one right way of doing things which just happens to be the way you do them, if you are trying to take my personal power and use it to shore up your own ego, then my response is: FUCK OFF. Because “no masters” includes you, self-appointed spiritual authority, polytheist blogger, thousand-dollar weekend teacher, integral this, spiritual that, no matter how many books you’ve read or what the oracle told you to tell the rest of us.

You know who hasn’t let me down? Who doesn’t seem to be interested in having power over me? Who is tolerant of my weaknesses and forebearing with my learning process, which involves a good deal of Doing It Myself and Discovering Things The Hard Way? My gods. Who seem to think I’m Doing Okay, every time I check in with them because some shit-flinger on the Internet has pushed my anxiety buttons and I’m afraid I’m Doing It Wrong.

I’m leaving comments open on this post. But if I don’t like your comment, my response just might be, “Fuck off.” I’m feeling a bit Dr. Banner today, and I’m not sorry if you don’t like me when I’m angry.

Space ships, hobbits, and church

I’ve always said that I didn’t want to write memoir. “Write what you know” is a common bit of advice tossed at new writers, but I prefer the adage, “Write what you love,” and from an early age, what I loved was space ships, robots, dinosaurs, elves and fairies (and dwarves and hobbits), and church. So my fiction has revolved around the things I love, which haven’t changed a great deal since I first learned to write the alphabet, and so has my poetry. I am not planning on writing any novels about, say, tortured mother-daughter relationships, or child prodigies growing up in white blue-collar families in the 1970s and ’80s, or any poetry about my father’s work-roughened hands and the big symbolic trucks he drove while my mother sat on the couch and watched soap operas. Other writers are tending those acres, I’m sure.

But I turned fifty this year, and turning fifty tends to inspire a certain amount of looking back as well as looking forward (and seeing what, if anything, one has to look forward to). What does interest me as I look back, what seems worth sharing, is the meandering path of my involvement with religion. From the first time I was let loose in the neighborhood library, say, around eight years old, to the present day, religion has been one of the things I find most interesting. Not just my own religion, but all religion, all religions. So this is the first of an occasional, unscheduled post looking back at me and religion.

My mother sent me to church when I was about six years old. What one can deduce from this is that she did not go to church herself, and take her daughters with her; she sent me, in the company of my older sister, already a teenager and chafing to get out of the Sunday church requirement. She thought that a religious education was in some way important, but she did not herself have any religious practice. Over the years my mother supported the church I went to in many ways, including financially, but one thing she never did was go to a service. To this day, I’m not entirely sure why that was the case.

My sister, eleven years my senior, had gone to a Lutheran church and been confirmed there. I went with her for a year or two, until she rebelled and stopped going. In that time, I spent most of my time in the Sunday school and very little of it in the actual Sunday service, but the important thing is that I wanted to join the choir and was permitted to do so. I was actually at least a year younger than the minimum age; I think they must have accepted me because I could not only carry a tune, but read the words of the hymns proficiently. I was a very precocious reader, years ahead of grade level.

When my sister stopped going to church (and concentrated on dating, and then got married), I think there was a year or two when I didn’t attend. Then my mother made the acquaintance of a neighbor, an elderly single woman named Miss Johnson, who went to the nearby Episcopal church. When I say “nearby”, I mean half a block away, across our street, up to the corner, across that street, and there you go, but my mother insisted that someone walk me there. So for I don’t know how many years, I met Miss Johnson at our front door every Sunday and walked that short distance in her company.

Miss Johnson’s church, the Church of the Advent, was the little high-church parish that was going to form my notions of religion, of Christianity, of what Episcopalians are and do, pretty much permanently. Unlike a lot of pagans, my childhood exposure to religion didn’t leave me with baggage I was eager to drop. I had my share of emotional drama at church over the years, but 99% of it had to do with being an oddball who found it hard to fit in socially and was often unsure that people liked me. Looking back, I’m pretty sure they did like me, even if they didn’t necessarily understand me. They were my peeps, though, and they cared.

It was not a church where I heard a lot of messages about women, or sexuality, or homosexuality being evil. Our rector rarely preached, and I’m quite certain that he was himself homosexual, in a quiet and reclusive sort of way. It was not a church where the pastor told you who to vote for, or shamed women for how they dressed. Except for the actual Sunday liturgy, which we called Mass as Catholics do, everything in the parish was done or organized by women. Father and some men and boys as acolytes celebrated Mass; women and girls sang in the choir, ran the Sunday school, organized bazaars and suppers as fundraisers, typed up and copied the weekly service leaflet, not to mention maintaining the cleanliness and order of the altar and its furnishings and all the vestments. It was an environment in which women had real power and the men mostly showed up and did what their wives told them to do. We had a rule that boys could not sing in the choir and girls could not be acolytes–a strange rule for an Episcopal church, but as a child, I was not unhappy with this division of labor. I joined the choir as soon as I could prevail on my mother to let me and remained active in it for over ten years.

It was a church in which singing was deeply important, choir was deeply important, and I was exposed to a hymnal which was a compendium of Western musical tradition from plainsong up to the early 20th century. It was a church in which the language of the prayers and the Bible was sixteenth-century English, the language of Shakespeare, of King James I, of intimacy through extreme formality. It was a church with silk vestments, with clouds of incense, with stained-glass windows, with chanting. It was a church where I learned that music, poetry, and stories are important parts of religion, and so are theatre and dressing up. It went hand in hand with the actual theatre in my life, as amateur theatre was my mother’s hobby. I was singing and dancing in musical reviews at the same age that I was singing the Great Litany in procession at church, high on clouds of frankincense.

Deep down, my criterion for religion has always been, can you do it better than my childhood church? Can you do it better than the Book of Common Prayer and C.S. Lewis, better than frankincense and plainsong, better than damask chasubles and cassocks and surplices? Can you do better than a tradition that gave us Donne and Herbert, Tallis and Byrd, Charles Williams and Dorothy L. Sayers? It hasn’t been easy to find a religious identity where the answer to that was yes, but I’ll keep you apprised.

POEM: Nine bows and an offering of honey

panprosdexia

Panprosdexia by Cierra Williams

Panprosdexia, darkness in fire and fire in darkness,
pours honey into darkness for the suffering, for the trapped,
walking the worlds without gender, without partner,
without sexuality, until all are brought home to the light.
Sometimes they cross ways with Jizo Bosatsu,
Ksitigarbha, the Earth Treasure, bodhisattva known
by his jingling staff and wish-fulfilling jewels,
visiting the hell realms and taking care of sentient beings
until Maitreya takes over from Shakyamuni.

ht1puh6fhxdxxagofbxg

From the Barque of Millions of Years Lucius Marius Vitalis
looks down and sees the deaths of young people, boys
and girls and others, the suicides of despair because
their genders were denied, their sexuality condemned.
Sometimes he brings honey to Panprosdexia and
they work together, visiting the dark bars or reaching out
through the internet to those who hide in their bedrooms,
unreached by light or by the faces of companionship
except through the glowing screen. He would like to do more.

issan-girl-boy

In a pure land full of beautiful gay men and strong proud lesbians
who followed the Dharma, Issan Dorsey Roshi stands up
from his meditation and thinks of those still dying of AIDS;
thinks of those trapped in prison, trying to practice Dharma
or blot Thor or celebrate Samhain; thinks of the drag queens
and the leather butches and the nonbinary kids, and goes
looking for Ksitigarbha. Sometimes he crosses paths
with Lucius Marius Vitalis, a good-looking Roman kid,
and if they weren’t so busy trying to save the world
maybe they’d sit down and have a drink, but there’s time
to make time later, when everybody is home in a pure land.

Nine bows and an offering of honey to Panprosdexia,
to Ksitigarbha,
to Lucius Marius Vitalis,
to Issan Dorsey Roshi.

Who is my tribe?

A certain heathen organization recently made a public pronouncement that made it clear–if there had been any doubt–that their organization is confined to gender-conforming, heterosexual white people with the right sort of surnames. This pronouncement was widely denounced as racist, homophobic, and transphobic, but also defended on the grounds that any organization has the right to determine its own membership, and that this issue was not about excluding anybody but simply about defining the tribe.

Not being a heathen, I’m not going to discuss the textual and historical reasons why racist, homophobic, and transphobic attitudes seem to be inappropriate to worshippers of the Aesir and the Vanir (and possibly some of the Jotnar): Not my pantheon, not my sources. What I am going to discuss is the nature of tribe and where that figures in my religious practice.

For a long time I was interested in druidry and other forms of Celtic paganism. This had as much to do with childhood exposure to the legends of King Arthur, the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, and the Mabinogion retellings of Evangeline Walton as anything else, but the idea that I was, in some fashion, practicing the Ways of My Ancestors was appealing to me. I took ancestor devotion seriously because I took devotion to the saints seriously: Same thing, different religions. And I had some visionary experiences and contacts that strongly suggested I had ancestral and perhaps past life connections in the north of England and Scotland.

Fast forward twenty years or so, and I’m worshipping a Greek youth deified by Egyptian religion, the Roman pantheon, and a family of new gods that have only manifested in the last five years or so. My surname is Scottish; my father’s mother was Portuguese, and I’ve been told that her surname was one of those often used by conversos, Jews who became Christian. My mother’s father was German and I actually never think of myself as “German” at all, but I resemble him and his sister, my Aunt Margaret. I’m pretty sure there’s not a drop of Italian blood in me anywhere (at least, I’d be surprised if a DNA test turned it up). Does that matter in my religious practice? Not a whit.

The Greeks and Romans both got around, in Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor, trading, settling, conquering (and then settling and trading). Everywhere they went, they looked for similarities between their own gods and the gods of the land and people who were already there. They paid respect to those gods, even if, in the case of the Romans, that sometimes meant seducing or suborning those gods to help the Romans conquer their people. Their mingled culture and their literature, accompanied eventually by Christianity as a new state religion, got handed down to former barbarians and became part of their culture. As recently as the early twentieth century, learning Latin was a normal part of university education. For centuries, to be educated at all meant that you learnt Latin, and sometimes Greek.

Greco-Roman culture became European culture, which became Euro-American culture. If American kids learn mythology in public school, it’s not usually Native American stories, or Germanic or Egyptian, and certainly not Christian stories; it’s Greek mythology, Zeus and Hera, Athena and Apollo and Hermes. Public buildings look like Greek temples or Roman ones, or sometimes Renaissance palaces (like our Walters Art Museum), but not like Gothic cathedrals. Downtown Baltimore is dotted with classical-style sculptures that look like Roman deities although they’re actually allegorical abstractions.

My culture is Euro-American, heavily influenced by Greece and Rome as well as by Protestant Christianity. My religion is a melange of Mediterranean polytheisms with Christian and Buddhist influences and magical influences. My tribe? My tribe is made up of people who share my culture but not necessarily my religion. My tribe is queer people, gay, lesbian, or bisexual; my tribe is transgender and nonbinary folks; my tribe is writers, musicians, actors, artists, including people who write fan fiction and make fan art. My ancestors in spirit are poets like Dante or Efrem of Edessa, musicians like the great castrato Farinelli and the composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, and queer people like Issan Dorsey Roshi, a gay man and drag queen who became a Zen Buddhist and spent his last years running a hospice for men with AIDS. My tribe is a network of people who don’t care to define the tribe by whom they exclude, but by whom they welcome. These are the people of Antinous, the people of the Tetrad, and you are welcome in that tribe if you welcome everyone else.

Speaking your truth

I think Nimue’s words are true for all of us, not just druids. We have a duty to speak our truth.

Druid Life

We have a duty to speak our truth. It’s a thought I’ve run into from a number of sources – fabulous Kris Hughes has been talking about it, and it’s a key part of Cat Treadwell’s work.  Throw into the mix the Quaker virtue of speaking truth to power, and good old Iolo Morganwg with The Truth Against the World and it’s clear that truth, personal truth, has to matter to a Druid.

One of the things about personal truth is the implication that other people’s personal truths will be different, and just as valid. If our truth suddenly looks bigger and more important than other personal truths, we’re on the road to dogma, one true way and generally feeling a lot more important than is good for a person!

But what is personal truth? It might be a number of things – it could be the truth we experience…

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I’m gonna be honest with y’all

I think we can all agree that 2016 has been a difficult year for all of us. The deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman introduced a year where we have lost many brilliantly creative people, most recently Gene Wilder. The U.S. Presidential election campaign has descended to new lows of absurdity and mendacity. Police officers continue to shoot down black citizens as if they were rabid animals visibly frothing at the mouth, and rapists walk free while athletes are condemned for using their First Amendment right to criticize our nation. Meanwhile, extreme heat waves linger in some parts of the U.S., unseasonably cool temperatures reign elsewhere, and Louisiana is flooding catastrophically without even the benefit of a hurricane as the cause. I haven’t heard anything strikingly positive coming out of other nations, either.

In the midst of all that, it seems petty to complain about my own problems, but they are problems and they’re mine, so here goes. I live in a part of the U.S. that’s heatwave territory right now, and I loathe summer. Simply loathe it. Summer is not picnics and parties and pools and vacation; it’s waiting five days a week at a bus stop that has not the slightest scrap of shelter from the sun, in a neighborhood which stinks of garbage most days, to get home and hide in my air-conditioned apartment until necessity forces me to leave it again.

I turn to the internet for distraction or consolation, and I’m bombarded with the news, racism sexism misogyny war climate disaster Trump Crooked Hillary outrage. A black actress is attacked in social media for doing a good job in a film or perhaps for just existing as black and female. An actor I follow on Twitter explodes with rage when he condemns Colin Kaepernick and his fans call him out. Another entertainer, creator, giver dies and their unique light is extinguished. Popular media gives with one hand and takes away with the other when it comes to representation of people who aren’t white, cisgender, and heterosexual.

So I turn to my religion, to fellow polytheists, to those who believe in and honor and cultivate relationships with the gods. Only to find racism, sexism, misogyny, and homophobia proudly proclaimed as core principles of some groups. To see people obsessing about “purity” and anxiously narrowing the circle of beliefs and practices and *people* that are acceptably pure to the gods. To find people being stridently certain that they know what The Gods want, even those with whom they have no relationship, and that one thing The Gods want is for their self-appointed representatives to tell everyone else what to do. To find politics defined as religion, religion defined as politics, lefties and rightists both proclaiming that the other side wants them silenced and possibly shot, and the whole thing looking weirdly like fandom on a bad day.

Dear readers, I have never come closer in my life to simply giving up on religion and walking away. No more of this. No more theological arguments. No more daily devotions that might or might not be appropriate. No more winding myself up reading angry blog posts when I could be looking at bird pictures, playing tablet games, or watching videos. No more trying to process through my rage and disappointment so that I can write something suitably devotional, because some people are brilliantly inspired to create by anger, but I am not one of them. Anger makes me silent and withdrawn, and I have been hurt and angry for months now.

All of these things are my issues and not yours, gentle reader. I just want to give you a glimpse of what is happening here, the effect that the online polytheist community or aggregation is having on one individual. I came close to giving up religion the way an addict gives up a drug, as something that can only make my life worse. The reason I didn’t, I haven’t, is not any one person, not any blogger, not even my fellow devotees of Antinous, though I am deeply grateful for their existence and their friendship.

It is simply the gods themselves. I can’t dismiss them. I can’t not believe in them. I can’t ignore them, because they are so simply, uncomplicatedly present. And they are more compassionate, more forebearing, more tolerant, more patient than most mortals. Perhaps, to paraphrase the Hebrew Psalmist, the gods know that we are only human, only mortal, that our best efforts as well as our worst mistakes are only temporary because our lives do not last very long.

And yet, the gods remain interested in and engaged with us. Why? As I’ve said before, my core belief is that it’s because, fragile and fallible though we are, we can be the raw material for more gods. For the promise of that, and for the rewards right here and now of association with the gods, I’m sticking around. I’m not sure if that means putting the gods first or putting myself first, but it’s where I stand.

Purity, Tumblr, Power

I don’t often do this, but this post requires it. Go forth and read.

The Regal Beagle

(This post will be short. I also won’t be linking to anything. This is for the folks who know what I’m talking about.)

Recently I saw a blogger talking about how they won’t allow their students to use tumblr. The rally cry was of course, “It’s just a requirement for my students!” but when one looks at what is undergirding that requirement, things get kind of ugly really fast.

To get to the point, the individual asserts that Tumblr itself is a polluting influence upon individuals she states plainly ” I think with a level of pollution such as I typically see on tumblr, it’s best to just cut that shit off cleanly, and not allow any means whereby it might infect”. I don’t use tumblr for anything other than finding porn (#sorrynotsorry) but the fact that this individual has taken up the habit of labeling most things she despises…

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POEM: The shade of the red lotus

In the mud of our failures,
out of the blood of our risks taken,
watered by the tides of possibility,
the red lotus blossoms.
Gift of the gods to Antinous,
sweating, wounded, mortal;
gift of Antinous to us,
beautiful, just, benevolent.
So many times have I failed
to slay the lion; even so many times
has the lotus blossomed still.
So many times have I sought
the way and been found
by the gods where I stopped,
exhausted. Jonah the prophet
slept for a while under a gourd;
let me rest here in the shade
of the red lotus.

My polytheism

My polytheism was waiting for me for a very long time.

It peeked at me out of children’s books on Greek mythology and popular surveys of archaeology and heavy tomes on world religions past and present. It smiled at me from a two-page illustration of hundreds of gods of the Hindu pantheon, with their multiple arms, their glittering ornaments, their unlikely skin colors. It beckoned me from the bright hues and stylized poses of ancient Egyptian art, which I emulated in my own childhood drawings.

My polytheism tapped me on the shoulder when the librarian at my neighborhood branch, who had an uncanny intuition for what her patrons would enjoy reading, handed me a recently published book with a gold geometrical design on a red cover: The Spiral Dance. It wove in and out of bad teenaged poems about the seasons and hymns to Dionysus and Athena. It took a breather and waited quietly when my grandmother’s sudden death sent me back to church, looking for a replacement for the stability I lost with her death. It was ready to woo me again when I met a man who liked intellectual conversation as well as I did and fell in love.

The man I fell in love with and married was (and is) a church organist, and while he was far from unsympathetic to my pagan and polytheist leanings, it’s hard to reject the Christian church entirely when it’s paying your salary. I spent the next twenty years or so exploring assorted pagan and polytheist paths, along with magical training and Tibetan Buddhism (which certainly looks polytheist to me), yet always wandering back to the church. It wasn’t until I was divorced and living on my own that I somehow made the emotional connection to a deity that had always been missing from the equation for me. That deity was Antinous, and regular readers of this blog know the rest.

I didn’t know I was missing devotion from my religious life until I felt it, experienced it. I say “devotion”, but I’m talking about a wide range of emotional responses to different deities, from the intensity of my feeling for Antinous, what you might call a higher octave of infatuation, attraction, erotic feeling, to my respect for Mars to my fondness for Flora to my increased interest in Jesus as a deified mortal, as a teacher, and as someone who created a path through death for those who trust in him. I never experienced Jesus as someone I could talk to, confide in, ask questions of and get answers from, as I experience Antinous. For many years I participated in the sacrament of communion every week, yet I never felt I had the kind of contact with Jesus from eating his body, drinking his blood, that I can get from talking to Antinous in the shower.

My polytheism, however, is not limited to devotion, though it includes it. My working theory of things, which in some ways has changed very little no matter what religion I named myself, is that the gods are interested in humans because they are interested in making more gods. Perhaps when you are immortal and don’t reproduce very often, it is easier to increase your numbers by upgrading other beings. My polytheism doesn’t think the gods are interested in offerings for the sake of offerings, in slaves like a Roman household had or even servants like an Edwardian household. They don’t want mortals to run their baths, cook their food, launder their clothes, clean up their mess. My polytheism thinks that what the gods want are agents, mortals to work for and with them, to share their values and carry out their agendas, with the eventual reward being promotion, deification, theosis. Some of the things that being an agent of the gods might require include magic, mysticism, meditation, contemplation, social activism, art and creativity, and much more.

My polytheism rejects the idea that other people’s polytheism has to look like theirs. It rejects the idea that 21st-century polytheism has to look exactly like 1st-century polytheism. And it rejects the idea that people cannot be good, worthwhile individuals who are contributing to the world unless they are religious people. I don’t want a hegemony of one religion in my society, not even my own religion; neither do I want a campaign against religion like the Communist regimes saw. My polytheism is happy to live in a secular society where a citizen can have any religion or no religion and all religions are equally protected and not promoted.

My polytheism is at times a hot mess, at times a work in progress. It involves my relationships with gods but also with spirits, with places, with birds and trees, with myself, with my body, my neuroses, my history. It can look like writing a poem for Antinous or like dropping offerings from a bridge into a polluted river. It can mean talking to a god or talking to a pigeon. It can include dancing for the gods in my little apartment or singing in a church choir. It doesn’t go away when I’m watching tv or reading fanfiction; it informs those things, too. My polytheism is about me and my gods, the values we share and what they want for me as well as from me; it’s not about a group, a culture, a time period. My polytheism respects other polytheisms, other religions, and firmly but politely asks that you respect it in return.

POEM: The curious incident of the dog in the night-time

It is always a curious incident when the dog does nothing,
when the dog that should waken sleeps,
when the hound that should bark lies silent,
when the watch-dog fails of its watch.
In the toilsome heat of August, the Romans punished the dogs
that failed to do anything in the night-time,
or the day-time, whichever it was,
when the Gauls came to scale the city walls
and carry away all that made Rome superior.
Piteous dog crucifixions baking in the heat alongside the road!
Juno’s geese strutting and honking nearby,
pleased with their own superiority: *They* gave the warning
when the dogs failed! Pathetic. Geese are large, loud,
aggressive, and not known to be trusting.

O Hermanubis, temper the ferocity of Sirius!
Hounds of the Dog Star, chase away the roaring Lion
burning up our skies! Gracious gods, protect the harvest,
send us rain and sun in due measure: The dog days
are over, the descent into autumn has begun.

(With thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

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