A world full of gods
I first read John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods ten years ago, when it was new. I took away two things from Greer’s defense of polytheism, one an abstract idea and the other a metaphor. The idea was that there need not be a single afterlife to which all human beings are bound. Perhaps some people reincarnate and some don’t. Perhaps those who worship Jesus have an afterlife with Jesus, and those who worship the gods of Greece get an afterlife with Persephone. Hell, Hel, Valhalla, the Elysian Fields, Tartaros, Amida’s Pure Land, and any other post-mortem destination you can name may all be equally real.
The metaphor was a deliberate counter to the familiar metaphor of spiritual reality as a mountain. There are many paths to the top, yet we all find the same reality in the end. You thought you were climbing El Capitan, but it turned out to be Everest. No matter what mountain you climb, you get Everest. Greer suggests that we think of reality as a valley instead, ringed by hills and mountains that represent the different religious paths we can take. Each ascent will give us a different but equally valid perspective on the valley below.
I think I have said before that I’m not sure I was ever really a monotheist. The Church and the Bible were present and important in my life from very early on, but so were Grimm’s fairy tales, Anderson’s stories, the legends of King Arthur, and the gods and stories of Egypt, Greece, and the North. Being a precocious reader, I graduated pretty quickly from children’s retellings of myths to Bulfinch, then to books on archaeology and world religions. I grew up with the knowledge that not only were there different kinds of Christians than the Lutherans and Episcopalians I knew, there were non-Christian religions out there, some of which worshipped many gods instead of just one. I can still visualize fairly clearly the two-page painting in that Time-Life book of the Hindu pantheon in all its complexity, blue skin and gold skin, red skin and white, four or six or eight arms, serpents and bulls and monkeys and rats and a god with an elephant’s head. It was hard to forget.
I started veering toward paganism and polytheism pretty much as soon as it looked like a viable option. I didn’t live in India or China or Japan, but The Spiral Dance showed me there were people who took the old gods seriously who lived in my country, my culture. I’ve spent a good deal of my life since the age of thirteen zig-zagging between the Episcopal Church and various kinds of paganism, with a fruitful side trip into studying hermetic magic that led to my becoming interested in Buddhism and taking refuge and bodhisattva vows with a Tibetan lineage. Tibetan Buddhism is still my model for a complete religion, one that has all its technologies in place. I think most religions in the West have lost pieces of the toolkit, not excluding Christianity.
I’ve considered or tried out various kinds of witchcraft and druidry, but while they remain of interest to me, they just didn’t stick as spiritual practices. Studying Tibetan Buddhism has been incredibly enriching, but I still suck at plain sitting meditation. I’m very interested in magic, too, but I confess I don’t regularly practice the system I learned.
If it weren’t for P. Sufenas Virius Lupus and eir blog, the Aedicula Antinoi, I wouldn’t have discovered Antinous. That, of course, is why PSVL keeps the Aedicula–to inform people about Antinous and model a way of worshipping him. That’s why e founded the Ekklesia Antinoou, “a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and related deities and divine figures”, to quote the official description. If you want a name for my current path or practice, I say my religion is polytheism, or I’m a devotee of Antinous, or I’m a member of the Ekklesia Antinoou. Sometimes I just say I’m a Mediterranean polytheist and I worship Antinous as my primary deity.
I first began to experiment with devotion to Antinous back in 2012. I had been reading the Aedicula pretty much since its inception, I think; I believe it was in October of that year, right around the major holy days of the Sacred Nights, that I began to offer a candle and incense to Antinous daily, with prayers, and to try to observe his festivals. Then, just at the start of 2013, I simultaneously lost my marriage and found an Episcopal church that suited me better than any church I’d been to for a long time. I became an active member of that parish, but I didn’t get rid of PSVL’s big book on Antinous or the handmade triptych I had created in the god’s honor.
A year and a half later, I had a huge role in one of the most important liturgies of the year: I was the narrator for the Gospel of the Passion on Palm Sunday. With another reader as Jesus and a third as all the other characters, both men, I dramatised the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution for the congregation. I’d been an active churchgoer and a member of the choir for so much of my life, but I’d never done anything so important before. And that might have been the last time I went to my church.
Something came up in my life, I don’t remember what exactly, and I had the desire to pray to Antinous for help. Not Jesus, not God the Father, not the Blessed Mother or Julian of Norwich, but Antinous, a teenaged Greco-diasporic boy who was the lover of a Roman emperor and became a god because he drowned in the Nile, under unknown circumstances. At that point I realized I definitely wasn’t a monotheist and wasn’t a Christian, either. I became a devotee of Antinous and really haven’t looked back.