Antinous for Everybody

I worship a dead gay teenager and you can too

Archive for the category “In Theory”

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.

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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.

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.

Riane Eisler was right

So the last time I checked, the myth of matriarchal prehistory was a myth, right? There wasn’t a time when people lived in harmony, when sex was revered and mothers respected, when we didn’t divide the world into Us and Them and try to kill or rape or rob or enslave Them because they’re obviously inferior to Us. Nope. Homo sapiens has been a killer and a rapist since we figured out how to walk with our hands free, free to make tools and then weapons and bash skulls, flense bones, break limbs.

If that’s the case, none of us should be surprised by the events of the past week, by multiple terrorist attacks in Paris, by suicide bombings in Baghdad and Beirut. No one should be surprised that Boko Haram kidnaps girls like herds of cattle, that there are bombings in Kenya no one in the U.K. or the U.S. ever hears about on the news, that Daesh proudly proclaims its responsibility for rape and murder and the destruction of ancient beauties. Why should we care? That’s just the way human beings are, right?

Yet we do care. We are surprised, shocked, appalled. We grieve for dead bodies in foreign countries, dress our social media with symbols of support, and send money to relief efforts. Not only that, but we look at the people around us as people, not just as Us and Them. Yes, there are probably thousands of Americans who would vote for Donald the Dump and believe sincerely that if he just threw out all the Mexicans who are taking both our welfare and our jobs, this country would be great (i.e., white) again. But there are also lots of people who are no longer letting their family or friends, their spiritual teachers, their Facebook friends, that celebrity on Twitter, get away with saying racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic things. There are lots of people who are challenging that reactionary uncle, that pagan elder who’s just spat out a sentiment worthy of Trump, that clueless celebrity who’s forgotten how far their lives are from ordinary people’s.

That’s a good thing.

I was once in an elevator with my husband and two black men. We were in the central library, before I worked there, and the two men were probably among the many homeless people for whom our venerable building is a reliable shelter during the day. If memory serves, they smelled of alcohol. They were complaining freely to one another, in crude language, about how all the homosexuals were taking over.
Without planning to, I turned on them and snapped, “I wish the homosexuals *were* taking over! The world would be a better place for it!”

I got some rude language in return, but we all got off the elevator and that was that. “I can’t believe I did that,” I said, shaken.

“I can’t believe you did that, either,” said my then husband.

That might have been the first time I talked back to an -ism. It was me against two victims of another -ism, and possibly victims of addiction or PTSD or I know not what. It is harder to talk back to the -isms when they come out of the mouth of someone you love, or respect, or fear, but people are doing it, in so many ways, from posting on Facebook and dealing with the comments to marching in the streets and facing down armed police. And that tells me people believe we can do better.

We can do better than destroy works of art, things of beauty. We can do better than fear and hate people based on what is or isn’t in their pants. We can do better than treat girls and women like cattle to be bred and trans women like monsters ready to invade a cloister. We can do better than divide the world into Us and Them based on genitalia, or skin color, or choice of religion.

We can do better. We are doing better. Because we create beauty. We make art, and we make love, as well as making war. We follow our pleasure, our bliss, our joy, at least some of the time. Why don’t we do it all the time? Why do we distrust pleasure but affirm pain? Why is optimism considered unrealistic, while pessimism is realistic (and here, here’s a pill to help you deal with the depression of being relentlessly realistic all the time)?

There is a knot at the center of our culture, like a knot of pain in the gut, a knot of muscles in the back, restricting movement, a hopeless tangle of the threads that precludes weaving the tapestry anew. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, they are all threads trailing out of the knot; pull one, and it will show itself to be connected to the others. Racism identifies black people with the emotional, instinctual, physical side of human nature, with animals, with the earth, with dirt. Sexism identifies women with animals to be bred, with emotion and instinct, with jars and cars and ships and boxes, with the land, the earth. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, and other queers are feared and hated because they refuse to observe the distinctions between black and white, male and female, pleasure and necessity. Gay men have sex for pleasure, no possibility of reproduction. Lesbians deny the use of their bodies to men. Trans people violate the absolute rule that a thing, a person, a body, must be one thing or the other, not both: One drop of “black blood” and you’re black; a man should act like a man, not a woman; biology is destiny.

I pull on the threads and try to disentangle them, and I can’t; I see the knot, black and bloody and terrible like a clot expelled from the womb, and it is the fear and rejection of women by the cisgender, heterosexual men who are born from them, nursed by them, desire them, and are so utterly terrified of the person who gave them life and nurture and pleasure that anything that remotely resembles her has to be cut off, shunned, destroyed, at the very least controlled, completely. Here are these dark-skinned people whose cultures celebrate women, sex, pleasure–enslave them, take away their mother tongues, destroy their arts and their cities and say they had no civilization. Here are men who sometimes act like women, and women who sometimes act like men, and they have sex not to bear children to inherit the father’s accumulated wealth, but just for fun. Just for fun. Obviously that is a sin!

And don’t let yourself experience pleasure, real pleasure. Don’t enjoy your food and eat just a little too much occasionally. Don’t drink wine and laugh loudly. Don’t read a novel, see a movie with too many women in it, or listen to music until you feel something. Don’t feel your emotions, except for anger, that’s okay, and maybe lust. In place of real pleasure, sense pleasure, there’s making money, or dominating people, controlling other minds and other bodies as you control your own. Make money, keep the wrong sort of people out of your church, and vote for Trump, he’s honest and realistic.

We can do better. We have done better. We are doing better. If the neopagan movement has any lasting good to offer, in my opinion it is the affirmation of the body, of pleasure, of sex, of women, of life in this world, of those things as spiritual values, however much individual pagans fail of the ideal.

I think Riane Eisler was right. In the best-selling The Chalice and the Blade and subsequent books, she argued that human beings were capable of living as partners in cultures based on pleasure, not just in hierarchies and kyriarchies based on fear of pain. Her archaeology and history may be disputed or disproven now, but I don’t think her thesis has been; human beings continue to imagine a world different from and better than the conditions we have. I don’t think we’re capable of living entirely without strife, without conflict–I don’t think we ought to be–but I have hope that we can untie the knot behind our destructive ideologies and learn to trust our bodies, our pleasure, our desires, and our mothers, sisters, daughters, lovers, and selves, as women.

May it be so.

Looking for religion in all the wrong places

Lately I’ve found myself looking at my Christian background a lot. I’ve been re-reading the Rule of St. Benedict, the foundation document of Western Christian monasticism; I’ve been thinking about Hildegard of Bingen, whose feast day was in mid-September, and about Therese of Liseux, who is commemorated today, and her big sister Teresa of Avila, whose feast comes up in mid-October. And I’ve never really stopped missing the Daily Office, which probably explains my penchant for writing prayers to be said every day, on a schedule.

In the past, being interested in Christian texts and Christian saints again would have got me thinking that I was in the wrong religion; that Christianity is obviously my True Path and I should go back to it. But I’m not thinking that right now. I’m not neglecting my daily offerings to Antinous, the Tetrad++, and the gods, ancestors, and spirits generally. I’m still slowly reading anthologies about Demeter and Persephone; these two books are great collections of material, but an anthology doesn’t sweep you away the way that a good novel or even a tightly-structured work of nonfiction will.

So I ask myself, why am I not panicking and thinking I should change religions, the way I would have five years ago? I think the answer to that question is: Polytheism.

There are many things about Anglican Christianity that I love and miss: the Daily Office, Anglican choral music, the many poets and writers whom it shaped. I miss having a regular time of worship with a local community. But taken all together, it was the system I loved, not Jesus or his Father. To be honest, there are quite a few saints I love far more than I ever loved Jesus; Julian of Norwich would head that list.

Being an Episcopalian was about inhabiting a comfortable and beautiful system that provided me with a lot of resources of wisdom. But being a polytheist, it turns out, is about having direct, enlivening relationships with deities. And my deities, at least, seem not to mind where I seek for wisdom, as long as I maintain relationships with them.

*holds breath and waits ten seconds in case of divine smiting*

I am worshipping Antinous and a lot of associated gods in a particular modern tradition that draws from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian sources. I am technically a member of 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. But the Ekklesia doesn’t feel to me like a system. A system, perhaps I should say an institution, requires you to sign on the dotted line, stay within the grounds, make your bed a certain way. The Ekklesia is more like a bunch of houses and workshops built around the remains of a temple that is slowly being rebuilt; the goal is to make the temple look like its ancient self but also contain indoor plumbing, accessible entrances, and internet access.

I don’t feel like any source of wisdom is off-limits as long as I maintain my primary relationships with the holy powers. And those relationships have been so satisfying that I don’t want to abandon them to return to a system. All this time I thought I was looking for the right religion, the right system, when actually, I was waiting to meet the right god.

Enchantment and disenchantment

pigeons in silhouette 08.17.14One of the most frequent comments I hear around Pagans of every description is a desire to re-enchant the world.  Re-enchantment means different things to different people and the desires expressed are often vague.  It’s like a craving for a food you can’t describe because you’ve never had it, but you’re sure there must be something that tastes like what you’re thinking, if only you had a name for it.

–John Beckett, Under the Ancient Oaks

(The photo is also John’s.)

No, no, honey.  There is nothing wrong with the world.  The world is as magic as it ever was.  The problem is us.  And to be more exact, the problem is some of us.   There are still people in the world who are not disconnected, disenchanted, nor lost.

–Sara Amis, A Word to the Witch

To enchant something is literally to sing to it. In addition to what John and Sara suggest, how about we do just that? Sing to the world. Sing to the gods. If you have a pet, I bet you sing silly songs to your pets, as I have to my birds. Sing to the wild birds. Sing to the trees and the weeds and the petunias your neighbor planted. Sing to the spider that spun its web across your window. Sing your dead grandparents their favorite songs. Sing a song for the cow and the potato and the green beans that have become your dinner. Sing to your own spirit, your own soul, sing them back to life, sing them home.

LIving without a canon

I’ve been reading a book by Joanne M. Harris, The Gospel of Loki. Harris is best known to American audiences as the author of Chocolat, which became a charming movie with Alfred Molina, Johnny Depp, and Juliette Binoche. In The Gospel of Loki, Harris undertakes to retell the myths of the Most Interesting God in the World (TM) from his own point of view. Her Loki is witty, sarcastic, devastatingly unimpressed by the Aesir and Vanir, and, of course, the most unreliable narrator in the world.

I think it’s fair to say that without Loki, Northern myths, as story, would be pretty dull. Loki is the shit-stirrer but also the plot-provoker; Loki makes stuff happen. He is the handy antagonist for almost every story you want to tell. This is the guy who got Thor to dress up as Freyja and go to her own wedding–in order to get back the Hammer he wouldn’t have lost except for Loki, but then he wouldn’t have gained the Hammer in the first place if it hadn’t been for Loki’s shenanigans. You can’t always blame Obama, but you can always blame Loki.

At the same time, I’ve been reading two of the devotional anthologies from Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Potnia, for Demeter, and Queen of the Sacred Way, for Persephone. I am foolishly surprised that there are other people who, like myself, think that Persephone was not abducted but went willingly, or at least stayed willingly, and who have issues with how Demeter behaved in her daughter’s absence, punishing humans with starvation because Zeus and Hades went behind her back.

I’m sure there are people who will point to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and say, “Well, that’s not how Homer tells it, so it’s wrong.” Others will say, “OMG she was RAPED how can you dismiss that?” I could, in response, point to the Orphic tradition that alleges Persephone was raped by Zeus and became the mother of Zagreus, well before Hades took an interest in her. There’s also a thread in the tradition that Zeus raped her after her marriage to the lord of the dead, taking the face and form of her husband. And I could mention that the primary meaning of “rape” in English, especially in the literary tradition, is “to carry away, to abduct”; hence the word “raptor”, the creature that seizes and carries away its prey.

What I’d rather do, however, is just point out that the Homeric Hymns say one thing, the Orphic writings say another, and the various writers of Potnia and Queen of the Sacred Way say something else. And none of those sources is canonical.

The notion of canon comes from Christianity and the Bible, but it’s also very prominent in fandom. Canon are the stories that absolutely count, in the versions that are deemed to be definitive. The 79 episodes of the original Star Trek series are the basis of Star Trek canon, for example. Then there are six films featuring the same characters. Are those canon? As a lifelong Trekkie, I would grant that the first four films are canon, but I have grave doubts about the fifth and sixth. (Especially the fifth.) How about the line of tie-in novels that Paramount began to produce in the 1980s, before the Next Generation debuted? I’m certain that most hardcore fans of the Original Series would name some of those novels as canon (if the names Diane Duane and John M. Ford mean anything to you, raise your hand) and some not.

And then there’s the fanfic. Unlicensed, unauthorized, and unloved by the pontificators of literary canon, fanfic flourishes. It celebrates Holmes and Watson, Kirk and Spock, and the stars of the shows that are just about to debut. Trek fanfiction was originally written to keep alive a universe that had only three seasons of episodes, but nowadays you don’t even need three episodes to air before people are writing fanfic. (I’m trying not to look at Sherlock fandom here.) I’ve committed fanfic in over half a dozen fictional universes, myself, to the tune of over three hundred stories of varying lengths.

The strange thing is how closely this all parallels Jewish and Christian conceptions of canonical Scripture. The Bible: What is the Bible? What’s the biblical canon? In fact, you’ll get different answers from Jews and Christians, of course, but also from different kinds of Christians. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all have slightly different lists of the canonical books. Roman Catholics sprinkle the “deuterocanonical books”, as they call them, into the pages of the Old Testament. Episcopalians call the same books “apocrypha” and corral them between the Old Testament and the New. The Orthodox throw in a few books that no one else does. And there are dozens, at least, of scriptures that were never accepted as canon by anybody, but some of them are inching toward that status now, thanks to archaeological discoveries: the “Gnostic Gospels” of Thomas, Philip, and Mary, for example.

Look closely at the Bible, however, and the notion of canon falls apart. I have six different English translations of the Bible in my possession, four in print, two only on Kindle. The original texts were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, on fragile and often badly preserved materials. The books of the Tanakh exist in the Hebrew Masoretic text, which is the canon for Judaism, in the Greek Septuagint, used by the early Church as well as diasporic Jews in the Roman Empire, and in the versions of the Dead Sea Scrolls–all of which differ from one another. As solid matter breaks down into atoms and atoms into neutrons, electrons, and protons, and those into quarks, so the notion of “canonical scripture”, definitive writings, breaks down into unreliable bits of paper when you look closely enough. Which is why most Christians don’t look, and many who do become unbelievers. If the standard is the book, and the book is unreliable, on what do you rely?

As a polytheist, what I rely on is not Homer’s writing or anyone else’s, but direct experience of the gods. The Homeric and Orphic hymns, the corpus of Greek and Roman writings on the gods, Egyptian texts, archaeological discoveries, and the latest blog post from the Aedicula, all of these are sources, not canon. They are sources of wisdom and understanding, but they are no substitute for the direct experience gained in worship. There is no canon; there cannot be. There are historical and archaeological sources that are more accurate, more reliable, more suggestive than others, but there is no first, best, authentic source for any myth. There is no definitive version. It is not impossible that in some distant future, The Gospel of Loki might take its place with the Eddas as a source of Lore. Diana L. Paxson’s Children of Odin novels might be as important to Heathens as the Nibelungenlied and the Volsunga Saga. And C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces might be cherished as a version of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

When I sit down to write for the gods, I am prepared for myth to come out of my fingers. I am the poet, the maker. If you’re a writer and you speak of the gods, you are a mythmaker, too.

All the goddesses are one goddess-no, wait, hear me out!

The twelfth of this month was observed in Rome as the Lychnapsia, a feast of lights or lanterns for Isis. I added it to my sacred calendar, dug out my little statue of Isis, in the Egyptian style, seated on a throne and holding her breast, and draped over it a small bracelet I bought in a museum gift shop, wooden beads and a blue scarab, sized for a child’s wrist. I had every intention of celebrating the feast… then I worked eight hours, came home in the afternoon heat, and turned off my brain for the rest of the night.

So this entry is something of an offering to Isis for her feast as well as a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while. You see, one of the top items on my “Why I am a bad pagan” list is that I don’t have much of a devotion to Isis.

At least, I don’t have the devotion to Isis that I’d like to. As a child I was mad about ancient Egypt. I read books about archaeology along with books about world religions, and I could rattle off the names of gods, goddesses, and pharaohs like some kids can rattle off the names of the characters in their favorite cartoon. (My favorite cartoons as a child were always Bugs Bunny and company.) The drawings I made as a girl looked a lot like Egyptian wall paintings, even when I drew people who might have appeared in Norse myth or Arthurian legend or even The Lord of the Rings, not northern Africa along the Nile. I was as fascinated by Isis and Osiris, Set, Nephthys, and Thoth as I was by Athena, Apollo, and Dionysus, or Thor’s adventures with Loki and Freyja’s golden necklace.

All of this archaeology and mythology was getting poured into my head alongside the Bible and the Prayerbook and the Hymnal 1940. I read my way through a large book with a dull grey cover called Religions of the World that I think was actually a college textbook, designed as an introductory survey. It included not Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, two chapters apiece, but Hinduism and Buddhism (also two chapters apiece), Shinto, Sikhism, Jainism, and the polytheisms of the ancient world. Mind you I was not more than twelve when I found that book; I read early and light-years beyond grade level.

Then as a teenager I was an early admittant to a Catholic college which, as you might imagine, had a sizable collection of books on religion. It was there I came across a book that I think many of my readers might recognize: It was called Isis in the Graeco-Roman World, but it remains in print under the title Isis in the Ancient World, by R.E. Witt.

As I had done with some of the books in my neighborhood library, I borrowed that book and read it repeatedly. Even as a teenager, I spotted the author’s thesis that much of Catholic Christianity, including devotion to the Virgin Mary, had been borrowed from the Hellenistic worship of Isis. Christianity grew from a movement within the diverse Judaism of its day to a world religion (for Roman values of “world”) only by adopting and adapting from the surrounding polytheisms as much as from the Jewish matrix in which it was born.

There was Isis, and there was the Virgin Mary, and before I read Witt, I read Starhawk, and perhaps more importantly, I read The Mists of Avalon. If you are a pagan woman of a certain age, you have almost certainly read The Mists of Avalon, and perhaps some or all of its sequels as well. (I’m trying not to glance guiltily at my bookshelves.) Many, many pagans of various persuasions have quoted Viviane’s famous words, “All the goddesses are one goddess, and all the gods are one god, and there is one initiator….” It was more than twenty years before I realized that Viviane, High Priestess of Avalon, was quoting another Vivian when she said that–Vivien Le Fay Morgan, the female main character of Dion Fortune’s The Sea Priestess. It is safe to say that without Fortune’s novels, and her esoteric work, The Mists of Avalon would not exist; while the author’s reputation as a human being and/or her soul is now in the lowest depths of your chosen hell, her book encapsulated for a generation both the legend of King Arthur and the work of Fortune and her fellow occultists.

It was longer still after my teen years that I discovered that when Vivien Le Fay Morgan said all the goddesses were one goddess, she identified that goddess with Isis, and the god with Osiris. Which means that, to some extent, Fortune was right: Isis had been worshipped all over the Roman Empire and syncretized with just about every deity that had breasts, and her Hellenistic consort Serapis was likewise syncretized with a multiplicity of gods. Isis and Serapis, by the age of Hadrian, had as good a claim as any deities will ever have to be the goddess and god in whom all others are subsumed.

So it strikes me as strange, and I feel kind of guilty, that I don’t have much devotion to Isis. I have somewhat more feeling for the Hellenistic Isis, the mega-goddess so feelingly hymned by Apuleius, but it seems easier for me to have feels, as we say on Tumblr, for gods than for goddesses. Yet I want to get to know Isis better. If I had the room, I would love to have a shrine for the Greco-Roman-Egyptian Holy Family–Isis, Serapis, Harpocrates, and Hermanubis. (Sometime I may write about the shrines I would *like* to create, if I only had the room.) Perhaps I have trouble relating to Isis because she is so very womanly. She is defined by her relationships to her spouse, her son, and her sister. Nearly everything that she does in myth is motivated by her love for her family. She is not, if memory serves, able to retaliate directly against Set’s attacks on Osiris; she can only rear a son to avenge his father.

Yet Isis is also the mistress of magic, the one who tricked the great sun-god Ra into giving her his secret name. She is the goddess who gathers under her wings goddesses of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, who travels with soldiers and merchants all the way to Britain and leaves her name on a river, her shrines and temples around the islands. Who else could be the goddess worshipped by the priestesses of Avalon but Isis, moon and sea, star and fertile earth, mother, lover, and layer-out?

Let these words, then, be my tribute to her, and a testament to my desire to honor her and get to know her, the greatest goddess of the ancient world, Aset, Isis.

Ben Whishaw with waist-length hair in a yellow frock

A fannish friend of mine just gave herself an enormous, enviable treat for her birthday: She went to London for a few days and, while she was there, she saw The Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre, with Ben Whishaw as Dionysos and Bertie Carvel as Pentheus. 

I’ve only been a fan of Whishaw for a couple of years; after seeing him in the last Bond movie, Skyfall, as a youthful new Q, I was stunned by his work in the short-lived show The Hour and by his performance as Richard II for the BBC’s Hollow Crown series. Whishaw is a talented actor whose lithe, wispy, unpredictable character makes him a prime choice to play the god who won’t perform masculinity; I wish I could see this production myself.

But my relationship with the play goes back a lot further than my fondness for Whishaw or my identification as a polytheist. I was a precocious and voracious reader as a child, as I am now, the sort of person who cannot stay away from a display of books. Every time my grandmother’s senior citizens club held a bazaar as a fundraiser, I came home with armfuls of books, literally. It was at one of those bazaars that I picked up the “condensed” version of Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, a book which made a permanent impression on me; at another, I brought home three volumes of Norton anthologies, one prose, one poetry, and one drama.

I don’t remember anything I might have read in the poetry or essay volumes. But I was nine or ten years old, and I found The Bacchae, as it was spelled then, in the drama volume, and read it.

I’m not sure what I made of that play at such a young age. Looking back over four decades, I know now that being able to understand the words in some way and even explain a story does not mean grasping the meaning of it. Certainly there is much about Euripedes’ tragedy that I do not really comprehend even now. Yet the play made a deep impression on me, right next to Godden’s novel of cloistered nuns, reruns of Star Trek, my weekly exposure to the Prayer Book and the Hymnal. It was an encounter with Dionysus.

I encountered the god again as a teenager, browsing in a bookstore downtown that is long gone; I think the building itself might have recently been demolished to make room for something else. If memory serves, I ran into a rather odd acquaintance of mine, a priest of the Polish National Catholic Church who was a friend of my parish priest, and we had a strange stilted conversation. I went home that day with a book called The God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysus, by Arthur Evans.

Evans (not the same Arthur Evans who excavated the palace of Knossos on Crete) was writing primarily about same-sex, male-to-male relationships in Greek and Roman history, what was considered acceptable behavior and what was not. A goodly part of his argument was his own translation of The Bacchae, with photographs from a production he directed in San Francisco. The actor who played Dionysus was costumed as a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, which is how I first learned of that order.

Thirty years later, I still have that book on my shelves. I haven’t touched it in years, but I read that version of the play over and over, poring over the pics–Dionysus as the coy Sister in a traditional wimple and veil, Dionysus as the manifest god, his body painted gold, his face revealed as a massive bull mask crowned with ivy.

For years I’ve admired Dionysus from afar, so to speak. I’ve admired him in fictional men who don’t play by gender rules. I’ve come back over and over to the story of Ariadne, abandoned by a hero, chosen by a god; it stands alongside the story of Persephone as one of the myths most significant to me. I’ve watched him from the corner of my eye the way the nerd girl in the teen movie watches the bad boy in the leather jacket, the curly-haired guy who smokes where he shouldn’t and is always surrounded by girls.

In the past year, I’ve honored Antinous as syncretized with Dionysus, with Apollon, and with Hermes, among many other gods (and in the company of quite a few goddesses). As I’ve grown closer to Antinous and made connections with other deities, I’ve also realized I want to get closer to Dionysus. I’m working up my nerve to go chat up the cool weird guy standing out in the rain, petting a stray dog, the boy in the leather jacket surrounded by pierced and tattooed girls, the hot lead singer in the band, the god I met when I was only a child. I might be grown up enough now to be his friend.

Why I’m boycotting some pagan blogs

Hi, I’m an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and I like labels.

It’s very simple when you’re a mainline Christian and can just name your denomination and have everybody recognize it. I was an Episcopalian, an Anglican. It had a lot of syllables, but nobody argued (much) about what it meant. (Argument came from other Episcopalians who didn’t want any openly gay clergy. I assume they had no problem with neurotic, closeted ones, of which the Episcopal Church used to have a large number.)

I celebrated Lughnasad, which for me involved actually worshipping Lugus and Rosmerta with prayers and offerings, including an oatmeal stout and some corn on the cob as a nod to the grain harvest the gods have provided. Not surprisingly (at least, I wasn’t surprised), I subsequently had a bout of “druid fever”, wanting once again to be a druid and train with an order and have a nice white robe and a nice clean label. Most neopagans, I daresay, have a pretty good idea of who druids are and what they do. Even if there’s a divide between druids who look mainly to the Druid Revival of the eighteenth century for inspiration and those who look to the ancient druids of Ireland, Britain, and Gaul, there’s still a lot of common ground there.

But I’m probably not going to join a druid order and train with it, or change my spiritual practice to conform to an ideal of druidry so that I can wear that white robe and that clear label. There’s actually quite a lot of overlap between what I do as a polytheist and what I believe a druid is and does; creative inspiration, poetry, and writing play a large role in both. But the only label that seems to stick to me effectively is that word polytheist.

It’s an awkward word. It has a lot of syllables, and people seem unclear on what it means. Merriam-Webster’s “belief in or worship of more than one god” is clear enough to me, but some people who call themselves polytheists define the gods in ways that preclude actual worship. I don’t think you can worship an archetype, a fictional character, a constellation of forces; at least, I know I can’t. I know a lot of people in fandom who have very intense relationships with fictional characters (and the actors who portray them), but it’s not worship, even if stories about those characters perform a meaning-bearing function in people’s lives akin to myth or scripture.

For me being a polytheist means primarily that I don’t define myself by what I believe or even what I do, so much as by what my relationships are. I’m a polytheist. I worship many gods. Well, which ones? At last count, Antinous, the Tetrad++, much of the Roman pantheon, and a number of Hellenic, Orphic, and Romano-Celtic deities. Plus some of my ancestors and some spirits. I don’t worship Captain America, I just have his shield on a t-shirt. (I do occasionally thank the gods for Chris Evans, however. Sometimes specifically for the films in which he appears semi-nude.)

The longer I practice polytheism, the less useful I find the writing of pagans who aren’t also in relationship with the gods, gods to whom they are devoted, gods whom they worship. I wouldn’t read a sex manual written by a life-long celibate, and I don’t see why I should take seriously any theologies by people who don’t believe in the theoi. It’s helpful that people put labels on their blogs; I know if someone calls themselves a humanist pagan or an atheopagan that they have nothing to say to me because I’m not their intended audience. Nor are they mine; I’m writing for people who, if not polytheists already, are at least open in mind and heart to the possibility that the gods are real and alive and that relationship with them is rational, worthwhile, and life-enriching.

Is it a boycott if you don’t shop where the merchant isn’t selling anything you need? Perhaps not, but it certainly makes for a catchy blog title.

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