A world full of gods

20180308_101622Vesta’s fire burns on my stove and in the candles on my shrine. She consumes the incense I kindle and crackles through wires as electricity to power lamps, laptops, and everything else.

Apollo gives music, healing, poetry, prophecy, all of which I need. He and Diana shed light by day and by night. Venus and her court bless me with birds and flowers as well as love and desire. Mercury blesses writers as well as merchants and thieves, protects me when I catch public transit or walk across the freight train tracks.

Who better than Minerva to help a single woman further her career, especially in an intellectual field? To whom shall I appeal for just government if not Jupiter, king of the gods? Mars is a protector of boundaries and of the fields we cultivate, not merely a god of war. Juno’s image burns within me, my sacred female sovereignty.

The blessings of Ceres put food on my table. Bacchus entertains me not merely in every glass of wine but in every movie and television show, transforming reality and slipping me meaning and wisdom along with pleasure and diversion. Neptune and Portunus are needed to bless our rivers and our harbor, a center of tourism and of trade. Without Vulcan, would I have a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone? I’m not an artificer, but I need the products of craft and manufacture. With Janus at the door, I sleep safely at night.

Antinous, my beloved boy, god of my heart, carries the gifts of Apollo, Dionysus, and Hermes, as well as of Osiris, and opens the door to all the gods. He is the center around which my sense of the numinous is organized, the heart of the mandala.

There is no god that is not part of my life. They are everywhere. I may not go into the wilderness, but I know that Diana and Faunus are there, just as Mercury and Apollo, Minerva and Venus are not far away in the city. Even a vacant lot overgrown with weeds can be a glimpse of Faunus; Diana’s deer are hiding in patches of woods just off the light rail’s route. Flora blesses the carefully tended yards and gardens no matter how run-down a neighborhood may be.

Other gods are no less real for my not worshipping them. They, too, are present even if I don’t notice them.  It doesn’t seem like mysticism, or magic, or anything but reality. The gods and my relationships with them are woven through my life, my ordinary life. I pay attention to them, and they pay attention to me. Their reality affirms my reality; their sacredness affirms my sacredness. After all, some gods become humans, and a good many humans have become gods….

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A birth and a death

I’m not feeling terribly eloquent today, but I still want to note two holy days occurring.

hermesFirst, the birthday of the god Mercury, or Hermes, divine messenger, communicator, interpreter, and mischief-maker of Olympus. Isn’t this picture of him cute? (I’ve posted it before, but I couldn’t resist posting it again.) I think many pagans ought to thank the D’Aulaires for turning us on to the gods of Greece and the North.

 

It’s also, however, the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the Episcopal Church, he may be commemorated on this day as a martyr instead of or in addition to the national holiday celebrating his birth. Michael Harriot has published a bitter but cogent essay on The Root that reminds us that King was not a national hero in his lifetime, but a thorn in the side of a complacent white majority that was quite contented to see him gone.

What do the god and the martyr for justice have in common? Perhaps just this: They both got in there and stirred shit up.

The Opening of the Mundus on Election Day

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In the name of Ceres,
goddess of the grain, giver of food,
protector of the poor,
defender of the rights of the plebes in Rome,
in the name of Ceres,
let the mundus be opened.
Let all the spirits fly out.
Let the dead come forth and have their say.
Let the privileged and the disenfranchised,
the rulers and the oppressed, speak their words today.
I call out the Founding Fathers,
Washington and Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton,
Franklin and Madison, and all the rest,
whose words carried greater ideals than they could embody.
I call out with them their wives and their daughters,
the black men and women they enslaved,
Abigail Adams side by side with Martha Washington
and with them Sally Hemings, equally our ancestors.
I call out the native peoples of this land
who saw guns and pestilence,
gifts given and treaties broken,
whose sons and daughters hold the line
against greed and lies to this very day.
I call out the Africans brought here as slaves,
worked to death with less care than animals,
raped and tortured, their sons and daughters
still walking in danger every day.
I call out the Chinese immigrants
who helped build the railroads,
the Irish and Italians who shaped New York,
the Jews who fled pogroms in Russia and
fled again when Hitler came to power.
I call on all the immigrants who came
to this continent looking for freedom,
whether they found misery or success.
I call on all whose labor made money
for greedy men. I call on the children
who worked in factories, losing limbs
and losing life. I call on the women
who held hands and leaped from the Triangle
building to escape the fires, because
the doors were locked to prevent them from stealing.
I call on the women who built guns and bombs
and cars and trucks while the men were at war,
who crunched the numbers and broke the codes
only to be shooed away into the kitchen
when the men came home from war.
I call on Martin and Malcolm and Muhammad Ali
and those who stood with them and marched with them.
Now at last let the disenfranchised dead have their say.
Now at last let them speak against the oppressor.
Now at last let their deaths be seen for what they were,
the spending of human lives to make money,
more for those who have much already,
profit for those whose greed knows no slaking,
power for those whose contempt makes them ugly.
Let the mundus be opened, let the dead come forth,
let the spirits speak freely, and let justice be done:
Let us atone for our past with a better future
where Ceres and Jove together bless the people
with good harvests, clean water, good weather,
abundant food and drink, where Minerva and
Apollo bless education and medicine for all,
where Mercury distributes information and goods
wherever they are needed, where Bacchus
is welcome and Antinous is lauded,
where all gods are honored, but no cult is privileged.
To these blessings I pledge my vote,
I ask the help of the gods, I ask the help of the dead,
I ask the help of the land itself on this Election Day.

Gods of the city

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Jove seems to have forgotten this neighborhood where I now work. Or have its residents forgotten him? Two condemned houses stood side by side, their weathered signs testifying they had been condemned years ago. They stood untouched until one simply fell, leaving the other standing. City workers came and cleared away the debris of the fallen house, but the other condemned building still awaits its accidental death.

When the mayor and the city council speak with pride of all that they have accomplished, they do not mention this neighborhood. They do not speak of how the smoke and dirt of the great trash incinerator lie over the whole region, tainting the air and the water. They do not mention the Superfund site next to my building, the gravel-strewn tainted ground. They do not address how polluted is the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River that flows so near us, that brought business and industry here.

I walk through this neighborhood and see no churches, no supermarkets, few local businesses. One Korean family runs a corner store and a laundromat. The old lady gives me a toothless smile as she accepts my card. The fried chicken looks delicious.

A few years ago, there was violence among high school students at the light rail stop where I disembark every weekday morning. If Jove is mentioned here, perhaps the residents curse his name. Mercury does not linger here, though I think he visits the laundromat and corner store. Mars is not the kindly though stern father who stores away his arms and armor when the harvest comes, but the enforcer who shoots first and claims to have asked questions later. Ceres’ blessings of grains, fruits, and vegetables are nowhere to be seen.

Yet right now, there are rosebushes in bloom all over this neighborhood, planted and tended by people who still care about the beauty of their homes. Red, white, peach and orange, they thrive despite the gritty stink in the air. Clover has sprung up uptended, both white and pink. The gods of the patricians may have turned their eyes away, the protectors of the plebes may have departed in despair, but there are still gods here. Flora and Rosa do not withhold their blessings, even if weeds must grow out of trash pits. Silvanus and Faunus hold sway in patches of woods where birds nest and sing and snakes prowl (finding their way into our warehouse in search of our mice). Cats roam the streets, watching me with calm centeredness, sometimes coming to ask for petting. The Middle Branch rolls on between our train tracks and the docks of the wealthy with their pleasure craft. Vertumnus turns the seasons. The mourning dove coos protectively as I pass, while the mockingbird defends its territory with arias worthy of grand opera. Despite everything, I feel at home in a place that reminds me of the neighborhood where I grew up, and where the gods, despite everything, are present.

Further experiments in devotion

Back in January I wrote about connecting deities with astrology and practicing devotion to deities whose influence might be in my natal chart. While I did write some interesting prayers as part of that experiment, I eventually lost interest in it, mainly because it didn’t seem to be doing anything for me. Writing the prayers was illuminating, insofar as it highlighted issues in my own life, my own psyche, but the use of the prayers did not, as far as I can tell, open up any new channels of communication with the deities I was addressing.

I continue to observe festivals, though, and sometime last month, it occurred to me that there is precedent for linking certain deities of the Roman pantheon to the months. Janus and Juno gave their names to January and June; May is named after Maia, the mother of Mercury/Hermes; Venus is associated with April. In the middle of the month, I began a project of cultivating a better relationship with one or two deities per month, starting with Venus.

Opinions differ, I know, on whether the Greek and Roman deities are the same under different names, or wholly different from each other, or some other option. Certainly there are many minor deities exclusive to Greek tradition and others to Roman, but the Romans themselves seemed to think they and the Greeks worshipped the same gods. In the case of Venus, however, I did not feel that I could simply equate her with Aphrodite and approach her on that basis. I get a different vibe from Venus than from Aphrodite, a feeling that is quieter and more contained.

I named Venus in my daily devotions and wrote a number of poems to her, few of which I felt were worth sharing. Much of my attention in April was taken up by a goddess with whom I already had a good relationship, Flora. Everything that blooms in my neighborhood was blooming last month and it was glorious; it wasn’t possible to walk through the park without hailing and praising the Lady of the Flowers. I came out of April with one solid clue to the goddess’ nature and the resolve to seek her favor more thoroughly the next time around.

The clue I received was to identify someone who reminded me of the goddess. It happens to be a fictional character: Sophie Devereaux of Leverage, played by Gina Bellman.

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Gina Bellman as Sophie Devereaux

Without going too deeply into the amazing and brilliant television show that is Leverage (and you should all watch it, it’s on Netflix), Sophie is a grifter whose specialty is art theft. Now, I’m not saying that the goddess is a grifter! Sophie is, like all the regular characters of Leverage, extremely good at what she does; she speaks multiple languages, can convincingly fake multiple accents of English, class markers, and ethnic origins, and is highly knowledgeable about art. But her superpower, so to speak, has to do with desire. She is able to become desirable to every man she meets, so desirable he’ll do anything to please her. She is also able to discern what it is that people truly desire; promising it to them is the art of her grift.

It seems to me that desire is of the essence of Venus, not just sexual desire, but all desire. Venus’s power is in the things we want rather than need, which include beauty, pleasure, art, and sex–although getting what one wants is itself a deep human need. It is also important to me that actress Gina Bellman, a beautiful but not pretty woman, was in her forties when she played Sophie Devereaux. I see Venus not as a pretty girl, or even an ageless goddess who looks like a pretty girl, but as a mature woman basking in her own desirability.

For May I turned to Maia and her quicksilver son, Hermes/Mercury. I’m not sure that I feel as much of a gap between the Greek and Latin gods as between Venus and Aphrodite. What I’ve learned so far this month, mentioning the god in my daily devotions, writing poetry for him, and reading Guardian of the Road, an anthology in his honor published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina, is that I already have a relationship with him. It would be impossible for me not to–as a writer, someone who creates with words, as a non-driver who relies on my feet and public transportation to get what I want to go, as someone whose natal Mercury lies close to my natal Sun. Mercury, I think, is one of those gods who is present everywhere, whether or not he is invited, honored, or even acknowledged. That’s what those winged feet are about.

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Statuettes of Venus and Mercury from the Walters Art Museum

Mercury’s month is not yet over, but I plan to honor Juno in June and then Apollo and perhaps the Muses also in July. Meanwhile, other deities have brought themselves to my attention. The blooming roses made me realize that if Flora is a goddess, surely Rosa is one of her spirits, a nymph or a lar or something, a flower so important in European religious symbolism. The greening of the vacant lots and wooded areas near my workplace, and the entrance of a snake into our warehouse, have alerted me to the presence of Silvanus, guarding the wilderness that underlies and intrudes on my urban environment. I’m also very much aware of working very near to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River and thus near a river deity.

(The snake that snuck into our warehouse got its head stuck on a glue trap for mice. We successfully removed the sticky trap and set the snake loose outside.)

I am finding that actually, to paraphrase Hugh Grant at the end of Love Actually, the gods are everywhere, all around us. We don’t so much have to invoke or invite them as be polite, say hello, and offer them a bite to eat.

POEM: To the God of Thieves

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The infant Hermes from the D’Aulaires’ book of Greek myths

O mercenary, mercurial, commercial god,
guard of the grifter, guide of the hacker,
inventor of music who grew bored
with your creation and rustled cattle instead,
to you on your birthday I offer these words
and a steak dinner, hoping they may
leverage for me your favor.
Khaire Hermes! Ave Mercurie!

POEM: In a cold spring

What god can I pray to, in this
wet and chilly spring? What goddess
will answer if I ask for sun, not rain?
Vertumnus turns the wheel and Flora
brings the flowers; Silvanus touches
the trees and they drop pollen, catkins,
odors. Yet still the skies are cloudy
and days pass beneath a grey veil.

O Jupiter Pluvius, we have had enough
of your gift. The grasses are lush, the
leaves are shimmering, the earth has
drunk her fill. Yield the sky to Phoebus
Apollo so that he may gladden our faces.
Hot beverages with caffeine are not
enough to replace his blessing, the feel
of light and warmth. Juno, restrain
your consort! Maia’s month has been
cold and wet. Mercury, will you not
intervene, in honor of your mother?
Gracious gods, give us sunshine tomorrow!