Saturnalia: To the Mothers


Mother is a place to rest, a warmth, a tuneless song.
Mother is a voice that cuts.
Mother is a lady in a blue veil, a blue robe.
Mother is a lady with a baby in her arms.
Mother is a grandmother fixing hot tea and cold cereal on a school morning
Mother is a grandmother putting my clothes near the radiator
Mother is a woman who sleeps late while I rise early
Mother is a woman who smokes and drinks coffee
Mother is a May Day procession dressed in white
Mother is an ivory statue of the Virgin and Child with a Gothic sway
Mother is a possibly heretical vierge ouvrante
Mother is the goddess Isis with baby Horus on her lap
Mother is an icon with stars on the Virgin’s brow and shoulders
Mother is a Middle Eastern woman wrapped in layers of veils and shawls
carrying her child away from danger, shielding it with her body
Mother is my mother’s mother’s mother, who died when I was one
Mother is my mother’s father’s mother, was her name Louisa?
Mother is my father’s mother Grace, his adoptive mother,
and his mother Clara, his birth mother, whose last name was Gunsales
Mother is the woman who bore my husband a child
who bore her second husband a child
Mother is my sister, who bore my niece
Mother is my niece, who has borne a son
Mother is a link in a chain, a cell in the umbilical cord
Mother is the land I walk on, the nourishing earth, the turning planet
Mother is the night sky, spangled with stars
the brightness of the stars
and the darkness between
the beginning
and the end


The loss of a shared language

I have a friend who has lived in the neighborhood where I now live for most of the past thirty years. She relocated for three years to the West Coast, and I thought I would never see her again; then one evening I was walking home from a casual dinner out and there she was, waiting at the bus stop.

I met her around thirty years ago when she joined the church I went to, the little Episcopal church where I was confirmed at the tender age of nine. She quickly became a friend of the rector and a friend of mine, someone I looked up to an aspired to be like. She was in her late thirties then and I was in my late teens; now I’m almost fifty and she’s almost seventy. She still dresses much the same way that she did when we met, in frilly, frothy layers of patterned fabric, shiny shoes, tiers of necklaces, rings on every finger. Her hair is still a wild mass of dark curls. She writes, dances, is interested in theatre and music, keeps cats, and goes to a little Presbyterian church, the same one where my ex-husband started his career as a church organist when he was only sixteen.

I’m happy my old friend is back in town and still doing well. The church rector who was our friend has suffered greatly from mental illness over the years. Another mutual friend of ours died unexpectedly last year; he was only four years older than I am. Yet I find it difficult to talk to her, and it’s not simply the many years we went without regular contact. It’s that I’d like to tell her that I’m no longer an Episcopalian, but I have no idea how to do it.

I don’t think there is actually any way in which I could make sense of my experience as a polytheist to my old friend. She is far from being a fundamentalist; she is a liberal mainstream Christian who would no doubt say that she believes in God, and Jesus, and the articles of the Creed, but who mostly, I think, thrives on the aesthetic experience of the Church, on its music, its literature, its liturgy, and its community. I say that entirely without judgment; I was much the same until recently, and it took me decades to realize that what I missed in my religion, what kept me looking elsewhere, was a true devotional relationship and a real connection with a deity.

Having a true devotion for Antinous and paying cultus to a lot of deities doesn’t mean that I can no longer enjoy English cathedral music, or the Chronicles of Narnia, or the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert. It does mean that I have sacrificed a language I can share with my old friend to talk about religion and religious experiences. “God” and “a God” mean very different things, and I am at a loss to use her language to describe why I worship the latter rather than the former. It’s possible that I cannot talk about my religion if I must use her language, but she doesn’t know my language and has no reason to learn it. I might well be the only polytheist she knows.

English has borrowed terms from a number of languages for concepts that English speakers recognize but have no name for: “schadenfreude” from the German, for example, and “l’esprit de l’escalier” from the French. I wish there were some way I could do that to talk to my friend about polytheism. It would make conversation over brunch far easier and more interesting.

Two wallets, a prayer book, and some photographs

I don’t like being called “Generation X”. Most people who were born between 1966 and 1976 probably had parents who were born during World War Two, parents who listened to rock ‘n’ roll, moms who had jobs outside the home. I was born at the very beginning of that period, in January 1966, to parents who were born in the 1920s, married in the ’40s, and had their first child in 1955. I think of myself as the Schoolhouse Rock Generation. Remember Schoolhouse Rock, those little animated shorts in between the commercials on Saturday mornings? “I’m Just A Bill”? I know you know the words to “Conjunction Junction”.

I’m the late-life child of Greatest Generation parents. My Aunt Margaret, whom I think I have mentioned here, was actually my great-aunt, born around 1918; her brother, my grandfather, was born in the 19th century, as was my grandmother, his wife, Mom. I joke sometimes to fellow fans of the Marvel Captain America movies that my parents knew Steve Rogers; the music of my childhood, the music my parents played, was Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the glory of the big band era.

On my shrine right now, I have a photograph of my grandmother. She’s wearing a pearl necklace and earrings and a black feather boa. I remember that this shot was taken at her hairdresser’s, or the beauty parlor, as we called it then. (She had a standing appointment every Wednesday.) The jewelry was lent for the photo; what looks like a black dress trimmed with feathers was a swatch of black fabric thrown over her breast and a boa, carefully arranged. She was around eighty years old at the time.

Next to that is a photograph from my older sister’s first wedding, around 1973. Mom stands tall and dignified beside a shorter woman wearing a lace chapel cap: The groom’s grandmother, a first-generation Polish immigrant whose English was still poor. Everyone called her “Boosha”. I remember talking to her a bit at the reception and liking her although she was hard to understand. I’m not sure anyone didn’t like Boosha.

In the same frame, there is a Polaroid of my Aunt Margaret. She is sitting, as she always did, on a small wooden chair, and leaning forward to pet our dog, Pippin, who is leaning against her legs with his head nearly in his lap. Born with one hip out of the socket, Aunt Margaret plodded through life with a steel brace on one leg and a cane in her hand. This did not prevent her from marrying, divorcing, holding down a job, living on her own, and travelling. I have other photographs where she and Mom and Pop (my grandfather) are in New York; she told me proudly that she had seen Robert Preston on Broadway in The Music Man. There’s a photo I treasure from a nightclub they visited: I realized one day, looking closely at the line of chorus girls onstage, that they were all men. My grandparents and my great-aunt went to a drag club.

On the table before the photographs there are two wallets and a small black book. The black wallet belonged to my father and contains his driver’s license and my mother’s, along with other cards that were in it at the time of his death. The monogrammed aqua blue wallet was Mom’s. Amongst her cards there is a newspaper clipping giving the date of Opening Day for our local baseball team.

The prayer book is a very old-fashioned Roman Catholic book of private devotions, with dreadful artwork. I am pretty sure it belonged to my grandfather, who was German. On top of it sits a tiny crystal skull.

Like a lot of polytheists, I consider ancestor worship to be a proper part of my religion. I honor the dead: My own family, known and unknown; those who are spiritual or creative ancestors for me, such as the sancti of the Ekklesia, some Christian saints, and famous writers and musicians; and on some occasions, the dead in general, or a specific category of them. I honor soldiers who died in war, even though there is no one close to me who died that way; I honor transgender folks who were murdered, in reparation for the manner of their deaths.

In all honesty, I have never had any kind of contact with my family dead, unless you count dreaming of them. In my dreams I sometimes still live with my dad in my childhood home, or with Aunt Margaret, who lived around the corner from us and ate dinner with us every night, or I travel with Mom the way we used to when I was a kid. But I’ve never experienced any kind of presence, and I’m not sure I need to. I have a general sense that they care, but they were Methodists in life and a bit confused by being prayed at.

I have, in the past, had contact with someone who was a very ancient ancestress of mine and possibly also myself in a former life, if that makes sense. I have not sought her out for some time, and I’m not sure what the status of my relationship with her is. I have not felt any drive to communicate with her, nor any lack in not doing so. I think that while I will always honor the dead, and the spirits, as well, my most important cultus is going to be for the gods.

But those photographs are staying on or near my shrine, whatever form it takes, along with a wallet containing two expired driver’s licenses, and another containing a newspaper clipping that’s thirty years out of date, and a prayer book for a religion I never practiced. And a tiny crystal skull.

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.