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.


Serapis, Flora, Antinous, and Me

The calendar year kicks off with the observance of the Kalends of Janus on January 1st. The Antinoan year, in my practice, begins with his death and deification just before Samhain, the start of the Neopagan calendar. The Chinese lunar new year always feels like a fresh start to me, perhaps because it occurs in the first house of my natal horoscope. It’s often accompanied by a rush of creativity and the starting of new stories.

But April, Eliot’s cruellest month, is also an Antinoan new year for me. It was in April two years ago that I made the definitive shift from a wayward Anglican to a happy polytheist and from looking at my religion as a system of beliefs, symbols, and ideas to looking at it as network of relationships.

Who do I worship? Who to I pray to? What god do I trust? It turned out that the primary answer to those questions was not Jesus, but Antinous. I made a small offering to Antinous and asked him to guide me to what I loved. He answered that prayer, and the answer to it was himself.

The Serapeia on April 25th and the Floralia, which is held from April 28th to May 3rd, were the first holy days I observed that weren’t strictly for Antinous. In my first year of devotional practice, I made it my rule to observe holy days as they came up, doing background reading, making offerings, reciting and if possible composing prayers and hymns to the gods, without trying to make the acquaintance of all the gods, everywhere, all at once. Antinous’ cult is syncretistic and involves Egyptian, Greek, and Roman elements; I found myself gravitating toward the Roman deities, and not just the Olympians who overlap with the Greek pantheon, but also the lesser-known gods, goddesses, and spirits who are peculiarly Roman.

This will be the third year I’ve celebrated Flora’s festival. I’ve been greeting her for weeks as I walk to work, watching crocus, hyacinth, daffodil, tulip, and rose emerge in turn, watching all the trees flower and then shed their petals like confetti. Ironically, as her jolly, Beltane-like holy days arrive, local temperatures have dropped into the low fifties, and except for the roses, many of the downtown flowers have died off. I still want to write some hymns and make some offerings for her. I am very fond of Dea Flora.

l_pl1_23120_fnt_tr_t05iiiI owe Serapis, too, a belated offering. Of all the gods who have a fatherly, patriarchal, mature male authority figure aspect, Serapis, husband of Isis and father of Hermanubis and Harpocrates, is my favorite. I feel a sense of trust in him that neither Zeus nor Jupiter inspires. Perhaps it’s because he’s really an Underworld god, not a celestial one, a syncretism of Osiris with many other gods both Egyptian and not. Whenever I visit the Walters Art Museum, I pay my respects to Serapis at the fragmentary but still numinous image housed there.

I have a theory, or better, call it a hunch, an intuition, that it was once possible to communicate with Jesus as freely and easily as I do with Antinous and with other gods. (Not that they are always talking to me, but that when I talk to them, I feel some kind of response.) I have a theory that sometime, somewhere, a bunch of would-be authority figures, probably bishops, took the keys, changed the locks, changed the passwords, and made simple, direct communication with Jesus and his Father difficult to impossible. The few who could still get past their firewalls they called “mystics” and described as dangerous, unstable, hysterical, probably demon-possessed. I have never been a mystic, in those terms, and since mysticism became cool in Church circles, I’ve distrusted anyone who identifies as such. But I am an average devotee who does nothing special but write my own devotions to the gods, and I have no trouble connecting with them, even with deities for whom I have respect but little else in the way of feeling. 

Last night I offered water and cream to the Muses and prayed to sing well as a substitute alto in my church choir, and that I might be offered a paid position in the choir for the fall. The first part of that prayer was granted. We’ll see if the nine sisters can swing the full-time gig. Polytheism: It works.


Come out, come out, wherever you are

When I was still a teenager, I came up with a brilliant (if I do say so myself) idea for a Broadway musical: The story of the first gay President and the First Significant Other. Acts I would cover the campaign and election and conclude with the Inaugural Ball, during which the First S.O., costumed as Glinda, would sing a song that began with Glinda’s invitation to the Munchkins, “Come out, come out, whatever you are.” That would be such a show-stopper. *sighs*

Unfortunately, I never quite figured out what would happen in the second act. (“American lives have no second act.”) But today is National Coming Out Day; it’s also the day when the Ekklesia Antinoou comes out to the ancestors and remembers all of its spiritual ancestors, the sancti and sanctae.

PSVL had this to say a few years ago about coming out to ancestors:

Our ancestors have a vested interest in their lines of descendants continuing; thus, they’re interested in and are often our first lines of defense and first sources of assistance when it comes to health, wealth, and other matters of well-being, so that their descendants flourish and are healthy and are all the more likely to carry on honoring them and remembering them for their blessings and contributions toward their descendants’ success. They have a vested interest not only in making sure their descendants do well, but also in encouraging their descendants to have offspring of their own. (And, in case anyone feels that is in some sense pejorative, own that viewpoint and opinion for yourself: it is what it is, and it’s no better or worse than the desire that many deities have to be honored, or the desire that most humans have to be loved and appreciated. It’s no better or worse than any other potential motive or driving ideation that any sentient beings, corporeal or otherwise, might have.)

Those of us who are queer in some fashion or other are often less likely to have descendants than our non-queer siblings and other relatives. We are, thus, biological and genealogical dead-ends.

As a stepparent with no children of my body, I am to some extent one of those dead ends; however, I have an older sister, who has a daughter, who has a son, so my genetic line does not simply stop with me. And I am fortunate that no one close to me ever pressured me to bear a child.

So, what do I have to come out about today? I am a cis female, queer, bisexual, clinically depressed, divorced, polytheist, devotee of Antinous, media fan, fanfic writer, unabashed fan of Chris Evans, fat person, cockatiel owner, friend of birds, Angry Birds fiend, chocoholic, lover of red wine and dark beer. And this is my blog.

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.

One tiny taste of something you should drink in full

Just so, we know we have begun to engage in deep polytheism when we stop asking “What are you here to give me?” and we start asking “How can I serve you?” We stop asking “What lessons are you here to teach me?” and we start asking “What can we do together?”

If you are a polytheist, or if you’re interested in what polytheism is all about, I urge you to read the source of this quote, which is Morpheus Ravenna’s keynote speech for the Many Gods West conference that took place last weekend. I am grateful to for publishing it, for the benefit of those like myself who were unable to attend the conference. It is clear and eloquent and has given me much food for thought and much encouragement.