Tag Archives: gods

Disrespecting the Gods

A guest post from Aspasía S. Bissas

 

I blame Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson & the Olympians) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods).

All right, I don’t really blame them, but they and a host of other fiction writers and TV showrunners aren’t helping. By turning the Gods into mere characters, showing no real regard for the beings that inspired and populate their stories, they’re setting the stage for an atmosphere of disrespect.

There’s an emerging culture of scorn for the Gods. Not the usual scorn heaped on Them by various monotheists and atheists, but a new form, coming from people identifying themselves as pagans and polytheists, even adherents of the Gods they’re disrespecting. You can find them online, especially on Tumblr, where cursing a God out happens as casually as shipping a favourite couple.

Zeus is a common target for misplaced hate. “F*** Zeus” is tossed around both jokingly and angrily, in both cases usually in reference to His perceived promiscuity and adultery. Hades is another such targeted God, thanks to the myth of His abduction of Persephone (I won’t even start on His name being used synonymously with the Christian Hell).

There’s also a gentler form of disrespect evident, where those who feel connected to a particular God or Goddess decide that they can speak for Them. I’ve seen many a post presenting Aphrodite as a magical gal who sprinkles blessings like candy on all who believe. Although these posts claim to offer insight into the Goddess, they show little awareness of Hellenic forms of worship or the concept of kharis. Neither is there a sense that the writer is sharing personal gnosis; rather, the posts read like wishful thinking or fanfiction, where the Gods exist to befriend and take care of humans.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be close to the Gods, or even with questioning, doubting, or rejecting Them; but our interactions with the Gods should come from a place of knowledge and learning, not from reactionary ignorance. Aside from applying modern human standards and judgments to ancient stories and deities, what these instances of disrespect all seem to have in common is a lack of knowledge, as well as a lack of interest in delving deeper. The Greek myths are not canon, and they’re certainly not meant to be taken literally (the story of Persephone and Hades, for example, represents transformation, not actual abduction and imprisonment—a point many critics seem to miss). Furthermore, much of what has been written and translated about the Gods has come to us from non-pagan, often antagonistic, sources. They can’t be treated as reliable or definitive.

For those interested in the Gods of a particular path, there’s no getting around it—you need to study. Read contemporary sources and scholarly works (and pay attention to potential biases of writers and translators). Read books and articles by other pagans and polytheists. Read multiple versions of myths, and pay attention to symbolism and deeper meanings. Talk to other pagans and polytheists—if something about a particular deity or myth bothers you, ask others what they think. Do you want a relationship with a God or Goddess? Learn how to best approach them. Find out what you can do to forge a meaningful connection.

We don’t have to abandon our favourite authors, ignore what bothers us, or stop being fans of the Gods. But when the urge to disrespect them strikes, maybe we should question our own assumptions, rather than the Gods themselves.

 

Aspasía S. Bissas is a Hellenic polytheist and seeker of everyday magic. She’s the author of the dark fantasy novel Love Lies Bleeding, and can be contacted via her website or Facebook page. She can also be found on Tumblr.

 

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Religion and the need for stability

Life is of course unpredictable, but there is something in many of us that craves stability. Some people thrive on challenge and change, but many do not. It’s easy to look at religion and the way in which we appeal for help or try to appease forces of nature, and see the desire for stability playing out. As we’ve become more able to control our environments and create stability for ourselves, we’ve changed from making sacrifices to the most dangerous aspects of nature, and grown religions that are more human-centric.

Religions are full of rules about what we can and can’t do. At some level, those rules are about keeping God happy because if you keep God happy you get stability. You don’t get floods, storms, volcanoes, plagues… The Old Testament is pretty clear that these are the consequences of an unhappy God. Being able to ascribe unpredicted things to the will of an angry God may itself give us more of a feeling of control.  Perhaps it is worse to imagine that terrible things happen for no reason at all and that the universe couldn’t give a shit.

We are comforted (some of us) by the idea that the universe gives a shit. The desire to see the world as both kind and meaningful can lead to staggering forms of cognitive dissonance. If the world is good, then terrible things are really good things in disguise. That which ruins our lives and tears us apart – literally and metaphorically, has to be recast as our benevolent teacher. I think choosing to learn can be a good and valid response to difficult things. However, the idea that we have been given the terrible things so that we can learn makes me really uneasy.  Sometimes it seems much kinder to say ‘shit happens’ and not to feel taught by it at all.

Change itself is neither automatically good, or bad. It can take us in either direction. However, change is exhausting when it is mostly what you experience. Even a great deal of good change can wipe you out. We need time to process change. We need to be able to make sense of it, and we need to feel we are riding the waves even if we have no say in where they are taking us. The more out of control you feel, the more tempting it may be to attribute the chaos to a will beyond your comprehension. Perhaps sometimes that helps. However, trusting that the chaos is taking you somewhere you need to go can itself be a dangerous choice, and one that encourages us not to think things through or take care of ourselves.

If you find yourself swept away by a river in full spate, do you trust the river’s intentions? Do you trust that the river God has a higher plan for you? Or do you try and get out of the river?


The Pre-Programming – a review

I read and reviewed The Automation – part one of the Circo del Herrero series back in the summer. Volume 2 is now out and honestly it blows the first novel out of the water. I really enjoyed the first book, but volume 2 achieves whole new levels. It’s also nigh on impossible to talk about the plot without spoilers for the first book.

This is a modern set fantasy in which Vulcan (the God) has automata running around in the human world causing trouble and adventure. You do not need to know your Greek or Roman Gods to get in here and enjoy the tale. You can’t start with volume 2 though. You really have to begin and the beginning with this series or you will be utterly lost. This is a complicated reality with a lot of ideas in it, and you need to get in and appreciate some of those ideas before you have them taken apart for you.

Volume 2 picks up the plot threads from volume one, laughs at you, and runs off in a whole selection of new directions. Nothing makes me happier as a reader than a well crafted story that I cannot predict. This is one of those. Twisty doesn’t begin to describe it. I was entirely surprised, repeatedly. Plot shapes suggested by volume 1 crumbled. Characters died. Agendas were revealed to be other than expected. No one was quite who I thought they were. By the end of book 2 it looks like the real plot has emerged, and now we know what’s going on. I expect we’re being set up for even more massive rug pulls when volume 3 comes out.

There was one line in the FAQs at the start that stuck out for me “Because the author of this series grew up in the Bible Belt, is of indigenous descent and has a lot to say (sub-textually) in response to colonialism and literature like American Gods, for instance.” It struck me that this series (at the moment) is well worth considering as a response to American Gods and that looking back at American Gods with this in mind, I now feel quite uneasy. And also happy to feel uneasy in retrospect.

I heartily recommend this series, it is knowing, funny, provocative, full of surprises. I wait impatiently for the next instalment. Find out more at circodelherreroseries.com


The allure of lost Gods

Anyone who has followed me for long will know that I’m not much of a polytheist. Partly this is because I have no innate capacity for belief, coupled with very little experience of the divine. I’ve spent time actively seeking the divine and the results were interesting, but vague.  I am not beloved of the Gods. I am not priest material. I do not get UPGs or messages or instructions or anything of that ilk. No one has chosen me, and equally, while I find the stories interesting, I’ve not felt moved to even try and honour a deity for a very long time.

This doesn’t mean I don’t think Gods exist. I am happy to accept the existence of Gods for other people. I just don’t have a life that has Gods in it.

We know that the Celts had local Gods. We know that many of the deities who are now famous are associated with very specific places. Locally we have Sabrina, at the River Severn, and Nodens about where the Severn turns to salt. His temple is on the other side of the river from me. There was a temple on the hilltop here, and there is a massive Roman mosaic depicting Orpheus not far from where I live. The hills themselves are quiet. There are carved images in local museums, but not much to go on.

I was, as a consequence of all these things, rather taken with this post from Robin Collins, talking about Gods in the Cotswolds Hills. Gods with guessed at names, no temples, no surviving stories. Lost Gods. Reading it was the first time I’ve had any meaningful feelings about deity in a very long time. https://stroudwalking.wordpress.com/2018/09/22/2730/


What Paganism can learn from comics

There’ isn’t a definitive narrative for the Marvel universe. People keep re-writing Batman, Superman, Spiderman, retelling their origin tales. The X-Men have had more re-boots and parallel universes than most of us could keep up with. Some people only ever see the films. People keep telling new stories about these characters because they are popular. The stories keep up with wider social changes. None of these stories ever is or ever should be considered the ‘real’ version.

Imagine that as a person far into the future, you had some of the surviving comics to draw on. You had the middle bit of a film, a book review, three comics, seven fragments of fan fiction and the script for a crossover project. You don’t know which ones came first. You don’t know that you have fan fic in the mix, much less which bits fall into that category. Whatever sense you made of the content, it would not seem to you as it did to the people who created it.

When we look at what writings there are about myths, legends and ancient histories, it is of course tempting to think there’s an underlying truth to uncover. A real version. We look for coherence in stories about Gods and heroes. Coherence is generally in short supply. It occurs to me that we have something in mythology that has more in common with modern comics reboots and re-imaginings than it does with the agreed and fixed texts of book-orientated religions.

There may never have been a fixed, original story. There may be no single coherent truth to uncover. When we’re talking about figures like King Arthur, or Loki, the modern treatment of them in films and books may simply be a continuation of what’s always happened – people tell stories about characters they like.


Gods, feudalism and power over

It isn’t an accident that so much traditional spiritual language has a feudal tone to it. Lord and Lady are terms of nobility. Christianity is full of the language of kings, sovereignty and power over. Pagans use ‘Queen’ as a term for Goddess. For a good chunk of European history those who had taken power and wealth by force of arms were keen to create the impression of divine sanction for it. The King in his castle, sucking up the bounty, is God’s representative on Earth. God the Uber-King looks down on all from Heaven – a very literal expression of being over the top of the rest of us.

The stories modern Pagans turn to were recorded, for the greater part, by people who were part of that power-over arrangement. God the Uber-King in league with the physical monarch bestowed a lot of power on the church, giving the church every reason to support the logic of the system. Plus, in a less cynical way, we tend to make sense of things through the filters of our own experience. There are reasons to think that some mythology may have grown out of the deeds of actual people, actual Kings, Queens and rulers. It may be that much of Paganism itself is rooted in monarchic cultures.

The language of democracy doesn’t really work for religion. Any notion of elected to power seems a bit odd when talking about beings who have more power than us. Chairman of the Gods is funny, but lacks a certain swing. Perhaps this is in part because one of the key things we want from Gods, is that they be bigger and more powerful than us and therefore able to protect us from terrible things. Powerful enough to protect you from other things – ie other Kings, has always been part of the marketing for feudalism.

There are other languages out there although I can’t claim deep familiarity with them. From what I’ve read, a lot of indigenous people use the language of family to talk about the spirit powers they encounter. Grandfathers and grandmothers. Brothers and sisters. If you aren’t operating in a patriarchal/feudal structure to begin with, God the father has a very different feel to it.

The language of monarchy and feudalism tends to give humans a sense of power over the non-human world, which is doing us and the world no good at all. Perhaps it is time to start questioning our word choices and habits of thinking. I don’t have any suggestions for word replacements at the moment, except to acknowledge that I find the language of monarchy and feudalism really uncomfortable and I wish we didn’t use it.


Poem – Ungodly revelations

Ungodly revelations

 

The Gods who speak to me

Have no names, no stories

No sign of temples.

Do not care anyway

For name, tale or altar

Offer no fame,

No priesthood

No recognition.

Ask for no offerings

But life.

Whisper truths

And untruths,

In fox call and stream flow

And silence


At the Temple of Nodens

The ancestors did not speak to me, although I walked barefoot into their temple.

At the triple shrine, the Gods did not speak to me. I wondered who the other two might have been.

I sat in the grass and watched determined ants carry their eggs from the old place to the new place, wherever those were and for whatever reasons prompt ants to go to such great lengths.

I saw the tiniest grasshoppers I have ever encountered. They jumped, and I laughed like a child.

The wind that had come up the Severn played with my hair and chilled me until I could sit no longer. A raven and a buzzard soared over the site, calling.

I was not magically healed of my pains and woes. This did not surprise me. I did not stay for long enough for that to seem even slightly realistic. There were no revelations, but I do not know the words that were spoken in this place or the songs sung, and there were a lot of tourists, and it seems to be a lot to ask of a place just to wake up for me when there is no one to care for it from day to day or to sing its songs.

I left with no grand tales to tell, and no mission, and no particular insight. I left feeling blessed by the sun and wind, by the ants and grasshoppers, raven, buzzard, and all the small flowers in the grass.


Spiritual exposure

We are all our own priests and priestesses as Pagans, which rather suggests we do not need anyone to mediate between us and the divine. You can do that for yourself. What we don’t talk about so much, is what happens if you can’t.

Many Pagans have stories to tell of direct, personal experience when Gods have spoken to them, shown them things, made requests, demands and offers. There are many others who don’t do Gods so much, but have intense relationship with spirit, spirit guides, ancestors and the like. Some part of the universe speaks spiritually to them in a way they are confident about recognising and understanding. This makes it very hard to put up a hand and say ‘that’s not what I get.’ It feels like failure, lack of effort, insufficient worthiness. How can I call myself a Druid if nothing is particularly talking to me? This is what I’ve got, because apart from a handful of odd experiences I am none too confident about, I do not hear the voice of spirit. Gods do not choose me, or talk to me. I have no guides and no totem anything.

It’s not for lack of trying. Years of study, lots of rituals, deep work with meditation and prayer over many years. Dedications, offerings of self, work done. I’m not that good at belief, and perhaps that closes the door on me, but others who do not believe have startling experiences that change them into people who know. That’s not been me. I’ll admit I have all kinds of less than perfectly enlightened responses to the profound and intense experiences others describe. Jealousy, above all else. Frustration, confusion. Why them and not me? What am I doing wrong? What should I be doing more of? I come with a will to serve, give, work and so forth, why are so many others worthy of attention when I am not?

It would be easy to hide this, to lie about it and pass myself off as being just as beloved of the gods as the next Pagan. It would be easy to become wholly disenchanted and settle into comfortable atheism and feel no responsibility for what I am not. I’ve managed to settle on Maybeism, holding the possibility, and accepting this is where I am and that for whatever reasons, a great deal of regular Pagan religious experience just doesn’t happen for me. I can feel inspired, and I can feel wonder, and perhaps I have to just get over the desire to feel a bit special and acceptable to deity, and get on with making the best of what I have.

Writing ‘When a Pagan Prays’ felt very exposed indeed, because it is a confession of what is absent in my life and practice, and exposure of what it means to have no certainty, no confident firsthand experience. Putting it out there left me feeling decidedly naked and vulnerable – now all the people who are proper Druids and Pagans, in relationship with the Gods of their ancestors, will know that I am not one of them, not part of their experience. At times it feels like it is just me; that everyone else can do these profound spiritual things that are beyond me, but perhaps that isn’t so. Perhaps there are others quietly staying silent about what they are not, and what they can’t do. My hope is that if there are, this exposure of experience will at least make that less bitter, less demoralising.

A person can be spiritual without having certainty, can dedicate to the ideas of Gods and religions even if nothing speaks back to them. We can choose ways of living and being because they seem like wise choices, not because we had a vision or a higher being told us to. I’d like to think it is entirely valid to choose a spiritual way of life even if your quest for the numinous never brings you to anything. It is the choice, the quest and how we choose to live as a consequence that matters most, if all we have is a fairly mundane experience of the world.


Gods of the wild yeast

In my kitchen a strange, magical process is taking place. Alchemy, if you will. The wild yeast has found the blackberries I harvested and laced with sugar to attract it, and now there is fermentation. I’ve not made wine this way before – although it is traditional. The same is true of bread – while you can get packets of yeast, yeast is airborne, and it will come to you.

Fermentation is the basis of settled agriculture, which in turn is the source of our civilisation. There are debates as to whether we started planting cereals for the beer or the bread first, but either way, the wild yeast was essential. We have a plethora of grain and grape deities. Wine and bread crop up a startling amount in the Bible as well. I can’t think of any deities of the wild yeast (pile in if you know). It is the transformation into bread that makes the grain easy to digest. Raw grain from the field is not easy to eat or extract energy from.

The easy calories of bread and the intoxication of alcohol both give us a large feel-good effect. If you want to feel that the world is a safe and benevolent place, a belly full of bread and beer will aid this process considerably. Get drunk and you’ll hit the phase of feeling like you love everyone. Obviously if you glut on the bread and the beer, less good things happen in the longer term, especially if you aren’t using those calories for something. But our ancestors were more likely to starve than balloon, this probably wasn’t so much of an issue for them.

Enchanted by the magic of wild yeast in my kitchen, and the wondrous transformation of blackberries into wine, conscious of the role of the yeast in creating our own culture… I have come to the conclusion that Paul Mitchell is onto something serious with Far Better Pagan (play it, it’s a very funny song and then go to his site, http://paul.makingithappen.co.uk)

(I do love my God and I love my Goddess, but I’m a far better Pagan when I am pissed).

And for a more sober bread-based magic, Talis Kimberly and Wild Yeast:

 

We have created a habitat that is unnaturally lit, with few mysterious shadows in it. Most of aren’t feverish, starving or drunk in the affluent parts of the western world. We’re in the stiff reality of caffeine, worshippers of the bean. If we spent more time with the wild yeast, perhaps the world would look very different to us.