My Gods Scare Me

(source and also a fantastic article)

(Note: I’m going through my old blog and republishing choice articles here. This piece was first published in October 2014 and became my first “viral” post. It was shared throughout social media with positive and negative reactions. While I have advanced quite far from when I wrote this it still rings true to me. *I’ve slightly edited this version for spelling and context.)

After a discussion with an associate and friend about how pagans view gods, I said something that stuck out:

‘I recognize that Dionysos is not my “natural god” he’s not my “Mary Sue god” I don’t worship him for pure comfort and unquestioning admiration.’

Yeah, that sums up a lot for me. Many newcomers or inexperienced people to paganism or Hellenic polytheism (whatever the fuck you want to call it) tend to choose or pick a deity that they think is appropriate for their personality or what they think their personality is. Most often they are polluted with Jungian archetype concepts: “I think I’ll worship so and so god because I’m so much like them.” Well I’m sorry. In my experience gods are far more complex than some stupid archetype you want to attribute to them or how you relate to them.

In the past two years I have had encounters with two particular gods that have made me feel really, really uncomfortable:

Dionysos and Pan.

I’ll start with Pan. Pan is perhaps the most popular god within Wicca and Neopagan groups as an aspect of the ‘Horned God’ who is mixed with a combination of classical, medieval and modern symbolism, attributions to Satan etc. this has seen as him being greatly respected in these said circles.

This is all fine and dandy but in my experience Pan is not a free loving, frolicking, happy, pipe playing shepherd. No. He is a natural carnal force that dominates over *you*. It’s all fun playing at bdsm sex parties and all, but typically there is a safe word, something that would end it if those involve have gone too far. From what I’ve experienced there is no safe word around Pan.

To friends I have described Pan as being the last thoughts in your head as a tiger crushes your skull with its’ jaws. The goat mounting you unexpectedly or this poor fellow and the donkey, the feeling of realising your death as hypothermia is setting in after an avalanche of snow has covered you.

Succumbing to nature, being defeated by it, the terror of it. Death is not always a result, but that feeling of panic, that terror you feel when you’re in an uncontrollable situation is how I experienced Pan.

 

Dionysos. In thirteen years of being a Hellenic Polytheist I never regarded Dionysos as much. I have always respected him along with other deities of the pantheon of Greece, but other than simply reciting prayers and reading myths I did not pay Dionysos much attention.

I cannot pin point the exact time when he burst into my life, but it was around two years ago when my partner and I started “The Awakening of Pan” picture.

Since, I’ve been falling down the rabbit hole and I don’t think I’ve hit the bottom yet.

Dionysos is a far more complex deity than the carnal driven Pan. But still maintains some attributes. In a simple metaphor, Pan is like camping in the forest surrounded by lions, tigers and bears. Dionysos is like sleeping in a city park, surrounded by cultivated plants, humans and tamed critters. While not exclusively true – one could be considered rustic and the other urban. Still there are risks of camping in an urban park, ever heard of the recent news story of the homeless guy getting his brains smashed in? No? That’s because the media does not publish that stuff. But it happens a lot more often than what we’re told. Humans are as dangerous as any tiger, lion or bear.

Dionysos is part human, part god. He empowers us and also dominates us. He is god of liberty, individual expression but also the god that can strip every personal trait from you. He transcends the carnal nature of… nature, but also maintains it.

A god of paradoxes.

Much of this is way too simplistic for Dionysos. He is a complex god. However I find him far more terrifying than Pan. Pan is humiliating, he dominates over your physical humility. Dionysos however… Dionysos can strip your soul, remove your identity, steal your ego. What you think you are is questioned by Dionysos because he knows who you are. He knows because he *is* you, you are him, I am him, we are him. The ideals we construct ourselves around, the scaffolds we delude ourselves as being “me”, “I” are part of Dionysos. He tears them down to their foundations and makes us aware of that.

This is a frighting aspect. It’s actually fucking terrifying. While Pan is crushing our heads by tiger jaws or raping via donkey dick. Dionysos is taking over us, changing us, enlightening us.

Why? Why worship a god that scares me?

There is a trend in the last couple of hundred years to view god or gods as being loving, kind and blessing regardless of who we are or what we do. There is a reason for the term: “god fearing”. Gods are not some cute fuzzy critters to cater to our egos, but forces that direct us, herd us towards a form of enlightenment – whatever that enlightenment is. Confronting that now is a step for preparation in the future, like in the next life future. Dionysos and Pan are far from my ‘Mary Sue’ gods, neither fit my personality at all. But I don’t worship them because of me, I worship them because of Them.

(source and also a fantastic article)

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The “C” word

 

The Vintage Festival, 1870 - Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
The Vintage Festival, 1870 – Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

I’m guilty of forgetting that the word cult has negative connotations in society. I use it on a daily basis and sometimes it drops into discussion with laymen and outsiders of my beliefs. It’s only when I earn wide-eyed suspicious looks that I realise what I said. So I thought I’d attempt to clear some things up.

Yes I belong to a cult, actually that’s not true, I belong to several.

The dictionary definition of cult is:

1:  formal religious veneration :  worship

2:  a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also :  its body of adherents <the cult of Apollo>

3:  a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious (see spurious 2); also :  its body of adherents <the voodoo cult> <a satanic cult>

4:  a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator <health cults>

5
a :  great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book) <criticizing how the media promotes the cult of celebrity>; especially :  such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad

b :  the object of such devotion

c :  a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion <the singer’s cult of fans> <The film has a cult following.>

(Source)

The definitions of my use are the first two. These are the original definition of the word cult. It’s only in the last century that the word cult has earned a negative connotation.  It’s also the only word to actually describe the function of my religion. My religion is not a religion in the sense that we know the word, it’s a belief based upon differing cult specific beliefs (more of this below).

Therefore when I use cult I use it in its correct context.

Sometimes these beliefs run alongside each other, other times they can veer away from one another. Thus I keep different cultus for each cult. Now, cultus is another confusing word commonly thrown around by my ilk. My preferred definition is from Joachim Wach: “All actions which flow from and are determined by religious experiences are to be regarded as practical expressions or cultus. In a narrower sense, however, we call cultus the act or acts of the homo religious: worship.”

Quite literally it is my practice, expressions of devotion and worship that are my cultus. Sometimes each cult requires different cultus. (*note: sometimes polytheists use cultus as I use cult, this is an evil conspiracy to confuse the fuck out of outsiders.)

So how does this actually work?

If I narrow things down to a loose structure I follow three cults: Personal, Starry Bull and Dionysian Artists. All of these cults are linked and sometimes interchange, sometimes they diverge from one another and must be kept apart. I’ll explain each.

Personal:

This is a pantheon of personal gods, often called patron gods. The persistent pantheon of my personal cult is: Dionysos, Hephaestus and Hermes. Of late Athena has been popping her head up demanding her inclusions which is due soon. My personal cult and it’s cultus is very loose. Gods, spirits, heroes, monsters and The Dead move in and out and I pay them cultus sometimes formally, sometimes casually. It’s a free and flexible form of worship, even non-Hellenic deities are sometimes given cultus in my personal cult.

The Starry Bull:

A modern cult established by Sannion, it’s a bricolage of differing concepts and practice that range through epochs and cultures related to Dionysos, particularly dealing with aspects of Mystery, death – life, horrors, masks, Toys and circles. The scope of The Starry Bull is impressive. It has its own pantheon, differing rituals and Mysteries. Because this deals with specific aspects of Dionysos sometimes its cultus conflicts with my personal cult. Therefore I keep the two apart.

The Dionysian Artists:

This is another personal cult – instead it’s not private. If need be, new members may be admitted to it. The Dionysian Artists function as a guild and a cult with its own Mysteries, its devotional practice (making art for the gods) and Pantheon – including honouring the Dionysian Artists themselves. This is a work in progress and slowly forming into a proper cult. Due to being apart from both the Starry Bull and my personal cult it is again separated.

Now to return to a point above, my religion is not actually a religion in the sense that we know the word. We’re are nowadays familiar with religion based upon the Abrahamic concepts and monotheism. That is, there is a only one correct belief system for each Abrahamic religion. This is commonly known as orthodoxy. In order to change your beliefs you need to convert to another religion. This is typically institutionalised and requires formal recognition from the governing religious body and also ritual performance.

This was not always the case for Hellenic Polytheists, instead their religion was a culture. A group of cults that have a loose association and belief system. Whether they knew it or not, ancient polytheists belonged to multiple cults: personal / family, city state, local, and specific to a god or gods. This allowed for commonly connected, yet, varying beliefs and loose associations and practice known as orthopraxis. Thus granting a lot of freedom of what one can believe and how one performs cultus in religious context. Thus there is no one right way to worship the gods, nor is there a standard for belief.

A final note, I believe that orthodoxy is possible within the Hellenic religion, but only through a cult. This is especially the case for a full time priest of a particular cult.

Now that this is all explained, I wonder if my readers are giving me wide-eyed confused looks instead of suspicious ones…

Teaching Devotion

One of my favourite TV shows is Rome. It has faults as in simplification of historical events and for dramatic purposes expanded on real characters which boarders on fantasy, but in general it is an entertaining and beautiful TV series. What I really enjoyed is the depictions of Roman religion, how it was not something that was enforced by a doctrine of rules (well not always) but how it was pervasive in their culture. Every breath, every word, every action was given to the gods. This concept is presented in the show intro, with Roman graffiti and murals coming to life on the streets, illustrating the myths.

In the first episode one of the lead characters ,Titus Pullo, is thrown in prison. He makes a series of prayers for his release while drawing a phallus on a board as a foci. This is a naturalistic ritual, he is performing an act of devotion in a situation that is dire.

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The themes of causal personal worship continue throughout the series, we see examples of household worship, casual communion, crafting one’s own icons etc. We also see formal rituals, the long tedious forms of cleansing and devotion. Therefore ritual protocol changed between circumstances.

Nowadays in the Hellenic polytheist community, we attempt to replicate devotion as it were in Ancient times,  however the sources we go by are what was expected by priests, initiated and nobility / royalty.  These are highly formulaic with set expectations. They were so important to ancient authors merited recording them.

This is the issue with us today. We get bogged down with recorded sources and begin establishing doctrines and protocol based on formal ritual. When in reality of ancient people their forms of devotion would had been a lot more casual, relaxed and personal.

The major issue here is with new comers. Often mentors prescribe a set of ritual acts, of how to give prayer that is based upon known formal ritual. Whereas for the ancients it was ingrained in their culture, it was a natural language to them, which just like every day conversation changed in manner depending on circumstance. This is not something that can be taught easily to newcomers and presents a challenge to mentors. Thus they go with formal methods.

I have mixed feelings about this, it’s better to play it safe, but also I fear we are setting the bar to high and ultimately intimidating the new. It’s unintentionally establishing an orthodoxy when it does not belong in our religion.  Lastly, a common complaint from newbies is that they are scared that they  will “do it wrong” and don’t do anything at all! This is sad and a sign of failure on the mentors part.

What I strive to do as a mentor is encourage a personal development first. I encourage those I’m teaching to first establish their own method of communicating and progress from there. Core concepts of spiritual cleanliness, ritual gesturing, mediative thought, ritual protocol etc., should be set aside for later date. I instead give suggestions of what you *can* do, not what you *should*. Then proceed from there.

All of it is true, we do have a praxis, a manner of speaking to address the divine that is important to give respectful devotion. Yet to start out I believe we should first establish a platform for casual communication and teach one step at a time.