Saturday, June 13, 2015

On the Use of Mind Altering Substances

Over the years, I have been asked many times about the use of mind altering substances in regards to ancient Canaanite polytheistic religions. Indeed, I’ve seen the subject cross my desk twice this week. Sometimes this has been asked only with genuine interest, but sometimes I would lay odds that it is asked more with an eye towards legitimizing a modern personal activity one already wishes to engage in. I realize that the use mind altering substances is a controversial topic, but I don’t think it always needs to be. For whatever the questions are asked, I think the topic of mind altering substance use in polytheistic religions is a topic that would benefit from discussion. My background is in Canaanite studies and I will include some of that here but this isn’t limited to Canaanite matters.

Shifting Contexts
In an ancient Canaanite polytheistic setting, people may well have engaged locally in using mind altering substances. There are at least four different contexts in which the substances may have been used. These categories include but are not limited to:
1.  Formal ritualized temple-complex religious rites or situations,
2.  Informal ritual religious rites or situations in private or in a less-formal settings,
3.  As a recreational substance, or for personal reasons, alone or in groups
4.  As medication and/or pain relief for people or animals
I would wager that similar contexts apply in many ancient polytheistic religions beyond ancient Canaanite worship.

When I mention “temple-complex” in this situation, I refer not only to a Canaanite temple itself, but also to the sanctified reserved grounds around it which often included a courtyard,  other facilities contained therein and administrative offices. In the research of Canaanite polytheistic religions, I have come across substances used in contexts two and four above.  This doesn’t mean that one or three didn’t happen, it just means that I have not seen evidence one way or another on those: they are plausible but I could not attest to likeliness or frequency.

Some of these contexts listed above in 1-4 can and likely did overlap; it does not mean that these contexts are the same, nor does it mean that anything goes in regards to using mind altering substances. Sometimes modern folks can misperceive what is an overlap in category as being an exception to rules, and thus make the assumption that there are no rules. Sometimes people then think that rules are meaningless and therefore useless. I’ve even seen the attitude that rules are silly constructs that we’ve somehow outgrown and become too evolved to bother with. This is a mistake. In the modern dominant western culture(s) we find ourselves in, the numbered contexts I have listed above have often become obscured and blurred, or lost altogether. We’ve forgotten, merged, ignored, and disrespected the distinctions between sacred contexts and non-sacred contexts, and all the myriad contexts in between.

Canaanite Substances, Contexts, and the Marzichu Drinking Rite
What could generally pass as appropriate for one context may not be appropriate for another.  We know the Canaanites used alcohol in an informal private religious setting, and probably used it as a mind altering substance. We also have evidence they used poppy somehow, but the context is uncertain and whether or not they used it as a mind altering substance is also uncertain. There’s a remote chance they may have had cannabis, but whether it was used at all for anything from clothing and rope to a mind altering substance, we just don’t know. It seems likely that the ancient Israelites, and perhaps the Canaanites, used nutmeg and a Hyoscyamus of some sort (Disclaimer #6)—since these were found surrounded by sacred artifacts it is likely that these substances were used in sacred rites of some sort but beyond this, we do not know.

It is clear that there is one situation which likely uses alcohol as a mind altering substance in a Canaanite religious context: the marzichu drinking rites. There was a social structure around marzichu including the use of a formalized contract signed by members of groups who met regularly for marzichu—this comes from a preserved clay text in Ugaritic cuneiform, from about 3200 years ago. In Canaanite polytheism, alcohol is the only substance well-known potentially to be used as a mind altering substance in context of a sacred rite.

A marzichu was (and is) often recreational and enjoyable, however it isn’t always necessarily a happy rite. Regardless, this does not mean that the goal of the marzichu is the recreational or personal use of a mind altering substance. The goal of a marzichu is honoring the deities and the ancestors, honoring the dead, honoring life events, and engaging in fellowship. Yes, it was (and is) generally expected a person got at least a bit tipsy at marzichu, but it’s not the same thing as “I just feel like getting drunk with a few friends. Let’s party!” There’s nothing wrong with getting drunk with a few friends—provided you’re following local laws; but that is not a sacred context met with the express purpose in honoring deities, honoring the ancestors, honoring the dead, honoring life events, and engaging in fellowship. Marzichu is. An end result of drunkenness is the same whether it’s a party with friends or a marzichu; but the original equation, the route taken to that drunkenness, is entirely different and it makes all the difference.

Contexts and Modern Situations
By way of a modern example about different contexts, one doesn’t generally headbang at an orchestral recital. Just because both headbanging and orchestral recitals involve the use of music, it doesn’t make the venues the same things and it doesn’t mean that the same behavior is expected, warranted, or appropriate. Neither headbanging venues nor orchestra recitals are necessarily better than the other, and to focus on classifying one as always better than the other misses the point of the contexts being different and having different strengths, different weaknesses, and different uses. In this manner, contexts can be thought of as tools: a screwdriver is good at being a screwdriver. A hammer is good at being a hammer. Trying to use a screwdriver where you need a hammer, under the misunderstanding that they’re both tools they should be able to do the same things, isn’t going to get a job done.

Before going deeper into this matter, we also should consider that the substances ancient people had access to were usually not the refined, potent, highly addictive street drugs and pharmaceuticals we have today. (See Disclaimers 1 & 2) An ancient crude preparation of poppy is absolutely nothing like  morphine or heroin today, even though they are all opiates. Opiates are addictive, but morphine and heroin are even more so because of their potency. With the cruder ancient preparations of substances, these substances in general were likely not only less potent, but they also included a complex relationship with nature and with many other natural chemicals in the plant, or fungus, etc., which would affect the body differently from the modern extracted, refined, and often artificially constructed chemicals in most of the pharmaceuticals and street drugs of today. (See Disclaimer 3)

If a person wants to use a mind altering substance for recreation or non-recreational personal use, it is sometimes ok (See Disclaimer 1 & 2).  What a person puts into his body is his business. A person must be honest with herself, with the deities, etc., that she is using it specifically for personal reasons, and must follow common sense, local laws, and medical advice. If she is honest that she is using substances for personal use, and she doesn’t try to pull religion as an excuse or a reason when it is not, then using mind altering substances for personal use isn’t likely to do discredit to the deities, the ancestors, or individual choice, unless she does something really harmful or inappropriate. The substances must be used only in the proper context and with the proper supervision and knowledge. I also say “follow the laws” because that’s necessary—if you think the laws are wrong, work to change them (see Disclaimer 4). Although one could take substances for personal reasons on the same day as a rite, showing up to almost any religious rite while already under the influence is usually deeply inappropriate and potentially dangerous not only to oneself, but to others.

In sacred contexts, I would highly advise against using mind altering substances unless laws are respected; unless the deities or spirit beings in question require it through oracle; unless it is appropriate to the cultural and ancestral ways; and unless the people there know who in that situation is using, who will not be using, how that substance is best and carefully used, if people have allergies, and how a substance could interact with other medications that people could be taking, and only if all are consenting adults, and there are even more issues of safety and concerns to consider than I have noted here. These matters are complicated; if you are in any doubt about these matters, just go without the substance. I would highly advise that there is at least one person sober and functioning well enough to assess situations cogently and call quickly for emergency assistance if it is required.

The more unstructured people and events are likely to become, the more vital it is to have structure in place around them, serving as both safety net and containment field. If structure and context, and knowledge and consent, aren’t there or if you have even a shadow of a doubt that what is there isn’t enough, don’t use mind altering substances in a rite. If you even think it might not be right for the sacred beings honored at the rite: don't do it.

Just because mind altering substances can be used in sacred contexts and in personal contexts, it doesn’t mean that these boundaries can be ignored. Indeed, I would argue that especially with mind altering substances these boundaries are even more vital to providing safety, structure, and framework. Mind altering substances are dangerous forces of nature, and as such they should be respected and treated carefully.

So What’s the Big Deal, Anyway?
Using a mind altering substance for personal use while claiming that it is for a religious context messes up several things. It blurs the contexts, and therefore throws out the structures and frameworks both in ritual practice and in mindset that are necessary, valuable, and useful. Blurring contexts, ignoring contexts, and tampering with contexts effectively degrade these contexts. Degradation of context not only can change a holy thing into a unholy thing very quickly, it can also end up making the situation dangerous. Clear contexts are vital to someone who is in the midst of having his mind altered for purposes of sacred communication and communion. Degrading contexts and expecting someone to perform Work under those circumstances could be likened to demanding that someone perform a tightrope walk not just without a net, but without the tightrope itself, and over a sea of upended blades suspended in fiery lava.

Having these contexts blurred causes the erosion and failure of sacred rites and the Work done in them. It is disrespectful to the deities, the ancestors, the spirits, and other participants. It is demeaning to the priest or shaman and the Work, and it can endanger that person, and it can endanger other participants. It also causes us to be insincere in our rites and we can end up not taking the rites seriously. Others, too, end up not treating these rites with dignity and respect; how can they take our rites seriously if we don’t? It also means that by claiming “religion says we can do this,” we have ceded away our own responsibility for our own actions and choices; we have demeaned our own free agency which we as thoughtful individuals should not so casually throw away.

As an example of some of this context blurring: we know of the use of Hysoscyamus from archaeological evidence—there was an article posted about it.  Although this article is of some limited usefulness, it misses another mark entirely because it defiles what was a sacred, holy experience and brings it into direct association with the crime, corruption, and filth by calling the ancient city where this find was discovered a “center of a thriving drug scene." This find was discovered with sacred artifacts in a sacred setting, and not as a part of illicit activity. When I talk about how dangerous and inappropriate it is to merge these context, this is at least one an example of some of what I’m talking about.

In another matter, it is dishonest for a person to claim that he is engaging in substance use for religious purposes when he just wants to legitimize his personal use of the substance. A person shouldn’t look to religion as a permission slip for using mind altering substances. That kind of dishonesty about one’s own motives in a sacred context constitutes a misdeed in regards to ritual acts. A person’s legal personal use of substances isn’t the problem; the problem is in claiming it is a religious act so as to add an air of false legitimacy to what he’s doing, or use religion as an excuse to get away with doing what he wants to do anyway. These acts ruin the very sacred nature they purport to preserve, can put people in danger, and can actually curtail personal freedom. That’s not ok.

If we want these sacred things treated with dignity and respect we must ourselves treat these rites, past and present, with the dignity and respect they deserve, and we must maintain these different contexts. We must maintain these boundaries between the contexts of sacred uses and the contexts of personal uses of mind altering substances. We must not claim “sacred use” as an excuse for personal use.


Alas, I lament that I even think an article of this nature would be required to have disclaimers, but this is the dominant culture and times we live in. My disclaimers below can be summed up as: don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt other people or animals, don’t do anything stupid, don’t do anything illegal. See a medical professional; consult a pharmacist. I am not giving medical advice, I am not prescribing, and I am most certainly not suggesting or condoning the use of any mind altering substance, medications, or drugs. I am not a medical professional, pharmacist or herbalist. Use common sense. Take personal responsibility for your choices.

Disclaimer #1:
I do not condone or suggest engaging in illegal activities. I am not in any way suggesting anyone can or should take any mind altering substances, medication, or drugs of any sort. Also, substance use and substance abuse are two different things: do not abuse substances. I do not condone using any mind altering substance and operating heavy machinery. Kids should never, ever “do drugs” unless they are under adult supervision and it is medication prescribed by a medical professional. Never give a person a mind altering substance without their express consent: that is a reprehensible and foul thing to do and it is the very definition of wrong. Also, do not give animals mind altering substances, drugs, or medication, without the advice of a qualified veterinarian. I don’t care if you think it’s funny, either with people or with animals. It’s no joke. It’s cruel.  Messing around with people and other beings in this manner is disgusting, loathsome, usually illegal, and often evil. Don’t hurt yourself, use care to avoid addiction, and don’t hurt or endanger other people and beings either. If you do end up in an addiction situation, this is serious business: contact qualified health care providers.

Disclaimer #2:
Alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine are the typical legal substances I can think of at the moment; provided you meet the required legal conditions for using these things. I do not condone the overuse of these substances because overuse can be harmful to the body, but ehn, it’s your body and your responsibility. I do not suggest or condone over-the-counter pharmaceutical medications for recreational or personal use, nor do I propose raiding the spice rack or hitting up the herbal section of a health food store, or trotting around the backwoods for mushrooms or wildcrafted herbs, and so on. I also do not suggest or condone other highs gained through the likes of sniffing glue, paint, or markers or whatever else people do for cheap barely-legal highs. All of these things can be quite dangerous especially if you don’t know what you’re doing, and worse, when you don’t realize that you don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t suggest or condone doing anything illegal, harmful, or ignorant. Please use some common sense; don’t earn a posthumous Darwin Award.

Disclaimer #3:
Do not take morphine unless prescribed by a doctor. Do not take heroin. I am not prescribing, diagnosing, or offering medical advice. If you are on medication, do not stop taking medication without consulting a medical professional. Always follow a medical doctor’s advice, and a pharmacist’s advice. Respect local laws, too. If you want to know about the evolution of an ancient drug into a modern one, ask a pharmacist—they are specialists in this field and will likely love the chance to nerdtalk with you. If you want more information on healing herbs, like willow bark, ask a professional certified herbalist. Do not take any herb or substance without consulting a professional first, and without gaining information ahead of time as to what that substance will do and how it will interact with your body or with other substances. While pharmacists are specialists in this field of chemical substances and their effects on the body, keep in mind that I am not a pharmacist nor am I a professional herbalist. I am not a professional on mind altering substances, herbalism, or medication.

Disclaimer #4:
I think many laws about mind altering substances are holdovers from Puritan attitudes and even corporate greed from pharmaceutical, alcohol ,and tobacco companies, but they are still the laws on the books right now. Many of these laws should be revisited and modified or rendered obsolete. If you don’t like a law, work to change it, and vote.  Until they are changed, we are still required to acknowledge them.  Even though I urge people to follow the laws, ultimately how a person acknowledges a law, and whether or not a person chooses to act in accordance to it is that person’s own responsibility. You are responsible for your own choices.

Disclaimer #5:
Taking mind altering substances for personal use in hopes and efforts of expanding the mind and/or improving the soul(s), is personal use. It is generally not sacred use. It may or may not be recreational use either, but it is personal use. Sacred use and personal use are different contexts.  Sacred use involves honoring the deities, the ancestors, the spirits and so on in a religious setting of some sort in order to work with these beings, honor them, and commune with them. Although working on the self is absolutely vital to honoring the deities (etc.), it is not the same thing as honoring the deities (etc.). Think of it this way: a commute to work is not usually the same as being at work, even if it is necessary in getting to work. Also note that work on the self is vital to pretty much doing anything in life ever; however using substances is not at all necessary to that process, and may not even be beneficial in that process. I do not suggest the use of mind altering substances in the development of the self. Always follow medical advice. Always follow psychiatric advice and counseling where applicable.

Disclaimer #6:
Hyoscyamus, the henbanes, are toxic.  Nutmeg can be toxic as well.  Toxic means poisonous, dangerous, causing bodily harm, and potentially fatal--these things can cause death. I do not suggest the use of these substances.

Photo Credits: Photo of an opium poppy, Papaver somniferum by Louise Joly, used under Creative Commons License. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Bullies of Super Bowl XLIX

The ads on this year’s Super Bowl were in general awful, and I was grateful for the dancing sharks behind Katy Perry at halftime to lighten the mood.

Of the ads, most of the appeals to emotion were frequent, thick, and merciless, and as usual, inappropriate in an ad setting. It was a tougher year than in years past for the ads. There was one ad involving the Boston Tea Party and talking about how if the Rebels had been able to file their (presumably British, and not US) taxes for free, then there’d be nothing to fight over and that would be a good thing. Redcoats and Rebels making peace over free tax filing. Yay! Uh. Yeah. No. It wouldn’t surprise me if every one of my dead grandparents  who fought and aided in the American Revolution (and there are a few) are about to rise up for that complete and utter denigration of the freedom they purchased for their descendants with their lives and livelihoods, with their bodies and their blood. It’s not amusing to cheapen what those warriors did back in 1776, and it’s especially bad to do so for the sake of popularizing tax software. Furthermore to take the ad out to its “logical” conclusion, it would have suggested that there would have been no Revolution, and that would have been great because “war is bad, m’kay,” so “let’s all shake hands, ‘cause who needs freedom anyway?! British taxes rule!” That’s really not ok, on a multitude of levels. But, the booby prize really should go to “that” insurance ad, the unspeakably cruel one…

I’ve noticed through a quick glance on the internet that it’s been dubbed “the dead kid ad.” On the ad, the apple-cheeked tousled-hair darling boy with wide-spread mournful eyes talks about all the things he will never get to do because…he died. The ad ends with a message to keep your kids “safe” from childhood accidents, and presumably also through purchasing this company’s insurance.

I’m not going to say which insurance company it is. If you’ve been awake and breathing in the US, you probably know what I’m speaking of. I’m not going to link to them, and I’m not going to link to their ads. If I did, then I perpetuate and spread their nastiness and directly contribute to increasing the stats they want to increase, which will encourage them to continue this behavior and give them free advertising.

It is impossible for insurance to keep a child safe. Any implied, but not explicitly stated, connection and/or insinuation to the contrary is deliberately misleading. An insurance policy cannot shove the child away from a speeding car. An insurance policy cannot keep a kid from being infected with a devastating disease. Insurance cannot zap childhood predators from fifty meters away. Insurance cannot prevent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, blizzards, forest fires, floods, or twisters. Insurance cannot prevent the childhood accidents that the commercial is keen on highlighting--accidents which the ad is not nearly as keen on explaining or offering suggestions of prevention even if they throw in a mention of a website you can visit. Indeed, the ad simply just heightens a parent or guardian’s immediate fear of their kids’ safety, activating that fear into a looming ever-pervasive monster which shrieks in the dark recesses of the subconscious mind and lurks around every street corner. They do this all for the sake of peddling insurance, even though the company insists later that that’s not why they aired the ad. (In that instance, it sounds like they’re convinced of their own deception and aren’t even aware enough to realize it is a deception on their part.) Insurance cannot keep mommy or daddy or nanny or whomever from getting hurt, either. Insurance cannot make sure a kid is safe. It can only pay out if something bad actually happens. If someone buys insurance and feels “safer,” that sense of safety is a placebo, a mere illusion.

If a guardian takes a life insurance policy on his child, he will receive money if that child dies at a tender age. If the guardian dies, then the child will receive money--money which is a poor substitute for the care of a guardian. So, basically insurance throws money at the insurance policy holder’s beneficiary. The insurance policy holder pays the insurance company to do this. The payout is an effort to make a tragic situation better if someone dies or gets hurt. Granted throwing money doesn’t make things all better, but it may help pay for funeral expenses or aid in paying for upbringing, or college, and so on.

Money is not the same thing as safety, and in insurance policy cannot guarantee anyone’s safety or a reduction in childhood accidents. No, the insurance doesn’t directly say that buying a policy with them will guarantee anyone’s safety, but there are fragile insinuated connections there that are being made. If throwing money around does keep someone safe, then I should keep handing strangers my spare change and asking them to chuck it at me so I can be invincible. Woo, feel the power! If this is the case, I wonder what exactly happens if it does rain pennies from heaven…and by that logic, maybe a hailstorm is just a god’s way of saying “Bam! Love ya, kitten, be safe!”

Insurance companies profit from your fear of danger and on the caprices of life. Let’s face it, living is not exactly the “safest” thing one can do and one must weigh, consider, and take certain acceptable risks every day. Insurance companies also gamble that they may not have to pay out for your personal tragedies by weighing the odds of whether or not certain tragedies are likely to occur to you and your family.

This ad goes from bad to wretched in that it plays on the primal fears of every guardian, and the way in which they do it is so amazingly shameless. Advertisers are controlling guardians like marionettes through the guardians’ very “heartstrings,” and that is an unspeakably cruel thing to do to a person. The advertisers do this to manipulate guardians into buying something they may not need so that the insurance companies stand to make some money. There’s nothing wrong with making money…unless it is done in this unethical way through bullying ads. The guardians may or may not have considered buying when in their calm, logical, rational minds and when not manipulated through dirty tactics: they should have had that space to make a calm, logical, rational decision.

I’m not a parent and/or guardian, and I am troubled and angry at the bullying of parents and guardians in this ad through the tender spot that is their children. Granted, that’s a common theme in many sectors including much of advertising--“do it for the children!” is a major meme, but just because it’s trite and common doesn’t make it always right or appropriate, and doesn’t make it right here in this context. Just because it’s a popular meme doesn’t mean that it is ethical or responsible to use here. And in this ad the “do it for the children!”-meme reached grandiosely grim levels. The ad flat-out lies by insinuating a connection of an insurance payout to children’s “safety,” and then it goes for a parent’s throat when it insinuates that your kid is at risk of death and you’d better buy insurance. It further tries to camouflage the matter by focusing the attention on childhood accidents. The deeper insinuation deduced from the ad is that it is a guardian’s fault if her kid dies because she didn’t do what the ad tries without directly stating to convince her is the right thing: buying their insurance policy. What a low down dirty advertising trick at the expense of guardian’s direst fears and the illusion of doing what’s best for their kids. It’s as shameless as it is heartless, and it masquerades as doing good through helping parents prevent the untimely deaths of their children.

In the backlash from airing the ad, the company in question insists that they were just trying to start a conversation about preventing childhood accidents. No, they’re not. What they’re really doing is activating primal fears to sell insurance, plain and simple. This was no public service announcement. That they try to convince people that the ad is like a PSA in order to take the heat off of themselves for such a rotten trick, makes it reach epic levels of despicability.

Parents, grandparents, guardians, people who care for and about children: you were kicked in the gut that night during the Super Bowl XLIX. That insurance company wrenched your heart from your chest, shoved it in a blender, and fed it back to you through a straw. It was a dirty thing for them to do. It was an attack on your emotions and your primal fears, for the sake of the free advertising as social media lights up about this shocking ad, and all eventually for the sake lining their pockets. It hurts. I was hurting for you. You may even have been left to have some uncomfortable conversations with your dear little ones who may have been watching the big game or the halftime show, and happened to see that horror of an advertisement. I’m sorry that this company is soulless enough to do what they did to you.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Strange Week

You know it’s a strange week when you look for comfort by sitting outside on a pristine day, and you start counting your blessings only to have a bug fly up your nostril. On the good(?) side of that, I now know what it smells like for a bug to have possibly defecated, and certainly have died in one’s own nose. It smells slightly of earth and strongly of ammonia--think of a combination of dirt and Windex in a nasal spray. The scent itself has a physical mild burning sensation, beyond the unpleasant scent, and beyond the sensation of insect legs desperately moving to attempt escape as I desperately tried to help it escape.

Now you know these things too and I have passed this knowledge on to you so that you don’t have to experience it firsthand. Unless of course you just want to or chance offers you that opportunity. Allow me to recap: counting my blessings and a bug dies in my nose—oh the timing. It is said that the difference between comedy and tragedy is timing. It was at about that time yesterday that I finally declared to myself, “Well, it’s five o’clock somewhere. Bring on the mint juleps. Plural,” even though I’m usually more of a tea-and-bikkies kind of person, but having a bug dye in one's nose kind of changes the tone for the day and for what one usually does. If that’s as bad as it gets, then maybe I can still count the dubious event as an odd sort of blessing in and of itself. Somehow. I’m still working on that… Hey, maybe it got you to laugh. That's a blessing.

The highlights of my week have involved seeing the crew from MST3K riff on a bad B-movie involving sharks, tornadoes, and impossible homemade explosives, and then later my having picked up a comb which probably carries a bean sidhe death curse on it. I ponder these things as I recall the lightly sarcastic, yet charming words of Abe Sapien as he’s about to descend into the watery bowels of the city, from the movie version of Hellboy: “We lead a charmed life.”

Alas, I missed out on the first-ever Polytheist Leadership Conference held in Fishkill, New York last weekend. I would have loved to have attended the conference and met some of y’all first hand and face to face, but my situation was not such that I could this year. I am warmed by the good news I've heard about it. I have heard it was a wonderful event—deities and ancestors were honored, connections were made, foundations were laid, vital intelligent lectures and necessary thoughtful discourse occurred, and valuable links got forged that will aid us all in moving ahead with honoring our many deities and our ancestors, and restoring their ways. I truly hope to make the conference next year and I am looking forward to it.

In addition to benostriled dead bugs, filmed faux explosive shark-tornadoes, cursed combs, and missed conferences, I am delighted to announce a new project spearheaded by a colleague, Anomalous Thracian. He, several colleagues, impressively talented and inspired people, various and assorted cheerful elves, flying green monkeys, and minions of doom are starting up a new site which will prove invaluable to polytheists and polytheist communities. Incidentally, it’s called I am further pleased to announce that I will be writing there, nestled amidst a star-studded earth-kissed cast of laypersons, shamans, priests, theologians, wyrdsmiths, wordsmiths, philosophers, poets, seekers and scholars, devotees, dreamers, and doers. Seriously. I've seen the list of people the Thracian has lined up to write for this website, and it reads like a celebrity Who’s-Who Among Polytheists. As to how I miraculously ended up rubbing virtual elbows with this marvelous A-list of polytheists, maybe I drew the short straw, or the long straw, or volunteered, or got drafted, or likely somehow a bit of all of the above, but I consider it a great honor to be of service to the gods and the ancestors, and hopefully of further aid to you, dear reader. I have absolutely no idea yet what to write—ideas, anyone?

It is long nigh time that polytheists had such a resource to draw on. This website cradles hope—hope for our deities, hope for our ancestors, hope for restoring the ancient ways. It is no arcane secret that our ancient ways have suffered devastation, and our relations with our deities and ancestors have been ruptured. This is an opportunity for us to repair and nurture these ancient ways, to rebuild them, and to ensure their endurance. This website gives this hope a form and an opportunity. It is no light undertaking to midwife hope, and it takes all of our hands to make it successful. I invite you to join the community and conversations soon-to-take-place there.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Ode by John Keats

Bards of Passion and of Mirth,
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Have ye souls in heaven, too, 
Double-lived in regions new?
Yes, and those of heaven commune
With spheres of sun and moon;
With the noise of fountains wondrous,
And the parle of voices thund’rous;
With the whisper of heaven’s trees
And one another in soft ease
Seated on Elysian lawns
Browsed by none but Dian’s fauns;
Underneath large blue-bells tented,
Where the daisies are rose-scented,
And the rose herself has got
Perfume which on the earth is not;
Where the nightingale doth sing
Not a senseless, trancéd thing,
But divine melodious truth;
Philosophic numbers smooth;
Tales and golden histories
Of heaven and its mysteries.

Thus ye live on high, and then 
On the earth ye live again;
And the souls ye left behind you
Teach us, here, the way to find you,
Where your other souls are joying,
Never slumbered, never cloying.
Here, your earth-born souls still speak
To mortals, of their little week;
Of their sorrows and delights;
Of their passions and their spites; 
Of their glory and their shame; 
What doth strengthen and what doth maim.
Thus ye teach us every day,
Wisdom, though fled far away.

Bards of Passion and of Mirth;
Ye have left your souls on earth!
Ye have souls in heaven too,
Double-lived in regions new!

I rediscovered this aged pearl written by John Keats. It brought me to reflect on the ancestors, how they continue and endure, and how they guide us through their works.  In their honor, I share it here. Enjoy.

Poem credits: Poem by John Keats, public domain due to age.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Circles: A Look at An Article about Distrusting the Deities

I spent some time and a couple cups of tea reading over a different author’s recent post about Why [He] Doesn’t Trust the Gods. The author in question refers to himself as a Jungian Neo-Pagan and defines deities as “real, independent semi-conscious archetypes.” Jung, father and progenitor of theories about archetypes says: “In the individual, the archetypes appear as involuntary manifestations of unconscious processes whose existence and meaning can only be inferred…” (p. 153, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious by C.G. Jung) Jung held that a person would inherit the forms of archetypes from humanity much like one inherits one’s genes from one’s genetic predecessors. Thus archetypes are both outside the self, as well as inside and an intrinsic part of the self. (Archetypes are not gods, but for the sake of looking at this argument further, I will refer to them as “gods” because the argument itself often focuses on “gods” being defined as archetypes.)

The whole argument in the article is about how a person cannot trust the “gods” and the “gods” may not be trustworthy. The argument spends a great deal of pixels on a matter of what the author may be going through as a part of self-exploration (which potentially could be a beneficial and useful thing!), but the article is also a persuasive piece to convince others to distrust the “gods” or to consider distrusting the “gods,” or at the very least to reconsider the “gods’ trustworthiness.” So, according to the article and the arguments therein, the “gods” are not trustworthy.

After exploring the untrustworthiness of the “gods,” the article then holds up the experts (experts, priests, shamans, and so on) and even a few “experts” who may not really be experts, as also untrustworthy. The author dismisses the experts, and he dismisses the ones who may or may not be experts altogether and wholesale, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. So now, not only are the “gods” untrustworthy, the experts are also not trustworthy. There's a  Ralph Waldo Emerson quote used as a (better?) expert’s opinion on polytheism and the gods. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a poet, philosopher, and a Transcendentalist, but he was no expert on polytheism or the gods. The article seeks to destroy the notion of experts in polytheism and then substitutes polytheistic expertise with a quote from a well-known poet who is not a polytheist. The quote sounds nice, and it has a ring of “truthiness,” but its usefulness and pertinence here is highly suspect. It would be inappropriate to consult a poet writing about electricity in place of an electricians’ advice no matter how thought-provoking the writing is or how well-known and time-tested the poet. Using an Emerson quote here, a name with history and a person esteemed for thoughtfulness only adds false credence and false significance to the argument…and distracts from the author’s original premise about trusting or distrusting gods or “gods”.

Next in line is humanity. Although the article does not discuss whether or not humanity is trustworthy, it is prudent to consider that if the experts themselves are not trustworthy, then humanity and popular opinion are also suspect. If an expert cannot be trusted, then Joe, Jane, or Jamie-on-the-street and their knowledge about the “gods” or gods cannot be trustworthy, either. (Consider that the author is also not an expert on polytheism, or the gods, and thus his opinion on these grounds is also excusable by intention of his own argument. If he cannot stick with a definition as to who his “gods” are, see below, then he is clearly not an expert.)

So. The “gods” are not trustworthy (in the article). Neither expert opinions nor popular opinions about the “gods” can be trusted either (as per the article and logical deduction). The self is all that remains which can be potentially trustworthy. But there’s a problem with this. Go back and look at the information in the first paragraph here about the “gods” as archetypes. Archetypes are both outside of oneself…and also intrinsically part of oneself. If one cannot trust the “gods” and the “gods” are part of oneself, one can also not trust one’s own self.

The author of the article does not trust his own “gods” and because of this logic, it follows that he can also not trust “himself.” Although interesting, the argument is not particularly useful since it twists and turns in on itself. I would presume that the author of the article is at least in part the gatekeeper of his own mind and its subconscious ebb and flow; and as a healthy adult of sound mind, is therefore at least partially responsible what goes on in the self, conscious mind, and subconscious mind. He would then be ultimately responsible, at least in part, for how his “gods” (remember, he defines “gods” as archetypes) act in him, with him, and through him—therefore consent, in this specific context of what goes on in and of one's own mind, is not an issue. This author may very well distrust his own subconscious mind. The subconscious mind is tricky business and we would all do well to tread carefully in that uncharted ground. However, if the author distances himself wholesale from his “gods” (remember: he defines them as archetypes) and a part of himself through which those archetypes appear, he is sabotaging his own process of self-actualization, a process for becoming whole with oneself which Jung, the father of archetypal theory, advocates as vital process.

If in this context of his argument the “gods” or gods the author refers to are not archetypes (and therefore not his “gods”), then whose gods is he distrusting, and why would he bother since they are not his “gods” anyway? For what reason is the article trying to persuade others to do likewise and distrust these gods and/or experts on these gods? What is the motivation for convincing others to distrust gods whom oneself does not personally accept as real? Or does he somehow actually believe in them and hasn’t come to terms with this yet…? Or does he not mean “distrust” at all and has confused it with and mistaken it for “approach with caution”—something I myself would support for gods, for archetypes, and for forces of nature. It appears that the author may (accidentally?) acknowledge that there are gods who are outside, independent, sentient beings of their own. If this is an (inadvertent?) acknowledgment that gods are gods, and that he distrusts these gods, then this whole article ends up looking like an attack on these gods, and their experts and priests.

An article meant for this kind of attack and persuasion does not demonstrate the respect for others and others’ religions that this author may want to portray. Maybe the arguer truly believes in his heart of hearts that he is being respectful, but his belief that this is respectful doesn’t make it respectful. Or maybe this is a veneer, the mere appearance of respect without the substance of respect. (For those who watch South Park, you may remember the episode in the seventh season where Cartman wants to go to Kyle’s birthday party at Casa Bonita. Cartman shows up at Kyle’s door wearing a nice sweater: Cartman either has convinced himself that wearing a nice sweater is actually the same as being nice, or Cartman is trying to convince Kyle that because he wears a nice sweater that he is actually nice, or a little of both. Kyle calls Cartman on his scheme, telling Cartman that wearing a nice sweater is not the same as actually being nice.)

Furthermore, in this article, the author constantly shifts between the definition of the “gods” as archetypes, switching off with a definition as the “gods” being natural forces or a part of natural forces. The author tackles a long section about his not trusting nature or natural forces because of nature’s capriciousness. Despite nature’s capriciousness, the sun still rises daily, the tides still flow with regularity, and gravity continues to act as it has since before humanity walked on two legs. Switching between definitions of “gods” from archetypes to natural forces for the sake of convenience and for the sake of an argument may be helpful for rhetoric, but it is not useful in a logical, clear argument. If he is switching between definitions of who and what his “gods” are, it looks as though he hasn’t yet figured out what is going on in his working relationships and/or dysfunctional relationships with them. Therefore he is no expert on relating to them, and consequently in no place to persuade others to trust or to distrust either “gods” or gods.

There are a few questionable questions asked in that article as well; I will tackle one here briefly. The question asked is “Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?” It makes for pretty rhetoric. Really, who can argue with that question? And this is the point—no one can argue with that question; it is set up to make the answering party fail. It’s the old “Have you stopped beating your spouse yet?”* question—either way it is answered, the answerer ends up committing to premises he doesn’t have but that the question forces on him. Whether or not the author intended the question to be nasty, it ends up being nasty: it is a question fit for dirty politics. “Bowing down” is a phrase that has become loaded over the years and is intended to belittle and degrade what once was known as an act of respect. (It vaguely reminds me from a quote from the movie The Princess Bride: “So bow down to her if you want, bow to her. Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence. Boo! Boo!”) At least any Queen of Filth would be more honest and more clean than a manipulative question hiding in a veneer of "respect" and..."virtue."

Besides, power’s opposite is powerlessness. Virtue’s opposite is vice. By pairing the two against each other, power and virtue, one is making a false comparison which champions the one (here: “virtue”) against an “enemy,” (here: “power”) which is not really an enemy or an opposite. It is a false dichotomy, a forced dichotomy, on many levels. The question is built on many premises which another arguer may or may not accept all of—premises such as power is evil and corrupt, power must be paired with virtue, that one “really” genuflects to power-the-force and not a deity, that power and virtue cannot coexist in one being or Being, if a deity carries more power than virtue that deity must therefore be inherently evil, if one honors a deity that carries a lot of power one bows to power and thus bows to evil or corruption, and so on.

By forcing this false dichotomy, it actually takes the author further away from Jung, who advised that one should resolve opposites—such as vice versus virtue and power versus powerlessness within oneself for the sake of the self and wholeness. In the argument itself, this question shifts the original premise of the author’s argument from how he does not trust the ‘gods’ (with the subtext that you shouldn’t trust them either), to a “good versus evil” debate, which isn’t the same question, argument, or dialogue. Instead, a person who takes a stand other than the author’s stand would end up arguing, badly based on premises he hasn't accepted and doesn't carry, this major distraction instead of staying with the original argument about trust and the gods.

At any rate, distrusting the deities because they might do you wrong is like refusing to be in potentially loving, healthy relationships because of the tales of heartache and family-splitting you’ve heard about or have experienced. This is an argument based on negative consequences which haven’t and may not even happen in one’s own life in one’s own relationships with the deities. To base a choice in refusing a relationship with a deity, any deity, or all deities for these reasons is to base a decision on fear. And for others who have read the article and have taken its arguments to heart, they could be deciding to avoid relationships with the deities based on someone else’s fear of something that may not be imminent or imminently happening. Making a decision based on someone else’s phantom fear is not all that useful.

In the end, the author finishes with a large caveat or disclaimer meant to put the entire article and its argument into the realm of the relativistic. This takes everything that is said in the argument and gives it the appearance of a personal a belief held “by him." By using this caveat of relativism somehow the argument is made to look as though that belief is not being “forced onto” anyone. The argument may not be technically forced onto anyone, but it uses emotional manipulation, stilted rhetoric, and other problematic devices, which might blindside a casual reader. It also makes the argument unavailable for being questioned because beliefs are personal and it is supposedly rude and mean-spirited to question someone else’s personal belief in this culture right now…even if that belief is something like “It snows frequently in the Sahara. I believe this. It is my Truth!” And we’re back to this article looking like a persuasive piece meant to cause people to distrust the gods or the “gods,” which is at its core disrespectful to the gods, disrespectful to many religions, and potentially even an attack against the gods (and their experts, and their people).

To recap: If you choose not to trust the deities, that’s up to you. Just do it for good thought-out reasons, or experience, or expert advice, or any combination of these. It may be prudent to reconsider making a decision when it is based on conveniently shifting definitions, cagey questions, appeals to emotion and popular opinion, argument from negative consequence, circular logic, quotes lacking appropriate context and/or pertinence, lack of experience with gods, questionable or unexamined motives, and someone else’s fears.

I will close with a quote that is at least as pertinent and “truthy”:
“Who is the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?”
This quote comes from a fictional character, Obi-Wan Kenobi from the Star Wars movies. Obi-Wan Kenobi never lived, never died, never existed beyond the imagination, Sir Alec Guinness’s memorable portrayal, and the silver screen. But since Obi-Wan Kenobi is born of and out of archetypes and allows an archetype momentarily to fill a form, that of a “wise old man”—if it is indeed possible for an archetype to manifest for a moment in a form—he is as good an expert on Archetypal Neo-Paganism as Ralph Waldo Emerson is on polytheism.

*“Have you stopped beating your spouse yet?” The question forces you into one of two answers, yes or no. The question makes you commit to the premise that you have at one time beat your spouse. If you answer “no” to the question, it means “you are still beating your spouse,” while if you answer “yes” to the question, it means “you did beat your spouse at one point in time and have since stopped.” Either way, it’s designed to make the answerer fail.

Monday, June 16, 2014

We Are Not All One. And It Is OK.

[6/16/14: It was about a year ago that relations between the Pagan movement and devotional polytheists had a large schism. I first wrote this post for the PaganSquare blog on the Witches and Pagans website. Much has changed since then. I reprint this post here in honor and in memory of these changes, as the devotional polytheist movement(s) continue to grow into their own.]

The recent arguments of archetypes or superheroes as deities is a factor of why I don’t consider myself Pagan anymore and haven’t for a couple of years.  The debate is a symptom of a wider divergence in core beliefs between historic-rooted polytheistic religions and mainstream neo-romantic Paganism.

The two core philosophies cannot be resolved and the less time we spend trying to convince each other that our side is right, the more time we can spend constructively and peacefully on interfaith efforts. I use that word “interfaith” with great intention. We’re not the same religions. We’re not even in the same category of religions. And that’s ok. Respecting our differences is important because this respect does not come from trying to make the differences into similarities. Respecting differences doesn’t mean homogenizing diversity.

And let’s face it—there are some T. Rex-sized gaping differences between mainstream neo-romantic Paganism and historic-rooted polytheistic religions.

Neo-romanticist Pagans who believe that the self is the core of spirituality and who rely on the ideas of Jung, Freud, Frazer, and Campbell are often going to feel picked on when they believe that someone has told them that they’re wrong—especially when they believe that an individual person cannot be “wrong” about spirituality. And it’s likely that they’ll think that the other person is so clinched in dogma that he/she just doesn’t understand what real spirituality is. Likewise a person who adheres to a historic-rooted polytheistic religion (not a spirituality, but a religion) is generally going to believe that worshiping archetypes or comic book superheroes is blasphemous. There’s very little middle ground for discussion in a victimization/anti-dogma versus sacrilege situation, and the situation is exacerbated by the idea that we’re somehow all part of the same category of religion called Paganism.

When we try sticking ourselves in the same category, we will continue to have arguments like this because we just see religion from two very different basic premises. From a position of separateness, it is easier to be respectful of the others’ beliefs, and folks feel less like we’re trying to define each others’ beliefs. We can say at the end of the day, “I don’t agree with you, but I appreciate you.”

If we make peace with that separateness, then there’s no argument here and no need for one. This argument looks a lot like Christians and Hindus trying to convince each other that they’re more right. Yes, mainstream Paganism such that it is right now with neo-romantic tendencies and a strong eclectic Wiccan influence is as different to the historic-rooted polytheistic religions as Christianity is to Hinduism.

How different can different be? Skim over this list for an overview of differences between Natib Qadish (a historic-rooted polytheistic religion) and mainstream neo-romantic Paganism:

Natib Qadish is not “earth-centered.” We are deity-centered first, community centered next, and nature respecting thirdly. We’re urban, civilization, and technology-friendly. We don’t worship the earth or the “earth mother.”
Deities are separate, individual, living beings worthy of my deepest respect. I bow to honor my deities.
Our religion is not one of monism or dualtheism, it is one of polytheism. The deities are not facets of one divine force, nor are they representations of a cosmic male/female duality. And they really are not archetypes. We also don’t believe that the deities are just constructs of the human mind.
The Shanatu Qadishtu, our sacred calendar has different holidays and a Mediterranean seasonal cycle. This means that we do not celebrate Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnasadh, or Mabon. The Canaanite seasonal cycle has a hot, dry season and a wet season with a little transition between the two, and two growing cycles for grain and fruit.
My religion is not Indo-European but Afro-Asiatic. We’re not a Western European-based religion, even if the ancient form of our religion influenced Judaism and Christianity, which in turn strongly influenced Western Europe.
We don’t practice witchcraft and we eschew the word “witch.”
We don’t work with “energy.” We work with the napshu, a concept of the soul.
We generally don’t cast circles, use sage, or see the body in the Indian chakra system.  We will use myrrh for cleansing. We do have sacred spaces. As for body wisdom, the heart represents the mind, the liver represents emotions, the knees represent blessing, the hands represent protection or blessing, the eyes can send blessings or curses, and the head represents honor.
We don’t practice the Law of Three or the Harm None adages. But we have a concept of “sin.”
We make offerings to our deities. Often those offerings include meat, but not pork.
We can rely on divination devices more in keeping with Canaanite symbolism: dream interpretation (without Jungian concepts), casting lots, using the Phoenician letters, and scrying. You wouldn’t go to a babalawo for a tarot reading, so please don’t expect one from me.
Our religious language, our religious symbolism is different because it is built on a different culture
I cover my head in respect of the deities all of the time. Most of us cover at least during sacred events.
My altar is in a temple and I use it only for offerings to the deities, not as a place of personal reflection and shiny tchotchkes. I have a less formal shrine that does not have the same restrictions--and *yes* I have tchotchkes on my shrine. That bird in the upper left? That's my own tchotchke. A shrine is not the same as an altar and an altar is not a shrine. Most of us have shrines.
The ancient Canaanites were selectively eclectic, sometimes honoring deities from neighboring cultures in a Canaanite way. Even as that is, we’re careful of what we do in a religious setting.
Other historic-rooted polytheistic religions will have their own sets of differences from mine, and from mainstream neo-romantic Paganism.

Wicca is fine. Neo-romanticism is fine. Paganism is fine. Having a spirituality instead of religion is fine. For the folks who want to believe in archetypes as deities, if that’s what y'all believe, that’s fine even if I think it is atheism. I will usually respect different beliefs even when I strongly disagree; even if I think you’re wrong, and even if you think I’m wrong. But I have my limits. Whether another person believes my limits are frailties while another believes they are strengths, it matters not; I have them anyway. I once heard an adage “don’t let your mind be so open your brains fall out,” and I take that seriously.

For the folks who want to worship comic book characters, go ahead if you really believe that, but please don’t expect me to take your spirituality seriously, and please don’t expect me to want to belong to the same religious “umbrella” category that accepts this.  For the record, I also have serious doubts about “otherkin.” I don’t believe in a matriarchal past. Cthulhu doesn’t exist. Aliens didn’t build the pyramids or Stonehenge. Everyone has boundaries, even in matters of belief and religion. It doesn’t mean I hate you.

We are not all One, and it’s ok.

Today is

18 Ugaru, Shanatu 85  [May 27, 2013]

The month name [Ugaru] here is a reconstruction; "Ugaru" means "field." It is the 85th year since the rediscovery of the Canaanite city-state of Ugarit, the place from which was found a large portion of our primary texts which detail ritual, ritual structure, and epics about the deities. It has been 18 days since the last new moon. The past full moon the day before yesterday was a holiday, the 'Ashuru Liyati, the Festival of Garlands in the Shanatu Qadishtu (Festival Year/yearly holiday cycle).

Image Credits

Photo is by Crayonsman and is used under GNU Free Documentation License.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Rare Gem

I've been seeing this meme going around: "Kindness. It doesn't cost a thing. Sprinkle it everywhere!" 

Kindness is a good thing to spread, but it does cost. Sometimes it costs dearly. To say it doesn’t cost “a thing” is to blue-light special something as precious as platinum, and is to misunderstand the true value, the true depth, the true cost of kindness. To see kindness as not costing anything is to potentially use someone badly who is being kind. 

Kindness is not the same thing as pasting on a bland smile on and being "nice" or being polite. Kindness is not quite the same thing as being a good citizen or being useful to the community.

Kindness can cost the painful effort to treat another with compassion when you're having a rotten day. It can cost donations to charity. It can cost the shirt off your back. It can take a toll on your body and emotions when you're caring for an elder with Alzheimer's. Kindness costs the teacher who isn’t allotted money for resources and who delves into her own pocket to make sure kids get the things they need. Kindness costs comfort when you knock on the door of an unfamiliar and/or cranky neighbor to check on them during a power outage. Kindness costs time spent with someone who needs you. Kindness is time spent in prayer or making offerings on behalf of people who may never know.  Sometimes kindness costs great personal sacrifice at the expense of someone’s life. Somewhere along the line, no matter how small a kindness may appear on the surface, it may well have cost the giver everything he had

Kindness is done without strings attached, without a quid pro quo mentality, without desire to get "brownie points," not because it feels good, not because one feels guilty about something, or not because a person wants emotional leverage on someone else at some point in time (it's called "using guilt to get what you want"). Very few people are actually kind enough to give actual kindness, and very few people are truly honest with themselves and their motivations for doing what they would consider acts of kindness. Doing helpful things with strings attached, with a quid pro quo mentality, with a want to be paid back at some point, because you feel guilty about something, with a desire to earn "brownie points", or because it feels good--these have their place, but in many of these situations, this is called being a good citizen and being useful to community. There's nothing wrong with these, so long as one is honest with oneself (and preferably others as well) when one engages in these. It's different from actual kindness. 

It takes an extraordinary person to offer kindness continually when beaten down by the trials, disappointments, pain, and hardship in life, and to do so from a point of clean and honest motives. It takes an extraordinary person to offer kindness when it costs so dearly.

Let’s face it. Kindness costs. Kindness costs money, effort, emotion, time, resources, comfort, and self-honesty. Kindness is expensive. When you think of it cheaply, you discount how precious it truly is. You discount your own resources when you offer kindness, and you underestimate, disrespect, and discount the efforts and resources of someone who offers you kindness. When someone offers you kindness, treat it for the precious, rare gem it is.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Religion Like Sex...

Religion, like sex, better when it's real.

The movie Demolition Man tells the tale of John Spartan, a man who had been cryogenically frozen then thawed several decades in the future so that he may resume his job as a cop. He finds out that "all things bad for you" are now "bad" and therefore against the law: tobacco, alcohol, eating meat, eating chocolate, and using foul language. In this particular scene, he is with his cop partner Lenina Huxley. Aroused by the minor violence she's witnessed in a place and time where violence is mostly unknown, Lenina asks John Spartan if he would have sex with her. He is surprised, but agrees.

She retrieves two virtual reality helmets and places one on John's head and one on hers; he has no idea what she's doing. Lenina and John do not touch, and Lenina takes her seat far away from John. Flashes of light and electronic erotic scenes and impulses are fed into his brain through the helmet. While in the midst of the program, he pulls off the helmet and demands to know just what the hell was going on. She tells him that it is sex. John knows full well what sex is--the warm flesh, the sweaty bodies, the closeness, the joy, and he tells her this. Lenina responds with self-righteous modern socially-instilled disgust for what she sees as a primitive, regressive man and she tells him that such activity was outlawed a long time ago. It is here that he finds out that somewhere along the line "bodily fluid transfers" were also considered "bad for you" then "bad," then subsequently outlawed. Sex was outlawed, and kissing had been outlawed too. Her gut-level "eww" and her accompanying outrage was not based on her experience with sex, but on her culture and what she thought she knew about sex--living in a culture of virgins, she didn't realize how little she knew.

Lenina's entire society, long ago, had slowly come to accept the virtual reality program as sex. It had gotten to the point that now no one her entire society knew what sex really was, so this was misidentified as "real" sex. But John Spartan had known what the real thing was, and this was nothing like the real thing: this wasn't sex at all but an erotic virtual reality program that two or more could play. Erotic virtual reality programs that two or more can play...are probably really great things...but they aren't sex even if Lenina and her entire culture claims that it is sex.

We think that's silly now. Of course we know what sex is. But what if we didn't? We would respond similarly to how Lenina did in this tale, unless we had John Spartan's dose of reality--a gift of the ancestors. We, too, would bristle with self-righteous modern socially-instilled disgust for the quaint, antiquated, sometimes jarring or uncomfortable "ways of the 'primitive man'." How do I know this? Because of how polytheists and their practices have been referred to in the past several months. I've seen descriptors tossing around: from superstitious, literalist, backwards, fundamentalist, intolerant, irrational, anti-science, anti-reason, anthropomorphizing, and as having "imaginary friend" issues. These words are just shy of "primitive" and "barbaric." Like Lenina and her culture in the fictitious example above, those making these judgments about polytheism are not polytheists and only think they know about polytheism even as they are steeped in a culture that knows nothing about it and do not realize how little they know. It's like how our virginal character Lenina only thought she knew about sex.

If a polytheist responds with anything from surprise, to misunderstanding, to complete befuddlement when another proposes "religion" and breaks out the virtual reality really shouldn't be a surprise.

Religion, like sex, is better when it's real. Too long we've mistaken a sham of what we thought was "religion" for the real thing. We've mistaken it as a "system of beliefs,"and thinking that religion is created by people about people for people. Religion is—and should be restored in human thinking as—systems set in place with the participation of the deities, the ancestors, and people, as a constant negotiation. When it isn't, it isn't religion.

Image notes: Ames developed (Pop Optics) goggles, NASA, photo in Public Domain.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Most people today often look at religion as a social construct created by people. Even though most people see religion and act about religion in this manner, it doesn’t make this view accurate or useful. Religion either misunderstood as only a human social construct, or used as a purely human social construct is not religion at all. We people tend to think that religion is all about us, and our thoughts, and our beliefs. There are other sides in this equation which aren’t people.

The deities exist, even as the sun, the moon, the trees, the air, all exist because the deities are intrinsically these things, of these things, and a part of these things. Whether or not a person decides to acknowledge that, ignore it, honor it, misinterpret it, distort it, disregard it, belittle it, cherish it, believe it, or disbelieve it, it doesn’t make the deities exist more or exist less, but it changes the interaction between that person, that person’s community, and the deities. The word “religion” in English is a troubled word which often notes a concept of a “system of beliefs.” This concept of a “system of beliefs” is one that many ancient people, including the Canaanites, did not have since it was known, understood, and accepted that deities exist. Ancient religion was not based on the modern idea that "deities might or might not exist." Understanding the difference in this matter, and this error of our non-ancient inheritance, is important for coming to terms with the mindset we often take for granted around us today.

Belief is not an issue because the deities exist. Belief isn’t important because instead of belief, there is knowledge and understanding. What constitutes as “religion” is what one does as an extension of that knowledge and understanding; and what one does is that which supports (or doesn’t support) an ongoing relationship among the deities, one’s community, and one’s ancestors. One’s deeds are fully integrated in one’s life and not separated out as “a system of beliefs.” To our ancients, there would be no point of building on the shifting sands of a “system of beliefs.” The deities exist; the only fallible part in this matter is people and peoples' perceptions.

Religion is—and should be restored in human thinking as—systems set in place with the participation of the deities, the ancestors, and people, as a constant negotiation.

Religion, if one separates it out from life and uses this word, refers to an interface, a hinterland of common ground for humans, ancestors and deities. The purpose of this interface is to provide useful, efficient, practical, effective, and safe(r) structures as means for people engaging with the deities. It is a negotiated middle ground between us and the deities, and as such sometimes it shifts and changes in accordance to the deities’ needs and/or the needs of people, and/or the locality, and/or the ancestors. Sometimes these things are accidentally or intentionally distorted in response to faulty human perception—but this distortion isn’t religion, it isn’t holy, it isn’t this negotiated hinterland and it should not be confused as such or attached to it in concept.

Religion is also about relationships. It is always negotiated with at least two parties in mind—humans and the deities. The people who do this negotiation are priests and shamans. The beings who have gone before and who have done this are counted among the ancestors, and this is one of many reasons why honoring ancestors and receiving their guidance is vital.

To recap—
Religion does not equal “system of beliefs”
Religion is better described as
1. Systems for people to engage in some way with the deities
2. Negotiated spaces and meeting points between deities and humans
3. Dynamic, constantly moving, constantly shifting relationships among deities, humans, and ancestors

We should also keep in mind that “religion” as negotiated terms and as dynamic relationships does not guarantee that existence is always comfortable for one party, i.e. people. There are at least two other groups at the same table. Therefore, the terms are not always what we like, or want, need, or what we think we like, what we think we want, or what we think we need. Sometimes it's about the deities’ likes, wants, needs; sometimes it has to do with the ancestors’ likes, wants, and needs. Negotiation. Compromise. Relationship. Interaction.  Sometimes this means making sacrifices in our lives, taking the time out to do that which is difficult because it restores right relations with the deities, with the ancestors, and with communities, and with people. Sometimes it means fasting or spending sleepless nights, or walking up the side of a mountain. That’s just how it is. 

So…why did I post a picture of a kid with a slingshot to go with this post? A slingshot is a simple weapon comprised of a forked stick and something stretchy attached to both prongs of the stick. The tension created when that band is pulled, when released quickly, will cause a projectile to hurl through the air. It’s the tension that makes the simple thing work. Negotiation is always filled with tension and dynamic, and it is the tension which, when used properly, can bring about the maximum effectiveness and the best arrangement for all parties, when done well. The slingshot works because of the relationships these parts have to one another and the tension-in-motion in that relationship. Religion, done well, does similarly: there are relationships amidst the parts (deities, ancestors, people) and a dynamic in these relationships.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Sprouting: Question from a Beginner

An acquaintance of mine recently asked “What would you advise someone new to polytheism?” It appears on the surface to be a simple question, but it is one of those questions that although simple can go to great depths, and could probably take volumes to fully explore. Let’s unpack this question carefully.

“What would you…”

This question is directed to me, personally, so I will answer it in accordance to my own experiences and my own background. I am a Canaanite polytheist with fifteen years of experience. Sometimes I honor other deities alongside the Canaanite deities, sometimes I am present with others as they honor deities other than the Canaanite ones, and I have friends and allies who write, share, teach, and with whom I converse. Added together as a whole, that’s a pretty good deal of experience and depth, but it is as broad as it is within certain parameters. My colleagues may or may not answer similarly, and indeed I’d invite them to answer the same question. The question here does not say “Hey, Tess, speak on behalf of all polytheists everywhere and on polytheism itself everywhere for all gods ever and tell us all exactly what to do!” (The reason I include this is not because I assume the one who asked the question thinks this--indeed, I do not. Instead, I think that some folks--albeit not the person who asked the original question--may misconstrue what is being asked and how I am answering.)

“…advise…” This is advice he is asking for. The question does not say “Tell me what to do!” It merely asks for a direction in which to go. So what follows is my offering a direction in which to go; I am not making orders. Guidance and demands are not the same thing.

“…someone new…” This indicates that this is a beginning level of experience. I applaud anyone who can freely and openly admit that they are new at something and ask for aid. We are all new at something, all of the time. Although kindergarteners have this miraculous ability to acknowledge their lack of experience and ask for help every day, these are acts which can confound most adults—myself certainly included—who have differing amounts of pride and posturing that must be overcome. For a seed to grow, it first has to sprout. Being able to come to terms with where one is in learning and to proceed accordingly is not an easy thing to do at all.

“…to polytheism?” The question is not specific to which deity or deities, which sets of deities, which cultures, which locality, and so on, so this provides a unique challenge to answering this question. Further, I do not know if or how the deities have called this person, or which deities may be involved, if any, yet. Much of polytheism is culture specific, local specific, and ancestrally specific. When I say “ancestrally” I don’t necessarily mean one’s biological family tree, one’s biological predecessors; sometimes the dead are just the dead, and ancestry can go beyond that. So, the best I can do with this question is to take my knowledge and experiences, the conversations I’ve had with other elders, and extrapolate* further into a situation that I know no more than the information in the question and what the question asks for specifically. (*Extrapolate: extend the application of a method or conclusion, especially one based on statistics to an unknown situation by assuming that existing trends will continue or similar methods will be applicable.)

This is also a challenging thing because we polytheists have not (yet??) gotten together to pioneer some kind of raw basic cross-pantheon bare minimum tome of advice for beginners, so there’s no one definitive resource I can point anyone to. Granted, this sort of resource would pose multiple challenges because, again, there are culturally-specific, pantheon-specific, locally-specific, and ancestrally-specific things that may not be well-accounted-for in such a resource.

This question is as limited by what information is provided for me to answer as it is broad in openness to receiving whatever information I can provide. So, here comes the meat and potatoes:

The best advice I can give is to set up a daily devotional practice. A person can do this a couple of different ways, but the most common are setting up a shrine, making offerings, and engaging in daily prayer.

To set up a shrine, make or purchase images of the deities, or print out a picture or two of the deities you would like to honor, the deities who interest you, the deities of your ancestors or your biological precedents, and / or the deities who have called to you. Set up a small area for their devotion. Make sure the area is clean and free of clutter and smells decent. Make sure it isn’t near the trash can or the bathroom. Make sure it is an area where ignorant or disrespectful hands can’t get to, and pets won’t walk all over it or try to eat the offerings. Keep the area clean and picked up—if you make food offerings, take them away from the shrine after about a day. Pray daily, and if you can make it a practice to pray at or near your shrine, all the better. Make an offering there as often as you can, but at least set a schedule for offerings if you are just starting out, for instance making offerings at least each Saturday. Offerings can include incense (preferably Japanese incense because many Indian incenses have dung in them), food (make sure you research your deities and their cultures, because sometimes there are food taboos), and drink (such as wine, alcohol, or juice). Bread and olive oil are also typically welcome. What offerings the deities want and how the shrine is best set up will often depend on which deities you are honoring.

For prayer, set a time to pray each day, but remember that you can pray in addition to that time. This can be each morning, each evening, each noon, each tea time, or whenever. Different deities may have different preferences as to which times they like or are more active, but I would encourage prayer at any time. The important thing here when you’re starting out is to engage in a practice that you can keep and build, or change as necessary (according to the deities), over time. The key is practice, ongoing, daily, regular practice. Relationships are best built over time; the more time, and effort, and sincerity you invest in the deities, the more they are likely to invest in you.

When you pray, make sure that you’re not giving them a laundry list. Don’t go before the deities and say something like “Hey, love you guys. I really need some more money. My love life sucks, so if you could fix that, that would be great. My auntie is sick, so could you take care of her? Oh, yeah, and that one guy broke up with my best friend and my bestie is really heartbroken so could you help him out, too?” First off, the deities are not your servants or anyone else’s servants. Maybe a person who prays this isn’t consciously thinking "The deities are my servants," but when they pray constantly in this manner, just looking for the deities to fix things for them, this is what their actions say. Second off, there are things one can do for oneself and others, and most deities will not help until one demonstrates that one is making effort oneself to help with those things. Yes, often there are deities who are willing to help you with these things, but you must build your relationship with them first before you start asking for all sorts of things. To do otherwise is like cold calling royalty: at best they ignore you. Instead, try starting out with a simple prayer of gratitude. If your life truly sucks at the moment, try a simple thank you for nature, and a thank you to the deities for existing and being present.

I have a pretty intense regimen of daily devotion (and what I write below is only part of it), so keep in mind that yours may be considerably less intense because you are not in the situation or position(s) I am in, and you do not have the relationships with the deities that I do. What matters is that you do your practice in honor of the deities, and that you keep your practice on a daily basis—this way you are engaging with the deities daily and building your relationship with them daily. I cannot stress enough: this is a daily thing. 

The best, but woefully imperfect analogy, I can give is this: if a person never does kind things and never tells his girlfriend he loves her, but he keeps hitting her up for lunch money, he shouldn't be shocked if she leaves him. The deities are obviously not the same as a hypothetical human girlfriend, but, if a person never shows the deities s/he cares, if a person do not appreciate the deities, if a person is not kind to the deities and cherishes them, but instead keeps asking them to do something, they won't stick around. Sometimes it's not that they don't love a person, it's that the person doesn't love, or demonstrate that love, to them.

In the morning, I bob and bow (a Canaanite practice of bobbing at the knees then bowing at the waist) at the main shrine and I make an incense offering. I keep an ancestral shrine right next to the main shrine, so I make an offering there as well, too. As I make the incense offering, I will pray something like, “O Deities, I bring you an offering of incense. Please accept it if you find it acceptable. I pray that it will bring you strength, that it will restore you, and that it will bring joy to your day.” And then I bob and bow again, and back away from the shrine. I back way instead of turning around because in turning around immediately at the shrine, one “turns one's back” on the deities. In backing away, I do not turn my back. Many times, I will make offerings at other shrines for individual deities in the house in the mornings or throughout the day or night, in a similar manner. I suggest for a new person new at practice to keep one main shrine.

Sometimes throughout the day, particularly at meal times, I will make offerings of food and/or drink and/or incense to specific deities. I will especially do this if it is a holiday, if it is the marking of an event in nature (solstice, equinox, etc.), if I’ve been told to do so by the deities or by oracle, if something magnificent or miraculous happens in the day, if something dreadful happens during the day, if I’m making reparations for wrongdoing, or if I’m cooking up something especially awesome that I want to share. I also pray frequently throughout the day as I do day to day tasks, especially if I have a moment of gratitude for something. My moments of gratitude can and do include thanking the deities for: clean water, indoor plumbing, hot water, lighters, a roof over my head, health, transportation, friends and family, food, drink, air to breathe, a bird flying by, a wooley worm, the budding trees, fire, art, poetry, sunlight, night, good music on the radio, technology, and so on. I have even given thanks for the education that pain has occasionally provided me—regardless of whether or not I like pain. Which I don’t. Moments of gratitude don’t have to be just for the nice, pretty, pleasant, comfortable things.

In the night just before I go to bed, I will approach the main shrine. I bob and bow, and then I kneel before it. I pray something like, “O Deities, I thank you for my many blessings today. I pray that you are blessed, and honored, restored, strengthened and cherished. I pray that you are remembered. I ask that you bless your people.” Sometimes I will also ask for aid in guidance and discernment, but I keep any list of needs—whether mine others’ very short, and I do this in knowledge that I do much more in our relationship (my relationships with the deities) than "just ask for stuff" all day. Indeed, I spend most of the day "just thanking for stuff."

Before the ancestors at their shrine, I pray something like: “May you be blessed O Ancestors; may you be honored. May you be restored, may you be at peace. I give thanks for the foundations you have built for us in days of long ago, and I ask forgiveness that we over time have wrecked those foundations. I ask that you aid us in restoring these foundations, and that we may honor the deities and you again as we should.”

The prayers here are similar to the ones I pray, even if I change things up: one does not typically have to memorize a specific set of words by rote to pray. Memorizing prayers and repeating them verbatim can be helpful for some practices, but it sometimes depends on the deities and on the practices they want and expect. Best advice I can give when starting out is to pray from the liver (or the heart), and be honest with yourself and with them. Know and understand that whatever you do, you're going to make mistakes in the beginning, and this is part of learning. It is how you respond to these mistakes and guidance that can offer different opportunities to deepen relationships.

Image Notes: Photo by Wetwebwork, used through Creative Commons License