Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Religion and Politics, Briefly...Again

I have seen the question tossed around lately about "should religions be apolitical?" Or, the sister-question: "Should religion be political?" I've seen this question asked both within our nascent polytheistic traditions, and I've seen it applied by non-polytheists onto our polytheistic traditions and religions.

It's an embarrassing question. It's not embarrassing for the reasons you might think. It's embarrassing because it's a flawed question which forces the person who responds, in either fashion, into a way that destroys the individuality and autonomy of at least three different things: 1) religion by itself, 2) politics by itself, and 3) the combination of religion and politics.

There are many far better questions to ask:
Are some religious groups political? Yes.
Is that ok? Yes.
Are all religious groups political? No.
Is that ok? Yes.
Are religion and politics the same thing? No.
Are religion and politics different things? Yes.
Can religion function separate of politics? Yes.
Can politics function separate from religion? Yes.
Can religion and politics sometimes function together as a thing in its own right? Yes.
Are there contexts where religion and politics come together? Yes.
Is that ok? Yes.
Is it ok for there to be contexts where religion is separate from politics? Yes.
Is it ok to be political and religious? Yes.
Is it ok not to be political? Yes.
Is it ok not to be religious? Yes.
Is it ok to insist that a non-political religion is by its nature also not compassionate? No.
Is it ok to insist that politics without religion is necessarily unethical? No.

Here's the problem, people are seeing these questions in one of two ways: 1) either that of a need of drawing hard and fast boundaries where things must be utterly separate and in vacuums all on their own without having relationships to other things or places where they can combine; or 2) that because boundaries aren't hard and fast, that these different things must just be the same one thing. Either way it amounts to an obscuring of the matter at hand.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating.

Take for instance a person who has a yellow colored pencil and a blue colored pencil. They color solid yellow on the left side of the page, and solid blue on the right side of the page. They then color lighter yellow as they approach the center of the page, and lighter blue as they approach the center of the page, and when the two colors meet the artist then colors a little bit of yellow and a little bit of blue on top of one another and the artist ends up with the color green. Visually, you can go so far to the left of the page and still see just the color yellow. You can still look to the right side of the page and still see just the color blue. You can also look to the center of the page and see where the color green emerges, and you can see that a little left of the middle there's a yellow-green before it resumes yellow, and you can see to the left of the middle where there's a blue-green before solid blue emerges.

The boundaries are not hard and fast, but yes, you can see that there are still at least three different colors: yellow, green, and blue. The existence of yellow does not negate the green or the blue. The existence of blue does not negate yellow or green. Just because the boundaries between these colors is not hard and fast, it doesn't mean that there are not at least three different colors. If a person ignores this simple fact that yellow and blue are different colors, and that these colors can combine to form a third color which has properties of both but which is also a third color in its own right, a person stops being able to make that third color at all because a person has forgotten what primary colors are and how they are separate, and how they can combine, or how some of those colors can form other color combinations that have nothing to do with green (yellow and red make orange, but blue and red make purple, neither of which has anything at all to do with green).

An artist doesn't need a heavy black line to contain the yellow or contain the blue, or contain the green to know that these are all different colors with different properties. An artist can also look at the page and realize which areas are blue enough to be blue, yellow enough to be yellow, and where that green color picks up and ends in the center. An artist who starts requiring heavy black lines in order to see yellow from green from blue stops being able to blend colors in an organic, flexible, creative way.

But, an artist cannot combine the colors at all if at first the artist doesn't know the properties and uniqueness of the separate colors s/he is working with. If all a person sees is one green color there, no blue, no yellow, no matter how far s/he looks to right or the left of that page, all because there was no heavy black line separating out those colors, a person has forgotten the nature of what green is, and can lose the ability to understand and see separate colors. If the artist assumes that yellow needs to be green in order to be truly yellow, this too is a problem.

Just because the boundaries aren't hard and fast with heavy black outlines, it doesn't mean that the boundaries aren't there, and it doesn't mean that you're not working with separate items.

Whether politics and religion should or shouldn't come together ("Should religion be apolitical?") is as much a failure of a question as "Should yellow be anti-green?" That question misses the point entirely and requires people to take sides as to whether or not they want a heavy black line arbitrarily down the middle of the green; or as to whether or not they choose to see that entire color spectrum, from yellow through green to blue, as only one color. The heavy black line obscures being able to see the spectrum, and can disallow access to that third color; while seeing only one color available across the spectrum allows access only to one color at the expense of the other colors' autonomy and individuality. Religions need not eschew politics completely, but religions also do not need to be political in order to be religions (nor do politics need religion in order to be truly political).

Either way, it's non-functional and artificially restrictive. Either way it stamps out the individuality and uniqueness of these things. Either way it ruins the chance of understanding the relationships amidst these things.

Religion is one thing. Politics is a different thing. Religion and politics can combine to form a third thing, or they can be individual things in their own right. Whether you have religion, or politics, or religion with politics, it's ok. But, you have to be able to distinguish one from the other from the other at some point or you fail to work well with any of these things.

And in the words of Kermit the Frog, it's not easy being green. But I guess it's not easy for Gonzo to be bluish-purple, either...

Image Credits: Public Domain.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Plastic Pink Flamingos, Peace, and the Misuse of Connections

I’ve seen over the years a great many people who stress that “It’s all connected!” as if this were a useful understanding of the world, or a call to peace, when it is neither. Yes, connections, relationships, can be drawn amidst pretty much everything in this wide world but…. Not all connections which can be drawn amidst things are actually useful connections, and often evaluating the usefulness of those connections depends on the context surrounding those connections, or the context in which those connections are discussed, as well as the knowledge and wisdom of the one making that evaluation. Now, I realize that was a pretty complicated sentence, but stick with me here.

Plastic pink flamingos and dinosaurs are connected. They are connected, actually, in a couple of different ways. Connection #1: The plastic that a pink flamingo is made of plastic and plastic is made of petroleum, and many people think that petroleum is decomposed dinosaurs (actually, petroleum is probably made more of decomposed ancient plankton, not dinosaurs, but people imagine that petroleum is made of dinosaurs and thought is a type of connection of some sort even if that thought is erroneous—an imaginary thing is still an imaginary thing. A placebo is still something; it is a placebo. Fake fur is still fake fur. A figment of the imagination is nothing more, and nothing less than exactly a figment of the imagination. I think you get the point.) This is a kind of connection even if it is utterly threadbare and based on imagination, speculation, and misinformation. Connection #2: Plastic pink flamingos are made to resemble birds, and birds are evolutionarily linked to a type of dinosaur. This connection is less threadbare than the previous one, but it still has very limited use.

At some point, we have to realize that sometimes making these connections has about as much usefulness as dropping quarters in an arcade claw game in order to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. That is to say it may be interesting on a hypothetical level, but it’s not helpful in getting quarters, in playing a claw game, in watching movies, or in playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Some connections are barely more than arbitrarily drawn lines leading us down primrose paths to red herrings, and leading us to think that there is more usefulness by association of two things than there actually is, depending on context. The problem is compounded when we lack knowledge in an area, when we don’t realize how much knowledge we lack in an area, when we’re not willing to listen to experts in that area, when we rely too much on speculations which have little-to-no foundation, when we apply these connections out-of-context, when we when we overvalue those connections, when we start valuing the connections over the actual items in those relationships to the point where we forget there were ever separate items to come together in the first place, and when we forget that those items are separate things which can function in other different relationships.

There are connections which can be drawn between plastic pink flamingos and dinosaurs. But, those connections tend to be of limited use. Just because connections can be drawn, it doesn’t mean that I can pour gasoline into my car’s tank and think that plastic pink flamingos are in any way involved or pertinent to that process or to making my car function well. Just because I watch birds, it doesn’t mean that I’m actually having an experience similar to the Jurassic Park movie. Looking at the dull painted eyes of a plastic pink flamingo in no way prepares me for the majesty of experience as I look up into the gaping ocular cavities of Sue the T-Rex at The Field Museum. Figuring out how a plastic pink flamingo fits on the lawn will not provide any useful insight to the science of paleontology or provide useful information on how to curate dinosaur bones. Knowing that some folks think oil is made of dinosaurs, and that a plastic pink flamingo is made of plastic which comes from oil doesn’t help me understand combustion engines and how gasoline makes them work, nor does it help me understand the impact of an over-reliance on fossil fuels or how to clean up the habitats of real, living, non-plastic flamingos from oil spills. Over-stressing connections like these can lead someone to behavior equivalent to sticking a plastic pink flamingo in a gas tank and assuming that this is in some way useful, or in believing that because these things are connected, a real flamingo should have no problem at all when its habitat is tainted with oil…because plastic flamingos are made of plastic which comes from oil and real flamingos look like plastic flamingos, therefore the real flamingos should be just fine if they are stuck in oil…so they’re not in any real danger. Right? Right? Wrong.

Even though things can be connected in various relationships of varied meanings, varied contexts, varied usefulness, and of varied importance, it doesn’t mean that the two things aren’t also separate items capable of being in different relationships with different things. Sometimes people get so caught up in making connections and in focusing on those connections to the point where they cannot see the distinctions between things. As I have said many times: just because things are connected, just because boundaries can overlap, it doesn’t mean that the boundaries aren’t there. It doesn’t mean that these different things in relationships to each other are therefore the “same” thing just because they can be connected to one another.

Also, there’s a certain point where a person can overextend  the connections, or overextend the importance of those connections. When this over-extension and overemphasis happens, the connection can appear more meaningful, useful, or important than it actually is, and this overestimation of importance can be misleading. It’s as if you’ve overestimated something far above market value. No one wants to purchase a lemon of a car for $9000, but if you know the car’s a lemon and you pay $100 to cannibalize it for parts—that’s ok. When a person doesn’t know cars, and when that person doesn’t know the market, the person could end up making an unreasonable, unwise purchase. When people don’t know the topic and don’t know the context or the actual value of certain connections within that context, or they assume they know more than they actually do…they end up purchasing a lemon for far too much money. People will proceed on the basis of thinking the connections have more strength, more usefulness, or a closer relationship than they actually do in some contexts.

Case in point: wolves are related to dogs, but treating a wild wolf like a friendly domesticated neighborhood canine might land you in the hospital; in this context, proceeding on the idea that “wolves and dogs are related… therefore I can act the same with a wolf as I do with a dog” is misleading. However, knowing that dogs and wolves are related can prove useful in other contexts such as classification systems, or in knowing how to provide veterinarian care to either wolf or dog (“wolves and dogs are related, therefore understanding this can help provide insight into their biological systems”), or as a pointer towards understanding canines in pack behavior (“wolves and dogs are related…therefore observing pack behavior with wolves and observing pack behavior with dogs may shed some light on understanding pack behavior”). Connections, relationships, must be evaluated carefully for usefulness within the contexts you’d like to employ them—contexts like wolf and dog behavior regarding interactions, or comparisons of wolf and dog regarding biology, or comparisons of wolf and dog regarding pack behavior. If you don’t do this, you could end up having your arm mauled by a wild wolf, or you could end up comparing fungal biology to wolf biology, or you could try to apply an understanding of dart groupings to wolf pack behaviors.

“It’s all connected!” Well…sure…one can theoretically draw connections between anything even as random as plastic pink flamingos and dinosaurs, but the usefulness of those relationships must be evaluated in the context that they are being used in. These connections must be considered, with critical thought and reasoning skills. You  can play connect the dots to make a picture of something, or to make a scribble—either way the dots are connected, but one way might be more useful than another, depending on the situation and the context. A person must realize that not all connections which can be drawn amidst things are actually useful connections, and often evaluating the usefulness of those connections depends on the context surrounding those connections or the context in which those connections are discussed or used, or the knowledge and wisdom by which someone has at his disposal to evaluate those connections. ($9000 for a lemon you can’t drive is not good unless you’re the seller and you feel like swindling some poor fool, but $100 for the same car bought for used for parts is good. Same car, different context.)

I realize that there is often a strong motivation in stressing the connections of all things to all other things. I understand it. I really do. I used to live in that landscape-of-undifferentiation, and I lived there out of a misguided search for peace. I lived there because at heart, I just want people to get along. But “getting along” can only happen when differences are appreciated and worked through, instead of overlooked and undervalued or stamped out entirely. People want to stress these connections because they feel it fosters a sense of peace and a lack of conflict. Sometimes working through differences is uncomfortable—there’s tension and conflict both in that relationship and within oneself as you start to reexamine your own positions and identity issues. It gets messy. It gets stressful. And sometimes it gets contentious to the point of conflict, any kind of conflict from mild to severe. Many of us avoid conflict because we automatically think it is bad. Not all conflict is “bad” and conflict can provide an opportunity to work towards peace while supporting and working through those differences at the same time.

If things are “all connected” to the point where “we are all One” and “we are all the same” there can be no conflict because there aren’t different items, there aren’t any relationships nor are there different items to have relationships with one another, thus there can be no conflict because there isn’t anything separate to have a conflict with. There is a point where people prize connections at the expense of diversity and for the sake of avoiding the discomforts of conflict. So what do we often find ourselves doing? We lump everything together through a mishmash of overvalued connections so we can pretend that potentially-conflicting differences are all illusion…and then we misguidedly mistake this as a path to peace.

This kind of homogenization does not respect or preserve diversity, nor does it preserve peace…it actually destroys both diversity and peace.

Think of it this way: you have a stew recipe which involves carrots, onions, potatoes, and corn in a tomato broth. When you cook this recipe as stew, you have separate pieces of carrot, onion, and potato in a tomato broth. However, you could shove the whole thing in a blender and set the blender on a crazy-high setting, and you’ll end up with a thick soup with no identifiable pieces of carrot, onion, potato, all in a tomato broth. This is what homogenization does. It’s not always a bad thing, if this is the kind of soup you want or need, and it depends on the context. It might be a very tasty, hearty soup. Granted, if you have a friend who has a potato allergy, she can't then go picking out the potatoes and you'll have to find something else for her to eat.

However, if one were to apply this homogenization above a specific context, onto an upper-level category (like the universe) rather than a smaller, discrete, more specific category or situation (like dinner); or if it is applied to items that would not have, could not have, should not have, or don’t want to have that kind or relationship; or if it is applied without consideration for the things which it is forcibly applied onto—these are scenarios where we end up in trouble. It may be ok for something in the context of a bowl of soup at a specific time for a specific purpose (small scale, specific context), but if someone were able to shove the whole universe in such a blender (large scale, much broader context), we’d all be in trouble. All we’d be left with is an unidentifiable useless homogenized goo which can do nothing, think nothing, be nothing, and have no relationships…because there’s nothing else to have a relationship with. No differentiation means no separate items, no relationships, no peace, no conflict, no day, no night, no stars, no planet Earth, no dinosaurs, no plastic pink flamingos, no meaning, no something, and no nothing. It means we’ve wrecked the universe beyond both creation and destruction.

In that homogenized universe-in-a-blender scenario, there’s no conflict because there’s nothing left to have a conflict with; there’s nothing left to make peace with either. Differentiation and diversity, the very mechanisms existence and non-existence, creation and destruction, and of infinitely many other things, just got cancelled out. There is no more peace because peace can only survive when there are separate elements to work out that conflict and therefore create peace together, or war, or doughnuts, or whatever. You cannot have peaceful relationships in an environment where no relationships exist because there are no separate things to have relationships. If you really want to live in peace, you have to be willing to have relationships, have space for potential conflict, and to work with those relationships especially by supporting, honoring, working through, and working with the very differences and distinctions which make us all separate (and interrelating) individuals. If you really want peace, you must support and respect diversity, which means appreciating differences, not plowing over them in a misguided attempt at over-stressing connections to the point of losing differentiation and distinctions.

You cannot achieve peaceful coexistence by overvaluing connections outside of useful context and by overvaluing connections at the expense of differentiation, just because you want to avoid conflict. It doesn’t work that way. You can’t get to peace by using connections between things in order to ignore differences, and you can’t get to peace through ignoring difference in order to avoid conflict. Peace is not conflict avoidance. Peace is not the ignoring of differences. Also, peace is made of separate parties in relationships to one another—not the absence of separate parties.

Instead of “It’s all connected!” or “We are all One” which are both misguided call for peace, let’s shift instead to something more useful which actually would help peace. Something like “Cherish diversity!” After all, oil spills are damaging to flamingos even if the plastic ones don't seem to mind.

Image Credits:
Photograph of a close-up on a plastic pink flamingo by J. Vaughn. Used through CC-GNU license.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Between the Broad and Narrow

Polytheism is the religious regard for many deities.

Polytheism is not the spiritual regard for several archetypes, although a person can do that in addition to being a polytheist if a person does religiously regard many deities.

Polytheism is not a form of politics nor is it a system of economics, although a person can support these things in addition to being a polytheist.

Polytheism means polytheism: nothing more, and nothing less.

I’ve seen two problems which have crept up. These problems come up from opposing ends of the spectrum, but they result in the same erosion of meaning of “polytheism.” There are those who would try to use the word so broadly that it loses its meaning and its integrity--it gets diluted out of existence. There are others who would narrow the definition so tight that it no longer includes that which should be included--it gets constricted down to a point where it vanishes. Both problems can lead to the same destruction albeit through different means.

An atheist cannot open up the term polytheism to include herself because her atheism is one of a few things which is mutually exclusive to the religious regard of many deities. She cannot religiously regard many deities because she doesn’t believe that deities exist: she thinks that all deities are human-created, and thus by her own admission she does not believe that deities exist. (It should also be noted that a person can indeed be an atheist without studying, interacting, or even knowing about archetypes; and a person can indeed study archetypes without being an atheist.)

However, a person can indeed religiously regard many deities, and at the same time understand, acknowledge, and interact with archetypes while realizing that archetypes and deities are not the same kind of beings as deities. A person really can interact with two different things at the same time and be able to distinguish between one thing and another. Even if and/or when there is overlap, it does not mean that there aren’t boundaries; an overlapping edge should not be confused as evidence that two different things are “the same.” Archetypes are not deities, but a person can indeed work with both and still be a polytheist while still honoring that archetypes are archetypes and deities are deities, and the two sets of beings are different.

On a related note, when we polytheists allow for the propagation of inaccurate terms to define us and what we do, we’ve ended up diluting our meaning to allow for many other things which have nothing to do with polytheism. It’s not “devotional polytheism.” It’s just polytheism. Polytheism is a religious regard for many deities; devotion is religious regard. “Devotional polytheism” is like saying “polytheism-polytheism.” Using the term “devotional polytheism” only ends up marginalizing polytheism itself within what is polytheism’s own movement.

Then, there’s the other side of the spectrum. A person who subscribes to particular political ideology or economic systems, or both, can indeed also be a polytheist. A person who subscribes to a particular political ideology or economic systems, and who combines these with polytheistic religion is still also a polytheist. Politics and polytheism are not mutually exclusive—people can and do (and should!) vote with their values and act in accordance to what they believe is right: sometimes that includes religious values, whether those religious values originate somehow through relations with deities, or originate from the judgment and good sense of people, or come from other sources, or a blend of any or all of these different things. She can indeed carry politics and polytheism at the same time without confusing these things for one another or thinking that they must be the same thing, or that everyone who is polytheist must also operate within this overlap between polytheism and politics. Even when there is overlap (think of a Venn diagram), and even when a person chooses to operate within that space where there is overlap between politics and polytheism, it does not mean that there aren’t boundaries between polytheism and politics. An overlapping edge should not be confused as evidence that two different things are “the same.”

A person can indeed have a religion which combines polytheism and politics, and a person can indeed call it a polytheistic religion if it involves some kind of religious regard for many deities (that’s all you need to be called “polytheist”); but a person cannot claim that such an intersection between politics and polytheism is, or should be, the whole of polytheism. A person also cannot claim that such an intersection between a specific political ideology (like socialism or libertarianism) and polytheism is the whole of polytheism. A person also cannot claim that an intersection amidst specific political ideologies and economic ideologies (like socialism and anti-capitalism, or like libertarianism and capitalism,or like socialism and capitalism) is the whole of polytheism.

See the difference in size and scope? A person can have an individual specific polytheistic religion which combines a political and/or an economic ideology, but a person cannot apply that ideology to polytheism as a broad movement. What we’re running into is a confusion of subcategories for a broader category: not all plants are trees, but all trees are plants. Not all polytheists are (or should be) anti-capitalists, or capitalists, or socialists, or Marxists, or conservatives, or whatever, but all polytheists do share a quality of having some sort of religious regard for many deities.

When a large-scale general polytheistic convention takes an overall tone of a particular set of politics, there’s a problem. When a polytheistic gathering has discussions on anti-capitalism (or capitalism, or any economic system) as being a part of the polytheistic movement at-large, or if that gathering starts staging political or economic debates, there’s a problem. There’s a problem because politics and economic systems are not polytheism. A person would do well to recognize that the intersection of two different streets (i.e. Polytheism Street and Politics Street) doesn’t mean that the two streets are the same street even if you can stand in the middle of the intersection—and if a person confuses the two streets as being the same street, the person has a good chance of taking a wrong turn and getting lost. However, if a general polytheist gathering were to have discussions on specific polytheistic religions which may well be based on an intersection of polytheism and anti-capitalism (or capitalism, or another political or economic ideology) that’s fine.

Notice the difference in scope? In one situation, a political ideology is being artificially and forcibly applied onto a broad religious movement, a broad religious movement of many different individual religions. Many of those separate individual polytheistic religions may or may not be anti-capitalist (or capitalist, or socialist, or libertarian, or anarchist, or whichever political or economic ideology) and indeed some of them may have nothing to do with politics or economics at all, but they can end up being pressured into adhering to the particular political (and/or economic) ideology that is being artificially and forcibly applied onto them. This situation is not helpful and it causes a silencing and a destruction of diversity, and it even edges towards the destruction of polytheism itself. Politics and polytheism are not the same thing even if they do overlap at some points. In the other situation where a political ideology is not being artificially and forcibly applied onto a broad religious movement, it preserves the space for many separate individual polytheistic religions to flourish, some of which may or may not be anti-capitalist (or capitalist, or socialist, or libertarian, or anarchist, etc.) and some of which may have nothing to do with politics or economics at all. These religions can be what they are without being artificially forced into something they’re not, especially when that "something" is a political ideology--political ideologies are not the same thing as polytheism.

It’s also not ok to claim that those who do not automatically share political ideology in common with those particular individual religions are somehow flirting with some form of light fascism—this is a silencing tactic. Given the current climate of anger and fear (both in the US and abroad), it’s a powerful silencing tactic. And it's wrong, devastatingly wrong. It's a wrong thing to do to associate others with different political or economic ideologies with vile things such as racism, sexism, and totalitarianism, and a destruction of diversity. There's a certain terrible irony here that those who call others fascists (who are not fascists) are actually destroying diversity themselves--they are destroying the very diversity they thought they were preserving. In letting their fear take charge, in letting their fear of a perceived threat take charge, they've become the actual threat.

Polytheism is polytheism, nothing more and nothing less than the religious regard for the many deities. Politics, economic systems, and religions are different things even if they can often overlap. An overlapping edge should not be confused as evidence that two different things are “the same.”

Polytheism is not so broad as to include atheists (because honoring or studying archetypes is not the same thing as honoring deities). Although religions in polytheism cannot include atheism, specific religions in polytheism can include “a religious regard for many deities” as well as “a spiritual regard for archetypes.” But… those specific religions cannot then narrow down the definition of polytheism to claim that all polytheists must also honor archetypes as well as deities.

Polytheism is also not so broad that it can contain political ideologies as being the same thing as polytheism. Specific polytheistic religions can include an intersection of politics and polytheism. But…these specific religions cannot then narrow down the definition of polytheism to claim that all polytheists must do the same thing and adopt particular political (or economic) ideologies as well as honoring deities.

There is a middle ground to navigate between the too-broad and the too-narrow, and we must keep this middle ground ever-fixed in the forefront of our minds as something to strive toward. That middle ground is simply that polytheism means the religious regard for many deities, no more, no less; and that there is space here for individual polytheistic religions simply to be what they are.

Image Notes: Water ripples in a sea cave. Photograph by Berit, used under Creative Commons license. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Prayer for the End of Equinox

May we ever remember that
What we have done yesterday,
What we do today,
What we do tomorrow
Lays the foundation
So that  future generations can
Worship the many Deities freely and in peace;
That the great Temples can and shall be rebuilt, kept, and tended;
That those who follow us may make their offerings and sacrifices in peace;
That the traditions can have life breathed into them again, that they may live, grow vibrant, and thrive.
May we do what we can so these sacred, holy things can be brought forward to future generations, and ever renewed.

May we remember this and keep our eyes ever-fixed on that distant point on the horizon.

Image Notes: Photo by Alexander Buschorn, used through Creative Commons-GNU License. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Allegory of the Cave, Cryolife 7:14

I can think of few better things to  ring in the vernal equinox than a revisit of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. May we continue to struggle, though the light hurts our eyes, to live in the enlightenment of the gods.

Here is the Allegory of the Cave, as read by the incomparable John Malkovich.

Image Notes: A bird created in shadows by the configuration of two hands, by Hedgehog83 and used through Creative Commons License

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Twisting Language Sheared of Meaning

I came across a troubling sentence today, and it's one that needs unpacking for the casual reader. The sentence I read says: "Later, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may have played a role in the growth of deity-centered Polytheism."

Let's take a good look at it. With this one line, a line most casual readers would blow past without giving much further thought to it, seeks to erode and demolish polytheism by stating that a fictional book contributed to the growth of the movement, and by qualifying the word “polytheism” so that he can force it to mean things other than what it means.

The first part of his statement which suggests that a fictional book may have given partial rise to the growth of modern polytheism is like suggesting that the popularity of the movie Twister influenced the growth of modern meteorology. Fiction is not reality, although fiction can inspire someone to make a real difference—but if we can’t tell the difference between fiction, reality, and fiction partially inspiring reality, then we are well and truly messed-up. The blogger already sees the movement he’s talking about as based on fiction, inspired by nothing more than a creation of the human mind, and this is very basis upon which he operates. Everything else he says is built upon this erroneous premise, and there is an expectation that the reader simply accepts this premise without question.

Stating a possible connection here between a fictional tale and the growth of a movement (or field-of-study) is a way of planting a suggestion that the movement might be partially based on fiction and therefore might be itself partially fictitious, based on fiction made up by humans. This is the equation that people may not realize that these words are making, and this is the assumption that this blogger functions on and tries, subtly and not-so-subtly, to persuade others to function upon. It’s a way to denigrate and trivialize that very movement itself while appearing fair and unbiased. When this false premise is coated in palatable and palliative layers of amiable tone and intellectualism, with a coating of widespread cultural misunderstanding and rejection of that same movement, it makes it much easier for casual readers to swallow without even realizing that they did so.

To focus on one fictional tale as a key factor in the growth of a movement (or field-of-study) is so overly-simplistic that it is absurd. There have been countless tales and poems for eons praising the awesomeness of the weather well beyond the movie Twister. More importantly, all a person has to do to be inspired and have a real-life encounter with the atmosphere and weather patterns is to walk outside and experience reality. To simplify the growth of a movement like polytheism, or a field-of-study like meteorology, and to attribute it to a fictional tale causes a reader to focus on the fictional tale and debate the merits, the possible causal relationships, the associations, and so on, of that fictional tale. In that intellectual exercise, people end up ignoring the fact that a natural, real, observable thing plays a far more important role in inspiring a person to study it or connect with it in some way. Although a movie like Twister may have inspired a person to study meteorology, it is far more likely that the lion’s share of that inspiration comes from standing in awe, inspired by the very meteorological phenomena themselves.

The second part of the statement is like calling a meteorologist “a weather-and-atmosphere-centered meteorologist.” Weather and atmosphere are what a meteorologist studies; it's what meteorology is. It's redundant calling them "weather-and-atmosphere-centered meteorologists," and if a person were to do this it would force the word open so that you can insert things in there that are not part of the field of meteorology. For instance, some well-meaning but thoughtless person has heard that there’s such a thing as “pet-centered meteorology” which studies dog flatus and pet dander that people might inhale. Just because dog flatus and pet dander can be on or in the air, and just because meteorological studies involve observing air in the atmosphere, it doesn’t mean that studying dog flatus and pet dander is the same as meteorology.

If you really want to study dog flatus or pet dander, or both, great! By all means please do so. If you want to study dog flatus and pet dander, and meteorology, please feel free to do so. But don’t mistake meteorology for the study of weather phenomena and pet dander and dog flatus all together, even if there’s occasional overlap. Although dog flatus can be pretty strong, it would behoove us all to remember that dog flatus is not the same as a tornado.  Is the coming season tornado season or dog flatus season…or both…and does the domesticated canine eating of cheese have an effect on tornadoes? Tornadoes…tomatoes…well, they have some letters in common. What were we talking about? I guess it doesn’t matter because words can mean what you want them to mean and dog flatus can self-identify as pinking shears if it wants to even if dog flatus doesn’t understand what pinking shears are or what they’re used for, or even what language is. Who uses pinking shears, anyway?

I want it noted that I have intentionally left names out of it. It is less about who wrote it and more about the quote itself, and that things like this are being said and are able to flourish, usually unnoticed, in our cultural climate which is hostile to polytheism. I made a choice to leave names out of in order to shift the focus away from personalities and drama, and move the focus onto where it should be: on the critical thinking required to notice, to observe, and to unpack a statement like this and see it more clearly.

Image Notes: Pinking Shears, by Pavel Krok, used through Creative Commons License.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Baals, Astartes, Measuring Spoons, and Lots of Guys Named Rick

Full deity-names are sacred and important. When used in their entirety, full names denote a specific deity in a specific set of relationships. This is important information to keep at the forefront of our minds, so let’s start using these full names more often.  Names often reference relationships including connections with a locale, associations with animals or plants, or activities, or roles, or offices, or particular groups of people, or many other relationships and complex layered relationships.

Note that I said deity-names when used in their entirety. The problem is that we often do not use divine names in their entirety, and thus we’re missing some of the context. There’s a deep-seated omission that many of us engage in, even though we usually don’t know we’re doing it. It is a bad habit, a behavioral holdover, from living in cultures that reduce the deities out of existence—to two gods, one god, or no god. When we don’t use full names which detail these contexts and relationships, we’re missing information and we run the risk of not knowing exactly who it is we’re working with—even though we know we’re not working with two, one, or no gods, we end up still accidentally reducing to a few what are really many more.

You see, I’m going to let you in on a little secret…which isn’t exactly a secret. The only reason it seems secret is because it is not well-known, and it is not well-known because we’ve lost this information over the generations of non-polytheistic cultures. The “secret” is this: even if a deity appears to share a similar name, or even part of the same name, it doesn’t guarantee that the deity is exactly the same as another who has part of the same name. Sometimes you are dealing with the same deity, but it is a deity who is engaging in a different relationship or a different context… but sometimes you’re not dealing with the same deity. Because we’ve grown up the way we have in non-polytheistic cultures though, we more often assume that they’re the same, and thus we’re still in danger of applying reductionist thinking. When we use a deity’s full name, we allow the space for these matters to resolve, and we allow breathing room in case the deity is an entirely different one than the one that we may have accidentally conflated him/her with. Basically it would be helpful if we assume a deity is different unless we know otherwise even if we think names are the same or similar. There are rules and standards that apply to this, and it doesn’t mean that “anything goes.” Please see my post here for further information on this matter. 

We should take the approach of “assuming different and separate until otherwise known,” instead of the approach of “assume it’s the same god unless otherwise known.” This assumption of “the same,” and an instilled, unconscious habit of reductionist thinking has overridden our conscious thought processes and often we may not realize that we’re operating from this assumption. This approach, couched in this unacknowledged assumption of “few,” stems from our having been born into a context broken by countless generations of non-polytheistic mindsets. Being mindful of a full name and using it are ways that we can take the approach of “assuming different and separate—and many!--until otherwise known.”

It’s Important

What looks like same deity-name but with different epithets may be different deities entirely from one another, or the names may reflect the same deity holding a different office, and/or holding different relationships and contexts. Either way—same deity or different deity—that difference should be acknowledged and worked with instead of glossed over, reduced, or ignored. Either way, you’ve got nothing to lose when you acknowledge the different relationships by being conscious of specifics through calling deities by their full names. Prudence, and deference to the individuality and the majesty of the many, many deities, urges that we consciously assume many deities, instead of unconsciously assuming fewer deities.

Think of it this way, maybe you end up going to a social event where you don’t know anybody. To meet people and know who they are, and for them to know who you are, there are a few standard questions that get asked: what’s your name, where are you from, what do you do for a living? When you answer these questions, the stranger begins to know you as, for instance, Judith Reiner, who is an architect from Pennsylvania. Maybe Stan the stranger realizes that you are the same Judith Reiner, the architect from Pennsylvania, who he’s heard all about from Cami, a friend you share in common. Your relationship with Stan will not be the same relationship as what you have with Cami—maybe Cami  hates winter sports but watches birds, however you and Stan find a shared love of skiing. Maybe you end up becoming ski buddies with Stan, but that is something you would never do with Cami. You become Judith Reiner Ski Buddy but also Judith Reiner Bird Watching Pal, but never do these two roles or relationships overlap. You are the same person in two different relationships, and those relationships are important because they have different expectations and needs, and because you exercise a different part of who-you-are in these roles with these friends. Or…in a completely different situation, maybe you share the name Judith Reiner in common with a person Stan the stranger knows, but Stan realizes that he knows of a different Judith Reiner, from Ohio, who is a professor of mathematics—where again, the relationships matter and must be taken into consideration.

The thing is, Stan the stranger begins to know you better and can begin to form some kind of individual relationship with you, whether you’re the “same” Judith Reiner he’s heard all about, or whether you’re a different person who happened to have a similar name …and vice versa when you learn that Stan is a particular person, from a particular family, from a particular place, and who does a particular job.

Also, you never go to a party assuming every person named Rick is exactly the same as every other person named Rick who is also in the same room, or that these guys named Rick are the same as every other guy named Rick that you’ve ever known about.  Apply this sensible advice to the deities: get to know the full name, with epithet, with further context added like locale and/or job and/or relationships.

How This Relates to Canaanite Deities

I bring this up in the context of Canaanite polytheism because it keenly applies here to our deities. There are many instances where people tend to assume that two or more deities are the same deity when they’re not. Were we to use the full name of the deity-in-question, we could begin to understand these matters better and to relate to these beings as individuals. However, where they are not individuals—where different names might apply to the same deity—we  can still open up our understanding to how they interact differently in the contexts of different relationships. The matter gets complicated for Canaanite deities because sometimes what we think is a name is actually a title or only part of a name. We need to be more specific than just using a title or part of a name: we need to keep in mind the entire context, especially so that we know one deity from another with similar titles, similar names, or similar spheres-of-influence; and also so that we understand the different roles and relationships one deity may have.  The context of these relationships is a key component of who that deity is, and when we miss these things, we’re missing out in having better relationships with the deities and a better understanding of the deities, and a better understanding of how we relate to them.

In looking at texts from the city of Ugarit around 1200 BCE, we see a hint at these matters, of deities who demonstrate the same name or similar names, but who have different epithets. To see this, we must look closely and we must know what to watch for. In these 3200 year old texts we find long lists and mentions of deities with similar names who are situated in different contexts, or they are acknowledged in different ways with separate offerings, sometimes even at different times of the day or of the night, or at different times during the lunar month or the solar year.

For instance, there’s an Ugaritic text which mentions a few divine names sharing a name-title-designation of ‘Anatu. When I speak here of ‘Anatu, there are places in the ancient texts where no further designation or epithet is given, but I will call her ‘Anatu (of Ugarit) because this young warrior goddess has tales, contexts, and relationships particular to her in that city and in that time. The people of Ugarit had no need to specify “ ‘Anatu (of Ugarit)” because it went without saying that the ‘Anatu specific to Ugarit was the main ‘Anatu honored there; in other words, they do not specify context there because that context was assumed and already known. However, at times in the ancient offering and ritual texts, sometimes they will specify ‘Anatu (of Ugarit), as well as other ‘Anatus to whom they are making offering.

Some of these ‘Anatus may very well be the same Lady, but some of these may be entirely different. Three come to mind: ‘Anatu (of Ugarit), ‘Anatu the Mutilated, and ‘Anatu of Mount Tzapunu.  We know ‘Anatu (of Ugarit) from epic tales written in Ugarit. We don’t have any further information specifically on ‘Anatu the Mutilated—we don’t know her story, we don’t know who she is and how she is related to ‘Anatu (of Ugarit). We don’t know if she’s a different goddess altogether, or if she is just representing ‘Anatu (of Ugarit) in a different context and a different set of relations. As for ‘Anatu of Mount Tzapunu, I think it is likely that this is the same as ‘Anatu (of Ugarit), but participating in a different role and a different set of relationships. We know that an ‘Anatu (of Ugarit)  is Baʽlu Haddu’s comrade-in-arms and this particular epithet, ‘Anatu of Mount Tzapunu, denotes some relationship she has with Baʽlu Haddu’s holy and sacred mountain. Yet in this instance we can proceed on the notion that she is probably the same as ‘Anatu (of Ugarit) while holding open the possibility that she is a different goddess, and while acknowledging the different contexts and relationships she holds when she is called ‘Anatu of Mount Tzapunu. When ‘Anatu of Mount Tzapunu comes through, she will demonstrate a different part of her personality than ‘Anatu (of Ugarit) did….just as in our human illustration how Judith Reiner will act differently and do different things when she is Judith the Birdwatcher with her friend Cami, or Judith the Ski Buddy with her new friend Stan.

It does no harm to be more specific through using full names like ‘Anatu (of Ugarit) and ‘Anatu of Mount Tzapunu whether the ‘Anatu (of Ugarit) and ‘Anatu of Mount Tzapunu are the same goddess but in a different contextual relationships; or if ‘Anatu (of Ugarit) and ‘Anatu of Mount Tzapunu are two entirely different goddesses altogether.

In another example, we have ‘Athtartu (of Ugarit), ‘Athtartu of the Hurrians, and ‘Athtartu of the Steppe Lands. This could get quite confusing when a person considers that the name ‘Athtartu is related to the name Astarte and that scholars treat multiple Astartes as the same one goddess everywhere…and it worsens when they conflate Ishtars with Astartes. Think the matter can’t get worse? The name “Astarte” gets downgraded into a word that is used, biblically, as a generic term for any goddess. ‘Athtartu (of Ugarit) and ‘Athartu of the Hurrians are different goddesses—the Hurrians were a neighboring people to the north of Ugarit, and the name “ ‘Athtartu of the Hurrians”  could refer to a Hurrian goddess, like a Shaushka, or another Hurrian goddess. A person from Ugarit who honors ‘Athtartu of the Hurrians is invoking a specific foreign Hurrian goddess within the context of this Hurrian goddess’s relationship to the city of Ugarit, a place foreign to her. When he calls to ‘Athtartu of the Hurrians, he is calling to her in the context of Ugaritan religion and Ugaritan relationships to the deities, not as a person from the city of Mitanni in the context of Hurrian religion or Hurrian relationships to Hurrian deities. ‘Athtartu of the Hurrians is a foreign goddess and is not to be confused for the local ‘Athartu (of Ugarit). It would be sort of like if I lived in Toledo and I had a friend named Amy (of Toledo), but I met a totally different new person in New York City who reminds me a lot of Amy from Toledo…and I just start thinking of the new person as “That ‘Amy’ of NYC” until I get to know her better.

As to the staggering matter of “baal”…oh my.  There are many baʽals noted in the Ugaritic offerings lists, and so many more throughout the Near East that it usually makes folks’ eyes cross. There is even a note of Ugaritic offerings made to a class of gods known collectively as “ The Baʽals” (in Ugaritic, the Baʽaluma). At least with the title baʽal (baʽlu in Ugaritic), most scholars know that sometimes you aren’t talking about the same god. Often, but not always, scholars try to be a bit more specific when referring to a baʽal. But, the casual reader and the newcomer don’t know this and often fall into a trap of assuming all Baʽals are “the storm god”—as if there were only one baʽal and only one Near Eastern storm god. The word baʽal is not a name,  it is a title, and it means “lord”—and there are many Near Eastern deities, not one deity alone, who count meteorology within their spheres of influence. Using a full name is vital.

If you see Baʽal (Baʽlu), with no further descriptor, mentioned in context of Ugaritic text, it is likely that it refers to Baʽlu Ugaritu (Baʽal Ugarit) or Baʽlu Haddu (Baʽal Hadad). Baʽlu Haddu and Baʽlu Ugaritu may well be the same god, but the different names refer to different relationships. As Baʽlu Haddu he is primarily Lord Thunderer, a well-known weather god whose adventures are detailed in Ugaritic epic poetry. As Baʽlu of Ugarit, he is primarily in charge of caring for the city of Ugarit and the locale. There are overlapping roles here, but the different names refer to different priorities and different obligations, thus it is useful to be specific when acknowledging him. In other words, if you lived in Ugarit and wanted to pray for protection over the city, it would be more advantageous to make your offering to Baʽlu Ugaritu first and foremost. You could make offering to Baʽlu Haddu, that would be helpful, too, but it might be of more help to call on Baʽlu Ugaritu first.

Remember above Judith Reiner who was the ski buddy, but who was also the birdwatcher, depending on which friend she was with? It would be silly for Judith to show up at her bird-watching friend’s house dressed in her ski gear and ready to hit the slopes, and thus it would be unlikely for Judith’s bird-watching friend to ask for her to show up with skis and helmet instead of with binoculars and notebook. As Baʽlu Ugaritu, the god is in a position better to protect the city and the specific locale; as Baʽlu Haddu, he is in a better situation to care for matters of weather and proper rainfall. One role can fit inside the other sometimes: Baʽlu Haddu as a weather god sees to proper rainfall thus making Ugarit, and many more locales, prosperous with abundant crops. However, Baʽlu Ugaritu, in role of caretaker of Ugarit, generally cannot extend further than those boundaries of Ugarit and its locale. (Terms and conditions can apply: if a foreign king living in a neighboring city wanted good relations with the city of Ugarit, he might well make offerings to Baʽlu Ugaritu.)

These relationships and knowing them, their differences, how they interact, where they overlap, where one relationship holds another within it, and where relationships cannot hold other relationships within them, are vital to know and navigate. When we use the full names of the deities—names which include context and relationships—we we begin consciously observing these matters and understanding them better.

Sometimes contexts shift—like people appointed to office, transferring offices, or retiring from office. Perhaps the Lord of Ugarit, Baʽlu Ugaritu, is no longer the same god: perhaps Baʽlu Haddu, no longer has this relationship with the city of Ugarit and thus no longer serves this function, or holds this office. When this matter is in play, if we were to call upon Baʽlu Haddu when we need Baʽlu Ugaritu, and the Baʽlu Ugaritu is no longer Baʽlu Haddu, we could wind up calling on the wrong god. Think of it this way, if something happens to where Judith can no longer be a skiing buddy—perhaps she broke her leg—Stan would find another partner on the slopes and it would be silly for him to call Judith-of-the-Broken-Leg, who is no longer Judith-who-is-Stan’s-Ski-Buddy, when he is going on a ski trip.

Baʽlu Haddu (Lord Thunderer) could in theory also be holding the office of Baʽlu Ugaritu (Lord of Ugarit) as well as the office of Baʽlu Tzapunu (Lord of Mount Tzapunu). If this is so, then Baʽlu Haddu is capable of working through the smaller office of Lord of Mount Tzapunu, and of caring for that specific locale. The office of Lord of Mount Tzapunu and the office of Lord of Ugarit are not the same office, even if the same god could hold both offices. Lord Thunderer functioning as Lord of Mount Tzapunu concerns himself specifically with that mountain, the locale, and the meteorological phenomenon around it. As Lord of the city of Ugarit, he would then be more concerned with the goings-on of that locale and that city. If a different god managed to take on the office of Baʽlu Tzapunu, he would then be a Baʽal Tzapunu, a Lord of Mount Tzapunu. Sometimes these are roles, offices, which different gods can assume and fulfill. When we are being more specific by describing the deities and using their full names, we are more likely to understand these things and to begin to understand how these different gods and different roles relate to one another, and to have clearer relationships.

Think of it this way: Martinique currently holds office as president of the PTA, but she could also be elected to the office of mayor of her town. Although the jobs may occasionally overlap, Martinque’s PTA job and mayoral job are two totally different jobs with two totally different sets of needs, concerns, relationships, and contexts. In a city council meeting, you would not call her “president” because she is not fulfilling the role as president of the PTA at that time—you would call her mayor. She cannot do the same things as mayor as she can as president of the PTA, and vice versa. Although her job as mayor may encompass looking after the school board and thus the PTA, her job as PTA president does not encompass her position as mayor and looking after the city as a whole.

If it helps, visualize a set of measuring spoons: Martinique’s job as president of the PTA is like teaspoon, and her job as mayor is like a tablespoon. The teaspoon fits inside the tablespoon because the tablespoon is large enough and can encompass the smaller spoon, but it doesn’t work in reverse order. A teaspoon isn’t big enough to hold a tablespoon. These things sometimes can nest in one another, and unless you are specific about these roles, relationships, and contexts, and unless you pay attention to them and make note of them, you cannot learn how these matters interact. Baʽlu Haddu may also hold the office of Baʽlu Tzapunu, the Lord God of Mount Tzapunu, but the office of Lord of Tzapunu is not large enough to hold Baʽlu Haddu’s broader roles, relationships, and contexts. That tablespoon won’t fit into a teaspoon. Each job has specific boundaries to consider, and even if boundaries are sometimes fluid or you have trouble seeing them (like a clear plastic set of measuring spoons), that doesn’t mean that the boundaries aren’t there.

The mountain called Tzapunu is also called Kasios (in Greek) and Casius (in Latin). It is also well to note that Baʽlu Tzapunu, the Lord of Mount Tzapunu, is also later known as Zeus Kasios, in Greek to the Greeks, and Jupiter Casius in Latin to the Romans. So, Baʽlu Tzapunu, Lord of Mount Tzapunu, is also Zeus Kasios, a Zeus of Mount Kasios, and Jupiter Casius, a Jupiter of Mount Casius. It would be further wise to note that the ancient Ugaritans were not familiar with Zeus Kasios or Jupiter Casius since the names reference relationships with the Greeks and the Romans, and the names came into more widespread use after Ugarit was abandoned. Remember Amy of Toledo, and “That ‘Amy’ of NYC”—this is what happens when the Greeks refer to Baʽlu Tzapunu as Zeus Kasios. The Greeks are not confusing Baʽlu Tzapunu and Zeus Kasios with, for instance, Zeus Olympios or Zeus Meilichios of Athens. By calling him Zeus Kasios, they’re actually opening space within their own purview to see the god of Mount Tzapunu in how he wishes to reveal himself to them specifically as Greeks, in a new relationship, their relationship with this specific mountain god.

Ugaritic texts make mention to still more baʽals including Baʽal Aleppo (Baʽlu Khalbu), who is a very different god from an entirely different town, different land, different contexts, and different people. He is not Baʽlu Haddu, nor is he Baʽlu Tzapunu, nor is he Baʽlu Ugarit, and holds none of these roles, offices, or relationships, even though he is honored alongside of Baʽlu Haddu, Baʽlu Ugaritu, and Baʽlu Tzapunu. The people of Ugarit honored Baʽal Aleppo, a god from the far-neighboring town of Aleppo, even though they honored him as foreigners paying homage from a distance.

In Conclusion

So, as we’ve observed, what looks like same deity-names but with different epithets may be different deities entirely from one another, and/or the names may reflect the same deity holding a different office, holding a different relationships, or holding different contexts. Either way—same deity or different deity—that difference should be acknowledged and worked with instead of glossed over, reduced, or ignored. Either way, we should hold space for those differences. Either way, you’ve got nothing to lose when you acknowledge these differences. Either way it helps to be conscious of specifics and to increase others’ awareness of these differences through the action of calling deities by full names which reference these relationships. 

It’s not just a “baal,” it’s Baʽlu Haddu, or Baʽlu Ugaritu, or Baʽlu Tzapunu, or Baʽal Aleppo, or another one entirely—remember to which baʽal you’re referring. It’s not just an ‘Athtartu—or an“Astarte”—it’s ‘Athartu (of Ugarit), or ‘Athtartu of the Steppe Lands, or ‘Athtartu of the Hurrians, or another one entirely. It’s not just an ‘Anatu, it’s ‘Anatu (of Ugarit), or ‘Anatu the Mutilated, or ‘Anatu Tzapunu, or another one entirely. Furthermore, it’s not just a Shapshu: it could be Shapshu (of Ugarit) or Shapshu of the Corpse. It’s not just a Yarikhu, it could be the Yarikhu of Ugarit, or it could be the Kassite Yarikhu, who is the moon god of Kassi, a moon god foreign to Ugarit but still honored in Ugarit. It’s not just an ilu or an “El”—the word ilu means “god”—it’s Ilu (of Ugarit), Ilu-ibi (who may be the father of Ilu of Ugarit), or Ilu-Beti the god who oversees the Ugaritic ruling house. If you don’t know much about the further context, just put an indefinite article before the name, like an ‘Anatu, or an Ilu, or a Shapshu. You can always follow it up with citing a specific locale if you know it, and/or a specific time period (ancient or modern), and/or a specific relationship or context like a relationship to another deity, to people, to an activity, and so on--ancient or modern--if you know it.

This is not something I have done in the past, but it is something I intend to do moving forward so that these matters are clearer. I hope that you all will consider doing something similar in referencing not just a shortened name of a deity but instead taking the time and effort to use the full names of deities, names which include context. We’ve nothing to lose by using deities’ full names, and we have a chance at greater understanding, and better relations with the deities, if we do. It’s like learning to read—you have to invest some time and effort to do so, but once you do, you end up with a skill that will give you knowledge and wisdom for life.

...And, if you haven't already, please take the time and read through the sister-post to this one, over at 

Image Notes: Photograph of Measuring Spoons by Tor Svensson, used through CC-GNU.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

CanaanitePaganism Group Closing

For nearly thirteen and a half years, the CanaanitePaganism group on Yahoo! has done its best to serve the nascent Canaanite polytheist religious community.

I started the CanaanitePaganism Yahoo group on August 30, 2002 because the only group online where a person could talk about Canaanite deities and religion was the JAP-1 Listserv on, but the conversations that needed having in regards to Canaanite deities and Canaanite religions were beyond the scope and separate from the conversations at the "Jewish American Pagan" group, since these conversations were not Jewish, not American, and became increasingly not Pagan. A handful of years after I started the CanaanitePaganism Yahoo group, the JAP-1 Listserv dried up and there wasn't even an alternate group where some of these conversations might take place, even as awkward as it was bound to be. The CanaanitePaganism list was it; for a long time it was the place to go, it was the only place to go, even on the internet, which devoted entirely to conversations about the ancient Canaanite deities. And the landscape offline was even more desolate especially in those days; it's a rare thing to honor the Canaanite deities. Thankfully it is getting a little less rare these days, and there are new opportunities for interaction on Facebook, which I hope will continue to grow our community online and off.

Over the years at CanaanitePaganism we’ve had good times, spirited discussion, and we shared a great deal of information, but it is time to close the group. Everything in life has a life cycle, and we’ve reached the end of the viable life for this group. It is time to let go and allow for some new conversations, new formats, new spaces, and new foundations. I am thankful to all who joined in the conversations and the memories there, and I wish you all well.

For both the Canaanite polytheist community and the greater polytheist communities, I offer this:
We should give things like this that half-second of appreciation instead of just writing them off completely as "Well, yeah, but all of Yahoo and Yahoo groups [or XYZ format on] are crap these days. It's going the way of dinosaurs, and LiveJournal and MySpace, and Zumba pants."

This, and things like this, are big deals in our emerging polytheist traditions. We shouldn't treat them as though they aren't, even though they seem small and even if they may or may not directly affect us. It's not a matter of my having emotions here (although I do have emotions on the matter) it's more a matter of "let's not trivialize the beginnings and the endings of those beginnings, of the very polytheist movements we're trying to establish."

22 Khiyyaru, Shanatu 88

Image Credits: Hans Watzek Stilleben, 1898, Public Domain

Friday, December 11, 2015

Choice Versus Requirement and Public Reactions to Polytheists

There’s this weird difficulty for some people to resolve matters in their own minds regarding someone else who willingly chooses a different kind of life versus someone who has a requirement to live within particular restrictions, or both.

When the other person is required to live within certain requirements or restrictions, there is sometimes a sense that the "poor dear" is oppressed, troubled, misguided, or suffers from some health condition, and needs saving or protecting. Often people actually do want to be supportive and respectful in these matters, whether they understand the matters or not, and often without assuming that the other person needs “saving.” Thus either way most people have some kind of compassion, allowance, or space for people who have restrictions. At the very least, it is generally considered socially regressive not at least to appear to have compassion, allowance, or space. Think on Muslim women who cover their heads, think on Amish folk who live the way they do and wear what they wear, or a Buddhist monk with a shaved head and wearing particular robes. Or, barring religious issues and matters of clothing, think on a doctor who is always on call during holidays. Or think of someone who has a mild to moderate food intolerance. (Yes, there are still problems in dominant culture and social matters, in regards to being supportive and respectful of differences and restrictions, but even though we have a long way to go, we still have come a long way, and we must continue the struggle.) This compassion, or at least space, for people who live under certain kinds of restrictions often applies unevenly and is given more generously to peoples whose restrictions are better known in dominant culture.

However, when someone says that he chooses to live in a particular way, all of a sudden the gloves come off and others see it as an opportunity to criticize and even mistreat. Even if another person is assumed to make a personal choice which may or may not be based on a requirement, some folks see this as an opportunity for criticism and mistreatment. Newsflash, often someone else’s personal choices usually have nothing to do with intentionally wanting to cause the discomfort, inconvenience, scrutiny, or ire of others. And yet, choosing to live a different way is sometimes seen as doing just that. It’s sometimes assumed that the person willfully provokes criticism and puts oneself on display as some kind of Human Zoo creature. There’s the pseudo-defense of “But you choose this, so you must have chosen to be singled out, stared at, and treated like this! You knew what would happen. You knew how people would react. You’re still choosing to do it; you’re choosing to be different! My reactions are your fault! If you don’t like it, change back and ‘be normal.’” The criticizer in this instance assumes that someone else is responsible for his own self-discipline. Its rapey. (It’s not far from the "Hey, it's not my fault she dresses like this. She's asking for it!" pseudo-defense.)

People sometimes don’t seem to care or take into consideration that there may be a requirement that they don’t know about in what they had assumed was personal choice only. Sometimes they don't take into consideration that there may even be a core identity issue to someone who chooses to live this way because living another way feels insincere to them: in which case they choose to live they way they do, but there’s also an element of requirement there, not just choice. They must live this way in order for them to be truly the people that they are. And so long as those people are following laws, not hurting anyone, and are adults (and as long as they aren’t harming their children), it is nobody’s business. It shouldn’t matter if they “choose” or if they “are required”—or both at the same time! Asking that question is just nosy  especially when it is often asked in order to assess whether or not the asker has more leeway and social allowance for leveling criticisms, trivializing, devaluing, or committing malicious mischief, or worse—i.e. basically they want to know if they have dominant culture’s support for being jerks.

Consider the situation of a medical doctor who ends up on call often on the holidays. That’s not her fault: that’s something she must do and it is required by her work. But, she chose to be a doctor, so there is also an element of choice there. Being a healer is her life’s calling—a life calling is both an intrinsic matter required by one’s very nature, but it is also a matter of choice sometimes in how that calling is answered. Maybe she could have become an Ayurvedic practitioner, an acupuncturist, a sports therapist, a nutritionist, an orthodontist, a Reiki master, or something else. She chose to become a medical doctor, and it is likely that this choice relied on her opportunities, her likes and dislikes, her social groups, her predispositions, her culture, and myriads of other seen or unseen, known or unknown, conscious or unconscious factors, some of which she had control over, and some of which she does not.

So sometimes (often, even!) there is both an element of choice and an element of requirement going on at the same time. That’s really when peoples’ brains start to explode. No joke. It’s often a difficult conundrum for people to resolve in their own minds; it doesn’t have to be. But in the case of the doctor, this matter is more frequently seen and accepted in dominant culture, and is viewed as "normal" and "not different.” If she wears a lab coat outside of work, if she’s constantly pulling all-nighters, if she keeps missing family and social events, if she suddenly gets inexplicably called away often, if she accidentally gets a little bit graphic when talking about her work during dinner, no one really sees this as “weird,” and people aren’t likely to have a fear-of-the-unknown response around her. People are familiar with medical doctors in dominant culture and understand that sometimes they have requirements, needs, and behaviors which are different from people who are not doctors. Few people bother to ask nitpicking questions about matters of choice or requirement because they’re not seeking to discredit or devalue what she does, and few people give her a difficult time about her work—the role of doctor in dominant culture is already accepted and valued, or at the very least acknowledged as legitimate in some way. Thus the doctor gets a pass where a spirit-worker, an artist, a polytheistic priest, or whomever, might not get that pass.

Sometimes a person who is different and who chooses and/or is required to live in a way that is unfamiliar to dominant culture ends up being, through no fault of her own, a catalyst which brings forth the others’ own fears, their own fear of the unknown, their own threat-responses in regards to others’ differences, their own unresolved difficulties, assumptions, and their own identity issues. She is a dark mirror upon which others project their own broken pieces, and because they’ve not dealt with their own broken pieces, they assume that she is at fault for their unresolved turmoil and their resulting actions—an unresolved turmoil which is their own responsibility to work through and heal. If they had never seen her, they could bury these broken pieces of themselves down deep and ignore them, instead of taking a moment to reassess themselves and maybe heal those pieces through introspection and self-examination. Thus sometimes they blame her for their discomfort, fear, and anger, and sometimes they react in foul ways. This matter can apply somewhat broadly: in the moment I am considering how poorly treated Sarah Chrisman, a woman who lives as a modern Victorian, is when people take her presence as license to threaten her or grope her, touching her bum or lifting her skirt to have a look, and then they blame her for their actions or any resulting trouble. It is not ok for people to treat her like that, and it is not ok for them to have such little self-control. They have just as much a chance, and a responsibility, as anyone to heal themselves or to ask for help in healing themselves, but they choose not to. Instead blame her for their reactions….and thus they remain broken, committing similar acts again when someone else who is different crosses their paths.

Moving more specifically into the topic of polytheism--in an age and a dominant culture where people religion-shop, most people don't seem to understand the matter of being a polytheist. When a person realizes there are many gods, the matter of whether or not one “chooses” to be a polytheist is purely academic, and even dismissive; and it misses the point entirely.

We don’t “choose to believe” that there are many gods. There are many gods, and we acknowledge this. We don’t “choose” this life; it is our life. What some of us can choose is which deities we interact with—but some polytheists don’t have that option. What some of us can choose is how we interact with those deities, which formats we use, which lenses we look through, which groups, which rites, which customs, which traditions, which expressions, which religions, which relationships and agreements we take part in—but again, some polytheists don’t have those options. There are some things we have choices about and some things we do not. And some of us have requirements that we must fulfill in our agreements and relationships to the gods, or to our ancestors, or to our groups, or any combination thereof. (Those personal requirements can include anything from food prohibitions, abstaining from political matters, avoiding foul language, wearing or not wearing a covering on the head, wearing particular colors, shaving the head, never cutting the hair, avoiding contact with certain substances, waking at dawn for rites, and so on.)

These matters, and the nuances, the options, the requirements, and the places where options and requirements overlap, are not necessarily the business of others—they are the business of ourselves, our gods, our ancestors, and our kin, and our groups. Our requirements and choices have nothing to do with our intentionally wanting to cause the discomfort, inconvenience, scrutiny, fear, or ire of others. Most of us would wish these matters didn’t arouse others’ discomfort, inconvenience, scrutiny, fear, or ire. We don't do these things just to upset others; it's not even about them. We just want to get on with our Work and honoring our deities and ancestors. Again, asking questions to ferret out if a matter is requirement, or if it can be “dismissed” as personal choice,  is inexcusably nosy when the only reason for asking it is to assess whether or not one has a greater social license within dominant culture to be a jerk.

A polytheist shouldn’t feel as if she is put on trial to justify what are often private matters of requirements, choices, or the territory between the two, in order to make her differences look more legitimate and valid in the eyes of an already dismissive dominant culture bent on erasure in these matters. It is not her duty to make the other more comfortable, or to control or soothe the observer’s reactions; she is not responsible for someone else’s lack of self-discipline, self-assessment, and self-awareness, and self-control. And yet, many of us find ourselves in exactly these stressful situations, sometimes even unsafe situations, which require that we try, often at expense of ourselves, to help these people work through these matters for which they themselves should take personal responsibility. It’s not our job, but we get saddled with it because people haven’t done the work they need to heal these matters in their own lives. We end up being catalysts by which they have that opportunity for growth—unfortunately, they sometimes blame us for their own reactions. Any way it stands, our choices and requirements and the spaces between, are not a matters for others’ concern; but we find ourselves having to deal with others’ reactions anyway.

There is a tendency to treat choice with a certain disdain because if a person chooses something, it is thought that he can often be pressured to change his mind back into conforming to dominant culture’s norm. There is a tendency to treat requirement with less disdain because requirements are not as easily changed, a requirement recognizes that there is a hierarchy at work that the person with the requirement is under, and requirements are often seen as being automatically a little more legitimate (or at least more recognized) than personal choice. When a requirement is not well-known to the general public, that requirement is seen as having less legitimacy and there is the suspicion that it is a personal choice masquerading as a requirement that someone doesn’t want to take personal responsibility for, and thus some people have a tendency to treat those requirements, and the people who have them, with disdain. And when all else fails, many people will assume personal choice far more often than requirement, and will see this as a license to treat someone poorly in an attempt to get that person to conform to the familiar and seemingly-less-threatening standards of dominant culture.

These are problems and nuances that many of us must navigate daily.

Image Credits:
Photograph of Wholesale Brothers by Tomasz Moczek; photograph taken by Julo and photograph released into public domain by Julo.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Condolences to the Gods

Arch from Temple of Bel in Palmyra, 2005 before its destruction August 30, 2015

Words cannot express my horror and my grief at the loss of the Temple of Ba'al Shamin and the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. 

Words cannot express my horror and grief at the loss of this sacred place, at the losses endured by the gods Ba'al Shamin and Bel Marduk, at the loss endured by the ancestors, at the loss endured by ourselves and the countless generations to follow. My deepest condolences to the gods, to the ancestors, to all the beings affected including us humans.

The Temple of Ba'al Shamin was destroyed August 23, 2015, and the Temple of Bel was destroyed August 30, 2015. Updates from satellite imagery tells us that both temples were leveled to dust. I would put a link here that shows pictures of the devastation through satellite, but I just cannot bring myself to do it. I simply do not have the heart to look at those again. 

Palmyran Stele of Palmyran Gods. From left to right: moon god Aglibol, god of heavens Ba'al Shamin, sun god Yarkhibol or Malakbel.

Hail Ba'al Shamin, God of the Heavens, Lord of the World, Highest God, Holy Heavenly God, Lord of Heavens and of the Earth, Holy Lord, King, Creator of the Earth, Chief of the Gods, bringer of rain and sunlight and goodly weather, one who saves his people from drought, establisher of wisdom, warrior, avenger. Our deepest condolences. May your Temples be built anew. 

Bel Marduk, in bas relief from Elam

Hail Bel Marduk, First-Born of Enki, Calf of the Storm, King of Gods, bearer of Fifty Names, god of exorcism, god of abundant and fertile land, guarantor of destiny, god of lineage, god of kingship, god of society, god of magic, god of wisdom, god of judgement, bearer of the triangle-headed spade, rider of the snake-dragon Mushhushshu. Our deepest condolences. May your Temples be built anew. 

Lion of Al-Lat in 2010 before its defacement June 27, 2015

The Temple of Ba'al Shamin and the Temple of Bel were not the only sacred items destroyed and defaced at Palmyra. We may not know the extent of the damage until the terrorist group Daesh leaves. We do, however, know that the Lion of Al-Lat was damaged or flat-out destroyed. This statue, devoted and made in honor of the goddess Al-Lat, bears an inscription promising blessing upon those who do not shed blood in the sanctuary of Al-Lat. It was all that had remained of the temple of Al-Lat at Palmyra. 

The scribe god Nabu, and the god Ba'al Hammon, all had temples here in Palmyra, as well, and this was in ruins before Daesh, but if the Temple of Al-Lat, the Temple of Nabu, and the Temple of Ba'al Hammon had not already been in ruins, it is likely we would be mourning more losses of more temples. 

Seeing Palmyra destroyed is like seeing the Pyramids of Egypt wiped off the planet, or Stonehenge demolished, Machu Picchu missing. It is a great and deep loss, and it is one that we will suffer and all the generations that come after us will suffer. To honor the loss more keenly, here is a virtual tour of what Palmyra--and especially the Temple of Bel--looked like before the destruction wreaked in August 2015. What some people have a difficult time wrapping their heads around is that this isn't just a loss to the study of history, of heritage, of humanity, of art, and of architecture--although it is a loss to these things. It is a loss to diversity and religious diversity. It is a loss of sacred holy places touched by the deities themselves, and touched over generations of hands in devotion to these gods. Although the argument can be made that these were "dead" sites where devotion no longer occurred, consider that even just the heroic octogenarian archaeologist Khaled Al-Asaad was beheaded simply for wanting to preserve what little he could of Palmyran antiquities. How can anyone practice devotion or rebuild the crumbling temples in that environment, when practicing simple preservation of artifacts is considered an offense fit for death?

The damage isn't to Palmyra alone. They target temples, statues of deities, and the images of lions or magnificent beings who stand guard at gates, or the gates themselves. They destroyed the gateway lion statue at Al-Raqqah. They've jackhammered a lamassu guardian gateway statue at Nergal's Gate in Nineveh. They bulldozed an Assyrian palace in Nimrud and destroyed the lamassu guardian statues there. And they've been busy since March bulldozing Hatra. At Hatra, they've also shot at sacred images and have done their best to behead these images. They blaze their path of destruction using jackhammers to smash these things and guns to pelt these things with bullets, and they use bulldozers and explosives. 

At Palmyra, just look at what Daesh destroys--for this will harm them. They would try to blot out Bel Marduk, thus undermining their own legitimacy, strength, and claim to rule, as well as bringing sterility to the land they try to live in, and they would try to destroy a bringer of destinies. In trying to blot out Ba'al Shamin, they bring drought to the desert further destroying the fertility of the land they would try to live on, they would destroy a being who could have protected them from all manner of enemy and malady, and they would destroy wisdom itself. Not to mention the djinn who frequent ruins and are now homeless: remember, Daesh didn't just destroy the homes of these djinn, but they destroyed the Temple of Bel Marduk, and Bel Marduk is a god of exorcism. 

Daesh destroy not just old statues and sites known for tourism and history, but sacred places and blessings themselves. They literally destroyed a blessing. They literally destroyed an avenue through which the goddess Al-Lat and her consort pour their blessings when they destroyed the last guardian at the entrance of the already ruined Temple of Al-Lat. Destroying blessings is not only disgraceful, it is also a keenly stupid thing to do.

Beyond Palmyra, they smash the guardians at the gates, and they smash the very gates themselves. They smash the remnants of things cherished by protector guardian beings. Smashing things favorable to guardian beings is not a good way to ensure the guardians' continued support, protection, and guardianship; but it is certainly a way to encourage these guardian beings to remove their blessings and take those blessings elsewhere.

How egregiously stupid they are to try to pit themselves against the very forces, the very gods that make life livable and make life worth living. They have not assured their legitimacy. They have not blotted out the memory of the gods, and they surely have not killed the gods themselves. Instead, they have assured their own demise. 

A host of angry gods, several displaced protective guardian spirits, and a pack of furious homeless djinn biting at their heels? It's an image that soothes me to sleep when the hot, bitter tears threaten to overcome me. 

Let us mourn the loss of these Temples, the deity statues, the guardian statues, the holy gates, and these sacred things. Let us mourn the loss of sacred and holy space, of avenues through which the deities communicate and pour forth their grace and their blessings upon the world. Let us mourn that we cannot rebuild these temples, we cannot bring them back they way they were. We cannot see their grandeur again, and our children and their children and their children will never see these things either. We must mourn these things honestly and fully and deeply. We must experience the horror, the rage, and the sorrow. We must be fully cognizant of the depth of this loss for the deities, the ancestors, other beings, ourselves, and our future generations, and the devastation that these acts of violation cause to the relationships amidst us and the Divine Beings. Let us curse the ones who erase, and let us curse them with every drop of venom we have. But even as we mourn the loss to our deities, and even as we curse the ones who erase, let us also prepare for the future. 

We must not just rebuild, but build anew. The ones who erase have one fear, and that is that their erasure will fail, and that we will remember these deities and that we will remember and keep well the sacred places and the sacred things that these Divine Beings would share with us. We must honor these gods and keep them in name, in devotion, in memory, in art, in song, in poetry, in conversation. We must ensure that they are Gods Not Forgotten....

No matter how powerless we feel at seeing this rampant horrific destruction and violation, we have the two powers that matter most: Memory and Devotion. We should use them well. 

Image Credits: