Myths changing over time

I was just thinking about the modern re-working of the Persephone myth… the one where She and Hades are actually in love and elope instead of Him abducting Her.  I’m not going to bother digging up references- it’s all over the Pagan community, and even outside it (Messner-Loebs and Keith’s Epicurus the Sage has an amusing example…).  I’ve heard a few polytheists grousing about such modernizations, claiming that they are disrespectful to the Gods involved, and constitute a “politically correct” whitewashing of the truth.

I don’t agree.  Myths are sourced in the Gods and the holy, but they were given form by human minds and human culture.  Whether you think that the Gods change or not (I have my thoughts on the matter, which I may touch on at a later date), human thinking and culture do change, and have changed quite radically since the time the Greek myths were formulated.  Marriage by capture was widely practiced in the ancient Mediterranean, but it’s no longer something considered acceptable in the cultures that formed modern Paganism.  The lens changes, the image changes – even though the source of light remains the same.

This doesn’t mean that I can go around changing myths just because they make me feel uncomfortable or unhappy.  The Gods have the last word on Their stories, and should always be consulted.  I can’t speak for practitioners of Hellenismos or other Greek reconstructionist Pagan traditions, but I know that my group has sung songs for Persephone that use the modern form of the myth- and She was pleased.

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Praises to Brigid

Something I wrote recently:

Praises to Brigid

Hail Brigid, thrice great, thrice powerful, thrice blessed!

I arise today in praise of You,
O Brigid.
For the blessing of water I praise You,
O Brigid.
For the blessing of fire I praise You,
O Brigid.
For words on my tongue I praise You,
O Brigid.
For skill in my hands I praise You,
O Brigid.
For cradle and hearth I praise You,
O Brigid.
For the protection of the fian I praise You,
O Brigid.
For justice for the weak I praise You,
O Brigid.
For healing for the sick, I praise You,
O Brigid.
For keening for the dead I praise You,
O Brigid.
For Your mantle around the Earth I praise You,
O Brigid.

Bíodh sé amhlaidh!

LARP and Ministry (part 3)

So, now I’ve racked up two posts about playing a priest character in a LARP for over a decade, and how that affected my this-world ministerial and devotional practice.  The first post was about spiritual counseling, the second about exegesis.  This third, (probably) last but (I hope) not least post will be about creating and performing prayers and ritual.

One can gather from prior posts that I didn’t create this religion for the game, nor was I the first to craft rituals and devotional practices for it.  There was already an established outline for the standard religious service, with prayers and invocations for various occasions.  There was, as well, a funeral service and blessings for the dead (important indeed in a world where combat against monsters and dark forces was a common occurrence).  The writers introduced new rituals and prayers occasionally, on at least one occasion having me hurry about to collect certain items and set a specific stage without letting me know what it was for until just before the ritual was about to commence.

But I was also allowed a great deal of creativity.  In some cases, I was creating something that already “existed ” in the game, but had never come into play- there had never been an in-game wedding in our faith, and so it was my pleasure to write the outline for one.  For another example, the ecclesiastical letters that I mentioned in post 2 always contained an appropriate prayer or invocation written by or revealed to the founder of the faith.

On the other hand, I had established my character as having some interest in and skill at poetry.  I wrote a number of prayers completely, and adapted several others (from sources including St. Francis as well as Kipling).  I also brought a devotional dimension into the ritual of making someone aware of magic by adding a guided meditation that used an appropriate story from the founding of the religion.

The most obvious benefit to my this-world practice was in making my public performance more confident.  I’m an introvert with some social anxiety and shyness; having a “playground” in which to practice being a celebrant helped me when I was doing the real thing outside of the game.  And the creativity involved in crafting in-game ritual and writing in-game religious poetry also resonated with my general creative life; more concretely, the in-game prayers I was writing were generally rhymed and metered, which challenged me usefully (as readers of my poetry here may notice, I work in free verse most of the time).  And all of my creative work is dedicated to my Patroness first, though I think She’s amused and bemused by my LARP work…

Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. LeGuin was one of the first writers I came across when I discovered fantasy fiction.  I found her Earthsea Trilogy fascinating in concept, absorbing in detail, captivating in character… and ultimately, disappointing in its philosophy.  Still, I hold a deep love for the second book, and the work as a whole sparked my early interest in Taoism.

She was a profound influence on modern fantasy and science fiction… John Scalzi described her as “the spiritual mother of generations of writers.”  She was an outspoken feminist and a strong believer in the moral and intellectual value of SF&F.  She believed passionately in the power of imagination to make the world a better place.

I can’t think of a more fitting epitaph for her than her own words:

“Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.

—The Creation of Éa”

Thoughts and Prayers

One of the things I’ve noticed over the past year (possibly brought to the fore by the large number of natural disasters in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as the horrible world-wide refugee situation and the proliferation of mass shootings and terrorist attacks) is the amount of scorn being heaped on the frequently-repeated statement of “our thoughts and prayers are with them” (or its equivalent).

I think a lot of this is due to the knee-jerk atheism that seems to be hip these days.  Even in those who aren’t atheist, there seems to be a lack of belief in the effectiveness of prayer, in the idea that the divine can and will affect the material world.  And a lot of Pagans (and other people who believe in magic) seem to shy away from the idea of prayer in general because it’s “too Christian”.

There also seems to be a false dichotomy being set up- that anyone who offers “thoughts and prayers” in response to a horrible situation is just being lazy, that they’re automatically not actually helping in other ways.  That may be the case in some folks, but it isn’t in all.  Any good magician knows you need to act in the material and the spiritual world at the same time; every Pagan should take that principle to heart as well.

Also, sometimes, there is simply nothing else we can do.  Someone we know is in trouble- a messy divorce, a fatal illness, serious mental illness.  But they are far away, or their material needs are provided for, or we have no way to help them… or perhaps, our own stock of spoons is so low that we can’t be of material aid.  All we can do is tell them that our thoughts are with them.  It could be that just knowing we hear them and we’re aware of their pain will help them.

Finally:  I’m a polytheist.  I have, to use the Anomalous Thracian’s elegant phrase, “a religious regard for many real Gods”.  That means They can hear my prayers, and choose to act on them if They so choose.  When I tell someone, “you are in my prayers”, it is not trivial to me- or to the Gods.   It is a real and meaningful offer of aid, one that takes time, effort, and sometimes cost.

Hospitality and my tradition

One of the centers of my devotional practice is an eclectic trance possession group called the Universal Temple of Spirits.  Not going to go into detail here, but please feel free to explore the website and ask respectful questions in the comments.

Anyway, one of our central tenets and paths of service is Hospitality.  The way I see it working in our devotional ceremonies is that we create a space of hospitality, a warm and safe “feast hall” as it were, and we send out “invitations” to the Spirits that the mortal attendees want/need/have been told/etc. to invite.

The Spirits we invite are our Guests; it is their choice whether to show up or not, and to help or counsel or chastise or comfort; or to indulge in the song and dance, the food and drink; or to send Their “regrets” as energy or goodwill; or to not respond at all.  We are the Hosts;  it is our duty to make Them welcome and to provide for Them, to honor and praise Them, to heed Their words and respect Their wishes, and to be aware of how They want to interact with us.

It’s a delicate balance, though.  Just like in the ancient tales and myths that touch on hospitality, the Guests have duties, even though They are greater than us- noblesse oblige, perhaps, and definitely remembering not to abuse Their welcome.  And we as Hosts have rights as well- as John Beckett has said many times, we retain our sovereignty, even with the Gods.

LARP and Ministry (part 2)

So, in an earlier post I started musing about what benefit came from my playing a priest for over ten years in a live action roleplaying game (aka LARP).  It certainly honed my spiritual counseling skills, but that wasn’t the only thing.  It also gave me some useful experience with theological exegesis.

Let me give a little background here, without (hopefully) getting too deep into the nerdy details.  My character was a priest of a functionally henotheistic religion dedicated to the worship of the goddess who had created humanity.  The prime tenet of the faith was “Harm None”.  Sound familiar?  This made being an adherent of the faith somewhat… challenging, especially since the LARP setting was a dangerous, D&D like world full of monsters, evil cultists, lunatic wizards, demons, etc.  Obviously, a “turn the other cheek” or complete pacifist approach to this commandment would be ludicrous (and suicidal).

But one of the head writers for the LARP worked with me, and we turned this problem into an opportunity.  One obvious thing that I could say as my character was that the prime tenet applied only to fellow humans- monsters and other sentient races were not the concern of the goddess, so it was all right to fight them (and in fact encouraged in the case of those who were inimical to humanity).

But of course there were also brigands, thieves, and just generally nasty folk.  For this, the head writer and I resorted to a a more cunning plan- we created a series of letters that the human founder of the faith had written, explaining important matters to the first priests he had ordained.  And the very first one was about the “Harm None” commandment.

The founder wrote that the goddess preferred her folk to be peaceful, and to stop wrongdoers without violence, but when that failed, then she did not forbid violence.  It was incumbent upon people of faith to act in order to prevent harm- even if that meant causing smaller harm in order to prevent greater harm.  To fight bandits to stop them from murdering, to fight invaders to stop them from raping and plundering, to fight thieves to stop them from stealing from the weak- this was allowable.

But the goddess’s folk also had to judge- were they acting to cause the least harm?  Were they keeping violence as a last resort and not a ready tool?  And did they always remember that even a justifiable use of violence was in some way a failure, one that the user would have to explain during their post-death judgment?

The letter went on from there to explore topics such as reparations, forgiveness (both divine and human), even suicide. I did most of the heavy theological lifting on this, with the head writer providing important guidance, historical context, and suggestions.  It was challenging and fascinating, and it worked– I know for a fact that it restored the faith of one of the other characters who was a follower of the goddess- and blew the mind of the player as well.

The head writer and I went on to write (by current count) six more letters, dealing with matters such as free will, love and marriage, birth and death, etc.  Just to make things a bit meta, I got to read theses letters in character and do a further level of exegesis on them in explaining them to other characters.  The whole experience worked to greatly improve my theological thinking.  It was also a lot of fun.

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