Myths and the gods

The Shakespeare Theater is doing an adaption of the Oresteia (compressing it to one play of three acts) this season, and reading the notes on it in the season guide got me to musing about the nature of myth, especially in regards to the mythic portrayal of the gods. It’s fashionable these days to comb through (for example) the Greek myths and point out (with an odd combination of salacious humor and prim outrage) the “awful behavior” of Zeus.  And too much of the urban fantasy these days portrays the gods and spirits as just people with powers (if not spoiled superchildren or divine vending machines), and treats them flippantly or disrespectfully.

I think a lot of modern Western humanity’s arch snarking about the subject (and an underlying discomfort that causes it) comes from a number of modern, Western ideas:  1) that the gods and their motivations and plans are entirely knowable by and comprehensible to humanity; 2) that every situation allows us to make the right choice that leads to a good outcome or the wrong choice that leads to a bad outcome; 4) that we are capable of judging the gods and their actions as much as if not more so than vice versa; 5) that humanity is the crown of creation, the apex of evolution, and the master of its own fate…

All of these ideas are false from the polytheistic point of view.  Yes, myths can be re-interpreted (with respect), and the gods change the way they work with us as we change and are changed.  One real change about the modern era- it seems to be possible (though not for everyone) to ignore the gods… but if you choose to interact with them, and also try to hold onto any of those ideas, you’re in for a rude surprise.

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Facets

I freaked myself out a bit today.  I got pulled into an informal working meeting in my boss’s office, and afterwards I realized I’d been in an entirely different mode than usual for me (even at work)- confident, assured, completely and helpfully coherent- and entirely unselfconscious about about it.

I don’t really think of this as a mask in the sense of a falsification of my genuine personality.  It’s more a way to show a different facet of me, one appropriate to the situation and audience.

I do the same thing in ritual space, although there are many different possible facets and sometimes I need to spend extra effort in remembering when to switch from one to another.  For example, at Universal Temple of Spirits services that I attend (most of them in a given year), I’m almost always one of the people singing the opening prayers that connect the current place and time to the ongoing and permanent spiritual structure of the ritual, building the sacred space of hospitality and worship that we need.  That requires an odd split where part of me is singing prayers and names (often in other languages than English) while part of me is paying attention to the energy of the process.  During the main part of the services, I’m switching modes quite often- drumming is different than dancing and singing is different than keeping an eye out for who might be getting possessed (or is needing a little nudge either towards or away from that) is different from attending to the needs of a spirit who is riding someone is different from interacting with that spirit more directly.

I’m not always good at this.  I need to work on being less self-conscious; I need to work on better selection of what facet needs to shine at what time.  But I’m definitely getting better.

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.

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.

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