When polytheism as opposed to just paganism began to make an appearance on my radar, which was at least ten years ago now, it was usually accompanied by two things: An emphasis on reconstruction of authentic traditions and an expectation or presumption that the polytheist would be grounded in a particular culture, a particular pantheon. ADF, based on a comparative religious method that sought the commonalities among religions in Indo-European cultures, was using the term “hearth culture”, and they still do, if not so strictly as I recall from a decade ago. Polytheists I encountered online (and I must be clear and admit that’s the only way I was encountering them) tended to be Celtic Recons, short for Reconstructionists, or Heathen or Asatru or a variation thereof, worshipping the Norse gods, or else Hellenic, focused on the religion of ancient Greece. There was not a lot of mixing and matching; people stayed within the boundaries of their chosen gods and cultural milieu, as they defined those boundaries. There was a certain degree of ideological purity, and people often seemed to be united by a dislike for Wicca because it honored or “worked with” the gods in a framework that wasn’t scrupulously derived from research into ancient cultures.
Ten years later, polytheists are more numerous, I think, more visibly diverse, and a lot more laid back about many things. A polytheist may honor the gods of Rome, but also have a devotion for Frey, or identify as Vanatru rather than Asatru, a worshipper of the Vanir, or practice Hinduism or Buddhism alongside Wicca, Faery witchcraft, or Hellenic polytheism.
And then there’s the glorious mess that is the Ekklesia Antinoou: “a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and related deities and divine figures”. That’s my tribe.
How did I wind up in the glorious mess? Well, really, it was him. Antinous. The guy in the picture. Pretty face, and a nice ass, too. I don’t say that to be flippant; rather, I say it with delight. It may sound shallow to say that I was drawn to this god by the beauty of his images, but when you’re talking about Antinous, it’s not shallow. It’s an essential part of the picture.
There is a lovely phrase from the Psalms that often comes up in Anglican worship: “The beauty of holiness.” In Christian conception God is supreme goodness, supreme truth, and supreme beauty. Goodness and truth are themselves beautiful; divinity is desirable, attractive. A fine thread of erotic imagery runs through the Christian mystical tradition, welling up out of the sensuous Song of Songs in the Tanakh and running through sermons, visions, poems. Its exemplars include Teresa of Avila and Mechtild of Magdeburg, but also Bernard of Clairvaux and John of the Cross. It seems to have fallen out of favor nowadays; people seem embarrassed by the idea of erotic feelings for a god. That might be one reason why I gave up on Jesus and started hanging around with Antinous.
Antinous is a youthful god, and his beauty was an important characteristic in his mortal life, one that he was seen to preserve into his divinity. Like Dionysus, he was associated with pleasure, fertility, sexuality, and freedom from tyranny or inhibition. Like Apollo, he gave oracles, inspired poetry, and presided over athletic contests, encouraging excellence of body as well as mind. Like Hermes, he acted as mediator and intermediary between god and god, god and human, patron of communication and guide in difficulties. Like Osiris, he was made divine by immersion in the Nile and ruled over the afterlife, making it safe for his devotees.
And he was beautiful. He is beautiful. There are more surviving images of Antinous than of any other person in the classical world except for Hadrian and Augustus. Hadrian was, like Augustus, a great builder and beautifier of public spaces, and he loved Antinous passionately; he must have encouraged the making of sacred images of his deified beloved as part of promoting his worship around the Empire.
Antinous is a god who values many things which are deeply important to me: Poetry, beauty, creativity, good health, freedom, pleasure, sexuality, erotic love. It amuses me that I wrote slash fanfiction for many years, putting presumably heterosexual male characters from popular media into romantic and sexual relationships, only to fall at last for a historical slash couple, as it were. I would not have approached the god if it were not for his beauty, not just the proportions of his body, but the kindness in his face.
Many people find the images of Antinous melancholy. They think his calm expression, his tilted head and lowered eyes, betoken sadness. I see, instead, the face of a listener. He is a god who has been mortal, who has loved and been loved, and I find him always approachable, always ready to listen.