Worship, service, and agency

I’ve been, at various times in my life, an Episcopalian, a Druid, a Tibetan Buddhist, and now a pagan polytheist. My regular spiritual practices have changed a lot in accordance with various paths. Yet there’s always been a thread of continuity in my spirituality, no matter what I called myself or what I did. That thread was worship.

I have always been a worshipper. As a child, I went to a little Episcopal church that was firmly set in the High Church tradition: Eucharist every week, before that was the norm; colored vestments; lots of sung liturgy and incense; even the reserved Sacrament on the altar, to which we genuflected every time we crossed in front of it. (This may be why my knees are so bad today.) We had Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, borrowed from Roman Catholic tradition, and bowed before the consecrated Bread, exposed in a monstrance, a cross-shaped shrine of gold and jewels.

I started to drift away from the Church as a teenager. I looked in other traditions, witchcraft, neopaganism, but always drifted back to the Church. The Church had structure–liturgy, scripture, prayer book, hymns; the Church had worship, even if I often felt I was not really connecting with Jesus, God, whatever.

I didn’t know for a long time that worship was what I missed. As a druid I flailed about trying to find my patron deity or deities, which was what all the cool kids were doing at the time. As a Tibetan Buddhist I was more attracted to practicing deities like Green Tara and Medicine Buddha than to meditation. It wasn’t until I found or was found by Antinous and introduced to concepts like making simple offerings that I realized worship, devotion, maybe even surrender were the things that had always been missing from my spiritual practice.

I see a lot of witches and occultists say things like, “I don’t worship deities, I work with them. I’m not religious or devotion-oriented, I make pacts with spirits as an equal. A witch bows to no one.” Well, okay. But my theory is that everybody worships something. The U.S.A. is full of nominal Christians who actually worship Donald Trump. I’ve seen plenty of people who look to me like they’re worshipping a quarterback, or a radio personality, or an actor. Some people with an excess of power and money are quite obviously worshipping themselves.

You see, whatever you most deeply value, that’s what you worship. It may or may not be embodied in a deity or spirit, but that value is your god. The very root of the word “worship” is about value: “worth-ship”. Not about subservience, groveling, fear, or dependence, but value. Do you offer time, money, effort to a spirit, deity, or cause? Do you ask them for help? Do you give thanks for receiving it? That’s worship.

It doesn’t matter what your motivation is–whether it’s fear, or not fear, whether it’s devotion and love for a deity, or just a need of a spirit’s power and expertise. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big cosmic or celestial deity or a humble ancestor or a wee nature spirit. The exchange of offering and blessing, petition and response and thanksgiving, that is worship. The act of acknowledging worth in a being is worship.

antinous_pio-clementino_inv256_n2On the other hand, worship is not necessarily service. I worship Antinous and a mixed pantheon of mostly but not exclusively Roman deities associated with him. The major Roman deities, those called the Dii Consentes, get regular offerings from me, though I don’t practice in a strictly Roman way. But I don’t serve all of them.  I worship many gods–which is, after all, the definition of being a polytheist; however, I don’t serve them all. I am not at every passing spirit’s disposal. I serve only Antinous and the goddess Melinoe, daughter of Hades and Persephone, and most of that service looks like doing what I ought to do, or want to do, anyway (such as writing, or practicing good self-care), but with them in mind. I think of myself not as a servant or a slave, but more as an agent, carrying out their agenda under their authority, but with a good deal of freedom, like an agent of SHIELD. *g*

Everyone worships something. Perhaps not everyone has the urge toward service, toward devotion, toward a deeply passionate, committed relationship with a deity. Some of us do, and it can be a joyful and fulfilling relationship that in no way violates human dignity. My love for gods only enhances my life, because it’s reciprocated by their love for me.

 

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Sacred Nights: Foundation Day

Some years I write and post a lot during the Sacred Nights, when we celebrate Mystery of Antinous’ life, death, and deification. This was not one of those years. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t observing the holy days; I made some small solitary ritual at home, and I start every day with a brief journal entry that includes the phase and sign of the Moon and the holy day on the calendar.

But I was observing other things, too, this year, in the wider sense. I was observing racism and antisemitism at work. I was observing violence against elderly members of a minority religion, carried out in their place of worship on their weekly sacred day. I was observing threats to prominent members of the more liberal political party in my country, pipe bombs delivered by mail. I was observing a President who neither condemned these actions nor took responsibility for his incitement of them through his rhetoric.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious, frightened, and depressed during the Sacred Nights. I took refuge in the most positive, optimistic pop culture I could find–Supergirl and Doctor Who–and when watching those shows didn’t help, I took refuge under the covers of my bed with my stuffed animals.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, a nation which is the home of many devotees of Antinous, a national leader has been elected who is overtly a Christian fascist, eager to force his brand of Catholicism on the country. Brazil’s queer, trans, and pagan citizens are even more scared than those in the U.S., and we’re pretty scared up here.

Today is Foundation Day, when Antinous’ body was found on the banks of the Nile and the local priesthood of Osiris took charge of him, recognizing that he had become a god. It is so called because Hadrian’s response to Antinous’ death, after the first wave of terrible grief, was to declare that he would build a city on the place where his beloved’s body was discovered; the discovery of Antinous’ body was the founding of Antinoopolis. Hadrian, a great builder throughout his reign, carried out his resolution and built a thriving city in memory of the Beautiful Boy; he also promoted his beloved’s cultus throughout the Empire.

History happens. The cult of Antinous was suppressed and all but forgotten like the much older cults of so many gods. The city of Antinoopolis survives only as picturesque ruins. Yet his sacred images survive; his cultus has been revived, and his city forms the shape of our sacred space in his rituals. Every year we devotees of Antinous re-found his sacred city and make it more real in the manifest world, a place where equality and friendship are paramount values and love, beauty, good health, and the arts can flourish. That, to me, is what his cultus is about.

On many holy days, Jewish people around the world make the devout wish, “Next year in Jerusalem!”, hoping to come together one day in their own city in their own land. If I may, I will borrow that sentiment and say, “This year, this place, this is Antinoopolis. This is the city of the Beautiful Boy and we are its citizens, right here, right now.” May all of us dwell in our own holy city and worship our own god in peace and joy. May it be so.

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Taking the auspices

I notice birds.

White-headed Munia
Hildegard & Alexander were White-Headed Nuns

I began to notice birds back around 1992, when my then-husband and I brought a pair of tiny exotic finches into our home. We named them Hildegard and Alexander. Two years later, we added zebra finches whom we called Papageno and Rosamund to our flock. I used to refer to them as the home entertainment center because watching their interactions was better than TV.

I began to notice outside birds, and of course, I still do. That pair of finches inaugurated a life-long love affair with our avian friends. Wherever I go, I’m attuned to the presence of birds. Even seeing some house sparrows brightens my day. I was thrilled the other day when I spotted a pair of goldfinches feeding on what I think were echinacea flowers outside a 7-11.

The Romans also noticed birds. The word “auspices” comes from Latin and is a contraction of “avis” and “specere”, literally, to look at birds. They divined by laying out a sacred space and watching the sky for the movement of particular birds. They also consulted sacred chickens (never insult the sacred chickens, it’s bad luck).

Taking the auspices relies mainly on watching for unusual patterns of bird activity. But I look at the normal bird activity in my East Coast U.S. city and think about the gods who are patrons of the birds I see.

rock_dove_rwd2Take pigeons, for example. Pigeons have a bad rep, but they are technically feral rock doves. Their ancestors were domesticated for thousands of years, for their meat and for their companionship. Doves belong to Venus and Aphrodite, so that includes the humble urban pigeon and the fancier mourning dove, one of my favorite birds with its soft subtle colors and hollow crooning call.

I think songbirds, too, belong to Venus, though that’s my own headcanon (or UPG, if you prefer). That includes the invasive house sparrows and starlings and the native sparrows and goldfinches who populate the city, and the juncos who winter here. I’d assign her the cardinal, too, who pair-bonds as devotedly as the dove.

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Large and loud

We also have a lot of Canada geese who used to winter here and then just never went home. (I’ve started calling them Chesapeake geese.) Geese belong to Juno and were kept at her temple in Rome, where they warned the citizens of a Gaulish invasion. Juno was given the title “Moneta”, the warner or admonisher, in gratitude; because coins were struck at the temple, currency acquired the name “money”.

Crows and ravens belong to Apollo. I don’t see ravens in my urban neighborhood, but there are lots of crows. I have a probably bad habit of cawing back at them when I hear their slightly nasal “awk, awk” coming from overhead.

The eagle belongs to Jupiter. I have actually seen bald eagles near my workplace, because it lies close to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. I once watched in astonishment as a mockingbird attacked a bald eagle, swooping and even ramming the much larger bird, which simply sat there atop the power lines with a long-suffering air. I would tend to associate other raptors with Jupiter, too. We have a peregrine falcon nest atop one of our skyscrapers that has been in use for decades, and I’ve seen smaller hawks, too.

longwood_2012_10_20_1074_28867391559029You might be surprised to know that a bird I see frequently and all over the city is the Northern mockingbird. This is entirely my headcanon, but I can’t help thinking a bird whose scientific name is Mimus polyglottis, and who can imitate everything from another species of bird to those obnoxious car alarms that go through half a dozen noises, has to belong to Mercury. They are clever and also fearless, whether of humans or of other birds; threaten a mocker’s territory at your own risk.

As trees belong to Silvanus, flowers to Flora, the seasons to Vertumnus, so the birds belong to different gods and embody their presence. And I wonder what gods or spirits or numina (to borrow a very useful Roman word) watch over the companion birds in our lives? The highly popular cockatiel, budgerigar, and zebra finch all hail originally from Australia; other popular birds come from Africa and South America. I am grateful to those unknown numina for the birds who have shared my home.

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My boy

One of many, really, just a particular one

This Sunday I had the pleasure of entertaining a friend in my new apartment for a couple of hours. In the course of our conversation, my friend, who is a polytheist like myself and, in addition, a former Catholic, asked me how I was handling returning to regular (Episcopal) church attendance, as a polytheist devoted to Antinous. Was it strange or difficult, she wondered, getting involved with Jesus again?

The question proved surprisingly easy to answer, or maybe not surprisingly, given that I had been thinking about it anyway. And given that I know of more than one pagan or polytheist who is a member of an Episcopal or Unitarian church, I thought my answers would be worth sharing.

First of all, being in church does not necessarily involve a devotional relationship with Jesus, if by “devotional” you mean having a lot of feelings. I have a lot of feelings for Antinous, and I pay him cultus every day; I don’t have the same feelings for, say, Mars or Minerva, but I still pay them respectful cultus at certain times. Sunday is a day when I pay cultus to Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit, in a gathering with other people.

Second, being in church is mostly about the other people. It’s about community and communion with the people sitting in the pews with me, and with the people who came before us in the tradition. It’s about pre-Reformation saints like Benedict, the father of Western Christian monasticism, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich; it’s about specifically Anglican forebears like John Donne, George Herbert, Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle. And it’s about my childhood, the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal, a body of literature that includes but is far from exclusive to the Bible. The luminaries of the Anglican spiritual tradition are also leading lights of English literature. Being in church, thus, is as much ancestor worship as anything else.

It’s true that the Christian liturgy, no matter how progressive or in what denomination, assumes a theology of monotheism and, ultimately, the superiority of Christianity over other religions. However, there is a lot of ancient religious literature, including a good chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures, that assumes polytheism, but still addresses a particular deity as The Greatest of All Time. Many of the deities of Egypt were hymned as creator, all-giver, supreme on earth and in heaven, all-wise, all-powerful, and so forth–while twenty miles away, another deity entirely was praised in the same way. The fancy word for this is henotheism, which Wikipedia defines as “the worship of a single god while not denying the existence or possible existence of other deities.” In ancient Thebes, you called Amun the supreme god; in Rome, Jupiter was the all-ruler; in Athens, it was Zeus, but the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did not argue woh was *really* the supreme deity. While I’m in church, the Christian Trinity is the One God (even if I think they are actually three).

Antinoan scholar P. Sufenas Virius Lupus once said to me, “Jesus and Antinous have been friends for a long time.” This seemed self-evidently true to me at the time, and still does. PSVL also once wrote about looking at the gods as individuals who hold certain values, rather than as bureaucrats with certain functions. For example, Antinous is not really The Gay God (a lot of the gods are pretty gay by our standards) or a god of gayness, sitting behind a lavender desk in a celestial bureaucracy and signing forms pertaining to gay people with a purple pen. Rather, he is a god who values gay and lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans people, along with prophecy, healing, poetry, hunting, theatre, and introducing mortals and immortals to one another at parties. Jesus is a god who values the poor, the marginalized, the excluded, the Othered, which means that in our culture right now, he and Antinous are concerned about a lot of the same people. And Jesus also likes parties with plenty of wine.

From a Christian point of view, I suppose, I am a contumacious heretic, but from a polytheist point of view, Jesus is one of many gods and it’s up to me, or any individual, whether I want to worship him. Ask me about my heresies, and I’ll gladly explain them to you.

Let’s talk about something else

There are a number of topics I’d rather not talk about right now, gentle readers, including but not limited to my hiatus in writing, whether trans women are really women (they are), and whether all goddesses manifest as Maidens, Mothers, and Crones (I think not). At a certain point one has to look at some of the shenanigans on the internet and say, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” or perhaps, “Not my theology, not my deities.”
So let’s talk about something else. Here’s a suggestion: Are the Greek and Roman deities the same beings?

The ancient Greeks and Romans certainly identified their pantheons with one another. The Greeks interpreted the gods of Egypt in terms of their own gods; Zeus was Ammon or Amun, Dionysus was Osiris, Hermes was Thoth. The Romans interpreted the gods of the Celtic and Germanic tribes as Roman, building shrines and temples to Apollo Belenus and Mars Cocidios. Even late-comer Antinous was identified with Belenus.

So here is–I don’t want to call it my personal gnosis. Here are my impressions. Better yet, to borrow a fandom term, here are my headcanons about the gods, the things that are canonical for me, in my head.

Christian philosopher Nicholas of Cusa wrote that “God is an infinite circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”. He was thinking of the Christian god, but I would apply those words to Hestia and Vesta. The hearth goddess, the sacred fire whose presence creates home and altar and temple, she is surely the infinite center of a circle whose circumference is everywhere and nowhere.

If I were to draw a Venn diagram of Hermes and Mercury, their two circles would overlap almost entirely. Hermes is a bit more tricksterish, Mercury concerned a bit more with business and commerce. But I tend to invoke them in the same breath, and to honor them together with Thoth, Seshat (the Egyptian goddess of records, archives, and libraries), and Hermanubis (the son of Isis and Serapis).

Aphrodite and Venus, on the other hand, seem to me to be quite distinct. My mental image of Aphrodite is of a golden-haired beauty who appears to be in her twenties, although if you look into her eyes, you see she is much older. My mental image of Venus is of a dark-haired woman in her forties–okay, basically my mental image of Venus is Gina Bell as Sophie Devereaux in Leverage. Dark-haired, olive-skinned, always perfectly dressed, and simultaneously the mom friend in any gathering and the embodiment of what a man desires in a woman, able to show each particular man the face he desires to see.

I have to admit that my perspective on Zeus and Hera has been influenced perhaps beyond saving by the myths about them I read as a child. I know intellectually that Zeus is more than the chronically unfaithful dad, Hera more than the scold who hides her hurt beyond anger at the wrong targets, but my emotions say Nope. Jupiter and Juno are easier for me to relate to, separately from those myths and from Zeus and Hera, as the god and goddess of the sky, of rain and cloud and weather, and as the granters and guardians of sovereignty, along with Minerva. They were worshipped as a triad on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, and I tend to approach them that way. Jupiter guards the sovereignty of the state and desires that it be good and just. Juno guards the sovereignty of women and, by extension, other minorities. Minerva guards what I would call intellectual integrity, public reputation, virtuous conduct as a citizen.

Apollo is just the same everywhere. The Romans were quite direct about having imported him, and likewise Dionysus, even if they called him Bacchus. I don’t have much relationship with Diana or Artemis, but my headcanon is that they are not the same goddess, but have closely overlapping interests. Demeter, Persephone, and Hades are such major deities for me that I have little sense of Ceres, Proserpina, and Dis Pater at all. My headcanon for Demeter, incidentally, is absolutely Majel Barrett as Lwaxana Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation. She even calls her daughter “little one” instead of her given name.

So that’s the end of my round in this game, gentle readers. Stop by and tell me who you think is the same or different in the pantheons of Greece and Rome, or anywhere else.