Lord, come and save us

I have more than once heard pagans talk about how their Christian parents, teachers, or pastors talked about being saved, and they never knew what they were being saved *from*. If I’d grown up in a church that talked a lot about life as dangerous, about the possibility of hell, about divine wrath–something Episcopalians are noticeably not big on–I’d probably have come to ask the same question eventually: What’s so dangerous? What am I being “saved” from?

It took me a ritual initiation and five decades of maturity to come up with an answer for that question. image005

In November of 2017, I flew to Seattle from the other side of the country to put myself in the hands of people I’d only met on the internet and undergo initiation into the Mysteries of Antinous. Through the ritual actions of a very capable group of witches and devotees of the god, I underwent an experience of death and revival that changed me on a deep level. Nothing I had experienced before or since has been so terrifying and so exalted. I came out of it with a magnified trust in the Beautiful God that when I die, I will be welcome on his Barque of Millions of Years.

Some time later, it occurred to me that Christian baptism was supposed to do the same thing: To put an end to the initiate’s old life, bring them through the underworld, and induct them into a new life as the god. On a day in Seattle, Washington, I became Antinous. Theoretically, on February 13th in the year of my birth, I had already become Christ.

If you attend the liturgy of the Easter Vigil in a Roman Catholic or Episcopal church nowadays, you will see something that approximates what adult converts to Christianity experienced in Jerusalem in the fourth century C.E. There will be fire kindled in the darkness, and a procession that carries the light of that fire forward and spreads it around. There will be stories told of the whole history of the world, from the creation recorded in Genesis up to the time of Jesus. There will be blessing of waters and a ritual conjunction of the fire and the water. There will be a great deal of chanting, a sudden illumination, the dazzle of white vestments, baptism followed by a joyful celebration of the Eucharist.

The Paschal Triduum from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday is an initiation rite that sends the converts on the same journey as Jesus: to be arrested, tried, and executed, to descend into the underworld, to free the prisoners there, to lead them into a new life. Every person baptized becomes the resurrected Christ, living from the divine life. The readings weave in the history of the Hebrew people as told in the Old Testament so that baptized also become members of a community who went through the waters of the Red Sea together and were led by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of flame, embodied in the Paschal candle.

Christianity was a school or sect within Judaism that mutated first into a mystery cult, then into a state religion. Like the cults of Isis or Mithras, Bacchus or Orpheus, it promised contact with exotic (i.e., not Roman) deities, secret pathways through the afterlife, and a post-mortem existence that was at least as satisfying as earthly life, if not more so. Before any of those deities brought their cults into Rome, Greeks and Romans, too, had streamed to Eleusis every autumn for hundreds of years to partake of the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone and be assured of a pleasant station in the afterlife.

All of these mystery cults promised salvation. Jesus was not the only deity called “Soter”, savior, in Greek. The savior gods were the rescuers who promised a good afterlife to those who underwent their mysteries. What were people seeking to be saved from? Death. Death without a destination.

What happens if you don’t prepare for death ahead of time, if you don’t undergo a mystery and find a place with a particular god? I’m not going to tell you that I know! What I do know that is that both Norse cosmology and Greek cosmology have a place for people who just die, and haven’t deserved either punishment or special reward, and don’t know the secret handshakes and the passwords. In the North, the vast majority of the dead wind up in Helheim, where the table is set only with bread and water, but there is food for all and room for them. In Greece, Hades was called the Receiver or Host of Many, and the greatest part of his domain was Asphodel, where the shades of the dead lived a thin and insubstantial life.

Perhaps the uninitiated dead wind up somewhere that’s a shadow, a two-dimensional version of mortal life, an okay place to hang out until, one way or another, you get tired of it. Perhaps reincarnation is a kind of recycling; perhaps it’s a way to advance spiritually; perhaps it’s both. I tend to think that some people degenerate so much, morally, spiritually, that they cease to be human; maybe they simply get snuffed out like a candle that has burned down all the way, maybe some of them get punished for harming others.

I don’t feel at all certain of what happens to other people after death, nor do I need to. I do have faith that I have a place with Antinous, and with Jesus, too, and that the gods bring those they love to be with them.

POEM: Visiting Mother

Persephone

does not become a girl again

just because she goes home

to visit mother. She could do that,

if she wanted; she is a goddess,

powerful and wise, revered as well

as feared; she could like Hera

bathe and pronounce herself virgin,

say so and make it so. But no,

she goes back to Demeter’s house

as a woman, a wife, a mother,

her hair put up, her gown kirtled,

her husband’s gifts of jewellery

dangling from wrists and ears,

garnets and gold and ebony

shining on her still-plump breasts.

She will not let her mother forget

that they are equals now; that

every root of every plant on which

Demeter lays her blessing sinks

down into Persephone’s realm;

that the underground streams

and the subtle minerals in the soil

answer to her command, not

her mother’s. Not any more.

When her mother calls her “Kore”,

she does not answer; she has

other names now, Persephone,

Proserpina, the dreaded one.

She walks the spring fields

clothed in violet, crimson, black,

her bare feet pale against

the moist earth, her fair face

glowing like the moon

beneath the shining sun

or in the gentle rain,

and even now, kissed

by the god of the dead,

honored by furies, torn

by rape and childbirth

and healed with a scar,

even now, the flowers

spring up where she walks.

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.