Jesus and Prometheus and other stories

I had two Bibles as a child, that is, Children’s Bibles, selected stories from the Old and New Testaments with illustrations. I remember one of them as having a mostly white cover and a lot of white space on the pages, with simple, cheerful drawings that looked like they were done in crayon by a very clever child. I think that Bible contained mostly nice stories about Jesus retold in simple language.

childrensbible

The other Bible I remember was for older, more sophisticated readers, with more nearly “Biblical” language, if I’m remembering correctly. There was little white space; every page had both text and pictures, and the illustrations were rather like 19th-century paintings of Bible scenes, or of Cecil B. DeMille Bible movies. It had judicious selections from the whole of the Old Testament, even the portions that aren’t stories, such as the Psalms and the prophets. I don’t remember, however, whether it had selections from the individual Gospels, or just a Story of Jesus, with a few bits of Paul’s letters and Revelations for completeness.

What I do remember vividly were the paintings of Jesus. Jesus, quite frankly, would not have been out of place in an episode of Xena or Hercules. He was depicted as a Hollywood-handsome blond with intensely blue eyes, having fairly long hair and a short beard. In the large illustration of his baptism by John, he was standing thigh-deep in the water, bare to the waist with his white robe gathered around his loins (to use the Biblical expression), and displaying a fairly impressive set of abs. Yes, I am saying that to a girl of eight or ten years old, Jesus in her “children’s Bible” was a hottie. (And then came the miniseries of Jesus of Nazareth and the hottie Jesus played by a skinny Welshman with intense, dazzling blue-green eyes.)

provensenilloThere was another book that came into my hands around the same time, although it may have come from the library rather than being something bought for me. It was a collection of myths and legends retold, and I believe that it was either The Iliad & the Odyssey adapted by Jane Werner or else The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, both of which were illustrated by Martin and Alice Provensen. Unlike the better-known retellings by Edgar and Ingrid D’Aulaire, the Provensen books are no longer in print, but used copies can be found on Amazon.

It was in this book that I came across the story of Prometheus, who brought man a gift the gods had not intended to give him and was punished in a cruel and grisly way. As you probably know, Prometheus was bound to a great rock, and every day a bird, in some versions an eagle, but in others a vulture, came and ate out his liver, causing him great pain. But Prometheus, being an immortal Titan, did not die of this, but instead grew back his liver every night, only to face the same attack the next day.

I have a distinct memory of lying in bed as a fairly small child, looking toward my closet in the dark, and fearing that a vulture might come out of the closet and eat my liver. I am quite sure that I didn’t know where my liver was in my body, or what kind of bird a vulture is. But I remember that something about the combination of the story and the illustrations frightened me deeply. Unlike the D’Aulaire’s books, unlike my children’s Bibles, I did not read that book a second time.

Pauline-Baynes-Mr-TumnusMy children’s Bibles, the Bible readings in church, and the many books of mythology I read as a child all offered me stories. Not all of those stories were comforting and safe, like the Sunday school stories of Jesus healing people and welcoming little children and telling curious stories about lost sheep and wayward sons. I’m not sure that my mind made a distinction between the stories of Jesus and the stories of Prometheus, or Athena punishing Arachne, or Odin binding Loki, as true vs. false. The Episcopal Church did not then insist on a literal understanding of the Bible any more than it does now, and nobody was telling me that Jesus was real but Prometheus wasn’t. What the Church seemed to be telling me was to pay attention to stories, and to language, to how stories are told, and whether they are true to our experience, whether they provide some kind of wisdom. I learned that lesson, learned to tell stories, and have continued to pay attention to them ever since.

POEM: On giving roses as offerings

small_red_roseO Dea Rosa, you are the sacrificial daughter,
your bodies cut down and offered up
on the altars of Venus, of Jesus,
of Mother Mary. Your petals were torn
and scattered like the spread limbs
of the crucified Jesus by the dying
Little Flower, roses in her arms
and blood on her hands where
your thorns had pricked her, blood
on her handkerchief where she coughed
out her suffering. You beautify the coffins
of our dead and atone for the sins
of rich husbands, together with
the brilliant tears of Tellus Mater,
diamonds hard as an adulterer’s heart,
and the sparkling blood of grapes
gathered in champlains of Gaul.
I place on my shrine, lascivious virgin,
your body of red petals green leaves
and pricked stem and think of defiled
daughters and broken women
and holy mysteries.

(Originally posted to Antinous for Everybody, 5/14/2016)

A prayer for people I care about

In the Name of Antinous, the Beautiful Boy, the beloved of Hadrian and lover of all queers, Star of the Eagle and heavenly Navigator, victor over the archons:
I call on Antinous, the Liberator, the protector, to bless, guide, and protect transgender people, nonbinary people, gender nonconforming people.
I call on Dionysus, cross-dresser, sexual transgressor, gender outlaw, to bless, guide, and protect these beloved people.
I call on Hermes, lover of males and females, guide of the dead, father of Hermaphroditus, to bless, guide, and protect my friends.
I call on Melinoe, the bright dark lady, half black and half white, daughter of Hades and Persephone, foster daughter of Hel and Loki, to bless, guide, and protect the people betwixt and between.
I call on Loki, the shapeshifter, mother of monsters, father of giants, who lies to the mighty and befriends the powerless, to bless, guide, and protect the shapeshifting people.
I call on Cybele, Attis, Agdistis, and the honored spirits of the galloi to bless, guide, and protect transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people.
I call on the spirits of the trans, intersex, two spirit people of North America; humbly I call on them although my ancestors wronged them, to bless, guide, and protect the trans and intersex and two spirit people who live on their land today.
I call on Jesus, who defended women, foreigners, and eunuchs, and on his disciple Philip the deacon, who baptized and taught the Ethiopian eunuch, to bless, guide and protect those whom they would have called eunuchs.
May the blessings and protection of all the gods, along with my own love and good will, stand between transgender people, nonbinary people, gender nonconforming people and all malice, hatred, bigotry, violence, and tyranny, until all such evils wither away. In Antinous’ name, may it be so.

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.