Concepts of Modern Polytheism – Piety

Piety is an incredibly contentious idea. It’s an important topic, and I’m glad people are discussing it, but sometimes the discussions can seem frustratingly theoretical.

For those new to the concept, or new to considering how piety might manifest in day-to-day life, I thought I’d wade into these turbulent waters and toss my two cents in. As per usual this is by no means meant to be a definitive anything. It’s simply my breakdown of the subject.

Disclaimers out of the way? Awesome.

blues-brothers-hit-it-quote-scene

The Blues Brothers. Still classic.

What is piety, anyway?

The basic definition of piety is “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations”.

Leaving the monotheistic bias of the definition aside, on the surface this seems simple enough. Applying it is a whole different thing, though.

That’s ok. This definition is a decent enough place to start. We just need to unpack it a bit.

There are three aspects to this definition we need to wrangle if we’re going to clear up some of the confusion around this whole “piety” thing: reverence, religious obligations, and devout fulfillment.

Reverence

Reverence is “a feeling or attitude of deep respect tinged with awe”, in this case towards the Powers. And really, if we don’t respect the Powers and feel at least a little in awe of Them, then why the hell are we all here?

Reverence is the feeling that makes us talk quietly or whisper in sacred places. It’s why simply lighting a candle on an altar can feel like a deeply significant, if not overwhelming, thing to do. Reverence causes us to dither over what we’re going to wear to a solitary ritual and spend hours writing out exactly what we’re going to say when we pray. It pushes us to make our shrines beautiful and the incense sweet.

Experiencing reverence, or wanting to, is what draws many of us to religion in the first place. That makes it a very big deal.

That being said, though, telling someone to “feel reverence” is like telling someone to “fall in love”. We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face, but until someone feels it for themselves they’re simply not going to get it.

So, just like with discussions of love, when we talk about reverence we most often talk about how it’s shown.

And that brings us to religious obligations.

Religious Obligations

Showing our reverence involves a bunch of different actions we collectively call “religious obligations”. The exact activities can differ from person to person, Power to Power, and/or Tradition to Tradition, but all together these things form the core of our religious practice.

And while the activities may differ, they all serve the same general functions.

For those who don’t feel reverence yet, Doing the Things will help create a frame of reference for it. It’s like helping someone appreciate roses by teaching them how to garden. It may seem a bit convoluted, but it can be very effective.

roses

For roses to bloom in the spring we have to prune the bushes in the fall. Here’s how we do that…

Once we do feel reverence, Doing the Things helps us express the reverence we feel.

Think about that overwhelming awkwardness we all occasionally suffer through when talking to a crush, or someone we perceive to be of higher status than ourselves. Sure, we’re all suave and together when we imagine those conversations in our heads, but when the moment actually comes we’re more likely to stammer and blush than sound like James Bond.

Crush

Seriously, who can’t relate to this?

That awkwardness can happen when working with the Powers, too. We might not know what to say, or what to do with our hands. Do we talk or stay silent? Kneel, or curtsy, or bow, or stand tall? Do we wear clothes at our altars, or do we approach them naked?

Our religious obligations, whatever they may be, make interactions with the Powers easier to navigate. They help us avoid feeling awkward by providing us with at least a baseline for acceptable behavior. And the more comfortable we are with the actions we’re taking, the more we can focus on the interaction itself, instead of all the other questions that can confuse or block the experience.

That’s just the surface, though. It goes deeper. Expressing our reverence by Doing the Things actually leads to us feeling more reverence. It’s a classic feedback loop.

Feedback Loop

How cool is that?

As wonderful as all that is, though, we can’t talk about religious obligations without acknowledging that these Things We Do are obligations. “Obligation” is another word for “requirement”. Doing the Things is something the Powers require from us.

It’s not just for our benefit, either. Like damn near everything else in polytheism, reciprocity is at work here too. Which means They get just as much out of these activities as we do. What that value might be is up for debate, but the value itself is definitely there.

By fulfilling these obligations we’re not just improving things on our end, but Theirs too. It’s doubly important to fulfill these obligations because it’s for E/everyone involved.

How we go about doing that brings us to the next point.

Devout Fulfillment

This idea is present in every religion I can think of, and modern polytheism is no exception. No matter what our religious obligations happen to be, we should do them with sincerity and focus. We have to be fully engaged in what we’re doing, and committed to doing it the best way we know how.

This can hit a number of different points.

  • Do it for the Powers. Don’t do it because you think it’ll make you look good to other people, or even other polytheists. It’s not about them, and they’re not your intended audience. If they are you’re going about this for completely the wrong reasons.
  • Do it with joy. Or at least satisfaction. Don’t just suffer through. There are times we feel a little less engaged than others, but if you feel like a put-upon martyr every time you approach your altar you might want to reassess things.
  • Focus not just on what you’re doing but on the meaning behind it. Don’t let yourself be rushed or distracted. I’m sure I’ll get people who disagree with me here, but I think it’s better to postpone your religious activities entirely if the only other option is half-assing them. Don’t make it a habit or anything, but life happens. We have to be able to roll with that, and short-changing your religious activities isn’t helpful.

I could keep going here, but I’m sure y’all get the point. Do what you mean, and mean what you do. It really is just that simple.

Putting it Back Together

Now that we’ve dismantled the definition of “piety”, let’s reassemble it more clearly.

How about this? “Fulfilling our religious obligations with focus and intent expresses the respect we feel for the Powers, leads to greater connection with Them, and serves Them too.”

I personally find that definition to be much better!

There is one very important question this definition leaves hanging, though: What specifically are these activities we’re supposed to practice, these religious obligations we’re supposed to so devotedly fulfill?

Approaches to Piety

Answering that question involves quite a bit of trial-and-error. And while I sincerely believe there are no universally correct answers here, I’ve found three useful approaches that can help us figure out our personal answers: community-based learning, relying on our existing connections with the Powers to guide us, and/or consulting the historical record.

Community-Based Learning

The community-based learning approach focuses on the perspectives and experiences of other modern polytheists. Information can come from in-person conversations and instruction, blogs like this one, forums and websites, and books written by other polytheists for other polytheists.

On the one hand these resources can be incredibly helpful. They can certainly jump-start our practice! Consulting others who have already figured out their approach gets tools that work into our hands faster, allowing us to avoid all kinds of frustration and hassles as we start finding our own way.

Zelda

Even if swords aren’t the first tools most of us need.

Notice I said “their approach” and “finding our own way”. The biggest problem with community-based learning happens when people confuse learning from others with essentially cheating off their test.

When we’re lost in math class we get to a point when we just want to get the answers, right? We cease caring about why the answers are the answers, we just want to get credit and move on. Hopefully to something that makes a bit more sense.

That happens with polytheism just as much as anything else, especially when we’re just getting started. It’s fairly easy to do, too, thanks to the internet. We simply find another polytheist who seems pretty connected to the Powers and take their path as our own – or, even worse, as the only valid path there is. There’s no true understanding of what we’re doing or why, no meaning behind it we can see, just rote gestures we make with the vague hope that if we do them long enough some ephemeral something will happen.

cheating

Like this, but with more candles and incense.

And that right there is the problem.

What we’re rotely copying when we do this are what the polytheist in question considers their religious obligations, right? Their obligations to the Powers with whom they work. And those obligations are both their frame of reference for and an expression of the reverence they feel for those Powers.

That being the case, copying their obligations without understanding is an attempt to copy their reverence. And reverence can’t be copied. It’s a feeling. Copying techniques might help in the short term, by giving us some place to start, but eventually rote copying becomes both ineffective and inauthentic.

As long as we keep things to learning instead of copying, though, community-based learning can be incredibly helpful to us as we go.

Relying on Existing Connections

When we talk about forming/deepening connections with the Powers, one thing that really stands out about polytheism in particular is that we interact with Them. We talk to the Powers and fully expect Them to respond.

For many of us, what we hear directly from the Powers is the be-all and end-all of our devotional work. We figure that if They want us to do something in particular, or step it up in general, then They’ll just tell us. We assume that if They’re not complaining then everything’s ok.

That’s a seductive viewpoint, no question. But there are some problems with it.

For one, our signal clarity might simply suck. There’s no shame in that. It happens to all of us occasionally, and if we’re new to this we might still be working on establishing a signal at all. There are lots of reasons we might not hear Them when They speak to us, and that means we could easily miss important things.

low-signal-mobile-phone-020615

Frustrating on BOTH ends of the line!

Even if our signal clarity is at five bars, our personal bullshit can still clog up the works. We all have prejudices, biases, distractions, egos, conflicting priorities, and bouts of sheer laziness. Filtering the messages we receive through all that noise might lead to us either hearing only what we want to, or closing out Their voices until it’s convenient for us to listen. That is less than optimal at the best of times, but especially if They’re our only source for information!

This whole approach can also be a bit insulting to Them. If They have to complain to get what They need from us, and have to keep complaining to get us to pay attention, eventually They’ll get tired of it. They’ll feel disregarded and disrespected.

We don’t want our friends to feel that way, do we? So why should that be ok for the Powers? It’s not. Unhealthy relationship habits are unhealthy relationship habits, regardless of the relationship in question.

Keeping our relationships with Them healthy and balanced involves truly reciprocating with Them. We need to try to meet Them halfway. As long as we do that, relying on the Powers to guide us can be a really useful approach.

Consulting the Historical Record

The third and last approach to piety is looking at what other people did before us. All of the Powers with which we engage came from somewhere, right? And we’re certainly not the first people to interact with Them! Checking out what might have been written about Them back when honoring Them was commonplace seems like a no-brainer.

Like the other methods, though, this approach has some pros and cons.

On the plus side, if we’re lucky enough to work with a culture that kept written records, or a Power that came from one, then YAY! That’s a huge head start. Those records can tell us not only what a particular Power considered religious obligations back in the day, but how They expected those obligations to be fulfilled.

PWI95057

The Weighing of the Heart, a detail from a page of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead is basically a guide to the Egyptian afterlife that was left in tombs, and gives LOTS of info about the Egyptian Powers.

Archaeology can be quite informative even when there aren’t written records. Comparisons to other cultures from the same general area and time period can be illuminating as well. The more fragmentary the records the harder we have to work to get anything useful out of them, but anything is better than nothing. Right?

Eh. I might be in the minority, but I tend to find that written sources can easily become more hindrance than help. Especially for those of us raised in the shadow of Modernity.

Modernity places a high value on that which is written, and considers the written word inviolate and unquestionable. Considering where Modernity comes from that’s pretty understandable. By the time we’re adults it’s almost instinctive for us to look to books to answer all of our questions. And why would we ever question what we find there? It’s in a book!

Modern polytheists don’t escape that inherent bias. When we start reaching out to the Powers and wanting to understand Them better, we reach for books without even really thinking about it. It’s just what we do. And once we’ve got “official documentation” in hand it’s all too easy for those of us looking at it to rely on it exclusively, without question and without accepting the possibility of change.

We start treating the lore, or scholarly interpretations of it, as if it is in itself sacred.

In America today it’s fairly common to see folks go all One True Way with whatever written material they’ve chosen to base their lives on. We see it with evangelical Christians who do it with the Bible, but it pops up in politics too. The Constitution is so revered (notice the word usage there?) that for some folks questioning it or changing it becomes absolutely unthinkable.

amendment

Substitute “gun control” with “health care”, “immigration reform”, “gay marriage”…

One True Wayism isn’t a good thing regardless of who’s doing it. I think it’s particularly sad when polytheists do it, though, because that often runs counter to the traditions we’re trying to revive.

Polytheistic traditions that predate Modernity didn’t rely on books. Many of them didn’t keep records at all. These were living traditions, and a large part of what gave them life was the fact that they were orally transmitted. That kept them flexible, enabling both the lore and the people to adapt to changing times and circumstances.

Even the cultures that did write things down didn’t write down everything. Why would they? We’re not finding children’s religious primers in the archaeological record. For the most part the writings that have survived reflect one person’s observations about whatever topic they were writing about at the time of the writing. They’re snapshots, each one a single frame taken from a movie reel, one perspective of one moment of time frozen in words.

swdel-scene-yoda-training

If this one frame was the only one you saw from the whole Star Wars trilogy, how much would you know about the rest of the saga?

We can’t base our entire understanding of a Power or culture solely on what remains in the historical record. The more records we’ve got the more clear our understanding can be, but there is always a margin for error. As long as that margin of error is accounted for all is well. However, it’s way too easy for us to forget about that.

Balancing Approaches

There are significant problems with all of the above approaches when it comes to figuring out the religious obligations of a pious life. So what do we do?

We synthesize them. We don’t rely exclusively on one approach, we do them all together.

By all means, follow the blogs and social media of polytheists you think are “doing it right” or have an approach that speaks to you. Read all the books written by other polytheists you can find. Their voices and perspectives can teach you a lot. But remember that no one is The One and Only Voice of the Powers, so don’t blindly follow anyone as if they are. And occasionally remember to pop in and check out what people you don’t agree with have to say too. Questioning what they say helps us remember to question what we say.

Yes, talk to the Powers. Converse with Them. Interact with Them. If you hear Them speak to you, heed what They say. Use divination techniques to clarify what that might be when you’re unsure. But remember to practice self-awareness to make sure your own voice isn’t overriding Theirs. Always question what you think you heard.

Certainly look to the historical record for inspiration and guidance. Visit the sacred sites and learn about the culture. Study the lore. But remember that the records don’t tell the whole story and aren’t always reliable. Also remember that most of these cultures are gone, the world has changed, and had they survived those cultures would have had to change with it.

The key to remember with all of these approaches, I think, is to always question what we think we know and stay open to change. Those two things will assure we’re living an authentically pious life more than anything else.

A Starter Guide

Any approach to piety has to start somewhere.

ring

Drowning? This section is for you.

I’ve collected some links to things I personally think are useful to people trying to figure out their own approach to piety in a modern polytheistic practice. This kind of thing is never complete, though, and if you have sources you’d like to add please mention them in the comments!

Beginning Polytheism

There really isn’t a whole lot out there for brand-new beginners. Most resources seem to assume at least a little background information, which to my mind makes assumptions that might not be true. There are some that manage to avoid that, though. Here’s what I recommend.

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

I guess first I’ll mention my own writing. Out of everything I’ve written I’d most recommend starting with The Southern Girl’s Guide to Hospitality, and from there progressing through the Growing Devotions series. Together these provide a decent starting place when it comes to establishing an effective religious practice. They’re also simple, use references we know, and are careful not to overwhelm the beginner with too much at once.

Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology by Raven Kaldera

I tend to enjoy Kaldera’s tone and approach, and this book is no exception. At 135 pages it’s short, but honestly I think beginner books should be short. We need a chance to absorb what we’ve read before moving on to longer or more challenging material, and I think this book does that well. It gives us a good idea of what’s going on without getting overly technical. Available here.

Devotional Polytheism: An Introduction by Galina Krasskova

This is another great intro. I think my only quibble with it is that it’s 200 pages long, and those pages are dense. There’s a lot here, and that might feel a little overwhelming. If you just take it slow, and go into it with the idea that this book is full of ideas rather than mandates, I think you’ll find it very useful. Available here.

A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism by John Michael Greer

This book is written from a “polytheism is a part of Paganism” perspective, which I don’t agree with (and should probably explain in a later post too). That aside, though, it’s useful for beginners who want a more idea-based approach to polytheism. Instead of going into how to be a polytheist, it examines some of the ideas and themes that support it. This might be especially useful to those transitioning from soft polytheism to hard polytheism. Available here.

Intermediate Books

Once you’ve gone through the above resources you’ll have enough background to easily understand the following. They assume you know what polytheism is and some of the basic ideas, but they don’t assume too much past that.

Walking with the Gods: Modern People Talk About Deities, Faith, and Recreating Ancient Traditions by W.D. Wilkerson

In many ways this feels like a polytheist’s version of Margot Alder’s Drawing Down the Moon. It is more academic than other books on this list, but that’s because this book is an academic study. The author interviewed 120 different modern polytheists, from all types of practice, and drew out the similarities and differences in what they said. If you want to explore some of the many paths within modern polytheism I highly recommend this book. Available here.

Weaving Memory: A Guide to Honoring the Ancestors by Laura Patsouris

There’s plenty out there about working with Gods, but not a whole lot specifically addressing how to work with other Powers. This one focuses on Ancestors and is the book I started with on the subject. It was written with the beginner in mind, or at least the beginner to Ancestor work, but personally I’d recommend it for those who know basic polytheism fundamentals already. There’s a lot of information in this one! Available here.

The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices by Claude Lecouteux

This book talks about Land Spirits, specifically those around hearth and home. I personally loved it, but it’s got a more academic tone so be warned. It wasn’t a difficult read, but it does require you to pay attention or you’ll lose some of the threads the author is working with. This is another book I’d recommend tackling once you’ve got a good grasp of general polytheism. Not so much because you need it to understand the material, but so that you’ve got an existing framework in which to place it and with which to use it. Available here.

For more about working directly with Gods I’d recommend any of the devotionals published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina. I’ve consistently found them to be both useful and beautiful, and recommend them highly. These all focus on either one God or a small group of Gods and offer stories, prayers, devotional activities, and essays to help you understand and work with Them. Asphodel Press offers some beautiful devotionals as well, and their offerings tend to skew towards Norse deities if that’s what draws your interest.

There are also a metric ton of blogs out there with different perspectives and types of practice. Once you feel comfortable exploring they can be incredibly useful too.

Concepts of Modern Polytheism – Post Round Up

The “Concepts of Modern Polytheism” series is dedicated to making complex ideas more accessible to those unfamiliar with them. While the series is new, breaking down complexity is something I’ve focused on for awhile now.

That being so, I thought it might be helpful to provide links to previous posts that do that too. If nothing else it gets all the relevant posts corralled into one place.

The first two links especially are ones I reference quite a bit. Completely new to the whole idea of polytheism? Hospitality and Devotions are an excellent place to start!

A Southern Girl’s Guide to Hospitality

Hospitality is a foundational concept in modern polytheism. However, people talking about it may assume a base level of knowledge that simply isn’t there. Not all of us grew up with a model of Hospitality we can follow, after all, and those who did might not know how to apply the core ideas to working with the Powers. Here’s a quick guide to help you get started. (Note: This post uses the term “Kindred” in the place of “Power”. I’ve since stopped doing that.)

Growing Devotions

Once we understand Hospitality we can use it to develop a regular devotional practice. This six-part series covers the idea of devotions, the reasons they’re a good idea, introduces the three main types of Powers with which we engage, discusses different ways of engaging with Them, and goes into the need for discernment.

Six Rules for Safer Pagan Sex: A Guide

Most of us grew up with the idea that sexual repression was virtuous and morally superior to sexual permissiveness. Coming into the more sex-positive Pagan and polytheist communities can leave people foundering, unsure of how to navigate these new situations. This post tackles that, with a focus on consent and enforcing personal boundaries.

Fleur De Lis – A Symbol of Sexual Boundaries

Six Rules for Safer Pagan Sex talks about enforcing our personal boundaries in community settings. But what if we don’t know what those personal boundaries are? Establishing them for ourselves can be challenging, especially if we’ve been relying on rules provided to us by other people or systems. This post provides a framework to help us figure all of that out for ourselves, and can be applied in a wide variety of situations.

The Roles Filled by Clergy, Explained

What is clergy, really? What do they actually do? And, especially, how do those roles manifest in groups? Here’s my breakdown.

Envelopes, Labels, and Gods

There are a lot of different Powers out there. Sometimes, to make that number easier to deal with, Powers are lumped together into different categories. This post talks about why that can be a bad idea, with a focus on Archetypes.

I hope you find these posts helpful!

 

 

Concepts in Modern Polytheism – Antiquity vs. Modernity

"The Roman Festivals of the Colosseum", by Pablo Salinas.

*Note: This post is very Euro-centric, because that’s what I know and that’s the viewpoint of most of my readers. Circumstances were/are different in other places, especially when we’re talking about living traditions, so while some of this can be extrapolated for those it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Keep that in mind when reading. I am also so not an expert with all of this, so if you find any mistakes please feel free to PM me and let me know!

“Antiquity” and “Modernity” are concepts at the core of quite a few debates in modern polytheism. That makes unwrapping them a great start to this “Concepts of Modern Polytheism” series!

To begin, I guess the first thing to understand is that Antiquity and Modernity don’t refer to time periods. That’s the obvious place our brains go, and where a lot of these discussions seem to founder, but it’s not strictly accurate. The distinction between the two is less about a timeline and more about worldviews.

What’s a worldview?

Essentially a worldview is the frame of reference we use when figuring out the relationships between aspects of our lives, ourselves, our relationships, and our world. It helps us put all of these things in their proper places and figure out what to do when things happen to disrupt that order.

All of us have a worldview, and it covers pretty much everything in our lives. It’s how we determine the difference between “good” and “bad” behaviors, between “right” and “wrong”. It’s how we recognize obligations we have to T/those around us, or that T/they have to us. It’s our worldview that shapes our sense of identity and provides the basis for how we figure out what fulfills and completes us.

worldview

It’s a big deal. And for the large majority of us all these determinations are made on a completely subconscious level.

That can be problematic, because every single worldview out there has inherent biases. Worldviews are biased by their very nature. When our worldview tells us something is good and something else is bad, that’s a value judgment being made right then and there. Not being aware of the biases in our own worldview means we could be making choices we’d never consciously make, simply because we’re not aware enough to know we’re making them.

How does that relate to polytheism?

When most people discuss polytheism they focus on the “multiple gods” part and pretty much drop the discussion there.

That’s incredibly simplistic, though. It changes the Power being recognized from one to many while completely missing the implications stemming from that change, and how those implications can change our worldviews. And that’s a shame, because if we’re ever going to truly restore or revive these ancient polytheistic traditions to something resembling what they once were we absolutely have to delve deeper. Those implications matter.

Since they’re so important we need to really understand them. That requires us to look at some world history, though. Stick with me through the end and it’ll all come together, I promise!

Antiquity

Let’s take our minds back to the time before monotheism became the dominant religious paradigm in the West. Specifically, let’s look at 30 BCE.

Map Pre-Christian Europe

Europe, 30 BCE. Here we can see the Roman Empire before it took over the whole continent.

We can see from this map that the Roman Empire was in control of a huge chunk of territory, stretching through Europe, around the Mediterranean through the Near East, and into Egypt. That was quite a feat, especially considering that there were multiple cultures living peacefully under the Roman banner.

How did they do it?

We could talk about things like their excellent roads, or their standing armies, or their educational standards. And they all played their part. But one of the things that made the Roman Empire what it was is that government, religion, and morality were seen as distinctly separate things.

Wait… huh? How does that even work?

Pretty well, actually.

Here in the US we’re used to the idea of separating political and religious life. That’s the “Separation of Church and State” concept we’re all familiar with (even if those lines seem to blur with alarming regularity).

separation church state

See, like this.

But separating religion and morality? For the most part that’s completely outside of our realm of experience.

For the Romans, though, it was the only way to go.

So let’s take each of those ideas individually, shall we?

Affairs of the State

Not every Roman was considered a citizen, and that was especially true of those new to Roman rule. However, if you were willing to play ball with Rome you could maybe become one. And that idea – that people could get a stake in the new system and even improve their status within it – became one of the most effective ways Rome ensured loyalty in the populace.

The rights and responsibilities of a Roman citizen varied depending on a multitude of factors, but at no point was religion or morality a part of the equation. Citizens didn’t have to honor specific gods, engage in (or refrain from) specific behaviors, any of that. They simply had to follow the law and not try to overthrow the government.

citizens

Classes of Roman citizens.

That being said, it was expected that citizens be involved in their government at whatever level they could. Rome had public assemblies, for instance, where people could state their views and vote, and citizens could run for public office. Financial contributions to the community were also expected of those with the means to make them.

Religious Life

Polytheism reigned supreme during this time period. There were literally hundreds of Powers openly honored within the borders of the Roman Empire alone, and absolutely no one was bothered by this. Why would they be? There was a core Roman pantheon, yeah, but the Romans operated under the idea of “the more the merrier”.

That made all kinds of practical sense, especially for an expanding Empire. Just accepting whatever Powers and spiritual traditions belonged to these new Roman citizens simplified their assimilation into Roman society enormously.

At the end of the day the Empire was much more concerned with consolidating military, economic, and political power than they were with enforcing some kind of homogeneous religious practice. That kind of thinking wasn’t even on the radar. There were some public rituals that everyone was required to attend, and they liked it if a local area added the official Roman Gods to their honoring/devotional practices, but for the most part they left local traditions completely intact.

Pablo_Salinas_-_The_Roman_Festivals_of_the_Colosseum_-_Google_Art_Project

The Roman Festivals of the Colosseum, by Pablo Salinas.

That was huge. Writing anything down wasn’t something the majority of these people did, and religious practices didn’t often get written about even when writing happened. Instead, these traditions were passed down orally and by demonstration. People didn’t read a book to figure out how to throw a festival, they did it the way their parents did it, and their parents before them. Religious rites and rituals existed in a lineage extending back hundreds if not thousands of years, and their relationships with the Powers they honored extended that far back too.

These were vibrant, living traditions. Some were more devout, some less. Some had intricate religious traditions, and some were rather simple by comparison. Regardless of the distinctions between them, though, the Roman Empire let them continue on as they always had. Hell, some of the most influential thinkers of the day opted out of polytheism entirely, claiming everything from pantheism to atheism, and that was ok too.

Morality and the Social Fabric

Because there were so many Powers honored across the breadth of the Empire, and because They were honored in so many different ways, Roman religion as a whole had no morality clauses (aside from some basic warnings against hubris and the like).

Local areas might have held their own behavioral standards, based on those living traditions mentioned earlier, and those of course changed depending on where you were. But for the Empire as a whole? Nada. There were no blanket taboos, no religiously-sourced rules everyone had to follow or else. There weren’t even widespread devotional requirements outside of the the aforementioned public events.

And really, how could there be? They had hundreds of different Powers who all had individual preferences and wanted different things from Their people. The Empire didn’t even try to regulate that.

The only interests the State had in personal morality were focused on community concerns, like outlawing murder and theft. As long as citizens participated in the public worship ceremonies – which had political and social components in addition to the religious ones – they were golden.

Individual behavior wasn’t mandated by the Gods or enforced by the State.

There was still a society to bind together, though, and a largely shared moral code is perhaps the strongest way to do that. So where did Roman morality come from if not religion?

Philosophy.

We study Roman philosophy to this day, and the Greek philosophy that came before it, because the philosophers were the ones asking and answering the questions we’re now used to priests covering. Not “why are there seasons” or “why was the world made” – those questions were answered by myths, just like they were/are in almost every culture up to the modern era. They focused instead on questions of more direct utility, like “what qualities are possessed by an upright person” and “what makes a good life”.

Zeno

Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy. He was Greek, but his philosophy was hugely influential in Rome too. He was a pantheist.

Roman morality – or, if you want to get technical, the Roman ethical system – was rational, not religious. There were a handful of philosophical schools that dominated Roman society, and it’s with those philosophical stances that the social fabric was maintained.

Those three aspects of ancient Roman life – good citizenship, religious freedom with living traditions to draw on, and a philosophically-based morality – were balanced against each other, with each one being seen as important. Together they make up the Antiquity worldview.

Transition

I didn’t pick 30 BCE out of a hat when I chose the map pictured at the beginning of all of this. That’s around the same time that Rome took over a little province called Judea, in what we now consider Israel/Palestine.

That’s also when we get the first seeds of the Modernity worldview.

Judea

In the sea of Antiquity Rome Judea stuck out like a sore thumb.

First_century_Iudaea_province

Here’s a close-up. The city of Jerusalem is just above and a little to the right of the “Judaea” label.

And it wasn’t even because the Jews who lived there were monotheists. It was odd for Rome, sure, but it really wasn’t a deal. Monotheism was considered just one more religious weirdness encountered by the Empire as it expanded. Remember, Rome had everything from devout polytheists to strict atheists within its borders. Monotheists were just another thing.

In fact, before everything went to hell in 66 CE Rome treated the Jews like they treated everyone else. Even more tolerantly in some ways. Not only did they not try to force the Jews to honor any additional Gods, they gave the Jews a pass on religious observances required in other cities. The Jews actually burned offerings in the Temple of Jerusalem for the Emperor of Rome in appreciation of his tolerance!

Monotheism in and of itself wasn’t the problem. It was all the stuff stemming from monotheism that started to gum up the works.

The Romans separated governance, religion, and morality, right? They pretty much had to, considering the number of Powers and perspectives within their borders. And it’s that separation that allowed them to so easily accept the Jewish monotheism.

The Jews didn’t separate those things, though. They couldn’t. For the Jews those three concepts were inextricably linked, with both governance and morality stemming from and supporting their religion. Not only that, but all of those things were codified in written records maintained by the Temple and faithfully followed to the letter, with no room for deviation and precious little room for growth.

One of the biggest problem areas was that the Romans and the Jews had completely different ideas about the role of the State. For the Romans the government was all about working towards the common good, with freedom for political activity within that. The Jews saw the law as the enforcement arm of their God more than anything else.

pilate

Pilate washing his hands – a kind of spiritual cleansing – after the Jewish crowd voted to crucify Jesus. An example of Jews using the law for religious purposes, and how uncomfortable the Romans were with that perspective.

The Jews, because of their religiously-backed morality code, were almost required to live in separate enclaves from the Romans around them. Not because the Romans required it, but because the Jews did. Their distinct culture made them incredibly insular.

That did not endear them to their neighbors. It also completely prevented them from assimilating into larger Roman culture. The well-oiled machine that was “expansion of the Roman Empire” had no avenues to work with when it came to the Jews.

Add in the fact that the Emperor claimed divine lineage, which the Jews didn’t accept, and you had a tenuous situation. The cessation of honoring the Emperor at the Temple of Jerusalem in 66 CE was just more fuel for the fire.

Of course, that’s also when war broke out and the Romans burned the Temple of Jerusalem to the ground. Whatever small chance there had been for Jewish assimilation into the Roman Empire died along with the flames.

temple_burning

The Burning of the Temple of Jerusalem.

Judaism provided the seeds for the Modernity worldview, but it was a Roman Emperor that planted it and another religion entirely that helped it sprout.

Conversion

Christianity was a splinter sect of Judaism with pretty inauspicious beginnings. Between the crucifixion of Jesus around 33 CE and 312 CE it was mostly an underground sect. The direct opposition of Christians to the values held by Antiquity Rome made them seem dangerous to the unity of the Empire and, unlike most other religions they encountered, the Romans actively persecuted them because of it.

Then, in 312 CE, Emperor Constantine turned his back on Rome’s long polytheistic history and state religion and converted to Christianity.

Constantine’s conversion changed things. Drastically. Christianity likely wouldn’t have amounted to much of anything without powerful support, but with the Empire behind it Christianity was given teeth and considered a unifying force.

That is what birthed the Modernity worldview.

Modernity

Remember me saying that when the Roman Empire of Antiquity conquered a new area, they enforced governmental authority but not religious authority? That they left that to the people? And that the people were free to live their lives by whatever moral code they chose, separate of their faith?

Yeah, Modernity tossed that attitude out the window.

Instead of the careful separation of the Antiquity worldview, Modernity followed the Jewish and later Christian pattern by knotting all those elements together.

gordianknot

We’ll even call it a Gordian Knot, a la Alexander the Great. I’m so funny. 🙂

The government and the moral code both came from and supported the Christian faith, which was of paramount importance.

Obviously, of course, monotheism accepts belief in only one God. That might not have been a problem on its own, but knotting everything together led to the idea that the Christian Emperor drew his authority from that one God. He was Emperor only because the one God said he was.

Because of that, acknowledging other Powers or standing against the Emperor was seen as a challenge to both the Church and the State, since they were both considered facets of the same thing.

That logic carried over into personal behavior, too. Not behaving in accordance with Biblically-based morality rules equaled rebellion against God, which equaled rebellion against the State. Acting in an immoral fashion became not a philosophical matter but the breaking of a religious mandate and a challenge to the authority of the Emperor.

In many ways the changing moral landscape was the most subversive part of all this. True belief and devotion are impossible to police, and treasonous intent can be difficult to prove without a weapon in-hand, but behavior? That’s always on display. It’s how you’re judged by your peers. And at a time when a good reputation really could mean the difference between life and death, acting in a morally upright way (as defined by these new rules) became a matter of basic survival.

All of this didn’t just apply within the Empire’s borders, either. Expansion, once fueled by a desire for military and economic dominance, became a matter of spiritual dominance as well. And as the Empire spread, so too did Christianity.

spread_of_christianity

It didn’t happen all at once. It was a gradual thing.

All Roman citizens were required to turn away from the hundreds of Powers they had previously honored and follow only the Christian god. All newly conquered peoples were required to become Christian too, and those who resisted were converted on threat of execution.

Those who did convert, however, were granted privileges by the conquerors that stubbornly polytheistic people were not.

q-donkey-carrot-stick

A concept mastered during early conversions.

The peasants out in the fields, most closely tied to the land and outside of direct Roman supervision, were able to hold on to aspects of their original religions the longest. Eventually, though, they too converted and their polytheistic traditions were lost.

By around 800 CE the Modernity worldview was fully realized in Europe. And it dominates the West to this day.

Bringin’ it Home

Monolithic Christianity has taken some blows since then, no question. More and more people are leaving the Christian faith every day, and many of those who claim Christianity as their faith are not devout. Progressive Christianity is on the scene now, too, providing room for more tolerance within the faith. Overall we’re slowly growing more accustomed to separating out politics from religion, despite occasional regressions and setbacks.

While all of these things are helping us moderate the worst effects of Modernity, the worldview itself is still going strong. And no matter how self-aware we think we are, Modernity is so embedded in our culture that it’s hard to see it unless we start looking for it.

But once we do? Boy howdy. We can see it all around us.

It’s in our political processes, when the faith followed by a political candidate becomes a pivotal point of their campaign.

Cruz

It’s in our society, when behavior is judged by religious standards.

slut-shaming-preacher-1413246658465

And it’s in evangelical Christian churches across the country, when anyone and everything not falling within Christian guidelines is blasted as being demon-spawn.

It’s not just Christians doing it, either. We get more of that here, but terrorists overseas are using the exact same logic – albeit in a different Power’s name – to do the exact same thing.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

Choosing Our Worldview

And that brings us to why this whole Antiquity vs. Modernity discussion even matters.

Like I said earlier, we all have a worldview. As products of the modern age we all received the Modernity worldview by default. Once we start grappling with these ideas, though, once we start seeing how far apart the Antiquity and Modernity worldviews are, we can no longer claim ignorance. We have to/get to make a conscious choice about which worldview we want to use, every day, and we have to live with the consequences of that choice.

woman-weighing-options

We can of course choose to keep using the Modernity worldview we’ve already got. It’s easy, and comfortable, and requires very little work from us to maintain. It’s also the worldview used by our culture at large, and sharing it helps us better relate to the people around us. However, choosing this road means we’re accepting that our polytheism, however it manifests and however fulfilling we may find it, will never balance out in a way similar to the balance maintained by those who trod this path before us.

Some of us are perfectly ok with that. It works, right? Some of us aren’t, though, and want another option.

Choosing to switch to the Antiquity worldview is the harder choice. It requires a self-awareness that can be both challenging and exhausting. The Modernity worldview is so engrained in our psyches that the effort required to root it out is constant. We have to pick apart the political/religious/moral knot in our heads at every opportunity, painstakingly separating those threads out into something we can use to support a new paradigm. It also requires study and contemplation, because unlike those who came before us we modern polytheists don’t have living traditions on which to draw (unless you do, in which case carry on). It also puts us out-of-step with the people around us who still use the Modernity worldview, which can be both frustrating and isolating.

In exchange for all our hard work, however, we get to live with a perspective that’s much closer to one the Powers with which we work recognize, and one that’s closer to the one held by polytheists before the rise of Modernity.

Whichever way you choose, choose with intent.

Concepts of Modern Polytheism

Earlier this week a conversation exploded on my Facebook around a couple of recently-published blogposts, one from Gangleri’s Grove and the other from Rock of Eye.

The conversation was rapid-fire and stimulating, inspiring tons of thinky-thoughts. As I read I found several points I wanted to blog about myself.

However, I got a private message during the whole thing from someone who was completely lost. They were fascinated by the debate, but they needed some clarification to follow it. They didn’t have the background the speakers had and couldn’t keep up.

What

Precisely!

That made me rethink how I wanted to approach my responses. My goal with this blog is to help make polytheism more accessible, and jumping right into the fray without breaking it down a bit isn’t going to help anyone.

And so this series was born. It’ll be ongoing and somewhat sporadic, and that’s part of the plan. Hopefully I’ll be able to address some of the ideas popping up in the polytheism blogosphere in a way that doesn’t intimidate or overwhelm people new to them.

Keep watch on this blog – the first piece will be out in a day or three!

Have a topic you want me to tackle? Feel free to comment here or email me at mystiknomad AT gmail DOT com and I’ll see what I can do!

Catching the Sun

As we officially enter 2016 I thought it would be fun to do something a bit different.

Most everyone is posting about the season, its meanings, their resolutions, and a retrospective of 2015. I decided to focus on arts and crafts instead. Specifically, making suncatchers! In this season of celebrating the growing light in the world, making something that uses light in a decorative fashion seems to perfectly fit the season.

And no worries – you don’t need to be an artist to make something completely gorgeous!

Painting Glass

There are several techniques for making suncatchers, of course, but many of them are aimed at children. My favorite grown-up technique is painting glass. Which is way easier than it might sound. And you don’t even need a lot of stuff to do it!

Paints
There are two main types of paint you can use, the kind that air dries and the kind that cures in the oven.

Air Dry Glass Paint: The cheaper and more-easily-removable option air dries. I think Gallery Glass is the most popular brand, although Martha Stewart’s paints have good reviews too, and most craft stores carry some version of it. With most types there’s a bottle of outliner that simulates stained glass leading and then a range of colors to make your design. Once it’s dry it can stay on the glass as long as you like and be peeled off/washed off when you’re ready to change it up. This is obviously the way to go if you’re doing windows or pieces too big for your oven. However, it is not washable, not durable, and in my experience these paints do not lend themselves well to detail work.

GG paint

This is from Michael’s, but the same set is available all over. Should be plenty for quite a few projects, and don’t forget your coupons!

Oven Cure Paints: The more expensive and permanent option – and the one I prefer – is using a paint that cures to the glass after you bake it. It’s like paint Fimo! Once it’s baked it’s way more durable. It can even be put in the dishwasher (although it’s not food safe). The colors shimmer more, and the method of application lends itself well to more intricate designs. My go-to brand is Pebeo, and I order it from Dick Blick Art Supplies. This line has several outliners for different effects, as well as brushable paints and paint markers.

02950-1129-1-2ww-m

This is the glossy set. This plus a black outliner is what I used for this project.

Here’s a tip: Whichever type you choose, you need a REALLY TINY amount of paint for this. Most every surface we’re used to painting absorbs some of the paint, so we account for that absorption when we figure out how much paint we need for a project. Glass is completely non-porous, though, so a little paint goes a VERY long way. I did most of the work with the paint that lines the caps of the little jars when they’re opened, and even after multiple projects you can barely tell that I’ve used them at all. This particular piece had a lot of outlining work, too, and I think I used maybe a third of a tube.

Paintable Surfaces

Anything glass can be painted this way, but a suncatcher needs to be in a window for best effect. That means it needs to be hangable or prop-up-able. And what’s easier for that than picture frames?

The glass that comes in picture frames is my favorite surface to paint. Thrift stores are your friend here. I get much higher quality frames that way than I could otherwise afford, and what I find is always a random surprise. The “well-loved” quality found in thrift store frames only adds to their appeal. I also find that the frame can sometimes inspire that art I paint in it, too.

The frame used in this demo is this really pretty gold color that looked expensive, so the design I chose to paint worked with that. It also cost me a whopping $1, and as a bonus I got to trash the truly awful “art” that came in it.

Note: If you’re planning on using oven baked paints, measure your oven before shopping for glass! Then take a tape measure to the thrift store with you to make sure the glass you pick will fit inside for baking. Ask me how I know this. *rolls eyes*

That’s simple enough. What else do I need?

  • Paint brushes. Pebeo recommends super soft natural fiber brushes for their paint, to reduce the appearance of brush strokes. I’m cheap, so I went with a set of mixed media synthetic brushes. I grabbed them at Michael’s with a coupon. If you’re using air dry paint pretty much anything goes.
  • A piece of paper or cardboard slightly larger than your glass (which means the backing that came with the frame is too small). The oils on your hands can interfere with the paint’s ability to adhere to the surface, but I find that I need to frequently rotate the glass I’m working on as I paint. Putting the glass on something I can touch lets me easily move it around without oiling up the surface. It also protects my table from any paint that might go over the edges of the glass, and gives me a solid-colored surface to better see my design. The lighter the color the better. Spare wrapping paper, white side up, would be perfect.
  • A design to paint. This technique is really best with simple line art. Think coloring books. Luckily adult coloring pages are all over. You can download something for free, of course, but there are other options. The design I use here came from Etsy. Whatever you use, print it out on a piece of white paper.
  • You’ll also need: tape, acetone and q-tips, glass cleaner, a cup of water, paper towels, pliers, a palette if you plan on mixing colors, a “scraping implement” or two (explained below), and hanging hardware for your frame.

All supplies assembled? Let’s get started!

  1. Gently remove the glass from the frame. If it’s a fine art frame you’ll need to rip through the paper on the back to get to the glass. You might need your pliers here to remove some staples or tabs so you can remove the backing. Carefully do what you need to do, and then set the frame aside.

    frame

    Here we can see the ripped paper, the staples, and the paper remnants clinging to the frame. Don’t worry about those remnants – we’ll catch them later.

  2. Clean one side of the glass with the glass cleaner and let thoroughly dry. Carefully center your printed design, design-side down, on the glass and tape to secure.
  3. Turn the glass over (handling as little as possible from the edges!), put it on your craft paper, and clean that side too. You can now clearly see your design through the glass. Huzzah!

    design frame

    Like this! I forgot to snap a pic of mine, so here’s one I found online. Visualize the wrapping paper underneath this glass.

  4. Using your outliner, trace over all the lines of your design. It’s easy to overlook a line here, so double check. (Hint: If your design has some intricate line work, like Celtic knots, you might want to consider either printing your design with colored lines or using an outliner that’s not black.) The line thickness is determined by the pressure you use, so you might want to practice a bit first. You can also trim the nozzle a smidge to make it wider if you like.
    outliner

    Here we can see the gold outliner being used. You can get thin, thick, and patterned lines depending on the pressure exerted on the tube.

    If you screw up, use a q-tip dipped in acetone to remove the paint and start over. Stubborn lines might need to be scraped a bit with something like a nail file – the outliner is harder to remove than the paint. Allow to air dry before proceeding (about 30 minutes should be fine).

  5. Color! This is the fun part. Fill in the empty spots of the design with paint. The outliner is three-dimensional, so as long as you’re moderately careful the paint will stay in the lines. If it doesn’t, carefully clean up the error with a q-tip dipped in acetone.Here’s a tip. Using the brushes in typical paint-brush fashion leaves brush strokes. A stippling technique – bouncing the brush up and down instead of brushing it back and forth, like you do with a stencil – works way better. Real stained glass has splotches of uneven color too, so focus more on concealing brush strokes and less on trying to make it look completely uniform.
    Edges

    See the difference here? You can still see brush strokes on the bottom, but they are WAY less obvious.

    Also keep in mind that the paint will contract as it dries, meaning it’ll pull away from the outliner and leave a line of clear glass at the edges. I find that leaving a “puddle” of paint in each cell of the design gives me better results, and I usually have to paint sections twice for the coverage I like even so.

    Allow to air dry for about an hour. Then very carefully pick up the glass by the edges and hold it to the light. See anything to fix? Now’s the time! After you’ve made all the corrections you deem necessary, set it aside and allow it to air dry for 24 hours.

  6. Now that that’s done you can turn your attention to the frame! When you put this in a window the back of the frame will be visible to passer-by. If it’s a new ready-made frame it’ll likely be good to go. However, if you’re using a recycled frame you’ll have some work ahead of you.First, of course, you’ll need to remove any remaining staples and other undesired hardware. Then you’ve got to remove all those paper remnants! You tore out the paper in the middle to get to the glass earlier, but unless you are incredibly lucky you’ve got little bits of paper clinging all around the edge. That looks messy. And who wants that?
    messy frame

    This is just not attractive.

    I’m sure there are other techniques to remove the paper and glue, but here’s what I do.

    Place the frame pretty-side-down on a table. Dip your paintbrush in clean water and “paint” the paper all the way around. Let it sit for a few minutes, and then take a scraping implement and scrape the dissolving paper.

    knife

    My “scraping implement”. Don’t hate me, Julia Child!


    When you finish the first pass repeat the process. Once the paper is pretty much gone, move your fingers in a circular motion all along the back of the frame to make the remaining bits ball up. Then scrape those off. Repeat all steps as needed.

    You can either leave your frame here – bare wood can be pretty, and that’s what I went with – or you can decorate it. It’s wood, so whatever you’d normally do to wood can be done here too. Paint is the easiest way, but you can also do woodburning, add decorative nails/tacks, etc. Be creative!

  7. Once you’ve got it how you want it, attach your hanging hardware and wipe down the whole thing. Set aside to dry. If you started the frame as soon as you set the painting aside to dry they should both be ready at the same time.
  8. After the 24 hours are up on the paint drying process follow the manufacturer’s directions and bake your masterpiece in the oven. Allow to cool.
  9. Carefully return the glass to the frame. Many mass-produced frames will have bendable tabs that can be used for the purpose. Custom frames don’t. You can get hardware to hold the glass in, but I say “eh” and glue it in with E6000. That means it can’t be put in the dishwasher, though, so think it through before taking that kind of step.
  10. Hang in a window and admire! You’re done!
    FullSizeRender

    This is the finished product on the table…

    IMG_1251

    And this is the finished product in a window. See how the brush strokes look different with light coming in behind it?

Beyond Suncatchers

Suncatchers, and the making of suncatchers, are wonderful additions to any of the “increasing sun” rituals. I find them particularly awesome for both the Yule and Midsummer seasons.

Don’t be shy about branching out beyond suncatchers, though – you certainly have enough paint! You’ll be surprised at just how useful this technique is for ritual and magickal purposes once you become aware of the possibilities.

For starters, this exact same technique can be used for creating anchors for shields/wards, both in your home’s windows and hanging around a dedicated ritual space.

You can also try painting different shapes. Glass Christmas balls can be painted this way and make fantastic witch balls. Craft stores often have a plethora of hanging glass crystals (like for chandeliers?) that are easily customized with paint, too, and can be used in many different ways.

Dollar store/thrift store glassware can become beautiful custom ritual vessels with some creativity and paint, and if your altar has glass shelves this is another great way to add some character/magickal intent. If you are interested in making your own floating wick oil lamps, glass paint is a fabulous technique for that too.

Like this whole idea, but need to paint ceramic instead of glass? Maybe because you want to make a standing wick oil lamp? You’re in luck – these paints work on ceramics too! They provide a transparent finish. If you want something more opaque Pebeo offers a line of opaque paints too, and they’re used the exact same way. How useful is that?

Oven cure paints don’t work well with mirrors – the metallic backing does not bake well – but air dry paints are just fine. That can add a whole new dimension to mirror-based tools!

The Pebeo markers are particularly suited for painting runes on decorative glass gems, too. Just bake and they’re more durable for divination use than Sharpies are, and you can incorporate the baking process into their magickal making.

Pick up some small glass pendants/beads, or ceramic disks, and paint those too. This can make some truly exceptional ritual jewelry.

See how useful this is? I could go on and on. I hope you have lots of fun with this, and I look forward to seeing some of the creative uses y’all come up with. Happy crafting!