I have a fairly active religious life. In addition to my regular daily and monthly devotions I celebrate a large number of important festivals throughout the year. On average, there are at least two or three of these a month, and some months that number swells to around half a dozen. Recently I’ve actually had to scale things back a bit, since I was finding it difficult to put the proper time, thought, and resources into their celebration when it seemed that almost every other day was a festival of one sort or another. This, I suppose, is a consequence of having such a rich and complex multicultural pantheon, as we do in Greco-Egyptian polytheism.
Naturally, one may ask why do we do this? Why do we mark certain days as holy to the gods, as if the others were somehow less important? Why do we make lavish offerings to them, dress up in special clothing, dance, sing, play games, make music, tell stories, recite hymns, decorate the shrine and home, feast with friends and family members, and all the rest that properly celebrating a festival entails? After all, this is a lot of planning and expenditure to go through, with few if any tangible results for our trouble. And from a purely materialistic perspective it seems awfully wasteful.
These are interesting questions to pose, though it seems that few contemporary polytheist authors have bothered to address them. There is quite a bit of information out there on how to celebrate festivals, including some great material on how ancient observances can be adapted for modern times, but most of this glosses over the reasons why we celebrate these festivals in the first place.
I do not presume to know why others celebrate, but I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my own personal reasons for doing so.
To begin with, I believe that it is pleasing to the gods to be honored in this way. After all, do you not enjoy it when your friends and family gather to celebrate in your honor, perhaps on your birthday, a special anniversary, or to acknowledge some important accomplishment of which you are justifiably proud? Although the gods are indeed different from us mortals in a number of significant ways, many of the ancients – from Homer down to Aristotle – felt it appropriate to attribute to them emotional responses analogous to our own. In fact, the myths are consistent in portraying the gods as desirous of the honors due their divine status, and further, willing to punish those who treat them negligently.
Which brings up my next point, namely that such celebrations are a proper way to demonstrate our gratitude for the countless blessings that the gods have seen fit to bestow upon us. Every aspect of our lives is overseen by one or another of the divinities, as numerous sages over the centuries have recognized. Giving back a portion of what they have given to us shows both that we are aware of their benefaction and that we are thankful for such boons. Furthermore, by entering into this reciprocal relationship with the divine and doing what is pleasing in their eyes, we gain their kharis or good favor which inclines them to continued generosity in the future. Imagine that you gave gifts to two separate individuals. The first person accepted their gift without acknowledgment, seeing it as nothing more than they were entitled to. But the second person offered profuse thanks and even gave back their own humble gift as a token of appreciation. Which of these are you more likely to show generosity to the next time around?
Although it is certainly an important element, gratitude is not the only reason why I celebrate the festivals of my gods. There is also the fact that worship of this sort allows me to draw closer to them. By taking time out of my ordinary routine and focusing exclusively on them during its duration, I am reminded of who they are and why they are so important to me. Everything that I do during a festival is intended to bring me directly within their sphere of influence. In fact, sometimes these festal occasions provide an opportunity for intense and intimate communion with my gods in the form of epiphanies, visions and trance-possession. Although I may have such encounters at other times as well, I have found them to be both easier and more heightened during the god’s festival. There could be two reasons for this. First, there is the fact that I am strongly focused on them during this time, and engaged in those activities specifically intended to cultivate that sort of deeper awareness.
However, there is also the fact that the dates of my festivals have not been randomly chosen. At different times of the year a god may be more active and more strongly felt in the world around us than at others. This is especially true of those deities who are intimately connected with the cycles of nature, as many of mine happen to be. So it is, for instance, that we often find the ancient festivals of Dionysos occurring in Winter and Spring, but rarely during Summer which is the fallow season in Greece. Now obviously Dionysos can be felt at any time, but we often experience a very different side of him depending on where we are in the agricultural cycle. When the vines lie dormant we often behold the chthonic face of the god, whilst it is the triumphant and rapturous lord of intoxication that arises with the first flowers and budding fruit on the branch. In celebrating these festivals at their proper times, attuned to the lifecycle of our planet, we gain a deeper understanding of the gods, and an awareness of our environment and how such things influence our very existence.
And for me, at least, that is another important element in my celebration of festivals. Like the ancients, I believe that man is intertwined with his environment, and further that what we do can influence it to varying degrees. Many of our ancestral rites were thought to help promote the fertility of fields and flocks. When these rites were not properly performed it could be disastrous for the community as a whole. Many of the festivals that I celebrate today are a continuation of these ancient traditions. Skeptics may scoff – after all, these rites were not performed for hundreds of years during the time of Christian domination and yet the crops still came up in due season. Others, living in cities and getting their food entirely from the supermarket may feel no connection to nature and see fertility merely as an abstract quality. But for me, this stuff is real, important, and clearly makes a difference. I have noticed an increase of vegetation in places where I regularly perform such rites, and the spirits of the land seem to grow stronger and happier when such things are done for them. Further, and in some ways more importantly, I have witnessed members of my religious community reap unexpected blessings when the group collectively participated in these rites and a consequent decline when they were no longer done. Perhaps all of this can be written off as mere coincidence, but I still consider this an essential part of my religious practice, and something that is only increasing as I delve deeper into my path.
The final reason why I celebrate the festivals that I do is because I find them deeply enjoyable. This may seem like a trivial reason, especially in comparison with the others already cited, but I think that we would be mistaken to write it off so easily. The gods intend for us to enjoy life, to take great pleasure in its manifold blessings. And what could be more appropriate than doing so in the company of the gods who are responsible for these good things in the first place? Tryphe – luxury, indulgence, wealth and pleasure – was one of the cardinal virtues of the ancient Alexandrians and the Ptolemies in particular, whose whole sacred kingship was based on cultivating it and distributing it to the general populace. Festivals give us the opportunity to experience tryphe like nothing else. They are a break from our regular routine. The rest of the time we are supposed to work hard and lead temperate and disciplined lives. But during festivals we are permitted – nay, encouraged! – to have a good time and blow off some steam. Without such a pressure-valve, our anxieties and frustrations could build up until we explode in a rage, or worse yet, our spirits will be forever subject to banality and monotony. Festivals inject some much-needed color and excitement into our lives, and present us with all manner of sensual delights to indulge in. There is the good food and fine wine, the relaxed and joyous atmosphere, fun music and games, convivial conversations with friends and family, the pageantry and spectacle of the ritual itself, and beautiful decorations and lovely sights for our eyes to feast upon. Additionally, festivals help foster a sense of communal solidarity among those who worship together. And it gives us something to plan for, to look forward to in the months and weeks leading up to the festival. All of these are hardly inconsequential, as the ancients themselves well knew.
So there you go. These are some of the reasons why I celebrate the festivals of my gods. I’m sure, granted more time and space, I could come up with a host of additional reasons, but I think that I’ve sufficiently made my point, which is that festivals constitute the heart of Greco-Egyptian religious practice. In fact, I can’t imagine what my religion – and my life itself – would be like without them!