We live in a hectic, fast-paced society where everything happens at the speed of light and no one ever seems to have enough time. Our lives are taken up with work, commute, family obligations, social functions, and countless other events which eat up our time like ravenous vermin devouring grain in a silo.
Finding time in our busy and demanding schedules for religious activity can be difficult, if next to impossible for some people. Additionally, our living arrangements may make keeping a shrine problematic: teen-agers living at home with disapproving Fundamentalist parents, college students who have to contend with cramped quarters and oblivious room-mates who spill bong water all over the altar, parents with overly curious toddlers who like to play “dress up” with mommy’s pretty Greek dolls, spouses that are allergic to incense smoke, and so forth.
Some people may not have the financial means to acquire statues, incense, altar stands, votive gifts, or any of the other necessary items for a shrine. And lastly, after a chaotic, stressful, and overly-laden day, one may lack the peace of mind or motivation to do anything more ambitious than collapse on the couch and watch reruns of old CSI episodes.
All of these, and countless other considerations, can make worshipping in the home difficult at times, however well-intentioned we might be. But should we allow these things to impede our religious practice? Absolutely not! Arrian writes that Alexander the Great, after receiving a terrible wound on the battlefield became so ill that he was forced to remain bed-ridden. However, “he was carried out on a couch to perform the sacrifices custom prescribed for each day; after making the offerings he lay down in the men’s apartments till dark.” (VII.25.2)
So if this man, mortally wounded, inconceivably far from home, and engaged in leading probably one of the greatest military campaigns known to history could find time in his day for the Gods, so should we.
The first thing that we have to get out of our heads is that there is only one type of acceptable worship, and that for it to be pleasing to the Gods, you have to have all of the right tools. Yes, it’s nice to have beautiful statues, special bowls and plates for libations and offerings, barley, chernips, a Hestia flame, pure incense, fresh flowers and fruit, music, hymns, pre-written prayers, and a good hour where you can be alone and undisturbed. Yes, all of this stuff makes for good ritual – but is any of it absolutely necessary? Not in the least. True worship is performed in the heart anyway. One of the Greek words for religion is eusebia, meaning a reverential awe before the divine. Without this key element – coupled with its kindred emotions love and devotion – all of the props in the world won’t amount to a hill of beans. However, our religion is not simply an internalized emotion, where it’s sufficient to have warm, happy, fuzzy feelings about the Gods, and never actually do anything with them. Eusebia has value only when it is embodied in an action – through the recitation of prayers, the offering of sacrifices and libations, the creation of beautiful things, and just living that testifies to our relationship with the Gods. So what follows are suggestions about ways that we can integrate this aspect of worship into our daily lives, regardless of how busy and hectic they may be.
An important thing to remember is that having a shrine or altar in the house is a fairly modern innovation. True, wealthy individuals had their own private chapels, as we see for instance in some of the estates at Pompeii, which was a resort town for upper-class Romans of the 1st century before Vesuvius blew its top, and there were also shrines to Zeus Herkeios in the courtyard, Zeus Ktesios in the pantry, Zeus Ephestios at the hearth, as well as those for household Gods, one’s ancestors, and of course to Hestia, who was both worshipped at, and manifest in the family hearth, which was the center of a household. But most of these things were beyond the means of poorer citizens, and at any rate, all of the large public festivals took place outside the temples, which were viewed as the homes of the Gods. When people had pressing spiritual needs they would travel to the temples, oracles, healing centers, or to mountains, springs, groves, or other important natural locales in order to worship there. So it is by no means necessary to honour the Gods exclusively in your own private shrine in your home.
Some people even find natural settings more conducive to a spirit of worship. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “If you have ever come on a dense wood of ancient trees that have risen to an exceptional height, shutting out all sight of the sky with one thick screen of branches upon another, the loftiness of the forest, the seclusion of the spot, your sense of wonderment at finding so deep and unbroken a gloom out of doors, will persuade you of the presence of a deity. Any cave in which the rocks have been eroded deep into the mountain resting on it, its hollowing out into a cavern of impressive extent not produced by the labours of men but the result of the processes of nature, will strike into your soul some kind of inkling of the divine. We venerate the source of important streams; places where a mighty river bursts suddenly from hiding are provided with altars; hot springs are objects of worship; the darkness or unfathomable depth of pools has made their waters sacred.”
Parks, rest-stops, gardens, or woods can all be great places to worship at, and you will often – especially if you come early in the morning or late at night – find the privacy necessary to conduct your rituals in peace. However, even at the busiest times – say the park near your job on lunch-break – you can usually find enough space to pour out a libation and offer part of your meal with a brief prayer. It doesn’t have to be anything complex, nor is it necessary to have a cult image to make offerings to. You can simply recite your prayers, trusting that it will reach the ears of the Gods, or close your eyes and envision the deity to whom you are making sacrifice, before actually offering it. This, in itself, can be a very rewarding practice, helping you to perceive the divinity in a more concrete form, instead of as just some nebulous force floating around in the sky. Take a few moments to really envision them in your head: do they appear in human guise, or some other way? If human, how are they dressed, what colour skin, eyes, and hair do they have, what symbols accompany them, do you get any other impressions from them, and so on and so forth. You may also choose to envision yourself making the offering to them directly, the God consuming its spiritual substance even as you give its physical substance over to them.
Nor is it absolutely necessary to go to a natural location in order to make your sacrifices. (Prayers, obviously, can be recited at any time and in any place.) For instance, when I lived in Las Vegas, I would frequently have a forty-five minute wait between buses, and since I took two buses to and from work each day, this meant that my commute time approached five hours. That was a considerable chunk of my day, especially since I worked around nine hours on top of that, five days a week – so it put plenty of time that wasn’t entirely my own in my hands. Near one of my bus-stops there was a 7-Eleven which sold little one-shot bottles of wine which I found perfect for making libations. I would buy the wine and often something else – lunch, candy, granola, cheap incense – and take these to an abandoned lot near the bus stop. There were all these boulders and rocks strewn about, and out of these and some dirt I had shaped a little mound upon which I poured my libations, lit my incense, and offered my sacrifices. I’m sure that my fellow commuters wondered at my strange behaviour – why is that odd man mumbling to himself and throwing out his food – but the little old Mexican ladies never said a word to me.
And this is the sort of thing that anyone can do, at any time. Yes you may be very busy, far from home, and lacking in proper ritual items – but I think that just about anyone could sneak away for a couple minutes, buy a few items – or bring them from home – and perform this sort of impromptu ritual. You could probably even do it at work, if need be, on lunch or at another break. Go behind the building, or to the smoking area, or even at your desk. Perhaps you could light a candle, set up flowers or votive gifts, sprinkle a few granules of incense, even if you can’t light them, set aside a portion of your lunch for the Gods until you can properly dispose of it for them – anything, as long as it’s something. Most of these activities would go entirely unnoticed by co-workers, or if they saw them, they’d probably assume that you were just decorating your work space. They don’t have to know – what matters is that you and the Gods know the true intention of your acts. But if they happened to comment on it, you could use this as an opportunity to share your religion with them. After all, that, too can be a profound way to honour the Gods.
Another way to worship on the fly is through creativity. You can do artistic things to honour the Gods, such as writing poetry, hymns, essays, or short stories to celebrate them. You could even compose meandering meditations on the Gods and your experiences with them, just random thoughts and associations that come to you – it doesn’t have to be anything great or something you would necessarily have to share with anyone else. But the act of focusing your thoughts upon the Gods and writing can be a profound form of worship. The same holds true for drawing, sketching, painting, sculpting, collaging, mask-making, sewing, etc – any act of creativity. In fact, this form of devotion has an added benefit, as you can use these creative expressions to decorate your shrine or in building ritual items for use later on. This is an especially powerful form of devotion if you are not terribly skilled in these art forms. The effort you put into learning them, the time you devote and progress you make in your studies, are all forms of sacrifice in a way. Just try not to get frustrated or disappointed with the finished product if it doesn’t quite turn out as you had intended. What matters is that you keep your mind focused on the Gods while you are performing the task and that you offer them your best efforts.
Another form of devotion can be simply listening to music. Put together mix tapes with songs that remind you of a particular God, and let your thoughts roam as you listen to the music, either while commuting, at work, going for a walk, while performing other rituals, or just while relaxing. If you are so skilled – and believe me, I am not – you could even play music in their honour, or compose new pieces for them. Anyone, regardless of talent, can sing and dance, both of which were important features of ancient Greek religion. A similar way that you can use your body to honour the Gods is through exercise – especially going on long walks – martial arts, Yoga, Tai Chi, making love, or other physical activities.
And a final method of non-traditional worship would be devoting your time, money, and other resources to charitable causes on behalf of the Gods. For instance, some people collect food and clothing and donate them to drives on behalf of Zeus Xenios or Demeter. Giving money to a wildlife protection organization, or going to a park and cleaning up litter would be a great way to honour Artemis. Volunteering at a community theater project or manning the phones at a crisis center are activities appropriate for Dionysos. And advocating for the rights of sex workers or donating money to local arts and music programs would certainly be pleasing to Aphrodite. Or best of all, you can write big fat checks to keep your favorite authors – such as myself – afloat. This would be pleasing to all of the Gods, and ensure you a blessed place in Elysium. Well, maybe not. But I’m sure you can think of many other options that are both within your power and consistent with your interests and personal ethics. What matters is that you find something that helps draw you closer to your Gods, and does good in your community.
So, as you can see there are plenty of ways to integrate religion and a stronger relationship with the Gods into your life, regardless of how busy, strapped for time and cash you are, or how chaotic your home-life may be.
3 thoughts on “Hellenic polytheism on the go”
Greetings, You give great tips on praying/honoring the Deities that applies especially to those who are busy. May this sage wisdom reach those who can benefit from your words.
Are all these blasts from the past? I carry prayer beads. You can whip out those bad boys in line at a bank, and people figure you are Catholic…. stealth prayers. I carry fancy rocks to hold in my pocket that I matched with various Gods. Lapis is good for Babylonian ones. You can also pray while walking, which I do.
It’s an older piece. One of my oldest in fact.
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