Beyond Patrons

A companion to this piece

The thing that brings people to Hellenismos is usually the Gods. Sure, there’s the occasional person who comes to the religion through a fascination with ancient Greek history and culture, or because of their great admiration for her literature (and who doesn’t feel their soul stir upon reading the opening lines of the Iliad) but I rather suspect that these individuals are in the minority. For most it is the Gods who lead us here – and who keep us around long after we find out what an opinionated, argumentative, and cantankerous bunch Hellenists can be.

And while there are those people who are drawn equally to the whole pantheon, and to the Gods precisely as a pantheon, again, I don’t think this is terribly common. Most people when they describe what brought them to Hellenismos will cite a strong attraction to a particular deity, or perhaps to a small group of them. While this attraction may change over time, blossoming to include other Gods or passing from one deity to another, for many this attraction holds a singular power in their life. They may feel especially devoted to this divinity who inspires their greatest aspirations and most praiseworthy efforts, and they often feel that in some respects the divinity reciprocates by showing interest in their development and a certain measure of protectiveness for them. This type of relationship is usually called patronage, which borrows as its model the client system of ancient Rome, and has precedent in the relationships between Odysseus and Athene (Iliad 2.279), Aristeas and Apollon (Herodotos 4.20), Marcus Antonius and Dionysos (Plutarch’s Life of Antony), and perhaps most famous of all, Socrates and his daimonion (Plato’s Apology). 

Plato has voiced what many in a patron relationship intuitively felt – namely that every human soul is under the control and guidance of a particular divinity: “The Demiurge divided the whole mixture into souls equal in number to the stars, and assigned each soul to a star … and when he had sown them, he committed to the younger Gods the fashioning of their mortal bodies.” (Timaeus 41-2) And in the Phaedrus he adds, “He who follows in the train of any God honours him, and imitates him as far as he is able; and this is his way of life and the manner of his behaviour. Everyone chooses the object of his affections according to his character.” (252c)

This is, clearly, a very important relationship. Even if one’s patron is not directly responsible for the creation of their soul and body, our proximity to the divinity will certainly have an effect on our life. This may be on the subtlest of levels, for instance by influencing our thoughts, whether that be simply by making us think about something in a totally different light or by exerting a kind of gravitational force which constantly draws us back to a particular network of associations, images, and concepts. And yet, even this seemingly simple thing can have a profound effect on our lives, for our thoughts, to a large extent, shape who we are and how we react to the world around us. If we are aligned to a particular world-view, which is under the domain of a single deity and which exists in counter-distinction to other divinities, we are going to make different decisions than if we were aligned to the world-view of someone else. For instance, the Dionysian world-view is one of freedom, and abundance, and the transgression of boundaries resulting in an orgiastic loss of distinctions. How different that is from the law and order and rational remoteness of Athene’s world-view. (Of course it is important to remember that the Gods are not simply ideas or archetypes, but distinct beings, and further, as true divinities they represent a totality which embraces both a particular point as well as it’s polar opposite: thus, healing Gods also bring plague, rationality contains an element of ecstacy, and there is a speck of light at the center of even the vastest darkness.)

I can personally attest that having this world-view, this cluster of ideas in the back of my head, has caused me to make decisions I might not have otherwise. Dionysos is always there inspiring me to boldly take life by the throat, to experience things to their fullest, to be aware of the sensual beauty which surrounds me, and to root out within myself whatever threatens to hold me back or diminish my experiences of the world. He is the enemy of fear, of stasis, of empty formality. I have had to make hard choices, to give up things I thought important to me because in the end they were really strangling me and keeping me enslaved, and he is constantly urging me to open myself up to a deeper awareness and acceptance of frightening and challenging ideas. The bios Dionusou or Dionysian life is an unfolding process, and one that I am constantly striving to live. Thus, I am who I am today largely because of my devotion to this God. I suspect a follower of Demeter or Apollon or Poseidon feels exactly the same way about their God and the impact that that deity has had in their life.

And that’s really the point that I want to make. No matter how great a God is, no matter how fully they may fulfill the desires of the individual devotee – no God in a polytheistic system exhausts the totality of existence, nor claims the whole of the world as theirs alone, nor monopolizes the ways of being and worship. All of the Gods exist in relationship to each other. This may be through diametrical opposition or through a certain affinity or even a similarity of essence. They are friends, enemies, lovers, relatives, and more – a plurality of beings relating to each other and creation in every conceivable manner, their relationships forming a wonderful, complex tapestry which animates the cosmos and our lives within it. This is the fundamental, beautiful truth of polytheism – and unfortunately, there are times when the patron relationship can endanger that.

Because of my close identification with Dionysos and his world-view other relationships have been closed off to me. I have almost nothing to do with Athene, Apollon, and Artemis. Sometimes this is a result of the decisions I have made in life, sometimes it’s because there is a spiritual repulsion that takes effect like when you place two magnets together and they push away from each other, and much more commonly I am simply so preoccupied with Dionysos, so conditioned to find his presence in the world, that I either don’t think to look for the others or miss them entirely when they are present. I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly limiting. There is so much out there that it would be a real shame if I never had the opportunity to see and experience it. Sometimes this intense focus can actually be harmful, in the way that if you only eat one food, no matter how tasty it may be, you are depriving yourself of complex nutrients that you can get only through a diverse and well-balanced diet. Each of the Gods have certain blessings to bestow on us, lessons to teach us, experiences to share with us. If we are locked into only one pattern there’s going to come a time when that pattern leads us into conflict and pain. Dionysian exuberance and abundance can easily become addiction and fatal excess. Just look at Jim Morrison or Baudelaire if you have any doubt. These men led life to its fullest – and burnt out in a very short span of time. That may make for a Romantic ideal – it’s better to be consumed by fire than to fade away – but realistically, they couldn’t sustain that level of intensity, and their art, especially in the case of Morrison, suffered for it. In the beginning, his work was brilliant and prophetic – towards the end, sad, self-obsessed, and pathetic. Imagine if he had acquired some Apollonian restraint and discipline, if he had learned to temper his spirit just a bit, to curb his addictions, to find real freedom instead of nihilistic renunciation. His craft could have gone on for years, allowed to grow and mature and reach its full potential. Perhaps he could have changed the world with his words – instead he ended up a miserable, bloated drunk choking to death on his own vomit in a bath-tub in Paris.

My relationship with Dionysos is unquestionably the most important in my life – the one constant in a world of Protean transformation. No other God can hold a candle to that, come close to the affections I have for him. And yet, sometimes those secondary and tertiary relationships have radically altered the course of my life. They have opened me up to new experiences and taught me lessons Dionysos either couldn’t or felt needed to be done by someone else in order to bring the point home more forcefully. Sometimes those relationships have lasted for a long time. Hermes, for instance, has been present in my life for a number of years. He has refined my writing, encouraged me to undertake strange journeys, revealed things about certain parts of my personality that didn’t fit into the Dionysian mould, and nudged me to take on a more magical practice. He has also been a doorway through which I was able to make contact with other Gods. As a consequence, I consider him to be a second patron, only slightly below Dionysos in my own personal divine hierarchy. But there are other Gods who have come into my life for only very brief periods, whose presence has focused on one particular area or idea, and once that issue has been resolved, have passed back out of my life. Horus came in seemingly only to inaugurate an interest in Egyptian religion. After about a week or two of intense epiphanies I’ve had very little to do with him since. Zeus came to teach me about power and its responsibility. Aphrodite to lend beauty and refinement to my life. Sobek to protect me during a difficult transition. Hekate made it possible for me to attend Pantheacon in 2007. If I had turned my back on them, refused to have anything to do with them because Dionysos is my all and everything – think how much smaller my life would be as a result of that.

I’ve also noticed, unfortunately, that some people feel inadequate spiritually because they do not have a strong attachment to a single God. They feel like they aren’t good enough, that they’re doing something wrong, that maybe this isn’t the religion for them since everyone else has a patron and they don’t. This is nonsense. The patron relationship is not the de facto form in Greek religion. It is a unique experience, one that has special benefits but also comes with heavy duty responsibilities, and which is not the norm, now or back in antiquity. In ancient times the average person tended to pray to a wide variety of Gods. At different times in their lives different Gods would have had different levels of importance to them. Artemis was said to watch over young girls, but once they reached maturity and marriage she became remote until they were pregnant and gave birth. Hestia or Demeter would likely have held more sway over them while they were concerned with the domestic sphere. If they were sailing, they may have made offerings to Poseidon, a God they otherwise would have had no contact with unless they lived on the coast. Others would have been prominent only at festival time or if they entered a particular career, and so forth. Taken as a totality over time, this created a possibility for an abundance of minor relationships – which is by far the norm, both today and in antiquity, however common the patron relationship may be. So people shouldn’t be worried if they don’t have a patron – maybe they just haven’t found one yet but the God is still out there waiting for them, or maybe they don’t have one, and instead are meant to cultivate a number of these lesser relationships. There is no one right way – the religious life of each person is as unique and individual as a snow-flake to make use of that insipid metaphor. Instead of trying to conform to the pattern of someone else, they should be seeking what works the best for them. That may involve recognizing the existence of a patron relationship – or moving beyond the concept altogether.