pray with your dead

Xanthias: I have it, master: ’tis those blessed mystics, souls of those who were initiated into the mysteries in life, which we were told would be sporting in the area. They are singing the Iakchos hymn that Diagoras made. (316)

This passage from Aristophanes’ The Frogs reminds us that the deceased perform the same rituals and keep the same festivals that the living do. The point was even more forcefully driven home by Herodotos:

Moreover Dikaios the son of Theokydes, an Athenian exile who had gained great repute at the court of the Medes, reported that when he was near the city, which had been deserted when the Attic land was ravaged by Xerxes’ army, he and Demaratos the Lacedemonian saw a cloud of dust going up from Eleusis, as if made by a company of about thirty thousand men, and they wondered at the cloud of dust, by what men it was caused. Then forthwith they heard a sound of voices, and Dikaios perceived that the sound was the mystic cry Iakchos; but Demaratos, having no knowledge of the sacred rites which are done at Eleusis, asked him what this was that uttered the sound, and he said: “Demaratos, it cannot be but that some great destruction is about to come to the army of the king: for as to this, it is very manifest, seeing that Attica is deserted, that this which utters the sound is of the Gods, and that it is going from Eleusis to help the Athenians and their allies: if then it shall come down in the Peloponnese, there is danger for the king himself and for the army which is upon the mainland, but if it shall direct its course towards the ships which are at Salamis, the king will be in danger of losing his fleet. This feast the Athenians celebrate every year to the Mother and the Daughter; and he that desires it, both of them and of the other Hellenes, is initiated in the mysteries; and the sound of voices which thou hearest is the cry Iakchos which they utter at this feast.”  (The Histories 8.65)

That is why tradition is so important. It binds us to all who came before through the same repetitive sacred acts. When our feet follow theirs in the dance, when we repeat the words they once said it creates an echo across the ages, a powerful reverb that amplifies the dromenon and legomenon.

One may freely step out of the stream of tradition at any time. If one is knowledgeable and masterful enough in the craft of ceremony one may even devise new modes of effective worship. If practiced diligently and with an earnest desire to please the divine, such innovations may in time accrue the depth and flow of tradition, even if it is a trickle compared to the rush of the Nile or Euphrates.

But they rarely do.

How could they with so few dead behind them?

The dead exist in the shadowy realm between men and the Gods; no longer the one nor yet the other. Because of this liminal condition they are conduits to other worlds and through them blessings flow into this world of ours. That is why during the season of the emergence of flowers when we taste the new wine for the first time, the dead roam freely about. Death and life are inseparably united, as the Orphics of Olbia recognized:

βίος. θάνατος. βίος. ἀλήθεια. Ζαγρεύς. Διόνυσος (SEG 28.659)

If an individual or a community is to prosper they must be in right relationship with their dead, and if one was not there were religious specialists such as the Orpheotelestai to facilitate that:

They adduce a hubbub of books by Musaeus and Orpheus, descendants, as they say, of the Moon and of the Muses, according to which they arrange their rites, convincing not only individuals but also cities that liberation and purification from injustice is possible, both during life and after death, by means of sacrifices and enjoyable games to the deceased which free us from the evils of the beyond, whereas something horrible awaits those who have not celebrated sacrifices. (Plato, The Republic 364e)

People often ask why Christianity succeeded in supplanting ancient Paganism. I suspect the answer is a combination of a number of complex factors, but one of the most important was definitely that Christianity from the beginning was a cult of the dead, and as Theodoret of Kyrrhos explained, their dead were very good to them:

Those who are well ask the martyrs to protect their good health, while those who are worn down by illness request release from their sufferings. The childless ask for children, infertile women call out to become mothers, and those who have received this gift request that it be kept perfectly safe for them … They do not approach them like Gods – rather they entreat them as men of God and call on them to act as ambassadors on their behalf. Those who ask with confidence gain what they request – their votive offerings clearly testify to their healing. For some offer representations of eyes, some of feet, others of hands; some are made of gold, others of wood. Their master accepts these little items of little worth, valuing the gift according to the merit of the one offering it. The display of these objects advertises deliverance from suffering – they have been left as commemorations by those who have regained their health. They proclaim the power of the martyrs laid to rest there – whose power proves the greatness of their God. (The Healing of Pagan Diseases 8.63-4)

In contrast, a generation before Theodoret’s time the emperor Julian found only one man in the city of Alexandria Troas who was still carrying out the rites of the heroes, and he was a Christian bishop of decidedly heterodox beliefs:

After rising at early dawn I came from Troas to Ilios about the middle of the morning. Bishop Pegasios came to meet me, as I wished to explore the city,—-this was my excuse for visiting the temples,—and he was my guide and showed me all the sights. So now let me tell you what he did and said, and from it one may guess that he was not lacking in right sentiments towards the Gods. Hector has a hero’s shrine there and his bronze statue stands in a tiny little temple. Opposite this they have set up a figure of the great Achilles in the unroofed court. If you have seen the spot you will certainly recognise my description of it. You can learn from the guides the story that accounts for the fact that great Achilles was set up opposite to him and takes up the whole of the unroofed court. Now I found that the altars were still alight, I might almost say still blazing, and that the statue of Hector had been anointed till it shone. So I looked at Pegasios and said: “What does this mean? Do the people of Ilios offer sacrifices?” This was to test him cautiously to find out his own views. He replied: “Is it not natural that they should worship a brave man who was their own citizen, just as we worship the martyrs?” Now the analogy was far from sound; but his point of view and intentions were those of a man of culture, if you consider the times in which we then lived. Observe what followed. “Let us go,” said he, “to the shrine of Athene of Ilios.” Thereupon with the greatest eagerness he led me there and opened the temple, and as though he were producing evidence he showed me all the statues in perfect preservation, nor did he behave at all as those impious men do usually, I mean when they make the sign on their impious foreheads, nor did he hiss to himself as they do. For these two things are the quintessence of their theology, to hiss at demons and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. These are the two things that I promised to tell you. But a third occurs to me which I think I must not fail to mention. This same Pegasios went with me to the temple of Achilles as well and showed me the tomb in good repair; yet I had been informed that this also had been pulled to pieces by him. But he approached it with great reverence; I saw this with my own eyes. (Letter to a Priest)

Meanwhile, Julian found the piety of his fellow Pagans lacking:

Hellenismos does not yet prosper as I desire, and it is the fault of those who profess it; we have made some small progress — indeed, by Adrasteia far more than any of us could ever have hoped for a short while ago, but we should not be satisfied with this. Don’t you see that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception. Either shame or persuade them into righteousness or else remove them from their priestly office, if they do not, together with their wives, children and servants, attend the worship of the Gods and the dead  they should not be considered priests. Do not allow even your servants or sons or wives to show impiety towards the Gods and honour atheism more than piety. (To Arsacius, High-priest of Galatia)

The Reformation seriously damaged the cult of the saints and martyrs and as a result the influence of Christianity has diminished throughout the world. Where it remains strongest you will usually find a proper emphasis placed on honoring the dead, something that even certain Protestant sects have learned to do.

So if we want to see Paganism and our respective polytheist communities flourish we must lay our foundation upon the dead and let them guide us in the worship of our Gods.

For when the Gods are near to us, so too are our dead, at least if your God is anything like mine:

Silenus, whom the merry maids had raised upon an ass, rode along, holding a golden goblet, which was constantly filled for him. Slowly he advanced, while behind whirled in mad eddies the reckless troop of vine-clad revelers. You, reader, who are well educated and familiar with descriptions of Bacchanalian orgies or festivals of Dionysos, would not have been astonished by this. At the utmost, you would only feel a slightly licentious thrill at seeing this assembly of delightful phantoms rise from their sarcophagi to again renew their ancient and festive rites, all rioting, reveling, hurrahing Evöe Bacche! (Heinrich Heine, Die Götter im Exil)

Even if you are inventing new rites include the dead in what you do and it will go better for you.

And also, when you’re dead — and we’re all gonna die, dearies; don’t you have any illusions about that — work to assist those who will follow.

6 thoughts on “pray with your dead

  1. This is definitely an aspect of my practice that I worry if I’m doing enough with. Do you have any tips for a regular practice for the dead from a Bacchic Orphic stand point?


    1. There’s some of that in Masks of Dionysos: Getting to Know the God Through His Heroes and Heroines though as the title suggests the bulk of the book is focused on working with the Bacchic Heroes and Heroines, which are a very different class of dead, so I should probably focus on more general stuff, especially since that isn’t what most folks are going to need help dealing with.


  2. I think honoring one’s dead is THE most important thing one can do as a polytheist. It’s the foundation for everything else.

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