To the Kouretes

For Petros.

I summon to these prayers
the dancemad, hauberk-clad Lads
who slam their ashen spear butts to the ground
and scream ferociously
in time to the thunder-summoning kettledrums
and double-pipes trilling like pandaemonium
loosed upon the earth.
Everything quakes and throbs as they draw near,
these bringers of flowers and plump summer bees;
beasts and trees and everything else
are caught in the potent rapture
of their raw, unyoked masculinity which comes
crashing against the shore in foamy waves,
breaking through a well-ordered foreign phalanx,
crushing walls that would dare keep them out.
When they leap and prance upon the field
the cold winds are driven to cowardly flight by their heat,
snow trembles and pisses itself into nothingness,
ice is afraid as a child in a cage
and all rejoice for the beloved of the Nymphs,
the protectors of the grotto and defenders of the innocent,
the march-loving springtime Youths
are here to play.

To Medeia

For Ellen.

Queenly Medeia with midnight braids
and sharp white teeth, lips the color
of virgin’s blood on a flint blade,
cheeks smooth and pale as bone,
dress shimmering like serpent scale
as you stir the herb-strewn cauldron
and sing ancient chants to the infernal powers
in your bird-lovely and heavily accented voice.
O sister of Absyrtos, you are hard and cold and unforgiving
as the snow-covered Colchian soil that bore you,
daughter of Aeëtes and mother of the horse-loving
race of Medes, archers beyond compare;
like them your sight is keen and unwavering,
your justice is implacable,
your reason unclouded by sentiment,
you see all the probabilities an act may set in motion,
perceive both the intended and unforeseen consequences
and so, Crimson Mistress, you do not flinch
from making the tough, necessary choice
that others could not bear, but will benefit from.
Chief priestess of the Black Sea Hekate,
Granddaughter of the unconquered Sun,
attendant of frenzied Dionysos,
initiate of the Samothracian deities,
drummer in the orgies of Mountain Mother Rheia,
fellow-traveler of Orpheus and overseer of the Green Way,
familiar of Baba Yaga and dweller in the witchy hut on forest’s edge
hear my prayers and lend your cunning and your power
to the work I am undertaking,
and Lady, I shall share a portion
of my generous client’s gift with you.

Remember those who died for the Gods and Truth

But part of why I had such a visceral reaction to the man’s dishonest appropriation is because this is the exact tactic that the Christians took in antiquity:

If those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use. (Augustine, On Christian Teaching)

And that ain’t cool.

Especially since they were only able to do so after centuries of bitter conflict with the disciples of Plato, who were some of the strongest critics of the militant monotheism of the church and actively engaged in the preservation and restoration of traditional cults (see, for instance, Marinos of Samaria’s Life of Proklos, Iamblichos’ De Mysteriis, Porphyry’s Against the Christians and Julian’s Contra Galileos) and then only after the might of the Roman empire was brought to bear against them, as for instance when Justinian forcibly closed the Academy in Athens:

We wish to widen the law once made by us and by our father of blessed memory against all remaining heresies (we call heresies those faiths which hold and believe things otherwise than the catholic and apostolic orthodox church), so that it ought to apply not only to them but also to Samaritans and Pagans. Thus, since they have had such an ill effect, they should have no influence nor enjoy any dignity, nor acting as teachers of any subjects, should they drag the minds of the simple to their errors and, in this way, turn the more ignorant of them against the pure and true orthodox faith; so we permit only those who are of the orthodox faith to teach and accept a public stipend.

Justinian enforced this edict with torture and murder on a grand scale, as we see, for instance in Prokopios:

Justinian then carried the persecution to the Hellenes as they are called, maltreating their bodies and plundering their properties. But even those among them who had decided to espouse in word the name of Christians, seeking thus to avert their present misfortunes, these not much later were generally seized at their libations and sacrifices and other unholy acts. And the prosecution of these cases was carried out in reckless fashion, since the penalty was exacted even without an accuser, for the word of a single man or boy, and even, if it so happened, of a slave compelled against his will to give evidence against his owner, was considered definite proof. Those who were thus convicted had their privates removed and were paraded through the streets. (The Secret History 11.24-36)

Or the third book of the Chronicle of Zuqnin, which quotes John of Ephesos who was directly involved in the persecutions:

In the nineteenth year of the Emperor Justinian, they were busy, thanks to my zeal, with the matter of the Pagans who were discovered in Constantinople. These were illustrious and noble men, with a host of grammarians, sophists, scholastics and physicians. When they were discovered and, thanks to torture, denounced themselves, they were seized, flogged, imprisoned, and sent to the churches so that they might learn the Christian faith as was appropriate for Pagans. There were among them patricians and nobles. Then a powerful and wealthy Pagan named Phocas, who was a patrician, saw the harshness of the inquisition and knowing that those arrested had denounced him as a Pagan, and that a severe sentence had been given against him because of the zeal of the emperor, that night took deadly poison and so left this earthly life. When the emperor heard this, he ordered with justice that he should be interred like an ass, that there should be no cortege or prayer for him. So his family during the night put him on a litter, carried him, made an open grave and threw him in it like a dead animal. Thanks to this the Pagans were afraid for some time. Later on the goodness of god visited Asia, Caria, Lydia and Phrygia, thanks to the zeal of the victorious Justinian and by the efforts of his humble servant. So by the power of the holy spirit, 70,000 souls were instructed, and left behind the errors of Paganism, the worship of idols and the temples of the demons for the knowledge of the truth. All were converted, disavowed the errors of their ancestors, were baptized in the name of our lord Jesus Christ, and were added to the number of Christians. The victorious Justinian paid the expenses and clothing for baptism; he also took care to give three gold pieces to each of them. When god had opened their minds and had made known the truth, they helped us with their own hands to destroy their temples, to overthrow their idols, to extirpate the sacrifices that were offered everywhere, to cut down their altars, soiled with the blood of sacrifices offered to demons, and to cut down countless trees that they worshipped because they were leaving all the errors of their ancestors. The salutary sign of the cross was planted everywhere among them, and churches of god were founded everywhere. They were built and erected, to the number of eighty-six, with great diligence and zeal, in the high mountains and steep and in the plains, in all the places where there was Paganism. Twelve monasteries were also founded in places which were Pagan, and where the name of Christ had never been heard from the beginning of the world until this time. Fifty-five churches were founded at public expense and forty-one at the expense of the new Christians. The victorious emperor gave them willingly, by our hands, the sacred vessels, clothes, books and brass items.

Or in the Life of the Younger Saint Symeon the Stylite:

On his way to the city of Antioch he destroyed many of the unrighteous found en route, so that men shuddered with fear at his countenance. For everywhere he suppressed all evil-doing whether in word or deed, inflicting punishment, including death, on those who had gone astray, so that from then on even those living a blameless life feared his presence. He claimed that what he did was in response to an oracle from god which appeared to him in a dream, namely that the lord was angry with the Hellenes and heretics and he should reveal the idolatrous errors of the atheists and gather together all their books and burn them. After some investigation he discovered that the majority of the leaders of the city and many of its inhabitants were preoccupied with Hellenismos, Manichaeism, astrological practices, automatism and other hateful heresies. He arrested them and put them in prison, and after gathering together all of their books – a huge number – he burned them in the middle of the stadium. He brought out their idols and their polluted accoutrements and hung them along the streets of the city, and their wealth was expended on numerous fines. (161)

So if I’m a little resentful of people attempting to turn our polytheist martyrs into spokepersons for the ideology that almost succeeded in wiping them out, understand that there is good reason for that.

On prohibition and entheogens

I believe that the prohibition of marijuana is wrong bordering on immoral.

The consumption of this naturally occurring product is illegal only because the United States Federal government has declared it so – against the will of numerous states which have approved it for both medical and recreational use, mind you.

They only did so in the 20th century (as any patchouli-reeking hippie will tell you, our Founding Fathers grew hemp, maaaaan) because of an anti-Mexican hysteria that was sweeping through the country at the time. Even today the enforcement of prohibition unfairly targets minority communities which has all sorts of socioecomomic ramifications in addition to the violence and exposure to other criminal elements it produces. Supposing that there were some sort of valid legal, moral or medical basis for prohibition, at this point even it’s most strident proponents must concede that the war on drugs hasn’t been waged very successfully. People from all levels of society imbibe and it’s so readily accessible anyone can score some anytime they want if they’ve got the right connections.

Of course therein lies the fatal flaw of prohibition – those connections are, by definition, people who engage in criminal activity. The only reason that pot is a “gateway drug” is because dealers often have the other stuff on hand or because people try pot, realize everything they’ve been told about it is a lie and figure that the government is lying about the dangers of other drugs too. If we really wanted to stop the spread of actually harmful substances like coke and meth we’d legalize pot and introduce dispensaries operated and overseen by the state, as liquor stores are in many communities.

Indeed the analogy is an appropriate one for there are plenty of perfectly legal substances that have a far greater impact on our health than any tests have shown for even extreme levels of pot consumption – tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, processed sugar, fatty foods, chemical additives and preservatives, etc ad infinitum are all much more dangerous to us, yet no one bats a lash when a person puts those things in their body. Can you imagine the hue and cry if the government decided to shut down all the Starbucks and McDonalds and banned Facebook?

So singling out marijuana in this way is arbitrary and illogical – especially considering its demonstrated medical and psychological benefits like easing pain, nausea and anxiety, increasing appetite among chemo patients and so forth. 

I have immense respect for the law – indeed, Orpheus tells us that Themis and Dike sit enthroned beside Zeus – but law is the immutable order of existence, not the mere whims and dictates of man. When our rules conform with that order they are right, just, noble and good, worthy of defending with our blood and life. But when they stray from that order they carry no weight of acceptance and obligation and if they stray too far I consider it a just act to oppose them, for instance as when German officers during WWII refused to execute their orders to open fire on civilian Jewish populations. Doing so made them guilty of insubordination and treason but preserved them from committing a far greater sin.

And as much as I stress the importance of the collective I fervently believe in the sovereignty of the individual and that our souls are accountable to a higher authority than man. (Or lower, since the seats of Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aiakos are located in the underworld.) Consequently I believe, as a Dionysian, that one of the greatest evils we can do to another human being is to violate the sovereignty of their being. (Consider his myths where he is gentle and persuasive in adversity, to the point where he’ll take more shit from people than any other God would – up to the point where the will of innocents is impigned and then he is unspeakably savage in retaliation.) Which is why I am opposed to rape and murder and monism.

And also why I believe that a person has the right to alter their consciousness in whatever manner they choose to. Laws govern our interactions with our fellows and they have no business touching upon what happens within the sanctity of our skulls. If I choose to take drugs in order to explore the furthest reaches and primordial depths of my soul, to commune with Gods and Spirits, to expand my thoughts and open the floodgates of creativity (not to mention all of the other uses these substances have) that has no bearing on anyone else and therefore should be of no concern to them.

Now, obviously, the moment that I begin interacting with other people I am obligated to behave in a certain manner and should be held accountable for everything I say and do and the impact it has on them regardless of how much I am being influenced by the drugs. Indeed because I made the conscious choice to put myself under their power I believe that I should be even more accountable for my actions since that decision opens up everything that follows from it. I especially must respect the boundaries of others and the choices they make or did not make (such as being exposed to an intoxicated idiot.)

Or to put it in other words if you can’t handle your shit you shouldn’t be doing it and if you fuck up you deserve to have the book thrown at you and then some – but if you can then I don’t see a problem with imbibing.

That said, entheogens aren’t for everyone, especially not as a dedicated path. Even though I think everyone can potentially benefit from them I usually try to dissuade folks because if you’ve got unresolved shit it’s gonna get brought up to the surface and frankly a lot of folks aren’t prepared for dealing with that so directly – which is where bad trips often come from.

Of course, that’s when an experienced guide can be helpful – walking you through it when it gets intense and helping to ease the landing when you come back down. More than that, the guide has built up a relationship with the Spirit in the plant so can usually talk to it and help negotiate the terms of the trip. Consequently I’m not as experienced as a lot of psychonauts since I’ve worked on building up that kind of relationship with my particular plant-allies rather than getting my hands on every exotic chemical combination I can.

I work fairly closely with tobacco, marijuana, amanita muscaria, psilocybin and to a much lesser extent salvia divinorum. Beyond that I’ve tried nymphaia cirulea, kinnikinnick, a couple other mushrooms and herbal mixtures, LSD and one of those alphabet soup designer chemical compounds. [Note: This list has expanded since the post was written.]

I won’t try anything harder or that isn’t a psychoactive and the experience with the alphabet soup swore me off all but the natural stuff. And even there I tend to stick to traditionally Eurasian substances – there’s a couple from Mexico and South America I’d like to try but 1) you’re dealing with a very different type of spirit and 2) most of the experiences begin with massive vomiting and/or explosive diarrhea and there’s a limit to how much I’m going to get out of a trip while hunched over a toilet, ya know?

I cannot stress these three words enough: set and setting. Set and setting. Set and setting.

They’re everything. Basically what it means is before you go into any potentially intense experience – be it drugs, ritual, art or whathaveyou – pay attention to your surroundings and your mental state. This includes things like who’s around you, your sensorium (visuals, tactile, auditory, even scents) and where your head is at. Are you calm, reverent, focused and got all of your shit more or less under control? (And know what areas you don’t.) Do you know what you’re trying to accomplish and hope to get out of the experience (while remaining flexible and open to other things coming up) before going in? Do you have any ritual accoutrements or objects of entertainment easily accessible so you don’t have to search for them while altered?

Paying attention to this stuff ahead of time contributes hugely to the success or failure of any undertaking.

It puts the chernips on its skin or it gets the hose again.

I see that people are fighting about miasma again. (Wow, y’all really like being spiritually dirty, don’t ya?) As usual, there seems to be some significant misunderstandings about what miasma is and is not so here’s my basic run-down, again.  

Miasma is a semi-corporeal substance which collects along the margins of life and is easily transferable – essentially an invisible sticky film of mortality. It can arise from within us, from our thoughts and activities or we can “catch” it by coming into contact with others, as well as objects and places that are coated with it. It is a morally neutral substance and should not be conflated with harmatia or the Christian concept of sin. Indeed many of the things that transmit it – birth, sex, death, intense emotional and psychological states – are not only natural and necessary parts of life, but seen as social goods in their own right. Miasma is an issue because it is contrary to hagne or holiness, meaning that portion of the divine which is remote from us. Too much miasma also negatively impacts our perceptions, health and luck.

Suppose you covered your body from head to toe in an adhesive tar and then took a stroll through a lovely park and the winding streets of your city. By the time you reached home how much stuff do you think you’d have picked up, stuff that would normally have just floated past you? That’s exactly what it’s like when you’re in a state of miasma and when enough of it builds up you often find yourself feeling dull, sluggish, apathetic, disconnected, depressed and generally ill even if you don’t have definite symptoms.

More succinctly, miasma breeds malaise. It is not life, but the byproduct of life and for this reason it is opposed to purity; the divine flows, but miasma does not. Being impermeable it cuts us off from the Gods and the things associated with them.

Not only for what it does to us, but because it is so highly contagious the responsible thing to do is be aware of your state of purity and take regular steps to cleanse and remove miasma from yourself.

If you’d like to know more please check out Robert Parker’s Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion and my writings about pollution and cleansing at the Bakcheion

Everything else sort of follows from there

An old conversation on a relevant topic.

I’ve been having a great theological conversation with my friend Petros which I thought might be of interest to some of you here, so I asked his permission to share. He agreed and here we go!

I have two questions regarding the nature of the Gods. If you don’t have the time to respond to them that’s okay.

The first was raised after I read Galina’s post. She stated “…They exist and They existed long before we were created. The corollary to that is this: It is right and proper to venerate Them.” Is the fact of their existence enough of a reason to worship them? If I was raised by an abusive parent, I’d have a hard time loving and respecting him/her just because of their status as my parent. Is it possible that some Gods exist that are not worthy of veneration?

The answer to all of your questions is yes.

But where a lot of people get hung up, I think, is in the notion that there’s only one type of worship which is to be applied across the board to all manner of divine beings. Previously cultures had a much richer religious vocabulary than our own – even Catholics maintain a distinction between latria, dulia and hyperdulia, representing the differences between the worship appropriate to Mary, the saints, the sacraments, holy places etc. and that reserved exclusively for the Trinity. Instead of ‘worship’ think of it as ‘right relationship’. The right relationship you’re going to have with a mountain or a river is very different from what you’ll have with a deity or a hero. And as far as deities go you’ve got a whole range of them from the vast cosmic powers to door-hinge or hearth-Gods to more familiar anthropomorphic entities. And sometimes Gods can extend across these artificial boundaries – there’s a level of Dionysos where he’s this primal life-force coursing through all creation and a level where you can have a conversation with him just as you would any close friend.

Now, the basis for having a right relationship with a divinity is respect – and that is owed to all of them simply because they exist. You don’t have to have history with them, you don’t have to necessarily like them, and you don’t have to carry out any sort of rituals honoring them but you should show them that essential respect because without it you’re in wrong relation to them. This respect is basically an acknowledgement of their existence and an absence of desire to see them harmed. It’s kind of like looking out over the Grand Canyon and going “Holy shit! This thing is big and could destroy me. That’s cool. People who throw trash in it suck.” Personally I think we should cultivate this attitude with regard to all things – including our fellow man – but it’s especially necessary with divinities.

Everything beyond that is optional.

The divine realm is so immense it would be impossible for you to be actively engaged in a devotional relationship with all of it – nor should you, necessarily. Ancient polytheist religions generally tend to have a notion of reciprocity as their basis: the Gods impress us in some way so we do things to honor them which induces them to do more for us which causes us to increase our expressions of gratitude. This can even be carried to the point of mystic union, though that’s not really an end goal most of the time. Now, if a divinity does not wish to engage with us in this way we are under no obligation to uphold our end of the deal. A divinity may choose not to be in right relation to us through indifference or active hostility or even as a test to see whether we’ll keep up with our devotions anyway. Likewise, what we do with regard to them is entirely up to us. Out of the vast plenitude of divinities I offer regular cultus (meaning at least one offering a year) to maybe 40 Gods and a slightly larger number of Spirits. If you’re talking about monthly observances that probably shrinks by half. Daily – I can count them on my hands with plenty of fingers left over. And I think I’m doing alright. My choices obviously cut off relations with other Gods (like half of the Hellenic pantheon) but I’m not opposed to them in any way and gladly do what I can to help foster the revival of their worship. (I just think it’s something best left to other people.) There are a few I feel something almost like aversion for but I’ll never let it get to the point of actual hatred, because that just doesn’t seem like a very smart idea to me.

The next question: Does geographical location have any effect regarding the worship of Gods from another region? For example, despite being 1/4 Irish and 1/4 Scot, one of the reasons I’ve never felt right worshiping the Celtic Gods is that from the sources I’ve read, they seem so inextricably linked to specific regions, hills, rivers. Worshiping a God or Goddess tied to a river in Ireland doesn’t feel right when I’m in NorCal. While Dionysos is also linked to areas of the Mediterranean region, his nomadic nature does not seem at odds with non-geographical specific worship. Plus, being here and so close to Napa, it’s not all that different from the environment of Italy and Greece. Also, the idea that we may somehow be displacing the regional Gods/Spirits with our own makes me a little uncomfortable. Are indigenous Spirits and our Gods antagonistic and can we appease the local divinities by honoring them and making offerings to them as well as our Gods?

Some Gods (and many more Spirits) are bound to specific locations while others seem to have no problem moving around with their devotees and some like Dionysos, Hermes, Isis and Odin thrive as wanderers on their own. But even though they are able to freely travel the change of location does affect how they manifest and that’s why you see regional variations in cultus over time. One of my favorite historical eras is Hellenistic Egypt because you get to follow the unfolding of this process through a wealth of primary source material as both the Greek and Egyptian populations were widely literate. (To a degree that Europe wouldn’t see again until well after the advent of the printing press, sadly.)

As far as edging out the indigenous Spirits – that certainly has and may continue to be happening, though I think the overculture is doing a far more effective job of that than we ever could. However, inter-pantheon relations needn’t always be hostile. There’s no reason they can’t be hailed alongside each other, traditional elements fused – and sometimes there is even a merging of the entities. This is how we have syncretism.

I think with such scenarios – and really when we encounter any God or Spirit, period – one should start off by consulting them to see what they want. And if one isn’t perceptive in that way, they can always utilize divination.

In my opinion there’s a couple really big questions you should ask right off the bat:

  • Do you want my worship?
  • Do you want to be worshiped in the manner of the people who first lived here?
  • Are you amenable to other forms of worship?
  • Are there any specific restrictions I should be aware of?

Everything else sort of follows from there.