To Pasiphaë

For Galina.

Come, O Daughter of the Sun,
devoted Priestess of the Divine Bull,
Mistress of the rites of erotic ecstasy,
Pasiphaë the root-cutter,
mushroom-gatherer,
and bather in the milk of poppy,
Pasiphaë who leads the dance,
and weaves probability,
Pasiphaë come and be welcome
in this home that loves the Gods,
you who travel the winding ways of dream
and send airy phantoms to reveal your will
to the pious sleepers in your sacred temple,
to lunatics, and to those who are drunk
on blue-green honey.
Accept the produce of our local fields,
bread baked according to unbroken tradition,
and milk from the best of cows,
and in return we ask you to watch over the pregnant
and ensure that fine sons and daughters
are born to our people, as once Pasiphaë
you bore many extraordinary children in Crete.

To Hermes the Rememberer

For Sparrow.

Prayerful words I send to you in abundance,
O Hermes who favors a mind both clever and creative,
but never should your shrine bowl be empty of wine,
nor your plate without a pile of offerings and sweet treats,
for you, Lord of the snake-twined rod, uniquely among the Gods
knows what it is to have a belly gnawed by hunger,
and worse, nothing you can give
to alleviate your dear mother’s suffering.
But you turned that paucity into a weapon,
a gadfly of scheming that would not rest
until it saw you counted among the greats
of gleaming Mount Olympos,
elevated even to the position
of mighty Zeus’ confidant and fixer.
And Maia saw it too, for you arranged
for her to be welcomed among the beautiful ones,
the Goddesses who know only joy, and wealth
and light-hearted laughter in the golden dance-hall
where they hold their lavish masquerades;
she is so happy it is as if her humble origins
had been completely forgot.
But you remember, Kindly One,
and that is why you spend so much time
among the beggars and thieves,
or wandering alone the long open roads.
Master of chance, collector of magic tricks,
good with a knife and better with his words,
friend of dogs, guide of ghosts, protector of the outcast,
unrivaled conman and expert seducer, Hermes I hail
with a glad heart, for you are quick to aid
and generous in the blessings you bestow
to your human flock, far-seer and wide-traveler.
Remember me, and I will worship you always.

To Kasmilos

For Cody.

Hear my prayer, O cunning stealer of cattle,
master of smithcraft and sorcerous songs,
monster-killer and sailor of the wine-dark sea,
Kasmilos who came from beyond the North Wind
in search of his sister, and left with gleaming Axiokersa
as his dear wife and companion in adventure.
They say that you arrived on the sacred island
when it was under siege by Thracian pirates,
and together with Axieros and Axiokersos,
the wolflike brothers, you drove the barbarians
screaming into the waves, their bravest and strongest
left littering the shore. Once the corpses were burned
and the island purified with sulphur, bay and blood
of a sacrificed bull, the torch-bearing brothers
vouched for you and you were admitted into the mysteries
which had been given to their line for safekeeping
by the Sun and Moon, oldest of deities in this part of the world.
During the august ceremonies you beheld the Maiden
with starry veil pouring libations from a horn,
and your stout member saluted her beauty and piety
before the rest of you could even react. She modestly
did not respond, but her brothers laughed uproariously
and laughed so much that the rites had to be begun again.
Once the feasting commenced you rushed
to your ship to resume your journey
and escape your embarrassment – only to discover
slim-ankled Axiokersa waiting for you onboard.
She clasped you tight, kissed you Kasmilos
more fervently than a Thyiad Nymph, and begged
you to take her with and show her the wide world
beyond this small island, the only home she’d ever known.
And as your cock began to rise again, you agreed
and set sail for the Phoenician coast,
where men first learned to dye fabric purple.
Halfway there your ship was nearly destroyed
by a Giant of the sea, loosed by the wrathful Poseidon
to punish the people of Lemnos. You and your
new-won bride would have drowned then or worse, 
had beast-taming Axieros and swift-footed Axiokersos
not arrived, hot in pursuit of their sister and her abductor.
The three of you fought in unison,
easily subduing the creature which had
hindquarters like a fish, the head and torso of a bull,
six wildly flailing crab claws and a voice like a thunderclap
ripping the heavens asunder.
Once the thing’s corpse was sent back
deep down to the Ocean Lord’s abode,
the brothers ferried you back to Samothrace
where your marriage to Axiokersa
could be celebrated in proper style
with much feasting, song and dance
rather than through the poverty of elopement
in a fameless foreign land.
And from that day on you have been counted
as the Attendant of the Great Gods,
the reciter of many hymns and conductor of ineffable rites,
Kasmilos with unshorn locks the color of raven’s feathers,
eyes like the Sun in the Underworld, a smile bright as molten metal,
with a leather pouch at your belt full of mystic tokens
and the sign of infinity upon your chest.
Hail, and be with me as I face my own trials,
you who show us the way through the wilds
and how to return home again.

Susan B. Anthony died today.

800px-Susan_B_Anthony_c1855

So in her memory I am reposting this piece on the position of women in Greco-Roman Egypt. 

Although there are a number of reasons why I find the Hellenistic era to be superior to the Classical period in Greek history, perhaps one of the most important has to do with the role of women in society. I love women, as anyone who knows me can attest. Since childhood my strongest relationships have all been with the fairer sex. Many of my favorite authors and the people who have had the greatest impact on my own spiritual development have been female.

Therefore it has always been difficult for me to read things such as:

“O Zeus, why need one say evil of women in detail? It would be enough if you say merely woman.” – Karkinos, Semele Fr. 70

“A man is best off with a nonentity – a woman who sits in the house useless in her stupidity. I hate clever women. I don’t want a woman in my house thinking more than a woman ought to think, because Aphrodite inspires more mischief in the clever ones, while a helpless woman is freed from folly by the simplicity of her thoughts.” – Euripides, Hippolytos 638-644

“A man who teaches a woman to write should recognize that he is providing poison to an asp.” – Menander, Synkrisis 1.209-210

“Poor men! We sold away our freedom of speech and our comfort and lead the life of slaves with our wives. We’re not free. We can’t say we don’t pay a price for their dowries: bitterness and women’s anger. Compared to that, a man’s is honey, for men forgive when someone does them wrong, but women do you wrong and keep on recriminating. They control what doesn’t belong to them and neglect what they should control.” – Alexis, Fr. 150

“A child is not permitted to make a will. For the law expressly forbids children and women from being able to make a contract about anything worth more than a bushel of barley.” – Isaeus 10.10g

It thus came as a breath of fresh air when I began to read about the position of women in Hellenistic society generally, and Ptolemaic and Greco-Roman Egypt in particular. The difference was like night and day, and I found myself continually surprised by how egalitarian and modern-sounding their society was, especially when compared with what we think we know about the situation in Classical Greece. (I say “think we know” because the fact is that many people – scholars included – have a very faulty understanding of such things. They are selective in the material they consider, leaving out all sorts of non-literary evidence that does not come from the wealthy, landed gentry of Athens, which often paints for us a very different picture of society and its sex relations. At another date I may come back and address the lop-sided view of Classical Greek women, but for the time being I would like to narrow my focus to another time period and geographical location, which is more my forte.)

To begin with, women held prominent religious positions in Ptolemaic and Greco-Roman Egypt. They served as priestesses for both Greek and Egyptian deities:

“Marcus Aurelius Apollonios, hierophant, to the ritual kanephoros of the village Nesmeimis, greetings. Please go to Sinkepha to the temple of Demeter, to perform the customary sacrifices for our lords the Emperors and their victory, for the rise of the Nile and increase of crops, and for favorable conditions of climate. I pray that you fare well.” – P. Oxy. 2782

“His mother being Petosiris, daughter of Harpaesis, of the city of Oxyrynchus, chief bearer in the temple of Thoeris and Isis and Serapis and Osiris and the associated most mighty gods …” – P. Oxy. CCXLI

They formed their own religious associations:

“Therous and Teos to King Ptolemy, greeting. We are wronged by Temosis, Senemenopis, Teteim[…] and the other members of the women’s thiasos from Kerkethoeris in the Polemon division. For Soeris, my sister and wife of the aforementioned Teos, who was a member of the aforementioned group and held the post of priestess for the group for four years, chanced to die. Apart from us she had no close relatives, but when those named were asked for the cost of her burial they did not pay it.” – P.Enteux. 21

They served as oracles for the gods:

“Tomb of Temalis, prophetess of Ammon.” – ZPE 106.123

And their terms of office were even used for official dating purposes, alongside the reigns of the King and Queen:

“In year 2, 18 Phamenoth, of Queen Kleopatra and Ptolemy, mother-loving savior god […] when Aretine daughter of Theodoros was crown-bearer of Queen Kleopatra, when Kratera daughter of Theodoros was athlophoros of Berenike Euergetis, when Theodoris, daughter of Theodoros was fire-bearer, when Dionysia daughter of Dionysios was kanephoros, when Mnemosyne daughter of Nikanor was priestes … when Artemo daughter of Seleukos was priestess of Arsinoe Philopator ….” – P.Cairo dem. 30602

As seen in the above quote, the Ptolemaic Queens received divine cultus of their own. In death they could have elaborate temples built for them:

“Between the Pharian headland and the mouth of Canopos among the waves shining all around me, I have my place – this windy spur of Libya rich in lambs, reaching far toward the breath of Italian Zephyrus: here Kallikrates has raised me up and named me Queen Kypris Arsinoe’s temple. But come, chaste daughters of the Greeks, to her will be called Aphrodite Zephyritis, and come, too, men who toil in the sea: the admiral made this temple’s haven safe from every wave.” – Poseidippos G.P. 12

Nor was this merely a royal prerogative, for their humbler sisters could receive posthumous honors as well:

“No more shall I sacrifice to you, my daughter, with lamentation, now that I know that you have become a goddess. With libations and prayers celebrate Isidora, the Maiden, who has been snatched away by the Nymphs.” – I.Metr. 87

And women also competed successfully at the Panhellenic Games:

“The maiden queen with her chariot, yes, Berenike, has won all the crowns for chariot races in the games, from you, Zeus of Nemea. By the speed of her horses her chariot left behind the many drivers. And like…with slack reins the horses came to the judges of the Argolid.” – Poseidippos, P.Mil.Vogl. 12.34-39

Of course, this should really come as a surprise to no one. After all, even the most strident detractors of Classical Greece are forced to admit that however bad the general position of women might have been, in the religious realm they were on an equal footing with males. In fact, some ancient Greek men even considered women to be their superiors in religious matters, as we see in this quote by the 5th century Athenian playwright:

“Men’s criticism of women is worthless twanging of a bowstring and evil talk. Women are better than men, as I will show …. Women run households and protect within their homes what has been carried across the sea, and without a woman no home is clean or prosperous. Consider their role in religion, for that, in my opinion, comes first. We women play the most important part, because women prophesy the will of Loxias in the oracles of Phoibos. And at the holy site of Dodona near the Sacred Oak, females convey the will of Zeus to inquirers from Greece. As for the sacred rites of the Fates and the Nameless Goddesses, all these would not be holy if performed by men, but prosper in women’s hands. In this way women have a rightful share in the service of the gods. Why is it then, that women must have a bad reputation? Won’t men’s worthless criticism stop, and men who insist on blaming all women alike, if one woman turns out to be evil? Let me make the following distinctions: there is nothing worse than a bad woman, and nothing better in any way than a good one.” – Euripides, Melanippe Captive Fr. 13

Let us then turn to other areas of ancient life and see how well Hellenistic women fared in Egypt.

Women could receive a proper education:

“Platonis also known as Ophelia has apprenticed her female slave Thermouthion, a minor, to Lucius for four years from the first of the next month (Tybi) of the current year to learn a proper trade on the following terms: he will feed and clothe the girl, and will place her at the teacher’s disposal every day from sunrise to sunset.” – P.Oxy. 1647

“Heraidous sends greetings … so do Helen and Tinoutis and her father and everyone in the household and the mother dearest of Heraidous. Send the pigeons and small fowl, which I am not accustomed to eat, to Heraidous’ teacher. Helen, Apollonios’ mother, asks you to keep her son Hermaios in hand. Whatever is not eaten, send as a gift to my daughter’s teacher, so that he may take trouble over her. My best wishes to you. Choiak 17. Also, please see that I have the necessary equipment for school, such as a book for Heraidous to read.” – P.Giss 80, 85

Being literate gave women added status within their society, as we see in this letter from a woman named Aurelia Thaisous also known as Lolliane, who petitioned the Roman Prefect of Egypt in 263 CE:

“Women honored with the three-children privilege are given the right to act independently and to negotiate without a male legal representative in any business they transact, all the more so women who know how to write. Therefore, as I am blessed with the honor of many children and am able, being literate, to write with complete ease, I appeal to your highness …” – P.Oxy 1467

According to Naphtali Lewis, on page 63 of Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule (Clarendon Press, 1983), “in the metropoleis and even in some of the larger villages there were no lack of teachers of the rudiments of Greek … many of whom were women.”

We know, of course, one of the most famous of these female teachers, who taught far more than just the rudiments of a Greek education, the blessed Hypatia who received martyrdom in the early 5th century. Although her death was brought about by a mob incited to violence by the fanatic Bishop Cyril, many Christians regarded her highly, including her former student (who went on to become the Bishop of Ptolemais) Synesios of Kyrene and the author of the Ecclesiastical History, Socrates Scholasticus who wrote concerning her:

“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.”

Nor were philosophy and religion the only paths open to a woman in Greco-Roman Egypt. We find women in a variety of fields.

Some were weavers:

“Bia is asking for the two rams’ fleeces which you left behind for spinning yarn. Write to us therefore whether they should be given to her. For she said that she is in need of woolen yarn and because of this is behind schedule.” – P.Mich. 1.16

Or fullers:

“Since you, Dionysios, have for a long time since the death of your father remained with me, your mother, and have worked at the fulling trade and have not abandoned me, but have treated your mother kindly, I acknowledge that I have ceded to both of you, my children in common and in equal shares all the fulling works and offices that I have built up and fostered through my labors and everything else pertaining to that trade on condition that it should remain with me as long as I survive.” – P.Coll. Youtie 2.83

Or wet-nurses:

“Regarding the matters at issue, Philotera agrees that she will furnish her slave Zosime for the duration of two years to raise and nurse at Philotera’s house the raised up slave-child that Sillis entrusted to her, a suckling female named Agalmation. The stipulated salary for milk and nourishment each month with oil and bread is 12 drachmas, while the total sum for two years of nursing is 288 silver drachmas which Philotera has right away received from Sillis in cash. Further, from the present moment she agrees to furnish her slave who is to take suitable care of herself and of the child, not spoiling her milk, neither engaging in sexual intercourse, nor becoming pregnant or nursing another child in addition.” – BGU 4.1058

Some were plantation-owners:

“From Klematia, landowner, to Papnouthis, manager at Sadalou, greeting. Measure out six artabs of wheat and lentil mixture into Pagas’ boat so that we may have it here, and help Pagas so that we may get the extra payments of the vintage there; and try also to bring wool up with the boat, and do not delay because of the baked brick. And collect from Paymis the two jars of honey for the festival, as well as honey-cakes, and from Pagas the wool.” – P.Oxy. XLVIII 3406

Or ran their own beer-shop:

“Haynchis to Zenon, greetings. I take beer from the large beer-shop and dispose of 4 drachmas worth daily, and pay regularly. But Demetrios the vine-dresser, having deceived my daughter, has carried her off and conceals her saying that he will set up house with her without my consent. And she helped me to manage the shop and supported me in my old age. Now therefore since she has gone away I am making a loss and I do not have the necessities of life. And he has another wife and children here, so that he cannot consort with the woman he had deceived. I therefore ask you to help me on account of my old age, and return her to me.” – P.Lond. 7.1976

While others were dancers who commanded handsome sums for their services:

“To Isidora, castanet dancer, from Artemesia, of the village of Theadelphia. I wish to hire you with two other castanet dancers to perform at my house six days from the 24th of Payni by the old reckoning. As your pay you shall receive 36 drachmas a day, and for the whole time 4 artabs of barley and 20 double loaves of bread. Whatever garments and gold ornaments you bring alone we will keep safe, and we will provide you with two donkeys for your trip down and the same for your trip back.” – P.Corn 9

Or courtesans whose fame extended beyond the grave:

“Was not Bilistiche, by Zeus, a barbarian female bought in the agora, she for whom the Alexandrians kept shrines and temples, on which the king, because of his love, inscribed the words ‘of Aphrodite Bilistiche’?” – Plutarch, Moralia 753ef

And in the case of the Ptolemaic Queens, women even steered the ship of state:

“Pyrrhos provided Ptolemy with proof of his strength and endurance both in hunting and athletics, and paid special court to Berenike since he saw that she was the most powerful of Ptolemy’s wives and the one with the most virtues and intelligence.” – Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhos 4.4

“Since … there are those who are attempting to overthrow the laws and ancestral institutions of the individual cities, King Ptolemy in accordance with the policy of his predecessors and of his sister Arsinoe, is giving open encouragement to common freedom for the Greeks.” – Syll3 434-5

“The one called Philometor is eighth in descent from Ptolemy son of Lagos, and his surname was given him in sarcastic mockery, for we know of none of the kings who was so hated by his mother. Although he was the eldest of her children she would not allow him to be called to the throne, but prevailed on his father before the call came to send him to Cyprus. Among the reasons assigned for Cleopatra’s enmity towards her son is her expectation that Alexander the younger of her sons would prove more subservient, and this consideration induced her to urge the Egyptians to choose Alexander as king. When the people offered opposition, she dispatched Alexander for the second time to Cyprus, ostensibly as general, but really because she wished by his means to make Ptolemy more afraid of her. Finally she covered with wounds those eunuchs she thought best disposed, and presented them to the people, making out that she was the victim of Ptolemy’s machinations, and that he had treated the eunuchs in such a fashion. The people of Alexandria rushed to kill Ptolemy, and when he escaped on board a ship, made Alexander, who returned from Cyprus, their king. Retribution for the exile of Ptolemy came upon Cleopatra, for she was put to death by Alexander, whom she herself had made to be king of the Egyptians.” – Pausanias 1.9.1-3

I can go on and on, but hopefully this little sketch has given you an idea of the diversity of occupations open to women in Greco-Roman Egypt.

What you may have noticed as well is the degree of autonomy that these women possessed.

They could amass their own personal fortunes:

“A hoard which my mother had secreted away in a little box containing a pair of gold ear-rings weighing 4 quarters, a gold crescent weighing 3 quarters, a pair of silver armlets of 12 drachmas’ weight, a necklace with silver ornaments worth 80 drachmas, and 60 silver drachmas in cash.” – P. Ryl. 125

Or sell the land that they owned:

“The woman Tanouphis daughter of Psenthotes, her mother being Ata, has said to the woman Senminis daughter of Pachnoumis, her mother being Tamenos: ‘You have satisfied my heart with the money of half of my 1/6 portion of the three plots of land which are in the estate of Amon on the island of the artisans on the west side of Thebes. [Description of the land and its contents.] I have given it to you. I have received their price in money from you, complete without any remainder. My heart is satisfied with it.’” – P.Berl.dem. 3142

And they could do so on their own, without having to go through a male intermediary. This independence extended to other legal matters as well.

We find, for instance, a woman bringing suit on behalf of her injured slave:

“To the strategos. I loved and took care of my serving girl, Peina, a homebred slave, as though my own little daughter, in the hope that when she came of age I would have her to nourish me in my old age, since I am a woman who is helpless and alone. The incident involved the crossing of the city on the 19th of last month, when a certain Eucharion, freedwoman of Longinus, was escorting her to her lesson in singing. When they came back Peina’s right hand was in bandages, and when I asked the cause Eucharion told me that the girl had been dashed down by a certain slave Polydeukes, as he was driving his donkey, so that as a result her whole hand was crushed. At first I thought her wound was superficial, but it is incurable, and I am unable to endure the pain concerning my serving girl, because she is in danger of losing her life and because I am in despair over her condition. You, too, will feel distressed when you see it. Of necessity, then, I have fled to you as my defender and ask that I be helped and receive from you the benefit of your judgment.” – P.Oxy. L. 3555

And a petition brought by two sisters over a misappropriated inheritance:

“To Aurelius Heron, strategos of the Arsinoite nome, from Aurelia Taesis and Aurellia Kyrillous, both daughters of Kopres from the village of Karanis. Our father, noblest of strategoi, left some moveable property when he died. But his brother Chairemon appropriated all that he left, and handed over to us, the women, arable arouras of public land, which we cannot afford the rents on. At the time we approached the headman of the village who was in office then, Serenos alias Harpokras; and he ordered him to hand over to us all the property left by our father. But Chairemon takes no thought for us, and therefore we include an inventory of the estate, and beg and beseech your clemency to order him to hand these things over to us so that we will be able to benefit from our own property.” – P.Cair.Isid. 64

And a woman could even sue for divorce, demanding the return of her dowry:

“To Heraklides priest and chief justice, also in charge of the circuit judges and the other courts, from Syra, daughter of Theon. I married Sarapion, having brought him a dowry valued at 200 drachmas, according to agreement. By taking him into my parents’ house because he was completely destitute, I conducted myself blamelessly in every respect. But Sarapion, after he squandered all my dowry as he liked, rendered no account of it, and disgraced me and insulted me and laid hands on me and deprived me of the necessities of life, and later on deserted me when I had become destitute. For this reason I ask you to order him to appear before you so that he will compelled to return the dowry with 50 per cent interest. Without prejudice to any other charges that I have or will make against him.” – P.Oxy. 281

In fact, divorce was fairly common in Greco-Roman Egypt, and women were frequently the ones who sought it.

The cause could be violent abuse:

“Concerning all the insults uttered by him against me: he shut up his own slaves and mine together with my foster daughters and his overseer and his son for seven whole days in his cellars, having insulted his slaves and my slave Zoe and almost killed them with blows, and he applied fire to my foster-daughters, having stripped them completely naked, which is contrary to the laws.” – P.Oxy. 6.903

Infidelity:

“I am informed, being ill-disposed toward me and the child, that he has joined himself with another woman in Alexandria, from who he has also produced a child, and he has told his father by letter to sell his house and allotment for cash. I ask you, if it seems appropriate, to order him to be summoned before you and to help compel him to return to me for life’s necessities the dowry, so that I may receive it back. Farewell.” – BGU 8.1848

Or even the work of an evil spirit:

“We agree with each other as to the matters set forth below. Since some time ago we were joined with each other for a legitimate marriage and community of life, with good hopes and for the procreation of children; but now, a dispute having grown up between us because of an evil daimon, we have separated from one another. We agree that each party has received back its personal property in full, and that we have and will have no cause against each other in the future.” – P.Lond. 5.1712

Women in Greco-Roman Egypt had a lot more say in who they would marry, and could even negotiate the terms of that marriage. The marriage contracts from this period provide a fascinating glimpse into people’s private lives:

“In the reign of Alexander son of Alexander, in the seventh year, in the satrapy of Ptolemy, in the fourteenth year, in the month Dios. Marriage contract of Herakleides and Demetria. Herakleides takes as his lawful wife Demetria the Koan, a free man and a free woman, from her father Leptines, Koan, and her mother Philotis, Demetria bringing her clothing and ornaments to the value of 1000 drachmas, and Herakleides is to supply to Demetria all that is proper for a freeborn wife, and we shall live together wherever it seems best. If Demetria is discovered doing any evil to the shame of her husband Herakleides, she is to be deprived of all that she brought, but Herakleides shall prove whatever he alleges against Demetria before three men whom they both approve. It shall not be permitted for Herakleides to bring home another wife in insult to Demetria or to have children by another woman, or to do evil against Demetria on any pretext.” – P.Eleph I

“You have contented my heart with 21 deben of pure silver of the treasury of Ptah as your endowment. To the children which you have borne to me and the children which you will bear to me belongs everything that I possess and all that I shall acquire. Your eldest son is my eldest son among the children. You are entitled to the arrears of your food-and-clothing allowance, which will come to my charge. I shall give them to you. Everything that I possess and that I shall acquire is security for your above-mentioned allowance. I shall not be able to say to you, ‘Receive back your above-mentioned endowment from my hand.’ But on the day that you want it back from, I will give it to you. I will not be able to impose an oath upon you except in the house of judgment.” – P.Mich.inv. 4526

“Thais, daughter of Tarouthinos, swears to … son of Hermogenes, by Osiris and Isis, and Horos, and Zeus, and all the other gods and goddesses to remain with you for as long as you live, dwelling with you as your legitimate wife, neither sleeping away from your bed, nor being absent from your house for even a day, and to be affectionate to you and to … neglect nothing of yours. I will not be together with any other man, in the way of women, except with you, nor shall I prepare love charms against you, or put poison in your beverages or in your food, nor shall I connive with any man who does you harm on any pretense.” – PSI 1.64

A woman could give herself in marriage to whomever she wished, and there was another important difference as well. In Classical Athens a father could remove his married daughter from her husband, even against her will, and thereafter give her in marriage to another. But in Greco-Roman Egypt things were different. In 128 CE the Prefect of Egypt had ruled, “It matters with whom the married woman wishes to live.” Five years later, an Epistrategos, citing that prefectural ruling, “ordered that the woman be asked what her wish was. She replied, ‘To remain with my husband,’ and he so ordered.” (P.Oxy 237)

After a divorce, a woman was completely free of the influence of her husband and his family, as we see in a Demotic divorce settlement:

“The pastophoros of Amon of Jeme, Harpaesis son of Esnechates and Thatres, has said to the woman Tetosiris daughter of Pachombekis and Senimothis: I have repudiated you as wife; I am far from you regarding the right to you as a wife. I have no claim against you in the name of your being my wife. I am the one who says to you, ‘Take yourself a husband.’ I shall not be able to stand in your way in any place where you will go. If I shall find you with any other man on earth, I shall not be able to say to you, ‘You are my wife.’ You are contended with your contract for a wife, on account of your children whom you have borne to me, without any legal document, without anything on earth with you.” – P.Tor.Botti 16

Of course, even without divorce a woman was free to leave the marriage if she was unhappy and refuse to return to her husband, whose only recourse was to plead with her pitifully:

“Serenus to Isidora, his sister and wife, very many greetings. Before all else I pray that you are well, and every morning and evening I do obeisance in your name before Thoeris, who loves you. I want you to know that ever since you left me I have been in mourning, weeping at night and lamenting by day. After I bathed with you on Phaophi 12 I had neither bath nor oil-rub til Hathyr 12 (30 days later) when I received from you a letter that can shatter a rock, so much did your words upset me … Are you coming back or not coming? Tell me that.” – P.Oxy 528

A woman even had control of her own reproductive rights. In 8 BCE a young woman was recently widowed. She wrote to the family of her former husband, acknowledging that she had received back the dowry that she had brought to the marriage and stating:

“Although she is pregnant, she will make no claim regarding the expense of her childbed, since she has been satisfied monetarily for that, but she retains the right to expose the infant and unite herself to another man if she so wishes.” – P.Oxy. 744

The Alexandrian physician Soranos wrote at length about the methods used by the women of his society to end their pregnancies:

“In order that the embryo be separated, the woman should have more violent exercise, walking about energetically and being shaken by means of draught animals; she should also leap energetically and carry things which are heavy beyond her strength. She should use diuretic decoctions which also have the power to bring on menstruation, and empty and purge the abdomen with relatively pungent clysters; sometimes using warm and sweet olive oil as injections, sometimes anointing the whole body thoroughly therewith and rubbing it vigorously, especially around the pubes, the abdomen, and the loins, bathing daily in sweet water which is not too hot, lingering in the baths and drinking first a little wine and living on pungent food. If this is without effect, one must also treat locally by having her sit in a bath of a decoction of linseed, fenugreek, mallow, marsh mallow, and wormwood. She must also use poultices of the same substances and have injections of old oil, alone or together with rue juice or maybe with honey, or of iris oil, or of absinthium together with honey, or of panax balm or else spelt together with rue and honey, or of Syrian unguent. And if the situation remains the same she must no long apply the common poultices, but those made of meal of lupins together with ox bile and absinthium, and she must use plasters of a similar kind. For a woman who intends to have an abortion, it is necessary for two or even three days beforehand to take protracted baths, little food and to use softening vaginal suppositories; also to abstain from wine; then to be bled and a relatively great quantity taken away. For the cidtum of Hippokrates in the Aphorisms, even if not true in a case of constriction, is yet true of a healthy woman: ‘A pregnant woman if bled, miscarries.’ For just as sweat, urine, and feces are excreted if the parts containing these substances slacken very much, so the fetus falls out after the uterus dilates. Following the venesection one must shake her by means of draught animals (for now the shaking is more effective on the parts which previously have been relaxed) and most use softening vaginal suppositories. But if the woman reacts unfavorably to venesection and is languid, one must first relax the parts by means of hip-baths, full baths, softening vaginal suppositories, by keeping her on water and limited food, and by means of aperients and the application of a softening clyster; afterwards one must apply an abortive vaginal suppository. Of the latter one should choose those which are not too pungent, that they may not cause too great a sympathetic reaction and heat. One must, however, beware of things that are too powerful and of separating the embryo by means of something sharp-edged, for danger arises that some of the adjacent parts be wounded. After the abortion one must treat as for inflammation.” – Gynaecology 1.64-65

Few societies have given women such freedom, such opportunity, such high regard – in fact, many of the basic rights that Greco-Egyptian women took for granted wouldn’t be seen again in the Western world until very recently, and then only after long and bitter fights. In many parts of the world women still lack these basic human rights, and there are forces at work in the West which seek to erode them. We polytheists today, however, can look back on a noble heritage of equality and strive to make that dream a reality for everyone, since it was such a fundamental part of the cultures that shape our religious systems.

 

To the Korybantes

For Petros.

Hail to the crested Warriors who dance
with brazen shields the ancient dances that send
hate, filth and malevolence to flight, guardians of the seed
that sleeps in the soil and bulging fruit on the branch,
protectors of those who have undergone the rites
of enthronement and sweeping off, preservers of
sacred stories, venerable customs, science and smithcraft
which you impart to the soul that has been tested in fire
and proven itself worthy to join your spear-rattling ranks
by completing the cycle of man-making ordeals.
O Korybantes of bastard ancestry,
always first among the host of the Conqueror Dionysos,
frenzied and fearless, caring not for glory and gold, but rather
it is the press of bodies, sharp blades that cut deep, the stink of gore
and ruptured bowels, the crunch of bone giving way to superior force,
blood gurgling up over broken teeth and parched lips,
light departing frantic eyes and pitiful cries that heaven hears not,
fading to nothing – that is what you hunger for, you martial powers
born in the storm, when fire mingled with flood
and the great cavern of the Cretan Bee-Nymph
echoed with your infant cries. Make this home and all who are in it,
I pray, safe that we may conduct our Orphic ceremonies together in peace
and may you and the whole noisy throng that surrounds King Bacchus
ever be remembered, and rightly honored.

To Nanna

For Emma.

Hear my prayers O Far-distant One,
the beautiful, the chaste, the unflinchingly loyal
Nanna Nepsdóttir, who is so rich in blessings
that she dispenses boons to all her fellow Ásynjur,
as when she gave Frigg a finely spun robe of purest linen,
and Fulla who keeps the Queen’s secrets was gifted
a finger-ring which gleamed brightly
as the smile of Sunna with unbraided hair.
Höðr, blinded by love, sought Nanna’s hand in marriage
but what is a hand compared to a heart?
And hers belonged forever to Borr’s grandson,
the brave, the brilliant, the breathtakingly fair Baldr,
and has ever since they met as youths
in that dark elf-haunted wood.
He was hunting the boar, and she was hunting him
and from that day when they embraced
beneath the gold-green leaves with the music of gentle rain
falling down all around them to love by,
that day and every day since the two have been inseparable.
Nanna bore her man a fine son, handsome and strong,
Forseti that can reconcile feuding parties
and put to sleep grievous suits before they’re hatched,
dweller in shining Glitnir of the silver roof and golden pillars,
with a spring in Heligoland so pure its water must be collected in silence.
Oh, how you must miss him.
Nanna, I know that yours was a happy union, for you, Goddess,
were willing to follow your Baldr into the dark
when that dart of humble mistletoe sent him down
to the sunless realm of Hela and her cold and colorless denizens.
You wait with Baldr yet, and will not return
to look upon the happy face of your boy
or the deathless ones in Ásgarðr
until the world above is born anew from the ash and ruin
left by blazing Surtr and his swarthy Giant horde.
Never once do you falter or doubt your husband
nor the great destiny that is his to bear, alone but for you;
Nanna, I plead, teach me to love the people in my life
with a measure of the love you give lucky Baldr
and I will remember him in song
and the other things dear to that fathomless heart of yours.

political beliefs

I believe in freedom. I believe that freedom must be asserted by individuals and always fiercely and diligently defended by them. What is given may be taken away, and inevitably will be by those who seek power, unless their efforts are strenuously resisted. All political systems tend towards self-perpetuation and authoritarianism, often in direct proportion to their claim to serve the interests of the common man. Every tyrant begins as a liberator. Most genuinely believe that their actions, however cruel and stupid and corrupt, serve the greater good and are in his fellow man’s best interests. I do not recognize the legitimacy of any form of government or political system and reject wholesale their claim to hold power over me or dictate my behaviors. Consequently I do not participate in the political process in any form whatsoever. Although there are inescapable natural laws and divine laws, man’s laws may only be enforced through violence, and hold sway over the individual in direct proportion to the degree that he fears that violence. I do not. All they can do is destroy this physical body of mine – and I’m beating them to the chase through voluptuary indulgence and neglect. I oppose anyone who would dictate what I must do or say or believe, thereby curtailing my essential freedoms, whether that person claims to be of the left, the right or anywhere else on the political spectrum.

definitions

Dionysos is not just the orgiastic God – dissolving boundaries and drawing his followers from all classes and segments of society – he challenges us to look beyond simple binaries and socially determined identities.

“Who are you?” is the question he poses to us over and over again, in a thousand different ways.

We must anchor our sense of self in something deep, authentic and abiding and avoid illusory constructs if we are to make a successful transition into the next world.

You are not the contents of your bank account. You are not your job. You are not the groups you belong to. You are not your hobbies. You are not the role you perform in a family or your community. You are not your race or gender or what you fuck. You are not the ideas stuffed into your head by advertisers, authorities and other manipulative forces.

Proof of that is that each of these things may be stripped from you and yet you still exist.

Now that is not to say that all of these things are without meaning or value – far from it! – but they are not what we should be defining ourselves by.

To Mania the Gatherer

Mania, oh Mania,
you are worthy of every honor
for your love alone is truly universal.
Everybody makes distinctions
— between man and woman, rich and poor
even the good and wicked are judged separately
by Minos and his brothers.
But you, Mania, come to all in their time.
Your bony embrace means an end
to pain and doubt,
to tears and the labor of living.
Mania, oh Mania,
look kindly upon me
when you knock on my door one day
and say you’ve come to lead me away.

Mania Choephore

Mania, are you Death’s bride,
womb barren from birthing the vengeance-thirsting Furies,
with wings of leather like the bats that flit across the moonless sky
and coiling snakes for hair, and skin pale as bone
bleached by the summer sun?
Or are you the Mistress of Madness,
staring flame-eyed at things others cannot see,
whispering words sharp and strange which others do not wish to hear
– words that cut both the tongue and the ear –
frail form trembling with the effort
of holding back that which your stygian heart conceals,
that which others could not possibly endure?
“Yes,” she nods, voice hollow and distant and barely audible
above the din of Etruscan myths unspoke.

To Kyberia

Here’s something I wrote back when I was maintaining my first website. Some of the details are a little outdated, but in general it still works.

I was having difficulty updating my website, when in desperation; I called out to Kyberia, Goddess of New Technologies and the Computer, promising that I would honor her with a hymn and a libation if she offered me the assistance I so greatly needed. Now this was a Goddess I had only heard spoken of jokingly, and I didn’t expect it to work. Well, to my total shock and considerable pleasure, all of the trouble I had been having ceased and I was able to successfully complete the task. That very night I made my libation to her, and now I have written this hymn in her honor.

I hope that she finds it pleasing – and that she will remember me in the future.

To Kyberia

Sing, Muse, of Kyberia, patroness of new technologies,
gentle guide through the Internet’s pathways,
who bestows shining insight
to all those who call upon her blessed name in prayerful tones.
She stands over the computer, dear creature of her heart,
and with her fiery sword chases off the baneful viruses
and those vexing adds for porn.
When she is remembered, and AOL’s silver
start-up discs are offered
on her altar with honey-sweetened wine
there are no 404 errors,
and one needn’t fear their screen turning blue.
She delights in the hum and whir of old computers,
and the clickedy-clack of fingers on keyboards.
When you are writing code or working to upload graphics to your webpage,
remember her and recite a pleasing hymn in her honor,
and I swear to you, it will go a lot easier!
Unbidden the answers will come to you,
and your hands will speed across the keyboard
typing out the right things,
even if you haven’t the vaguest clue what those things are.
Who is this Goddess whom I hymn?
Some say she is grey-eyed Athene,
known under a different name,
or the daughter of Eris,
brought into being by the mad-rush of technology.
I do not know for sure, but I call her Kyberia and Tekaté
and The-Pattern-That-Is-Found-In-Chaos
and I proclaim her a Goddess dear to my heart!
Hail, Goddess! I will remember you with many songs!

The honey of the Pontic Sanni

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Pliny the Elder, Natural History § 21.45.1
There is another kind of honey, found in the same district of Pontus among the people called Sanni, which from the madness it produces is called maenomenon. This poison is supposed to be extracted from the flowers of the oleanders which abound in the woods. Though these people supply the Romans with wax by way of tribute, the honey, because of its deadly nature, they do not sell.

unformed

Dionysos and I are having an odd trip down memory lane. Specifically back to 2002, when Serj Tankian released the independent project Serart with Arto Tunçboyaciyan. I walked half way across Las Vegas, in scorching heat (and listening to Smashing Pumpkins) to get the CD. At first the clerk of the chain record store didn’t understand what I was talking about (which increasingly pissed me off since I’d called ahead to confirm they had it) but eventually it turned up in the jazz section of all places.

I’d really dug the more melodious and Armenian parts of SOAD’s first two albums, and often used them in ritual for Dionysos. Somehow I’d heard there was going to be more of that on this project, so I waited excitedly for the release. And was met with some of the weirdest tunes I had encountered since I tried listening to Frank Zappa as a teen. My brain could only handle it in small doses, so it took me a couple months to make it through the whole thing. (I was so unformed back then.)

An instinct, the voice of Dionysos, my desire to be cooler than I actually was, something said keep going there’s important shit in it you’re not getting, so I stubbornly persisted and one night during ritual it all clicked into place and I fucking loved it. Listened to it over and over, all the way through, for weeks on end. It captured my mental state and certain aspects of Dionysos I was connecting with at the time in an uncanny way, to the point that it’s basically my personal soundtrack for 2002-03. (Along with Blind Melon, which I was equally obsessed with.)

Listening to Serart again really brings it all flooding back, both the good and the bad. And yet through everything that happened in Vegas, Dionysos was there with me, and that’s pretty cool.

Not sure what the point of any of this is, but I uncharacteristically felt like sharing something personal, so enjoy.

To Andvari

For F.

I call to the careful one,
the cunning dwarf who lost his ring
but retained his gleaming wealth, Andvari
who lives behind the shimmering waterfall
where the long-toothed pike swim freely
and the rapid white-capped river
blesses the weddings of the the village girls
who still come by night to make offerings
of braided wheat dolls and wildflowers.
Lord of the oak-crown, with beard of moss
and fingers like gnarled roots and dripping mud,
you know how to make things increase and how
to reap the rewards of fine investment,
and even more importantly how to take advantage
of obstacles and the unexpected.
Venerable maker, this I pray, teach me to see
the true worth of all things, and to know always
what is mine to carry, and what is not.

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.