Tag Archives: Mystery

Half a World?

There are days, and then there are days, but each day is one.

A day can begin with a phone call that frightens you and makes you feel helpless. That day can continue with doing what little one can to comfort a loved one being assaulted by fear, and then go on to comforting another loved one who has just run out of cope.

That same day can include the smile on a homeless man’s face when I can spare a couple of bucks instead of a handful of coins. It can include a beautiful drive with the sun setting on the right and the moon rising on the left, holding the broad earth and the blue sky between them, and moving me to praise the earth, sea, and sky, the lights of the heavens, and the dead who sleep in the earth. Continue reading

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Fate, Free Will, and the Gods

In a conversation with Thenea about the Gods, free will, and consent, she suggested I (possibly, challenged me to) write a post about free will in ancient Greek thought. She may have a somewhat inflated idea of my scholarship, but I’m willing to give it a try. As you read, keep in mind that this isn’t a polished article by a classics scholar, so much as a gathering of a simple polytheist’s recollections and speculations in an attempt to arrive at a thesis. So, having made my excuses, on to the topic.

My general impression is that the attitude towards freedom, fate, and the gods expressed in the myths and folklore is one of a people beset by forces beyond their control. The world is one in which, for no apparent reason, one may fail despite one’s best efforts, or even be assailed by implacable foes for crimes committed by others generations before ones own birth. The most diligent farmer’s crops may fail because of unexpected drought, the greatest warrior may lose his final battle because of a broken sandal-strap.

In this world, the gods are described as capricious beings of fantastic power, their relationships with mortals turning on whims and passions that are seemingly beyond their control. They are sometimes even powerless to save their favorites, even trapped into the position of killing their beloved mortals despite their love for them. As when Semele, mortal mother of Dionysos, convinced Zeus to grant her a request. He agreed, and then she told him what she wanted. Bound by his word, Zeus revealed himself to her in all his divine power, and the sight burned her to a crisp. Zeus did not want her to die; if he could have spared her, he would have, but he was not able to go back on his word.

I seem to recall reading somewhere–I wish I’d written it down, rather than trusting myself to remember–that the Greeks spoke of passions not as something that originated within a person, but as outside forces acting on a person. When one falls suddenly, rapturously in love/lust (for example), that’s not something within, that’s Eros striking you with his arrow. Herakles murdered his family in a rage, but that rage came from Hera, not his own inner frustrations and fears.

Oedipus did not know he was killing his father and marrying his mother, but his ignorance did not prevent his doom. Odysseus did not plan to spend years stranded on various islands, all he could do was make the best of the situation.

And, of course, the Fates decide the time of one’s birth, the length of one’s life, and the moment of one’s death, and not even the Olympian Gods can change this decree. If one is going to die, one dies. While one can attain apotheosis, or be granted a happy afterlife by divine favor, death itself is unavoidable.

In short, a human in the world is at the mercy of forces beyond their control, sometimes even beyond their knowledge. These forces are also constrained by other forces, and by the necessities of their own function. Frequently, there’s nothing one can do about it. And no one here gets out alive.

One result of this is a heroic ideal of facing death bravely, and going out fighting. If one can’t avoid dying, then one should leave behind a life to be sung of. I can get behind this one; my greatest fear about death is not that I might die horribly, but that I might die and be forgotten.

Another result, one I am less supportive of, is the thought that this rule of greater forces do what they will and mortals do what they can is applied to human behavior. To quote Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” While Thucydides lived long after the initial tellings of the myths, and was not always regarded as a good moral example, those words do seem to sum up a good deal of the behavior we see in the stories.

Personally, I feel that while this may be true in the absolute sense, the world is better when the strong act justly and fairly, with mercy and an eye toward the common good. I also understand that one strong person cannot long stand against a many weaker people incensed by what an asshole the strong person has been. And, of course, strength comes in many forms beyond that of brute force and base cunning. Satire comes to mind, as does organized labor. But I digress…

The basic understandings I take from all this into my own practice–aside from that I need to spend more time reading and taking better notes–are:

First, though very powerful, the Gods are not all powerful. They may love us, but they can’t always help us. Sometimes, they can’t help but harm us. Which leads to…

Second, the Gods are constrained to do what they must do in order to fulfill their own functions. The God in charge of your local weather may not want to get you wet, but they can’t make a hole in the rain just for you. This also means that courting a God of madness and drunken ecstasy is probably not good for your sanity and sobriety, even if it is a net gain for your life as a whole.

Third, both of these things are just as true for mortals as they are for Gods. I suspect, but don’t have a strong argument to support, that what we lack in phenomenal cosmic power, we make up for in greater (but not absolute) freedom of thought and action.

Fourth, in addition to limited power and freedom, we also get death! While we may choose to live as if it weren’t so, our lives are limited by the fact that they will end some day–barring the Singularity making us all immortal machine intelligences, of course. Whatever it is one decides one wants to do in life, one only has so much time in which to do it, so try not to waste time Hamleting on about it.

Finally, if we want to live in a good world, and not a vast wasteland of worldsuck, we all–mortals and Gods alike–have to work together to make it good, and to keep it that way. The Gods can’t make the world good without us, or at least, they can’t do it if we’re so wrapped up in shortsightedness and fear that we fight their efforts. And we can’t do it without them, however we understand them.


Happy Birthday, Life!

What does fertility mean to you?

Well… Not a lot. I mean, I could go on about it; I’m initiated into a Gardnerian-derived Wicca line, which is pretty much a fertility cult. (Though if anyone asks, you didn’t hear it from me.)

Also, Dionysos is the life of the vine, the force which brings the vine to flower and fruit, and the one who makes the hungry, hungry yeast eat sugar, piss alcohol, and make more yeast. So there’s a connection there.

But I just don’t feel it, you know? Come spring equinox, I don’t even get particularly excited about the chocolate, much less the spring. I’m much more into autumn.

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Speaking of the Unspeakable

You know what? Toasted bananas and singed monkey hair are a rather unpleasant smell combination.

What role does mystery play in your tradition?

Well, usually a rogue of some kind.

No, wait. Religion, not gaming. That’s the other blog.

No, really, what role does mystery play in your tradition?

OK, enough stalling. It depends on what tradition you’re talking about.

In my Dionysian practice, I have been given a mystery to share, but I’m not at a place where I can. A year ago, at OhChristWhatTimeIsIt in the morning, I woke from a dream with Himself telling me, “I give you a mystery. Here are the words and the signs…” By the time I realize I’m not dreaming anymore, He’s already rolling along, and I’m saying in my most reverent tones, “Hang on, let me get a pen!”

Essentially, Dionysos dictated the climax of a mystery initiation to me. Now, it’s up to me to write the rest of the initiation, undergo it myself (tricky when I’m the only one who has it, but I have a friend who can help), and create some kind of context in which I might be able to share it with someone, some day.

So, for my Dionysian practice, mystery is one of the things that spurs me on and gives me some central symbols to work with.

However, I’m also an initiated Central Valley Wiccan, which (as a branch of the British Traditional Wicca family) is a mystery tradition. It’s also an oathbound tradition, so I have to tread lightly to keep my oaths. Fortunately, the nature of mysteries helps here.

You see, where a secret is something you must not tell, a mystery is something you can not tell. It’s a numenous experience, something that doesn’t fit well into words. Oh, I could formulate a sentence that says something more-or-less like the mystery, but it wouldn’t have the same impact, emotionally and spiritually, as experiencing the revelation of the mystery. The words might be accurate, but they’d be hollow.

Still, I try not to do that, either. As I’ve said in other contexts, “And this is why we do not speak of the Mysteries to the uninitiated. We’ll sound like idiots.”

Oh, Central Valley Wicca? No, I hadn’t forgotten. The mystery is the experience of the presence of the gods.

I told you it wouldn’t convey the important stuff. If I were a better poet, I could go on about the feeling of something vast and old poking a finger into my head and flooding me with images, the smell of October in Iowa, campfire smoke, blood, the feeling of fur (from the inside and the outside, at the same time). The light shining in the dark inside me, the space that is so much vaster when They are in here than it ever is when I’m alone, flickering film effect the only thing that keeps the images separate enough to register, the taste of cool wine and hot skin, frosted earth crunching underfoot as the flames of the corn king leap into the sky…

But, I’m not that much of a poet, so I’ll leave it there.

It occurs to me that this is also the heart of the Dionysian mysteries I’ve been chasing and helping others chase: The experience of the presence of the God. His breath on the skin, his fingers in the hair, his winedark blazing eyes…

So many things are too big to fit inside our waking human minds. So many things are too subtle and vast for waking language. So the gods put us in strange states of mind and sing to us in the language that is what dreams are before we wake up and try to remember them.

What role does mystery play? Not a big one, in terms of time and words spent on ritual. But it plays the most important role, without doubt.

My lover Ember and I have decided to go through Galina Krasskova’s Devotional Polytheist Meme questions together, over the next several months. We encourage our friends to follow along, and welcome links to other people’s answers in our comments, as well as your thoughts on our answers. Ember’s answer can be found at her blog, Embervoices.


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