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Old Gods, new connections

Posted by Erik on February 18, 2010

A handful of semi-related items today…

1. A member of Neos Alexandria, Quintus Poppaeus Sabinus, wrote the other day about a fascinating insight he had regarding Poseidon; he said, “I think of Poseidon as lord of the depths, both sea and land. Think of the ocean of molten magma below the surface of the earth. Hence the connection with earthquakes, I suppose.” (quoted with permission)

This rang really true to me, and I just wanted to spread it around a bit.

2. The other week I posted about an insight I had linking the Internet with Athena. Apparently it’s ringing true for some other folks as well: Sannion has just posted a delightful little fable about how it was all actually Her idea!

3. Two people (one IRL, one online) have asked my wife this week if as a polytheist she is offended by fictional representations of the Gods. Since this question doesn’t generally come up in conversation on a regular basis, she suggested it might be worth exploring here; I agree. We share the same basic attitude, that it depends on the nature of the representation.

For instance, we enjoyed the “Percy Jackson” books, although I quibbled with some of the author’s depictions… but overall the books spoke respectfully and thoughtfully of the Gods and even depicted some routine piety, which was a *huge* bonus! [NB: the following sentence was slightly edited for clarity in post-production.] And even irreverent treatments can be respectful – Thorne Smith’s “The Night Life of the Gods” is hugely irreverent, but is also an extremely funny satire and is obviously based in affection for and (like all good satire) a solid knowledge of the subject matter.

On the other hand, I am always irritated when an author feels the need to insert a disclaimer that of course nobody actually *believes* this stuff any more, even if the rest of the work is well done; and there are plenty of disrespectful treatments out there that I do find offensive (one that leaps to mind is a kids’ picture book called “Tales of Pan” that I wanted to like, but on the very first page the author starts out saying, “In ancient Greece people believed some very silly things; these are some stories of their silly gods and some of the silly tricks they got up to. One of the silliest gods was Pan.” (Paraphrased, but not much.)

So many of the stories that we have about the Gods and that we cling to as true and meaningful come from ancient “fiction” – drama, poetry, and so on – that it seems odd to me to give full faith and credit to those writings and see in them the inspiration of the Gods, but then to say that modern writers could not be similarly inspired. Roberto Calasso, Jo Graham, even Mary Renault –  all have written passages (and in the case of Calasso, an entire book) about the Gods that inspired me, and that I am quite willing to believe were themselves inspired. I am deeply moved by the heartfelt poems to the Gods written by the students of Barnard College in their Greek Games, and have sung some of them in worship, although I am sure that most of them were not pagan in any meaningful sense of the term (there are one or two that I wonder about, though!).

Revelation is not sealed, to borrow a phrase from the Christians – and in the end, that is the problem that I have with the extreme position taken by a few “hard” Reconstructionists, such as those referenced in my previous post. In their zeal to ensure that ancient practice is done “correctly”, they squeeze out all but those who would do it exactly their way; and by scorning all modern revelation as “UPG” (always typed with a sneer, I have no doubt) they effectively try to seal revelation and, I fear, doom our faith to die once again.

I do ancient practice – I pour libations, make offerings, and while I can’t burn incense inside because of my wife’s allergies it occured to me the other day that there’s no reason I can’t do so outside at the altar – but sometimes I also innovate. And I believe that if the Gods can speak to us through dreams, the flight of birds, the roll of dice or the selection of a Tarot card, then there is no reason to think they cannot also communicate through a modern work of fiction or a seemingly random song on the radio (radiomancy – yay for new words!).

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7 Responses to “Old Gods, new connections”

  1. Hrafnkell said

    A good thoughtful post, my friend. I have the same opinions of fictional renderings of our gods and our beliefs. I know conservative Christians often allege a Hollywood war on Christianity but the evidence often suggests the opposite. Films like Gladiator with the piety displayed by Maximus are rare. It is not always easy to find a loving portrayal in fiction either; it’s hard for monotheists (or atheists, I suppose) to wrap their heads around the concept of many gods, and there are probably not many polytheiestic authors out there. There are some notable exceptions in non-fiction too. I haven’t read the Percy Jackson books but my son’s nurse has spoken of it as “mythology” (as in none of this is true) and it was very difficult to say to he “as opposed to the mythology of the Bible?”

    UPGs have their place and I see no reason the gods cannot find ways to speak to us or inspire us in ways that were not possible for our ancestors. Times and technologies have changed, after all.

  2. executivepagan said

    as opposed to the mythology of the Bible?
    I was talking about Bollywood movies with my very conservative Christian father in law one day, and mentioned that he might like some of them, particularly the older ones, because they generally don’t have a lot of sex (this seems to be changing, though, unfortunately…) and in fact are often pretty culturally conservative. He allowed as how that was probably true but that he didn’t think he could deal with the “pagan” religious scenes (which is true, and fair enough), but then he went on to make some disparaging comment about the “man-gods of the Hindus” and it took every bit of self control I had not to give the obvious response… :)

  3. Hrafnkell said

    man-gods huh? I can only shake my head. I’m familiar with the attitude and I just wish conservative Christians had working mirrors.

  4. To me, this is what having a living faith is all about

  5. executivepagan said

    Exactly. If there is a living relationship, there is always the chance that it will grow in new and unexpected directions.

  6. Courtney said

    Being one of the people who asked your wife that question, I appreciate you taking the time to make a thoughtful response. :) I personally feel that religious inspiration can come from anything and that everything is sacred, and I don’t find it useful to set up a bunch of “sacred cows.” I guess I was just thinking from a different viewpoint, where you have for example Jews who won’t even write God’s name, and so I wondered if fictional stories about the gods would be disrespectful. I don’t know exactly how polytheists view the gods, though. You talk about your relationship with the gods changing; do you think the gods change, too? Christians always say God doesn’t change – though it seems God’s always changing his mind, doesn’t it? I think I’m starting to go off on a tangent here, so I’ll wrap it up.

  7. executivepagan said

    I personally feel that religious inspiration can come from anything

    I agree! Just look at all the Zen stories where students achieve a satori upon hearing a random sound or seeing a pile of cow dung or something… of course, they have been diligently working on themselves, it doesn’t (usually) come out of the blue – but that’s part of the next series of posts, don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. :)

    I don’t know exactly how polytheists view the gods, though.

    As you may have gathered, that depends on the polytheist.

    You talk about your relationship with the gods changing; do you think the gods change, too?

    That’s a hard question to answer with our limited human perspective, but my gut feeling is that yes, They have the capacity to change and grow. Of course, it may just be that They reveal different facets of Themselves to us at different times or to different people, but I think They do change, if only because I reject the notion that they are “pure and perfect and unchanging”, as is usually attributed to the God of the monotheists.

    And if the theory of “natural systems theology” has any truth to it at all, then change may actually be an inevitable part of Their nature! (See here for an exploration of natural systems theology if you haven’t read that series. The link is to part 1 and I don’t get to the Gods until part 4, but the rest is necessary to lay the groundwork for it unless you’re familiar with process theology.)

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