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“‘As the gods pour, so do mortals’: An alternative conception of divine reciprocity” by John Halstead (Part 2)

August 15, 2014

Divine (left) and mortal (right) libation scenes on the same krater

PART 2: AN ALTERNATIVE CONCEPTION OF DIVINE RECIPROCITY

In Part 1 of this essay (published last month), I critiqued a popular understanding of divine reciprocity. But there is another conception of divine reciprocity. It is rooted in the notion of the interdependence of all things — where “all things” includes the gods (whatever they are). It contrasts with the conception of a god who is transcendent and independent of creation. This kind of reciprocity has nothing to do with the granting of wishes for material blessings. It is rather about the idea of our being “in relation” to every other thing and to the world itself.

As a pantheist, my divine “other” is the universe, and especially the earth. We are dependent on the material world in every way, for sustenance and for resources. Our very bodies are made of matter, and our ability to cognate depends on a material brain. But it goes even deeper than that. As Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas explain, our very selves are constituted by that which we call “other” in a reciprocal relationship.

David Abram, the author of Spell of the Sensuous, explains one way in which we experience this reciprocity with the world itself: “Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter – of tension, communication, and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor – as a dynamic presence that that confronts us and draws us into relation.” Abram goes on to explain:

“Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. [...]

“There is an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in turn.”

We can try to mentally remove ourselves from our picture of the world or we can describe the world as consisting solely of inert or passive things. But this objectivity is an illusion. Our immediate experience of the world is one of sensuous reciprocity. In this sense, reciprocity is not something we do; it is, rather, something we realize. It is a condition of the possibility of our being in the world. (See also David Abram’s essay, “Reciprocity and the Salmon”.)

When reciprocity is understood in this way, as something which already is, rather than something we create, then ritualized offerings take on a different meaning. Offerings, usually the pouring of libations, have always been a part of my Humanistic Pagan practice. (I prefer liquid libations because of how they are absorbed by the earth.) Theists and atheists alike would probably find this hypocritical. “Who am I pouring libations to?” they must wonder.

Zeus (left) pouring a libation with the assistance of Ares (right)

To answer this question, I call your attention the numerous images on ancient vases and pottery which depict Classical gods and goddesses pouring libations and making sacrifices. These scenes would undoubtedly strike a theist and an atheist equally as strange. Who, after all, are the gods making offerings to? Kimberly Christin Patton observes, in her book, Religion of the Gods: Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity, that the gods’ worship in these scenes “seems to both parallel and respond to human cultic observance.” “This is why mortal libation scenes appear on the opposite side of the vases,” Patton writes, “As the gods pour, so do mortals. As mortals pour, so do the gods.” (emphasis added) This may or may not be a historically accurate explanation of these scenes, but this image — of gods and mortals pouring libations in one continuous circle — expresses one meaning which ritualized offerings might have for a religious naturalist.

Apollo pouring a libation

While I pour libations, I don’t imagine that I am making an offerings to someone or even to something. Such a conception presumes a separateness which is precisely what I am trying to overcome through ritual. I do not pour libations out to gods, who I wouldn’t imagine would need them if they did exist. Nor do I make offerings to the earth or to nature (unless you count my compost box), which would inevitably receive the matter I am offering in some other way. Nor am I making offerings to myself. Instead, these offerings are a way of remembering, a way of restoring the experience of connection — of reciprocity — with the world, a reciprocity which is always already present, but which we human beings have the ability to (intentionally and unintentionally) make ourselves blind to.

Dionysos pouring a libation (from my visit to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology)

As I pour out the water, wine, honey, or oil on the earth, I create, in the form of the stream of liquid, a living connection between myself and the earth. It is a visual and visceral representation of my connection to the earth. And in so doing, I experience both an “emptying”, what the Greeks called kenosis (κένωσις), and also simultaneously a “filling”, what the Greeks called pleroma (πλήρωμα). It is as if I am both emptying the vessel of myself and filling myself at the same time, as if I am both the cup that pours and the earth which receives — emptying because I am giving up substance which I might take into my body as sustenance, and filling because my body is already connected with the earth so intimately that I cannot give to the earth without sustaining myself.

In this act, I restore in a small measure that sense of sensual connection which I have to the world. Especially if the libation is water, I am reminded how this water long ago traveled across the cosmos in comets, how it was part of ancient oceans, and how it has traveled from the bottom of the ocean to the highest mountains. I am reminded how this water at one time was part of great glaciers and tiny snowflakes, how it has flowed through the bodies of great dinosaurs, tiny amoeba, and the bodies of my ancestors. I am reminded that this is the water I am made of, the water that sustains me, the water that I was formed in, and the water that I will return to. I don’t just think it; the ritual helps me feel it.  As I pour the libation, I watch the stream of water flowing onto the earth and being absorbed by the soil, and this connection moves from the conceptual to the visceral, from my mind to my flesh and bones.

This for me is the true meaning of divine reciprocity.


The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, theopoetics, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis). He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.org. John currently serves at the managing editor at HP.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

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15 Comments
  1. August 15, 2014 7:27 am

    So the actual reciprocal exchange that is ritually honored is basically the mutual sustenance of all things, including oneself as part of the whole – yes?

    • August 15, 2014 8:19 am

      Yes. Well put!

      • August 15, 2014 10:03 am

        Nice. It’s a bit counterintuitive as a form of reciprocity, but then again some of the best ideas are counterintuitive. I like it. :-)

  2. August 16, 2014 8:50 am

    Reblogged this on Catskill bob's Blogosphere and commented:
    I am a Naturalist, or secular Wiccan….this is a great article

  3. August 16, 2014 11:47 am

    To this essay I say yes! But I don’t think this is an either/or situation. I don’t think the kind of reciprocity you argued against in the first essay is necessarily devoid of this. I mean, sure, there are selfish people in any tradition, but I don’t think most people engaged in reciprocity are only out for Stuff. I think it’s about relationship, which is exactly what is described in this piece.

    • August 16, 2014 1:31 pm

      I agree. I have heard polytheists speak about reciprocity both ways.

  4. August 18, 2014 9:35 am

    Are you familiar with the Buddhist concepts of interbeing (Thich Nhat Hanh) or dependent co-arising? What you say here is very similar. I like this view of divine reciprocity!

    • August 21, 2014 9:40 pm

      Anna, no I’m not. I’ll have to check that out. Thanks!

      • August 31, 2014 10:55 pm

        TNH’s “The Heart of Understanding” is a good place to start for the concept of “interbeing”.

  5. August 27, 2014 11:19 am

    You quoted Abram’s in your essay as support. In Abram’s “Spell of the Sensuous,” Abrams privileges speech over writing, subjectivity over objectivity, sensible over the intelligible, nature over civilization/technology, and feeling over reason. You adopt his view into your own.

    In your libation pouring rite, you follow the same type of privileging in what occurs during your rite and what does not occur, and this forms the basis of your metaphysics. Privileging one over the subordinated other (suppressing it) just leads to “marginalized” support from the other. The two are not actually opposed to each other, they work together, and neither can be eliminated in favor of the other. In the case of your libation pouring rite, speech, subjectivity, sensuous, feeling, and nature, occur within the rite, but what gets marginalized and excluded, are still necessary as support. So, those excluded elements occur as writing (your essay), intelligible, reason, and objectivity (your explanation and background scholarship), and civilization/technology (the internet/web page/community). This type of reciprosity is a privileged reciprosity though. It’s not an exchange of equivalence between one and other. Shouldn’t reciprosity include the equivalent exchange between both the intelligible and the sensible, writing and speech, civilization/technology and nature, and reason and feeling, instead of one over the other or to the exclusion of the other?

    Although you attempt to overcome separateness during your rite which would otherwise give a privilege towards a god or goddess or someone, it goes no further than that. I wonder if the emptying and filling you refer to involve emptying yourself of the excluded elements and filling of the privileged ones. Your rite incurs a remembrance. An immediate sensuous experience would not require a remembrance, and I wonder if that remembrance is what allows those suppressed elements to still influence the rite but as marginalized. I understand that these privileges form the basis of your metaphysics, divine reciprosity, but I question whether privileging One over the Other can lead to equivalence and humanism.

    • August 28, 2014 6:13 pm

      Tom, your response is interesting, but I think it requires a lot of unpacking. I don’t understand what you think is excluded from my rite … objectivity and rationalism? If so, then I agree. But this is a temporary privileging, a “bracketing”, if you will, for the purpose of the rite. The goal is not to live in this state, but to achieve a balance that I think you allude to.

  6. David Chikhladze permalink
    September 1, 2014 6:11 am

    Thank you John, you made my day, you are a blessed person. How beautiful it is:

    “Especially if the libation is water, I am reminded how this water long ago traveled across the cosmos in comets, how it was part of ancient oceans, and how it has traveled from the bottom of the ocean to the highest mountains. I am reminded how this water at one time was part of great glaciers and tiny snowflakes, how it has flowed through the bodies of great dinosaurs, tiny amoeba, and the bodies of my ancestors. I am reminded that this is the water I am made of, the water that sustains me, the water that I was formed in, and the water that I will return to. I don’t just think it; the ritual helps me feel it. As I pour the libation, I watch the stream of water flowing onto the earth and being absorbed by the soil, and this connection moves from the conceptual to the visceral, from my mind to my flesh and bones.

    This for me is the true meaning of divine reciprocity.”

  7. September 3, 2014 1:01 pm

    Your post intrigues me. Being relatively new to this arena, I am still struggling with identifying terms such as pantheism and panentheism. While I do not want to box myself in with a restricting label, it would be nice to have a vocabulary to share the initial concepts of my beliefs and metaphysics with others. So far, the closest term I have come across is panentheist.

    Can you speak to panentheism in this concept of reciprocity? My initial cursory reading (while at work, so I can’t really delve into deep interpretation) has me thinking that what you are calling reciprocity may be an amorphous facet of my beliefs and I would enjoy the opportunity to flesh it out a bit and discuss it.

    • September 6, 2014 9:08 am

      Cathy, the way pan-en-theism makes sense to me is to think about how the natural cycles transcend their present manifestations.

      So, if it’s summer right now and maple trees are getting ready to drop their “helicopter” seeds, then I think of these present facts as the present manifestation of divinity in nature — which I refer to as “bios”, the Greek word for life, personified as the God, the divine son-lover of the Goddess.

      But latent within the present summer moment is the full cycle of the seasons, including autumn, winter, and spring. Similarly, latent within those seeds are other potential trees, some of which will complete their own cycle of growth. This wholeness, which I call “Zoe”, another Greek word for life, represents for me the Goddess who transcends her son-lover. In To borrow an image from Starhawk: She is the Wheel, and he is the Rider on the Wheel.

      Bringing this back to the libations, I guess I would tie the water in my container to the God/bios, and the cycle to the Goddess/Zoe.

      I’ve written more about this here:

      http://neo-paganism.com/beliefs-of-neo-pagans/neo-pagan-theology/pantheism/panentheism/

      http://neo-paganism.com/beliefs-of-neo-pagans/neo-pagan-mythology/the-mother-and-her-son-zoe-and-bios/

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