Humanistic Paganism

So a polytheist, a Voodoo priest, and a Humanist walk into the woods…

Rowboat at Tamarack Lake, Ely

View from the cabin where Drew, Urban, and I will be adventuring this weekend.

photo by B. T. Newberg

by B. T. Newberg

No, the title above isn’t the opening of a bad joke.  It’s what Drew Jacob, Urban Haas, and I are going to do this weekend.

We’re setting out on a four-day excursion into the forest at my grandparents’ cabin in Ely, Minnesota.  Set near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, it’s a breath-taking region of marching woods and hidden lakes.  It’s the same place I wrote about in a previous post, To build a fire: The spiritual art of socialization.  The cabin is thirty minutes from the nearest tar road, has no electricity, and lies on a lake with only one other cabin on it.

But what I’m looking forward to even more than the grandeur of nature is spending time with people who blow my mind.

Drew Jacob, author of Rogue Priest and Walk Like a God, and gracious guest of our recent interview here on HP, is one of the boldest adventurers I’ve met.

And Urban Haas, Voodoo houngan and author of Chasing the Asson, is not to be taken lightly either.  From what I’ve seen of him so far, he’s a thoughtful, compassionate, enthusiastic guy with nothing uninteresting about him.  I can’t wait to get to know him better.

It’s going to be a confluence of minds, with Drew a Celtic Polytheist, Urban a Vodouan, and myself a Humanistic Pagan.  We couldn’t be more different, perhaps, but we’re coming together around the one thing we all (not just the three of us, but everyone in the world) have in common: the glory of nature.

It’s going to be a full agenda: hiking, canoeing, fire-building, sword-fighting (Drew’s specialty), and good conversation.  And then of course, there’s always that moment when the talking dies down, silence overtakes, and there is only the presence of the wilderness.

If the mosquitoes don’t eat us, or the bears carry us off into the woods, there will surely be a post on this trip in the future.  Look for it in weeks to come.

Till then, enjoy the excellent post lined up for Sunday: an environmental message entitled The Indifference of Nature, by Rua Lupa.

How Persephone killed the gods for me, by B. T. Newberg

Persephone killed the gods for me.

That slender-ankled goddess, mistress of the underworld – she killed them.   And, in that strange way that only gods can do, they came to life again.

Whatever I believed about deities before her, it all changed one summer solstice. This is the story of how Persephone turned me into a Humanistic Pagan.

The gods are dead

For me it was not Nietzsche but Persephone who proclaimed “God is dead.” It is appropriate, for she is a goddess of death after all, a being who dies and rises with the seasons.

According to myth, the young maiden Persephone was picking flowers in a meadow one day when suddenly the earth opened and out came Hades, god of death.  He swept her into his chariot and plunged back down to the underworld.  There she was to be his bride.  Meanwhile, her mother, Demeter, goddess of grain and fertility, searched frantically for her missing daughter.  So distraught was she that nothing on earth would grow, no plant nor animal would bear life.  At last, Zeus, ruler of the gods, had to step in.  The human race was withering, and without them the gods would receive no offerings.  Without offerings, the gods too would wither.   So a deal was brokered: Persephone would spend most of the year with her mother, but a third of the year she must return to the land of the dead.  Thus began the seasons.[1]

So, Persephone knew about dying.  If any had authority to declare the demise of the gods, it was her – this lady of life and death, this woman of both worlds.

Persephone, by Linda Joyce Franks

“Let them die,” she said. And I realized I could no longer pretend.

image enhanced from original by Linda Joyce Franks

Let me back up a little.  It was the summer of 2009, and I was standing over a small altar built beside the river.  In my hand was a copy of Sargent’s Homeric Hymns, and around my neck was a special pendant.  I had worn it for nine months, from the season of her last rising to the present moment of her immanent descent.  It was to be an offering for Persephone.  Just as she would go below, so I would bury it in the earth.  What I didn’t realize was that I would bury the gods too.

For years I had been experimenting with polytheism.  I had joined an organization of Pagans, gone through its rigorous training program, and emerged fully proficient in myth and ritual.  Demeter and Persephone had been with me through it all.  Through them I felt a kinship with the cycles of nature; through them the changing of the seasons came alive.  The year felt enchanted, full of meaning.  And that experience was very real.  But the gods were not – I knew that, and could bear it no longer.

As I poured a libation of barley tea, read aloud the Hymn to Demeter, and called out to the Two Goddesses, Demeter and Persephone, a dull frustration was in the air.  The words rang empty.

Then, as my fingers dug into the dirt and deposited the pendant into the ground, a rush came over me.  Through my mind flashed a voice:

“Let them die.”

It was one of those moments, the ones you remember long after other memories have faded.  I was left ruminating over what it meant, and where to go from there.

One thing was certain: I could no longer pretend, neither in public nor in the privacy of my own mind, that the gods were real.

For me, the gods were dead.

Rape of Proserpine, by Joseph Heintz the Elder

Like Persephone stolen down to the underworld, so too were the gods carried down, deep, and within – into the psyche.

image enhanced from original by Joseph Heintz the Elder

The gods live again

Yet that was not the end of the story.  Persephone had still more mysteries to unveil.

How could it be that the goddess herself wanted me to disbelieve in gods?  Didn’t they need human offerings, as told in the myth?  Without us, wouldn’t they wither away?

I began to ask myself what it was that had persuaded me to “believe” in the gods in the first place.  In truth, I had carried an agnostic attitude through it all – intellectually.  But emotionally, I had developed a deep relationship with the gods.  In some sense, the gods had been real to me.

When I sensed their presence, it was an intensification of emotion that tipped me off.  Likewise, a successful ritual was a ritual that was moving, that felt powerful.  These were the experiences that “proved” the gods, as it were.

Not all polytheists rely so exclusively on feeling.  Others point to more objective phenomena, like strange coincidences or perceptual visions.  I experienced some things like that too, but nothing that could not be explained by a naturalistic interpretation.  Nor did I ever hear others tell of more convincing happenings.  Some had inexplicable experiences, like one friend who saw phantom smoke wisps during ritual.  But it is a long leap from seeing something to concluding that gods are real. Better to admit the unknown than to leap to an explanation, theistic or otherwise.[2]  Ultimately, it is an act of faith.  And my faith was based on emotion, it seemed.

Yet it was not for that matter insignificant.

Real or not, the gods did provoke powerful and beautiful experiences.  I am a better person for having them.  I feel more in tune with my world, and more alive as a person.  This is no small thing in an era when alienation and apathy run rampant.  To find connection to the world is to find meaning.

So maybe, in a sense, the gods are real after all.

They may not be literal, independently-existing entities.  They may not be causal agents with the power to influence events, save through the actions of my own two hands.  They may not send messages, save for what pops to mind through the power of imagination.  Yet in some meaningful sense, they are real.

As presences in the imagination, they are real.  As cultural and psychological forms, they are real.  As sources of meaning and beauty, they are real.

The gods live again.

Thank you, Persephone

Persephone killed the gods for me.  And she brought them back to life.

She showed me that gods don’t have to be real in order to be real.

You can develop wonderful relationships with them.  They can enhance quality of life, and motivate responsible action.  Through their power, your world can grow vibrant.

In that fateful way that makes sense only in myth, the gods had to die in order to bring life back to the world.  Inside me, it had been the barren season.  Like Demeter searching for her daughter, I was searching for my truth.  So long as I had not found it, no living thing could grow.  But by letting the gods die, life returned.  They were reborn as beings of the mind.

Ultimately, I had to be honest with myself.  I simply didn’t believe literally in the gods. Yet that was no reason to foreswear them.  On the contrary, it was reason to embrace them all the more.

Since that fateful summer ritual, where I buried the pendant and the gods too, my world has come alive again.  No longer do I feel that dull frustration in ritual, that sense of empty words.  Now I speak with full knowledge and confidence in what I’m saying.  Now I see gods in the human, and the human in the gods.

I became a Humanistic Pagan.

And that’s why I say to you, Persephone, beautiful goddess in my head:

Thank you.

The Return of Persephone, by Frederic Leighton

Life returned to the world as I began to speak my truth.

image enhanced from original by Frederic Leighton

[1]   The timing of the barren season is debated.  Since Bulfinch’s mythology, many have assumed it to be winter.  But Nilsson challenged this in his book Greek Folk Religion, arguing that in Athens it is the summer when crops cease to grow due to the oppressive heat.
[2] My friend did in fact admit the unknown.  He himself offered a number of alternative, brain-based explanations for the wisps.  He prefers to believe in the gods, but claims no conclusive evidence.

Upcoming work

This Sunday

Tomorrow’s piece shares the story of my journey toward Humanistic Paganism.

Read “How Persephone killed the gods for me” tomorrow here on Humanistic Paganism.

B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg

 

Recent Work

Being human when surrounded by Greek gods, by M. J. Lee

Spirituality without religion: An interview with Drew Jacob

How the universe speaks to me, by Ryan Spellman

Being human when surrounded by Greek gods, by M. J. Lee

This week M. J. Lee takes the marriage of humanism and mythology all the way back to the ancient Greeks.  What was humanism for the Greeks, and how does it show up in the works of one of their greatest playwrights, Euripides?

The center of the world for the ancient Greeks was Delphi, and at the entrance to the Delphian Temple of Apollo were the words Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself).  This according to many scholars was a command to remember that one is human, to remember one’s place as a human.1  In its most basic form, humanism is simply the focus on the human, and the Greeks were certainly focused on this as can be seen in their art, literature, philosophy and also their religion.

Many people see humanism as opposed to traditional religion, and in fact use humanism as a synonym for atheism.  Humanism is seen as the rejection and replacement of God with the human, who then becomes the center of interest and the source of values and ethics.  The history of humanism is often begun with the ancient Greek philosophers and Sophists, who we are told questioned and rejected the traditional view of the gods.  Evidence for the rejection of religion is also collected from epic and dramatic poetry, where the gods are sometimes portrayed in a less then noble light, and even sometimes comically.  This is especially true of the works of Euripides.

The human in the god

Euripides is one of the three great tragedians from ancient Athens.  He is considered the most “modern” of the three, for questioning the assumptions of his society, for his anti-war stance, and for championing the downtrodden – women, foreigners and slaves.  It is often difficult, if not impossible, to discern what Euripides’ own position might have been on the issues he raises, and this is especially true in the realm of religion.  Many scholars, particularly from previous generations, have found his portrayal of the gods so negative that they thought he must be making fun of religion, showing people how foolish conventional beliefs were.  This may be so, but that is not the only way to read him.  I think in many ways he gives an old-fashioned, archaic view of the gods.2

Euripides’ last and most famous play is the Bacchae.  In the Bacchae, Dionysus returns to the place of his birth, Thebes, to establish his cult, but he is met with resistance from King Pentheus.  Pentheus refuses to recognize the divinity of Dionysus and tries to prohibit his worship, this running wild of decent women, wives and mothers.  To punish Pentheus for his arrogance, Dionysus has the women of Thebes in their Bacchic madness tear Pentheus limb from limb as if he were a wild beast, after which Agave, Pentheus’ own mother, leads a triumphal procession with her son’s head on a stake.  It is during this procession that Agave comes back to her senses and realizes with horror and disgust what she has done.

What are we to think of this god Dionysus?  If one sees the gods as conscious, supernatural people, then the Dionysus of the Bacchae can only be seen as the worst monster, for only a monster would force a mother to kill and dismember her child.  If one thinks that gods are supposed to be good, to care about and for humans, then one will find much amiss with Euripides’ gods.   It is clear that many of the ancient Greeks did come to believe the gods were supposed to be perfectly good and just stewards of humanity, and therefore became increasingly uncomfortable with the old myths of amoral gods.

If one defines a god as that which is perfect, perfectly good, perfectly wise, perfectly just, then it seems perfectly clear that there are no such gods, or at least none that take an active interest in us.  But these are not the gods of Homer, Hesiod or Euripides.  The gods that they portray are both kind and cruel; they are in fact capricious.  This to me seems more realistic, for this is what matches our experience of nature, not just the nature outside ourselves, but also our own nature, our un-chosen instinctual nature.  Sometimes the earth is a gentle, pleasant place, with sweet fruits ripe for the taking, and sometimes it is not.

Sick Bacchus, by Caravaggio

The gods encapsulate human experience, for good or ill, as in this unflattering portrait of the god Dionysus.

image enhanced from Sick Bacchus, by Caravaggio

The god in the human

The gods are for me metaphors for nature, or more precisely the names, images and stories are metaphors, allegories and archetypes of our relationship with nature.  I see the gods – the names, images, stories – as the poetic encapsulation of our human experience, our relationship with the ineffable forces that shape human life.  While this makes the gods no thing, it does not make them nothing.  I see the gods as representing very real, powerful, even dangerous forces.  I believe the gods are real.  It doesn’t matter what we call them or don’t call them.  They are real and dangerous, and we will contend with them.  This for me is the message of the Bacchae.

In the Bacchae, I believe Euripides was warning the men of Athens that to ignore a god like Dionysus can bring disaster.  Let us not forget that for a woman, the ancient world was a repressive place.  The only time a “respectable” woman may have left her home was to participate in religious rites.  The Bacchae was written at a time when attitudes about the gods were changing, and no doubt many patriarchs would have preferred to ignore gods like Dionysus and keep their women at home and in their control.  Better by far to be like Cadmus, Pentheus’ aged grandfather, and show proper reverence.  Cadmus, conscious of his status as a human, accepts straightaway the divinity of Dionysus and goes to join the Bacchic revelry.  Human beings can’t be in control of everything all the time.  Better to show proper reverence for gods like Dionysus, to allow a safe outlet for those forces which if bottled up too tight can be explosive.

The Dionysus of Athens was Dionysus Eleuthereus (The One Who Sets Free).  He was the giver of ecstasy, which literally means “standing outside of oneself,” and those activities which cause this – wine, drama, dancing – were under his patronage.  There is a time for working hard and a time for letting go.  What I like so much about polytheism is how almost every aspect of life on some level participates in the sacred.  There seems to be literally a deity for everything.  I see the purpose of religion as the cultivation of reverence, the development of right relationship with self, community and the world.3  It seems to me that we need if not gods, then something like them, to be the focus of this reverence, to encapsulate this “right relationship”.

I can’t leave the topic of Euripides without commenting on his play Heracles.  In this play, Heracles on returning home from his labors is made mad by Hera, who of course does not like Heracles because he is a bastard son of Zeus.  In his madness, Heracles kills his wife and children.  When Heracles returns to sanity and sees the carnage of his family, he is devastated to say the least.  In the traditional tale, Heracles, a mortal son of god, is made fully divine, but in this story he is made fully human.  No god comes to save Heracles; instead it is the love of his father and especially the friendship of Theseus which redeems him.

Know thyself

Euripides’ Heracles brings us back to the place of the human.  I think cultivating respect and reverence for nature, both the nature outside and inside ourselves, is very important, but in the end it is not the place of nature, of the gods, to save us, to give our lives meaning or purpose.  I believe that what gives our lives meaning, what redeems us, is philia, human love and friendship.  Knowing this is part of knowing what it means to be human, Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself).  Greek humanism was not about rejecting the gods and elevating humans to that place, but was rather about understanding the place of the human and the god, and giving to each the credit and honor that was due.4

Notes

1.  For the conventional interpretation of Gnothi Seauton, see Elizabeth Vandiver’s Teaching Company course, Classical Mythology, Lecture 9 (http://www.thegreatcourses.com) and Donald Kagan’s Open Yale Course, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Lecture 1 (available for free at http://oyc.yale.edu/classics/introduction-to-ancient-greek-history/content/sessions/session-1-introduction).  Donald Kagan also gives a wonderful summary of the Greek view of human nature.

2. An interesting article on the evolution of gods is available from the Friasan School at http://www.friesian.com/god.htm. At the end of this page is an essay on Euripides.

3. For a wonderful exploration of reverence and its importance in Greek society see Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue by Paul Woodruff (Oxford University Press, 2001).  Woodruff discusses the Bacchae in several places, most notably on pages 94-97, 128-32 and 210-11.

4. Jon D. Mikalson in Ancient Greek Religion (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) examines the Greek view of the place of the human and divine based on actual temple dedication.  On this he says, “The thousands of dedications in the hundreds of Greek sanctuaries are certainly expressions of gratitude to the deities, but they are equally monuments of human achievement and usually the human achievement is given considerably more emphasis than the deity’s contribution” (page 159).  In his book Athenian Popular Religion (University of North Carolina Press, 1983) he sums up the Athenian attitude about divine intervention as, “In simple terms, opportunities came from the gods.  It was up to the human being to make the best of them.  If he was successful, he praised and thanked the gods.  If he failed, he faulted, if not himself, a daimon or fortune” (page 62).  We might say the same thing about nature and chance.

The author

M. J. Lee

M. J. Lee

M. J. Lee was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she first discovered her love of Greek myth among the dusty books at local universities.  It was the gods and spirits of wild places that especially captured her heart, and M. J. went on to earn a B.S. in Wildlife Science from Louisiana Tech and a M.S. in Plant Ecology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.  It was this training in science and critical thinking along with her enduring fascination with myth and mysticism that shaped her into a naturalistic pagan.  M. J. currently lives in west Tennessee with her husband and works as an environmental consultant.  She spends her free time enjoying nature, dancing and indulging her Hellenomania.

Upcoming work

This Sunday

Tomorrow, M. J. Lee takes us all the way back to the ancient Greeks.  She explores humanism in Greek tragedy in her insightful essay “Being human while surrounded by Greek gods.”  Read it tomorrow here on Humanistic Paganism!

M. J. LeeM. J. Lee

Being human while surrounded by Greek gods, by M. J. Lee

Appearing Sunday, July 17th, at Humanistic Paganism

Recent Work

Spirituality without religion: An interview with Drew Jacob

How the universe speaks to me, by Ryan Spellman

Paganism and the brain, by Rhys Chisnall

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