Tag Archives: Idolatry

Time in a Bottle

I was sitting outside the other day, nursing the last few moments of a fifteen-minute break from work, just watching the traffic flow by, when my phone vibrated in my hand.

I looked down to see a text message from my wife, letting me know that she had two hours to kill between appointments and wondering if I needed anything.

In the second it took to ponder my response, I felt the huge weight of all the things that I need to get done over the next few weeks suddenly looming over me.

“I need those two hours!  Just pack ‘em up and we’ll use them later.”

I waited a few seconds to see if she’d respond to my little joke, and then I went back to work.

I’d run out of free time.

endlesstime

We have some funny notions about time.

We do our best to borrow and save and steal it, as if it were some tangible resource that we could collect and hold on to.  It is not.

Our scientists and statisticians study and measure it, seeking to quantify it and gain some measure of control.  We have none.

And with increasing frequency, we personify it, assigning to it both motive and malice.

This last year of the Common Era, 2016, seemed for many, to have provided both terrible events and heartbreaking loss in a greater than normal abundance.  The response to this, among the mostly Christian population of North America, has been to dance right past the standard platitudes regarding their own supposedly omnipresent and omnipotent deity and his grand plan for everything, and instead to spew their frustrations upon the year itself.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I pointed out how woefully out of practice this society is when it comes to idolatry.  There could be no better example than that of these last few months, wherein we’ve once again ignored a whole army of perfectly serviceable gods and goddesses, preferring instead to invent a new one upon which to vent our collective spleen.

The road back to Polytheism will surely be filled with unexpected twists and turns, but this…,

People got mad at a unit of time, and a few nights ago they celebrated its death – with the same fervor I’d expect in a blood sacrifice.

Folks, please.

Those who Spin and Measure and Cut must be rocking with laughter.

thefates

To the vast disappointment of all the numerologists in the crowd, the numbers are completely arbitrary and don’t mean anything.

Which year was it, that was our dread enemy?

AD 2016 is the popular choice – but that’s what exactly, two thousand and sixteen years after the birth of a fellow who may have been the hebrew messiah, or entirely fictional, or possibly both.  And what scant evidence we have suggests that we missed the mark by no less than a half a dozen years.  So that number is pretty meaningless.

There are other suspects, but they’re not much better…,

It has been 2769 years since the Founding or Rome in the old calendar.  But that date was also selected several hundred years after the fact and is an extremely rough approximation, so…,

Maybe we should blame 4714 of the Chinese Calendar.  The Year of the Monkey sounds like something given to causing a lot of trouble.  But if that’s the case we’d better hold onto our hats, because we are still under the gun until January 28th when the Rooster takes over.

And I suppose old 5776 on the Hebrew Calendar could be a likely enough suspect.  But this one is supposed to be counting up from the year the following the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth as depicted in the Book of Genesis, which I find pretty weird, seeing as I’ve personally visited ruins that are at least that old and geologic sites that are tens of millions of years older.

The year is a figment of our imagination.  It is a crude attempt to force time into a bottle.

But the truth is that Two-Thousand and Sixteen didn’t kill anyone, didn’t elect anyone, didn’t bomb anyone, or starve them, or spray them with rubber bullets…,

We did those things.

And we will keep doing them until we learn not to.

And if our past is any guide to the future, the numbers on the calendar won’t make a damn bit of difference along the way.

We lost some amazing people recently, Carrie and David and Prince and what seems like a thousand others, bright and powerful souls who touched our lives.  Our hearts ache with their passing, but there is no need to cast blame.  The pain we suffer is the sacrifice we offer up for the privilege of knowing them.  And my gods, the price is worth it, because I can’t imagine what our lives might have been like without them!

Nothing ended at midnight on December 31st.  Nothing began at 12:01am.

The Earth continues upon its path around the Sun.

The Fates work diligently upon the threads of our lives.

And time keeps moving.

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Idolatry 101

Idolatry Eagle

“Why are you all still sitting there?!”

A friend and I were sitting, with about fifty others, in the audience of the Birds of Prey exhibition at Scarborough Faire, a renaissance festival located just outside of Waxahachie, Texas.

I grew up just a few miles from the Faire and have attended at least one weekend for almost every year since it opened back in 1981.  I know the grounds like the back of my hand, and most of the better acts by heart, but mostly I just enjoy dressing up, and spending some relaxing time outside people-watching over a nice cool tankard of mead.

I’ve probably attended the Birds of Prey show a couple dozen times over the years.

I love watching them fly the hawks, or the occasional falcon.

They usually open with a Turkey Vulture and close the show with an American Bald Eagle, and this year was no different, right up until the end.

For some reason, as the trainer brought the Eagle up onto the stage, the love theme from Braveheart was being piped over the sound system.  She paraded around the stage holding the eagle on one gloved hand, with her other hand pressed over her heart.

When she completed her circle across the front of the stage, the head trainer spoke up from his throne at the back of the stage and said, “Let me ask you a question, why are you all still sitting there?!”

Okay, this was new.

“Why,” he continued, “didn’t you rise to your feet and place your hands over your hearts when you saw this magnificent bird, this symbol of liberty and freedom…,”.

As the scolding lecture continued, and the chastened crowd began to rise like schoolchildren who had been caught short, my irritation grew.

The very obvious answer to the gentleman’s question is that we didn’t rise because a bird, even the national bird, is not a flag!   We don’t rise for birds, we don’t place our hands over our hearts for birds.  It’s just not something that we have ever been asked to do.  Nor should we be.

Should I likewise stop along the side of the road every time I pass a field of Bluebonnets (the state flower of Texas) to show my proper respect?

As I sat there, watching the sheep around me lurching guiltily to their feet, it occurred to me that after a couple thousand years of being told that Idolatry was a horrible thing which should be avoided at all costs, people in the western world are just really REALLY out of practice.

I mean, they all still do it, but by and large they absolutely suck at it.

Maybe, I thought, there should be a class, something like a continuing education course that people could take over the course of a few weeks.  Such a class could be taught by folks from within the pagan/polytheist community, as a kind of community outreach.  Something we could do to help out all those unfortunate folks who just haven’t got a knack for it.

And once I’ve had a thought like that.., well, I know from experience that it is just going to fester in my mind until I find a way to get it out of my system and move on to other things.

And so I present to you, my pretend lesson plan for a continuing education course that will never actually exist.

Enjoy!

Idolatry 101: General Course Description

In the classic sense, we think of the idol as a statue usually secreted deep within the bounds of some ominous temple.  Surrounded by cloaked priests and clouds of incense, it is brought forth on special days, whereupon the people may fawn and bow before it, offering up sacrifice to be burned in its presence.  This is a profoundly limited view, influenced by religious propaganda and literary cliché.  This course will seek to expand upon that narrow view, by exposing the student to the many forms and functions of the Idol throughout history and into the modern era.

Week 1: When is a Door not a Door?

Synopsis of Introductory Lecture:  In the holy writings of all three of the great monotheistic religions, there are stern warnings against the practice of Idolatry.  In modern usage the word itself is, in almost all cases, used in a pejorative manner.  But what is Idolatry, really?  While there may be many related definitions, for the purposes of this course, Idolatry will be understood to mean the process by which a tangible, real-world object, is used as a point of focus for the worship or reverence of something otherwise intangible.

History shows that Idolatry is something that is second nature to the human animal, and is present in almost every facet of human activity both ancient and modern.  Furthermore, it is the foundation upon every great religion, including those which so frequently preach against it.

Witness, for example, the sacrament of the Eucharist in which bread and wine are symbolically transformed into the body and blood of Christ, whereupon it is consumed by the faithful as a means of taking the holy spirit of their god into themselves.

Now compare this modern religious tradition with that of the far more ancient cult of Dionysus, which held that the vine of the grape was the mortal embodiment of their god, and that wine was the blood of their god, fermented by his yearly passage through the underworld.  By the drinking of this specially prepared wine the spirit of the god was believed to first enter and then manifest within the devotee, in the form of holy intoxication.

The idol, as we will see, may take many forms.  It may appear to us as an emblem, a statue, a natural feature of the landscape, and even the blood of the vine.  But in whatever form it takes, the idol is a doorway to something we understand to be bigger than ourselves.  Unable to touch what lie beyond, the door itself becomes a vessel for our reverence, invested with prayer and worship, with ritual and sacrament.

It is not the business of this brief course to render judgement for or against the practice of Idolatry.  Instead, we seek only to recognize it when we see it, to understand how the practice has shaped the human condition, and to gain insight into the beliefs and motivations of those who openly engage in this practice.

Written Activity: Write a quick (1,500 words) explanation of your personal beliefs regarding the practice of Idolatry and what you hope to get out of this course.

Week 2: And Everything in its Place

Lecture and Slide Presentation:  Moving forward from the previous lecture, we will further expand the perception of what may or may not be an idol, by touching briefly upon the subject of Spiritual Geography.  The accompanying slide presentation will show multiple locations where either a man-made or natural feature of the environment has been invested with spiritual significance.  Special attention will be paid to the concept of the Axis Mundi as a point of connection and focus between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Written Activity: Briefly (6,000 words) compare or contrast any two of the following locations:  The Umbilicus Urbis Romae in Italy, The Kaaba in Saudi Arabia, Mount Kailash in Tibet, The Hill of Uisneach in Ireland, Delphi in Greece, or Teotihuacan in Mexico.

Week 3: Desecration and Empowerment

AphroditeSmallLecture and Slide Presentation: We begin with an overview of the rise of Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire and the rising tide of attacks upon both temples and statuary dedicated to the gods of the Roman pantheon.  The slide presentation will detail the ways in which images of the various gods were damaged, including beheadings, the gouging of eyes, and the carving of crosses into these objects.  Lecture will end with a brief catalogue of similar desecrations by various groups through history and into the present day, to include the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by Taliban forces in 2001, and the destruction of the Temple of Baalshamin in Palmyra ,Syria, by ISIL in 2015.

Written Activity: Write a brief paper (2,000 words) exploring one of the following questions:

1.  Is your faith empowered by the desecration of someone else’s holy icon?

2.  Is it possible to desecrate an object that is not already sacred?

3.  Does an act of violence against an object reflect the significance of that object in the heart of the believer, or in the mind of the one conducting the act of violence?

Week 4: Stars and Stripes Forever

IdolatryFlagsClass Discussion: The American Flag is often treated as an object of deep reverence.  Citizens salute it, they pledge to it, they treat the display, folding and storage of it with ceremony and ritual, and will retire a worn or damaged flag in cleansing flame.  Desecration of a flag is a crime in many locals, and people have been known to react with violence to public protests that included flag desecration.  Does this same reverence extend to all manifestations of the American flag, including the little disposable plastic ones that people often wave, en masse during parades and patriotic celebrations?  If not, then what makes those flags different?  What about flags printed on t-shirts, bumperstickers, and the like?  What, if anything, makes one flag sacred and another not?  The instructor is encouraged to keep the debate on-topic but to otherwise allow the discussion to guide itself.

Week 5: Ubiquity and the Profane

Lecture:  A brief explanation of the symbols used by various secret societies to identify members to one another, leading us into a discussion of the Christian Cross.  Once a secreted symbol revealed only to those who could be trusted, the Christian Cross has become an everyday fashion accessory for millions of people in the western world.  In recent years, a number of christian groups, in their defense of large crosses displayed on public lands, have suggested that the cross, through its ubiquitous nature, should not always been seen as a religious symbol, but may have any number of secular meanings.

Classroom Activity:  Break into groups and debate one of the following questions?

1.  Does wearing a cross have any significance in a culture where the general expectation is that any individual you may encounter in your day-to-day movements is almost certainly a Christian of some variety?

2.  Can a holy symbol be made profane though repetition and commercialization?

3.  A non-believer wears the symbol of your faith – empowering or sacrilege?

Week 6: Where does the power come from?

Final Lecture: In whatever form it takes, the Idol has the power to instill powerful emotions in those who encounter it.  For some, a particular idol may illicit feeling of deep reverence, joy, fear, or disgust, but the question remains, where do these feelings come from.  Is the power that the idol seems to possess over man a function of the object itself.  Is the physical object imbued with a special nature that brings out these feelings in those who come near it?  Does the particular arrangement of stripes and stars on a length of cloth change the nature of the fibers of which it is composed?  Does the wine become the blood of a god, or is it simply a tool which we use to feel closer to the divine?  If entirety of an idols power rests within the hearts and minds of the men and woman who react so strongly (one way or the other) to its presence, does not our reaction to Idolatry say more about ourselves than it does those we might feel compelled to judge?

Final Essay (6,000 words): Expand upon your original paper from the 1st week of class.  Have your feelings regarding Idolatry changed as you have considered the materials presented.  If so, how has your attitude changed and why?  If not, please explain how this course may have reaffirmed or strengthened your previous feelings.

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Filed under Culture, Interfaith, Modern Life, Mythology, Religion, The Gods, Traditions

The Devil May Care…,

…but I don’t.

My head hurts too much to give it much thought.

My sinuses feel like they’ve been filled with molten slag, the burden of which weighs my head down.  My neck bends forward to its utmost.  My chin rests uncomfortably against my chest and it feels as if my eyelids droop and bulge from the pressure behind them.

I have no strength today for banging my head against the walls of religious privilege.

I try to rest, to catch a moment of sleep, but I can hear them bleating still.

Oklahoma Baphomet Story

Why do I feel like I have a better chance of reasoning with the Weeping Angels?

Ahhh, crap!

And in the last few days my Facebook feed has filled with reactions ranging from light-hearted references to the Weeping Angels of Dr. Who fame to the far more frightening pseudo-militant “call-to-arms”…,

Okay, so let’s break it down as quickly as possible…,

• Christians erect a monument to the 10 Commandments at the Oklahoma State Capital.

• Humanists and people from other religious groups cry foul, citing (quite correctly) the non-endorsement clause of the U.S. Constitution.

• Oklahoma responds to the accusations of religious favoritism by saying “nuh-uh!” and then claiming that any religious group may petition for a monument on state grounds.

And the floodgates, they were opened!

It seems that a Hindu group has applied for representation.  And also, an atheist group calling themselves the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (I love those guys).  And not to be left out, the Satanic Temple of New York.

I’m really surprised that there have not been more.

Funny how no one seems to be making much of a fuss about the Hindu or Pastafarian efforts.

No, the big outcry has been all about The Devil.

Except, it’s not.

The Devil, I mean.

The proposed statue is actually a representation of the god Baphomet.

And Baphomet is…,

…,

wait for it…,

…,

FICTIONAL!

The name Baphomet was acquired, under torture, from Knights Templar, who were accused of worshipping “pagan” idols.  The word is almost universally understood to have been a mispronunciation of Mohammed, the inference being that the good knights picked up some nasty habits from their Saracen enemies.  Aside from that there is no mention of the name found anywhere in antiquity prior to the 11th century.

Baphomet was never a god and was certainly not the Christian Satan.

Levi BaphometHe – is – not – real.

Even the image upon which the proposed statue is modeled is nothing more than a fabrication, drawn from the mind of occultist Eliphas Levi, in the 19th Century.  It’s a fictional rendering of a god-that-never-was.  It’s not ‘The Devil’.  It’s not even ‘a’ devil.

It’s a thousand year old case of mistaken identity.

Your Devil, my Christian friends, does not exist, except that you make it so.

You give your Devil life when you twist the laws of the land to give yourselves special favors – like allowing only words from your holy text to be depicted in stone on public soil (covetousness).

You give your Devil life when you sneer at the shrines of the gods while pretending that giant marble reproductions of the 10 Commandments, or statues of our war dead and presidents, do not count as idolatry (bearing false witness).

The Satanic Temple of New York may be trying to goad you into doing the right thing (taking down the Commandments memorial) by proposing that ridiculous statue, but they’re not the ones who are truly honoring Satan.

It’s not the Humanists either, or the Pagans, or the Hindus.

No my friends, it’s you.

It always has been.

Your greed.

Your fear.

And it makes my head hurt.

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The God in the Kiln

I miss the fire.

There is something ritualistic about working feverishly on a project, pushing and pulling the resistant clay into the shape you envisioned, fighting against time and relative humidity to dry it gently enough to do no harm, yet quickly enough to load it into the kiln and surrender it into the fires of creation where almost anything can (and will) happen.

I used to think of myself as an artist.  Maybe I still am, I don’t know.

Can you be an artist if you don’t produce art?

If we live our lives by the lessons we learned at the easel, the press and the kiln, do we hold on to our membership in that special community?  Is it enough to see, in the world around us, those shapes and colors and spirits we wish to capture and shape and share with our fellows?

Or does the true power of the artist rest entirely within the act of creation?

Over the years, I have worked to make art with a wide array of materials and techniques.  I have experimented with Pen & Ink, Watercolor, Oils, Enameling, Printmaking, Photography and Digital Media, but by far my favorite experiences were back in my college days, working in the University Ceramics Lab.

Living in the Kiln

Unlike the other departments (say Painting or Printmaking), there was an almost religious feel within our Ceramics Department.  The studio itself was cool and quiet, with that resonant echo one expects to find in a church and a deep, earthy smell evoking nothing less than a field after a light rain.  The folks working there (the long-time clay students), were like the closest of families.  They laughed, teased, wept and consoled one another as if they had known each other, not for a few semesters, but for the whole of their lives.

I came into the studio with the simple intent to work off the required hours in a 3D-Medium called for by my degree plan.  That first semester of my sophomore year was all it took to change everything for me.  I shifted from a concentration in Graphic Design to a purely Fine Arts curriculum with a focus on Ceramic Arts.

I was hooked!

I was drawn to those people and welcomed eagerly into their family.  We shared an addiction to the feel of wet clay beneath our fingers, to the power of moulding and shaping it, of transforming course material into the stuff of imagination.

As I came to spend more and more of my free time in that studio, to learn its ways and secrets, I was bewitched by the ritual of it all.

Ceramics will always feel, to me, like the perfect blending of science and religion.

There is a lot of chemistry involved in the mixing and application of glazes and knowing to exactly what temperature you must reach in the kiln and for how long, to achieve the desired results.  There are charts and graphs to consult and constant experimentation through successive test firings to refine processes and perfect recipes and application methods.

But hiding underneath all the numerical data, there is intuition, passion, magic and the ritual of flame and sacrifice.

And there are the Kiln Gods.

If our ceramics studio was like a temple, then the three old gas kilns we kept there must have been the vessels of our sacred and sacrificial fire.

Bébinn (melodious lady)

Bébinn (melodious lady) – the first in my series of three terra-cotta figures depicting Celtic musicians.

However much you work and slave, building your sculpture (or over the wheel, if you are a potter) there comes that moment when you must load your creation into the heart of the kiln and surrender it at last, to the flame.

In our studio we tended that flame ourselves, volunteering in shifts to see the firing through into the wee hours of the morning.  I remember spending so many late nights listening to the metal outer layers of those old kilns creak as we brought them slowly up to temperature, gazing carefully through the peepholes to see if we had achieved ‘atmosphere’ – that rarified state where the amount of oxygen within the kiln is ‘reduced’ by the consuming flame to the extent that the ‘air’ takes on a seeming liquid quality and the chemical composition within the clay and glazes, begin to change.

I quickly learned that the flame has moods.  No two firings ever went exactly the same and while one might pass with no trouble whatsoever, the next might find you fighting tooth and nail against a kiln that does not want to cooperate.

Adjust the opening at the top of the kiln.  What color is the flame that comes out?  How far above the top of the kiln does it reach?  Adjust the air intake at the base.  Add a little more gas.  Check again.  What does it look like inside?  What do the temperature gauges say?  Damn.  Adjust again.  Back the gas off a little.  Leave the air intake where it is and check again.  Damn!

Sometimes, after a long sweaty night spent climbing up and down a step ladder, making infinitesimal adjustments on a giant metal box that will happily sear inattentive flesh, all you can do is step out into the cool night air for a moment, gaze up at the stars and hope that the Kiln God is doing it’s job.

Ah yes, the Kiln Gods, I have been coming to them, by and by.

This was one of the mysteries which I learned early on, during my time in the Ceramics Studio.  I thought, at first, that this was something particular to our studio, but later learned that the tradition of the Kiln Gods goes all the way back to ancient China, and possibly to the very beginnings of the ceramic arts.

The Kiln Gods are small little figures that you make from the scraps of spare clay, left over from whatever you are working on.  In our studio, they were usually fairly humanoid  but with exaggerated features, maybe a vaguely aztec looking block-head on a tiny body, or just a cone with a sphere on top and the barest indication of a face.  Mine always looked somewhat goblin-like with long hook noses and wide, leering grins.

The exact form wasn’t really important.  In fact, there was an unspoken rule that they shouldn’t be too polished or detailed.  Better they have a rough, unfinished look about them, to distinguish them from the real work.  We really didn’t talk about them much – unless, of course, someone forgot to put one in the kiln before the door was closed and the firing begun.

That’s when things would really go wrong.

Sometimes things explode in the kiln.  Sometimes poorly applied glaze will run and pool or even spit, damaging the pieces surrounding them and resting on the shelves underneath.  There is a lot that can happen in a working kiln, and I’ve seen most of it occur during those firings with an absent Kiln God.

Usually, it was just an honest mistake.  The tradition in our studio was for the God to be the last thing loaded before the heavy metal and brick door was bolted tight.  Yet, on a busy day with five or six people trying to carefully load the maximum amount of work into three kilns as quickly as possible, it could be an easy detail to overlook.

And then there were those who did not like the Gods.  These were usually folks who were new to the department and for whom the Gods reeked of either ignorant superstition or pagan idolatry.  These folks usually learned a hard lesson, often at the expense of their fellow students.

Like it or not, a little idolatry can go a long way.

I’m not sure who makes the rules about these things.  In later years, I have visited studios that do not fire their Gods at all, but place them atop the kilns during firings.  Still others fire and even glaze their gods and then keep them around to decorate their studios.  Our tradition was to smash them when the firing was done.  They had done their job and whatever magic had been in them was now spent.  By dashing them to bits we completed the cycle of their existence and released them from stoney bondage with our gratitude.

I have not been part of a firing, have not participated in that holy ritual of creation through earth and water and fire, for many long years now.

Or have I?

When I think back on those times, when I look at the directions my life has taken me, and the things I have learned and continue to learn, I feel a deep pressure building in my chest.  Sometimes it feels as if an incredible fire is burning there, drawing all the oxygen away from my lungs, and creating something new in the process.

I know what I would like to see in there when the time comes to open that door, but experience has taught me that one can never be sure what one will find inside a kiln once it has cooled down.

I can only watch the stars and hope that the God in the Kiln is doing his job.

Maybe someday I will find the fire again.

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