Tag Archives: Pagan

Fan the Flames

The gods of our ancestors are everywhere around us, though we barely know them.

Their sacred places have vanished, or become ruins, overgrown and crumbling curiosities of a bygone age.  Their sacred names are misremembered and mispronounced, uttered without the reverence and caution that should attend the power which those syllables invoke.  Their sacred stories…,

The stories we have, the myths, the legends, are but fragments of a once rich tapestry, burned almost completely away now, by time and forgetfulness.

For those of us who are driven to seek out the old ways, there is but scant evidence of the gods left to be found in this world.

We pour over the bits that we can still find, while sifting through surviving folk traditions and songs, looking for anything we might have missed.  We speculate and we argue about the fragments we do uncover.  How do they go together?  What do they mean?

And still, for all that effort, we seem to know more about the lives of the Dinosaurs, who at least had the courtesy to die and leave their fossilized remains for us to dig from the Earth.

Let us speak now, of one such nearly forgotten god.

Oghma

Sometimes called Oghma the Honey-Tongued – because he is a god of eloquence, a master of poetry, and the father of writing.

Sometimes called Oghma with the Sun’s Countenance – because he is a solar deity, or because he exhibits a divinely radiant aspect, or because he likes to cause trouble in academic circles and he knew that taking on a Sun related nickname was a sure way to get people writing papers.

We know that he is the brother of the Dagda, the husband of Étan, and that he has at least two sons.  We know that he is one of the Champions of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods of Ireland, and that his strength is second to only one among their number.

We know that he fought in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, and that he died there, or that he didn’t.  The stories have it both ways.

The Irish gods do have a nasty habit of dying in one story and showing up again in some later tale.  Which may have something to do with the impermanence of death when it comes to the gods.  But more than likely, it has to do with the fact that these stories were written down by Christian monks who were trying to…,

…who were trying to…,

…we really don’t know.

We haven’t a clue as to exactly what these guys were trying to accomplish.

We do not know their true motivations or what they may have changed along the way.

We don’t know how well they knew the stories themselves, or why they chose these particular stories to preserve.

Is Oghma really just a flagstone flipping superman with a sunny disposition and a way with words?  Can that possibly have been all that the mythology of the ancient Irish had to say about him?  Or were there stories upon stories, now lost and forgotten because they didn’t fit whatever criteria the monks used to determine what should be saved and what should be let go.

Or were they written down and then lost again.

We may never know.

We owe these unknown monks a vast debt of gratitude, but that doesn’t mean we should put too much trust in them.

Let us take a side trip out of Ireland and into the ancient forests of Gaul where another god, or maybe the same god, named Ogmios, once roamed.

He too, was a god of great strength, usually portrayed as a Gaulish Heracles.  But, unlike the Greek Hero, Ogmios is also said to have been a god of great eloquence, who’s power of persuasion was so strong that silver chains dangled between his wagging tongue and hooks embedded into the ears of his every listener.  As a consequence, every mortal within the range of his voice would joyfully gather close to do his bidding.

The little we know of Ogmios comes to us through a handful of Gaulish inscriptions and from a brief description by the 2nd Century Greek satirist Lucian, a fellow who lived long after the Gauls had been conquered, and one not overly sympathetic to the gods of his own people, much less those of long dead foreign barbarians.

Oghma.

Ogmios.

As I said at the start, his holy places are gone, his name misremembered, and his stories are, at best, the stuff of rumor and speculation.

His priesthood however…, his priesthood is as powerful as ever, and it has never waned.

Just don’t look for them among the folks who actually believe in him.

His priests and priestesses are those who write and who speak in a voice we can still hear long after we are parted from them.  They speak to us across the depths of time (think of Shakespeare or Clemens), and they move us with their words even today, when words seem to have so little value.

Only a few nights ago, as I sat with a few hundred others, and listened to Neil Gaiman reading from his stories and poems, and answering questions in a thoughtful, ever friendly manner, I could see in my minds eye, those thin silver chains growing link by delicate link, could feel the hooks sliding deep into my own ears, and I knew that, though he believes the Gods are things created by story, he is every bit the vessel of their power.

Later, reading through his introduction to his latest volume, a retelling of selected myths of Norse Mythology, I found this bit:

“We have lost so much…I wish I could retell the tales of Eir, because she was the doctor of the gods, of Lofn, the comforter, who was the Norse goddess of marriages, or of Sjofn, a goddess of love.  Not to mention Vor, goddess of wisdom.  I can imagine stories, but I cannot tell their tales.  They are lost, or buried, or forgotten.”   —Neil Gaiman

We who believe in the gods of our fathers know that particular feeling all too well.

We were born to find the stories, to tell them, to share in their wisdom, and to bask in their glow.  These things are as much a part of worship as any ritual or prayer.

But the previous generations have not been kind to us, and all that are left to us are the last fading embers of a once great fire.

And yet even that can be light enough, if we are careful.

We must learn what we can from the old stories.

But we must be willing to play with them as well, to prod and poke them until the hint of fire within begins to glow stronger through agitation and exposure to the air.

And we must be open to invention.  It is through Imbas that we allow the gods to speak through us, to fan the flames of creativity and to tell their stories in our voices, for new generations.

It is long past time to fan the flames.

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Culture, Mythology, Religion, Spiritual Journey, The Gods

Sacred Space: Finger Bones

My hands ache.

I am acutely aware of the weight and shape of every bone in my hand.

I can feel the tendons stretching and relaxing as my fingertips dance over the keyboard to write these words.  The movements, subtle though there are, carry their own slight discomfort to the pain centers of my brain.

The tenderness is unfamiliar, and irritating, and strangely welcome.

It means that I’ve actually been working.

***

These posts, in my Sacred Space series, are supposed to chronicle my efforts at building a small private temple on my property.

The tree, which I mean to carve, stands untouched.  The ground where the fire pit will eventually go, the fountain and small reflecting pool, the spiral walkways…,

It’s all still a grassy patch of nothing in particular.

The plans are there, but the time, and the will to begin, remain elusive.

***

I took half of the month of May away from my job.

Beltane was celebrated with fire and feast and a flurry of creative exertion, as I broke ground on a new workshop in the backyard.

There was digging, and then backfilling, and leveling.  Lumber and nails were unloaded and then transformed into floor and walls, and eventually many-jointed trusses arched overhead like the bones of some terrible beast.

I took a break from my job to do work, to build a place where I hope to do even more work.

And that probably seems just a little insane, in a world where vacation time is ideally spent in some sort of leisure activity – or even better, inactivity.

But while the job I go to every day puts bread on the table, it lacks true satisfaction.  I spend most of my time creating nothing, adding nothing of substance to the sum of my time on this planet.  I find, instead, that true satisfaction comes about when channeling an idea through the body and forcing it to take shape in the material world.

***

So I haven’t built my temple yet, but my workshop is almost done.

And maybe that’s not so bad, because I think a workshop is a sacred space in its own right.

The stories that my ancestors have passed down, about the gods we worship, tell us that they were not only masters of warfare, and magic, and healing.  The greatest of the gods, the ones who were heroes among their own immortal folk, were the masters of every art and craft.

At the woodworking bench, at the forge, at the loom and the wheel, wielding hammer and saw, and torch and trowel…, through hand and heart the very energy of creation is focused in the places where we make the things that will last beyond our fleeting lives.

We reshape the world in our image.

How better to honor the gods of our fathers?

***

My hands ache – and that is as it should be.

A hammer is scarred by every nail it strikes.

That is the sacrifice we make to change the world.

Even the bones in our hands can be a sacred space!

Lace your fingers together.

Do you remember the rhyme?

“Here is the church…here is the steeple…,”

This is the eleventh post in this wandering series, following the thoughts, planning and eventual construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along, you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Filed under About this Blog, Modern Life, Philosophy, Religion, Sacred Space, Spiritual Journey, The Gods

On this, our desexualized fertility festival

Religious holidays can be difficult things to explain to those who fall outside of one’s faith tradition.

Just pretend for a moment that you know nothing about Christianity and imagine someone trying to describe Easter to you…,

…think about it…

…a god briefly sacrifices himself to redeem humanity for the sins of two people who hadn’t been given a moral compass to know they were sinning in the first place…

…and Christians the world over commemorate these events by dressing up in their finery, spending an hour in church, watching their children gather colored eggs, and then filling up on a big ham dinner (just like the apostles would have done).

And yes, I’m glossing over all of the finer points, and it’s all in the presentation, but still…,

…it’s a lot to take in.

Now imagine the difficulty of describing a holy day for which there is no one accepted or even remotely authoritative description.

Welcome to Beltane!

So let us begin from an traditionalist perspective.

A well reasoned polytheist, using a reconstructionist approach, based solely on what we know of the folk practices of the pre-christian Irish, would tell us that Beltane, marked by the first blooming of hawthorn trees, was a time of purification and blessing.  It was a day when maidens collected the first dew of the season.  It witnessed the release of livestock into the summer grazing lands, but was certainly best known for the lighting of great fires, the light and heat of which was believed to provide magical blessings and protection to man and beast alike in the coming season.

Who?  What?  Why?!

That whole Easter thing doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?

Again, I’m glossing over some of the finer points, but not by much, because the stone cold truth of it is, we really don’t know much about why any of those things were done.  And frankly, I’ve begun to wonder if we haven’t been a little too willing to take things that just happen to have occurred on or near Beltane, as being part and parcel of the holy day itself.

Was it really so much about the movements of cattle into the seasonal grazing areas?  Or is that just something that happened around the same time, and over the centuries we’ve colluded the two things.

It’d be a bit like assuming that watching American Football was part of the celebration of the Christian Sabbath in North America.  A scholar, in some post-apocalyptic future might conclude that feasts of pizza and libations of cheap beer were likewise, part of the weekly observance, based purely upon the evidence at hand.

Now there are a couple things going on here.

Firstly, there is the importance of honoring our ancestors and finding our own way to the traditions and beliefs that they held sacred.  We do this through careful examination of the evidence at hand, with an eye toward preserving and reviving that which they left for us through the ages.  In this way we do service to them and to the gods which called us to this path.

That’s part of it.

The other thing that is going on is a negative reaction toward anything which smells even vaguely of NeoPaganism.

Where the festival of Beltane is concerned, the general opinion seems to be that the old Victorian occultists who started the revival in Beltane observances, were really just looking for an excuse to shuck their knickers, alone or in groups, and that adding a ritual component to the lusty month of May was all the provocation they needed.  As their spiritual descendants, the NeoPagans may have picked up a reputation for treating Beltane as an orgy at fireside: all drum circles and gypsy dancing, while ignoring history and tradition.

And maybe that’s fair.  It might be a good idea to pop over to the Wiccasphere and see if there’s anything unseemly going on.  You know…, for science.

10 Ways to Celebrate Beltane

(oooh, this ought to be good)

Light a bonfire (a little on-the-nose, but okay)

Pick flowers (ooookay)

Wear a Flower Crown (at least those flowers from #2 aren’t going to waste)

Do some Divination (actually, that’s entirely historical, something’s wrong)

Dance (also appropriate to the holiday)

Leave out offerings to the Fae (am I reading from the wrong lists)

Decorate a tree or bush with ribbons (…)

Take a Ritual Bath (NOW things are finally getting saucy)

Volunteer at an animal shelter (what just happened?)

Roast Marshmallows

Marshmallows!  My hand to the gods, I saw this listed on two of the dozen or so lists I rooted through in the course of my “research”.  Sure, there were indeed a few references to fertility magic and love spells, but a good naked frolic in the wild seems to be largely off the menu.

That, or I’m just not being invited to the good parties anymore.

Either way, we’ve got a majority of folks advertising Beltane like it was your local craft fair, while a small but vocal minority would like to point out that Maypoles are an imported tradition from English and German speaking folks, and if you could all please just be careful with your frolicking, as you are likely to frighten the cows.

The truth if it, as usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle.

FeelTheFire

There are plenty of things to suggest that Beltane IS, among other things, a fertility festival.

Those maidens I mentioned earlier, collecting the first dew of the season?  They bathed in it.  A ritual intended to increase and preserve their natural beauty.

The light and heat from those Beltane fires, was believed to not only protect the herds from harm, but to bless them – to increase their bounty – make them more fertile.  I wonder what we are supposed to think that same light and heat would do to the men and women who danced around those fires?

I wonder how anyone could believe, after standing near a great fire, feeling the energy of it moving through them, that joining in dance around those flames and sharing in that energy, passing it each to the other, could be anything other than a sexual act.

Standing at to opposite end of the year from Samhain, during which we honor the dead, Beltane comes to us at that moment when the generative power of life is at its strongest.  The veil between this world lifts but twice a year, once to allow the spirits of the dead to transcend this mortal plane, and once again at May Eve, to allow them back in where they might find new life and new lives to inhabit.

Fire Festival – Fertility Festival – Craft Fair

Celebrate it however you like, but don’t deny the energies at the root of it.

Sex is in the air folks, otherwise my eyes wouldn’t be itching from all this pollen.

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Filed under Celtic Polytheism, Culture, Holidays, Religion, Traditions, Uncategorized

Death Becomes You

The signs of the changing season are many and plentiful: there is a new crispness in the air, the days grow shorter, the leaves begin to fall, pumpkin spice flavoring has been injected into every consumable, and the yearly barrage of educational outreach posts from the Pagan community are making the rounds.

I used to do a fair bit of that myself.  The confluence of Pop-Culture Halloween and Pagan Samhain makes for a pretty tempting public relations opportunity.  Watch as we slide a little truth in there between your fun-sized Snickers and your yearly viewing of The Great Pumpkin.

I gave it up though, because mostly people don’t want to be bothered with it.

And of those who do show some interest, trying to explain Celtic Ancestor Night traditions to someone who’s cultural understanding of death is rooted in Western Christianity is a serious undertaking.

There’s just no easy way in.

Except that is for Dia de Muertos.

The growing popularity in the States, of the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ has, on several recent occasions, given me something a little more tangible to point to.

But still, the conversations tend to go something like this…,

Me: “It’s like ‘The Day of the Dead’ but without the Sugar Skulls.”

Them: “Huh?!”

So, it seemed like the best thing to do was to just give up again, when suddenly this…,

The Book of Life

The Book of Life.

It came out in 2014, and I’ve just now watched it.

How did I miss this movie?!

It is without doubt, the best representation of a modern cultural rite of honoring the dead, that I have seen on film.  The movie is cute and funny, even while treating the subject with a particular reverence, and most importantly, it is rich and beautiful to look at.

In a time when the rotting flesh and gnashing teeth of the zombie has become a year round staple of popular culture, it is nothing short of miraculous to see the dead depicted as beings of both whimsy and grace, who care for their living descendants as fervently as we should care for them.

Do not be fooled by the corruption of the grave.

That is not death.

Death is not something that happens to us, it is something we become, and in so doing, we carry away all that is beautiful within us into that next realm.  How could what we find there be anything other than glorious to behold?

Watch the movie.  Smile and laugh at the story, even as you catch a momentary glimpse of a truth beyond our mortal reach.  Do that, and maybe you’ll understand the things we do.

We dress the graves to honor them.

We kindle the fires to light their way home.

We share with them offerings of food and drink.

We remember them to each other in the stories that we tell.

And we pray that we will be remembered when we have passed beyond the vail.

Do not fear the grave.  Death becomes you.

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Filed under Culture, Death, Holidays, Religion, Traditions

More than Skin Deep

“What’s that say on your wrist?”

Sometimes I miss the good conversations.

The other day I missed a doozy, and by mere inches.

A friend and coworker was chatting with a customer when the woman paused their conversation to ask her about her tattoo.  Well, one of her tattoos, she’s got a whole sleeve of them but I guess the crisp letters on my friends wrist made for an easier point of inquiry.

“Release,” my friend answered, “It’s a tribute to one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, ‘I shall be released’.”

“And,” the suddenly inquisitive woman continued, “do you know the history of tattoos?”

“Well, it depends on what culture you’re referencing,” my friend managed before…,

“NO!”

“It’s a PAGAN ritual!”

“It’s a PAGAN ritual for the dead!”

(softer now – dismissiveness replacing the forceful tone)

“Sometimes we just do these things on a whim, without realizing the history.  We just don’t realize the importance of history.”

All of this, I was sad to discover, happened just outside of my earshot.

Had I only known, I might, as the Pagan in the room, have interjected on our customer’s behalf.

Because, she wasn’t wrong when she said tattooing is of pagan origin, it surely is.

As, I might have offered, was all the makeup and the hair dye our concerned advocate was wearing.  Also, the custom of adorning oneself with jewelry, that came from the pagans too.  Oh, and agriculture, and roads, architecture, the manner in which we measure time, drama, art, language, mathematics, both democracy and the republic…, In fact the vast majority of stuff that makes her intolerant little life possible, have their origins among the various pagan tribes and peoples of this wide and wonderful Earth, and would have been understood by those people as being inseparable from what we today would call their ‘religious beliefs’.

The good news for our tattoo fearing friend, and everyone like her, is that wearing the trappings of the ancient pagans, be it makeup and hair dye, or a little creative ink injected into the skin, does not make one a Pagan, anymore than going to church every Sunday and reading the Bible would makes one a Christian.

No, it’s not so simple as that.

Paganism is not a thing that one may wear.

It is not a bangle or a bead.

It is not, I think, even a belief or a practice, although we use those words often and all too interchangeably.

Oh, and it is nothing to do with faith.

It runs deeper than that, or it should, and deeper by far than some ink in the dermis.

My paganism hums in me, in my bones and my blood, it shudders at the touch of a breeze upon my skin, reaches down from the soles of my feet into the rock and soil upon which I trod, and it crackles between my fingertips with the approach of a summer storm.

We turn with the great wheel, but the wheel turns within us as well.

Come this time of year it gnaws upon me, my skin feels stretched almost to the point of snapping, my muscles grow tight, and a deep restlessness takes hold of me.  The antlered god, growing older again within his fleshy prison, wants to rake his thorny horns against rough tree bark, he wants to run, to fight, and to rut before the winter comes and the great raven arrives again to pick at his scattered bones.

We walk daily among the gods and the spirits of this world, and if we are very lucky we are aware of it, of them, passing near us, through us.

It is beauty and pain made one and it doesn’t happen on a whim.  And it’s certainly not something that happens by accident while having some work done in a tattoo parlor.

We spend so much of our lives dressing ourselves up to meet the expectations of others.  Yet the urge to express ourselves, our loves and our sorrows, is part of who we are.  It’s a human trait, not just a pagan one, and life is too short to just set it aside for the sake of base conformity.

Of course, there will always be those who are frightened by such freedom.

To them I say, “a superficial faith breeds superficial fears.  If a little ink is enough to get your religious fervor going, the problem is almost certainly more to do with you.”

Cernunnos Tattoo

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Filed under Modern Life, Religion, Spiritual Journey, Traditions

Lessons from a Spider

This is the nightmare…,

It is nighttime.

You step out into the perfect darkness of a summer’s evening and almost immediately feel a strange tension spread out over the front of your person.  For the briefest second there is resistance, as if the air itself were trying to hold you back.

You are slowed by this unexpected resistance, minutely, imperceptibly, but not enough.

The momentum of your stride carries you forward and suddenly there is a barely audible twang, several of them actually, like guitar strings being tightened to the point of snapping.

That feeling of subtle resistance, which you had just enough time to notice, is gone.

In its place, it leaves two sensations which will last far longer.

The first is a strange tickling which plays upon your face and hands and hair.

The second is that creeping horror that comes with the certainty that a spider of indeterminate size and temperament is crawling somewhere, everywhere, upon your suddenly uncontrollably flailing form.

Crawling on you, in the dark.

****

My feelings toward spiders are generally of the friendly sort.

I appreciate their efforts against insect pests in the outdoors, and on those occasions that I find one somewhere in the house, I make every effort to transport it safely back outside again.

I find them to be fascinating creatures, and aside from the really dangerous ones, I bear them no ill will.

That being said, should I blunder through a web in the middle of the night, I will still go through the exact same set of jerking convulsions which millions of years of instinct have firmly imprinted within my DNA.

I should know, I did it twice early last week.

On the first occasion I walked out into my backyard to leave a little something for my cat, before retiring for the evening.  I didn’t bother with the porch light because I enjoy walking at night, in the dark, and I was only going a little way into the yard anyway.

I didn’t realize, until I stepped through it, that a web had been built that covered the entire four-foot opening of my back porch onto the yard.

After a strangled cry and several awkward spins, I spotted the culprit, crawling up and away through the tattered ruins of its web.

The next night was exactly the same.  In every detail.

I’d forgotten the first incident, right up until the moment I’d felt innumerable strands of silk pressing against my face.

And again the horror, which I expressed for my nocturnal audience, through the art of interpretive dance.

By the third night I was using my head.

Going against form, I clicked on the porch light, and stepped carefully out onto the small porch.

And there, once again covering almost the entire opening out into the backyard, was a huge circular web, at the center of which clung my nemesis, a tan spider with triangular grey markings, its oblong abdomen roughly as big around as a quarter.

It really was a beautiful web, but I could see no way around it.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  And yes, I really did speak aloud to a spider, “but you didn’t leave me space to get through here.”

And then I reached out a finger and snapped one of the large supporting threads.

The web collapsed in on itself, and once again the spider scurried up into the darkness.

On the next night, I remembered the light again, but the spider wasn’t there.

And again, the night after that, spider and web were both missing, and I made my passage from the house to the yard and back again, unmolested.

And then on the fifth night, I flipped the light switch and stepped onto the porch, where I then stood for several minutes, simply amazed.

The spider was back.  The web was back.

But this time, the design of the web, instead of spiraling out from the center of the opening, was canted somewhat to the right, incorporating a perfect arch which opened up along the left side of it, exactly along the path I walk to enter the yard.  It seemed very much, as if the spider had redesigned its web with a doorway to accommodate the bungling human that kept ruining its careful work.  It was exactly the right size.  I wouldn’t even have to duck my head.

I left the cat her bowl, and then I retreated back into the house, pausing for a moment, before turing off the light and closing the door, to take another long look at the spider, still hanging there undisturbed by my passage.

“Thank you,” I said finally, done for the night.

In the morning, as expected, spider and web were long gone.

But it was back again that night, and the night after that.

And that uncanny half-arch was there too.

****

We give little regard for the smaller creatures of the earth.

We’ll bang on about the intelligence of our dogs and cats, apes and whales, and even those birds which mimic our speech so well, but the scale by which we judge these creatures is based largely upon signs of intelligence which we recognize within ourselves.

To the spiders web, engineering marvel though we might admit, we ascribe neither artistry or intellect, but instead we tell ourselves it is a product of that cold clockwork we have named instinct.

But instinct, I come more and more to believe, is in many ways an invention of our own.

Oh, it exists, I am sure, but I suspect it drives our own motivations neither more nor less than of any other creature.

The mechanics of how to build a web must surely be a product of instinct.  But if a spider can learn, if he or she can use experience to change the shape of its web, and in so doing accommodate the passage of another creature, what else can you call that, but intelligence?

****

Since those first few encounters, the spider has been an infrequent visitor to my back porch, gone one or two nights, and then back again for an evening.

When it returns, if it returns, I am sure it will make me smile yet again.

In a world where it seems we treat fellow members of our own species with increasing suspicion and hostility, to witness the capacity of compromise within a creature so utterly foreign to our understanding, gives me a certain species of hope for our own future.

We look too often, I think, for guidance from on high, and not often enough at the world around us.

There are lessons even a spider may teach, if we were only willing to stop and notice, instead of blundering through.

SpiderWeb

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Filed under Nature, Philosophy, Spiritual Journey

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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