A story about the power of sacrifice

So, Wyrd Ways Radio just cut off for the fortnight, and there was a special treat on tonight’s show, if you missed it, live: I called in! I called in at about quarter before the end (in part cos i decided to take a day off from volunteering at WCBN, mainly from being tired, and I was sorting buttons, which, by the way, you should buy some from the Religion & Magic section, so i can buy a link on The Wild Hunt).

One of the things that Sannion and Galina brought up this fortnight was how secularised Protestantism has lousied up so much of Pagan culture, and that people will often (and I’ve seen many say as much, as well) practically wince at the idea of actually sacrificing to the gods in their personal practises. I called in to relate a story that my friend Jeff at PJ’s Used Records shared with me and one of the other customers this last Monday:

When Alexander was a child learning from the tutor at the palace, at one moment, he was being taught the proper method of sacrifice to the gods. His teacher showed several other boys, with Alexander at the end of the line (with the intent that Alexander would learn from the mistakes of others). The tutor and all other boys took a pinch of frankincense, a pinch of myrrh, and a pinch of storax, and sprinkled each into the sacrificial fire. When Alexander came up, he took huge handfuls of the frankincense, myrrh, and storax. The teacher was horrified, but held his tongue, but apparently still showed on his face.

Many years later, after several conquests, Alexander sent to that teacher huge cartfulls of frankincense, myrrh, and storax, and a note about how giving freely to the gods will mean the gods will freely give back.

This isn’t exactly as i gave it on Wyrd Ways, and it’s not exactly as Jeff gave it to me, but the important parts are all there and the lesson stays the same: When we give, not what seems appropriate to our sensibilities, but what we genuinely can, and give that freely and without reservation, the gods will give back.

The distinctly modern notion that ritual sacrifices are somehow “wasteful” is, indeed, a scurge on the pagan community and one of the distinctions I point to between the differences between the pagan and polytheist communities. While true that we carry with us a lot more cultural baggage into the religions we’ve converted to than we may realise, it’s only by shedding certain things, one at a time, that we truly open up our lives to the gods we honour.

One cannot be stingy with the gods. It’s not about giving beyond our means, it’s about giving freely of what we can; if all we can give at a time is a tablespoon or two of water, cos we’re just that impoverished, then we should give that, and give it freely. No-one has ever said that we should bankrupt ourselves for the gods in hopes of a greater return, but if we have it in our budgets to give more, then we should give proportionately to what we have, and give it freely.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

[What’s That?] Miasma

So, Dver made this recent post about miasma, and I want to repeat something from it that seems very much worth repeating:

“Someone explained it to me once as a way of ensuring that we were fully engaged in worship; if we just experienced death, or birth, or even sex, our minds were probably occupied with ideas related to that and we weren’t giving our due respect and attention to the gods.”

That might seem like a nice thought, that once again makes it all about us and our internal landscape, but it has little basis in historical evidence. Miasma is not about how we feel about things. It’s a spiritual pollution, a FACT that happens regardless of our feelings. That spiritual pollution is anathema to many of the Hellenic gods. You may not like that, but it doesn’t change anything. Many of our gods tend to put a lot of distance between Themselves and the stink of mortality – which is most stinky during transitional times like birth and death. If it was just about our preoccupation, then there’d be no taint of miasma if someone close to you, but who you cared nothing for, died – but that’s not the case.

That’s one of those modern notions that just never sat well with me, because it just doesn’t follow logically.

This seemed like a minority notion about seven / eight years ago, when I first got into the community, and now seems a very close second to that disinfo of “miasma = lacking personal hygiene” that seemed to really take off with Pope No-Life and His Talking Butt-Plugs about five years ago. The idea that “miasma is that which distracts us from the gods and” seems pretty popular now, and I have to agree that it really lacks historical basis.

Now, I’ve probably just kind of passively went along with that in the past –in fact, I’d say my post about menstruation really does give a passive permission to the notion that miasma is at least sometimes about how we feel, when that just doesn’t fly with the history.

Miasma is spiritual pollution. If it’s there, it’s there whether we “feel it” or not. Your feelings may also be giving you a false positive –in other words, Judeo-Christian indoctrination about how your menses is dirty when (pardon the pun) bleeds over into your own personal feelings doesn’t suddenly give you a taint of miasma, nor will cramps and headaches. Your feelings might also give a false negative –maybe you’ve just had sex and now all your thoughts are on Aphrodite, or Eros, or Dionysos, well, unless you’ve been given a pass on that, too fucking bad, break out the khernips before approaching that shrine.

In general, the rules about what does bring miasma is pretty specific, almost absurdly so. If you’re a devotee, spouse, or slave to a certain deity, you may get a pass on some things, but not others, and you may have some additional taboos (one woman I know who is devoted to Artemis has been forbidden by her goddess from marrying, and though sex seems permitted, I get the impression that she needs more than a sprinkling before entering the temple room), but chances are still good that, if worshipping in an historically accurate Hellenic context, you’re still not going to be allowed to scrap all pollutive taboos.

Furthermore, what survives concerning miasma seems to at least mostly concern temples and public shrines, which are regarded as homes for the Theoi here on the face of Gaia. It’s also easy to interpret Hesiod’s taboos from Works & Days, as an extension of what counts as miasma for household worship –which makes sense, as the hearth basically functions a shrine to Hestia.

“Blood on the hands” or contact with blood is pretty much one that everyone agrees is miasma, but not all blood was the same, historically. Animal blood clearly was not a pollutant to the temples, or else there wouldn’t have been so much animal sacrifice —the mystery cults that maintained bloodless sacrifices being a noted exception, but the thing is, they are an EXCEPTION, not a part of the general inclusion. Furthermore, it takes more than just some khernips to wash out the stench of a murder from your soul, though getting your own blood on you (and maybe a co-workers, at most) the every-day abrasions from work in the fields, or at a tavern, or so on, as best as I can tell from what I’ve read, various ritual cleansings at the entrance of the temples probably took care of that –but if you lost a leg in battle, or a scythe accident or something, you obviously needed to heal to a sufficient degree first, and likely needed a more intense ritual. Killing in self-defence or in battle probably required a bare minimum at a temple of Ares (I gotta admit, i just don’t know much about this one), but to worship at a shrine to Eirene, you might need to do more than that before you had properly cleansed yourself. That said, as I’ve said before, there are apparently no historical taboos against menstruation in Hellenismos. If some-one tells you there were/are, they’re full of shit.

Sex, childbirth, and death also carry spiritual pollutants, in general, but there are exceptions. In some regions of Hellas, if a woman died in childbirth, it was standard practise to sacrifice the clothes she wore at the time at the local temple of Artemis / Eileithyia —this flies in the face of the general convention, but again, is an exception. The fact that funeral processions were a big thing in Hellas, and a pretty widespread practise, may seem to fly in the face of the conventional miasma associated with death, but the procession and funerary rites were outside the temple, and I can’t help but think that it’s a sort of ritual enactment of the soul’s journey via Hermes Psychopompos, one of few Theoi that aren’t believed to shun the dead. Miasma, again, is typically a taboo to temples and shrines.

Illness was also generally considered miasma to most temples, but it was common for people with certain kinds of sicknesses to leave an offering at shrines to Asklepios.

Lastly: Miasma has nothing to do with personal hygeine. I really have no idea where that little bit of disinfo started, but it needs to stop, like, yesterday. (ETA – 16 April 2013) OK, so upon reading a bit more, I seem to have a fair hypothesis on wher this confusion might stem from. See, for centuries, there was this belief that “poisoned air”, or similar, caused sickness; around the 19th Century in the UK, maybe as early as the 18thC (CE, of course), this collection of practically worldwide belief of “bad air = cause of certain diseases, like cholera” became colloquially known as “miasma theory”, in a similar manner that the worldwide phenomenon of spirit-workers became known as “shamanism” or animal guides as “totemism”. This re-purposing of the word “miasma” basically took it out of a spiritual context, and in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the “poison air” hypotheses basically became replaced with the current “germ theory”, that is, diseases caused by foreign bodies, from the bacteria on unwashed hands to an assortment of vira. “Miasma as disease theory” has NOTHING to do with the spiritual miasma of ancient Hellas, and conflating the two is no less ignorant than nonsense like “Artemis and her consort, Apollon”, or something. (/ETA)

The act of ritually washing the hands and face before entering the temple, or before approaching the household shrine, has practically nothing to do with bodily cleanliness. Khernips is all about a physical ritualisation of spiritual clean-up. It’s preparation of the soul through a ritual on the body. At some temples, you wouldn’t even get a personal khernips bowl, an image popularised via dramatisations on The History Channel, but sometimes a priest or even a neokoros would just toss water, or do other purfication rites on people in the procession into the temple –yes, even people who’d clearly just finished up some manual labour and couldn’t make it to the baths in time. If miasma was simply about “personal hygeine”, then surely these temples were committing great blasphemies, non? Of course not, don’t be silly. Logically, if the ancient Hellenes knew the religion better than the average nub on the Internet, then clearly those temples knew what they were doing with regards to miasma.

Now, you’re certainly free to say “I don’t care about religious reconstruction, this is all irrelevant to me”. On the other hand, if you DO care about reconstructed practise, you can’t just go picking and choosing which rules of miasma you like and which ones you don’t —reconstruction is about rebuilding from existing evidence, and you need a fair knowledge and understanding of the evidence before you can evaluate whether or not it applies to your practise. When you know what does and does not qualify religiously as miasma (pro tip: I’ve only given the most common situations and a few exceptions), only then at some later stage can you really evaluate the subject.

To recap:

Miasma has nothing to do with what’s on your mind, or whether or not you feel spiritually prepared enough to approach the Theoi. Miasma, if present, will exist regardless of what’s on your mind, and regardless of how you feel about it.

Miasma has nothing to do with your personal hygiene. Miasma is spiritual pollution. Rituals to cleanse miasma are there to ritualise the cleansing of ordinary pollutants from ourselves before entering ritual space. The fact that the most common of such rituals is to wash the hands and face (and sometimes feet) still doesn’t make it about personal hygiene, and the fact that we just washed ourselves is merely a byproduct of the spiritual cleansing.

Miasma rules, as they existed in ancient Hellas, mostly pertained to temples.

Miasma rules were not monolithic in ancient times, there is no reason to see them that way, now.

Certain devotees might have more or less taboos, similar to (though not necessarily the same as) miasma; this is a matter between them and their gods.

If you don’t care about historical accuracy, religious reconstruction, etc…, you’re perfectly welcome to scrap the idea of miasma altogether —but if reconstructed practise *is* important to you, then it really makes no sense to pick and choose.

Honey badger don’t give a shit about your miasma.


(ETA on 27 July 2014)
Cos this has been recently referenced in places, I figured I’d take advantage of this opportunity to inform people reading this for the first time that I’m raising funds for my upcoming move back to the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area.

I’m also giving away Heathen goddess prayer cards.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

More on the word “Pagan” and the Inter-Pagan&Polytheist community

(Expanded from a comment responding to my last entry)

I still have so many really mixed feelings about this issue. On one hand, I can see some remaining usefulness in “pagan” as a vague label. I’ve also had a lot of experiences with people who know VERY little about suffixes and prefixes and root-words in the English language, and so the word “polytheist” has honestly puzzled them until I finally gave up and said “OK, whatever, forget that: I’m an ancient Greek-styled pagan” — I still feel the need to add a few modifiers to make it clear that I don’t do Popular Wicca or somesuch, but that’s what gets the point over to some people.

The standard dictionary-definitions of “pagan” are indeed vague: An Abrahamic religionist’s “not us” word — hell, even the Puritans eschewed Christmas customs as “too pagan” (and indeed, many are rooted in Roman pre-Christian customs), and Evangelical Protestants like Jack Chick deride Catholicism as “pagan” (and thus “Satanic”). Looking at basic Muslim interpretations of Jesus as a prophet, I’m sure to some Muslim schools of thought, Christianity is “pagan” in its veneration of a “god-man”.

The dictionary also typically tells us that “pagan = polytheist”, especially ancient polytheisms that were mowed down by Christianity. Now, this is where the etymology gets loaded. “Paganus”, in Latin, means “country-dweller” or, in common use “hick”, “redneck”, “hillbilly”. This was adopted by an early militarised Christianity to deride those living out in the hills as somehow “too uncivilised” to convert willingly, and was quickly adopted to apply to especially stubborn polytheists in the cities of the ancient Roman empire. Whether or not “paganus, as in hill-billy” was used specifically to deride the differences of practise of rural polytheists in the Græco-Roman world, or was just used as a general, all-encompassing derision of rural folk by urban folk is a nuance that is occasionally debated by degree-toting linguists and language geeks alike — but the fact is clear: One who was “paganus” in Rome is one who was derided by the many.

This is where I see a lot of people defend use of the word “pagan” as a “reclaimed word” in the same style that “bitch” and “cunt” have been reclaimed by a certain hipster caste of feminists, or in the way I have a t-shirt with “FAGGOT” written across it in pseudo-Swaorvski crystals, or how I’ve seen a few trans women self-apply “tranny” — but when we go to the etymology, and compare to what I do, and where my spiritual connections are strongest, we can see clearly that I’m an “urban dweller” — so, like the few trans women I see who self-apply “tranny”, but remain appalled by the trans men who dare to1 what business do I have to self-apply, as one of a city-based practise and urban-strengthened spirituality, a word of derision for those of the country? My Quaker (Christian) step-mother may have more of a right to “reclaim” the word “pagan” than I do!

Ultimately, I do feel like, in many ways, I’ve simply “conceded” to the pagan community, because I have very little in common with most pagans. Now, there have been some great strides in “inter-Pagan” communication in the last few years, but this has been largely on-line, and considering that I do occasionally encounter pagans off-line who have never even heard of The Wild Hunt, I’d wager that this re-education and re-forming of the meanings of “pagan” is a privilege of pagans who take advantage of regular Internet access. I’m also still very recon-oriented and a lot of what Drew Jacob noted about still feeling a disconnect from the “recon community” feels true for me, as well — my main differences with them feel easy to point out, but there’s still a community Status Quo that many Big-R-Recons like to maintain that I feel kind of misses the point. I’ve also taken note of YSEE spokespersons have said on the Hellenic_Recons e-mail list, espousing that “YSEE does not practise reconstruction”2, setting themselves apart as something distinct from what a lot of “Recons” in the Anglosphere Status Quo-ify, I find myself unable to help but wonder if there isn’t something maybe to the sparse claims I’ve seen from citizens of Hellas that maybe there are a few unbroken traditions that survived Christianity similar to how many pre-Chrisstian Gaelic and Brythonic traditions survived. I also am hesitant to “reclaim”, as YSEE members and supporters have, “Ethnokos Hellene” for myself because, as a supporter of the S.H.A.R.P.s (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice), I am extremely conscious of the fact that the modern English “ethnic”, rooted in the ancient Hellenic term “ethnikos” (plural, “ethnikoi”), will often carry connotations of Neo-Nazism or more casual racisms and fascisms — I have enough clashes with other Mods and with tradskins that this term, which sounds awfully similar to “ethnic” at a casual listen, would give me more grief than my British self-identity, my loyalist stance on the Ulster situation, and my residency on North Amerikan soil already does. I make no secret of my religion at Mod & Skin gatherings, and have occasionally brought my small Apollon bust to nights I’ve DJ’d (indeed, He is the Moddest of our Gods), so I’m already pretty weird among a lot of people whose religious leanings tend toward existential atheism, agnosticism, and “social Christianity [or, far less often, Judaism]” — I don’t need people falsely accusing me of Nazi sympathies because they didn’t notice a slight difference between an ancient Hellenic word and a modern English one. “Pagan” can then become a minor bonding moment among other Mods and Skins who have similarly eschewed atheism, agnosticism, and social Abrahamism, even if we have nothing else in common (indeed, I’ve only personally encountered, on-line, two others — one was an initiate of Traditional Wicca, I forget about the other, but I want to say she was softly polytheistic Buddhist) — but in this context, it’s not about a religious experience, but usually a moment of jest amongst a handful of people in a arts-and-fashion-based subcultural tribe.

Maybe if I find the ancient Aeolic equivalent of “city-slicker”, I’ll adopt that as my defining religious term — after all, I seem to have only the vaguest claim to “pagan” considering the history and etymology. I’m not a “country dweller” and my spirituality is urban — I feel the closest to the Theoi and Daimons in large cities, and my spiritual feelings are weakest when out in the countryside or woodlands. It’s easily argued that I have as much right to “re-claim” the word “pagan” as I have, as a gay man, to “re-claim” the word “sapphic”. But at the same time, it’s proven occasionally useful when conversing with those coming from a more mainstream religious culture — outside the on-line pan-pagan community, the word “polytheist” still seems pretty sparsely used. “Polytheist” is the best generalised description of my own beliefs and practises, and though I do occasionally use “pagan”, that use is definitely a concession because it says precious little about my beliefs and practises, and in the “pagan community” tends more often than not to imply things about what I do that I typically do not.

The usefulness I have in the pagan community is little: I enjoy several blogs and occasionally meet other Hellenic polytheists that I “click” with. I definitely can get behind the socio-political goals of the pagan community, so that’s another good use I have for it. That’s really about it. Religiously, I have little in common with the overwhelming majority of pagans, so it makes little sense to say I’m a part of the “pagan community” as a whole, rather than “a socio-political supporter of many pagan goals and ideals”.

Still, it’s very mixed. In the last few years I’ve conceded to the term “pagan”, I’ve made few strides in my (albeit feeble) attempts at building a community around Boeotian polytheism — indeed, I seem to have made a greater stride at that in careful SEO-mancy via blogging. While I cannot deny that the Abrahamic overculture will always see my religion as “paganism”, no matter what I call it, admitting it is not necessarily a whole-hearted adoption of the term: It is nothing more than a sign that I live in Reality™.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, really, what words I use for my religion — what matters is what I do to honour the Theoi.


1: This has a lot to do with the way mainstream cisgender uses the word “tranny” to put-down trans women and even cis women who are especially tall, square-jawed, wear heavy make-up. The word “tranny” is misogynistic in the overculture, and has clear implications outside of “reclaimed word” contexts: This person is a “fake” woman. This implication is truly the most-comon use of the word, and trans men have as much right to “tranny” as gay men have to “dyke” or “carpet licker”.
2: Message #4840 of Hellenic_Recons yahoo!group archive

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Painting

It’s been a while since I’ve done a painting for the theoi — perhaps tellingly, my last one is Narkissos, left unfinished after my surgery in 2008 went awry.

I’ve been feeling the push to paint again quite recently, and the image I’m getting is for Britannia, and will most likely be in watercolours — indeed, one of the main things holding me back this last week is the search for where I unpacked my watercolours to.

“But Ruadhán!” you might wish to interject with, “That’s not a Hellenic goddess!”

Well, I suppose in the strictest sense, you’d be correct, but my reasons include ancestor-worship (definitely an ancient Hellenic practise) and the name “Britain” ultimately comes from Hellenic etymology. Of course, I’m only really justifying myself in public because I’m sure my #1 fan would love nothing more than to use this and the forthcoming painting as “evidence” that I’m somehow “not practising Hellenic religion/reconstruction” anymore, possibly ever (as he’s done this to others in the past, for lesser reasons) — which is hilarity-on-a-stick, true, but best to make such lunacy apparent from the start, den eínai?

My envisioning of Britannia is based part in the traditional Roman and part in the Mod subculture, and may even seem reminiscent of a certain scene from Derek Jarman’s Jubilee — and I’m sure at this point, you probably have the same mental image I do, especially if you’re familiar with my painting style.

One thing that I regret not posting about this year is my ritual and prayer for my re-envisioning of Shrove Tuesday as Pancake Feast of Britannia and St. Patrick’s Day as Bacon & Cabbage Feast of Hibernia. I intend to remedy this, but at a more seasonally-appropriate future time.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.

Who is a “Recon”?

The dictionary defines reconstruction as:

1. to construct or form again; rebuild: to reconstruct a Greek vase from fragments
2. to form a picture of (a crime, past event, etc) by piecing together evidence or acting out a version of what might have taken place
[World English Dictionary]

It can therefore be fair to say that Religious Reconstruction is hardly the act of making something exactly as it happened or was done before. That’s not to say that reconstruction is not sometimes meticulous, but it’s also not the act of making a broken vase unbroken — after all, more often than not, you can see the glue holding the fragments together, and most significantly, you can almost always see that there are fragments being held together. Another popular analogy is to take a house that has been damaged by flood or by fire and rebuild it. You’re not going to make it exactly as it was before, you know this. If the house was old enough to have lead paint in it, well, good luck making it exactly like it was before. If it was that old, then there was probably some electrical wiring and water or heat piping that would not fit with modern codes — again, good luck with that. A thing that is reconstructed is never exactly the same as it was before — if it was, then it wouldn’t need to be reconstructed, that’s just basic facts.

Furthermore, how to reconstruct, say, ancient art is often debated by art historians, art restorers, and archaeologists. A basic Google search for “reconstructed Venus de Milo [Aphrodite of Milos]” will turn up many different ideas of how the statue’s arms should be positioned and what, if anything, she’d have in her hands. Some of these ideas are obviously not supported by easily sourced evidence of how the statue was originally found and what she was found with, but some of the photo-manipulations obviously show skill and knowledge (albeit, knowledge of basic art) that these would be fair hypotheses if there was no other evidence.

Religious reconstruction is nothing more than forming a hypothesis, an educated guess, and more often than not, forming several hypotheses of what could have been, or what upgrades to the electrical wiring would need to be made. While there is a wealth of evidence in existence of what the ancient Hellenes (and other tribes) did and did not practise and believe, there are still a lot of gaps that could use some putty, a lot of corroded pipes that need replacing, and a lot of questions whose original answers have long crumbled away into dust, but those questions still need answers.

The long and short of it is that arguing over who is and is not “recon” is no less mental masturbation than any other mental exercises that have no real-world applications. It’s not as important as actual practise; if you’re actually practising your religion in a form and spirit consistent with that of ancient Hellas, then this will speak for itself. If you are not, then that is between you and the Theoi to judge whether or not it is improper or impious.

About Ruadhán McElroy

Ruadhán has been a traditional Hellenic polytheist for about a decade, and has also maintained devotions to Eros and Apollon most of that time; his status as a devotee of Nyx is more recent. He also paints, makes music, makes jewellery, and writes novels set in the Mod Revival (UK) and Swampie (Oz) subcultures of the 1980s. He also gets a lot of odd little experiences that he jokes will forever render him an insufferable Goth.