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Shines within darkness

Why are we here? What is our larger purpose in life? What lies beyond the short span of years we possess with this realm… does anything? Are there gods, creators, or any other supernatural entity that oversees or coordinates our existence?

These are just a few of the questions we either have or should be asking ourselves. Our existence is defined by the journey we make, and without questioning that existence, it is a sadly linear trek. I am no spiritual expert- no adept in the field or awakened master- and claim no special power of perception beyond that which I believe we all possess. However, having said that, I have acquired a rather significant amount of experience in the school of life. I am well read, open minded to opposing views, and perceptive concerning the nature of my fellow beings.

I am writing this column not from a position of authority or superiority, but from a position of contemplation and consideration. I welcome any thoughts, comments, or criticisms. Most of what I will discuss comes to me as a result of my own spiritual development over the years. I have spent almost sixteen years “behind the wall”, as those of us incarcerated say. Despite this fact, I have managed to keep abreast of the modern community and the progress of our society through various media and most importantly the continued support of friends and family. The isolation of the years has resulted in an unusual environment for my spiritual growth to evolve. Prejudiced, disruptive, frustrating, and highly negative in nature. In addition, given my own physical build, the necessity of maintaining physical readiness is not an option but a requirement.

So how does one find themselves in such an environment? How do you overcome not only your own inner strife and complications, but also the frustration and negativity of the people around you? How can you set aside the anger of humiliation and the shallowness of your fellow men? Good questions and I’ll do my best to show you how I’ve done it.

First, I’ll give you a quick spiritual/religious background. I was raised in a relatively atheistic household until the age of seven, at which time my mother became heavily involved in the Christian church- specifically, the Pentecostal denomination. As a youth, many of the interactive events that the church provided for a young child were enjoyable, and while I have always questioned the “infallibility” aspect of the Christian Bible, I found a degree of peace in the religious trappings.

By the age of fourteen, I was highly active in youth group activities, and even contemplated a possible future in the church- perhaps as a missionary or pastor. I had also attended a Christian school for a few years at this point and my studies had revealed many holes in the modern Christian philosophy. I also possessed a healthy interest in the occult and alternative religions and philosophies- primarily because the synchronicities in the beliefs of history helped to confirm the elements I believed already. I was wise enough to keep this interest under wraps from both my parents and my fellow Christians because the close-minded mentality of people in general and monotheistic believers in particular were already an obvious factor in my life.

As time passed, less of the Christian mythos seemed to conform to common sense, and the historical aspect only seemed to confirm a high level of inaccuracy within the religion. A key linchpin finally broke me from that path completely, and though others have arisen since then, it was crucial in my transition. Over twenty years have passed, and I have made several mistakes. I have suffered numerous tragedies and few enough triumphs. However, my spiritual development has carried on, and my quest for who I am and why I am here has continued unabated. At this point, I have come full-circle from completely disregarding the reality of anygods, and believing in only higher and lower spiritual powers, to coming to the realization that the divine does indeed exist. It is only my perception of who and what the gods and powersarethat has shifted.

Reincarnation is a key component of my belief structure, and is one of the few elements of my faith that is indelible. The logical structure behind the process, which explains many of the anomalies of existence, has made it the bedrock on which I have built my beliefs. The gods and goddesses and their attendant spiritual entities are quite real to me. If you were to ask me which pantheon has it right, I could answer you easily- they all do. There are certainly false deities throughout the ages, but for the greater part, if an entity received the title and worship of a god, it probably existed in that state at some point.

Another factor, at least within my own mythos, is that all experience presents the opportunity for growth. Negative experience possesses at least as much potential as positive experience, and is in fact just as important as the positive. We require the contrast to understand the nature of the two polarities. This does not mean that we should engage in negative behavior, only that we should not avoid the negative at all cost, because it is a necessary component of our development. How we deal with such negativity is of great import. It can tear us down. It can crush us. On the other hand, it can result in the amplification of our spiritual light.

There is no light as bright as that which shines within darkness.


The Gargarean

Not to sound too much like an arse licker but I was honoured when I was invited to contribute a monthly column to this project. Polytheism is something that is deeply important to me, but also something that I’ve been a bit of an outsider of. Given that this is my
first post I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce myself, while also deal with some issues I face as a Hellenic polytheist.

I go by many names, most call me Mark, but I prefer Markos. I’m a professional artist that makes a living producing artwork in the streets of Melbourne, Australia. It’s a fascinating job as I’m both part of the general public, but completely outside of it – being absorbed into my own world of art.

This is similar to my experience of the ‘pagan’ community. It is difficult to pin point my obsession with ancient Greece, but I know that it opened up when I was introduced to the internet at fifteen. As a silly teen, I thought I was the only one that felt drawn to honour these deities but quickly found out that I was not. Then I found myself deeply intimidated by what was being discussed on forums, chats and groups. A diverse range of philosophies, concepts, ideals. Often people wouldn’t flame each other over these augments, they’d send fucking nukes, really – it’s ugly. I didn’t want to get involved and for the last fourteen years I have lurked.

This is strange in itself, as I have been following and reading certain people for years and even though some talk very little about their personal lives I actually know who they are by years of abstract contact. Then again they have no idea who I am… it makes me feel a little creepy…

Something that is fascinating about the recent Polytheist Leadership Conference (PLC) in New York is reading stories of people meeting for the first time in REAL life, even though they have known each other online for years. Common posts talk about how their perceptions of others were changed and how even those that engaged in hellfire flame wars online came to agreeable terms in realty. As an outsider on the other side of the world this is beautiful… and it makes me feel a bit lonely.

I live in a very large country that has a small population, in general terms Australia’s common man is middle class, suburban and sometimes a bit intellectually dim. Even with the luxury of the internet it is difficult meeting people with likeminded concepts in my area, let alone similar beliefs. I have never met a person who actually knows what polytheism is without me having to explain it to them.

So, you see, I’m a bit of a loner.

Something like the PLC is a privilege, a gift. Although you dudes went to some hotel in a town with a weird name, gave lectures to one another for a weekend and went home, it has affected people outside. Reading and hearing the fallout of this event has really set a spark in my heart that makes me *want* to be part of the community.

This is why I am honoured to be invited to write on this site and sincerely hope I contribute some insight to the beauty of polytheism into the future.


Speaking of Syncretism

Bring up the topic of “syncretism” to a group of people, and those who even know what the word means at all might have mixed reactions.  To many Christians, it implies what I hear people within a certain denomination deride as “Cafeteria Catholicism.”  To Muslims, syncretism is fundamentally equal to shirk, their most grievous and heinous sin, because it challenges the completeness and perfection of Islam by “joining” other practices and/or beliefs to their religion, and in particular “partnering” the deities of other religions to Allah.  To pagans, it tends to get thrown around relatively commonly as a synonym for “eclecticism,” and depending on the individual pagan’s viewpoint, that can be a good or a bad thing.  To some types of historian or religious studies scholars, it might refer to a practice of linking two (or more) different deities between cultures, often with the assumption that such linking either indicates the decline and dilution of a given culture, or a trend toward pantheism and/or monism, which in many of their minds simply shows that monotheism is inevitable with the “advancement” of human cultures through history.

To almost all of the above, I would respond:  think again.

While we can dismiss the Catholic (and other Christian) as well as Muslim critiques out-of-hand simply because they reflect theological contexts which are irrelevant to our own, I think the Islamic notion deserves a momentary closer examination for what it reveals.  Both Christianity and Islam emerge–like every “new” religion–from a plethora of religious influences and contexts which pre-date their origins, and both were very good at syncretism in their embryonic stages (and, for Christians, their later developmental stages in proselytization and assimilation of other cultures).  Even though Islam emerges from Arabic culture and continues many of its practices, including by virtue of denouncing some aspects of Arabian polytheism and revising others (e.g. promotion of Allah as father and head-of-pantheon to only deity), its re-mapping of Allah and his prophets over both Judaism and Christianity is an appropriation and revision of those individual religions.  Few groups of people are spoken of more derisively and are condemned more strongly in the surahs of the Qu’ran than polytheists.  I wonder if the reason that shirk is such a grave sin is because it is something which the early Muslims perceived, and correctly, to be intrinsic to polytheism, and which thus constituted the greatest threat to the hegemonic monotheism of their own religion.

For the most part, polytheism doesn’t proscribe which deities are valid to be worshipped, and in fact almost every polytheistic culture that exists has happily done so alongside peoples with very different deities, practices, and beliefs.  More often than not, the deities of those other peoples cross over into their own pantheons, and have often done so at such an early stage that they have become completely naturalized over the course of time.  When we speak of Aphrodite as a Greek goddess, we often do so in ignorance of her Near Eastern origins, despite the Greeks giving her epithets that connect her to her likely origin place of Cyprus.  Aprhodite is one example amongst many of this process.

As much as I am of the opinion that polytheism is an expectable, and even perhaps a natural, tendency amongst humans, so too do I think that syncretism is just as intrinsic to polytheism.  One cannot be a polytheist without also being a syncretist.

Yes, as much as you might not wish to acknowledge it, every single person reading this column who is a polytheist is already a syncretist.  If that horrifies you, I’ll still be here when (or if) you would like to read further.  If that excites and fascinates you, please continue to read.  If you already knew you were a syncretist…well, you still may want to read to the end of this column, since you’ve come all this way already.  😉

Many polytheists, especially of the reconstructionist variety, have more nasty words for “fluffy” eclectics than anyone else, and they throw syncretists into that mix as well.  The reconstructionists who insist on the notion of “cultural purity” as a necessity to be practicing their religion, in many respects, are as disingenuous as the Muslims who took so much of their mythological history from Jewish and Christian narrative, refashioned it, and yet insist that it is the one-and-only-truth about all the figures concerned.  The Greeks and the Romans were promiscuously syncretistic, certainly, and the Egyptians were likewise heavily syncretistic at many different periods of their history.  The situation with both the Germanic and the Celtic polytheistic religions is of a different sort, even though this non-existent cultural purity notion comes into their pre-Christian phases as well.

Almost all of our information upon which reconstructionist methodologies are employed to build modern forms of Celtic or Germanic practice relies upon sources that are not “native” to the cultures concerned.  The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about these peoples during the pre-Christian period, and interpretatio Graeca et Romana, as well as ideas about “noble savages” and other such literary themes that were more or less reified in the minds of the writers concerned, are so heavily employed in those sources that they cannot be extracted without losing a great deal of content.  The same is true of the post-Christian period, even though people from given cultures were writing the literatures concerned, where both Christian and classical literature influenced every word written in the case of Ireland, and both of these plus Irish sources influenced every word written for Icelandic literate cultures.  These influences are often more emphasized and have been employed to highlight, enhance, or revise materials that existed in the native Irish or Norse/Icelandic traditions.  One is as much indebted to Jerusalem and Rome (both the polytheist and the Christian Rome) if one has ever looked at a source from medieval Ireland or Iceland as “lore.”

But–and here’s the point that many seem to miss in all this–that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As long as what is being stated doesn’t invalidate polytheism, or simply is written to bolster “faith in One God and His Son Jesus” and the like, there isn’t really anything wrong with simply accepting myth as myth, whether it comes from an indigenous European (or other) culture, or it was invented with pre-existing characters and places in a given locality who are then written into a story that parallels the Greek epic tradition or the triumphs and hardships of the Sons of Israel.  Specifically Christian non-creedal elements can be assimilated into a syncretistic mindset without any difficulty, and certainly without the severe “allergies” that many people seem to view as “necessary” reactions to them.  One can accept a character, a story, or even a deity without having to accept the monotheism that is preferred (and required and enforced!) by the religious cultures that propagated them.  It is, in fact, more polytheistic to accept their existence and to integrate it into one’s understanding than to reject them; there is no such thing as shirk as a sin for polytheists.

Even if a given piece of literature does suggest that Jesus, the Christian God, or the Holy Spirit are involved in ways that make them players in a narrative rather than as ideals of faith to be accepted and never questioned, what harm?  There is nothing in polytheism which makes it necessary that Jesus, the Christian God, the Holy Spirit, any of the saints, the Jewish God, Allah, or any other divine being or heroic figure from these traditions be “rejected” as existing, or even as being deserving of worship, so long as it is understood that they are further beings amongst many other polytheistic deities beyond number.  If you think that there is only one “Abrahamic god,” then that’s fine, but then you’re giving credence to Abrahamic monotheism, and a particularly Islamic form of it, rather than being a polytheist.  To say or indicate by one’s actions “My culture and my culture ONLY” is a monotheistic position; to say “Many deities, many ways, many cultures, many possibilities” is the way of polytheism, and of syncretism.

There are many more threads that could be followed in the present discussion, and I hope to perhaps elaborate on a variety of them in future columns.  The idea of “syncretism” in itself refers to several different phenomena, which also need to be distinguished from one another, explored further, nuanced and qualified (often with further terms added), and discussed at greater length.  I hope to do exactly that in the months and years to come in the present column, and I eagerly look forward to discussing these topics with those who choose to read and comment here!

Syncretism happens:  now, let’s talk about it.