Articles by Tess Dawson

Tess Dawson

With over fifteen years of experience, Tess Dawson is one of the foremost specialists in the field of revived Canaanite religion. She enjoys spinning, weaving, doing odd stuff with string, and making up silly songs about objects around the house.

Politics and Polytheism

You can have politics, and you can have polytheism, and you can have them both together; but, it is folly to mistake politics as polytheism.

The term “politics”, to be very brief, has to do with the day-to-day governance of human activities and human-to-human relationships. The term “polytheism” has to do with the religious regard of many gods as individuals—which is more of the realm of deity-and-human relationships. Politics and polytheism are two different categories, different needs, and different focuses.

Were a person to claim that “geological polytheism” is the same as just plain polytheism and that geological polytheism is a part of the definition of polytheism itself, it is like mistaking a t-shirt—a type of clothing—as the definition of clothing, when the category of “clothing” includes much more than just t-shirts: kilts, saris, jeans, and hats decorated with cheese made out of foam. There are hierarchical arrangements in categories, moving from general categories into more specific ones. Moving from general to specific helps us to understand things and the relationships between things. Only by preserving an understanding these differences can a person then begin to understand how these things can work separately and how these things could also work together. A person can study geology all on its own, without even knowing anything about polytheism. A person can honor polytheism all on its own without ever knowing anything about geology. A person could also honor the individuality of the deities (i.e. polytheism) through the addition of religious respect for geological strata, and say that this is a type of polytheism. But, but a person cannot claim that geological polytheism is just plain polytheism and that anyone who wants to be a polytheist must also first be a geologist.

Large categories have within them various overlaps with other large categories, but large categories can also have different expressions within them. Those different expressions within them can be completely encompassed by the larger category (like a large bubble surrounding small bubbles inside of it), or not completely encompassed by the larger category (like a smaller bubble attached to and partially inside of the larger bubble, but not completely inside the larger bubble). But, in order to understand how the bubbles relate to one another and how they are attached or unattached, to understand how different things relate and interact with one another, you have to recognize from the beginning that you are indeed working with different bubbles. You cannot see the relationship, or the potential for relationship, between things if you don’t realize that they are different things and if you don’t recognize where those boundaries are.

Polytheism in and of itself has nothing to do with politics. Polytheism is not a theocracy. Polytheism is not a democracy. Polytheism is not anarchy. Polytheism is not socialism. Polytheism is not communism. (And…systems of government are not necessarily the same as economic systems, although they can support or not support any economic system.) You do not have to adhere to any particular politics or economic systems in order to be a “real” polytheist. All you have to do is religiously regard the deities as many and individual. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Polytheism isn’t focused on human-to-human relations or the governing of people.

Can polytheism be expressed through and with other things like politics? Sure it can, just as you can have tea straight up and black, or you can have tea with milk or tea with lemon. But polytheism, straight up as a category on its own, is not these things any more than the tea is the same as the lemon or the milk that goes into it. That would be “tea with lemon” or “tea with milk” even as you would have “polytheism with [insert political or economic philosophy here].” A person would also do well to remember that tea cannot support the addition of lemon and milk because the acidic properties of lemon and tea combined will cause milk to curdle, so it helps greatly to know the properties of different things and how they interact. All that these polytheistic religions have to have in common to be considered “polytheistic” is the religious regard for the individuality of many deities.

Although you can express polytheism and politics together, there is a breaking point where these two things will not work together. That breaking point arises when a person forcibly imposes human-centric models and modes of interacting in relationships, such as what is seen in politics, onto the deities and the deities’ interactions. Deities aren’t humans. Forcibly imposing human-centric expectations and modes of interactions on the deities is not only counterproductive in deity-and-human relations, it also runs the risk of curtailing the deities’ individuality and personal sovereignty. At the point when the individuality of the deities is ignored and overridden by a religion (or a person), that’s the point where the religion (or person) can no longer uphold the religious regard for the many deities, and cannot be described as polytheistic even if the religion (or person) still gives lip-service to the ideals of the deities’ individuality.

Some deities and some sets of deities may have opinions on the matters of human governance, and some ancestral ways may have some set traditions in this matter—but this is a matter for those people in those relationships and in those polytheistic religions. When this sort of thing happens, then the mode of governance (human-to-human) relations becomes also an expression of deity-to-human relations. This is a matter of deities operating within their executive functions and expressing their individuality and sovereignty, and, as such, it is a part of polytheism especially within the context of those deities, ancestors, and/or lineages, and/or religions. At that point it is a part of polytheism because we’re seeing the religious regard for the deities by acknowledging the deities’ guidance and their preferences in these matters; we’re seeing a demonstration of how this religious regard for deities’ individuality play out. It works this way because the gods and the ancestors have rank—they are greater and wiser than we are. They can pull this rank, especially when it is necessary; and, unlike humans they are less inclined to abuse these places of rank. It is noteworthy that the reverse cannot be said if a person chooses a mode of governance (in human-to-human relationships) and forcibly projects it up the hierarchy onto the deities themselves in human-to-deity relations: this is a violation of the deities’ own freedom, rank, sovereignty, and individuality. It is a disrespect of the deities’ status, and a disrespect and misunderstanding of our own places as human beings.

The matter is further gnarled when a person not only projects their preferred human political structure up the hierarchy onto the deities, but also along the same tier of the hierarchy onto all other human beings who would want to be polytheists, making a demand that other human beings also adhere to these structures before they can be called just plain polytheists, not “polytheists + [insert preferred economic or political philosophy here]”, but just plain polytheists. This is why a person must recognize that polytheism and politics are two different things, and why any particular politics should not be confused as an intrinsic part of a definition of polytheism.

Polytheism isn’t focused and centered on human needs, or human-to-human relationships like politics are. Polytheism is about the religious regard of many gods as individuals. When we start making polytheism less about the individuality of the deities, and make it more about us, our modes of government in politics, and how we relate to each other as human beings, we start losing sight of what the focus of polytheism is.

Seeing the Trees for the Forest

Sometimes, even among us polytheists, there is still a tendency to reduce to a few that which numbers the stars. This tendency is an internal artifact of ingrained patterns, an unconscious bad habit from generations of living with the insistence that there are no deities, or that that there are only one or two deities. We know that there are more than none, one, or two. We know there are several. But sometimes, because of broken ancestral relations and generations of this now-unconscious behavior, we operate from acknowledging far fewer than the vast diversity that actually exists.

Let’s set aside this matter for a moment to consider trees. Near where I live, there is a row of three Black Maples. Each is a maple tree—not an elm, an oak, or a willow—furthermore each one of those trees is of a type of maple that grows in a tight geographical region, and each one of those is specifically a Black Maple—not a Redbud Maple, an Amur Maple, or a Sugar Maple. Each one of those three Black Maples is a separate individual tree: what happens to one tree doesn’t necessarily happen to the others; they grow separately, and they have different relationships. The Black Maples that grow by my home are not the same as the Black Maples that grow down the street or the Black Maples that grow in another state. The three Black Maples here exist in particular relationships with each other, other beings, with the land, and with the contexts that they’re growing in. They also exist and are defined by not just what they are, but in reference to what they are not—they are not Sugar Maples, not elms, not squirrels, and not postal workers. Each of these three Black Maples are different not just in relationship to other things like the land, the squirrels, and postal workers, but also in relationship to other Black Maples, other maples, and trees in general.

The many different relationships all help inform and support the individuality, the uniqueness, of each tree. These different relationships are sort of like the ridges on a key—the different ridges form different configurations making it so that your car key will not work for your deadbolt. Without these ridges, the key is an undifferentiated useless blank which won’t work for any task. An individual being ceases to be any kind of differentiated, useful, unique being if it were possible to extract it from all relationships whatsoever. Without relationships, and the context provided by relationships, there is nothing for the individual to function in connection to, in accord with, or in opposition to; thus there is nothing to help an individual being hold those boundaries and functions that are important in having shape as an individual being. Like a ridge-less key, it’s an undifferentiated useless blank with no identity, no individuality, no uniqueness, and no usefulness—it still has potential, but it is unrealized potential. Without the unique relationships each tree has, that tree ceases to be what it is and co-participate, coexist, in the world around it.

Each tree separately exists in multiple unique, individual relationships, different roles, with the unique individual other maples, other trees, animals, insects, lichen, mosses, people, and more. They are not defined by their relationships, but they are defined with their relationships and through those relationships, participating with or being acted upon by other beings and having other beings participate with them. These relationships are not exhibits of codependency, but of interdependence and interconnectedness, and it is this interdependence and interconnectedness that allows for the individuals in these relationships fully to come into their own unique places and individuality in the grander scheme of life on planet Earth.

Of the three Black Maples near me, the one to the north has often been the home of corvids (probably some type of crow). The one in the center tends to drop branches because of an insect infestation, and two breeds of local squirrels make this a tree a good home because of its sheltering nooks. The nostepinne I made for winding yarn comes from a dropped branch from that center tree. The one to the south, further away, is the one I like to stand by and watch the bats come out in summer twilight.

I could call the tree in the center the Black Maple Who Drops Branches. I could also call it Black Maple Nostepinne Tree, or Center Black Maple. The squirrels might acknowledge the same tree Black Maple Good Nesting Tree. These are different names but on this occasion the different names refer to different relationships for the one same tree. Those relationships are important to know in order to understand the identity of that one tree. I can’t nest in that tree, so I don’t know that tree as Black Maple Good Nesting Tree; I don’t have the same relationship with it as the squirrels do, nor does that tree have the same relationship with me that it does with the squirrels. The squirrels have no need for a nostepinne, so they would not know that tree as a Black Maple Nostepinne Tree. However, both squirrels and myself may understand that tree as Black Maple Who Drops Branches, although the branches affect me differently from the how they affect the squirrels.

The neighborhood crows know a Black Maple Good Nesting tree too, but they know a different tree—the tree that stands to the north of Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Squirrels. The Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Crows is a different tree. The name describes a different relationship, where the crows, not the squirrels, prefer to nest. Sometimes there’s overlap between the two, where a couple of squirrels one year might prefer Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Crows from what had been Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Squirrels, and thus Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Crows may end up with a new added name, a new relationship, a new function, and an added identity. But, just because of the overlap it doesn’t mean that the two different trees are the same tree.

I describe the trees in terms of what the trees are but also in terms of what the trees are not, as well as in terms of their location, their relationships. To understand that center Black Maple tree in its totality better, as well as to differentiate center Black Maple tree from the north Black Maple tree, I would be wise to keep in mind all of these relationships that I know about. This knowledge has the added benefit of my learning not just who that center tree is, but who it is not, and it helps me understand the individuality of all three trees and their unique contexts.

How in the world does this relate to deities?

I propose that when in doubt, we should consider that two deities going by the same or similar names but acting differently in different locales, different circumstances, and different relationships, might just be different deities. It’s a complete 180-degree-turn from how most of us are conditioned to think; we’re conditioned to think unconsciously of “fewer” and to assume that if there are some basic similarities, then we are looking at the same thing. This would be as if we assume that there is no differentiation between Black Maples and other kinds of maples, or the specific differentiation of my three Black Maples from other Black Maples doesn’t matter. We don’t realize that though we know there are several deities, we might be assuming there are far fewer than what there actually are. This mindset of “assuming different and separate until otherwise known,” allows the space for us to explore whether or not we’re seeing the same deity with different relationships in progress, or a different deity altogether, or some other unique situation. This mindset allows space for these matters to be considered without the danger of the crushing erasure that reductionism leads to. Figuratively speaking, without this mindset, we keep jamming a car key into a deadbolt and becoming upset when we don’t get the results we expected, and furthermore we are in danger of balding off all of the ridges on keys and turning them into undifferentiated useless blanks.

I want to make it clear here that these matters are context-specific. Just because the contexts shift and change or just because our understanding of these shifts might be unclear, it doesn’t mean that “Anything goes!” Just because our understanding of the standards is imperfect or missing, it doesn’t mean that there are no standards. This applies to our own situations as well as our own viewing of other people’s situations in relationships to deities. Standards, rules, customs, norms: all of these apply in relationships, and all of these apply differently in different relationships, in different locales, and for different Beings and beings. It is best to assume, until we assess otherwise, that there are perhaps different deities and perhaps different standards, rules, norms, and customs in play.

On occasion, we may find out that standards aren’t there, but this matter must be assessed carefully on a case-by-case basis. For instance if someone comes to me claiming they’ve seen the Anunnaki and that the Anunnaki are space aliens from the “planet Nibiru” just like how they’re portrayed in some sham of a “documentary,” I know that any standards of interacting with an actual ancient class of deities known as the Anunnaki from Mesopotamia are absent. This person might be interacting with some beings or Beings, but it is unlikely that the beings they’re interacting with are actually Anunnaki known in ancient Mesopotamia. Even if they are interacting with some Anunnaki, they’re not doing it in the clearest way possible when they force those experiences into a broken mold of expectation based on fantasy pawned off as fact-set, as seen on TV. But again, this must be assessed carefully and conscientiously.

This knowledge—knowledge of relationships with the deities, of our roles in these relationships, of these standards, rules, customs, and norms—is at least some of what we lost when those lines of transmission from the ancient ancestors to ourselves were broken and when the brokenness extended unchecked and unattended for generations. In losing our knowledge of these relationships and our roles in these relationships as set up by our ancestors, we’re also missing that knowledge of ourselves, as we are defined with these relationships and our participation in them—we, too, are missing some of our differentiated “key ridges.” (Please note: when I speak of “ancestry” I speak of something far broader than strict biological relationships, and of something which has nothing to do with nationalistic concerns.) We lost an understanding of those relationships. We lost an understanding of how different deities fulfill those roles to different people at different times in different situations and different locales. Reciprocally, we also lost our knowledge of our individual roles and how to fulfill these roles in wholly restored relations to our deities and ancestors. An understanding of these things is what we seek to heal when we engage in the labor-of-love of repairing and restoring these relationships with deities and ancestors, and to rebuild these relations and roles anew where needed , warranted, and guided.

Because of our broken traditions and lines-of-transmission for knowledge of these relationships, we’ve often relied on scholars in part to tell us who our deities are and to describe ancient peoples’ relationships to these deities. From that problematic information we often then extrapolate what these various relationships and contexts were in ancient times. Afterwards, we may try to project this human-constructed model into our locales, our era, our relationships, and our contexts. This serves a good, solid, necessary purpose in human social matters as we struggle to come together in honor of our deities because it helps us form organized structures into which we can gather and participate, so I don’t at all propose eradicating these things. But I do propose understanding these human-made structures and their clear limitations in having deeper relations and understandings of our relationships with the deities.

When we have experiences sometimes we try to shove these experiences into those broken molds created from tenuous extrapolations based on incomplete or faulty information about other peoples, with other relationships, living in other times, and in other regions. Our relationships and our contexts are not the same things that different ancient peoples had in different places. Furthermore the relationships which scholars try to understand and describe that ancient peoples had, is going to be different from our relationships and contexts here and now. There’s also an important difference there between relationships ancient people actually had (something we may never entirely know), and what scholars best think that the ancients had, based on the evidence available and the interpretation of that evidence: the two are never going to be an exact match.

Scholars do their best and generally they do a solid job, so I’m not dismissing what they do. I just ask for an awareness of the limitations and applications of their work. Their work doesn’t function as well as one may hope it would for understanding these relationships amidst deities and humans, past or present, local and distant. There are biases and limits to what scholars know, limits to the information that they have access to, and limits to what they can describe fully, cleanly, and clearly. An arborist who has never seen a tree is not an arborist and certainly cannot describe well a maple tree, a Black Maple tree, and especially not Black Maple Nostepinne Tree, despite any protests to the contrary. A scholar who has never met a deity is in a poor situation to describe a deity, or to understand polytheism in an ancient context, let alone a deity or polytheism in any modern context. So, for instance, it’s time to question when a scholar assumes two names/titles of Zeus refer to the same Being.

It’s easy to assume that all trees are basically alike especially if you don’t know trees well, and it’s even easier to assume that if you’ve seen one maple tree the differences don’t matter much. But, instead of assuming that all trees are just trees, or that all maples are so similar as not to merit further consideration, let’s instead assume each is unique and different. Let’s further acknowledge that each Black Maple, even two growing very closely together, is different unless we discover otherwise in due course of time, effort, knowledge, restored connections, and restored relationships. For instance sometimes what appear to be two separate Black Maples might actually be one tree that happened to grow two main trunks, or a tree with an entirely different plant growing on or through it, or something has been misidentified as a Black Maple when really it’s a different tree. But, it is useful to assume at first that they are two different trees even if they are growing close together until an expert arborist is able to share with you otherwise.

Sometimes we come across a deity’s epithet…but it doesn’t occur to us that this “epithet” may not be an epithet, but a specific name of a specific deity in a specific set of relationships in a specific locale and that these layered contexts are vital to knowing, understanding, and interacting with that individual deity. The “epithet” might actually be the deity’s personal name. Even if the deity-name-in-question is just an alternate name for one particular deity, the name still reflects the deity in a very specific context and it is necessary to take note of the differences. Sometimes names with epithets reflect separate deities (Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of Squirrels versus Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of Crows), but sometimes they reflect a single deity expressing different relationships (Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of Squirrels, Black Maple Who Drops Its Branches, and Black Maple Nostepinne Tree). Assume different unless otherwise known.

I invite you to consider that deities with full names which include epithets may be entirely different deities, until finding out and learning otherwise. This is very different from how we’ve been conditioned to think; we’ve been conditioned at one point to think all of the gods were just one thing (or nonexistent). We are overcoming this…and we still have room to grow.

The collapsing, conflation, and reductionism runs deep and even though we realize that there are Many, we sometimes have trouble wrapping our heads around the idea of Many, Many because of our broken connections, countless generations of calcified bad patterns, and missing knowledge. As a result, we may acknowledge many deities, but we do not begin to understand the countless number of them and the vastness of diversity reflected within their sacred ranks, let alone how they relate to other beings including ourselves, and how we relate to them. I invite you that any time you see a divine name, unless it is followed by an epithet or a locale or some other identifying descriptors, that you put an indefinite article before it: a baʽal, an Astarte, a Zeus, a Freya (like a maple tree, or a Black Maple tree, until you know which specific tree like Black Maple Nostepinne Tree). Instead of assuming that all deities of a particular name or title, or connected names, are the same no matter which locale or era or relationships they have, let’s reverse it and start instead with the assumption that they’re not the same until we know otherwise. If we know of particulars, specific names (what look like mere epithets), or of a specific locales, or relationships, or eras, let’s use these particulars and let’s assume these things might be different, separate, and individual until we know, through restored relationships, otherwise. Furthermore, let’s be more consistent in acknowledging these different relationships, locales, and contexts by remembering to add them when we converse about the deities, unless it is clear in private conversation exactly Who we are speaking of, or unless we make it clear that we are speaking in broad general terms as we work towards the specific.

It’s Ok to Pray for Paris and Beirut

It is troubling to see how some folks are turning the tragedies of Paris and Beirut into a platform to oppose religion in all stripes and forms. I want to be very clear here. These tragedies are not the result of one particular religion or of having a religion, or of religions in general. These tragedies are the result of malevolent people who have warped their own religions in their human pursuits of power, domination, fear, misunderstanding, and foulness, and the human needs to avoid scarcity of resources and to eliminate physical, mental, and emotional insecurities.

One does not judge whether or not Hamlet is a good play by watching only a bad parody of it, and that’s what religious-based terrorists have—a bad parody of their own religion which they have modified to suit their own human needs.

So, please, pray for Paris, pray for Beirut, pray all you wish to and all you need to; and take steps as you wish to or need to beyond prayer in political venues or community service or whatever. Or don’t pray—that’s ok too. Or sit on your keister while you watch endless episodes of sitcoms on Netflix because there is so much horror all around that you need a mental vacation from it all. Or do all of the above, or none of the above. Whatever. But do what you do not because some people who are promoting an extremist version of atheism are telling you that you do more harm than good by praying. You’re not doing harm by praying.

The wholesale boycotting of religions is a form of thought-policing which robs people of interaction with their deities, robs people of their identities, and robs people of their relationships with the world around them. If terrorists who misuse religion are seeking to control others and bend them to their will through violence and force…extremist atheistic boycotts of religion do the same thing but go about it in a different, less apparently violent way. Atheistic religion-shaming is a thing, and accusing people of doing more harm than good by praying or by having a religion is a very bad thing to do. Accusing religious people of being stupid, foolish, immature, socially irresponsible, and superstitious in a bid to shame them out of their religions, their religious identities, and their relationships is a foul thing to do. And boycotting all religions everywhere by claiming all religions are the problem just because of some violent whack-jobs’ parody of a religion, is just bad logic.

If religious terrorists would use violence to end all religion but their own bad parody of a religion, there are some (not all, but some!) atheists who use other coercive tactics to end all religions ever. It’s a hell of a thing to use fear as a tactic to get you to bow to the terrorists who warp religion to suit their human needs, but it’s also a hell of a thing to use grief, or fear, or shame as a tactics to get you to give up your relationship with a deity or deities.The problem worsens when people, having succumbed to these pressures, think that their religion is something to be embarrassed about, or when they’ve accidentally absorbed and unconsciously perpetuate atheism as a form of “non-bias” (atheism is not the absence of bias!), or the flawed ideas of religion being “stupid, foolish, immature, and socially irresponsible,” or the flat-out wrong ideas that “ ‘religion’ is the cause of much violence in the world.” In an effort of comforting one another, people keep wanting to sing John Lennon’s song Imagine without actually thinking about the lyrics and seeing them for what they are: not a daydream song of idealism and peace even if it was intended as such. It is instead a nightmare dirge of the erasure of diversity and identity. Comfort is a real and needed thing in times of trauma, but comfort based unknowingly on erasure only makes things worse. And comfort is not necessarily the same thing as healing.

Religions didn’t get us into “this mess.” Religions themselves–or philosophies, or ideologies including some forms of atheism–are not the problem, and thus boycotting religions (or other philosophies or ideologies) does not solve the problem. Willful misuse of religions–and willful misuse of atheism–combined with violence, fear, or coercive tactics is the problem. For some people, atheist or non-atheist, to claim that “All religions are wrong and we will only have peace when we get rid of all religions. Look what religions did to people in Paris, Beirut, New York! 9-11! People are dying! Don’t you care? If you care you must get rid of all religions because religion is the problem!” is the kind of bad logic and coercion at a moment of extreme emotional vulnerability which leads to knee-jerk actions of erasure. That’s not ok. Indeed, that’s flat-out abusive whether or not the person who says it “means well” or not, and that’s something that should be defended against and spoken out against.

(As for atheism, there is a difference between simply not having a religion versus the active erasure of other religions, ideologies and philosophies. Not believing in any religion or deity is a person’s choice and others can defend that person’s right not to believe without having to agree with the ideology in order to defend those basic rights. But, when matters venture into the territory of erasing others’ religions—that’s where things are not ok. A religious and/or theistic person can still defend other people’s basic human rights, while speaking up and refusing to allow an atheist or any person just parroting atheistic sentiments which they may not have thought all the way through, to erase his religion. Fighting for others’ basic rights while protecting your own rights are not mutually exclusive activities. A person can indeed do both if she is so inclined.)

So, please think before repeating or forwarding memes spouting “don’t pray for Paris” or Beirut, think before parroting “religions are evil and violent,” think before singing Imagine as a song of comfort and hope, and think before trying to comfort people in this manner. It’s hard to think when we’re staggering from horror, and fear, and insecurity, but this is the very thing we must do. These are not mantras which will bring peace; and the constant, even well-meaning, repeating of them does more damage to an already unstable matter. Erasure of diversity is not a celebration of it, and it is not a road to healing.

Defacing Sacred Images for Fun and Profit

Stele of Min, Qudshu, and Rashap - Copy

Image Credits: Photograph by Rama, used under Creative Commons License. Egyptian Stele Depicting Min, Qudshu, and Rashap, circa 1295-1069 BCE, in collection at the Louvre.

There has been a matter on my mind for a long time; a grievance that has long needed addressing and it’s been one that to my knowledge no one has touched. Before I get to that, I would like to talk about a holy image, displayed above, which holds many layers of meaning, many depths, many mysteries and Mysteries. Words do not wrap well around the splendors in this image and it is an image that crosses at least two pantheons.

There are a few versions of this Egyptian-made image but the image has three Beings in common, the Egyptian god Min or Amun-Min, the Canaanite and Egyptian god Rashap, and the Syrian goddess Qudshu. The particular version of the image I am looking at is currently housed in the Louvre, and this one is dated to about 3310-3084 years ago (1295-1069 BCE). It is a bas relief incised, carved, and painted on limestone.

The image so bursts with symbolism it is difficult to know where to begin describing it, so I will start the same way I read English, from left to right. The figure standing on the left is the Egyptian god Min or Amun-Min. He wears a tall two-feathered crown with a long ribbon trailing from it, he carries a flail in his right hand. He has a very pronounced phallus. Next is the Syrian goddess Qudshu. She stands on a lion, and she wears a horn-and-disk crown. She holds lotuses to the figure on her right (Min) and she holds a serpent to the figure on her left (Rashap). The figure to the right of the field-of-view is the Canaanite and Egyptian god Rashap. Rashap wears a tall crown with a tiny gazelle head on it. He holds a spear in his right hand, facing Qudshu, and he holds an ankh in his left hand. Rashap is especially notable in this image because, unlike most of his other images in Egypt, he is not in an aggressive warlike stance in this image.

In the most simplistic and basic descriptions possible, Min is a god of sexuality, fertility, potency, and abundance. Qudshu holds within her influence–because of her associations with ‘Anatu and ‘Athtartu–femininity, potential, sexuality, warriorhood, and transitional states. Rashap is a god of war, plague, healing, and protection. Min, a god of sexuality, procreation, and the powers of life holds in his hand a flail representing strength, force, and authority—a symbol of kingship and of the kings’ power, but he also bears the life-creating phallus. As Min holds the fertile Nile-watered lands of Egypt, Rashap’s reign is over the dusty desert lands, the wild dry hinterlands where few things grow. With the flail and the phallus, Min is in a position to ensure the protection, keeping, and proliferation of the kingdom. Rashap, by contrast, carries a weapon, acting as a guard in this image, and in the other hand he holds the key to life, an ankh. With the spear and the ankh, Rashap is a position to ensure the protection, keeping, and wellbeing of the kingdom—his situation is different from Min’s situation, but the goals are similar, and both teeter precariously in balance with Qudshu acting as fulcrum.

Qudshu stands between them on the back of a mighty lion who is tranquil at the moment. She is balanced very carefully on that fierce lion, and poised between these forces of life and death, abundance and restriction. In one hand lifted towards Min, she presents lotuses of beauty, of life and a fading of life, of impermanence, and of renewal, and of sweet breath and perfume. In the other hand, towards Rashap, she holds a serpent, which symbolizes protection, holding-together, threat and protection from threat, death, rebirth, and renewal. Both the lotuses and the serpent in their own ways represent changing states; life and death, rebirth and renewal, permanence and impermanence, boundless and bounded, the temporary and the eternal, the ever-flowing and the restricted.

This is just a small, small exploration of these many symbols and their meanings that this image encompasses—it is literally impossible to explain all of the depths of meaning, interpretations, and mysteries in this image. It is a holy image representing the careful balance of powerful forces held in check, one to the other, both ever-present, ever-necessary, in this world simultaneously. It is an image which is deeply sacred and meaningful, and I hold it in reverence even as the ones who created it viewed it in reverence as something sacred and meaningful. It is an image that if altered suffers a loss of meaning, of depth, of symbolism. If there is stuff added or changed, then the message is more difficult to read and is rendered less meaningful. It is like a sacred sigil calling forth the careful razor’s-edge balance of these beings and their mastery of these potent forces which cause things to function within parameters most beneficial for humanity. Sigils, for those who practice magic, do not function the same when they are altered. An alteration to this image is also like changing several letters in a word: it is a misspelling which causes a misreading and therefore a miscommunication. This holy image also does not function the same when it is altered and it would not carry the same message or hold the same space.

If someone wants to appear to other people as having respect for Christianity, that person will not typically make fun of communion in front of a Christian who is taking communion. If someone wants to make good with their Muslim neighbors, that person will not burn a copy of the Quran in the yard. Making lewd gestures at a Shinto shrine is also not the best way to start a dignified dialogue. So, when a person claims that he is being respectful about other religions and respectful about the deities, and respectful of the people who worship these deities, that claim is unsubstantiated when there is a defaced holy image serving as a banner on his blog.

In the adulterated image I am speaking of, Qudshu is digitally modified such as to be holding cutesy daffodils or yellow flowers of some sort. Worse than that, Rashap’s spear, the very spear he uses to safeguard this balance, these forces of life and death, is edited out and a box of disposable tissues is added in. The hand with which Qudshu would have held the transformative serpent is now reaching for the box of Kleenex which is destined to be filled with filth and thrown away in the trash. Daffodils are not the same depth of meaning as lotuses in this Egyptian image, and a Kleenex box instead of Rashap’s spear and Qudshu’s serpent? Wow. That’s not just insulting, it is dangerous. A smart person does not disarm a soldier and expect that soldier to act as guardian with a box of Puffs Plus with Aloe. A compassionate, decent person does not expect a soldier, a veteran of many wars, to wait on him.

The blogger basically projects himself into the image, positioning himself like Qudshu—a goddess whose name means Holiness—in the scene. In this adulterated image, Min is either handing the-blogger-as-Qudshu flowers, or the-blogger-as-Qudshu is shoving the flowers back towards Min because the flowers make the-blogger-as-Qudshu congested and s/he can’t stand their pollen. Keep in mind that pollen and semen serve the function of procreation, so in this image Qudshu is painted as symbolically rejecting abundance. Furthermore, as Qudshu, the blogger pictures himself as having a god of war and plague aiding him in wiping his nose. The priceless gifts that Qudshu would give are replaced with worthlessness: unwanted flowers in one hand, and paper trash filled with mucus in the other. The image may seem on the surface to be harmless and playful in its adulterated form, but it is not harmless or playful. The original image has been violated, robbed of its meaning.

Since the title of the blog in question alludes to its creator’s allergies, I can only assume that this is meant to poke fun at these circumstances while adding an air of borrowed ancient sophistication, an air of legitimacy, and pseudo-intellectualism to the blog. It is also warping a holy image to participate in the blogger’s self-deprecating joke about his allergies, a self-deprecating joke that looks more like a bid at false modesty to boost a human ego at the expense of the deities themselves.

In addition, the messed-up image probably acts as a mere nod–a nod which is actually the equivalent of the middle finger–to some supposedly-forgotten dusty ancient deities who the blogger may think no one on earth still takes seriously and which, to him, mean nothing more than puppets for his own amusement and mental musings. In messing with this image, he has taken these individual, real, living, viable, thinking, feeling, cognizant beings, and sets to erase them of their strength, depth, agency, and majesty. He pulls them into a pale, shallow, private world of impotent shadows of human thought.

With the altering of this image, the deities are treated with less dignity or thoughtfulness than an insect which a person may actually think twice about before swatting. This holy, powerful, ancient image is rendered into a thin watered-down joke about some human’s sniffles. The only thing here laughable is that we’re expected to believe that the person who would do such a thing would ever take our deities and our ways seriously, even when he says he does, and say something important about these things. If comedy and tragedy come together, then the tragedy is in allowing this blogger our time and our good faith, because his works only seek to erase the beings and the things we hold dearest.

I could go on about how hurtful this is to the deities themselves, to the ancestors, and to these deities’ people from priest to layperson, and to myself. I could go on about how much I cherish my relationships with my deities. I could go on about how meaningful the deities are, how meaningful the deities are to the world general, and how meaningful the deities are to me specifically. I could go on about the depths to which my gods have suffered on behalf of and because of humanity—a terrible, soul-aching, gut-wrenching suffering which I have witnessed. But what’s the use? My words will only be either ignored or twisted and used as verbal ammunition in this war that blogger has against the deities themselves, a war that blogger cannot and will not admit he has started. It is a war he has created out of his own fears and distrust of the deities and his own discomfort at being less powerful and occupying a stratum lower on the hierarchy than the deities.

Every time I go over to that blog, I am faced with the very glaring insult to my deities. The blogger in question has bastardized a sacred image, has kept it up there for a long time, and has done it for his own gain. Even if he took it down now, the damage is done. When he doesn’t even bother to treat a sacred image as valuable, he cannot convince me that he has anything of value to say about the deities whom he does not value and whom he has actively devalued in thoughts, in words, in deeds, and in imagery.

If it is not an “archaic” extremist militant group like Daesh trying to erase the gods of my tradition and my heart, and all of the gods of the lands of the Middle East, with propaganda, machine guns, jackhammers, or explosives, it’s “modern” and “rational” persons in the media or, as in this case, in mainstream Neopagan blogging, desecrating and trying to erase them through subtler, less obvious means. These latter are dirty and insidious means, which generally slip past modern audience’s emotions and critical thinking “radars” when the explosive damage of Daesh is more likely to be noticed and treated with the horror, the anger, and the acknowledgement the deities deserve, the ancestors deserve, and frankly we deserve, too. (I wonder sadly, though: is this notice because the explosions draw the attention of the “modern” West because of the horror done to the gods, or because of the statement of cowboy defiance against the West implicit in these acts?)

We all — beings from deities, to ancestors, to humans, to many other beings — we all deserve better. We deserve to see these situations made better as best we can manage for all involved. We can’t do that without seeing the truth of these assaults for what they are first; assaults not merely on remnant history or symbols but on the fabric of meaning and upon our gods themselves and the relationships held most sacred in this world. (And these matters certainly extend well beyond the deities of the Near and Middle East, but the scope of this writing specifically addresses these desecrations.) 

There exist in our world many harms, and some are very obvious. Some are much more subtle harms, which can cause the same damage and erasure that Daesh can wreak, often without present notice at all. No bombs, no jackhammers, no machine guns aimed at the ancient artifacts which are images of the gods… “funny” manipulations and desecrations of an image accomplishes a similar goal of erasing the deities and desensitizing us to the wrongness in one blow.

Seeing either expression of harm, subtle or indelicately explosive, with too much frequency and without the guidance to recognize critically these horrors for what they are, has a desensitizing effect, an anesthetizing effect, on whole societies and ways of viewing and responding to the world. Over time it gets to be — has gotten to be — “no big deal”, when people act in these manners and further wreck the very relations we seek to heal, restore, and reestablish. We can’t fix these things when we can’t recognize that they got broken and are continually getting broken in the first place, and in the second and third and fourth as well. This misunderstanding of what is sacred and how to treat it combined with a desensitization to desecration, is the lasting symptom which continues to drive a wedge between ourselves, our deities, and the ancestors who could help us heal these matters within ourselves and our societies. It is a symptom of relationships which were poisoned long before we got here, and it is a symptom that we must learn to overcome lest we continue to live in the poison and propagate it, thus poisoning future generations. I pray to my gods, I pray to all our gods, that for all our sakes and the sake of the future that this is a matter which we, each and all of us, can overcome so that there is at least something sacred left for today’s children to inherit tomorrow.

The Horror of Palmyra

I have wanted to write about the matter of Daesh and their hostile takeover of the ancient city of Palmyra for days, but I have not been able to write about it. Summer solstice, a time of celebration for many, was the day I heard the worst of the news so far about the ancient Temple of Baʽal Shamem (Belshamin). No polytheist wants to hear of the planting of mines in an ancient temple to a god on summer solstice. The news descended upon me like a cloud of lead—heavy, inescapable, overwhelming. I fasted, and I tried to write a post on this matter, but the words just couldn’t come. Even now, the horror of the matter claws me from within.

I sputter with anger and sadness. I’d like to go off on a tangent of how reprehensible these excuses of “human beings” are. I’d like to curse and spit. I can’t find the words to describe the depths of my shock and horror, and the depth of my shame for the lows of this small segment of “humanity.” I’d like to express that this late moment is the alarm claxon blaring. Our ancient polytheist ways have been under threat for a very long time, and they are even more so today. We would do well to look steadily at this tableau as it plays out in Syria and see it for the dire warning it is.

I would also like to point out that sometimes the “bad guys” aren’t just a few angry people with explosives. People who deface and desecrate sacred sites come in all forms, even the seemingly harmless happy party goers at Stonehenge who left piles of garbage over celebrations of past solstices. Happy with trash or angry with explosives, the different situations still result in the disrespect and the violation of sacred places, and this destructiveness absolutely must stop.

As a devotional deed, I shall try to devote these next pixels to something more constructive and talk a little about at least one of the gods whose temple now has explosives mines in it. The Near Eastern gods are covered far less than the European, Hellenic, Roman, and Egyptian gods in the revival of polytheisms today, so I thought it might be helpful to lend some context to the gods in Palmyra, centering on Baʽal Shamem.

Because Semitic languages are quite different from English, names get put into English letters in various different spellings; and if you compound the changes in spellings and pronunciations over time, you’re going to end up with many various ways of spelling the same name. Baʽal Shamem’s name can also appear as Bal Samen, Baʽal Shamayim, Baʽal Shamin, Baalshamin, and Beelsamin. His name literally translates as Lord of Heavens. The beauty of the word shamem, or shamayim is that it represents heavens, plural. There’s an idea in Hebrew of shamayim and mayim, heavens and waters. The words are deliberately put into a dual-form, a plural form which indicates two of something, a pair, to symbolize that the heavens and waters are paired with one another. The waters of the skies and the skies of the waters: each expanse mirrors the other. It is as if there are technically “two waters” referenced, that of the above and that of the below.

Baʽal Shamem is a Lord of the Heavens; he’s not exactly a “storm god” although his sphere of influence sometimes includes this—he embraces far more than this.

Most people are unfamiliar with Near Eastern gods and think that there is one weather god named Baʽal. However, there is not one baʽal but many, and they aren’t all weather gods or even primarily sky gods. The word baʽal means “lord,” and this is a title, not a name. There are many, many gods who bear this title of baʽal. Most local areas had their own baʽal. Mountains and cities especially have their own local baʽal. It’s a tongue-in-cheek joke among Canaanite polytheists that “Canaanites have baʽals!” Because of this misunderstanding of the nature of the word “baʽal,” people often tend to think mistakenly that all baʽals are the same Baʽal and that they are all weather gods. They’re not.

For instance there is a Baʽal Sidon, Lord of the city of Sidon, who is likely Eshmun, a god of healing. There is a Baʽal Khammon of Carthage, who name means Lord of the Many—he, too, is a different baʽal. Most of the time when people mention “Baʽal” they are probably thinking of Baʽal Hadad, Lord Thunderer, the storm god who appears throughout Near Eastern polytheisms throughout time, and who is the chief god present in the ancient Ugaritic tales as the smiter of the sea god Yammu and as victorious over Motu the god of death. Baʽal Shamem, however, is a different god than Baʽal Hadad, is a different god from Baʽal Sidon, and is a different god from Baʽal Khammon.

Baʽal Shamem, provided there aren’t many different Ba’al Shamems throughout time and throughout the regions, seems to have seen his worship spring up earliest in Anatolia as a specific deity starting around 1000 BCE but may have been around earlier. Anatolia was in the area we know today as the country of Turkey. The worship spread into Phoenician cities of Tyre, Byblos, and Qedesh—the Phoenicians have Canaanite ancestry, and this area spans mostly through Lebanon and Israel. His worship spread to Cyprus, and also to Carthage (in north Africa, modern-day Libya and Tunisia), and eastwards into Nabatean culture, an ancient northern Arabian people. If you’ve ever watched the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: when Indy, Henry Jones, and Sallah are riding through that formidable crevice and catch site of an dazzling ruins built right into a rock face—that place is Petra, a Nabataean city. Indeed the Nabateans in some areas called upon Baʽal Shamem in curses meant to protect graves.

In Palmyra, the Lord of Heavens was honored alongside Bel, Aglibol, and Malakbel. Bel is the Babylonian god Marduk who became incorporated into the Palmyran pantheon. Bel is a god of magic, wisdom, water, vegetation, and judgment. Aglibol is a moon god, while Malakbel is a sun god whose name literally translates as King-Lord. The elegance of Baʽal Shamem is that, being the heavens, he spans the spaces between Aglibol the moon and Malakbel the sun. In a popular image from Palmyra, this is exactly how the triad is pictured: with Aglibol and Malakbel flanking either side of Baʽal Shamem. In the hierarchy of Palmyran gods, it appears that Bel and Baʽal Shamem were of greatest importance in Palmyra.

In other areas, Baʽal Shamem also carries the title Lord of the World, while in other places he carried the epithet Creator of the Earth. In some areas, Baʽal Shamem carries a connection not just to the heavens, but also solar qualities as well, and in times of drought he also serves as a god of rains and dew. He is also known as an establisher of wisdom for people.

The temples where Baʽal Shamem and Bel were worshipped in Palmyra are in an area built around 131 CE, so about 1,884 years ago. Bel, too, has a temple in Palmyra and this temple is probably also mined with explosives right now. I would highly suggest that in any honoring of the gods of the temples of Palmyra be extended to include Bel and probably also Aglibol and Malakbel.

If there is a blessing to be gathered out of the ashes of the wanton acts of evil Daesh has done here, it is that polytheists are gathering together, protesting in solidarity. I hope and I pray that for every temple they threaten, and for every mine they plant in these dusty, dry, decaying ruins, seven more living, new shrines or temples will spring up. As great as our fury is, we may feel drawn to hurl curses upon the heads of those who would threaten these sacred places. I do not say “do not curse them”—by all means, if you feel moved to do so, be my guest—but I firmly think that there are more important things that need doing first and foremost.

We need to nourish, hold, and maintain our polytheist spaces, our holy places, our sacred discourses, our necessary conversations, our holidays, our rites, our offerings, our blessed gatherings. We need to nourish, hold, and maintain these things on behalf of our deities, our ancestors, and each other. And we need to do this far more than any curse or call for vengeance. Indeed, these very acts themselves are revolutionary and the very things that Daesh and others would try to blot out. Do these things first, and then, only then, contemplate curses because vengeance is nothing when there is nothing left to avenge.

WD-40, or On Praise

When I was a kid going to Sunday School I used to hear the word “praise” get tossed around quite a bit. Even today, the word “praise” evokes in my mind an image of a beaming older woman happy to be at church, bringing her potluck tuna casserole in tow, and praising her god. Sitting there in Sunday school, I had time to wonder about the idea of “praise.”

For years, I kept thinking, “Why the hell does a god need to know how great he is? That sounds like a divine ego problem. No thanks.” I haven’t thought that in years, but it occurred to me recently that this idea of praise needs readdressing and a makeover because quite a few of us come from a similar problematic relationship with the word “praise” and what it means, especially in a religious setting.

The most cursory search for the definition of the word praise identifies the word as both a noun, and a verb. In that definition, it is discussed that as a noun, praise means:

  1. Expression of approval, commendation, or admiration.
  2. The extolling or exaltation of a deity, ruler, or hero.
  3. Archaic A reason for praise; merit.

As an action, praise is:

  1. [Expressing] warm approval of, commendation for, or admiration for.
  2. [Expressing] a feeling of veneration or gratitude to (a deity); worship or glorify.

The word “praise” is not just the kind, thoughtful words which are said, but the action of saying those kind and thoughtful words. Usually, praise is made known through words, but praise can also be done through gestures. For instance, when I worked as a secretary, I received flowers on Secretary’s Day from my boss: this was an action meant in gratitude and praise of the hard work I’d done. Accepting a trophy or receiving a laurel wreath: these are also acts of nonverbal praise. Praise and gratitude often go hand in hand, for an expression of praise is an acknowledgment that someone is good at something, you’ve noticed it, and it has made a difference. Praise plays a key role in relationships, whether we are aware of it or not. When we praise someone, we let them know that we value that person, we honor that person’s skills and expertise, and that there is some aspect of that person that we appreciate. Praise and gratitude are the WD-40 combination in relationships, smoothing out the friction of conflict and preventing the rust of disregard.

Most beings, and often nearly anything, can receive praise. Pablo Neruda wrote a poem praising a pair of handknit socks given to him—Ode to My Socks. It’s an honest, intimate, candid look into cherishing what to many may seem commonplace. It is more typical that deities, ancestors, spirits, heroes, regular people, pets, places, and more receive praise. Praise is considered a cornerstone of raising a child well; indeed it is considered vital for the child’s wellbeing. Verbal praise shows up in many forms anywhere from “Good job!” to something more formal like an ode or a hymn. Sometimes praise can even be shortened and tacked on as a part of a being’s own name, kind of like a nickname which is also a compliment and a reminder of that one’s abilities and attributes. It makes beings know they are appreciated when someone says something honest and kind, praising those beings’ gifts and skills.

When I had wondered those years ago, “Why would a god need me to tell him he did a good job?,” I didn’t realize the deeper significance of praise. Indeed, I missed the point entirely. The gods don’t need to be told how awesome or how awe-ful (as in “full of awe”) they are. They know this. However, it is different when we let them know that we know it too. When you take a little time out to appreciate and praise the deities, it’s like signing for a care package they’ve already delivered to you, and it helps you to acknowledge that it arrived. We could practically drown in the packing peanuts from all of the gifts we already have which are essential to life: air, water, plants that grow and provide food, animals, sunlight, rain, land, sleep, wakefulness, hunger and satiety, friendship, crickets singing in humid summer evenings, bonfires, those beautiful web-like cracks in sidewalks, the feral purr and growl of a 1970s classic muscle car that whirrs by on the road, old pilled sweaters, buildings with stained glass windows, batty old aunties, kittens…the list just keeps on coming. After millennia of not being honored and appreciated, of being ignored or insulted, and indeed of sometimes being flat-out cursed, praise is music to their ears and a balm to their souls…and it has been a long time coming.

In days of old, sometimes the praises got written down and have lasted to today. The Egyptian goddess Nut is said to be a Great One, a Great Lady, as possessing a spiritual strength, and as having a beauty that fills all places. The Hindu god Agni is praised as being a giver of treasures, of being worthy, thoughtful, true, splendid, well-known, and of shining in the darkness. The Norse god Odin is praised and known as being the Allfather, a Friend of Wealth, mighty, wise, and as a giver of victory. The Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu-ōmikami is “the great august kami (god) who shines in heaven.” Tlaloc, the Aztec god of the rain, carries the epithets of the Giver and the Green One, probably because of the life giving rains which encourage the green plant growth. The Akkadian god Marduk is known as being the most honored, as having an unrivaled decree, as being an avenger, as being a great dispeller of evil, and as having infallible weapons. The Akkadian goddess Ishtar is described as having sweet lips, as having life in her mouth, has having a mere look that can bring joy; she is known as being powerful, magnificent, protective, splendid, exalted, as being compassionate to the kindhearted, and as wearing the clothes of pleasure and love. And this is just praise for a handful of deities. Added with more deities, heroes, spirits, and ancestors and the praises fill volumes—I’m not speaking figuratively there. Epic tales like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Iliad, the Epic of Baʽal Hadad, are loaded as full of praises as fresh soda pop has all those delightful fizzy bubbles. We know these things because they are written and translated, and most of us have access to them for free in public libraries. Praise exists, too, in oral traditions—the ones that have been written down, and the ones that survive.

Praise is not an ego-boost that a god demands, in childish all-too-human behavior. Praise is genuine, sincere, warm, appreciative, and we give it because it lets the being know that we noticed their gifts and that we care. If praise is said aloud or shared, that praise is then spread so that others can know of that being’s talents, skills, and gifts, and it “spreads the love.” It is also good to give thanks and praise for the gifts that are more difficult to accept—the things that chafe, the things that are heavy. That’s a more challenging thing to do, but that’s another story for another day.