Variations on the May Feast in the Hellenic Tradition(s)

While many of my pagan friends and colleagues are celebrating Beltane this weekend, those of us who identify with or practice within Hellenic paganism have a number of options on our celebratory calendar. Which deities will I honor? Will I emphasize the community/civic aspects of the holiday, or the agricultural cycle? What aspects of Hellenic culture correspond most closely to what the larger pagan world is celebrating? 

When it comes to answering questions such as these, Hellenic pagans are in luck. Ancient Greek religion does not require that we adhere to an orthodoxy in our practices or beliefs. In addition, Hellenic paganism is particularly rich in both its theology and mythology, so we have an enormous amount of material from which we can mine.

In other words, there are a lot of possibilities when it comes to celebrating the May Feast (or whatever you call this time around May 1). Here are a few ideas:

Observe the Festival of Thargelia

Thargelia is a summer festival observed during the first week of the month of Thargelion. The month and the festival are named “for the thargēlos or bread specially baked for the occasion from the first flour of the year and carried in procession to the altar” (Zaidman and Pantel, 38). Alternately, Burkert describes the Thargelia as coinciding with the beginning of the corn harvest (226). In both cases, it is clear that the festival marks a critical phase in the agricultural cycle.

More on that shortly. But Thargelia is also an occasion to mark the  birth two of the most important deities in Hellenic religion: the twins Artemis and Apollo.

Artemis & Apollo

My friends know that I can go on and on about these two. They are my patron deities and I’m something of an evangelical pagan when it comes to them. Have you heard the good news–er, I mean the very interesting and somewhat good news about the goddess Artemis? (Gotta work on that speech!) So today I will restrain myself and keep it simple. Why celebrate these two particular deities during the May Feast?

Of the two, Apollo’s significance is most obvious. He’s the god who controls (and hopefully prevents) crop blight and plagues such as mice and locusts. Honoring Apollo is a straightforward means of trying to keep the corn harvest safe.

Artemis’ connection to the agricultural cycles is less apparent, but she too plays an important function. As the deity whose domain includes wilderness, hunting, and birth, Artemis also plays a pivotal role in the livelihood of the ancient Greeks.

Demeter & Dionysus

Another alternative to the Thargelia would be to celebrate and honor Demeter and Dionysus. Not two deities that are usually associated with one another, but they share some important correspondences. Demeter is the deity of grain and all cultivated vegetation, while Dionysus’ realm includes wild plants (and wine!).

Marking Demeter’s reunion with her daughter Kore might also be appropriate at this time, since (at least in the northern/western hemisphere) farming has begun and the forests are thriving with new plant life.

So there are a few possibilities for celebrating the May Feast as a Hellenic pagan. I’m sure there are many more, and I’d love for you to tell me about them in the comments below. Cheers!

 

 

 

 

The Reading That Told Me It Was Time to Quit My Job

A few months ago, I realized that it was probably time for me to make a career move. I’d been working for a software company in B2B sales, but I was not happy. The money was pretty good, but the work…well, it was miserable.

I won’t go too far into the specifics, but I’d decided that for the purpose of my own health, I had to make a change. But when? That was a critical question. Like everyone else, I have bills to pay and can’t rely on anyone else to help me out. So I kept putting the decision off. Maybe next month. Maybe at the end of the summer. 

In the meantime, I was having to force myself out of bed every morning. I hated going to my cubicle and I hated what I did all day, every day. I’d recently started delving back in to studying the tarot and kept a deck at my desk. I’d gotten into the habit of doing a quick reading each morning before things got underway. It was a nice way to get things going and keep myself focused on my tarot practice.

So here I was, going through the motions and trying not to lose my mind. I wanted to look for other work, but my position kept me busy for about 60 hours a week, plus I was teaching as an adjunct on the side. I had neither the time nor energy to look for other opportunities. I was stuck.

One evening, after a particularly heinous day, I decided to do some meditation to try and relax a bit. I’d recently started using tarot as an entry point into my meditation practice by drawing a single card and mentally focusing on its symbolism and significance for a few moments before transitioning into mindfulness.

On this particular night, I’d taken a hot bath and was in a good place for some meditation. I started to draw a single card, but on a whim pulled three for a simple reading of the kind Robert M. Place describes as a “Three Card Message” in his book Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination. 2005, Penguin.

In this simple spread, three cards are drawn but no immediate value or significance is assigned to any aspect of the cards. In other words, even the position of the cards is up for interpretation. Instead, Place suggests that there are six possible patterns. I won’t delve into all of them here (buy his book–it’s worth it) so I’ll just focus on what I saw in the reading.

Here goes:

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In my reading, the first thing I noticed was that the character of the central card, the Four of Pentacles, was facing outward. Looking directly at me, as a matter of fact. As I read this card, two meanings emerge. First, this card signified my situation and I’d go so far as to say even myself. The Four of Pentacles can indicate someone who is focused too closely on money or material possession. Voila! I was continuing to work a job I hated out of fear for what it might mean for my financial situation. This character is surrounded by thoughts of money and security: beneath his feet, on his lap, and above his head are pentacles. Pretty accurate so far. 

Up next: the Ten of Cups. A couple of things jumped out at me immediately. First, while the figure in the Four of Pentacles stands in front of an urban landscape, the family (not an individual, but a group of people) are looking out over what appears to be a rural setting. This caught my eye because I’ve also been considering relocating out of the downtown urban area where I live for someplace that offers a little more peace and quiet.

The Ten of Cups is often read as a good omen, as the materialization of joy, contentment, or desire. In other words, good things. In any case, it looks like the folks on this card are happy, healthy, and having a good time. That’s all I really want! 

On the other hand, the Ten of Cups is contrasted by the third card in the spread, The Devil. As I understand this card, it represents some pretty negative experiences: unhappiness, loss of freedom (enslavement?), and general bad news. Don’t want any of that, thanks! 

My takeaway from this reading was that my situation was a choice between continuing what I’d been doing and remaining unhappy, or taking a chance at something new. I had delayed making that choice out of fear and a (not entirely unreasonable) preoccupation with my financial resources.

Ok, ok. So I knew that this was the situation before I ever did this card reading. I knew it in my blood and my bones. But the reading gave me an opportunity to reflect on my dilemma, my choice, and the two possible outcomes in a different way.

I’m not a person who operates entirely on caprice, so I made sure my savings were at a comfortable level, I checked to make sure I could afford to keep my health insurance, and refreshed my resume. Then I quit my job.

 

 

 

 

Book Review – Greek Religion

Introduction

Students seeking a thorough introduction to the religious practices and beliefs of Hellenic civilization need look no further than Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion. First published in 1977, Greek Religion remains the definitive survey of the theories, scholarship, and archaeological evidence related to the religion of the Hellenes. Burkert maps out the most recent and prominent theories of the development of ancient Greek religion while simultaneously acknowledging that there is much that is not known.

 
One of Burkert’s most useful contributions is his comparison of the mythological and poetic stylizations of Greek religion to existing archaeological and linguistic evidence. Burkert makes clear that Homeric poetry is just as likely to obscure and distort the beliefs and practices of Hellenic culture as it is illuminate them.

 
Burkert’s introduction to Greek Religion begins with an exploration of the most prominent scholarship in the field of ancient Hellenic religion. Burkert identifies the work of Wilhelm Mannhardt, James Frazer, and Jane Harrison as forces which have shaped 20th (and 21st) century ideas about Greek civilization and culture, and counts the theories of Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud among the lenses which have dramatically altered modern interpretations of the ancient civilization.

 
Burkert also spends time exploring our sources for what we do know about Greek religion, and acknowledges that literature, especially in the form of Homeric poetry, is our “principal evidence” (4). However, the picture that emerges in the works of Homer is sometimes at odds with what we have learned from other sources: ancient Greek art, inscriptions, statues, pottery, cult monuments, altars, ritual vessels, votive gifts, and temples.

 
Finally, Burkert uses the remainder of his introduction to sketch out the Mycenaean, Minoan, Indo-European, and Near Eastern influences on the religious practices of the ancient Greeks. Burkert argues that it is more accurate to speak of a “plural of Greek religions” (8) than a single unified system of belief or practice. Further, Burkert argues that “The Greeks themselves regarded the various manifestations of their religious life as essentially compatible, as a diversity of practice in devotion to the same gods, within the framework of a single world.” (8).

 

In other words, religion in ancient Greece was characterized by the mutation and proliferation of beliefs and practices as well as the influence of local customs and varying degrees of influence from other civilizations.

Prehistory and the Minoan-Mycenaean Age

In laying the foundation for a contemporary examination of Ancient Greek religion, Burkert notes that “for all periods of prehistory, the evidence of language to interpret the manifold and often confusing finds is lost forever. Moreover, what survives is always only a very one-sided assortment of remains decided by the accidents of physics and chemistry” (10). In other words, there is only so much we can ever expect to know about what the ancient Greeks believed or how they practiced their religion.

 
Burkert quickly stakes out the various influences on Greek religion, by pointing out that many of the plants and animals that are today seen as characteristically Greek were in fact imports from the East. This is significant because it means that cultures to the East of the Greeks wielded considerable influence over them from the Neolithic period onward. Burkert also calls into question the once widely popular theory of a prehistoric, matriarchal culture in which a “great Mother” goddess was widely worshipped. Burkert argues that such speculations go “far beyond the evidence” (12) and notes that this theory is being increasingly met with skepticism.

Instead, Burkert suggests that archaeological evidence from the excavations at Çatal Hüyük offer more insight into the earliest Greek cultures. From Çatal Hüyük archaeologists have learned what they do know about the earliest sanctuary sites and are given a glimpse at a tradition of religious continuity that stretches back over five thousand years.

Indo-European, Minoan, and Mycenaean Influences on Greek Religion

At this point Burkert begins to consider the second major influence on early Greek religion: the Indo-European migrations. After offering a short summary of the IE hypothesis, Burkert notes that Greece only came under the IE influence in the Bronze Age (16). From this point forward, Burkert traces linguistic evidence beginning with the first known record of the Greek language in Linear B. In staking out the significance of linguistic forensics, Burkert observes that

The vocabulary of Indo-European enshrines a spiritual world in which value structures, social divisions, and also religious ideas may be discerned. Evident is the patriarchal organization, the central position of the father within the extended family; agriculture is known, but pasturage, cattle, and horses and much more important. (17)

Burkert also considers the mingling of the IE Greek language with linguistic elements from neighboring civilizations, concluding that “there is no single origin of Greek religion (17).

 
For the remainder of the first chapter, Burkert focuses on what is known about the two major influences on Greek religion, the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. Particularly helpful is his discussion of their places of worship/sanctuaries, including mountain peaks, caves, trees, graves, temples, and homes shrines. Also familiar to ADF members will be the practice of exchanging gifts with the deities in exchange for blessings or some divine intervention.

 
Burkert’s summary is exhaustive. One of my favorite lines from conclusion of this chapter is this:

…the fire altar which stands open to the sky is the most essential part of the sanctuary. This is not an exchange of gifts celebrated by a hierarchical society of gods, kings, priests, and commoners: together on the same level, men and women stand here about the altar, experience and bring death, honor the immortals and in eating affirm life in its conditionality: it is the solidarity of mortals in the face of the immortals. (53)

The remainder of Greek Religion consists of a catalog of what was, at the time, everything known from archaeological and linguistic evidence. Burkert gives ample consideration to topics such as rituals and sanctuaries, the Gods, the dead and the chthonic cult, polytheism, plurality in beliefs and practices, various cults and mystery traditions, festivals and calendars, and the emergence and impact of new philosophical traditions on the Hellenic religion.

 
Overall, Greek Religion is an essential resource for anyone interested in the Hellenic religion and in celebrating ADF Druidry in the Hellenic tradition. The book is almost encyclopedic in scope, so it serves as a both an excellent introduction to the subject as well as an indispensable reference guide.

 

 

 

February Feast (Imbolg) 2018

This February Feast marks the inaugural rite of the Protogrove of the Singing Oak Springs. I was fortunate enough to have a hand in planning the ritual and was tasked with drafting the liturgy, a responsibility I very much enjoyed. The hearth culture for the evening was Insular Celtic, and we honored Brigid as the deity of the evening. We gathered at rented space in a local community center, and 5 friends gathered to celebrate the occasion.

In my own liturgical practice, music plays a central role, and I wanted to incorporate as much as I could into this rite. After conferring with the group, I chose “We Approach the Sacred Grove” for our processional song, and I played soft instrumental music during all of the prayers and sacrifices.

This occasion is also of note because it marks an important anniversary for me, so  I chose to renew my Dedicant’s Oath during the rite

A copy of the complete ritual is attached as a PDF file here: Feb_Feast_2018

 

Book Review – In Search of the Indo-Europeans

 

Mallory, J.P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth. 

Summary

The significance of J.P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans for students in ADF training programs cannot be overstated. Mallory presents a thorough overview and analysis of the Indo-European theory while simultaneously giving sufficient consideration to the various types of evidence which undermine or support it. In addition to exploring the linguistic, archaeological, and historical evidence for the Indo-European theory, Mallory summarizes the various schools of thought and identifies which (if any) have the most merit.

The three most fundamental takeaways from Mallory’s work include:

  1. The idea of an Indo-European (IE) or Proto-Indo European (PIE) people is essentially a linguistic concept that attempts to trace a range of related languages to a common source language.
  1. In the process of reconstructing the original IE/PIE language, it is also possible to discover some characteristics of IE or PIE culture. These include ideas about the social structure, religion or beliefs, and economy of PIE/IE culture.
  1. Some, but by no means all, of the proposed characteristics of PIE/IE culture enjoy widespread acceptance among experts and academics. However, in the absence of supporting archaeological evidence, it must be kept in mind that virtually all of what has been postulated about the Indo-Europeans remains theoretical and in some cases, controversial.

Survey of Previous Approaches 

Mallory begins In Search of the Indo-Europeans by briefly sketching out the work of other pioneers in the field of linguistic paleontology. Mallory first acknowledges that the first serious attempts to reconstruct language assumed the historical accuracy of the Bible, and in particular depended on the related fallacy of Japhetism, in which Indo-European peoples were viewed as a singular population with a single language that exerted a unified influence of the rest of the world. Mallory also identifies the complexities that arise for linguistic paleontologists as the Indo-Europeans interact with their non IE neighbors.

Throughout the text, Mallory critiques various theories related to IE studies, beginning with the earliest, Judeo-Christian focused attempts to study the IE language. Mallory also considers the archaeological evidence as well as the field of comparative mythology. His ultimate conclusion is that most of what has been proposed about the Indo-Europeans is entirely speculative. However, he does identify those theories for which there is the most supporting evidence and academic consensus. For example, he writes that

If we must have concrete legacies, then the best claim is that of horse domestication and the social consequences this revolution in transportation and warfare brought to the world. In addition, the Indo-Europeans are at least one of the candidates for the inventors of wheeled vehicles, although a number of non-Indo-European peoples have every bit as good a claim. (270)

IE Culture and Religion

For my own study as an ADF Druid, Mallory is most illuminating in his discussion of Proto-Indo-European culture and his exploration of IE religion. In Chapter 4, Mallory argues that the central problem with using language as a means of recreating IE culture lies in its volatility. He writes that

The reason for our inability to recover with certainty some of these words lies embedded in the basic Indo-European hypothesis. An expansion of Indo-European speakers over a vast area took many of them out of their earlier environment so that they experienced radical changes in their cultural ecology before they emerged into history. By this time they had often abandoned those parts of their vocabulary that they no longer needed and the remaining trace of a particular PIE word may be left in only a handful of languages. These may be preserving an old inherited word, but they may also be later creations confined to a particular area of the Indo-European speaking world. (113)

In other words, as the IE peoples migrated, their language changed to reflect their new environments. These changes make it difficult to piece together the original IE language because each migration resulted in new mutations in the language, thereby making it difficult to compare the different languages with each other and with the original source.

Nevertheless, Mallory does consider the most commonly accepted evidence that provides some insight into the lives of the Indo-Europeans. He provides summaries of the academic consensus on the IE environment (the discussion of tree names is compelling), economy, technology, and social organization.

In the following chapter, Mallory turns his attention to the topic of Indo-European religion, relying once again on linguistic paleontology to reconstruct what we can regarding their belief systems. It is at this point that Mallory delves into Dumézil’s theory of tripartition: that IE society was divided into three distinct social classes/social functions: the herders & cultivators, the warriors, and the sovereigns/priests. Dumézil finds the pattern of tripartition in the mythologies and rituals of a variety of Indo-European peoples. My favorite is his consideration of the Greek myth of the apple of discord, in which each of the three bribes offered to Troy signify one of the three functions of tripartition: sovereignty, military prowess, and fertility.

Another important insight with regard to tripartition is that of the nature of the triple sacrifice that appears to be somewhat common among IE peoples. In sum, the deities were divided and ordered in a reflection of the social divisions of tripartition: deities of the celestial realm (sovereigns), deities of war, and chthonic deities. Distinct forms of sacrifice were required depending on which type of deity was being honored. Celestial beings received victims by hanging, war deities received victims killed by sword or fire, and the chthonic deities received victims who had been drowned. In some cases, a triple sacrifice was also made. 

The Indo-European Homeland Problem 

In the second half of the book, Mallory makes two significant (and related) points which are both essential to any mature discussion of IE history and our own current political climate. Both relate to “the” origin of IE peoples and the continuity (or lack thereof) within the history of IE culture.

With regard to the IE homeland, Mallory points out that what theorists are really discussing is “essentially a spatial expression of a vaguely defined temporal division of that linguistic continuum (145). In other words, the IE homeland has been hypothesized in different locations at different times based on the best (but always evolving) understanding of linguistic paleontology and archaeological evidence. While academics and researchers continue to debate the precise location of any IE homeland (is there only one?), Mallory does acknowledge “A recurring pattern of support for a homeland which should lie between Central Europe and the east Caspian” (158). Finally, it is worth noting that, according to Mallory, the linguistic evidence for IE migration suggests that such a movement was “broadly centrifugal from a central homeland rather than linear from one of the extremes (155). In the context of ADF, this means that there is evidence for a core IE language and culture that diffused throughout Europe and Western Asia, although it certainly mutated and proliferated as time passed.

The Aryan Myth

Given the persistence of racism and the recent resurgence (reemergence?) of Neo-Nazi sentiment, Mallory’s epilogue is a refreshing reminder of how insubstantial any claims of Aryan supremacy (or even identity) must be. Mallory reminds us that the Aryan myth was the creation of “a handful of Nazi fanatics” (266) and was based on a tradition of poor research, disregard for archaeological and linguistic evidence, and imaginative re-workings in popular culture.

Instead of the rubbish that constitutes the Aryan myth, Mallory argues that the “best claim” (270) for a IE legacy is that of horse domestication, although other non-IE peoples may have “every bit as good a claim.” He also suggests that the trifunctional ideology of the IE peoples may be considered to be part of their legacy, but notes that this theory has drawn criticism from those who believe it is too universal to have any real meaning or value. Finally, Mallory concludes by returning his focus to the best established legacy from the IE, their language.

Essay – Winter Feast

The winter solstice, like all the feasts, is first and foremost an occasion to observe (and celebrate) the turning of the year. Psychologically, the winter solstice is an important milestone for me because it signals the beginning (although far away) return of the sun’s light and warmth. Here in the northernmost part of the Midwest, days will continue to be very short for the next two months. But at least I know that, astronomically speaking, the darkest times are past.

As a Druid practicing within the Greek culture, there is once again a sense of disconnect between what the majority of ADF members are celebrating and the historical practices of my hearth culture. Most of my fellow pagans are observing a tradition heavily influenced by the Germanic traditions, i.e. Yule or Mother’s Night. And this tends to resonate with me as well, so I don’t make too much of a fuss with regard to what the ancient Greeks did or did not do. Both within the pagan community and popular culture, the Winter Solstice is most often celebrated with general revelry (Saturnalia, Oreibasia), gift-giving, time with family, and a break from work.

To my mind, the feast is really comprised of two parts. The first is of gratitude and recognition of generosity, for what the earth provides in agricultural abundance and mineral wealth (this latter I always associate with the Roman myth of the chthonic god Pluto as provider of subterranean riches), reflected in the act of exchanging gifts. The second significance for me is that of rest, closure, and celebrating the end of the calendar and fiscal years.