Sunday, 26 October 2014

In Praise of Venus

"Venus healing Aeneas" by Blondel (19th century)
Love in her most high and divine state is freehearted and generous – this is why the ancient myths so often depict Venus as licentious. Love only becomes impure when it is stained by our fragile egos and selfish, grasping desires which give rise to shameful (and selfish) concepts of love. Regardless, love distilled is a supreme virtue.

In Greco-Roman mythology only Venus has the power to disarm Mars, whom we associate with violence, or to sooth Vulcan’s destructive and potentially life extinguishing fires. Even today, the white doves of Venus are the foremost symbol of peace. Venus also shared her love with the quick-witted Mercury and thereby bore he whom we think of as the masculine aspect of love  Cupid. Another of their children is one who transcends gender, Hermaphroditus. Interestingly in Germanic mythology we see a related pairing – Woden, God of wisdom (equated in ancient times with Mercury), is paired with Frija, Goddess of love – surely Venus in another guise. It seems to me that when the two Gods merge we find the highest state of being arises – the Buddha himself said that wisdom (prajna) and love (maitri) are conjoined paths to enlightenment.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Lotus Sutra

"Jizo Bodhisattva" by Christina Hess. Source: zdouf.com
For the past few months I have become increasingly fascinated with the Lotus Sutra. When I first encountered it, about 6 months ago, it felt like a revelation. I read book IV, within which there is a parable about a rich man with a poor son. The son believes he is unworthy of prosperity, and so slowly the rich man uses skillful means to ensure the son accepts the wealth that is his birthright; wealth being a metaphor for Buddhahood. I responded powerfully to this story because it reflected where I was and have been for years – an admirer of Buddhism but more or less convinced that I am incapable of taking up this seemingly long, difficult and austere path. The key message of the Lotus Sutra is that enlightenment is within the reach of us all and Buddhist realisation is ultimately not for the few but the many, whether man or woman, renunciate or lay-person, human or non-human. This profoundly validating message lies at the core of the Lotus Sutra.


Historical context
Scholars agree that a significant portion of the Lotus Sutra represents the earliest Mahayana teachings to have been committed to writing. Coincidentally it was also the first Buddhist Sutra to be translated into a European language (in 1852 it was translated from Sanskrit into French by the famous Orientalist Eugene Burnouf). It was originally written in either Sanskrit or, more likely, in Prakit, a related though more humble Indian dialect, perhaps around the time of the birth of Christ, circa 500 years after the lifetime of the Buddha. Although the earliest date we can give the Sutra with any certainty is 255 CE, when the first Chinese translation was made. The original Lotus Sutra has long been lost. The earliest Sanskrit copies we have date from the 5th or 6th centuries, though several Sanskrit copies, some made as recently as the 11th century or possibly later (when Mahayana Buddhism in south Asia entered a period of severe decline, following Muslim persecution and subsequent absorption into Hinduism), have been discovered in Nepal, Gilgit (north Pakistan) and Xinjiang (NW China). Its name in Sanskrit is the Saddharma Pundarika. Saddharma means something like doctrine, truth or good law. Pundarika has a wide range of meanings including white lotus flower. Note that during the lifetime of the Buddha India was not a very literate society – instead of recording the Buddha’s teachings in writing the first Buddhists committed his teachings to memory. The Lotus Sutra purports to be what was originally a secret teaching given by the Gautama Buddha at the end of his life. The Sutra is widely accepted as authentic amongst contemporary Mahayana Buddhists (over half of the world’s Buddhists are Mahayana), but is disregarded by Theravada Buddhists, which is unsurprising, given that it is a foundational Mahayana Sutra.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Germanic Pagan Lego

Here follows a Lego tribute to the traditional Germanic Gods. The Gods depicted immediately below are meant to depict (from left to right): Heimdall (with a red shield), Freyr (horned), Freyja (in purple), Thor (with red hair), Loki (in the back), Odin (bearded), Skadi (blue shield) and Tyr. Of course there are many more Germanic deities than this.*
Source: brickshelf.com

One of the most revered Gods in the Germanic pantheon is Odin (also known as Wodan, Woden and Wotan). Very often he is portrayed as one-eyed, for it is said that he traded an eye for a drink from the waters of wisdom. Odin is the God of writing, wisdom, cunning, eloquence, travel, prosperity and psychopomp. In ancient times Odin was equated with Mercury and so the Latin dies Mercurii (Mercury's day) was translated into Germanic languages as Wodens' day, which we now call Wednesday.
Source: mocpages.com

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Paganism for Children

Goddess of wild animals, forests, the hunt and the moon -
Diana / Artemis, by xx12taylorxx.deviantart.com
This post is devoted to helping older children to understand what Paganism is. Pagans have a wide range of views and not all Pagans will agree with everything written on this page – which is fine. Paganism  embraces an open, not a closed, view of the world and can incorporate a wide range of different beliefs and practices – which makes it both very wonderful and very hard to describe. I have attempted to not use too many complex words, so that everyone can easily understand it – and disagree with it, if they want to.

What Paganism is
Paganism means different things to different people, but the one thing that almost all Pagans agree on is that the natural world includes sacred, or divine, forces and that it is good to show respect for the sacred forces, or spirits, that exist in nature – because as humans we are part of nature. When we show respect for the natural world we show respect for ourselves and the entire universe in which we live. Many Pagans understand that the most powerful divine forces of nature are Gods – which includes Goddesses. By tapping into the power of the Gods we can improve our own daily lives. As the Gods are powerful they can help us achieve the things we want.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Messenger Animals as Omens

"Sulphur Crested Cockatoo" by lithas-alterego
For me, being open minded about the potentiality of omens is part of polytheistic practice – omens being signs from the Gods indicating their will, favour or disfavour, as well as being divine signals indicating present or near future auspiciousness or inauspiciousness. In ancient Rome divination of omens could take any number of forms but the most common methods included observing the manner of the flight of birds; observing the way that birds ate; studying the state of the internal organs of sacrificial animals (haruspicy); analysing one’s dreams, and being alert to the import of unusual natural phenomena (Shelton at 375; Turcan at 15; Kamm at 83-84). Tacitus records  that as well as the casting of lots, which appears to an early form of reading the runes, the following means of divination were common amongst the ancient Germanic tribes:
“The widespread practice [in the Roman world] of seeking an answer from the call or flight of birds, is, to be sure, known here too, but it is a specialty of this people to test horses as well for omens and warnings. The horses are maintained at public expense in … sacred woods and groves; they are pure white and undefiled by any kind of work for humans. They are yoked to a sacred chariot and the priest or king or chief of the state walks beside them, taking note of their whinnies and neighing. No kind of omen inspires greater confidence, not only among the common people but even among the nobles and priests, who regard themselves as but the servants of the Gods, the horses as the Gods’ messengers [Tacitus at 42].” 
Thus it seems that signs communicated through what we might call messenger animals were key means of divination in the ancient world. Even before I consciously embraced polytheism I considered the behaviour of certain birds as capable of indicating auspiciousness, and since then it has seemed to me that certain animals may be associated with certain deities. Divination of omens through the observation of animals, or their presence in our dreams, is often an inexact art. In an effort to make sense of these potential omens I have put together the following alphabetical list, which records which animals are associated with which Gods, usually via myths. I note that Roman augury, as practiced by priests, involved very specific methods, some of which are described in my earlier post, Jupiter - Lord of the Heavens. Regarding unanticipated omens, it is the unusual behaviour of animals, their sudden and unexpected appearance, or their presence in dreams which tends towards indicating an omen, and one should take care not to become hyper-vigilant or superstitious, by imagining that there are signs in essentially mundane occurrences.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Salus – Goddess of Health and Well Being

"Hygieia" (the Hellenic Salus) by Klimt (1900)
Salus is the Goddess of safety, health, well being and, according to some translations, salvation. If we think of the English word deriving from her name – salubrious – we get an idea of who she is. The Arval Brothers, priests in charge of public sacrifices made for the well being of Rome, prayed and made offerings to her not just for the safety of the city of Rome but also for the health and fertility of the entire Roman community, including its animals and farms (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 52). The Nones/fifth of August was the day on which she was honoured most, with circus games and the public sacrifice of a cow (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2 at 73). She was revered from at least as early as the 4th century BCE, with her temple on the Quirinal Hill being founded in 302 BCE (Rüpke, Religion of the Romans at 55). In the 4th century CE her temple in Rome still stood – despite being twice hit by lightning, in 276 and 206 BCE, and damaged by fire in the 1st century CE (and then restored) – and she appeared on Roman coinage up until the reign of the Christian emperor Constantine I (Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religion at 162; Platner, 
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome). In her public aspect she was known as Salus Publica and even Salus Augusti – for during the imperial era the well being of the emperor was equated with the well being of Rome as a whole (Lipka, Roman Gods at 95). Another title was Salus Romana – Ovid briefly mentions that an offering should be made to her, alongside Janus, Concordia (Goddess of peaceful agreement) and Pax (Goddess of peace), on 30 March (Ovid, Fasti, Book 3). It may be that the three Goddesses shared a temple founded on that date (Boyle and Woodard’s notes to the Penguin edition of Ovid, Fasti at 229); at the very least we know there were statues of these Goddesses in Rome, erected by Augustus (Wiseman’s notes to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ovid, Fasti at 136).

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Shamanism

Korean Shaman. Source: people.cohums.ohio-state.edu
A month or so ago I got talking to a fellow I know who had just come back from South Korea – he was a little drunk, which was fortunate as it opened up a bridge of uninhibited communication between us via which we landed on the fascinating topic of Shamanism. He told me he had been to Shamanic ceremonies in Korea and proceeded to describe them. I can’t recall his exact words but what really hooked me in was the fact that he was describing Shamanism as a living tradition. I had recently been reading about the Shamanistic religions of the former nomads of northern Europe, but it was all in the past tense. What he described was a continuing, unbroken tradition practiced by people of our own times who are not wildly different from ourselves – I can’t say I think of Koreans as exotic (there are a lot of Koreans in Sydney). Following our fascinating conversation, I got my hands on the most reputable book on Shamanism I could find. It is by Piers Vitebsky, who is described as “an anthropologist and head of Social Sciences at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge”. Most of the information, and all page citations with no other referencing, in this post are sourced from this book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2001.