Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Pagan Resources

Whilst not comprehensive, here are some Pagan friendly resources that I can personally recommend.

  • Rome (2005-2007). One of the best television series I have ever seen - set in ancient Rome during Caesar's time. Some of the historical detail is blatantly wrong, but the atmosphere and story line of the series is brilliantly engaging. 
  • Vikings (2013+) The first few seasons of Vikings are brilliant, though unfortunately the writing starts to weaken from season 4 onwards. It loosely follows the story of Ragnar Lodbrok. Like Rome, it is not historically accurate but seeks instead to evoke the spirit of the times, which is mostly does extremely well.
  • Agora (2009). Already a Pagan classic - based on the life of Neoplatonist philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, who was murdered by Christian fanatics in the 5th century CE. This is a really fantastic, inspiring film.
  • Pan's Labyrinth (orig. El Laberinto del Fauno, 2006). The Pagan themes are subtle, but the magic is not. This is a really beautiful, haunting film with much depth. 
  • Game of Thrones (2011+). The Pagan themes are generally pretty subtle, but with most of the characters professing belief in polytheistic religions it is clear that the series is fundamentally Pagan friendly. Better still, the storyline is brilliantly engrossing.
  • Gladiator (2000) There are only a few Pagan references in this film but where they occur they are brilliant, in particular the references to the afterlife.
  • The Borgias (2011-2013). Ok, so it isn't strongly pro-Pagan but it certainly isn't pro-Christian either. There are a number  of Pagan sympathetic scenes, particularly during season 2. This is probably the most sumptuous and decadent TV series I've ever seen. I love it!
Germanic viewing
Some documentaries that give a fascinating insight into the Germanic tribes during the Roman period are The Germanic Tribes: Barbarians against Rome; The Germanic Tribes: Battle of the Teutoberg Forest; The Germanic Tribes: Pax Romana; Barbarians - the FranksBarbarians - the Goths; and Enemies of Rome - the Vandals (this latter documentary is also interesting because it demonstrates how 5th century Christian intolerance and preoccupation with heresy - which replaced Pagan syncretism - played out as a contributing factor in the fall of the western Roman empire). Dealing with the post-Roman period, Barbarians II: The Saxons is enjoyable and edifying, as is Barbarians - The Lombards. On Pagan Vikings see Neil Oliver's Who Were the Vikings and Vikings - The Trading Empire. On pre-Christian Paganism more generally, from a mostly Celto-Germanic perspective, see Richard Rudgeley's Pagans. See also Secrets of the Viking Sword for a really fantastic and illuminating documentary about sword making. Germanic Heathenry is not discussed in Nymphomaniac but there are definite hints of Paganism in this disturbing but ultimately enjoyable film by Denmark's most in/famous film maker, Lars von Trier. 

Celtic viewing

Regarding ancient Celts Neil Oliver's A History of Celtic Britain: Age of Warriors is highly engaging. The Wicker Man (1973) purports to deal with reconstructionist Celtic polytheism, however, this movie is not really pro-Pagan imo, but it is entertaining (make sure you don't accidentally watch the Nicholas Cage remake though).

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A Pagan Christmas in High Summer

Saturnalia Man by
Christmas presents a bit of a problem for me. Obviously there is the problem of the very obvious Christian aspect of this most popular of Western celebrations, and then there is the problem that the most common Pagan twists on this important holiday tend to focus on the winter solstice, which obviously has absolutely no application in the southern hemisphere – where I live and have lived for many years. Another common Pagan re-interpretation of Christmas revolves around Saturnalia – which is worthy but doesn’t completely solve my problem.

Reinventing Christmas by looking to Saturnalia doesn’t work for me for a number of reasons, but the main reason is that Saturnalia begins on the 17th of December and ends before the 24th. This effectively takes it out of contention as a suitable means of reinterpreting Christmas in a manner consistent with Paganism. The people with whom I celebrate Christmas would not have a bar of it. They will not want to replace Christmas with a celebration on the 17th – so close to the 24th and 25th, the days about which they actually care. They will not want to exchange gifts on the 23rd. They will know little about the agricultural and bounteous nature of Saturn, and such stories will not resonate with them. What does resonate with all of us though, as far as Saturnalia goes, is the urge to make merry during this period, to dress up, and to even enjoy a bit of role reversal, or at least upset the status quo in a licentious way. The suggestion that gingerbread men originate in human shaped biscuits made during Saturnalia (perhaps as human sacrifice by proxy?) also appeals for being so dark, deep and primeval. Thus I can certainly begin celebrating the Christmas period in the spirit of Saturnalia, but I cannot replace Christmas with Saturnalia.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Julian the Apostate – Pagan Hero?

Julian II (the Apostate), solidus, 361 CE
When I first heard about Julian the apostate (also known as Julian the philosopher)  the last polytheistic emperor of Rome, who attempted to reinvigorate the old ways throughout the Roman Empire after decades of Christian rule  I was naturally pretty interested. My initial impression was that he must of been amongst the last of the old school Romans bravely trying to push back the tide of Christianity. As I have learned more about him, and his times, I have come to realise that this was a naïve and self-serving perspective. I know now that Julian the apostate was an infinitely more complex character than I could have ever imagined and perhaps, ultimately, an unknowable one at that.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Accepting Paganism

"A Priestess of Apollo" by Alma-Tadema (1888)
pagan (say 'payguhn)
 noun 1. a follower of an ancient polytheistic or pantheistic religion or set of beliefs.
 2. a. one of a people or community professing some other than the Christian religion (applied to the ancient Romans, Greeks, etc., and sometimes the Jewish people).
b.  (derogatory) someone who is not an adherent of one of the world's major religions.
 3. an irreligious or heathenish person.
 4. a person who follows a contemporary set of beliefs modelled on the ancient pagan religions.
–adjective 5. relating to the worship or worshippers of any religion which is neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim.
 6. of, relating to, or characteristic of pagans.
 7. heathen; irreligious. [Middle English, from Late Latin pāgānus pagan, from Latin pāgānus villager, peasant, civilian; used to refer to noncombatants by the Roman military, and later by Christians to refer to those not enlisted in the Church military] 
–paganish, adjective [Macquarie Dictionary]

Monday, 1 October 2012

Pagan Sydney

While not immediately obvious, Pagan and polytheistic themes abound in Sydney. Here are some examples.

Archibald Fountain, Hyde Park (central Sydney) – depicts Apollo at the head of the fountain with Diana, the "young god of fields and pastures" (Faunus?) and Theseus at the base. Sculpted by Francois-Leon Sicard (posthumously commissioned by Jules Francois Archibald – a leading journalist and publisher of his day) and unveiled in 1932. Of the work Sicard wrote: 
"Apollo represents the Arts (Beauty and Light). Apollo holds out his right arm as a sign of protection, and spreads his benefits over all Nature, whilst he holds the Lyre in his left hand. Apollo is the warmth which vivifies, giving life to all Nature. At the touch of his rays, men awake, trees and fields become green, the animals go out into the fields, and men go to work at dawn. 
The ancient Pliny adored the sun, symbol of Life. It is on this account that I wished this figure to be the chief one in the memorial. 

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Pagan Idolatry

A modern representation of Venus-Freyja (source: Bree)
When I consider the Gods I do, unavoidably, consider the many representations (written, painted, sculpted) that mankind has made of them. If I think of Venus in corporeal terms I imagine her as an immensely beautiful woman with full hips and breasts, and no hint of prudishness about her. I confess that I imagine her as ethnically European – whether her hair be blonde or dark. The more I think of Venus in this way the more absurd my imaginings seem for being so hopelessly centred in Western perspectives on this mighty Goddess. If I see her as merely a European Goddess of sex and fertility then perhaps my imaginings can be forgiven, but I do not live in Europe so why should I revere a specifically European Goddess? Or do I imagine that, regardless of place, she hears the prayers of those who call her Venus or Freyja or Aphrodite (or some other European title given to her) but not those who may call her Rati (Hindu), Ishtar (middle eastern), Qetesh (Egyptian) or some other name? If the Goddess of sex and fertility is universal why should I not also imagine her in the image of these Goddesses? But the images I have seen of these non-European Goddesses are for the most part alien to me – they do not resonate. Like Cicero, I imagine the Gods from a perspective of cultural bias. Under the guise of an Epicurean philosopher he wrote:
“what is naturally the highest form of existence, whether because of its supreme happiness or because of its immortality, should also be the most beautiful. And what arrangement of limbs, what cast of features, what shape or form can be more beautiful than the human? … if the human figure is superior to the form of all living things, and a god is a living thing, then a god surely has the most beautiful form of all; and since it is agreed that the gods are supremely happy, and that no one can be happy without virtue, and that virtue cannot exist without reason, and that reason can be found nowhere but in the human figure, then it must be conceded that the gods have human form. But this form is not really corporeal, but merely resembles a human body; it does not have blood, merely the semblance of blood [Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods].”

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Pagan Pilgrimage to the Capitoline Museums

A few months ago I visited the Capitoline Museums (or Musei Capitolini), here follows some of my favourite works from those Museums. 

Click on the images to enlarge.

"Capitoline Wolf" nursing the twins Romulus (mythical founder of Rome) and Remus, date uncertain (twins added in the renaissance period)

Friday, 24 August 2012

Life in the Roman Forum

One of the wonderful things about the Roman Forum is that it is teeming with life. Here are some examples.

Pagan Pilgrimage to the Roman Forum

A few months ago I visited the Roman Forum (Rome) - here are some of the photographic highlights.

Temple of Vesta

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Pagan Pilgrimage to Rome

A few months ago I visited Rome - here are some of the photographic highlights of that all too brief trip  (I will post some more pics from the Roman Forum and the Capitoline Museums in another post).

The Pantheon

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Roman Structure Within Faversham Stone Chapel

Faversham Stone Chapel in ruins
In a field in Kent the ruins of an ancient building of uncertain origin lies. It is called Faversham Stone Chapel, or alternately Stone-next-Faversham, and was known as the Church of Our Lady of Elverton – or Our Lady of Elwarton – from the 7th century until the 16th century, when it was abandoned after falling into a state of disrepair. The building was not, however, forgotten. From the 18th century onwards it became the occasional subject of archeological interest because it was clear that this was no ordinary church for, as Hasted pointed out in 1798, within the ruins of the Stone Chapel there are:
“a number of Roman bricks … interspersed among the flints and in the midst of the south wall of it, there is a separate piece of a Roman building about a rod in length, and near three feet high, composed of two rows of Roman tiles, of about fourteen inches square each, and on them are laid small stones levelled but of no regular size or shape, for about a foot high, and then tiles again, and so on alternately.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Imagining the Gods

Click on images to enlarge

Apollo, God of light and the sun, healing (or disease), music (especially stringed instruments), poetry, archery and prophecy
Statue of Apollo from Pompeii

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Pagan Offerings to the Gods

"Evocation" by A Rothaug (b. 1870)
Here follows a list of possible offerings to various divine beings. This list is neither comprehensive nor indisputably correct – if in doubt the following may be acceptable offerings:
  • Food – can be symbolically offered on a plate before an image or symbol of a deity, or burnt in a ritual fire, or left in a sacred location, or hidden in a sacred tree, or thrown into sacred water or onto crossroads.
  • Animal sacrifice by proxy.* You can perform an animal sacrifice by proxy by baking cookies or bread in the shape of an animal and offering this instead. Sheep, pigs and cattle were the most common sacrificial animals in ancient times. However, note that, following the Roman tradition of Numa, bloodless offerings are in fact most traditional. Wheat, salt, salted bread, sacrificial cakes/pastries (eg, see this recipe for Cato's libum), herbs, garlands of flowers, drink-offerings, and then, later, incense and saffron, were the most typical ancient offerings in Rome (Plutarch, The Life of Numa and Ovid, Fasti). We also know that bread, meat, onions and milk are traditional offerings to Germanic deities (Ibn Fadlan). Another substitute for animal sacrifice is to offer wine from a bottle with a cork instead of a screw top. If you discover that the wine is "corked" then this may be viewed as being equivalent to opening up the innards of a sacrificed animal and discovering irregularities (which is of course a sign that the offering has been rejected; thus necessitating repeating the ritual with a fresh offering). 
  • Fire – for a simple or preliminary show of reverence light a candle in a sacred location.
  • Incense (note that frankincense was the most popular incense used in ritual offerings in ancient Rome). For an in depth look at incense as an offering, including issues relating to health, see my post on Incense - Offerings to the Gods.
  • Aromatic herbs (juniper, laurel, rosemary, thyme, etc). 
  • Flowers.
  • Spices, especially Indian spices (ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, saffron, etc).
  • Wine, this may also include spiced wine and honeyed wine. Avoid diluting wine. Note that beer and mead are almost certainly acceptable offerings to Germanic Gods.
  • Milk (especially to Goddesses), but note that there are a range of ethical issues  (eg, see surrounding contemporary dairy farming which may serve to spiritually contaminate, or profane, the product because it was produced in league with unkind farming practices of which benevolent Gods may disapprove. Taking care to establish that dairy offerings come from ethically run farms (or using a plant based alternative) is recommended but ultimately this is a matter of personal discretion. 
  • Votive offerings. Votive offerings are, unlike the offerings listed above, relatively non-perishable. An example of this would be a gift of pearls to Venus. 
  • Spoils of victory (uncleaned) over enemies (especially to celestial Gods). Including the enemies themselves (to chthonic Gods). 
  • Temples and altars, for particularly elaborate offerings add temple/shrine priests/priestesses and/or designated feast/games days.
Roman rites
If it is possible to find a sacred place outdoors to make offerings this is ideal. Traditionally libations to celestial (of the sky) deities are placed into a fire on a raised altar so that their vital essence might rise to the sky; this ritual should be performed in the day (compare to the Hindu yajna). Offerings to aquatic deities are generally thrown into water. Offerings to chthonic (of the earth) deities are generally poured or placed, using the left hand, into a hole dug into the earth (and then entirely burnt in that place if possible, or buried) while the right hand is held over the fire, or touching the earth, with the palm/s facing down. 

Prayers can be made with open palms (both hands or the right hand only), fingers together and stretched slightly backwards. The palm of the right hand (or both hands) should be facing the presumed abode of the God/s being honoured (eg, the sky for celestial Gods and the ground for chthonic Gods). Hands and clothes should normally be clean (the cleaner you are the better). See this post for more on Pagan prayer.

Note that in the Roman tradition offerings are made to Janus before other Gods, because he is the gateway to the divine, while Vesta, Goddess of altar and hearth fire, receives the last offering (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, Bk 2), though Vesta's name may be invoked first at the start of the ritual (Ovid, Fasti, 6.304)The head is usually covered when praying to Roman Gods (notable exceptions to this general rule include Saturn and Hercules, to whom the ritus Graecus applies – note that despite the name the ritus Graecus in fact refers to a style of Roman ritual, which is inspired by, but not identical to, Hellenic rites; it usually involves wearing a laurel wreath and playing music during the ritual), and it may be desirable to face east when praying. 

Germanic rites
We do not know for sure what the intricacies of Germanic rites were historically, but it may be that worship was more likely to be conducted outdoors. Tacitus records that the Germanic people generally "judge it not to be in keeping with the majesty of heavenly beings to confine them within walls", and that instead they "consecrate woods and groves" (Germania). In the Hyndluljod a shrine that pleases Freyja is described as a "high altar of heaped up stones ... reddened ... with fresh cattle-blood" (Elder Edda). Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus place of worship as an outdoor place with "a great wooden post stuck in the ground with a face like that of a man". Around this post were long wooden stakes driven into the ground which had "little figures" in front of them; these were said to be the God's wives and children. Ibn Fadlan stated that a Rus man would bow before the great post, describe who he was and what he wanted divine assistance with before leaving food offerings (bread, meat, milk, onions and either ale or mead). Once the prayer had been answered the man would return with a grander offering in the form of slaughtered sheep or cows, after removing some of the meat to eat with his companions the rest was set before the great wooden post and the heads of the animals hung on the wooden stakes. When night fell and dogs came and ate the meat the pious man took that as a sign that the God had accepted the offering (Ibn Fadlan).

In his Corrector, Burchard of Worms describes Heathen rites that were apparently common in Germany in the early 11th century (Burchard's purpose was to set a standard form of penance for common sins):
“Have you gone to any place to pray other than a church ... to springs, rocks, trees, or crossroads; and have you burned candles or small torches there to venerate that place, have you brought bread or some other offering there, have you eaten there, or sought anything there for the health of the body or the soul [cited in Shinners (ed), Medieval Popular Religion, at 442-443]?
He also speaks of offerings of knots, bread and herbs, over which incantations are uttered before being hidden in a tree or thrown into crossroads. Burchard's contemporary in England, Wulfstan, wrote that offerings to Odin were made at crossroads and on high hills (cited in Boenig and Emmerson, Anglo-Saxon Spirituality, at 136).

Intent and expectations
Just because one has made an offering does not mean one has obtained a favour. The Gods are not merchants, or prostitutes who sell their favours. They favour whoever they will, and we cannot bribe them to do anything; they likely have little use for our offerings in any case. Offerings signal both our understanding that we cannot get something for nothing as well as our respect for their divinity. Ritual offerings are a means of (attempted) communication, or even a divine conversation, and never a payment for services bought.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Pagan Prayer

Prayer to ask or to thank 
A model with the head covered in a way that suits
most Roman rites. Image: "Lycinna" by Goward (1903)
If not a regular, household ritual (ie, it is not in honour of household divinities) prayers and offerings are generally best performed outdoors under an open sky, preferably in a place which seems to be associated with the Deity. Creating a shrine, of either a temporary or permanent nature, is a possibility when a sacred location cannot be identified. 

It is important to prepare for rituals. Some of the things you may want to consider are as follows (all that follows relates primarily to Roman rites):
  1. Determining what it is that you want, and thus who are the appropriate Deities to supplicate. To identify the Deity the following (hyperlinked) posts may be helpful: Contemporary Visions of the Divine and A Long List of Deities.
  2. Determining whether the Deity to supplicate is primarily celestial (of the sky), aquatic (of water) or chthonic (of the earth). If celestial, normally a ritual fire should be lit and offerings burnt in this fire. The ritual should normally be performed in the day, but not if it is windy. Safety dictates that you bring a fire blanket or jug of water in case the fire becomes unsafe. If aquatic, normally offerings will be poured or thrown into the body of water most close to the Deity (eg, if Neptune, the ocean; if a river spirit, in the river). If chthonic, normally offerings will be poured into the earth or a pit is dug into which offerings are placed, such offerings may be burnt whole in that place or merely buried. Alternately (a) food, liquid or plant offerings can be symbolically placed on a plate before an image or object associated with the Deity; (b) incense may be burnt at the Deity’s shrine; (c) ornaments, garlands or other objects may be placed around the statue of the Deity; (d) offerings specific to the Deity may be made – embroidery honours Minerva; smithing honours Vulcan; music honours Apollo; eloquent prose honours Mercury; the very act of drinking wine may honour Bacchus; sexual acts may honour fertility Deities, and so on. See Pagan Offerings to the Gods for more on suitable offerings. 
  3. Note that in the Roman tradition offerings are normally made to Janus before other Gods, because he is the gateway to the divine, while Vesta, Goddess of altar and hearth fire, receives the last offering (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods), though Vesta's name may be invoked first at the start of the ritual (Ovid, Fasti). Arguably, Vesta need not be invoked if the ritual involves no fire.
  4. It is advisable to prepare what you will do and say so that the ritual does not become fumbling or ineffective. Note that you should speak in a clear voice; stumbling over words in the midst of a ritual is not desirable and may even be regarded as inauspicious. It is perfectly fine to read from a prepared script during the ritual – in fact this may be preferable.
  5. Hands and clothes should be clean (the cleaner you are the better), normally white clothes will preferable, and the head is usually covered when praying to Roman Gods (notable exceptions to this general rule include Saturn and Hercules, to whom the ritus Graecus applies – note that despite the name the ritus Graecus in fact refers to a style of Roman ritual, which is inspired by, but not identical to, Hellenic rites; it may involve wearing a laurel wreath). You do not need to wear a toga  (traditionally a fold of the toga would be placed over the head) – a hoodie with the hood up is sufficient. Otherwise a scarf or shawl. Only the back of the head needs covering; the greater part of the arms and neck can be left exposed.
  6. Prayers should be made with open palms (both hands or the right hand only), fingers together and stretched slightly backwards. The palm of the right hand (or both hands) should be facing the presumed abode of the God/s being honoured (eg, the sky for celestial Gods and the ground for chthonic Gods) or at an image of the God or shrine to the God.
Some tips for a small, outdoor fire ceremony (feel free to disregard; this is tailored for a city dweller to perform on an apartment balcony): before starting the fire line the bowl/container in which the flame will burn with aluminium foil and place a small tea light in the middle. Light the candle then place very small broken up twigs (up to 2 inches long) and dried leaves over the flame. Do not place too much fuel in the bowl as the fire will grow too large. Keep a large jug of water handy. Do not perform this ceremony on a windy day.

The following words are the kind of things you might say during Roman rites, but of course your own prayers might be worded completely differently. The key words may include (1) correct identification of the God you wish to honour (hence the name of the Deity and a description of their domain), (2) a clear statement of what you are praying for, and (3) a clear description of what offerings you are making or will make should your prayer be answered. 

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Raw Paganism

Midgard Serpent (Jormungandr), destined 
to battle with Thor at Ragnarok (when this 
world will end and a new world will begin)
To me, part of the appeal of Pagan practice is the potential link it gives one to ancient or even pre-historical spirituality  to something raw, to something fundamental and continuing in the human spiritual process. The Religio Romana interests me partly because I see it as an ancient European religion about which we are reliably informed – much of the source material on Roman Paganism existing today was written by Pagans writing in a Pagan world, but, of course, there are other ways we can inform ourselves about authentically ancient spiritual practices and that is by looking to that which is common to a multitude of cultures and timelines – as a child of Europe I am naturally interested in the beliefs of the Indo-Europeans, from whom I am (at least partly) descended. Common themes in their belief systems include/d:
  • The deification of natural forces such as the sky, the dawn, rivers, the sea, the sun, the moon, spirits of nature (nymphs) and so on.
  • Folklore involving a battle with a serpent which may represent a battle between order and chaos (eg, Hercules and the hydra; Thor and the Midgard serpent; Krishna and Kaliya).
  • Cyclic myths (eg, of the seasons).