Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Anacreon Fragment

The love god with his golden curls
puts a bright ball in my hand,
shows a girl in her fancy shoes,
and suggests that I take her.

Not that girl -- she's the other kind,
one from Lesbos. Disdainfully,
nose turned up at my silver hair,
she makes eyes at the ladies.

-translated by Richmond Lattimore
Anacreon was a mid-sixth century Greek poet from the island of Teos. He is noted for writing almost exclusively about the pleasures of life, love, wine, and banquets.

I am flummoxed that even when faced with poetry fragments like the one above some people continue to doubt that lesbianism was known and practiced among the ancient Greeks. Even if you choose to read Sappho's heady verses inspired by young women as romantic friendship rather than frankly sexually charge poetry, you cannot deny that Anacreon understood lesbianism and even associated it with the isle of Lesbos.

Spring 2010 He Epistole

The Spring 2010 edition of Neokoroi's quarterly publication He Epistole has just been released. It contains an excellent article on Demeter Erinys by Suz Thackston and many other goodies. Many thanks to the He Epistole team for another excellent issue!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Words to Live By

I've been pondering the attributes that I takes to be a good Hellenic Polytheist, and the attributes that I value most within myself. Some practitioners of Hellenic Polytheism subscribe to the Metron, an ethics system of "Seven Pillars" which has been reconstructed in various forms. One of them follows:
  • Ethike Arete - the practice of habitual excellence (ethics)
  • Eusebia - reverence, loyalty, and sense of duty toward the Gods (of Greece)
  • Hagneia - the maintaining of ritual purity by avoiding miasma
  • Nomos Arkhaios - observance of ancient tradition, (religious) law, and customs
  • Sophia - the pursuit of wisdom, understanding, and truth
  • Sophrosune - the control of self through deep contemplation
  • Xenia - adherence to hospitality and the guest-host relationship
Laurelei has proposed a system of ethics for the Temple of Aphrodite that I find inspiring:
  • Kharis (grace and reciprocity)
  • Sophia (wisdom and understanding)
  • Eusebia (reverence and piety)
I've been involved in the Caliphate Ordo Templi Orientis for years and as a Thelemite I have some pretty strong Greek ideas of what is right and ethical:
  • Thelema (True Will)
  • Agape (Fraternal Love)
  • Eros (Romantic Love)

Invoke me under my stars! Love is the law, love under will. Nor let the fools mistake love; for there are love and love. There is the dove, and there is the serpent. Choose ye well! He, my prophet, hath chosen, knowing the law of the fortress, and the great mystery of the House of God.
- The Book of the Law, Liber AL vel Legis, sub figura CCXX, as delivered by XCIII = 418 to DCLXVI, Chapter I, verse 57
And then there are the roughly 150 Delphic Maxims, most of which are reasonable, some of which are excellent, and a couple of which are patently ridiculous in modern society.

The good:
8. Be Yourself (Σαυτον ισθι)
15. Help your friends (Φιλοις βοηθει)
23. Long for wisdom (Σοφιαν ζηλου)
24. Praise the good (Καλον ευ λεγε)
25. Find fault with no one (Ψεγε μηδενα)
38. Nothing to excess (Μηδεν αγαν)
55. Give back what you have received (Λαβων αποδος)
56. Down-look no one (Υφορω μηδενα)
62. Praise hope (Ελπιδα αινει)
73. Be happy with what you have (Κτωμενος ηδου)
84. Make just judgments (Κρινε δικαια)
90. Live without sorrow (Αλυπως βιου)
93. Deal kindly with everyone (Φιλοφρονει πασιν)
106. Be grateful (Ευγνωμων γινου)
107. Pursue harmony (Ομονοιαν διωκε)
117. Acquire wealth justly (Πλουτει δικιως)
118. Do not abandon honor (Δοξαν μη λειπε)
124. Love whom you rear (Ους τρεφεις αγαπα)
126. Respect the elder (Πρεσβυτερον αιδου)
The bad:
9. Intend to get married (Γαμειν μελλε)
91. Live together meekly (Ομιλει πραως)
95. Rule your wife (Γυναικος αρχε)
132. Die for your country (Θνησκε υπερ πατριδος)
137. Grieve for no one (Μη επι παντι λυπου)
So how do I synthesize all of this into a workable system that won't drive me crazy? Here then is a personal Metron that I am trying to live by:

1. Kharis - grace and reciprocity
2. Sophia - the relentless pursuit of wisdom and understanding
3. Eusebia - reverence and piety to the theoi
4. Arete - excellence in deed, thought, word, and action
5. Thelema - the pursuit of my life's purpose and my Will
6. Sophrosune - moderation and temperance
7. Hagneia - ritual purity and avoidance of miasma

I think of Xenia as being a part of Kharis, and, as a Hellenic Polytheist rather than a reconstructionist, I hold no truck with Nomos Arkhaios. Rather, I value Thelema, which can be viewed as an outgrowth of Arete, but it has been so central to my own spiritual development that I've given it a pillar of its own. I believe that most of the Delphic Maxims can be sorted into one of these categories, and I'm pretty comfortable with holding myself to these standards.


The festival of Mounukhia is concurrent with Beltane this year (May 1, Mounkhion 16, near the full moon) and I will be up to my knees in mud at a pagan festival, so I thought I'd go ahead and share some information about Mounukhia a few days early.

The Mounukhia festival honors Artemis as her titles Potnia Theron (the Mistress of Beasts) and Artemis Fosforos (Artemis the Light-Bringer). It begins with a pompe in which the people carry round cakes in which small torches, or dadia, are stuck. These cakes are called amphiphontes (round-shining). They are offered to Artemis in thanks for the lives of beasts that were killed during the hunt, and for the light of the moon. Cupcakes studded with birthday candles make a simple and thoughtful substitute.
Mousa, sing of Artemis, sister of Hekatos (the far-shooter), Parthenos Iokheaira (the virgin who delights in arrows), who was fostered with Apollon. She waters her horses from Meles [a river in Lydia] deep in reeds, and swifty drives her all-golden chariot through Smyrna to vine-clad Klaros where Apollon Argyrotoxos (god of the silver bow), sits waiting for Hekatebolon Iokheaira (far-shooting delighter in arrows).
And so hail to you, Artemis, in my song and to all goddesses as well. Of you first I sing and with you I begin; now that I have begun with you, I will turn to another song.

~Homeric Hymn 9 to Artemis (trans. Evelyn-White)
Have a joyous Mounukhia!

Virgin Athena

I have applied to be an Exegetai of Athena through Neokoroi. Part of the process of admittance includes the submission of two articles to their newsletter He Epistole. I thought that the first one might be of interest to the blogosphere, so I am sharing it here.

Virgin Athena

Athena is famous in Greek mythology for being one of only three Goddesses who were considered “virgin”. It was said in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite that alone of all creation these three Goddesses, Hestia, Artemis, and Athena, were immune to the arrows of Eros and the seductive spell of Aphrodite. But for Athena being a virgin ran deeper than simple immunity to romance. Athena was, rather surprisingly, a mother figure in Classical Athens, and is linked to Hephaestos in what could be an ancient heiros gamos festival.

Athena's legendary virginity begins with conflicting stories of her birth. In the most famous version, attributed to Apollodorus, Athena is born fully grown from the head of her father Zeus. Zeus had been warned that his bride Metis, wise counsel, would bear him a child greater than himself, so he chose to swallow Metis whole. Nine months later he was stricken with a terrible headache that served as the birth pangs which brought Athena into existence. Just as later Catholics would claim that their divine virgin Mary was conceived Immaculately by the will of the Father God, so was Athena born, not of a womb or woman, but from the perfect mind of Zeus.

A second and less well known birth story comes to us from Lycophron, in which Athena was fathered the winged giant Pallas. This Pallas later attempted to rape his daughter. In a rage the young Athena killed her father and flayed him, taking his skin for her breastplate – the aegis – and his wings for her own use. In the oldest known depictions of Athena, such as at Sparta, she is shown winged. This was the first, but not the only threat to Athena's chastity in myth.

When Zeus ached and moaned with the labor pains that would bring forth Athena we are told that Hephaestos took up a labrys and split mighty Zeus's head asunder in order to release the pain. Thus, Hephaestos was the first of the theoi to catch a glimpse of the newly formed Athena. We can only guess from later events what Hephaestos must have thought when he saw the radiant goddess for the first time. Perhaps Eros launched one of his famous arrows at the lame craftsman. Maybe he was taken in by the earth-shaking war dance she performed immediately upon her birth. As a smith, he may have just been impressed with her excellent taste in armor, since she was born fully armed. In any case, Hephaestos desired Athena and contrived to win her for his wife.

After Hephaestos set out to trap his mother Hera in a golden throne he fashioned for her he demanded the prize of either Athena or Aphrodite as his wife, according to many sources, notably Hyginus. If Athena rejected his proposal it is not recorded. Regardless, Hephaestos won Aphrodite as his bride rather than Athena and according to Homer [Odyssey 8.267] he regretted the decision. Aphrodite proved to be a lovely but unfaithful wife and Hephaestos harbored secret lust for Athena.

Athena came to the forge of Hephaestos seeking arms. What she received instead, according to Apollodorus, was an attempted rape by Hephaestos. In disgust it was said that Athena wiped Hephaestos's semen from her thigh with a fillet of wool that she then flung to the ground. The fertile earth, Gaia, became pregnant by this seed and bore the child Erikhthonios, king of Athens. Gaia gave the boy to Athena, who she claimed was his true mother. Ashamed, Athena hid the growing child in a kista, or chest, that she kept in the folds of her aegis.

Why was Athena ashamed of Erikhthonios? Why would she keep his existence a closely guarded secret? Erikhthonios was said to have the form of a serpent from the waist down. Is this deformity alone enough to cause Athena to shut away her fosterling, and, where did Erikhthonios gain this peculiar serpentine aberration?
Since the earliest recorded times Athena has been identified with the snake. This is demonstrated in her serpent-tasseled aegis, and in her special role as the guardian of the city, just as the snake served in ancient Greece as a symbol for the guardian of the home. Athena has deep roots in the prehistoric craftswoman serpent and bird goddesses that Marija Gimbutas documented in her work. Just as Gaia claimed that Athena was the true mother of Erikhthonios, so do Erikhthonios's defining features point to Athena having been his mother.

Athena guarded Erikhthonios with obsessive caution. It was said by Pseudo-Apollodorus that she sent the kista he was kept in to Pandrosos, the daughter of Kekrops, forbidding her to open the chest. With curiosity that echoes the fall of Pandora – who Athena had a hand in making – Pandrosos opened the chest and beheld Erikhthonios, at the sight of which Athena drove Pandrosos mad. Pandrosos then flung herself to her death from the Acropolis. These horrible events were commemorated each year at the Athenian festival of the Arrephoria. During the Arrephoria maidens were given a secret kista at the temple of Athena on the Acropolis filled with “unspoken things”. The maidens were strictly admonished not to look inside of the kista but to deliver it to the garden shrine of Aphrodite, below the Acropolis. The maidens then returned to the temple of Athena bearing a second kista, also filled with secret contents, from the garden of Aphrodite. I have concluded that the kista bore knowledge of Erikhthonios as the son of Athena and Hephaestos, just as it held Erikhthonios himself when Pandrosos kept it. It is telling that Athena sends knowledge of Erikhthonios to Aphrodite, the wife of Hephaestos, whose charms and seductions she was supposed to be immune to.

Thus I have deduced that, just as Gaia claimed, Athena is the true mother of Erikhthonios, making her one of the number of that fabulous mythic trope of virgin mothers. But how chaste was Athena's relationship with Hephaestos? Were they ever linked beyond one incident of attempted rape? To answer these questions I look again to the festival cycle of Athens, this time to the festival of the Khalkeia, which translates to “bronze chamber”. The Khalkeia was a festival of Hephaestos and Athena as patrons of craftsmanship. Throughout Athens Athena and Hephaestos were paired. Athena has a statue in the Athenian temple of Hephaestos that overlooks the agora, while the ever-burning lamp in the temple of Athena Polis is regarded by Burkert and others as the presence of Hephaestos.

Karl Kerenyi deduces in his Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion that during the Khalkeia festival Athena and Hephaestos joined in a heiros gamos, or sacred marriage rite, in a bronze chamber. The month leading up to the Khalkeia was a time for young Athenians to prepare themselves for marriage. Athena even takes her “husband's” name in Robert Parker's Polytheism and society at Athens which lists Hephaisteia as one of Athena's epithets, specifically related to the Khalkeia festival.

The marriage of Athena and Hephaestos bore rich fruit depending on which sources are sought. Both Apollon [Müller, Dor. ii. 2. § 13.] and Lychnus [Spanheim, ad Callim. p. 644.] are cited as being sons of the union of Athena and Hephaestos. I find that the idea of Apollon, Lord of the Arts, being the son of the theoi of craftsmanship to be an inspiring and illuminating twist in their collective mythologies.

Even with her yearly Athenian marriage to Hephaestos and a proliferation of sons, Athena still remains virgin. She is a virgin in the oldest sense of the word: ever a maiden beholden to no man. It was this virginity that allowed Athena to exist in realms outside of those typically open to Greek women. Now that we live in a society where women and men are recognized as equals it is time to restore Athena's roles beyond that of the eternally chaste daughter.

Sources Cited:

Theoi Project: Athena
Theoi Project: Hephaestos
Burkert, Walter: Greek Religion.
Gimbutas, Marija: The Language of the Goddess.
Kerenyi, Karl: Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion.
Parker, Robert: Polytheism and Society at Athens.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Ever-Near Goddess

Walter F. Otto in his oft-quoted work The Homeric Gods calls Athena "the ever-near" goddess:
Only the 'bright-eyed intelligence' capable of discerning the decisive element at every juncture and of supplying the most effective instrumentality is an adequate characterization of her ideal . Consummation, the immediate present, action here and now - that is Athena. She is spirited immediacy, redeeming spiritual presence, swift action. She is the 'ever-near'.
Athena stands behind Her favorite heroes and invisibly whispers advice, reason, and wisdom. Although it is a modern epithet it is a telling one. Athena is often overlooked by those who seek Her because She is already so ingrained in our lives.

I read a plea on a board tonight from a woman who offers Athena prayers, incense, and olive oil, but is left cold in her quest to find Athena. Athena is a remarkable theoi. She is found in every rational action, every skillful movement, every whisper of wisdom in our minds. She is the soft voice just behind you urging you to speak out, to learn, to try again.

Yes, there are times, rare and unbidden, where She reveals Herself to us in an omen, a shiver, a gleam of silver light. She may come to us in dreams, dazzling in Her finely woven raiment and polished bronze armor. We may hear Her clear strong voice, or be blessed with an inward vision of Her unspeakably marvelous eyes. But this is not how She usually comes.

Athena feels like the solemn peace of the gray fog of morning spreading its dew on all living things. She sounds like the perfect bon-mot falling from your mouth. She is the right book that you just happen to read at the perfect time. She is the meditative state that accompanies the creation of any art. It is good to seek Athena, but it is better to know that She is already with you. She is truly the ever near goddess.

Brilliant Theoi Picspam

Really, this is bloody brilliant as far as picspam goes. A woman over at LiveJournal "casts" the theoi according to popular stars of the day. I don't agree with everyone. Paltrow as Athena rings false to me, but I'm hard pressed to choose an actress that could do Her justice. I love Hugh Laurie as Hephaestus and Sean Bean as Zeus. Her choice for Dionysus is all wrong. Oh, just go look! What do you think? Who would play your Gods in your very own Homeric movie?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Physical Fitness

As much as it pains my considerable vanity to admit it, I am overweight. Not "oh, golly, I sure could stand to lost ten pounds" overweight, either. No, I'm a good 50 lbs more than the healthy weight for my frame. And I hate it. I hate that I can't do a pull-up and that I get winded walking uphill. I hate the way my clothes hang on me -- they really don't "hang" at all anymore -- and the way I look in photographs.

In classical Greece a high premium was placed on physical fitness. This didn't mean starving oneself to achieve the rail-thin body type women in today's society are expected to maintain. It meant that men and women were expected to be strong, healthy, physically fit individuals. Men attended the gymnasia where they were put through rigorous training to keep them fit. They had to remain fit well into what we would consider older age in order to properly defend their city-state.

In Sparta men and women were taught to wrestle from a young age. For all that the film 300 got wrong about Spartan culture, the spirit of how they portrayed youth was fairly accurate. Greeks fought in the Pankration style, which is remarkably similar to our modern Mixed Martial Arts fighting. Imagine for a moment a society in which citizens are encouraged to actively participate in philosophy, local government, and the UFC. The Greeks, very simply, were badasses.

All of this makes my own weakness and general poor health seem more than laziness. I feel like I'm failing at my religious obligations. So I'm doing something about it. I've started weightlifting according to the StrongLifts 5x5 program, which uses barbell training and lots of squats. Tomorrow will be my third day on the program, or one week. I'm already feeling stronger in my core, and more than a little sore in my thighs (the squats are working!). I am not modifying my diet except to add more protein after workouts. I'm hoping to build muscle and strength and to burn body fat more effectively. In my experience cardio training just doesn't work as well as weight training for overall physical fitness. I'll be recording my fitness milestones in this blog. StrongLifts 5x5 promises to get me to a place where I'll be able to bench my ideal body weight (130lbs) and deadlift 1.5 x my ideal body weight (about 200 lbs). Right now those numbers seem impossibly high, but the program is designed to add weight in five pound increments each workout in order to train your muscles to lift heavier weight.

I'm a little concerned about becoming a gym rat, one of those people who talks all the time about how much they can bench, how much time they spent at the gym, or what they weigh. I can't stand those types of people, and I promise that my blog will not become a place for that kind of self-involved rhetoric. Also, I don't judge anyone who doesn't choose to exercise. How could I? I've been a lazy lump for years, and I'm only changing my lifestyle now because I'm sick of myself. I read recently about how no one ever makes a conscious change in their life until they are "at a 10". You can be fed up for years at a 9.5 and still not be ready to change. Then one day you wake up and with a sense of peace and grace and you are ready to change. You are at a 10. My "10" moment came when I went to put on my favorite butch hipster shirt -- an awesome vintage fitted western button-down piece that my dad gave me -- and found that it was too tight to squeeze my pudgy belly into. The beautiful mother-of-pearl buttons gaped open around my distended middle.

I'll never be a Pankration fighter. I'll never be a Spartan warrior, and I'll never look like Gorgo from 300 unless I starve myself. But I can be better. I can be stronger. I can be healthier. I can change for myself and for my Gods.


The poets call me the gray-eyed Goddess.
Sliver as the glint from a spear point.
Wild with battle fury.
But my sight is sharper than a weapon.

The scholars claim I came from a storm.
Mosture laden.
Eerie dark grey-green as the most dangerous clouds.
Bright as Zeus's lightning.
But my wisdom is more penetrating than rain.

The priests say I stare like an owl.
Glassy blue pupils with no whites.
Able to see even in the faintest light.
But my eyes are older than the darkness.

Turn not away from my gaze, mortal.
I see all.
Rather, look me in the eyes and know the mystery.
Drink of my ancient pools of wisdom.
Know you the color of my eyes.

Written for Noumenia, Mounukhion 1.

Glaukopis is the epithet of Athena that I usually honor in my everyday worship. It has many translations: silver, blue-green, and gray-eyed, shining, flashing, and glinting-eyed, and, the oldest, and one of particular relevance to my own practice: owl-eyed. I have come to think of these many translations not just as an accident of an evolving language, but as a kind of mystery. Athena's eyes cannot be described completely by any one of the translations above, but encompasses all of them. I feel greatly honored to have 'seen' the color of Athena's eyes, although I will never be able to find the right words to explain them. This little hymn is my feeble attempt.