Polytheism and Hollywood (should we call it “Hollytheism”?)

It’s been a sad weekend for me here, as my thoughts are far away from here. ConVocation is finishing up as I write this, but I couldn’t attend because of work and lack of money. Hopefully my Grovemates will bring back many stories of educational and fun things, and hopefully I can actually go next year!

So instead, I’m watching the first season of the HBO television series Rome on DVD. I had heard about the series when it first came out, but with no HBO I had to wait until now to see it. (Libraries are great!) It’s been enjoyable to watch, even though I know the history of this era pretty well already, the stylistic choices made by the production team have been interesting. The huge amounts of nudity and violence weren’t a surprise, because hey, it’s not TV, it’s HBO, and not only can they get away with it, they can market it.

What has surprised me a bit is how open they are about the polytheism of that culture. The setting is several decades before that Joshua ben Joseph fellow was born, so of course they can’t make any references to Christianity without looking very silly. But the other movies and TV series I’ve seen from that time tend to gloss over the religion issue altogether. (I, Claudius leaps to mind, though the two books that series was based on go into much greater detail of their religious practices.) No, this series shows the characters praying at household altars and making sacrifices and telling lewd jokes about the gods (and getting yelled at by other, more pious people) and all the sorts of things that would be commonplace in ancient times. I’d love to say how touched I am by such an honest portrayal of a culture that most Americans would find alien, but I can’t figure out whether the folks making the show are just doing it to be sensationalist. (“They had public executions, they owned slaves, the nobility committed incest, and they thought there was more than one god! How barbarous!”)

Then again, even if polytheism isn’t being depicted for noble reasons, at least it’s being depicted. Gen and I watched 300 a few months ago, and were aghast at some of the dialogue in that one. Leonidas refers to the council of Sparta as “worshipping the old gods” – what, the Titans? Another character comments on his losing an eye in battle with “God saw fit to give me two” – Gen and I said “which god?” aloud simultaneously. I know, I was probably expecting too much from a mass-market big budget action flick (and I’ve since read the original graphic novel and found that it had many of the same mistakes), but is it really that hard for creative folks to understand how a polytheistic culture could possibly have worked? Or was this a deliberate effort on their part not to confuse their audience with such things? Either way, it saddens me a little. But then seeing the polytheism of Rome cheers me up a little. I don’t know whether this will make it easier to explain to the non-pagans out there how we do things. I hope so.

In any case, if you’re an adult or have parental supervision, watch Rome, it’s pretty good!

Next week, I’ll write about our plans for the Spring Equinox.

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

PS – If you can find it, the History Channel did a show about Thermopylae called “Last Stand of the 300” which is worth seeking out. Very informative and a good deal more accurate than the movie.

Is the Body Willing but the Spirit Weak?

This was originally published in Shining Lakes News, Summer Solstice 2003.  Sorry I’m resorting to a reprint, but I’ve been ill today.  Something new next week, I promise!

Echo: In ancient Greek myth, she was a mountain nymph whose misplaced love of the self-absorbed Narcissus made her pine away until nothing was left of her but her voice. We now use her name to refer to sounds that we hear repeated. And there’s a sound that I’ve heard so often-in voice and in the high-pitched hum of the computer monitor-that I can safely call it an echo. It’s the sound of someone asking, “Why can’t SLG and ADF be more spiritual?”

“Now, I don’t want to go off on a rant here,” as that TV host with the obscure references always says. Unlike him, though, I won’t just rant about this again. Anyone who’s read this newsletter or talked to me about this in person already knows durn well how I feel about this: that the Grove’s spiritual needs are being better met than its organizational needs, and that this misplaced focus reminds me of someone who stays up all night long playing video games or on-line chatting without any regard for their need to sleep or eat. (Okay, maybe I can identify with that a little.) It’s fun and fulfilling in several ways, but unless you take care of the physical needs you won’t have much energy for the spiritual ones. But you’ve heard it before, and I’m as tired of saying it as I bet you are of hearing and reading it. So I’ve decided to try something new.

Every time someone gives me that line, I have the same question rolling around in my head. “What exactly do you mean by “more spiritual”? I’ve learned a few things during my 13 years as a neo-Pagan, and one thing I know about the neo-Pagan definition of “spirituality” is that there ain’t no such thing. No single thing, in any case.

In a very loose sense, I would define it as “any practice that brings one into contact with the Kindreds.” Even if we agree to that definition, though, how do we do that? A monk might do it by taking a vow of silence; a Free Baptist might do it by singing a gospel song at the top of her voice. For a Buddhist, it might be sitting quietly and meditating; for a follower of the Norse gods, it might be running around a paintball field screaming at his opponents. For a Thelemite, it can mean self-improvement; for many others (and maybe that Thelemite as well), it can mean helping others. So don’t assume that I know what you mean when you say you want things to be more spiritual. For all I know, you want to want to organize a food drive by shooting paintballs at people while singing.

So if we can’t agree on a definition, is all hope lost? Of course not. This is a polytheistic group, and where there are many gods, there are many ways of getting things done. The key here, I think, is that we need to know what you want to do. I see my role as Senior Druid as one in which I help Grove members find ways to fulfill their spiritual needs. I’m not someone who’s going to come to your house and spoon-feed you “spirit,” nor should I be. Remember, if you think something is a good spiritual activity, other people in SLG and the local community may agree with you, and isn’t the point of being in a group like this that you can do these things with other people instead of doing them alone in the corner of your living room?

Now I know that people sometimes don’t feel comfortable telling me what they want when they think I won’t agree with them, and sometimes even when they think I will agree. Yes, I know I look a lot like Shrek (too bad I can’t pull candles out of my ears, though; they would make great fundraising items), but I really do want to know what the needs of my Grove are. Honest. Cross my heart and swear to Athena. Consider this article a coupon. Your

My 2 cents: Tell Rob One Thing You Want The Grove To Do And He's Not Allowed To Be Mean To You COUPON Good for SLG members and non-members alike!

Show it to me at any Grove event, or just e-mail me, and use it. Tell me you want a monthly yoga meeting. Tell me you want to do full moon rituals. Tell me you want to organize a summer trip to some neat and exciting place. Tell me you want to organize a food drive by shooting paintballs at people while singing. (And that’s something I would volunteer for!) I may not agree with your idea, but I want to hear it. Really, what’s the worst thing I could say? Easy — I could say, “That’s a great idea, you should help us make that happen.” And that’s when you’ll know that maybe being spiritual and being well-administrated and organized aren’t the opposites you thought they were.

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

Ritual Post-Game Show

It won’t be a huge entry this week, since between the Imbolc ritual yesterday and preparations for Valentine’s Day at the flower store this week, I’ve not had a lot of time to write.

Yesterday’s rite was, well, not quite what I expected, but then again how many of our rites are? Usually our Imbolc rites attract a fairly good crowd, but it sounds like everyone’s car decided to get sick at the same time. We only had sixteen folks yesterday, and seven of them were first-timers. As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, getting a “group mind” established in a public rite is a challenge, and moreso when it’s a lot of new people who don’t necessarily know what to expect. So I made sure to talk during the segues (pronounced “segways”, like those silly-looking wheeled things people stand on), saying things like, “Now that we have opened the gates, we invite the Kindreds to be with us here in the ritual space”, things that maybe I wouldn’t need to say if everyone was an experienced ADF congregant, though it couldn’t hurt!

The ritual went well, I thought. We passed bread around the circle and had everyone cut a piece off, and then offered the bread to Bríd. We also offered her a Bríd cross, which we threw into the river after the rite, to honor her more watery aspects. We had a very good omen, with the runes telling us that Bríd wanted to act as a divine inspiration to us. As our return blessing, we gave out our traditional brat Bríds (or should that be brats Bríd?), and we took turns holding the knife in a candle flame and thought of the hard times in our lives, and asked Bríd to help us learn and grow from those hard times and become stronger, as a blade becomes stronger by being tempered in a flame. So we managed to honor her fiery aspects as well as her watery ones.

I’d say that everyone thought the ritual went well, but I hate to speak for others, maybe people could actually post a comment here and not only confirm my assessment but also prove that somebody is reading this blog? >8)

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF

Can the Forces of Chaos Ruin a Perfect Season?

So as Rodney and I were traveling from house to house during the Brídeog last night, the talk turned (as it often does) to football.

“Who do you want to win tomorrow?” Rod asked.

“Definitely the Patriots. A perfect season would be great to watch, plus their quarterback is from Michigan.”

“Yeah, me too, just because of the name of the other team.”

I smiled at that. Rodney being the Norse practitioner that he is, of course he can’t root for a team named the Giants, any more than I could ever bring myself to root for a team named the Titans. I kinda feel sorry for those teams for choosing a nickname that happens to be the enemy of a group of ancient gods, and wonder if they would still use those nicknames if they knew. Then again, we have a professional hockey team named the Devils, and plenty of college teams with Devil or Demon in their nicknames, so maybe this just isn’t a problem for most people.

We in ADF base our practices on the cultures of the ancient Indo-Europeans, and the legends of those cultures have a common theme of the gods defeating an older group of beings, usually associated with chaos and/or destruction, in order to make the world an ordered place for the gods and mortals to live together in relative peace and tranquility. The Irish had the Fomorians, the Norse had the Giants, the Greeks and Romans had the Titans, and so on.

Clearly this relationship with the gods was important to the Ancients, but how should we modern neo-Pagans apply this to our rites? Once upon a time, ADF’s Core Order of Ritual included an acknowledgement of the Outdwellers or Outsiders. The current CooR no longer includes them, as many groups don’t want anything to do with them (thinking that to even acknowledge the existence of hostile entities is to give them strength), but several Grove and individuals do still include them in the Liturgy. And we have no one fixed was of dealing with them. Many Groves call upon a protector deity to be present in the rite and prevent the Outdwellers from interfering, others (SLG included) make a food offering some distance away from the ritual center to act as a distraction. For that matter, our various Groves don’t even agree on who we really refer to when we talk about the Outdwellers in a ritual context. Are these spiritual entities who really want to physically harm us? Entities who just want to interfere with the flow of the rite? Local teens who wandered into the woods, got drunk, and are looking for ways to amuse themselves? Small children who scream loudly through the entire rite? All of the above? And should we try to be nice to them, as modern people who maybe don’t want to view the world through an insider/outsider frame of reference? The whole concept is hard to define, compared to the other elements of our liturgy, but I think that’s inherent in their nature.

So what should we, as good neo-Pagans do? As always, we have to choose something and see how it works. Our Grove views the Outsiders (which we still call the Outsiders, and I’m never going to get my Grovemates to call them Outdwellers instead, not after fourteen years of using “Outsiders”) as forces of chaos, not necessarily malevolent, but definitely capable of interfering with our rita, so we make a food offering (either outside the nemeton for our outdoor rites, or outside the building for our indoor ones) and ask them not to disturb us too badly during the ritual itself. Too much chaos is no way to run a ritual, but a complete absence of chaos means stagnation, and that’s not what we want for our rites or our Grove.

You readers, of course, can choose to view the Outdwellers in some other way, or not at all. That’s how the Grand Experiment That Is ADF works, after all!

Oh, and I pick the Patriots to win by 9.

Have a super week!

Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF