Posted by: aediculaantinoi | February 4, 2012

How To Be An Idolater Without Being Idolatrous…!?!

This is one of these posts that, if you asked me even five hours ago, I’d not have thought in a million years I’d be writing today, and perhaps at all. But, here we are…

I must give a great deal of credit to Star Foster at’s Pagan Portal, because she is the “direct” inspiration for this. In a post on “When Hinduism Confuses and Frustrates Me,” Star made a brief statement, which I’m the only one thus far to have further commented upon, which I think is deserving of some further elaboration. But, perhaps first I should give the background for what happened.

Star was discussing how a particular Hindu individual made a public statement in a major news outlet attempting to distance Hinduism from a lot of “evil” pagan things, like polytheism and idolatry. Star disputed some of the veracity of these statements, both in terms of Hinduism itself and in terms of the inaccuracies of the statements when applied to modern Paganism. In doing so, she said the following (emphasis in bold mine):

I don’t know a single Pagan who worships an image, and to see a Hindu spout this “ignorant statue worshipper” nonsense is disheartening. Frankly, Catholics have more taboos and superstition regarding their icons and symbols than we have regarding our religious artwork.

I fully realize that Star was mainly addressing her concerns to the overall attempt of this individual to distance Hinduism from (modern) Paganism in an effort to “win points” with the monotheistic religions, and I fully applaud that effort and her perceptive pointing out of the contradictions inherent in such an effort. However, I have some dispute of my own with Star’s statement, and thus I responded in the following way:

“I don’t know a single Pagan who worships an image…”

Yes you do, Star: me. (And, I am being serious here…)

Please don’t make the mistake of distancing yourself from those of us who do have practices that include adorations of images, statues, and the like, and not merely as “symbols” or other such notions, in the same way that this particular Hindu is distancing himself–and attempting to distance his entire religion–from “those evil polytheists.”

As others have commented, and even more so due to the sheer number of modern Hindus and their very vibrant pluralism, this one single person cannot speak for all of Hinduism. Unfortunately, Christians and others who might be reading his comments probably don’t know that, as they tend to think other religions have authoritative hierarchies and so forth, and thus someone making such a statement is “definitive” in doing so…But in any case, it is sad that such is the case.

The “philosophical modern Hindu,” who tends to have a monistic approach to the plurality of deities, does ultimately line up more with monotheism (as well as what many people think of as “mysticism,” which is a misnomer, but also the broad rhetoric of sections of the interfaith movement, etc.), and is entirely off-putting from my viewpoint. The historical span and geographic range of Indian religious history has meant that intra-pantheonic syncretism has been built in to the eventual development of Hinduism as we know it now; in other words, originally separate regional cults, myths, and gods got merged into larger narratives and turned into epithets of a more major god as peoples mixed, traveled, and as rulers eventually had influence over larger territories. (The same happened in ancient Greece, Egypt, etc.) But because the Upanishads took a particular interpretation of these things–and, note, it’s not “reality,” it’s just a potential philosophical interpretation–and those texts and philosophies went on to become extremely popular and expedient to creating social cohesion, they increased and eventually have assumed a status as a kind of orthodoxy. This became even more the case when Islam and Christianity came onto the scene in larger ways in India, and when the British had their (Christian) Empire; it also highly influenced both the theological development of Buddhism (long before Christianity was a factor) and Sikhism (several centuries after Islam was a factor). It is unfortunate that the “modern philosophical Hindu,” usually also urban and educated, has this view, and even looks down on the “primitive” and “unsophisticated” folk Hindu practitioners in the more remote areas, whose theologies and practices are much closer to, or actually are, polytheistic rather than monistic.

To this, Star responded further:

Fascinating, you worship a discrete, concrete object? Not merely as a representation of something else? I did not know that! You are literally the only Pagan I know who does that!

And, I responded further as well:

Yes–lots of them, actually; some of them are objects in my home shrine space, that share in the divinity of the being that they represent; others are the literal features of the land I inhabit, e.g. a particular nearby mountain, particular rivers, etc.

“Enlivened” statues and other “objects with souls” are at the very heart of many animist practices (and, in fact, in most animist practices there is no such thing as an “inanimate object” of any kind!). Other religions have practices like this as well, including the Hindu practice of making food offerings to a murti, whereupon it is considered “alive” and can no longer be moved, etc. (So, saying that Hindus don’t “worship statues” is not entirely true…the distinction between the means used to do cultus and the object of the cultus is one that many people don’t ever make.) Egyptian practice also does this; and, some neoplatonic practices do as well, including some that have filtered into (or, according to Don Frew and others, have been continued in) certain forms of Wicca and ceremonial magic.

I suspect, thus, that you probably know more people than you may realize who do this…! :)

Now, I think that’s good as far as it goes; but, I’d like to elaborate a bit further on some of these ideas, as I think it might be useful to think about. Even if you don’t agree with me on these matters–I fully expect many of you may not–they might be interesting to contemplate nonetheless. I would ask the following, however: if you don’t agree with me on these matters, that’s fine, but please do not comment below telling me why I’m wrong and should change my ways. Thank you in advance for observing this caveat!

Various people at the American Academy of Religion who are involved with Pagan Studies, including Chas Clifton and Michael York, have held sessions over the past few years dealing with the topic of “idolatry” in Paganism quite a bit. Here’s a recent-ish post by Clifton on the matter. I have not been able to read any of the publications that have resulted from this effort thus far, but I have some of my own ideas on the matter, and if I’m wearing my theological hat (which, ’round these parts, is known as “the top of my skull”!), some things naturally end up following from those ideas.

The western world has a very bad set of associations with the world “idol” (outside of certain sections of popular culture involving Steven Tyler); but if one takes it back to ancient Greece, the word eidolon means, most basically, “phantom,” “idea,” or “image in the mind,” and only later came to be associated with physical images of deities, and eventually (under monotheist interpretation) “false images, false gods.” However, I have seen this term, eidolon, used by a number of modern Hellenics, as well as some scholars, to describe any major statue of a deity in an ancient temple, or indeed any image of a deity at all.

A word I like a little bit better, agalma, is one that gets used in relation to Antinous specifically in a few late antique historical texts, and it is much nicer in its connotations: it can mean “anything pleasing,” “a pleasing gift,” and “a gift to the gods,” and it eventually comes to mean “a statue of a god” or “an image” (generally speaking). To describe the many cultic images of Antinous in the ancient world that were set up by Hadrian as agalmata rather than with another word like eidolon is quite beautiful: they were images, and images of a god specifically, but also pleasing gifts, and pleasing generally speaking. I think most people would agree that the images of Antinous that have survived from the ancient world are quite pleasing in many different ways…! ;)

And yet, the baggage that has attached itself to the word “idol” in western post-Christian culture is such that anyone and everyone–including many modern Pagans who are otherwise quite affirming of the value of material things, the importance of beauty, and the validity and vitality of symbols–seems to flee from the notion that one’s ideas or practices are in any way “idolatrous.” I think the efforts by Clifton, York, and co. have been toward reclaiming the notion and the vocabulary of “idolatry,” and thus I’m entirely in favor of such efforts. (Please correct me if I’m wrong on this–as I said, I have not read any of the publications that have resulted from the AAR sessions they’ve held.)

In dealing with this matter further, first, I think I need to outline my own practices and how they might be considered “idolatrous.” Next, I need to discuss a few of the theological systems that underlie different approaches to such matters. And finally, I think I’d like to make a distinction between being “idolatrous” in the manner of understanding as “material sacredness” (up to and including reverence for particular images of deities in their physical embodiments/forms, and not just because they’re “windows on the divine“–and I resist the italicized phrase there with every fiber of my polytheistic being, since I’m not a monist!), while further making a distinction between such practices and ideas and the negative and stigmatized meaning of “idolatrous” in terms of the reverencing of insubstantial ideas or images.

Pretty simple, really, then. ;)

I just realized that I’ve never properly elaborated in this blog thus far on how Antinous’ cultus is, in many respects, a “cult of beauty”–and not just “conventional physical youthful male beauty,” but all sort of beauty, including in art and ritual and life generally speaking. (I’ve touched on it here, in a post that continues to rack up the hits week by week, for some strange reason…?!?) I think of the “beauty” referred to here as not an exclusive beauty, which some people or things possess but others do not (and cannot), but instead as an inclusive notion of beauty, one that is expansive and accommodating and potentially all-encompassing, and that is also alchemical and transformative. By this I mean that beauty is everywhere to be found, and even where there is ugliness (particularly of the moral kind–and that’s the primary context in which I use the word “ugly”), it has the potential to be transformed into beauty quite easily, under the right circumstances. Kalokagathia, the notion of “beauty of body results from beauty of soul,” would seem to indicate that anyone who is physically attractive is also morally upstanding and spiritually advanced, which we all know is nonsense these days; but I have come to understand kalokagathia as in some way “the reverse” of the more traditional notion–if the goodness is there, then the beauty follows it naturally. This doesn’t mean that I will become more physically beautiful as I become more spiritually and morally praiseworthy–and I think the last decade has proven any such notion entirely wrong in my own case!–but I do think that there are people who one meets who simply shine with beauty, no matter what they look like, because they have and they are agathos in their own souls. I want to emphasize, though, that this is not the spiritual equivalent of saying “That person’s got a good personality,” even though I do think that quite often three-fourths (if not more) of “cute” is “niceness.” And, I do think that it is almost unavoidable that no matter what one’s physical status happens to be, it is possible for one to be beautiful. To be “attractive in the eyes of a particular person” is another matter entirely; and yet, we too often mistake the latter–particularly when it is our own eyes–for judgments on the former. But, I digress slightly…

The very image of Antinous, both as it has survived from the ancient world in various statues, and as it is being re-created in the modern art (devotional and otherwise) of a number of people, is beautiful, and is revelatory of divine qualities, both because of who Antinous is and what his own history (both pre- and post-apotheosis) happened to be, but also just generally speaking. Any number of “nameless” figures from the ancient world, who were models and had statues made of themselves, may not have been given the form of gods and goddesses, but there is still something completely divine about their beauty as it has been preserved. I actively reverence this sort of beauty, I adore it, and–yes–I worship it, not just in the sense of “investing it with worth” or “honor it,” but I mean fall-down-my-knees-before-it, have my heart speed up when I am in the presence of it, get an electrical charge from even touching or kissing it, and so forth. Sometimes, the particular history of a certain image, who made it or used it, where it has previously been, and what was done with it, also confers a certain aura of further mystery, significance, or presence to the image concerned–and, I’ve encountered a few of those over the years.

Yes, certainly, I see the image and the presence and the indication of the deity or the figure that comes through in such images, and thus can respond to them as a “window on the divinity”–indeed, that’s what they’re primarily for–but I am also in awe of the resulting objects themselves, that human hands, creativity, and ingenuity are capable of creating such things, that the medium itself can express such beauty…And, the object itself is often “alive” and unique in ways that are connected to but largely independent of those other factors.

Some images of Antinous (and other deities) have a personality and a presence that are uniquely their own; while others seem to be lifeless and even distasteful, even when they get all of the basic diagnostic features “right” or portray the subject accurately. I’ve seen some beautiful artistic representations of Antinous, I’ve seen some that don’t do much for me, and I’ve also seen some that actively turn me off and nearly disgust me…and the latter are particularly upsetting and disturbing for that reason, since Antinous is a being that I take the utmost and most immense joy in knowing, acknowledging, and interacting with.

My own main cultic image of Antinous is based on an original that is one of my favorites; and yet, it’s not a perfect replica by any means–indeed, from some angles it almost seems like it is a different person altogether. However, it has become “something of its own,” and not merely an outlet into or a window upon Antinous, in the nearly two years that I’ve had it. It is primarily such a window, and I obtained it and continue to value it highly because of that; and yet, it’s also “its own thing,” in the same way that just as every person may have a divine spark within them, nonetheless I think it’s rude (as a polytheist, but also just generally) to treat every single person “the same” as if that divine spark is “the same” in everyone, despite whatever their own histories and character may be, rather than treating them as a particular and unique instantiation of divinity that is quite specific to the person, their history, and their character. Indeed, this approach underlies my entire polytheistic theology, and I’d have it no other way, personally.

[It was, and is, difficult in the previous paragraph, and in general, speaking of my image of Antinous as "it"--because whatever else that image may be, it's certainly not an "it" in the way that term is understood by most English-speakers!]

There are other objects that I currently possess which also fall into this category. The “Doctor’s Edition” of Devotio Antinoo, which I’ve written about recently, is one such further “magical possession” that I actively reverence and worship…It’s no longer just a book to me, it’s something far more, and that requires particular attention and treatment.

The terminological difficulty here is actually more difficult to address than I had expected, and I’m struggling with it. To talk about different “objects” as objects is something that I strongly object to–if you’ll excuse the pun! They’re not “objects,” they’re subjects, or they are beings…But to talk about them under the phrase “magical items” makes it sound like Dungeons & Dragons

And, this gets to the second set of matters that I wanted to address: the theological underpinnings for some of these notions, and the overlaps and nuances as well as misconstructions inherent in many of them. A great deal of what I’m discussing here falls under the general category of “animism” in many understandings of the term. For animists, there is no such thing as an “inanimate object” (or, as the name of an important blog from the Pagan Newswire Collective on these subjects is, there is No Unsacred Place), and I find that’s the case with myself. Many people who have an animist practice particularly reverence their magical tools and the spirits within them, and cultivate relationships with them, but the attitude to other things may not be quite so reverent–it doesn’t have to be, by any means, but it often amazes me how some self-proclaimed animists treat a particular necklace or hand-held item with as much–if not more–care and reverence as a first-class relic in Catholicism, and yet they’ll carelessly mistreat or disregard the possessions of others (including magical tools) without a second thought. I’ve recently heard a further distinction in animism, though, which the person explaining it called “animatism,” which he clarified by saying that animism tends to think that everything has a spirit (which is often semi-detachable or independent of the object itself), whereas an animatist approach says that the object and the spirit cannot be abstracted from one another, and in effect the one is the other. I think that Shinto might fall more into the animatist category, and I am also finding that it largely applies to me and my own practices and experiences as well…

Then there’s the matter of “pantheism,” the notion that “everything is divine.” This is a term that is often used in a pejorative fashion (more by certain religious groups who are monotheists than others), and a great many people–both Pagan and in other religions–have tried to distance themselves from the pantheist label, instead preferring to think of themselves as “panentheists,” i.e. people who see the presence of “the divine” (again, I naturally recoil from such usages) in all things, but it isn’t synonymous with it. I think this is another set of terms–but relying on Greek roots rather than Latin ones–that is ultimately not unlike animist and animatist, but in the reverse fashion, which is to say, an animatist and a pantheist are similar or the same, and an animist and a panentheist are similar or the same. I think the biggest distinction between these is that oftentimes animist/animatists, or those who classify particular people and practices as such, don’t think strictly in terms of gods, but instead of different types and classes of spirits, or even of divine energies being present in different forms, whereas pantheists and panentheists tend to speak more in terms of deities (or, as is far too often the case, a single deity) being present in various ways in physical objects, nature, and so forth.

[Let's entirely ignore the way that the term "pantheist" has been used to mean "super-syncretist" as well, as in the case of the "pantheistic hands" associated with Sabazios, or the "pantheist" notion of Isis in Apuleius, etc.!]

But, there’s also a manner in which far too many people–no doubt under the terms and styles of thinking that are prevalent amongst monotheists, and which have filtered into a great deal of ostensibly non-monotheist systems as well–seem to think that notions of animism and pantheism both (whether potentially, inevitably, or automatically) slide into, or even are synonymous with, monism, and thus monotheism. With the way far too many modern Pagans, including those who claim to be “hard polytheists,” talk about “the divine” (which I’ve made a point of railing against several times in this entry already!) or “deity” without making explicit a cognition of difference, distinction, and diversity within such notions, it is easy to see how infectious and even insistent control of the discourse and the particular terminologies of theology have been slanted in the modern world toward such usages, which make the monotheist viewpoint seem more sensible, if not at least more expectable and more conventional and thus acceptable, than usages which would more accurately reflect polytheist’s (necessarily plural!) viewpoints. It makes discussions of polytheism, when couched in terms like “the divine” and “deity,” literal occasions of paying lip-service to polytheism, and very often without realizing the people doing such are actually not affirming their own viewpoint as they do so.

I think this is a very big problem, and thus I’d like to see some change on it amongst those who are polytheists and who have polytheist viewpoints, as a tangible and definite manner in which one can move away from, critique, and eventually discard monotheist notions underlying one’s attempts to make headway in polytheist practice, theory, discussion, language, and theology.

So, in my polytheistic viewpoint, with animatism and pantheism playing into the picture, and the traditional views of certain ancient and modern cultures on how religious images and “objects” in particular may not be mere “windows on divinity,” I actively do pay cultus not only to deities that are separable from the images I directly interact with, but do so in a context in which I think the images and “objects” themselves are acknowledged as divine-in-themselves. This occurs as well with the land I live in and love, with places like Mt. Erie, or the Skagit River. The divinity in these things, though it can be interacted with from a distance, has no meaning or existence apart from the very physicality of the manifestations that those rivers and mountains have at this point in history. Sure, there are other rivers that are made of water going through land; sure, there are other mountains and hills that are made of the same type of rock in different sizes and amounts and arrangements; however, this river and this mountain happen to be special and divine because they are this way in this place.

But now, after all that, and after me admitting that I actually worship images not just as images, and that I am–just as the Hindu writer and others have feared–one of those “awful statue-worshippers,” how can I then say that it is possible to be “idolatrous” in a “bad way”? And for this, I have to come back to the notion of eidolon itself. The primary meaning of eidolon, according to Liddell and Scott’s lexicon, is “phantom,” which is to say, something that has the semblance of an image but is insubstantial, and even ephemeral or entirely illusory in its incorporeality. This then shades into the meanings on “ideas about things” or “images in the mind,” and the mind is an inherently unstable and insubstantial medium in which to exist. I’ve heard certain people suggest that “the idea of the god is the god,” while others have suggested that any deity who can be encompassed by an idea and thus by the mind is inferior because if the mind disappears, then the god likewise disappears, so it is far better (and in fact far more correct) for a person to not have any ideas of a deity, or to have a deity that is beyond any and all ideas. Some of these notions are taken as de rigeur for “mysticism,” as I alluded to in my initial response to Star Foster given above; but, these notions are pretty inseparable from monistic or monotheistic forms of mysticism, and specifically to the creedal element inherent in most forms of insistent monotheism.

What do I mean by this? The tendency with these types of insistent creedal monotheism is to suggest that their singular deity is all-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, but also transcendent, and any number of other utter superlatives that make the experience, thought, or comprehension of such a being completely impossible for humans to achieve; if it can be achieved at all, it is only “seeing through a glass darkly.” (As someone who sees most of the world through dark glasses due to vision difficulties, I don’t see how this is a bad thing!–but, that’s a side issue…) Thus, experience of such a being is impossible, but therefore “belief” in such a being must be enforced, and any notion that one can have experience or knowledge of such a being as a human is frowned upon, denigrated, or even condemned. It is true, mystics have not always had a good track-record of acceptance or survival in the insistently creedal monotheist religions, and yet most of them have also–despite whatever experiences individual mystics have had–not in any way attempted to revise or question the underlying notions of such creedal monotheist theologies (e.g. the omnipotent, omniscient, etc. “characteristics,” or, perhaps more accurately, non-characteristics). While dialectical and negative theologies that flow from such ponderings can potentially be useful, I think they are equally liable to fall into mistakes of idolatry in doing so.

And here, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Sancta Simone Weil, whose dies natalis was yesterday, which I found in the book of her writings, Waiting for God:

It does not rest with the soul to believe in the reality of God unless God reveals this reality. In trying to do so, it either labels something else with the name of God–and that is idolatry–or else its belief in God remains abstract and verbal.

I would like to suggest here that both the abstract and verbal belief in a deity (including the supposed monotheistic deity–which, if it did exist by monotheist definitions, would not be able to be comprehended, thus making all monotheistic mystics liars and all monotheistic religion worthless and pointless; but, which may in fact exist and can be experienced, thus making the various monotheistic mystics truth-tellers, while also therefore making most monotheist theologies incorrect!) and the idolatry Weil describes are both the same thing. There are too many people who think certain things about particular deities, and they often do this without any direct experience of the deity in question, and instead insist upon a particular “belief” to the effect they suggest, and often even seek to enforce and coerce upon others. (In Weil’s quote, therefore, “belief” becomes a non-issue; if the reality of a deity has been revealed to a particular soul, then belief is no longer necessary, and instead “knowledge” is the appropriate term for the discussion.)

It is possible to have something new or different emerge about a deity when one encounters that deity, which is unprecedented and even shocking–and that “unprecedented” category or nature of such experiences is something I’d like to suggest as an alternate, and perhaps even preferable, expansion for the “u” in the acronym “UPG” as it gets used in modern (particularly reconstructionist forms of) Paganism. To attempt categorizing such experiences or information by the “fact” that it is/they are “unverified” seems ridiculous, since there is no central authority that has any right to “verify” particular experiences or information, and “the lore” was never meant to act in that capacity either. Indeed, a great deal of “the lore” was the result of what would be called “UPG” in the modern period, and it occurred through poetic or experiential insight, but has since become “canonical”–often despite the fact that the texts in which such information is recorded rarely (if ever) had status as “canon” or was produced with such usages in mind.

(The discussion in the preceding paragraph was not in my original intention to address…but, if it’s useful, hurrah! One often never knows where these things will go when one sits down to write them!)

But, realizing that one’s own individual experiences of deities are individual, and thus may not be (and probably are not and never would, could, or should be!) binding on others is really an important dimension of this discussion. Yes, by all means, write about your experiences of the gods and your ideas about the gods in prose and in poetry, produce treatises on them, create beautiful art reflecting your visions, and so forth; and, in many cases, these productions will go on to shape or prompt particular other people to have experiences of these deities of their own, and may also (hopefully!) lead them to have their own further unique experiences and occasions of Unprecedented Personal Gnosis in relation to the deities. Knowing the difference between what is “for everyone” and what isn’t, and creating one’s art in such a spirit of knowledge and discernment of these differences, is part of what one’s evolving spiritual maturity should involve, I think. Too many people get elevated ideas on these things early in their direct spiritual experiences, which is lamentable…However, that’s also a bit of a tangent, so I’ll steer away from it at present.

I think the main point I’m trying to reach in this latter discussion, though, on how one can be an idolater without being idolatrous, is that one must always keep in mind that one’s ideas about a deity are different from the full reality of the deity–and that applies to any and every deity. We’ll never have any deity “all figured out,” no matter how well we have come to know them, how long we’ve interacted with them, or how many experiences we’ve had with them. We should never mistake our own limited understandings of any deity with the full reality of the deity, or treat our own understandings of the deity as having a reality of their own, especially when that notion of reality is at odds with one’s previous experiences, or the experiences of others, and particularly when these latter matters lead to cognitive dissonance or confusion for oneself, or to difficulty and dissension with others.

When I was still struggling within broadly creedal definitions of religion (and not even realizing that I was doing so), and thus was still employing the language of creedal religiosity for my own theologies and experiences, I came up with a phrase that I think was nice: “The god I believe in is not the god I believe in.” I think Meister Eckhart, Joannes Scottus Eriugena, many Taoists, and others would appreciate this formulation! What I mean by that phrase is that any deity is larger than what I am able to conceive of personally, and that whatever “beliefs” I may have about a deity–and here I use the term “belief” not in the creedal sense of “acceptance of the reality of something without proof,” but instead in my preferred sense as “an articulation of an experience of a divine being or divine reality”–are necessarily provisional, partial, and not fully reflective of the entirety of that being. This works on a human level as well: I don’t know any single person I’ve ever met well enough to suggest that I know them entirely; and, I also don’t know the full depths and capacities that I myself have! Why would divine beings be any different in this regard? ;)

And, at this point, I have to come back to Antinous once again. One thing that we can know about him, with very little doubt, is what he looked like. We can’t know a number of things about his history–including his manner or the reason for his death–nor can we know what his own feelings during life were, what his voice sounded like, whether he was affable or irascible or any number of other personality characteristic, nor can we even know what his own feelings on his relationship with Hadrian happened to be–but we can know with a pretty fair amount of certainty is what he generally looked like. Yes, the statues vary in their features on some matters rather widely, but if we did a “police line-up” of ancient people and Antinous was among them, it would be very likely that we’d have a pretty close approximation to what he would have looked like. Because this can be known for (fairly) certain, it’s all the more important in our own cultic case to give due attention, as well as honor, to this set of details. The statues of Zeus, Dionysos, Hermes, and all the rest will vary greatly because these figures never had a physical form; but Antinous did. It was a beautiful form, and it was an important form–it was that particular and important form that has allowed us to see him so clearly in his many statues that have survived, rather than seeing only the deity to whom he was syncretized (if any) in the particular image concerned. Thus, Antinous’ particular form and the physical as well as divine beauties that shine through in his form are important to acknowledge, and can be directly accessed in a way that is definitely “him” and none other. This makes active reverencing of that physical form all the more important and essential, I think, for a polytheist dedicated to him and his devotion.

Which is why, even though I’d suggest that “my idea of Antinous is not Antinous,” any image of Antinous is potentially Antinous. I am, thus, an idolater (in both the materiality/physicality-affirming sense, and the “statue/image-worshipping” sense), but I think I steer fairly clear from being “idolatrous” as well.

As ever, I’d be curious to hear any thoughts you might have on the matters mentioned above–again, with the caveat of excluding any thoughts or responses to the effect of “You’re wrong and here’s why!” Do not seek to impose your own “idols” of what I, nor anyone else, should be upon the actuality of what I, and anyone else, actually is. :)


  1. well the whole thing is another tempest in a tea pot. I read the article by Mr.Sharma. The gist I got from it was he was making an argument that ‘Hinduism’ isn’t ‘pagan’ in the sense or association given to paganism by Abrahamic faiths. It’s pretty evident in his second paragraph.
    He then reinforces that approach in the first sentence in the 7th paragraph:
    “Thus no matter how paganesque Hinduism might appear, it is not pagan in the sense attributed to the word by Abrahamic religions.”
    Heh, are modern Pagans, “pagans” in the sense attributed to the word by Abrahamic religions? Are witches, ‘witches’ in the sense attributed to the word ‘witch’ by Abrahamic religions?

  2. I always have to hold myself back from commenting on Foster’s articles, lest I forget myself. If “cuteness” is three-fourths “niceness,” then you have cuteness in spades.

    Anyway, thank you for telling us about “agalmata.” As a self-professed idolator myself, that’s a very helpful bit of terminology!

    • You’re very kind! ;)

      I don’t think Star is totally off-base with the entire article, but that particular part was a little less-than-impressive. (And her further responses on the comment thread I started, both in response to me and to some of the others who have joined in on agreement with my basic premises, have been further disappointments…)

      I really like the term agalma–it’s a term I wouldn’t know apart from my knowledge of Antinous; and, I’ve encountered it elsewhere in second-century literature in reference to images of deities, so it’s apparently a useful term as well, with a great deal of lovely semantic range! Plus, you’ve made some quite beautiful agalmata in your time, and I’m sure you’ll do more in the future! :)

  3. [...] Lupus takes Star Foster to task for some unreflective comments she made recently and provides some wonderful insight on the latria of images in the process: Yes–lots of them, actually; some of them are objects in [...]

  4. one of the problems in trying to classify Hinduism in regards to theological ‘isms’ is it can’t be done. There is no Hinduism perse. It’s the same problem with ‘Paganism’. The 6 astikas and 3 nastikas cover the whole gambit of ‘isms’ and even within the astikas and nastikas are sub schools.
    There’s monists, dualists, pantheists,polytheist, idealists, realists, etc. Name an ‘ism’ and there one will find it.
    Besides that sanscrit terms found to express certian ideas have no real, readily meaningful translations into english.

  5. As someone whose view of the divine is largely panpsychicist and whose experiences thereof tend toward the apophatic, I can definitely appreciate your insights in the nuances between the image and the form. The use and even worship of images is distinctly different from idolatry, something most monistic (read: monotheistic) cultures don’t seem to have a solid grasp on despite doing it themselves – often with more style than the rest of us.

    • I know–it’s crazy, isn’t it? Even though Catholics will talk about various statues and icons as if they’re “only symbols,” and will defend themselves from accusations of “statue-worship” on the part of other (usually Protestant) Christians, nonetheless the symbol of the cross itself has profound and powerful esoteric and magical significance within their practice…and that’s just for starters, and doesn’t even get near the whole phenomenon of relics!

    • Saint John has at least three heads. That either indicates he’s some kind of super-human mutant or… alright, yeah. I think it’s largely that Protestants by and large don’t understand the concept of veneration as opposed to worship. The signum crucis, however, is pretty concrete in being a great magical device and anyone who argues it isn’t, is clearly bull-shitting themselves.

  6. I am a Shinto practitioner who also practices hedgewitchery, and I think that you are right in selecting “animatist” rather than “animist” as a descriptive term. To me, an object is its spirit and is divine in and of itself, and that is (usually) taken as a whole thing, without separating any of those components from each other–though I’ve found that somehow it’s very hard to explain that to others!

    • Arigato! It’s wonderful to meet you, and thank you for reading and commenting!

      I just came from the Tsubaki Grand Shrine’s Setsubun festival today, and there is a small group of us in the greater Seattle area esoteric/pagan/occult community who regularly attend it who all had a little “reunion” afterwards! ;)

      The fact that the inner shrine at Ise, for example, gets replaced every twenty years, but then the remains of it get made into permanent amulets indicates that there’s not only a heavy animatist element to a great deal of Shinto, but that it can even be contagious, since those inner shrine materials are now holy and extra-special simply from prolonged contact with the kami‘s treasures!

      • Oh, lucky! I wanted to go to Tsubaki today but I had to work. And so you’re around Seattle too? You can’t shake a wand up here without striking another occultist, it seems. :)

      • Indeed–I’m up on Fidalgo Island. (Though I was just in Seattle today…)

        It’s true; I’m hoping to post a photo of a number of us at the Shrine yesterday, in which there are seven people, and four of us are published occult/magic/pagan authors! ;)

  7. To use words forbidden in some circles, I am a PAGAN and I am an IDOL WORSHIPPING HEATHEN!!!! Ha ha ha! Hurray for me!

    Actually, it was through art appreciation, specifically through Greek and Roman statues, that I first approached the Gods. Idols are very useful things. I suppose I fall into the school of thought that distinguishes between worshipping a god and venerating an image of that god. But sometimes an object is more than just an object, even when it is not connected to any particular known god. I remember once upon a time when I was leaving the Vatican Galleries, right at closing time, with the guards waving people out. I passed a statue fragment displayed at the exit, just a soft gray stone torso, with no head, arms, or legs, no identification of any kind. I stopped dead in my tracks because I could feel the statue fragment. It’s hard to describe – it was both physical and mental, a radiation of something – life, power, magic, mana, otherness, whatever. It was closing time so I had to leave, but it was an uncanny experience. The Vatican Galleries, by the way, are a good place to have uncanny experiences with images, whether you want them or not.

    It is indeed true that Catholics distinguish between worshipping their god and venerating the saints and their images and relics. I think that the distinction is quite valid, but the idea seems to be incomprehensible to most Protestants.

    Re Hinduism: I think that the attempts by some Hindus to portray Hinduism as monotheistic are mostly the result of envy and wishful thinking, an attempt to make Hinduism respectable in a world largely controlled by monotheists. Twice in the last thousand years the Indian sub continent has been invaded by monotheistic conquerors. The Muslims came in, conquered many Indian states, and large scale conversions to Islam followed. A few centuries later the Christians came in and took control of all of India. Curiously, mass conversions to Christianity did not follow the Christian conquest. Is this because Muslims are less racist than Christians? In any event, mostly polytheistic Hindu India has been humliiated in military and political terms by monotheistic invaders. Nothing succeds like success. Do some Hindus think that if they claim belief in one god that somehow that will make them more worthy in the eyes of their one time conquerors? Perhaps.

    Yes, I know that Hinduism is a family of religions rather than a single entity, and that Hinduism can encompass polytheist, monotheist, and atheist viewpoints. So can the Paganism of the West. But I think that attempts to portray “real” Hinduism as essentially monotheist in character are way off base.

  8. Thanks for the link, but I also want to credit Amy Whitehead, an American who recently completed a PhD in religious studies in the UK, as another scholar taking idolatry seriously.

    Two publications of hers:

    “The Goddess and the Virgin: Materiality in Western Europe,” The Pomegranate 10, no, 2 (2008) 163-183.

    “Pagans and Things: Idolatry or Materiality?” The Pomegranate 12, no. 1 (2010) 96-102.

    Ask the nearest interlibrary loan librarian to get them for you.

    • Thanks so much for those, Chas!

      Alas, my institution has refused to do ILL for me multiple times…they don’t have the budget. (Last time I asked, it was for something else from The Pomegranate, actually!) But, I’ll see what I can do in terms of trying to convince others to help me out in that regard!

  9. If I stand on my spot in Anglican theology, I define “idolatry” as the worship of a limited value instead of God as an absolute value, the elevation to an absolute of something that ought to be relative. So from that perspective, it’s not a pagan offering devotion to an image of their deity that’s an idolater (nor a Roman Catholic bowing in adoration of the consecrated Host), but rather the CEOs who make their own wealth their absolute priority, or the Roman Catholic bishops reducing all of Christianity to the denial of contraception and health insurance to women.

    If I stand on my spot in Druidry, well, I’m probably an animist. And sort of a polytheist. Maybe a monist on some days. Um. Anglicans don’t learn to give hard-and-fast answers to things.

    I remember Cei Serith saying once that defining Hinduism was like nailing Jello (TM) to a wall. There is no there there, as Gertrude said of L.A.

    • Thank you for commenting!

      This is one of the reasons that I enjoyed interacting with Anglicans and going to services at the Anglican chapel in college when I was in Oxford. (And, oddly enough, a fair number of Ekklesía Antínoou folks have undergone the Antinoan Mysteries and then become Anglican–weird!)

      Indeed, too many things that I don’t think are legitimately gods (and I’m a mega-polytheist!) get treated like gods in today’s world: not just money and such, but also corporations in general. If “corporate personhood” isn’t ostensibly secularist egregore creation, I don’t know what is…!

  10. I’m with you on that, brother. And what about the deification of celebrities? Nobody who reads Us, People, or In Touch has any room to criticize you for worshipping Antinous. ;)

    (P.S. Anglicans are just plain weird much of the time. *g*)

    • Indeed, indeed…

      Small correction: I’m not a “brother”–that’s the wrong gender (but, then again, so is “sister,” so…).

  11. Very interesting conversation, both here and over at Patheos where things got started.

    For my part, I would not consider venerating a river or mountain as idolatry; I’ve always interpreted that term as applying only to physical “idols”, e.g. human-created representations. How can there be an interpolated layer of symbolism separate and distinct from the spirit in question when you are giving honor to the physical embodiment itself?

    My take on the Egyptian/Kemetic practice of open statues and the like is that I do not worship the statue. I give reverence to the statue for its potentiality to become a vehicle for Netjer, because only by doing so is it empowered to ever possibly become such a vehicle. If Netjer takes possession of the statue, I certainly worship that specific physical manifestation of Netjer for as long as Netjer remains within it, but that possession makes it not-statue for the duration of Netjer’s presence.

    That isn’t to say I do not invest energy and affection in the statue itself as a unique object, or that it doesn’t have its own particular intrinsic spirit, the loss of which would cause me grief. That just seems the natural consequence of being an animist/panentheist, though. :)

  12. [...] month before the second anniversary of the blog, I now come back to a topic that I wrote about in early February, and which I had intended a follow-up post on not long after, but have never been able to get [...]

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