Things continue to be very busy indeed; however, I am making time for this no matter what today, and hope I can get through it before midnight…
Several people asked some interesting and useful questions in the period after my presentation was over; but, as it was the end of the conference, and many people wanted to get home, or were tired, the conversation wasn’t perhaps as animated as I’d have preferred it to have been. Oh well…
One question, though, that gave me some difficulty began by someone toward the back asking something along the lines of, “We’ve heard about Antinous and Polydeukion and all of the rest historically, but I want to know, what does Antinous mean to you?” I stopped for only a second, and then began by saying “Antinous means everything to me,” and talked a bit about how important he has been in my life, and my own near-suicidal state a few years ago (not long after this blog started, actually, in August of 2010…though I’ve been in that state on a few other occasions, too, but that was the worst one yet) that, had it not been for Antinous, I wouldn’t be here any longer. I got a little bit emotional in my answers (though I don’t know if the questioner, nor anyone else, could tell how emotional I was), and after speaking for a little more, I said, “Does that answer your question?” The person essentially said “No,” and then asked it in an entirely different way, that I cannot even now recall, and I then attempted to answer that new question based on my understanding of what they had asked once again. And after that, I said “Does that answer your question?” and they pretty much said, again, “No, but that’s okay,” and we moved on to other questions.
This completely and utterly baffled me, and I had absolutely no insights into the matter. I sort of forgot about it–at least for that moment–but then returned to thinking about it later that night, and talked with a few people about what they thought he might have meant or was getting at in his questions to me over dinner and later at the after-party. And, we figured it out…we think.
The questioner didn’t want to know what Antinous means to me emotionally or spiritually or relationship-wise; they wanted to know what Antinous “means” in terms of “Antinous is a god of _____.” In other words, to put the entire being, experience, and history of Antinous into a word or phrase that utterly describes him (or so such a person would assume), like Hermes is communication, Dionysos is wine, Zeus is thunder, and Hestia is fire.
That matter of “is” is the problem–if you’ll please excuse the Bill Clinton character of that phrase.
The whole “is” problem is (!?!) something I’ve come up against several times in the past few months, including in my “Understanding Syncretism” course and some of the materials related to it (including the lengthy essay on that subject in A Serpent Path Primer, the latter of which was the subject of my talk on that occasion!). There is a difference between understanding “is” as the verb “to be” in the strictest and most literal sense, so that one can say “Mitt Romney is a Republican,” for example, where the predicate of the sentence is an adjective or a noun describing the subject, as opposed to “Mitt Romney is a douche-bag,” which is a metaphorical usage–no matter how distasteful nor annoying one finds Romney, he is not literally a disposable plastic device for anal or vaginal hygiene purposes (if he were, he’d probably be a lot more sensible when it comes to certain things!). This is something that is hard to understand where syncretism is concerned: when someone says that Antinous is Hermes, that doesn’t mean that Hermes is literally the same as, equivalent to, or one with Antinous, nor that Antinous is the same as, equivalent to, or one with Hermes; it means that he is similar to him in certain ways, so that their relationship is metaphorical, and that in some way Antinous functions like Hermes does, or in some cases Hermes might even function as Antinous does. The same is true of any deity to whom Antinous syncretizes, including Dionysos, Apollon, Silvanus, Osiris, and all the rest.
And, the same is true of all of the descriptors I’ve given above for the various different deities: yes, there is something of Zeus in lightning and thunder, and something of lightning and thunder in Zeus, but to say that “Zeus is thunder” and to understand that not in a metaphorical fashion is to miss the point entirely, not only because he’s more than thunder, but also because there’s many other singular words that “are” equally Zeus in that same metaphorical fashion: he’s an eagle, a serpent, a king, a father, justice, knowledge, the sky, and any number of other things, some of them more literally than others (e.g. king, father), others more metaphorically.
Therefore, to smooth out all of the complexities of deities, and to see them only in terms of their functions or their “spheres of influence,” even for the classical deities for whom this sort of thinking is ingrained in us from an early age, is to be both needlessly (and in fact erroneously) literal with them, but also to pare down their complexities into a flat and functional instrumentality that borders on negative objectification. Just as one should never “use” someone in one’s life in a merely instrumental fashion, so too should no one simply think that the gods are to be “used” for whatever purposes one wishes. The gods are not spiritual technologies to be plugged in when desired and powered down when “not in use,” they are independently volitional beings who are just as varied, complex, personal, and unique as any human–and, since they’ve been around for a lot longer than any of us (in most cases), they’ve had that much more time to grow, adapt, change, and become more and more nuanced. One could characterize them in only the most broad and useless terms when limited to a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, or even an entire series of encyclopedia entries if one wanted a once-and-for-all “meaning” for any one of them.
In the future, when I get asked a question like this, and am certain that the person is not interested in my own personal emotional or moral valences for the term, I will pose a counter-question: “what do you mean?” And when I ask that, I will not be asking “What are you trying to say,” but instead “Can you characterize yourself and your overall symbolic and functional value for the majority of your interactions with other beings in the world?” If the person asking cannot answer that question for themselves (and, I would hope, most can’t!), then likewise, how can I, or anyone, be expected to do the same for one of the gods?