Posted by: aediculaantinoi | October 8, 2012

“What does Antinous mean to you?”

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…

Something that happened at the Esoteric Book Conference that I didn’t mention in my post on it might bear a bit more elaboration here, due to an issue that it brings out.

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?


  1. Good entry! I think you’re right about what that individual’s question really was, he just had a very poor understanding of what he wanted to know.

    And I think you’re counter-point question is an excellent way to respond to such questions in the future. I think, though, that the emphasis should be on the the person asking the question, i.e. “What do *you* mean?” maybe with a follow-up like “What is *your* purpose?”

  2. One interesting method I’ve used is to get the perspective of someone who just heard the bare outlines of the story. For instance, “Antinous was the lover of the emperor Hadrian. He fell off a boat in Egypt and drowned in the Nile.”

    I told Sven this as a barest of all bones summary and Sven said, “Oh. So he auto-sacrificed himself.”

    I hadn’t said that everyone who drowned in the Nile was divinized, or that it was a festival, or the sexual politics of Antinous’s role in Hadrian’s life. He immediately picked out the auto-sacrifice.

    For me, “Antinous is a young man who volunteered to die in the Nile and become a god.” Whole life ahead of him still, even if his life as Hadrian’s lover *may* have been towards its end, but opted for self-sacrifice and godhood anyway.

    • And yet, that’s not at all certain. That there was a voluntary or sacrificial valence to it is not known to have been the case, nor that he would receive deification or heroization for such. What we know of Hadrian’s opinions on the matter is quite different. Unfortunately, modern historians have fastened onto the “scandalous” in this story, and have preferred that interpretation, or (even worse) that Hadrian engineered Antinous’ death so he’d have his own private daimon for divinatory purposes. I don’t find either interpretation fitting to what is known about Hadrian, Antinous, and the entire situation at the time; and the theo-ethical implications of those (over-psychologized) interpretations are homophobic and not at all effective or useful for modern people.

      • But that’s not anywhere near what I told him, or who he is to me. Sven has an agricultural background and his mind seized on the “he drowned in the NILE” aspect because he knows how dependent Egypt is on that holy river for its farming. The exact “why” of his death didn’t even occur to Sven–it was the Nile.

        My gut instinct when I think of Antinous’s death is that something about the people of Egypt moved him to take his fatal plunge; a bad harvest is what I keep picturing. What other motives surrounded it, we will never know and they are only secondary.

      • But, again, that’s assuming that any of that was an actual “motive” for him at all in the first place, which I’m not remotely convinced it was.

  3. For what its worth, I would have interpreted the question in the same way: You’ve given us the general and historical perspective, now give us the personal and specific. I suppose we have the Victorians to blame for the reductive approach: Zeus is thunder, Hermes is communication, so Antinous is X?

    You might like to know that I’m planning on buying Devotio Antinoo this weekend, when the next paycheck comes in. :)

    • Awesome! Let me know how you get on with it! ;)

  4. Is it possible that this questions irks you so much because a certain other group that is also devoted to Antinous has also tried to put Antinous into a box and define him as “the gay god”? It hit me as I was reading this post that this is exactly what they are doing?

    For my part, I do think that the gentleman who asked the question was actually asking, “What kind of god is Antinous?” To be fair, I don’t think it’s an awful question. If one has never encountered a specific god before and has no other way of relating to them, I think it’s natural to want to have a few labels to use to help understand and describe. I don’t think that means that those labels are the only (or even the best) way to understand the god or goddess in question, but it does give a starting point. In the past, if I’ve come across this question, I’ve talked a little more about some of the bigger syncretisms. Antinous was syncretized with Osiris, Dionysos, Hermes, etc. Most people are a little more familiar with those well know gods, and bringing up those syncretisms seem to answer the question. Everyone needs a starting point.

    • It’s a fair point, and that is exactly what they’ve done by making him a “god of homosexuality.” (Given that homosexuality occurs pretty easily and freely, and always has–if we understand it in a modern manner, of course–even before Antinous’ time, it sort of makes him rather redundant in that regard, and a totally unnecessary god…but anyway…!?!) However, I had not thought of it in relation to this particular question until now; and, given that I think of the other group as little as possible, that hadn’t occurred to me.

      While I do agree that any starting point is a useful one, whether for Antinous or any other deity, I also think that phrases like “Dionysos is the wine god” can be huge blocks to further exploration for people. If one is given a quick, simple, pat answer to a question of identity like this, that often sits and stays for a long time in someone’s perceptions. Then, at a later point, when they find that Dionysos is inspiring them to do poetry (which should be Apollon and the Muses’ jobs!), or that he has a warrior aspect (isn’t that Ares’ job?), they are bound to get confused, when those things are equally in his wheelhouse.

      Knowing what I do about human nature and human tendencies on these sorts of matters where gods are concerned, I’m always afraid that what I might say about Antinous will serve not as a window to further illuminating him for them, but instead as a block to truly knowing and encountering him. Because of that concern, I really do think the added nuance and qualification of such statements is really necessary.

      At the end of the day, there is no job that a god can do which is totally unique to Antinous–even as a god of syncretism, for example, he was preceded by Sabazios and Serapis (and they syncretize to most of the deities that Antinous does between them!). Given that’s the case, the real question doesn’t become what does Antinous do, or what does he mean, it ultimately does become a question of what can he do for you (and you for him), and not that no other god can do what he does for you, but what about him makes you want him to do it for you rather than another? Or, something like that…

  5. “In just a few words, tell me the the basics about this god.”

    I suppose people are so used to texting and Twitter that it seems like a reasonable request. And while I think it seems disrespectful, I suppose giving any sort of answer would be planting a seed.

    The first answer that came to my mind was, “Because he was human, ‘He hears the prayers of all those who call out to Him, And He cures the afflictions of those in need.’ He intercedes with the other gods on behalf of humanity. His power extends even to ‘the Kingdom of the Underworld…they loosen their bolts, And throw open their gates before him.’” But that’s based on my direct ecperience with Antinous, which only happened two weeks ago.

    Something had ocurred that had potentially devestating repercussions and I was literally at wit’s end about it. After hours of wrestling with the situation on my own, I decided I needed help. I thought about Antinous, that he had been human and has the reputation of helping humanity. Weeping, I prayed out loud to him. I worshipped him, explained why I had come to him, and told him about my problem in detail.

    I certainly did not expect what happened next: I was immediately overcome with a feeling of sheer happiness! A huge smile spread across my face, when I had been in tears just a moment before. I knew everything had been taken care of, and I didn’t need to worry about it anymore. As the inscription on the obelisk says, my heart was filled with joy!

    My conscious mind was in a state of shock. I’ve had encounters with the DIvine before, but nothing like this has happened to me in a very long time – something like 25 years, maybe. I thanked him profusely and, although I have been including him in my daily daily worship for about two years, I’ve been making a special effort to establish a better relationship with him.

    I still can hardly believe he was so kind to me, so immediate in his response and so tender in his care. I’ve only ever had that sort of response in shamanic practice. I am truly in awe of Antinous’ power and compassion.

    • Yes, that’s Antinous through and through. :)

      Although, regarding your first point, the individual asking the question had just sat through over an hour on Antinous; thus, at that point, having to summarize him or give him a different introduction seems to me to have been not as necessary.

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