Though I have other tasks that rate to varying degrees of “pressing” at the moment, I can’t find myself motivated enough to do them. So, I am going to do this further blog post today in the hopes that it might stimulate some interesting conversation and/or debate.
The issues I’m going to describe here, which are most easily summarized by the above subject line, are ones that I’ve been going over for years, arguing with people, and which received no small degree of attention in the “Reconstructionism as Methodology” course in Academia Antinoi (which you can still sign up for this week, if you like!). Let me present the two “sides” of the issue–when in reality, of course, there are far more than just two sides to this (and almost every) issue, but these are the ones I hear the most critique and argument on.
On one side, you’ve got modern pagans of various stripes, often who have some investment in process theology (which is a great thing!), who say “Why are you doing any of this recon stuff at all? If the gods exist, then they exist now, so there’s no real need to go back to what they were like or what people did for them before.”
On another side, you have hardcore reconstructionists who say “If you don’t do cultus to the gods the way it was done in the past, the gods won’t pay attention to you,” often with the implication being “they don’t like changes in society, and often aren’t aware of such things.”
And, I would have to reply: the gods are neither stupid nor forgetful.
In doing so, I address the reconstructionist viewpoint first. No, the gods are not omniscient (for the most part), and they’re also not willfully ignorant or deliberately myopic or indifferent. They may be surprised, shocked, and upset that some things have changed in the ways they have (e.g. temples are now museums or ruins rather than functional cult sites, etc.), but they at least know such things are going on, and probably why they do go on, even if they don’t like those reasons or object to them. Who is to say that they’re not behind some of those things? Many Hellenics discuss how Hermes and/or Athena are behind the internet, for example–though I think Aphrodite has her hand in a great deal of online activity, from porn to Craigslist! There is an even stronger likelihood that, even though they may not have originated these things, they may very well be interested in them, or using them, as means to accomplish whatever their concerns might be.
(Of course, I got into an argument amongst some of my friends several years back on this matter in relation to underwear: many of them were arguing that underwear is modern, and therefore the gods wouldn’t understand it or like it…and yet, I know of a few gods at least who require it and accept it as offerings or regular altar equipment [i.e. Hanuman!], or who were given “breast-straps” for their statues in antiquity [i.e. Artemis!], so why not now, especially when underwear is so varied, stylish, and has great practical utility as well as aesthetic possibilities? But I digress! I was amused to find out recently, though, in one final tangent here, that of all people, that most famous late teenage Egyptian, King Tutankhamun, was buried with not one, not two, not twenty, not fifty, but 145 different loincloths, i.e. changes of underwear, in his tomb! While I know that clothes, and offerings of clothes, were common for Egyptians, I don’t know for certain that this specific item of clothing was frequently offered, or “packed” ahead of time when items for the afterlife were placed in tombs. While that number in Tut’s case is 72.5 x 2, and thus may have some esoteric Egyptian numerological significance, I’m glad to know that such preparations for the afterlife were so looked after by the Egyptians who buried Tut, whether it was his own intentions on that matter or not which favored their doing so in relation to their culture’s equivalent of underwear. But, I digress in digressing!)
And, I also address the “modern person” viewpoint on why all of that old archaic stuff in archaeology, history, and literature is no longer relevant to the lived and persistent reality of the gods in the modern world. Humans have long memories (or, at least some do); cultures have longer memories; and the gods have the longest memories of all, I’d say (except for rocks and the spirits in them, perhaps…!). Just as knowing that someone is from a certain area of the U.S. (though they may not live there now), or went to a certain school (even if it was thirty years ago), or their family brought them up in a certain religion (though they may not practice it now), allows a person to know that other person better, so too does knowing how a god was worshipped in the past allow people today to understand them better. Like individual and family histories, and the ancestors who maintain such histories (in the incarnate as well as discarnate worlds), so too does knowing the lived history of the gods and the humans with whom they have interacted contribute considerably to our knowledge of them and our understanding of them.
Perhaps most of all, this applies to deities, heroes, and divine figures of others sorts who were human at some point. As Eddward Llewellyn Said in this post, “What happened before divinity cannot be forgotten.” Antinous did not just forget about Hadrian and Sabina and all of the people in their world once he was dead and deified. Likewise, Polydeukion did not forget his brothers Memnon and Achilles, nor his father Herodes Attikos, and the rest of his family once he had become the “hero of Herodes.” If that is true of humans-become-gods (and/or heroes), how much more so is it true of gods?
So, because the gods are neither stupid nor forgetful, this is why I find both the “modern only” and the “recon only” approaches to a lived polytheistic spirituality problmatic, incomplete, and rather ignorant of the reality of the many gods and how they function. Just as often as, for example, ancient Egyptian practice hearkened back to an “unbroken” tradition spanning back several thousand years, it also innovated, and we can see over that span of history now how things changed, how theologies evolved and expanded, and various other matters which indicate in Egyptian culture–and most others in the ancient world–that nothing was ever frozen in time once and for all as the practice to do forever and ever. The gods adapted then, just as they do now–if process theology exists at all, then it must have existed then as well, which would account entirely for the changes we see in different cultural forms of polytheism, and even individual theological understandings within a single culture of a single deity. The same, then, should be true of us, especially after so many centuries when more often than not, little to nothing was done at all, and thus continuity has been mostly broken.
Each of these approaches, thus, is useful to keep in mind when planning cultic activities or interpreting them, it is equally useful to also remember that the gods are neither stuck in the past nor bound to the present.