I’ve been thinking about the present blog post for a few weeks now, and I suspect that at this stage, I’m able to at least outline some of my thoughts on this subject fairly coherently. Or, at least, we’ll go with that as our working hypothesis meanwhile…
One of the difficulties of discussing mysticism in a polytheist context is that the term “mysticism” has generally been understood through certain non-polytheist religious lenses, and has been defined rather exclusively through them. Even though many monotheistic religions don’t like, tolerate, or even think mysticism (under their monotheist definition) is at all possible, nonetheless they are the ones who have defined it in ways that still prevail in religious studies, for example. Religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and others have often bought into the monotheist definitions of it, even though they have perfectly good terms for some of these phenomena in their own languages (e.g. in Buddhism, satori, etc.).
What is that definition, you might be asking? In essence, the notion is that mysticism is any spiritual practice that aims toward union of humans with their gods–or, since this is a definition propounded by monotheists generally, let’s be honest, and say it is “union with God.” Of course, already, from a polytheist perspective, there is a problem there…so, let’s go back to my first suggested definition provisionally for the moment, with its pluralized objects of union.
Interestingly enough, even for monotheism’s flaws in many regards, where mysticism is concerned, they don’t suggest that full and complete “union” is even possible; most mystics in monotheist contexts say that the most which can be achieved by a person while still alive is a “union of will” with their gods, and/or possibly a “union of love.” There is no union of substance, essence, or identity, however; if such a thing is possible, it only takes place after death. While we could go on for a while about whether such unions of love and/or will might look like from any perspective, or even from a polytheist perspective, I’d like to pass on to some related subjects instead.
Someone recently asked me, in an entirely different discussion, about experiences of mystical union as a polytheist, as well as generally speaking. One of the things that I’ve noticed about these, even when they are described by monotheists, is that two things usually follow in trying to discuss them: 1) they are apophatic experiences, and therefore can’t be spoken of at all and words will always fail them (which has its own problems…?!); 2) what is instead resorted to is poetry and metaphor, and it is often poetry and metaphor that relies heavily upon images of (on the less carnal level) marriage, love, longing, and the like, or (on the more carnal level) ravishment, physical ecstasy, and so forth. What I greatly suspect is that these sorts of mystical experiences–often espoused by ostensibly celibate priests, monks, or nuns–is in essence an experience of “god-sex.” Even in good human sexual encounters, there is a feeling of a blurring, breaking, or total loss of personal boundaries after a good orgasmic experience; but no matter how intense or enjoyable that feeling of post-coital bliss is, we know that the two individuals are still whole unto themselves after it, even though they may then have a persistent emotional or energetic relationship bond between them at that stage. There is no “true union” that has taken place between them. I think that this same sort of thing has probably occurred with the monotheist mystics in these cases: they’ve had “god-sex,” and just like in human sex, there is that feeling of blurred boundaries and broken defenses, in which the wonderful vulnerability and comfortability with one’s partner occurs and is able to create, solidify, and intensify any emotional connections that already existed or which are newly formed as a result of such experiences. Thus, these experiences of mystical union are probably just god-sex that is not recognized as such…and if the Song of Songs is anything to go by, the Hebrew god definitely enjoys his god-sex! This is exactly the kind of imagery we get in St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul” (the poem, in any case; the treatise does have some of it as well), which has been taken as some of the most eloquent and accurate of mystical theology present in the Christian tradition, and earned him his beatific title of “Doctor of the Church” as well.
As polytheists, god-sex is something that goes on without much further thought or theorizing, at least for those who are inclined toward mysticism and spirit-work; it’s often hard to discuss it, because there are so many anti-mystical (and, to a certain extent, anti-erotic) negative and critical voices in polytheism, and thus no one wants to talk about these things publicly. I can certainly understand that…I don’t talk much about it myself, though I have written about it on at least one dedicated occasion.
Even though our individual boundaries are still maintained in polytheistic god-sex, as well as all mystical experiences, nonetheless due to the wider understandings (and misunderstandings) religiously about mysticism, and natural pressures and dangers within these practices, and often a simple lack of understanding or discernment on the part of some polytheists, this drive toward union as a kind of legitimizing notion, as a desired outcome, and as a method of self-justification, can lead in some difficult and dangerous directions.
I think this is one of the reasons why spirit work and other such mystical practice with myself and Antinous doesn’t, for example, involve oracular activities for me, for starters. (And, note: I’m not knocking anyone who is a polytheist who does oracular work…it’s just that there is a danger there…or there can be for those of poor understanding…!) Speaking with the voice of a deity on certain deliberate and circumscribed ritual occasions does not then mean that a person’s voice is authoritative in all things at all times after that, and it very most certainly doesn’t mean that the person’s opinion on any given matter is the opinion of the deities concerned either.
Most oracles know that and realize it, and yet I see many who seem to think that they are full-time prophets and that every pronouncement they make is congruent with the will of the gods they might serve in an oracular capacity (which, again, points toward that problem of the notion of “union of will” when it may not actually be present in a given situation); or, that any sudden thought they might have is a message of one of the gods through them, and must therefore be taken seriously by all those who hear it, i.e. by those they choose to say it to, often in order to have something go in a direction that they would prefer it to. For all of the reliable and true oracular mediums I’ve met, spoken with, and have had oracular work from, who tell me that Antinous doesn’t want me to be doing direct oracular or “horsing” work with him (and I think they’re 100% accurate on that), I’ve met several who are often teachers of oracular techniques, who tell me that “the spirits want you to know that you can be an oracle.” I’ve known that it is something I could do for many years now; but “could” does not mean “should”–I could do any number of things that wouldn’t be useful or productive at any given time, but I realize that many of them would do more harm than good.
As a person who is very heavily involved in the restoration of a major polytheistic cultus to Antinous, my “word” on many matters has been taken rather seriously–and, I hope, people have taken it seriously in ways that are good and productive rather than detrimental to their own practices, and to the general atmosphere of devotion and honoring of Antinous that I have sought to create by doing so. To have oracular authority in relation to Antinous on top of that would be a potential recipe for disaster, I think. When we had a fully-functioning oracle of Antinous several years back, the ways in which some people expressed complete and utter faith in that oracle as an almost infallible resource (without knowing anything about it other than it existed) was rather astonishing, and sometimes a bit scary; others expressed trust in it, but then complete and total skepticism when the answers coming from it contradicted their own desires or thoughts. When the modern devotion to Antinous began in an organized fashion in 2002, we agreed that an oracle was not something we were seeking to find, or were planning to revive; it wasn’t until we had someone come forth and suggest that they wanted to do so that we agreed to it (after a probationary period, of course), and while it was going, it did work pretty well, I thought.
These days, what I am more in need of is not something that I can rely on myself, and that might simply lead down the road of giving any number of potential sock-puppets in my own head divine sanctioning and status; I know I’m far too scattered and in certain respects compromised to be a reliable oracle, for myself or for others. It’s simply too easy, tempting, and therefore dangerous for me to have any notion that what I say or do or think IS the direct will of a god–any god–to go down that road too far.
And, honestly, I think my rather hard polytheism has been the greatest asset to me in this situation, and in making sure that I maintain the distinctions between myself and my deities, their will and my own will, the love I have for them and the love and blessings that they’ve shared with me (when I’ve been able to perceive and receive them). If I grow in my own divine nature, it is in my own divine nature; though they may be giving some of themselves to increase that in me, it is not that I am becoming them, it’s that I’m becoming more divine myself (if, indeed, that is taking place at all).
I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts of anyone who has experience with these matters in the comments on this post. If you practice oracular possession, mediumship, trancing, and so forth, how do you understand the differences, the boundaries, the mechanisms of differentiation, between yourself and your gods?