Roman Polytheism and Spiritual Pollution

Mention “miasma,” “pollution,” or “purity” in regards to Polytheism, and many Pagans will take umbrage with these terms. Impurity is usually equated with sin and evil. Impurity carries a sense of a demonic quality. Therefore purity becomes a part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. One reason is that Christianity has redefined these Polytheistic terms to match its theology. Since many Pagans are converts from Christianity, they will often think of these concepts in those terms. However, “miasma,” “pollution,” and “purity” have different meanings in Polytheism.

Paganism does have its version of “pollution” and “purity.” Pagans discuss “positive” and “negative” energies. People will cleanse themselves and their spaces routinely to clear out negative energy. For example, crystals are often cleansed before using them. Also, before rituals, many Pagans will smudge themselves to purify themselves and to clean out their ritual spaces.

Miasma and spiritual pollution are different from both negative energy and Christian sin. Negative energy powers destruction, sickness, and other such things. It can be removed by laughter or positive thinking. Sin is removed by baptism and confession. Miasma, which is specific to Greek Polytheism, is a “spiritual pollution that prevails over all, it is not an ‘evil thing.’” Continuing in his essay, Markos Gage says “Miasma is therefore something we incur in life, everyday life.” (Note 1) Public cleansing of communities is a regular part of the Hellenic and Roman calendars.

In Roman Polytheism, castus (the adjective) means being morally pure, pious, or ritually pure. Piety (pietas) is maintaining the right relations between people, their Gods, their families, and their communities. Castitas (the noun) is the purity of the ritual and the participants. (Note 2) That means everyone must be physically and mentally cleansed before conducting a ritual. Before a ritual, people perform ablutions by washing their hands and asking that the water purify them.

An error conducted in a ritual is a spiritual pollutant. It negates the ritual and risks the anger of the Gods. It is not that a God will smite someone, but is to maintain the Pax Deorum, the Peace of the Gods. Religious negligence leads to divine disharmony and the turning away of the Gods. This leads to the loss of protection for the family, community, and the individual.

The closest thing that Roman Polytheism has to Christian sin is nefas. This can be defined as anything which is contrary to divine law. Nefas is a failure to fulfill a religious duty. Nefas is a willful act of religious violation. In that case, the person is separated from the community.

Impurity can be thought of in terms to avoid contamination. This can include gossip, body fluids and disease. The most common is disease and corpse contamination. However, impurity is a state that can be remedied. A wide variety of purifications rituals were available, the simplest was bathing with water.

Polytheists regard the world to be neutral, which differs from Christian theology. St. Augustine stated that the world is both corrupt and corrupting. Therefore, humanity lives in a Fallen World. To Polytheists, the world is both clean and dirty. Kenaz Filan explains, “The world is a clean flowing stream, and miasma the sewage dumped into the water. We clean the stream by filtering that sewage or by redirecting it…to where it can be properly contained.” (Note 3)

Why focus on purity and pollution? When a person prays, divine, or perform any other sacred act, they are engaging with the Holy Powers. There is a doctrine in U.S. law called, “Clean Hands” (also called “Dirty Hands”). (Note 4) The plaintiff cannot have the judge participate in an illegal act. One example is a drug dealer cannot sue to have his stolen drugs be returned. Another is suing the hit man you hired to kill someone for failure to do their job. As Judge Judy says on her TV show, “the courts will not help anyone with dirty hands.” I believe that in our relations with the Gods, we can think of purity and pollution in those terms. By being “pure,” we continue to have the protection of the Gods.

Notes:
Note 1. Markos Gage, “Answers About Miasma,” from “With Clean Minds and Clean Hands,” Galina Krasskova, ed. P. 51. Markos Gage is a devotee of Dionysius and an artist.

Note 2. The Romans have a Goddess – Lua – who protects all things purified by rituals and for rituals.

Note 3. Kenez Filan, “Miasma” from “With Clean Minds and Clean Hands,” Galina Krasskova, ed. P. 69. Filan is the author of several books including “Drawing Down the Spirits (with Raven Kaldera)”. He is an initiated Houngan Si Pwen.

Note 4. Clean hands: “Under the clean hands doctrine, a person who has acted wrongly, either morally or legally – that is, who has ‘unclean hands’ – will not be helped by a court when complaining about the actions of someone else.” From The ‘Lectric Law Library, http://www.lectlaw.com/def/c202.htm

Works Used:
Thomas Kazen, “Purification” from “Ritual in the Ancient Mediterranean World.
Galina Krasskova, “With Clean Minds and Clean Hands”
Martin Lang, “On Purity — Private and Public (in Polytheism).” Academic paper.
L. Vitellius Triarius, “Religio Romana Handbook.”

Morana and the Underworld

Artist: Unknown

As the winter months stretch on, many of us will continue to stare longingly at bare tree branches in the hopes that we will see green shoots sprouting. We look for this as a sign that the chill in the air is going to subside and that new life is coming. However, we should still take this time to appreciate the dead—not push it away. And, with that in mind, I wish to take you on a short journey to Nav, the Slavic world of the dead, and introduce you to Morana, goddess of winter and death.

 Morana is often seen carrying a scythe or sickle that she uses to cut the threads of life. In physical appearance, Morana, upon first glance, is terrifying; her skin is pale, she has long dark, stringy hair, her nails are long and sharp, and, sometimes, she’s even said to have fangs. However, this is not her only form, as Morana also is described as a young maiden. Yet, when she first appears to you, most often times you’ll get the ugly, old crone; it isn’t until you show an appreciation for her and a lack of fear for all she stands for that you will see the beautiful, maiden side to her.

Winter is considered to be the time of Morana. She brings the snow, hail, and cold winds with her. The thought of winter coming from Morana is mostly attributed to her relationship with Dazbog, the sun god. As it’s told, Morana seduces Dazbog, and pulls him down into her embrace. With Dazbog distracted, daylight lessens, and we are thrown into the darker, colder winter months. Unfortunately, in later parts to the myth, it is said that when Dazbog moved on from Morana, she poisoned him. As punishment for this, she was then banished to Nav.

Nav isn’t a dark or evil place, though. While it does contain its demons and dark parts, there is much good surrounding it as well. Remember Lada? The goddess of love (who also happens to be Morana’s mother) whom I’ve talked about in a prior post? She also resides in the underworld. And, while this might be shocking to hear, it’s important to know this for one key reason—new life comes from within; be it flowers coming up from the cold earth connected to the below underworld, or a new view on yourself through introspection. So, with that in the forefront of your mind, hopefully it eases some of the internalized fears you might have about the underworld. However, if you still wish for spring to just get here already, there is one more concept imbedded within these beliefs that I know you will appreciate—reincarnation. Reincarnation is something widely believed in in Slavic tradition. It’s thought that your soul could indeed return as anything from a descendant to even an animal. However, it’s still important to remember that, without death, there will be no rebirth.

A Very Belated Yule

I beg your forgiveness for the lateness of this post — usually I try to get my holiday posts up a couple of days before said holiday, not several weeks after! I’m sure many of you can understand the stress that comes with this holiday season, including occasional flare ups in mental health concerns — which is approximately why I’m running so late on this one.

So since Yule has come and gone, instead of telling you about you can have a more Rokkatru flavored Yule, I’ll tell you what I did this year and what I might change up for next year.
The weekend before Christmas I traveled to visit my family — who does not celebrate Yule and who have no established Yule traditions. While my mother and sister contributed to making dinner, I got busy baking a Yule log cake and cooking up some mulled wine — called glogg in Sweden. Tasty treats seemed the perfect way to integrate some Yule flavor into a family gathering, and as I served out the cake and wine I informed my family what this Yule thing is all about:
Yule is one of many ancient traditions revolving around the winter solstice, or the longest night of the year. Between the summer solstice and the winter solstice, the days have been growing shorter and the night longer. But now, with Yule, we celebrate the return of light and warmth — from here, the days will grow longer toward the summer solstice, when the process repeats.
Traditionally there is fire involved these celebrations, to represent the return of the sun. Unfortunately weather interfered with the bonfire plans I had, so we stuck with candles instead.

Screenshot_20200110-152832.png

My Yule log from 2018 — featuring a tomten and a yule goat

When I returned home, where my fiancee met me determined to help me round out a patchwork Yule celebration of sorts (which is fair, evidence suggests the old Norse celebrations of Yule were between a week and two weeks of feasting and drinking) we got to work on a Yule log. Sharing the left overs of the cake and cooking up some more mulled wine, we carved an actual log, cut from the remnants a Maypole, to fit three candles, which we burned while we exchanged gifts. When we tried to actually build a fire in the firepit outside to burn the log it was an utter failure but hey, an attempt was made.
The whole celebration ended up being a rather ramshackle one, and ideally being able to have my fiancee join for a family Yule would help remedy this. Yule has a great potential for being a wonderful, cozy holiday shared with loved ones around a fire, delicious treats and healthful meals. But for a holiday celebrating the returning of the light, what can a Rokkatru practitioner do to align the celebration more closely to their path which celebrates the dark?
There are several deities that we could honor during this season — Hela, whose season of darkness and death is coming to an end with Yule, or perhaps any number of jotnar who are closely associated with the earth. This could be a time to do a blot of awakening for Gerdr, who is often interpreted to represent the fertile but cold soil being roused into wakefulness by Freyr, the fertile light and warmth of the sun (a myth which can be re-enacted in spring blots). Yule may be a time to call to Gerdr, give her a blot with sweet offerings in the earliest attempts to cajole the spring out of the freeze.
One could also make the argument that now is a time to hold such a blot to Jord — the earth which has gone into slumber through the cold and the dark, and which will soon be awakening again. Jormungandr, who has been associated with the liminal, the in-between, might be hailed at this time as the season on the thinned veil comes to a close (some traditions see the dark season as a season in which the veil is thinned, only beginning with Samhain but sometimes drawing on for a month or two). Skoll and Hati could again be hailed, for their ongoing chase through the heavens which drives the sun and the moon through their cycles.
If one wanted to do Yule classically, with multiple days of feasting, one could set aside nine days for Yule — each day holding a blot to honor one or more of the Rokkr and jotnar, the deities and sacred spirits of the dark, the night, and the wild. At the marking of the descent of darkness back into light, it seems a perfect time to honor those deities of the dark that we hold dear — to honor them even as we move forward out of the season of the dark and the cold, and move back into the realm of light and warmth.
This, I believe, is what I will seek to do for next year’s Yule.
How did you pass this Yule? Have you introduced any particular traditions to flavor this solar holiday for a darker path? I would love to hear if you wouldn’t mind sharing!

Shadow Patrons (Gods)

In Polytheism, people have a variety of relationships with various Gods. Some have a Patron (Matron), who forms a favorable relationship with them. (Not every Polytheist has a Patron, since each God chooses their level of connection with humans.) A “Shadow Patron” (Note 1) is a God who chooses to have an adversarial relationship with a human.

Why would a God have an antagonistic affiliation with someone? It depends on the Polytheism and the particular Gods. Some people believe that the Shadow Patron works with a person to burn off the bad luck in the Ancestral line. Some Gods want to test the fitness of the person, before They ask any service of that human. For some Gods, that is their nature, such as Nergal of Babylon, who states, “I just break things.”

In my perspective, a Shadow Patron forces you to handle the psychic energy of the hurt or grief. You are forced to cope with your wounds in order to do what They require of you. Since this energy is a form of impurity, it needs to be cleansed. You need to be spiritually ready to do the various sacred acts asked of you by the Gods.

Apollo is my “Shadow Patron.” For me, it is because I do two things that this God is particular about – divination and prayers. In Roman Polytheism, both sacred activities are associated with Apollo, He is particular about doing these religious rituals correctly. Moreover, He wants ensure that I am worthy to do each. Through testing my mettle, Apollo guarantees both to his satisfaction.

Since this God is well-known to force Himself on unwilling females, I actively disliked Him. When I was a teenager, I was the victim of unwanted male attention. Hence, I avoided Apollo like the plague (which is ironic since in Roman Polytheism, He adverts the plague). When I began writing rituals and prayers, Apollo came and refused to leave. Then I started practicing Roman-style divination. At that point, Apollo instructed me on how He wanted these acts conducted. A hard taskmaster, He drove me to hone my craft for both.

As I worked through this difficult relationship, I came to realize that Apollo is my Shadow Patron. Because He wants what I do and say to be the Truth. Apollo takes me places that I refuse to go. He does not allow me to “spiritually bypass.” (Note 2). That means I have to do deep sacrifices for Him, which usually involve things that my injured brain balks at. (Note 3)

It seems ironic that the God of the Sun and of Logic would have me focus on the unconscious realm. I can explain this. Since rituals between the Gods and the community entail a liminal space, preparation needs to be made. In a ritual, the full emotional spectrum of the community is melded into one. That includes the unconscious shadows of each person. All of this needs to be harmonized before the Gods can be contacted.

Furthermore, Apollo rules the Day, which is consciousness. By doing so, He has defined the Night, which is unconsciousness. Standing in the blinding Light, one can see the deepest Night. Why is this important? In divination and in prayer, the force of the hurt, the grief, and resentment is released. This turns Day into Night. The Dark and the Light must be in balance for the Dark holds the Light as the Light holds the Dark. This seeming binary of Dark/Light is not Bad/Good, but a nonduality (Note 4) with shades of Grey between the Two.

In the “Inheritors: Moving Forward from Generational Trauma,” Gita Baack writes that “resilience is the process of creating meaning out of the contradictions of life’s darkness and light. It builds on the strength of relationships and community.” (Note 5) That is for me, a major reason for Apollo being my Shadow Patron.

Divination and prayers are sacred acts. To perform each, the human communicates directly with the Holy Powers. The Pax Deorum (The Peace of the Gods) has to be maintained between the people and the Gods. This is one reason for Shadow Patrons.

Notes:
Note 1. Shadows are considered to be the archetypes of the darker aspects of life such as the Underworld. A Shadow God could be a God who is of the Underworld or of War.
Note 2. “Spiritual bypassing is a mistaken belief that if we pray enough…eat right, and only think positive thoughts, our life will ascend finally reaching enlightenment.” Linda Star Wolf, “Soul Whispering,” Page 154.
Note 3. I have a traumatic brain injury.
Note 4. “Nonduality” means “non-separation and fundamental wholeness.” It comes from Eastern Religious thought.
Note 5. Gita Baack, “Inheritors: Moving Forward from Generational Trauma,” P 149.

Works Used:
Gita Baack, “Inheritors: Moving Forward from Generational Trauma.”
Raven Kaldera, “Dealing with Deities.”
Galina Krasskova, “With Clean Minds and Clean Hands.”
Linda Star Wolf, “Soul Whispering.”

Ascendant II: Theology for Modern Polytheists

The newest title from Bibliotheca Alexandrina is Ascendant II, edited by Michael Hardy. It contains essays from several different authors, including John Beckett, Wayne Keysor, John Michael Greer, Brandon Hensley, and myself.

My article “Applying Cross-Cultural Methods of Myth Interpretation to the Myth of Baldr’s Death” is featured about halfway through the book. For anyone curious about why Loki’s involvement in Baldr’s death is actually essential to the maintenance of the cosmological order, I highly suggest reading that essay.

I actually highly suggest buying a copy of Ascendant II (and its precursor, Ascendant I) because it features polytheists discussing theology in the modern world. Theology is not often something discussed in Pagan and Polytheist circles, despite all the work we do with and for the gods.

You can learn more about the contents of Ascendant II here and you can purchase your own copy of Amazon for $11 here. 

Frith

While frith directly translates to “peace,” it is a word that holds so much meaning inside it that “peace” does not do it justice. Frith and pax are not synonymous. Vilhelm Grønbech states in Culture of the Teutons,

A word such as the Latin pax suggests first and foremost…a laying down of arms, a state of equipoise due to the absence of disturbing elements; frith, on the other hand, indicates something armed, protection defense – or else a power for peace which keeps men amicably inclined (Grønbech 35).

Frith, then, is an actively defensive and protective type of peace. Frith, for the ancient Germanic people, formed the very foundation of the soul itself. Frith was such a vital part of life that it was considered a base necessity and not referred to as a virtue. Because of that, the society formulated around frith became one “based upon general unity, mutual self-sacrifice and self-denial, and the social spirit. A society, in which every individual, from birth to death, was bound by consideration for his neighbor” (Grønbech 13).

Frith was the power that made people friendly towards one other; it was the glue that bound society together. According to Grønbech, “Frith is the state of things which exists between friends. And it means, first and foremost, reciprocal inviolability” (Grønbech 18). That means everyone was expected to act from a place of frith; frith was more important than any disputes that arose.

Disputes could arise; arguments did occur. Frith did not prevent arguments. Instead, frith required that all arguments be held in such a way that people worked toward a settlement that satisfied the nature of frith. The active force of frith guaranteed a solution that resulted in communal peace. As Grønbech states,

Frith is something active, not merely leading kinsmen to spare each other, but forcing them to support one another’s cause, help and stand sponsor for one another, trust one another….the responsibility is absolute, because kinsmen are literally the doers of one another’s deeds (Grønbech 24).

Frith rested on the Germanic concept of unity. In the Western world, the way we are taught the idea of unity today is the same method that was used when Grønbech lived. Children are taught that a stick by itself is weak but a bundle of sticks together are strong – unity is thus conveyed as the addition of individuals to a collective.

The Germanic people did not understand unity in this way; for them, unity was the natural state of existence. Grønbech explains:

The Germanic attitude or mind starts from a different side altogether. Here, unity is not regarded as originating in addition; unity is first in existence. The thought of mutual support plays no leading part among these men; they do not see it in the light of one man after another coming with his strength and the whole then added together; but rather as if the force lay in that which unites them (Grønbech 33).

Frith is the uniting force; it is what creates the cohesive whole. It is because the Germanic people thought of unity in this way that frith became the most inviolable social reality. It is why the family clan was conceptualized as a fence, each member a stave set in the ground and enclosing a sacred ground.

That is where the Heathen concepts of innangard and utangard originate. Innangard is the inner circle; it is the family, the clan, the communities we build. It is where we owe our loyalties. Utangard is everything outside of those structures; it is everything external to our communities that threaten to destroy frith.

Frith is always accompanied by joy or glad-feeling. As Grønbech states,

Gladness or joy is not a pleasure derived from social intercourse, it draws its exhilarating strength from being identical with frith…Joy is a thing essential to humanity. It is inseparably attached to frith; a sum and an inheritance. But this joy, then, contained something in itself…What were the ideas attaching to this joy? The answer is contained in the old world honor (Grønbech 37-38).

Frith and joy are the foundation of honor, and it is the power of frith that makes communities cohesive and joyful.


Sources

Vilhelm Grønbech. Culture of the Teutons, Volume 1. Trans. W. Worster. London: Oxford University Press, 1931.

 

 

All Jackal’s Eve: A Moomas time myth for Kids (And the young at heart)

(Quick note: I didn’t create All Jackal’s Eve, it’s a fun tradition celebrated by some Kemetic families the day before Moomas. I was however inspired to write this as a contribution to the stories and celebrations!)

Every year on the night before Moomas Yinepu (Anubis) and Wepwawet celebrate the anniversary of the Celestial Cow by visiting Kemetic families all over the world. They hitch a golden sledge up to a team of living golden jackals and load it up with gifts and blessings for all those who did their best to live within Ma’at.

There are seven jackals, with one at the front and the rest side by side. Merry little oil lamps🪔 light Their way through the darkness as They sail across Nut’s starry body.

All the while our Akhu celebrate with feasting and parties, pointing the way towards our homes to the tireless golden jackals. If you see twinkling lights in the sky this night you just might be seeing the celebration as our ancestors smile down on us.

Children leave snacks out as offerings to the jackal gods and letters to be read. Yinepu and Wepwawet visit every home and leave presents under Moomas trees and in stockings. The trees represent the sacred evergreens imported into Egypt in ancient times and the bright lights strung on them represent our akhu shining as stars up above.

©Terra Akhert 2019