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. 

The Importance of Myth in Practice

The easiest way to learn more about the gods is to read their stories, to study their myths, and to meditate on the meaning of what the gods show us about themselves in the stories.

One of the best ways to do this is to examine a myth through the lens of each god that plays a role in that story. In the myth that discusses the building of Asgard’s wall, the actions of Odin, Freyja, and Loki all show us different aspects of each of the gods.

Odin needs the wall built, and he is willing to do pretty much anything to do it – i.e. the ends justify the means. When the giant suggests that the price he wants for the wall is Freyja’s hand in marriage (alongside a few other key things, like the moon), it is Freyja who protests the price, not Odin.

That shows us that Freyja will not allow herself to be auctioned off or turned into a pawn in one of the All-father’s games, and it paints her as an independent, strong-willed goddess who can match wits with Odin himself.

The gods then turn to Loki to find a solution to their dilemma, and that immediately shows us that the gods trust in Loki’s ability to solve problems. He is a creative, cunning thinker, and he comes up with a scheme to prevent the giant from finishing the wall so that the ill-struck bargain cannot be completed. He is the ultimate con artist, and the rest of the story demonstrates that. It also shows us that he runs his cons for the good of the gods – and sure, his cons work out well for him too, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

Just from that one story, we get glimpses of the gods and their individual personalities. Odin is hell-bent on getting what he needs – there are no lengths too far for him to go. He is ruthless and determined and self-assured. He can be this self-assured because he knows that he can rely on Loki, and that is clear because he brings Loki in to find the perfect solution to his problem.

Being able to see these glimpses of the gods through the myths is why it is so important that people who come to polytheistic religions read the stories. The secrets of the gods are hidden in their stories.

Those stories, ancient as they are, were once the shared gnosis of entire civilizations. Myths are the collective understanding of the gods and their unique agencies in this world. That is why they are so important, why it is so imperative that people read the myths about the gods they wish to work with.

It is not about denying personal religious experience and gnosis when we experienced practitioners tell newcomers to read the myths and learn the stories about the gods they are wanting to honor. We tell them to do this because we know that the secrets of the gods are hidden in their stories. We tell them to do this because we know that those stories contain the key to unlock religious experience.

The more of the myths you read and seek to understand, the more you start to know the gods. The more you come to know the gods, the better and more reliable your personal gnosis becomes, and the greater your religious experience becomes.

If you want the key to your own greatest religious potential, read the myths. They are your greatest weapon and your greatest strength.

©Kyaza 2019

Interpreting Sallustius: Part III

Chapter Four of Sallustius’s treatise, On the Gods and the Worlds, starts out with a straightforward assertion; he claims there are five types of fables – myths.

The treatise reads thusly:

Of fables, some are theological, others physical, others animistic, (or belonging to soul,) material, and lastly, others mixed from these.

The five types of myths then are

  1. Theological
  2. Physical
  3. Animistic/Psychical
  4. Material
  5. Mixed

Sallustius then states:

Fables are theological which employ nothing corporeal but speculate the very essences of the gods; such as the fable which asserts that Saturn devoured his children; for it obscurely intimates the nature of an intellectual god, since every intellect retuns to itself.

This is interesting, as it suggests that what a god consumes that god already contains and is. This also suggests the gods are forces because there is a metaphorical level implicit in the story of Saturn consuming his children – by consuming them, he reclaims his own intellect, which in turn reflects his nature as an intellectual god.

At this level of myth, the gods are not seen as having physical forms but being pure essence, pure force, and the myths of the gods reveal information about their individual essences.

Sallustius continues:

But we speculate fables physically when we speak concerning the energies of the gods about the world; as when considering Saturn the same as Time, and calling the parts of time the children of the universe, we assert that the children are devoured by their parents.

Basically, when we equate the gods to particular universal forces at work in the world, we are interpreting myth physically. Saturn – or Khronos – as Time. Loki or Prometheus as Fire. Hela or Hades as Death. Gaia or Njord as Earth. These are physical forces at work in the universe.

A deep perusal of the myths of any pantheon will reveal the forces each of the gods holds within them, which of the forces they control. Gods share dominion over different forces, else it would not be possible for both Prometheus and Loki to be Fire. What is most fascinating is that they are both Fire, but they are each Fire in a different way than the other – that might be something worth reflecting on.

Sallustius then says:

But we employ fables in an animistic mode when we contemplate the energies of the soul; because the intellections of our souls, though by a discursive energy they proceed into other things, yet abide in their parents.

Essentially, what the myths tell us about ourselves tells us more about the gods and the essence of the gods. This is another way to phrase that secret mystery – if you cannot find what you seek within, you will never find it without. This is that same mystery, wrapped in a different coat.

This is also the old maxim, as above, so below. The macrocosm and the microcosm reflect each other, so studying our own psyches reveals more to us about the psyches of the gods and studying the gods reveals more to us about ourselves.

This level of myth might be considered the beginning level for occult practitioners, as the evolution of self is the primary goal for most ceremonial magicians.

Moving on to the next level of myth, Sallustius says:

Lastly, fables are material, such as the Egyptians employ, considering and calling corporeal natures divinities; such as Isis, earth; Osiris, humidity; Typhon, heat; or again, denominating Saturn, water; Adonis, fruists; and Bacchus, wine. And indeed, to assert that these are dedicated to the gods, in the same manner as herbs, stones, and animals, is the part of wise men; but to call them gods is alone the province of mad men; unless we speak in the same manner as when, from established custom, we call the orb of the Sun and its rays the Sun itself.

Put concisely, Isis is the earth, but the earth itself is not a god. Osiris may be humidity, but humidity is not a god. Typhon may be heat, but heat is not a god.

In other words, this would be Sallustius’s answers to those who call archetypes gods. The gods can be archetypes – as in, Loki can be the trickster – but the archetypes cannot be a god. Therefore, Trickster is not a god but a construct that a god can embody when they choose to do so.

It’s interesting to see that Sallustius had an answer to the question only recently posed by archetypalists in the last twenty years back in the days of ancient Greece. He called those who would refer to the Sun itself as a god “mad men,” so it seems fairly clear that he would have no love for those who prefer to follow the Jungian style of polytheism many archetypalists of today adhere to.

Moving on to the final level of myth, Sallustius states:

But we may perceive the mixed kind of fables, as well in many other particular, as in the fable which relates, that Discord at a banquet of the gods threw a golden apple, and that a dispute about it arising among the goddesses, they were sent by Jupiter to take the judgment of Paris, who, charmed with the beauty of Venus, gave her the apple in preference to the rest.

For in this fable the banquet denotes the supermundane powers of the gods; and on this account they subsist in conjunction with each other; but the golden apple denotes the world, which, on account of its composition from contrary natures, is not improperly said to be thrown by Discord, or strife. But again, since different gifts are imparted to the world by different gods, they appear to contest with each for the apple. And a soul living according to sense, (for this is Paris) not perceiving other powers in the universe, asserts that the contended apple subsists alone through the beauty of Venus.

This is a great example of a mixed myth, and Sallustius does an excellent job of explaining it.

Discord throws a golden apple that causes a fight among the goddesses, resulting in them being brought before Jupiter for judgment. Jupiter turns the case over to Paris, who declares that Venus holds the ownership of the apple.

If the banquet represents the supermundane powers of the gods, and the apple the world, then the fight the goddesses are having is over which of the gods can be said to give the gift of the world. It is not as simple as fighting over an apple.

None of the myths are simple. All of them are heavy and laden with meaning. That is why it is so important that we read each and every myth carefully and several times, analyzing it further with each read.

The secrets of the gods are hidden in the myths – all we have to do is open our minds to the incredible richness of possibility in their interpretations.

*Note: While there are 21 chapters in the treatise, the first 3 chapters are the ones I find most relevant, so this particular series ends here. I highly suggest that those who are interested in reading further read the rest of the treatise for themselves, as it is free online. 

Sources

Sallustius. “On the Gods and the World.”

©Kyaza 2019

Interpreting Sallustius: Part II

Continuing on with Sallustius and his treatise “On the Gods and the World,” we come to his third chapter and his second major point: fables – aka myths – are divine.

He states:

This is the first utility arisng from fables, that they excite us to inquiry, and do not suffer our cogitative power to remain in indolent rest. It will not be difficult therefore to show that fables are divine, from those by whom they are employed: for they are used by poets agitated by divinity, by the best of the philosophers, and by such as disclose initatory rites. In oracles also fables are employed by the gods; but why fables are divine is the part of philosophy to investigate.

This is fairly straight-forward, as Sallustius essentially says that myths and stories are useful because they make us think. They keep us engaged with the world, and they help to keep us alert, awake, and inquisitive.

He also states that there are three types of people who use myths in the pursuit of their arts. Specifically, he mentions poets, philosophers, and priests. Poets, he says, find their inspiration in the stories of the divine. That, to me, immediately conjures up the knowledge that the Eddas – both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda – are fantastic examples of a poet divinely inspired to impart myth.

Because of his need to see the old poetic style preserved, Snorri composed the Prose Edda, and, in doing so, preserved many of the ancient Norse myths. Without the effort he put forth, we would have far less knowledge about the myths of the ancient Norsemen than we possess today. It may very well be that Snorri felt divinely inspired to preserve the stories of his ancestors, but that is a question only the gods can answer.

Sallustius also states that the best of philosophers use myths, and that it is the job of philosophers to determine why myths can be considered divine. That is what Sallustius, a philosopher in his own right, seeks to do in this treatise, so we can expect him to answer this question in time.

As for priests, Sallustius says that priests use myths to disclose initiatory rites. What he means by this is that a priest of a religion needs to know the complete mythos of that religion, as it is the myths themselves that reveal the secrets of that religion. The mythology of a religion is not simply a collection of stories but the stories interwoven in a composite whole. To become an initiate in a religion is to come to that understanding, and it is the duty of a priest to set a person on the path that will allow them to gain that knowledge.

Sallustius’s next point follows thusly:

Since therefore all beings rejoice in similtude, and are averse from dissimiltude, it is necessary that discourses concerning the gods should be as similar to them as possible, that they may become worthy of their essence, and that they may render the gods propitious to those who discourse concerning them; all which can only be effected by fables.

Here, Sallustius basically says that we embrace similarity and have trouble embracing difference – a truth that is, unfortunately, one that has caused our world to become far more divided than it needs to be, considering our shared humanity.

Sallustius explains that the discourse – communication – about the gods needs to be as similar to people as possible, so that people may better understand the gods and see the gods as benevolent and worthy. To accomplish this, it is necessary to employ myth.

Essentially, the myths show the gods as similar to humans because it allows us, as people, to better relate to the gods and see them as good. It is not that the gods themselves are like us, but that we need to understand them as if they were, in order to be able to relate to the gods in any productive way.

Sallustius continues:

Fables therefore imitate the gods, according to effable and ineffable, apparent and unapparent, wise and ignorant; and this likewise extends to the goodness of the gods; for as the gods impart the goods of sensible natures in common to all things, but the goods resulting from the intelligibles to the wise alone, so fables assert to all men that there are gods; but who they are, and of what kind, they alone manifest to such as are capable of so exalted a knowledge.

Here, Sallustius says that the myths imitate the qualities of the gods that they possess. Since they are imitations, however, it is important to understand that imitation is nothing more but a pale echo – the myths, therefore, cannot capture the full essence of a god, no matter how poignant the myths may be.

He also says that the gods gift the shared senses to those who inhabit the world, but the gods only impart intellect to the wise. I find that this sentiment echoes in the Havamal, the Sayings of the High One (i.e. Odin):

54. Wise in measure let each man be;/ but let him not wax too wise;/ for never the happiest of men is he/ who knows much of many things.

Wisdom, after all, comes at a price. It is not a price everyone will wish to pay, and it thus makes sense that the gods would only impart it to those that seek it. It seems, after all, that only those who seek wisdom hold the capacity for it, but that is my own perception of the world I have seen.

Going back to Sallustius, he also offers a sage piece of advice. He says that while myths assert to everyone that there are gods, the meanings of the myths are not made apparent to everyone. Basically, he asserts that there are people who understand myths on a level others cannot, and this serves both as advice and warning – the myths are not simply what they seem.

Sallustius then states:

In fables, too, the energies of the gods are imitated; for the world may very properly be called a fable, since bodies and the corporeal possessions which it contains, are apparent, but souls and intellects are occult and invisible. Besides, to inform all men of the truth concerning the gods, produces contempt in the unwise, from their incapacity of learning, and negligence in the studious; but concealing truth in fables, prevents the contempt of the former, and compels the latter to philosophize.

Here, Sallustius says that the world itself can be seen as a story, as it contains corporeal existence in the form of bodies and other tangibles. The reality behind that story, however, is the eternal existence of souls and intellects, as they are intangible and noncorporeal. We are all, in the end, just stories.

He then states that it would be unwise if the gods simply informed humanity of the truth of themselves. Sallustius seems to say here that the unwise would find the gods contemptible because they would turn their inability to learn and understand that truth against the gods themselves. Similarly, those with a passion for learning, would turn away from their studies and make no attempt towards understanding the gods, as the knowledge would exist already.

This, to me, says that the world would be a place full of contempt and unease if the gods simply revealed the truth of themselves to all of humanity. It would take the fun out of the life we live for those of us who enjoy the pursuit of knowledge, and it would cause nothing but ire and ill-will to burn in the hearts of those who suddenly find themselves faced with beings they can never hope to understand.

That said, Sallustius completes this chapter thusly:

But you will ask why adulteries, thefts, paternal bonds, and other unworthy actions are celebrated in fables? Nor is this unworthy of admiration, that where there is an apparent absurdity, the soul immediately conceiving these discourses to be concealments, may understand that the truth which they contain is to be involved in profound and occult silence.

Of all the things Sallustius has to say in this chapter, this is my absolute favorite. In essence, he is saying that the myths that demonstrate unworthy actions on the part of the gods still require the admiration of the gods. He suggests that the actions are only unworthy at first glance, and that we will understand that the actions that seem bad only seem so – that, in fact, there are deeper truths to be found, if only we are willing to dig beneath the surface.

The Greeks believed that the Gods were inherently good, and we will eventually get to the part of Sallustius’s treatise that discusses that. For me, this particular section of this chapter of the treatise lightens my heart because it affirms something I have always seen as true.

The myths that paint Loki in a negative light, the ones that cause people to label him as evil or a frith-breaker or the bane of the gods – these are the myths that have the deeper layer. The ones that have more occult knowledge hidden within them than can ever truly be spoken. His stories are some of the deepest ones I know, and I am glad to find a treatise by a polytheist that explains why such seemingly cruel myths delve into sometimes unfathomable depths.

Sources:

Sallustius. “On the Gods and the World.”

Havamal Verse 54 from the Poetic Edda, Oliver Bray translation.

©Kyaza 2019