Saturday, 23 August 2014

Paganism for Children

Goddess of wild animals, forests, the hunt and the moon -
Diana / Artemis, by xx12taylorxx.deviantart.com
This post is devoted to helping older children to understand what Paganism is. Pagans have a wide range of views and not all Pagans will agree with everything written on this page – which is fine. Paganism  embraces an open, not a closed, view of the world and can incorporate a wide range of different beliefs and practices – which makes it both very wonderful and very hard to describe. I have attempted to not use too many complex words, so that everyone can easily understand it – and disagree with it, if they want to.

What Paganism is
Paganism means different things to different people, but the one thing that almost all Pagans agree on is that the natural world includes sacred, or divine, forces and that it is good to show respect for the sacred forces, or spirits, that exist in nature – because as humans we are part of nature. When we show respect for the natural world we show respect for ourselves and the entire universe in which we live. Many Pagans understand that the most powerful divine forces of nature are Gods – which includes Goddesses. By tapping into the power of the Gods we can improve our own daily lives. As the Gods are powerful they can help us to achieve the things we want.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Messenger Animals as Omens

"Sulphur Crested Cockatoo" by lithas-alterego
For me, being open minded about the potentiality of omens is part of polytheistic practice – omens being signs from the Gods indicating their will, favour or disfavour, as well as being divine signals indicating present or near future auspiciousness or inauspiciousness. In ancient Rome divination of omens could take any number of forms but the most common methods included observing the manner of the flight of birds; observing the way that birds ate; studying the state of the internal organs of sacrificial animals (haruspicy); analysing one’s dreams, and being alert to the import of unusual natural phenomena (Shelton at 375; Turcan at 15; Kamm at 83-84). Tacitus records  that as well as the casting of lots, which appears to an early form of reading the runes, the following means of divination were common amongst the ancient Germanic tribes:
“The widespread practice [in the Roman world] of seeking an answer from the call or flight of birds, is, to be sure, known here too, but it is a specialty of this people to test horses as well for omens and warnings. The horses are maintained at public expense in … sacred woods and groves; they are pure white and undefiled by any kind of work for humans. They are yoked to a sacred chariot and the priest or king or chief of the state walks beside them, taking note of their whinnies and neighing. No kind of omen inspires greater confidence, not only among the common people but even among the nobles and priests, who regard themselves as but the servants of the Gods, the horses as the Gods’ messengers [Tacitus at 42].” 
Thus it seems that signs communicated through what we might call messenger animals were key means of divination in the ancient world. Even before I consciously embraced polytheism I considered the behaviour of certain birds as capable of indicating auspiciousness, and since then it has seemed to me that certain animals may be associated with certain deities. Divination of omens through the observation of animals, or their presence in our dreams, is often an inexact art. In an effort to make sense of these potential omens I have put together the following alphabetical list, which records which animals are associated with which Gods, usually via myths. I note that Roman augury, as practiced by priests, involved very specific methods, some of which are described in my earlier post, Jupiter - Lord of the Heavens. Regarding unanticipated omens, it is the unusual behaviour of animals, their sudden and unexpected appearance, or their presence in dreams which tends towards indicating an omen, and one should take care not to become hyper-vigilant or superstitious, by imagining that there are signs in essentially mundane occurrences.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Salus – Goddess of Safety, Health and Well Being

"Hygieia" (the Hellenic Salus) by Klimt (1900)
Salus is the Goddess of safety, health, well being and, according to some translations, salvation. If we think of the English word deriving from her name – salubrious – we get an idea of who she is. The Arval Brothers, priests in charge of public sacrifices made for the well being of Rome, prayed and made offerings to her not just for the safety of the city of Rome but also for the health and fertility of the entire Roman community, including its animals and farms (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1 at 52). The Nones/fifth of August was the day on which she was honoured most, with circus games and the public sacrifice of a cow (Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 2 at 73). She was revered from at least as early as the 4th century BCE, with her temple on the Quirinal Hill being founded in 302 BCE (Rüpke, Religion of the Romans at 55). In the 4th century CE her temple in Rome still stood – despite being twice hit by lightning, in 276 and 206 BCE, and damaged by fire in the 1st century CE (and then restored) – and she appeared on Roman coinage up until the reign of the Christian emperor Constantine I (Rüpke, A Companion to Roman Religion at 162; Platner, 
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome). In her public aspect she was known as Salus Publica and even Salus Augusti – for during the imperial era the well being of the emperor was equated with the well being of Rome as a whole (Lipka, Roman Gods at 95). Another title was Salus Romana – Ovid briefly mentions that an offering should be made to her, alongside Janus, Concordia (Goddess of peaceful agreement) and Pax (Goddess of peace), on 30 March (Ovid, Fasti, Book 3). It may be that the three Goddesses shared a temple founded on that date (Boyle and Woodard’s notes to the Penguin edition of Ovid, Fasti at 229); at the very least we know there were statues of these Goddesses in Rome, erected by Augustus (Wiseman’s notes to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Ovid, Fasti at 136).

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Shamanism

Korean Shaman. Source: people.cohums.ohio-state.edu
A month or so ago I got talking to a fellow I know who had just come back from South Korea – he was a little drunk, which was fortunate as it opened up a bridge of uninhibited communication between us via which we landed on the fascinating topic of Shamanism. He told me he had been to Shamanic ceremonies in Korea and proceeded to describe them. I can’t recall his exact words but what really hooked me in was the fact that he was describing Shamanism as a living tradition. I had recently been reading about the Shamanistic religions of the former nomads of northern Europe, but it was all in the past tense. What he described was a continuing, unbroken tradition practiced by people of our own times who are not wildly different from ourselves – I can’t say I think of Koreans as exotic (there are a lot of Koreans in Sydney). Following our fascinating conversation, I got my hands on the most reputable book on Shamanism I could find. It is by Piers Vitebsky, who is described as “an anthropologist and head of Social Sciences at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge”. Most of the information, and all page citations with no other referencing, in this post are sourced from this book, published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2001.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Prayer to Vesta

"The Vestal" by Frederic Leighton (1883)
Lately I have had a heightened sense of awareness of Vesta – so much so that I have bought a statue of her (though of the Hellenic Hestia in point of fact) for my household shrine. As I cannot keep her fire burning continually in my home, it is my hope that her statue facilitates her continual presence in some way. For Vesta is the great protecting deity; this is why ancient Romans were so concerned to keep her sacred flame alive and attended by the most important of all Roman priestesses – the Vestal Virgins.
“The Vestals were clearly set apart from the other priestly groups. Six priestesses, chosen in childhood, they lived in a special house next to the temple of Vesta. They had all kinds of privileges … they were responsible for tending the sacred fire, on the sacred hearth of their temple; they guarded their storehouse (penus) and they ritually cleaned it out and expelled the dirt … There is an obvious parallel between Vesta, the hearth of the city, and the hearths of individual families – the priestesses of the state apparently representing the women of the household …     

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Buddhist Tattoos

Thai Buddhist monk receiving a sak yant tattoo
Source: peaceloveandtea.tumblr.com
Given the popularity of my earlier posts on tattoos and my familiarity with Buddhism I thought I would do a post on Buddhist tattoos. I note that many devout Buddhists, especially Theravada Buddhists in south and southeast Asia (who make up nearly 40% of the Buddhist population worldwide), may be offended by certain kinds of Buddhist tattoos, so it may be an idea to get one in a place that is easily covered by clothing. Tattoos depicting the Buddha himself are the most likely to offend, as are tattoos below the waist, especially those near the foot. Western tourists sporting Buddhist tattoos in Sri Lanka have even been deported and in 2011 the Thai Ministry of Culture instigated a crack down on Thai tattoo parlours so to prevent Western tourists receiving Buddhist tattoos, and thereby (in the eyes of some) trivialising Buddhist iconography, by (supposedly) reducing sacred images to mere fashion statements. While I don't doubt there are people out there who have chosen Buddhist designs for essentially frivolous reasons, I do think those who are offended by Buddhist tattoos on Westerners may be underestimating the reverence many Westerners have for Buddhism; as well as misunderstanding Western attitudes to tattoos in general. I feel sure that many Westerners who get such tattoos, even those who don't fully appreciate their provenance, are trying to tap into and comprehend the sacred, as well as Buddhist teachings more generally.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Jupiter – Lord of Heaven

"Jupiter and Mercury reveal themselves" by Santi (1798)
Jupiter is without doubt one of the greatest of Gods. Essentially, he is the numen (divine spirit) of the sky, of weather, of thunder and lightning, and of rain. As the God of rain he inevitably also becomes a major God of agriculture, if not of life itself (for rain is fundamental for human prosperity), and so from the start the Romans, who started out as farmers, held him in especially high esteem and looked to him for divine protection – over time Rome’s agricultural focus shifted, but Jupiter remained at the apex of the Roman pantheon and he was worshipped as one of the major protecting Gods of Rome and her empire. The ancient epithets of Jupiter are especially revealing and may help us to understand both his divine essence and his importance. Some of the most common include:
  • Iuppiter Capitolinus (of the Capitoline hill, one of the holy triad which protected Rome and her empire)
  • Iuppiter Custos (guardian)
  • Iuppiter Elicius (sender of rain)
  • Iuppiter Fulgur (of lightning)
  • Iuppiter Libertas (of liberty/freedom)
  • Iuppiter Lucetius (light bringer)
  • Iuppiter Optimus Maximus (best and greatest)
  • Iuppiter Victor (victorious)
  • Iuppiter Tonans (thunderer)