Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Without Any Teachers - A Way to Transformative Wisdom

Recently there has been some heated discussion about how the Millennial generation (and some members of Generation X) don’t have respect or the proper behavior towards the older, mature and supposedly wiser members of the Western Magical Tradition (WMT). It started out with Nick Farrell telling potential students that they should basically shut up and meekly listen and learn from their elders. Of course, Nick comes off as something of a dick, but he did give plenty of examples of his own past foolishness, and supposedly he is advising his younger audience to not act like he did many years ago. Still, others have chimed in giving their support to Nick’s premise or vehemently decrying what he wrote. It has created quite a controversy, and I have been loath to comment on it because I am unfortunately not one to talk about either the traditional role of occult teachers or the responsibilities of idealized students or followers. That is because I consider myself mostly a “self-made” man regarding my practice of magick and my approach to occultism in general. 

I have had very few experiences with supposed “great” teachers, but I have painfully learned to eschew the advances and self-promotions of anyone who is a charismatic leader or teacher in some established occult organization. Those few experiences that I have had revealed to me that “great” teachers are really a social mirage, and that those who promote a charming and attractive front are likely hiding egregious flaws and possibly even sinister motives. Many of us are suckers for the guru confidence game, but typically cold hard facts and the power of dispassionate and unbiased reason will reveal a fraudulent master teacher eventually.

Ostensibly, we are really on our own. We alone are responsible for what we achieve regardless of what someone else does for us or against us. We might be an initiate of some great magical tradition or perhaps even received the exalted teachings of some spiritual master, but what we ultimately achieve is due to our own efforts. Typically, membership in an occult organization can be helpful or even inspiring, but if students don’t attempt to take the teachings and knowledge into themselves then it is little more than a distraction at best, a roadblock or daunting trap at worst.

Instead of writing up a homiletic about teachers and students and how they should comport themselves, I can only reach into my own many years of experience and declare that it is actually better for one to be solitary than to belong to an established occult group. At this time in my development I have the considered opinion that the only group that I would bother to belong to is one that is either a loose confederation of fellow magicians or a Star Group. If neither of these types of groups are available then I am quite happy to continue my work alone and intensely focused.

What I don’t need is to be distracted or have my time wasted by some bloviating teacher who thinks he or she has a monopoly on truth. While I am willing to share my experiences and knowledge with others, I do expect people to reach out to me and also be ready to do the work by themselves and for themselves. If someone wants me to share my knowledge with them then they need to make an effort to arrange the time and the intentions for such a working. I refuse to beg people to work with me who won’t make their own effort to set things in motion. So, I am indeed willing to share what I know with others, but I have found very few that are really interested in what I am doing. No one is knocking on my door to gain whatever knowledge I supposedly possess, and I have my own work and efforts to keep me quite occupied. I need people to socialize with and to share my ideas and also to listen to what they have to say, but I don’t need a teacher or a guru.

It is for this reason that I strongly believe that everyone should be responsible for their own spiritual and magical progress. It is a personal responsibility that has nothing to do with anyone else. No one can do this work for you and no one has the answers that you are looking for. You might occasionally meet remarkable men and women on the transformational path of enlightenment, and at times, these people can function as teachers and mentors, but only temporarily and only if you are willing to do the work. However, only you can do the work and only you can discover the answers to the questions that you might have.

I must admit that I am not a big fan of Krishnamurti, but in some cases he had some of the best advice to give to those who were seeking the lonely path of self directed personal and spiritual mastery. I also admire the fact that he repudiated the heads of the Theosophical Society who tried vainly to make him into their vaunted world teacher, and then he forged his own path, developing naturally over the decades. He was a font of wisdom and was one of the brilliant few who bridged the spiritual practices and wisdom of both the East and the West from the standpoint of the East.

Here are some quotations of his where he talks about the solitary path of self-knowledge and self-directed spiritual evolution. His words seem to advocate a spiritual path toward truth that belongs to no one group, creed or organization, and I find them profoundly deep and meaningful.

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. ... The moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth.”

Self-knowledge is not something acquired from a book or from a guru or teacher. Self-knowledge begins in understanding oneself from moment to moment, and that understanding requires one's full attention to be given to each thought at any particular moment without an end in view, because there cannot be complete attention when there is condemnation or justification.”

Self-knowledge has no beginning and no end. It is a constant process of discovery, and what is discovered is true, and truth is liberating, creative.”

First of all, each and every person has their own spiritual process and lifetime trajectory. They alone are responsible for whatever happens to them, most particularly on how they react to both good and bad fortune. As spiritual seekers we must ultimately follow our own trajectory regardless of those individuals whose paths we might briefly intersect. Our own evolving spiritual process is the great hidden teacher and master, but it is not someone or something exterior to ourselves - it is within us and it also transcends our egoic selves. Experience and experimentation help us to acquire self-knowledge that ultimately leads to powerful realizations and self illumination; so long as we avoid the illusions and traps that we or others might set for ourselves.

This individual path of self-knowledge has no beginning nor end. Whatever objectives we might start out with change over time and eventually become overall, meaningless. It is merely the sake of journeying freely on our own path of self-knowledge that is our one and only compensation. Understanding ourselves from moment to moment, and fully engaging our attention in this task is a powerful state of mindfulness that can lead to full self-realization. Even so, this path is neither quick nor is it glorious. It is a life-long process from spiritual adolescence to full maturity and self-mastery. It is full of joy and sorrow, ascent and decline, pain and pleasure, wonderful dreams and horrifying nightmares - the very stuff of life.

When I consider these thoughts and ideas it makes my feeble attempts to write and teach seem nearly useless and without merit. What impact or effect can I possibly make on the soul and life path of someone who is a spiritual seeker for truth? I can share a few moments of comradery and even intimacy, but in the end, that seeker moves on regardless of what I do or say. I don’t wish to distract anyone for too long or keep them from their appointed destiny, just as I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me.

In the end, all I can say is that I am merely a student and still in the process of learning and growing just like everyone else. There is little difference between me and the young beginning student, except that I am probably a lot more jaded, less curious and quite set in my ways. To some I might even seem to be rather boring and self-absorbed, since there is little that I can boast about or claim about my achievements without having to establish a meaningful context. While I might preen for a moment at all of the books that I have digested and the magical workings that I have accomplished and even the books and articles I have written, what I have accomplished in a life time of work seems diminished when compared to the totality of spiritual and occult knowledge. What we collectively know seems quite vast, and yet the last words haven’t been written on the subject of magic or occultism, nor will they be written for ages to come. Thus what I have managed to accomplish in my short and brief life is rather small and humbling, but I continue on my travels because life is still good and there is so much yet to experience and learn.

The path of the sorcerer is endless, without beginning nor end, and we few magicians travel its dimly marked path knowing that the adventure of traveling is our only compensation. There is no objective that is a permanent triumph and there is no final destination except exhaustion and death. The majestic vistas that we see along the way are beautiful and inspiring, but they all too soon pass away leaving us with fleeting memories as we endlessly walk in the twilight. Birth is a vaguely acknowledged beginning to our path, but death and its mysteries will be encountered while fully conscious and aware. I suspect that the personification of Death will be the final and greatest teacher that one could possibly meet, and also the greatest challenge. I am both fearful of it, and I also look forward to it, since it will either deify or destroy me, or probably both.

Frater Barrabbas

Monday, April 6, 2015

Are Coven Organizations Dead?

Bad coven leaders are like Ming the Merciless.

I have been a Witch for over 40 years, and I have seen the various traditions of Witchcraft grapple and deal with inter-personal issues occurring within and outside of the group organization called the “coven.” I have been a High Priest for a few covens, an elder, and a member of others. I have witnessed a lot of abuses and experienced the terrible consequences of investing authority in individuals who are either too flawed or incompetent to lead, or too unscrupulous to trust. Perhaps I have been unlucky with the covens of which I have been a member or leader, and certainly there were cherished moments that I experienced in all of them, even the ones that went seriously off the rails.

I also believe that I am an ethical and responsible person, but as a human being with the all too typical weaknesses, I am liable to be manipulated and made a fool of just like everyone else. I have no lust for power over others, no hidden agenda or passive aggressive impulses, and I don’t feel the calling to either lead or control people within a hierarchical organization. These days my only interest is sharing what I know and what I can experience with others magically and liturgically. I don’t belong to a coven and I have no plans for forming one either. Still, I consider myself to be a Witch, and I believe that you can be a competent Witch without having to belong to a coven.

There are also many positive examples that I could describe of good coven leaders who are humble, trustworthy and quite willing to help their members deal with the vicissitudes of life and their spiritual growth. These good leaders act like true spiritual guides who take responsibility, are accountable to their group and who do the work without complaint or a desire for compensation. Despite the fact that there are plenty of good role models for the offices of High Priestess, High Priest and Elder within the coven hierarchical structure, the possibility of abuse and its all too often occurrence shows that the problem is with the model itself and not necessarily with the individuals who take these roles.

We have also seen the unfortunate recent public revelations about sexual predation and abuse, and these individuals are people that many of us thought we knew. We have learned about the unaccountableness of a few Pagan celebrities (I won't name any names) who perpetrated serial sexual abuse on others and got away with it for years. We act shocked by these revelations and there is a lot of serious talk about accountability, consent and transparency; but for some reason we don’t talk about the hierarchical model that allows leaders and celebrities to get away with their excesses while covering up their crimes through intimidation and black listing.

Human nature is what it is, and giving unearned or unattested positions of authority and power to some would-be leaders to rule over their peers can make them behave in a vile and pernicious manner. Power in groups has an intoxicating and corrupting influence unless the leader is either a sterling example of humility or operates under the influence of checks and balances unofficially incorporated within the group. That forbidden taste of social power is likely what drives some to seek positions of leadership within their groups and communities, which ironically makes them the worst candidates for such an office. Still, the primary problem with this social structure is that it grants one or a few individuals too much power over their fellow group members. Even a benign dictator is still a dictator, and without any input from the other members of the group, such an empowered leader can easily become a tyrant.

Someone who is used to this unquestioned authority and power will attempt to wield it in greater social circles once he or she becomes a public celebrity. These abuses, if they existed in the coven, will be amplified and carried into the Pagan community, since a celebrity will assume that he or she has a kind of immunity due to their own vested power and unquestioned adoration of their community. Such individuals will seek to keep the lid on their excesses through threats, intimidation and by the fact that their voice is heard from a position of power and vested interest. It takes quite a bit of courage to reveal to the public that you have been exploited or abused by a celebrity, and even then there is no guarantee that you will be either heard or believed. I have seen this kind of potential scandal play itself out time after time, and it usually takes some kind of civil or legal action to get the truth out. Once such a celebrity is knocked off their pedestal, then the many victims start to come forth and reveal the truth, but by then, it is too late. This kind of phenomenon is not limited to the greater Pagan community; it appears to happen in many public arenas, from politics to show business.

Recent revelations have made many Pagans question what can be done to curb these excesses? How can we avoid the pitfalls of emotional and sexual exploitation? Are we not a more enlightened group of people who should know better than allow such things to happen to members of our own community? What is the overall cause for these abuses and how can they be stopped?

I have heard these discussions but I feel that the problem is to be found in the fundamental social structure of our various groups and the kind of behaviors that it encourages. As I have stated previously, we have no community wide temples and institutions. We have no state or city sanctioned religious protocols, nor do we have mystery colleges or cult centers. All we have are small groups structured like families, loose sodalities or solitary practicing individuals. Covens are like family based structures, with a father, mother, grandparents and older and younger sibling type roles. If actual families have problems with dysfunction and abuse the members can at least be comforted by the sole fact that they are all tied together by blood. This is not the case with the coven, so it is quite an artificial group structure instead of an organic one.

Coven membership is always voluntary (so they say), although with the caveat that coercion, blackmail and intimidation can often make them seem not so easy to voluntarily leave. Leadership is often assumed by the members, at times vouched for by other leaders in the tradition, though seldom is it earned through a rigorous regimen of education, testing and actual spiritual achievement. In my opinion this is a real problem. Putting someone in a position of spiritual leadership who doesn’t have the experience nor any real spiritual achievement is a recipe for disaster. Some may learn to be good leaders over time and avoid the excesses associated with the abuse of power, many more will ultimately show themselves to be not up to the challenge. Such an experiment can produce many victims over time before these leaders are finally outed to the community at large. Thus, it is my opinion that the old coven group structure has exceeded its usefulness and is therefore, quite dead. It might continue to exhibit signs of life in certain quarters, but it has been existing on life support for some time now, waiting for someone to finally pull the plug.

It is for these reasons that I have abandoned the group model of the coven and I feel that if any kind of group organization is to be used that it should be based completely on democratic principles. We are all adults of varying levels of knowledge and experience. Some of us have prior initiations into the same or other traditions, and some of us have achieved a spiritual understanding without even being initiated. What draws a group of like-minded individuals together are a common set of interests and goals. As long as those goals and interests are common to all then the group will continue to function and the individual members will profit from this sodality. This should be the foundation for any group of individuals seeking to practice magic and a Wiccan or Pagan liturgy together as a formal organization.

How should such a group comport itself? What are the basic principles that should govern such a group? Here is where I would like to introduce some rather obvious and practical ideals that will ensure that the group functions in a just and fair manner. These ideals are the basis to many democracies and democratic organizations, and I think that they are important for any collection of Pagans or Wiccans to seriously consider if they want to form a group. These words are consent, consensus, equality, accountability, egalitarianism and of course, transparency. If these six words become the backbone of the group then it will last as long the members want to continue working together; but it will be overall fair, equal and democratic. Let’s examine each of these words to see how they would help to shape a good practical working group.

Consent - agreement. Consent functions in both a group and a community where two or more parties agree to doing something. Consent also implies that the parties to this agreement are on equal footing socially and psychologically, and that there is no coercion or pressure to agree. It allows for a complete openness between individuals, it is neutral and completely voluntary, and it represents that all parties are in mutual agreement. Mutual is the key-word to an operational use of consent. Neutral means that there is neither manipulation nor threats used to gain leverage for any one of the parties. Consent is the basis for forming a group, and it also governs any kind of cooperative effort. It also avoids exploitation, coercion and aggressive manipulation.

Consensus - a general agreement held by all or most. Rule by consensus is where everyone either agrees or where most agree and no one disagrees. If you think that ruling by consensus makes getting anything done nearly impossible then you haven’t really tried it. If a group can no longer find consensus for doing anything then it’s time for that group to break up and reform itself into smaller and more agreeable factions. Consensus only works when there is a mutual agreed upon direction among the members. When group consensus is established for a specific enterprise or goal, everyone feels that they have had their say and they are all united in their effort. This kind of group zeal is a far cry from efforts that are directed, coerced or ordered by an authority figure within a hierarchical group. 

Equality - everyone is equal, and each has an equal share and responsibility in the governance of the group. While it is obviously true that individuals are all different, and therefore they have different virtues and liabilities, group equality is where no one individual has more authority, responsibility or carries greater weight than anyone else in the group. It also means that roles such as facilitator (as opposed to leader), teacher, mentor or even elder are temporary. Authority and responsibility is shared equally amongst the members of the group. Everyone has an equal status in the group, and everyone is therefore, empowered and considered an important facet of the overall group organization.     

Accountability - everyone is accountable and subject to the checks and balances of peer review. Since no one person has any vested authority within the group, and that all of the members of the group are considered equal, responsibility for specific tasks can be given by the group to specific individuals. However, their actions and how they undertake their tasks as well as how they interact with the other members of the group are subject to peer review, and when necessary, peer intervention. This openness and peer based accountability is not an invitation for crass criticism or domination by one or more individuals against someone attempting to perform their group sanctioned duty. All criticism should be constructive and it should also include alternatives and possible better solutions. Individuals should also not judge the work of others until that work has been achieved, thereby giving someone the chance to at least complete their efforts. Help can be given when requested, and everyone has a vested interest in seeing that the group’s objectives are optimally met. Respect for another person’s dignity is just as important as getting the job done efficiently and to the best of the group’s overall ability.

Egalitarianism - everyone shares in the responsibilities and also in the achievements. Group resources, work and achievement belong to the group, not to any individual. Certainly, a single member’s contributions can be extolled and celebrated in the group, but outside, it is a group action, event or project. Getting something done often calls for the effective combination of the efforts of various individuals in the group. Some are better at certain tasks than others, and some have more resources that they can bring into the group. However, all property, resources, work and achievements are owned by the group. If a member of the group donates property, equipment, money, or other resources for the group to use then those resources properly belong to the group. Giving anything to the group is a sacrifice in the sense that once given, it becomes the common property of the group. However, when groups disband, then resources and property can be equally divided or given, by consensus, to other individuals who will use it in the forming of a new group.

Transparency - nothing is hidden, and everything is communicated and discussed. Transparency is nothing more or less than establishing trust within the group. There is nothing more poisonous to a group than hidden agendas, passive aggressive behavior by one or more members, and secret sub-groups with their own special agendas functioning within the group. Transparency doesn’t mean that everyone has to reveal their deepest and darkest secrets. It just means that group related activities, decisions, objectives and work are performed by everyone in an open and above-board manner. If someone wants the group to engage in a certain activity then their reasons and intentions for promoting this activity should be known by everyone in the group before consensus is sought. Omitting anything will destroy the trust upon which the group was supposedly found, putting every previous decision into question. This is often a difficult thing for many individuals to do, but it is very important to represent oneself in an open and transparent manner in the group. It is therefore important to be truthful, conscientious and open to other group members. In establishing trust, all members can thereby assume positive intent for each and every action by any member, even if what occurred was wrong or produced negative results.

These are the six ideals that can promote a group culture that is truly democratic, fair and empowering to all of the members. It eliminates the worst abuses of power and authority and it promotes a progressive environment of mutual effort and trust. Such a group culture will not tolerate exploitation and coercion by the power elite, since no one individual has any real power in which to abuse others. A group culture based on these six democratic principles will not only be lasting and satisfying to the group, but it will also function as a powerful curb to all of the weaknesses and flaws in any one individual member.

By extension, if this kind of group culture were dominant in our Pagan and Wiccan communities then we could expect groups and individuals to behave differently towards each other. There wouldn’t be any abuse of power within groups, and celebrities in our community wouldn’t have the opportunity to abuse or exploit anyone either. We would have a community where there would be “zero tolerance” for coercion, exploitation, abuse and emotional and social predation. Scandals would be very rare occurrences and we would see them as anomalies, since our overall community would function with the very best of democratic principles empowering all individuals and treating everyone with dignity and honor.

While this is an idealistic presentation of how groups should be established and governed, and that human nature tends to fail whenever ideals are attempted to be implemented, using them will put into place self-correcting social instruments that will ensure that whatever flaws or failings we have they won’t destroy what we are collectively trying to achieve.

Still, I have discussed this topic previously in previous articles. I have referred to this kind of group as a Star Group, and you can find a host of articles listed here.

Frater Barrabbas       

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Perspectives on Modern Paganism - Part 2

This is a two part series article on Perspectives of Modern Paganism. I have written this article to examine not only the phenomenon of our culture after nearly two millennia of monotheism, but also to examine and contrast that to what the ancient polytheists practices and believed. From this contrasting analysis, I believe that Modern Pagans, such as myself, can better understand the task of creating a real world religion and navigating the problems and pitfalls that monotheism has placed before us. The second part of this two part article looks at ancient polytheism and how we can incorporate aspects of what we know about those religious practices into a Modern Paganism so as to make more authentic and less like modern monotheistic faiths. 

Ancient Polytheism

The most important question is what were the ancient polytheistic religions like and how were they different from monotheistic religions today? First off, calling the ancient polytheistic religious practices a “religion” is very misleading. They didn’t function as unified institutions back then as they do today. Despite the fact that there are different factions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, these monotheistic religions have a far greater uniformity than supposed polytheistic religions of antiquity. The very concept of “religion” as we understand it today is a recent creation promoted by the monotheistic religious culture. The habit of grouping things into monolithic aggregates and structures even affects the modern theories of science.

A pagan religious organization in ancient times was centered wholly within the cultic shrine. The fact that there were many of these cultic centers in various locations, and sometimes in the same village, town or city-state, represented the fact that the overall cultural religious perspective was polytheistic. Still, the cultic center or shrine was usually focused on one or a couple of deities, even though other lesser deities were also represented within it as part of the cultic family. Polytheistic cultic centers were very sociable regarding their deities and mythic personages, and no deity was ever depicted as being alone, isolated or without a cosmic context that included practically everything.

Nature was believed to be the emanation of the many deities, and instead of being apart from it, they were very much participants in nature and imbued in it. In fact, cultic centers were like machines that every day engaged in the nurturing, caring and worshiping of the many images or statues of the gods ensconced within them. Ancient people believed that the cultic centers kept the intimate connection between the deities and humanity viable, and this led to a harmonious balance between humanity and nature itself. They also believed that if this continuous activity failed to be enacted faithfully and perfectly then the harmony between nature and humanity fostered by the constant intercession of the gods would be lost, and that chaos and world destruction would follow.

Another interesting fact about polytheism is that all ancient religious cults had a simultaneous perspective of many gods and also one god. They could speak on one hand about a specific deity and then also talk about a God that is supreme. They may have a name for that preeminent deity or they may have just called it God, such as the ancient Egyptian word “Neteru” that was used as a determiner for the ultimate godhead. (Later on, many polytheistic religions made their chief deity into a representative of the one supreme deity.) There is an excellent quote from Professor Assmann in his book titled “Search for God in Ancient Egypt ” that I would like to share with my readers about this apparent phenomenon of monism in polytheism.

But most polytheisms known to the history of religion are complex in the sense that they reckon - or better, live - with a divine realm beyond which there is a ‘god’ or ‘higher being’ who created the world and its deities. This coexistence is always problematic, but therein lies the complexity of genuine, living traditions as opposed to scholarly theories that deprive polytheism of its divine plurality, such as the ‘original monotheism’.., or go to the opposite extreme and deny a concept of ‘god’ beyond the plurality of deities.”  ("The Search for God in Ancient Egypt", Assmann, p. 11)

Thus one of the most important concepts is that ancient polytheism was never merely the worship of an arbitrary collection of gods. Since it was a complex system of interrelationships, there was always an inherent perspective of monism imbedded within it. This is evident today when Hindus in India can talk about specific Gods to whom they worship and give offerings to, and also their overall singular expression, “God.” Adherents to the ancient polytheistic religions understood the concept of monolatry (serving a single deity) as well as serving many deities within a cultic center along with an underlying monistic perspective; but they would have been perplexed by a monotheistic theology that excluded all of the deities except one. To them it would have been like denying the variety of nature itself. Nature is abundant and so are the manifestations of deity. We live in a world that proves this hypothesis to be true every single day, as people of all different faiths, cultures and nationalities successfully experience manifestations of their respective deities within their chosen religious faiths.

Perhaps one of the most important distinctions between monotheism and polytheism is the difference between implicit and explicit theology. Monotheistic religions have as their foundation a form of explicit theology, in other words their sacred writings represent a discourse about the nature of God and the divine world as philosophical arguments aggregated into religious laws, public doctrines, liturgy and mission statements. While polytheistic religions did, over time, develop their own explicit theology, most notably in ancient Greece and Rome, the basis of polytheism is an implicit theology.

Implicit theology are the practices and beliefs that are not documented or established as laws or doctrine. It is represented by three different dimensions integrated together consisting of cultic or political activity, sacred cosmos and the sacred language of symbol and myth. The entire focus of an implicit theology consists entirely of the praxis of the cultic center managed by the priests, and how they engaged that praxis within their community. The temple shrine and the cultic center represented the political core of the village, town or city-state, and the principal deity within that center was considered the lord or lady of that place. Being an active member of a town obligated one to participate in the festive community of the deity, which was the outward manifestation of the internal and secret workings of the cultic center. Thus the cultic center was the focus of the divine presence within the community as well as the source of the social, political and religious sodality. Therefore, an implicit theology doesn’t consist of external doctrines and statements of belief, religious based laws or sacred history - there is no book of sacred writings. Instead, polytheism relied on the beliefs and practices deeply imbedded into the very culture and language of the place where the cultic center resided.

According to Professor Assmann, we can define ancient polytheism as having three different forms of divine presence or manifestation. The first consists of shapes, the second, transformations, and the third, names. These exist within the interlocking domains of the cultic center and its practices, the divine cosmos and the mythic and linguistic foundation.

Shapes - Divine Statues and the Cult

Shapes refer to the images, statues, or the various symbolic representations that are used to depict the form of the deity in the cultic center. Ancient polytheism did not believe that the statues or images that they worshiped were in fact the actual deities, but served instead as a marker or point of manifestation of a deity into a specific location. Of course, such an image would have been properly prepared, invested and powerfully charged with the association of the deity, and then treated to daily activities as if it were the actual deity itself. Temples were truly houses for the deified statues, and only later became accessed by select members of the community. Otherwise only the priesthood and their servitors resided in the temple to serve the deity. The social dimension of the deified statues and shrines were the many festivals and special occasions when the deified statues (or their proxies) were brought forth from the temples on elaborate conveyances where they mingled with the populous in joyous processions. Sometimes the deified statues were taken to other temples to visit with the deified statues worshiped there as a kind of social reunion between deities. Still, the hourly, daily and weekly rituals performed for the deified statues were accomplished mostly in complete privacy and typically unobserved by the common populous. Much of this same kind of activity still occurs in the same manner in the various cult centers and temples in India. 

Typical layout of an ancient Egyptian temple

Houses of worship today built for the various sects of monotheistic religions were not built to house replications of the deities, but instead serve as meeting places for the faithful. There might be sanctified statues, as in Catholic churches, but no one worships them as exclusive representations of God, since such an act would be condemned as idolatry. The church, synagogue, or mosque is a place for the public to gather together and give worship to an invisible and transcendent deity whose actual place is beyond the boundaries of that building, or even the whole universe. Despite the elaborate buildings and decorations, and the aesthetic nature of modern houses of worship, the God that they worship is not physically present in them. Their God is unbounded and transcends all physical limitations. A church, mosque or synagogue might contain the symbology of their Deity, but it a special place where the faithful meet to steep themselves in the accouterments of a God that is inseparable but distant from them.

Such a distant and transcendental concept of deity would have been unthinkable to the polytheists of antiquity, because for them the houses of the gods were their respective location points of emanation - the places where they were immanent, and therefore, resided. While polytheists saw their deities as taking part in the never ending drama of the cosmos, they also had a toe-hold on the earth where their followers could physically encounter them - the cultic center. It was where they lived and belonged so long as the constant rites that made them resident were continuously and perpetually enacted. The distinction between monotheistic religious houses and the temples of ancient polytheists were quite profound. Since most of us were raised in a monotheistic creed, attempting to create a cultic center would be quite difficult. There would be the problem of getting enough people together who could agree on a common faith and all the particulars of housing, decorating and empowering the shrine with daily rituals and periodic festivals. And then the idea of sequestering this temple so that only a qualified priesthood would be engaged with tending to the statues of the gods would be something that most Modern Pagans would find difficult to fathom and respect. 

The cult, by its very complexity, makes the gulf between the spheres of the holy and everyday life, which it is meant to bridge, all the more palpable. On the occasion of a feast, however, these boundaries between secrecy and publicity, sacred and profane, inner and outer, were suspended. The gods then appeared in the public outside the temple walls.” (“Of God and Gods,”Assman, p. 16)

The theme of this feast, as the theme of all such public events, is the union of heaven and earth and the coming forth of the god. While the deity resides in the temple it passively receives the adoration, veneration and nurturing of the priesthood; when it emerges into the public domain it is activated and empowered by the common people and the ruling class who witness and participate in the feast. Without the continual secret activity of the priesthood the empowered presence of the deity would dissolve and its outward projection into the public sphere would cease to be possible. We can easily imagine the cultic center as the perpetual power generator for the immanent presence of the deity that allows it to briefly and periodically emerge forth, illuminating and empowering the rulers and the people, imbuing their lives with structure and meaning, giving them a place of belonging and an identity as a unified people. All of this occurred long ago without the need for declaring any kind of universal philosophic doctrine, sacred laws or liturgical dogma.

Transformations - Cosmos and Nature

Transformations refers to the specific and cyclic cosmic changes of nature itself. We are talking about the cycle of light and dark (day and night), the changing of the seasons (cycle of the Sun), the Lunar cycles, wind and rain, the occurrences of birth, growth, harvest, death and rebirth (so-called fertility), and the ever pervading and mingling of the spirits of deity enmeshing with everything, human, animal, vegetable and even mineral. There is no distinction between nature and deity, since deity manifests itself as nature. This overall cyclic process is the cosmotheology that Jan Assmann talks about, and it is something indeed that modern Pagans must develop into a perfected system of Polytheistic theology. Thus, cosmos is not a locality, it is a process. Order within the cosmos is determined by over-coming chaos, the primordial condition. The deities of a pantheon jointly participate in maintaining the cosmic order. The process of cosmos manifests as the regular cyclic changes of time. While the cosmos has a point of origin, i.e., the first day, once established, it is eternal and without end.

Therefore, the emanations of cosmic processes, such as the diurnal cycle of day and night, the lunar cycle, the cycle of seasons and the solar cycle, the regular occurrence of constellations and their apparent positions, as well as the perceived motions of the planets, represent a sacralization of the divine world. The deities, who were once an important part of the primal earth (chthonic), are embedded into the cosmic process. Yet because they are also a part of the earth, they also simultaneously manifest in specific locations or cultic centers. These are the five basic occurrences of this cosmic process: day and night or light and darkness, waxing and waning of the moon, the changing seasons of the sun and the growth and harvesting of crops, and the longer cycles where living creatures are born, achieve their purpose in procreation and then die. Amongst these many manifestations is the all-pervading occurrence of the many deities and their specific powers and mysteries (the fifth occurrence), as well as the underlying manifestation of the One.

What transpires in the cosmic process has a direct impact upon the material world because they are one and the same. It is my opinion that neolithic cultures in general, and some of their decedents like the Egyptians, were deeply concerned with the occurrence of regular and recurrent natural phenomena. Through this continuous scrutiny of nature they ultimately formulated a sacred cosmology. Other Bronze age civilizations, such as the Mesopotamians, and the later Iron age cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans, were divination cultures that observed the exceptional and the unusual in nature in order to determine the will of the gods. This, I believe, was a later adaptation of a sacred cosmology. Still, these divination cultures had their own perspective that was based on a foundation of sacred cosmology, and their focus on abnormal natural occurrences was grounded in a keen understanding of contrasting natural processes. 

Names and Sacred Language

Names refers to the names, titles and appellations of all of the various gods and goddesses, spirits, heroes, monsters, the whole host of divine beings that make up the spiritual fabric enmeshed in the physical world. Included are the myths, stories, rites, parables, riddles, jokes, and even the songs and recipes for food and drink. These are the linguistic representations of nearly everything that exists in the material world, the mind or the imagination - it is the foundation of the language of the sacred. It cannot be expressed wholly in books since that would represent something that is too objective and concrete. Ancient polytheists would have understood it as something that could only be experienced directly through the senses of the soul. Sacred language is used to engage and summon the divine presence through the use of descriptive flattery, eulogies, praise, songs and poetry, recited at the right time, place and by the right authority. It would have caused the gods to take a material form and to occupy their sacralized representations (statues), thereby becoming an immanent presence perpetually maintained.

Sacred language also functions as the overall semantic binding that draws the three forms of divine presence together so that the human, social, political and cosmic domains are integrated into a single holistic, cultural system. The sacred language of myth and story makes the mysterious powers of the divine cosmos into an intelligible and tangible phenomena, which can be apprehended by the individual and used to bolster the power and prestige of the state.

Myth is not merely a story about the gods but a form of thought, a way of world making, a deep-structural generator of stories.” (Assmann, p. 19)

When we examine the religious myths of ancient polytheists we find that the stories about the deities reveal them to have human-like characteristics, but these sentiments are within the context of interrelations between other gods and demigods in a world of the divine. Myths represents the social networks of the various gods and goddesses within a pantheon and how they are interconnected. Thus, myths are a form of divine history that is restricted to the divine world (not the world of mankind). Myth is a narration of an implied or underlying theology, therefore, myth is the primary representation of an implicit theology.

All of this symbolism, sacred theater, images, rites, pageantry, clothing, smells (incense), the songs and music, food and drink are the triggers that open the adherent into the super-symbolic world of the divine. What transpires therein are the personal and subjective mysteries of the individual - the meaning of life and the knowledge of death as intimately communicated between deity and worshiper.

These three dimensions of cult, cosmos and myth were the basic elements of polytheistic religions that incorporated an implicit theology as their foundation. However, the missing dimension or element was the dimension of history, or sacralized history as first revealed by Judaism, and then incorporated by Christianity and Islam. It became an important and significant part of monotheism. Sacred history, according to Professor Assmann, consists of the encounters and communication between the one true God and mankind. Sacred history takes the place of myth and even cosmos, becoming the true stories of individuals and their privileged relationship with the Deity, showing God as the author and creator of all things material and spiritual, the giver of laws, supreme judge and scourge of all transgressors, and the giver of redemption and forgiver of sins. This sacred history is written down as holy scriptures inspired or even written by the hand of God. Instead of kings writing their histories on the walls of their palaces, the sacred history as recorded in holy scriptures is written by the prophets, and it is mostly focused on God and his actions, while everyone else, whether king, prophet or humble shepherd, are secondary and peripheral.

A sacred history is the principal cause and motivator of everything that has occurred in the past and everything that will happen in the future. Instead of an endless and eternal cycle the world view shaped by sacred history has a beginning and an end - it is a linear construct of time. One could consider this mental transformation from an eternal cycle to a finite linear sequence of events as something of a breakthrough in consciousness. However, there is also a problem associated with sacred histories, and that is that they must be true in all particulars in order to be valid. If any event or sequence of events is shown to be mythic and without any corroborating physical proof, or even shown as impossible occurrences, then the whole linear sequence of events must be considered mythic and legendary instead of true occurrences.  

While myth tends to rely on narration and allegory, sacred history declares what truly transpired, from the time of creation to the time of the final revelation - the verifiable end of time and of the material world. Sacred history has a beginning and also an end, and all of it is orchestrated and fore-ordained by God. This becomes a problem, however, when sacred history is shown to be mythic when compared to a secular and scientific explanation of the origin of the universe and actual historical events as confirmed by secular historians and anthropologists. While this might not be a problem to mainstream adherents of monotheism who have softened their interpretation of their holy scriptures so that they can be seen as allegories or parables of God’s hidden and mysterious truth, those who interpret these same scriptures literally will find themselves at odds with the secular institutions of science and even government.

This is especially true for religious fundamentalists who interpret their sacred texts as the literal truth. They do not allow for subtle nuances nor do they attempt to sequester their religion from science, allowing each their own separate intellectual domain. They publicly insist that patently absurd myths are literally true; such as the Earth and all of its creatures were created in seven days, the Great Flood of Noah occurred as described or that the earth is only 6,000 years old. They will also feel oppressed by these same secular organizations and institutions and seek some way to overcome them, since they alone possess the absolute truth in guise of their holy scriptures. Only a monotheistic faith with its emphasis on exclusivity could grant its followers the legitimacy to interpret its holy scriptures as the literal truth. And, only a monotheistic faith would empower its followers to combat the very secular institutions that have granted them the freedom to worship as they see fit in order to establish for themselves a theocracy.    

Ancient polytheistic religions didn’t have sacred writings or books of laws, tenets, decrees or a deified history of their race; what they had instead was the actual doorway to enter into the world of the deity and revel in the mystery of one’s own being. The priesthood and the cultic center provided the environment and the means to achieve this experience, since they kept this connection to deity alive and the doorway to this world accessible to their faithful followers. Perhaps the only valid representation of what holy books might have been like if ancient polytheists had written down their religious practices can be found in the Vedic and Upanishadic texts of India. These works contain the liturgical rituals, hymns of praise, and the myriad of myths and stories within the underlying theme of an eternal, cyclic and divine cosmos. Later on, a more explicit theological philosophy on the nature and mystery of God emerged, but still the underlying features of Indian polytheism is an implicit theology imbedded in the culture and an immanent presence of Deity manifesting from the various cultic centers and shrines. 

Modern Paganism needs to somehow capture this ability and bring it into the modern world, indelibly shaped as it is by monotheism. It will not be an easy task, but certainly there are examples that can be followed in the real world, such as a local Hindu Puja ceremony if the seeker happens to live amongst the diaspora of a transplanted Indian community. Also, experimentation will certainly guide the Pagan adherent to that point or place where they might acquire a significant personal relationship with one of the many Gods.

Modern Pagans may lack the resources to build community temples or cultic centers with dedicated priests and priestesses, but they can at least install a temple or shrine in their own home. They can approach the gods as individuals or small groups, but there are some considerations as to whether it is either necessary or desired for Modern Pagans to build a massive cult center and perform perpetual rites of adoration, sacrifice, and the basic daily rites of tending and caring for a fully vested image or statue of the Deity and its associated divine family.

The emphasis of psychological and spiritual transcendence in our culture might make it less necessary for a temple cult to engage in constant and perpetual ritual activity in order to ensure a continuous immanent presence of the deity, since there is always the possibility of being able to achieve this kind of connection at any time or place once it has been experienced and fully understood. I have also discovered that this connection can be quickly re-established if for some reason it has lapsed over a period of time. During that lapse, the world didn’t end and the Gods were still there, fully invested in their temple niche when I re-approached and recalled them.

Modern Pagans encounter their Gods and Goddesses as beings that are both immanent and transcendent, since that is the nature of deity itself within our post-modern world. In this manner, modern Pagans can engage in monolatry and establish a personal relationship with a God or Goddess, or they can worship a group of Gods and Goddesses socially related within a mythic constellation called a Pantheon. They can acknowledge the various Deities of other faiths and cultures, and they can also realize that all Deities are one unnamed source. They can experience Deity as a personal and intimate force and glory in their lives, and they can also experience the vistas of higher consciousness and spiritual transformation. It is because of the cultural influences of a transcendental deity that gives modern Pagans the flexibility to be open to all aspects of religion, spirituality, transformative magic and a myriad manifestations of Deity.    

We live in very different times now than did our ancestors, the ancient polytheists, and the nascent religions of Modern Paganism as well as the ascendancy of ritual and ceremonial magick represent a whole new chapter in the perennial philosophy. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out. Yet we must first understand the past before we are fully capable of building a new religion for the future that will pass the tests of longevity and overcome the obstacles of adversity, not to mention the pitfalls and trials of intransigent monotheism.

Frater Barrabbas    

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Perspectives on Modern Paganism - Part 1

This is a two part series article on Perspectives of Modern Paganism. I have written this article to examine not only the phenomenon of our culture after nearly two millennia of monotheism, but also to examine and contrast that to what the ancient polytheists practices and believed. From this contrasting analysis, I believe that Modern Pagans, such as myself, can better understand the task of creating a real world religion and navigating the problems and pitfalls that monotheism has placed before us. The first part of this two part article looks at monotheism and how it has shaped our culture and world view.


Recently, my good friend and local living Witchcraft treasure, Steve Posch, turned me on to the author Jan Assmann, a renowned German Egyptologist, professor and author. Steve was particularly intrigued by two recent books of his, which are titled “Moses the Egyptian” and “The Price of Monotheism.” You can find them at any reputable online book store. An additional book which was written more recently by Professor Assmann  (and which proposed certain ideas more clearly than the previous two) is entitled “Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism.” My arguments and perspectives on monotheism and modern paganism will be based on Professor Assmann’s three books.

While I liked the first book, the second one was apparently written as an apologia for the first. Professor Assmann wanted to make certain that his critics and colleagues understood that he is a proponent of religious Monotheism, and he feels that the price western civilization has paid for adopting it has been far more positive than negative. The third book is by far much more an analysis of what primary pagan religions were like as contrasted to monotheism, and I found it much more useful to understand and gauge modern Paganism.

I have read these books and I am quite intrigued by what Professor Assmann has proposed as the basis for monotheism, what he calls the “Mosaic Distinction.” It is the basis for religious exclusivism and intolerance. I will define what this means further in this article, however, it would appear that the cost of monotheism in the western world is the ideology that divides the world into the faithful and the infidel “other,” which has the potential to trigger violence and sectarian based murder against a dehumanized target. If a particular religion sees itself as the only source of truth and that it’s single god is the one and only true god then all other religions and deities must therefore be false, duplicitous and heretical. Also, Judaism, Christianity and Islam function as secondary anti-religions rebelling against previous status-quo polytheistic religions that were pejoratively labeled as “idolatrous,” “pagan,” and “false religions,” they were also considered immoral, chaotic, tyrannical and unjust because they lacked sacred divinely given and enforced laws.

Each of these three monotheistic religions had a primary religion that they rejected and replaced with a revolutionary and revelatory theology. Judaism is therefore an anti-religious reaction against Egyptian idolatry, Christianity is an anti-religious reaction against Greco-Roman polytheism, and Islam is an anti-religious reaction against Arabic polytheism. They also have more or less judged each other at various times as false religions, although admittedly they do consider the one god of Israel and Judea to be their own. These are also religions that are based on holy scriptures, and therefore, as “people of the book,” they are ironically united by more similarities than differences.

In addition, monotheistic religions have sacralized the embodiment of their laws and they have made their deity the primary judge regarding these laws. These various laws, tenets and proscriptions have been written into books of sacred writing, which are also considered the “word of God.” Thus these religious laws are above the laws of humanity and cannot be either changed or mitigated because they are the provenance of the deity. Where in previous ages primary polytheistic religions sought to invest a king or ruler as the earthly representative of the deities, laws were the provenance of the ruler acting as an arbiter of the gods, which means that laws were both man-made and enforced by the ruler and his people. Only in monotheism are there specific sacred laws that transcend any human ruler or consent of the people, and only in monotheism can someone take the initiative to punish others who have either escaped, bribed or circumvented local jurisprudence. With this in mind it becomes understandable when individuals or groups commit religious inspired terrorism on others - they believe that they are acting at the behest of a higher authority. It also makes sense when groups decry and act against the secular basis of modern social and political institutions, since to them the laws set forth by their deity are above the laws established by mankind.

These anti-religions, rebelling against older polytheistic primary religions, are a recent occurrence in history although they are not the first. The monolatry of Akhenaton and his pre-eminence of the Aten disk as the one and only true god functioned as the very first exclusive religion that promoted a true religious practice (of the pharaoh) while condemning the older traditions as false and erroneous. Although Atenism in Egypt lacked many of the qualities of later monotheistic religions, it did indeed have many of the basic qualities of exclusiveness, iconoclasm and religious persecution that function as a by-product of monotheistic creeds.

The polytheistic traditions of antiquity never promoted this kind of theological exclusivity, and in fact, made an effort to establish a kind of equivalency and tolerance between all of the various faiths and practices. While their rulers made war against other peoples and their rulers, they often made peace treaties based on the deities of all parties or co-opted the deities of those who were conquered. Even in the Roman empire, people of different faiths were allowed to worship as they saw fit as long as the authority of the emperor and his cult were respected. Christians and Jews were seen as atheists because they rejected the openness and tolerance to other religions that was an important cohesive feature of the empire. Openness and tolerance also made them vulnerable to the newly emerging faiths that for the first time judged all other religions and deities as false in contrast to their own deity and creed. These new faiths represented what they passionately believed was an absolute truth. Yet prior to monotheism the distinction between true and false deities and faiths didn’t exist, but then, as well as now, it became a major obstacle for anyone practicing a different religion that did not have the same intensely declared exclusivity. When Christianity became the adopted religion of the Roman empire, the church and its authorities, with the blessing of the emperor, began to systematically eliminate the old polytheistic faiths. Religious absolutism easily trumped the laissez faire, tolerant and inclusive attitudes of the older polytheists. 

Monotheism was a reaction against the polytheism of antiquity, but should the modern Pagan revival take the same approach and become itself an anti-religion that denies the truth of all other religions? Some have recently advocated that Modern Pagans should wholly reject all of the tenets and teachings of Christianity and Judaism in order to ensure a pure and exclusive polytheistic theology. They propose that monotheism is the enemy and that in rejecting the exclusivity of that creed, Pagans should also wholly reject it and all of its theological tenets. This would unfortunately create a division between Modern Pagans and adherents of modern monotheism, thereby denigrating the unbelievers as a form of “other” that could be demonized and even targeted for persecution. While the current religious environment in the West seems polarized between secularists and religious conservatives, would adding yet another division to this conflict do more harm than good in a world that is already so divided?

I believe that this approach of purifying Paganism of Christian or Jewish beliefs or practices is much too extreme and it also seems completely contrary to what we know about ancient polytheism, which encouraged religious tolerance. We, as Modern Pagans, should see the truth in all religions and respect them as such. For as long as I can remember I have believed that the foundation for all religions is essentially the same, so it has to be a case that either all religions are valid or none of them are. To deny that any one of them is valid is to deny the basis to the validity of all religions. Thus I do believe that there are fundamental truths regarding religion and spirituality, but I don’t believe that any one religion, sect or creed has a monopoly on absolute truth.

What I have done in stating that all religions are valid is to reject the exclusivity of any one religious perspective, including my own. For instance, I don’t believe that Christianity is the one true religion and that the Christian God is the one and only deity. If this were true and my beliefs were wrong then all other religions (including the other monotheistic religions of Judaism and Islam) couldn’t possibly have any authentic religious experiences to validate them. Yet it would seem that all religions can be validated by the experiences of their followers. This is to say that spiritual and religious truth seems to be relative when it comes to a specific religion, sect or individual adherent and their practices.

A Hindu worshiping Rama will have the same powerful and valid religious experiences as someone who is either a devout Catholic, Protestant Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or even a Modern Pagan. There is no evidence for a single absolute true deity or faith. There is nothing to invalidate anyone’s authentic religious experiences as being either superfluous, erroneous or delusional. Therefore, there is no one truth, one religion, or one deity. There are, in fact, many religious perspectives, variations on theology, practices, and authentic experiences - perhaps as many as there are individual religious seekers.

I believe strongly that Modern Paganism should avoid becoming just another secondary anti-religion with all of its exclusivity, negativity, intolerance and even the potential for prejudicial sectarian violence. As a newly emerging religion we have an opportunity to revive some of the old polytheistic philosophies and perspectives of antiquity, most importantly, a form of cosmotheism and an inclusive world-view where deity and humanity are merged within the fabric of the natural world.

We should strive to adopt the particular practices, beliefs and theologies of a primary religion and thereby return to the world of our polytheistic ancestors. However, the world around us has profoundly changed since the age of antiquity, and in many respects it cannot be changed back to accommodate a world-class pagan religion as it existed in antiquity. We will have keep in mind that nearly 2,000 years of entrenched monotheism has had a powerful impact on our culture, so we will have to build a religious institution from the ground up and also, in the process, create something entirely new. I believe that it is completely impossible to thoroughly restore the polytheism of antiquity, but I do believe that we have enough knowledge and insight to create a new Pagan faith in the modern world that is deep, enduring and I might add, inclusive.

Our task in this kind of approach to developing a Modern Pagan religious perspective is to outright reject our own exclusivity and our entrenched emotional attachments to the “truth” and to the authentic experiences of our own religious practices. We must keep in mind that these truths are relative and they are the property of all human beings; therefore, all religions are valid and worthy of respect. We also have to deal with the fact that the entire psychological foundation of religion has also been irreversibly changed by monotheism.

While in ancient times polytheism was based on a strictly immanent spiritual understanding, today we must juggle both the immanent and the transcendent. While monotheism has espoused a form of immanence, in practice it is mostly transcendent. The power of transcendentalism, as promoted by monotheism, has had an impact on our culture and even our minds. It has made us perceive spirituality as being completely outside and beyond the material world, thus it has proposed a form of spiritual and material dualism.

Transcendentalism has also made us aware of higher forms of consciousness and unlocked whole new vistas of the spiritual world, and because of this fact it shouldn’t be rejected. What is required is for us to blend transcendentalism with immanence so that we once again engage with nature as the ground and basis of all spirituality. Doing this can also heal the troubling fault of duality that has so insidiously infected western thought processes. Nature, spirit, mind, soul and body are all one within a unified field of consciousness that has its center and ground in life, but it is also boundless and infinite within the transcendental and transformative processes.

These are the things that we modern Pagans need to either leave behind or modify, but more importantly, we need to avoid sectarianism and also step completely outside of the never ending dialogue of religious based differences, bigotry and persecution that seems to be so much a part of our world today. An enlightened Pagan would consider these back and forth critiques and accusations between the monotheistic faiths as the product of the dualism inherent within monotheism. What others are pointing out and condemning in the faiths of their brothers and sisters is nothing more than their own mirror image reflected darkly and in a distorted manner. 

So it is also quite ironic to me when supposedly conservative Christian pundits talk about how scary, threatening and violent the followers of Islam seem to be, particularly the Salafi Jihadists who are a comparatively tiny minority, like the much hyped Islamic State (Daesh-ISIL). While it is necessary to condemn anyone who uses religion as a cover to persecute, oppress and murder people, not to mention vandalize priceless artifacts and historical sites, it would seem that monotheistic religions have been the main instruments for these kinds of crimes since their inception. I am certainly not talking about the greater majority of these faithful adherents, of course, but when an ideology divides people into two opposing groups (the faithful vs the infidel) then there is a potential for dehumanization and violence. Therefore, due to the actions of a tiny minority of individuals in history, all three monotheistic religions are deeply stained in the blood of innocents, regardless if that is just part of the legendary stories or based on actual history. Whether as martyrs or perpetrators, monotheistic creeds have a very bloody and unfortunate history driven in part by the exclusivity, divisiveness and intolerance that is part of the fabric of that system of belief.

While Professor Assman’s two books have mostly promoted the idea that monotheism was a great step forward in the history of religion, he seems to believe that the price that humanity has paid for this progressive movement was more than adequately offset by the positive outcome it produced. It is what he has called (quoting Freud) a “progress of intellectuality.” What I found peculiar is Professor Assmann's blindness to the fact that Europe, and by extension the U.S., found that the only way to truly move forward was to adopt societies and governments that were completely secular. Because monotheism requires the differentiation between the one true god and false gods (of the pagans), and that it stipulates that those opposed to its orthodoxy must be heretics (and thereby eliminated), it cannot tolerate different creeds or opposing theological perspectives.

Europe was torn apart by centuries of war because of the struggles between Protestant and Catholic Christians, the incursion and deflection of Muslims, and of course, the all too frequent pogroms against the Jews. The current modern western propensity for secular government is a direct result of this interminable conflict and warfare, and it, more than anything else, is responsible for our passage from the middle ages into modernity. Even so, Professor Assmann ignores all  of this to lamely propose that monotheism is responsible for our current progress. If anything, we have progressed despite the resistence of orthodox religions. This unrelenting strife between secularism and religious conservatism is one of the more troubling aspects of our world in the 21st century.

Professor Assmann also disparages modern paganism, comparing it to the failed attempts at determining a “prisca theologia” in the renaissance and essentially writing off more modern attempts as poor alternatives. I have found Jan Assmann’s books to be both enlightening and also problematic. How do we respond to his obvious statements that modern Paganism is greatly inferior to monotheistic faiths, when these same faiths appear to be the source of unresolvable issues and conflicts that are bedeviling our post modern world today. I think that the world is very much in need of religious and cultural tolerance as espoused internally by a religious faith as opposed to enforced externally by secular states, so perhaps Modern Paganism can provide the impetus for such a movement.

However, what Professor Assmann has said about modern Paganism, although harsh, has some merit to it. We as modern Pagans haven’t really defined our religion in a concise manner and that is because it is still being formulated. Studying the polytheism of ancient times (as well as fellow Pagans in India) might provide us with some useful examples and ideas for us to explore and develop. Professor Assmann’s third book was very helpful in providing me with a working model of ancient paganism and I would like to present some of those ideas here. Keep in mind that Professor Assmann’s perspective are the religious practices of the ancient Egyptians, and that this model will diverge when we consider the polytheism practiced by Greece and Rome.

Frater Barrabbas

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Thoughts About the Cult of Set-Typhon in Roman-Egypt

I recently wrote an article about how the early Egyptian Christians, Sethian Gnostics and the purported owner of the PGM (Greek Magical Papyri) collection of spells all lived in proximity to each other, and their book burying occurred all within a couple hundred years or less. What I was thinking was that maybe there was some kind of connection between the writers and owners of the books of the Nag Hammadi Library, the Bruce Codex and the PGM. I was intrigued by this connection, but further reflection (and the help of Jake Stratton-Kent who likes to throw cold water on my fervent ideas) has caused me to consider some other options. It is just that the religious world-view of the PGM is so different than the world-view of the early Christians and Sethians that they must be considered incompatible.

What throws my previous thoughts into question is that the role of Set-Typon in the PGM is so pronounced in the various spells which populate that work, so it would have been impossible for Christians or Sethians to even consider them as sources for their work. To them, Set-Typhon was the Devil, perhaps even more evil and diabolical than the supposed Archons who at least were lawful evil instead of turbulent and chaotic evil (like the evil of foreign conquerors). Also, there was no confusion between their Jewish patriarchal hero Seth and the Egyptian God Set despite what some earlier scholars of Gnosticism have claimed. (Jake also supplied me with this paper to read, and you can find it here.)

Set didn’t always have such a bad reputation in Egypt, and in fact he had cultic locations in Avaris and upper Egypt in the delta region (Ombos-Naqada, Kom Ombo, Oxyrhynchus, the Fayum, and particularly, Sepermeru). Set had the exclusive privilege of protecting Ra and his solar-boat entourage in the underworld by nightly killing the great serpent Apep who threatened the Sun-God in the seventh hour of the Am Duad. He was consistently honored as an important deity in the desert oases that bordered the great western desert, along with his wife, Nephthys. His son was supposedly Anubis, so there could have been a connection between Set, Anubis, and the funeral rites of embalming and entombing. Set is a dark and chthonic deity, but he was also the patron god of solders and the warrior pharaohs of the New Kingdom.

The Set animal, unlike the rest of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses who were represented by both animals and human qualities, is characterized by an unknown mythic creature. His elongated snout and long rectangular ears, thin forked tail and canine body might be considered the suggested representation of an aardvark, but other animals became associated with Set as well, such as the fennel fox, jackass, wild pig or the desert jackal. Set symbolizes the desert storms, such as the Khamsin, that plague both upper and lower Egypt during the spring, and as such, he represents the opposite of the regulatory power of Maat that was so important to Egyptian religious thinking. However, violence had its uses, and in the case of the underworld solar boat journey, Set’s violent nature was put to constructive use. He was therefore the deity most associated with warriors and warfare. However, he was also associated with jealousy, fratricide, deception, homosexuality and foreign invaders from the East. Set’s composite animal nature was supposedly explained by the fact that he was impatient to be born and so tore himself loose from his mother’s body, Nuit, while he was still not completely formed. To make up for this discrepancy, he used the parts of other animals to complete himself.


As an aside, I have always wondered why the Egyptians would have represented their deities as a synthesis of human and animal. Not all deities were depicted as both human and animals (such as Amun), but many of them were. The Greek and the Romans found this peculiar mixing to be quite strange, and it became a hallmark of later Greco-Egyptian synchretism (such as Serapis, Aion, Abraxas, and other animal-human deities of late antiquity). However, very few modern Egyptologists have explained this phenomenon in a manner that made any sense. They seem to gloss over this peculiarity and not attempt to explain what was actually behind it. There just didn’t seem to be any answer that would account for this kind of perspective, particularly since modern western people have been so influenced by the Greeks and the Romans who saw the animal human deities of Egypt as archaic, barbarous and somehow quaint. The way to approach this question is to turn it around and ask how did the Egyptians perceive nature itself. Once the question is turned around then it is much easier to answer. I recently read the follow section in one of Jan Assmann’s books, “The Search for God in Ancient Egypt,” and I have decided to quote it here, since it more than adequately answers this question.    

To the Egyptians, nature was curiously open in directions that set it apart from our concept, in the direction of culture – following from the principle of the ‘social interpretation’ of nature,” ... and in the direction of the supernatural. To them, nature was ‘supernatural’ in a way that fundamentally prevented the concept of nature. ... The Egyptians did not experience the divine in nature in explicable, exceptional cases like rainbows, earth quakes, solar and lunar eclipses and the like, but in the regularity of diurnal and annual cyclic processes. Nature was not something distinct from the gods, something that they created, over which they exerted influence, of which they had charge. Although statements to this effect abound, inextricably connected with them and sometimes in the very same text, we find the concept that deities were themselves these natural elements and phenomena. The Egyptians did not view their gods and goddesses as beyond nature, but rather in nature and thus as nature. The deities were ‘natural,’ – that is, cosmic – to the same extent that nature or the cosmos was divine.” (pages 63 - 64)

The use of animal human hybrids in the depiction of Egyptian deities was a way for the ancient Egyptians to show that nature functioned in the guise of deities, and that life itself was a common but supernatural condition. Greece and Rome sought to discover the “will of the gods” through the occurrence of remarkable or unusual natural phenomenon. Thus today, we are prone to look for examples of deity in nature by observing exceptional natural events instead of seeing the whole of the cyclic phenomenon of nature as emanations of deity within and a part of nature. This perspective espoused by the Egyptians was a product of early Bronze age paganism, but it managed to be conserved and even refined in Egypt over the many centuries while more modern perspectives (that we would recognize) emerged in the western and eastern Mediterranean, such as those of Persia, Greece, Rome, and even Judea. While the pagan perspectives of ancient Egypt were archaic by the standards of other nations, the ideas that they espoused are oddly more relevant today than they were in antiquity. However, I have digressed from the original point of my article.


During the second intermediate period in Egypt, the Hyksos king Apophis established the deity Set as a monolatry probably because he resembled the favored Semitic storm deity Hadad, which would have been recognizable to the Shepherd Kings and their people who infiltrated and eventually conquered northern Egypt. When the Egyptians, under the Pharaoh Ahmose, pushed the Hyksos out of Egypt, the garrison at the old Hyksos capital, Avaris, continued to promote the cult of Set. Set was later incorporated as an important deity in the theology of the New Kingdom, particularly during the Rameside period, where he represented the military power of the Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire. The Pharaoh Seti used the name “Man of Set” to represent his throne name, and several other Pharaohs from that period also incorporated the deity name Set into their throne names.

However, the deity Set lost his place of honor when foreigners invaded and completely conquered Egypt, beginning with the Persians and then later with the Greeks and Romans. It would appear that Set became identified with foreigners and foreign rule. There was also always the wicked reputation that Set had in his role as the brother of Osiris and his murderer. The role of the evil adversary was amplified in later periods of foreign occupation. By the time Christianity became a powerful religious force in Egypt, Set had become associated with the Greek monster Typhon and was considered a deity of evil and destruction. It is likely that Set-Typon personified the invaders who robbed Egypt of its sovereignty, so to good, lawful and observant Christian Egyptians, he would have exemplified the Devil incarnate. It is for this reason that Christians would have continued to vilify Set-Typhon as the Devil, and any magical charms or spells that invoked his name would have been considered highly diabolic. Since Set-Typhon represented the foreign enemy of the local Egyptians, anyone who would have associated themselves with him, whether from the standpoint of religion or even magic, would have been perceived as pagan diabolists.

What that means is that the individuals who would have been using the spells as they were written in the PGM were very much vested in paganism, and in particular a magically diabolic form of paganism. This would be true despite the fact that author of these spells also shamelessly borrowed various incompatible religious forms in a very synchretistic manner from nearly every known religion. Was there a cult of Set still functioning in Egypt during the first three centuries of the common era? Little is known about what happened to the cultic centers that worshiped Set, but it seems obvious that they would have been severely diminished and then shut down some time after the period of Persian occupation. There appears to be some evidence that Set was still worshiped in western desert oases, but his other known shrines had shut down by then.

It would seem that those who still honored Set would have kept their worship secret and likely underground. Magical spells written by pagan sorcerers that required the acquisition of the harshest of magical powers or the ability to fight against foreign domination and persecution might have adopted Set as their patron deity, and even formed a kind of underground insurgency against a common foe. There does seem to be some minor evidence showing that the magical rites of the PGM in some cases duplicated magical practices found in the various cults of the Egyptian priesthood, as noted and reported by the Greek physician, Thessalos, when he visited Priests in Thebes in the 2nd century CE.

Ironically, while many individuals flocked to the new Christian churches and monasteries, others may have been more inclined to keep the worship of the old deities alive, particularly those, like Set, who afforded a certain currency against the oppressive regime. Those who wielded the magical spells as found in the PGM would have been outsiders and inimical to the interests of the nascent Christian church, and therefore would have been passionately condemned by them. The itinerant pagan sorcerer was not someone who would been a devotee to the newly arising creed, but he might have had no difficulty in appropriating various elements of that creed for his own magical purposes.

Even so, the early Christians in Egypt continued to work forms of magic, as the numerous ostracae would indicate, but that magic had changed so that it used Christian nomenclature even though some of the words of power were the same. There is a continuity between the kind of magic worked in the PGM and that employed by the later Christians, but Christian magic was scoured of all references to pagan deities. The owner of the PGM scroll might have lived in the same neighborhood as the Christians and Sethians, but the worlds they occupied were quite different and distinct. It is unlikely that much contact would have occurred between those who practiced pagan sorcery and those who were Christian or Sethian monks. When we include the myths of the chthonic Greek deity Typhon it becomes quite clear why there was such a distinction between pagan sorcerers and Christian groups.

Typhon was a great monster of epic proportions, a human body with a hundred dragon heads, as depicted in ancient Greek mythology. He was sent by Gaia to fight against Zeus and eventually lost that battle. He was imprisoned underneath Mount Aetna, but with his consort, Echidna, he sired several children, some of whom like Cerberus, the Sphinx, the Nemean Lion, and other monsters were famous in their own right. Typhon was the son of Gaia (Earth) and Tartarus (Hell), so he was a deity of the earth and the underworld, somewhat like Set. The association of Set and Typhon would have certainly empowered Set from a Greek perspective, but made his chthonic qualities even more pronounced so that he would appear completely dark, foreboding and diabolical. As a monstrous power of the deadly underworld, Set-Typhon would have been a remarkable combination, and the hybrid deity would not be one that anyone would lightly summon or seek aid from. Those who made Set-Typhon the center of their religious and magical work would have been considered extreme diabolists, and would likely have had fearsome reputations in their community, that is, if anyone knew about them at all. I can imagine an underground cult of Set-Typhon whose adherents practiced fearsome magical rites and spells, but there is scant proof that such a community ever existed.

Jake is correct in stating that the PGM represents a world view outside and exclusive to that which would have been practiced by Egyptian Christians and even Sethians. They might have employed a vaguely similar form of magic, but it would have been incompatible with the spells of the PGM. Thus, the Headless One exorcism rite is likely unique to the PGM work (and other contemporaneous pagan inspired magic) and wouldn’t have been found amongst the rites and spells that the Sethians might have used. Although I still think that it’s possible that they did perform exorcisms on their initiates as part of the regimen of their work.

Christianity spread very quickly in Egypt during the first few centuries of the common era, and not long after the Theban sorcerer (who owned the PGM scroll) was buried in his tomb, the community religious culture in that locale might have already been changing. In less than a century, the PGM scroll and the magic that it represented would have been something of an anachronism. Pagan sorcerers at that time and in that locality likely went completely underground or maybe even slowly disappeared altogether. They were replaced first by adherents of the Coptic Christian church who practiced magic and later by adherents to Islam, who did the same. Sorcerers for hire have always had to change their methods (and the religions in which they operated) in order to stay employed and keep their customers satisfied. It is likely that such a change happened there just like it did in the rest of the world.

Frater Barrabbas