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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Hit List Propaganda and Outrageous Accusations

I have finally decided to weigh in and make some comments about the recent Golden Dawn controversy because my name (temporarily) appeared in a so-called defamation hit list. I have been quiet when these controversies have raged in the past and some might consider that I approve of what is going on. Well, all I can say is that I don’t approve of these conflicts and the seemingly bizarre and paranoid accusations that are happening. Yet, these accusations have come from one side, and sadly it is David Griffin and his organization that is mostly to blame, in my opinion. You can read David’s screed in his most recent blog article here, but I believe that I must distance myself from him and his organization because I can no longer justify his behavior and claims.

First of all, this whole business began when a FB icon named “Mitzy Gaynor” posted a very vulgar and tasteless joke in a small private group on Face Book. The real person behind this icon is not a member of the Golden Dawn and is an anonymous purveyor of pithy comments, vulgar statements and who has a particular dislike of certain semi-famous occult authors who she disparagingly calls “numpties.” While I don’t often agree with “Mitzy’s” various statements and remarks, I feel that she has a right to state her opinions. She listed a group of people that she despises (her “shit” list) and it just so happens that one of them had recently and unfortunately died (i.e., David Mattichak). So, she crossed off one of the names in an apparent attempt at black humor. It wasn’t at all funny, but it wasn’t a hit list or even a suggested hit list.

The captured Face Book chat image that David Griffin presents in his article consists of a series of different comments from different threads (and from different chat groups) spliced together as if to make some kind of cogent statement, but if you look carefully and read them as a whole, they don’t make any sense. I have noticed that my name is not on Mitzy’s list. Even so, I initially (on Feb. 2, 2015) was grouped with those who have somehow been targeted for defamation by some kind of organized conspiracy. My name, however, apparently was removed from the list on Feb 3 on the part of David Griffin. But that action was too little and too late. 

None of the other individuals named in David Griffin’s article had anything to do with this vulgar posting, and in fact they have condemned the list when it became known because it was in such very bad taste. Even so, this minor bit of bad taste was elevated to the level of a conspiracy, because in David’s mind everything is grandiose, personal, highly overblown and he is a victim.

As for the terrible tragedy concerning David Griffin’s son, Adam, who died in a car accident last year, I have not seen any mention by anyone on Face Book that would indicate to me that David’s enemies have secretly rejoiced at his death. In fact when the event occurred, there was nothing mentioned by anyone. Face Book went quiet regarding conversations about David Griffin as even people who greatly disliked him were respectfully silent. It is my opinion that to bring his son’s terrible and untimely death into the discussion as some kind of shaming strategy is both manipulating and degrading to his memory. I would like to see proof that individuals were gloating over Adam’s death because as far as I have witnessed, it didn’t happen. That makes David Griffin look particularly bad, since he will stoop to using his personal family tragedy as a mechanism to elicit outrage from his allies and followers and stir up trouble between his group and the other GD groups.

However, by including (and then erasing) my name in the supposed conspiratorial hit list without even consulting me or asking for my permission (which I would have declined) I feel that David has crossed the line with me. I don’t want to have anything further to do with someone who is so manipulative as to use his son’s death as a tool to coerce people, and who makes claims on public media that would be considered by the average person as the ravings of a madman if they weren’t actually so callous, cynical and exploitative.

What can I say in David’s defense? Why have I even bothered to be his advocate over the last few years?  Am I just a tool, a damned fool, or worse yet, a conniving bit player (a court jester) in his overarching charade? I have personally met David and I have talked with him on the phone many times. In person he is charming and charismatic, a truly brilliant and likable individual who is compassionate and approachable. However, I have also obliquely seen David’s dark side, his excessive paranoia, over dominating personality, bullying and his unquenchable lust for revenge against any perceived slight. I have tried many times to counsel him to focus on his work and to ignore his detractors, but I might as well have been talking to the wind. I feel very sad about how this travesty seems to continue without any closure, and I see a man who could have had so much positive impact on western magic and occultism succumb to his own pathos and inherent fatal personality flaws. This is not the kind of behavior that anyone would expect from someone who is supposedly an enlightened occult leader.

What I have seen is almost a carnival side-show of accusations. According to David, the SRIA (a small quasi-Masonic organization in Britain) is in reality some kind of Nazi Christian cabal that is attempting to become the sole owner of the Golden Dawn brand. The Vatican is also part of the conspiracy as is the British Intelligence organization MI-6. All of David’s problems with his GD Order are due to extravagant plotting and conspiratorial attacks by individuals and groups who are outwardly just members of GD organizations with opposing views and a personal distaste for David himself, but who “secretly” are a part of these nefarious insurgent organizations.

All of this, of course, is ridiculous. David Griffin probably sees himself as some kind of occult messiah, but it is just misplaced megalomania, something to which we magicians and occultists are all potential prey. The question is whether or not David really believes all of this nonsense, or whether it is just a ploy he uses to garner sympathy and allegiance to his order and himself. Perhaps the truth is somewhere between these two extremes, yet no one knows but David himself.  If he lacks this insight and self-awareness then, perhaps, a deeper pathos is at the root. In which case, I wish him courage and strength to undergo a journey of healing that is, in my opinion, long overdue. 

Perhaps one of my flaws is that I tend not to judge someone until I have enough information and context to do so with certainty. I give people the benefit of the doubt and seek not to readily judge someone unless or until I am forced to do so. When I was young I was rash and impulsive, and I made a lot of bad judgement calls. I learned to be prudent in my judgements because I had been burned by my own prejudice, and I was embarrassed by circumstances when judging people far too quickly. I also learned to be patient, knowing that over time people will reveal their true selves and their true motives. I have probably waited too long to really judge David and how he has behaved on public media, and in fact, I have avoided doing so. Maybe I had hoped that he might reform himself and find the best way to disseminate his knowledge and expertise to the occult world. Unfortunately, that event has not occurred, and I can no longer continue to support someone whose behavior is actually degrading and obscuring the Golden Dawn work with his continued predilection for fake controversy and outrageous displays of petty egotism.

For this reason I have decided to publicly end my relationship with David Griffin and his various organizations. I will also avoid any partisan conflict within the Golden Dawn and continue to be guided by a neutral path that doesn’t advocate or take any side. Time will be the best judge of David’s contribution to the study of magic and western occultism, and I do wish him well in his endeavors. Maybe he will defy all expectations to the contrary and end up being one of those truly great contributors to western occultism, long after the controversies have died down and have been forgotten by posterity. But more likely he will be known as a controversial character whose epic rise and fall will be an object lesson to everyone on the occult path. Needless to say I will not play a part in this drama. Instead I will witness it from a very safe distance, eating popcorn and wondering when this awful carnival sideshow act will finally end.

Frater Barrabbas

Friday, January 23, 2015

Question About Cultural Appropriation in Magick

Papa Midnite: You are a magpie of magic. A thief of tradition. You steal from other people's cultures and beliefs to suit your own purposes.
John Constantine: Oh, yeah? Well, whatever works, eh?
- from the TV Show: Constantine

There is still some buzz going around about how cultural appropriation is somehow despicable, reprehensible and exploitative. It’s gotten so bad that a recent blog author stopped teaching Yoga and discussed her reasons in detail. While I agree that there are plenty of ignorant people out there who are unable or unwilling to respect the sources of those various spiritual methods and techniques that have been dispersed via cultural diffusion, this should not stop individuals from engaging in them to their own betterment. You can find that blog article here.

We live in a consumer oriented culture and if someone can make money from an idea then they will do so. However we judge that kind of social transaction it does continually happen. We just don’t have to be crass or selfish about our use of it and instead respect the sources from which various methods and techniques have their origin. A case in point is the wide-spread use and appeal of Mindfulness meditation and yogic techniques which have helped millions of people to literally shed stress and anxiety from their minds and bodies.

Should this work be halted because the original ideas and techniques come from India and Asia, and are therefore a form of cultural appropriation? Now it is true that a specific author (Jon Kabbit-Zinn - “Full Catastrophe Living”) has developed and published this technique, but he produced it while studying eastern methods of meditation and yoga. People are paying hundreds of dollar to individuals who are certified instructors to take an eight-week course in Mindfulness. Is this cultural appropriation? Should it be considered completely unethical and therefore stopped? I am attending an eight week course right now and I certainly won’t quit because someone is making money off of this technique. So far the results have been remarkable, but I, my classmates and the instructor (who is an initiated Zen meditation teacher) have approached this whole process in a respectful and serious manner.

I think that this issue has been adequately addressed by a couple of websites, the Yoga Abode and The Times of India (article by Yogi Ashwini). However, the argument continues, seemingly unabated. (Even my fellow work associates from India are puzzled by this issue and reject it out of hand.)

Nothing is immune to modern influence - and indviduals' plentiful attempts to create so-called 'new' yoga styles is, in part, a reflection of the way yoga has succesfully [sic] changed to embrace modern expectations and lifestyles.”

From the point of view of yoga (which is my subject) let me assure all human kind that yoga is not the domain of a region. Yoga means a union with yourself (divinity unrealised). Yoga does not and cannot belong to an individual. Yoga is for a yogi and a yogi is beyond the scope of a religion or country.

I find this harsh judgement about cultural appropriation to be an extreme exaggeration aimed at somehow maintaining a higher ethic by being politically correct. There are situations where individuals and groups can be accused of actually stealing the techniques, practices and beliefs of a given culture or people without either permission or proper vetting. Yet these are very specific charges which shouldn’t be applied so loosely as to include practically everyone. This same charge couldn’t be applied to westerners who are using meditation systems devised in the East, in fact such a charge is completely erroneous. The diffusion of ideas is a process that goes back to paleolithic times and in antiquity there was an enormous traffic in ideas, beliefs and techniques that moved wherever goods and people happened to travel. This is no different today, in fact cultural diffusion has profoundly accelerated in the post-modern world.

The basis to this idea of wrongful expropriation, as it was explained to me, has its origin in the fact that appropriation (without citing the source) of ethnic artistic practices robs the indigenous artisans of money that they would otherwise gain if their work were promoted instead. This does make sense if the appropriation doesn’t cite the inspired source of that work, since it is often a situation where a white person who is culturally western can more readily be promoted than a (non-white) person who is from a different and non-western culture. However, my argument is that if the source is cited then wouldn’t that white western person be actually promoting an ethnic artistic technique which might otherwise remain obscure or unknown? And, if that technique became popular it might just enable those ethnic artisans to achieve a certain notoriety and popularity, and thereby a higher remuneration than they might have realized otherwise. A case in point is when rock music adapted Indian music and instruments to its songs in the late 1960's. No one in the West would have heard of Ravi Shankar (or for that matter, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi) had it not been for the Beetles publically promoting him.

This is a sticky issue in regards to all artistic endeavors since the production of cultural artifacts do indeed belong to the culture that produced them. The diffusion of ideas, on the other hand, is pretty tough to prove or enforce unless they are legally patented or can be legally proven to be owned. Yet even patents or ownership/authorship eventually run out or become part of the common domain. Ideas are readily swapped and exchanged between peoples, nations and cultures and it is likely that such diffusion will become ever more frequent and rapid as the information age matures. We live in an age of world music/media and an explosion of the appreciation of non-western and non-white cultures. I believe that it is a part of human nature to copy and appropriate things that we see and experience. However, some ideas and techniques have become part of our overall world cultural heritage. These are things that belong to no region or group, but do have an ultimate source that should be recognized and honored.

This brings me to the whole issue of appropriation in the area of the practice of magick. Yes, Papa Midnight is correct to accuse John Constantine (and therefore, indirectly, the rest of us western magicians) of being a “magpie of magic.” What isn’t stated and is also true is that the Voudon tradition was also a melange of African and European-Catholic beliefs and practices. The people of Western Africa could potentially accuse Voudon practitioners of expropriating their beliefs and practices, and in some way, so could the Catholic Church. That would make the character Papa Midnight into a magpie of magic himself, or a bit of a hypocrite. These various traditions are organic, which means that they are continuing to change, mutate and adapt to their environment. I believe that appropriation is part of that adaption process, and it affects all cultural systems to a lesser or greater degree.

In the practice of magick, we western magicians are the worst of all magpies of appropriation. However, I choose to call this process “adaptive diffusion” when it is ethical and esthetically elegant. Still, there are boundaries and limits to what can be freely appropriated.

Where do I draw the line? For me, the line is determined by a combination of esthetics and ethics. If I were to appropriate deities, beliefs, practices and techniques from a specific tradition or culture and not give them either the proper citation, vetting or respect then I could be considered unethical. If I were to combine different deities or cultural spiritual sources that were either inimical or incompatible then I would be creating something that is esthetically poor and inelegant. A poor combination of attributes or clashing cultural artifacts or a cumbersome structure will doom a ritual or ceremony. It could also cause some not-so-subtle repercussions as well. These are things that I believe we should avoid, of course, and everything else is just a matter of research and experimentation.

So why am I going on about this issue? Because I am a veritable magpie and a thief of other peoples’ magic. I have appropriated the Tridentine Mass rite for own my personal and magical use, and I have robbed the Golden Dawn and Crowley of much of their lore to act as the foundation for my own work. What I have now could be considered uniquely my own, but I know for a fact that I have used other people’s rituals and techniques to build it. I have also taken other methodologies and rites from various sources and have modified them to fit into the context of my own lore, such as the Abramelin and the Portae Lucis workings. I have shamelessly robbed and pilfered various evocations, sigils, characters and talismans from countless grimoires and original sources, and I have adapted my lore to the myriad authors’ books that I have read and studied. So, yes, I am a magpie and in fact I am proud of it.

It really means that my lore is dynamic, organic, constantly changing (and maturing, I hope) and also adapting to circumstances. I have truly made all of this lore my own, but the sources are from everyone else. Still, I did manage to invent some new things, and I am hoping that others will like these new ideas and shamelessly use them in their lore, too. 

As Constantine says, “Whatever works.” Yes, I am advocating that we magicians should behave like thieving magpies, it is only human to do so. Yet we should also be guided by some simple ethics and esthetics. Even thieves have principles and rules, at least the successful ones do.

Frater (Thieving Magpie) Barrabbas

Saturday, January 17, 2015

As the Light Dimmed in Egypt - Linking the PGM, Nag Hammadi and Stele of Jeu

The Roman province of Egypt was remarkable in the great confluence of cultures and ideas that managed to mix and merge together to formulate whole new perspectives. Yet it was also a place where native Egyptians found themselves demoted to third class citizens who were egregiously exploited, subjugated and crushed into unforgiving poverty and despair. While Rome extracted a massive grain harvest every year to feed itself (and its privileged allies in Alexandria) bread, the Egyptians who toiled on the land were oppressed by ever increasing taxes and punitive laws meant to enslave them. It was not a good time to be an Egyptian without also being a privileged Roman citizen. Few managed to achieve that distinguished privilege and the rest faced a hopeless and dwindling future.

There were occasional revolts against this excessive exploitation and subjugation, but these were cruelly put down, and each one only made the plight the native fellaheen more pitiful. It was during this time that the belief and worship of the old Egyptian gods lost their appeal with the common folk and a new religion began to quickly take their place, and that religion was Christianity. Like many other parts of the old world, Egypt fostered many varieties of Christianity and Greco-Roman syncretism.

Egypt had an ancient tradition of religious speculation, enabling a variety of controversial religious views to thrive there. Not only did Arianism flourish, but other doctrines, such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism, either native or imported, found many followers. Another religious development in Egypt was the monasticism of the Desert Fathers, who renounced the material world in order to live a life of poverty in devotion to the Church.

Egyptian Christians took up monasticism with such enthusiasm that the Emperor Valens had to restrict the number of men who could become monks. Egypt exported monasticism to the rest of the Christian world.”

Magic flourished in these lands at that time, and many Christians of different stripes practiced magic along with their liturgical rites. Perhaps the most interesting of all of the Egyptian stripes of Christianity were the Sethians, whose massive volume of books and mysterious initiatory teachings have come down to us in the present era as various selections of their peculiar writings and puzzling theological statements. We know something about them from their extent writings but not enough to fully understand their teachings and beliefs. Time has nearly ablated their memory, like the shifting sands of the Egyptian desert that have scoured the painted surfaces of statues and shrines leaving only traces of their past glories.

We know so little about the Egyptians living in the area around Thebes in the Greco-Roman period because the focus of the world at that time was on the city of Alexandria. However, from the period of around the 1st through the 4th century various scrolls and codices were buried in that location which were only discovered in the last two centuries. The largest collection of codices was discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, a veritable library of forbidden books hidden in a sealed pot and buried next to a stone in an ancient monastic graveyard. However, other codices and scrolls were discovered in the same area around Thebes, such as the Bruce codex (containing the Books of Jeu) and the Greek Magical Papyri. All of these notable relics that have been intriguing scholars for decades as well as ordinary members of the reading public, and I might add, occultists and practitioners of magic, have been reconstructed, translated and published. All of these truly remarkable writings from antiquity were likely produced in this single location around Thebes during a period of three hundred years, and that is also quite remarkable.

Whether or not these writings represent the thoughts and beliefs of a single group of people, or the combined ideas and practices of an era participated by many individuals is unknown. We can speculate based on how they were written, in what language and the media (scroll or codex) of their presentation, and we can examine the content of the writings and notice the differences and similarities. Still, this is all speculation, but it is intriguing none-the-less.

We should also briefly examine the writing techniques of ancient Egypt and its history, since this will also assist us in assessing the historical context of these writings.

“As writing developed and became more widespread among the Egyptian people, simplified glyph forms developed, resulting in the hieratic (priestly) and demotic (popular) scripts. These variants were also more suited than hieroglyphs for use on papyrus. Hieroglyphic writing was not, however, eclipsed, but existed alongside the other forms, especially in monumental and other formal writing. The Rosetta Stone contains three parallel scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek.

Hieroglyphs continued to be used under Persian rule (intermittent in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE), and after Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt, during the ensuing Macedonian and Roman periods. It appears that the misleading quality of comments from Greek and Roman writers about hieroglyphs came about, at least in part, as a response to the changed political situation. Some believe that hieroglyphs may have functioned as a way to distinguish 'true Egyptians' from some of the foreign conquerors. Another reason may be the refusal to tackle a foreign culture on its own terms which characterized Greco-Roman approaches to Egyptian culture generally. Having learned that hieroglyphs were sacred writing, Greco-Roman authors imagined the complex but rational system as an allegorical, even magical, system transmitting secret, mystical knowledge.

By the 4th century, few Egyptians were capable of reading hieroglyphs, and the myth of allegorical hieroglyphs was ascendant. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391 CE by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is from Philae, known as The Graffito of Esmet-Akhom, from 394 CE.”

If we consider the Nag Hammadi library, the Bruce codex and the Greek Magical Papyri as having a common geographic location, we can also order these collections according to their content and writing styles, based on an understanding of the history of writing in that area.

The Greek Magical Papyri was likely written earlier than the other books because it was a large scroll written in Greek and Demotic. Since there are some parts of this book that were written in Demotic we can assume that the ancient Egyptian language was still being spoken and written at that time. So, perhaps the time period when it was written might have been in the 3rd century when the old pagan religions and the new were coexistent. The magical spells show a decided heterodoxy of religious beliefs with an emphasis on Pagan Greek and Egyptian gods, but with other religious elements, such as Judaism, included. There is only a hint of Christian theology to be found in these spells, so it represents the collective work of someone whose sympathies were not particularly Christian.

We know nothing about the owner of this scroll, other than he seemed to be collecting every notable magical spell that could be found or discovered in that time period. Because of the cosmopolitan nature of his collection, it is likely that he was privileged and well traveled, perhaps even having a residence in Alexandria. Magic is the focus of this work, so we can’t really deduce the owner’s religious beliefs other than to state that he was obviously open to all religions and didn’t discriminate between them. This large scroll was probably buried with the mummified body of the owner along with other artifacts at an unknown site somewhere outside of Thebes. If there were any other burial possessions in that tomb, none has ever been either recognized or recovered. 

Then, probably a century or so later, the various codices of the Nag Hammadi and the Bruce codex were written and kept by individuals in the same general area. These books were written in Coptic, representing a change in linguistic status. While it is likely that these books were originally written in Greek, they were translated into Coptic which was becoming the liturgical language of Egyptian Christianity. Hieroglyphic writing, including hieratic and demotic, had been abandoned as too complex, but Greek was replaced with an alphabetized writing modified to fit the phonetics of the Egyptian language.

The primary religious focus of these books was Christian, but a form of Christianity that is both strange and unusual by today’s standards. Within many of these works are to be found the specific theological speculations of the Gnostic group known as the Sethians. While it is likely that these books were part of a monastic library, probably the Pachomian monastery at Chenobokion (modern al Qasr), it represents that the Christian monks were likely tainted by the beliefs and perhaps even the practices of Sethian Gnosticism. The fact that these books were buried represents a kind of intellectual purge, due to the edict of the archbishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, who in 367 CE decreed that all Christians reject illegitimate and secret books. He produced a list of 27 books that were to be considered the accepted books of Christianity, and these books are what later became part of the New Testament. However, the monks from this monastery (so far from Alexandria) revered these books and rather than burn them, they decided to bury them instead. So they carefully sealed these codices into a storage pot and buried them in a nearby cemetery with a proper marker, as if they had hoped to someday return and recover them.

It would seem that the location around Thebes was a veritable hotbed of Sethian Gnosticism and also the practice of magic. Because the Sethians taught that one needed to undergo a five-fold initiation ordeal in order to be considered a proper Christian, or “one who knows,” they had quite a body of magical lore to aid them in this task. They also practiced forms of practical magic and likely infected the early Coptic Christian church with the practice of using magical spells that archeologists have recently discovered written or inscribed on various artifacts. The Sethians probably were in the area for at least three centuries before disappearing, and they may have melded their beliefs with those of the local pagan magical practitioners, since they believed that magic was the key to escape the material world ruled by the cruel and ruthless archons.

In many ways the Sethian’s theological ideas would have been very popular in the oppressed area of upper Egypt because it seemed to explain their world in a mythopoetic manner. No longer was life on the Nile one that was good and abundant, so there wasn’t much desire to perpetuate this material circumstance in the afterlife. In fact life was cruel, brutal, poor and apparently lacked the blessings of the gods for the average Egyptian. It was no wonder that a theology of escape, release from bondage and deliverance from one’s evil oppressors was quite intoxicating and attractive. I believe that this is the reason why Egypt embraced Christianity so ardently, and why a tradition of Sethian Gnosticism was popular amongst the literate elite.

Now this brings me to the main point of my article, which is to see these supposedly unrelated events and artifacts as representing a common thread that should be quite profound when we consider it as such. What I am proposing is that the magic in the Greek Magical Papyri and the magic practiced by the Christian Sethians and Coptic Christians was analogous. They are not the same, of course, because they are separated by time, but not by locality. The writer of the Greek Magical Papyri was aware of Sethian practices and beliefs even though he might not have shared them. The Sethians were likely aware of some of the magical spells written in the Greek Magical Papyri as well.

Previously, I have never really paid much attention to the rubric or title for the ritual of the Invocation of the Bornless One because it seemed to be not particularly important. The title of this spell is the “Stele of Jeu, the hieroglyphicist.” The name Jeu seemed to be familiar to me, but I had thought that it might be a reference to a real individual who still had the skill of being able to read Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. It was pointed out to me that the name Jeu was actually a Gnostic pseudepigraphic author name that was used to lend legitimacy to a writing or a spell. However, since there is indeed a series of Books of Jeu that were particularly sacred to the Sethians (Bruce Codex), attributing the Bornless One Invocation to Jeu was analogous to attributing it to the Sethians. Also, assigning a writing to a stele was a way of making it a highly important work, because an actual stele was writing and illustrations painted or carved on a stone tablet making it something of a permanent edifice. Three of the more important works in the Nag Hammadi library are the three Stele of Seth, so one could assume that the Stele of Jeu would also be a monumental work.

What does all of this speculation and background information really mean? It means that the ubiquitous Invocation of the Bornless or Headless One was possibly an important rite in the Sethian creed. The headless one then becomes analogous to the theological construct of the Gnostic concept of Autogenes, the self-begotten one. Autogenes was the principle intermediary between the One as the Father-Spirit, and the Father-Mother as Ennoia-Barbelo, and the rest of humanity. Autogenes was part of a trinity that was loosely based on the Neoplatonic Noetic triad of Being, Life and Mind that act as an intermediary between the One and the psychic domain. Summoning this entity to perform an exorcism would make sense, and it would be part of the Sethian initiation process to purge the self of all spiritual influences and pollution associated with the archons.

So, this might be the context for the Bornless Invocation rite, that it functioned as an important tool in the Sethian repertoire to purify the soul and make it ready for transport beyond spheres of the archon ruled material world, where it might unite once again with the One Source of All Spirit. That we use this rite today in a similar manner is quite interesting and also ironic. All of this is pure speculation on my part, of course, and it could easily be refuted as spurious and erroneous. However, my approach does seem to pull together a lot of interesting pieces of the puzzle, and the final resultant context is rather elegant - at least I think so.

Over seventeen hundred years separate our world from that of the Egyptian Sethians and magicians of the early centuries of the common era. But we seem to be connected by the thread of a common interest and a common need for a fusion of magic and religion as well as authentic visionary experiences. That common thread might be the vaunted Perennial Philosophy, or perhaps it is the just the convoluted evolution of society and the never ending spiritual search for authentic spiritual experiences.   

Frater Barrabbas