The other day, my friend, a Hellenic Polytheist and devotee of Persephone (who runs the proserpinas-garden tumblr blog) and I were talking about the nature of reconstructionism (or, rather, “historically-informed” Paganism) and how hard it can be sometimes, for us “modern folk,” to relate to the ways in which the Gods were worshipped or viewed in ancient times. We ended up talking about “how much has changed” and came to the conclusion that it just didn’t sit right with us that the Gods would be upset or less present because of the world’s changes, and how we worship Them now. So many of the Gods represent things that still exist, even if Their ancient cults don’t anymore (and the number of devotees has dwindled). We talked about how offering more modern items – notebook paper versus papyrus, store-bought bread versus bread made by hand at home – aren’t necessarily a bad thing. We joked that, in fact, the Gods must be so proud of us humans – how much we’ve accomplished, technology-wise, for example, over all these years.
“Hermes must be so pumped about e-mail!” my friend laughed.
And that got me thinking.
I tend to spend a lot of time researching “what my Gods mean.” I traverse websites like Henadology, taking notes on the imagery, the associations, and the mythology behind my Gods - in an attempt to get to know Them better. Sometimes, I get so wrapped up in learning Their “history” that I forget that I interact with Them on a regular basis when I do ritual or pray. I interact with Them on a regular basis. In a modern world. In a modern context. With modern clothes on, and modern-made ritual items. Sure, the words are based in the ancient, and the ritual set-up and offerings are as close to the ancient “way” as possible, but it doesn’t remove me from the fact that I am talking to these ancient Gods in a modern apartment building in Philadelphia, not in a temple in the middle of Ancient Egypt.
And the Gods are responding.
Why are They responding? Because I’m trying my best to do things “the old way?” As a recon-slanted/revivalist Pagan, I believe invoking at least the essence of the ancient is a deeply respectful thing to do for the “Old Gods.” And part of it is for my own benefit – I love enacting some of the Ancient Egyptian practices, saying some of their words. But I don’t necessarily think the Gods are the sum of their ancient histories. They also exist in the here and now, as well. And that’s, in part, why it is easy for Them to “respond” to modern practitioners as much as They may have to the ancient practitioners.
Which brings me to the topic of this post: lately, I have been realizing that the nature of the Gods is a fluid one. Ever-changing. A constant interchange between the old and the new. The Gods are simultaneously ancient Beings and Beings of modernity. When it comes down to it, many of the aspects They embody or represent or are champions of mean the same things now as they did then. Love? War? The hearth and the home? The Sun? The Moon? Seasonal changes? Childbirth? Building and creation? Communication? Games and sports? Death? Judgement? Education? Knowledge? Justice? All of these things still exist. Their meanings, applications, and symbology has changed and morphed and evolved over the years, but I think, in many ways, the Gods have changed and morphed and evolved and adapted along with them.
This in part also explains the syncretic natures of many Deities, and how cultural/religious phenomena such as Greco-Egyptian Polytheism and Greco-Roman Polytheism and even Greco-Roman-Egyptian Polytheism are all valid and have existed for a long time, and can exist even now. As P. Sufenas Virius Lupus writes, in the article, Syncretism Happens!:
It is difficult to imagine, if the original Hermes might have been abstracted from the cairns and herms which the Greeks set up as boundary-markers, that eventually Hermes would assume all of the forms he did simply within the Greek cultural spheres. It is even more fascinating that he underwent the further changes he did as a result of continuing close contact between Egypt and the Hellenistic world. The chthonic and psychopompic aspects of Hermes eventually fused with the Egyptian Anubis to form Hermanubis. Hermes as the inventor of writing became merged with the Egyptian divine scribe Thoth to become Hermes Trismegistus, and to become a renowned wisdom figure at the fountainhead of Hermetic philosophy and theology, influential well into the Christian period and beyond. And, in at least one case, Hermes even became fused with one of the other Greek deities in an Egyptian context, in the form of Hermekate–perhaps a non-dualistically gendered guardian of the crossroads, if nothing else. While these syncretisms are certainly predictable and even expectable given the realities of cultural contacts in the past, and the rather archetypalizing tendencies of much post-Platonic Greek thought, nonetheless this puts forward the theological proposition that the gods are as changeable as the humans and the cultures who revere them. If divine reality is as prone to evolution and transformation as much as the wider universe seems to be in a state of flux, then these two realities are in fact much more unified and influential on one another than many may have realized. In Christian circles, this is known as “process theology,” and is reflected in ideas like the panentheistic presence of the divine, and yet the divine not being omnipotent. While it took until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the beginnings of this theological stream to be known in these mainline religious circles, one can look back to the days of late antiquity in Egypt and see that this, too, was not a new thing. If the piles of stones that were once synonymous with Hermes have since given way, via Hermes Trismegistus and his heirs, to the very fine technologies of electronic information storage in silicon-based machines (and what is silicon if not very small stones of that element?), then Hermes of the Internet is a reality now which the ancients never would have imagined. Humans have come a long way since late antiquity; and so too have the gods, and it will be so as long as humans are aware of the gods.”
When I read Lupus’ article, I found myself physically nodding along with it. Yes! The Gods change all the time! The Gods are changed by our understandings of Them; and They change because of the way the world changes. They adapt to it; and we to Them. The Gods are as much “in for the ride” as we are. The ancient peoples of the past had no idea where they were going evolution-wise and technology-wise when they first started honoring these Gods, and in many ways, neither do we know now how and where we’re going to end up. In the next hundred years or so, human societies all over the world will very likely change again, and be much different than what we know as our reality now. And so long as we continue to honor these Gods – the “old Gods” of antiquity – the more They too will change.
And, this might be personal UPG here, but I think They do enjoy it. Upon deeper reflection, my friend’s joke about Hermes being proud of e-mail doesn’t strike me as a joke at all. I bet He is proud, and excited, and able to receive so much energy from the existence of the Internet and how fast and easy and immediate communication has become for us humans. If every letter sent in ancient Greece was once an offering – even simply a metaphorical devotion – to Hermes, then think about how many people, consciously and unconsciously, are offering/devoting to Him every time they press the send button on an e-mail or instant message. The numbers are mind-boggling.
And in that sense, it makes me proud to stand back for a minute and look at my world. The modern world has many flaws, yes; and as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods so poignantly depicts (in a fictional way), many people have forgotten about the “old Gods” - it’s true many of our Gods had more devotees in the past. But all that aside, I think we have so much to be proud of too, as humans, and so many new ways and constructs to see and feel and experience our Gods in, that I cannot help but be awed, even if I am only one from a small group who still love and worship these Gods. When I look at a skyscraper now, I think, “Dua Ptah! How Your creative spirit flows through our modern cities!” When I hear that someone I know recently had a baby, it still seems so right to me to thank Gods like Bes and Sekhmet, but instead saying, “Thank you, Bes, for watching over this new mother as she lay in the hospital bed giving birth, at her most vulnerable. Thank you, oh Sekhmet, for the medicine and the healing technologies that exist to make childbirth a much safer process nowadays.” When I read from my Kindle, I realize, “Dearest Seshat, how Your energy must flow through these e-books, how it must please You to see so many books archived in one object!”
In many ways, my eyes have been opened these past few days to a new and inspiring way to view my Gods: after all, They are still alive and well in all that we do. Yes, it is important to remember the past, the histories, and do our best to be informed. Yes, it is often appropriate to bring back some of those ancient words/practices into our modern rituals, mostly out of respect. But it’s important to also keep in mind that the Gods are not just Their ancient selves – They have modern selves, too. And we have the power to tap into all aspects of our Gods, if we are open to it. Especially when we are not in a ritual space, when we are simply trying to find our Gods in every day life.