The Masks They Wear

Well, it’s certainly been a while now, hasn’t it? And not for a lack of anything to say, in fact it’s been a very busy, interesting, frustrating and enlightening year. And that was part of the problem, really: what to say, how much to say and how to actually get any of it out.

This is not the first time I’ve sat down to write this very post, it’s the fifth. The first time was early spring, so these attempts were spaced out. I would get so far with it, and then something would cause me to stumble, I’d glance over what I’d done and it would strike me as all wrong. It served as a good indication that I had not actually gotten to the bottom of the matter yet. So it will be interesting to see if I finish this time and hit that publish button, it might be the final sign that I’ve reached the end of this particular puzzle.

But let’s go back to the beginning. I started the year on a high note, I had managed something I had always struggled with: a consistent daily ritual routine. I’ve been over this before, but to review: my self discipline is garbage and the various disorders that I live with can make that worse. I tried to tell myself, and others, that regular practice was not necessary, that it was an overstrict and unreasonable expectation from overstrict and unreasonable people. I did that for a long time, but eventually I had to sit down and have one of those hard conversations with myself – do I think that because it’s what I actually believe, or do I want to believe that because it’s something I have a hard time with? And I had to admit it was the latter, and furthermore that such people had a point: if you’re going to master something, be good with something, you need to work at it every fucking day. Sporadic attention will only take you so far, and that’s fine if so far is where you want to go; I didn’t, I wanted more, and being as reality will not suspend its rules on account of my difficulty, I needed to change myself.

And I had managed it, for over three months (if I’m being honest it wasn’t every single day, the time covered holidays that involved busy schedules and travel and no time at home, but they were the exceptions, I hadn’t worked out how to deal with the exceptions yet, I was very aware of the ritual’s absence and got back into it the very next day, so I still consider it a win). I was excited, I was going to come on here to brag; and then I hit the wall that has been my obsession for the rest of this year.

It didn’t come out of nowhere, there had been signs along the way (going back a number of years), that I wasn’t sure how to interpret beyond noticing the pattern, that I kept in the back of my mind while focusing on other things. I don’t know if it was a matter of too much time going by, or if it was the string of wins I was wracking up, the layer of solid ground that was developing under my feet, that the gods decided to stop letting me ignore it. There was a shadow growing over everything I did, a certain discomfort building.

You’re missing something, what you’re doing is not adding up. Something is different, something has changed. You need to figure it out.

So I gave up my routine, even knowing I’d have to struggle back up again from the bottom of the fucking mountain at some future date. Some would say I should not have done that, never stop your devotions, and I can see the point of that, really, but at the same time I didn’t know what else to do. Something was wrong and I had no idea what, the only plan I could come up with was to suspend all operations and start systematically poking at the every surface until the problem reveals itself.

So that’s been my year (well, barring the summer where I had wilted into uselessness): poking, testing, getting hints, reading, studying, weaving elaborate theories, making many, many mistakes along the way, often ones that should’ve been easily avoidable. I have, by turns, felt close to the gods and hopelessly distant; intrigued by the new information and the strings of weird coincidences, and ready to slam my head against the wall just to make this stop.

Times like this, my solitary status can feel like a burden. I think back to when I had circles of like minded friends and distant acquaintances I could bounce these ideas off of; people who had been there, done that, and could assist a confused person with a diagnosis. The internet could be helpful with that. But then I also remember echo chambers, spreading trends and cults of personality; I can look back to a couple years worth of alleged gnosis I’d written down that read like inane jumbled horseshit to me now, all from when I’d (inadvertently, and stupidly) drifted into a very insular group where everything was tightly focused on one person’s fantasy life. Questions and gnosis and difficulties can be spun in any number of interesting, and flagrantly incorrect, directions if one is determined to look at things through a particular lens and, intentions aside, someone can be lead very far off course.

And I can do that myself, as well. I’m very much a head person, I live in my own mind and I think, obsessively. It’s both a strength and a character flaw. And left to my own devices, it can run wild. I can lose track of where an idea came from, did it originate with me or outside of me, or if it’s something I noticed in the course of reading does it really have the weight I’m attaching to it? That is a point where I do think having another knowledgeable person to bounce these ideas off of would’ve helped, someone else might’ve better caught some of this before my mind got carried away. It’s often possible to draw lines between things if you look at them long enough, and I don’t mean it’s bullshit sometimes those lines are genuinely there, but it doesn’t mean it’s relevant to you (or not in the way you’re looking at it). There was one error I’d gotten hung up on for a couple months, because I could make a lot of logical sense of it, it all tied in with each other in a way that looked a little too neat and tidy – in my own mind, that is, when put into actual practice it instantly fell flat. I remember the divine commentary on it much later, after it had been put to rest: It was a really interesting coincidence. Still a coincidence.

So why don’t you put it into practice earlier, I can hear someone asking me, since that is the arena where all theories must live or die. And I agree, I know, and yet I don’t do it, I get lost in my own mind and ignore the physical world. And probably end up wasting a lot more time that way. I recognize this, I’m trying to do better, but it’s not always easy to pull yourself out of that spiral.

And another cause of that spiral is left over baggage from the Dark Years: the mental break, the time with that very insular group, the circumstances which produced the inane rambling horseshit that was a big tangled knot of my projections and insecurities and other people’s projections and insecurities. Those years are firmly in the past, but this is the first time since then venturing out into the murky waters of let’s call it spirit work, and I’m finding it intimidating, dealing with UPG or making grand proclamations about how things have changed, when I was so wrong before. I understand better how those mistakes were made, I’m not in a depressive headspace, but there is still that worry, that shadow of doubt. And I need to confront that, I need to get over it; if this is what my life is going to be, and I want it to be, this is one of the conditions that come with that. I have no doubt part of this is all about getting me past that intimidation, and I’ve stepped up to the plate, I haven’t shrunk back from it, from any of the mistakes or only partial truths of recent months; I’m just overly cautious on this first run, and thus obsessing over things maybe a bit too much, maybe demanding a lot more evidence ahead of time than I really need.

And it’s also possible that I’ve been subconsciously dancing away from the truth, every time it rears its head, hints at its existence, for reasons that may range from simple disbelief that this could be the case to maybe a fear of what it will mean. That I keep explaining it away and retreating to a proxy scenario, something that feels safer, something that is close, yes, but not still not right.

That is a possibility that’s become harder and harder to dismiss. I’ve systematically poked and prodded every wall, but there was one place I’d ignored, because it had not occurred to me it was on the table – the surroundings, sure, not the central pillar. But no, it’s all on the table, even, maybe especially, that central pillar.

I’m not ready to make any (semi) public announcements here, past experience has also made me gun shy about rushing into such things and this, I think, is a lesson I should keep. But I am ready to say two things, one that was an early revelation and has since solidified; the other, well let’s say I am also very certain of part of it, even if I am still working out the full extent of it (and if this time I finish and publish, I may take it as an omen that I’ve reached the correct ballpark).

The first was the total abandonment of a Greek cultural framework. That came through early, it was very clear and unambiguous, and my mind had no reason to try and make it so. Probably this message came through years ago, though I had interpreted it as leave the Hellenic Reconstructionst community, which I did, and then had little opportunity to further explore. I actually suspect this has been in play all along, as I think back to the struggles I went through trying to include other elements or other gods from the pantheon, because I felt like I should, and it never working out, often because Hermes himself stepped in and put a stop to it. In trying to pick up a practice again, that was where I defaulted, it was what I knew best, diving back into reading about ancient culture to reacquaint myself and find a good starting place, to maybe follow up on a few things I’d long had an interest in there, and then the foot came down. Forget it, all of it, it’s not meant to be.

Yet the underlying instinct to look for tradition, rather than the grab bag of whatever you feel like, was still present and that brings us, in part, to the second item.

This has been a very slow process, a slow understanding and acceptance, and I think most of the research I’d been prodded on was ultimately about bringing this to light, if in a somewhat roundabout way. That the aspect of Hermes I interact with is a syncretic one. I do not know if this is a more recent phenomenon, if, as in the phrasing I frequently see in oracles, something has changed, or if maybe it’s always been this way. That is one of those questions my overactive brain could take and run away with in a desperate attempt to fully understand this whole mess; I doubt I will ever really know, one way or the other.

The way Hermes appeared to and interacted with me had seemed starkly different from what a great majority of Hellenic Polytheists described (at the time): I didn’t see the Messenger of the Gods, nor the Light Hearted Lord of the Marketplace, or the more recent Holy Hipster of the Internet. I had noticed at the time, but thought little of it. I’d had a few friends then that also counted Hermes as a patron of sorts and saw him very similar to me – I remember remarking on it to them, at least once, that I hardly recognize my Hermes in the poetry shared on e-lists, and having the sentiment agreed with, so I was not in the boat alone. But gods are complicated and some more complicated than others, there were likely very good reasons why we saw the face we did and other people did not, and vice versa. I find it to be a point of curiosity now, lessened perhaps by the presence of those old friends who were then, and still are now as far as I know, interacting with Hermes. Of course the both of them also had far more ties to the rest of the Greek package, whereas he was the only thing keeping me there.

He also rarely showed up with the classical trappings that Hermes ought to have. And I don’t know if that was always true and it just took me a while to notice it, or if it changed at some point. The downside of not journaling I suppose, but I doubt small details like that would’ve struck me worth recording. He did come with a few other trappings that were not attested to in ancient lore or practice, but were very consistently present for me. Again, I didn’t worry about this much, then, only started raising an eyebrow at it when it began growing in more recent times. Because every one of them was something that made logical sense, that looked like it belonged in his sphere even if the Greeks did not recognize it as such, and I could explain it to people in a clear way that they would understand, so it never seemed a problem.

Thing is, the reading I got prodded into doing, even the initial quick bits I was finding through internet searches, all of those extra non Greek trappings, they’re all accounted for at the other end of the syncretization line. All of it. It’s been a little eerie, watching all that come together.

It’s been an interesting journey that has kind of gone all over the place; at the end of this trip through online information, what I could find in my local library (and that could be better) and, *massive tired sigh* very brief glimpses into certain corners of the Pagan community, that I very quickly abandoned lest the insane amounts of drama, argument and infighting I saw front and center put me off the entire endeavor.

(I’m not pretending the community was wonderful when I was a mostly happy part of it, there was always drama, argument and infighting, but it’s not just gotten worse over time, it’s kicked into overdrive. I had seen discussion, among those few people I still pay attention to, about how bad it’s gotten, and yet I was still surprised. I no longer have the energy nor the patience to deal with shit like that, the benefits are not worth the cost. Now I also hear from those same few people, about many small private groups that keep to themselves and just practice their religion; I hope to eventually cross paths with them. Until then.)

Anyway, I ended up mostly focusing on two cultures, two points of interest, one entirely new and…well, one that just kept on coming up, even in my research of the first, but I kept moving away from it, talking myself out of it.

Syncretic deities were nothing I’d ever thought much about, because (or so I believed) I’d never run into one. It’s the sort of thing my brain could also run away with, down some rabbit hole I’d never find my way out of: how does it happen and what does it mean? Does it create a third being, or a meeting place of sorts, a mask that both separate gods have access to? Interesting questions to contemplate, that I could distract me forever until I have what grasp on it my limited mortal view can manage, and the lingering intimidation can make that look like an attractive path (understand what you’re getting into before you get too far off track again). I have to actively push it back.

Thing is, I could’ve dealt with a syncretic Hermes, there would’ve been some perspective adjustments, but that’s fine. But oh noooo, no, there’s got to be another curve ball.

Said curve ball was thrown many months ago, when the syncretic thing was just dawning on me, a brief direct message that had jerked me out of meditation, wait a minute, what the hell does that mean? No further elaboration came, and it stuck firmly in my head ever since, hovering on the sidelines, trying to work itself out.

You may need to get used to calling me by a different name.

I thought it would be a epithet, an addition, a nod to the syncretic side. I’d certainly found quite a lot that would’ve been very relevant. I’d focused most on that first culture and the clear link there, the one that was new and thus unfamiliar. And there is something there, a legitimate connection, I had that confirmed, in an odd bit of UPG I’m not prepared to get into. But said UPG did not involve two figures alone, the number given was three: Hermes, Option One and….oh, I mean I think I know who the third is, probably, but I’m just not sure, sooooo, let’s not worry about it!

*sigh* Fuck it. I know what it is. I know what the name is.

It’s the thing I keep inching up to, and then dancing away from, back to the new and unfamiliar, the close but not quite. Because that other thing, it’s very familiar, from way back. I put myself in the Hellenic community once because Hermes, but aside from them who were the people I was meeting? What did a lot of them have in common? The worldview I quietly absorbed through a good deal of second hand exposure, culture specific terminology I still use? A direction I was nudged into once and has never really been that far away, however much distance I (unconsciously) try to create?

Why that distance, though? Why have I, as I now acknowledge I have, been finding excuses to push it away? There are a couple of potential reasons that spring to mind. One may just be an association with certain people and the headaches they cause me, something that once acknowledged should be easy to sweep aside. Other possibilities might have more to do with me, the implications, what this could mean for me, that might require some introspection, self work, acceptance – a little bit more of what I have been doing as of late.

It could also just be the whole can of worms this opens – the question of who am I now, and have been, dealing with.

From a logical, outside perspective, I can see this makes sense. If I am told to leave the whole Hellenic package behind, if I am prodded to pick up a world view from the other culture, then why keep only the name? Why not make the full move, right? But why request worship in a foreign culture, using someone else’s name, unless…

So what the fuck, my brain screams, what happened here? Will I be dealing with Hermes in a skin suit? Or am I, right now, dealing with you in a Hermes suit? Did something on this syncretic line shift from left to right, from one to the other? Did a change occur at some point and I never noticed? Or was it always this way, and I never realized?

There is something I’m reading right now, not a book I’d sought out but kind of tumbled into my lap through chance just as I was working my mind around this, a book that has answered a few questions, closed a few of those holes in the theory, the what about X, I know X is true and Y doesn’t look like X so what about that – well, here’s another way to look at it, here’s some fine details you may have missed, and maybe that actually isn’t a contradiction. According to what I’ve seen there, that bit about the Hermes suit, that’s very possible. Not just possible, it would almost be typical. Doesn’t mean it’s true, it may have been a change, it may not even be permanent. But it’s not a possibility I can continue to ignore.

Ugh.

I am resolving not to get lost in the literal endless stream of questions and doubt, to act as if and see what happens. It is in action, not contemplation, where all theories live or die. This idea won’t go away, so run with it, flip to the other side, call the other name, worship the other god; if it’s not true I will learn that quick enough, as I have with every other misstep in the last year.

First impressions – uh, yeah. Wow. We are still in the beginning, a reversal could still conceivably happen, something else could still occur, at this point who knows. Quite the start though, like after months of something watered down I got suddenly hit with the real stuff.

And I finished this post. So there’s also that.

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Issues of Ownership

I sometimes describe my religion as being “Hermes Owned and Operated.” In lieu of simple labels, it seems accurate enough and most people do understand what I mean. Of course, it is also supposed to be somewhat tongue in cheek.

The first time I ever referred to myself as owned was in a Livejournal entry as an offhand joke while I mused on my first year of being formally dedicated to Hermes. It might have been forgotten entirely, but that someone I then had barely even heard of decided to be personally offended by what I had said, launched a tirade against me elsewhere, presenting the situation in an overblown and highly distorted form making it seem that I said a whole ton of shit I never once implied. The ensuing drama assured that the phrase stuck in my head.

I have not continued using the phrase entirely out of spite. Having had time to think it over carefully, there is a degree to which it is very applicable.

I find myself generally dissatisfied with the term “patron god,” though it is one that I have been using for years now because it is a term that people in the Pagan world know and recognize. It is a problematic word however because its definition is a bit too flexible and not universally agreed upon. People use patron to describe the god they are fully devoted to and serve in a formal and often public fashion, to a deity they have a moderately close relationship with though without the mundane life interference or call to serve, to whichever deity they happen to worship more than the others for whatever the reason (their job, mutual interests, just think they’re cool). Some people hold to a more conservative definition (as I do) others far more liberal. It can, and has, made for a confusing situation.

I do believe that a different term is needed to describe those with close relationships with their deities but who are ultimately still another faithful worshiper like any other, and one for those whose deities strongly interfere in their every day lives and who do feel called to serve those gods (whether that is through a community or in a more direct and private way). It has nothing to do with issues of specialness, wanting to paint myself like I’m better than anyone else. Its because the relationship dynamics are different, the expectations are different. Thus I believe descriptive terms should reflect that difference without my having to give an extra explanation.

I am of the opinion the word patron works better for the more intense, service oriented relationships, and that a different word should be used for the god you happen to feel closest to (before accepting Hermes as my patron, I referred to him as my primary deity, that worked for me and people generally understood what I was talking about). I also know that this is not going to happen. Definition wars rarely work in favor of the aggressor, when large groups of people have been using a word a certain way for a great length of time they are not going to appreciate someone barreling over with their chest puffed out insisting that you can’t use that word anymore because I’ve decided to define it according to how I think things should be. I’ve been on the other end of that before, I didn’t take kindly to it and the hell that I’m going to turn around and do the same thing. However right you may think you are, sometimes the only thing that can be done is to find a word of your own to use. One of these days perhaps, I or one of my clever friends will dream up a perfect general term to describe this relationship dynamic. Until that happens, these problems remain.

As well as being tongue in cheek, by calling myself owned I wished to convey the intensity of our relationship and the place he holds in my life (if I can be both funny and serious at the same time than, as one of Hermes’ people, that’s exactly what I should do). For the most part, people understand this and I’ve not had problems with reasonable people understanding my meaning.

I was accused of being a slave in the attack against me, that by calling myself owned I was implying a master/slave dynamic in which I have no autonomy whatsoever. I do not honestly believe that this was an genuine misunderstanding so much as it was it was a deliberate distortion, especially as it has never happened since except with one individual who lets his biases be known loud and clear.

That does not concern me. However, there are in fact those who identify themselves as godslaves, who refer to their deities as “owners” and they do mean it in the master/slave dynamic and they often do mean that they have little or no personal autonomy. And this movement is beginning to gain some publicity. And its more for this reason that I want to clarify what I mean, so as not to confuse those familiar with a different dynamic.

When I finally began noticing the flood of omens that Hermes was sending my way, when I acknowledged that his interest in me was far from casual and that he was my patron and pushing me toward something else, I made a pledge to take vows to him in service after a year’s time; a year because there is no reason to rush such things, I wanted to take the time to be certain that I was doing the right thing, that this was really what I wanted and that it was really what he wanted.

By the time I was ready to make my vows, everything in my life had changed.

My childhood was an abusive one, physically and emotionally; the severity varied by degrees at different points in time, but it was overall a negative experienced marked by encounters with people that beat me, neglected me, ridiculed and degraded me, or betrayed the trust I foolishly placed in them. The recovery process from this took time, and by necessity was something I had to do on my own. It was during this recovery time that Hermes first made himself known to me, and it was largely because of him that I was able to recover at all (by rights I should not be any where near as functional as I am). But I would not be much use to him living in isolation as I was, and continuing to live with a family I simply don’t get along with in close quarters was taking a severe toll on me. So these were some of the things that he fixed.

Within that year Hermes brought me out of a transitional period, and gave me a whole new life. He arranged for me to move to a new city, to have a steady income, a romantic relationship, hell he even gave me a pet as a birthday present. I have a small real life community of friends and acquaintances, and a far larger internet community of the same. My physical health and mental well being have improved a thousand times over.

I’m not going to pretend it was all easy and wonderful, nothing ever is and Hermes is not exactly a god of the easy path. Though the apartment I’m living in now is beautiful and peaceful and I’m alone with my girlfriend, the first two homes were far less than ideal (in unsafe locations, with unpleasant people), and there was a brief stint working at a job that … well, to call that place a massive and constant dramafest would be a severe understatement. But even these were far better than the conditions I was living under before and, right now, things are about as close to perfect as they have ever been, and far more than I thought I ever deserved.

Hermes had a hand in all of this, his involvement was considerably less than subtle as far as I am concerned, though of course you are invited to believe me on these points or not. It was only about a week after Hermes and I had a long talk about why I needed to leave my mother’s house, a week after he got me to agree to look into relocating within a year, that one of the few online friends I had at the time told me one of her room mates bounced his rent check and then disappeared never to be heard from again, she needed a new room mate and she needed one in about a month (“But I thought we agreed on a year?’ I said. No, we said within a year, he replied, a month is within a year). That coincidence is too much for me to explain away, my healthy skepticism can’t dismiss it; and having some very solid real world evidence of the gods’ influence in your life can be a wonderful thing.

Everything in my life now has his fingerprints on it, and I went through with my lifetime vows. Because of these things, I consider there to be some truth in saying that I am owned when most every aspect of my life, both by his design and my vows, do belong to him.

But my turning so much over to him has nothing to do with obligation, with feeling as though I have to because he’s a god and he’s bigger than me. It has to do with trust, Hermes has earned my trust over the years, has proven over and over again that he has my best interests at heart. Should that ever change that trust could be lost, I don’t think it will ever come to that but walking away is a possibility.

***Warning, the following contains graphic depictions of UPG which may or may not be relevant to your practice, viewer discretion is advised***

It is not my opinion that Hermes is looking for slaves, but for very independent people. Hermes is a god of freedom, as many are though what sort of freedom they each offer can be very different. I believe that Hermes, in part, offers freedom from ties of obligation. His is the freedom of the wanderer, always on the road always moving, very little that can really hold on to him or keep him down. Which doesn’t mean going through life with no ties (unless that is what you need), but that ties are not something foisted upon you, that you just owe them some loyalty and you have no choice. You need to choose your own ties, and choose them very carefully; who do you want to be a part of your life, who do you want to extend your loyalty to, that you want to be obligated to?

I choose to bind myself to Hermes, I choose to belong to him. I choose that every day. And if one day I should find that it is no longer my choice, for whatever the reason, I do think he would rather I stop making that choice and walk away rather than remain unhappy at his side because I feel that I have to. I don’t see that day coming, but I know I have that option.

If I were ever to take that option, I know I wouldn’t walk away for free and a lot of the benefits I experience in my life may well vanish. However uncomfortable some people are with that, it is to be expected; reciprocity lies at the heart of every relationship especially divine ones, its a give and take. With extra privilages comes extra work, extra responsibility, and if I were to stop giving, no longer living up to my end of the bargain, he would be well within his rights to pull out as well. It would be no different than a human marriage coming to an end, you can’t go file for divorce from your spouse and still expect everything in your life to remain exactly the same; you might end up losing your house, your children at least some of the time, a large chunk of your possessions, your income, insurance benefits, the list goes on. Ending a divine relationship can be looked at much the same way, especially one that was close, intense and long term.

I have met those who consider this another form of slavery, them holding this over your head in order to keep you in line. Even beyond the very me centric notion that the gods should be expected to give you everything without you having to do much if anything in return (like I said, extra benefits extra work), I find this insulting on a more personal level.

I am not in this for what I can get out of him, I would not deserve this relationship if I was. Even were all these benefits to disappear tomorrow (and I’m sure some will sooner or later, life can not be wonderful all the time and no deity can make it so however much they may like you or not) I would still be here. I’m here because of a deep affection I have for him that has built in the years I’ve known him, that makes me want to serve him in whatever way he needs me to. Its that affection that keeps me at his side, and will keep me here so long as it remains.

Why I am no longer a Reconstructionist

What finally brought about the death of my Reconstructionist identity was Hermes himself. He told me it was time to drop the label and take a couple steps back from the community at large (which is not to say I was ever heavily involved beyond list lurking). And since he is really the center of my religious life, what he wants he gets.

That was the final nail in the coffin. Truth be told, this was building for quite some time, perhaps even from the beginning.

I discovered the Recon community after maybe a year or so of reading about Wicca and generic eclectic NeoPaganism and finding it unsatisfying for a variety of reasons. I appreciated the respect people in the Recon community had for studying the ancient traditions, actually respecting the deities as individuals instead of treating them like genies that exist only to do you favors. I signed right up, I thought I had found my home.

One mistake that I made then, and which unfortunately many people still make now (deliberately or not) is thinking its a matter of one or the other; either you are a hard line Reconstructionist or a fluffy eclectic, either you follow tradition to the letter or you do not give a shit at all. This is not even remotely true, its more of a spectrum than two opposing sides, with many different shades and layers in between. Not having ever been a hard line Recon, or even a self identifying Recon at all anymore, does not automatically put me on the side of the fluffy thoughtless eclectics. If that is, in all honesty, what you believe, I suggest you get out there and try interacting with some actual people instead of thinking that you can decide the way the world is without ever having left your tiny corner of it.

There are also, again unfortunately, some very negative and very persistent stereotypes that people on the one side will use to paint the other with wide, careless strokes. It is absolutely not true that all people who identify as Pagans (as opposed to Recons) don’t care about tradition at all, do no studying beyond books found in the New Age section with the little half moon on the spine, and basically do whatever they want because it feels good to them and who cares about the deities involved. Do such people exist? Absolutely, and they are a sadly very vocal segment, but vocal does not equal numbers (in fact, often enough it equals the opposite). I personally know a number of self identifying NeoPagans that are very well read, very devoted to their deities (as opposed to only trying to make themselves feel good)  and are very respectful of tradition whether they choose to follow it to the letter or not (and to be perfectly honest, whether someone wants to replicate tradition exactly or not, I do prefer they at least make their decision from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance). I do know of others who are … well, not so respectful. But to act as though those who are thoughtful and do know what they are doing either don’t exist or are in such an extreme minority that broad brushing the whole faith in this less than flattering picture is perfectly fine is horribly unfair.

And there can be problems in the Recon circles as well. Some have the idea that Reconstructionism is more like a religious reenactment society than an actual living faith, that people mostly just study and analyze and philosophize and talk endlessly but never actually practice, that everyone worships culture more than the gods. And are there people like that in the movement? Oh absolutely. But is that everyone, or even most everyone? Hell no. I have met some incredibly devoted people in this community, and my experiences in it have for the most part been positive.

The stereotypes and generalizations though can be easy enough to buy into, especially if you are new to things and don’t know any better. It can be easy to make the mistake of thinking, “Well, I know I’m not in that camp (whichever you may find more distasteful) so then I guess I must be in this other one.” It can make it harder to let go of labels if you believe, even in the back of your mind, that if you do so you will immediately become that other extreme that you don’t really want to be either.

I was fortunate to have come into the more, some would say moderate segment of the Hellenic Recon community, I wouldn’t brush up against those with far more extreme opinions until much later. Had the lore thumpers been my community I think these problems would have surfaced much earlier, assuming I had even been allowed to have my Recon career in the first place (and I doubt it). But even in the more moderate group, those gaps between where I was and where so many others were became apparent to me very early on. And so the struggle, between where I was finding myself and where I felt I needed to be as someone under a label, began.

Reconstructionism is not a religion, it is a methodology; it is a way to approach religion, to approach tradition. But it is also a community, it is a group of people united in that methodology. Nobody does things all the same, some things will be more important to one person than it will be to another, there are many different interpretations, theories and opinions. Still, there are some themes that do appear to be for the most part community wide, practices or beliefs that most seem to hold as a part of being Reconstructionist. And, for myself anyway, I felt there was a limit to how many of those near constant themes I can diverge from before I have to admit that I am out of line with everyone else.

Practice wise, the differences are not that deep. My rituals are very bare bones, candles and offerings and prayers/hymns and long meditation; I don’t require much in the way of pomp and circumstance, I have found simple works best. When it comes to studying ancient lore and history I consider it a must, if you wish to serve a deity now you do need to know who they were once considered to be, how that service was once done. And although I have no problems with reasonable innovation and UPG (ongoing communication from the gods is what makes this a living faith, after all), sticking to tradition as close as possible should always be the default position when approaching any deity you don’t know; these are offerings/activities they have been known to like in the past, its a reasonable place to begin; now if after the relationship has been established they tell you they want something different that’s fine, but why start out with guess work when someone else has already done the job for you? Keep in mind also I am not one of those people who believes the gods appreciate anything and everything you do for them, I do believe they can be offended, especially by those unwilling to put any real effort into a relationship or show them any consideration as independent beings that exist apart from you.

Its in other areas that I find my path just diverges from others.

1. Many Hellenic Recons believe it is absolutely necessary to worship every deity in the pantheon more or less equally; one person in particular classifies the “worship of the twelve” as an absolute requirement (there are other problems with that statement, but takes us beyond my point). I really don’t believe it is possible to worship all the gods equally, even beyond the issue of patrons there will always be a few you like and connect with more than others. But still, this does seem to be something the vast majority of the community agrees with and observes to the best of their abilities.

I ignored the other deities initially because Hermes was the one dancing for my attention and I felt instinctively that it was important to really establish that primary relationship, so I gave him my full attention. Later on I tried to expand that, I found Dionysos to be friendly enough although far in the background from where Hermes was. But the other deities mostly weren’t there, there were some I found impossible to relate to (as a mostly rootless wanderer, how do I connect with Hestia?), and two told me very clearly to get lost and don’t come back.

I do agree that it is never acceptable to disrespect a god, and I respect all deities for what they are and the place they hold in the world whether its a place that touches me or not. But respect and worship do not necessarily go hand in hand. Just because God X from whatever pantheon likes you is no guarantee his sister Goddess Y is going to feel the same way. And if a deity has repeatedly shown a total lack of interest in you, is it really respectful of them to continue pushing up on them against their obvious wishes?

2. Reconstructionism is, for the most part, modeled on the religion of Joe and Jane Average, and most people in any given religion are going to be general practitioners. The modern Recon community is designed to encourage those who come into it to be general practitioners; the word enforce can always be used for those people who firmly believe this is the only way to be and do not understand that not every person is necessarily supposed to be on the exact same path.

I am more a spiritual specialist, in that my focus is narrowed to one particular field of the human spiritual experience, as opposed to the broader picture. This is not something that I planned on or asked for, I was fine with being a general practitioner, but plans don’t always work out the way you think they will and you can’t always choose your gods. It wasn’t even something I fully realized for a long while, it took time before I started to see the themes and patterns. Some may argue that this is not very balanced, I think that can be debated (for one thing not everyone’s balance is going to look exactly the same), but I do believe it is part of the overall balance to have some people be so focused, it wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t necessary somehow.

Because mindless accusations do get made, let me state for the record: there is absolutely nothing wrong or inferior with being a general practitioner. Before you decide to assume this is all about feeling special with me, I challenge you to find where I ever said that having an “average” devotional life was inferior, or where I ever made anyone feel less than me for not having the same experiences I do.

3. I have contacts in the Norse pantheon as well as the Greeks. Now how offensive or not being dual trad is will depend on who you are talking to, some absolutely deplore the idea while plenty of others have no issues at all. Of course I hesitate to call myself dual trad, as the situation with the Norse deities seems to be shaping up much the same way the Greek gods did: my contacts are with two very specific deities while the rest of the pantheon mostly leaves me alone (although I have been informed Freya thinks I’m cool shit). 🙂

Now here some might throw the eclectic label at me. I can’t stop people from forming their own opinions, but I personally don’t feel the label applies. For one thing, I’m not making my own choices here, these are the being that are coming to me and the others are staying away for whatever the reason, its just the way it is. Though you can choose to believe me on this point or not. Also its hardly a random mishmash system I’m just throwing together, there is nothing random about it. Its all very tightly focused, all very well tied together in any number of ways. Its rather frightening actually.

4. While I do think its agreed upon that understanding ancient culture is important in truly understanding how and why the religion worked a certain way, it may be more debatable how many people actually think adopting the ancient worldview yourself is necessary. Though some think that it is.

I’m not going to pretend that our current culture is perfect, it isn’t, but nor do I hold to some romanticized vision of the past either. News flash, no culture at any point in time has ever been perfect, nothing will ever be perfect so long as people are involved. I am not in ancient Greece, nor do I honestly believe that the worldview would have remained exactly the same more than a thousand years later had the ancient faith survived. Naturally a person’s faith can and will influence their behavior and the way they see the world, but this should be a more organic process and not something dictated to you by others. I have never gotten the impression that my deities want me to reject everything I ever was or believed in in the twenty plus years I was alive before finding them, light it all on fire and automatically adopt someone else’s idea of the world wholesale. My gods prefer me to think for myself, thank you very much.

I’m not overly influenced by the culture that I live in now, I’ve always been pretty far outside the norm and my total lack of desire to fit in and be accepted makes it hard to make a real impression on me. My place in the world is as an outsider serving a liminal god, it wouldn’t make much sense of me to take on the cultural norm of any place or time. Though it doesn’t mean I can’t attempt to understand it intellectually, just like I try to intellectually understand this culture now (so difficult to do).

Many have observed that Hermes seems very at home in our modern world. Indeed there may be many elements to our current culture that are very Hermetic, for better or worse (that will largely depend on who you’re talking to). Though I do agree with this, I also believe that Hermes, being a deity of change, would be able to adapt to just about any culture at all. He has never struck me as being too terribly traditional, and others have had this experience of him as well (though your mileage may vary).

Hermes seems to prefer me to be a free agent, not become overly involved with any specific organization or movement. He wants me free of labels and the constrictions they bring. I got my beginning there, the label pushed me to focus on the studying that I needed to do, and now that I have my grounding it is apparently time to move on. Which is not to say that I ever stop studying, but that it may be time now to broaden focus to include things often left out of the Reconstructionist movement, like mysticism or magic (both things Hermes specializes in, like it or don’t).

I don’t fit in with the Recon movement, though there remains enough similarities that I can still hang in the background on the lists and groups that I was involved with before, I’ve maintained my same contacts through the massive changes I’ve made. I don’t fit in with the NeoPagan movement either. And no, its not up to some arrogant Reconstructionist up on his high horse trying to pin a scarlet “ENP” on everyone he doesn’t like to decide what is NeoPagan and what isn’t; self identifying NeoPagans can decide for themselves who fits in with them and who doesn’t, and they don’t recognize me as one of their own, the differences between me and them are just as great if not greater. Too liberal for the one, too conservative for the other, I find myself somewhere in between. Which is probably perfectly appropriate for me. 😉

Playing with Tricksters

There are several distinct patterns that continually come up in my spiritual life, certain things that all or at least most of the beings that come into my life have in common. One of those commonalities is that of falling under the modern archetypal classification of Trickster god.

My divine boss, Hermes, is a trickster. One of the deities he introduced me to, Loki, would be another very notorious trickster. Odin has more than a few trickster traits, and while I wouldn’t say Dionysos is a trickster his intensity and complete dissolution of boundaries can make people uncomfortable with him in some of the same ways. The two animal spirits that have emerged so far, Spider and Raccoon, both likewise have trickster qualities.

My divine line up makes some people nervous, and many have commented that they are glad they are not me. I frankly do not blame them. Tricksters represent that which is foreign, they stand outside of the normal social order, can open doors that let that which is outside into the center and create fires that destroy everything in their path. They represent sudden, massive, sometimes violent and destructive change, something that humans in general have a pathological fear of. They are chaotic and unpredictable, and play by no one’s rules but their own. Naturally, this and the roller coaster like existence that comes from serving them, is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

I have been known to argue with those who insist tricksters, or any chaotic being at all, are just simply evil and not to be worshiped. Leaving aside for a moment my personal dislike of terms of moral absolutism such as “good” and “evil” I am not certain that such terms can be rightly applied to such ambiguous beings. Human being are not the center of the universe, merely one part of an overall whole; the world is not here to cater to you and the gods aren’t either. Something making you uncomfortable does not mean that something is evil, or that it has no place or purpose (which is not to say I believe every being out there was meant to be worshiped by humanity, there are many beings which stand too far outside and should not be approached, but this takes us far from the purpose of this article).

Tricksters are threshold beings, and as such serve a very clear and very necessary function in the maintenance of the social order; they exist in all pantheons in all cultures for a reason, because their existence is necessary to keep the whole intact (for an excellent study of tricksters and their relationship with society, please check out this wonderful and highly recommended book). I would be willing to bet most people will at some point in their lives need the interference of a trickster in order to instigate a needed change. Change is something people are afraid of, and I have known many that remain willingly in the same toxic and empty circumstances, however miserable they may be there, because these circumstances are at least familiar and they don’t know what else to do. Those that are most frightened of the tricksters and what they represent are sometimes the ones that need their influence the most.

The modern Hellenic community, in my own opinion, tends to minimize and water down Hermes’ trickster aspect, turning him into the equivalent of a divine dancing monkey. He is here to do cartwheels, inspire all sorts of random goofy shit, and make you laugh, and that is the full extent of his trickster side. On this I must violently, and irritatedly, disagree. Hermes is not a harmless sprite or a bumbling clown, everything I said above in regards to trickster gods applies to him as well.

This tendency I think is fueled both by Hermes’ overall positive treatment in surviving lore and ancient culture (as opposed to other tricksters like Loki, who is sometimes spoken of as though he were the Norse version of Satan, which is of course ridiculous), and a certain resistance in much of the community to see the gods as anything other than glowy balls of serene perfection, embodiments of pure morality (which usually translates into something like the gods would never do anything I personally do not like, the assumption being once again that humans’ sense of morality governs all things). This is not a world view that I agree with or one which is supported by anything that I see in the workings of the universe as I know it (indeed, often this is argued as I wouldn’t want to worship gods that are anything less than moral perfection, therefore gods that are not morally perfect do not exist, which of course is proof of nothing; I won’t say that a more reasoned argument can not be made, only that I haven’t heard one and I doubt my mind will ever be changed on the matter anyway so please, don’t attempt it). I do not hold the gods up to human moral standards, nor do I think morality is solely, or even mostly, what they are all concerned with. The gods are not always nice, some less so than others, and they don’t always do things that you would consider to be nice. Seeing them as flawed both makes sense to me and represents no conflict in worshiping them, actually I find that idea somewhat offensive; the gods deal with you in all your flaws after all, where do you get off being so high and mighty?

Unlike some others, Hermes does seem to have a very well developed public face, he does move more freely from fringe to center and does deal in the everyday life of the community more than what seems to be the usual. This is the face that most people will see, and indeed it is one where many of the classic trickster traits are more muted (which is still no excuse for thinking him the god of stupid jokes and inane pranks). Which is still not to say that invoking him will ever be a hundred percent safe or that he will ever necessarily behave in the way you expect he will or even in a way you might approve of; how many times do I see people ask him for some luck and then stand there facing the front door waiting for him to come in, when he has already snuck in the back door and left you a small gift on the table don’t ask where it came from.

Those that more closely work with Hermes, who have been claimed and actively patronized by him, tend to see a different face. It tends to be a darker one, one far more aligned with that classic trickster image. One that is far more foreign, more unpredictable, more chaotic and a little less nice in the normal social sense (although he is still hopelessly likable in a strange sort of way). Zeus’ Hatchet Man, as opposed to his Herald. This is something I have discussed with other Hermes’ people who have noticed much the same thing, the few of us that there actually are.

Because Hermes does not appear to patronize that many people, and this is something I have been noticing since I first met and began my relationship with him. He is friends with many people certainly, widely liked and actively involved with the modern community. Often times I see him appear in a secondary or even tertiary position behind a different deity, very often Apollon or Dionysos, sort of as a support figure to the primary relationship. But very rarely is he the primary relationship, very rarely does he reach out and outright claim someone as his own. One reason for this is the simple fact that trickster deities do not claim that many people as it is. Even if all of us need them some times, or can form casual relationships with them, most people are simply not equipped to stand that close to these beings for very long, not equipped to handle the roller coaster ride that life with them always ends up being.

I did not choose my deities, they all came to me, and it is not an accident that I wound up with the line up that I have. There are many things about me that are different from the norm, things that make me unusually fit to live the trickster lifestyle, to walk with and serve these beings. I can not promise that this will be true of everyone grabbed up by tricksters, but it is true of me and may well explain why I was made into the spiritual specialist that I am, why I have the relationships that I do.

* Along the spectrum between order and chaos, my natural balance point is much closer to the chaotic end than it is for most people. I thrive in chaos in a way that isn’t often seen, I like lots of movement and background noise and clutter, and I like things to change on a very regular basis. Rather than avoid change I embrace it, I encourage it. I have had my whole life torn down and remade more than once (which, by the way, is par for the course in serving tricksters; they will do that to you, they will do it often), and I still need to break routine and go to new places, do new things, change my surroundings (which does involve moving frequently) every so often. I will not pretend that I require no level of stability whatsoever, that is true of no one (anymore than someone can live entirely without chaos), and in some aspects of my life stability is the order of the day such as in romantic relationships (that’s right people, I am a monogamous Pagan *gasp*). But most of the time a little stability goes a very long way with me, and it doesn’t take much for me to become bored and fall into a depressive rut.

So many people make it their goal to settle down somewhere, buy a house and live there forever, find a career and stay there until retirement. Most of my blood relatives all live in the same area, they are born there and never leave, my father held the same job for over thirty years. This is considered a normal part of life, a successful life. I can’t remember a time when the thought of ending up like that didn’t fill me with panic.

* I have been a social outsider my entire life. There is a difference between people that really are outsiders and those that are going through certain phases, rebelling or playing with their identity and will eventually grow out of it and blend back into the crowd; I am one of the former. Some have accused me of deliberately trying to be different, and that might have carried some weight except that this began when I was five years old (and I have the documentation to prove it). A five year old is not trying to be different, a five year old doesn’t even realize that there is a norm for them to differ from. Even if I now live in a place where people consider my various eccentricities to be charming (at a distance) rather than horrifying, what was true of me then is, for the most part, still true of me now.

A person serving a deity who is all about community building will likely find themselves presented with a community to be a part of. Tricksters are more liminal figures, they exist at the boundary, and if you serve one you will likely have to do so from the position they themselves occupy. Although I would never want to be anywhere else in life, I do not pretend that life on the fringe is easy (anyone who tells you it is is a liar), and it must be ten times harder for someone that was not born to it. There is a good reason why those who serve liminal deities were almost always liminal people to begin with.

And of course, Hermes does not exist entirely outside of the social order; there is a degree of interaction, and so there is with me as well (which is not always easy or comfortable for me, frankly, I am naturally anti social). I maintain a fringe involvement with various groups, though never as a full community member and there are always important ways in which I remain not one of them, and after a time I inevitably move on.

* I am a very ambiguous person that doesn’t fit neatly and easily into any category, stereotype or subculture. Perhaps because of this (or maybe this is a symptom of the other)  I am predisposed to see the world in varying shades of gray, believing that, in general, absolutes do not exist (what I like to call a realistic view ;-)). I tend to judge things on a situational basis relative to the circumstances, which is really the only approach when dealing with deities that blur boundaries (they’ll have way too much fun with you otherwise).

* One of the most common accusations against tricksters is that they are not trustworthy. I am not certain that that is really the case (not always, anyway)  but more that, as I said above, they do not play by the same rules that others do. You may come in expecting them to do one thing based on your own usual experiences, but as far as they are concerned they never promised you any such thing. Most of them will keep their word, the letter of it and no more than that, it is up to you to close the loopholes.

I experienced a lot of emotional and physical abuse growing up, and the end result of that is my ability to trust was almost completely destroyed. As a teenager my brain clicked into survival mode and developed a very lone wolf mentality: I look out for myself first and foremost, because there is no one else looking out for me. That was my reality for a very long time, and though things have changed and I have softened to a degree that I am able to trust (though admittedly, I can count the number of people I have ever trusted on one hand), much of that mentality still remains and likely always will. It is not completely necessary that I am able to trust you in order to form a relationship (barring intimate ones) or be willing to deal with you, because I probably don’t, and can’t, trust you out of hand.

For several years, I sought out the company of people that were considerably less than trustworthy, and quite open and proud of that. After years of being stabbed in the back (always by seemingly nice people that smiled to my face and swore up and down they would never do such a thing), there was something almost refreshing about such people, who at the least didn’t pretend that you could trust them. There was a degree to which I felt safer with people willing to lay their darker cards out on the table where I knew they were there, and spending time with such people taught me how relationships with them are negotiated.

One mistake I think many make is expecting that people will behave in the way you prefer they would, instead of paying attention to who they are and how they themselves act. There isn’t always a malicious intent there, just expectation projected on to them that it isn’t in them to fulfill. Never expect someone to behave in a way that is against their nature; if someone tells you they are not reliable, then do not put yourself in a position where you must rely on them. Most people will tell you who they are, the signs are there if you are looking for them, but most aren’t until its too late.

We all have a world view of our own, a list of rules and ethics we live by, and have a habit of assuming that everyone else sees things the same way that you do. That is not a good idea, and that goes triple when dealing with trickster deities who, by their nature, operate under their own rules. You need to be willing to set your own expectations aside, and negotiate on their terms and from within their world view as best you can.

Now, can most people do this easily? Probably not, and that is a good reason for the approach with caution advice. And this is of course not to say that tricksters can never be trusted period, but that is something to be seen over time. I trust Hermes completely, because he has proven over the years to have my best interests at heart (I never took that as a given, and it took a while to get to that point, and it certainly doesn’t save me from getting messed with every now and then); many who are close to Loki report that he is very loyal to those he considers to be friends, though not necessarily to anyone else. And hey, even a normally unreliable person can come through for you every now and then, you just shouldn’t expect it. Never expect more than they have told you, and shown you, that they are willing to give.

I don’t bring up any of these points to suggest that I am special, merely to speculate on why I may have wound up where I have spiritually speaking. There are many different places in the world, many different deities representing those different places, we’re all naturally better suited to some than others; many of the more community oriented deities that are the cornerstone of so many people’s personal practice are unreachable, if not outright barred, to me; you can’t have it all, there is always a trade off, that is just the way it goes. It is interesting for me to see how many ways in which I was suited for this, how much of my life almost seemed to prepare me for it; it lends a certain amount of confirmation to things (for me that is, your mileage may vary).

I also post it to be helpful to others. If you should decide you want to play with a trickster, these are some good points for you to keep in mind during your dealings with them. Maybe you can come out of it, not with the upper hand but at least with a few chips still in your pocket.