The Natural World, the Gods, and Ethics

I thought hard this morning about what my response has been to prior natural disasters, so I went back to the Old KALLISTI to see what I said there. The words I wrote in 2010 — so long ago now — don’t completely match my current worldview.

For Pagan Values Month (June 2010), I wrote a post called “Valuing the Natural World.” I had previously participated in it, and Pagan Values Month provided me with an excellent opportunity — as a recent-ish convert from Neopaganism to Hellenic Polytheism — to work through my thoughts on the natural world. I could post what I wrote in its entirety, but I want to start this in a different way.

My journey to Hellenic Polytheism started when I was in the latter half of my teens. The Neopagan community I grew up in was based in Hannibal, MO. Most of the people there weren’t online. The email listserv announcing rituals at first just took on the Wheel of the Year, but as people in the community started to receive training, we had more and more options for private and semi-public rituals. Paul and Sam had a grove space for most of these rituals, and they devoted (and I think still devote, albeit lessened?) a tremendous amount of personal time and energy to developing the local community. “Going to Circle,” “being in Circle,” and “at Circle” were the way my family described this. It’s linguistically interesting that we didn’t call it being in Ritual.

When the lunar celebration started, we had opportunities to attend Circle even more often. I was in my mid- to late teens with both parents working, so we didn’t always make the 35-minute drive down to Circle from our small-town home for the non-Spoke holidays. It depended on my mother, who drove a lot for her job. I’d been cooking and doing laundry since twelve or so to offset her significant professional responsibilities. As someone who worshipped a few Greek gods at that point — and my memory is spotty on chronological details, so it was either just Apollon and Iris at this point or both them and Mnemosyne — I was extremely excited when my mother called me over to her computer and showed me an email about some kind of Greek moon ritual that would be hosted. It didn’t look like the usual ritual process. Despite wanting to go, it didn’t work out for us that month, but it started the vocabulary seeds in the back of my head that led me to Sannion’s Sanctuary and Hellenic Polytheism.

My actual conversion seed dates to the first time I read Sallustius, even if I didn’t start practicing Hellenic Polytheism until January or February 2008 when I was studying abroad in the UK. In Fall 2007, I ordered TJ Alexander’s basic book, which included copies of some public-domain materials. (Yup, I know — I didn’t realize what an asshole he was until I virtually met him and was bestowed with the title of Radical Feminist Infiltrator of Hellenic Polytheism Committed to Destroying It From the Inside. I think that happened partially because I was arguing with him about menstruation and submissiveness. I care about feminist interpretations of modern practice, definitely, but I don’t think feminism is nearly as disruptive to Hellenism as some assume.) The words I read from Sallustius clicked in a way that the 201-level Neopagan works I’d been reading didn’t. I’d never been a big practitioner of spells and witchcraft, and the closest things I had found to real devotional content were books like The Circle Within. I wanted ethics and theology, and a lot of the books I’d read didn’t provide what I needed. I stayed up late that night in bed reading it, in fact. I can vividly place myself in that small Chapin House junior single room, bed pushed against a corner with a wall behind and to the side, piles of books and papers from my coursework littered all around.

When I wrote that post on the natural world, I said, “One of the values that I have taken away from Hellenic Polytheism is that many of our Gods exist within the world, and our planet is one physical manifestation of Gaia, so we should respect it.” The nuance of what I believe within those words has changed. We have numerous divinities, nature spirits, and ancestors of places, all of whom desire to protect their interests. We have the world itself. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, eruptions, and floods exist because that is the price of living on a habitable planet.

A more salient change in my beliefs and behavior is actually personal and community responsibility. When I was younger, I put a lot more emphasis on personal responsibility and ethics related to the natural world. As I’ve aged, I have realized that the way we interact with the world — most notably inaction with regards to climate change and the crippling of our communities due to many of the wealthy (and their businesses) not wanting to contribute taxes back to the polis and state — is an ethical misstep that is even more important than just not respecting Gê.

One of the reasons I like minimalism is that it ties in so well with nothing to excess and govern your expenses and be happy with what you have and use what you have. Even work for acquisitions has an undercurrent of taking responsibility and ownership of what comes into the oikos. Within the greater community, so many maxims emphasize right relations with others. We need to observe these things, too.

What has happened that the 90 companies who are responsible for over 50% of the emissions do not see themselves as placing an undue burden on those of us in a hurricane’s path? Why do we have businesses threatening to leave Connecticut if the state stops giving them tax breaks? It’s because they don’t feel a sense of community responsibility.

The entire ethical framework of reciprocity in our societies has been damaged, and these cracks extend far deeper than the way we do (or don’t) honor the spirits of a place and our ancestors. This feeds in on itself — we don’t respect or offer to gods, we de-emphasize our ethical commitments to others just to get ahead in business because succeeding feels good, and we spurn sacred ground for the sake of putting in developments and pipelines. Is it any wonder that Nature and the divinities within it are fucking pissed right now? Every species on the planet has a right to exist and compete for resources; the maxim think as a mortal can be generalized to make a consideration for other species’ welfare integral to the system.

Deities, while sometimes helpful to humans, do not descend from on high to right all wrongs. They often expect us to work through our own problems and to make efforts for positive change. If we have overstepped our bounds, gods’ rustic aspects will continue to plague us with disasters until we make reasonable changes to our lifestyles and start engaging with our communities. This isn’t because the world is Evil, but because we belong to a natural system that is willing to sacrifice the happiness of individual(s) for the greater good. Scientifically, energy put into the system needs to be dissipated somehow — and that somehow is more often than not a bunch of Historic Hurricanes in a row.

I started by talking about Sallustius because, in the original post, I ended with an excerpt from his writings. I think it underscores that the questions of right action and justice are human questions, not necessarily divine ones — although coming into correct alignment with gods will benefit our communities, nations, and the world at large.

Saying these things sometimes feels like screaming into a void. The Age of Irony means that a large subset of Internet users isn’t actually accustomed to people holding genuine ethical positions any more than it is accustomed to legit non-Christian piety. But without further ado, here is Sallustius:

XIV.
In what sense, though the Gods never change, they are said to be made angry and appeased.

If any one thinks the doctrine of the unchangeableness of the Gods is reasonable and true, and then wonders how it is that they rejoice in the good and reject the bad, are angry with sinners and become propitious when appeased, the answer is as follows: god does not rejoice — for that which rejoices also grieves; nor is he angered — for to be angered is a passion; nor is he appeased by gifts — if he were, he would be conquered by pleasure.

It is impious to suppose that the divine is affected for good or ill by human things. The Gods are always good and always do good and never harm, being always in the same state and like themselves.

The truth simply is that, when we are good, we are joined to the Gods by our likeness to live according to virtue we cling to the Gods, and when we become evil we make the Gods our enemies — not because they are angered against us, but because our sins prevent the light of the Gods from shining upon us, and put us in communion with spirits of punishment.

And if by prayers and sacrifices we find forgiveness of sins, we do not appease or change the Gods, but by what we do and by our turning toward the divine we heal our own badness and so enjoy again the goodness of the Gods. To say that god turns away from the evil is like saying that the sun hides himself from the blind.

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