Pagan Practices

What Do They Want? Hints for the Headblind on Determining the Will of the Gods

I am, as I will freely admit, not a woo person. On the whole I am fine with this–from what I have observed, having an active godphone is not a thing that makes people’s lives easier. But it is a definite disadvantage when you are trying to work out what it is that the gods are trying to tell you, or even trying to figure out whether what you are doing is working, or appreciated, or even appropriate.

I would love to be able to tell you I have figured this out, but I have not. My godphone is generally out of service, and when it is, the signal clarity is minimal.

What I’ll try to do here is discuss a few tools that might be useful for you if you, like me, are trying to figure this stuff out.

Research

This may not be in everyone’s toolbox, but as someone with a semi-reconstructionist methodology, and as someone who isn’t all that trusting of their own intuition, it’s at the top of mine.

Research has the benefit of (relative) solidity. It isn’t necessarily quantifiable per se but it provides tried-and-hopefully-true information. If myth tells us that the peacock is beloved by Hera, it’s an indicator that using peacock imagery in creating sacred art for Hera might be appreciated. If history tells us that libations of wine were poured out for the Olympian gods, we can probably be comfortable making such offerings to those gods in most circumstances.

Of course, all research is incomplete. There are, for example, varying accounts of how offerings to the dead were made and what those offerings may have consisted of. I’ve not found a consensus that I am comfortable with and I think that’s probably because no such consensus ever really existed.

It’s likely that much of religious practice varied both regionally and over time, and it’s probable that there is plenty of knowledge that has simply been lost because it was never recorded or because those records did not survive the centuries.

Primary sources–texts such as epic poetry or hymns–are the gold standard of resources, but they are not always easy to interpret. Archaeological evidence on its own can be even more difficult if you are not a trained archaeologist, and I am not.

There are some very good secondary sources, scholarly sources that are also accessible to the lay person and I’d suggest looking at a few different ones, keeping in mind of course that archeology is a science and scientific hypotheses change as new evidence appears. Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion is a very good overview that’s often recommended; my personal favorite to suggest to new folks is A Companion to Greek Religion, edited by Daniel Ogden, which includes a selection of good articles on a number of different aspects of Greek religion and the state of current scholarship. I’d also recommend a few scholars as particularly accessible, including Jan Bremmer, Sarah Iles Johnston, and Jennifer Larson. Keep in mind that these folks are not theologians and are studying the religion from a historical and/or archaeological point of view, not a religious one; I’ve never found this to be a problem but I know some polytheists may.

I would never recommend that someone base their practice entirely on research, but it’s an excellent place to start, particulary for those of us who lack easy access to the more esoteric ways of knowing.

Divination

I’ll confess that divination is not my first choice, personally. I started reading tarot cards when I was twelve years old and I am pretty comfortable with the process, but the older I get the less interested I am in divination in general (for the most part) and I rarely use it for this purpose these days.

That said, there’s a lot to be said for divination in that–depending on the method you choose–it can be relatively precise and somewhat quantifiable. Maybe use the scientific method (cognitive dissonance aside :)) and keep records? You can also use a more intuitive method and keep it open to your own interpretation, if that is what works for you.

It is also, for those with anything of a recon bent, something that can be done with a greater or lesser connection to a given culture (alphabet oracles for Greek, runes for Norse, ogham for Irish, etc.).

I’ll include in this section the act of consulting with a more experienced diviner for your answers. If you know someone whose abilities you trust, that is certainly an option. There are articles elsewhere on how to find and choose someone to do this sort of work for you so I won’t discuss it here.

In any case, whether you do your own divining or seek out a seer, I would suggest not basing decisions entirely on a single reading. Get a second opinion, do some research, compare notes with other folks.

Trial and Error

This is exactly what it sounds like–you try something and see how it seems to go over. What are the results? Does it work? Does it kind of work? Does it fail utterly?

As an example, about a year ago I wanted to start making particular offerings to Hermes. I knew I wanted to offer a particular drink just for him, and that I wanted it to be appropriate to the god. So I did some research and found that in some regions of ancient Greece strawberries were sacred to Hermes. I also felt like it should have a bit of a kick to it–so, strawberry vodka. (It was, yes, a “head decision” but I am really a “head person” and many if not most of my head decisions have turned out well. This one, not so much.) A few weeks later, the bottle was gone–no, not empty, gone. It had disappeared. It was not there to make offerings from. I decided to take the hint. Went to the store and found my attention drawn to cinnamon whiskey. That’s what I’ve used ever since and it seems to go over really well.

Your practice doesn’t need to be set in stone from day one; it’s absolutely okay to try different things out before establishing them within your practice. It’s absolutely okay to try new things, to make changes. How will you know if you don’t try? So, try a different prayer, a different offering, a different time of day for ritual. Little changes, big changes, see what works!

Sense and Feeling

“I have the feeling that…”

“I get the sense that…”

This was, for me, the advanced stuff. I am not, as I said above, someone with a lot of woo skills. But if you spend enough time (and for me “enough time” was something like ten years) with deity, sometimes you’ll start to pick up on a few things here and there.

I’m including it here, even though it’s not really an easy tool, because I think it needs to be included. My ability to know things in this way is pretty limited. Maybe other folks have the Swiss army knife of psychic ability and I have a blunt spork, 🙂 but I do have that spork, and sometimes I am even able to use it!

7 replies »

  1. Hey. From reading what you wrote, it seems to me that the general idea is that followers of the Olympians either aren’t supposed to be “headblind” or that they will eventually stop being “headblind” and become something else that allows personal connections to the Gods.

    Would you like to give me any information on where that notion comes from? I know it goes around a lot but I’d like to see how specific followers have come to adopt it.

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    • Actually I think “headblind” is probably more the norm than not–at least that’s the impression I’ve gotten over the years, that most folks are not mystics. In some polytheistic communities there seems to be even a mistrust of those whose woo quotient is above a certain level. Of course in other polytheistic communities there is the sort of expectation you refer to. I guess it depends on where you go and who you talk to.

      I don’t think you have to have a mystical bone in your body to honor the gods. There are any number of ways of relating to deity and I hope we never come to the point where there is an overall expectation one way or the other in the religion as a whole.

      That’s why I put the “sense and feeling” section last, and I was really torn about including it at all under this topic, but if I’m being honest it is one of a number of factors (not by any means the main factor, but it’s in there) I call on in building a spiritual life. (I tend to lean a lot on research, and on trial and error! :))

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      • So basically it’s a thing in foreign Hellenistic communities and it’s been there a while? I’ve been looking for the sources for some time now but it seems that either no one really knows where it originates or doesn’t want to tell me.

        I don’t really like the term woo but it’s not because I’m sceptical of mysticism. Far from it. But the forms of mysticism that I know from both ancient sources and the kinds that are currently being practised in Greece -which base themselves on those sources- bear little to no resemblance to what I see going out outside the borders. It’s my impression that these are some really, really basic forms of neo-shamanism that spills over from Heathen communities.

        What I’m really interested in is why people have come to believe that those techniques are so easily transferable or that any technique is valid. I’m starting to think that Wicca as a common frame-work to worship multiple Gods from multiple pantheons has been replaced by neo-shamanism but with all other assumptions being the same.

        We had “channellers” as well but we’ve isolated them and hopefully that will die out soon. Their messages or UPG or however you want to call it looked nothing like the messages foreigners say they get but I’m not saying that to imply that it was better or worse in quality. I don’t think there’s any difference really.

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        • I think there was a tendency in ancient Greece to identify things that folks may not have been wholly comfortable with as foreign, “non-Greek” somehow. “I don’t like it, therefore it doesn’t really belong here.” For example, Dionysos, whose cult included mystical elements, was at one time assumed to be of foreign origin (something reflected in myth) but given that his name appears in Linear B documents dating to Mycenean times, I think we can assume he is probably at least as native and as Greek as gods like Poseidon or Zeus.

          But that’s a bit beside the point. Syncretism was absolutely a thing in Greece, particularly during Hellenistic times, but not only then because a coastal society with an active trade is never going to be truly isolated. But cultural conservatism was also a thing (just ask Socrates), as was the importance of somehow being a part of that culture; in Athens there were advantages to being a citizen of Athens, in Sparta there were rights and responsibilities associated with being Spartan, and so forth.

          Also keep in mind that, just as some things could be identified as non-native, other things could be brought into the “native” fold, such as Theseus’ forced posthumous Athenian identity.

          I know that many of the freelance seers and diviners (and magicians for that matter) were people who were already on the fringes of society, whereas the more widely accepted oracles such as Delphi were considered more mainstream and had greater respectability. How much of that was because the latter were essentially state-sponsored, I don’t know. Of course just because the ancients also marginalized a certain segment of society is no justification for moderns doing it as well! But speaking broadly, it seems to be human nature to define ourselves, and unfortunately some folks define themselves primarily by differentiating themselves from some “other.”

          But I digress. In any case the idea of seership was considered entirely legitimate–the issues seems to have been with the practitioners. Back to the modern world.

          Okay, first, regarding individual practice. Personally, I don’t much care what people do in their personal practice. Draw on whatever sources you like, transfer skill sets back and forth. There’s a strong personal aspect to faith, or there can be, and I wouldn’t question someone else’s personal process any more than I would question their personal gnosis. Do what you want, do what works for you, it’s (pretty much) all good. Just grant me the same. (And cite your sources if you’re going to take it beyond the personal because people need that info. “This is my UPG” is a legitimate source, albeit one that others may legitimately take or leave as a matter of preference.)

          It does get a little different when you’re talking about a religion as a whole, in part because of the issue of self-definition. And I’m not going to go into what might constitute “real” Hellenic polytheism here (and not only because I don’t think there is in fact one such thing–it’s also a topic way too broad for my comments field!).

          Yes, it is helpful to have relatively clear and simple basic information available for those who are new to the faith.

          And it is good for there to be some sort of commonly understood standard of practice to enable people to worship together (although I think this can be variable).

          To use an old literary principle, you have to know the rules before you can break them.

          I’m not big on “should.” I am big on clarity. I hope that makes sense.

          Also, I’m not all that knowledgeable about neo-shamanism or the techniques involved so I can’t really speak to that (and I know nothing about what is being done in modern-day Greece, I would be fascinated to find out, though!). I’ve read a bit, and my impression is that the techniques are used primarily in personal practice since it’s not a skill everyone shares, and the knowledge gained in this way is identified as such. I’ve not seen anyone claim that others should agree with these gnoses (they are just sharing personal information), so I have no problem with it on that basis.

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          • First of all, yes many things were identified as Eastern superstition and rejected. There was a good reason for that. They didn’t mix well with the existing culture, they tended to bring the level down and they were also seen as socially harmful. The wild syncretism you are talking about happened under times of Macedonian autocracy so it’s not as if it was a phenomenon that was an inherent part of the Greek culture. And even in Hellenistic times, it never became an anything goes-believe whatever you want-it’s fine with me practice. There is a difference between incorporating elements over time and mixing everything together instantly.

            The magoi, goetes and manteis certainly existed but they don’t have much to do with any modern equivalent. The magoi and goetes had highly advanced techniques that I don’t see being used very often or at all and mistrust in them was brought by the inherent wildness of their claims, e.g. possessions and exorcisms. Goetes mostly dealt in practical necromancy, love spells and hexes. I don’t think that similar people have much respect today, even in pagan circles. But even they worked and operated within Greek philosophical frame-works, they didn’t reflect completely foreign elements. Seers were basically interpreters and diviners but they didn’t claim to hear voices all day that told them what to do and how to act. Even oracles didn’t claim to have such a direct connection.

            I’m not sure but it seems that you’re trying to make it sound as if it was some sort of social discrimination. Travelling magicians weren’t a social class, a subculture or a race. They were often people who were little more than snake oil salesmen. And even that is not a rule since certain people like Apollonius of Tyana were widely admired despite making the same claims. Not that admiration was universal and even Apollonius had people who thought of him as a goes. So while you say that there’s no reason not to adopt ancient religious mentalities -why?-, I don’t see a reason not to. They were able to maintain an admirable cultural millieu for hundreds of years with those mentalities. Why try to fix something that isn’t broken?

            But there’s a social and cultural component to religion that seems to be getting really ignored. First of all, while worship may be personal, connection with the Gods was always seen as having social ramifications. No Greek would stay idle if their next-door neighbor turned to blasphemous sacrilege and hubris. Those things were punishable by law. You can’t risk letting people insult the Gods and have the entire Polis incur their wrath. New practices can’t be introduced while ignoring the social effect -look up kena daemonia since you mention Socrates-. At the very least they should be questioned and examined.

            The cultural component that’s completely neglected is that this thing, whether people like it or not, I certainly do not care, is the cultural heritage of some people. Those people are still alive, they exist and certain religious practices, ethics and traditions did survive all these centuries even if they were masked and hidden within Christianity. I really like the fact that foreigners want to be part of it but at the very least, they should adopt proper eysebeia. When ancient foreigners wanted to adopt foreign customs, they incorporated elements in their religious frame-works, they didn’t take the entire frame-work and then add to it whatever they wanted while claiming that they’re also part of the culture that spawned it.

            If this went on in times of relative cultural insensitivity, I don’t see why the current mentality should be any different. Polytheistic re-awakening in Greece goes back to the 15th century. Practical polytheism including polytheistic mysticism (publicly) goes back at least to the beginning of the 20th. Magical traditions never died out so they go back to antiquity. What I’m saying is that we didn’t start doing this in 60s or the 80s -although YSEE did start then which might confuse some people and it is relevant to global poly. resurgence but not entire because of it-.

            I’m getting the idea and correct me if I’m wrong, that you think that a grocery store mentality is justified when it comes to my cultural heritage even if it is seen as completely out of bounds for Hinduism for example. Why? I see no difference.

            I’m interested in dialogue instead of parallel monologues so if comment space isn’t enough, feel free to comment under related posts I have on my blog.

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          • I’m hoping this appears in a logical spot in our discussion, since WordPress won’t let me reply directly to your last post (maybe the interface limits the number of levels of response allowed?).

            I’m not really much of a debater; I don’t have the skills or the temperament for it. I do think that discussion and debate are important, and that ideas need to be examined–I’m just not always very good at it! But I’ll try to address some of your points.

            I don’t think I take a grocery-store approach to my worship; I hope I don’t. I do include several different pantheons of gods in my overall religious practice, but I worship them separately (different altars, different rituals, different methods), and I do my best to do so as appropriate to their cultural frameworks.

            Part of where I’m coming from may be because I grew up with the idea of separation of church and state, something I continue to feel is crucial in a diverse society. You gave the example of the ancient Greek seeing a neighbor’s lack of piety and reacting to it, but I am pretty sure my neighbors’ piety is directed in ways entirely different from my own, and I am fine with that (as long as they leave me and my practice of piety alone). I have to be, and I am.

            The fact that religious community may not and for many of us does not line up directly with physical community does bring up the idea of where, if not in the physical world, a religious community exists. Who are our religious neighbors, those folks whose actions may have an impact on us in that way?

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  2. I feel I’m being unfair with you and I definitely wouldn’t want to displease a fellow follower of Aphrodite. I get the impression that you are thoughtful and I’m starting to realise why there is a disparity between tradition and neo-tradition.

    I’d like to make clear that my criticism isn’t really directed at you personally. I find your devotional work great and I wouldn’t be following your blogs if I didn’t. But in the course of our little exchange, even if you’re not personally committing anything that I would consider sacrilegious, it seemed as if you were trying to defend a very wide umbrella of practices that would cover things that I consider sacrilege, even if you’re not actually doing any of these things. The whole be and let be thing.

    It would be wrong to vent any frustration on you regarding the practices of others, even if you’re not condemning them. I shouldn’t expect you to. First of all, there is the cultural background that you mentioned. That in modern Western societies, the more west you go the more religion becomes a personal matter. I understand how it currently is but the problem with that mentality is that it reflects the modern Christian West. Not the ancient pagan Mediterranean. This particular religion developed in societies where community came before the individual. It’s crucial to remember this and try to find ways to re-awaken it because that is the soul of the faith.

    I mean, what good comes out of this personal conception of religion western societies currently have? With or without spirituality, our societies are full of alienation, disparity, disunion. Sure, being in a more communal society means having people in your face frequently. That’s very Mediterranean. I know how annoying it can be. At the same time though, we’re all equal in our faith, we’re all humans and mortals. If we can’t put up with other humans and their flaws, should we expect the Gods to put up with us just because we pour a few libations and read poetry? Our divine guidance is far more about our interaction with humans than with the Gods. That’s where we can show to the Gods that we’re righteous and not by being either intolerant or intolerable and then seek their forgiveness. That’s what Christians do.

    But the other reason I can’t really blame you and most other people for not condemning these practices that I see as vile is that you hardly have any deep links to the culture to get proper guidance. It’s not just books that are necessary. The mentality I’m describing is also described by academics but it needs to be experienced. The practising “experts” that you might get are essentially clueless and the misinformation I stumble on daily even on simple matters is staggering -I haven’t seen you do any such thing let me add. There’s no connection with Greece, either online or as an organisation or anything. I don’t know of any other Greeks blogging in English on this matter.

    So even if you didn’t collectively have this sort of private concept of religion, it would still be hard for you -the lack of a second person plural in English is dumb btw- to criticise anyone else on anything, especially if they make supernatural claims. Who are you to know better than someone else who has access to the same books and does the same things? Ya’ll see yourselves as equals in knowledge and in practice and that probably makes the “anything goes” thing worse.

    Without trying to put myself up as a priest or a philosopher but simply as someone who can bridge the gap somehow, do you think that there’s anything that I can practically do to mend this?

    (By the way, admin panel -> settings -> discussion -> enable threaded comments X levels deep. I had mine at 3 too but ended putting it at 10 eventually. Still doesn’t feel enough sometimes.)

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