Where the gods are found
Just came across this post about Local Cultus. The author, like myself, is happy to see more emphasis being put on local cultus in modern polytheism, but dismayed at the way it is sometimes being discussed. They quote an example which was someone’s attempt to align the various Greek gods with the Boston area, and discuss where they think this person went wrong.
“I’m honestly disappointed in how people are handling these ideas. People are misassigning concepts to deities who just don’t handle such functions. It’s one thing to see examples of slow development toward functions that aren’t the norm elsewhere, but people don’t want development over centuries. They want everything now, even when they often lack a firm grasp of the basics.”
This is, indeed, one of the roots of many problems in modern polytheism – people being unwilling to wait and let things naturally evolve. My biggest concern here isn’t the specific examples of mis-assignment (though they do exist, and are indicative of a serious lack of understanding in some cases). It is the fact that these folks are sitting around trying to artificially assign gods to places and things as if it’s just a game, or at best an intellectual exercise. Once again, they are treating the gods as characters, rather than actual living entities. They are guessing about what a god would like rather than finding out what a god actually likes. Which means, ultimately, they are eschewing any attempt at direct experience of the gods in favor of armchair theorizing.
Real, workable, relevant local cultus evolves organically (and yes, even slowly!) over time in response to one’s environment. Sure, some things might be obvious – if you live near the ocean, you’ll probably find Poseidon there. But you might also find another, unexpected god there. And you might have an experience of Poseidon more strongly somewhere else. Maybe, in fact, you’ll have so many experiences with Him in that other place that you realize He must really be present there, and you start worshipping Poseidon of That Place as a special aspect of the god. That is how it happens.
When I came to Eugene, one of the first places I felt Dionysos was at the base of the butte that rises at the edge of downtown. Yeah, there was a lot of ivy growing there – but that is true of many places around here. And yeah, it could almost qualify as a “mountain” and therefore a location of the traditional Dionysian worship of oreibasia – but that would be even more true of the butte on the other end of town which is much higher. If I were just picking and choosing locations for Dionysos based on a list of His common epithets and associations, I would probably pick the nearby vineyards, or even the bars downtown. But those are only the places where He might be found, not the places I actually have found Him. It’s a crucial difference for a living religion.
I will also note that in practice, historically, not every “major” god would be equally represented in a given area – because some were simply more present there than others. You wouldn’t find all the Olympian gods in equal force throughout a city – you might find, instead, that Athene was the most commonly worshipped there under several different locational epithets, followed by, say, Artemis and Hephaistos, and that you had to go to the nearest mountain before you found a major sanctuary for Zeus. That doesn’t mean Zeus – or any god without a temple or major cult presence – wasn’t worshipped by anyone there, it just means that He hadn’t (to anyone’s knowledge) claimed any part of the city as His special place. Just because there was, for instance, an oak grove there doesn’t mean it would automatically be favored by the god due to His oak association. It’s so much more complex than that in reality.
I hope we can, as polytheists, do better than this. I hope we can go beyond games of free association and treat the gods as real and our religion as a serious undertaking. And I hope we can be patient enough to let something deep and beautifully complicated grow, something that is based on experience rather than theoretical ideas, something that might even last the test of time.