Just a reminder, folks that the day after tomorrow (July 1) is also the start of my Loki Project.
You can read the original post a little further down on my blog, but to recap: every single day for the month of July, I shall be posting something about and for Loki.
It may not be much, perhaps a picture, a prayer, a poem, an article, a small, brief blurb of insight concerning Him but I'll post something.
I've already had a couple of people send me material with permission to post as part of this project and I encourage any readers who are so minded to contact me at tamyris at earthlink.net. I would be delighted to profile your material here in honor of Loki.
In the meantime, check back on July 1 and enjoy this picture. It's by artist Arthur Rackham, from his illustrations for the Ring cycle. This is where Odin calls on Loki to protect the enchanted valkyrie Brynhild with a ring of fire.
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wildhunt/2012/06/wiccan-denied-clergy-status-in-virginia.html http://worksofliterata.wordpress.com/2012/06/29/virginia-refuses-to-recognize-me-as-clergy/ A Wiccan priestess and theologian was recently denied clergy status in the State of Virginia (no surprise to anyone familiar with VA’s backward, narrow-minded, uber-Christian attitudes). As she points out in her own post about this matter, this type of religious discrimination has a farther reach than simply determining who may perform weddings. This level of discrimination, the setting of arbitrary requirements that blatantly favor Christians, the exclusion of our clergy from the right to perform weddings, visit the sick, perform funerals, maintain confidentiality in client counseling, isn’t going to stop until we stop it.
A similar case as this occurred in NYC roughly twenty years ago and it took the ACLU and a court case to make the registry office see sense.
This is about more than one woman’s right to be recognized as clergy in her county – a recognition she already has through her congregation. This is about breaking the back of the Christian right in this country. Until that latter happens, none of us are really free. And the way to see that happen is to fight like rabid pit pulls every time small-minded people pull something like this.
I encourage everyone reading this to go to Literata’s page (the second link), where she gives several suggestions for how concerned readers can help.
I’ve been dreading having to sit down to write this particular article. I knew I wanted to write about modesty, but I also knew that it was such a troublesome concept, at once somewhat nebulous and yet highly charged. I have seen both men and women become rabidly angry at the mere mention of the word, particularly when it was noted as a virtue, and moreover, as something worth cultivating. I would go so far as to say that there’s probably no other Pagan virtue so prone to misconception, misapprehension, and deep seated ambivalence. For all that, I do very much believe that not only is modesty a particularly polytheistic virtue, but it is one that both men and women would indeed do well to cultivate.
Let me take a moment to discuss precisely what I mean when I use the word ‘modesty.’ Being lazy today, I went to http://www.dictionary.com and looked up the word. It comes from the Latin modestia and I’m going to get back to that in a moment.(1) For now, suffice it to say that the given definition (drawn, or so dictionary.com says, from Collins English Dictionary) is as follows:
1. the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
2. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
3. simplicity, moderation. (2)
Perhaps there are different types of modesty. It is predominantly a cultural convention and construction after all, and standards of modesty are culturally determined. Regardless, it’s primarily with the second definition, that of regard for decency of behavior and deportment, that I am primarily concerned. I want to be clear about one thing: I do not think that modesty necessarily has anything to do with one’s attire. Appropriateness of dress is a matter of context. One may be half naked and completely modest, or wearing full hijab and completely immodest. It’s a matter, to my mind at least, of personal integrity and integrity of behavior.
I look at modesty as a way of interacting with others in our world, a way of presenting ourselves. Whenever discussions of modesty come up, two aspects seem to garner the most attention: physical dress and sexual behavior. Certainly no less a personage than Honore de Balzac called modesty the ‘conscience of the body’ and British essayist Joseph Addison referred to it as ‘a guard to virtue.” While I don’t disagree with that necessarily, I think we do this virtue a disservice by relegating it solely to the realm of sexual mores. We diminish the quality of modesty when we focus solely on sexual expression. It’s so much more.
I suppose there is a physical, sexual component to modesty. I can’t help but think of a documentary about indigenous religion in the Ivory Coast that I had the pleasure of recently viewing.(3) I was struck, forcibly, by the contrast between the women who maintained their ancestral ways and those who tried to mimic western styles. The former practiced their religion, honored the gods and spirits of their land and people…they were magnificent, powerful, and respected to the point of veneration within their communities. It was blatantly, delightfully obvious (nor was I the only one to notice this; the friend with whom I was watching was also struck by precisely the same thing). The latter, largely those living in the rapidly westernizing cities, dressed provocatively, behaved outrageously and were treated like trash. It was clear that they thought of themselves as nothing more than ornamental. They treated themselves like trash. They had abrogated their ancestral connections; they had abrogated their power, and instead attired themselves in the shallowness of sexual exploitation and mimicry of a culture that historically has brought nothing but spiritual desiccation wherever it colonized. It was exhibited by the way these women were behaving (and in turn by the way the men behaved toward them) but I think that was only the most obvious and outward expression of a deeper dynamic. The problem wasn’t their overly-sexualized behavior; the problem was that such behavior, in this particular instance, was a manifestation of a lack of self-worth.
Whenever the discussion of modesty comes up, inevitably modesty becomes linked with feeling shame about oneself or one’s body. I can think of nothing more diametrically opposed to what modesty actually is. True modesty has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with valuing both oneself and the quality of one’s interactions with family, friends, the world at large, and most of all within the realm of one’s spiritual obligations, i.e. with the Gods and ancestors, the Holy Powers. Remember when I pointed out that modesty comes from the Latin? Well in Latin it’a primarily associated with discretion, sobriety, correctness of conduct, moderation, and propriety.(4) These were the virtues, in this polytheistic community, that an adult was expected to cultivate. Latin has another word pudicitia which encompasses the shyness – bashfulness the dictionary says – and emphasis on chastity that we so commonly ascribe to ‘modesty.’(5) Moreover, modesty in Rome was not something that women alone worried about. Most of the references that I’ve come across on my reading (in Pliny, Sallust, Cicero, and Suetonius primarily) have referred to the proper modesty of men. Nor did this modesty usually have anything to do with their sexual behavior. It was, however, not unusual to see it linked to piety. I’d go so far as to say that modesty in the ancient world – i.e. in many polytheistic cultures (and I know I’m focusing on Rome here largely because I’ve been immersed in that source material of late. That is not to say this idea was found only in polytheistic Rome.) went hand in hand with piety. That’s an important point and I’m going to say it again:
Modesty went hand in hand with piety for all genders.
Perhaps for this reason, authors like the younger Pliny recommend it as the most shining of virtues. (6) It has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with the acknowledgement that there is something greater (to a polytheist many somethings greater) than we out there and to whom just maybe, we owe a modicum of decorum; and behaving with that appropriate decorum enhances not just our interactions with the Holy but with each other as well. It augments who we are as human beings. An apologist for modesty would say that we enhance our lives by cultivating modesty because valuing and cultivating modesty is a way of cultivating ourselves as well. It’s a way of saying “I value the gifts the Gods and ancestors have given me too greatly to squander them for public consumption” (or by behaving like a fool). I would say that not only is modesty a guard to virtue (though what I as a polytheist mean by that term has nothing to do with sexual repression and everything to do with the development of character) but it is an essential, perhaps the most essential, component toward developing dignity and personal integrity.
Someone who cultivates modesty as a virtue would, I believe, be unlikely to behave with complete and utter disrespect in a ritual. Even if he or she did not know the proper protocol, modesty is a good teacher of behavior. The modest person is not going to rant and rave about how he or she would never, ever bow their heads before the Gods. They know better. The cultivation of modesty has taught them [not to act like they were raised in a barn]. Moreover, there are times when it is appropriate to feel shame for one’s actions. This too is a lesson modesty teaches. When we behave in a way that diminishes who we are both as human beings and as children of the Gods, as inheritors of our ancestral blessings, we ought to feel shame. It is the right and proper state of being. When we behave badly, we ought to feel ashamed of ourselves. That’s called conscience, something that I believe modesty hones. Being polytheist does not relieve us of every moral obligation after all. It actually enhances them.
In the connection between modesty and piety, one often encounters the idea of taboo: those things one is not permitted to do without violating both modesty and the bounds of proper piety. This is the reason that ancient Roman polytheists -men as well as women – would cover their heads when performing rituals. It’s the reason while certain types of priests from Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, and quite probably in the North lands as well, lived prescribed lives, lives full of ritual and personal taboos that cultivated modesty, enhanced their personal connections with the Sacred Powers, and enabled them to avoid miasma.(7)
This is the reason that a growing number of polytheists today are choosing to veil themselves, to cover their heads, some only during rituals (as I was taught to do) and some all the time. It is a way of reminding themselves to behave properly, of nurturing their spiritual connections, of keeping themselves clean of the filth of the monotheistic world, and for a thousand other reasons.(8) It cannot be denied that doing so sets the person apart, and perhaps that is part of it too: it implies a different standard of living, a different standard of behavior and as in all things that so many of us do, carries with it a certain didactic function. I’m not going to belabor the point of head-covering here. When we get to the letter V, I’ll write about it then in a far more nuanced fashion. I mention it here largely because there are extant polytheistic sources that note men covering in Roman temples so this is the example that came to mind of an outward expression of both piety and modesty.
While I did say that modesty has nothing to do with how one chooses to dress, conversely how we choose to attire ourselves is an easy avenue for the expression of modesty or any other personal virtue. This is all the more true in a culture that is obsessed with appearance, as I believe ours is. These choices stand out. There is a joy in attending to our spiritual obligations (and welfare) rightly and that joy can indeed spill over into every aspect of our mundane world. Dress is an easy way by which to allow it to do so. It’s a side effect for some people of modesty, not the core of modesty itself.
So what is modesty? It’s examining potential behavior and saying to oneself : I won’t do that. I do not believe it will do honor to me, my Gods, or my ancestors. That will not enhance me as a human being. Or maybe it’s being in a situation where you are the only one behaving respectfully and you do so because of your modesty and piety combined, regardless of what others around you might think. Ultimately, I think modesty is the choice to consciously avoid doing that which diminishes us; be it by commission or omission. Take that as you will. I believe it is an essential spiritual virtue.
- (modestia, ae, feminine)
- Langenscheidt Pocket Latin Dictionary, see entry on ‘modestia.’
- Ibid, see the entry on ‘pudicitia.’
- He goes on in several of his letters about the virtues of modesty, praising people he admires for their modesty. Letter 1:12, iirc, is a good example.
- See last week’s PBP article for more information on miasma.
- in many cases, it is done by the request of a particular Deity that the individual honors. Vesta apparently, has pushed several of Her devotees to cover their hair on a daily basis.
Heathens don’t give much thought to the idea of miasma. I didn’t either for a very long time until my father died and I was helping to prepare the body for cremation (contact with dead bodies being a primary cause of miasma) and I realized in a heartbeat of a moment that I was now in a state of spiritual miasma. There was no other word for it. I could feel it clinging to me and only ritual purification set me right again. It wasn’t bad, mind you, being as it was a natural consequence of such contact with a dead body, but it was there and it rendered me ritually unclean.
I should probably explain what ‘miasma’ is. In ancient Greek religion, it was the word given to ‘spiritual pollution.” Now, I almost hesitate to use the word ‘pollution’ because of its negative connotations in our language. To my mind, miasma was a natural thing, neither good nor bad, a natural consequence of certain actions or coming into contact with certain things. Sometimes this is inevitable and then you perform the appropriate ritual cleansing. No big deal; except it is. Ritual purity was practically an obsession to ancient Greeks and maybe it should be for us as well. (1)
I think there is more opportunity in our contemporary world to enter into a state of miasma than in the world our ancestors faced. After all, so much of what is common in our world stands diametrically opposed to the values and virtues the Gods would have us cultivate. Not all miasma is the same either. I once, tongue in cheek, said there was big miasma and small miasma but in a way, that’s true. There is the miasma that comes when one accidentally blunders into an unclean situation. There is the miasma that comes of doing a necessary or kind act but one that led to contact with something unclean (such as handling a relative’s body to help prepare it for a funeral), there is the miasma that comes of consciously choosing to expose oneself to something disrespectful to one’s Gods, there is the miasma of certain horrible crimes. (2) How one deals with a state of spiritual contamination depends largely on what caused it.
There is positive contamination too, which complicates the issue a bit. Anyone who has had direct experience with the holy may be in a state of what I term positive miasma. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s very, very good. But, it leaves a mark, an energetic signature by which others may be contaminated, others who have not prepared themselves properly for such contact. Shamans have this, which is why few of us are touchy-feely types of people. Anyone who has just been possessed by Deity has this. Anyone who has just had a powerful encounter with the sacred carries it. The sacred is a type of positive contamination. This is why in “Till We Have Faces,” C.S. Lewis has one of his characters speaking about the ‘smell of the holy.” (3) It does have a smell, a feel, a sense, a taste even I suppose---for those who perceive energy and presence very kinesthetically. This type of miasma, I would go so far as to say should be reverenced. It should be respected and attended to appropriately. I would, however, counsel that the person in this state of holy contamination understand that transitioning back into kronos—that mundane headspace that I spoke about several articles back on my blog – might be difficult, painful, may even cause a moment or two of emotional and cognitive disconnect. I would counsel such a person to be gentle with him or herself and to take the time necessary to process and experience the after-effects of such contact. I would also counsel them not to rush back into kronos and the places and things and people associated with it.
This article isn’t about positive miasma though. It’s about the more negative kind. Why do I call it negative when I said above that miasma isn’t something good or bad in and of itself? Well, the type of miasma I call ‘negative miasma’ is the type that came about because of the conscious (and poor) choice on the part of the individual. Sometimes it’s a lack of mindfulness. Sometimes one accidentally falls into this type of miasma though not having all the necessary facts beforehand. I’ll give you two choices using myself as the necessary guinea pig.
A couple of years ago there was a public winter solstice ritual held in my town and I was invited. There was, of course, a bonfire. The woman serving as ritual facilitator was incredibly unskilled. She had no concept of the sacred whatsoever. The man building, lighting, and tending the fire did to some degree but not enough to challenge what occurred. The ritual was already suspect from the beginning because there was a sense in these two facilitators that it was a performance piece. While there is an element of performance inherent in a good ritual, the purpose of this is to enhance the cultivation and experience of the ritual state, not as an end in and of itself. So, as the fire was blazing, after invoking the elemental powers (poorly), the man says that now it is time to give offerings to fire. Fire blazed up at that. The woman interrupts and says ‘no, we’ll do it later.’ (So already you have a violation of ritual protocols right there…banter and incompetence have no place in ritual. On top of that there is the denial of promised offerings). She goes on to deny fire any offerings. At that point, being initiated to fire as I am, I was in a state of massive miasma. All of my taboos as a fire-worker had been violated, ritual protocol had been violated, and a family of spirits with whom I am very close had been shown massive disrespect. I pushed my way to the fire, made offerings despite what the two of them had said (Gods and spirits trump humans any day of the year in my book), and left. When I got home, I made massive offerings to the spirits of fire with my apologies, and underwent a full ritual cleansing. Then I wrote an article about it to educate other people on how to behave both in ritual and around fire (i.e. here’s a negative example: here’s what not to do!). Because I recognized the ritual violation and knew that miasma would attend it, I was able to deal with it appropriately right away, instead of waiting until it ran its course (never a good thing) bringing with it misfortune, possible illness, and the anger of a family of good and gracious allies.
My second example is far more mundane.(4) I went to the movies. As a child, I’d loved the original “Clash of the Titans” (I went through a period when I was seven or so when I was obsessed with Greek cosmology) so when the remake came out, I eventually got around to watching it. I was appalled. It was nothing like the original and was, in fact, one of the most vile and singularly disrespectful presentations of myth that I have ever seen before or since. I was sickened. I also came away from the movie feeling to the core of my being as though I was now polluted, tainted, utterly ritually and spiritually unclean. I wrote about this at the time (the link to that article may be found in note #4) and I was heartened to find other polytheists had experienced the same thing. Perhaps this wouldn’t have affected someone else as deeply but for me, it rendered me spiritually filthy. It was several days of meditation, prayer, and deep cleansing before I felt like anything approaching my mundane normal again, and even longer before I felt ready to approach the Gods properly in ritual space. I had exposed myself willingly to that which impugned the Gods.
This second incident really brought home to me the nature of miasma. This was the turning point for me in my conception of it and of its impact. I believe that if one’s mind, heart, and spirit are centered rightly on the Powers, if one is acting from heart-felt piety and devotion that perhaps the impact of such contamination is minimal and easily cleared away (for all that it might conversely be felt more astringently). For those who, as I did, blunder into such situations oblivious to the potential for contamination, it is far, far worse. We have an obligation to ourselves and to our Gods to be mindful. Always. There are times where entering into a state of miasma might be inevitable, but we should consider where we go, with whom we spend our time, to what influences we expose ourselves. They matter: these things, no matter how small and mundane matter.
It also made me realize that as much as it is about external contamination, miasma is also about keeping one’s mind, spirit, heart, and body in a proper state and properly centered on expression of one’s spiritual connections and fulfillment of one’s spiritual duties (whether that is communing with the Gods, holding ritual, teaching, raising a family, running a farm, or heading off each day to an office so one can support one’s family). It is about endeavoring to do this consistently and cleanly. One might easily shake off external miasma, not so easily when it’s a matter of mind, heart, or spirit.
There is a concept in Buddhism called ‘right mindfulness,’ and in many ways (as I understand it), this means this means directing your thoughts and attention to spiritually wholesome endeavors, focusing on those things which will enhance one’s spirituality.(5) By doing so, one enhances one’s life. I think that starts with the small things…like what movies one chooses to watch and how one behaves in ritual. I think it should expand until it encompasses the large: like how one treats the homeless man hungry on the street, and how one reacts when legislators threaten to begin fracking in one’s neighborhood. In the same way, I think that we don’t just court miasma by foolish choices and mistakes in ritual, we court it by the decisions we make every day, by how we choose to live in our world and the harm we choose to permit pass by unattended, unchallenged, unchanged. These things make a difference.
Now some people may have specific taboos, or duties that either render certain types of miasma more damaging or put one in a position to court miasma more readily. The advice I offer there is to develop a ritual of cleansing and purification before and after engaging in such acts. For instance, according to ancient Greek religion (if I’m not mistaken), performing a sacrifice had the unusual effect of both being a potential curative for a state of miasma in the one requesting the sacrifice, but also rendering the ritual priest performing the sacrifice in a state of miasma. But this is inevitable miasma and I would warrant easily cleansed away as anyone trained in such rituals would have doubtless learned in the course of training. This, by the way, is my theory about why so many Pagan rituals ancient and modern stressed entering the ritual space clean, or even incorporate(d) some type of cleansing into the ritual itself (something that Christianity with its holy water, and Islam with its required ablutions adapted): it was a means of ensuring that those entering ritual space were free of miasma.
In my House, we make liberal use of Florida Water (our version of lustral waters I suppose) before, during, and after rituals to ensure cleanliness. We will sacrifice if need be, though this is unusual and usually saved for special offerings to the Gods. We care about each other and will subtly help ensure that whoever happens to be speaking doesn’t forget or neglect some aspect of ritual protocol. We work together to ensure that the rituals are engaged in properly, fully, absolutely respectfully and with as little lack of mindfulness as possible (which also means taking time beforehand to prepare everyone for what is going to happen, give them some idea of the order, what will be expected, and what is and is not permitted and doing divination before and after to make sure all was properly attended to and well received by the Gods and ancestors) and we try to carry that mindfulness away into our lives. We all fail or muck this up on occasion, but it’s an ongoing goal and way of being. How we behave in ritual and with each other in ritual affects how we engage with our world in our daily lives and that’s as it should be. When miasma happens, we’re ready for it and know that we have support in dealing with it no matter how bad it might be or possibly become.
Understanding miasma, what it is and how negatively it can impact someone, is an essential component to ritual studies, one that I feel has been sadly neglected within contemporary polytheisms until now. I hope to see that changing. We need more mindfulness in our communities, both within our rituals and without.
- “Miasma” by R. Parker
- A brief Google search on the term ‘miasma’ brings up multiple references to the house of Atreus, in which misfortune follows misfortune because of heinous crimes and the slaughter of children. That’s massive, massive miasma of a level beyond what I’m discussing in this article.
- “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis, p. 11.
- I wrote about it here at the time: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/pantheon/2010/07/a-conundrum-of-conscience/. One of the comments pointed out that the movie wasn’t about Heathen Gods (the Norse Gods) as if that mattered. I strongly believe that if we are present, it diminishes us to allow any Deity to be shown disrespect and I do not believe that our Gods, those we claim as “ours” would necessarily protect us from any ill consequences of such blindness and bad manners.
The image of the bowl of lustral waters used in this picture was originally found here: http://www.humanflowerproject.com/index.php/weblog/comments/songkran_with_lustral_waters/
. I thought it pretty.
Yesterday, shortly after our Solstice ritual, the ancestors and Gods approved a name for our House: House Sankofa.
Sankofa is not a Norse word. It is an Akan word that encapsulates the idea that 'it is not taboo to reclaim and restore those threads that have been sundered."
Ours is a Norse house but here there is a place for anyone working hard to restore their ancestral traditions. Here there is a place for anyone devoted to service to the Gods and ancestors and land. Here all are family. Xenophobia after all, is not one of the Nine Noble Virtues.
Happy Summer Solstice everyone. May the Gods and Goddesses Who preside over this time bless you all with creativity and abundance, with fertile wallets, full larders, and happy homes.
My House will be celebrating the solstice this Saturday at 1pm. We'll be honoring the ancestors and (uncharacteristically for this particular holiday), among our other gods, Loki and Sigyn. We'll also likely be honoring Gefion, Sif, and Thor. I'm not sure yet, but I'll post a full account sometime next week, as soon as I have a chance.
If you're in the NYC area and would like to join in, shoot me an email at tamyris at earthlink.net.
In the meantime: Happy Litha!
Over the past week, I have received several emails (from the same small, narrow-minded group of people) demanding that I edit my own posts on my own blog. The language of one, from someone who terms himself a bard and story teller, was so incredibly arrogant and foul that even I had to read it twice before clicking delete.
The majority of you reading this are good and gracious people. You honor the gods, honor the ancestors, and try to live decent lives while restoring our sundered traditions. This message is not for you. Nor is it for my many allies and friends.
This message is for those in our community –and you know who you are---who would rather impugn the work of others rather than tend to your own houses.
I know for some of you in that group this is difficult to understand, so I shall try to be as clear as possible.
When you spend the last few years slandering me, attacking my reputation and that of my colleagues, occasionally sending threats via email, spreading lies and ridiculous rumors about me and my work, impugning my honor, ethics, and sanity, and in many other ways acting like complete and utter assholes …
YOU FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO DEMAND ANYTHING OF ME AND EXPECT THAT I WILL TOE YOUR PARTY LINE.
Your incredible hubris is truly amazing. Let me be clear: You lose the right to demand that I alter what I post here. You lose the right to, (while continuing with the insults, by the way,) demand that I remove posts. You lose the right to in any way be taken seriously.
See to your own honor. It’s lacking.
See to your own piety. I suspect it’s non-existent.
Try growing up.
And if that’s too difficult: fuck off.
(From now on, all hate mail, all threats, including the occasional death threat, will be posted publicly for public consumption and mockery. So please do try and spell correctly. There seems to be a spelling deficit that’s most concerning).
All things on Earth have their price, and for truth we pay the dearest. We barter it for love and sympathy. The road to honor is paved with thorns; but on the path to truth, at every step you set your foot down on your own heart. --Olive Schreiner