Monthly Archives: August 2010

Taking Liberties with Tolerance

Heart and Courage

The media is often criticized for content that is perpetually saturated with bad news. We often hear accusations of “fear mongering” and at the same time we hear that what people really want from their news sources are the juicy tidbits and the shocking stories. The unfortunate side effect of an emphasis on disasters, accidents, murders, and wars is widespread social anxiety, fear, and even terror. As our focus becomes fear, we don’t often see stories on the remedy.

This remedy is often described in terms of bravery and heroic acts, but it is actually the day-to-day courage that we must learn to cultivate in stressful times.  Courage strengthens and emboldens us; it shines a light upon our actions, and provides ethical and moral justification for our choices; courage  allows us to be effective and to have confidence in ourselves.

The etymological root of the English word courage is the Latin cor (heart). To have courage is to have the heart to face fear, danger, or pain in defense of hearth, home, life, livelihood, family, culture or beliefs.

What seems particularly and increasingly difficult for our politicians on either side of the aisle is moral courage. In moral courage one stands for what one knows is right even when one risks social shame, exclusion, gossip, scandal, or disappointment. Moral courage in turn emboldens a civil courage in which individual citizens have the courage to stand up against injustice despite the likelihood that their actions may lead to loss of freedom, life, or reputation (or, in the case of politicians, failure to get re-elected).

Having the heart to stand against social atrocities (the resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto), the heart to stand for political freedoms (against the tank in Tienanmen Square), or the heart to speak out against tyranny, (Civil Rights Movements), requires courage as a primary ingredient. We don’t often see  examples of this civil courage from our politicians who are usually ruled by polls, money, lobbyists, and the overarching desire to get re-elected.

This makes really remarkable President Obama’s recent decision to speak against what would appear to be his party’s interests, and in favor of the erection of a mosque near Manhattan’s Ground Zero. We are approaching midterm elections and the political wisdom emphasizes playing it safe. Politicians are masters at saying a “whole lot of nothing”. In the face of a growing swell of racial, ethnic, and religious intolerance that appears to be viewed as an acceptable political position among those candidates who choose to embrace what increasingly seems to have the backing of significant numbers of short-sighted bigots, the President’s decision to speak for the Constitutional rights of Muslims is risky and somewhat surprising.

Defending the Constitution

It’s odd when it becomes surprising for the President to defend the Constitution. There seems to be a fair amount of that going around. Why, at this rate we might even see justice become blind to the genders of individual couples wishing to marry! After all, without doing a panty check it’s really just two people who apply for a license to enter into a marriage contract–not two opposite sex individuals. Perhaps one day we’ll have a President who supports the constitutional rights of any couple to marry regardless of gender. In the meantime, we’ve witnessed a very big step towards tolerance.

The arguments against building a mosque near the site of the September 11 attacks, while cloaked in a veil of sensitivity for the families of the victims of September 11th, are actually not only unfounded but truly dangerous to what is often characterized as “The American Way of Life”. They are a threat not just to religious freedom but to everything we have come to treasure about America.

‘We feel that it (site of the towers) is a cemetery and sacred ground and the dead should be honored,’ is one common argument against the mosque. I fail to see how the building of an American Muslim mosque in a country that has suffered an attack by fundamentalist terrorists seeking to defeat our values of freedom and tolerance does not actually honor the dead! It is not a monument to terror to build this mosque. On the contrary, it is a monument to the beauty of America where places of minority religious belief can be built regardless of intolerance and ignorance.

The argument against the mosque seems to go something like: ‘The September 11 terrorists were Islamic, and therefore all Muslims are terrorists.’


Huh?! The hijackers were fringe terrorists and their ideas were not representative of the teachings of Islam, they were actually a stark example of the dangers of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist thinking clearly occurs in all sorts of religions and systems of belief.

This rising tide of fury about Muslims in New York who wish to build a mosque close to the hallowed ground of the fallen towers goes hand in hand with our own home grown and dangerous fundamentalism. There seems to be an increasing willingness to accept intolerance, demonization of the other, and general hate speech.

What’s really dismaying is that some people are using the deaths of loved ones on September 11 as if these deaths give them some sort of justification to hate indiscriminately. They seem blind to the underlying similarity between the thinking of the terrorists and their current actions and mindsets. In their hurt and anger they appear to have lost the ability somewhere along the way to sort out the difference between feelings and ideas.

When we are willing to transgress against the rights of all people of another religion regardless of their actual beliefs, we have become our own enemies. To do this because we were attacked by fundamentalists reminds me of the psychological observation that the children of abuse so often grow up to become abusers themselves.

One family member of a fallen fireman who died in the towers, recently told the New York Times that “People are being accused of being anti-Muslim and racist, but this is simply a matter of sensitivity.”

Why is it lacking in sensitivity to build a sacred cultural center for cross religious dialog near the site of an atrocity rooted in intolerance. Is it not sensitive to the memory of those who died that a group of Muslims wish to take actions which might defuse some of the misunderstandings and lead to peace and communication between previously alienated peoples? It was, after all, a climate of misunderstanding and alienation that led to those attacks in the first place.

It seems appropriate to reiterate the words of an Islamic relative of another fireman who died in those same falling towers who remarked in frustrated response to the intolerance: ‘Maybe if a mosque were built you guys would know what Islam is about!’

It defies rationality to label a religious structure intended to promote understanding and dialog as a “monument to terrorism”. In fact, a building intended to educate Muslims in tolerance and peace is a structure that supports the exact opposite of terrorism. There is no doubt that there is a growing element of intolerance around the world that exploits Islam.

Opposing Intolerance

What we are dealing with here is not really an appeal for “sensitivity” but fear mongering and hate. One of those opposed to the mosque, for example, is the Reverend Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center in Florida. He is planning to host a “burn the Qur’an” day on September 11 with the argument that he is “exposing Islam for what it is”. Sporting a sign on the church lawn reading “Islam is the Devil”, he describes Islam as “a violent and oppressive religion that is trying to masquerade itself as a religion of peace, seeking to deceive our society…”

I find it odd that Reverend Jones fails to see that by his reasoning his religion must then be equally tarred with the obvious Nazi-like action of book burning.

How does burning the Qur’an help fight Islamic intolerance?

What is truly scary about this current increase in hate and intolerance is that it is being exploited by politicians as we approach the mid-term elections.

Sarah Palin opposes the building of the mosque saying that while President Obama is right that Muslims have the right to build in lower Manhattan, he fails to address the question as to whether they should. Of course they should! It provides us all with the chance to explore causes of polarization and intolerance and to have the courage to stand up for religious freedom! Having the courage to stand up for the right of Muslims to build this mosque is exactly what we all should be encouraging. The mosque is an opportunity!

Newt Gingrich, possibly a future candidate for President Obama’s job, has gone so far as to warn that American Muslims are a mortal threat to freedom and are attempting to impose sharia law in the US.

I find it ironic that there is such narrow interpretation inherent in this sort of thinking. After all, if we are going to extrapolate, why limit the extrapolation to Muslims?

When you think about it, arguing against a mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in Manhattan is roughly equivalent to an argument that there should be no Republican Party or NRA offices near the site of the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. After all, our home grown terrorist Timothy McVeigh was both a Republican and he joined the NRA. Come to think of it, he was also Christian.

Perhaps there should be no sushi bars or Zen centers in Hawaii. Too close to Pearl Harbor, right? Or possibly there should be no Catholic churches in California because of the murder and enslavement of the descendants of the First People of that state. Come to think of it, that goes for Manhattan also, perhaps the presence of any Christian churches in Manhattan should be questioned because of contemporary Christian justifications for the exploitation and displacement of the first inhabitants of that island.

The potentially absurd and hateful extrapolations are endless. I found a bumper sticker I saw once funny, it read: “US Out of North America”, but while it made me laugh, it fails to consider that we are all of us, all people of the world, in this together. The tendency to hate and foster bigotry is a social and psychological disease. It needs to be quickly addressed when it crops up or it spreads like the plague. Hateful intolerance also presents us with an ethical and moral problem.

Thankfully, we are not having to deal with the sorts of daily insanity (at least not yet) that the people of Israel and Palestine are wrestling with, and hopefully we don’t choose to go down a further similarly polarized road of mutual intolerance. We haven’t been around as a nation for very long, and history is rife with awful examples of what happens when civilizations embrace this sort of thinking.

It seems so much easier to hate than to forgive, particularly when the people we need to forgive are different from us. During WWII it was the Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in concentration camps in America, and not the German-Americans. When we demonize the other we risk becoming exactly what we hate and fear. Our intolerance blinds us from the paradoxical nature of our thoughts. If we judge all Muslims by the actions of crazed and intolerant fundamentalists, if we then oppose the building of a mosque near Ground Zero for those sorts of reasons, we are ourselves the ones threatening American freedom and democracy.

There is no doubt that we need to be sensitive to those who have lost loved ones in the September 11 attacks. Sensitivity however should not be confused with supporting fear and hatred. A good way to remember and memorialize the deaths on that awful day in Manhattan is to focus upon preserving the beauty the terrorists were attacking. What better way than to honor that unique document which truly set in motion such amazing and beautiful ideas about equality, truth and justice. To do anything less than take a stand against bigotry is truly “Un-American”.


All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.

Pt. 8–Magic 299–Grounding Earth religions & Human Potential philosophies

Variations on a Hellenic Magical Theme: Circe and Chiron


To Isaac Bonewits who left us on the morning of this posting (August 12, 2010). Isaac was in many ways like Chiron, a good mentor, a wise shamanic priest, a musician and composer, a liturgist, respected by his community, very knowledgeable, and an excellent teacher in a wide range of fields. Also like Chiron, Isaac was both a creature of and a lover of Nature–simultaneously a blend: a bit of a God and also quite an animal.

Introduction to Part 8

Welcome to Part 8 of Magic 299 and my ongoing examination of the philosophical, religious, and historical underpinnings of two related concepts held as axioms by many Neo-Pagans, Pagans, Magic(k)al and New Age communities. Again, these include the concept of “reality formation” (“We create our own realities”), and “responsibility assumption” (“we are 100% responsible for what happens in our lives”). I am digging into the the foundational ideas related to these concepts in the hopes that a deeper exploration might be of service as it will allow for a critical illumination of the modern views by examining their historical, spiritual and philosophical contexts and significance.

In Part 7 I mentioned that because a discussion of the history and contexts of the axioms of reality formation and responsibility assumption can’t really be seen as thorough without also considering at least some of the roots of magical and hermetic thoughts and practices, I was taking us back from the 17th Century CE where we’d left off in Part 6, to consider magic and religion around the Archaic and Classical Hellenic periods.

I closed Part 7 with a brief mention of the various indications I’ve seen of a distinction between types of Hellenic magical practices. These distinctions are similar to such dualistic divisions as: “Black vs. White Magic”,”sorcerers vs magi”, “‘power over’ vs. ‘power with’ magical approaches”, or “curanderas (healers) vs. brujas (witches)”. An expansion upon this observation is one aspect of this 8th entry in this Magic 299 series.

Dualistic Distinctions & Emic vs. Etic Perspectives

An understanding of these sorts of distinctions sheds light upon underlying attitudes that have a direct bearing upon the overarching axiomatic beliefs that are the topic of these multiple blog posts. How we (or Classical Hellenes) view historical or modern magical practices and any of their variations, dualistic or otherwise, is likely to be directly related to assumptions we and others might make about reality formation or responsibility assumption.

I feel it’s important to clarify that exploring distinctions between types of Hellenic magical practices by examining the academic and religious literature used to describe them is both complicated and muddy. The topic is the source of much disagreement between classicists, historians, anthropologists, and other scholars of magic and religion. The complications and the disagreements are well beyond the scope of this discussion. The tendency to discredit or invalidate the practitioners of modern magical traditions and Pagan religions is also a factor in this topic. There is the problematic tendency to invalidate these particular religions by describing their understandings as a psychological problem, i.e. “magical thinking”. There is also the tendency to marginalize more recent religions which may have embraced reconstructive practices as a tool for internal justification or for their development of a more systematized religious thea/theology. This marginalization is often simply done by describing these more recent religious entities as “artificial religions”.

Examinations of ancient Hellenic magical distinctions are still further complicated by questions of objectivity raised by those who are not practitioners from modern magical subcultures. These are the disputes which can arise from conclusions drawn from an “emic” or internal perspective rather than from some form of “etic” perspective drawn from either participant observation or external viewpoints. As in any art, the perspective changes with distance. Such perspectives are even further clouded by historical and cultural gender distinctions between female and male magical practitioners and adepts. When such distinctions are filtered through the tendency in Middle Eastern monotheistic thinking and early Christian writing to demonize female practitioners of magic (“suffer ye not a witch to live”) while at the same time tolerating or even lauding the male practitioners (the three Magi and of course, Jesus himself); a look at what we think we know about Hellenic magic requires careful scrutiny. I will provide some links in a later post for further exploration for those who wish to undertake a more in-depth examination than I can offer in this blog.

I also note that my observations, analysis, and conclusions are not drawn from a purely “emic” or “etic” perspective but that I lean significantly towards the former while I have interests in employing techniques of the latter. The gift a Pagan priest or priestess can bring to such work is that of direct experience in the performatives of magical rites and the honed ability to intuitively understand and perceive magical semiotic clues that an academic scholar might not catch; the gift academia bestows is that of seeking a rigorous, non-credulous, objective viewpoint that can be supported by the data uncovered. Finding the balance between these is an interesting philosophical yoga.

Linguistic Distinctions and Insights

Finally, I think it’s important to point out that prior to the use of the Greek word μαγικός (magikos) as discussed in part 7, there were other words in use both as titular or occupational categories, and these were used to describe specific magical practices. I’ll discuss this a bit further when we get to looking at various contemporary examples, but for the time being, I’ll simply note that there were words in use prior to around the 6th Century BCE when there was an increase in Greek borrowing (and fanciful embellishment) of ideas about the role of the magus, magi or magian. These flights of fancy and syncretism were drawn from Greek extrapolations of what they believed they understood about Iranian, Babylonian, and Chaldean religious and magical practices. Examples of the older pre-6th Century BCE words (and the associated ideas) include γόης (goēs), an archaic Greek word for a practitioner of magic. This word is drawn in turn from the even older góos which also can refer to a musician, or to music, or song, and which often particularly refers to songs of lamentation and poetry used in connection with death and dying, as well as work with associated secret rites such as the Eleusinian Mysteries. To help with an understanding of the association, it might help to think of modern ideas about the meaning of the English word “enchantment” and to consider the linguistic link between an enchanter and the word “chant”, drawn from the French”chanter”: to sing.

Magic, Music & Necromancy

There are multiple examples from all over the world (and many time periods) of the connection between magic and religion and sacred music, chanting, mantras, sing-song incantations and prayers, etc. The category for the sacred role of a singer of songs of lament or worship, as well as sung prayers and other requests for intercession in a magical Greek context, could clearly fall under the word góos as well as the later goēs which can also refer to sounds of ululation similar to modern Middle Eastern cries of mourning uttered at funeral rites.

There are necromantic influences at work and connections between Hellenic magical practices and myths (for example the descents of Heracles (a student of Chiron) and Orpheus into the realm of Hades. That Hecate and Hermes, two Greek divinities with strong associations to magic, are also both deities who are able to come and go in the Underworld is not coincidental.

Hellenic Magic in the Old Tales


The obvious and most useful way to look at Hellenic ideas about magic is to explore how magic is described in the existing ancient Greek stories and literature that are still available to us.These contemporary examples also shed light upon the distinctions between “types” of magical practitioners.

One of the oldest written examples of magical practice comes from Homer’s Odyssey which documents the encounter of Odysseus and Κίρκη (Kírkē), or Circe as she has come to be known. Kírkē is Greek for “falcon” and thus, while many of us are most familiar with her ability to transform men into beasts, it’s important to realize that she herself (like many of her divine relatives and counterparts) is directly associated with a particular animal.  Her name is itself onomatopoeic in the sense that it sounds something like the call of a falcon. We have already seen that there is a connection between sound and magic in Hellenic practice.

Circe is usually described as some variation on a sorceress or enchantress who lives surrounded with a variety of beasts and women on the island of Aeaea (itself a magical sort of word in that it is a palindrome).

While most of what we know of Circe comes from the Odyssey, Circe also makes an appearance in Ἀργοναυτικά (The Argonautika) which was written in the 3rd Century BCE by Apollonius Rhodius (Apollonius of Rhodes). This Hellenistic epic poem is a re-telling of the mythic voyage of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest to find the Land of Colchis and to recover the Golden Fleece.

We are well advised to keep in mind that how such documents are translated and then described often imposes external and more recent ideas and assumptions (particularly monotheistic and competing religious thought) about magic and magical practice. These assumptions lead to descriptions of Circe “muttering incantations” for example, when an alternative, less loaded description might be “singing spells”, “chanting”, or even “speaking poetry”.

Depending upon who is doing the describing and translating (and when), Circe is variously described as a witch, a sorceress, a goddess or demi-goddess of magic, a nymph, and an enchantress. Her parentage is also differently described depending upon who is doing the telling, but she is usually seen as a descendant of the Titans, specifically a child of Helios (the Titan personification of the sun) and Perse, an Oceanid (aquatic goddess or nymph). Alternatively, Circe is described as a daughter of the Titan Goddess of magic, Hecate. It is highly likely that like Athena and the Egyptian sky Goddess Nuit, there are connections between Circe and much older bird goddesses of the greater Mediterranean region and Neolithic Europe.

In addition to Circe’s chthonic associations with animals, and her earthy/watery/solar connections, Circe was most certainly  an herbal adept. She is described as a practitioner of pharmakeia, which is often translated (primarily in versions of the Bible, which of course contains a religious compilation of documents from a religion in direct competition with Hellenic/Hellenistic religions) as “sorceress” or “poisoner”. A better indication of what the word Pharmakeia actually meant is found when we consider the related word pharmakon which is the source of our modern words pharmacy and pharmaceutical. I believe we are running into the classic (pardon the pun) revisionist interpretation of a powerful female herbalist, healer, witch or medicine woman as an evil sorceress. The related ancient Greek word pharmakon has multiple meanings which include an “herb” or “drug” (in Homer the distinction between whether this is a healing or poisonous substance is made by the use of an adjective), a medicine or healing remedy, a potion or philter (substance altered by some form of enchantment, spell, or charm), a poison, and sometimes a type of concoction used in tinting as a paint or dye. All of these definitions of pharmakon are clearly related in that they require a knowledge of the use of plants and similar substances (whether for good or evil is secondary to this distinction).

In essence (oops, another pun), pharmakeia involves knowledge of the use of plants in a variety of ways. A practitioner of pharmakeia then, might be better understood as an “herbal mage”.

Circe’s home on Aeaea is described as a palace surrounded by a dense wood, additionally surrounded by and filled with all sorts of animals including bears, wolves and lions, as well as the pigs with which many of us may be more familiar. One interesting aspect of this is that whether the animals were types that were normally considered to be domesticated or wild, they were all described as behaving in the manner of pets, acting friendly and docile, wagging their tails, and fawning upon newcomers.These animals were, at least in some cases, thought to be the drugged and/or transformed targets of Circe’s magical will.

As a child of the Titans, Circe clearly seems to have magical powers beyond that of a mere mortal pharmakeia. In addition to her ability to transform Odysseus’ men into swine, she is prescient, and Homer ties her to a later necromantic episode where Odysseus follows instructions for a spell given to him by Circe which allows him to communicate with the spirits of the dead.  In the Odyssey, we see that Circe must have been extraordinarily skilled in the use of herbs, potions and enchantments. Circe either actually transformed those who insulted her into pigs, through the use of her magical potions, or the drugs she administered made people think that they had been transformed.

In the case of Odysseus’ crew, when they come upon her palace while looking for provisions for the ship, Circe invites them to a meal in which she serves a cheese and grain pottage flavored with honey and wine and containing one of her magical potions. It is not clear from the story what would have happened if her guests had shown restraint rather than stuffing themselves on the meal “like pigs”, but with the exception of one, they did gorge themselves on the feast and were then turned into the beasts Circe felt they most resembled. Circe manages these transformations through some combination of the use of a pharmakon and a magical stick, quite possibly the first description of the use of a magic wand.

The crew member who had refrained from the repast bears the tale of his companions’ fate to Odysseus who had remained at his ship, and he then sets out to effect a rescue. An important aspect of the ensuing encounter between Circe and Odysseus is that while she transforms his crew into pigs, she is unable to transform Odysseus himself, due to the intervention of the God Hermes, who Odysseus has encountered along the way. Hermes provides Odysseus with a magical herb called moly which prevents the transformation. Hermes also instructs Odysseus to threaten Circe with attack after she attempts to transform him. Finally, Hermes warns that Circe (who was reputed to be very beautiful) would then attempt to seduce Odysseus and that he would be wise to refrain from her sexual wiles, but that if he does not refrain and wishes to retain his manhood he will have to get Circe to vow not to harm him prior to making love with her. Odysseus subsequently remains with Circe for over a year as her lover and according to Hesiod’s Theogony he sires three sons with her.

Another factor (alluded to above) that is important when considering Circe is that she is not depicted in the same way in all ancient sources in which she appears. In some tales she herself appears to not only be affected by, but also pays a price for her magical work. In the Argonautika, for example she is described as suffering from nightmares with visions of her palace walls drenched in blood, but her role in the tale, while still indicative of her magical and herbal abilities is not so much as a sorceress annoyed by swinish sailors but more as a priestess conducting rites of the Gods for visiting supplicants (the Argonauts) seeking purification for a murder which has offended the Gods. The Argonauts are sent to Circe specifically to lift the equivalent of a curse that will prevent them all from achieving their goal. Circe’s practices then, indicate her familiarity with a variety of magical and religious rites and a constant in all the tales is that there are all manner of strange beasts about.
Circe is certainly not the only Hellenic divine or magical figure to transform a hubristic or rude transgressor into an animal, the myths are rife with such tales which serve as the magical “Miss Manners” advice for their time. Circe’s pottage is also not the only case where choosing to eat a particular food results in dramatic consequences. Persephone’s eating of pomegranate seeds in the underworld is an example (and Hermes as a necromantic God of Magic is involved in this tale also). The object lessons are usually extremely clear.
What is significant for us in our desire to understand early magic and how it might provide the grounding for later magical thought (including reality formation) is that in Homer’s description we find that an early pre-Classical example of Greek literature describes three important elements of later Hellenistic magical systems: we find the use of a magic wand, a magical potion, and the development of a relationship with a God who reveals an occult magical prophylactic remedy. We also, therefore can form the related conclusion that for the ancient Hellenes it was believed that not only is it possible to effect events through the use of our wills, but that there are specific procedures and tools for doing so, and that there is a divine and mythical connection that can aid in intentional causality.

By the time of Ovid we see in his Metamorphoses that Circe is capable through ritual language and the use of pharmakeia to call forth storms and darkness, summon Titanic powers, and through her necromantic abilities and songs bring forth earthquakes, make the woods move, etc. Her direct magical powers in all the tales that mention her reveal strong chthonic ties, and there is definitely a sense that these powers over the earth are in the wilder, lawless, and more dangerous aspects of the natural world.

We have already touched upon the homogeneity (within regional variation) of Hellenic ideas about magical and religious ability and possibility–that there was a predictable foundation of shared perceptions about what both the Gods and mortal magical practitioners might magically achieve within the all powerful edicts of Fate as realized in the natural world. Included in this larger structural homogeneity, as I’ve also mentioned, there is a dualistic association within the natural world as to intent within possible magical spheres of operation. In other words, one might almost ask of an ancient Hellenic mage, quoting Glinda, the Good Witch of the South: “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” For the Hellenes, this distinction could be described as either indicative of the wilder, more dangerous, bestial, unrestrained, and outlaw qualities of Nature, or the more beneficial, bounteous, graceful expressions of the natural world. This dichotomy is sometimes described as Apollonian and Dionysian.


Descriptions of Circe blur these distinctions to some extent, but if we turn to the magical activities of Chiron we find that while most centaurs were depicted as behaving in the former, far more unpredictable and wild magical realm, Chiron was clearly an expression of the latter graceful, restrained and dignified magical path. He was, as we will see, the foster son of Apollo.

Like Circe, in Hellenic myth Chiron remained remote, isolated from access by most Greeks. The location of his isolation was a cave on Mount Pelion, a lovely forested mountain in  central Greece rising above the sea in the area of ancient Thessaly .

Also like Circe, Chiron was a chthonic semi-divine immortal. Chiron was the first centaur, a hybrid, blended creature, half horse and half God. Unlike the later tribe of Centaurs he cared for, Chiron had different parentage, he was the son of the Titan Chronos and Philyra, and the grandson of the protogenos of the sky Uranus and the Earth mother Gaia. Rejected at birth for his bestial appearance, he was fostered by the divine lunar and solar twins Artemis and Apollo and developed a magical mastery of diverse fields including a vast knowledge of hunting, herbal knowledge and medicine, gymnastics, music and prophecy. The ancient Greeks reverenced him in his role as an unparalleled teacher, guide and mentor to some of their greatest heroes, demi-gods, and Gods including Jason, Heracles, Actaeon, Achilles, Castor and Pollux, Aristaeus, Peleu, Orpheus, and Asclepius. Usually brought to him in their youth or infancy, Chiron fostered and trained each of them, preparing each in turn for the heroic, healing, or magical roles they were destined to play. He prepared Achilles for the Trojan war, Heracles for his trials, and Jason for his quest for the Golden Fleece.

While each pupil’s instruction clearly differed, there was a similar magical significance in each of their relationships with Chiron. Compared with the mortal and human population from which each of these divine or semi-divine students were drawn, each was seen as fated to become a hero and their nascent magical abilities were nurtured carefully by their wise and gentle tutor.

A really fascinating discussion of Chiron byHelen Pilinovsky looks at him in relationship to anthropological ideas about Greek magic and can be found here.

Pilinovsky discusses how Chiron’s more beneficial sort of magic:

“…can be seen in the fact that he taught various chosen human heroes the potential beneficial qualities of the natural world — the arts of astrology, botany, healing, hunting, martial arts, and the uses of their own innate, natural talents, gifted by the gods through either lineage or patronage. It is interesting to note that, as those supranatural gifts had to be bestowed by the gods, so too was it necessary to obtain a formal introduction in order to be granted the benefit of his wisdom. His pupils were always brought to him, either by the gods or by previously favored mortals who had already made his acquaintance through their own patrons…Chiron alone was seen to bridge the gap between nature and civilization, two-fold as it were, acting as a living conduit for those properties of the natural world which might benefit civilization by teaching others to utilize them. The knowledge that was instinctual to him was passed along, once removed, to his pupils, and through them, to the rest of the world.”

Chiron ensured that in addition to riding, shooting, music, dance, and gymnastics, each of his students were taught to be honest and honorable–to be of general good conduct. All his charges were educated in the arts of herbal use and the mixing of potions, in the singing of incantations, songs of healing, and prophesy. At the same time, to each student he passed along a different branch of knowledge, and he tailored each pupil’s educations appropriately.

It was Chiron who first placed Hermes’ lyre into the hands of Orpheus, who grew up to be chief among poets and musicians and was reputed to have made the very rocks melt and the trees cry.  He taught celestial navigation to the great Argonaut, Jason, while Ascelpius was taught to master the herbal and healing arts for his role as the eventual god of healing. Aristaeus was taught to master astrology and prophecy, and Achilles, Actaeon and Heracles were prepared for the hunt, for strength and for war. In the course of Heracles’ education, Chiron was injured by a poisoned arrow which he’d taught Heracles to prepare by dipping in the blood of a hydra.

Chiron’s wound (whether to his foot or knee depending upon the source) was terribly painful, and Chiron is an early representative of an important magical archetype, that of the wounded sacred healer. Despite his abilities, Chiron was unable to cure himself, but was also, as he was an immortal, unable to die through natural means. This wound that will not heal combined with his immortality, meant that he would be forced to suffer forever, with no end to his agony.

Eventually, Chiron was granted the ability to die by Zeus, but in addition to the relief of unrelenting pain, even his death served the greater good of knowledge because he took upon himself the tortures of Prometheus who’d given fire to mankind and in this way Prometheus was thus freed of his own endless torture and punishment.

An important insight can be found in Pilinovsky’s discussion of the relationship between Heracles, Chiron and Prometheus. She notes that Chiron can be:

“…seen to represent the bridge between man and the knowledge to be found in nature — ironically enough, in Greek myth, it is this half-human creature who was always represented as being well-kempt and dignified, who throughout Greek myth was seen as being the epitome of gentility and knowledge… Prometheus, the creator of man who tried to free him from the tyranny of the gods, first mitigating sacrificial requirements by tricking Zeus into accepting less than his due, and then by giving men fire and allowing them to gain the knowledge necessary for true civilization. Prometheus can be seen as the symbol of future knowledge, of the totality of human accomplishment. Chiron’s death removed the need for an intermediary, directly linking the symbol of man’s wildness, and the symbol of potential knowledge. From this point onward, it seems, man would be expected to learn about the world surrounding him using the tools which he had been given, not least among them his wits. Even in death, Chiron continued to be a symbol of knowledge — and the sacrifices that it is worth.”

For our purposes, in looking at the Hellenic magical roots of reality formation and responsibility assumption, we can see that Chiron is representative of a naturalistic, chthonic and shamanistic magic; Chiron is a symbol of heroic initiation and the mythical nature of healing, wisdom, and ritual education and knowledge. We also see that early on there was a fatalistic irony and limitations to even great practitioners of magic–the healer cannot heal himself of a wound that in one sense he set in motion for himself. Later questions about personal responsibility for reality formation can be seen in this. Did Chiron create the reality of his wound by teaching Heracles the magical art of dipping an arrow in the hydra’s blood? Or is Chiron just as subject as all the Gods and the human race to a deterministic greater fate or to some other operating principle such as chaos?

In Part 9 we’ll continue our look into foundational Hellenic magical themes and the personification of types of Hellenic magic.

All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.

Pt. 7–Magic 299–Grounding Earth religions & Human Potential philosophies

A Detour from the “Modern” & “Rational”: Archaic & Classical Hellenic Religion & Magic

Welcome to part 7 of Magic 299 and my quest to explore and communicate some of the philosophical, religious, and historical underpinnings of two important concepts held as axioms by many Neo-Pagans, Pagans, Magic(k)al and New Age communities. The two ideas in question are variations on what is known as reality formation, i.e. “We create our own realities”, along with the related concept of “responsibility assumption”, or, “Each of us is 100% responsible for the occurrences in our lives”. It is my hope that this exploration will be of service as it attempts to critically illuminate a modern context for these ideas through an examination of their spiritual and philosophical significance.

A Brief Summary of Where We’ve Been Parts 1-6

In Part 6 we moved into the dawn of modern thought with the rationalist philosophy of Rene Descartes built upon ideas such as those of Francis Bacon (whose ideas were also explored). So, with that previous post we found ourselves in the 17th Century, CE. Because so far I have been following particular philosophical threads through time, we’ve progressed from Classical Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophical thought (particularly Stoicism, Skepticism and Neo-Platonism), to then touch upon Medieval thought (particularly looking at ideas rooted in Scholasticism, and specifically the medieval efforts to reconcile Neoplatonic ideas with Christianity). We then moved briefly to the return to Neo-Platonism at the start of the Renaissance, and we’ve taken a cursory look at characteristics of mysticism and metaphysics and then we hopped into 17th Century rationalism. Because of this we’ve as yet to touch upon Hellenic and Hellenistic Magic and religions. We have also not explored any other Western Magic(k)al thinking nor have we considered hermeticism and humanism. We’ve also remained planted firmly in Western thought so far.

Where Next? One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A discussion of the roots and context of the axioms of reality formation and responsibility assumption can’t really be seen as thorough without also considering at least some of the roots of magical and hermetic thought and practices, as well as the ideas of Middle Eastern and Eastern thinkers and Renaissance humanists. So we’re going to take a couple of steps back from the rationalism of the 17th Century and briefly head back to the archaic and Classical Greek periods. Then in subsequent posts we’ll move forward again along parallel paths to the content of some of my previous posts until we again reach the rationalists and can take up the next threads of our exploration forward from the 17th Century.

Ancient Hellenic Religions and Magic

While there are some internal differences between ancient Greek magical and religious practices, an understanding of Hellenic magic requires a familiarity with Greek religious beliefs and rituals. These were practiced not only in the form of public religious rites but also in private, mystery, and cult practices. There were a variety of Greek religious practices, some particular to certain regions or islands while others were more widespread. There is enough variation in early Hellenic beliefs to distinguish between separate Greek religions and cults, although there were also a number of similarities. Hellenic religious ideas extended well beyond mainland Greece and the nearby islands, reaching to Magna Graecia (Sicily and southern Italy), the Ionian islands and nearby coasts in Asia Minor, and the outlying Greek colonies which were scattered as far as Massalia (Modern France’s Marseille).

Ancient Greek religious practices were deeply rooted in a polytheistic world view and they included private and small public ceremonies, rites of passage, and seasonal (and other) celebrations which usually involved some sort of work at an altar including votive placement and manipulations, sacrifices and libations. An important expression of Greek religion involved the building, maintenance, and use of temples dedicated to various divinities. Temple care included related practices having to do with honoring the characteristics and nature of the associated deities (for example, love, sex, passion, and beauty associated with Aphrodite). Formal worship often involved making offerings (sacrificial or libational) particularly (as described in Homer’s works) preceding banquets, at times of danger, or at the start of a trip, a new venture or similar such “beginnings”.

Of particular importance beyond the more public ceremonies for the various Greek divinities was the participation through initiation in various Hellenic mystery religions. Mystery religions offered their initiates not only the insights of mystical experiences or metaphysical explanations and practices, but also gave the practitioners more advanced structures and practices beyond “congregational” attendance at a public rite.  The Mysteries also gave initiates the opportunity to participate in spiritual fellowship.

Ancient Mysteries such as those of Eleusis and Samothrace were localized to particular areas, and involved pilgrimages to their respective sites, while Mystery celebrations like those of Dionysus were not limited to one place and occurred periodically and seasonally in a variety of possible locations.

Hellenic Deities

The Greek Gods with whom most modern people are familiar (The Olympians and the Chthonic deities) descended from (and in some cases were) the Titans who descended in turn from an older genealogy known as the Protogenoi, who were believed to be the first beings to come into existence. These primordial Greek gods–Protogenoi literally translates as “first born” –are a group of immortal deities who emerged at the very beginning of our universe. Formed of and embodying the very universe itself, the Protogenoi represent aspects or elements of nature and are usually seen as directly emerging from a sometimes female gendered Chaos (sometimes paired with the male-gendered Cronus, or Time).

There are other early and competing references to the first divinity(ies) spread out over several hundred years from Archaic to early Classical periods including Homer ‘s Iliad listing the watery Oceanus and Tethys as first parents, Hesiod‘s claim in The Theogeny that it was Chaos who came first, Alkman (a Spartan Poet) claiming Thetis as the first Goddess, Orpheus‘ description of Nyx as the first principle in Orphic poetry, Pherecydes of Syros, who in the Heptamychia listed Chronos as the first deity, and Empedocles who described Aphrodite and Ares as the first deities, who, with their combined respective powers of Love and War wove the universe out of the four elements. Finally (and later), we have Plato’s concept of the artisan of the universe–the demiurge, articulated in his work Timaeus.

Aside from the delightful variety apparent at first consideration, there is the underlying significance that the Greeks were flexible not just in their ontological ideas but also in their ability to voice competing opinions and articulate differing possibilities as to the origins of the Gods. It is also clear that contradiction and uncertainty are not anathema to the Greek religious perspectives. On the contrary, flexibility, internal inconsistencies, and ambiguity can be seen to have enriched and expanded the religious practices and ideas that were available to the Hellenes. So polytheism involved more than many Gods, it also involved many opportunities for divine inspiration and the possibility that individual abilities, tastes and preferences might be drawn to and satisfied by different aspects of the religion and different divinities within it.

The Dodekatheon

While later Platonism and various Stoic philosophies referred to a unifying and transcendent individual and singular divinity (i.e. a monotheistic perspective), and while different cities and areas recognized, emphasized, were dedicated to, or were held sacred to varying deities, most ancient Greeks were familiar with the Olympian pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, particularly the Dodekatheon, or Twelve Divinities (also known as the 12 Olympians). These deities were usually seen to represent some combination of the Titan family children including the siblings Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Hestia and Hades (these last two were sometimes replaced with other deities), and a number of Zeus’ offspring usually including Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Aphrodite (there was some disagreement as to paternity for both Hephaestus and Aphrodite), Athena, Apollo, Artemis, and Dionysus.

The later Roman version (with their Greek identities) of the 12 Olympian divinities usually were seen to include: Jupiter (Zeus), Juno (Hera), Neptune (Poseidon), Minerva (Athena), Mars, (Ares), Ceres (Demeter), Apollo, Diana (Artemis), Vulcan (Hephaestus), Venus (Aphrodite), Mercury (Hermes) and Bacchus.

I say “usually”, and the numbers above don’t always add up to twelve, because there was some fluidity as to who was included among the twelve depending upon who was doing the counting and the ranking, and when this counting and ranking took place.

For example, Hades (the Roman Pluto) was sometimes counted but often was not due to his usually existing in the Underworld, and Hestia (Roman Vesta), was often listed as one of the twelve prior to her decision to step down to allow for the inclusion of Dionysus.

The Chthonic Deities

The Olympian deities who resided for the most part on Mount Olympus, were not the only Greek deities by any means, and were complemented by the Chthonic divinities (meaning Earth God/desses) including Gaia, Demeter, Hecate, Hades, Kore/Persephone, Iacchus, Melinoe, Triptolemus, Trophonius, and the Erinyes (Furies). The Chthonic Gods tended to remain on Earth by choice, preferring their particular domains to the elevated and more distant Olympus, although they sometimes served in both realms of influence. It is likely that the worship of the Chthonic deities took place earlier among local, country “pagani” (to use a later Roman concept) while the Olympian overlay came in with a later wave of Greek peoples.

There is quite a bit of shifting of attributions and roles and syncretism is common among and between the Olympians and the Chthonic deities.  There is indication of the Olympian “overlay” I mention above in the turnover of primary deity at Delphi (Ge or Gaia replaced by Apollo), and the synchretism I mention is certainly the case in many areas. This was similar to the later Christians adapting the attributes of various Gods and associating them with Saints; there were also the Graeco-Roman-Egyptian blends of God traits (for example, Serapis as a blend of Zeus and Osiris). A characteristic of Greek approaches to divinity was an openness to possibility and variety. Of particular importance later on was the widespread Interpretatio Romana, the process by which when Romans encountered the Gods of Germanic or Celtic tribes they interpreted them as local aspects of their own deities rather than considering them separate divine beings.

Other Olympians sometimes include Alpheus, Cronus, Rhea and the Charities sometimes joined by Heracles and Asclepius.  Hebe, Helios, Eros, Iris, and Persephone are also sometimes included among them.

Many of these deities had several names and roles, depending upon the aspect of the God or Goddess being addressed or worshiped at the moment, for example there were characteristic distinctions between Athena Nike (Roman Victoria) and Athena Pronaia (Athena the Guardian). Another example would be the differences between characteristics of Hermes Trismegistus (Thrice Great) as distinguished from Hermes Logios (Orator).

In an example of internal contradiction and openness to paradox in religion, while Plato described a singular pantheist divinity in some of his work,  he also clearly embraced the existences of the Olympians. Plato connected the Twelve Olympians with the twelve months of the year, weighing in on the question of whether Hades was one of the twelve by proposing that the God of the underworld be honored with appropriate rites along with the spirits of the dead during the final month. Plato also attempts to associate the Twelve Olympians with the Zodiac in Phaedrus.

The siblings Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter, Hera and Hestia were children of Cronus, one of the Titans, and also therefore  grandchildren of the primal (primordial) divinities which also included Cronus as well as Aether, Chaos, Gaia, Erebus, Hemera, Nyx, Uranus, and Tartarus.

While most Greek divinities were immortal, it is important to consider that unlike the deities of many other religious beliefs the Greek Gods were subject to fate–they were not all powerful.

For a truly wonderful examination of the various Greek deities (and then some!) I strongly recommend those with an interest in Hellenic religions to take a look at Theoi Greek Mythology. This site has over 1,500 pages profiling the Greek gods and other characters from Greek mythology along with 1,200 full sized pictures.

I also recommend a visit to The Theoi E-Texts library of ancient, classical Greek and Roman literature.

Magic and Hellenic Magic

Since despite some regional variation, and the interpretive and ontological flexibility mentioned earlier, most ancient Greeks shared similar beliefs concerning the Gods and their attributes and abilities, and as they also were mostly in agreement as to the variety of magical possibilities rooted within the Hellenic mythological system, there was a concomitant clarity and solidity to Greek magical thought.  Hellenic belief in classical myths was not an exercise in fantasy as it is for many modern people. Certainly there was a good deal of creative license on the part of the poets and storytellers whose work has survived, but for the most part for the ancient Hellenes the mythological and magical world had a knowable, and established structure.

To understand the practice of Hellenic magic, it’s important to keep in mind that individual magical practices were interwoven with and informed by the overarching religious perspective. In a later blog post I’ll be discussing in more detail my own take on what magic (and reality formation) actually is, but for our purposes here, in order that my readers follow how I am looking at the Hellenic practices of magic, I will briefly give my definition of magic:

Magic encompasses intentional, playful, imaginative and creative acts of will emerging from the intersections of art, religion, philosophy, and science. These acts of will can emerge from individual or group efforts, can be unique occurrences, and can also be developed into systematized practices. Magical acts of will are often employed to bring about a specific desired outcome including the exercise of varying levels of influence upon, or interaction with, forces of nature.

I have chosen to discard the practice of adding a k to the end of the word magic, which is often done in an effort to distinguish it from the magical practices of illusion or prestidigitation, primarily because I consider the seemingly more mundane theatrical practices of illusion to be a form of magical technique and to therefore fall within my definition of magic.

Magic & Reality Formation

Clearly, my definition of magic above and the purposes of Hellenic magic as described below are related to our larger discussion of “creating reality”. We’ll explore some of the connections between magical practices and modern Pagan ideas about reality formation in a later post.

Hellenic forms of magic were pervasive in Greek mythology and literature. In fact, magical practices directly informed the lives, beliefs, and cultural expressions of the Hellenes. Hellenic magic served to give its archaic and Classical Greek practitioners special knowledge, insight, and a sense that they could practice control over their surroundings. Hellenic magic also served as a method to control aspects of healing, birth, mortality and the forces of nature. Magic was employed to assist individual mediations with fate. The relationship of magic and fate echoes the philosophical discussion we’ve examined previously regarding free will and determinism.

We get our modern English word “magic” from the Greek μαγικός (magikos) which referred to the practices of a μάγος (mágos, plural is magoi). A particular usage of magickos from the 1st Century CE is found in the feminine μαγική τέχνη (magike techne, Latin, ars magica) as described in Plutarch’s writing. This gave rise to Latin magicus, and then to Old French magique, which in turn led to modern English “magic”.

As we get the word magic from the Greeks, so to do we inherit many of the associated ideas about magical practices. There is some indication of a distinction between types of Hellenic magical practices. Similar to distinctions between magic and sorcery, or curanderas (healers) and brujas (witches), these Hellenic magical realms of expertise tend to fall into the category of practices employing certain tools, incantations and plants to effect change for possibly selfish individual, political and social reasons, and the category of practices employing natural and God-given magical tools, rites, and practices primarily for healing, for actions taken in harmony with the natural world, and for actions taken in keeping with or at the behest of the various wills of the Gods.

Contemporary examples of these two practices and indications about Hellenic attitudes towards them can be particularly found in descriptions of Circe and Chiron.

My next blog post will begin with an exploration of some of the magical distinctions between Circe and Chiron and a look at other important representatives of Hellenic magic and religion.

All material included here is copyright Maerian Morris and Westernesste. All rights reserved.