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How to establish a pagan community? 10 necessary things

 

I visited The Hindu Temple of St. Louis yesterday with a friend, and my experience there inspires this article. I was extremely pleased with the magnificence of the temple and the great care that was taken to maintain it. The presence of people offering prayers was very refreshing and the very first I had seen in person since my adoption of polytheism about three years ago. And it was a special experience indeed: the Hindus have the largest and strongest tradition of polytheism in continuance. Surely we revivalists and reconstructionists can learn a great deal from the example of this prosperous people who seem to be flourishing within a diaspora. To that end, through careful observation, I have reflected on the following points as necessities for the establishment of a polytheist or pagan community.  

 1. People with a common interest and vision

Any new community of faith begins with a certain number of people that, in being distinct from the majority around them, hope to maintain and also nourish their particular beliefs and customs. What number is the least to set out with is subject to opinion, but I can’t help but think that even as few as three or four people can take it upon themselves to form something and aim at future growth, because a common interest for or devotion to what is being preserved can only be sustained by growth and can only be begun by a bold initiative. The Hindu Temple of St. Louis was first conceived as an *idea* in 1983, a time when not too many Hindus lived around, but because the growth in the numbers of Hindus was inevitable (because of families), the idea was solidified as a non-profit organization five years later.

2. Monetary contribution

How can a piece of land and a particular structure be allotted to the religious activities of a community? It must first be purchased, unless it is offered for free, which is almost never the case. Just as parents look forward by saving for their children’s college education, they must also do the same towards their spiritual and cultural education. The same happened with the Hindus of St. Louis as with any other community of faith; donations were gathered after the situation was explained to parents and then a piece of land was purchased. The ground-breaking ceremony for the Temple and first rituals before construction were performed in 1990, two years after the non-profit organization was formed. Construction was obviously gradual, and patience needed to be plentiful, but when there is a will, there is a way; no vision can be stronger than that of a home and the grander it can be, the greater the community will prosper. The first phase of construction was completed within a year and a half. At first, there were only pictures of the Gods, but in the course of five years, the temple received the splendor it deserved.

3. A connection to a native culture with deep roots

The Hindu parents were not to allow their children to lose the native traditions and precious beliefs they had come with from abroad, because they were sure what they brought was valuable. Especially in such a different country as America, where either Christianity or materialism determined the general way of life (in the absence of sufficient native voices), traditions could decay or decline easily within one generation, unless care was taken. The depth and strength of the cultural roots that the migrants brought, they could never bear to see gone because it would mean the severing of many centuries, indeed millennia, of continuity. It was only natural that an architect from India, and a renowned one too, would symbolically plant a native seed in a foreign soil by designing the temple, just as if it were magically transported from India. And the native languages needed to be maintained also, as also the native food and clothing, because the ritual experience could not have otherwise been authentically “Indian”, just as it was at home, where the kin and ancestors were. As for those of us who are less fortunate with regards to historical continuity, a heavy burden is on us, which history will judge us by: we must still look back and somehow seek our deeper roots, both cultural and ancestral, a task that is by no means easy, but is necessary. There can be no such thing as “American” polytheism, because it never existed, except for the lucky natives themselves whose ways and lineages have survived. Any attempt to Americanize polytheism, will only cause division and subversion, usually in socio-political factions that parallel those already in existence, and this is something we can already witness. For those in a diaspora, including White Americans, some serious connection to a distant past must be made; the absence of deep roots signifies a weak or stunted growth, if not one that dies off in time. True polytheism requires much more than the worship of many Gods, and the Hindus teach us this.

4. Priesthood

If rituals are not performed correctly, the temple cannot remain in function, and thus the whole purpose of a temple that can help people by serving the Gods will be weakened or lost. But who determines how the rituals should be performed? Those with a continuous tradition have an easy answer: those who study and know the ancient ways of the ancestors. There are four priests that serve the Hindu Temple of St. Louis, because the languages and ways of India are diverse. For revivalists, the task of attaining and maintaining a priesthood is very difficult, but can become easier, if those with learning consult with the Gods and with one another about the best general courses to take in ritual practices. Once this foundation is laid, each community can further develop its rituals organically. Communities understand the value of leadership, including priesthoods, precisely because communities cannot be formed except with the initiative and vision of leaders.

 5. Cooperation

After a community grows in number and flocks together, certain differences are bound to arise, even among those who strongly share the same vision and hope. There is a natural tendency for minds to battle through conflicting opinions, especially in the beginning when there is much at stake. But if the common vision is continuously emphasized, and people are always reminded of it, diatribes can turn into discussions and disputes into discourses. It is an inherent part of every community to endure early struggles, but the way to reduce the difficulty is always to maintain the bonds that were originally put in place. By this means, general structure becomes more important than particular details, or to express it better, structures guide details, and details are not permitted to be emphasized so much as to lead to the formation of distinct structures. Perhaps if polytheists think of polytheism as a structure and traditions as details, at least until such time as each group can form distinct communities, we will be far happier than we are now.

6. Organizational bodies

Cooperation must always require management within a collective effort. If priests serve as those who organize and lead rituals, committees and boards serve as those who lead and organize the larger system. The Hindu Temple of St. Louis is no exception to other successful community centers: They have a Board of Trustees and an Executive Committee, the latter with distinct functions for overseeing and deciding how the temple is cared for. The executive committee is moderately hierarchical and consists of a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, joint secretary, joint treasurer and general members. These positions are elected with three-year terms. The proceedings of committee meetings are shared with the community, because there is no need to hide anything from those you are eager to serve; positions come with a privilege, but also a duty. This resembles a small nation, but as we all know, small nation is far happier and easier to manage than a large one.

7. Donors

The initial money discussed earlier is never enough for the preservation of a great project that continues and indeed grows with time. A community of faith is a serious investment that demands considerable management and funds before satisfactory returns can be made. The Hindu Temple’s Board of Trustees ensures that sufficient funds are collected as well as spent efficiently. The construction of a grand temple and all its very magnificent components could not have been accomplished without plenty of dedication and generosity. After 30 years, they continue to grow: I saw the community center, a project worth $6 million, still in construction. It is needed for the current and future generations of the 16,000 Hindus that live within the larger region.

8. Community events

Rituals are necessary in a community of faith, but social events are necessary in any community. There must be activity, including entertainment, to keep a community alive and proud of itself. In addition to the Hindu Temple and the new cultural center, there has been a cultural center (within the same large plot of land), where musical performances, weddings and other events take place. There is a library also where books may be borrowed. As I was leaving at the end of my visit, I noticed lights outside after what must have been a very festive Diwali. Such events always help the younger generations stay within the community rather than leave it, which is essential for continuity.

9. Youth groups

A further step must always be taken with youngsters, because they have additional energy and soon become ambitious to make their mark. Channeling their energy towards the right direction is a serious matter that requires a clever mind, but the benefits are huge when it is done correctly. A well-trained youth can become the life-blood and fuel that drives a community forwards. The Hindu Temple has a youth group with its separate page, publications, events and achievements. The youth are divided into four groups, ranging from kindergarten to high school.  This allows the older youth to lead the younger, which lessens the burden they sometimes feel when they are led by adults. In fact, there is hardly any burden at all, once the youth understand their purpose and their value, through the guidance and care of adults.

10. Community service

This is what connects the community to others in the region and gives it a good reputation. One becomes more confident in and proud of his community when he knows that it helps others who are in need, even if they are not of the same faith. How else can the world become more harmonious and less hostile, but by such means? It is obvious that the Hindus are a minority, but they must make themselves heard and known, much like the other faiths in the area and region. Accordingly, the Hindu Temple generously offers the needy donations of food by various efforts, as well as a free legal and health clinic at certain times of the month.

Two excellent videos you should see

I saw these a few weeks ago, but I forgot to share them. They are about 30 minutes total in length, but are very worthwhile. The author has not published parts 3 and 4 yet, but these two are probably the most important to consider in the case of polytheism. Although the videos were produced by a rational humanist following a philosophical group called “Hyperianism”, there is plenty of useful information, accurate explanations, and deep ideas that polytheists can and should reflect upon, in regards to the theory and practice of their traditions. In this site, I think the theories and conceptual framework has been more or less between Participation Mystique and the Axial Age, which happens also to be the position of the Homeric tradition I seek to follow. A question to think about: is your polytheistic theory & tradition more to the side of Participation Mystique or the Axial Age or even beyond in the Modern Age, and why?

The Enuma Elish: History as Mythology

An excellent post–this is my comment to it:
This is one of those topics that is extremely rich for study, and even a little dangerous! I wonder if the list of events here are your own, or are drawn from a book. The Mesopotamian legacy seems foundational in the histories & mythologies of Near Eastern and Western civilizations, although systematized Egyptian theology seems earlier. Civilization is always at war with “primordial chaos” and that’s why we see the serpent figure of Tiamat also present in the marshes of the Egyptian Delta as Apep, the creature that battles with Ra.

Theology, as a system, arises from the interaction of various peoples, their Gods and their myths. But it always tends to become increasingly complex, and dare I say arbitrary in its detail, with imperialism. This is because the power of one state or group or region sets itself above the subjected others, and expresses the hegemony in divine terms. So, since the first Pharaohs (i.e. conquerors) of Egypt came from Nekhen in the South, they set their tutelary God Horus to a very high position, but that stature later declined somewhat because of rising influences from the solar theology of Ra in the North (the Pharaohs settled around that region), which was one of the several Gods of the Sun in Egypt. Ra was later to be joined with Amun after the second re-unification of Egypt by a king of Thebes (Ahmose), and thus Amun of Thebes (like Horus before) rose to a pre-eminent position. It’s interesting to note, however, that during the first re-unification, which also was achieved by a king of Thebes, the tutelary God of the city was different: Montu, and this God also arose to a supreme theological position for a time.

The Enuma Elish was Babylonian theology and it was used to elevate the rank of Babylonians in Mesopotamia. An early nation-state was forming there, just as with Egypt before, and the Sumerian Eannutum (a little earlier than Sargon) was actually the first true founder of imperialism in the region. The Assyrians, much like the Thebans in Egypt, later replaced Marduk with their own tutelary God Ashur, in order to attribute their new power to him. And when Babylon rebelled, a myth was commissioned by Sennacherib the Assyrian King, where Marduk is brought to trial by Ashur and found guilty! The nation-state ultimately failed in Mesopotamia and that is a reason why the theologies of that region are much more easy to comprehend than any attempt at a unified Egyptian theology. In fact, any unified Egyptian theology makes little sense, and I have a theory that Akhenaten’s monotheism grew out of that confusion and struggle for power.

I have reflected on this topic of divine genealogy and hierarchy (the two are related) for some time past, even as it regards the Hellenic pantheon. The Gods are the Gods, but their changing positions can be traced sometimes to certain events. There is no unified scripture, and thus myths and epic poems take their place. Homer sung about a Greece that was soon to be dominated by Dorian peoples, said to be descended from Herakles and whose tutelary God was therefore Zeus. It’s actually plausible Poseidon might have risen to a pre-eminent position if the Mycenaeans had continued, because although Zeus was important, he was not as exalted as later. So, there may after all be some truth to what Herodotus says about Homer and Hesiod, in that they established the positions of the Gods and distinguished their functions more neatly.

Lastly, one observation: Since you mention the notion of paterfamilias, I can’t help but notice its centrality within civilization in general. It’s also expressed within the desire to end “chaos” by power (it’s interesting Tiamat is made female) and thus, by extension, is attached to imperialism. We see a hegemony of male Gods over female ones, or at the very least, the masculine over the feminine. The Athenians were actually the most patriarchal in all Greece. I think my position against imperialism has made me somewhat of a “feminist” in this respect–civilization is a kind of masculine chaos in itself that needs to be controlled.

Neptune's Dolphins

nbmarduknabu

During the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia, empires rose and fell. In the Enuma Elish, the creation story of the Babylonians, this is told in mythic terms. One part of the Enuma Elish tells of the rise of the Sumerians. Their generation of Gods were Anu (An), Enlil (Ellil), and Enki (Ea), who focused on developing agriculture and decreeing divine law. While Anu ruled the Gods, Enlil granted kingship, and Enki created people. These Gods had overthrown Tiamat of the Saltwater and Apsu of Sweet Water, the original Gods of the Ubaid people of the late Stone Age.

The Sumerians drained the swamps, dug out the canals, and began irrigation. They tamed the “sweetwater” thereby killing Apsu as a God. Moreover, they transformed the salt marshes into farmland. Then in 2330 BCE, Sargon of the Akkadians established the first empire. He began the first dynasty by deciding that his son should…

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Two points

First, I will be combining film commentary in matching pairs, for the sake of shortening this coming series. I have many more posts in mind, but I prefer posting in order. So, next post will cover both The Egyptian 1954 and Pharaoh 1966. In some cases, I may skip over certain films.

The second point has concerns this mid-term election. I can see it is very hot because there have been many advertisements (all negative, obviously) and volunteers have been at my door several times, including today. Well, I thought to make it known here as I told one of them that I won’t be voting, and here is my quick explanation:

1- I am tired of political dualism between two parties. Both parties have good points to make, but likewise they are almost equally guilty of creating the same diseases everyone is complaining about without agreeing upon. While incidentally I think the Republicans deserve losing the majority at this time, it won’t apocalyptically solve all problems–on the contrary, it will only aggravate them.

2- For me, worthy participation in a real “democracy” means voting for a mayor or for local policy. Electing these high positions such as governor or president or even representatives means nothing. And in any case, I was never fond of a republic, especially an imperial one modelled on the Roman system. I can only smile (and laugh sometimes) at those who call this way of thinking “backward regionalism”.

3- The “United States” is a declining empire that can’t be saved by elections. Radical movements have arisen and won’t go away for the time being. I have learned about and traced all the problems of America back thousands of years, and now the consequences are not difficult to foresee. It’s rather useless now to participate, and so I’ll be a spectator.

4- I think a moral objection to the whole concept of this country in itself (without reference to the particular elements it subjugates or falsely represents) is developing within my indigenous mind.

5- I have the odd, but justifiable conviction that small, traditional monarchies like Bhutan are the only ones worth fighting for. I do care for the peoples of this country, but I wouldn’t fight for the country in itself.

The history of the rise of monotheism

The past few weeks have been very busy for me as I carry on my research about the origins of monotheism. Penning a chronology to that end with notes is a very difficult task, because certain details are very important to explain. I have also confirmed my earlier suspicions that monotheism did not arise in a vacuum, but rather paralleled or was directly influenced by other developments. The separation of monotheism, therefore, from various socio-political changes is a grave mistake. My chronology begins at the onset of the Bronze Age, 3300 BCE, and so far continues till only 490 BCE, whereas I had meant to stop at Late Antiquity (400 CE). After a total of 25 pages, I think it has already grown too complex for a publication here, even as a series, and since the complexity will only increase, I have determined to incorporate it into a book I have been conceptually preparing for some time past. Nevertheless, I have selected some important observations and conclusions about monotheism, in order to share them below. I look forward to remarks and discussions. 

Initial points:

A- The history of monotheism begins in Egypt, and 90% of its essence is developed there, with only growth accounting for its later spreading.

B- The character and deeds of “Abraham” never existed, and are merely composites of various traditions, created later. The beginning of “Jewish” monotheism goes back to Moses, who was himself an Egyptian, but his story has later additions. Therefore, the Jews are merely an extension of Egypt, as indeed they historically were geographically during the New Kingdom.

The causes of the rise of monotheism, in chronological order, were as follows:

1- The meta-tribal imperialistic creation of the Egyptian state with extreme centralization of power

2- The superiority of this centralized state in the minds of elites, including priests

3- The rise of theology, symbolism and syncretism of various regional and local Gods in order to maintain, explain, and sacralize the complications of the new state

4- The creation of moral dualism, as an extension of phenomenal duality, to maintain the state’s stability; the concomitant rise of Osiris as a savior God and Set as a demonized God

5- The democratization of royal religion and theology during an initial period of decline in Egypt

6- The rise of a bureaucratic scribal class, distinct from the priesthood, with its own literature and quasi-theology

7- The competition of regional priesthoods in order to achieve theological hegemony in the state

8- The rise of monism, universalism and further syncretism as a means to reconcile the competition, sometimes arbitrarily and inconsistently

9- The conflict between ambitious priests and Pharaohs for influence in the state*

10- The increase of meta-national imperialism as a means to unify and strengthen Egypt

11- Extreme imperialism within the upper Middle East leading to the weakening of several empires

12- The rise of independent tribes in Canaan after the Bronze Age collapse, a respite of imperialism

13- The rise of henotheism in the Levant as a means of protection from extreme Assyrian imperialism

14- The conflict between priests and Jewish kings for influence and tribal supremacy leading to the second rise of monotheism **

15- The rise of a Jewish ideology after the destruction of the temple and their deportation by the Neo-Babylonian empire

16- The Hellenistic imperialism of the Near and Middle East and the subsequent cultural and religious syncretisms

17- The new Hellenistic culture challenging centuries of Jewish autonomy under the now dead Persian empire

18- The expansion of Jewish monotheism by proselytism as a defensive means to Hellenistic cultural imperialism, but now with Hellenistic ideas absorbed within Judaism in order to combat the imperialism better

19- The rise of the Roman Empire and the increasing hatred or envy of Hellenistic Greeks towards proselytizing Jews, culminating in a few massacres

20- The destruction of the Temple by the Romans during the Jewish rebellion, giving rise to an alternative to Judaism, i.e. Christianity, which is a syncretism of Greek and Jewish thought, mainly former.

21- The rise of Neoplatonism, with deistic and monotheistic elements, as the dominant philosophical and theological system in the Roman Empire

22- The rise of counter-culture against the Roman Empire and the Christians successfully developing and proselytizing a combined mystical & Neoplatonic ideology as a remedy to it, while competing with other mystical religions and philosophies

23- The prosecution of Christians as an evil influence that was leading to the decline of the empire***

24- The Roman Emperor Constantine converting to Christianity (the religion of his enslaved mother) after proclaiming monotheism to be legal.

25- The rise of conflicts among Christian sects and Constantine’s forced standardization of the doctrines, leading to Christian power, and the later persecuting the polytheists as revenge for former grievances.

26- The fusion of Christianity with the imperialistic functions of the Roman Empire, and subsequent forced conversions and expansion

27- The cultural imperialism of Christianity leads to the persecution of Jews, many of whom settle in Arabia, with Arabia becoming the next battle ground for the spread of monotheism

28- The rise of Mohammed as a centralizing force against cultural imperialism but with his own kind of monotheism, regarded as the purest and final version ****

29- The huge and quick expansion of the Islamic empire and its competition with the Christian empires of the east and west, both proselytizing

30- The rise of modern empires and further proselytization of colonization of polytheistic peoples, continuing to this day

 

 _____________________

* Akhenaten and the definite invention of monotheism is placed here. His religion is soon stamped out (within about 35 years), and point 10 is the probably period a historical Moses can be assigned to.

** This begins with King Josiah, but it differed from Egyptian imperialism in that the function of the conflict seemed to be paranoid protection in the face of Assyrian imperialism.

***By 300 CE, the Christians made up about 10% of the Roman Empires population, mainly concentrated in the East part, and almost always within cities. They refused to sacrifice to the cult of the Emperors and thus were accused of civil rebellion. It is not known to what extent this was done, but the Christians likely exaggerated it by magnifying and glorifying stories about martyrs.

**** It is said Mohammed, who belonged to a noble mercantile family, travelled to the North (around Jordan and Syria) as a young man and met with an Arian monk who regarded him as a chosen one foretold by scriptures. This may have happened because of the strange similarity in the alphabetical appearance of the word “Jesus” in Syriac script to the word “Mohammed” in the Arabic script. See image below. Mohammed was interested in ruling Arabia, probably in imitation of “Christendom” and he borrowed his hatred of Jews and pagans from there.   

Jesus and Mohammed