Living Under a Christian Overculture

People who were raised as part of the religious majority in the United States and other countries where Christianity of some sort is the predominant religion often have some questions when they, through choice or circumstance, become part of a minority.

When raised as part of a religious minority, and depending quite a bit on how much of a religious community was in your area, you grow up knowing that a lot of things aren’t for you or don’t apply to you.  This feeling is probably familiar to people who are Christian but are part of a non-religious minority group.  This feeling is probably completely foreign to people who were always part of the racial, religious, linguistic, and sexual majority.  When these people, due to conversion, find themselves no longer part of the religious majority, there can be a feeling of outrage and backlash.  That, my friends, is the feeling of loss of privilege (not all your privilege, mind you, but a bit).

Outrage isn’t something that happens to everyone in this situation, and it might not be what comes first.  There is confusion, and there is loss.  When there is loss, there is grief.  According to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, there are five stages of grief.  First, there is denial.  This can manifest in new converts denying that they are no longer part of the majority whose holidays are being celebrated.  They might deny that those holidays are indeed religious in nature and assert, instead, that they are cultural holidays and claim to only celebrate the secular parts of those holidays that they celebrated as children.  The second stage of grief is anger.  Many people are angry for a long time, and that’s ok.  No one can tell anyone else how long is appropriate for them to spend in each stage of grief.  Anger in this situation frequently manifests as Christian-bashing.  Thankfully, such bashing is not usually violent – it’s generally angry and condescending speech.  The third stage of grief is bargaining.  In this stage, many people make excuses for why they should still get to celebrate the holidays of their youth, and it can look a lot like the denial of the first stage.  They might claim that they can celebrate these holidays in a way that makes it ok for them – whether that be to pray to a different god than the rest of their families during religious rites, loudly point out that many of the trappings of these holidays are pagan in origin (if the convert is pagan) regardless of whether the pagan group is the one that they’ve converted to or not, or to do it only so their children don’t feel left out (newsflash: children all over the world who are part of religious minorities are left out of the activities of the majority).  The fourth stage is depression.  People may question their conversion and wonder if the price they’re paying is worth it.  The fifth stage is acceptance.  In this stage, people develop celebrations for their own holidays and accept that it’s ok to be different.  They stop seeing themselves as less-than simply because they are different.

In the United States, Christmas (December 25th) has been a federal holiday since 1870.  Non-essential employees do not go to work, and schools are closed.  There are no non-Christian religious holidays that enjoy the same status.

It seems that it is during the major Christian holidays that people most feel the effects of living in a Christian overculture.  There are other effects, to be sure, like the references to God on our money and in our Pledge of Allegiance, the format of swearing to uphold the truth in a court of law (though there are alternatives there), and simply living day to day with the assumptions of others.

As another major Christian holiday has just passed, many people have just been thrown into grief and confusion over what to do about this holiday.  I grew up in a non-Christian household with Catholic grandparents on one side. I always went to my grandmother’s house for her holidays (Christmas and Easter, generally). My mother always just told me that I was going to help her (my grandmother) celebrate her holidays but that they weren’t my holidays. My mother and I no longer believe the same things, but I think her approach is still a good one. Know who you are and what you think, but accept the hospitality of your family and be a good guest.

Polytheism & Monotheism: Is it just semantics?

I had a very interesting conversation with someone earlier this week.  This person is Jewish, a monotheist, and was yet very respectful of my beliefs and interacted with me on the assumption that my gods are real.  I also have a very important person in my life who is Muslim, another monotheist, who interacts with me in a similar manner.

I’ve long assumed that the latter person is just a really respectful person who treats me and my beliefs with a degree of “suspension of disbelief,” similar to how one can buy into a fantastic world in a book or movie without confusing that reality for your own.  However, with the former person, I chose to question him further and really try to understand his perspective.

I wanted to know how he could be a monotheist and still discuss my gods with me if he didn’t believe that my gods were real.  He asked how I would describe the existence, or nature, of the gods.  I gave him a brief overview about individuality, power, intelligence, and personal agency.  In this conversation, I needed him to understand that while I might know or know of a god or goddess who would be really good at helping me with a particular problem, that didn’t mean that I could just demand (with any degree of respect) that help.  I wanted him to understand that I could ask, but the god in question could choose not to answer and may have reasons for that that I will never know or understand.

He told me that he believes in G-D, angels, the gods, and lots of other things as well.  I was a bit confused by this, to be sure.  We then had to delve into the nature of this G-D.  Is this the same tribal god worshipped by Abraham, or do the people who worship that god today really worship something else?  Essentially, what it came down to, was that he believes that that G-D is really some kind of universal life energy in all things.  To me, this would seem like that energy then doesn’t have consciousness or personal agency, but that’s not the way he sees it.  What it really means is that that’s not something that I would call a god.  If the G-D that he’s talking about and the gods that I’m talking about are not the same class of being, yet we all call them all gods, then the reason we can’t talk to each other and frequently can’t get along with each other is because we’re using the same word for things that are not the same.  We can’t understand each other if we do that.

He had other interesting ideas about the tribal god choosing to evolve (how’s that for the problem of if G-D is perfect, how can G-D change?) and this evolution essentially splitting the being into this universal life energy that simply is and the gods, angels, and other beings that people can interact with – a Mystery.  I’m not saying that I agree that this is what happened, but it is an idea that we can discuss calmly and rationally.

It’s a little too much to fully flesh out right now, but I do think there is something to the fact that for the most part, monotheists see their god as outside of creation while polytheists see their gods as part of creation, as created just like everything else in the universe.  Why can’t both exist?

I would love to be able to use common language and find common (respectful) ground to discuss the divine with the monotheists in my life without either of us trying to convince the other that we’re wrong.  I don’t think it’s a matter of we’re right and they’re wrong.  I don’t think we’re talking about the same things a lot of the time.  I think there is room for all of us if we only take the time to open our minds and be willing to think about things a little differently.

Cypress

Kyparissos is the third of Apollon’s loves that I’ll discuss here who underwent kataphytosis.  Like the tales of Daphne and Hyakinthos, his can also be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

DIGITAL CAMERA
Cypress (freeimages.com)

Kyparissos was from the island that is now known as Kea in the south Aegean Sea.  On the island, there lived a stag.  This stag was Kyparissos’s favorite animal (some tell it was a gift from Apollon).  Unfortunately, one day while Kyparissos was out hunting, he accidentally killed this stag with his javelin.  He grieved tremendously for the stag, and as he grieved, he turned into the cypress tree, which is now associated with mourning.

Apollon mourns for Kyparissos as Kyparissos mourns for all.

P1040730
Cypress trees at the cemetery in San Vito lo Capo, Sicily, where many of my ancestors are buried (photograph by me in August 2015)

 

Hyacinth

Hyakinthos was another love of Apollon who underwent kataphytosis.  Unlike Daphne (who according to some accounts was actually his sister), Hyakinthos loved Apollon in return.  You can find this story in more detail in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

hyacinth-1397745
Purple Hyacinth (freeimages.com)

 

In summary, it was noon when Apollon and Hyakinthos decided to strip (so as to better glisten with olive oil, of course) and practice throwing the discus.  Apollon went first.  He threw the discus so hard that it scattered the clouds above the earth and took quite some time for it to return.  Hyakinthos ran to catch it, but as it had been hurled so hard, it bounced after it hit the earth, and it hit Hyakinthos in the face.  Apollon was devastated.  He ran to Hyakinthos and held his limp body in His arms.  He attempted to revive him, applying healing herbs and staunching the flow of blood.  Unfortunately, Hyakinthos could not be saved, even by the healing hands of Apollon.  He then cried out, “You slip away, cheated of your youthful prime.  Your would that I look upon accuses me.  You are my grief and my guilt – my own hand is branded with your death!  I am the one who is responsible, but what fault was mine?  Can it be called a fault to have played a game with you, to have loved you?  O that I could give you my life as you deserve or die along with you, but we are bound by fate’s decree.  Yet, you will always be with me, your name will cling to my lips, forever remembering.  You will be my theme as I pluck my lyre and sing my songs, and you, a new flower, will bear markings in imitation of my grief; and there will come a time when the bravest of heroes will be linked to this same flower and his name will be read on its petals.”  While Apollon was speaking, the blood that had poured upon the ground and stained the grassed ceased being blood, and a purple flower grew.

(Quoted portion from Morford & Lenardon)

I have read other versions of this story where it was said that both Apollon and Zephyros were in love with Hyakinthos, and out of jealousy, Zephyros blew the discus off its course and caused it to hit Hyakinthos.

white-lily-1316502
white lily  (freeimages.com

 

I do wonder, though, if the hyacinth that we know today is not the same flower.  There are two details of the story that I’ve never understood.  The first is that the flower that grew is supposed to (according to Ovid, anyways) look like a lily, differing only in color as lilies are white.  However, I don’t think hyacinths and lilies look at all similar.  In addition, the letters “ai ai” are said to mark the petals of the hyacinth, and even with all of the imagination I have, I can’t see what that is supposed to be.

I once bought a hyacinth for Apollon’s shrine.  Admittedly, they’re bulbs and might do better outside, but the plant died rather quickly.  I took that as an omen to not try again.

Sparta claimed Hyakinthos for its own, and they celebrated a yearly festival – the Hyacinthia.  This was a three day festival that we can certainly revive in our own communities.  The first day mourns the death of Hyakinthos.  Sacrifices are made for the dead, and banquet meals are stark and plain.  The second day is a celebration of Hyakinthos’s rebirth.  Young people play musical instruments, sing, and hold foot races.  Choirs compete against one another.  There are even parades with floats decorated by young women.  (just imagine!)  Sacrifices (goats) are offered.  There isn’t much known about what used to happen on the third day, but it is known that for this day a new chiton was woven for the statue of Apollon.  Some day, when I live locally to a Saori studio, I want to weave this chiton for Apollon.

Exif JPEG
Delphinium Larkspur (freeimages.com)

Edited 03/09/16 – Vindicated!  The flower that was formed from the blood of Hyakinthos was not what we now call hyacinth.  It was larkspur, which is has a variety called delphinium…coincidence?  I’m still not sure that it looks like a lily or that I see what is meant to be letters, but judge for yourself.