Chapter 4 Gods

We devoted much of the last chapter to discussing some foundational aspects of a spiritual practice for many Gods, and we ended with some foundational practices that anyone can integrate into their life: a few moments of worship at home, both prayer and contemplation. In this chapter, we will build on those practices and pick one or two more Gods to worship — for now, no more than that.

It is not necessary to worship every single God every day (that would be impossible), just as one cannot be friends with every human being in the world or every sentient being in the cosmos. Beyond worshipping the household Gods and divinities, and perhaps doing ancestor worship on auspicious days for such activities, most people only have the bandwidth for a handful of Gods and divinities before their attention is too scattered to have a deep and meaningful practice. The Soul’s Inner Statues is focused on breaking down the steps to work towards a manageable, meaningful practice, so this chapter approaches embarking on that in chunks through steady, sustained habit change.

Keeping the number of Gods limited at first helps you settle into a concise prayer routine, and it allows for mindful expansion of your practice if you judge that expanding it is important to you. Billions of people around the world pray for only a few minutes a day. The most important thing, and the hardest, is showing up.

Note that sometimes, a person may decide to pray to a collective of Gods: the Muses, for example, or the Fates, Matronae, Attendants of Frigg, Gods of Civic Discourse, Storm Gods, and so on. In my personal practice, I usually pray to the Muses as a collective. Others may devote prayers to all of the Gods in general — often using names and terminology relevant to a specific cultural grouping of Gods, such as the twelve Olympians in Plato’s Phaedrus or a set of major Roman, Nordic, Celtic, Gaulish, Sumerian, or other deities.

As you read this chapter, take some notes on what comes up for you. The exercise at the end will ask you to look up one or two Gods and to pray to them.

4.1 How Do You Pick a God?

The factors involved in choosing Gods to worship are many. In this section, we will discuss a few major ones.

Culture and region. For many people, this is what is done: You worship the God whose temple is down the street (or whose ruins are in your area) or Gods who are widely present in your cultural substrate, whether or not your culture writ large worships them. In the United States, specific regions, cities, and states may use the images of specific Classical Gods or Goddesses, and revering them is possible. Outside of the United States, there may be temples and cultural sites (ruins or still in use) that could inspire you.

Following what a group does. People raised in a specific religious group, or who join a group as an adult that honors specific deities, often do what everyone else is doing.

Heritage. Maintaining a connection to where we come from is important to many people, especially in the United States and other colonies. Whether someone’s ancestors arrived in a place voluntarily or via human trafficking and abuse, it could be important for a person to explore their origins when selecting who to worship. My only word of caution is to ensure that you approach this mindfully. Especially for those of us with various European ancestries and ethnic backgrounds, a “return to the roots” can be coopted by the far-right. Anyone can worship the Gods. Resist far-right rhetoric. You are here for your reasons, and others have their own — everyone has a perspective to offer, regardless of an individual’s cultural heritage. Developing a practice for the Gods, being committed to learning, and approaching the practice with reverence are what matters. Let your own thing be about repair without making it creepy.

Activity. This is exactly what it sounds like. You know what you like, what you do for work and hobbies, and who you want to be. You find Gods who have well-documented aspects in one or more of those areas and decide to worship them. Most people who worship Gods use this as a criterion for selecting someone to worship, at least in the beginning.

Astrology. In astrological systems, specific Gods are associated with specific signs of the Zodiac. These deities may shift slightly based on the system a writer is using. Sometimes, the position of the rising sign or which sign the moon is in matter just as much as one’s sun sign. You can explore this with some Google searches on Gods for specific signs. Keep in mind that “astrology” is a very general term, so you will see results for Western, Vedic, East Asian, and other forms of astrology. Speaking Platonically, the soul accumulates various traits (or garments) as it descends into the world of becoming, and the positions of the stars at birth have been used as signals of which Gods will be particularly prominent for a person that lifetime, although that is not the only thing that matters. Some astrologers believe that the planets are the Gods, but even if a planet is associated with a God, the God transcends that planetary association.

Divination-based. Sometimes, especially in African Diaspora religions, the God(s) someone should worship closely are determined in divination. Divination protocols for such rituals are usually very intricate, and they require study and care for the practitioner to do them well. This book is not about those traditions, and if you are curious about them, I encourage you to do research on the ones that interest you, ideally from actual practitioners and leaders in those traditions. Outside of those traditions, someone could consult with divination specialists about deities. Note here that “divination” is a broad category that encompasses far more than tarot and oracle cards, and it’s not just about predicting the future! Often, people use divination to seek advice on something that has been bothering them or gain insights into circumstances they are facing so they can make good choices. Divination of any kind is ideally conducted in a manner that connects with the Gods via prayers, offerings, and so on.

Experience. In Proclus’ surviving hymns to the Gods, he makes frequent references to holy words of the wise that excite the soul towards the Gods. This divine bliss state sometimes literally happens to people. Very rarely, you’re reading something, you have a dream, or a freaky chance occurrence hits, and it sends chills down your spine. It could even send the world topsy-turvy for a few hours or days. Something feels right about it. You may know the name of the God, or you may just know vague things about your experience and put the pieces together later on. It’s a gift when this happens. As a word of caution, keep an eye on your mental health — brain conditions can mimic spiritual experiences, so practice self-awareness and be sure to follow up with a doctor if you suspect that something is wrong. (Generally speaking, “you are the chosen one” is something that only happens in Hollywood movies and messianic fringe groups. Intense bliss-state experiences will dissipate after a few hours or days, perhaps with some aftereffects like an increased ability to enter a meditative state that last weeks or a re-evaluation of your life goals.) Intense spiritual experiences don’t happen every day. “Smaller” experiences are more common — praying for a dream or an unambiguous sign is something people have done for millennia in pursuit of some milder spiritual experiences.

4.1.1 An Example of Choice

When I was a teenager, I decided on Apollon and the Muses because I felt that poetry was the only thing I was good at. In the American cultural reception of Apollon, he is often taken to be synonymous with music and poetry. Little did I know that, when I made that choice, things would change and expand out from there — Apollon is a harmonizing God, first revealed in the truth-bearing triad in Platonism before weaving his way through various levels of emanation from the One. I was worried when I started studying library science that I still thought of him as my God when my work had nothing to do with him, and I struggled to find ways to relate my life to what I knew about him from his epithets, what scholars had written, and the things I saw people post online about worshipping him.

For several years, I strayed away and primarily worshipped Hermes, with Athene secondary, because they are very professionally relevant to my daily work. This was naïve of me given what I know now, and as soon as I was ready to know more about Apollon, specific things in my life fell into place that landed me back worshipping him — everything I needed to know was rooted in the Platonists. I worship Hermes much less now, but still in a professional capacity. We’re human. How we pray, and who we pray to, evolves over time.

4.1.2 What About Specific Traditions?

The Soul’s Inner Statues is a book about worshipping Gods at home, not about any specific religious tradition. Many of my examples draw on the Hellenic Gods because I have worshipped them for so long (in my own non-Greek context; if you’re interested in something connected to Greek methods of worship, I encourage you to connect with Greeks). As a follower of Plato, I firmly believe that it is important for avoiding cultural appropriation that I engage with the Gods of the Platonists. (Even for Platonists who worship other Gods, a moderate engagement with Hellenic myth and context is important for doing Platonic exegesis of the Gods one does worship.) Specific religious traditions often have guidelines that are used to help devotees select a deity, if the tradition doesn’t just choose the God for them. What happens in those traditions usually falls into one of the categories that I have named above.

Some marginalized groups are very protective of their ancestral practices, usually due to outsiders exploiting and selling their practices for the outsiders’ own financial and social gain and due to centuries of oppression and persecution from missionaries and state-sanctioned religious violence. Be mindful of this and seek to understand where others are coming from. Worshipping a God privately at home does not grant you automatic acceptance by the survivors of cultural genocide or conquest. Showing respect for their communities, being willing to learn, and committing to treating their traditions as sacred and not as commodities may go a long way, but then again, it may not. The decision is theirs.

4.1.3 What About Being Chosen?

While I do believe in spiritual experiences, I don’t believe that being “chosen” by a God is possible. What I do believe is that many (or is it just us Americans?) use vocabulary from pop culture fantasy novels and Christianity because we don’t quite know how to put what we have experienced into words.

When people are saying this genuinely and not deceptively, I believe this means that they experienced the spiritual version of “friendship at first sight” (which is a real thing in friendship research). They saw a depiction of a God or started to learn about them and just knew they needed to worship that God. It can be a very magnetic pull and generate intense, difficult-to-describe emotions. The person making this claim is still the agent. They are the one who decides to offer the libation or light the incense. There can be spookier versions of this, such as jarring coincidences or dreams that always seem to point to the God; in those cases, our guardian spirit is likely trying to get our attention and let us know that worshipping this God may be fulfilling for us.

Sometimes, people will describe their spiritual life as a calling, a term that is highly associated with Christianity in America, but that has since been secularized. It’s often used in America to describe people who give everything they have to their jobs because the job gives them meaning. Calling or called are just a bizarre, culturally-specific words to describe that feeling of being excited about something, empowered to grow, and connected to something greater than oneself. I do not use this language, and in our multicultural society, it can lead to misunderstandings when someone doesn’t have the tacit cultural knowledge of the term’s origins.

Related to this, one will sometimes hear the term working with [deity] instead of worshipping [deity]. Some of this usage comes from magical practices, and the modern occult movement’s history is too out-of-scope to briefly trace why that usage is present. Beyond that, one will occasionally hear someone express that their upbringing in a conservative (usually Christian) sect has made them anxious about the term worship due to the traumatic experience. Working with can make the Gods seem more approachable. However, worship is the preferred term, even in cases when someone is doing a specific type of work, volunteering, or hobby to fulfill a vow made to a God. Our nature is not the same as the Gods — our role in the world is to be present to what is happening around us and to grow and change under their watchful guidance. We have agency and dignity. The rites we perform, the meditations we do, and the other spiritual acts we train ourselves to do are all done to increase our harmoniousness with their providential power.

4.1.3.1 What About Transformative Experiences?

Transformative experiences of the Gods are beautiful things. These can come in the form of dreams, experiences in journey meditations, sudden illumination from wisdom tradition texts, or even just seeing the way the sun strikes newly-opened spring flowers. In ritual, it is not unheard of for someone to be overcome with strong feelings of connection and love when praying to a God for the first time, as if a floodgate has opened. Prayers can lead to steady streams of coincidences. Divination outcomes can teach us about the parts of ourselves we need to grow or let go of, and the techniques themselves put us in contact with the God(s) to whom we have consecrated our tools.

While it is not chosenness, a deep experience might indicate your closeness to a God, especially if you have been praying for guidance about the best God to devote yourself to or something similar. In Platonism, the Gods have something called providential love (eros pronoetikos) for us — a type of care flowing without cease and without boundaries to all who are open to receiving it. Experiencing bliss or a sense of deep connection in prayer can sometimes be mistaken for chosenness or some kind of special status. Having a religious experience, cleaning oneself up, and committing to excellence can also sometimes lean on the idea of being chosen as a self-soothing mechanism — we like to believe that someone else is rooting for us specifically, and it’s useful to unpack why we may believe that is the case. Maybe we actually just chose a life (go us!) where we will do a specific set of activities, and a spiritual experience was the jolt that motivated us to finally get done what we had already committed to doing.

The reason for emphasizing these dangers is that we are all capable of self-deception, especially those of us who grew up in difficult environments. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield describes the opportunities and pitfalls for people from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions who have experienced a sudden awakening. The biggest pitfall, according to him and others, is thinking that it’s one-and-done and that we don’t need to do work afterward. In the United States, many people have taken visions of deities to prop themselves up as New Age cult leaders. Others found well-intentioned spiritual communities without any training. Some have used a spiritual experience to quit working on themselves when they still have years of their life to live. Some engage in appropriation, spiritual materialism, and spiritual bypassing and transform the wonderful gift that was given to them by the Gods into something that causes pain and harm to others.

If a deep spiritual experience happens, approach it with humility. Take notes, do what you need to do, and follow up on your commitments. Decompress however you need. Continue to pray and explore your spiritual practice. Again, the practice evolves over time, as we are embodied souls moving through time.

4.1.4 An Important Caveat About Gods’ Functional Roles

Many of us are initially drawn to a deity because they have a specific functional role. It establishes rapport between you and the God before you have first prayed to them, much like how reading a social media profile and learning that you have something in common with someone will prime you to treat them charitably, at least at first.

Often, someone may ask, “so, if I have x issue, which deity should I go to?” after they already have a foundational Gods-oriented outlook and household shrine. We are conditioned by the media to oversimplify what divine epithets and spheres of influence of a deity mean. (An epithet is like “Apollon the Far-Shooter” or “Apollon the Harmonizer of All” or “Apollon of Delphi” — it marks some specific aspect of a God, and people will often use epithets to praise a deity when starting out a prayer.) Aphrodite is only a Goddess of Love, for example, or Eir is only a Goddess of Healing, according to that mindset. We are now living in an era when much of the world is alienated from Gods, and yet this is also a time with tremendous cultural transmission, diffusion, and power for change. One element of change involves seeing Gods in a more holistic and less utilitarian/functional way.

Starting out with the traditional symbols, images, and epithets can assist you with creating a vibe in your space that will resonate with the God and deepen the link between you and them. Once we get to know a deity, however, these functional areas start to break down, and the God expands to encompass more and more of one’s life. Apollon is most associated with poetry, music, light, and harmony, and yet I might pray to him for assistance with a family issue. I have worshipped Apollon for decades and can easily access that space within myself. Within the ritual space, that is resonant with the God in a way that facilitates steadiness even when moving into uncharted zones. When I started worshipping the Norse Goddess Eir, I understood her as a healing Goddess similar to Hygieia and Asklepios, but I now understand her as a Goddess related to healing, purification, and the actions we do here in the material world due to her activity on the battlefield as a medic and the symbolism of her coming down from the mountain where the healing Goddesses do their craft — a battlefield is a symbol of embodiment in Platonism, and generation is seen as a type of warfare. This fusion is far less traditional, but is meaningful, and it is the sort of thing that happens naturally as we unfold our relationship with a God through devotional acts. More traditionally, every place where a God has historically been worshipped will have its own unique take on what that God means (or meant) to the inhabitants, with specialized rituals, iconography, and other elements. The different ways in which we worship the same God are similar to dialects of a language. In cultures that have had more myths recorded, many of the mythic cycles have multiple variants that we know, too.

In the Platonic tradition, every God is the totality of everything (“all in all”) while preserving their own unique individuality and oneness. Gods “flow” into conversation with cultures and ethnic groups to produce unique fingerprints of how Gods operate in specific places. These “flows” impact their iconography, the scents offered, the myths a people creates, how we see the God’s sex and gender, and so on. A group may even be united by a similar outlook when they live very far apart as long as they share a common outlook on life. These relationships between groups and the Gods evolve, progressing forward in time.

Syrianus, in critiquing Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Books 13-14, wrote:

[T]he whole placing of the stars involves much supposition on our part. Thus it is that the fixed stars are arranged in one way according to the Egyptians, but according to the Chaldaeans or the Greeks in another way. (191,23-25)

Gods do not have positions in the sky, but a similar idea applies here. When we create practices surrounding the Gods, and especially when those practices become traditions and influential cultural movements, we are arranging the Gods into structures based on what we come to know about them. Each of our practices may divide up the sky differently, omit some types of stories and deities in favor of others, but the same potentiality of divine multitude underlies all of this.

Sometimes, the functional role a deity has traditionally occupied is very important to us long after we’ve solidified who we worship the most. I have a soft spot for solar and light-related deities, and that comes out in my practice even though I know that these Gods cannot be reduced to the material sun.

4.2 A Chain, Unbroken

In Platonism, there is one other type of divine relationship — something that is not a choice and could never be a choice. In Platonic doctrine, every soul is in the series of a specific God. A series is a chain that begins with the God. It progresses through several levels of intermediary spirits, and the chain ultimately ends with us. Because being in some God’s series is an innate property of every soul, it is not special; because we are each individuals who express that individuality differently, every soul has its unique, particular way in which it is linked to the God that seeds it. This doctrine calls those of us who hold it to probe the paradox of something as ordinary as grass being so individually important.

The following quotation comes from Proclus during a discussion of people incarnating into lives that are like and unlike the divine series one is suspended from:

Even amid matters that seem difficult to understand or puzzling, the person who simply knows takes the easy path to divine understanding (gnôsis) — retracing [a path that runs via] the divinely inspired cognition (entheos noêsis) through which things become clear and familiar (gnôrimos), for all things are in the gods. The one who has antecedently comprehended all things is able to fill others with his own understanding. This is precisely what Timaeus has done here when he refers us to the authority of the Theologians and the generation of the gods celebrated by them.

Who, then, are these people and what is the understanding (gnôsis) that belongs to them? Well, in the first place, they are ‘offspring of the gods’ and ‘clearly know their own parents.’ They are offspring and children of the gods in as much as they conserve the form of the god who presides over them through their current way of life, for Apollonian souls are called ‘offspring and children of Apollo’ when they choose a life that is prophetic or dedicated to mystic rites (telestikos bios). These souls are called ‘children’ of Apollo to the extent that they belong to this god in particular and are adapted to that series down here. By contrast, they are called offspring of Apollo because their present lifestyle displays them as such. All souls are therefore children of god, but not all of them have recognised the gods whose children they are. Those who recognise [their leading gods] and choose a similar life are called ‘children of gods.’ This is why Plato added the words ‘as they say,’ for these souls [sc. those of the people to whose authority Timaeus proposes to defer] reveal the order from which they come — as in the case of the Sibyl who delivered oracles from the moment of her birth or Heracles who appeared at his birth together with Demiurgic symbols. When souls of this sort revert upon their parents, they are filled by them with divinely inspired cognition (entheos noêsis). Their understanding (gnôsis) is a matter of divine possession since they are connected to the god through the divine light and [this sort of understanding] transcends all other [kinds of] understanding — both that achieved through [reasoning through] what is likely (di’ eikotôn), as well as that which is demonstrative (apodeiktikos). The former deals with nature and the universals that are in the particulars, while the latter deals with incorporeal essence (ousia) and things that are objects of knowledge. But divinely inspired understanding alone is connected to the gods themselves.

Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus, Book 4 (confusingly, Volume 5), trans. Baltzly et al., 159.14-160.12 — all of the things in parentheses and brackets are from Baltzly et al.

As incarnating souls, we “dip down” into various types of lives, from rational lives (think humans, orcas, cetaceans) to nonrational lives (think incarnating as a cat). Above us are heroes, who have a dipping point of rational lives (so, they can’t become cats), above them daimones and angels (who do not have dipping points into material bodies, unless one posits that some daimones dip into planets and stars), and finally, the Gods themselves. Every God has a chain of these intermediaries. At the risk of sounding too spatial for something that is not demarcated by space, the God is the “trunk,” the angels are the “boughs,” and the various levels of daimones are the branches that we (leaves) are suspended from. Each daimon has a cluster of souls it supervises. In addition, specific lives we choose have presiding daimones.

When it comes to embodiment, we have a big challenge: our forgetfulness and our ability to get extremely preoccupied with what happens in specific incarnations or series of incarnations. We sometimes pick life-patterns that align with our leader-God, and sometimes we don’t. This is one of the reasons I called each of us unique — we make traces in the realm of coming-to-be like fingerprints. Some of our journeys express the tragic beauty of our leader-Gods, or the violent and horrific ones, or the depths of disappointment; others skim the surface of generation, like a bird of prey diving into the sea to come back with sustaining nourishment. The story of Cassandra, for instance, is metaphorically about being given gifts and then turning away from a God who cannot be run from because he is already the core of her; there are just as many people given the same prophetic gifts and who are not believed, yet never turn from the source of their good. In this context, part of the maxim γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself) is that we must strive to uncover this knowledge of who we truly are when we cast away all of those garments and to perform our current role in the most just way possible. This may not be easy regardless of how we make that approach.

Series has both the technical meaning just described and a secondary, slippery one, and in its slippery sense, it refers to the God or Gods who preside over our current lifetimes, who may or may not be the same as the God we are suspended from, and Gods who are highly related to specific talents and skills that we have in this lifetime. In other words, it can be tough to figure out who our leader-God is if we approach the problem just based on what we’re good at or the specific aspects of our daily grind.

But we should ask which of the aforementioned six types of essential daimons they say is allotted to each person. Well then, they say that those who live according to their own essence (kat’ousian) – that is, as they were born to live (pephukasi) – have the divine daimon allotted to them, and for this reason we can see that these people are held in high esteem in whatever walk of life they pursue (epitêdeuein). Now [to live] ‘according to essence’ is to choose the life that befits the chain from which one is suspended: for example, [to live] the military life, if [one is suspended] from the [chain] of Ares; or the life of words and ideas (logikos), if from that of Hermes; or the healing or prophetic life, if from that of Apollo; or quite simply, as was said earlier, to live just as one was born to live.

But if someone sets before himself a life that is not according to his essence, but some other life that differs from this, and focuses in his undertakings on someone else’s work – they say that the intellective (noêros) [daimon] is allotted to this person, and for this reason, because he is doing someone else’s work, he fails to hit the mark in some [instances].

Olympiodorus, writing on our allotted daimon, at (20.4-15) of the Alcibiades I commentary

This confusion is not even a bad thing. In Ancient Greek art, there are beautiful scenes of Gods pouring libations to other Gods. Water is, among other things, a symbol of generation. We could view our incarnations that are lived away from our leader-Gods as libations, or gifts, for the other Gods — it is a system of mutual honor. A God pouring a libation for another God, or doing sacrifice in general for another God, is a gift of participation in a portion of their divinity to another, mediated by this weird realm of generation where so many things are possible. We are each, at our core, a one, and the flower at the core of us is always connected to the God we are suspended from; we are, at our periphery, dazzled by and participating in the amalgam of divine delights, a reflection in water of the feast that the Gods share in the Phaedrus.

In generation, the beautiful divine patterns — each driven by a specific God — “freeze” out. Like a frustrated spin glass, there is no configuration of the whole system that can be utterly stable. (Spin glass is made of charged particles, with north and south poles. As with other magnets, they want to align north with south poles, but the configuration of the system prevents them from attaining that — shifting positions keeps putting them in conflict with yet another neighbor. Proclus describes this frustration in a different way in an essay on evils.) These conditions, and these phases of imperfect stability, evolve with time. We are locked in one position only to shift to another. We have that stability of who we are, but also the instability inherent to this environment. Some types of closeness with a God or Gods are driven by where we are in our life or lives; others are metastable over long periods; and only one relationship is absolutely intrinsic.

For those of us who hold that we belong to a God, we can add so much insecurity to this innate wonder of existence. Always focus on the God, and be willing to evolve in how you relate to them. When we focus on the basics of prayer, ritual, and piety, we embrace the changing rhythms of our lives, which is in our nature as souls who are living a life in the material world. We allow ourselves to explore what our relationships to specific Gods mean without grasping tightly to something that will eventually fall away like sand through our fingertips.

In the last chapter, when I quoted from Plotinus before presenting the meditation exercise to you, there is a moment when Plotinus instructs us to ask for the God to come. This is the kind of contemplative practice that can guide you to who that leader-God is, if this practical Platonic section piques your interest. Repeat the meditation, or something similar to it, regularly over time, in conjunction with prayer. If you come into a state of frustration, wanting and desiring a definitive outcome or sign, sit with that feeling. Frustration often makes what we are frustrated about harder to accomplish.

If this does interest you, I end this section with these words. Feel free to contemplate them in meditation or to try that semi-Plotinian cosmic meditation again: Close your eyes, find that stillness, and the God who is intrinsic to you is there. This is not something available to the privileged few, but directly accessible to all. Every human soul, and I do mean each and every one of us, is a prayer continuously without you even realizing it, just as a heliotrope follows the sun.

4.3 Appropriation, appreciation, and cultural reception

This chapter requires a section on appropriation, appreciation, and cultural reception (wow, that’s a lot, isn’t it?) because, in the 21st century, these are all important issues. When we worship a God, we want to know that we’re doing it in a way that is ethical and grounded in a sensible response to our desire to worship them. We do not want to worship with a spirit of cultural voyeurism or appropriation.

The term “cultural appropriation” may already have your stomach tightening, but don’t worry: I am not going to tell you that you cannot worship a deity or set of deities. What I am going to say is that we all need to be aware of what, for lack of a better way of putting it, has been an extremely f—ed up past several hundred years. Appropriation is a way of discussing that power differential and the ways in which dehumanization and prejudice impact relations among people to this very day, especially where these relationships intersect with cultural “objects” and practices. Talking about appropriation doesn’t always mean that you have to give something up — sometimes, it means adding to what you do so you can ensure it is more sensitive and respects others.

I have done cultural appropriation in the past. In my 20s, when worshipping Hellenic Gods, I participated in non-Greek communities that saw themselves as cultural continuations of Ancient Greek religious practices. It’s embarrassing to admit in writing, especially now that I realize how antagonistic many of those groups were to actual modern Greek organizations doing the same revivalist practices for Hellenic Gods. The truth is that I am an American without Greek ancestry, and while the Greek Gods and thematic motifs inspired by them have been part of American literature, art, and other cultural objects for centuries, our connection to these Gods is its own thing driven by our culture, not theirs. Nor is that a bad thing or something to be swept aside! We can look to what inspired creatives in the English-speaking world about specific Gods, myths, and stories, and we can do that without fetishizing a past that isn’t ours to take and without a toxic pursuit of the “authentic.” (The same goes for Americans interested in Vikings or ancient Germanic tribes or Egypt. Know where you’re coming from!) Some aspects of a transmission can be awful. To continue with this personal example, bad aspects of the cultural transmission from Greece include the pilfering of Greek cultural artifacts after the Greek liberation from the Ottoman Empire, the way in which Greek heritage was taken to prop up white supremacy while denigrating modern Greeks as too “ethnic” because they failed to fit that narrative, and the callous humanitarian tragedy that happened when Western European powers failed to intervene in the Greek Genocide because we were hungry for trade with the Ottoman Empire’s successor state. I can worship the Gods, but I need to ensure that I am speaking from my own context and that I am doing what I can about the bad things — activities like supporting repatriation efforts and ensuring that I am mindful of modern Hellenic continuity with their past.

This is where we move into “appreciation”: Behaving respectfully and aligning as much as possible with what must be done in it. To use another example, for decades, yoga has been sanitized to make it more palatable for a white, culturally Christian audience. South Asian Americans in yoga like Anusha Wijeyakumar are advocating for more cultural sensitivity and awareness. One element of that is actually diving deeper into yoga philosophy and adopting the actual lifestyle of yoga. Another element is learning about its Gods, like Shiva, and their importance to the practice. If you do yoga, investigating Gods associated with it (and ways to honor them) from South Asian teachers is a great way to move from appropriation to appreciation. You can even start learning about the philosophy! I promise, as a follower of Plato, I won’t judge you for being in a rival school! Stoicism, which is appropriated by modern society as a self-help tool, also has Gods at its core (okay, a lot of Zeus), and it should be approached in a holistic and respectful way, too. Platonism, likewise, has many Gods, and only recently did scholars start to take that seriously as an intrinsic aspect of the system.

At its most basic, be respectful of Gods and spiritual practices. Those of us who are learning about something as outsiders need to understand and embrace our outsider status for what it is. Two things I’ve found helpful to read are this article from the Atlantic and this piece on cultural appropriation when worshipping many Gods and how that is related to the treatment of everything as if it were a commodity item.

Those of us who worship Gods of a culture we’re not from likely came across those deities through cultural reception. Cultural reception, the way I am defining it, refers to how something that originated from elsewhere is received and interpreted by a culture, and especially to how the receiving culture processes its relationship to that thing. For example, the cultural reception of ancient Mediterranean literature and philosophy in the English-speaking world has historically been tied to elite education, especially to white landholders and old money families. There is a further cultural reception at play nowadays in America where people who have historically had less access to the Classics are working with the material (as it was a privileged cultural corpus) and putting it in dialogue with other aspects of American culture. All of us in America, colonizers and colonized, are swimming in that unique amalgam. Something similar is happening with Latin American countries’ interest in their own histories of Classical reception, although I don’t know the details beyond a press release for an initiative that came across my social media feed in 2020 or so.

People living in the daughter cultures of the ones that produced the ancient myths we’re reading and reacting to in modern American culture may have very little knowledge about the role their ancient literature plays here, depending on how frequently (and deeply) they interact with us. Due to globalization and the Internet, there are many opportunities for this to create clashes — it’s one thing to see a news story from halfway around the world about a new art installation of Medusa and quite another thing for someone to suddenly have a crash course in American politics in the Reddit comments about said installation. In a spiritual context, the way Wiccans relate to the Goddess Hekate is very different from how a Greek American community may worship her in Astoria, New York.

4.3.1 Syncretism and Eclecticism

Syncretism is what happens when you combine belief systems — and sometimes Gods — in a systematic way. To use a linguistics analogy, syncretism is a lot like what happens when speakers of multiple languages convene in a single location — at first, there are communication issues, but a way to communicate quickly starts. Eventually, a creole language is produced, with its own vocabulary, grammar, and syntax drawn from all of the components that fed into it. It’s very different from speaking multiple languages (the analogy for practicing multiple ways of worship at the same time, but keeping them separate). At some point, the new language is formalized and becomes an institution of its own.

Syncretism is often contrasted with eclecticism. Many eclectics value the relationships with each specific God and are not worried about connecting the dots in a completely fused way like syncretics are. Eclectics may be characterized as people who don’t care about systems at all, but this is rarely the case — people who respect Gods put care into how they are worshipped, but that care may take different forms depending on what someone prioritizes. It is all systematic! Eclectics are willing to tolerate ambiguity and juggle different systems; syncretics want to unite it into a whole. Most people are honestly somewhere in the middle.

Syncretic and eclectic practices are what most of us in America will end up doing — and, if not us, our children. We come from many places, with a vast array of cultural inputs, and America is a melting pot. In addition, almost everything is Americanized (to some extent) eventually. What matters most is that we stay curious about the Gods and our practice. The world is full of Gods, as Thales said. Our relationship with the Gods changes over time, as the Platonists say, because we are alive in time.

An example of a syncretic (and slightly eclectic) practice would be if someone were to map hearth Goddesses from their heritage onto physical directions and pray to them according to direction. Returning to what I said about worshipping four hearth Goddesses, I could hypothetically set Frigg as East/Air, Hestia as South/Fire, Brigando as West/Water, and Nantosuelta as North/Earth. This would be a nesting doll of syncretism. First, I am looking at Goddesses from four different contexts; second, I am combining them with directional quarters that are used in modern popular Wicca; and third, I am praying to all of the Goddesses at the same time using that directional context. The unifying elements here would be that these Goddesses represent both hearth Goddesses of my maternal and paternal families, plus the Hellenic Gods that I pray to out of fondness. It would efficiently get around questions of who to pray to (and when) by praying to them all at once.

Another example of a syncretic practice would be the fusion of Belesama with Minerva in Roman Gaul. Belesama is a solar Goddess, with strong water associations; she is wisdom-filled, good with words, and radiant. During that historical period, she was seen as the local version of Minerva by Roman authorities, and the worship of the two Goddesses fused together. Belesama and Minerva are distinct Goddesses. I would, based on personal contemplative experience, place Belesama in a similar conceptual space to Apollon, Aletheia, and Helios. Sulis, another Goddess who was syncretized by Romans to Minerva, was also worshipped as Minerva during the Roman occupation. She has more in common with Hygeia and Salus.

The understanding of deities as being similar is called interpretatio, a Roman word. It was used by the Romans to identify which local Gods of conquered peoples (or which Gods of a neighboring people) corresponded to specific Roman Gods, often for the purpose of integration and cohesion into the Empire. Importantly, even when names are equated, people would still swear oaths by their own Gods, and many people active in theology — like Iamblichus — were against the equation of names. In many cases, even when etymologies are clear, a deity may not actually be the same. Mars and Ares, based on their iconography and how people worshipped them in antiquity, are definitely not the same! Nor are Eshu and Hermes despite the many commonalities they have as Gods who are associated with boundaries, playful trickery, and liminal spaces. We do not know the upper limit of the number of Gods. For this reason, even when it’s easy to conceptualize a God by relating them to a God you already know a bit about, it’s best to approach them as a distinct person unless something happens in ritual that makes it clear that they are the same. This is a very different approach from what happens in modern secular media when it uses mythology and deities. It is typically not being created by people with deep theological understanding of many Gods, but to sell stories based on myths that we have imported via cultural reception.

The more you read about syncretism, eclecticism, and interpretatio, the more questions might arise. I advise to worry less about this and more about cultivating your personal spiritual practice. To whom do you pray at home? The Gods, perhaps the household spirits and ancestors. However, as you learn about the Gods you have chosen, you may encounter writings, videos, and podcasts that conflate deities from neighboring cultures or sources that claim that all lunar Gods are the same. The information in this section will prepare you for that.

4.4 Exercise: Do Some Research, Then Pray

Choose one (or more) of the methods listed above for selecting deities. Use resources available to you to do some searching. It’s OK to go on Wikipedia — check the Talk page of whichever deity’s page you land on if you see anything you’re really unsure about. The Talk page can be accessed at a link just above the page title, and it shows you what editors have been arguing about while maintaining the page.

Other options include looking up terms like “Norse pantheon list of Gods” in Google. When you search, you will see a combination of how-to articles, blogs, Tumblr posts, academic articles and pages, and so on. As you shift among different resources, note the creator’s perspective when writing the piece, especially differences between historical information and modern insights that arise from practice, political outlook, and other aspects of someone’s personality and habits.

Narrow down to one or two deities. Do another search, but just for them. You might use “-tumblr -twitter -pinterest” to remove things from the results if you’re using Google.

Here are a few questions to guide you: What kinds of offerings are typically given to this deity? What are their main symbols? Were they worshipped in any specific regions? What kinds of appearances does this God make in pop culture today? Are there any surviving ancient prayers that you could give them?

Once you have done your research, write down the God’s name on a piece of paper and go to your small shrine space. After praying to the hearth Gods, pray to one of the Gods you have chosen. Greet them (say whatever comes most naturally to you) and give an offering. The offering could be the same one that you gave to the hearth Gods or something based on your research.

If you know extemporaneous speaking isn’t for you, you’re welcome to prepare something written to read for the God during this first introductory prayer. You might give your name, the reason you are praying to this deity out of all of your other options, and provide some important information. What would you tell another person you’ve just met?

After praying, take a few moments to pause.

The information you’ve learned about the God is also useful for contemplative practices.