Saturday, January 28, 2012

H. Jeremiah Lewis/ Sannion

Hello and Happy Saturday!

Thank you to Helio Pires for his interesting and enjoyable interview of last week. Thanks so much for sharing with us Helio!

This week we have a new interview so please welcome H. Jeremiah Lewis/ Sannion. Jeremiah is a Classical Polytheist and I know you'll enjoy his interview as well!

Here Is H. Jeremiah Lewis/Sannion's Introduction:

H. Jeremiah Lewis, who goes by the religious name Sannion, is a Classical Polytheist and Dionysian who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He serves his gods as an oracular priest and is a prolific author, having just released his fifth book – Ecstatic: For Dionysos – through Nysa Press. You can learn more about him by visiting his blog and website at

1) What religion do you practice?
Religious identity as we tend to think of it is a fairly recent development. Before the Jews and Christians came on the scene there wasn’t really a sense of “religion” as something you belonged to, something composed of a set of beliefs and practices that marked off one group of people as distinct from another, which is why you won’t find a cognate for that term in Egyptian, Akkadian, Greek, Etruscan or any of the other languages of antiquity. Religion was merely a part of everyday life, comprising the customs and traditional notions handed down from the ancestors involving a community’s relations with its local gods and spirits. Each community – to say nothing of separate ethnic groups or nations – had its own unique way of being religious, but there were also broad commonalities such as polytheism, purification rites, sacrifice, divination and oracles, temples and priesthoods that seemed to be shared by the whole of humanity. Recognition of these commonalities allowed civilizations to peacefully coexist without religiously motivated warfare, persecution, heresy trials and the like, with many cultures borrowing ideas, imagery, ritual procedures and even their neighbors’ gods with great frequency. As such I tend to think of myself as a Classical Polytheist who incorporates elements from the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans into his contemporary worship of the gods – though I am predominantly devoted to Dionysos, the god of wine, madness, liberation, fertility, the dramatic arts and many other things as well. Thus I shall endeavor to answer your questions from the perspective of a Dionysian, with the understanding that another Classical Polytheist who primarily honored a different deity (and even some other Dionysians) would likely have their own take on things. Also keep in mind that while I tend to emphasize the continuity among these ancient civilizations the majority of polytheist reconstructionists today view Kemeticism, Hellenismos and the Religio Romana as distinct and autonomous faiths.

2) Are you a convert/revert or were you raised within this religion? If you converted, what did you need to do to convert? And what did you practice prior to converting?
Like most polytheists today I began my spiritual life in a totally different religion before eventually finding my way to Dionysos and the other gods. My family moved around a lot in my youth so I was exposed to pretty much every form of Christianity imaginable, as we attended whatever church was close by (often the only church in the small, rural towns we tended to settle in.) Eventually I came to have serious misgivings about some of the core tenets of Christianity which led me to look elsewhere for divine truth. On top of that in late adolescence I had a series of encounters with a strange, earthy, sensual, masculine figure – dreams, visions and related phenomena – the memory of which haunted me through my early teen years. I chased his shadow through a variety of different religions and philosophical systems before coming to realize his true identity as Dionysos. Wishing to learn everything that I could about his nature, history and preferred forms of worship I began an extensive phase of research on all aspects of ancient Greek culture and religion. Eventually I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my love of antiquity and desire to see this religion revived when I encountered a thriving community of Hellenic Reconstructionists online. I spent the next few years active in this community, participating on the lists and forums, writing voluminously, organizing events and founding and leading a number of different groups. Then around 2004 I had a series of powerful encounters with the Kemetic deities which led to an interest in the fusion of cultures that took place in Hellenistic Egypt under the Ptolemies. Eventually I discovered some kindred souls and we formed a syncretic Greco-Egyptian religious group called Neos Alexandria. My time there was extremely pleasant and we had many ambitious plans, including the founding of a publishing line to bring about devotional books honoring the gods of Greece, Egypt and neighboring lands – which is still going strong several years on! However running such a large and active group took a lot out of me and my religious practice suffered as a consequence. So around 2009 I parted ways with Neos Alexandria to focus on my own solitary worship and writing and to put my energy into local activities to honor the gods, independent of the internet which I think has some serious problems and actually impedes the growth of minority religious groups. And that’s pretty much where I am at today.

3)Within your religion are there degrees of observance (ie. Orthodox, conservative, moderate, liberal)? What are the defining differences between the degrees of observance?
Although those types of division are plentiful in the world of contemporary polytheism – especially when it comes to the methodology of reconstructionism which has been the source of a great deal of contention – you don’t find much of that among worshipers of Dionysos. We tend to be pretty laid-back and libertarian, preferring to do our own thing when it comes to honoring the Wild One and letting others do likewise. In fact Dionysian worship seems especially suited to blurring the lines and bringing everyone together in a spirit of mirth and revelry. I’ve participated in (and led) rituals attended by more than a hundred and fifty people – people from every conceivable religious orientation and degree of strictness – and they were able to put aside their theological, philosophical and methodological differences in order to drink and dance and rave in ecstatic celebration of the great giver of life’s bounty. And frankly that’s the way it should be if you ask me – everything else is incidental.

4)Within your religion what degree of observance are you (ie. Orthodox,conservative, moderate, liberal) ? Why did you choose this degree of observance?
I’m just a devotee of Dionysos – I don’t really care about identity politics and labels. I have a great respect for the reconstructionist approach, as solid a grounding in the literature and ideas of the ancients as one could want, and I doubt even the staunchest traditionalist would find anything to complain about in how I conduct my rituals. But I don’t really identify myself as a recon because I feel that we should remain open to inspiration and innovation if we are going to have a living religion centered on our relationships with living deities. If the gods communicate that they would like to receive an offering unattested in the lore or show themselves to us in a novel form, I don’t think it’s proper to disregard that in order to preserve some sort of artificial “authenticity.”

5)What is the Afterlife within your religion? For example: what happens when a person dies? Are there places for reward/punishment? (such as a Heaven/Hell concept)
One of the most fascinating – and vexing – things about the ancients is that they often entertained a variety of mutually contradictory accounts without attempting to reconcile or favor one above the others. So for instance the Greek view of death and the afterlife included everything from metempsychosis (reincarnation) to dissolution into nothingness to posthumous survival as an impotent shade of one’s former self in a gloomy underworld abode to a blessed existence of eternal joy and pleasure and communion with the divine for those who had undergone initiation into the mysteries to spiritual evolution into a higher category of being or even the notion that the dead remained with us, bringing luck and wealth or illness and trouble to their families, depending on how they were treated. Sometimes you find several of these expressed simultaneously by the same individual!

Which is generally my approach. For instance I tend to believe that most people end up as shades in the underworld, unable to act or recognize themselves unless fed with sacrificial blood. A few, however, retain a measure of vitality and so can interact with our world as ghosts or heroes. An even fewer number experience a better fate because of their close relationship with certain deities – Dionysos in particular. His ancient cults had a strong eschatological concern with the initiates gaining entrance into an eternal symposium with endless food and wine, dancing and love-making. This is what I look forward to when my time comes – to revel in the presence of my god and experience a mystical union with him closer and more intensely intimate than anything I’ve felt here on earth.

6) In your opinion, does everyone make it into heaven/paradise? If they do not, why?
No. Most people end up in Haides, which is sort of a shadowy realm comparable to the Catholic purgatory. It’s not a place of torment or punishment; it’s just kind of dreary and boring. But then again since that’s what most people’s lives are like here on earth I suspect they’ll hardly notice any difference when they arrive there.

7) What makes your religion a good fit for you?
Everything about it! It nourishes me spiritually, intellectually, aesthetically and in every other way that matters. It provides me with a firm conception of the world, how it works and my place in it. It brings me into direct contact with the divine powers who are the source of all good things in life so that my experience of existence can be enriched and it provides me with an eloquent vocabulary to express my profound gratitude to them. More, the rituals that I perform are beautiful, exciting and full of complex meaning. Every part of my life is suffused with religious sentiment and shaped by my devotional practices. I honestly can’t imagine finding this kind of fulfillment in any other religion – except, perhaps, some other type of polytheism. But since it’s Dionysos, Hermes, Spider, Aphrodite, the Ptolemies and a few others that I am closest to, any religion that is not built around their worship holds little to no appeal for me.

8) What are your holy days and what do you do to celebrate them?
I have an extremely large calendar of festivals, important anniversaries, seasonal observances and set devotional days each month to honor my gods and spirits. Some of these are taken over directly from the ancients and kept in a manner that resembles what they did as closely as my modern circumstances permit. Others have an ancient festival as their starting point but were adapted to my local climate and environment or combined with other ritual and festival elements in such a way that it’s best to think of them as an altogether different and new festival. Others were invented by members of my extended religious community or by myself to celebrate a specific aspect of a deity or commemorate an event or experience that has deep personal significance. And the monthly devotional days are times that I set aside to focus on and commune with my various gods and spirits or to perform specific activities that help bring me into their particular sphere of activity. As such my calendar is highly idiosyncratic and in a state of constant evolution and thus few of the dates on it are observed by anyone else. If you’d like to learn more about how this calendar was developed and what my religious practice entails I recommend you follow my blog where I talk at length about such things.

9) Do you consider people of other faiths to be your friends?
Absolutely! Most of my friends, in fact, belong to other polytheistic traditions and I also count Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Agnostics among my acquaintances. The character traits that create a good person are not the prerogative of any one religion. I have learned a great deal and had my life enriched immensely through these relationships.

10) Would you ever join people of another faith to celebrate one of their holy days? Please explain why?
Well, that depends. I won’t participate in an observance that I feel brings about ritual impurity or which requires the espousal of beliefs that are contrary to mine or which I find deeply offensive. I will not, as an example, deny the existence of my gods, seek atonement for sins I don’t believe in, permit others to pray for me or attempt to spiritually “heal” or “deliver” me – nor do I feel the need to participate in any kind of vague, watered down, ecumenical service. But on the other hand I’ve proudly stood by others as they offered sacrifice to their gods even though they weren’t my gods, I’ve marched in a Catholic procession through the streets at night, and been witness to many beautiful and touching displays of religious sentiment. I think that we can learn a lot about what makes good ritual by exposing ourselves to the practices of others, since it is fundamentally an art form whose essential components cut across cultural and ideological divides. And as a polytheist I affirm the reality of all divinities and believe they are worthy of our respect and worship, even if I tend to limit my cultic activity to only a handful of them. My gods are not jealous and have no problem with me honoring the rest of their compatriots.

11) What are your thoughts on the burka, and Shariah Law?
I am totally opposed to the institution of Sharia Law because it is totally opposed to me in its condemnation of my gods, their worship and many of the things associated with them such as sex, alcohol, dance and music. In fact Islam represents everything that is antithetical to the Dionysian way of life. If a Moslem wishes to adhere to that system of law himself it is no concern of mine, but I’ll fight to the bloody end if he gets it in his head to try and coerce me into doing likewise.

Now the burka is a different matter entirely. As an advocate of absolute individual freedom – liberty, after all, comes from the Latin name of my god, Liber Pater – I believe that a Moslem woman has every right to dress in whatever way she finds most suitable. If she chooses to wear the burka as an expression of modesty, fidelity to her husband and respect for her god and her people’s traditions then she has my full blessing. I may find it ugly, repressive and extremely uncomfortable to wear but that’s why you’ll never find me wearing one! If she feels differently, why should I care? So, on those grounds I am totally opposed to the recent efforts in France and other European nations to ban the wearing of this garment, which I consider hypocritical, tyrannical and just plain idiotic since it plays into the Jihadis hands. However I’m well aware that in many parts of the world the wearing of the burka isn’t a choice the woman gets to make herself. Or rather she does get to choose – between covering herself from head to toe in heavy, hot fabric or face insults, ostracism, abuse, rape and sometimes even murder. I find that extremely reprehensible, surpassed only by the infantile excuses the men use to justify their barbaric and disgusting treatment of women. “They must dress this way to ensure men are not inflamed with lust.” Well, where’s your decency and self-control, you weak hypocrites!?! The truly temperate and pious man ought to be able to pass a naked woman in the street without a single carnal thought entering his mind and distracting him from loving communion with his god. “It’s against Allah’s wishes!” If Allah is the creator of all that is then certainly he is responsible for feminine beauty and sexual longing. Why should he have given women clitorises if he didn’t want them to be used? Why create things like flowers and rainbows and pretty faces if beauty wasn’t meant to be appreciated for its own sake? “But the wife belongs to her husband!” No human is a commodity to be bought and sold and owned outright. She is a human, not a precious vase or a camel! And so on and so forth.

12) Are women allowed to hold religious office (priest, minister, rabbi, iman etc) in your religion and how do you feel about it?
Women actually play a very important role in the worship of Dionysos – to the point where he is frequently described as the woman’s god. Not only did females feature prominently in his myths, serve him in a priestly capacity, were responsible for the promulgation of his cult – but the role of mainad was open only to females, the mad-women who were his nurses, lovers, hunting companions and ecstatic revelers who tore him to pieces and roused his spirit up from the earth with the flowers and fruit in due season. The mainades are essential to Dionysos and his worship.

13) Does your place of worship segregate? If yes, how does this make you feel?
Yes and no. Dionysos’ worship involves an orgiastic blurring of lines. It is a mad throng reveling in the woods, comprised of all segments of the population – young and old, rich and poor, citizen and stranger, male and female. And yet, as I mentioned above, there are certain roles in his cult that can only be fulfilled by women just as there are other roles that belong to men alone. Likewise there is a distinction between the casual reveler and the initiate in his mysteries, one who has come for the feast and returns to their ordinary life afterwards and those who have given up everything to follow him and been torn apart and remade in the image of Dionysos. Although everyone may freely receive the blessings of the god, he gives different things to different people, depending on their need and their level of commitment.

14) How much does your religion affect your daily life and how much thought do you give it when making a decision? Does it affect in any way your decision on abortion, gay marriage, etc?
Religion is the primary focus of my life, to the point where scarcely any part of who I am, what I do or how I think about things remains untouched by it. I can’t take a stroll through a park without feeling the presence of the nymphai and other nature-spirits. I can’t watch a movie or listen to music without my mind being flooded by religious imagery and thoughts. When I hear about contemporary events I flash back to what I’ve read of history and how the ancients dealt with similar matters. I strive to have my every act reflect the greater glory of my gods and conduct myself with piety, righteousness, gentleness and consciousness of the delicate balance that preserves all life on this planet. On the other hand I believe that intelligence is a divinely given faculty and that we honor the gods most when we use our brains to the best of our ability. So while I consider the traditional teachings of Classical antiquity to be a sound guide through the confusing and dangerous labyrinth of life, I have no problem parting ways with them when I feel that our ancestors were in error or a situation requires a more nuanced approach. As an example, slavery was widely practiced in the ancient world, and though some intellectuals (especially among the Stoics) abhorred it they never got around to abolishing the institution entirely and probably couldn’t have with their level of technological advancement. (We moderns only succeeded in doing so after the industrial revolution was well underway.) I have no problem condemning slavery and saying that we’re much better off now without it. Ditto the misogyny and xenophobia that one all-too-frequently encounters in ancient writings.

So, if you want my take on these issues as a contemporary Dionysian, here they are: it is my adamant conviction that there ought to be plenty of abortion and gay marriage for those who want it and none for those who don’t.

15) How would you react/feel if your child wished to marry outside your religion?
Well, that’s kind of an academic question for me. Between realizing that I’d make an atrocious parent and that the primary cause of nearly every major problem we’re facing today is overpopulation, I made sure to get a vasectomy a while back. But as long as this hypothetical child of mine – let’s call him Ptolemy Eleutherios Nietzsche Innamorato Sannion for argument’s sake: and yes, this is one of the many reasons why I will not be reproducing – was in a happy, loving and supportive relationship he’d have my blessing to marry whatever boy from whatever religious background he pleased to – excluding, of course, Scientologists ‘cause those folks are nuttier than baklava, and not in a fun way!

16) In your opinion, if someone is not of your faith, will they go to hell?
The ancients were not psychotic bullies who believed that you had to bribe or threaten people into loving the gods. The gods simply were and those who acknowledged them reaped the benefits of communion with the divine while those who didn’t deprived themselves of such blessings.

While the soul is judged after death in both Greek and Egyptian thought, with our good and evil deeds weighed in a balance, “belief” doesn’t really enter into the equation. There is punishment for our wickedness, but it is commensurate with our actions – not an excruciating torment from which there is no hope of escape. Once we have atoned for our wrongdoing we either go on to our posthumous abode – Haides for most, the Isles of the Blest for a few or Tartaros for an even smaller number – or else, according to the Orphics and Pythagoreans at least, we are born again on earth in order to improve our future lot. But you have to be exceptionally evil to end up in Tartaros – Sisyphos, Tantalos, or Lykourgos level evil. Or in terms most will understand: Hitler, Dahmer or Phelps.

17) Who do you think is not a practicing ----- in your religion and why? ie who in the public domain claims to speak for your religion? Do you agree with them or not?
I consider non-practicing Dionysians to be those who don’t, well, practice the religion. Since there’s no set worship routine that’s a fairly subjective thing and I prefer not to concern myself overly much with what others do or don’t do. After all their relationship with Dionysos is necessarily going to differ from mine. They may only feel the need to pray and make offerings to him every couple of months and never have an element of ekstasis and enthousiasmos as part of their worship. Others still may feel that writing and talking about him is all the “worship” that’s necessary for them. I disagree, obviously, and feel that you get out of any relationship – divine or mortal – pretty much what you put into it, so I’m always trying to find ways to deepen my connection with him and honor him. But ultimately I think such matters are best left between the individual and their deity. If Dionysos wants more from a person he’s quite capable of asking for it!

To answer the second part of your question – yeah, there are plenty of folks in the Hellenic, Kemetic and Greco-Egyptian communities whose opinions and actions I disagree with and who I feel do not, under any circumstances, speak for me. Even so I do not contest their right to claim such an identity for themselves. There’s no litmus test to belong to these religions, no office of the holy inquisition going around policing people’s thought and making sure that they conduct their rites in the proper manner – and we can thank the blessed gods for that! While it’s annoying to see some megalomaniacal buffoon spouting off about “this is what True Hellenes do and believe” I don’t worry that outsiders are going to lump me in with them because it’s usually abundantly clear that we’ve got nothing in common. Most of them are ignorant of the primary sources our tradition is based on, just aping the arguments they’ve heard others make and too busy participating in endless online flame-wars to abother actually worshiping the gods and celebrating their festivals. Quality shines through in the end, so I consider such people of no account and instead concern myself with my own practice. When I stand before Dionysos after my Journey West he’s not going to ask me, “Why didn’t you wag your finger at more people Sannion? You didn’t argue nearly enough.” He’s going to say, “You were fearless and creative, you danced and drank, sang my praises and lived every moment that was given you to the fullest – well done my son!” At least he’s going to say that if I’ve done my job well.

18) Have you ever been the target of a hate crime? Please explain.
Nope. The worst I’ve had to endure is listening to some idiotic fan-boy of Christ go on about how I’m deluded, my gods are really devils and I’m destined for hell when I die. Thankfully we were given a pair of middle fingers especially for situations like that.

In all seriousness though I’ve never been subjected to any kind of discrimination based on my religious affiliation, though I know that there are plenty of Pagans and other polytheists out there who have. People that have lost their jobs and homes, had their beliefs brought up in divorce and child custody cases, suffered vandalism, threats and physical violence. Things have certainly improved a great deal since the days of Cyril, Theodosios, Justinian and their ilk – but we’ve got a long way to go yet before we live in a truly just, tolerant and pluralistic society. I sometimes forget how bad my co-religionists have it because I live in an ultra-liberal hippy mecca where you can parade through the streets in full ceremonial attire and ivy-crowns and no one’ll even bat an eyelash. Frequently you’re not even the weirdest person out on the street! Of course that begs the question why anyone with an “alternative lifestyle” would choose to live in the Bible belt or anywhere else you’ve got to keep up appearances and hide what you are and do – but hey, no one has ever accused us humans of being a rational species.

19) Do you ever feel like your religion devalues you?
This question confused me because I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would remain a part of a religion that they felt under or devalued them. And then I realized that you probably had to ask this because it’s the experience of a lot of people and that deeply saddened me. So, my message to the readers of your blog would be this: Listen up, folks! No religion holds a monopoly on truth or the sole means of connecting with the divine. Either find one better suited to your needs or hell, go off and create your own! The only thing you’ve got to lose is your shackles.

20) Does your religion give you peace of mind?
Definitely not! My religion provides me with many things but peace of mind certainly isn’t one of them. It’s probably the biggest cause of stress and anxiety in my life – and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

You see, one of the core values of Classical Polytheism is αρετή, a Greek word meaning virtue, excellence, exceptionalness. Areté represents the ideal, the peak of perfection, our highest aspirations which as humans we are ultimately unable to attain. But that’s beside the point – we must strive with all we have, offer and become our best – and in so doing come as close to divinity as we are ever going to. For the ancients this was not just a deeply cherished social value but rather a fundamentally religious concept. Hence most festivals contained an agon or competition in the fields of athletics, music, dance, poetry or beauty. It was felt that the gods desired and deserved to see humanity at its best and that the struggle to attain that purified not only the individuals but the whole community. Further because of their perfection it was necessary to give to the gods the very best that we have: the most beautiful temples and statues, the choicest sacrificial animals, the costliest perfumes and incenses, the first-fruits of our labor and the sweat of our brow and mastery of our craft gained from long hours of discipline and practice. Anything less than our best is an affront to their greatness.

Therefore no matter how good I get I am always trying to improve on that and challenge myself in new and different ways. I refuse to sit on my laurels and congratulate myself on past accomplishments. Whether in my writing, my studies, my oracular and other spiritual work, the rituals I perform and any other part of my life that comes under their purvey I am constantly looking for ways to improve, things I neglected or got wrong, new directions I could take it in or techniques to try out. I do not compare myself to my contemporaries but rather to the giants and geniuses who came before. And I won’t be satisfied even once I’ve surpassed them, because there is always room for improvement. Always. So no, my religion does not offer peace of mind – but it holds out something infinitely preferable: greatness.

21) Do you believe in reincarnation? Why or why not?
Plenty of the ancients held to the doctrine of metempsychosis, especially the Orphics, Pythagoreans and later philosophical schools. It even seems to have been an element in the eschatological beliefs of certain Dionysian groups – though these tended to overlap a good deal with the Orphics and Pythagoreans, especially in Southern Italy where the idea was most prevalent. However, I remain agnostic on the matter. It strikes me as about as probable as any other theory of what happens to us after death and equally as unlikely. Ultimately though I don’t think it matters much what we think about it – either it happens or it doesn’t, and our beliefs aren’t likely to change things one bit. However our beliefs do affect the quality of life we have here and now, and that’s what truly matters. You’ve got to live this life as best you can and deal with the consequences of your choices and actions. Too many people who believe in reincarnation use it as an excuse for their poor circumstances and a way to abdicate personal responsibility. Or else they are obsessed with discovering the details of their former lives and create elaborate fantasies for themselves to make it easier to deal with the fact that they’re just some poor schmuck working a dead-end job. Even if all of that stuff is true it’s incidental to what’s happening now. This is the life you’re leading and you’ve got to make the most of what you’ve been given. If you don’t you’re the only one who will suffer the consequences – even if you come back again that’ll be a different “you” than the one that’s here now, no?

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