Today we offer a guest post by Daughter of Neptune, who is creating her own nontheist Pagan practice focused on the archetypes of Greek and Roman deities.
All roads lead to Rome and it was on my intellectual journey to Ancient Rome that I became an atheist pagan. I love learning the history, culture, and language of the Republic-cum-Empire and often wonder what it was like to live under the Caesars and to fight in the legions for the Glory of Rome. Last year, in reading a biography of Caesar Augustus, I was struck by an image of him capite velato (with his head veiled) to perform religious rites as the Pontifex Maximus and thought it would be interesting to practice the Roman religion – without animal sacrifice, of course. However, as a lifelong atheist, I couldn’t make myself believe the Greco-Roman deities to be anything other than personifications of abstract concepts and natural phenomena.
I began to wonder if one could be an atheist and an adherent of the Roman Cultus Deorum. More specifically, I wondered if there was away that I could worship Poseidon and Neptune (my favorite gods) and still be an atheist. In my research I read Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World, a scholarly examination of prominent Greek and Roman nonbelievers. Whitmarsh paraphrases Sextus Empiricus, a second century CE Roman skeptic, who found that “honoring the gods, in the sense of performing ritual activities, is not the same as believing that they exist.” Satisfied that there is historical precedent for atheists to practice the Roman religion, I sought modern resources to inform my tradition and found Mark Green’s “Atheopaganism” and John Halstead’s “Humanistic Paganism” webpages.
Drawing from Mark and John’s principles of atheist and humanist paganism and from various other sources, I drafted a document that I call “Five Articles of Reason” which codifies my beliefs, or lack thereof, as it were. Succinctly, the Articles outline my commitment to agnostic atheism, philosophical naturalism, secular humanism, intellectual curiosity, and to joie de vivre. Drawing from my military experience in naval applications of oceanography and meteorology and from my civilian experience in earthquake science, I crafted a secular understanding of Poseidon/Neptune, the god of the sea, storms at sea, and earthquakes. For what it’s worth, I associate Greek civilization with basic science and intellectual pursuits so I think of Poseidon as the personification of oceanography, meteorology, and seismology; I associate Roman civilization with applied science and martial pursuits so I think of Neptune as the personification of environmental impacts on naval operations.
With the tenets of my tradition established, the next step was to create my ritual. Because I’ve never attended a pagan ritual, I modeled mine on the more familiar Protestant order of service. It comprises 1) the illumination of the altar/Focus with a “sounds of the ocean” soundtrack playing in the background, 2) an invocation to both Poseidon and Neptune, 3) reading Homeric Hymn XXII to Poseidon and Orphic Hymn XVI to Neptune, 4) reading “scripture,” i.e. pertinent selections from the Iliad, Odyssey, or Aeneid, 5) a “sermon,” i.e. reading articles about earth science, the Greco-Roman world, or famous naval battles, 6) a benediction, and 7) delumination of the altar/Focus. It is my intention to perform this formal ritual on the equinoxes, the solstices, and on Neptunalia, the two-day Roman festival in honor of Neptune.
On a daily basis, I honor Poseidon and Neptune in an informal way by wearing a necklace with a dolphin, seashell, or trident pendant, a blue article of clothing to remind me of the ocean, or my favorite nail polish, a sea-green color named “Neptunalia.” I recently learned that modern pagan women sometimes cover their hair as part of their practices. Because I was – and still am – so captivated by the image of Augustus capite velato, I occasionally veil with a small, ocean-colored kerchief not only out of devotion to Poseidon and Neptune, but also out of reverence for Rome and its role in the foundation of Western Civilization.
All roads lead to Rome and it was through Rome that I became an atheist pagan.
You, too, can submit material about your Atheopagan practice to the blog! Email to atheopagan (at) comcast.net. Deadline is the first of each month.
The term ‘Atheopagan’ I first learned from this blog: Atheopaganism, but the basis and principles had been growing in me before I realised there could be a name for it. It was just an idea, a notion of loving mythology and ancient cultures, absorbing the lessons they teach. It was knowing the importance of the planet and power of the cosmos, but seeing it from an entirely scientific and physical- as opposed to supernatural– point of view.
Where it began.
I never needed a creation story to make the universe wonderful. A deity making a universe in seven days made no impact on how immense and superb the stars, black holes and dark matter of the cosmos are. When I stopped believing in the Bible, the Big Bang theory and billions of years of change were more marvellous to be than any myth, no matter how peculiar they were. I grew up Baptist and until ten years old I’m pretty sure I believed the Eden story, but then I made the right kind of friend and had my eyes wedged open, and the ‘faith switch’- as I term it- in my brain was permanently switched off.
Mythology is every religion.
Most of us begin with fairy tales. Stories about supernatural trickery and adventure are just a natural part of growing up. We realise it’s just fantasy, and move past these childish tales. But at age nine I picked up a book on Greek mythology and fell down the gods-and-monsters rabbit hole. Still down there, but the light of that old cliche- ‘Science’- is the light at the top of the tunnel. Before I was twelve I realised that the religion I was raised with was just another mythology and set of fables. I saw the god of the Bible in the same light I saw Zeus and Athena, and thought of the stories of Jericho, Jonah etc. in the same way as the fall of Troy: As myths, possible real events embellished by the storytellers, as all historic events are changed in the minds of those who can’t know the reality because it is lost in time.
My first questioning of God was the age old ‘why does he let bad things happen?’ And that same question has evolved over the years. I’ve had that argument about the ‘loving god’ who slaughters people left and right so many times with my very Christian sister, but it’s liking two brick heads slamming into each other: Never going to be resolved without breaking both of us apart.
Trying to turn the ‘faith switch’ back on.
There’s a thing about high school and Wicca. Students with overflowing creativity and a love of the magical, often with unhappiness hidden deep- turn to this wonderful spells-and-rituals, candles-and-roses New Age spiritualism that offers pretty moments and escape from real life. That was me, anyway. I was never sure if I truly believed in it, because I saw its real origins as a mashup of myths. But I kept going- hiding it from my religious family- because it was the only escape in a hellish home life. But by middle college, even my ‘wish-it-could-be-true’ switch was turned off. It was parts cold logic, cynicism and absolute misery that smashed the switch and cut the wiring. Not sure I even realised that back then. Funny what you realise when you start typing. I tried it all again a couple of years later, but it was too late.
The Dead Years
University failed in two months. Jobless and down deep in depression. Home still hell. Self harm and all that jazz. Had a job for a year and a half, came out a nervous wreck bouncing off the walls with anxiety. Call centres will do that to you. Unemployed, temp jobs failed. I will add, purely to make myself feel better, that I NEVER got in trouble in that time. Still living at home but paying rent with what little benefits I had, I got a little help with groceries from my mum so I never had to ask my dad for help- he definitely couldn’t afford it- I never took drugs, never stole, never made life hell for other people just because I was unhappy. I can hold my head up high on that one. But all the while, the misery took over. I stockpiled pills in those days. Just in case. Contingency plan. And I always wished I’d had the guts to take them. Still hovering over that one, on my bad days. But the stockpile is gone. I can say that much, now.
All that time I lived in my fantasies, including an unrelenting Tolkien LOTR/Silmarillion obsession, reruns of Star Trek and all the distraction that TV and PlayStation could offer. But I forgot my first love. Mythology dropped away, a dead weight in books I never read. So far removed from the magic that my faux-belief in Wicca had provided, whatever spiritualism I had turned cold, an ice-vein in my brain. False fantasy overtook ancient lore, and in the end I hated even that because it could never be real. Real life almost killed me. It still does. Maybe I just read too many fairy tales as a child, never grew up. Never wanted to. No reason to, if you only hope to find the courage to die.
Debate sparks a nerve
Oh, the wonderful years of endless YouTube Atheist vs Theist debate. The flame wars and endless DMCA flagging and comment-shouting matches. Small fry and an electron-sized drop in the great debate ocean but, personally speaking, I found something greater than myself and my own problems to be angry at again. On the atheist side, naturally, but I hope never behaving like an ill-mannered dick to the opposition, even when they were being like that themselves. The point was that for the first time in years, I had something to do, to think about, something outside my little world, an electric shock to the brain and breath of air. In ‘The Bell Jar,’ Plath describes electroshock as someone lifting the lid off the bell jar and letting in a new breeze, instead of sitting in her own sour air inside the jar. That’s what the discovery of debate- real, important worldwide discussion- was: A release from the suffocation of my own little world. I still spent most of my time online and that wasn’t good for me, I’ll admit, but it was a start.
New start, basic but better.
Got an interview. Basic stuff, call centre again. I can do this. No problem. Anxiety levels shot through the roof but, four years later and I’m still here, so must be doing something right, right? If they can deal with my anxiety and tearful moments, I’ve gotta be doing a good job, if they let me teach the newbies? Either way, surrounded by people again. Not alone all the time. Ups and downs, but compared to the dead years, I’ll take this, thank you. I hate it, it’s okay, there’s still a whole lot of hell in my head and outside it. But a salary relieves some worries, and the load is lightened, even if dark thoughts like tiny savages hack at my brain still.
Re-emergence, a pilgrimage by torchlight.
Welcome my old friend fantasy, discoveries of new forms, books and film, sinking back into a genuine enjoyment of the otherworldly and not simply using it to run away. The old myth-loving demi-pagan began to creep out of her ice-cave hiding place, and started to believe again. In the power of fable, anyway. Still science-minded, and turning into a workplace eco-warrior. (“Hey! When are we gonna get proper recycling here?”)
It builds, then someone tells you about a pagan celebration just within travelling distance: Butser Ancient Farm Beltain Festival. You go, you listen to the storyteller weave the webs of King Arthur. You watch the wicker stag-man burn and take the paper wish you tied to its massive leg with it to wherever the wicker men go, and you turn around, and you see the procession of silhouettes up the hill in the fading light. You join the procession, walking only by fiery torches up the ancient hill, sparks flying before and behind you, and the night feels old, and you are not in this time, this life, but in a moment before this place knew what it is to doubt. You arrive home, smelling of wood smoke and the beginnings of summer, and you sleep, happier than you have been in so many years…
And now, the dual-mind reigns.
Somehow, there is balance. You exist in a place where earth and fire are still only and yet more than simple connections of atoms or explosive combustion. There is reverence, but curiosity; awe, but understanding. I will never believe that the thunder is Thor racing across the heavens in his chariot, or that the planet has personality with the name of Gaia. But these tales lend a power to the forces we study today, they tell the story of how we view the universe we live in, the ways we have sought to understand since we first sought the ‘why’ behind the event.
It is a wild, dangerous and infinitely wondrous cosmos we inhabit, and I need no gods to make it so. But I have learned to stand in awe of it all over again- from the scientific immensity of it all, and through the bewildered eyes of the child who sees gods and stories in the stars.