Why personal devotion matters

This week’s post is a commentary of K. A Rask’s article titled “Devotionalism, Material Culture, and the Personal in Greek Religion” published in Kernos, 29 in 2016 (you read the whole thing here).

This 15-page article explores the notion of personal devotion in Ancient Greece and highlights the issues of academia on the matter. Yet, this article unintentionally puts a finger exactly on what modern practitionners of the religion argue about. I won’t be summarizing the whole thing, instead I will be using here only what I consider to be key notions. Thus, I encourage you to read the complete article yourself for the information I won’t be covering.

1. Plato would disaprove of the way modern pagans worship

Because he already disaproved of the way his contemporaries did. The main issue here is the notion of reciprocity. When we look at the way the Ancients worshipped, we find an important presence of reciprocity (offerings to make a prayer happen and/or votives in thanks of said prayer). Plato knew that his contemporaries worshipped this way and absolutely despised it. To cite the article:

For Plato, human overemphasis on reciprocity went beyond into the realm of asebeia (‘impiety’).  Furthermore, a major concern for Plato was the unmonitored and unsanctioned religious activity of individuals; he firmly supported institutional jurisdiction. Ostensibly this was because it was not possible to scrutinize para-institutional activity for religious incorrectness and it was thus a potential danger to the surrounding population at large. Undeniably, fear of divine repercussions resulting from the impiety of others is a recurrent theme in Classical discourse. Plato proposed laws to curtail individual religious autonomy, since he deeply distrusted, and was in fact rather exasperated with, personal religious activities of the type he describes thus:
yet it is customary for all women especially, and for sick folk everywhere, and those in peril or in distress (whatever the nature of the distress), and conversely for those who have had a slice of good fortune, to dedicate whatever happens to be at hand at the moment, and to vow sacrifices and promise the founding of shrines to gods and demi-gods and children of gods; and through terrors caused by waking visions or by dreams, and in like manner as they recall many visions and try to provide remedies for each of them, they are wont to found altars and shrines, and to fill with them every house and every village, and open places, too, and every spot which was the scene of such experiences. (Laws 10.909e–910a)”

Sounds familiar? Have you ever turned to the gods in time of need? If you answered yes to this question, Plato disaproves. Needless to say, the practices Plato describes as impious here never stopped being practiced and if anything, became stronger over time. To the point where, today, personal worship is very much our only option.

2. Kharis is crucial to personal worship

That is, the relationship between the devotee and a deity. Kharis means “delight, pleasing thing” in the sense of a favor (see how it links back with the notion of reciprocity):

“The sense of reciprocity so evident in literature and epigraphical sources, however, often went beyond the ‘transactional’ towards exceptionally intimate and sentimental attachments.”

The author uses Sappho and Aphrodite as an example here, but one could argue that the relationship between Aelius Aristide and Asclepius is of a similar nature. That being said, this is something most, if not all, modern practitionners experience. Geniune affection between a deity and a devotee is something we have traces of in the sources:

“Equally close were those gods who came in dreams, described hovering at the shoulders of the dreamers with gentle smiles; in inscriptions, they were parastatai, gods who ‘stood beside’ their worshippers. Not only were such interactions marked by genuine affection, but there could be a physical aspect as well, with the divine figure touching the human figure with a hand. Anja Klöckner comments, “the closeness of the human-divine encounter finds its clearest expression when a god touches humans.”

This way of approaching the relationship between deity and worshipper makes it that we find in the people’s worship things that a philosophical approach to the gods doesn’t accept. Mainly, showing your discontentment with a god when a prayer hasn’t been answered to by ignoring the deity. On a larger scale, this also happened in response to tragic events where worshippers thought they were being punished or smiten by the gods.

What Plato addresses when trying to regulate personal worship comes from the fact that the presence of priesthood is not necessary for worship:

“Abundant evidence reveals, however, that on many occasions individuals were capable of accessing sacred powers on their own, without institutional interference or mediating figures. Instead, people might set their own terms of engagement with invisible powers.”

The authors gives several examples but it comes down to the idea that personal worship was free by nature. They did not necessitate a priest or an institution to sacrifice to a god or a hero, they had their own religious routine which could vary from a person to another and the participation to certain rites could be a matter of personal choice.

This makes the religious structure outside of the city-regulated rite very diverse, as we can see here:

“Yet men and women kept holy figures close and present in a variety of ways, beyond the clearly defined confines of sacred space. Images of the gods travelled with humans in the form of rings, seals, and other amulets, while the gods could be called upon whenever humans needed assurance, regardless of where they might be. Prayer seems to have occurred in all manner of locales, since “it was perfectly possible to pray on one’s own wherever one happened to be.””

I’ll summarize this point with this: the emotional engagement and intimacy between worshipper and deity is not a “modern pagan concept”, contrarily to what some who have only read philosophy will tell you. The way the ancients experienced divinity through personal worship is actually not too far off from what modern worshippers experience today.

3. Devotional activities have always existed.

This post is getting long, so I will keep my commentary to the minimum:

“Many of the examples just presented showcase religious experiences that occur outside of the public stage or in moments that are not highly ritualized in the manner often associated with festivals, processions, and explicitly monitored situations. While women, men, and children negotiated and developed relationships with divinities in a way that was directly relevant to their own personal affairs, they also publicly declared their devotion and great affection for sacred figures. Beyond traditional votives, one could honor the gods through other media and expressions, such as labor or storytelling, whether verbally or visually. […] I argue that one could show one’s devotion not just with material offerings but with the work (and results) of one’s own hand. Daily maintenance of shrines is a prime example of personal piety without overtly public, communal, or formalized elements. […] His establishment of a garden also served as an offering. Cultivating gardens in shrines physically and materially manifested affection; the garden’s maintenance, as a form of repeated devotional activity, deserves much greater study.”

I’ve made important cuts here so I urge you to go look at the article but I hope this gets my point across. I’m well aware that academia has not treated personal religious experiences with the same attention and study as official city religion and philosophical debates but it is necessary for us, as modern worshippers, recon or not, to pay attention to what was actually done by our predecessors. Not just what they wrote.

3 thoughts on “Why personal devotion matters

  1. I can’t deny that there’s much to be learned from Plato; yet, he’s been criticized for the elitism and misogyny of these views on religion. He’s been accused more generally of dogmatism, and he mentioned compassion so briefly that people today disagree whether he thought it was important.
    I think about those things each time some new and divisive opinion explodes in the Hellenic polytheist community.
    Maybe Plato was that person who was both a good example and a horrible warning…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is my point exactly. I strongly believe we should consider Plato in context, rather than trying to use him as a pinnacle of piety (or the oppoiste and “cancel” him). He was a man of his time and of his social status and we need to remember that. It’s one thing to recognize his influence in philosophy and its history, but it’s another to accept his opinions blindly and treat them like holy scriptures.

      Liked by 3 people

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