We’re nearing the summer solstice, Panthea. One of the four major Syntheist festivals. We have named the period between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox Pantheos. It’s Greek for “God is everywhere”. Since Syntheists accept that all gods are invented, why not invent some more and have gods everywhere? Want a god for the cool touch on the tongue of an ice-cream on a hot summers day? Or how about a god for the fleeting warm and contagious smiles we sometimes get while commuting to work? Now, as a Syntheist, you can have them. I think it suits a season of abundance and plenty.
This season we will focus on light, strength, vitality, joy, passion, pleasure, ecstasy, confidence, optimism and enjoying life to its fullest extent.
Last season I took the season’s concepts and referenced what the existing religions of the world have to say about it. I did the same for Panthea.
For the joy of living
Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Being overly self obsessed and worrying unnecessarily about life’s minutiae. When what we should do, need to do, is relax and enjoy what we already have. Live a little.
To understand how religion can help us with this I think it can be of value to take the plunge into ancient Roman and Greek religion. Please bear with me. I promise it’ll be worth your while. The ancient Greeks and Romans valued being in control of one’s emotions. Overt displays of emotion was generally frowned upon and seen as weakness and a character flaw. But they also acknowledged that too much emotional control was negative to the human spirit. Our feelings needed an outlet. They acknowledged that societies pressures, especially those of the powerful upon us, would corrupt our thinking. Make us overly self-conscious and cowardly. That’s where the worship of Dionysus came in.
Dionysus was seen as a liberator of the spirit, whose wine, music and ecstatic dance frees the mind. Today the worship of Dionysus is mostly associated with the excessive orgiastic drinking-parties called “Bacchanalias”. Always held in secret locations. As for the rituals, I’m sorry to say, what happened at a Bacchanalia stayed at the Bacchanalia. We have no surviving reliable accounts other than little snippets here and there.
When blent with the flute light laughters awaken,
And the children of care have forgotten to weep
Whensoever is revealed the cluster’s splendour
In the banquet that men to the high Gods tender
And o’er ivy-wreathed revellers drinking deep
The wine bowl drops the mantle of sleep.
-Euripides (The Rationalists)
On that note, In Vino Veritas isn’t just a funny thing Romans said about drunk people’s inability to keep their trap shut about sensitive subjects. Pagan Romans and Greeks thought genuine wisdom could come from being off-your-tits drunk. It was the ointment that could remove intellectual blockages. I personally suspect that if artists and thinkers all were teetotallers we wouldn’t have nearly as rich artistic heritage as we have today.
Even though we don’t know so much about the Bacchanalias we do have a good grasp of the big annual festival in the honour of Dionysus, called the Dionysia. All today surviving ancient Greek dramas were works especially commissioned for the Dionysia. They were seen as safe outlets for emotions. Once a year Greeks and Romans gathered and were allowed to let all their emotions pour forth while watching the plays. It was socially acceptable and encouraged. Wine, or other mind altering drugs, was seen as a tool in helping them lose control, to allow them to laugh and weep together.
Dionysias wasn’t only watching plays. A good portion of it was singing, dancing and drinking, for days. All day. All night. The culmination was a procession called the “Pompe”. A modern day analogue would be the Rio Carneval. A full on celebration of all that life has to offer.
Dionysus was also the god of foreigners and the foreign. This was the time to let go of familiar suspicions and allow oneself to be curious. Greeks who usually were so adamant about excluding outsiders from their community and rituals, let them, this one time a year, be a part of their religious celebrations. The foreign was uncharacteristically embraced and admired. An acknowledgement that a rigid mind is stagnant mind.
This idea of having one feast a year where we allow ourselves to go a little crazy isn’t unique for Roman and Greek pagans. In the Hindu and Tibetan festival of Ganachakra the faithful are allowed to eat some foods and drinks otherwise considered taboo for sober vegetarians. A shared communal meal is integral. The transgression of the taboo becomes a shared experience. Reminding them of the importance of community, the importance of sharing our joys and sorrows. Being supportive and allow oneself to be supported by your peers.
When was the last thing you did something crazy? Something uncharacteristic of you? Did something just to shock your system? Please remind yourself that life is more than the daily grind of work-life.
So what about ecstasy? What about euphoria? Religion has in all ages been associated with instances of extreme bliss and altered states of consciousness. How can this be achieved? What is it?
The most common methods of reaching religious joy and ecstasy is singing and dancing. Sufi whirling is a form of physically active meditation. It is a dance performed within a worship ceremony, through which dervishes aim to reach the “source of all perfection”. This is sought through abandoning one’s egos or personal desires, by listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles.
Here is the Mandira Devadasis performing a traditional Hindu Desiattam. Every time there is a religious festival the particular god of that festival is thought to inhabit the statues of that god. A good Hindu host always offer an honoured guest the “sixteen hospitalities” (as defined by the Tirukkuṛaḷ), two of which are song and dance. The take away is that the Hindus don’t acknowledge that they’ve had a good time unless there’s been some singing and dancing.
We’ve all seen stock footage of traditional African dancing as found in all the West African religions. No, it’s not just performing arts. Dancing and singing is an integral part of all West African religions. They do it for a variety of religious reasons. But always to reach an altered state of consciousness, an improved state. So regardless of the magical hand-waving and supposed woo, it’s obviously good for something. So please feel free to do what I do. Do it for the sheer fun of dancing!
As you might have noted from these videos of traditional religious dances pleasure isn’t only derived by being decadent and indulgent. These dances require discipline and years of training. By being intensely in the moment. Letting go of your ego. By focusing on the expression you are good at, what you’re proud of, without allowing yourself to overflow with pride, you will reach new heights of ecstasy. What are your dreams? What do you want to experience in life? What motivates you? Do that! And do it a lot!
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has labelled this mental state Flow.
“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that it’s almost that you feel that you don’t exist”
When it comes to the beneficial values of singing and dancing there’s no shortage of modern day science to back it up. Considering how uncontroversial this belief is, I don’t feel the necessity to back it up with links to studies. The Internet is awash if you’re curious. The neuroscientist Björn Merker has the hypothesis that before we were thinking talking humans, we were dancing and singing apes. He argues that it’s instinct. We need to sing and dance together in groups with others to be truly happy.
This explains rave parties. This explains singing along at concerts. When was the last time you sang and danced? If it was a long time ago I suggest you just go for it now! Back away from the computer, stand up, take a deep breath and enjoy your body and what it can do!
Just relax. Relax. Take deep breaths. Feels better, doesn’t it?
Sometimes, our lives are a stressful grind and what we need to enjoy ourselves isn’t new heights of ecstasy, but just to take break from it all. Focus on the small joys of life. Judaism can help us here. If you thought Judaism was all guilt, duties and joylessness. Think again! On the Sabbath they see it as a religious duty to relax, have fun and enjoy oneself. This includes, among other things, the divine command to drink wine, have sex and not take oneself so seriously. This duty is named “Oneg Shabbat”
“If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:
“Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
And you thought Judaism only was about restrictions and discipline? Why not do what the Jews do, relax and live a little.
Ok, I’m stoked. This joy and ecstasy thing sounds like a blast. How can I get some? What are the Syntheists doing about it?
When it comes to researching possible rituals us Syntheists can steal; this is made quite easy as most of Europe Pagan midsummer celebrations have survived to this day, more or less, intact. This falls on the summer solstice, ie the same day we Syntheists have chosen for Panthea. Midsummer is still the largest religious festivals of Scandinavia and the Baltics. Yes, you guessed correctly, the maypole is a symbolic penis used to penetrate mother earth. The raising of the maypole should be seen as a ritual sexual act. The pagans weren’t shy when it comes to pleasures of the flesh. So if you’re in any of these countries, why not just join in the fun with the locals? If not, a maypole isn’t hard to make.
The ritual and practice described in this text is only a suggestion. There is no wrong way to do Syntheism. If you don’t like our festivals, gods, the way we use them or the names we have for them…. feel free to invent your own.