I had the opportunity yesterday afternoon to attend a series of performances of great relevance to contemporary Polytheists and the struggles many of us face in the West of assuring our dual Overculture (dual in the sense that it is both secular as well as overwhelmingly Abrahamic monotheism-influenced) that our modalities of religious worship constitute living, grounded-in-the-here-and-now traditions, not ones consigned to the dustbin of history. Made possible by a collaboration between the nonprofit organizations Inherit Chicago, the Indo-American Heritage Museum, and the National Hellenic Museum, the performances in question all related to the theme of “Female Power Models in Greek & Indian Mythology.” Dr. Lori Barcliff Baptista, Director of the African-American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, served as the moderator, introducing the sets of performances and facilitating audience discussion between them and at the end.
The Facebook event created to widely publicize this free, two-hour-plus commingling of cultures was scanty on details. (However, I was relieved to discover that due to a last-minute surge of public interest, a larger venue that happens to be conveniently located closer to my home [the Irish-American Heritage Center] was chosen [the event was initially supposed to occur at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago’s Greektown].) Given the title of “Female Power Models in Greek & Indian Mythology,” I honestly was expecting the event to be a largely academic affair, especially considering the appointment of Dr. Baptista as moderator, and figured I would be treated to two impeccably researched lectures. Instead, the event was comprised of a family-friendly series of back-to-back performances (contemporary theater and classical Indian dance, respectively).
As Dr. Baptista was welcomed to the stage to give an overview of the two performing groups–Caton Enterprises Ltd., which would be performing a kid-friendly play entitled Goddesses of Greece, and Mandala Arts Ensemble, whose series of Bharatanatyam classical Indian dances were entitled Portrayals of Power in Hindu Mythology–she asked the performers as well as audience members to reflect on what the role of power is in a woman’s life. She relayed the importance of myths “in translating cultural beliefs through accepted symbols,” and invited all present to ask themselves which examples of myths they can think of as “culturally resonant stories of feminine power.” Dr. Baptista definitely made me smile with approval when she emphasized, using the present tense form of the verb: “Myths inspire devotion and strength.” Of concern to her in particular are the ways that myths continue to serve as “cultural memory for women and girls who yearn for empowerment in the new millennium.”
The performers for Goddesses of Greece then took to the stage.
The play was set in the dorm room of an undergraduate college student named Zoe. The plot entailed her agony over being forced–on her birthday, no less–to write a term paper on the subject of ancient Greek mythology. Clearly, no subject in school could have vexed her more due to its sheer irrelevance to her life as a postmodern Millennial. But have no fear, for Hermes would appear and introduce the annoyed and despairing Zoe to the importance of “mythos and imagination,” as He put it, as well as introduce her one by one to a handful of Olympian Deities, All of Whom were represented by children that volunteered to be taken from the audience.
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly given the secular nature of this play and its intended audience of children, Hermes subsequently explained that the role of myth for the ancient Greeks was that of “trying to explain the natural world around them, like ‘Where does lightning come from?'” The play was brought back into the afternoon’s thematic focus of female empowerment by Hermes stressing that “the women in mythology were just as important as the men, and there were just as many Goddesses as there were Gods” for the ancient Greeks.
After summoning Zeus, Poseidon, Hades (“A bit of a loner,” Hermes added), Hera, Aphrodite, and Demeter to the stage so Zoe could meet Them individually, Hermes and Zoe briefly related the tales of the “Abduction of Persephone” (“Hades has issues!” went the recurring joke) and “How the City of Athens Came to Be Named After Athena,” in addition to a whirlwind performance of The Argonautika.
By the end of the snippets of Greek drama, Zoe came to realize the truth of Hermes’ dictum that “it’s amazing how many things in your world today come from ancient Greek stories.” Wired and inspired to finally write her term paper, Zoe sat down before her laptop and then it was exeunt omnes.
Dr. Baptista returned to the on-stage podium and asked for audience members to share what they found meaningful or interesting from the performance. Interestingly, women and girls voiced via three separate comments a shared approval of the Goddess Persephone; She was hands-down the audience favorite of any Deity mentioned–tellingly, though, not depicted on stage–by the actors for “courageously” going into the Underworld and “taking power by co-ruling with Hades, ruling by His side,” as one young girl said.
“And what was Her Mom’s special power?” Dr. Baptista offered a follow-up question to the young girl in the audience. While I winced at the idea of reducing Deity to “job function,” the little girl astutely and not incorrectly replied that Demeter brought in the harvest, making sure the ancient Greeks could eat.
“But what about when Perspehone had to go away from Her Mom and go into the Underworld to be with Hades?” rose the inflection in Dr. Baptista’s voice in response to the child’s answer.
“Then Demeter stopped growing things; She got mad. That’s why we have winter,” the child dutifully explained.
“Very good!” purred Dr. Baptista, and then it was time for the dancers of Mandala South Asian Performing Arts to take the stage.
They wound up performing a series of four Hindu Goddess-centric dances per Bharatanatyam classical Indian dance tradition under the theme of Portrayals of Power in Hindu Mythology. The first two dances were dedicated to the Earth Mother, Bhu Devi. One of the dancers preceded each dance with helpful commentary on the nature of the movements, including the hand gestures known as mudras: several in the Bhu Devi dances alone alluded to the movements of animals, such as leaping deer or swimming fish. The third dance was done in honor of Saraswati, Companion of Brahman and Goddess of Knowledge; the mudras showed the Goddess seated on Her White Lotus of Purity, playing Her sitar, among other actions. The fourth was done in honor of my beloved Durga, the Warrior Devi and Slayer of Demons; She was portrayed as holding aloft a multitude of weapons in Her many hands. The mudras of the Durga dancer made references to wielding a spear and a bow and arrow in particular; other dancers in the company made mudras to show the ferocity of the demons with their jagged, tiger-like teeth and their menacing natures.
As you might guess, I found the Bharatanatyam dances to be much more engaging, aesthetically and spiritually, than the play that preceded them. It was especially comforting for me to see that roughly half the dancers in the Mandala Arts troupe were young teens; here are noteworthy examples of “cultural memory for women and girls who yearn for empowerment in the new millennium,” to repeat Dr. Baptista’s words from her introduction. Furthermore, as would be mentioned explicitly by an audience member afterwards during the Q&A session, these dances honored Goddesses worshiped in an unbroken tradition of religious devotion spanning several millennia.
Verily, my arms broke out in goosebumps watching these talented and comely dancers perform in praise of their Goddesses. I unequivocally felt the immanence of Deity; each woman and girl on stage absolutely transformed into the Living Goddesses they praised through dance, through the flowing movements of their graceful limbs.
Of course, I was glad the troupe saved the dance for Durga for the end; my energies had reached a fever pitch of joy in anticipation. As Durga flew through the air, preparing for battle…
… And as She gathered Her composure–and Her weapons of choice–as the nefarious demons began to approach Her from stage right…
…I felt my anahata (heart) chakra expand tremendously, outpouring a silent prayer of profound gratitude to this Maha-Devi (Great Goddess), under Whose protection I had been officially been placed this past summer at a local Hindu temple. Jai Ma, Jai Ma, Jai Ma, I said to the accompaniment of my inner (astral-plane?), silent applause as Durga’s protracted but victorious fight against the demons ensued. When the dance ended, my applause was raucous. As in all forms of holy catharsis and renewal, which all religions of the world in some way or another make manifest for their adherents, I felt transformed and uplifted by the artistically enriching spectacle of Durga’s triumph over evil; I partook in it. Her victory in the mythic past, Her victory in the mythic present–given the nonlinear reality of mythic time–they are my victories too. Sat nam!
Dr. Baptista returned to the stage to facilitate audience questions and comments on all performances of the afternoon. I should point out that the audience was comprised overwhelmingly of Indian-Americans, and they made poignant observations on the necessity for connecting with Nature as a locus of spiritual attunement with Holy Powers (what modern Pagan would disagree with that?), in addition to very poignant comparisons in particular between the Goddesses Demeter and Bhu Devi–right down to the centrality of pomegranates as harvest symbols and offerings in Their cults!
The spokesperson for Inherit Chicago asked if, whether looking at ancient Greece or modern India, are there any Goddesses Who stand alone, without a male consort or twin? Do Any have agency “outside the male”?
“They seem to be pretty paired up,” was the consensus among the actors of the Goddesses of Greece play as well as the Bharatanatyam dancers. I had my hand raised by way of objection–I was going to draw attention to Hekate, even though She was not mentioned in the play–but I was not called upon and the microphone was passed around to have other comments addressed and questions raised.
And then the final question, asked by a pensive teenage Indian-American girl seated a few rows behind me: “We have Living Goddesses in Hinduism, Goddesses known from thousands of years ago Who are still worshipped. Are the Gods of the ancient Greeks still being worshipped, whether in Greece or here in the States? Or are They thought of now as historical relics?” Her tone was curiously earnest, not condescending.
This was an important moment; the answer would shape present and future discussions around contemporary Polytheism. I felt my heart race and my palms start to sweat.
Several dozen hands shot up in response, including mine.
The actress who played Zoe in Goddesses of Greece had an alarmed deer-in-the-headlights stare as Dr. Baptista passed the microphone to her for an answer.
“Wow,” the actress choked, “Well, Greece is overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox, so… I’m going to pass this microphone over to my friends at the National Hellenic Museum!” she nervously yelled before lunging forward to hand the microphone to a stately matron seated in the front row. The matron responded with, “Oh, Eastern Orthodoxy! I’m going to get into trouble if I say a word further on that subject so I’m going to pass this on to our Educational Director to answer!” And then the microphone exchanged hands for a fourth time.
I skewered the latest microphone recipient with my gaze. She was a young Greek-American woman. So much depended on her words. And she had no idea of the enormity of the importance of it all. My heart sank even before she uttered her reply.
“Yes, it’s true. Modern Greece is roughly 98 percent Eastern Orthodox Christian, so, yeah, um, these ancient myths don’t relay actual beliefs in these Gods like they once did. However, these stories are still very culturally important to us; they’re taught to us in school. They teach us about how people once tried to explain the world around them, and we learn about good and bad, right and wrong. But to answer your question: the Greeks outgrew the literal belief in all these Gods with the coming of Christianity.”
FUCK! I thought. Chicago Polytheism’s PR chance of the year, and it was irretrievably blown.
I turned to face the Indian girl who had posed the question. She nodded with disappointed acceptance.
“No, NO!” a middle-aged Caucasian woman also seated in the front row but a section away (to my left) shouted. “I can’t speak for Greece and I’m not Greek, but I worship Aphrodite.” She turned to face the Indian girl who had posed the question. “Aphrodite is real!” she emphasized, waving her upraised right index finger in the air.
Dr. Baptista was handed the microphone by one of her assistants and she thanked everyone for attending and for their enthusiastic comments. One final round of applause for the performers of the day broke out, applause especially for the children eager to represent the Olympian Gods on stage.
I couldn’t let my experience there end without talking to the Indian girl who had asked about whether or not the ancient Greek Gods are still culturally relevant in a devotional context. I happened to be wearing a devotional necklace to Durga that I’d beaded over the summer, and after I went up to the girl with an “Excuse me,” I briefly introduced myself, showing the girl my pendant and explaining that I am a modern Western Polytheist of Slavic-American ethnicity; while I chiefly venerate the Deities of ancient Egypt (“I can tell by your eye makeup!” she interjected) and Greece, I am a Durga devotee as well.
“Oh wow, that’s really pretty!” she exclaimed.
“That spokesperson for the Hellenic Museum doesn’t even really know what’s going on in Greece right now,” I said. “There are official Polytheistic religious groups in Greece fighting for their religious rights to hold rituals for these living Gods at Their actual historical temples. These are everyday people who love their Gods and they’re fighting an uphill battle against the Greek government as well as the Church.”
“Really?” the girl asked, somewhat incredulous.
“Google it,” came my automatic reply.
I scooped up my purse and my program guide from the seat next to me and faced the exit. I turned around with an afterthought. “But just like that other woman who prays to Aphrodite said, these Gods are real. And They are loved. They are alive today.”
The girl smiled at me and then went to join her gaggle of friends, who were waving for her to join them.
Despite the unseasonably warm October weather, I trembled as I fumbled to turn my key to unlock my car. Was that enough? I was lucky to hopefully get one girl to change her mind on the perceived irrelevance of ancient Greek Deities to modern Westerners, but what about other Indo-Americans who took what the Educational Director of the Hellenic Museum had to say as the “gospel truth” on the subject?
There’s no shortage of ignorance out there to slay. May those of us on the front lines of this ideological battleground have the fortitude of Durga in our current and future denunciations of ignorance!