Pagan Day (Postcard from Greece)

On Mt. Parnassus.

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There are some ideas that are best expressed in the language that gave rise to them: cognoscenti, joie de vivre, farklempt.

And once in a while, there’s a spiritual impulse that just wants to be expressed in a pagan idiom, no matter how dyed-in-the-wool a monotheist you happen to be.

And such was the progression of things for me this week, taking off for the family trip to Greece (Israel next week), reciting a tefilat haderech, the traditional travel prayer, and slowly experiencing my trusty religious touchstones falling away.

At first I didn’t see it. I’d been to Athens more than once before, so climbing the Acropolis was mostly to show this wonder to my family. And it is a wonder, somehow still managing to move and impress, despite the attention-grabbing behavior of scaffolding, cranes and thousands of tourists with selfie-sticks. Still, I was there as a tourist, not an acolyte, and my touristic needs were more than met.

But on Friday morning the feel of this ancient and densely historied place began to change. Our Athenian friend and host brought us to his hometown of Elefsina, the historical Eleusis where, as we all undoubtedly recall, Hades emerged from the Underworld to abduct the unsuspecting Persephone. Elefsina still contains the ruins of a large temple compound. Not a single pillar is standing. But the footprint is so well preserved that you can easily imagine the temple’s grandeur and the dignified movement of pilgrims and priestesses in its courtyard. It is dedicated to Demeter, goddess of the harvest and mother of Persephone. In ancient times devotees would walk from the Acropolis in Athens all the way to Eleusis with gifts of grain and cakes. Now, above the ruins, there is a tiny Orthodox church. Visitors leave offerings of loaves of bread.

Elsewhere in the compound is a rock where legend places Demeter, sitting and weeping for her lost daughter, not yet having heard of her abduction to the underworld or the whole sorry pomegranate seed business. At the mouth of a shallow cave several feet away there is the foundation of a small temple of Hades, marking the spot where the cave opened up just long enough for god of the underworld’s quick incursion into the land of the living. While Demeter sat and wept, the crops refused to grow. A shrine to Hades so close to the source of what is remembered as worldwide famine is hardly surprising. It is only we who carry the illusion that somehow there will always be enough.

Our Athenian host grew up just outside the fence of the compound. While many people complain about where their upbringings, he is the only one I know who could, with some legitimacy, claim to have grown up at the Gates of Hell. But in actuality he has great fondness for this ground that was the scene of such an archetypal story. The ruins were his playground; the gods his friends. As we left I saw that in a crack at the back of the cave someone had left a pomegranate.

We took our leave of Demeter and returned to Athens. That evening, the college boy (and best friend of our 18-year old) who is traveling with us, and who has not been out of the country before, staged a coup. Waking us all from our late afternoon jetlag-induced naps, he proposed a visit to the Poseidon temple in Sounion, south of Athens, for sunset. Bleary-eyed and heavy-limbed, we agreed. By the time we got in the mini-van we knew we’d never make it by sunset, let alone by temple closing time. But somehow, once Poseidon was invoked, we didn’t want to let him down. We drove south, and when Apollo’s fiery chariot closed in on the horizon, we scrambled down to a rocky beach and watched the turquoise water darken and the sky grow golden over it.

It was now Erev Shabbat. As I sometimes do when I’m traveling on a Friday night, I imagined the Shechinah approaching in her Shabbos bride drag. But somehow she couldn’t quite compete in that moment over Poseidon, in his native land, trident gently, incessantly, stirring the opalescent waves.

The next morning we left Athens and headed west. We had a date to keep with the oracle at Delphi, and this would be our travel day to get there. It was an easy day – we drove, settled in, hung out in the sleepy village of Aráchova. Then the college boy got a second wind. We had spent time on the drive reading through entries in the goldmine that is the 2-volume Pelican Greek Mythology by Robert Graves. In it he not only retells the myths we learned as children, but every variant version, every tangent, every increasingly horrifying detail that had been politely omitted in school. The college boy and I speculated about the strata of history reflected in the mythology: underlying migrations, conquests, advancements and terrors. We wondered about the religious life of the ancient Greeks. We commented on how well their pantheism suited the experience of life’s random brutality. Because so much of Greek mythology is about the tension between randomness and fate. You couldn’t predict what would happen. And you could predict it all. You could, if you bothered to read the texts, foresee that no matter how many babies you left to die on hillsides or swallowed whole, they would invariably come back and cause your ruination. No matter how humble a life you led, your one moment of smugness would cause some offended deity to turn you into something ironic, and you would go from being an average Joe to a smirk-worthy example for generations to come. Even as we drove in the car I found myself starting to watch my words, lest I piss off some Olympian still haunting this epic landscape, lurking behind one of the petrol stations or unfinished housing developments that Homer could not have foreseen. I didn’t actually believethey were there, but hedging my bets felt prudent.

So as I said, the college boy was again on fire. There was a cave between our lodging and Delphi that was vaguely connected to the Delphian rite – it was the weekend time-share of the oracle or something. It was also home to Pan, the half-man, half-goat demigod of revelry, mischief, licentiousness. The cave is not far, reachable by car and a short, 500m hike. Can we go? Right now?

Yes. Of course yes.

As it turned out, the short hike was not. It lasted over an hour in the heat, up a steep mountainside rising out of a valley that was itself high up on Mount Parnassus. It was a hot evening; my lungs strained against the thin air and my t-shirt filled with sweat. The only sound accompanying us were bells worn by goats in the valley below us, goats that suddenly and mysteriously appeared on and around our path, watching us, like Pan’s personal guard.

Did you know that Pan was also the god of terror? Considered the source of unidentifiable woodland noises, his name gives us the word panic. I tried not to panic at the quivering of my muscles or the angle of the climb. I veered off course more than once (you’d think the culture that invented geometry would not use isosceles triangles as direction markers); got caught in thickets of razor-sharp holly. At last I gave up and told the others to go on without me. But as always, my husband allowed me my moment and then gently urged me on.

And then we were there. The cave opened before us. We stepped in and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. We couldn’t yet see the ceiling or walls. But we could see our breath. The cave was big as an auditorium and, the college boy and I estimated, at least 60 feet tall. Small votives burned in various crevices, with roses and cherries and olives around them. Someone had made a stone circle on the dark ground. Were these things placed, were the candles lit, by Dodekatheists – modern pagans honoring the Olympian gods? Or were there others who maintained an unbroken tradition of caring for the place, dating back so many thousands of years? Like Sephardic crypto-Jews in the Americas lighting candles on Friday nights to stay true to a religion they no longer had a name for?

Pan's Cave, from the back, looking through and out.

The site was simple. There was no temple. There were no ruins. Just a dark wet cave. The college boy pointed out that it was, by definition, the most intact shrine we had or would visit. He was right. It was whole and in perfect working order.

I was nervous being there. Pan is a tricky god to like; he represents what are considered in our culture to be shadow elements in us, sexuality not the least of them. Whatever vestige of a hoofed deity existed in Judaism was already, by Torah times, a spotty memory – Azazel, a goatlike creature in the wilderness who would receive the annual offering of our sins, sent by unlikely messenger – a goat. Our folklore over the centuries went on to recast the hoofed deity as demon or imp. The Christians put the ribbon on the package by imagining Satan as Pan, all grown up.

But a part of me felt happy too. What fun to be able to reclaim one’s mischievous, irreverent, naughty nature as divinely inspired! Because in a world in which the divine is made up of uncountable gods and demigods, each with different characteristics, you can always, no matter how unusual you are, find yourself reflected somewhere in the pantheon. The pagan cosmos is refracted into infinite variety. There is male and female and fluidity between. There is warlike and peaceful. Randy and chaste. Strong, swift, studious and differently abled. If I am different from you, I can express that theologically. I can say, for example, that Apollo is my patron, with an undercurrent of Athena and Hermes, and some Pan on the side. I would visit their shrines and leave offerings.

Trying to conjure up the Pan part of me in my Jewish view of God is a taller order. And that is a built-in systemic difficulty in a one-size-fits-all view of God. In order to feel ourselves, in all our variety, as tzelem Elohim, as being in the image of God, we resort to imagining God’s many “aspects.” But the more specific we get about those aspects, the more idolatrous it feels. Maimonides denied the existence of aspects; he liked God singular, undifferentiated. Which leaves an amorphous, blobby sort of God, in which we’re all included in a kind of abstract and not-always-satisfying way.

And, I often feel, just when we’re trying to reclaim or reframe something about God in order to be personally connected, our old texts step in and mess it up. If God remained an All-Is-One singularity, one could maybe work with it with some ease. But once the One God gives a law, a hierarchy is inherently created. Some human traits are honored and others delegitimized. The places where the law speaks to you poorly or not at all because you are a woman or you are intersex or queer or disabled or intermarried – these make it hard to see yourself included in God rather than judged or dismissed by same. And so many Jews, full of Athena-like wisdom and Apollo-like talent and Pan-like mischief walk away and find their fulfillment elsewhere.

Monotheism might be our collective Jewish instinct. It might be a good one. It might offer a hope of cosmic intention that we deeply hunger for. But it also disappoints whenever we suffer. In the Greek world suffering happened because the gods were sometimes nasty pieces of work – impulsive, vindictive, unpredictable. And no one expected any better of them. But in a cosmology in which there is only one God, a God who is loving, all knowing, all powerful, but who allows the same awful stuff to happen and sometimes calls it punishment for our moral failings, there is a disconnect. This is not divinity, this is dysfunction.

So we look for our ways to work around the systemic problems of monotheism because we love our tradition, or we love God, or for some other reason we're willing to live in the mystery and the struggle. We scour our texts for ways to feel better embraced. We adopt the Shechinah as our face of God because she feels like a she and that already eases some of the tension, in a way that’s not dissimilar to many Catholics’ devotion to Mary as a more loving, compassionate portal to the godhead.

But you know? All this work to reclaim God for those of us the tradition leaves out is just that: work. Holy work, for sure. But work. And sometimes you just want a day off. And here it was: shabbos! My grandmother never, in her whole life, wrote on Shabbos. And on this one day, I decided not to do so also. I would put down my pen, and take a break from writing myself into our tradition.

So there I was, in a cave on Mt. Parnassus, smelling of moss and incense. I thought about my own panic qualities. I knew with effort, in days to come, I could find ways to describe those Jewishly. But for this moment, I allowed myself to let it sit in its native tongue.

I climbed up to one of the small Pan shrines in the back of the cave. A small votive, like a yahrzeit candle, burned there. I looked at the fruit and flower offerings left around it. I hadn’t brought an offering, not having planned on idolatry when I left the house. But being here in this sacred place, noticing my own easy affinity for this god, it felt wrong to turn and walk out ungenerously. I fished around in my backpack until I found a Ricola throat lozenge. I placed it next to the votive. I figured after a long night of reveling, it was something Pan might be able to use. And with that thought, this situational pagan once again felt very Jewish.