Proclus the Eclectic Neopagan

Recently I’ve found the following passage (from The Life of Proclus or Concerning Happiness by Marinus of Samaria) to be extremely interesting and inspiring, especially since it concerns some important insights into the spiritual behavior (and practice) of one of my most beloved heroes:

“Every month he [Proclus] sanctified himself according to the rites devoted to the Mother of the Gods [Cybele] by the Romans, and before them by the Phrygians; he observed the holy days observed among the Egyptians even more strictly than did they themselves; and especially he fasted on certain days, quite openly. During the first day of the lunar month he remained without food, without even having eaten the night before; and he likewise celebrated the New Moon in great solemnity, and with much sanctity. He regularly observed the great festivals of all peoples, so to speak, and the religious ceremonies peculiar to each people or country.

Nor did he, like so many others, make this the pretext of a distraction, or of a debauch of food, but on the contrary they were occasions of prayer meetings that lasted all night, without sleep, with songs, hymns and similar devotions. Of this we see the proof in the composition of his hymns, which contain homage and praises not only of the gods adored among the Greeks, but where you also see worship of the god Marnas of Gaza, Asklepius Leontuchus of Ascalon, Thyandrites who is much worshipped among the Arabs, the Isis who has a temple at Philae, and indeed all other divinities. It was a phrase he much used, and that was very familiar to him, that a philosopher should watch over the salvation of not only a city, nor over the national customs of a few people, but that he should be the hierophant of the whole world in common.”

– Marinus of Samaria, from The Life of Proclus or Concerning Happiness (translated by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie)

There are three extremely important points here:

  1. Proclus “regularly observed the great festivals of all peoples, so to speak, and the religious ceremonies peculiar to each people or country.”
  2. The hymns composed by Proclus praised “not only the gods adored among the Greeks, but . . . all other divinities.”
  3. Proclus believed that a philosopher “should be the hierophant of the whole world in common.”

In essence, what Marinus is really saying is that Proclus was a true polytheist, who took his polytheism seriously enough to honor the goddesses and gods from many pantheons and traditions.  I find this inspiring, and it resonates deeply with my own beliefs and spiritual practices (which I’ve started referring to as “Eclectic Hellenism”).  And yet, if Proclus were around today, there would be a vocal segment (I’d like to hope they’re a minority) of the contemporary Hellenic polytheist community who would immediately dismiss (if not outright condemn) one of the most sophisticated Hellenic philosophers and theologians of all time as “just another fluffy eclectic neopagan.”  I find this both ironic and rather sad.  But after a recent encounter where my own “eclectic” views were completely dismissed (and where I was basically condemned/admonished for “not being a good Hellenist”), at least I can count myself in good company!

I’m fortunate to have mostly surrounded myself with like-minded (or at least equally open-minded) people.  I’d wager that every single person in my Grove of family and friends probably has a completely different set of theological/spiritual views and beliefs from everyone else.  We honor many different pantheons and many different traditions in many different ways.  And we’re okay with that.  In my world, diversity is a good thing.  Shouldn’t polytheism also promote pluralism, individuality, non-conformity, multiplicity, and an openness to encountering, experiencing, and honoring the divine in many different forms?  Is there even a place for such a thing as orthodoxy (or even orthopraxy) in a truly polytheistic worldview?

Anyway, I’d be curious to hear in the comments if others out there have had similar experiences with intolerance in your own dealings with the various sub-groups/traditions that make up contemporary paganism/polytheism . . .

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14 Comments

  1. henadology

     /  October 26, 2012

    I have always loved this passage from the “Life of Proclus”. It is a clue that helps to confirm that Proclus was not thinking in terms of the same small set of deities being worshiped by all nations under different names and aspects. We already basically know this from the fundamentals of his system, since a one-to-one correspondence between henads and ontic functions is only possible in one direction—namely, reading off the functions of individual deities from myths and iconography—while in the other direction, ascending from the formal unity of Being to the radical plurality of Gods, we can only speak of classes of deities corresponding to these functions. Therefore, we cannot determine a priori how many deities there are, beyond the minimum necessary to provide non-contradictory causality for whatever ontology we have worked out dialectically; but we know that Proclus regarded the actual number of deities as significantly larger than this minimum, and not actually determinable by our kind of soul, whereas the number of classes of intelligible being is basically knowable by a combination of dialectic and intuition, aside from some fuzziness in dividing concepts.

    This indeterminacy leaves open the possibility that all the Gods of all the nations would, albeit with some exceptions, really be individual and distinct; and the testimony of Marinus regarding Proclus’s personal devotion shows us that Proclus walked through that open door, since he would hardly have been performing these foreign rites and hymning these foreign deities if these were mere localizations of universal forms. No: in fact, we see that Proclus was both what we today call a “hard polytheist” *and* what we today call an “eclectic”, engaging with whatever particular individual deities to whom he felt a sufficient attraction. This is exactly how I characterize my own practice, as an eclectic hard polytheist.

    Reply
    • That is a really good point about this showing that he was a hard polytheist. Fascinating stuff!

      Reply
      • henadology

         /  October 27, 2012

        One of the things I find exciting about Proclus from a practical point of view is that the idea that all the henads are in each offers a theoretical framework for understanding syncretic practice from the ground up and one at a time, the way it really happens in devotion, rather than top-down, wholesale “translation”. Because if all the Gods are ineffably in each one, then one can always “see” some other God in this one. This is nicely expressed in the “hyphenated” forms we find in Egyptian theology. There is a world of difference between this and the top-down theory of syncretism, because for one thing, the syncretism need not be “like-to-like”. Sufenas is very good at talking about these matters, of course.

        One of the things I like about the “polycentric” concept is that since this theory accounts for the *practical* dimensions that people generally invoke “soft polytheism” to cover, if it were to become part of the contemporary pagan discourse, it would help get some of these debates past the claim that we *need* soft polytheism to explain various historically-attested practices, so that people could simply put their *philosophical* positions on the table, namely whether they want to go in a more monotheistic or a more polytheistic direction, which is essentially a question of what they value in religion as such.

        Reply
    • Thank you for bringing up the correlation between the philosophical/theological system of Proclus with what we would call his “practice.” The fact that his theology was not merely an intellectual exercise, but something lived, something applied and put into practice, is yet another one of the many reasons I find Proclus to be such a heroic and venerable figure.

      And I hope this anecdote from his life can also remind people that the profound and elegant polycentric theology of Proclus (and other Neoplatonists) can be utilized by *any* polytheist and applied to *every* polytheist pantheon/tradition. Proclus isn’t just for Hellenists! Kemetics, Heathens, Druids (and every other polytheist out there for that matter) could all benefit from an understanding of his wise (and beautiful) theology. You make this point in your book, and I would love to see the theological interpretation of myth (via Proclus, Sallustius, Olympiodorus and others) applied to mythologies from polytheistic traditions all over the world. I’m often frustrated when I see the *exact same* theological questions and issues that (at least in my humble opinion) were resolved long ago by the Neoplatonists, still being argued about every day on the blogs and email lists. I always want to remind people that these issues aren’t new, and that the last few decades of the contemporary pagan revival are not the first time polytheists have asked these questions. So many pagans are out there arguing about some of the most basic theological concepts (marching into intellectual battle completely unarmed) and acting as if they have to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel . . . when they’re completely unaware that philosophers like Proclus (and company) not only mastered the wheel but have left us the blueprint for the theological equivalent of a starship! Which is one of the many, many reasons I think your book is so important right now.

      By the way, you mentioned in your previous comment a colleague who has been studying spiritual interpretations of the Mahabharata (I will definitely have to check out his work!). I’d be curious if you know of any scholars/philosophers/theologians who have compared the theologies of Proclus and the late Neoplatonists with the rich theological tradition(s) of Hinduism? I’d love to read more on the subject, especially since so many Western writings on Hindu polytheism are so often plagued by a strong monotheist bias. I’d be absolutely fascinated to read a Hindu perspective on Proclus and/or a Neoplatonist perspective on Hindu theology/ies. Please let me know if you’re aware of anything useful on the subject!

      Reply
      • henadology

         /  October 27, 2012

        The main reason why I haven’t written more applying what I have termed (after Sallustius) the “theological” method of interpretation to non-Hellenic myth is because it is part of the overall theory that the ontological categories ought to be immanent to the theology in question, and hence I am very cautious about feeling that I know the categories and concepts that are rooted in the soil of this or that theology in order to apply them. Hence in my work on Egyptian theology, I try to use as few Hellenic or other imported concepts as possible, and where I do, to see them in effect as provisional and transitional, as much for me as for the reader. I read very widely in myth, and I see opportunities to apply the hermeneutic principles I outlined in that article, but I don’t generally feel that I have enough grasp of the indigenous concepts to put these readings into print.

        If I do, though, I feel that I’d like to demonstrate that the method is not sociologically determined to work only with respect to cultures that have a lot of hierarchical structure, so it would be nice to apply it to, say, Algonquian theology; while on the other hand, it would be useful to apply it to cultures with a highly developed scholastic philosophical tradition, such as China or India, in order to show that the myths can both be read in terms of the concepts developed in those traditions (e.g., Confucianism or Vedanta), *but also* can intervene in the philosophical discussion in these traditions, that the formative role of, say, Chinese myth in relation to Chinese philosophy is not merely historical, but a living force.

        With regard to Hinduism, I highly recommend Sri Aurobindo’s “Secret of the Veda” and a slim book called “Vedic Symbolism”. For me, Aurobindo has essentially done the work that needed to be done with respect to the Vedas, and has pointed out how we may ground the subsequent development of Vedantic thought in the Upanishads in an understanding of the Vedas which is always already philosophical at the same time that it remains profoundly and perennially devotional, and hence polytheistic. Another text I have found useful is the Adhyatma Ramayana, a text of medieval date which interprets the Ramayana in pretty much exactly the way one would do it according to the canons of what I term “theological” interpretation.

        Much has been written comparing Neoplatonism and Vedanta, but unfortunately all of it that I have encountered has come out of a poor understanding of both, and has set the whole inquiry on the wrong foundations, so for now, I cannot recommend any of it.

        Reply
        • Thanks so much for recommending Sri Aurobindo’s Secret of the Veda and Vedic Symbolism! I’d read bits and pieces of Aurobindo previously, mostly from his writings on poetry (he was one of the few people to understand the literary value and mystical significance of Edward Carpenter, one of my favorite overlooked poets). These two books, however, are exactly what I was looking for.

          And if you (or someone else you know of) ever do embark on a theological interpretation of Algonquian myth (or any other culture’s mythology for that matter), please let me know! I’ve been spending the last week pondering what a theological interpretation of Coast Salish/Pacific Northwest Coast mythology might look like, and my mind is reeling at the possibilities. I agree that this is not to be done lightly, however, and for now am far more comfortable with Hellenic mythology than any other culture, but the potentials for future exploration certainly intrigue me . . .

          Reply
          • henadology

             /  November 10, 2012

            Algonquian theology is near to my heart, having lived all my life on Lenape land. The first piece of writing I ever saw published, in fact, was on Mesingw, for the pagan magazine Enchanté, which I am sure you are too young to remember. I just got done reading an amazing book, “Algonquian Spirit: Contemporary Translations Of The Algonquian Literatures Of North America,” which gave me so much food for thought. In this case, at least, the language family seems like a very meaningful unit of analysis, as much for the differences it embodies as for the unity. The contrast, for example, between the more hierarchical cosmogony of the Lenape, with a strong sense of hypostases, and the cosmogony of the more northern Algonquian nations (e.g., Miqmaq), which is much more processual, intrigues me a good deal. One might compare this to the way in which Socrates, in the Cratylus, finds “Parmenidean” and “Heraclitean” interpretations possible for the same divine names.

            Reply
            • Fascinating! While the mythologies of the Pacific Northwest Coast tribes are especially relevant to my current surroundings, I am genuinely interested in all the mythologies of the world, and will definitely have to check out that book on Algonquian literature you recommend. Is that article you wrote on Mesingw available anywhere online? I’d love to read that as well!

              Reply
              • henadology

                 /  November 15, 2012

                I probably wrote that article when I was still a teenager; even if I could dig out the file and render it into a usable form, it wouldn’t be very illuminating. But thank you, as always, for your interest!

                Reply
  2. First of all, getting attacked by people like that is just a sign that you’re on the right track. They tend to be people without an actual practice of their own, who get very uptight about their theories and how things should be done, but don’t have much in the way of direct experience. Direct experience of the gods changes you. It makes things a bit more messy.

    I think people just tend to take a valid criticism (there ARE “fluffy bunnies” out there who just mix pantheons with no regard for any of the gods involved) and then apply it too broadly to anyone who strays in the least bit from their very strict (and usually inaccurate) ideas of what a Recon is. The original traditions were hardly as discrete as people wish they were.

    Reply
    • Thank you for that. I’d like to think I’m on the right track. I find it odd and somewhat disturbing that so many so-called Reconstructionists act like their ancient-culture-of-choice existed in some sort of hermetically sealed bubble. Anyone who’s actually read the primary sources (and the reputable scholars) should know better. Nor do I appreciate it when the “self-appointed orthopraxy police” decide to insinuate that anyone calling themselves “eclectic” is automatically a fluffy New Ager who’s never encountered a primary text in their life. This is yet another area where your own work has been a great source of personal inspiration to me.

      And yes, direct experience of the gods really does change everything, doesn’t it? I see that in Proclus; I see that in myself; and I see it in so many of the writers (yourself included) who I respect and admire.

      Reply
  3. I think as long as pagans feel insecure about the world “outside”, they’ll continue to be uptight and intolerant sometimes. What’s wrong and what’s not ? It is sometimes really to notice that the only thing that matters is sincerity, and thus, devotion from the heart to all Gods, however it is done. I try not to throw the stone, because sometimes when I doubt I know I can jugde other and find them “wrong” in some ways. I’m not that intolerant as the people you describe, but I think it is an easy way… easiest to think and take hindsight, find peace and harmony between pagans.

    Anyway.

    I love when you undig such treasures. It is a priceless testimony, in many regards ! (I so agree with Henadology)

    Reply
    • Glad you enjoyed the Proclus anecdote!
      And I completely agree that one of the primary roots of conflict amongst pagans/polytheists is insecurity. We’re already out there on the margins, and people tend to get very defensive if they think what they’re doing is considered “wrong” somehow by what few peers they have. I just wish people would stop worrying so much about what other people are (or aren’t) doing, and focus on their own relationships to the gods and spirits. I find so much inspiration in those who can share their own spiritual/mystical experiences with others without trying to impose an orthodoxy on everybody else.

      Reply
  4. Thank you for this…I really must study up on Proclus one of these days…

    But, to answer your general questions: yes, yes, and yes. There are recons out there who don’t consider me a “real recon” because of my (historically-grounded!) syncretism; there are pagans out there who don’t consider me a real pagan because I don’t worship “real gods” (i.e. Antinous isn’t a real god, therefore); there are people out there who have done more based on their own UPG and called it “tradition” than almost anyone else working today who scoff at the Tetrad, for example, as entirely personal gnosis that is simply lifeless and irrelevant for others. And, I know that all three of these types of people are wrong, and ignorant, and unimportant to what I’m doing. (I feel unfortunate to have to have knowledge of their opinions on me; but, at the same time, all knowledge is ultimately useful, in my opinion.)

    Reply

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