Naturalistic Paganism

Being human when surrounded by Greek gods, by M. J. Lee

This week M. J. Lee takes the marriage of humanism and mythology all the way back to the ancient Greeks.  What was humanism for the Greeks, and how does it show up in the works of one of their greatest playwrights, Euripides?

The center of the world for the ancient Greeks was Delphi, and at the entrance to the Delphian Temple of Apollo were the words Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself).  This according to many scholars was a command to remember that one is human, to remember one’s place as a human.1  In its most basic form, humanism is simply the focus on the human, and the Greeks were certainly focused on this as can be seen in their art, literature, philosophy and also their religion.

Many people see humanism as opposed to traditional religion, and in fact use humanism as a synonym for atheism.  Humanism is seen as the rejection and replacement of God with the human, who then becomes the center of interest and the source of values and ethics.  The history of humanism is often begun with the ancient Greek philosophers and Sophists, who we are told questioned and rejected the traditional view of the gods.  Evidence for the rejection of religion is also collected from epic and dramatic poetry, where the gods are sometimes portrayed in a less then noble light, and even sometimes comically.  This is especially true of the works of Euripides.

The human in the god

Euripides is one of the three great tragedians from ancient Athens.  He is considered the most “modern” of the three, for questioning the assumptions of his society, for his anti-war stance, and for championing the downtrodden – women, foreigners and slaves.  It is often difficult, if not impossible, to discern what Euripides’ own position might have been on the issues he raises, and this is especially true in the realm of religion.  Many scholars, particularly from previous generations, have found his portrayal of the gods so negative that they thought he must be making fun of religion, showing people how foolish conventional beliefs were.  This may be so, but that is not the only way to read him.  I think in many ways he gives an old-fashioned, archaic view of the gods.2

Euripides’ last and most famous play is the Bacchae.  In the Bacchae, Dionysus returns to the place of his birth, Thebes, to establish his cult, but he is met with resistance from King Pentheus.  Pentheus refuses to recognize the divinity of Dionysus and tries to prohibit his worship, this running wild of decent women, wives and mothers.  To punish Pentheus for his arrogance, Dionysus has the women of Thebes in their Bacchic madness tear Pentheus limb from limb as if he were a wild beast, after which Agave, Pentheus’ own mother, leads a triumphal procession with her son’s head on a stake.  It is during this procession that Agave comes back to her senses and realizes with horror and disgust what she has done.

What are we to think of this god Dionysus?  If one sees the gods as conscious, supernatural people, then the Dionysus of the Bacchae can only be seen as the worst monster, for only a monster would force a mother to kill and dismember her child.  If one thinks that gods are supposed to be good, to care about and for humans, then one will find much amiss with Euripides’ gods.   It is clear that many of the ancient Greeks did come to believe the gods were supposed to be perfectly good and just stewards of humanity, and therefore became increasingly uncomfortable with the old myths of amoral gods.

If one defines a god as that which is perfect, perfectly good, perfectly wise, perfectly just, then it seems perfectly clear that there are no such gods, or at least none that take an active interest in us.  But these are not the gods of Homer, Hesiod or Euripides.  The gods that they portray are both kind and cruel; they are in fact capricious.  This to me seems more realistic, for this is what matches our experience of nature, not just the nature outside ourselves, but also our own nature, our un-chosen instinctual nature.  Sometimes the earth is a gentle, pleasant place, with sweet fruits ripe for the taking, and sometimes it is not.

Sick Bacchus, by Caravaggio

The gods encapsulate human experience, for good or ill, as in this unflattering portrait of the god Dionysus.

image enhanced from Sick Bacchus, by Caravaggio

The god in the human

The gods are for me metaphors for nature, or more precisely the names, images and stories are metaphors, allegories and archetypes of our relationship with nature.  I see the gods – the names, images, stories – as the poetic encapsulation of our human experience, our relationship with the ineffable forces that shape human life.  While this makes the gods no thing, it does not make them nothing.  I see the gods as representing very real, powerful, even dangerous forces.  I believe the gods are real.  It doesn’t matter what we call them or don’t call them.  They are real and dangerous, and we will contend with them.  This for me is the message of the Bacchae.

In the Bacchae, I believe Euripides was warning the men of Athens that to ignore a god like Dionysus can bring disaster.  Let us not forget that for a woman, the ancient world was a repressive place.  The only time a “respectable” woman may have left her home was to participate in religious rites.  The Bacchae was written at a time when attitudes about the gods were changing, and no doubt many patriarchs would have preferred to ignore gods like Dionysus and keep their women at home and in their control.  Better by far to be like Cadmus, Pentheus’ aged grandfather, and show proper reverence.  Cadmus, conscious of his status as a human, accepts straightaway the divinity of Dionysus and goes to join the Bacchic revelry.  Human beings can’t be in control of everything all the time.  Better to show proper reverence for gods like Dionysus, to allow a safe outlet for those forces which if bottled up too tight can be explosive.

The Dionysus of Athens was Dionysus Eleuthereus (The One Who Sets Free).  He was the giver of ecstasy, which literally means “standing outside of oneself,” and those activities which cause this – wine, drama, dancing – were under his patronage.  There is a time for working hard and a time for letting go.  What I like so much about polytheism is how almost every aspect of life on some level participates in the sacred.  There seems to be literally a deity for everything.  I see the purpose of religion as the cultivation of reverence, the development of right relationship with self, community and the world.3  It seems to me that we need if not gods, then something like them, to be the focus of this reverence, to encapsulate this “right relationship”.

I can’t leave the topic of Euripides without commenting on his play Heracles.  In this play, Heracles on returning home from his labors is made mad by Hera, who of course does not like Heracles because he is a bastard son of Zeus.  In his madness, Heracles kills his wife and children.  When Heracles returns to sanity and sees the carnage of his family, he is devastated to say the least.  In the traditional tale, Heracles, a mortal son of god, is made fully divine, but in this story he is made fully human.  No god comes to save Heracles; instead it is the love of his father and especially the friendship of Theseus which redeems him.

Know thyself

Euripides’ Heracles brings us back to the place of the human.  I think cultivating respect and reverence for nature, both the nature outside and inside ourselves, is very important, but in the end it is not the place of nature, of the gods, to save us, to give our lives meaning or purpose.  I believe that what gives our lives meaning, what redeems us, is philia, human love and friendship.  Knowing this is part of knowing what it means to be human, Gnothi Seauton (Know Thyself).  Greek humanism was not about rejecting the gods and elevating humans to that place, but was rather about understanding the place of the human and the god, and giving to each the credit and honor that was due.4


1.  For the conventional interpretation of Gnothi Seauton, see Elizabeth Vandiver’s Teaching Company course, Classical Mythology, Lecture 9 ( and Donald Kagan’s Open Yale Course, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Lecture 1 (available for free at  Donald Kagan also gives a wonderful summary of the Greek view of human nature.

2. An interesting article on the evolution of gods is available from the Friasan School at At the end of this page is an essay on Euripides.

3. For a wonderful exploration of reverence and its importance in Greek society see Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue by Paul Woodruff (Oxford University Press, 2001).  Woodruff discusses the Bacchae in several places, most notably on pages 94-97, 128-32 and 210-11.

4. Jon D. Mikalson in Ancient Greek Religion (Blackwell Publishing, 2005) examines the Greek view of the place of the human and divine based on actual temple dedication.  On this he says, “The thousands of dedications in the hundreds of Greek sanctuaries are certainly expressions of gratitude to the deities, but they are equally monuments of human achievement and usually the human achievement is given considerably more emphasis than the deity’s contribution” (page 159).  In his book Athenian Popular Religion (University of North Carolina Press, 1983) he sums up the Athenian attitude about divine intervention as, “In simple terms, opportunities came from the gods.  It was up to the human being to make the best of them.  If he was successful, he praised and thanked the gods.  If he failed, he faulted, if not himself, a daimon or fortune” (page 62).  We might say the same thing about nature and chance.

The author

M. J. Lee

M. J. Lee

M. J. Lee was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she first discovered her love of Greek myth among the dusty books at local universities.  It was the gods and spirits of wild places that especially captured her heart, and M. J. went on to earn a B.S. in Wildlife Science from Louisiana Tech and a M.S. in Plant Ecology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.  It was this training in science and critical thinking along with her enduring fascination with myth and mysticism that shaped her into a naturalistic pagan.  M. J. currently lives in west Tennessee with her husband and works as an environmental consultant.  She spends her free time enjoying nature, dancing and indulging her Hellenomania.

Upcoming work

This Sunday

Tomorrow, M. J. Lee takes us all the way back to the ancient Greeks.  She explores humanism in Greek tragedy in her insightful essay “Being human while surrounded by Greek gods.”  Read it tomorrow here on Humanistic Paganism!

M. J. LeeM. J. Lee

Being human while surrounded by Greek gods, by M. J. Lee

Appearing Sunday, July 17th, at Humanistic Paganism

Recent Work

Spirituality without religion: An interview with Drew Jacob

How the universe speaks to me, by Ryan Spellman

Paganism and the brain, by Rhys Chisnall

Spirituality without religion: An interview with Drew Jacob

Guarding the Edge, by Robb North

“Spirituality is not meant to be caged.”

image enhanced from original by Robb North

This week we talk to Drew Jacob, author of the blog Rogue Priest and the new ebook, Walk Like a God: How to Have Powerful Spiritual Moments With No Church and No Dogma

Drew explicitly addresses his work to both theists and nontheists, so I thought it would be interesting to interview him and find out why.

B. T. Newberg:  Let’s start off by diving right into what readers of Humanistic Paganism want to know: Why should they care about this book?

Drew Jacob:  Walk Like a God is a field manual for cultivating spiritual experiences without faith in a supernatural higher power. Many humanists feel the natural human drive to seek out a sense of connection to the world around us. That can mean a search for a greater meaning, a search for personal identity, or simply a sense of wonder when experiencing the vastness of our world. In Walk Like a God, I set out to give people practical tools to create those moments of wonder and connection.

BTN:  Some may find it strange that you are a polytheist, yet you go to great lengths in your book to include nontheistic points of view.  What’s the reasoning?

DJ:  Gods may be completely within the psyche of the believer. Since I personally have had wonderful spiritual experiences with these beings, I find it practical to treat them as real beings. But I wouldn’t presume to say others must believe in them too. That seems backwards to me.

When I wrote Walk Like a God I knew my audience is non-religious.  Many people want to pursue spirituality but have no desire to join a religion.  So I made sure the book would be just as useful to non-theists as it would be to anyone else.

BTN:  You write about the Heroic Life – it says so in your introduction.  But this book is about taking a walk.  What’s heroic about that?

DJ:  The Heroic Life means taking action, living for high ideals, and making a great impact on the world. The surest way to change lives is to start off changing your own life, and Walk Like a God is an arsenal for doing just that. A simple walk outdoors can be the basis of a spiritual practice that leads to a radical shift in perspective. Cultivating a sense of connection to nature leads to a deep and abiding affection for the world and the people in it.

BTN:  So, are you advocating a “back to nature” approach, a la Thoreau?  Is this book another Walden?

DJ:  Thoreau and Emerson led great lives, and their work is inspiring. But it’s not always practical. Walk Like a God presents basic and advanced strategies for pursuing spirituality. It gives clear guidance on how to do these things, how to find these experiences. Telling people to go live by a lake for a year isn’t very helpful. I made sure Walk Like a God has practices that anyone can do. Those basic practices build up to more adventurous ones. The goal through the whole book is to make it very clear how the reader can do this themselves. They can experience it firsthand.

BTN:  And this is very much a do-it-yourself book.  This may seem jarring to those who know you mainly from your role in reconstructing an authentic Celtic religion as faithful to history as possible, including building Temple of the River in northeast Minneapolis.  I mean, Walk Like a God doesn’t mention the Celts once.  What’s with the 180-degree turn?

DJ:  There are a million books for people who want to follow the Celtic gods. There’s very little out there for people who want solid spiritual practices without religion. That’s really who I wrote Walk Like a God for. There is an amazing, transformative experience hidden within spirituality and you do not need to be faithful to discover it.

BTN:  At one point you casually begin a sentence “When I lived with hunter-gatherers…”  What’s up with that?

DJ:  I spent part of a summer living at a primitivist camp in northern Wisconsin. Now I do a lot of forays into the wilderness with no modern gear. It’s dramatically changed my perspective on spirituality and what it takes for humans to be happy. Everyone talks about how nature is sacred, but what does that mean? It’s something you have to experience firsthand. Once you do, it’s amazing.

I really believe in seeking out challenges and expanding my horizons. Living in the wild is one way I’ve done that. Other people choose other ways. This idea of adventure as a spiritual practice is a core part of Walk Like a God. It teaches you how to take something big, something scary, and embark on it as an adventure. For most people that doesn’t mean living in the woods. It might mean quitting a job or having a child. The range of human adventure is as wide as human imagination. All of us have an adventure to lead.

BTN:  What do you advise readers do to be safe and smart in the wilderness?

DJ:  I’d advise them to get a different book! Walk Like a God is really about using spirituality to transform your life. I expect that most people will take their walks in a city park. These practices can be done anywhere. No matter where you live, nature surrounds you. We spend much of our time trying to shut nature out. Learning to embrace it is a powerful way of shifting your consciousness.

BTN:  The layout of the book is striking.  The 86 pages, set in landscape orientation, are full of short lines, half pages, and photographs of wide-open natural scenes.  If it were a print book, I would imagine it somewhere between a photo journal and a poetry chapbook – certainly not as a manual on spiritual exercises.  What did you intend to convey through this aesthetic choice?

DJ:  Walk Like a God is laid out to feel like the wide expanse of the road opening up before you. Each idea gets its own page. I use images sparingly, but in a way that hints at the meaning of the words around them. I want the book to feel like a landscape painting.

Ebooks are my favorite medium because they have such amazing aesthetic options. Print books are limited by cost: more pages means a higher price, and color ink is expensive. Ebooks don’t have that limitation. If the author wants a lush montage of full-color images, in they go. If a sentence should meander across the page like ants, no problem. Ebooks allow authors to turn their manuscript into visual art, and that in turn allows a mood to come across. That speaks to readers. I’m really proud of what I did with Walk Like a God and I wish more authors would try this approach.

BTN:  The book runs $8 at your site, but you encourage readers to email it around… for free.  Why so permissive with your work?

DJ:  Spirituality is not meant to be caged. I spent a lot of time working on Walk Like a God and I really appreciate it when someone buys a copy. But if they read it and think, wow, this would really help my friend—why can’t they just pass it on to them? Every reader who buys Walk Like a God has permission to share it for free. Maybe it will mean less profit, but it will also mean more people benefit from the book. That’s what I really want to see.

BTN:  Do you have any plans for a discussion group or forum where people can support and encourage each other in this practice?

The best way is to come on over to Rogue Priest and join the conversation.  Or get tweeting.  If readers want a dedicated discussion forum then I’m sure we could get one started.

BTN:  What would you like to know from readers of Humanistic Paganism?  What’s your one burning question for them?

DJ:  Oh, wow!  That’s a fun question.  Okay, Humanistic Pagans, here’s what I want to know: What is your adventure?  What’s the thing you do that will change the way the world works?

BTN:  Okay, last question: If you could offer one take-away for readers, something that sums up your view on spirituality and the Heroic Life, what would it be?

DJ:  Remember that dream you had when you were little? You can fucking do that.

Walk Like a God, by Drew Jacob

The ebook Walk Like a God by Drew Jacob is available for purchase here.

For a full review of the ebook, go here

And for a field test of the techniques in the book, watch for a post on July 24th here on Humanistic Paganism.

The interviewee

Drew Jacob is a priest of many gods, a seasoned nonprofit professional, a writer, an observer and all too frequently a student of his own misadventures. He follows the Heroic Path: the idea that the highest goal in life is to live gloriously, to distinguish oneself through deeds, to be clever and brave and become known for it – to use the moments of one’s life to leave a lasting and worthy impression on the world.  He is the author of Rogue Priest and The Heroic Path.

Upcoming work

This Sunday

We’ve got a very special interview with up-and-coming author Drew Jacob.  He’s just released the new ebook Walk Like a God: How to Have Spiritual Moments With No Church and No Dogma.

Drew addresses his work to both theists and nontheists, so we’re going to interview him and find out why.  Look for it this Sunday!

While you wait, read a full review of the ebook here.

Drew Jacob

Spirituality without religion: An interview with Drew Jacob

Appearing this Sunday here at Humanistic Paganism.

Next Sunday

Then, the following week, M. J. Lee will take us all the way back to the ancient Greeks.  She explores humanism in Greek tragedy in her insightful essay “Being human while surrounded by Greek gods.”  Watch for it on the 17th!

M. J. Lee

M. J. Lee

Being human while surrounded by Greek gods, by M. J. Lee

Appearing Sunday, July 17th, at Humanistic Paganism

Recent Work

How the universe speaks to me, by Ryan Spellman

Paganism and the brain, by Rhys Chisnall

Speak your truth, by B. T. Newberg

How the universe speaks to me, by Ryan Spellman


For me, it’s all about what raises the hair on the back of my neck.

photo: Sunwheel, by Ryan Spellman

This week, Ryan Spellman shares the story of his journey toward a naturalistic spirituality.

A personal narrative of how I got to where I am

Throughout my life I have gone through several phases of spiritual evolution. In my youth, my first step seems to have been a time of rebellion. During this time, I was seeking to divorce myself from the Christian religious views forced upon me as a child. I’ve never harbored any ill feelings toward Christianity, it’s just something that never worked for me. From there, I began to grow and found myself experimenting with paganism, which eventually led to an interest in Teutonic traditions. Something about it felt right, so I soon got in touch with a community of Asatruar. I truly felt at home and continued to work with them for years. About midway through this period of my life, I had what was at first a very exciting, and later heart-wrenching, realization.

I cannot remember when it struck me exactly, but I do remember it being one of those “eureka!” moments. I had already started making my way toward the discovery that the gods and goddesses were not supernatural, external beings for me. As these thoughts began creeping in, I started to develop concerns regarding what others would think about such views. Would they accept my personal understanding of the gods, goddesses and ritual as being introspective/psychological rather than metaphysical? For a time, these concerns had me turning a blind eye to my true feelings. It was in the middle of this mental struggle that I had an epiphany. So what if I didn’t see anything supernatural in what I was doing? Essentially, what I had done was discover how the universe speaks to me.

There is nothing supernatural about it, and there is not a single thing wrong with that. I had found something that resonates within me. The ritual, myths and lore had become a very important part of my growth over the past four years and would continue to for many more.

True to myself

Following this discovery, I knew that I had to be honest with everyone. No matter what the response might be, it was important to be true to myself and open about my views.

As it turns out, not many pagans have similar ideologies – which was to be expected. However, most of those that had come to know me still respect me, and are comfortable with me being around during their functions. I have run into several folks who seem to take offense to such naturalistic views, but it is something I’ll get used to. The important thing is that I have come to such a deep understanding of myself and my spirituality.

The largest argument that comes up is the question, “Why bother?” To paraphrase a response I once had: With views such as these, any fictional world would work just as well. They weren’t entirely off the mark, but the deep psychological connection I have to Teutonic mythology was missed in this statement. For me, it’s all about what raises the hair on the back of my neck. It always makes me think back on a writing I read when I was in my teens by Anton LaVey entitled The Combination Lock Principle. In it, he stresses the importance of finding the right “tumblers” and getting them to fall into place. Of course, he was likely working toward a more metaphysical slant than I, but the general principle is the same.

How the universe speaks to me

Honoring the gods and goddesses is a way I can connect on a deep psychological level with different aspects of the natural world around me. This connection is obtainable without metaphor, but those moments tend to be spontaneous. With ritual, those times of connection are controllable. It doesn’t stop at the gods and goddesses, either. Similarly, the runes are outstanding tools for reflection and meditation. The myths and lore provide avenues of self-exploration and solid advice on how to live a good life. So much of what I found within Asatru still speaks strongly to me. Even though I don’t call myself Asatru any longer due to such a philosophical deviation from the norm, I still hew tightly to its traditions. Through them, the universe speaks to me.

The author

Ryan Spellman

Ryan Spellman

Ryan Spellman lives happily in the foothills of Appalachia with his wife of seven years and three spoiled kitties. He is lucky enough to spend his day job working at a library and does a little web and graphic design, painting, drawing and almost anything else creative he can get his hands on as time allows.

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