So I got interviewed by Christopher Blackwell, the founder of AREN and the Editor of ACTION. The full interview can be found here and features interviews from the Thracian, Rhyd Wildermuth, Niki Whiting, and Khi Armand. My interview is below copied from the plain text, which means that there may be odd dashes and spaces that were present and necessary in the PDF, but may seem odd here.Conor is a 21 year old student pursuinga BA in Religious Studies in North Texas. Conor is an Hellenic Polytheist, a devotee of Athena, Hermes, and Aphrodite. He is also an active member in Denton CUUPS and is a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Foundation. He writes a blog Under the Owl’s Wing and also writes a column for POLYTHEIST .COM., The Goatskin. He gave a successful guest lecture at his university on Magic, Witch- craft, and Religion, attended by 60 to 65 people.
Christopher: You come from a rather rough and chaotic life. You finished high school thinking that you have been taught a bit how the world works. How big is the shock when you shift to living on your own and in University?
Conor: Well, the life basics weren’t too hard to get the handle of. Because of my upbringing I knew how to shop, I knew how to cook, I knew how to do my laundry. I was pretty well able to take care of myself. The hardest adjustments were when I had to live in the dorms. I was used to a certain kind of courtesy in terms of sleep and noise, but the kids on my floor were just absolutely inconsiderate.
It was going from being surrounded by low SES people to being surrounded by Middle and Upper-Middle SES people ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼and there is a big change there you know. There are cultural differences. I had a lot of struggles with feeling isolated and alone until I ran into a person I knew in high school, but just barely. We hung out for a while and became pretty close friends, we’re roommates now. To this day I still notice a lot of differences in social cues and obligations between me and a lot of my peers, I still haven’t really adjust- ed yet. I’m still searching for that sense of belonging that I felt in my childhood with the Pentecostal church. I think it seeps through in a lot of my writing.The other big shock was learning how to handle money. My biggest pitfalls have come from forgetting to budget for emergency expenses, ha ha. I’m getting better at it of course but it is a practice thing.
I never had any money to practice with growing up, we were pretty dang poor. And when I did have money I had no incentive to save it. If I didn’t spend it pretty quick chances were good that my dad was going to borrow it and then I’d never see it again. So learning how to handle money, that has been a tough and rough lesson. I’m fortunate to have had people to give me work and help me out of those tight situations.
Christopher: You grew up in a Pentecostal background? Was that particularly rough for you as you began to understand who and what you are as a person?
Conor: As a child it wasn’t too bad, I obsessed a lot over not really being saved
or something but I was a pious little boy. I tried to study the Bible and did the street evangelization thing. I also felt a bit of concern though, since my sister and brother and cousins all had experiences with the Holy Ghost, I never did. And I was the one who put in more effort! It was up- setting, but boy did I try and try to feel the Holy Ghost but it just, it didn’t click.
When I got older things got pretty bad. When I realized that I was gay it was hard to deal with. The people around me were constantly slandering and belittling gay people, talking about how evil and terrible they were. It led to some pretty bad depressive issues. Thankfully I found an online community that helped me not feel so evil and terrible about myself.
I tried to be a conservative Christian for a while but then I ended up punching some numbers. I determined that according to my upbringing, less than one percent of humanity was going to heaven and the rest were going to go straight to hell. I couldn’t believe that. It never occurred to me to seek out a different religion or just a different denomination of Christianity. I decided I was going to be a Deist for a bit, but eventually became an Atheist. Though I admit that my mind flip-flopped a lot between Atheism and Deism a lot, maybe I was an agnostic for a bit and didn’t realize it.
Christopher: Rebelling and becoming atheist is not surprising. But when, why,￼￼and how do you get from there into Paganism and being a hard Polytheist?
Conor: Well, I wouldn’t even necessarily call it rebelling, it was a pretty calculated move. Math and statistics are what did in my faith, maybe if I had ever experienced the presence of YHWH or Jesus I would have remained some sort of Christian but it just didn’t happen.
I got into Paganism through a Scott Cunningham book, of course. The idea of see- ing the gods as archetypes was appealing to me, as well as choosing to view things through this lens of personal power, personal programming, that was appealing.
It didn’t require me to rethink the assumptions I held.
Well, that didn’t last long. I was never a practicing Wiccan to begin with and looked for something more rooted in his- tory. I found Hellenism through an internet search and found out about Hellenic Reconstructionism. I didn’t really have any intention of being a polytheist then. . .not even after getting into reconstructionism.
Then I got very depressed and called out to Athena earnestly, in desperation, not knowing what else to do, and I got an answer. I found the strength to keep going on. And since then I’ve been her devotee. I’ve wondered from time to time if I rushed too quickly into things, but you know there is a saying I’ve heard a lot growing up, “dance with the one who brought ya” and that’s been my philosophy. No matter how dark things get or how frustrated I feel, I can’t give up. My gods saved my life and unless they tell me otherwise they will always have a place in my home.
Christopher: The term Polytheist seems to create a lot of controversy and misunderstanding. So what does it mean to you?
Conor: The meaning is in the name, poly – many, and theos – gods, many gods. That’s as complicated as I care to get. If you worship multiple gods, you are a poly- theist. All the complicated sub-divisions, eh, where does that get us? I’ve had Athe- ists and Agnostics participate in my rites in a respectful manner, what more can I ask from them?
That’s what it boils down to for me, if someone shows respect for my gods they can call themselves a Neo-Jungian Freudian Inspired Monist for all I care. As long as they aren’t insisting that polytheists are delusional, childish, or any other derogatory thing simply because they are polytheists, I really don’t care.
Christopher: Now not everyone in the Polytheist community goes into the priest- hood or priestess-hood. You are pursuing a BA in Religious studies. Are you considering becoming a priest? Does that mean someday a temple?
Conor: Well, the short answer is probably. Based on some things I’ve been told and some divination that I’ve had performed, it￼￼￼￼ ￼￼￼￼￼would seem like priesthood is in my future. Of course, this is a complicated matter within modern Hellenism, a priest was generally tied to a particular sanctuary and a lot of Hellenists hold onto that particular conception of priesthood.
I, however, hold to the notion that a priest serves their god(s) and their community, and that a priest ought to perform rites on behalf of their community from time to time. I also think that in this modern age, a priest has to be prepared to perform life cycle rites for others such as marriages or funerals, as well as be willing to edu- cate your fellows and the general public. So, when I’m prepared to take on those obligations and burdens, I’ll make those priestly vows.
Of course, I know some active priests who’d disagree that a priest needs to do all that, and I’m not saying they are wrong. There never has just been one kind of holy worker and it is a failing of our language that all these different types of holy servants get lumped into the word priest. Those are just the particular parameters that have been set for me, by divination, contemplation, and personal gnosis.
As for the temple, gods willing, yes. I had some pretty ambitious plans for a temple in my younger years, but I’ve discarded those plans. They were just too unrealistic. Maybe if I win the lottery and didn’t have to work a full time job I could pull them off, but as I grew into my Hellenism I realized they were just too big. So, someday I’m hoping to set up a nice little temenos for Athena, Aphrodite, and Hermes. What it will be like or how big it will be exactly, well that’s up in the air. One diviner told me 10 feet by 10 feet, but I plan on getting some second opinions just to be sure.
Christopher: Meanwhile you are active in Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans [CUUPS] and the Unitarian Universalist Foundation? How does that help you?
Conor: CUUPS has been an immense comfort to me. They’ve rounded off some of my rather harsh edges, not all of them of course, and have helped me grow as a Hellenist in ways that I simply couldn’t have done by myself. It is due to my lo- cal CUUPS chapter that I’ve been able to more authentically embody my particular polytheistic outlook on life and recognize things like nature and city spirits in addition to more effectively communing with my gods. Some of the deepest, most intense, and most fulfilling work I’ve done has been with the Denton CUUPS chapter and I’m honored to be a part of the group. Even if I have, at times, been a bit of a prick.
The Unitarian Universalist Foundation provides less spiritual fulfillment than CUUPS or even writing, but I find them so intellectually stimulating. I love being able to see, however briefly, through someone else’s eyes. The UU Church contributes to me being a better person I think, even if the skills that are being refined aren’t neces￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼sarily directly related to my religion. Plus the UU’s have done a lot of awesome stuff in their history, so I kinda beam with pride when they come up in documentaries or the news. It is pretty awesome to say “I’m a part of that”.
Christopher: How did Under the Owl’s Wing get started? How long have you written about being a Hellenic Polytheist? Doesn’t this require some serious re- search?
Conor: I needed a place to express my- self and explore my developing religious views and ideas, so I started writing. I’ve written about being a Hellenist for some- where around, geez, according to my blog, since August 10 2012. Two and a half years. I’ve been a Hellenist for maybe just a bit longer than that. February 2012 was when I really started reading but I only got into my personal practice in the Summer of 2012. I haven’t been a Hellenist that long! I’m still a baby. I think people sometimes forget that.
As for the research, well, I don’t think it requires serious research necessarily, to start up a blog. Whether what you write will be interesting is a different question entirely. By the time I started up the blog I had been seriously researching Hellenism for around six months I think. Seriously practicing for about three, but by that point I was getting the basics down a little bit better. Really, I don’t think I got to what one would call ‘well read’ until after a year and a half of pretty voracious reading and
intense study. I blame it all on youthful ambition and young passion. And good mentors too of course.
Christopher: How did you end up writing articles for POLYTHEIST.COM?
Conor: The current manager of the site extended me an invitation to write after reading some of my work. I accepted and that’s pretty much how that happened. Not too exciting, I know.
Christopher: Two of your articles deal with a couple of difficulties for new young Polytheists that account for a fairly high turnover. One is the lack of a chance to
do any serious work because of a lack of trust by older members who don’t take young members seriously. The other is a lack of training and advice on how to handle expressing Polytheist views in a society that rejects any ideas outside of a monistic view of deity. How serious a problem is this for new members and what kind of support do you hope this discus- sion might create for the still vulnerable new Polytheists?
Conor: I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I think the lack of opportunities is a really serious problem for some young folks and obviously doesn’t encourage them to stay in communities.
There are also a lot of online communities that just absolutely have a toxic style of speech. I probably wouldn’t be a Hellenist today if it wasn’t for Cara Schulz talking￼
￼￼￼to me and convincing me that not all Hellenists are homophobic or hyper-conservative or whatever. I had stumbled onto a hellenismos.us board when I was looking for a community and it was one of the most toxic groups I ever encountered.
So lack of opportunities and just a straight up lack of community are huge problems for a lot of folks. Thankfully my local CU- UPS chapter has given me opportunities to grow. Unfortunately I haven’t really solved the toxic online community’s problem, which I admit makes it hard to keep my optimism up some days.
Christopher: In another article you dis- cussed the problem of some not under- standing the variations in practice and beliefs about the gods, as well as sacred stories about the gods. First could you briefly explain the varieties and why this might threaten polytheist communities?
Conor: Variation is a natural part of religious development. I think that variations based on nationality and climate are to be expected. A British Hellenist and an American Hellenist are going to be different. Hell, a Hellenist from Maryland and a Hellenist from Texas are going to be different if only because of very different climates. When someone denies or attempts to squelch regional variations, it makes me wonder how lived-in their practice is and if they are treating Hellenism too much like Civil War reenactment or something. Our gods manifest themselves in the natural world and when you ignore that, simply to go by the book or whatever, you are ignoring a very big part of the reality of the gods. Squelching variation is incredibly dangerous; it turns us from being a living religion to mere re-enactors, which will inevitably hinder our growth. I want us to flourish in all of our different flavors.
Christopher: How did you end up a guest speaker and give your talk on Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion. How did you prepare? What did it feel like to be on the other side of the lectern? What kind of feed-back did you get?
Conor: Well, I was taking the class and was pretty open about being a Hellenist throughout the course. Eventually I received an invitation to do a lecture. I happily accepted.
To prepare, I carefully thought about the important parts of Hellenism and conveying to the class that we are a living religion, present to them some common basics, and then answer any lingering questions that they had. I tried to make sure that they knew we weren’t a mono- lithic unified religion and that I couldn’t speak for everybody.
There were a couple of Christians in the class who tried to subtly imply that either I was worshiping demons or that my religion lacks any real spiritual power, but I anticipated that.
Being on the other side of the lectern ￼￼￼wasn’t too bad, it was like giving any other sort of presentation. I’m an actor, so I don’t get super nervous in front of people if I’m adequately prepared. I was nervous, of course, but I was able to quell that after talking for a bit.
The feedback at the end was very good. The Buddhist and Hindu students, well the professor was also Hindu, came up and shook my hand and thanked me for the lecture. I got some compliments on my bravery. The only negative feedback I got was that I should have handed out a terms sheet, which I should have.
Christopher: How can people keep in touch with your development and writings? Where can they learn more about Polytheism?
Conor: To keep up with my writings I’d suggest visiting my blog at undertheowlswing.wordpress.com, follow me on twitter @ConortheBoring, and/or following my polytheist.com column The Goatskin.
As for learning more about polytheism, I’d suggest studying a particular tradition. Polytheism is, in reality, a theological stance so a lot of variation exists between individuals who hold that stance. I don’t really know a ton of resources for folks to learn, I sheepishly admit. My advice is to read critically, realize that every community has its assholes, and just take things as slow as you need to. Focus on a particular tradition to start out with and then maybe explore your options a little bit. There isno real reason to rush things most of the
time. Treat it like a marathon, not a sprint.
Christopher: Anything else you would like our readers to know?
Conor: I’ve had some awesome mentors these past few years who I’m immensely grateful for. I’d like folks to not give up on building communities, those are import- ant to not just our future but our children’s futures too.
Also, if you are a Hellenist of any stripe, check out The Koinon https://thekoinon.wordpress.com. We are an organization open to all Hellenists with an emphasis on service and community building. We can’t stop fighting and building.