This month, we sit down with H Jeremiah Lewis, also known as Sannion. A prolific blogger and poet, Sannion has just released a new collection of essays, From the Satyr’s Mouth: Wit and Wisdom From an Opinionated Polytheist (Nysa Press). Here, Sannion takes some time out of his very busy writing and ritual schedule to discuss syncretism, intolerance in the Pagan community, and the place of the Ptolemies in his spiritual life.
[Note: Sannion founded the publishing imprint Bibliotheca Alexandrina, of which EHS editor Rebecca Buchanan has recently become Editor-in-Chief.]
Eternal Haunted Summer: If you could correct one common misconception about modern Paganism, what would it be?
Sannion: Oh, I don’t even know what the common misconceptions are these days. Back when I started out there was a lot of concern that Christians thought we were devil-worshiping, baby-eating sex fiends … but you know what? I’ve spent a lot of time in interfaith discussion and I’ve never come across a Christian who seriously entertained those kinds of silly notions about us. Most of the time it was just the paranoid delusions of overly-sensitive Wiccans. If I had to come up with something though, it’d probably be homogenization. All Pagans don’t have the same ethical and cosmological beliefs, worship the same gods, conduct that worship in the same manner, or even ascribe to the same politics. We’re as diverse a group of people as you’re likely to find and most of the intercommunal conflict we see arises from a failure to properly appreciate that fact.
EHS: What drew you to Greco-Egyptian syncretism? And was your path fairly straightforward, or did you meander a bit?
S: I’ve talked about that quite a bit before, most particularly in The Balance of the Two Lands. The short version is, I started off as a culturally-specific Hellenic Reconstructionist devoted primarily to Dionysos. Then I had a series of unexpected encounters with Horus the Elder. Since he didn’t seem to be going away any time soon I figured I’d do some research into the forms of worship he favored, which awakened a deep love for the religion and culture of ancient Egypt. I then left the Hellenic community and spent the better part of a year in the Kemetic community trying to be as authentic as possible (with the exception of my continued worship of Dionysos) before the Greek gods reasserted their hold on my heart. At the time both the Kemetic and Hellenic communities looked down on syncretism and the whole dual-trad thing, so I eventually broke with both and started doing some serious research into the Hellenistic era of Egyptian history where, under the Ptolemies, the two cultures were fused together.
A couple other folks were doing something similar so we started Neos Alexandria as a gathering-place for Greco-Egyptian polytheists and syncretists of every stripe. Our numbers swelled since there were a lot more people out there like us than we had ever imagined; we came up with a calendar of festivals, an informative website, started publishing a line of books, and even started planning a massive communal gathering. It was a wonderful time and I’m proud of all the things we managed to accomplish together – though I’m no longer a member of that organization.
EHS: Syncretism is often misunderstood, even in Pagan circles. How do you explain it someone who just assumes that it’s an “eclectic mish-mash?”
S: I explain it as a living and dynamic faith, a result of the intersection of cultures both ancient and modern. We tend to think that populations were pretty static back then, but they weren’t. War, trade, colonization, etc scattered people all across the globe. And while those populations clung to their ancestral traditions, they also adopted new gods, the gods of the land where they came to settle. This happens all the time and pretty much everywhere. Ptolemaic Alexandria is a good example from antiquity – but we can also see it in the Afro-Caribbean faiths where the Lwa and Orishas are honored under the names of Catholic Saints or in India where Jesus is treated as an avatar or Japan where there’s a host of new religious movements called shinshūkyō that blend Shinto with elements of Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and even popular science-fiction and fantasy themes.
Of course, in my opinion, what separates syncretism from eclecticism is synthesis: you’re not just lumping these elements haphazardly together. You’re creating something new and dynamic by fusing them, and to do that you have to understand how that process works, what each of the elements represent, whether they even can be harmoniously blended and what happens when they can’t. I’ve often likened being a syncretist to being a skilled DJ who creates mash-ups or remixes. There’s an art to it and you have to have a finely-tuned ear to do it well. When done well, you get something sublime, something new, something that is more than the mere sum of its parts.
EHS: The Ptolemies were instrumental in the creation of the Hellenistic world, in the fusion of Greek and Egyptian culture. What do you admire most about them, and who are among your favorite Ptolemies?
S: Oh man, you really don’t want me to get started on that topic! I can go on and on and on about it. To put it simply, the Ptolemies are the linchpin of my whole religious system and figures of the deepest reverence for me. My next book, in fact, is all about the Ptolemies and why I worship them, with a significant detour into the field of Dionysian sacred kingship.
Although I greatly admire all of them – or, well almost all of them: Ptolemy Physkon was a bit of a psychopath and the 13th and 14th Ptolemies were total wankers, powerless and completely ruled by their eunuch advisors – the Ptolemies who stand out the most for me are the ones that played up their connection to Dionysos the strongest. We’re talking Ptolemy Philadelphos, Ptolemy Philopator, Ptolemy Auletes and Marcus Antonius – though he’s technically only a part of the family through marriage. That’s probably the biggest reason why I’m attracted to them. You want to see what Dionysos would be like in human form, all you’ve got to do is look at the lives of the Ptolemies. It’s all there, his strengths and his weaknesses together.
EHS: How did you come to title your new collection From the Satyr’s Mouth: Wit and Wisdom From an Opinionated Polytheist?
S: Well, satyrs are known for their ribald humor as well as their criticism of conventional social institutions and human foibles. This book is a collection of essays that take a good, hard look at the modern Pagan community and doesn’t shy away from pointing out the idiocy, bigotry, and absurdity that is all too common there. Of course, it’s not entirely negative. Several of the pieces talk about my personal religious practice, interesting historical details or the positive things that we Pagans can contribute to the world. But I’m sure it’s going to be a controversial book when it hits the stands – and so it seemed appropriate to bring the satyrs into it.
EHS: I love the leering satyr on the cover. What is that piece of artwork, and where did you find it?
S: It’s called The Two Satyrs — and how I acquired it is an interesting story. You see, after consuming a large quantity of hallucinogenic mushrooms I traveled back in time to 17th century Antwerp where I met the famous Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens in a brothel that was run by the Bavarian Illuminati. We became fast friends, invented jazz music and espresso together, and single-handedly defeated the invading fleet of lizard-men from the planet Nibiru when they tried to take over the Earth. Before I returned to my own time-line Rubens painted a picture of the two of us to commemorate our friendship. (He’s the dude that’s chugging wine in the back.) Once my book was finished I slapped the image on the cover because it was the only piece of art I had lying about and I don’t have any talent of my own. Also, it contains an encoded message about the lizard-men’s planned return come December 2012 and I figured it was important to get that information out there so we can be prepared for them.
That or I found it on one of those sites that allows you to download high-resolution versions of art that’s in the public domain for a nominal fee and liked it. Either/or really.
EHS: As evidenced by your blog and your previous publications, you are quite a prolific writer. How did you decide which pieces to include in Satyr’s Mouth? Did you write any original essays just for this collection?
S: For the most part I chose “issue pieces” for the book. I wanted stuff that asked important questions, challenged people to think about things in a different light, or that would add to the ongoing debates in the various Pagan communities. As you say, I’ve put out a lot of writing over the years – but only a small portion of it is specifically devoted to controversial topics and that’s mostly what ended up in this collection. I also wanted to include some of the old favorites from the website I closed down when starting up The House of Vines. I was surprised at how attached people had become to this writing. I mean, some of that stuff was put out almost a decade ago and I figured that people had read it and moved on. But pretty much as soon as I removed it I was getting frantic e-mails from folks asking if I still had the files and would I be willing to e-mail it to them since they wanted to reference something I said or just read them again for personal enjoyment. That was a little weird – as a writer you never know what kind of an impact you’re going to have on your audience, and sometimes it’s the stuff you least care about that really strikes a nerve with people. So, some of the pieces in this collection were included as a nod to my fans, so that they’ll have a bound version of these writings that isn’t going to disappear on a whim.
But there’s also a lot of new stuff too. I’d say about a third of it is completely new, written specifically for this collection – and a couple of the pieces only saw limited publication before and so will be new to most folks as well.
EHS: In the essay “Bringing the Outsider In” you address the place of Set in Egyptian culture and, by extension, the issue of tolerance within the modern Pagan community. Have you seen the level of in/tolerance change over time, place and tradition? How do you personally address intolerance within Paganism when you encounter it?
S: Oh yeah. Intolerance is everywhere. It used to be a serious problem and actually resulted in my leaving a number of different Pagan communities. It’s particularly sad when you see it rear its ugly head here. I mean, sure, intolerance is pretty much part of the human condition and so can be found in every religious, political and social group imaginable – but considering how much of it Pagans have to put up with as a minority faith, you’d think they’d be a bit more sensitive to it and less inclined to pull that crap on others. Unfortunately it seems just the opposite is true. Because they suffer so much intolerance they’re almost more inclined to be intolerant – either to those they perceive as the purveyors of it, or else as a way to demonstrate their position within a communal hierarchy, sort of the internet’s equivalent to hazing.
The way I respond to it pretty much depends on who’s dishing out the intolerance. If I think the person can be reasoned with I’ll try to demonstrate what they’re doing and calmly refute any errors or general misconceptions they might have. If the person is a total raving loon I just won’t engage with them. You can’t convince a person like that. You can’t shout them down. They thrive on the conflict and I think their whole goal is to churn others up and disrupt the peace and focus of the group. Needless to say, whenever I’ve been in a position of authority I’ve taken a zero-tolerance stand on intolerance. It’s fine to disagree with folks, but there’s no call for being rude, insulting or violent. I’ve always tried to foster a culture where people from different backgrounds can come together and share ideas and their mutual love for the gods. The biggest way you do that is by setting an example, by being friendly, level-headed and open to other views yourself. My mother always said that politeness is contagious and I’ve seen it play out that way numerous times before.
EHS: So, just what shall we do with “That Damn P-Word?”
S: There’s nothing that can be done. Every attempt to definitively define the word “Pagan” has met with disaster. You can’t control language, because people will use words however they want. The only thing you can do is get your definition out there so that people understand what you mean when you, personally, are using it. As long as you’re clear about that, it’s not really a problem what others believe or do. In fact, the less you worry about others the happier you’ll be in the long run.
EHS: The dedications page includes one to Revolution Muslim. Why that group?
S: I’m a big fan of irony and perfect timing and that whole mess was full of both. As I was putting the final touches on the book, news started breaking about how this radical Islamic group out of New York was making death threats against the creators of South Park because they planned to depict the prophet Mohammed in their cartoon. It really demonstrated why a book like mine was needed. Religion is a serious matter. Hell, I’ve devoted my whole life to serving my gods, so I get it. But because it’s so serious there has to be room for critical thought, for dissent and dialogue – and humor plays a very important role in that. In fact, humor is the acid test of religion. If you can’t laugh at your faith from time to time there’s something fundamentally wrong with you – and it. This is what makes religion strong and worthy of our respect: it’s ability to withstand such things and remain a force for good in the world. The heretic, the clown, the satyr – they may be annoying and uncomfortable, but we need them. Because when you close off dissent there’s no chance for progress, for growth, for stripping away the false and outmoded so that we can arrive at a fuller and better truth together. When you don’t let that happen, when you say your faith is beyond critique and those who don’t agree with you deserve to be hurt or killed – you’re basically admitting that your religion is weak and wrong and has no place in the community of world faiths.
I take shots at Christians, Wiccans, Hellenic Recons and plenty of others in the book. I don’t imagine any of those groups are going to respond by suggesting I deserve to be shot, stabbed, and have my throat cut. In fact, South Park lampooned pretty much every major religion over its 200 episodes – from Christians to Buddhists, Mormons to Scientologists; hell, if memory serves they even mentioned Wicca in a couple episodes. Those religions didn’t like it. They wrote letters and protested and threatened to sue. That’s what you do in the civilized world. But when Islam comes up … it’s a different situation. I really hope that something good will come out of this mess, that the moderate Muslim voices will begin to speak out against their extremist brethren. If that happens, then it’ll all have been worth it. And wouldn’t that be amazing, that the buffoons behind South Park had some small part to play in changing the face of a religion? Of course, I’m not holding my breath … but you never know. It could happen.
EHS: What resources (books, journals, websites, et cetera) do you recommend for someone interested in Greco-Egyptian syncretism?
S: There’s a lot of stuff on getting started and the modern application of Greco-Egyptian polytheism, by a number of intelligent, devoted, and passionate individuals. In my not-so-humble opinion, probably the best place to start would be with my own books, the previously-mentioned The Balance of the Two Lands, and Echoes of Alexandria. You can find some excerpts from these on my website. However there is a great deal of information that is only available in the books themselves.
Beyond that, my top 10 book recommendations would have to be:
Jack Lindsay’s Gods and Men on the Roman Nile;
Jack Lindsay’s Leisure and Pleasure in Roman Egypt;
David Frankfurter’s Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance;
Byron E. Shafer’s Temples of Ancient Egypt;
Robert Bagnall’s Egypt in Late Antiquity;
M. M. Austin’s The Hellenistic Era from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources;
Tony Mierzwicki’s Graeco-Egyptian Magick;
Günther Hölbl’s History of the Ptolemaic Empire;
P. M. Fraser’s Ptolemaic Alexandria;
Jane Rowlandson’s Women And Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook.
EHS: In 2009 you founded your own publishing imprint, Nysa Press. How did you come to name it that? And why did you decide to create your own imprint?
S: Well, the name was pretty obvious since I’m a devotee of Dionysos and the decision to bring out my own line of books largely followed from that. I wanted good, quality books about my god and about Greco-Egyptian polytheism out there. I didn’t want to compromise on what was said or how they were marketed and to be perfectly honest, none of my stuff is likely to appeal to a huge audience anyway, so there just seemed no point in trying to work through the system. Besides, traditional publishing is on its way out thanks to changing interests, the internet and Kindle. Print on Demand is the way of the future and is better because it’s more environmentally friendly (the only books printed are the ones people want, instead of huge multi-thousand copy runs the bulk of which usually end up in the remainder bin) plus control remains solely in the hands of the creator.
I discovered just how important that can be when I was starting up my own press. It’s not something I feel like going into at this point, but let’s just say that there are some seriously unethical people in the world of Pagan publishing and you ought to be really careful about who you entrust your intellectual property to.
EHS: Do you have any advice for other authors who are considering their own imprint? Strategies? Mistakes to avoid?
S: Research, research, research! There is a lot of really good information out there about marketing, writing for a niche audience, copyright law, etc. but you have to look for it. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that your books aren’t going to sell themselves. You can’t just put them out there and wait for the royalty checks to come rolling in. They won’t. In fact, even if you market them like crazy it’s still an uphill battle. People don’t read as much anymore and there’s so much quality stuff out there – as well as lots of dross – that it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. The hard work begins once your book is finished – but if you’re passionate enough about what you’ve got to say it’s definitely worth it.
EHS: Where can curious readers find your books?
S: Well, first off I would recommend stopping by the Nysa Presspage of my website which has listings for all of my books, including links to the Createspace and Amazon.com stores where they’re available. Since the books all have a functional ISBN that means you can also order them through most electronic commerce sites that deal in books if you don’t feel like using Amazon, or just go into your local bookseller and have them get you a copy. My books are on the shelves of a couple stores in Washington and Oregon – but I hope to increase distribution in the future.
EHS: Which festivals, book fairs, conventions, et cetera will you be attending in the foreseeable future?
S: Although I’m planning to do some readings and similar events here in the Eugene, Oregon area I don’t really have any major plans to attend out-of-state stuff right now. However, if someone wants me to come speak at their event – and is willing to pay my way! – I’d be glad to attend.
EHS: What other projects are you working on?
S: Well, as I said I’m working on a book about the cult of the Ptolemies and their relationship to Dionysos – but that’s probably not going to be finished until the middle of next year. I’m toying with some other ideas – like a more comprehensive primer on Greco-Egyptian polytheism, something on nymph-worship or the Pagan origins of Tarantism – but I have no idea if any of those will ever get beyond the planning stage.
Right now my biggest project isn’t literary. I’ve started up a divination business using Tarot and ancient Greek methods. I’ve been reading around town here in Eugene, work out of a Pagan shop one day a week, and plan to be a part of some local events and festivals. I also do private consultations over the internet or phone. If that sounds like something you’ve be interested in, be sure to check my site.
Other than that I am staying busy with my demanding religious routine, studying obscure subjects, updating my blog, and enjoying life here in my beloved city.