The shrine had been built by H.N. Girish, a high school science teacher, as part of an AIDS awareness campaign. Although he was evasive about whether people in the community were actually worshipping the new goddess, the Harvard student said she saw a few women come to the shrine to do puja (worship).
Perhaps the first moments of Apollo's existence were equally plain.
While the idea of creating a goddess may seem strange to Westerners and monotheists, popular culture has been giving birth to gods for tens of thousands of years. The same goes for rituals and ceremonies.
As Americans with relatively shallow historical roots, we tend to make rigid distinctions between "new" and "old". But the AIDS goddess was something very modern within a very ancient culture. This creative dynamic, between reverence for hoary tradition and the urge to create something new, exists within most religions, including the earth religions.
|"Remember, remember, remember. And failing that, invent."|
Within the Wiccan movement, for example, there has always been tension between the so-called "traditionalists"--those who revere liturgies and rituals that go back at least to 1939 and perhaps further--and "eclectics," who spend more time creating their own ceremonies than honoring the older ones. The struggle is an honest one because there is something warm and safe about participating in ceremonies that are familiar and comfortable. At the same time, there is an exuberance and power that comes from creating something based on immediate needs. But old rituals can deteriorate into rote; new ceremonies can feel disorganized.
Very often, when I cast the circle with a group of friends, we do it in a unique way. We ask those gathered to "remember what it felt like in the times of old." There is a famous phrase in Monique Wittig's "Les Guerillères": "Remember, remember, remember. And failing that, invent." So we ask everyone in the circle to remember, imagine, or invent the feelings, the smells, the gestures, and the colors of a ritual of old.
We also add drumming, the sound of bells, candlelight, and movement. Rituals improve with a bit of theatrics, a sense of timing, and the use of sound, light, and gestures.
All rituals and traditions start out new and change as cultures evolve. Christmas has pagan roots, but its celebration takes different forms in different countries. Mother's Day was created by the greeting card industry, yet most mothers enjoy being honored on that day.
And then there's "the Inflation." This extraordinary New York City event takes place on the night before Thanksgiving. On the four blocks surrounding the area where the famous Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade floats are inflated, hundreds of thousands of people walk by all through the night to watch the great balloons grow to become the beloved creatures of television, cinema, and comic book fame.
Over the years, the event has taken on the aura of a great Latin American festival. Children from the area's apartment buildings sell brownies and lemonade to passersby on the street. Parents lift tiny children onto their shoulders so they can watch the great popular gods of our culture--Spiderman, Kermit the frog, Shamu, the Rugrats, the Simpsons--grow to superhuman size. At some point, "the event" became "a tradition," with families returning year after year.
We, the people, spontaneously created this festival, as we have created festivals since humanity's beginning. Like a quilt, we take what we have at hand and make something new. Sometimes we create ceremonies out of whole cloth. But all ceremonies come out of a real need.
Holidays and ceremonies tie together personal experience with collective memory. If you think about our holidays (Christmas, Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Halloween), they provide a moment to honor and remember our history, to revere ancestors, to cement identity and belief, and to bond with one's family, neighbors, and community. We often bemoan our lack of community, so a few more holidays might be part of the remedy. During the Middle Ages, there were hundreds of feast days, so many that it's amazing that any work got done at all. Today, unless you are an observant Jew or Catholic, our modern list of holidays is fairly impoverished--and growing smaller. Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays, for example, have been merged into the amorphous "Presidents' Day." We can count our public holidays on our fingers. Unlike the science teacher in India, we are unwilling to create new gods, but what we can do is think about creating some new celebrations.
Here's one to consider. Let's make the summer solstice a national holiday. This pagan festival is one of those that really "works" for most people. Let's face it, the spring equinox doesn't feel like spring in many parts of America; the middle of March feels like winter. The fall equinox doesn't feel like fall in most states, unless you live in Vermont or Maine. But by the third week in June, people are ready for summer and eager to celebrate it. Since this is our longest day, festivities should be held from sun up to sun down, with special celebrations for the moment of solstice, and if that moment comes in the middle of the night, the festivities should begin then. There might be dancing in the streets and a colorful sun parade, a counterpart to our many Halloween parades--a celebration of growth and life, instead of death and decay.
I once saw a bumper sticker that said "Make Solstice a National Holiday." Let's figure out a way to make it happen!