As a Ceremonial Magician, I am given to understand that ritual actions are supposed to mean something to the one who is performing them. I’m going to put forth what should not be a controversial opinion: devotion is about expressing love and commitment.
When we talk about “building a relationship” with a deity, the emphasis inevitably falls on offerings, whether they are gifts for the altar, incense burned, or wine spilled out. While this is a normal part of group ritual, I always found it deeply unsatisfying in my personal practice. It didn’t feel like it meant anything to me. I didn’t “get” it on anything more than an academic level. I did it anyway because that’s what you do.
Hermes, however, just never seemed to respond positively to it.
In fact, I noticed that other gestures, really weird ones, were appreciated more. I’d leave my glasses on his altar and simply say, “watch these for me, please. I’m always losing them.” Or even something as utterly non-ritual as thinking, “Man, it would be so rad to be as persuasive as Hermes is. Or as good at explaining things.”
A similar thing is true of my interactions with Apollon. A libation offering or incense will get me a nod, or a bored glance. “Hey, Apollon, I was wondering about the underlying cause and purpose of cultural conceptions of morality. What do you think?” will draw his presence and enthusiastic attention.
I wasn’t really sure what to make of that, in light of what should be true about Greek Deities.
The salient ideas are really few and simple, and they boil down to this: not all people express love, commitment, or devotion in the same way. If two people express those feelings in different ways and don’t have a frank and open discussion about this fact, they may each walk away feeling unloved and unappreciated. There are five love languages: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch. Most people enjoy all of these to some degree, but usually, a person will have a primary language. This tells us just as much about how they desire to be loved as it tells us about how they express love.
Giving gifts (offerings) is definitely one of the languages through which some people express love, but not the only one. The gestures Hermes responded to most positively were Words of Affirmation: acknowledgment of his genius and talents, praise for his good deeds, general appreciation of his character. Gee, I wonder why a god of language might prefer appreciation to be expressed in words! Mystifying.
Apollon, on the other hand, feels most appreciated when I engage him on something important to him, giving him my full and undivided attention both personally and metaphysically. That’s Quality Time.
On the other hand, the gestures which I found most intuitive were Acts of Service. Of course, I will help you to help that person! Yes, I will write that for you! Sure, I can research that! Yes, I will teach that person how to read Greek! Does your festival need a roast beast? I will cook a roast beast for your people. Uh… wine? What are you going to do with THAT? I mean, ok? If you want? I guess?
What should be true about “Greek Deities” isn’t always true about a given Greek Deity. They’re all different. In trying to do “what I should” I wound up engaging in a collection of ritual actions which didn’t mean anything to me, and weren’t even the first choice of the gods I was trying to connect with.
To love someone well, you not only need to understand how you best express love, but also what loving gestures are most meaningful to them. Both are important. So, with this, I thought I would write about the Five Love Languages, and how each of them interacts with devotional practice.
Knowing how your deity expresses love is a clue about what kinds of devotional actions they will most appreciate. If you are not a mystic, then looking into the deity’s mythology will often give you clues about their emotional nature, and what manner of expression would please them most.
Words of Affirmation
TL;DR: “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” — William James.
The Human: A practice of devotion centered around words is more than just speaking words of praise, though this is also important. It’s about developing a sense of gratitude for the presence and even the existence of the deity in question. If loving others with your words is second nature to you, then this is probably your primary Love Language.
The Deity: If your deity is trying to build up your self-esteem, if they frequently remind you of your talents, if they have ever told you that you looked cute in your outfit, or given you a pep talk before an important interview, then this Love Language might be their primary one.
TL;DR: Time is the currency of Life. There is nothing more precious. Who you chose to spend it on says a lot about where your priorities are.
The Human: A practice of devotion centered around the gift of time can be as simple as dedicating a meditation or other activity to the deity. If your first impulse when expressing love is to simply be with your Beloved without distractions, then this is probably a Love Language with which you are well familiar.
The Deity: Does your deity hover? Do they want to do what you are doing with you? Does it seem weird for them to be interested in some of the things they appear to be expressing interest in? They might actually just be trying to tell you that they love you. If your deity seems to want in on whatever you are doing, and you, in turn, want to build that relationship, accept their interest in your knitting, or whatever other odd, mundane thing you are doing.
TL;DR: Visible symbols of love.
The Human: A practice of devotion centered around Gifts is certainly the most often discussed, but gifts do not need to be limited to food, drink or incense. Buying a new candle, or a random piece of jewelry to put on your altar or creating devotional artwork to display in your home also count.
The Deity: Some deities deposit all kinds of random shinies all over your life. Or bird carcasses. Or other people’s wallets. It depends on the deity. Sometimes, these aren’t omens with import. Sometimes, this is just a deity crossing the veil and making some magic as a way of expressing that they care.
Acts of Service
TL;DR: Actions Speak Louder Than Words
The Human: A practice of devotion centered around Acts of Service begins with asking yourself: what does the deity really want me to do? That will obviously depend on what the deity is a deity of. A body positivity activist is doing what Aphrodite wants her to: by expanding the definition of beauty, we literally conquer territory for her. Apollon may desire for us to seek the Truth, even if it has no other obvious devotional trappings. Defending marriage equality is defending Hera’s territory. Feeding the homeless is helping to take care of the wanders and outsiders under the protection of Hermes and Hekate. If your first impulse in love is pitch in and help your Beloved, then this is your primary Love Language.
The Deity: A deity who helps their humans out with petty, mundane issues is an “Acts of Service” sort of deity.
TL;DR: “Blow me a kiss from across the room…Touch my hair as you pass my chair, little things mean a lot.”—Kallen Kitty
The Human: A practice of devotion centered around touch may seem weird when we are talking about a non-physical being. Until, that is, you consider all of the people touching and kissing icons of Saints, or bathing their fingers in the light of the Torah, so that they can cradle their face in the power of their deity. While some consider their icons too sacred to touch, for others, the icon is merely a proxy, like a poppet upon which one fixes tender intentions. Other things besides icons, too, can be the proxy: a plushy in the shape of the deity’s sacred animal (or the deity themselves), or a scrap of fabric with a meaningful color or print scented with an appropriate fragrance. If having a token to kiss, touch or snuggle sounds like a breath of fresh air, then touch may be your primary Love Language.
The Deity: You know that they are in the room because of a warm, familiar tingle. You are grieving or in pain, when suddenly the burden is lightened, and your heart feels at ease. You are in danger, but suddenly feel surrounded by a feeling of safety. If you have ever uttered the words, “Why are you licking me?” Then your deity’s primary love language might be touch. And if it is, then integrating touch into your devotional practice is a Good Idea.