This post proved to be a very interesting one to ponder. When one thinks about hubris, their first thought is in relation to a certain deity, and coming from a place of Pagan agnosticism, I found it difficult to connect with that idea. But a recent discussion about the elements with some friends with Central Maryland Pagans proved to me that hubris can extend further than simply the idea that pissing off the gods via lack of humility can lead to a cosmic smackdown, if you will.
To give you a better idea what hubris really encompasses, I have to use an example from the pantheon from which it came: Greek mythology. Nemesis was a Greek goddess of revenge and retribution, invoked against those whose hubris and arrogance got the better of them to issue said cosmic smackdown as a force of divine reckoning. In a sense, she would give people what was coming to them, good or bad.
The writer Hesiod, among others, described Nemesis as a goddess who could not be avoided, regardless of how hard one might have tried… and sometimes the fear she could instill would do the job for her. For example, Polycrates, the tyrannical king of a Greek state, began to worry about the fact that good fortune followed him wherever he went and that, as a result, Nemesis would pay him a visit. In hopes of keeping her appeased, he made offerings all over the place. Finally, he went out in his favorite ship and tossed his most valuable and rare ring into the ocean as an offering to Nemesis. He then went home and ordered his cook to prepare a giant feast, but when the cook had hundreds of fish caught and found the ring in the belly of the largest fish caught, Polycrates became terrified that his offering might have been rejected, and he became so anxious that he couldn’t eat. He fell ill and died not long afterward.
From the Orphic Hymns, Hymn 61 (translated by Thomas Taylor):
THEE, Nemesis I call, almighty queen,
By whom the deeds of mortal life are seen:
Eternal, much rever’d, of boundless sight,
Alone rejoicing in the just and right:
Changing the counsels of the human breast
For ever various, rolling without rest.
To every mortal is thy influence known,
And men beneath thy righteous bondage groan;
For ev’ry thought within the mind conceal’d
Is to thy fight perspicuously reveal’d. 10
The soul unwilling reason to obey
By lawless passion rul’d, thy eyes survey.
All to see, hear, and rule, O pow’r divine
Whose nature Equity contains, is thine.
Come, blessed, holy Goddess, hear my pray’r, 15
And make thy mystic’s life, thy constant care:
Give aid benignant in the needful hour,
And strength abundant to the reas’ning pow’r;
And far avert the dire, unfriendly race
Of counsels impious, arrogant, and base
The moral of the Nemesis mythos is, hubris is a grievous failing, and a bit of humility won’t kill you. (Your arrogance might, though.)
I’ve noticed, however, both in the discussion between those Pagan friends and elsewhere, that hubris tends to be a pretty prevalent issue. Among the magickal community, many people tend to see the gods as colleagues in working towards bettering their lives, but lack a sense of devotion when it comes to realizing where their gifts and their successes come from. If you lean a bit toward the religious side, you may be one to see that the gods have greater will, wisdom, and power over our lives, but many believe that their lives are controlled solely by them and assisted by the gods.
Agnostic Paganism is of no exception, nor is my particular pantheistic branch (ha! Get it? Pantheistic, branch…? Maybe it’s just me ), except with the Universe, nature, and the elements rather than a god/dess or pantheon. I’ve known several witches, pantheistic or not, who purport to change the weather, alter the landscape, and invoke the elements without paying respects, all without realizing the great power that these all hold.
When I lived in central Florida, I learned of a witch who called for a period without rain so they could enjoy the summer without having to dash inside for the daily thirty-minute torrential downpours that Florida summers are known for. (If you’ve ever been there, seriously, you could set your watch to those summer rains.) It was a year or so before I arrived when this witch had cast that spell, and it ended up being such a terribly dry summer that the rainfall fell into deficit and the state into deepening droughts for two straight years, affecting 2006 and 2007 and not to actually improve until 2010. Lake Okeechobee, the largest lake in Florida (you know, the state’s eyeball), remained at record low levels in 2009 and 2010, four feet below the historical average elevation for mid-January. And La Nina conditions certainly didn’t help, as it brought even longer periods of dry conditions in winter and spring.
The drought was absolutely detrimental to the landscape and to Florida as a whole. The firework and bonfire bans aside, the state suffered a crippling loss of water to where even the local agriculture and wildlife were affected. And we’re talking about a state that depends on its water and its rainfall!
This is the kind of hubris I’m talking about: A certain pride or arrogance that comes with power, influence, and a desire to change the things around you. It often derives from a lack of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s own competence or capabilities, magickal and/or mental. If you’re not fully aware of the consequences that can come from your actions, especially when dealing with powers much bigger, more frightening, and much wiser than you, then you’re not fully capable of doing those actions in the first place.
It certainly wouldn’t hurt to approach our magickal practice with a bit of humility and the realization that there are, in fact, things much bigger than we are, regardless whether those “things” may be deities, elements, or the universe itself. It’s when we start believing that we, as individuals or as a collective, are placed at the center of the universe and that “nothing could go wrong” or that there’s “little risk” (ooh, doesn’t that hearken back to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill!) that we will realize just how little we know and have learned.