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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Domesticity: Appeasing the Household Gods

The ancients were said to observe two kinds of gods: those worshipped in the temple and those worshipped in the home.

These latter were thought to protect the home and its members, and were represented by small icons or objects in shrines. But just as often, the household gods were located in actual domestic objects--the hearth, the doorway, the window, the roof timbers, a cooking pot. (Sounds like the title of a Magritte painting.) These homely gods were propitiated by small offerings of food and drink, or were invited to share the family meal.

The domovoi, the brownie, the teraphim--all could be kickin' it in Vegas, or living large in Rio,
but for them, there's no place like home...
In a long chorus down the ages, from pre-history, through animism and totemism, through the elaborate pantheons of Greece and Rome, right down into present-day Shinto practice, the domestic gods sing a homing song to all who would be pater (or indeed mater) familias, to attend not only to the heavens but to the earth, to the needful work of home-making, with all the attendant maintenance of external boundaries, internal systems, and its emblematic role as ornament, the visible incarnation of a 'good' life.

I've spent the past nine months more or less at the temple, in the role of votary. Now it's time to propitiate the long-neglected gods of the household, and assume the role of--what other word is there?--husbandry.

There's an old saying that a clean-n-tidy home is the sign of a wasted life. And how often have I guffawed in agreement--citing the silly neurosis of the bourgeois obsession with having everything just so. And how I have thought ruefully about the years that have slipped into the void on the back of DIY projects in homes others now live in. Or the eons of vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning, when things just get dirty all over again. Years that could (and maybe should) have been spent learning any one of a million useful, self-improving skills, or engaging in charitable actions. If the middle classes channelled all that domestic energy and time into the temples of wisdom and/or justice, I used to say, think how much better the world might be.

DIY? Or D.I.E?
 In fact, I often catch myself dreaming of a life, post-parenthood, in a decent flat with regular maid service, the better to free the hands and attention for 'higher things'.

But the older I get, the less certain of anything I become. And as I potter about the place, doing odd, needful jobs--mending the fence, moving furniture, cleaning the pool, cooking one of my signature dishes---I remember that doing the needful things with mindfulness and love can fill ones days in a way that doesn't feel wasted. Granted it's not a trip to Disneyland, but then, neither does a trip to a holy-of-holies ever live up to the expectation. Most things are more gorgeous in the promise than in the reality.

And reality also has sacredness, even its mundane and domestic face. The household gods don't really ask all that much, just acknowledgement. When you forget about them, things start to fall apart, reminding you that you need the gods of the hearth to get on with living a life rather than dreaming of a different one.

Uh-oh. Someone's been away at the fair too long...
How do I know there's real joy in this sort of worship too? As I was getting some tools out of the shed yesterday to do a little, needful job, I found I was singing quietly to myself a catch of an Irish ballad my father used to sing as he noodled about the house, doing the thousand-and-one jobs he seemed always to be doing, as happily as a puppy tumbling over itself with a favorite ball.

And I remembered, as I sang his song, that the animistic tradition of the household gods was said to originate in ancestor worship. I think I read in JG Frazier's The Golden Bough that the 'house spirits' are always friendly, attached as they were to particular families, with whom they has been known to reside for centuries, threshing the corn, cleaning the house, and performing similar household tasks. Their favorite gratification was milk and honey. Then I remembered my father's insatiable sweet-tooth for anything sweet and creamy, and I burst into tears.

I can still hear him telling me to be careful around such things, every single time.
For here I was and am, replaying his husbandry long after he has departed, doing the needful things that keep a household--and the family within it--going, and he is still with me, consubstantial in my domesticity. It was his strong (and I see now, everlasting) arms I can thank for the life I have, and all the joy in it, and for those who now depend upon me. I honour him, propitiate this household ancestor/god if you will, by attending to the needful things. Knowing this is a rare joy.

The temple will still be there when I return to it.

"Leaning on the everlasting arms" sung by the remarkably affecting voice of Iris deMent to take us out...forget the picture, just listen.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic my friend...beautifully moving...I have so much to learn...the gift of the simple and the ordinary