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Interview With Openly Pagan Elected Official, Jessica Orsini
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Posted: November 22nd. 2009
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In ancient Athens many freeborn citizens aspired to hold public office and piously venerate the gods. Hellenic Reconstructionists seek to recreate the practice of ancient Greek religion while keeping it relevant to today’s world. With all the buzz about Dan Halloran being hailed as the first openly Heathen elected official, it is quite timely to look at another openly Pagan elected official, who is a hard-polytheist (1) Hellenic Reconstructionist.
Jessica Orsini was born Jeff, and was adopted into a fairly typical Italian family in upstate New York. Jeff joined the Air Force after completing high school. Five years later Jeff confided in a counselor that he was considering living as a woman. Within hours he lost his security clearance and was discharged on medical grounds a short time later.
Jeff married and then worked as a computer technician for a software company. Whilst at this job, Jeff transitioned to Jessica. Within three years Jessica had gender reassignment surgery. Jessica then found employment at the University of Missouri-Columbia as a computer support specialist – a position that she still holds.
Jessica Orsini was elected to public office in April 2006, and re-elected in 2008, as Alderwoman, 3rd Ward, City of Centralia, Missouri.
While Jessica openly participates on various Pagan forums and is open about her spirituality, an in-depth look is certainly warranted.
Tony Mierzwicki: I wanted to get an idea of your spiritual background.
Jessica Orsini: Let's see. I was raised Roman Catholic, but the best way I can put it is that it "didn't click". For whatever reason, I was never able to forge a connection with the Abrahamic god (2) . At 14, my immediate family left the Catholic Church in a tiff, storming off to the Baptists. That went no better for me. At 17, when I went off to college, my spirituality did as well. I finally came to realize that the connection I *had* forged, the voice I'd heard in the woods since I was a small child, was Artemis.
I was introduced to paganism by a very soft-polytheistic (3) Wiccan; from there, I ran through the usual assortment of Llewellyn publications and wound up with a sort of mish-mosh. I spent twenty years of wrangling through various efforts at implementation, trying somehow to fit my beliefs to Wicca. I tried this sort of "take the best from each" approach - the "many facets" concept that is so popular with a lot of pagans today. But it never really worked for me. I finally realized that my beliefs would never fit Wicca... and that there was this amazing old way that actually *did* fit.
When it all boiled down, I needed the hard, deep roots of Hellenism. I needed Hesiod's Theogeny, his Works and Days (4) . I needed that cohesive pantheon, and the culturally complete approach it allows.
Tony Mierzwicki: Did you get into Hellenic Reconstructionism on your own, or did you join an organization?
Jessica Orsini: I managed to find my way into Hellenic Reconstructionism on my own in 2005, with a final admittance of it to myself in 2006. I joined Hellenion (5) in 2008. It's been very, very nice to have a group of relatively like-minded Hellenics with which to compare notes.
Tony Mierzwicki: You mentioned a strong connection with Artemis.
Jessica Orsini: I'm devoted to all of the Hellenic Olympian Theoi (6) , but I still consider my relationship closest with Artemis. She speaks to my soul in a lot of ways.
Tony Mierzwicki: How do you feel her? How does she speak to you?
Jessica Orsini: When I was very small - I'm talking three to five - it was almost a literal voice. As I grew, that voice faded somewhat, but became a more core understanding, a sort of empathy. I'll share something with you that I wrote regarding Artemis in one of my Adult Education lessons in Hellenion...
Tony Mierzwicki: Please.
Jessica Orsini: It has to do with epithets (7) : the different concepts that the Theoi can embody.
The Epithets of Artemis are at a glance a study in contrasts, but do have a central theme under closer examination. Huntress, certainly, with epithets such as Far-Shooting, Hunter of Wild Beasts, With Shafts of Gold and the like. The stories of Her as such are familiar to us all. And yet, as in all the Theoi, there is more than just this single stereotype to Her. In Aetole, Artemis was worshiped as Protector, defending the place of assembly. And those she hunted are also her charge, as Potnia Theron (8) . She also holds a place as a Theos of midwives, childbirth and youths in her epithets of Locheia (9) and Kourotrophos (10) . And of course, She is the sacred virgin under epithets such as Parthenos (11) .
Each of these speaks to a different element of the unbridled woman, unchained and unbound but a part of the world still. As someone who is transgendered and lesbian, these ideas are close to my heart. I am a hunter who is also a conservationist, and Her Huntress epithets ring true to me. I have been a nanny, and took some comfort and guidance then from Kourotrophos. I have been a protector, serving in the Armed Forces to defend my nation. All of Her aspects speak to me in some way, and I think this is why I feel a closer connection to Artemis than any of the other Theoi.
Tony Mierzwicki: This is really powerful stuff. You're making your devotion to Artemis very real -your whole life ties in with her.
Jessica Orsini: Thanks. This is near and dear to me. I consider Artemis to be my friend – my very powerful, very deadly, but very good friend.
Tony Mierzwicki: So, you started with Artemis. Was it automatic to work with the other deities, or did that take time?
Jessica Orsini: Eventually, I centered myself on the Olympian Theoi - 13 (12) , since I still consider Hestia to hold a place there. I'm admittedly a somewhat complex individual. I suppose it only natural that I'm a hard-polytheist, as we view the gods as distinct, complex individuals.
Tony Mierzwicki: So you incorporate Dionysus as well?
Jessica Orsini: And yes, I incorporate Dionysus... even if I'm about as far from a party person as one can be.
Tony Mierzwicki: LOL! I don't think you have to be a party person to feel close to Dionysus.
Jessica Orsini: No, but I suspect it helps.
Tony Mierzwicki: How do you make offerings to the Theoi?
Jessica Orsini: There's a term – kharis (13) - that doesn't translate terribly well. Respect / relationship / reciprocity... it is all these things, but more. Hellenismos (14) is a "bartering" religion. Part of the kharis concept. We do things and offer things to the gods, and we ask for things - or build good will - in return.
There are times where I'll offer incense, or burnt grains, or what-have-you. Much of the time, I offer the Theoi the first portion of the meal as a burnt offering. I have a charcoal grill on which I do a lot of my cooking, and keep a good stock of charcoal for burning sacrifices when possible. In general, I thank Hestia for the warmth of her hearth, Artemis for the meat, Demeter for the bounty of her grains, and then Hestia once more for the fires that make possible the sacrifice.
For non-meal things, sacrifice is something appropriate. If I'm seeking wisdom from Athena, I'll put my thoughts down on paper and burn it, for example.
Tony Mierzwicki: Because of the wisdom aspect of Athena?
Jessica Orsini: Yes, I rely on Athena a good deal. I'm a civic servant, after all. I ask for her wisdom before each council session.
Tony Mierzwicki: And the others? You seem to focus on the female deities.
Jessica Orsini: Heh. Zeus is one who hears from me a good deal. I'm very fond of the sky, whether it's azure blue or filled with snow. There will be a lot of times where I simply thank him for a beautiful sky, or the amazing scent of new rain.
Tony Mierzwicki: Do you have distinct offerings for each of the Olympians?
Jessica Orsini: *nods* That said, it's not always the same offering. Different requests, different offerings.
Tony Mierzwicki: Do you work with non-Olympians as well?
Jessica Orsini: I no longer offer kharis to the non-Olympian Theoi, though I respect them as the gods they are.
Tony Mierzwicki: Do you follow the Athenian calendar (15) or just intuit when you should work with particular Theoi?
Jessica Orsini: I follow the Attic calendar to some extent; I try to maintain the days attributed to the various Theoi as best I can.
Tony Mierzwicki: How would you summarize your approach to working with the gods?
Jessica Orsini: I try to keep it topical. This... this is simply my life. The Theoi are a part of my life, an integral part, so it's only natural that I would maintain this relationship with them. I try to make sacrifices that are appropriate for what I'm asking for, as well as whom I'm asking it of. Let's say I'm trying to work on my compassion. I'm likely to pull out some of my blackberry sage incense - a good scent for compassion - and offer it.
Tony Mierzwicki: Where does the blackberry sage attribution for compassion come from?
Jessica Orsini: Blackberries, by old tradition, are a gift of kindness; you have to pluck them from between thorns, and when you give them to someone, you give them that effort as well. That's what my great-grandmother used to tell me.
Tony Mierzwicki: Any other examples you'd like to share of how you practice?
Jessica Orsini: I'm not sure that I could really give more good examples, simply because so much of my practice is just by living my life. I strive to be honest, to hold my word as my bond, to do right by those who do right by me, to live in moderation... in short, to follow the principles laid out in Works and Days. A lot of Hellenismos isn't about ritual so much as it is about living a decent life. I think a lot of that may be because, by and large, Hellenics aren't focused very much on the afterlife. We acknowledge the afterlife, of course, but the focus is on the relationship with ourselves, each other and the gods during *this* life...
Tony Mierzwicki: It's good to see someone really living his or her life in accordance with Hellenic principles and making a difference in society.
Jessica Orsini: Not so much. It's a small town, just under four thousand, in rural Missouri. That said, the old truth holds: it's hard to stereotype and dismiss someone you actually know. I think that's why I managed to get elected here, when efforts in large and supposedly liberal cities have failed for others. I'd like to believe that my constituents appreciate the fact that I'm a very straight-shooter on the board. I call things as I see them, I don't mince words, and I keep pushing for what I believe to be right. I'd make a terrible "backroom deal" politician.
Tony Mierzwicki: There was a time when people were bound by their word and a handshake was enough to seal a deal. Those days are over for most people.
Jessica Orsini: *nods* That happened in council at one point, actually. We had a weird Catch-22 on a particular subdivision development where it was going to be an utter mess to figure out. So I simply asked the developer if he would give his word that such-and-such would be done before a certain clause kicked in, and that I would hold him to his word. Everyone looked kind of baffled for a moment, but he gave his word, I held him to it, and he fulfilled it. Simplified the whole arrangement, and wound up with everything getting done that needed to be done to everyone's satisfaction.
Tony Mierzwicki: That's the way it used to be when people lived by a code of honour.
Jessica Orsini: Yes, it was, and I'm hoping to see more of that again as Hellenismos gets back on its feet.
1. "Hard polytheists" believe that the deities are all distinct real divine beings.
2. Abrahamic god refers to the god venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims.
3. "Soft polytheists" accept multiple deities as being aspects or faces of a larger deity and often as one ultimate deity.
4. Hesiod was a poet who was born in Asia Minor, most probably in the eighth century BCE, and then moved to Boeotia in central Greece. His two surviving poems are Theogony (a compilation of numerous local Greek traditions concerning the gods, from the origin of the cosmos and the gods from chaos, to the triumph of Zeus and the Olympians) and the Works and Days (which discusses the necessity and inevitability of work, and contains an outline of the five ages of the world) .
5. Hellenion is one of the various reconstructionist movements that are reviving ancient Greek religious practices. Their website is: http://www.hellenion.org/
6. Olympian Theoi are the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus.
7. Epithets can either reflect aspects of a god’s essence and role, or the location of a particular sanctuary, or represent the fusion of one god with an earlier one.
8. Potnia Theron – the patron of wild animals.
9. Locheia – the goddess of childbirth and midwives.
10. Kourotrophos – the nurse of youths.
11. Parthenos – the lady of Maidenhood.
12. In Greek mythology it was accepted that there were 12 Olympic deities. Various writers in ancient times differed in their opinion as to just which deities were listed amongst the 12. The earliest list of the Olympic deities is Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, and Hestia. In later times, Hestia was sometimes displaced by Dionysus. Jessica keeps both Hestia and Dionysus, making a total of 13 gods.
13. The nature of the relationship between the Greeks and their deities was one of kharis, or reciprocal favour, where votive gifts were given in the hope of gratitude.
14. There is no single universally accepted term for Hellenic Reconstructionism. Hellenismos is a term used by some reconstructionists for their practices.
15. There was no uniform calendar used throughout all of Classical Greece. Different city-states had their own calendars. The Athenian calendar, also known as the Attic calendar, was the one used in Attica, the ancestral territory of the Athenian city-state. The Athenian calendar dates back to the 8th century BCE, and begins with the first new moon after the summer solstice. Each month begins with the new moon and contains 29 or 30 days. The Athenian calendar is the best known of all the ancient Greek calendars, and is hence the one most commonly used by Hellenic Reconstructionists.
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