There is no act more political in nature than making an oath of citizenship to a nation. On Tuesday, Melissa Gold, a Pagan living in Canada did just that. Like many new Canadian citizens, she did so with her hand resting on a book containing stories, poems, and hymns sacred to her religion. What makes this event extraordinary, and possibly a first in North America, is that the book wasn’t a Bible, a Torah, or a Koran – it was a text containing Hesiod and Homer.
Melissa agreed to speak with Pagan+politics about about her experience and what it meant to her.
PNC: Melissa, first off, congratulations on your new citizenship status. I know this was very exciting for you and your family. But how did a nice American girl like you end up in Canada?
Melissa: Yep, I’m a Canuk! Got a flag pin and a little paper flag along with my citizen card and welcome letter from our Prime Minister.
I came to Canada from North Carolina, right after I graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1972. Although this was the era of Viet Nam draft dodgers, I came because of a young Canadian man I’d met on a university exchange program between my school and the University of Toronto. We married that same year.
I’ve lived in Canada for 38 years, my entire adult life, so it definite feels more like ‘home’ than where I was born. But more, Canada as a society embodies more of my principles than the US: Canada is more liberal and believes in social support systems to a greater degree. I’m sure I couldn’t afford to live in the US any more. Canada doesn’t have the divisive partisanship and religious extremism of the US. Canada was one of the first countries to embrace same sex marriage and to have a cultural conversation of diversity—not a perfect one but more inclusive and accepting than in the US or Europe. I’ve already decided to assist our local Member of Parliament when elections are next called, so that I can ensure that the progressive agenda of environmental and social concerns is maintained and forwarded. Now I can be wholly and fully involved in every aspect of the country where I have been living.
PNC: OK. Let’s switch over to religion. You are a member of Hellenion, a recognized church of Hellenic Pagans that use reconstructionism as a tool to revive the pre-Christian religious practices of ancient Greece. How long have you been a Pagan and how did you end up in Hellenismos?
Melissa: I’ve been in the Hellenic movement for almost eight years. I loved Latin and Greek when I was in high school but my father encouraged me to study something more “practical” in university, so I went into biology. However, when my outdoor education position ended ten years ago, I decided to return to university and chose Greek, which I had had to abandon when younger. I studied many aspects of antiquity but felt especially attracted to philosophy and religion. When my Greek hair dresser told me that there were people in Greece who actually worship the gods, I nearly fell out of the chair with excitement! I had no idea such a thing could be. As soon as I got home, I went on to the computer and found both YSEE and Hellenion and applied to Hellenion immediately; that was in 2003. I had been searching for a spiritual home and knew I had found it, even though much work remained to be done. Hellenic practice has been my only involvement in pagan communities.
PNC: How do your family and close friends feel about your religion?
Melissa: My closest friends are in the religion, in my Hellenion Proto-demos. I’ve drifted away from friends in my former religion, Judaism, and haven’t talked to them about it. Because my Hellenic group is beginning to get media attention, some of my former friends will hear about it eventually and they may refuse to associate with me, but I would never refuse to associate with them. All my immediate family know about my new spiritual practices and group, and it helps that my family are not particularly “religious.” As the oldest person in my family now, I’m not looking for approval: I give approval. Again, because Canada is so open and tolerant, I’m not concerned about how the wider society might react.
PNC: I have to tell you, I’m extremely impressed with your Proto-Demos and what you all have been doing. Your rituals are beautiful and are drawing quite a crowd. The Solstice celebrations were amazing, both of them. The ritual to honor Ares and the Heroes was something that was commonly practiced in our religion long ago, but many modern Hellenics are slow to revive. Your religion is obviously something that is an important part of your life and it’s exciting that you were able to bring that into the citizenship ceremony. How did it come about that you were given an option to choose a holy book for your swearing?
Melissa: As it turns out, Canada adapted its citizenship ceremony to be workable for the vast number of different cultures from which its new citizens come. In fact, we don’t swear allegiance, we affirm it, a word choice that avoids problems for many people. We also have the option to use any holy book we wish or nothing at all. My group of candidates included 68 people from 26 countries. We stood in a group facing the citizenship judge and raised our right hands and repeated the oath. No one observed or cared whether our other hand held a holy book or not. In fact, most people had not brought anything with them.
PNC: OK. Affirm, I’ll remember that. Can you tell me a bit more about what the ceremony was like and what it meant to you to be able to honor your religion while you affirmed an oath?
Melissa: I described the moment of affirming above, but I can add that the ceremony included formal and legal procedures as well as a warm welcome by all the officials present. Much time is taken to confirm that we are who we are but the judge was personable and welcomed each one of us as we received our certificates of citizenship. In the background, mellow music mixed with the sounds of Canadian nature was playing. The judge welcomed us to the “family of Canada,” which informed the entire process. I am fortunate that I didn’t have to act defiantly in order to honor my spiritual practice, although I was prepared to do so. That I didn’t have to is typical of Canada and is yet another reason why I choose to live here.
PNC: This gets to something that may be a bit controversial in our wider religious community, the idea that Pagans could have a holy book and why we would swear or affirm an oath on one. Which book did you choose and why did you choose that one?
Melissa: I wanted to make a point that Hellenic texts could logically be part of a citizenship ceremony in lieu of touching an altar of Zeus, which was a traditional way to make oaths in antiquity. I had brought a Loeb volume containing the works of Hesiod, the Theogony and the Works and Days, and the Homeric Hymns. Those texts represent some of the earliest writings about Hellenic spiritual practice and mythology, which underlie most of what was done in ancient times along with the epic poems and give us inspiration and direction today.
PNC: Did it give you pause to be choosing a book, knowing you may be setting an example or precedent for Hellenics?
Melissa: Yes and no. While I realized that some people might regard my particular choice as a precedent, I suggest that anyone in a similar position choose whatever is of importance and significance to them. If it helps anyone to have the works of Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns be known as a precedent, that’s great; but polytheism is inclusive and therefore many other choices would be just as good. There is no one right choice as in monotheistic societies.
PNC: I’m curious, how did the officials react to your book choice?
Melissa: The officials did not ask or attempt to observe what any one of us brought or failed to bring to the ceremony. In a way, that seemed too easy. On the other hand, it represents an approach that is the most inclusive of the diversity of religious practices within this country; no one need feel uncomfortable or unacceptable because of their choice. It is one more reason why I love my adopted country of Canada.
PNC: OK, yeah, that was easy. Canadians, like Minnesotans, are known for being nice. I think this interview is going to make American Pagans long to cross the border like you did. I have one more question for you. You may be the first Pagan in North America to affirm or swear an oath of citizenship on a Pagan sacred book – can you tell me how you feel about that?
Melissa: I don’t imagine that oaths of citizenship among Pagans happen very often, especially in the US. Obviously, in Canada, it’s not an issue. I don’t know what the process involves in the US, but if it empowers anyone there to know that, in Canada, at least one person is known to have affirmed an oath of citizenship while holding Hellenic texts, then I’m happy to be the first! The whole ceremony was wonderful and will remain a treasured memory for me.
PNC: Melissa, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. And again, congratulations on gaining Canadian citizenship.
The PNC contacted Hellenion, the religious group Melissa is a member of, to get their reaction to Melissa being able to affirm her oath of citizenship on Hellenic texts. Here is what they had to say:
“Hellenion is delighted for Melissa Gold, who was recently able to undertake her Canadian citizenship ceremony while holding a volume of Hesiod and Homeric Hymns. We celebrate with her that she was able to mark the moment of being able to participate fully in her country’s democracy while maintaining her Hellenic principles. In these times all of us are regularly reminded how precious the rights of religious freedom and tolerance are, and salute the government of Canada for their on-going commitment to these principles. We hope more countries will soon enact laws to extend religious freedom to all their citizens. All the best to Melissa and her family.”
ADDENDUM: YSEE, the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes, also wanted to congratulate Ms. Gold. YSEE is an umbrella organization for Ethnic Hellenic religious groups in Greece and seeks the morale and physical protection and restoration of the Polytheistic, Ethnic Hellenic religion, tradition and way of life in the “modern” Greek Society. YSEE and it’s members have faced harsh religious oppression from the Greek government, including confiscation of property, fines, and jail.
YSEE salutes Melissa Gold’s swearing the oath of Canadian citizenship in the name of the Hellenic Gods. It was a good proof of our known thesis that Hellenism is a matter of mind and heart and that the Hellenic Ethinic Religion is the religion of all humanistic and logical men and women of the Globe, the religion of the ones that know how to honour both the beauty of Cosmos and human nature.