In one of my columns last January, I mentioned that there had been no practicing pagans in my family since the death of my great uncle Aloysius Bentley (1895-1987), who liked to welcome in the New Year by sacrificing a goat or a pair of woodcocks to Janus and Dionysus on the small marble altar he kept in his garden (carved for him by a sculptor who specialized in funerary monuments). It was only a passing reference, and one I did not expect would attract much notice; but apparently some readers found the story somewhat outlandish, even to the point of doubting its veracity. I suppose I understand their suspicions. After all, how many men are really named Aloysius?
I should point out, however, that in all things onomastic my great uncle’s parents were given to exotic turns: they called his older sister Fiammetta Celesta, his younger brother Antoninus Impius, and their favorite Great Dane Apollonius Maior. Actually, his full personal name was Aloysius Gaius Stilicho, but most people knew him simply as Al, while his wife and a few other of his particular intimates called him Wishus; by the time I came to know him, when he was in his seventies, he had legally added Philostratus to his collection of gaudy appellations and had taken to signing all official documents and correspondences “Phil.”
Of course, I imagine some skeptical readers were reacting more to his religious predilections than to his name. This too, I suppose, I understand. He was not raised pagan, however. The Bentleys were Quakers for the most part, and that was the tradition in which he was reared. He was always grateful for his early religious formation, he would say in later years, because it taught him an abhorrence of dogmatic formulations and because, once he had discovered his true spiritual path, it required only a short, elegant jeté on his part to cross the distance between the Friends’ attendance upon the indwelling light of Christ and the later Platonists’ mystical contemplation of the inner light of nous.
He was also glad he had never been baptized, he said, as it meant that his conversion did not amount to actual apostasy; as far as he was concerned he had never really been a Christian in the full sense. He deeply disliked the prejudice against Christianity that he found among so many his fellow Maryland pagans, and it would have grieved him to say that he had in any sense rejected the Church. Rather, his was the view of Symmachus: that there cannot be only one path to the great mystery of God. All that said, though, I imagine his choice of creed marks him as a man of peculiar temperament.
He was, it is true, something of an eccentric. As a boy, he had received so rigorous and exhaustive a classical education from his father that he never really knew how to live on cordial terms with the modern world. He refused to learn to drive. He believed that mechanical watches were an offense against nature and the “divine cyclophoria” of the heavens. He was an avid sailor, but would not allow an outboard motor to be attached to his boat (a converted skipjack), even for emergencies; his piety dictated, he said, that he submit himself entirely to the will of Poseidon and Aeolus. And, in general, his tastes in all things were irregular. For instance, he came to believe that Sacheverell Sitwell was the greatest writer in the history of English letters, and privately published a monograph on the subject entitled Whom Shakespeare Might Envy.
But he was a sincere and thoughtful man, and he was anything but a wanton syncretist of the New Age variety. He detested the factitious neopaganisms of his time; groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with their occult fixations, he regarded as sordid fairground frauds; he called Margaret Murray a charlatan and a demoness; and in general he saw neopaganism as a garish and graceless mockery of true religion. Only an authentic and genuine restoration of the old ways, he said, would lure the gods back from that hidden place to which they had retreated some centuries before.
Consequently, the liturgies he constructed for his garden rites were drawn from sources of (in his words) “uncorrupted antiquity.” Admittedly, in his twenties, just after his conversion, he dabbled a bit in Iamblichan theurgy and relied overly much on the Chaldean Oracles and Julian’s hymn to Lord Helios for his devotions; but he soon began to favor older and (as he would have it) more “rustic” observances, feeling they were closer to the authentic soil of Peloponnesian religion, and he began drawing instead on the Homeric Hymns and the Sibylline Oracles.
I have fond memories of that walled garden behind his dilapidated townhouse in Towson, with its riot of ungoverned flora, and its quaint little statues of satyrs and nymphs peering out from under tangles of vines or the shadows of hedges. Often we would dine there, when the weather allowed, and it took only a few glasses of wine to render my great uncle buoyantly loquacious. He would hold forth on his metaphysical speculations, the two or three rapturous visions of Apollo that had been granted him in his thirties, his hopes for finding funding for a Vestal college in Glen Burnie or La Plata, and his admiration for Algernon Swinburne (whose entire corpus of verse he seemed to have committed to memory). The food was always delicious.
His wife was called Polly, originally because her Christian name was Mary, and later because she had had her name changed to Polyhymnia. The two were exquisitely well matched, and the tenderness of their affection for one another was resplendently evident even when they were well into their eighties. They had met in 1922, at a St. Trifon’s Day parade in Baltimore’s Little Bulgaria, and within a few weeks were engaged; within two months, they were married. She was a great beauty in her youth, and was still a woman of striking aspect and bright eyes when I knew her.
For the most part, nothing in my great uncle’s religion made him any more unusual than the average Presbyterian or Freemason. There were a few embarrassing incidents—the time a neighbor caught a glimpse from an attic window of him and his wife dancing naked around their garden altar, or the time I visited him during the Dionysia and he came to the door wearing a ritual ornament that, divorced from its religious context, seemed rather lewd. But in general he cut a rather ordinary figure in the neighborhood.
His funeral rites were probably a little on the illegal side; but we executed his wishes to the letter. He was not much interested in Northern European paganism while he lived, but he keenly wanted to punctuate his life with a kind of Viking envoi. The director of the crematorium had been his friend, and had attended the same temple in Catonsville, and so he helped arrange for the pyre and the cortege of sails that processed down into the broad southern expanse of the Chesapeake Bay. The sight of my great uncle’s boat, the Zeus of Salamis, burning on the waves—a golden and tremulous blossom of flame against the amethyst dusk, undulously reflected on the darkening blue and silver waters—was one of the most stirring spectacles I have ever been privileged to witness.
What became of Great Uncle Aloysius thereafter I cannot hope to know in this life. I rarely think about such things. Perhaps his ghost was sent wafting off blissfully among the asphodel of the Elysian Fields, or was granted a berth in the Limbo of the Virtuous Pagans (even if Dante believed it a place reserved only for those born before the Christian dispensation). But who can say? All I know is that I have met few men more devout than he, and that his faith—unlike a great many of the most distinctive forms of American Christianity—had some actual basis in history and tradition. And surely an indulgent providence might take that into account in determining his final abode.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His other “On the Square” articles can be found here.