She skipped around the circle, waving sparkers in the air and laughing like a toddler. It was a non-conventional way to cast a Fire Circle, I suppose. But then again what’s convention to a mis-match gathering of MeetUp Pagans holding ritual behind a Unitarian Universalist church?
Could you imagine a more anti-convention convention?
The Fire Circle was a sub-circle, if you will, of an even larger elemental circle. It was intended to provide the participants with some Wicca 101 on the relevance of the element of Fire, and I found the whole thing to be a little boring. I could have been at home reading Cunningham if I’d have wanted some simple fire metaphors. I’d hoped for a Full Moon ritual that dug a little deeper. Instead, I got sparklers.
But then the Fire Priestess began talking about Gods. My ears perked up. Maybe this will rekindle the embers.
Apollo’s good to use… or you could use Isis… or for creative things you could use Brighid… There are good Gods to use from just about any pantheon…
Huh. What an interesting use of the word “use”, I thought. Using Gods to cure what ails you. Using Gods to get what you want out of life. Huh. How consumerist. Pill popping deities; making use of them in order to – what – be pain-free, blissful, satisfied?
It got me wondering – Is that what the Gods are? New Age Prescription Drugs?
Pick Your Poly-Pleasure
Polytheism, by nature, seems to create less pressure for the believer than monotheism, because polytheists have options. If something sours in the God/human relationship, the polytheist can go elsewhere. There’s a pretty big Deity Dating Pool for the modern polytheist, especially if you’re not particular about your pantheon.
Like yoga? Think Vedic. Love Loreena McKennitt? Call on the Celts. Perhaps you’re feeling a bit in the mood for something spicy. Google Santeria. Its all there of you. Grab a shopping cart. Go God gaga.
The monotheist, on the other hand, has a single choice, and if it doesn’t work with the big One, to Hell with ya’.
Admittedly, I’m being a bit flip with my characterizations. There are probably plenty of polytheists whose practice is eclectic and sincere, and plenty of monotheists who don’t feel trapped in their “personal relationship with God.”
It just seems like there are an awful lot of Deity options for the polytheist, and its a popular approach to make use of those options as we see fit. I don’t agree with that approach. I don’t think the Gods should be in service to me. It should be the other way around.
I Like My Gods To Be Big And Powerful
Call me an old fashioned Pagan, but I like to think that Gods & Goddesses are bigger than me, more powerful than me, worthy of respect. They’re here with me and inside of me — yes — but they are also outside of me and expansive in ways that stretch the imagination. This is why they are worshipped. This is why offerings are made to them.
I either believe that, or I believe that the Gods aren’t real. They’re just devices of psychology. They’re fiction. Narrative. They’re all in my head. And, if that’s the case, I should pick and choose which god I want to use. I should let my god or goddess serve me.
But I’m in the “Gods Are Real” camp, and in light of that I feel that I should be very deliberate about how I approach them in speech, action, and even in my very intention. Am I trying to get something from them? If so, am I offering anything in return? How do I speak to them? At a recent ritual I attended, the Priest commanded –literally commanded the spirits to be present.
I don’t have years of context for how most Pagans approach Deity. As I’ve written before, I grew up in the Christian church. To a great degree the Christian God was supposed to remain a mystery. Any attempt to fully understand him was futile, because unknowability was part of his deal. The best thing you could do was learn how to relate to the portrait of him that was presented in scripture, as well as whatever part of him was experienced and expressed through group worship and tradition.
But there’s no common pagan scripture, and in the case of the Fire Priestess I’m not sure I really care to join her in commodifying the Gods.
So what then?
Bring Back The Mystery
I’m not sure what Gods are for certain, and I appreciate that mystery. I think participating in something that is impossible to fully undertand (like science, for example) leads to amazing things. You discover a lot about the world you live in, and the world that lives in you.
In suggesting that Gods are more than just salve for the soul, I’m also not suggesting that they be treated like just any another person. I don’t really desire a BFF relationship with the Gods, nor do I want for them to be my therapists. I do seek out guidance, and I look for signs of their presence in my life. But I think it is a misstep to treat Gods as though they are human, just as it is a misstep to treat them like designer drugs. They are not human. They’re beyond human.
How do you wrap your mind around that? You don’t — I don’t, at least. I just have reverence for the very idea of there being something which exists in that way. Worship, then, is an attempt to further understand where my humanity intersects with that mystery. How do I, a human being, come into contact with a God; with a raw, powerful, mysterious, creative force? How will I know when its happened? What will it feel like?
These are the questions that inspire me to attend these rituals, even after a disappointing encounter with a sparkler. This is why I approach my altar in the morning to make my offerings. Seeking the answer to these questions fuels my religious life.
I Do Really Like Sparklers, Though
We do the best we can, us religious folk. Sometimes we hit on something deep. Other times, we just look a little silly. But, we try.
Perhaps I should cut the Fire Priestess some slack. Maybe she’s got a deeper connection to Deity than I’m giving her credit for. Maybe her sparkly wand and fiery voice did exactly what she’d intended them to do — start a fire inside of me. Inspire me to forge something new — like this blog post.
If what you’ve read here started a fire in you, share your thoughts in the comments. Start a wildfire by tweeting this post, or Facebook sharing it with your friends!
I appreciate your thoughts here. Have you read Greer’s “A World Full of Gods?” It’s a good treatment. Me, I was a monotheist and then an agnostic and then a deist and now … I’m not certain. I clearly believe there is some kind of deity, but I’ve never been able to quite settle on just how to think about it. I want to be a polytheist — Greer in particular offers an excellent apologetic for polytheism in the book I mentioned — but it is slow going for me to feel natural thinking of gods.
That said, though, I definitely agree with your sentiments here — if there are gods, they are powerful and worthy of respect. I’ve read in multiple places that pagans approach the gods more as partners to form relationships with than an all-powerful Father or Judge to be loved and/or feared, but that doesn’t mean they are commodities to be used or servants to be commanded.
Thanks, Michael. I’m glad the post spoke to you. Yes – I do have a copy of “A World Full of Gods”, and I’m still working my way through it. JMG doesn’t write for light reading, and the subject is pretty dense to start with. Its on my night stand, though.
The transition for me from “God” to “Gods” begins with language. Perhaps that’s why I took such issue with the use of the word “use”. Experiencing Deity is a rare event — I can only think of one or two times where I felt an undeniable presence of a God. So, rather than falling back on experience, I move forward with a change of singular to plural, and then examine how my former understanding of the One holds up and needs to be reexamined with regard to the Many. Does that make sense?
It was a good read, and you’re right – so many people treat our gods with as little respect as they do a candlestick that it makes me wonder if they know how lucky they are to not have been smote or something. One group of people I was acquainted with were “dabbling” with Voudoun, and “summoned” a loa of war telling him “we’re going to summon you Saturday in front of other people, so you’d better be on your best behavior!” – treating a powerful deity like a recalcitrant child? Really? I’m surprised lightning didn’t strike or something, talk about chutzpah. Once at a gay pride parade in SF, when I was helping carry a banner that said “Gay pagans and friends”, a bunch of folks were chanting in the crowd of onlookers “The goddess is a bi**h” and acting happy, like what they were saying was a good thing. I was brought up to believe that was just rude and disrespectful. Maybe I’m too old, or old-fashioned, but if you don’t at least treat the gods with as much respect as you do your friends, then perhaps you shouldn’t expect them to answer when you call.
Thanks for the comment, Alan! I’m glad to hear your voice in the discussion.
Reverence is important – I agree. So is irreverence, though. I guess its a matter of balance and context. There are times when I feel like irreverence – when used deliberately – helps to keep religious people from taking things too seriously. We can do that, even the Pagans. But then there are times, like you’ve pointed out, where its really just a question of tone and intention. Should the Gods be talked down to? I don’t think so. Then again, I don’t think anyone should be. But a God, especially one that you’re approaching with a request, deserves–I think–more respect than that.
Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!
I wonder if, perhaps, the "use deity" mindset comes in part from the ceremonial influence on modern paganism? The "summon stir call ye up" schtick that commands the elements to come guard the circle, instead of politely asking – it's not that far a stretch to bossing around gods. Or maybe folks just aren't "feeling" the presence of deity in their rites the way I think of them, so they really don't know the magnitude of what they're dealing with?
And I do believe that mirth has its place in ritual as well. When you invite Air into the circle and either the air conditioning kicks on, or half the people in the group fart, you're just supposed to laugh. The gods do have a sense of humor 🙂
Interesting ideas, Alan. As someone without much background in a tradition that calls quarters, I haven't had much opportunity to think about the theological ins and outs of it. I can see what you're saying, though. It may not be a bit stretch from summoning up a spirit & bossing around a God.
I think you may have hit on something — I'm not sure that people are feeling the presence of deity, even in ritual. And, in some way, I'd rather people make that clear, or I'd rather sit in silence until something happens. It works for the Quakers, after all. Why don't we invite the Gods, and then wait for them to speak? And, I mean really wait. Just a thought.
I totally agree with you about making mirth. I'm not pushing stodgy religion. If farts happen, so should laughs. Good thing to remember!
Thanks again for the comment!
Thanks for this post, Teo. I’ve often felt a disconnect with people who “use” God/desses for ritual. Another factor that’s always disturbed me in connection to this is the mix-n-match approach that many pagans take when “using” their Gods for ritual. As in: “I’m going to use Freya, Kali, Diana and Buffalo Woman for this ritual!” I can’t think of the Gods as widgets to plug and play.
This might work in a private setting, but in a ritual with more than oneself, it’s confusing to the other participants who might not understand your personal and somewhat eccentric syncretism. I think it’s disrespectful to the cultures of origin as well. And when you remove Gods from their myth cycles, it’s very hard to understand who they are. It’s a practice that I pray neopaganism grows out of.
My pleasure, Resa. Thanks for responding!
You bring up a really good point: the difference between private and public worship. When someone speaks in group about a number of Gods, interchanging them at will, it can be confusing. And, as you point out, it may betray in some ways the cultures from which they derive. How, then, do we move forward? Do we take the reconstructionist approach, following one culture only & working to align ourselves with the most accurate form of worship for it’s Gods? And what happens for those of us who may feel a genuine kinship to deities from multiple cultures.
Its complicated, for certain. I think what you and I are both getting at is that however you approach it, its best to do it with respect and attention to the circumstances you find yourself in.
Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Resa!
I’ve been to multiple rituals where people have done exactly what you describe. For some reason, a fair chunk of UU-associated folks try to cram in too much, and the approach is random: it gives me the impression that they don’t quite believe.
That said, I think it’s entirely possible, even important, to take a playful approach to magic and still be sincere and respectful to any deities invoked. Just as I would not appreciate gods or humans saying, “Di would be good to use for random entertainment, or garbage cleanup,” I would never refer to them as beings I “used.” We have very specific negative connotations associated with “using” people and beings, after all.
There have been rants by other Pagans that I’ve heard firsthand and read about the “gimme” approach to divinities. Propitiation matters, especially when it’s something stronger than you. While it’s certainly not an equal relationship between you and your Divinity, it is a relationship, and for that relationship to succeed, you must build trust.
Thanks for the comment, Diana. I appreciate the insights you bring to the discussion.
I’ve had good experiences at UU Pagan gatherings, mainly because of their sense of community and belonging. A Pagan group that meets in a church – a sanctioned gather – seems to have a different level of comfort about itself, and I like that. The rituals have been predominately Wiccan, and that may be a part of my personal rub. Wicca is a tradition that doesn’t really resonate with me. But that’s beside the point.
I absolutely agree with you that it is important to take a playful approach to magic, and that you can be sincere and respectful at the same time. I’m not advocating stodgy ritualism by any stretch. In some ways, I’m on a personal quest for balance in my religious practice. I’m looking for something that feels legitimate and real, while still allowing my imagination to flourish. Does that make sense?
Again, I really appreciate your comment. You brought up a great point. Thanks!
You make such very good points! I chose God at a young age, but always had a hard time reconciling man’s way of describing him with who He was telling me he is all along. I giggled yet was saddened at the same time when you said “to Hell with ya” because it’s true that many Christians believe that, but at the same time I don’t see that in the original languages of the book. As a matter of fact, he’s very flexible and the Spirit is not such a box like many proclaim that he is. I feel that your respect for your deity is so needed in the Christian realm. So often they also see God as a pill popping-geenie god. I love what you said about you serving the higher powers. I think it’s both ways though.. I’m not sure about the historical stories of all the gods and goddesses (I’m still learning) but I know that Jesus came to serve mankind and yet out of love people served him in return. Perhaps that’s what this Divine is trying to express to all of us. It’s a reciprocating relationship out of love. I hope you share more on this subject.
I’m really happy to see you continuing to post here, Lisa.
I’m all about the reciprocal relationships. And, as with any other relationship, there should be mutual respect. That’s really what I’m driving at here. I fell that, in some ways, I first developed this perspective about respect and reverence when I was an active Christian. I think it applies to my current path just as well; better in some ways.
Again, thank you sharing your perspective. Its a valuable contribution to the conversation.
What a really great way to put this. I think that there is a modern trend of thinking that puts finding a sense of empowerment and control over their universe in ritual and worship squarely in the forefront as the goal. If gaining power is the goal then first you must find something to have some place to get the power from and to gain control you must have the power to control. Without generations of reverence to deities giving them a very real eminence in our societal psyche it is very easy to tuck them away mentally as tools to be used to reach the goal of our ritual and worship. I’ve noticed this in many different faiths and paths (Big 3 included). There are a lot of teachers and traditions that teach this specifically and see it as the way that things really are. Many do not see communion with Divinity as the destination, but the stones they need to step on to reach their own personal goals.
Thank you! I’m glad the post resonated with you, and I appreciate the comment.
You bring up a great point, and it reminds me of something I was talking about with my husband last night. This idea that we have the power to take control over a God, or the Universe for that matter, is an incredible example of hubris. I’d rather accept that I am but a part of a larger whole, and then figure out how to be in harmony with the world I live in.
“Divinity as the destination” — I love the way you worded that. I want to write that on my arm!
Thanks for the comment. I really appreciate the insights you bring.
My experience has been that you take away from the table what you bring to the table.
If you bring a frivolous attitude to the gods, you get frivolity back. If you bring depth, you walk away with more depth.
I don't think they waste effort smiting the frivolous. What point would that serve?
When I went to my first Drawing Down, I knew very little about Paganism. I'd read Margot Adler's book, and a couple of others. They had a Moon Rite — the Drawing Down — on Friday night, and a Sun Rite — invoking the god — on Saturday. Not knowing, I figured I'd be unwelcome at "ladies' rite", so I'd already resolved to just observe from the outside on Friday.
Much to my surprise, I got called into the "ladies' rite" by an inner voice that was both compelling and welcoming. I knew (or thought I knew) enough about the Pagan Way from my reading to understand that instead of approaching the gods as supplicants crawling on our bellies, hoping for a few table scraps without getting "smote" by a cantankerous deity, they wanted us to come to them as equals. And that did NOT mean they were going to come down to my level.
I had never before considered becoming a god so that I might meet with a divine consort. Scared the crap out of me. But I'd been invited, and so I took a deep breath and tried to find the god within. I entered the circle at about seven or eight, finally approached the goddess at around midnight, and spent most of the intervening time meditating and freezing my ass off (8000 feet elevation in the mountains).
The experience was life-changing. Profound. Healing. Rich. Mystical. Baffling. Gentle.
I remember one of the long-time Pagans carrying on the next evening about her experience with the goddess at the Drawing Down. "She wanted me to stop and smell the f***ing roses! Like I've got f***ing time for that! We're remodeling the house, my boss is chapping my ass, the kids…." You get the picture. I was hard-pressed to not start laughing out loud.
Always great to read your responses here, Themon. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.
Its interesting to me the way you start your comment — you get away what you bring. And yet, you didn't bring to the rite an awareness of your "god within" — you rose to that awareness. It was a response to the situation in which you found yourself. It was a sincere response; genuine, and risky. Honest. Taking the risk led you to a profound spiritual experience. Had you come to the rite with a preconception about what you would encounter, or with a sense of power over the universe, perhaps you would have missed out on the profundity.
I guess I'm getting at this idea — you bring something to the table, and the Gods bring something else. They bring something distinct, and unique to them. We do the same; but what we bring is different. What's important is not only the intention we bring, but our ability to receive what they offer us.
Does that resonate at all with you?
You are correct, of course. It wouldn't be worth much if all you took away was what you brought. That's like giving yourself Christmas presents.
I think you touched on it exactly in your last line: the gods deliver in response to our capacity to receive. If we approach them with a thimble, we'll get a thimble full. If we bring a bucket, we'll get a bucket full. If we approach as a crawling maggot begging small favors, we'll get a maggot's meal. If we approach as a divine consort in honesty, courtesy, courage, and integrity — well, it gets much more interesting.
I don't know that I can make too many generalizations about experiences with the gods, however. I've had so few. As I expressed in one of my recent blogs, my path is not that of the Priestly Knight, Parzival, but that of the Earthly Knight, Gawaine. The gods are somewhat … tangential to my life. Not unimportant, but not at the center, either. It's kind of like me meeting the President of the US, as opposed to the Chief of Staff meeting the President. It's a different relationship.
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I am sort of a fence sitter on this issue…I believe in an actual greater Divine, and I believe in the multiplicity of Deity, but I also believe that we see the gods in a historical and cultural context that makes sense to us, rather than as they *are*. As such, I tend to think that we create a sort of "program" with which to "interface" with Dieties and the Divine (I sometimes describe it as putting them into boxes so we can carry them around with us more easily)…in which case, its not necessarily mutually exclusive to "use" Isis (though I really don't care to call it that either) as a way to serve what Isis is symbolic of.
Then again, I try not to quibble over what works for anyone else…I know I'm pretty wierd, lol!
That's a wonderful way to think of it. I think you're spot on about seeing what we want to see. You've also got an interesting approach to the "use" thing. What if this putting of Gods into boxes is natural, perhaps even a necessary act approaching Deity? And, if we must do that in order to make some sense of their vastness, using whatever limited human faculties we possess, is it really so wrong for us to do so if we're being conscious about doing so "in service" to the greater, more intangible Deity?
I feel like you're cracking something open in my head. If a God is merely "symbolic of" something, which is more worthy of worship – the God, or the thing which the God represents? Do we worship Gods in order to better understand the characteristics which we share with them, or do we worship them because they're — what — unfathomable? This question could be asked, I think, of any worshipper of Deity: Which comes first: the God, or the quality or characteristic they represent?
Would a worshipper of Isis worship Her in order to better understand the ways in which she and Isis are the same? How they are both mothers, magical, fertile in their bodies and their beings? If so, would she be holding up Isis, or those characteristics in higher regard?
Could a Christian conceive of worshipping Yahweh or Jesus as a way to understand how they, themselves, are a creator, a healer, a light in the world?
I'm not sure how to answer these questions, or if they're the right ones to be asking, but I sure appreciate you inspiring them in me!! Thanks for your comment!!
I think it is an organic development…I mean, every culture on this planet has gods. Even the cultures that have God singular+capitalized "got" that god from a pantheon of gods and made a deal with him–exclusive worship for the making of a great nation. And there seems to be a lot of overlap in the personalities and domains of deities (not completely, but I bet it would make an interesting Venn diagram…), enough that I'm not sure it is entirely coincidental.
My hubby is been fond of describing the nature of the gods as "as human as we are divine". I think we *need* that humanity to access what is beyond our ken. I don't think that it makes what they represent something more or them something less anymore than my daughter at Halloween is less my daughter and more a fairy. Of course, I could be over-intellectualizing or talking out my rear here, but I know that for me, its an approach that works.
No – you're not over-anything-ing! You make some great points here, and I appreciate your perspective. I love what your husband said, too, and thank you for sharing that. Those sorts of comparisons really help me clarify complex and illusive ideas. Much appreciated.
I think I fell half in love with you while reading this post. Don’t be alarmed, though. I’m a lit student, so that tends to happen quite a bit when I’m READING something that resonates with me.
Well, thank you Jessica. That's very sweet. I'm glad to know that my words resonated with you. If you're so inclined, I'd love to know *how* they resonated with you, and what thoughts it brought up. Have you had similar experiences?
"I either believe that, or I believe that the Gods aren’t real. They’re just devices of psychology. They’re fiction. Narrative. They’re all in my head. And, if that’s the case, I should pick and choose which god I want to use. I should let my god or goddess serve me."
"Just" devices of psychology? "Just" fiction? As a writer, I'd have to take exception to the idea that what happens in your imagination is not bigger than you, is under your control, or is 'usable.' It's as wild and wooly a world in there as in physical reality, and it is, in fact, as -real- as physical reality. The imagination is a vast, incalculable place, far bigger than our ego can fathom.
Beyond that, I agree with you. The gods are not there to be used.
I do find myself having a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of "service" to the gods. Something about it just seems — I dunno, to monotheistic to me. I don't have a problem with monotheists emphasizing service, and I certainly know that specific people have specific relationships with the gods where service is a crucial thing, but I don't feel as though I am in service to a number of the gods I reverence. I feel that I have a relationship with them, a relationship which always includes respecting and honoring their place in my life, but it is a mutually beneficial thing– not a friendship, of course, because we're not equals; but in a meaningful way we are comrades. I hope that makes sense.
As a writer, I appreciate what you have here, Syna. You make very good points, and I value the creative power of the imagination.
Let me see if I can explain more of what I was getting at.
I accept that you are real, and not simply a product of my imagination. You approached me through this comment and made contact with me. My engagement with you through this response is communication with something/someone who is real. Real-real.
But what about the Gods? Do we interact with them through direct contact? Some would say, "yes". Others would suggest that they are simply ideas that are born from our imagination, or that we interact with solely through our imagination. Others still would say that they are real-real (like you), that we can make direct contact with them, AND we use our imagination to do that.
Does all of the make sense?
I find your last paragraph to be quite interesting. From my experience it has always been the other way around: the Monotheists were big on "relationship" with God, and the Polytheists were all about "serving" their Gods. Clearly, this is a personal thing — there's no one right way to look at this.
Thank you for your comment!
That does certainly make sense, and to clarify, I'm agnostic on the real-real or not issue. Truthfully, the problem is that I didn't make my major point clearly enough: what I meant to say was that the issue is about that person's stance toward the gods, not whether gods should be 'used'. One can believe that they have a solely imaginal existence and believe that the gods are entirely outside of our control, more powerful than we are, and worthy of reverence, even worship. 🙂
(There's also the issue of the collective unconscious, which complicates your model a bit, but that's also basically a matter of faith, I think.)
I find your last paragraph to be quite interesting. From my experience it has always been the other way around: the Monotheists were big on "relationship" with God, and the Polytheists were all about "serving" their Gods. Clearly, this is a personal thing — there's no one right way to look at this.
Really? That's quite fascinating. I do know that priesthood is devoted to service, of course, but I always thought of polytheism as more collaborative and relational.
Just goes to show how much diversity there is in our community!
Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
I agree with Syna. As Lon Milo Duquette writes, the gods are in our heads, we just don't know how big our heads are. And I like his use of the term "reverence" to describe the relationship with the gods, rather than "service", which for me also smacks of monotheism. But this whole post has been great. Plug-and-play deities and "using" gods is, I believe, contrary to the very spirit of Neopaganism. I keep coming back to a quote by Gilbert Murray in *A History of Ancient Greek Literature* to remind me that I am not (cannot be) in control when interacting with the gods: "Reason is great, but it is not everything. There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it ; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life. These things are Gods or forms of God : not fabulous immortal men, but 'Things which Are,' things utterly non-human and non-moral, which bring man bliss or tear his life to shreds without a break in their own serenity."
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, John. It is still interesting to me that "service" is so strongly equated with monotheism. I just had a Kemetic practitioner in my living room a few days ago, and she was telling me how her religion was *nothing but* serving the Gods. No relationship. Just service.
Thinking back, though, to my time in church, there was a good deal built into the liturgy around "serving God". Servitude, in that context, was a sign of honor and respect, but from another perspective looks a lot like slavery.
I like LMD's vision you share, and I think "reverence" may be a much better approach. I can wrap my mind around that quite easily.
Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad he post resonated with you. And thank you again for the quote.
[…] exploring the idea of using Gods for our own purposes, I wrote that we need to respect the Gods we worship. We need be weary of commodifying them; turning them […]