Friday, April 27, 2007

On gods and their stories.

I've been studying the ancient Celtic pantheon, trying to teach myself to believe. I would like to be able to more fully enter this world that connects my ancestral roots back to a belief in the beauty and glory of the gods and goddesses of old. I want them to come alive for me, the way faeries and tree nymphs have always seemed at least possible, if elusive. Still, as much as I might read, they're just stories to me. It's strange that the figure of Jesus Christ, just as implausible a god and perhaps even more so, seems so very real to me--the Trinity itself is very real to me, in an experiential way. Even the obscurer saints and archangels are real and when I journey the graypaths during meditation, I may meet them. And yet these other figures from Celtic myth remain elusive and unreal.

What's also weird is that I've started Tolkein's The Silmarillion, and even those fictional characters, the Valar, the "gods" of Middle-earth who are more akin to seraphim and powers and archangels--even they seem more real than the old stories of gods that people once actually worshipped. Perhaps it's because they have a shared cosmogony, a genesis story that is intricate and beautiful--that tells of the first harmonies of on-going creation. A world is created through them which I can imagine to be my world, and so they seem to be a believable, if forgotten, part of that world... of my world. And yet, they are fictitious. The children of one man's imagination and his obsession with linguistics. They aren't "real."

I almost wish they were. I can almost feel them, shimmering on the edges of possibility... if only just enough people took them seriously. After all, how else are gods made, if not by the momentum of belief? But then, are these truly gods, or merely collective fantasies? The organ of my belief functions in such a way that I can only bring myself to believe in that which existed "in the beginning"--Jesus as historical figure may be a wonderful teacher, but it is Christ as the Word, the first note in the song of creation, in whom I truly believe as part of the Trinity. And perhaps this is why I find it difficult to believe in the deities of the Celtic pantheon. They are not cosmogonic--they are, in some way, incidental, only players across the stage of myth. I may find inspiration and connection in the green hills, the ineffable mists and the rolling oceans of Celtic myth, but its gods are only casual visitors upon a sacred landscape. The Trinity of Godhead, Manifest Spirit and the Bridge between the two walked that landscape long before the Celtic gods and goddesses were named.

Still you never know. Perhaps in some distant future, Tolkein's manuscript, forgotten and faded, will be unearthed and mistaken for actual lore instead of a work of fiction. Someday there may be Neopagans learning how to believe in and relate to the Divine through Ulmo, Manwe and Aule, Varda and Yavanna, instead of through Brigid, Bile, the Dagda or Lugh.


  1. Ali, this is a beautiful post. I have long felt exactly the same way about Tolkien's dieties, as well as everything else about his cosmology -- his races, his histories, his epic familial sagas, and his languages. (Yes! His languages! I'm a linguist myself.) And now that I've gotten older and wiser, you know what I think? I think they are real. I think Tolkien was a medium, though he didn't dare admit it, even to himself. I think -- as you hint in your post -- that Tolkien's dieties are just as real as all the others people have worshipped in all the long ages of the world.

    Don't take that to mean that all the gods are false... or incomplete, or something. I think they're all real, every one of them.

    The more vividly they're imagined, the more real they are. And that doesn't mean that people made them all up. If you dream up a god, where did that dream come from? (I think it came from the god!)

    I suspect that the reason the Old Gods don't seem as "real" as Tolkien's to us is simply that Tolkien was writing in the 20th century. He was, as it were, writing in our own native tongue, and we understand his symbolism and his meaning. The older stories are wonderful, but they take a lot of work to really "connect" with.

    And so yes -- I think it would be wonderful if people took up the worship of the Valar. I'm not going to do it myself any time soon (I'm too attached to my Sun God, and Tolkien doesn't have a very compelling one), but one day, who knows? If Tulkas comes into one of my meditations, what choice will I have but to listen to him? :-)

    By the way, I adore your blog, and I'll be back frequently! My I link to you?

  2. Jeff, I think you hit the nail on the head about Tolkien writing "in our own native tongue," and using symbolism and such which we find easier to connect with in modern times. I'm struck by his complex treatment of evil, for instance, and I love the discussion of the ringwraiths (on the Lord of the Ring DVD Appendices) as almost like bureaucratic ghosts, "evil" insofar as they lack any individual will. A very relevant metaphor, these days!

    I also think that Tolkien has had a huge influence on the collective subconscious of our culture--I know that I grew up with Tolkien's particular conception of elves, dwarves, "halflings" and men filtering into the fantasy books I read as a kid, and even the television shows and movies I watched, even though I didn't read Tolkien until I was in college. Not only does he "speak our language," but he has helped to shape that language!

    In terms of my own spiritual practice, I'm still unsure how to approach the idea of pantheons and multiple deities, because in some ways I'm a natural monotheist. Over time, though, I've come to see that the monotheism I was raised with is just an expression of my own panentheism, and so I find myself perfectly comfortable working with deities and "powers" when I can experience them as connecting back to that Source which creates, sustains, involves and transcends the world. With that in mind, and with Tolkien's brilliance egging me on, I went back to a few of my books on Celtic mythology recently and tried to listen for that ring of connection. To my surprise, one deity in particular did seem to "ring true," so I'm now trying to ease into working with her and exploring that relationship. I don't know where it will lead, but it's definitely interesting, and not something I would have expected of myself only a few years ago. :)

    Anyway, I'm glad you enjoy my blog, and please feel free to link to it. :) I only hope my current prolificacy will last! I tend to get real obsessive during the beginning of a project, only to use up all of my good ideas within a few weeks and find my inspiration tapering off again! ;)

  3. Oh yes, the famous curse/blessing of the Gemini! We can't keep our attention on one thing for more than a minute! -- Goodness knows I've struggled with it -- I have four planets in Gemini, and I have half-finished projects scattered in a huge paper trail over the past thirty years. But you know -- I've found it's not that big a deal:

    First off, the project you're working on now is better than any of your old ones, anyway. (Right? :-) )
    Second, a blog is a perfect creative outlet. Posts can be any length, and on virtually any topic that's remotely related to your basic theme. And readers expect you to jump from topic to topic -- they like that!
    Third, if you keep blogging for long enough, suddenly you have a big pile of excellent material that can be gathered into a larger whole.

    Anyway, that's been my experience. I had the same doubts when I started Druid Journal last June, and I've found that the more I write, the more ideas I have for more articles... I get half a dozen ideas per week at least, but I only have time to post twice a week, so I have a MASSIVE backlog.

    The tension between monotheism and polytheism, and the relationship between various pantheons, is something I have very strong opinions about -- opinions that arise from my background in linguistics and neuroscience. I think that religions should best be thought of as languages for communicating with Spirit. A given pantheon (say, the Greek, or Tolkien's) is a "language" that you, a spiritual seeker, can use to think about Spirit, to communicate with Spirit, and ultimately receive messages from Spirit. Asking whether a religion is "true" doesn't make sense in this model -- no more sense than asking whether French is "true".

    It's a metaphor / model that I've found explains a huge ream of facts about religion, and answers a lot of very thorny theological questions. I've written a small book's worth of posts on it... Naturally, I'd love to hear your feedback! The first one is here.

    Sorry to use up so much of your bandwidth! :-)