In my continued attempts to explore polytheism and the various pantheons of the ancients, I recently read both R. J. Stewart's Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses, and Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine, coauthored by David Leeming and Jake Page. In some ways, polytheism continues to have a certain appeal or attraction for me as, perhaps, a final, definitive embrace of my Druid path. Devoting myself to wild, colorful deities of my ancestors carries the same kind of tantalizing mystique and fresh spiritual intrigue as dancing with faeries, seeing auras, singing with the river stones or treading moonlit wooded paths in the evening, seeking contemplative solitude or poetic coincidence in the world. The fulfillment of this imagined "magical self" that I have been crafting and cultivating over the past several years--first through witchcraft, and now through Druidry and other occult studies--seems always to have been the kind of devoted, ecstatic priestess who was only naturally polytheistic or, at the very least, more interesting than a plain, familiar Christian.
Still, though I continue to explore polytheism--in particular, the loose conglomeration of deities one could call the Celtic pantheon--I'm reminded again and again of certain things that don't quite sit well with me. Leeming's and Page's Goddess brought this unease home to me once again as I read the book over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Putting the Double-D in Goddess
The least problematic issue I run aground on is the ancient forms of Goddess-worship, those associated with the deep caverns of the earth painted with symbolic vulvas and protective, procreative wombs. While beautifully ecstatic, creative and sensual--celebrating the power of both womanhood and nature to give and sustain life, and transforming death into a return to generative darkness--it has always struck me as, well, a bit lop-sided (might I even say, top-heavy?). In its purest form, perhaps, in which Goddess is conceived as almost androgynous or trans-gendered, all-embracing in her presence, it echoes and affirms the kind of pan(en)theism with which I find myself most comfortable. Goddess not as anthropomorphic deity, but as life-force, Spirit and ground of creative being, transcends the male-female divide in the same way the God of my childhood Catholicism embraced all existence and paradox when the priest called upon the Divine as loving Mother (for now, I'll not spend time explaining that not all Christians are patriarchal misogynists--just trust me on that one ;).
But it seems, far from this aspiration towards pan-gendered unity reflected in certain pantheist and monotheist traditions today, many ancient Goddess myths take for granted the secondary, disposable nature of the male counterpart. This has always felt, to me, just as unbalanced and short-sighted as a spirituality that takes for granted the female side of Spirit as secondary or non-essential. Not only does it seem to reduce men to either amusing pets or convenient sacrifices, but it puts forward a view of the feminine with an exaggerated sense of sensuality, fecundity and receptivity. Perhaps the truth is, in being female, I personally look for the animus or male energy in my conception of a personified (that is to say, in some sense, an "external") conception of deity, while feminine aspects of the Divine I experience more directly as imminent, an animating breath or Life-force within me. This has made it difficult for me to feel comfortable worshipping a Goddess, but it has not stopped me from experiencing the Goddess-nature of myself and the larger Divine that suffuses reality.
Gods Behaving Badly
Another stumbling block I find within many polytheistic traditions is when the balance so clearly swings in the other direction, away from Goddess-worship and towards the repression and distortion of the feminine archetype of Spirit. Though Christianity has become an easy scapegoat to blame for rampant, repressive patriarchy among the world's religions and spiritual traditions, the myths explored by Leeming and Page often illustrate repressive, misogynistic and downright immoral behavior within plenty of purely polytheistic pantheons. Zeus's many rapes of women, both mortal and divine; the early Epic of Gilgamesh and his rejection of Ishtar as an untrustworthy seductress; even a late Apache myth about the toothed "vagina" goddesses, progeny of the Kicking Monster, who must be tamed, literally de-fanged and taught the pleasure of submissive "swallowing"!
Certainly the sexist mythology of Eve and the Fall, as well as of Lilith, Adam's first wife who dared to believe herself an equal, have their place within the Christian tradition, but it is also important to note that these are Jewish myths in origin. As far as new contributions to the misogyny of past and contemporary traditions, Christianity seems to have added very little, at least if we consider its mythology rather than its socio-political structures. Indeed, within the Gospels, women are often treated as equals, as worthy and devoted disciples, and as the most powerful of divine instruments (from creative vessels of new life, to sacred witnesses to the grief and mystery of death). The fact that the socio-political institution of Christianity as a religion has not always reflected the feminist lessons of its own mythology is no surprise; consider, after all, how rarely the gods and goddesses of various polytheistic pantheons seem actually to embrace the ideals of diversity and humanism that have become a cornerstone for the Neopagan movement. Although the modern Pagan religion as a socio-political counterculture encourages equality, personal will and tolerance, polytheistic pantheons seem full of deities with no qualms about unequal favoritism, fickle wrath or even seemingly manipulative impositions onto the human personal will.
Worship & Love
If I find polytheistic deities a bit fickle or inexplicable, however, this is partly because they are much more closely related to the mysterious forces of nature, which themselves are often highly indifferent to the whims or will of men. Oddly enough, I have no trouble appreciating, praising and even loving these forces of nature when I experience them within the context of a more unifying, interwoven, infinitely-living whole--when I experience the fierceness of a thunderstorm, the brutal cold and blinding purity of snow, the persistence and continuity of a wide river and the stolid starkness of the hills that loom over it. I can appreciate and experience the way in which Spirit manifests itself in each of these particulars, to create a tension and conflict out of which beauty and transformation arise through struggle. Yet, can I call these particular beings--these nature spirits and animating forces--gods and goddesses? And can I really worship them as such?
There is no question that I respect, admire and sometimes even fear the various particulars and manifestations of the world--but the quirk of having been raised Catholic is that, for me, these feelings are not enough. I grew up believing that the proper attitude towards one's god(s)--that is, the proper relationship between oneself and the Divine--is that of love. The Law of Love, which trumps everything else according to the "Good" Book, is to love God, and to love others and oneself as one loves God--creatively, freely and unconditionally. Jesus Christ, as portrayed as a deity incarnate in the Gospels, engages in the small, daily activity of creative, unconditional loving--he acts morally within the human sphere of experience in order to blow open and transform that sphere, transfusing it with Divinity. He is not only a poet-prophet, magician, philosopher-teacher and political radical--he's just a damned good guy, really. In the theology of Christianity, humanity is not simply incidental to the indifferent glories of a Divine natural world; Jesus, as deity, not only acknowledges and celebrates a sense of sacredness in nature (through parables and acts of natural magic) but elevates human beings themselves as deserving of respect, as worthy of Divine love. To me, he is not only a deity to be praised or feared (i.e. to be worshipped), but to be loved, intimately and fully.
Yet the mythology of Christ is not simply that of love, light and warm-fuzzies. Other, more scholarly Pagans than I have noted the parallels between the Christ myth of death and rebirth/resurrection and those of other polytheistic cultures. The Sacrificial God-King who dies to redeem and bless the land is a common mythological figure, particularly among agricultural-based societies. The deaths of these gods, however, are usually portrayed as brought about by those very same inexplicable and larger-than-life forces of nature--the God-King sacrificed to the Goddess-Mother/-Lover/-Land--and require of human beings either mere ritual witness, or the requisite personal sacrifices. The sacrificial death of Christ, on the other hand, is deeply human; indeed, it is not the inexplicable and sometimes tragically indifferent mysteries of nature which demand it, but the inexplicable and equally tragic community of humanity itself. Jesus, as historical figure, goes to his death at the hands of his fellow man, while Christ, as deity, inverts and subverts the vast gulf of power usually assumed to exist between all-powerful God- and Goddess-forces and a humanity buffeted about by their winds. Christ then becomes not only a deity of love and moral commitment, but a dark god of death, destruction, tragedy and the shadows of the underworld--not merely the ugly or incomprehensible fears of nature, but those within humanity itself. With humanity so intimately involved in the mythology of this deity, it also lends new responsibility (some ex-Catholics would probably be accurate in even saying "guilt" to some extent, though I have always understood it as response-ability) to the relationship one has with the Divine. We see that we are not powerless and ineffectual, that we are indeed capable of killing a god, and that this becomes yet another reason why love of Divinity and for Divinity, as both manifest within and transcendent beyond humanity, is possible.
The Disconnected Line
All that said, I have no doubt that my friendly neighborhood Pagans and polytheists out there have intimate, inspiring, even loving relationships with their gods and goddesses, which move way beyond simple worship in terms of praise and fear. I see these relationships expressed daily in indirect ways, as other bloggers talk about their spiritual practices and experiences. What I find frustrating is, well, akin to the frustration a person might have when trying to start dating again after years of being "out of the game." How do you meet the "right god"? How do you go about beginning the process of learning about one another and establishing a connection?
I'm still puzzled about this process. I read the books on mythology and ancient tales that people recommend, but I often feel as though these are out-of-date phonebooks and I'm looking up numbers for deities who have grown and moved on. Or, perhaps a more apt metaphor, it feels a bit like stalking someone on Facebook or MySpace, where the worst and the best of a person (or deity, as the case may be) are splayed for public view out of all context, hardly reflective of the real experience of knowing and working with him or her. Even among the Celtic deities, many of whom I find intriguing and potentially powerful patrons, I find myself coming up against silence, the dialtone of a disconnected line. Perhaps if I were part of a working group of local Druids, rather than a solitary practitioner, making that connection might be easier. I've even contemplated the more indirect route--meditating, for instance, on my apparent connection with frogs, hares/rabbits, pigs and even horses as recurring totem animals, researching which deities in which pantheons are associated with them, almost as if they were mutual friends who might be able to introduce us.
The question I always come back to, though, is: is all this really necessary, anyway? Am I, perhaps, just a naturally monogamous lover and, spiritually speaking, worshipper? Did I get lucky and meet the "right god" when I was very young, growing up with a Christ that is not the judgmental, oppressive or vindictive deity known to so many others? Is it, perhaps, really all right to be a Christian Druid, in the end? I mean, of course it's "all right" in the sense that the OBOD and AODA communities embrace seekers on the Druid path regardless of their religious backgrounds. But my concern is really about internal consistency and the integrity of a personal spiritual tradition. Is there something inherently polytheistic about Druidry? If there is, I am bound to confront it one of these days. Still, I wonder, who are these Gods and Goddesses of the Neopagan pantheons, and how do modern practitioners reconcile the sometimes less than admirable and moral mythologies from which they seem to evolve?
For those of you readers who are polytheists, I really would love to hear your views on this. Over the past few years, I've come to understand and even experience the nature of spirit guides, ancestors, "elementals" and group thought-forms (for which I can never remember the gosh-darn name--it starts with an 'e', right?)... but deities, Gods and Goddesses... they remain beyond me.