Sunday, December 2, 2007

To Love a God: Struggling with Morality in Polytheism

The Glass SwanIn 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.


  1. I have no idea if this is standard or not, since I don't spend a great deal of time in the traditional neo-pagan communities, but I don't tend to think of the polytheistic gods as requiring or needing the same kind of worship that the Christian god often seems to demand. I do know some pagans that worship as you've described -- treating their own personal deities with extreme reverence -- but perhaps because I was raised small-d democrat before I was raised Christian my initial response to an authority figure is not love but suspicion.

    I tend to enjoy the stories of the gods, but I'm really not keen on a personal relationship with any of them. But I am interested in a deeper understanding of, and sense of connection to, the ground of all being. Which is why I practice druidry.

    If you are a panentheist (or pantheist) I think druidry would be very comfortable with you, and that notion might make much sense. As for whether or not you can be a Christian druid, well, as a polytheistic pantheist it seems to me you have ahold of the Christ of Martin Luther King instead of the Christ of Fred Phelps. Whatever or whoever that Christ is, or how He manifests Himself to Wiccans or otherwise, doesn't really make that much difference. The key, I think, is not to fall into the my-god-can-beat-up-your-god, covert-or-be-damned trap.

  2. I agree that the Christian attitude towards proper relationship with deity is probably different from the Neopagan approach, but I had actually been under the impression that it was the opposite. I, too, have a natural reaction against authority, especially imposed authority, which is why I have always found the approach of love for the Divine to make much more sense, since this love elevates and interweaves lover and beloved and pretty much renders meaningless talk about "power" and "authority." For polytheistic traditions, it seems as if love is much less likely to be characteristic of the relationship than mere "worship" of deity or deities. And since many Neopagans I know have that anti-authority streak in them, too, it seems that instead of worship or even love, what they really do is treat deity as very similar to spirit guides, except bigger. At which point I kind of falter a bit on the whole point of polytheism, instead of just pantheism or panentheism.

    That's just my impression as an outsider at this point, though, and I'm very open to the idea that I'm dead wrong about it. Still, it seems sometimes very hard to pry discussion about their gods and goddesses out of the modern Pagan... I hope I don't sound too disrespectful about the whole subject. Mostly, I'm just very curious. As usual. ;)

  3. Good Day, Ali:

    I started a new blog, one that I think you'll want to watch. I've taken the pen-name "Aurifaber" there, the "Goldsmith", and am working to alchemically work with my ideas and philosophies that I am forming from my studies of Systems Theory, in my therapy and counseling program. I tie in esotericism.

    Maybe our previous problems were all a matter of communication:

    Visit that link. The blog has two posts in it so far- I'm sure you'll enjoy what you read there. I shall comment more on your post here later, as a polytheist who has things to say, and who doesn't speak as a fluff-bunny neo-pagan or a historical revisionist, which so many polytheists today do.

  4. Ule,

    I definitely look forward to your response! (I was hoping you might read and respond, though I wasn't sure you even read this blog usually.)

    I'll definitely check out your new blog, too, though I'm afraid it'll have to wait till tomorrow, as right now I'm functioning on a long day and two hours of sleep. Alchemy and Systems Theory are two things that have sparked my interest but that I know absolutely nothing about, so it sounds like a very interesting focus.

  5. I think the word you're looking for is "egregore"...

    Is there something inherently polytheistic about Druidry?

    I don't think so, not inherently. For me, the heart of modern Druidry is the relationship with the Land - and whether you understand it to be informed by spirits, or to dwell within Spirit, the Land remains, regardless. A Gnostic might have trouble, but I don't see why a Christian would, particularly a liberal one.

    Regarding the Gods - in my experience, the nature of the relationship is indeed not the same as in monotheism. I think this is partly because in most of the pagan traditions that I'm familiar with (I'm speaking here not of Wicca, which has its own beliefs, but of ancient and Reconstructionist European traditions), the Gods are not believed to have created the Cosmos; they arose from within it, just as we (and everything else) did. So there's no idea that we automatically have a huge unrepayable debt simply by virtue of being alive... I *am* grateful to my Gods, don't get me wrong, but my gratitude (and trust) comes from what They have done in my life and that of my family.

    You mention the Gods seem almost like natural forces - there's some truth to that, I think. They are a part of the Cosmos, after all, and most of Them are understood to have chthonic as well as "heavenly" aspects. However, I don't believe that is *all* they are, or they would not be worthy of worship and love.

  6. Good Day Ali:

    Without realizing it, you have fallen into what most polytheists would call "heresy"- not that we have that much dogma upon which to base claims of heresy. But the reason why you are having difficulties in your thinking about polytheism is because you are bringing a lot of assumptions that are ahistorical to what "polytheism" is. You certainly have your own ideas about what it is, but as you can see, your ideas are failing you in places, leaving you dis-satisfied about a lot of things.

    To you, the alternative is the monotheism that you believe in. This is often, I find, how it works- lacking a working understanding of true polytheism, people find what they want in other places, such as the simplicity of monotheism. It's true that there are many forms of monotheistic understanding; the dreaded "pantheism" and "monism" are two good examples of monotheism that is mutated to satisfy the natural problems that arise when people try to mutilate the truth of multiplicity by forcing it into a monotheistic mold.

    It's clear that you have unconscious rules that dominate your thinking. You were raised monotheist, so one of those rules is that there can only be one god, or a unification of the divine. All other qualities that are desirable to you- such as the divine feminine- must somehow be collapsed into the "oneness". This rule- subconscious or conscious as it may be, alters your perceptions, forces you to try to repackage things.

    You need to see new perspectives, and give up on this rule- why give up on it? How? Because the rule was taught to you following assumptions about the world that are unique to monotheism, and nowhere is it written or certain that the monotheism was correct in the first place. It's simply preaching what it preaches. It's focus is on morality and human interest, more than on totality and wisdom. Of course, it has re-framed wisdom to be in line with what it wants to believe, but again, this is to be expected.

    Let me begin with your approach to the idea of a "Goddess". Let me actually begin with your approach to the Gods in general. You are committing the heresy of "naturalistic collapsing" or the idea that the Gods and natural phenomenon are somehow the same thing. You can't bear to imagine- or perhaps you can't imagine- that the Gods are simply fully individual beings like yourself, but who have differences in how they exist and interact with reality from you and from other humans.

    You are "collapsing" the Gods into natural phenomenon, and this is a wrong view. It is an old view; people have been doing it for a long time- people who were trying to "explain" how the polytheists might have "evolved" their Gods. People who can't believe that the Gods are simply the Gods. They assume that our ignorant ancestors heard thunder, and the "Thunder God" was merely a personification of this natural force.

    This is false. The God of Thunder is a God, a being whose great strength and life lasts (like all the Gods) as long as the world-system or the cosmos lasts. Their lives are for "all time", or for as long as the system of the worlds is in place. Human lives are much shorter, and by way of comparison, you could say the Gods were effectively immortal. I don't have time to go into it here, but in a way, most of the Gods ARE immortal in the sense that after the regeneration of the world, they re-appear and re-remember who and what they were in the previous world, something most humans do not do. The continuity of mind and memory is broken for us by death, unless we achieve that wisdom that moves us into the deathless state, like the Allfather did.

    At any rate, the Thunder God is not the power of thunder in the sky. He is a God, a being who exists and operates in reality in many ways. He has power over storms and thunder, but that is not the same thing as saying that he is thunder. Let me re-phrase it like this: something about his existence is tied into the effect that we call "storms"- by virtue of his existing, he interacts and causes changes in the web of Wyrd that result (among other things) in the experience we call "storm". He does this willfully, because this world needs rain and thunder and lightning, to fertilize the ground.

    The Ancestors had an interesting way of phrasing this. They said that the sound of thunder was sometimes caused by the God rolling barrels of ale and mead around up in his halls. That sounds funny, but it captures the essence of what I said- the activity of this God's existence is part of a chain of causality that also includes the appearance of thunder.

    I hope you understand what I'm saying. You seem incapable of approaching the Goddess you were speaking of as a being all on her own- she had to be "collapsed" into "the life force" in you, and the "life in nature" and whatever else diffuse things you wanted to associate with her, to make her fit into your paradigm. This undermines the truth of her sovereign personhood, and makes her a quasi-natural force, a personified but senseless "life force" in everything. Thus, you can have god almighty up in your heaven, and your "goddess force" down here for you to bask in.

    Such ideas are not something that true polytheists can respectfully accept or smile and nod at. If you know the Gods, then you know them as persons- great and powerful persons who interact with reality on a very profound level.

    You are correct, in a way, to complain about how the Goddess movement has focused on her "Double D" and ignored the need for her male consorts to help her generate life; but the ancients had no such mistakes made. The Earth Mother Nerthus was mated with many Gods, to produce many children, and she was the common mother of mankind, as it was her earthy and watery body that gave the two trees that the Allfather shaped into the first humans. Now, notice that I called the earth and the water her body- that's because they are. She is a Giantess, and giants are a class of beings that are not precisely the same as the other Gods. They are still powerful and long-lived beings, and even seen as divine, especially in her case. Giantish nature is elemental; the father of all Giants had an elemental body, and that body, once torn up, became the material that Allfather used to create the worlds, and all you see in them. Thus, while the Gods are seen as more "spiritual" in the sense that their bodies are not primarily elemental, the giants are often elemental in their embodiments, and the Earth-goddess/giantess is certainly elemental in her embodiment.

    It's hard for most people to accept, but we believe that we are living on the back of a huge living being. She is sentient and aware, and wise beyond reckoning. Her power extends into the web of Wyrd in other ways, but we can know something of her in particular just by experiencing the physical realities of the world around us- hills, rivers, etc. She also has "spiritual" forms- she can appear to people in dreams, visions, etc, and she can mate with Gods and produce children, such as her son the Thunder God.

    This is a rough sketch of "Godly Ecology"- the Gods are like us in many ways, but not like us in others, because different fateful realities surrounded their emergence from the web of reality.

    At any rate, I hope you're seeing what I'm trying to say. The Goddess of the Earth is not merely the earth, or the life-force in us. The Gods are not just embodiments of natural forces.

    Life-force does exist; you feel it all day, everyday. It is a sacred thing; it can be used for the purposes of sorcery, and it is needed for bodily health. But it is not a deity, just a common aspect of reality that we share with all living things.

    Your charge against the Gods "misbehaving" is a common one. You are making the same mistake I'm sure you chide other people for when they take your bible stories as evidence of what a bastard Jehova is- you are being too literal. You are not taking into account the cultural realities behind these stories. To begin with, there was no "one myth body" that all Pagans held to- even in ancient Greece. The "myths" we have today are one set of myths, probably late blooming, and very syncretic. Zeus was likely not seen as a serial rapist by everyone- but he WAS seen as all "sky fathers" must be: fertile and randy. The stories of his many conquests are examples of this reputation that the Indo-European sky father had to uphold; his boundless fertility drove him to sexually engage other goddesses and human women- to create other Gods and heroes for the world. You are also assuming that the Gods must adhere to human moral standards and social codes, which they certainly do not, in much the same way that your Jehova can drown the whole world over "sins"- taking out countless babies and children- and not be considered a mass-murderer.

    The stories of Zeus' paramours are often shown to be later interpretations: Semele, for instance, was clearly once a Goddess, not a human woman. Often these figures turn out to be "once goddesses" and not mere mortal women, and that changes everything.

    At any rate, the stories of Gods are not literal; they reflect the activity of Gods in extra-sensory reality, and their strange relationship with the world in various "Wyrd" ways. They contain hidden layers of meaning and much wisdom, but we obscure that when we try to force them to comply with the lens of our particular social norms and standards. We're dealing with bodies of literature that are mystical in origin, and they have to be approached in that way.

    Now, for my final point: this idea of "love" that you continually focus on. So you want to love your God/Gods. This is because you were born and raised a monotheist, and they harp on endlessly about love- and the love of God for the world and of people for God. Their construction of love is unique to them; polytheists didn't approach the Gods in this way.

    You assume automatically that "love" for a god would be the most desirable relationship, and you can't rest without it. Listen very carefully to what I'm about to say, and you may see what has evaded you.

    The Gods are kin to us- they love us as family loves family. There are many sorts of love, but not all are appropriate in every situation. The sort of passionate love you are talking about- even running to a sexual slant- is something that you should be reserving for your fellow human beings- for the man in your life, your husband, or your mates. That's where it belongs. Love for the Gods is kindred love; love for fellow humans and mates is passionate.

    You, like most monotheists (especially female ones) want to passionately embrace your God and dissolve in him, surrender to him, in soul-rapture. This is another kind of spiritual love which is a construct of monotheism. It sounds like misplaced love and emotion to me! This problem begins when we deal with "love" as a singular thing, and then assume that this word captures every moment of love, every type of love.

    It's like christians can't differentiate between different sorts of love, and since they assume that "love" is the highest and best emotion (something that polytheists wouldn't have agreed with- many emotions are seen just as noble and desirable) they can't characterize their relationship with their one God as anything else but "love".

    Even non-religious people like the idea of love. To talk about God as "all loving" is part of the myth of monotheism, and a lure for people who want love, which is everyone. It's a selling point, and nothing more, at least from my perspective.

    Now, before this sounds too grim for you, let me let you in on a little secret. It's not that Gods can't mate with mortal women; they can. There can be lust and surrender in the rapture of that sort of love with Gods. It's not what you'd call common, but it is within the range of Godly power to take a human form and couple with a woman; the Gods are depicted as great shape-shifters, especially those that are masters of sorcery, like Frey, Odhinn, and Freya. Some giants are too, like Loki.

    But you have a spiritual presence- something not a god, but still very divine- attached to you. All people do. It's a powerful spirit called your "Fylgja" or your guardian spirit, and as a woman, yours will appear to you as a contra-sexual being, a "husband"- a fetch-husband or a spiritual husband/mate. Union with him is part and parcel of exactly what you are feeling and talking about- the ultimate blend of passion and surrender to spiritual presence, in what might be described as rapturous love.

    If you saw your Fylgja tommorrow for some reason, you'd swear you had seen a God. You'd call him Lord. I've met mine, and the first time you see Her, you have no choice but to believe you've met a Goddess. In a way, she is a Goddess, because the definition of God and Goddess isn't as "hard" as you think. She's the equivalent of the Greek "Daimon", which means "divine being". All families have these beings attached to them, and they guard and guide us all, though most are unconscious of them all their lives.

    But they symbolize and appear as everything we find beautiful and attractive. They are seen by some as the "other" aspect of ourselves, the divine aspect, dwelling perpetually in extra-sensory reality. Union with this being is the key to spiritual and psychic wholeness, but this is a mystery in the religion of Asatru, not a commonly discussed or understood thing. Allfather only makes hints to it in Havamal.

    Those of us who deal with the mystical side of Asatru sometimes talk about it more, and it is very edifying talk.

    My main point to you is that you are bringing a christian notion of divine love into Polytheism and then being dissapointed. This is because Christianity is oriented around escaping to heaven and getting away from this sinful world- but polytheism sees this world as fine the way it is, fated the way it is, and says that it can be a happy place if we are noble to one another and to it. We belong here. Your love belongs here, and it belongs to other human beings, not some "God" far away.

    Let the Gods be the Gods, and honor them and love them like friends and family- that's the appropriate relationship. Passionately love your husband and children and mates. That's where that love belongs.

    If you find yourself drawn into the mysteries of the unseen, and into that indescribable relationship with your spiritual guardian, that is a private matter- just bear in mind that such a contact can easily be mistaken for Godly contact. It is still a sacred event, however.

    Good day to you, cousin:


  7. Erik,

    "Egregore", yes! Thank you. :) Now whenever I can't remember the word, at least I will know exactly where I can look it up (editing entry now...).

    It's interesting that you mention the idea of a "huge, unrepayable debt"--this is a concept in Christianity, obviously, that's often evoked to explain the "why" of Jesus's death, but it stems from the theology of feudal times when honor and debt were key concepts for the moral constitution of society (and so naturally provided an understandable metaphor for believers of the day). I'm not sure it plays such a large role for modern Christians (well, the non-fundamentalists, at least), in the same way that the "huge unrepayable debt" one owes to one's parents for one's birth doesn't necessarily dominate the familial bond (personally, I'm over it, regardless of what my mother says every year on my birthday ;).

    I agree that a relationship with the Land is, probably, the heart of the Druidry movement today, and I've really come to notice how deeply I experience that relationship... I think this is one reason why I discussed Gods and Goddesses as being more closely connected to natural forces and aspects of the Land. Also, I can remember one in-depth discussion of the nature of deity in a book by Emma Restall-Orr, in which she seemed to imply that the Gods and Goddesses were just that: natural forces or spirits, and that the way to distinguish them from non-deity forces/spirits was if they possessed the potential to be deadly... That definition has stuck with me, primarily because it seemed not quite right.

    In any case, now it's time for me to read Ule's short novel that he's posted.... ;) Thanks again, Erik and everyone, for sharing your thoughts! :)

  8. Ule,

    Let me start by saying that your post was very interesting and helpful! I think I have followed your line of reasoning in most places (although sometimes I don't agree with it)... and I will definitely be referring back to it and reflecting on it more in the future.

    There are just a few points I wanted to clarify, particularly about your opening discussion of why I'm "stuck" in monotheism. (Side note before I begin: I do not think you are correct in calling "pantheism"/animism as a mutation of monotheism, since historically it preceded not only monotheism, but polytheism as well.) You have to understand that, long before I met the polytheists, I met the atheists. Before I had even a remote interest in comparative world mythologies or Celtic lore, I was fascinated by Nietzsche, Marx and Freud. For more than ten years now, I have been rigorously testing the "rules" of my inherited monotheism against my actual experiences of the spiritual life, seeking a dialogue with these philosophers and poets; I have been questioning the biases taught to me by monotheism and confronting the basic question: everything else aside, if everything the literalist-fundamentalist Christians say about God is true, then do I choose to hedge my bets and worship such a deity as they describe, or do I resolutely adhere to the integrity of my personal spiritual life and risk going to this "Hell" they claim waits for me? And for the past ten years, I've chosen the "Hell" of spiritual integrity every time. I've confronted the "straw man" of monotheism that these atheists so disdain, and rather than explain my own spiritual life in its easy and well-known terms, I've sought more difficult but more genuine metaphors and insights.

    All of this means that, when I read your thoughts on polytheism, I'm left with the very same question: even if what you say is true in the simplest and most direct sense--if the gods and goddesses are real, sovereign, effectively immortal, etc.--still, what's it to me, really? I see no more reason to worship all of them as I saw to worship one, if that is truly the case. More than that, I see no real reason why the Gods should care much either way if I do worship them, any more than I care or could even know if I am worshipped by the bacteria living in my small intestine. I wish the bacteria well, and we are clearly woven together into the natural fabric of existence so that I should seek for our mutual well-being (even if they are not aware of my existence, let alone my sovereign personhood). But the fact that I am bigger and longer living than bacteria doesn't say much about the essential or necessary nature of our relationship. Perhaps this is a shoddy metaphor, but I hope you understand where I'm going with it (and perhaps can see, then, why the deeply human nature of Christian theology is not simply a "rule" of my subconscious, but a consciously chosen perspective on my part because it reflects an important aspect of my experiential spiritual life). From a place of intellectual honesty, I am interested in exploring this idea that the Gods are "really real," but from the perspective of my personal spiritual life, I'm not sure it would make much difference either way. As I discussed in my post on "The Purpose and Process of Belief," the spiritual life continues even when belief in its particulars has been deconstructed and stripped away. I have already passed through the process of deconstructing my belief in a literal one-God in the traditional monotheistic sense, and come out the other side intact and, perhaps, with a more lively and healthy spiritual life for all the struggle. Who's to say that polytheism should prove anymore satisfying or resilient against intellectual honesty or spiritual growth?

    About complex definitions and "love": through no fault of your own, you have assumed that my definitions of "God" and "love" are the familiar, simplistic definitions of most Christians--in which "God" is far away and absent from the world, and "love" is just an emotion or passion. My definition of God is far too long to go into here, but I have touched on it in other posts (including the ones linked to above). My definition of love is, likewise, a long and philosophically complex one. It is most definitely not merely an emotional high or a passion evoked by the presence of a given individual (whether deity or human being). The briefest I could be is to say that love, for me, is "the process of growth through de-constructive receptivity and creative activity, undertaken freely and with self-consciousness, towards greater individuation through closer union." Keeping in mind, of course, that ideas of process, growth, receptivity, creativity, freedom, self-awareness, individuation and union all deserve philosophical exploration of their own. This definition of love holds for kindred love as well as romantic, passionate love--as well as for spiritual love (which I would argue is different in type, though not in kind, from the kindred love that you attribute to your relationship with the Gods). I admit that this focus on love is perhaps a unique attribute of monotheism, but it is one that I maintain intentionally because I see it as valuable and insightful, not merely because it's a bias I was taught and never questioned.

    One last note: I understand that the mythologies and stories of the polytheist Gods are not literal, nor are they any more immoral or amoral than the Old Testament stories of Jehovah. My question, really, is how do modern Pagans work with these stories? Even those of us who aren't Christian are familiar with the thousands of years of Biblical interpretation and theology, the sacred texts providing context and interpretation--the Midrash of Judaism, the Gospels and Letters of the New Testament--the apologists and theologians over the centuries, that have gone into the modern interpretation of Christianity's literal mythology (even if this work of a thousand years is abandoned in favor of simplistic literalism by today's fundamentalists). Modern Pagans have no theologians, no long history of philosophical texts--what they have are historical documents and evidence, and archeologists who, as you yourself pointed out recently, may have no real interest in the spiritual insights or applications of their research or discoveries. Given all this, I am interested in the actual process through which Pagans transform these literal mythologies into metaphorical systems of belief and practice. I hope that helps to clarify my question a bit (and your response has actually helped to answer it a little, even though perhaps you didn't know it!).

    Thank you, Ule (and everyone who's replied) for your thoughts. In case you haven't noticed, I tend to start obsessing about one idea or concept at a time, worrying it like an old bone until I reach the marrow (or choke on it ;). Most recently, I've been fascinated by the idea of "sacred attention," and before that it was the nature of freedom in relation to power and imagination. Now, it seems, I've moved on to the nature of deity... A subject that could last me a lifetime! :)

  9. Okay, let's see, where to begin:

    Why worship the Gods? Why Care? do they Care?

    Because they are kin to us, another branch of the sacred family of life, the sacred kindreds, and because we are all involved together in the processes of life and existence. They feel kinship for us and a desire to help and support us- do you not feel that such things should be reciprocated?

    You reciprocate them to your human family, I presume. Why not the Gods?

    The Gods don't need your worship anymore than your family technically "needs" your caring reciprocation, but when that exists, when a state of care and reciprocation exists, we achieve greatness of heart, action, and spirit. The Gods want to enter into conscious relationships with humans because they know they can help us, and they want to. We are part of this order they shaped. Our well-being is tied into the well-being of the whole of the cosmos. Nothing is unimportant; all is related.

    Now, you can ignore that and choose to live the life of "self", but that's not a very Godly way of life, and never will such a person achieve wisdom in our understanding of the word. Wisdom is found in interaction and relationship and involvement.

    The Gods care, but they can't do it all for us- it's a two way street of relationship. And even if humans don't care to know them, or forget them, the Gods still fight and work to protect the world-order from dangerous forces, so they preserve our world and the conditions of life everyday, every moment, even if we ignore that fact. It's just what they do.

    You claimed that pantheism and monism "came before" polytheism- this is not a supported statement; I'd love to see what evidence you can offer for this, because the true primal religions we've been privileged to encounter intact- Native American religions, Siberian religions, etc, are all clearly polytheistic. Some have absorbed monotheistic elements from missionaries, but they were originally very polytheistic. Shinto is another example- it stretches back, unbroken, to the dawn of cultural history, and it, too, is true polytheism.

    Your definition of love is highly idiosyncratic. I have an easier one for you- "Love is the more-or-less selfless desire for another to be happy, well, and have the causes of happiness and wellness."

    As for your comment about Pagans having no theologians; this isn't fully accurate. We have modern Pagans who read the ancient lore and try to make it relevant to us today; I do this myself, acting in my own way as a theologian. I have written extensively about how we can find guidance and understanding in our lore for the modern day- it's what my whole work is about.

    We do have very ancient accounts of myths, Gods, and Pagan practices, more than enough to base a valid reconstruction on, and we have unbroken traditions in some places, from cousin peoples, that go back easily to Pagan times.

    We are an organic tradition, however; we don't have dogma, councils setting what we all must believe, etc. The greatest philosophers in our world were Pagan- the men upon whom we all owe much- including your early Church. Plato, Aristotle, Parmenides, Empedocles, Xeno, you name it. The Modern Heathen movement has many rich sources of insight into the philosophical orientation of the ancestors, and we modern Heathens have the exciting opportunity to do what no other religion on this planet can offer- to renew a massive and rich cultural religious tradition, making it relevant in the modern day, and re-appraising it's ancient stories and myths for ourselves. That is a real blessing, and it gives unparalleled spiritual and intellectual freedom to us, all of which is still guided by the Gods who help, and the ancestral powers that live in all of us.

    It's a good time to be alive, despite the loss of so much wisdom from the past.

  10. One final thing- your fusion with monotheism, despite the fact that you believe that it was "stripped and questioned", is all but absolute. I do not and cannot believe that you ever truly stepped outside of the monotheistic tradition/worldview, even when you imagined you were under the influence of "atheists" and went through "stripping" experiences.

    All you did was feel the crisis presented by alternate worldviews, and re-affirm your initial beliefs; you re-validated them, and even in this post, you claim that you find tons of "use" and relevance in them (such as the monotheistic notion of love).

    Of course you do- you're still running on the unconscious rules instilled in you from an early age. Don't ever forget how powerful our early programming is, as children; our developmental dispositions are all but decided by the influences of our childhood, and I find that this is nowhere more true than in matters of religion and belief.

    Until you can step outside of your paradigm, you'll not really be able to hear what I'm trying to say. The process of differentiation (as opposed to the process of fusion) is not easy, and it's not common- it's more rare than anyone imagines; many so-called Pagans are still fused to monotheism.

    In my experience, the process of fusion only really takes on those who were never too programmed in their early life, or on those who have suffered some trauma of some kind, mentally and spiritually, that monotheism failed utterly to answer, thus TRULY cutting them free to alternative views.

    Most people cannot differentiate because when crisis comes, they fall back on their beliefs, and thus, reinforce them. The upshot of that is that their mental health is more or less protected, even though they are far from where they need to be- in fellowship with the Gods and involved in the sacred relationships of this world in a non-adversarial, accepting way. They'll be happier, but not wise, not aware of the truth of their human condition or the truth of the Gods. That's the downshot.

    I find that those who undergo the ritual by which their baptism is "washed off" them ceremonially and under powerful invocation of the Gods tend to be able to differentiate better than others- this can only really be explained by the powerful and effective presence of the Gods and the Fylgja.

  11. I'd like to offer a different perspective for you. A common (but by no means universal) concept in the neopagan community is pantheistic, but not exactly. In syncretic neopagan thought, the Divine (capitalized to emphasize the noun-ness of the concept) is a collective being, the embodiment of all that is. It's an ancient concept that has sprung forth in many traditions - native American, Indian, far eastern... and has taken hold in some of the newer spirituality movements, including reconstructionist and neo-paganism, called the Web of Life.

    Basically, the idea is that everything that exists is alive in at least some part, and each piece makes up a part of the whole of existence. Just as you are made of individual cells, plus the internal ecosystem of bacteria that are part of your living organism, we, the environment, the world, and more are part of one living being.

    Many pagans consider that concept to be the Divine, approachable from within since we're all a part of the whole. Thus, the Church of All World's "Thou Art God/Thou Art Goddess." (note: Oberon Zell, one of CAW's founders, was an early proponent of the Gaia Hypothesis, an outgrowth of this idea)

    The ancient gods and goddesses are as much a part of the whole as anything else, and can be approached internally through meditation and prayer, supplication and sacrifice, and ritual to align your consciousness with those divine aspects. Since each one of us has our own unique experience, the different facets of the Divine appear to each of us uniquely, from our own perspective. (Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote some good stuff about this concept, can't recall which exact essay)

    Traditionally, neo-pagans approach the Divine through ritual, using shamanic techniques to take a piece of the divine consciousness within themselves in the bounds of sacred, ritual space. Exploratory syncretists among us are approaching prayer, eastern meditation, and other ideas.

    Christianity has a place in this blob of thought, as does all religion, as a part of a greater whole that each one of us can use to bring ourselves closer to the universal whole. The whole damn thing is close to buddhist thought, but recognizing that reality is real, not an illusion.

    I hope that wasn't too nebulous, I have a tendency to be hyper-mystical when spirituality is really a rather practical subject. Feel free to bug me where I'm not clear.

  12. Hi. I think I'm experiencing a similar dilemna (with my own quirks). On the one hand I was raised Christian (Southern Baptist and Catholic...yes, that's as interesting as it sounds). I never really hated my Christian upbringing I just fell away from it because it didn't seem to fit where I was going spiritually. On the other hand I still love things about that faith, even as I go along challenging many things and, of course, not taking the myths as seriously as some. Paganism has seemed a good fit for my love of nature, my need for a balance between the feminine and masculine divine, and the other bits (energy, aura, spirits, etc...).

    One thing I came across in one of the Wiccan traditions (Correllian? The Five Mystic Secrets I think), was that the Gods don't need our worship. They were here before us and they'll be here after us.

    I'm not really sure myself.

    Can you imagine communicating with your bacteria (I think it would be something like "replicate!replicate!replicate! OMG WHITE BLOOD CELLS OH NOEZ!!1!)? I'd like to think we're a bit more intelligent to Deity than bacteria are to us.

    I don't agree that you have to shed off your love for Jesus to find your truth. Love can't be analyzed and picked apart without destroying it. It's one of those things that makes us human. We feel that simple love for something so much greater than we are as a single entity, whether it's the whole of humanity, nature, the universe, or all of the above. Why do we need to justify it?

    I personally think all paths are valid, it just depends on what's right for the individual.

    What Deity means to me? I suppose I relate to my Gods on a very basic level. That we're all part of a whole, and though the myths aren't always pleasant there's wisdom to be found when you look for it. I don't take Pagan myth any more literally than I do Christian myth, so stories of rape or destruction for me are just...well, they're just stories. They were written by human beings, whether divinely inspired or not, and we're fallible creatures with silly quirks. Why take the myths at face value? Why believe they truly represent who your deities are? What rings true in your own heart?

    Is any of this making sense?

    ^_~; I had to put in my two cents anyway. I don't really have anything important to add, just wanted to commiserate.

  13. I didn't mean that we are as bacteria to the gods. but that the divine whole is a being made up of many, many parts, including us, just as we are made up of our own human parts, but couldn't run without the symbiotic microbes that make our digestion work.

    There is wisdom in any spiritual tradition, and plenty in the Christian and Judaic in particular. Jesus' sermon on the mount, Paul's letters (I especially like his letters to Timothy) and the book of Leviticus are all influential on my life, even though I wasn't brought up particularly Christian. This kind of syncretism is what I really enjoy in the neopagan community, as each of us is not only free to, but are encouraged to

  14. Hi, Ali,
    It's always refreshing to read your thoughts, but today I found myself thinking, "Wow--a girl who knows how to ask the right questions! How cool is that??

    I vividly remember being at a particularly wonderful Pagan gathering, many years ago, when there was a really palpable sense of gods among us during the weekend. A lot of people were at a point in their spiritual paths where they were forming closer, warmer connections with patron/matron deities, and at the same time, the group gathered was jelling with new warmth and depth. But at the end of the weekend, one young man who was new to us and to Paganism, basking in the glow of contentment that good ritual around good friends can bring, exclaimed, "This is so great! I'm so inspired after seeing all of you! I just decided that my patron deity is (fill in godname here)!"

    Talk about not clear on the concept--like spending time around happily married couples and then feeling inspired to marry Angelina Jolie as a result. (And do you even know Angelina? What makes you think the two of you would have anything in common if you did?)

    You wrote, "How do you meet the "right god"? How do you go about beginning the process of learning about one another and establishing a connection?" And it is like finding someone and falling in love--mysterious and unquantifiable, and not something that any one's how-to manual is going to teach you.

    You approach it the way a smart girl approaches dating, in other words: eyes open, because everything that's out there isn't something you want an intimate relationship with. Staying away from places that just list an endless list of available gods--mythology dictionaries are no place to find a deep connection with Spirit--but spending time around friends whose values you share... and so, whose gods' values you will probably share as well.

    Mind you, humans are not the only friends that count in that. The rocks, the animals, the trees all have their own connections with Spirit, and they will be happy to introduce you, every bit as much as your Druid friends will. And though the communication will be non-verbal, that doesn't mean it isn't valuable--there have been gods long before there were humans, after all.

    I think what I'm saying is, get out. Meet the Spirit with your heart open. And wait for the ways it/they "speak to thy condition," in Quakerese.

    And as to the polytheist, pantheist, monotheist, panentheist issue... well, I'd be a damn sight more worried about all that if I'd ever met anyone, of any religion at all, who could adequately define the word "god." While it is crystal clear to me that there is Something out there that loves and communicates with us, and that it can be experienced in a seemingly endless variety of ways, little else is clear. What's the difference between a spirit of this oak tree, the spirit of all oak trees, and the Green Man? What's the difference between a nymph and a goddess, or between the disir, the ancestors, and the spirits of place in Norse mythology? Sure, there are those who can answer the question from a textbook, but then we can play technical games all day--are you talking about Icelandic traditions or Danish? 5th Century or 4th? And the next thing you know, we've all forgotten that first inchoate tidal wave of longing and love that caused us to experience reverence in the first place.

    One of my favorite Pagan leaders is an avowed non-theist...and radiates god-stuff. Me, I'm still threshing out whether or not I'm some kind of neo-Platonist who believes we're all (gods and rocks and men) an emanation of one primal One...or not, and whether or not the Light I experience on First Days in meeting for worship is related to the goddess I draw down in a Wiccan circle or not.

    But I know I love that Light. And I know I love Herne, and the goddess who has been speaking to me for many years now. And I know I'm not smart enough to fully grasp some mysteries, so I accept them as best I can.

    Damn. This is way longer and wordier than I meant it to be. Dinner is scorched, though, and despite the fact that you (and this thread) deserve an edit and some brevity, I think this is what I've got to give tonight.

    Non-theist, monotheist, polytheist...those are words. Listen to what Spirit tells you, and be alert to the moment it/he/she/they speak to thy condition. (She said, pompously. Sorry about that...)

  15. Wow! For some reason, I didn't receive any of the last several comments on this post until Cat's appeared in my mailbox this evening. Sorry for not responding earlier, guys! I'll be reading through all your thoughts tonight and giving them some thought. Thank you, ahead of time, for all your interest and for your patience.

  16. Cat-

    You speak wisdom. The bottom line of a spiritual path is that it's a path. A trail, a road... the Serpentstone community (look them up, they're great people) have an excellent catchphrase, that "all paths are sacred," which I truly believe.

    Through careful meditation, introspection, and communion with other spirit-minded folk, you can find what you're looking for. Keep asking questions, and let us windbags talk a lot. The wise folks listen, and learn. Wise men can learn from fools. The comments and community you're drawing here are erudite and far from foolish.

  17. Cat, Keith, Lore, Ule, greenman, and everyone else who has commented--I really do want to thank you for your interest and your responses. You've given me a lot to think about, and for now I think I want to just let everything mull around and digest for the time being.

    One thing is clear, though. I will at one point be writing a blog post reviewing the four novels by Evangeline Walton based on the Welsh Mabinogion, since reading her work recently has given me new insights into questions of deity that I'll want to share eventually.

    I'll also one day be writing something about my ideas regarding love, since I disagree strongly that love is or should be either "just a feeling" or placed beyond the realm of the intellect, where it can rest unexamined and obscure, to be called up like any other ill-defined Ideal and wielded in the name of this power or that one. Instead, I think that one aspect of the spiritual life is to seek an integrity and harmony of the self which allows us to realize and actualize love on all planes of being--not merely the physical and the emotional, but on the intellectual, moral, and spiritual planes as well. To claim that thinking too much about love somehow "ruins" it seems to imply a very weak and silly kind of love, after all, if it is so easily destroyed. And though my views might be eccentric in their thoroughness, it's only because love has been such an animating force in my life that I couldn't help but seek to understand it better.

    But I'll leave that post for another time. :) Thanks again for reading and responding!

  18. Wow, interesting discussion.

    I am a non-theist in the sense that I believe that gods and goddesses are on their own developmental path, so I do not worship them, though I honour them and aspire to reach that level of the journey one day. I do not believe in the ultimate divine source as a person, but rather as the beloved universe in which we and all life arose.

    Many polytheists say that you don't choose which deity to have a relationship, he or she chooses you. Well, being a Pagan polytheist, I was a bit surprised when Jesus came knocking at my door, and had to do some long hard thinking about what it meant. Anyway if Jesus does turn out to be your personal deity-figure, it doesn't stop you saying "well, I love Jesus, but there are other gateways to the Divine".

    I do believe that the Tao (the impersonal Ground of our being) is manifest in all of us (gods, humans, wights, animals, trees, birds etc), and in the act of creativity, and in love in all its forms. Not sure what to classify that belief as (is it monism? pantheism? polytheism? animism?) I also believe that the Tao becomes the Thou (of Martin Buber and Thomas Merton, and of the Hindu 'Tat tvam asi') when we fall in love with the universe.

    I think we should all stop worrying quite so much about what we believe, and get on with the business of living out our values.

    It's possible to be an open-minded polytheist or an open-minded monotheist; it's the open-mindedness that is important, not the flavour of theism you subscribe to. And I don't see what's so bad about seeing the Divine as both One and Many - lots of Hindus do, and lots of Wiccans, and many Unitarians too.

  19. One difference, I think, is that to a polytheist the gods are not All About Us, but are independent forces in the cosmos -- unlike the Abrahamic deity, who is always testing his little created humans, condemning some of them to eternal suffering, and all of that.

    You might also wish to explore the idea of a polytheistic psychology through the work of such writers as Ginette Paris (Pagan Grace and Pagan Meditations) and -- more challenging -- the "post-Jungian" psychology of James Hillman.

  20. Chas, Thanks for the reading suggestions. :) Right now, I'm working through John Michael Greer's book A World Full of Gods (which is interesting), and I just finished Jordan Paper's book The Gods Are Many (which was rather frustrating and silly at times). I'm sure I'll be returning to these themes often, though, so I hope you keep on reading and responding! :) (That's how I learn best, anyway--through dialogue rather than pure research.)

  21. I have just found your blog looking through the Blog Action 2008 site under the category of religion. I was just starting to despair that I would not be able to find a blog that provided a fresh multi-faith discussion of spirituality when I spotted your blog. I have appreciated reading (skimming really) your very articulate words about the Divine. I am looking forward to having the time to read "backwards" and see where your past discussions have lead you. I hope to be back soon. In the mean time, thanks for sharing your perspectives. :0)