Saturday, October 17, 2009

Thoughts about the Pagan Nature of Deity

"Captain of our fairy band,
Helena is here at hand,
And the youth, mistook by me,
Pleading for a lover's fee.
Shall we their fond pageant see?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 3, scene 2, 110 -115 - Wm. Shakespeare

Inside the Box

In a number of my blog entries I have touched on the subject of Deity and how a witch and ritual magician defines that entity. So I have decided to take it on as a main topic. This will hopefully define what I am talking about, whether as a practicing witch, ritual magician, or an occultist in the Western Mystery Tradition. This is not going to be particularly easy nor is it going to be neat and tidy, so please bear with me. One could also classify this discussion as the nature of the spirit theory of magic as it applies to the Godhead.

Back many years ago when I was just a witchling in training, I was taught that the Godhead of Witchcraft consisted of a Goddess and a God. This became classified later (by sociologists) as a duo-theological premise, which characterizes witchcraft beliefs derived from the Gardnerian tradition of Witchcraft. The Alexandrian tradition that I am a member of uses a minor variation of its Gardnerian source and shares most points in common with it. It would seem that the many Wiccans who draw their literary sources from Llewellyn books also subscribe to these beliefs about the God and Goddess.

So all of these witches would characterize their Deity in probably the same manner, and would apply to it pagan mythology loosely appropriated from classical Greece, Rome and Brythonic Celtic sources. We were taught and believed in an immortal celestial Goddess who was the source of all life and a mother goddess, and her mortal consort, the Horned God. There was also the pair of the Moon Goddess and the Sun God as well. These two pairs were not, however, pulled together into any kind of tight system. They just represented an alternative pairing.

All of these theological musings remained facile, loosely configured, compared to various other pagan religions and believed in without question. There were some other qualities that were tossed into the mix, such as the triple Goddess, Maiden, Mother and Crone, and the Green Man, who seemed to be a vegetative variation of the Horned God. There was also a divine daughter whose name was taken from antiquity as Aradia or Herodotus, and an Oak King and a Holly King who were engaged in eternal combat. We also accepted certain Celtic mythic lore, such as stories from the Mabinogion, Irish and Nordic sagas, and even Greek and Roman sources. It was, in word, a hotchpotch - a kind of assembly with little order or sense.

Of course, this was before the advent of heathenism, which has proved to be a movement that at least attempted to be more cogent of those practices and beliefs derived from verifiable historical sources, whether native writings/practices or archeological reconstructions and theories. Heathenism has forced classical witchcraft to become more consistent and to acknowledge verifiable sources where possible. This has caused some adherents in the various traditions of witchcraft to admit to the contrived nature of a duo-theology and they have begun to practice a more polytheistic liturgy in addition to their traditional teachings and written sources, such as the Book of Shadows. However, Llewellyn and other publishing companies have continued to promote this duo-theological belief of a heterosexual Goddess and God to such an extent that it has become something of a inflexible doctrine.

What this means is that a true examination of the actual nature of pagan deity becomes almost impossible when it is made into a devoutly accepted tenet. This has locked traditional adherents into an orthodox position requiring them to believe in a Goddess and God pair. In many cases, witches trained in the classical traditions are unable to expand their concept of Godhead and freely admit to multiple and even conflicting perspectives. Instead they have worked tirelessly to build a theology and liturgical practice that has at least some consistency, yet still seems to be artificially contrived. However, what they really need to do is to examine the nature of pagan deity without any bias, expectations or preconceived notions - otherwise nothing can be learned or gained. In other words, they need to start thinking outside of the box.

What are these conflicting perspectives? They are the simultaneous belief in multiple and distinct deities, in a divine pair of deities (typically male and female), and in the belief that all deities merge to form a unity of being that is greater than the sum of its parts. There are other considerations as well, such as realizing that the nature of deity is mutable and highly variable. To insist on a heterosexual pair of deities and no other is to ignore the fact that nature has made human beings to behave in a multiple of genders, not just male or female or heterosexual. A realistic approach to deity would have to admit that the same variations found in human nature would also be found in deity, including being sexually neutral and a hybrid of both male and female. All possibilities must exist and therefore, must be recognized and acknowledged in some manner.

Another consideration is that pagans in antiquity lacked any kind of formal or structured theology where everything neatly fit together. What could be said is that it was consistent, in other words, it was based on real practices and belonged to an existing and living culture. Now that paganism no longer has a living culture to give it depth, it can lack the basic consistency of having the powerful elements of language (terminology), songs, stories, beliefs, traditional practices and even food recipes as well as magic to establish its core beliefs and liturgy. Modern paganism existing in Christian dominated countries, especially in the U.S., can be more contrived and artificially structured, therefore, lacking the consistency of a living culture. How can this obstacle be overturned? Are we basically incapable of ever really approaching our faith in a deep and comprehensive manner? I think that there are some things that modern pagans can do to powerfully remedy this situation. The first and most important thing is to rethink the whole premise of the nature of deity and cease from accepting as doctrine or dogma a belief in a heterosexual Goddess and God pair.

Outside the Box

This segues nicely into something that I have recently stumbled upon, and that is how to categorize the nature of pagan deity that exists in the world around me. I didn’t come up with these thoughts, so I must acknowledge their source, a remarkable pagan man who lives in my town named Steve Posch - the one who coined the term "Paganistan" for the Twin Cities pagan community. Steve has been conducting a discussion group on the "Olde Crafte." He discussed this topic of the nature of pagan deity there and also in a number of personal discussions with me. I am going to attempt to put down in words how I understand his opinions about this matter, or at least how I have derived them for myself.

Steve sees the world divided into two domains in regards to the pagan deities - the elder gods and the younger gods. The elder gods are like the sun, moon, stars, storms, lightening, mountains, hills, plains, large wetlands, oceans, seas, large rivers - these are signposts for pagan deities that are as old as the earth itself. The young gods are, of course, the ones that mankind has created and named, and these vary considerable from place to place, as do the people and cultures who worship them. Some of them disappear and new ones are created. Some of them have been pulled into monotheistic faiths, where previously there were many gods. Then there are the deities representing nature, specifically the horned god (Old Horney) who represents the four legged creatures and the life that animates them. There is the green man of the flora, the goddess of the wild woods, the goddess of the crops, and perhaps the over-all power of fertility that acts as the continuation of life. Steve has said that one's geographic location is very important - the local trees, flora and fauna, local rivers, creeks, lakes, standing stones, hills and valleys and the aquifers; these are the true local gods and goddesses. Often these local deities are either forgotten or unnamed, especially in localities in the U.S.

Human beings have also moved things around, made hills and valleys where there were none, planted trees and crops, built tall buildings and roads, and powered these places with electricity (think of the god of lightening) - all of these would be covered by local expressions of the deity. As pagans, it's important for us to be very much aware of our local geography and its characteristics, these are indicators for various deities. Then there are the ancestors who have given us life and personal identity (blood) and our culture with all of its various myths, beliefs, hopes and aspirations. All of this has made us who we are, and within it resides a host of local and intimate aspects of deity. They are mysterious individual beings that we should explore, discover, give them names and then offerings, love and veneration. We should treat each of them as distinct, unique and important to us individually and as a clan or tribe.

Because place has such a profound impact on the nature of one's intimate and immediate aspects of deity, we should pay attention to nature and our local geography in order to determine the true images, personalities and characteristics of our gods. This is the nature of a modern polytheism:  pay attention to your blood, clan or tribe and the place where you live and there you will discover the gods all around you, fully alive.

In the end you will find a modern pagan is a something of a pantheist, which should be expected. Leave no stone unturned or leaf unlooked at in the eternal search for pagan gods and goddesses. I have had a visionary instance myself of seeing in the leaves the many green-man faces staring back down at me from the trees during a dark night's fire, so even the leaves obscure and reveal the mystery of the gods. Keeping this uncountable plurality in mind though, there is an aspect of pagan deity that represents the union of all gods and goddesses, but that does not mean that they are indistinguishable from each other or not uniquely important. What we have here is a truly great paradox, where many gods are also in union. I choose not give a name and a quality to that unified aspect so as to keep it truly a factor of non-dualism and not monotheism, since to me the union is unity and nothing more.

So we have this world that is literally stuffed with gods and goddesses, from various cultures and times and the ones relevant to us in the here and now. Yet how do we relate to this multiplicity of deity everywhere in existence and even beyond? If we talk to the gods, pray and sing to them, give them offerings, respect and love them, how do we know that they talk back? With what do we listen to them? Being gods, are they not so far beyond us that we, who are alive and so terribly mortal, can not fathom anything really about them? That might be true if we didn’t have something of the gods within us, so in a word, the answer is yes, we can hear them and realize them quite well. For we are ensouled, having within us a spirit and even a god like unto the gods in the world around us; we can talk to them and hear them through that godhead that lives within us. In fact, I believe that were it not for that god within us, we would not be able to sense or even comprehend the nature of deity. This is because in apprehending deity, we first apprehend it within ourselves. If we see and sense deity, it's only because we ourselves are an aspect of that deity, each and every one of us.

Call it whatever you like: Spirit, Over-Soul, Higher Self, God/dess Within, Atman, Genius, Holy Guardian Angel or Augoeides, it represents us as beings like the gods. It is our eternal, immortal aspect of self, that which never dies or knows diminishment. We are usually not even remotely aware of it, let alone conscious of its existence, since it does not share in our mental and physical identity. It is our true self, pure, unalloyed and undiluted - beyond life and death, yet very much a part of all life. It is another paradox, but one that releases us to a more profound and wondrous inner being. I believe that if we can become even a bit conscious of that being within us, just for a moment, we can be guaranteed a kind of immortality when we die; living in and through the spirit of all life. This being of spirit that lives within us is directly connected to the union of all beings, including the gods. To become aware of it is to become aware of the union of all being, and what an ecstasy that awareness brings.

To be fully awakened every moment in that inner union of all being is to live, think and act like a god. Such is the paradox of the living and breathing godhead of which we all are a part. Our task is to ultimately become fully awakened and conscious within that inner divine self. Our bodies may age and die, but our essence is eternal. This is, I believe, the great mystery of the gods, and how humans may become like them for a brief moment of time. Magick is the key to unlocking that mystery, or so I believe it to be. Only time will tell if this is true or if it’s just another illusory goat path leading into the mountains of nowhere.

So this is the nature of deity that I find myself exploring and believing in. To me the various names of gods and goddesses and the myriad of creeds all speak of the surface of deity but never the core or the depth of that Great Spirit. To invoke Greek, Roman, Celtic, Hebrew, Christian or any other culturally defined deity from the past, present or from faraway lands is to invoke a mask of deity, and not the deity itself. Perhaps this is why when I finally understood the nature of the Stang, it became for me the place mark of the mystery of deity and nature - the unnamed and powerfully intrinsic enfolding Spirit of All. The emphasis is, of course, on the unnamed part. Our task is to discover the name and then to use it to discover ourselves.

Frater Barrabbas

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