A Queer Pagan Reading List (2020)
An update on my 2018 post and my 2015 post. Please add your recommendations in the comments.
I have reorganized the list by author and added topic tags; if you prefer a list by topic, have a look at my 2018 post.
Notable and quotable 17
Some recent posts that I have enjoyed.
Gods and politics
Gods and Politics, Warp and Weft
The question of which comes first, gods or politics, is for me rather like the question of the chicken and the egg. The one exists in the context of the other, and they are inextricable. The deities we choose to worship (and even the deities who choose us to work with them) are influenced by our politics, because why would they choose to have a relationship with a human whose values and goals differed from theirs, and why would we choose to have a relationship with a deity whose values and goals differ from ours?
Let’s take a step back and talk about definitions.
What is a deity? A deity is a powerful entity or identity who has emerged from the complexity of the universe, and is shaped by social interactions (with humans, animals, their environment, other deities, and other spirit entities) just as humans are. Deities have agency, or at least they seem to. Often that agency involves influencing people to do their work for them. That’s what I believe anyway; you may have a different idea. It’s worth thinking, too, about what kind of person a deity might be. If they are advanced beings of great virtue, then one would expect that they have ethical values that are similar to the highest values we can imagine (unless they possess information about how the universe works that is simply unavailable to our finite perceptions, in which case they might have a different concept of what is ethical). But nevertheless any ideas they come up with have to work on the physical plane and be comprehensible to our finite perspective.
What is politics? Politics is any situation where a conflict of interest or a difference of power is resolved by negotiation (which could be a large-scale vote or a small-scale consensus process) instead of war. It has even been said that war is a continuation of politics by other means (which is true, as when negotiation breaks down, either the status quo or an outbreak of physical violence will follow).
Conflicts of values
If you believe that the gods come before politics (by which I mean the way humans negotiate living in community), what would you do if a deity commanded you to do something that was against your ethics? I imagine that, at the very least, you would do some practice of discernment (such as divination) to check that you had heard their message correctly and were not just deluding yourself. You might even refuse outright to do the task they have requested. In that case, you have (rightly in my view) put politics before gods.
If you are a person with a marginalised identity who wants to honour Pagan deities in community with others, and something about the way Pagan rituals are constructed excludes you from those rituals, then there is a conflict of interest (the existing members want to keep doing their rituals a certain way, but you want to join the group, which requires change). There is also a power differential, in that the existing members of the group hold the power to change their rituals or practices to be more inclusive (or not). So that’s politics, right there, as Ginger Drekisdottir pointed out.
So, if a disabled person, person of colour, or LGBT person is structurally excluded from your rituals but they were chosen by a deity you honour – your political decision to exclude them dishonours that deity – and you have (wrongly in my view) put politics before gods. Especially if your rituals are the only ones in town.
If your chosen deities command hospitality towards the stranger, but your politics and values demand that you turn refugees and migrants and the disabled and LGBT and PoC away… then you have (wrongly in my view) put politics before gods.
Many Pagan deities command hospitality, honour, and the exchange of gifts (reciprocity).
The politics of the gods
I think the deities are part of Pagan society, not separate from it, and therefore even the way we negotiate our relationships with deities is political. They may want one thing, we may want something else (a conflict of interest). They may have a different perspective; they also have greater – possibly infinite – power in a particular sphere of influence. They are part of a complex web of relationships which involves differences of power, conflicts of interest, and negotiations about how to resolve those conflicts. So your relationship with a deity is political, just as the personal and the interpersonal are political.
And rather than politics being a sphere that is separate from deities, it is the complex web of relationships between human and human, human and other-than-human, humans and deities, spirits and deities, spirits and spirits, deities and deities. So you can’t put one before the other – politics is the very stuff of our relationships with gods, the context in which those relationships happen.
I became a Pagan and a polytheist because I believe that all life is interconnected, interwoven, interpermeable. My values informed my choice of religion and theology, and my values are political because they are about how I relate to other beings. It is impossible to consider the gods (or any other entities) outside of that context of interrelationship – and therefore, politics.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.
We Are Rising
The Queer Ones are rising. We are rising out of the woods, out of the ocean, out of the cracks between the concrete. Genderqueer, transgender, glorious peacock-shimmering, rising out of the darkness, the healing and sacred darkness, into the many-hued light of day. Queer deities, genderqueer deities, transgender goddesses and gods. Inari the fox god/dess; Vertumnus the changeable and ever-changing; tricksters and healers, poets and seers and shamans.
Gender is not a binary, not even a spectrum, it is a vast glittering field of possibility, many gender, many hues, many different expressions of being and love.
We are rising, out of the silence, out of the hidden places, daring to be, to shine forth our glorious queer radiance, because we are the holy ones, the liminal ones, the dreamers and the creators of possibility.
Our freedom is frightening to some who want there to be a binary, a set of limitations. We call them out of their fear and into the radiant and glittering field of stars, into the joy of expressing all that you are – joy, magic, dreams, anger at injustice, diversity in unity, unity in diversity. We call them to embrace their humanity and ours, not to cling in fear and loathing to a diminished, fearful, restrictive, and destructive vision of womanhood, that excludes the childless as much as the transgender and the non-binary.
The glorious diversity of the human body, the glorious diversity of life journeys and intersecting identities, is to be enjoyed and celebrated. Different people have different journeys. The penis is not a symbol of the patriarchy. The gun is the symbol and the weapon of patriarchy and kyriarchy. The penis is a symbol of life, celebrated and venerated as such by many ancient cultures, along with the yoni, the vulva, the vagina. Both are fountains of life and creativity. The kyriarchy wants to distort and desecrate these sacred places, by turning the penis into a weapon and the vagina into its sheath, a place to be violated. But we reject and resist the violence of the kyriarchy, and affirm the sacred beauty of transgender, gender-fluid, and genderqueer in all their gentle and fierce beauty and glory. We embrace the witchery of genderblending.
Gender essentialism and separatism is the mirror image of patriarchy. We reject the patriarchy and the kyriarchy. We reject all binaries. There are men who reject rape culture and women who excuse rape. Let’s promote consent culture and gather our beautiful diverse tribe. Let us include people in, welcoming and celebrating and affirming diversity, not sowing hate and fear and division. Let’s create spaces that are safe for everyone of every gender. Pagan traditions (both ancient and contemporary) affirm the queer as sacred, as liminal, as being touched by the gods. All magic is magic. All love is love. All people are people.
We are all images of divinity. As a polytheist, I affirm trans and queer deities among the vast range of deities. The Sun is both fierce and hot, gentle and warming. The Ocean is both gentle, rocking the cradle of dreams, and destructive, storming and raging and destroying. Neither of these moods has any essential gender. The Moon is the lover of the hidden ones, calling to us of wildness and wilderness, dreams and intuition. These experiences are available to all genders – we all carry the tides of the Moon in our blood and in our bodies, regardless of whether we menstruate. Let us celebrate the tides of our blood with all who venerate the body, regardless of their anatomy or ours.
Let us magnify and glorify the images of divinity within ourselves and each other. Show forth love and beauty and creativity; celebrate the radiance of the many-hued multiplicity of gender expression, sexuality, and the human body.
Exciting new projects
Pat Mosley is organising an anthology, Arcane Perfection, which will be a collection of essays, poetry, art, rage, love, rituals, spells, and musings by, for, and about Queer, Trans, and Intersex Witches. Sounds totally awesome.
How have you overcome discrimination? How have you encountered the Divine? What are your experiences with magic as a Queer person? How has Witchcraft empowered your life as a Queer person? Can you tell the story of your transition through the Tarot? What is your relationship to the world, to Pagan community, to Queer community? Do you have a rant that needs to be screamed into publication? How are you uprooting heterocisnormativity in the Pagan community and beyond? How have you dealt with loss, invisibility, violence, disability, racism, power, capitalism, jealousy, change, and love?
Other exciting trans-inclusive projects are being discussed and planned.
In the UK, Gendered Intelligence, Action for Trans Health, and Mermaids have all been recommended to me as charities doing great work.
David Salisbury’s post lists some US trans charities that he plans to support: National Center for Transgender Equality and Gender Justice Los Angeles.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.
Possession, Depossession, and Divine Relationships by Diana L. Paxson (Book Review)
Diana L. Paxson’s Possession, Depossession, and Divine Relationships is a practical and informational text on possessory work with spirits and gods. The first section of the book deals with preparation for deep spiritual and magical work of any kind: practices designed to stabilize and strengthen the self. Next, Paxson guides the reader through the process of contacting gods and spirits and developing a devotional relationship. The third section looks at possessory practices around the world (including among Pagans in the United States) for models of how groups successfully negotiate possession. The final section of the book outlines practices for preparing for possession, gaining skill as a medium, and building a group container in which possession can successfully and safely occur. The book is written from a hard polytheist perspective (treating the gods as separately existing beings with their own agency), but Paxson also discusses archetypal approaches to possession work and does not insist that practitioners hold any particular theology.
As I read the book, I found myself in turns feeling impressed and uncomfortable. Paxson’s extensive reading and personal experience of possession make her a convincing authority on the subject (which, having personally witnessed her in action as an oracle, I can confirm). I appreciated the historical and contemporary information she gives on possession practices, with particular attention to Spiritualism, Spiritism, and Afro-Caribbean traditions.
I was also intrigued by the detailed cross-cultural information on models of the multi-part soul. Paxson encourages the reader to approach the spiritual self as an entity of many parts, organically and complexly relating. She recommends bringing each part under the influence of protective forces as part of her regimen of spiritual strengthening, prior to seeking out divine relationships. The book as a whole demonstrates a breadth of knowledge of religion and spirituality that can make it easy to trust Paxson as an expert.
In some ways, however, the book’s very breadth makes me uneasy. It is of medium length—about 250 pages—and its goals are lofty: to help readers prepare for a dangerous and taxing spiritual practice; to educate them about possession globally; to guide them into healthy relationships with gods and spirits; and finally, to enable them to practice possession as safely as possible. Any of these topics could be a book in itself (and in some cases, there are such books already). The need to keep the book a manageable length lends itself to questionable generalizations, such as the statement that “Most religions hold that the purpose of our life is to become closer to God” (21), or the implication that Plato’s theory of forms and Jung’s theory of archetypes are functionally identical (40). A book that aims to be broad and encompassing inevitably lacks nuance, and as I read, I wondered what nuance was missing from Paxson’s presentation of the primary subject.
I only become more uneasy when I think of a solitary individual or an isolated group attempting to use this book to attempt possession work. The book’s first two sections are a compressed curriculum for a course of spiritual development work that takes most people years. Though the book gives no time frame for that work, the section’s relative brevity suggests that the work should take only a few months. This is simply not enough preparation for such a demanding spiritual activity.
Having had a small amount of training in possessory technique and having assisted in possessory rituals a number of times, I approach possession as exhilarating but dangerously unpredictable. If a group happens to include a talented but basically untrained medium, it would be easy to skate too quickly through the book’s opening sections to “get to the good part”—in which case the group could find themselves struggling with experiences that traumatized the medium, the other group members, or both.
On the other hand, groups that pick up this book because problematic possession has already happened will likely find its resources to be helpful, as it has concrete suggestions for how to set boundaries with spirits and gods. A group that has no “god-bothered” members (no members, in other words, who experience the gods whether they want to or not) will only get results from this book with dedicated effort, and probably only then if they use the resources it provides to seek in-person help and training.
I was most pleased with the guide to building divine relationships. Paxson provides a framework for approaching gods and spirits while clearly signaling that the work will evolve and expand as the relationship does. The text presents itself not as a definitive program of training, but rather as a guide to an experience that must be unique to the individuals involved.
The book’s final section, in which Paxson discusses how one might attempt possession work, is even more open-ended. Paxson shares some of her own journal entries, allowing the reader to appreciate that her development of skill as a medium took many years and required the support of many teachers, friends, and experienced groups of people. She demonstrates that the journey of a medium is completely individual and cannot be accomplished by working through a curriculum. Paxson also emphasizes that historically and in contemporary religions, possession work is done as a service to a community. For her, possession is not a solitary practice.
Paxson discusses some of the dangers of possession, such as damage to the medium’s mental, spiritual, and/or physical health, as well as the possibility of “horsetalk,” where a medium brings through a message that comes mostly from the medium herself, not from a god. Paxson appropriately encourages people who develop health problems or who are traumatized in the course of mediumship to stop (or at least set boundaries) until they are healed or strengthened. In response to the problem of “horsetalk,” she gives guidelines for those who receive the messages to validate them—by getting second or third opinions from other diviners, by looking at lore, and by testing them against one’s own sense of truth.
However, I found myself wishing she had dealt in more depth with the group-shattering dynamics that can result from attempts at possession. For example, unethical but charismatic leaders may feign possession in order to manipulate group members. Possessions may also be partial, leaving some members sure that the experience was genuine while others suspect “horsetalk.” Even when all members agree that a possession is genuine, success does not guarantee a pleasant experience. Unpredictable behavior on the part of the possessed (especially with an underprepared support team) can result in participants feeling violated or simply uncomfortable with the person who was being ridden. Paxson also does not substantially discuss the dangers of improperly warded ritual spaces or attempts to invoke deities with whom there is no strong pre-existing relationship. Groups that have not carefully prepared for possession work may find one of their members possessed by someone or something other than the Person they intended to call—who may delight in causing mischief.
Overall, Possession, Depossession, and Divine Relationships would make an excellent supporting text for an individual who is pursuing mediumship training with a teacher or group. The information is well-organized and Paxson’s approach is sensible and sane. Paxson also draws appropriately on the wisdom of other Pagan mediums through a series of interviews that she quotes throughout the text. I suspect the book would be very much of help to the “god-bothered” who wish to tone down or better control their contact with the divine. When I think of a reader or a small group using the book to pursue possession without a pressing need or experienced help, however, the best I can say is that it may be better than nothing. Such readers would be best served by reading everything in the book’s bibliography—and then, hopefully, seeking a teacher.
Why Do Some People Experience Deities, But Others Don’t?
I have often wondered why some people experience gods all the time – indeed, can’t stop experiencing the gods even if they wanted to – and others don’t. Still others experience gods sometimes, in specific circumstances. There are various explanations available for this, and all of them have pros and cons. Let’s examine a few of them. I don’t really know which one is the right answer, though.
A “God(s)-Shaped Hole”?
Some have argued that people of religion have a “god-shaped hole” in our psyches – that our psychological make-up is such that we are receptive to experiences of the divine and/or deities. Christian apologists (starting with Pascal, who coined the phrase “god-shaped vacuum“) argue that only their god can fill this hole. The argument goes that their god created us for himself, and therefore our hearts yearn towards him (which is something of a circular argument).
Apart from the fact that I am automatically suspicious of any argument coined by Pascal, who also came up with the deeply unpleasant and frankly immoral concept of Pascal’s Wager, I would argue that it has been amply demonstrated that people are searching for meaning in their lives, but that that meaning takes a different form for different people, and that atheists can have equally meaningful and fulfilling lives as people who believe in god(s). Also, Adam Lee at Daylight Atheism points out that studies have shown that atheists have more enquiring minds and are generally happier than many Christians.
A Pagan version of the “gods-shaped hole” argument might draw upon the idea that because we and the gods were born of a single mother (Nature), and are of the same substance, we feel a natural affinity for each other.
However, if this were the case, then surely everyone would experience a yearning for the gods – and more importantly, all those who seek the gods would find them – which isn’t necessarily always what happens.
Many people might argue that those who see visions of deities are merely experiencing hallucinations. However, the quality of these visions and experiences is different than many hallucinations; they (mostly) appear to act on the psyche in an integrative and healing way, rather than in a destructive and damaging way. People who experience dreams and visions may be edgy and uncomfortable to be around – but they are highly functional individuals, for the most part. Psychiatrists have begun to accept that people who hear voices and see things are not necessarily ill.
Rhyd Wildermuth has suggested that the difference between the “mad” who hear voices, and the sane, is that the sane person can make the voices stop, shut them out for a time, and the “mad” cannot.
In addition to this, there is a long Welsh tradition that anyone who sleeps alone on the slopes of Cader Idris will end up dead, mad, or a poet. Shamanism, poetic inspiration, bardic frenzy, mysticism, and madness, have been symbolically linked from ancient times. The word ovate comes from “Vates, Uatis, Euhages, which may derive from the Indo-European root uat, ‘to be inspired or possessed’.” (OBOD)
In the 1960s and 70s, the anti-psychiatry movement argued that “madness” was a matter of perspective, and that in many societies, those who have these experiences are valued as visionaries, not locked up and drugged. Michel Foucault, Thomas Szasz, and RD Laing promoted alternative communal methods of treating the mad. Some anti-psychiatrists pointed to the remarkably similar content of people’s hallucinations, and pointed out that these often consisted of symbols of wholeness, like the World Tree, or the World Mountain.
So, I don’t think we can dismiss every visionary experience of a deity as a hallucination. I would be prepared to accept the explanation that such experiences are a profound interior experience, but only interior, but then that doesn’t explain why people have the same dream or vision at the same time, or receive messages for others which they then pass on to them.
Psychic Powers? Extra-Sensory Perception?
Another possibility is that some people experience deities because they have a “sixth sense” that enables them to perceive deities and energy. Certainly, some people seem to be especially gifted at psychic perception and techniques, but then the less gifted can also improve our abilities with practice.
It is very difficult to test psychic phenomena empirically, so I would say that the evidence for this hypothesis is inconclusive. I personally feel that people only have flashes of psychic insight when it really matters, so it is hard to turn it on and off at will in a laboratory situation. (Skeptics would doubtless feel that this is because psychic powers don’t exist, but there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that there is something going on.
Some People Are Chosen?
Some polytheists have stated that they did not choose their gods, their gods chose them. So they might argue that people who perceive the gods are the ones who have been chosen to do so.
For those of us who really like deities but don’t necessarily feel strongly that we have been chosen by a specific deity, this argument feels like a kick in the teeth. Is my relationship with Odin any less valid because I went looking for him, rather than the other way round?
What’s more, I am tempted to argue that claiming to have been chosen by a deity is almost a self-disqualifying statement, because it is so full of hubris (in the sense of “excessive pride towards the gods”). It is one thing to be privately convinced that a deity has chosen you for a task; quite another to proclaim it from the rooftops.
The Charge of the Goddess states that “and know that thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not, unless thou knowest the mystery: if thou findest not what thou seekest within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee” [outside of yourself]. Another way of looking at this might be that the gods we seek are the ones who were seeking us, because of some affinity between us and them.
Enchantment and Disenchantment?
Another possible explanation is that capitalism, rationalism, materialism, and reductionism have disenchanted the world. As our awareness of the gods returns, the world is re-enchanted.
In Capitalist society, Gods don’t exist; just like homeless people don’t really exist; just like stars are really just large balls of flaming gas. But to this I must answer, the stars are balls of flaming gas if animals are mere food and trees are mere fuel, humans mere workers and puddles mere bits of water.
So, rationalism, capitalism, reducing everything to mere commodities with a monetary cost rather than any intrinsic value, forgetting about wisdom in the lust for knowledge: these are the things that disenchant the world, obscure our vision and make us unable to see that a star is not merely a ball of flaming gas, but also a source of beauty and meaning, maybe even a goddess or a god.
As W B Yeats wrote,
Once every people in the world believed that trees were divine, and could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows; and that deer, and ravens and foxes, and wolves and bears, and clouds and pools, almost all things under the sun and moon, and the sun and moon, were not less divine and changeable. They saw in the rainbow the still-bent bow of a god thrown down in his negligence; they heard in the thunder the sound of his beaten water jar, or the tumult of his chariot wheels; and when a sudden flight of wild ducks, or of crows, passed over their heads, they thought they were gazing at the dead hastening to their rest….
I do know that I want to live in an enchanted world, where everything has its own intrinsic value, not merely a price imposed by the market. I want to live in a world where everything has meaning and beauty, where all things are shining with the light of divinity.
Perhaps I am no nearer to an answer to my question, but hopefully this post has made the people who are sure about their answer to this question less sure about it. Question everything, that’s my motto.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.
Relational Polytheism: Standing Beside The Gods
John Beckett has a post up, The Future of Polytheism: Keeping the Gods at the Front, and John Halstead has a response to it entitled, If It Doesn’t Help Me Save This World, I Don’t Want Your Polytheist Revolution.
As so often, I find myself positioned halfway between the two Johns. An uncomfortable position to be in, perhaps.
When I first read John Beckett’s article, I couldn’t pin-point exactly what it was that made me uncomfortable about it. I just knew that it made me uncomfortable. Putting the gods at the front – what does that mean? Does it mean that they are the most important aspect of Paganism and/or polytheism?
I am more comfortable with John Halstead’s article, but I think he missed the qualifiers in John Beckett’s article: that the gods are immanent, and therefore part of the natural world that we want to protect from the depredations of humanity and capitalism; religion is not much good if it doesn’t work towards social, environmental, and restorative justice.
The way I see my relationship with the deities, as I outlined in my post on why I am a polytheist Wiccan, is that they are our allies. They are not our masters and we are not their servants; we are not their masters and they are not our servants. We are co-creators with them of reality. Sometimes the realities that we create are frightening and harmful, as in the current ecological and climate crisis. Sometimes the realities that they are said to have created are frightening and harmful, as in the Trojan War (though I am sure it was all too easy for the ancient Greeks and Trojans to claim that the gods made them do it).
So whilst the gods are important, because they are the consciousnesses of specific places and natural phenomena, they are not more important than the ecosystem, Nature, the Earth, and other species who share the planet with us.
As a relational polytheist, I feel that it is our job to focus on right relationship with other beings, starting with other animals, including humans, and with the ecosystem in which we live, of which the deities are the conscious emanations. This can mean that we need to engage in restorative justice, such as the Black Lives Matter campaign, or by supporting the Idle No More protests of Indigenous peoples, or campaigning for asylum seekers to be treated fairly by the UK.Being in right relationship with our fellow embodied beings, and in right relationship with our ecosystem, will do more to bring us into right relationship with our deities than any amount of worship. Yes, we need to make that inner connection with the spirits of place, the spirits of the land, and the deities, as part of our awareness of all the interconnected relationships of the nested interconnections of being in which we live. But deities, land-wights, animals, humans, are all part of that web of relationships. The deities are not more important than other aspects of that interconnectedness, any more than humans are.
So I stand beside my deities as an ally and a co-worker. They are more powerful and far-seeing in the realms of spirit, consciousness, and the timeless, so I need their help to access that mode of consciousness. They, on the other hand, need my finite, time-bound, and physically-embodied mode of consciousness in order to bring about change in the physical world.
I am devoted to the interconnectedness, to bringing about heaven on earth, to creating (right) relationships and beloved community. If the gods are allies in that process, then they are my allies and my friends.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.
Deities and divinity
There has been a lot of talk about the nature of deities on Patheos Pagan blogs recently – for example an excellent article on Raise the Horns about the way that deities change over the centuries.
This makes sense to me – I am a big fan of process theology, which suggests that the divine changes in response to the world, and I am also a polytheist, so I do not see why deities wouldn’t change too.
The Hindu and Buddhist traditions have deities reincarnating in different avatars. In Buddhism, becoming a deity is not the ultimate aim, as you can always slip down the great chain of being if you transgress as a deity; the ultimate aim is to cease to exist, to rest in Nirvana (which literally means ‘no flame’). There’s a brilliant Hindu story which shows the development of a deity through many lifetimes, Indra and the Ants. In this story, Indra sees a column of ants processing through his palace, and is told that they are all former Indras. He also meets an old man who plucks a hair out of his (very hairy) chest every time an avatar of Indra dies, which signifies the end of an age. What this story tells us about deities is that they too reincarnate, and can grow or diminish in wisdom — in this story, Indra learns something that he did not know before.
There are many different views of how deities relate to each other and to the universe. My personal view (which I offer as one possible view, and not as normative in any way), is that there is an underlying divine energy, which emanates from the divine source. In my view, neither the underlying energy nor the divine source have a personality. From the underlying energy, all beings emerge — humans, spirits, deities, and animals. However, none of these beings are discrete entities — we have fuzzy boundaries and exchange food, energy, and breath with the world around us. Rather, we are distinct entities, and so are the deities. They are affected by our attention, gifts, and communing with them (or lack of it).
I do not think that Thor is the same as Jupiter or Perkunas or Indra or Yahweh the thunder god. They are all thunder gods (that’s their job) and so they are local manifestations of the thunder principle, but they are distinct from each other, just as all web developers share certain characteristics, and may be expressing an archetype when they are doing web development, but are still distinct individuals.
In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, the American manifestation of Odin is called Mr Wednesday, and the American manifestation of Loki is called Low-key Liesmith (good pun). In the novel, deities are expressed differently when they arrive on a new continent (just as there were many avatars of Indra in the story). I like this idea.
I also want to make a distinction here between monism (the belief that the whole universe is composed of the same energy) and monotheism (the belief that it was created by a single deity). Monism is compatible with polytheism; monotheism isn’t.
Lords and Ladies
I think deities emerge from the underlying energy in various different ways. They can be deified humans (such as Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, or Antinous); they can be personifications of natural forces (such as thunder gods, rain gods, and so on); they can be a combination of these (such as Odin, who was both a human king and the god of the winds); or they can be spirits of place who become particularly powerful (such as Athena, goddess of Athens).
In his novel Small Gods, Terry Pratchett describes how a small particle of consciousness floating around in the desert lodges in the brain of a young man, who then becomes its prophet, and founds the religion of Omnianism, with disastrous and hilarious consequences (hilarious because of the resemblance between Omnianism and fundamentalist Christianity, and disastrous for exactly the same reason).
Terry Pratchett has rightly been hailed as Britain’s foremost Pagan theologian, although he is an atheist. If you haven’t read his novels, you’re in for a treat. I especially recommend Small Gods, Pyramids, Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum, The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight — that should keep you busy for a bit! These are the ones about witches, deities, and faeries. (Pratchett’s faeries are not nice — on the Discworld, stone circles were built to keep them out.)
Anyway, back to deities, and on to the thorny question of gender. In Buddhism, Kwan Yin has two avatars – Avalokitesvara, a male avatar, and Kwan Yin, a female avatar. In Roman religion, the Parilia was a festival celebrating Pales, a deity of uncertain gender, who may be male, female, or a couple. There are numerous transgender, gay, lesbian, and bisexual deities, although unfortunately much of this mythology was suppressed in the past. An excellent source for LGBT deities is Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol and Spirit (highly recommended).
The underlying divine energy has no gender, in my view, though I do tend to regard it as giving birth to the universe. I think it both includes all genders, and transcends gender. There are more than two genders — indigenous cultures from around the world attest to this. So the underlying energy of the universe is not, in my view, divided into “the God” and “the Goddess”. I do tend to have a male and female patron deity when working in a Wiccan coven, but they are not invoked exclusively, and are asked to be the protectors of the coven, and I do not regard them as manifestations of the ultimate polarity.
I also think there are multiple polarities, and if there is an ultimate pair of polarities, it is probably the manifest and the unmanifest; it certainly isn’t male and female. Lynna Landstreet has written brilliantly about polarities in her article, Alternate Currents: Revisioning Polarity: Or, what’s a nice dyke like you doing in a polarity-based tradition like this? (it’s an article that I consider to be a classic of Pagan writing, and highly recommended).
polarity transcends sexuality completely. Sex can be a manifestation of it, but it is not inherently based on sex, or even on deity in an anthropomorphic sense. … That moment of lightning striking the primeval sea to create the first living organism is what I see when the athamé touches the wine.
Other polarities that exist are yin and yang, inner and outer, day and night, up and down, left and right, anode and cathode, waxing and waning, lover and beloved. None of these map neatly onto male and female. Incidentally, the concept of polarity was first mentioned in the West by Ralph Waldo Emerson, as far as I know, in his essay on Compensation; and Emerson did not posit male and female as the ultimate polarities.
POLARITY, or action and reaction, we meet in every part of nature; in darkness and light; in heat and cold; in the ebb and flow of waters; in male and female; in the inspiration and expiration of plants and animals; in the equation of quantity and quality in the fluids of the animal body; in the systole and diastole of the heart; in the undulations of fluids, and of sound; in the centrifugal and centripetal gravity; in electricity, galvanism, and chemical affinity. Superinduce magnetism at one end of a needle; the opposite magnetism takes place at the other end. If the south attracts, the north repels. To empty here, you must condense there. An inevitable dualism bisects nature, so that each thing is a half, and suggests another thing to make it whole; as, spirit, matter; man, woman; odd, even; subjective, objective; in, out; upper, under; motion, rest; yea, nay.
Whilst the world is thus dual, so is every one of its parts. The entire system of things gets represented in every particle. There is somewhat that resembles the ebb and flow of the sea, day and night, man and woman, in a single needle of the pine, in a kernel of corn, in each individual of every animal tribe. The reaction, so grand in the elements, is repeated within these small boundaries.
I do not know if Emerson’s essay is the source of Wiccan thinking about polarity; but whether it is or not, it is worth reading to get a more complex picture of what is meant by the term.
I have set out my views on polarity here, because, since I am a Wiccan, many readers might assume that I am some kind of duotheist, and I am not. I was inveighing against the misuse of the term ‘polarity’ to present a heterocentric view of reality as far back as 1997, in an article entitled Between Mirrors. I have form.
I also think that deities exist on different scales. There are spirits of place, deities of cities and rivers (usually goddesses), deities of countries, deities of planets, deities of galaxies, and the emerging universal mind (which may or may not have a personality). Just as all beings exist within the universe, so the deity or spirit of a place exists within the deity of that country (but it still has a distinct identity within that). For example, the ancient Greeks had Gaea, goddess of Earth, and Rhea, goddess of the universe. Clearly Gaea exists within Rhea.
In my view, deities are emergent properties of the complexity of the universe. They are products of the interaction between mind and matter. There was no Creator God, rather the universe and its inhabitants are becoming more conscious, more compassionate, more empathic, with the arising of the universal mind (which proceeds from the unfolding of the Tao, the mysterious Way or emergent pattern). As we interact socially with the natural world, we increase its consciousness, just as we do for each other. First we awakened spirits of place, then gradually began to perceive the totality of the universe and wonder at the glories of Nature. We are part of the arising of the universal Mind, as we become more conscious and more empathic. We are all Future Buddhas. As we become more empathically connected to the universe, when we die we contribute part of our consciousness to the All (part is probably reincarnated), and it is in this process of interconnection that universal mind arises. Those who connect with the world around them contribute to the process of expanding awareness and continuing the process of making everything more conscious. The process of individuation and self-development is part of the process of awakening. But the awakening will not be from the “illusion” of matter, but rather matter itself is becoming ever more conscious or ensouled – it is awakening. Only when the mind of the Universe is fully conscious – when the kundalini of the Universe has arisen from the depths – only then will the Divine fully exist.
As ever, just my thoughts on all this – please share yours in the comments.
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