Do deities have gender? What about sexual characteristics? As non-physical (and some might say, metaphorical) beings, they can manifest in whatever form they want.
Some have argued that any form of theism is incompatible with science. Which is odd when so many scientists are theistic in some form or other.
When is a difference of opinion merely a difference of opinion, and when is it a matter for exclusion of the person who holds that opinion from polite society?
Wiccans can be polytheist, animist, pantheist, monist, duotheist, atheist/archetypalist, or “all of the above depending on the day”. Most Pagans believe that the divine is, or deities are, immanent in the world; and that includes most Wiccans.
This theological diversity works in ritual settings as long as everyone can “translate in their head” and have a certain amount of flexibility as to practice and the wording of rituals.Continue reading
It is often assumed that the purpose of religion is to shape its adherents into nicer people. However, a quick look at the number and variety of unpleasant people in every religious tradition gives the lie to this idea. If religion doesn’t make people nicer, what is it actually for?
The way things have been going lately, anyone would think that Eris had lobbed an apple pie into the middle of the Patheos Pagan channel. There are so many apple and apple pie related posts, it’s hard to keep track of them all. But let’s keep the discussion civil.
What Eris teaches us is that sometimes throwing all the pieces up in the air to see where they land is a good thing. It’s very uncomfortable while it’s happening, but it is necessary. At the moment, polytheists are going through a phase of throwing everything up in the air to see where it lands (or perhaps it’s an awkward adolescence). Let’s just take care that it doesn’t land on someone and squash them when the dust settles.
Metaphor and Analogy
Metaphors are sometimes useful. But there’s a difference between a metaphor and an analogy.
- A metaphor is applicable to a situation but can be interpreted in a number of different ways. A classic metaphor is “My love is like a red red rose” (Robert Burns). If you try to turn this into an analogy, it doesn’t work. Robert Burns is not saying that his love has thorns and a stem and the petals fall off. He is saying that his love evokes the same feelings as a red rose (beautiful, sensuous, smells nice). So those qualities of the rose are transferable to the experience of his love; the rest of the rose’s attributes are ignored.
- An analogy is an exact mapping of one thing to another thing. For example, the solar system is often used as an analogy for atoms (it’s not exactly how atoms work, but it’s a good way to teach kids about atoms). The electrons orbit around the nucleus. The planets orbit around the sun. There’s a direct mapping of all the features of the two systems being compared.
What’s wrong with chocolate cake?
I am assuming that in John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods metaphor, the people selling chocolate cake were Wiccans and Wiccanish Pagans. I like chocolate cake and Wicca. I am not so keen on chocolate cake with not enough chocolate in it, but each to their own. This metaphor, however, implies that you can’t mix Wicca and polytheism (or maybe I am reading too much into it). That’s the problem with vague metaphors, they can mean all sorts of things that may not have been intended. I wouldn’t mix chocolate cake with apples – but you most definitely can mix polytheism and Wicca.
Many flavours are available
If my view of polytheism is different from yours, that’s a good thing – it means that more flavours of polytheism are available; and that’s helpful. Some people like apple pie with cinnamon; others like it with shortcrust pastry, or puff pastry, or less sugary; others still don’t even like apple pie; some people maintain that desserts are bad for you. There are many desserts available, and many flavours of polytheism (none of which are the One True Flavour).
None of us know objectively what the nature of the gods is; we only perceive them with our limited, local, and finite perspective. It is interesting to discuss their nature and how we interact with them, so that we can learn from each other’s perspectives. But we can’t be certain what the nature of the gods is.
We don’t all like the same flavours
The only way to discover whether one perspective is better than another is by observing its results in the world. If your perspective makes you feel closer to the gods, happy, fulfilled, and able to function effectively as a human being without harming others, then it is probably worth sharing. If your perspective makes you angry, bitter, jealous, and vengeful, then it probably isn’t doing you or anyone else any good.
And, here’s the rub: apple pie with cinnamon makes me say “Yuk!” but for someone else, it may be the only way to make apple pie. That’s just fine, as long as I don’t make them eat my recipe, and they don’t make me eat their recipe.
Apples and Apple Pie – the story so far
- John Beckett – The gods are like apples.
There are many different varieties of apple (Granny Smith, Bramley, Russet, etc) but they are all apples. They are also distinguishable from oranges.
- John Halstead – How do you like them apples? On gods and metaphors
However, deciding where the tree ends and the apple begins – or whether it’s still an apple when you’ve eaten it – is difficult.
- Tom Swiss – The gods are like golden apples
Eris’s golden apple was inscribed “To the fairest” – and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, everyone’s experience of the gods is unique.
- Pat Mosley – Up in the mountains, there’s a tree that bears many apples
Everyone has a different experience of trees and apples, but what matters is that there are many stories and many perspectives.
- John Beckett – The Bakery of the Gods
If a person who has eaten vanilla pudding all their life comes looking for apple pie, but is confronted with people selling chocolate cake, changing all the labels in the bakery, and claiming that all desserts are the same, they might get confused about what’s apple pie and what isn’t
- Yvonne Aburrow – Polytheism and Apple Pie
But then there are people claiming that they have the One True Recipe for apple pie, and everyone else is Doing It Wrong
- John Halstead – The gods are “like warm apple pie”: The hidden meanings behind our metaphors
Careful with that metaphor, it’s not neutral
Various commenters have also pointed out that they are allergic to apple pie, or prefer rhubarb pie, or pear pie, or apple crumble.
Did I omit your apple / apple-pie post? Let me know in the comments.
Some people have suggested that polytheism is endangered by archetypalist, non-theist, monist, and/or non-theist world views (especially those who would claim that somehow it’s all the same really, or that they are actually polytheists). The word polytheist means believing in many gods. If you want to add any more definition to it, I think you need a qualifying adjective.
Monotheism and Pantheism
I stopped being a monotheist in 1985, when I was 17. The reason for this was that I couldn’t see how an all powerful God could allow suffering and horror on the scale of the Holocaust and other horrors. I reasoned that if God was all-powerful, then “he” would prevent such horrors (free will notwithstanding) and therefore there must be many deities, none of whom were all-powerful.
Later, I discovered pantheism and monism, the idea of an all-pervading immanent deity. For me, this doesn’t stack up alongside the fact of the infinite universe. If the pantheist’s deity is the mind of the universe, it must be either so huge that it can’t be aware of our tiny consciousness, or it can’t be conscious in the same way that we are. So it would be difficult (as far as I can see) to have a personal relationship with it.
An excellent novel by Rebecca Goldstein, 36 arguments for the existence of God, disproves every single one of them except Spinoza’s view that the universe itself is God, which is completely different to the conventional monotheist view. Nothing is said about the existence of many gods, however, and in my view, the idea of many gods is in a completely different category to the idea of a single all-powerful deity.
Interestingly, some Christians I’ve talked to seemed to assume that I’m a pantheist, as they seemed to assume that the advantage of Christianity was having a personal relationship with Jesus. But I don’t actually like Jesus (and don’t believe the gospel accounts are reliable). So for me, the advantage of polytheism is that you can have a personal relationship with a huge number of different deities, with different perspectives on life. There’s Mercury and Athena for intellectuals, Cernunnos and Artemis for those who like forests, Odin and Bragi and Brighid for poets and bards, and so on. I think this is why the Catholics found they needed to have the idea of patron saints – but I find most saints pretty uninspiring and insipid. Pretty much everyone has difficulty relating to the idea of the ultimate divine source, or to an infinite being – so people need to relate to something smaller. To paraphrase some famous French bloke: if the gods didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them.
What is a deity?
There are many different types of deity: personifications of natural phenomena (winds, storms, trees and rocks and water), deified humans, patrons of arts and crafts, city goddesses, river goddesses. In my opinion, they are immanent in, or emergent from, the physical universe, in the same way that human consciousness emerges from the complexity of the human brain. Why shouldn’t other complex systems give rise to consciousness?
There is currently some discussion about what “real” means when we are talking about deities. No one has offered a definition of “real” in this context (or if they have, I missed it). My definition of a deity is a being with consciousness. A deity’s body (if they have one) is the natural phenomenon from which they emerged, if that’s how they came into existence. Or if they are a deified human, then their body is the etheric body (or whatever is divine in us that survives death). It’s also worth pointing out that love is real even though it doesn’t have either a body or consciousness – but that’s why a discussion of what “real” means is a distraction when it comes to deities: because being “real” applies to a lot of other things that aren’t deities. So it doesn’t matter so much what people think deities are, as that they think you can interact with them – that’s the point of relating to them and/or being devoted to them.
There also has to be room for honest doubt – we do live in a culture where most people deny the existence of multiple deities, so if someone has a wobble or a dry season where they have difficulty relating to deities, or if they have a different view of what deities are, then that is a natural fluctuation in belief that is difficult to avoid. Even when I had doubts that deities were conscious beings, the “many” part was never in doubt. And if you try to restrict access to polytheist ritual on the grounds of belief, then you will never give anyone the opportunity to encounter deities – though of course you might want to develop some sort of initiatory pathways to assist people to develop deeper relationships with deities. Or perhaps there might be open access rituals for everyone, and other rituals specifically for devotees.
Why duotheism is not polytheism
Some Pagans are duotheists (the idea of one Goddess and one God who may or may not be emanations from a single source). I have difficulty with this idea because I don’t see the universe in binary terms, but rather as a multiplicity. The major attraction of polytheism for a genderqueer and/or LGBTQ person is that there are multiple expressions of gender and sexuality among deities. And the idea of duotheism has the same problem for me that monotheism does: how can there be anything that big that perceives existence on the same scale we do?
As to the idea that all deities are emanations from an underlying substrate of energy or consciousness, I can’t see why this is a problem for polytheism as long as the deities are viewed as distinct beings, and humans are also viewed as emanations from that substrate. I can see it could be a problem if the emphasis was more on the divine source than the individual deity – because then we’re back to monism again.
Polytheism is the “default setting”
Interestingly, if you look at Hinduism, you can find monism, polymorphism (the idea that deities are forms of the ultimate divine), and polytheism all co-existing within the Hindu dharma. And if Buddhism is included as part of the same dharma (some Hindus view itthat way), then non-theism also exists alongside these other beliefs. Henotheism (devotion to one deity, acknowledgment that others exist) is also found within Hinduism.
I think it is worth clarifying terminology and describing clearly what we are doing, mostly in order to make the path easier for others to find. But I don’t feel that polytheism is endangered. I think it is pretty much the “default setting”, to which all religion will gravitate in the end. Christianity tried monotheism, but it gradually introduced saints and a goddess (the Virgin Mary is a goddess in all but name). Buddhism moved the focus of religion away from gods towards personal enlightenment, and ended up introducing Bodhisattvas. Even Islam has 99 names of God, and Sufis and Shi’ites have saints. In Judaism, God has aspects (especially in Kabbalah). So even in monotheist and non-theist religions, the multiplicity keeps re-asserting itself. You can’t keep a good deity down.
Even if the archetypalists succeed in convincing everyone that gods are only archetypes, people will still have real experiences of the gods.
It’s not so much that polytheism is under siege from monism or non-theism or monotheism – on the contrary: they are constantly on guard against the emergence of polytheism and animism. Everyone knows there’s a spirit that lives in the photocopier which must be propitiated. That’s why atheists are constantly on guard against “woo”. Everyone needs a personal deity to relate to, which is less than the Great All. If they happen to be a monotheist, they invent a smaller god of their own devising, whether that is saints, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a more manageable version of Yahweh. It’s a very rare person who feels they can relate to a completely impersonal deity.
And the final reason that I don’t think polytheism is under siege is the deities themselves. They survived for centuries with hardly any worshippers, and that didn’t finish them off: so a few people claiming they are just archetypes is pretty small beer. They have the power to communicate with humans and they do use it. I think we and they will be just fine.
Over at Common Tansy, Pat Mosley has been tearing it up with his posts about the Devil in witchcraft, A Case for Inviting Satan (Back) to Wicca and Prying Open the Devil’s Broom Closet. And Ian Corrigan has also written on the topic of the Devil and the darker side of Paganism. Jason Mankey has written about the origins of the Horned God of Wicca.
The Devil and witchcraft
Some folkloric Craft practitioners have always honoured both Lucifer and Jesus, regarding them as brothers (from the reference in the Book of Job about Samael being among the Sons of God). Cain is also an important figure in their mysteries, and is viewed as the son of Samael and Lilith. And Tubal-Cain is viewed as the earthly vessel of Azazel. They place a lot of importance on the smith-gods such as Prometheus, Tubal-Cain, Hephaestos, Wayland, and Vulcan.
I can understand why some Wiccans completely denied that they even believed in the Devil, as I vividly remember the fear instilled in us by the Satanic Panic of the late 1980s. It is much easier to say “we don’t believe in your mythology at all” than it is to say something more complicated, such as “we don’t accept your dualistic cosmology, but we do believe there is a place for acknowledging the darker aspects of the psyche, and deities associated with them, and rather than demonising them, it would be better to integrate those forces into consciousness and work with their energies”. Some Wiccan and Pagan writers actually did attempt to convey this more complicated message.
Various concepts and images of these entities are lurking about in the basement of the Western psyche – but we are not powerless to change them. Some people will prefer to ignore them altogether; others feel the need to change these images by working with them. That is their prerogative.
However, there is no need to throw Satanists under the bus when stating that Wiccans don’t worship the Devil. There are at least three different flavours of Satanism, the philosophical and anarchist variety allegedly espoused by Mikhail Bakunin, the inversion-of-Christianity variety, and the people who are actually worshipping the Egyptian god Set. Therefore, claiming that Satanism is “just an inversion of Christianity” is an inadequate explanation of what it actually is.
I have not met that many Satanists, and many of the ones I have met have taken considerable pleasure in being self-consciously “dark” and very left-hand-path. Some of the ones I have met were very right-wing. There are nasty people in every group, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are like that. I also know a couple of Setians and some left-wing Satanists.
It is worth pointing out that an acknowledgement of the possible existence of Lucifer, or Samael, or any other such entity, does not mean that we are suddenly Satanists. Some Wiccans have been acknowledging Lilith for years – so why is Samael so taboo?
I think that Wicca and Satanism are two separate and distinct traditions, but we are not being fair and reasonable if we demonise Satanism in the same way that some Christians have done to us.
Who cleft the Devil’s foot?
From a hard(ish) polytheist point of view, I would argue that Lucifer, Satan, Samael, Asmodeus, Beelzebub, and various other entities are different beings. They may have got lumped together as one by the monotheists, but then I think we would all agree that monotheists have a tin ear when it comes to mythology. One of the Pagan deities whose image fed into the Christian concept of the Devil was Pan, and it is thought that that is how the Devil acquired his cloven hooves (unless it was from the image of Azazel as the scapegoat).
Some people have argued that neither Jesus nor Satan have a place in contemporary Paganisms, because we don’t accept the dualistic and antagonistic world-view of Christianity. However, I don’t have to accept that monotheism’s assessment of the stature or nature of a being is true in order to accept that the being (or at least, its archetype) exists. I don’t accept the philosophy of Buddhism, but I am happy to honour Kwan-Yin. I think Jesus probably exists, but I certainly don’t accept monotheism’s view of who he is. So why not his brother Lucifer? We don’t accept Christianity’s assessment that all our deities are the devil in disguise – so why should we accept their view of Lucifer?
Northern Light 27 points out that the various deities that were some form of adversary (and a necessary source of creative conflict) in the pre-Christian pagan religions all got lumped together to form the Christian version of the devil as the main adversary of Yahweh. What’s more, the Jewish concept of Samael / Satan was quite different, and existed alongside other figures such as Lilith as necessary aspects of the cosmic order.
I think the Christian view was probably influenced either by the two gods of Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu), or by the good and evil entities of Manichaeism. Manichaeism was essentially a Gnostic view of the world that held that matter was created by an evil demiurge, and that the source of all good was the creator, to whom light and spirit seek to return by escaping from matter. Zoroastrians, on the other hand, say that the world was created by Ahura Mazda, the good god. However, both systems have an ultimate force of good pitted against an ultimate force of evil. Contrast this with Judaism, where Samael was essentially under the control of Yahweh – in this view, Samael existed to punish transgressors. If you look at the history of Jewish mythologization of Satan, Samael, Azazel, Asmodeus, and other characters, it is pretty clear that they are much more nuanced than the Christian versions. I really wish people would not conflate Judaism and Christianity, or back-project Christian attitudes onto Judaism, which is a completely different religion that Christianity is a massive distortion of. (And as far as I know, it is a heresy in Christianity to regard the Devil as being of equal power with God.)
As I do not accept monotheism’s view that there is only one god and one adversary, I have room in my concept of deities for some that like to promote conflict for whatever reason they think it necessary (even if they don’t happen to be among the deities with whom I have a personal relationship, because I do not like conflict). If I acknowledge the existence of Lilith and Loki and Set and Yahweh and Asherah, then I am prepared to accept that Lucifer, Samael, and Asmodeus also exist. And Baphomet too.
My polytheism consists of acknowledging the existence of many deities, and honouring and/or worshipping those that have called to me. So far, only one of these entities has come knocking at my door, but if one of the others shows up, I think I would make my own assessment of their character. After all, Christianity was very rude about all our other deities – why should I take their word for it about any entity?
As to whether the Wiccan Horned God contains a bit of the Devil in his DNA… I think he probably does. If the Devil is equated in the Christian world-view with prancing about naked by moonlight, joyous love-making, and wild shenanigans – then the God of the Witches does represent these things.
What is interesting is that Pan, who may have informed some of the Christian idea of the Devil (because he represents wildness and wilderness and unbridled sexuality) is one of the few beings involved that was not an adversary figure in ancient mythology. (Though the Devil’s horns and hooves may have come from Azazel the scapegoat rather than from Pan.)
In Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia: the gospel of the witches, Aradia is presented as the consort of Lucifer, and it appears that Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente replaced Lucifer with Cernunnos when they were forming Wicca – in part because they believed Margaret Murray’s theory that the being worshipped by witches was an ancient pagan Horned God (but also because they were well aware of the media furore that would result if they admitted to devil-worship). However, it appears from some research by Sabina Magliocco that the legend of Aradia actually pre-dates the association of witchcraft with devil-worship.
Horned deities in India were possibly associated with shamanism and animism, both of which have been viewed as transgressive by established religions.
It is also worth noting that the word demon (daimon in Greek) originally meant a spirit of place, or the genius of a gifted person, and had no negative connotation in ancient paganism.
My personal theology celebrates the marriage of spirit and matter, and not their separation. I celebrate wildness, and chaos, and the celebration of physical pleasure. I do not think that blind obedience is a virtue. So I think a deity that represents anarchy, and rebellion against absolute authority, is worth looking into.
Adversaries in ancient paganisms
Some ancient paganisms had the concept of a struggle between two groups of deities (in Greek mythology, the clash of the Olympian gods with their rivals, the Titans; and in Norse mythology, the clash of the Aesir and Vanir with the giants) but these were not so much conceived of as a struggle of good and evil, as a struggle between natural forces such as fire and ice, some of which were more inimical to humans than others. But things were complicated in the Greek myths because Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humanity (an impious act, but one for which we can be grateful). And in the Norse myths, the gods were born from the primal giant, Ymir, and then slew him to make the heavens and the Earth.
Some ancient religions of the Near East had powerful beings who were slain by the creator god (for example in Sumerian mythology, Tiamat the serpent goddess was slain by Marduk, who formed the Earth from her body – probably the original of many dragon-slayer stories). We can trace some of the motifs that went into the making of the archetype of the Devil back to some of these figures.
I’ve got to admit that the name ‘Satan’ makes me really uncomfortable. I am much more comfortable with ‘Old Nick’, ‘Lucifer’, or even ‘the Devil’. But then I am curious to delve into the depths and find out why it makes me uncomfortable.
However, given the enormous weight of negativity attached to the archetype of the Devil, anyone invoking these entities needs to be really careful to invoke the aspects of the complex that they want (the freedom, anarchy, hedonism, and sex-positive aspects) and avoid the negative associations with it (selfishness, greed, destructive impulses, etc). I find it very interesting that most people work with lesser-known names and beings such as Samael and Lucifer (arguably the bright side of this archetype) and avoid the more negative aspects. So much negativity has been loaded onto the archetype that it may be really difficult to recover the bright aspects of it. If you do invoke or evoke such a being, are you a powerful enough magician to handle it?
Civilisation and its discontents
It is fairly easy to see how gods of the wildwood (symbols of the wilderness and therefore opposed to civilisation, with which Christianity strongly identifies itself) may have fed into the Christian archetype of the Devil. Recently, I read Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner, and in that book (written in 1926), the god of the witches is unequivocally represented (with considerable glee) as Satan. He is quite kindly, and the freedom of the countryside where he holds sway is contrasted with the stifling atmosphere of middle-class respectability from which the heroine escapes.
Many myths and legends (from ancient times until very recently) are about the struggle to establish civilisation and order, set against the urge to return to a state of nature and chaos. It has not been universally agreed that the imposition of law and order and civilisation is necessarily all good.
If someone was to draw a mindmap or a family tree describing all these entities and their mythological relationship with each other, it would get quite complicated. The massive number of references to the Devil in popular culture add an extra layer of complexity.
So – when you say that you don’t worship the Devil, you might need to be a bit more specific. Do you mean Old Nick, Satan, Asmodeus, Azazel, Beelzebub, Baphomet, Samael, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, Angra Mainyu, Iblis, Loki, Set, Apep, Prometheus, or some other adversarial figure? The Devil really is in the details.
When I started writing for this blog, I had some sort of idea that I would systematically wade through the various areas covered by theology – the personal, the interpersonal, our relationships with spirit, the nature of deities and spirits, interfaith dialogue within the Pagan movement, dialogue with other religions, community, society, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and so on.
But all of these issues overlap with each other and are intertwined.What has happened in reality is that my writing has focussed on issues that are important to me (gender, sexuality, Black Lives Matter, migration, consent), or responded to things that have happened – both online and in the physical world – that I felt could be addressed from a Pagan perspective.
It has become apparent that there is not really a roadmap for writing Pagan theology. I think that all the best theological writing assumes and acknowledges that it is a personal reflection on a theological issue, and runs with that assumption. I do not think that theology should be prescriptive. It is more about opening a space for dialogue on theological issues. That is why a blog is the ideal place to host a theological conversation – because people can post comments, or send in a guest post, or write a post in response on their own blog.
Sometimes my posts are just “thinking aloud“, and the comments on them significantly change my thinking about the topic being discussed, or highlight something that I hadn’t thought of.
I think that theology should always be discursive and not prescriptive. It is not up to me to tell anyone what to think – just to open up a space for discussion. I write to work out what I think, and to get feedback on it. I think the comments on a blogpost can sometimes be as illuminating as the blogpost.