The Dawn Of The Gods

In The Allegory of Love, CS Lewis wrote that in the declining years of ancient paganisms, people started to see the gods as metaphors, and then as allegorical personifications, until eventually belief in them declined. He says that “the distinction … between an abstract universal and a living spirit … was only vaguely and intermittently present to the Roman mind.” As an example, he gives the personification of Nature – “something more than a personification and less than a myth, and ready to be either or both as the stress of argument demands”. In the Thebaid of Statius, written some time between 45 CE and 96 CE, the various gods and personifications depicted in it “are all things that live and die in the inner world of the soul”.

Lewis (no friend to polytheism, but a friend to Pagan mythology), writes:

The twilight of the gods… must not be supposed to be in any sense a result of Christianity. It is already far advanced in Statius, and Statius, as a poet, but feebly reflects what philosophy had done long before him. It represents, in fact, the modus vivendi between monotheism and mythology. Monotheism should not be regarded as the rival of polytheism, but rather as its maturity. Where you find polytheism, combined with any speculative power and any leisure for speculation, monotheism will sooner or later arise as a natural development. The principle, I understand, is well illustrated in the history of Indian religion. Behind the gods arises the One, and the gods as well as the men are only his dreams. That is one way of disposing of the Many. European thought did not follow the same path, but it was faced with the same problem.

We need not agree with Lewis on the inevitability of monotheism to see that he is probably right that the allegorisation of the gods was the transitional phase between polytheism and monotheism. Of course, Lewis is being disingenuous in a way, as he clearly yearned to believe in the gods, and very likely believed in angels. (The book was written in 1936, seven years after his conversion to Christianity in 1929, but he had long been interested in Pagan mythology.)

I wonder if, in order to believe in the gods again, it has been necessary for us to pass through a phase of seeing them as metaphors and personifications, before we can see them as real again. The phase of seeing them as metaphors and archetypes has perhaps been a necessary preparation for seeing them as the face that we can perceive of vast cosmic forces, or localised manifestations of spirit.

Eos, Phosphoros, Hesperos, Helios, black-coloured pencil drawing, The National Museum in Warsaw, 1897

Jutrzenka“: Eos, Phosphoros, Hesperos, Helios, black-coloured pencil drawing, The National Museum in Warsaw, 1897 by Stanisław Wyspiański. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

What does it mean to be real?

I have always rather liked the Velveteen Rabbit’s definition of real.

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit. 

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ 

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’ 

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” 
― Margery WilliamsThe Velveteen Rabbit

But how does this apply to gods? Gods are cosmic forces with a possibly anthropomorphic interface, right? They are not a Velveteen Rabbit or a Skin Horse. No, but they are beings with whom we enter into a relationship, and that is what they have in common with the Velveteen Rabbit. They become real to us when we and they are in relationship. Doubtless they were real cosmic forces before that, but we recognise them as people when we are in relationship with them.

I have always thought that humans acquire a particular shape or identity to our personality as a result of all the social interactions we have engaged in. My theory is that the same is true for gods. They acquire the particular personality / energy signature / interests / appearance that they do as a cumulative result of all the interactions that people have had with them over the centuries. If Persephone is now the Queen of Kink, and Loki sometimes appears with dark hair instead of red hair, that’s because they are happy to fill those new images with their presence and power.

In China, when they make a statue of a deity, they make a little compartment in the back which contains special magical items to give the statue shen (the power and presence of spirit). If the statue is sent to a museum, the shen cavity is emptied prior to being transferred to the museum. Images and statues and personifications are empowered with the spirit of the deity if and when They choose to do so.

In Gnosticism and other Neo-Platonism-derived traditions, the Real sometimes refers to the spirit world, as contrasted with the physical world. I don’t think this is a very helpful definition for a non-dualistic and embodied path like Paganism, where the goal (in my view) is for spirit and matter to become more intertwined.

The Twilight, the Night, and the Dawn

During the noon-day of the gods, when the world was enchanted, people saw the gods in everything.

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….
— William Butler Yeats

But, as C S Lewis rather wittily put it, the twilight of the gods was the mid-morning of the personifications. As our relationship with gods declined, they became seen as personifications of inner qualities. Eventually they became characters in old stories. That was the long night in which they slept.

But now the dawn is coming, and the old gods are brightening again, once more illuminating the many facets of reality, awakening from their long sleep, and interacting with us once more. For those of us who are busying ourselves making them cups of coffee and bringing them breakfast in bed, a little patience might be required while those who are still only perceiving them as archetypes or personifications catch up. We are in a transitional phase right now.


Autumn foliage splendor in the Green Mountain National Forest

Autumn foliage splendor in the Green Mountain National Forest (Wikipedia)

My favourite times of year are the transitional seasons of spring and autumn, when everything is changing rapidly. In spring there are new blossoms and new leaves emerging, and the days lengthen rapidly. In autumn, the leaves turn red and yellow and orange and are blown away in the wind. The smell of bonfires is in the air, symbolising the transformation of decay into the bright energy of fire.

Everything is always changing, transforming into something else; nothing is ever lost. The gathering of life experience is like the laying down of compost. The leaves of individual events fall onto the heap, fade and decay, and are transformed into memories, which feed our sense of identity, which gives rise to new experiences.

Change is constant in life; it is the one thing we can rely on. Some people find it difficult to embrace change; others enjoy it. Without change, there would be no growth, no seasons, no new life. There would also be no death, but just try to imagine what immortality would be like – a barren state of existence with no excitement.

The Buddhists like to point out that there is nothing constant about our bodies. Our cells are replaced so rapidly that every cell in our bodies is replaced by the end of seven years, so you are literally not physically the same person you were seven years ago. This is possibly the origin of the phrase, “the seven year itch”. Each day you acquire new experiences, new dreams, and lose old memories, so you are not the same person you were yesterday.

We constantly shape each other socially, giving approval or disapproval to certain characteristics, and each of us is a slightly different person in different social situations. We change our opinions as we hear new evidence, and this is a sign of flexibility and openness. A lack of willingness to change one’s opinion gives rise to the rigidity of fundamentalism. There’s a lovely quote by Alan Watts (an Episcopalian priest who became a Zen Buddhist in the 1960s) that explains the difference between the openness and trust of faith and the rigidity of belief:

“Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.”

This openness and trust is an essential pre-requisite for the building of spiritual community. It is why many communities (such as Quakers and Pagans, and many Unitarians) like to do their rituals in a circle, which involves making eye contact with others, and emphasises the equality of participants.

The sociologist of religion, Emile Durkheim, said that the function of ritual is to manage changes in life, such as the transition from one state to another. Rites of passage (coming-of-age, coming out, initiation, marriage, divorce, birth, and death) are obvious examples; but in a sense all rituals are about managing change. The structure of ritual is a way of managing and enabling the change in consciousness that you experience as you make contact with the Divine by gradually relaxing into the ritual and entering into an altered state of consciousness.

The major change enabled by participating in a ritual is the building of community with others. As we share the celebration of ultimate worth, singing, praying, invoking, meditating, speaking and listening, we are focused on something other than our individual ego. We cease to worry about how we look, and focus on the experience of being together. The constant presence of the inner commentator is switched off. David Smail, a therapist who regards therapy with suspicion, writes in his book, Taking Care, that more therapeutic benefit is derived from participating in a communal activity than from hours of individual therapy. This is true even if it’s something apparently trivial like your local bridge club.

Being in a community of people sharing their spiritual journeys enables us to rub the corners off each other; to be aware of our own foibles and to tolerate those of others. That’s presumably why the prayer of Jesus emphasises that we are forgiven as we forgive those who trespass against us (or in the original Aramaic, “detach us from the fetters of the faults that bind us, as we let go the guilt of others”).

So change is both embracing and letting go, expansion and contraction. It is a dance of inner and outer, dark and light. It is a cycle of growth, death and rebirth. Everything is in constant flux. The plants grow, blossom, bear fruit and die. Stars and galaxies are born, expand, and then die as their energy is spent.

Sometimes change can be painful. The loss of loved ones, or the ending of relationships, are usually immensely painful, but they may also enable growth and renewal, and expand your capacity to feel. There’s a beautiful poem by Kahlil Gibran about joy and sorrow:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
The more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

Similarly, the Baal Shem Tov, a nineteenth century Jewish mystic, equated brokenness with openness to divine mystery:

Once the Baal Shem Tov commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram’s-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Ha-Shanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and laid the slip of paper in his bosom. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram’s-horn without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them.

Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: “Lo, in the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock, but the master key of all is the axe, whith which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram’s-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a man truthfully breaks his heart before God, he can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the King above all Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” — Or Yesharim

When I reflect on the changes in my own life – the beginnings and endings of relationships, moving house, moving to a new city, meeting new friends, learning new ideas – these are always the times of greatest spiritual growth for me. Suddenly I experience a flood of creativity; poetry and prose pours onto the page in an unstoppable flood. Then there may be years of stagnation, until something comes along to shake me out of my rut and force me to move and grow. I should really try to find a way to make change constant in my life…

There could be no stories without change, because stories tell about the transition from one way of being to another – the discovery of spiritual treasure, a struggle for justice, falling in love, journeying from one place to another. The scientist Jack Cohen has suggested that we be renamed Pan narrans, the storytelling ape, because storytelling is a major aspect of our human nature. So let’s celebrate change as being the basis of all good stories, including the unique and special story we are each currently living.

[originally published at Dance of the elements]