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?
There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.
Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).
Religions as languages
Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.
Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:
Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.
Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.
Religions as people
Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.
Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.
Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:
[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.
Religions as landscapes
This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.
Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?
Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.
Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’
Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).
Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.
Religions as light, colour, energy
I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.
Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.
Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:
Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.
Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of Paganism, Colors of Judaism, Colors of Islam, Colors of Hinduism, Colors of Christianity, Colors of Buddhism.
Religions as art-forms
I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.
Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):
Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.
Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.
Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet. Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.
Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.
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.
John Beckett has a witty and amusing post up about apple pie, vanilla pudding, and other kinds of dessert. He’s got practically the entire readership of Patheos Pagan going “I want apple pie”.
But he missed out all the people who are saying that only their apple pie is the real apple pie. (John himself acknowledges that there are many kinds of apple pie.)
Your apple pie is not my apple pie
I am horrified that John puts cinnamon in his apple pie, and nothing would persuade me to eat it. That’s just wrong. Also, I am willing to bet there is too much sugar in his apple pie (I like mine really tart). And I bet he doesn’t put cheese with it either, because he’s not from Yorkshire.
And if you are a British reader, you will not be tasting the same apple pie on your mind’s tongue as an American reader. The poor benighted Americans don’t even have Bramley apples, apparently. This recipe article outlines the difference between a British apple pie and an American apple pie.
But it’s still apple pie
However, I would have to grudgingly acknowledge that his apple pie is a kind of apple pie (despite the presence of cinnamon and too much sugar) because his pie has apples and pastry in it, and therefore it meets the minimum criteria for being described as apple pie. I hope he would acknowledge that my apple pie is also apple pie, even if he doesn’t like it.
And my Bramley apple pie is definitely better than apple pie made with the wrong kind of apples and with cinnamon and extra sugar…. for me.
The same applies to polytheism. You might not like relational polytheism, or mystical polytheism, or devotional polytheism, or polytheistic monism, or anything else that can be described as polytheism because it involves many gods… but it’s still polytheism.
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.
Music is the exaltation of poetry, composer Henry Purcell said some few hundred years ago.
Then dance must be the exaltation of music, I reply.
One of the unfortunate messages of my childhood was that I could not be a dancer. One of the parts of myself I gave up as I moved into parenthood was singing. Here I am, left with poetry.
I went to a dance class for the first time in years a few days ago.
It was a very low-key affair: a drop-in gathering at my local UU church for “expressive movement” or something like that. There were five of us, plus the teacher, a tiny woman with a generous wide mouth and a big, bubbly laugh.
Coming in a minute or two late, she sat down on the floor and proceeded to cut a wire coat hanger into pieces. She picked up the two corner pieces and said, “Today I’m going to dowse your auras.” Debussy’s Claire de lune was on the CD player.
When she got around to me, the only newcomer, she asked, “Is this too out there for you? Because I’m really fine with people who just don’t want to do this kind of thing. It’s okay.”
“I blog as a polytheist on a pagan website,” I told her. “I just finished taking a shapeshifting class. Trust me, I’m fine with this.”
There is no one, no one in my family that I can think of, and very, very few people among my friends, who would be able and willing to stand with me in this room while someone holds two ends of a coat hanger up and walks around me in a slow circle, feeling for my aura. How did I get here, anyway?
In his book Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte writes:
Freedom is perhaps the ultimate spiritual longing of an individual human being, but freedom is only really appreciated when it falls within the parameters of a larger sense of belonging. In freedom is the wish to belong to structure in our own particular way.
We often think of freedom as a surficial, horizontal motion that aims for the horizon, and belonging as a depth dimension (to put down roots somewhere). But I have come to believe that there can be such a thing as “deep freedom” too. I think it may be true that no life is fully lived that doesn’t dare those depths: to ask the largest questions… and risk the answers.
So, swimming in a deeper element, I named myself anew and started writing again. I admitted that I feel spirits in the corners, that the universe may be shaped like a tree and that I would love it if it was, so why not, that deity is approachable (at least some of them) and real and multiple. And here I am, alone with these women I don’t yet know, as the piano music continues to unspool from the CD player.
Turns out my aura is not so big as some, but remarkably evenly distributed.
What do I believe?
I believe to do this work, to do any work, takes time, sensitivity, practice, and the right tools. I’m skeptical of the coathangers. I’m skeptical this can be effective, given that we’re all shuffling around this too-small room in the corner of the church while she tries to isolate the aura of each of us. But even as I allow those doubts to surface, I’m completely willing to join in the exercise if it gets us thinking about personal space, personal boundaries, self-expression through the body and how our personalities, confidence, fatigue levels, etc. etc. influence our impact on others. Influence how we move into and through the hours of the day. I’m willing to use words like “aura” to talk about these things.
At this moment, I can say that apparently my own particular way of living in the world includes dowsing for auras with coat hangers, if that’s what is available. Using what is at hand, being open to the possible and the ridiculous all at once, and the living, unique, prickly and amazing beings all around us (whether human or other than human)…that’s a pretty good description of my religion, whatever you want to call it. Over at the new site, www.polytheist.com, Julian Betkowski offers this passage:
If we are in love with difference, in love with the individual and unique, and if we allow love to reveal reality to us, then we must accept the multiform and various as innate features of the world. We must be willing to see the experiences of others as profoundly True in a way that we, perhaps, may never fully comprehend. If we really love others as they themselves are, then we realize just how necessary they are for us to understand the complexity and richness of the world. Through love, Truth shatters apart, and its single center opens up to reveal an endless array. Truth, in fact, becomes a process, and open ended procedure: the practice of love.
So that’s what I’m doing here, with my metaphorical coathangers, as I sashay and spin and stretch my way into the music. I’m using my body, my senses, and my pen—all the tools at my disposal—to dowse not only for auras, but for the quickpoints of truth, of love, the zany and breathtaking and completely unbelievable (and yet it really happens) ways this world unfolds each minute. This is my practice of love.
“Theology, at the core, is an expression of our holiest experiences and our deepest knowing, integrated with the clarity and eloquence of the rational mind.”
Christine Hoff Kraemer, “Opening a Pagan Theological Dialogue,”
Sermons from the Mound blog, Dec. 7, ‘12
I have described myself as “pagan” for years without really knowing what I meant. Or what the word meant. It occurred to me recently I should maybe learn a little more. So, this past semester I went back to school and took an introductory class on Pagan Theologies at Cherry Hill Seminary, taught by Christine Hoff Kraemer. I went into the class defining myself as a loose-ish, pagan-ish follower-ish of an undefined goddess figure, and I more or less believed that all the gods and goddesses are really archetypes—representing facets of the human experience, common to us all whether or not we are aware of them.
I changed my mind pretty quick when I was approached by Wayland the Smith, a more-than-mortal figure about whom I knew nothing.
The dark river unloosed.
The bright-eyed bird sought rest
in pine trees full of a broken clock
music of grackles, ditches full
of the chonk-a-ree of redwings.
It’s a birdy world, a pratfall
of lost, pit of resist, as rinky-tink
meets honky-tonk, minister
meets medicine show meets last
night in the eyes and tempest
tossed. Comical and sad,
that glottal halt, salt water
taffy and the smell of lilac.
Listen. You can’t go back.
Fallen and falling like a waterfall,
the music that cracks
the sturdy little egg of the world.
Raven Kaldera, shaman, priest and author, says, “You get the god you call.” Maybe, but I think I placed the call in my sleep. So now I’m learning as much as I can about polytheism and the Norse, or Northern, as I prefer, traditions that Wayland is part of, reading books and searching websites and trying to memorize the runes. Occasionally Wayland himself chimes in, telling me what he wants or giving me advice. He can be quite specific. Recently, he asked me to keep my eye out for a ceramic grail or goblet, bone-colored.
No, you know that’s not it. I want a goblet made of bone.
But where on earth will I find something like that? We’re at Sears. I see a white coffee mug and pick it up.
It’s $3.49, on sale, mass produced. This is Sears. Put it down.
I look sideways at him. You’re not going to be a cheap date, are you.
You have no idea.
I could be more worried about undertaking a theological life journey with a largely forgotten deity who wants to wake up again, but I’m a poet. I figure it comes with the territory.
Who am I? Why am I here? Big questions—but inserting myself into an established blog space seems to demand some account of myself. My life, like this essay, is a patchwork of prose, poetry, daily life, spiritual musings, occasional interruptions and eruptions. Intro to Pagan Theologies brought me full circle to my life twenty years ago, an undergraduate majoring in Religion. I loved every minute of the Cherry Hill class. When it ended, I grieved a little and wrote in my journal, “I need community. I need adventure. I need a way to sink my teeth into life and not let go.”
And then Christine emailed, asking if I wanted to write for Patheos.
Okay, that’s a wrap. I think you’re in, kid.
No buts. You can do this. I could point to poems where you already have.
Write the shadows. Write the taboos. Write me.
But—I’ll sound like I’m crazy.
Oh come on. Where’s your courage? Where’s your sense of adventure?
Right. “Fear nothing.”
Fear nothing. Including ridicule. Remember, they laughed at me.
Yes. Yes, I –I know that story.
I know you do.
Your story. Wayland, lord, I—
There’s one very, very old, relatively well-known story about Wayland from the source materials that have survived. As a writer, I can’t wait to wrestle it down onto the page in my own language. But before I tell someone else’s story, I need to be honest about my own. Who am I, then?
Self in the world is a kind of performance, an interpretive dance of at times painfully mundane movements. When I walk out my front door and wave to the neighbors, there I am: wife, mother of two, school and church and community volunteer. I have a book of poems, Somewhere Piano, published by Mayapple Press, a couple of smaller chapbooks. You can look me up any day of the week.
But that would be too simple, wouldn’t it. Shortly after Somewhere Piano was published, it became clear to me that my domestic and domesticated self had said all she had to say. She no longer held the pencil. I needed to find wilder fingers.
So, like Albus Dumbledore drawing his silver memories down into a pensieve, I turned myself inside out and drew out a new self:
Shadow, Sad Eye, Said I, Sadie
Dicey, Doosie, Do See, Do Say, Ducet
I turned myself into a pun, a smile. A way to breathe underwater, created of shadow and possibility. I set myself dancing on the page.
Career suicide, conventional wisdom argued, aghast. Changing your name midstream.
I’m exploring unconventional wisdom. It’s my hope to touch in here every once in a while, to explore the connections between poetry, myth, Wayland’s story and my own wanderings and wonderings, and how it all relates to current events, life in this twenty-first century. Just like my favorite bread-and-butter pickle recipe, the Journey is “good alone or with somebody,” but I think it’s best when shared with others.
Unconventional wisdom keeps me in motion, dancing in the spaces between Sarah and Sadie, able to change, to disappear and then reappear, eyes a slightly different color than they were. Unconventional wisdom encourages me to imagine a person can be verb instead of noun. Truth lies somewhere between fictions. I would not posit this essay as truth.
A book is a basket of deaths. Small ones.
A web with no spider (hide
her), this is the secret dilation,
the interior shore, a little
lagniappe, something more,
a dance for the sake of dancing.
Verse. Reverse. Press in, be pressed
upon and disappear. Address,
redress and put your clothes on, honey.
Embrace arrest. Treat and retreat. Flight
does not equal resist. This is
the walled garden, the invitation,
an intimate penetration.
Let’s not lie or cover over.
It’s sexy as hell, what’s going on.
(“Riff on the Definition of Poem”)
This is the path I’m on, maybe not quite so rational in my approach as the epigraph by Christine would suggest—more of a perceived glimmer, a scent I follow down the road, trusting peripheral vision, sideways, sidewise.
The eyes in the greenery, wild, watching, just out of reach. Meet me there.
*All poems in these entries written by Sadie Ducet unless noted otherwise. “Riff on the Definition of Poem” is included, with a whole bunch of other lovely poems by many, many poets, in the 2015 Wisconsin Poets’ calendar, which is available for sale at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets website.
I was not going to wade into the “Wiccanate Privilege” debate, but having read most of the posts on it, it seemed to me that one angle had been missed, and there was potential for misunderstanding.
Some Wiccans seem to have misread or misheard “Wiccanate” as “Wiccan”. As I understand it, the problem as stated is that the Pagan book market is flooded with “Wicca 101” books, which means that a lot of Pagan discourse is couched in the language of Wicca 101 books, and there’s a set of assumptions out there in the public domain about what Pagans do, based on these books – that all Pagans celebrate the festivals of the Wheel of the Year, that all Pagans think the deities are archetypes and expressions of a single underlying divine energy, that all Pagans do magic, and so on. And the complaint is that workshops at events are also based on these assumptions.
Whilst it is true that the market is flooded with these books, and that many people assume that Paganism means Wicca-lite, some of these assumptions are also problematic for Wiccans, especially Wiccans who don’t conform to general expectations and assumptions of what Wicca is about.
These 101 books often contain an assumption that you are a Wiccan if you have read one of these books and you do the rituals in them. If someone wants to identify as a Wiccan, but does not have access to a compatible coven and coven training, then who am I to stop them starting out on their own and doing what they can? That is why, in the UK, we refer to initiatory Wicca to distinguish it from the non-initiatory variety; and in North America, initiatory Wicca is referred to as British Traditional Wicca (this term does not really work in the UK, as various Cochrane-derived traditions are referred to as Traditional Witchcraft). There are also other forms of witchcraft, both initiatory and non-initiatory.
More problematic for me is the fact that books on Wicca often contain an assumption that Wicca is duotheistic; whereas most Wiccans I know are polytheists, pantheists, animists, or non-theists. But because it says in these books that we are duotheist, other polytheists often refuse to believe that a Wiccan can be a polytheist. But many Wiccans regard ‘the Lord and Lady’ as patron deities of the Craft, two among many; and many covens honour a different pair of deities as their coven patrons than the standard two, and honour a multitude of deities alongside them. I would really like never to hear “but you can’t be a polytheist if you’re a Wiccan” again. I have never heard it from a Wiccan, but I have heard it from polytheists.
Another problem is that books on Wicca are often heterocentric, and seem to have forgotten that the ultimate goal of the Wiccan mysteries (and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn before us) used to be seen as spiritual androgyny, or to put it in more Jungian terms, integration. So whilst one may perceive differentiated “male” and female” energies, there are energies of many genders, and (in my opinion) the ultimate divine source, which has no personality, both transcends and includes all genders.
Add to that the fact that these 101 books are often prescriptive about what Wicca involves, and you get the imposition of a set of norms which it is difficult to challenge in our particular culture (“but I saw it in a book so it must be true”) and assumptions from non-Wiccans that that is what Wicca is like. I often get asked by coveners to recommend a book about Wicca. It is really hard, because I disagree with most of the books out there. That is why I am writing one.
So, as a Wiccan and a polytheist, I think we should dismantle Wiccanate privilege as soon as possible. Let diversity flourish. If other Pagan traditions don’t want Wiccans representing them at interfaith events, then show up to interfaith events. Let’s not have Wicca-flavoured ritual at events. Let’s have devotional polytheism, liturgical Paganism, full-on Wiccan ritual, revived Eleusinian mysteries, Heathen blots, Druid rituals etc. And let’s not have assumptions about what Pagans believe – that way lies orthodoxy.
The ‘Wiccanate Privilege’ debate
- The Allergic Pagan: Wiccanate Privilege Discussion at Pantheacon
- Raise the Horns: Wiccanate? I Think Not.
- A Witch’s Ashram: My Take on Wiccanate Privilege
- Pointedly Pagan: Don Frew on saving Pagan lives, ‘Wiccan privilege’ and interfaith
- Syncretic Electric: Why I am a Polytheist
- The Wild Hunt: An overview of the PantheaCon Wiccan Privilege Discussion
- Of Thespiae: [PBP 2013] Wiccanate Privilege
(sorry if I have omitted your ‘Wiccanate Privilege’ post – please add it in the comments if you want it included)
UPDATE: Several people have asked me to define my terms better. The problem is that Wicca and witchcraft are very multivalent, especially in North America, and the terms used in the UK are a bit different. I am not trying to exclude anyone who wants to use the term Wicca. I was just trying to make a distinction between different types of Wicca and witchcraft and the terms used for them in the UK and North America, not saying that one is better than another. If it works for you, great.
Also, for those who are new to this debate, I did not coin the term “Wiccanate”. John Halstead explains:
“Wiccanate” is a term coined by Johnny Rapture, and it refers to American Neo-Pagan theological ideas and liturgical forms common to large public Pagan gatherings and rituals, which are derived from Wicca, but are perceived to be “generic” or “universal” to Paganism. “Wiccan-Centric” is a related term. “Wiccanate privilege” is a phrase that has been going round in polytheist circles recently. It refers to the ways in which Wicca-inspired ritual and theology are assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.
A rite of passage is a ritual designed to make sacred a particular life event or transition from one stage of life to another. We might also call these rituals ‘sacraments’.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sacrament as “a thing of mysterious and sacred significance; a religious symbol”. The word is used in Catholicism to refer to the seven sacraments of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, ordination, and matrimony – which are mostly rites of passage; and in Protestant traditions, to baptism and the Eucharist. The etymology of the word is from Latin sacramentum ‘solemn oath’ (from sacrare ‘to hallow’, from sacer ‘sacred’).
An important element of rites of passage and sacraments is that they have a physical component, often linked to one or more of the classical four elements (earth, air, fire, water). Immersion in water is used in both Judaism and Christianity to signify entering into a new phase, being consecrated (baptism) or re-consecrated (mikveh). Fire is used as a purifying medium in the Hindu ritual of aarti, which is both an offering and a purificatory ritual. Water is used for the Sikh baptism ceremony called Amrit Sanskar. The ancient druids are reported to have used sensory deprivation by requiring candidates for initiation to lie in darkness for several days and then thrusting them into the light, according to OBOD. All these rituals signify some sort of symbolic death and rebirth experience.
The sacraments in Pagan traditions
There is no standard list of sacraments for any contemporary Pagan tradition, but we can identify sacraments for most of them.
In Wicca, the sacraments could be said to be preparing the circle, cakes and wine, naming (sometimes called “Wiccaning”), initiation, handfasting, and croning.
In Druidry, the sacraments could be said to be preparing the circle, naming, initiation, and handfasting.
In Religio Romana, there are many rituals designed to connect the practitioner with the deities and sacralize life. These include libations, a prayer for ablutions (a ritual formula to purify oneself prior to the performance of other rituals), and various daily rituals at the lararium or home shrine.
Most Pagans presume that everything is already sacred, because deities are immanent in the world. Therefore, rituals of consecration are about creating extra sacredness, or reconnecting us with the deities, the community, or the natural world.
Birth and naming. Pagans do not perceive a need to purify either the mother or the child after birth, considering that people are born innocent. The child will typically be welcomed into the community and given a name, but will not be committed to any particular religious tradition, as most Pagans believe that children should be able to choose their religion when they are old enough. Although the naming ceremony in Wicca is sometimes called a Wiccaning, it does not mean that the child is considered to be a Wiccan as a result of the ceremony.
Coming of age. There is a distinct lack of coming of age rituals in Western culture generally, and this is echoed in Pagan traditions, although some groups do celebrate the onset of menstruation, as long as the young woman in question actually wants this.
Initiation. Wicca and Druidry both have initiation rituals, often based on the initiation rituals of occult orders such as Freemasonry. Isaac Bonewits identified three types of initiation ritual:
- Initiation as a recognition of a status already gained
- Initiation as an ordeal of transformation
- Initiation as a method for transferring spiritual knowledge and power
I have identified six aspects of initiation, which may be present in a single ritual, or may be a gradual process. There is the inner process of transformation; the initiation by the gods and goddesses (making contact with the numinous); experiencing the Mysteries (that which cannot be spoken, or Arrheton); being given the secrets of the initiating group (that which must not be spoken, or Aporrheton); joining the group mind of the initiating group; and the joining of the lineage or tradition of which the coven is part.
In Heathenry, initiation is replaced by profession, a ceremony where someone professes a desire to become part of the Asatruar (people who are true to the Aesir, the Heathen deities), and then takes an oath.
Handfasting. This is the term for a wedding, mainly in Wicca and eclectic Paganism. The term has been in use since the 1960s, according to Wikipedia. The ceremony generally involves the symbolic crossing of a threshold, such as leaping over a broomstick or a small fire. The use of ribbons to fasten the couple’s hands together has been practised since the 2000s, again according to Wikipedia. Rings and vows are usually exchanged.
In Heathenry, wedding ceremonies are usually hallowed by holding them beneath the hammer of Thor (Mjöllnir), and arm-rings are exchanged. The couple may also hold an oath-ring while exchanging vows.
Croning. A ceremony for a woman who has reached menopause, usually celebrated in Wicca. A croning ceremony usually takes place around the age of fifty, and celebrates the achievement of elder status in the community, and feminine wisdom.
Dying. There is no set ritual for preparing for death, but there are many excellent resources in The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, by M Macha Nightmare (formerly of the Reclaiming tradition) and Starhawk.
Preparing sacred space (the circle). Most Pagan traditions have a preparation for ritual, as rituals are often held in spaces which also have other uses, such as a living room, a garden, or a park. Therefore sacred spaces are temporary and have to be reconsecrated. It is also necessary for the participants in a ritual to be prepared for ritual, in order to help us enter into the right mind-set. Preparation typically includes some form of consecration of both the space and the participants with the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Incense, water, salt, and other symbols of the four elements may be used to create sacred space.
Blot (Heathenry). This ritual has three parts, the hallowing or consecrating of the offering, the sharing of the offering, and the libation. The offering, shared with the deities, is typically mead, beer, or juice.
Sumble / symbel / sumbel (Heathenry).
“The sumbel is actually quite simple. The guests are seated, (traditionally, in some formal fashion), and the host begins the sumbel with a short statement of greeting and intent, and by offering the first toast. The horn is then passed around the table and each person makes their toasts in turn. At the sumbel toasts are drunk to the Gods, as well as to a persons ancestors or personal heroes. Rather than a toast, a person might also offer a brag or some story, song, or poem that has significance. The importance is that at the end of the toast, story, or whatever, the person offering it drinks from the horn, and in doing so ‘drinks in’ what he spoke.” ~ The rituals of Asatru
Cakes and wine (Wicca). In Wicca, cakes and wine are consecrated and shared. This happens at every circle.
Libations. These are offerings of mead or wine poured for the deities and spirits of place. The libation is important in Religio Romana, Heathenry, and Wicca.
What do all these rituals have in common?
They all involve one or more of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Earth may be represented by stone, salt, crystals, or soil. Air may be represented by blades, wands, feathers, or incense. Fire may be represented by a candle flame, a bonfire, incense, or wands. Water is represented by water, chalices, and cauldrons. Each element has a sacred direction, which can vary between different traditions.
Initiation ceremonies all include a section where the candidate is asked whether they wish to be there. In naming ceremonies, where the baby cannot be asked if it wishes to take part, a simple welcome to the wider community of humanity is all that takes place.
There is an assumption that things are already sacred, because deities are immanent in the world, but sometimes we forget our connection with the divine, and need reconnecting.
They generally involve marking the transition from one phase to another – sometimes by actually crossing a threshold: stepping into the sacred space, or leaping across a fire or a broomstick.
They generally involve deities or spirits being asked for their blessing and/or protection.
I have been thinking for a while that the aims of Pagan traditions with regard to the self, soul, spirit, consciousness and its relationship with the Universe are different from that of other religions.
The cultivation of virtue
One of the aims in several Pagan traditions is the cultivation of virtue. In Heathenry, there are the Nine Noble Virtues; in Wicca, there are the Eight Wiccan Virtues; many adherents of Religio Romana try to cultivate the virtues which the Romans of antiquity valued. The cultivation of virtue assumes that the virtues will grow in fertile soil – the soul in which they grow is not choked by weeds, although a certain amount of weeding might be required to help the virtues to grow.
In Christian mysticism, by contrast, in order for the divine image to grow in the soul, there must first be kenosis – a process of self-emptying. One is then filled with divinity (divinisation in Western Christianity; theosis in Eastern Orthodoxy), and one’s divine image is restored (previously it had been bleared by sin).
In Wicca, there are three levels of initiation, and each involves an encounter with a different aspect of divinity – but there is no self-emptying. There is a stage where everything changes and is called into question, but that is the nature of such a journey, and is found in most traditions.
The kinds of virtue that are being cultivated are also slightly different. Whilst compassion is a virtue, it is wise compassion rather than indiscriminating compassion (this distinction is very important in Buddhism, where I first came across the idea). Other Pagan virtues include strength, mirth, honour (three of the Wiccan virtues) and courage, honour, self-reliance (three of the Heathen virtues).
Seeking the authentic self
Sarah Pike, in her anthropological investigations of Pagan festivals (documented in Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community), found that the goal of the Pagan quest is to find the “authentic self” or the “true self”. This suggests that we are uncovering a pre-existing treasure, rather than erasing what exists and starting again.
The authentic self may turn out not to be “nice”. The Romantic poets were true individuals who produced great poetry; but they were not necessarily nice people (thanks to my friend CA for this example).
Most Pagans view the divine and/or deities as immanent in the world (or as immediate). Therefore the world is not fallen, and a multiplicity of forces – creation and destruction, yin and yang, growth and decay, energy and entropy, are in dynamic balance within it. These forces are also at play in microcosm in the human psyche, and that is entirely natural. Being angry, or sad, and acting on those emotions (in a controlled way), is not wrong – activism comes from anger, creativity can come from sadness.
The shadow and the psyche
A person with their shadow well-integrated can use its energy to provide them with power and decisiveness. A person with a well-integrated shadow knows how to say no, how to offer constructive criticism, how to avoid foolish compassion, and how to accept, welcome, and use the “dark side” of their personality (including anger, assertiveness, power, etc). They are also more interesting to know.
A person with no shadow (or no conscious access to their shadow) appears to be all sweetness and light on the surface, and presents as either generous, receptive, or passive, but when they eventually lash out, they do so from an ungrounded place, and are unable to connect their anger with the emotions that would balance it. Often, such people are “touchy-feely” and not analytical.
I have met a lot of “spiritual” people who are just too nice, and it seems false; they even talk in a high-pitched voice that sounds fake. There’s a great Monty Python cartoon where there’s a ‘nice’ vicar type with a soapy smile, but his smile keeps unzipping and letting monsters out of his head, so he has to keep nailing the top of his head back on. In other words, the more someone suppresses their “dark” side (shadow) and fails to integrate it, the more likely it is to lead to an explosion and an eruption of the shadow aspects (“monsters from the Id”).
Jung said that the work of individuation is all about integrating the energy from the Shadow and being able to use it creatively and constructively. As we bring the obscure unconscious material into the light of consciousness, it is transformed.
The psyche and the world
In Pagan communities, people do not attempt to shape others into any particular mould – there is no template for how the authentic self should look, because it is unique to each person.
Heelas and Woodhead, in The spiritual revolution (2006), talk about religions of humanity, that attempt to mould their adherents to a particular way of being and a set pattern of virtues. Most Pagan traditions refrain from doing this, and instead encourage individuality and a quest for the true self.
The relationship of the individual with the Pagan community tends to be more network-based. We meet in pubs for Pagan moots and gatherings, and the actual spiritual work happens in small groups such as covens, groves, hearths. People come together for large festivals, but there the quest is for freedom to be one’s true self.
Spirit and matter
In many spiritual traditions, especially those descended from Gnosticism, the aim is to leave the body and return to the divine source. (The radical rejection of matter may have been one of the reasons why orthodox Christians persecuted the Gnostics, apparently.)
In Pagan traditions, I would argue, because we love the land, or the Earth, or Nature (depending on the tradition), the aim is to awaken the soul of Nature, and to commune with the spirits of place (land wights, genii loci, and so on); therefore we want to bring more spirit into matter, not to separate the two.
Some people interpret “spirituality” to mean “the things of the spirit world”. Personally, I have always interpreted it as “a response of awe, wonder, and gratitude for the beauty of Nature, art, literature, scientific insight, and poetry” but increasingly it is being used as a term that means something to do with the non-material. It has also been described, by L Bregman, as “a glowing and useful term in search of a meaning”.
So I am starting to prefer the word “embodiment”, which is all about being in touch with your body, and not alienated from it. I am still (slowly) learning about embodiment practices. However, I think embodiment is probably a more Pagan concept than spirituality.
Given that Pagan traditions generally seek to cultivate the authentic self, and to put us in touch with the physical world, the wider community of other-than-human people (animals, plants, and spirits of place), and given that Pagans generally regard the divine and/or deities as immanent in Nature, we should be wary of importing spiritual practices, norms, and goals from other traditions without first checking how they fit with our existing goals, norms, and practices.