(Originally appearing in The Second Road)
The hardest thing about learning witchcraft is understanding the gods and goddesses. Most who get involved in Wicca, witchcraft, and paganism are looking for a spiritual path that makes sense. We come to the Earth based religions because they are practical, non-dogmatic and self-reliant. Independent thought, personal freedom and timeless wisdom are the watchwords of this resurrected faith, but some mythological concepts are hard to grasp for the modern person.
The difficulties arise in understanding the ancient pagan mythologies and how they apply to us today. Wicca is a modern revival of the old pagan religions, focusing on the craft of those ancient priests and priestess. Paganism, or more accurately neo-paganism, is a revival of similar practices, with less focus on the role of the clergy. As children of the twenty first century, we are all a part of the global village, with access to sacred text and myths from across the world. Wicca draws primarily on European mythology, but European myth is a large subject, spanning several cultures and time frames. The myths of Greece, Rome, Celts, and Teutons, along with their various subdivisions, are now the foundation of Wicca, though individual traditions can favor one culture over another. Modern witchcraft also draws from the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, along with some material from India, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Although the same spiritual truths can be found all over the world, each culture and time had specific stories to tell. Learning them all, and how they fit together, is a momentous task.
Polytheism & Monotheism
The tallest stumbling block for the twenty-first century initiate is the concept of polytheism. Most witches I know were not raised as witches or pagans, but in traditional Judeo-Christian homes. Perhaps that will change with a new generation of pagan parents out there, but at the moment, most of us were most likely raised in a monotheistic tradition. Even if you were not taken to church services on a regular basis, most families have a default mainstream religion, even if they don’t practice it. Monotheism is a belief in one God. Pagan religions are polytheistic, meaning a belief in many gods. It is hard to go from a viewpoint of one supreme God to a view of many different gods and goddesses, with
many different stories and motives. Some stories have very human acting gods and goddesses, somewhat petty and vengeful. It can be hard to relate to them as divine creative beings. For a former monotheist, it’s all very confusing. It leads an aspiring pagan to ask, “Who are the gods, really?”
We ask no easy questions. Every practitioner has a slightly different opinion on the nature and will of the gods. Such questions are the foundation for the spiritual quest. We spend our lifetimes contemplating the divine, and our place in the greater scheme of things. Hopefully this article will demonstrate some common ground.
In my opinion, both monotheist and polytheist are correct. The biggest error we make is thinking one way is superior to the other. Both views are just that, views. Everyone has a different perspective, and we need to find the one that works for us. Very few traditions are strictly one or the other. Both camps unconsciously incorporate elements that suit their view point, even if they hold onto a label.
The Judeo-Christian faiths are considered monotheistic, believing in one God, often called Yaweh. Catholics look to the same God as the Holy Trinity, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit – giving the one being three definitive expressions. Catholics have also honored Mother Mary and the saints. Although they are not God, they are representatives, acting as bridges to God. Each saint is given a particular province, an area of expertise. Similarly we have the angels. Those of Jewish tradition, and other Christian faiths usually believe forms of angels and archangels. The Bible has several references to these divine messengers and representatives, issuing the will of God on Earth. They are extensions of God’s power. Angels do not originate in the Hebrew Bible. They can be found in the ancient cultures of Sumer, Egypt and Chaldaea. All were pagan and polytheistic by our definitions. Angels were expression of the divine, acting as extensions of divine power. The Egyptians called them neters. To many of these ancient cultures, like the Egyptians, there was very little distinction between some of the gods and these angelic forces.
The original word for God in Genesis was Elohim, a plural word meaning both male and female and roughly translated by our modern scholars as “creator gods.” The Jewish people, as a nation were quite often subjugated and enslaved by their Middle Eastern neighbors, and sought to distinguish themselves from many of the Goddess reverent and pagan cultures around them. Idols were outlawed because the pagan religions used idols and icons.
Homosexuality was outlawed because it was found in the temples of Inanna and Astarte. They focused on the male fire and storm god Yaweh as not only their supreme tribal god, but declared him creator God of all. Prior to this, he was one god of many in the Middle East. Here began a great division between the one and the many, carried on by all the Christian and Muslim faiths that used Judaism as a foundation stone.
Pagans are not strictly polytheist either. The whole concept behind polytheism, at least as interpreted by modern practitioners, is the concept that everything is alive. Everything is divine. Everything expresses life force and consciousness on some level. One of the first Hermetic teachings, reportedly given to us by the god Thoth-Hermes, is the Principle of Mentalism. We are all thoughts in the divine mind. We are all creations of the divine spirit. We are all one. Sounds very monotheistic, doesn’t it? The gods and goddesses of mythology consciously represent different aspects of the divine. The Earth has the Earth Mother. The grain has the harvest gods. The Sun is personified by one deity and the Moon another, because all these things are alive to the pagan. But they all have one unifying spirit running through them. You can call that God, Goddess, Great Spirit, all with capital “G’s,” or anything else. The polytheists look to the individual expressions of this one Great Spirit, as represented by the different gods and goddesses of mythology, with little “g’s.” These are the aspects people can relate to, because they embodied the forces more intimately in contact with hunter/gatherer and later agrarian society.
Unfortunately the recorded myths taught in most school books do not get the point of one spirit with many faces across to the reader. Most modern mythologists look to this work as story and fable, not scripture. Most people who translate and comment on the Bible historically were of the faith, but as pagans were converted to Christianity, there was not many left of the Old Religion for a first hand account and personal representation of the faiths. We are lucky they were recorded at all. Even the most valiant efforts of modern pagans are re-constructions and interpretation of past belief and ritual. No wonder neo-paganism borrows from so many sources.
Did these beings, these pagan gods walk the Earth, as we believe the Catholic saints did? Were they humans who achieved mystical enlightenment, ascended to the next level of consciousness, but remaining behind in spirit to aid humanity because of their love and compassion for us, like the eastern Bodhisattvas? Many Bodhisattvas are often considered Eastern goddesses, like Quan Yin. Did they walk the Earth as gods made flesh, as did the Hindu avatars such as Krishna, incarnated into the mortal plane to teach us, somewhat like Jesus? Did they never walk the Earth, and simply speak to us through our dreams, visions and artist, always residing on the spiritual planes? Or are they simply symbols, ways humanity uses to understand the divine? All are wonderful ideas, and part of the spiritual journey is to discover the answers for yourself, and more importantly your own personal relationship with the divine. There is no one completely correct answer. A truth can be found in each idea, but that doesn’t make the gods any less real or personal.
C.G. Jung called these individual forces archetypes, all dwelling in the collective consciousness of humanity. While he may have believed they were representations of human experience found the world over, many pagans prefer to think of the collective consciousness as a meeting ground for communicating with these vast beings of consciousness. Each one represents a face, a facet of the one Great Spirit or Divine Mind.
I describe divinity like a diamond, beautifully cut and shining brightly. Everyone looks at the diamond a bit differently. You can look at the whole thing, but the reflection can be so bright, its hard to understand and accept it as a whole. You know its there, but it seems unknowable. Details are hard to grasp. This is a strict monotheist view. You look at the whole and nothing else.
Sometimes a particular facet of the diamond will grab your attention, to the exclusion of everything else. You feel that facet is the only one, and there are no others. You do not see the whole diamond or any faces. You feel the rest are illusions. This is a particularly zealous brand of monotheism, excluding all other possibilities and viewpoints.
You can be attracted to a few of the faces, a patch of them, and focus all your attention on them. They represent a series of archetypes, the gods and goddesses from a particular pantheon. You may focus on them exclusively, but most realize there are other faces of the diamond. This is why many pagan cultures borrowed from each other, seeing other expression of their own gods in other lands. This is also why mixing and matching in the eclectic focus of modern witchcraft works so well. Even the early voodoo practitioner learned to adopt the saints as mask for their gods, because the archetypes are so similar.
Hopefully seekers recognize the faces of the diamond, and the whole diamond itself, and understand it is all a point of view. They are both right, and both have their truth. Native American traditions have a wonderful story. The world is a dream, dreamt by the Dreamer, the Great Spirit. The Dreamer realized he/she could not dream it alone, that other must create, and created many dreamers, each in charge of their own dream. One dreamer dreams of rocks, another of trees and another of love and romance. Each has their own realm of responsibility. The Dreamer is like the diamond, while the dreamers are the facets, the gods and goddess.
Another great expression is that all gods are shadows cast from the same light. The important thing to remember in any of these analogies is that we, too, are part of the whole. We are all faces in another layer of the diamond. We are dreamers. We are shadows cast by the divine light.
Modern witches look to the archetypes as divine beings, as the dreamers. Each can take many different forms throughout the world, manifested differently to the various cultures. Each one wears different masks, though they represent the same fundamental forces in that culture. These different expressions are called godforms. An individual archetype’s many godforms may be connected through history, or may be exclusive to a particular culture. Godforms are the masks of the archetypal beings.
We have the very popular archetype of the Goddess of Love. Known most popularly as Aphrodite or Venus, from Greek or Roman myth. She actually evolved from the Middle Eastern goddesses Astarte, Ishtar and Inanna. Although all are goddess of love and pleasure, Inanna was also a goddess of war and Queen of Heaven. The Norse Goddess Freya is also considered a love goddess, but she is also a patron of magic, fertility goddess and the force of the Earth itself. She has no discernable link to the Middle Eastern goddesses. The Goddess of Love can assume many different forms, and assume other responsibilities, as the dreamers, the archetypes mix and mingle on the spiritual planes. Each godform represents a single being, or vibration. When you call upon Venus in ritual, the energy is different then when you call on Astarte or Inanna or Freya even though they are all aspects of the Goddess.
Think of the individuals deities, the godforms, as one level of divinity. Here we have the most personality and human like qualities. That’s why they can be more easily identified with and understood. Here we can relate best through the stories and the myths.
All gods lead to the God. All goddesses lead to the Goddess. The God and Goddess lead to the one spirit, though personifying spirit as male and/or female, mother or father, helps our connection. The individual archetypes are a bit more nebulous to us. They are less defined in shape and form, taking masks of the godforms to make themselves known, so we can see them better. The archetypal beings lead back to the primal spirit, the Great Spirit, who shows even less form and shape, for the Great Spirit contains all forms and no form, being the sum of all life on every level of existence.
In part 2, we will look at several different archetypes and how they are expressed as gods and goddesses of the pagan faiths.