Tag Archives: gods

The allure of lost Gods

Anyone who has followed me for long will know that I’m not much of a polytheist. Partly this is because I have no innate capacity for belief, coupled with very little experience of the divine. I’ve spent time actively seeking the divine and the results were interesting, but vague.  I am not beloved of the Gods. I am not priest material. I do not get UPGs or messages or instructions or anything of that ilk. No one has chosen me, and equally, while I find the stories interesting, I’ve not felt moved to even try and honour a deity for a very long time.

This doesn’t mean I don’t think Gods exist. I am happy to accept the existence of Gods for other people. I just don’t have a life that has Gods in it.

We know that the Celts had local Gods. We know that many of the deities who are now famous are associated with very specific places. Locally we have Sabrina, at the River Severn, and Nodens about where the Severn turns to salt. His temple is on the other side of the river from me. There was a temple on the hilltop here, and there is a massive Roman mosaic depicting Orpheus not far from where I live. The hills themselves are quiet. There are carved images in local museums, but not much to go on.

I was, as a consequence of all these things, rather taken with this post from Robin Collins, talking about Gods in the Cotswolds Hills. Gods with guessed at names, no temples, no surviving stories. Lost Gods. Reading it was the first time I’ve had any meaningful feelings about deity in a very long time. https://stroudwalking.wordpress.com/2018/09/22/2730/

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What Paganism can learn from comics

There’ isn’t a definitive narrative for the Marvel universe. People keep re-writing Batman, Superman, Spiderman, retelling their origin tales. The X-Men have had more re-boots and parallel universes than most of us could keep up with. Some people only ever see the films. People keep telling new stories about these characters because they are popular. The stories keep up with wider social changes. None of these stories ever is or ever should be considered the ‘real’ version.

Imagine that as a person far into the future, you had some of the surviving comics to draw on. You had the middle bit of a film, a book review, three comics, seven fragments of fan fiction and the script for a crossover project. You don’t know which ones came first. You don’t know that you have fan fic in the mix, much less which bits fall into that category. Whatever sense you made of the content, it would not seem to you as it did to the people who created it.

When we look at what writings there are about myths, legends and ancient histories, it is of course tempting to think there’s an underlying truth to uncover. A real version. We look for coherence in stories about Gods and heroes. Coherence is generally in short supply. It occurs to me that we have something in mythology that has more in common with modern comics reboots and re-imaginings than it does with the agreed and fixed texts of book-orientated religions.

There may never have been a fixed, original story. There may be no single coherent truth to uncover. When we’re talking about figures like King Arthur, or Loki, the modern treatment of them in films and books may simply be a continuation of what’s always happened – people tell stories about characters they like.


Gods, feudalism and power over

It isn’t an accident that so much traditional spiritual language has a feudal tone to it. Lord and Lady are terms of nobility. Christianity is full of the language of kings, sovereignty and power over. Pagans use ‘Queen’ as a term for Goddess. For a good chunk of European history those who had taken power and wealth by force of arms were keen to create the impression of divine sanction for it. The King in his castle, sucking up the bounty, is God’s representative on Earth. God the Uber-King looks down on all from Heaven – a very literal expression of being over the top of the rest of us.

The stories modern Pagans turn to were recorded, for the greater part, by people who were part of that power-over arrangement. God the Uber-King in league with the physical monarch bestowed a lot of power on the church, giving the church every reason to support the logic of the system. Plus, in a less cynical way, we tend to make sense of things through the filters of our own experience. There are reasons to think that some mythology may have grown out of the deeds of actual people, actual Kings, Queens and rulers. It may be that much of Paganism itself is rooted in monarchic cultures.

The language of democracy doesn’t really work for religion. Any notion of elected to power seems a bit odd when talking about beings who have more power than us. Chairman of the Gods is funny, but lacks a certain swing. Perhaps this is in part because one of the key things we want from Gods, is that they be bigger and more powerful than us and therefore able to protect us from terrible things. Powerful enough to protect you from other things – ie other Kings, has always been part of the marketing for feudalism.

There are other languages out there although I can’t claim deep familiarity with them. From what I’ve read, a lot of indigenous people use the language of family to talk about the spirit powers they encounter. Grandfathers and grandmothers. Brothers and sisters. If you aren’t operating in a patriarchal/feudal structure to begin with, God the father has a very different feel to it.

The language of monarchy and feudalism tends to give humans a sense of power over the non-human world, which is doing us and the world no good at all. Perhaps it is time to start questioning our word choices and habits of thinking. I don’t have any suggestions for word replacements at the moment, except to acknowledge that I find the language of monarchy and feudalism really uncomfortable and I wish we didn’t use it.


Poem – Ungodly revelations

Ungodly revelations

 

The Gods who speak to me

Have no names, no stories

No sign of temples.

Do not care anyway

For name, tale or altar

Offer no fame,

No priesthood

No recognition.

Ask for no offerings

But life.

Whisper truths

And untruths,

In fox call and stream flow

And silence


At the Temple of Nodens

The ancestors did not speak to me, although I walked barefoot into their temple.

At the triple shrine, the Gods did not speak to me. I wondered who the other two might have been.

I sat in the grass and watched determined ants carry their eggs from the old place to the new place, wherever those were and for whatever reasons prompt ants to go to such great lengths.

I saw the tiniest grasshoppers I have ever encountered. They jumped, and I laughed like a child.

The wind that had come up the Severn played with my hair and chilled me until I could sit no longer. A raven and a buzzard soared over the site, calling.

I was not magically healed of my pains and woes. This did not surprise me. I did not stay for long enough for that to seem even slightly realistic. There were no revelations, but I do not know the words that were spoken in this place or the songs sung, and there were a lot of tourists, and it seems to be a lot to ask of a place just to wake up for me when there is no one to care for it from day to day or to sing its songs.

I left with no grand tales to tell, and no mission, and no particular insight. I left feeling blessed by the sun and wind, by the ants and grasshoppers, raven, buzzard, and all the small flowers in the grass.


Spiritual exposure

We are all our own priests and priestesses as Pagans, which rather suggests we do not need anyone to mediate between us and the divine. You can do that for yourself. What we don’t talk about so much, is what happens if you can’t.

Many Pagans have stories to tell of direct, personal experience when Gods have spoken to them, shown them things, made requests, demands and offers. There are many others who don’t do Gods so much, but have intense relationship with spirit, spirit guides, ancestors and the like. Some part of the universe speaks spiritually to them in a way they are confident about recognising and understanding. This makes it very hard to put up a hand and say ‘that’s not what I get.’ It feels like failure, lack of effort, insufficient worthiness. How can I call myself a Druid if nothing is particularly talking to me? This is what I’ve got, because apart from a handful of odd experiences I am none too confident about, I do not hear the voice of spirit. Gods do not choose me, or talk to me. I have no guides and no totem anything.

It’s not for lack of trying. Years of study, lots of rituals, deep work with meditation and prayer over many years. Dedications, offerings of self, work done. I’m not that good at belief, and perhaps that closes the door on me, but others who do not believe have startling experiences that change them into people who know. That’s not been me. I’ll admit I have all kinds of less than perfectly enlightened responses to the profound and intense experiences others describe. Jealousy, above all else. Frustration, confusion. Why them and not me? What am I doing wrong? What should I be doing more of? I come with a will to serve, give, work and so forth, why are so many others worthy of attention when I am not?

It would be easy to hide this, to lie about it and pass myself off as being just as beloved of the gods as the next Pagan. It would be easy to become wholly disenchanted and settle into comfortable atheism and feel no responsibility for what I am not. I’ve managed to settle on Maybeism, holding the possibility, and accepting this is where I am and that for whatever reasons, a great deal of regular Pagan religious experience just doesn’t happen for me. I can feel inspired, and I can feel wonder, and perhaps I have to just get over the desire to feel a bit special and acceptable to deity, and get on with making the best of what I have.

Writing ‘When a Pagan Prays’ felt very exposed indeed, because it is a confession of what is absent in my life and practice, and exposure of what it means to have no certainty, no confident firsthand experience. Putting it out there left me feeling decidedly naked and vulnerable – now all the people who are proper Druids and Pagans, in relationship with the Gods of their ancestors, will know that I am not one of them, not part of their experience. At times it feels like it is just me; that everyone else can do these profound spiritual things that are beyond me, but perhaps that isn’t so. Perhaps there are others quietly staying silent about what they are not, and what they can’t do. My hope is that if there are, this exposure of experience will at least make that less bitter, less demoralising.

A person can be spiritual without having certainty, can dedicate to the ideas of Gods and religions even if nothing speaks back to them. We can choose ways of living and being because they seem like wise choices, not because we had a vision or a higher being told us to. I’d like to think it is entirely valid to choose a spiritual way of life even if your quest for the numinous never brings you to anything. It is the choice, the quest and how we choose to live as a consequence that matters most, if all we have is a fairly mundane experience of the world.


Gods of the wild yeast

In my kitchen a strange, magical process is taking place. Alchemy, if you will. The wild yeast has found the blackberries I harvested and laced with sugar to attract it, and now there is fermentation. I’ve not made wine this way before – although it is traditional. The same is true of bread – while you can get packets of yeast, yeast is airborne, and it will come to you.

Fermentation is the basis of settled agriculture, which in turn is the source of our civilisation. There are debates as to whether we started planting cereals for the beer or the bread first, but either way, the wild yeast was essential. We have a plethora of grain and grape deities. Wine and bread crop up a startling amount in the Bible as well. I can’t think of any deities of the wild yeast (pile in if you know). It is the transformation into bread that makes the grain easy to digest. Raw grain from the field is not easy to eat or extract energy from.

The easy calories of bread and the intoxication of alcohol both give us a large feel-good effect. If you want to feel that the world is a safe and benevolent place, a belly full of bread and beer will aid this process considerably. Get drunk and you’ll hit the phase of feeling like you love everyone. Obviously if you glut on the bread and the beer, less good things happen in the longer term, especially if you aren’t using those calories for something. But our ancestors were more likely to starve than balloon, this probably wasn’t so much of an issue for them.

Enchanted by the magic of wild yeast in my kitchen, and the wondrous transformation of blackberries into wine, conscious of the role of the yeast in creating our own culture… I have come to the conclusion that Paul Mitchell is onto something serious with Far Better Pagan (play it, it’s a very funny song and then go to his site, http://paul.makingithappen.co.uk)

(I do love my God and I love my Goddess, but I’m a far better Pagan when I am pissed).

And for a more sober bread-based magic, Talis Kimberly and Wild Yeast:

 

We have created a habitat that is unnaturally lit, with few mysterious shadows in it. Most of aren’t feverish, starving or drunk in the affluent parts of the western world. We’re in the stiff reality of caffeine, worshippers of the bean. If we spent more time with the wild yeast, perhaps the world would look very different to us.

 

 

 


Understanding the nature of deity

The short answer would be, that I don’t – but as that’s not much of a blog post, let’s keep poking about! My sense of what deity is and whether there really is any varies from one day to the next. There are days when my rational inclinations leave me with a more atheistic perspective. The universe is complete unto itself. I can go from there to a feeling that the sacred force in the universe, is the universe itself and that we are all part of a growing consciousness. However, the scale of that is so daunting and impersonal that it’s not unlike having no gods at all.

I do however have this unshakable sense of the sacred, that stays with me on my most questioning, uncertain and atheistic days. It comes as a response to land and ancestry, to experiences in the moment and is informed by a sense of wonder. There are several personified deities associated with the land I live on, so I have a sense of them as both forms in the landscape and historical presences.  But as distinct consciousnesses with intentions and powers… I really don’t know.

I am aware that many Pagans experience deity as discrete individuals with whom it is possible to interact. The sense of deity as something anthropomorphic and human orientated, interested in our concerns and able to interact with us in ways that make sense… makes more sense with some deities than others. Many of the figures in ancient pantheons come across as being human-like – very much gods of the tribe. However, the gods of nature, or the possibility of the divine in nature clearly isn’t going to be so innately human-centric. Gods of earth, sky, seasons, gods of storm and sun seem very unavailable to me. I might experience them, but I do not feel much hope of understanding them or sharing with them in reliable ways.

This blog over at Corvid’s viewpoint has had me pondering though. If consciousness begets physical reality, and not the other way round… then what might that consciousness be? My small consciousness clearly isn’t creating much reality. In the warp and weft of existence, perhaps the gods are the underlying threads onto which the rest of reality is woven. Perhaps the gods are the loom, or the wool. I like craft metaphors such as this.

I still have no idea how reality works. No matter how much pondering I do, I will not come to a place of certainty, because my uncertainty is one of the few things I’m a bit dogmatic about. Other people may know… I do not.


Of Gods and Stories

I have no idea how the universe works. Not a clue. Ok, some tenuous grasp of some of the physics, but when we get round to issues of deity and eternity, I make no claims to insight whatsoever. The whole thing confuses and unnerves me, and has done since I was about four and started trying to get my head round such things. I’ve made my peace with not knowing, and have settled into a place of maybeism. Maybe there are Gods. Maybe there aren’t. Maybe everything is part of the divine. Maybe there’s a grand plan. Maybe not. It’s a good way of not getting into fights with people over issues of belief, because, for all I know, they could be right.

From that position, the idea of working with Gods is tricky. I assume you need a very confident, hard-polytheist belief in the literal existence of Gods as autonomous and individual personalities in order to work with them. Maybe they are like that. Maybe the archetype people have it right…

The one thing I do believe in, is stories. Not least because so little actual belief is called for. Stories have power, and that is a power I know how to trust and invest in. Religions are, for the greater part, gatherings together of powerful stories that are meant to show us something. The measure of any story, be it religious, historical or fictional, is the effect it has. The greater Truths about living and dying, being human, being good, being effective… these are more important than whether or not a person actually existed, or whether people a few thousand years ago thought they were looking at a God or a fictional character.

We blur the lines between deity and fiction all the time. Ovid’s dream deities, might have existed as Gods, or maybe he made them up for that story. We’ve turned Thor and Loki into modern movie stars, and we aren’t sure what of the Welsh myths is ancient tales of deity, and what is mediaeval fiction. I have come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t matter. If a story moves you, and inspires you, that’s far more relevant than whether some people a few thousand years ago thought it was true. If The Lord Of the Rings is your sacred, inspirational text that has done most to teach you how to live, why should that be less valid than taking up a really old story that might or might not have originally been religious? Why should it matter if the story is about real, historical events? Robin Hood is a powerful icon. So are Lady Macbeth and Captain Kirk, for some people.

Stories change people. They give us shapes in which we can reimagine ourselves. They give us ways of choosing and living we might not otherwise have thought of. They give us ideas, hope and possibility. No, I have no idea if Blodeuwedd was really a Celtic Goddess. What I do know is how that story touched, changed, maddened and inspired me. That’s where the power lies.

The truth is out there (X Files). In all kinds of places. In galaxies far, far away, in girls who are shot by religious extremists, and miraculously do not die, in modern heroes and ancient tales. Whether we believe in deities or not, we can see the very real effects their stories have. There is a lot of reason in honouring the power of stories. It is not where they come from that matters, but where those stories are taking us.


Hearth and home

The first frost came last night, but we’d anticipated it and put coal on the fire, keeping the stove going until morning, so although it wasn’t toasty first thing, the difference in temperature between inside and out was significant. I think for people who have grown up with electricity as a given, heaters as a source of reliable and instant heat, kettles, cookers and central heating, the importance of the fire for most of our ancestors, is hard to grasp.
Waking up in the morning, in winter, with the fire gone out would have meant not only being desperately cold, but having no means to cook, or to heat water and a job to do getting the fire re-lit. Pre-matches and lighters, the starting of a fire was a much more complex business, time consuming and requiring patience. It’s a vast distance away from the instant heat and light that so many of us in the western world can now take for granted. If my fire goes out, I do have gas, can still make hot drinks and lift the temperature. I benefit from modern insulation, a duvet, and other luxuries that most of my ancestors could never have dreamed of. I do not need the fire to bake my bread, or cook my food. I do use it for cooking, I love the kind of one pan slow cook options the stove gives. If the fire goes out, I still have a gas cooker to turn to. That gives me a layer of insulation from the realities my ancestors had to deal with.

I’ve long been interested in living history. Books are all well and good, but it’s hard to really grasp the implications of a thing until you’ve done it. I’ve foraged for wood, and I know how much wood you need to get through a night. Not the handful of sticks you’ll see in films. I’ve hand-washed clothes, an activity that dominated the lives of my female ancestors, and I understand the bliss and luxury of a washing machine as a consequence. I’ve no real firsthand experience of farming though. I’ve milked a goat, once, years ago. I’ve never ploughed a field or carried a sickle for harvesting. From our first settling to agriculture through to the industrial revolution, farming didn’t change that much. Humans tilled the land, aided by animals. The grain was cut with a blade wielded by a bloke. There’s a startling amount of continuity in the history of bread, from prehistory to the early twentieth century. The industrialisation of farming is actually rather recent. Photos at the Folk Museum in Gloucester of harvesting in the 1940s could have depicted a scene from the 1840s.

Our lives are easier, for the greater part. I think most of us aren’t that conscious of just how much ease we have, how much insulation from the vagaries of weather and harvests. Most people this morning will only have noticed the frost if they looked out of their double glazed window, and even then it will not have affected them.
The closer you are to living hand to mouth, the more amplified both the smallest of setbacks and the smallest of triumphs becomes. And over it all presides the small god in the hearth, the fire that gives warmth and comfort, cooks food, dries clothes, consumes all that you can bring to it. When life depends so much on getting small details right, when setbacks can kill and the fire going out is a disaster, then I think there’s a lot more room for thinking about gods. The vulnerability and immediacy of life in that context makes the fire in the grate a force to be reckoned with.

The luxuries we have are not as reliable as it may be tempting to imagine. A banking error a few months back pushed many into hunger, unable to access their own resources, some faced homelessness. A loss of a job can strip away the insulation in days. A change to the benefits system, or a loss of health can do the same. We travel from protected lives to ones where the magical switch on the wall represents money we don’t have, and the fridge is useless because there’s no money to put food in it. Many of us are closer to the ancestors than we think. The end of civilization is, I understand, generally considered to be about two square meals away.