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Gods with Agency: Ritual theory for polytheists

Here and there I’ve been part of an ongoing conversation about ritual theory for Pagans. It’s got me thinking about some patterns I observe in many Pagan rituals, and I ended up coming back around to another conversation thread, the one about polytheism and humanism and whether or not we think the Gods are objectively real, or archetypal constructs, or whatever.

Here’s the question that keeps coming up in my mind when I’m following these discussions:

How would you do ritual if the Gods were real to you?

Because I am a polytheist, and the Gods are quite real to me. And as a result it becomes jarring to me when I’m seeing a ritual that is obviously built around the people in the room rather than the Gods that were named, and where things were clearly proceeding without reference to whether or not the Gods actually showed up. Some of them are mistakes I’ve made myself in my learning process.

So here are my thoughts and observations about this.

Deity flavor-of-the-month.

OK, you’ve decided to have a ritual in which you’re going to call upon a particular God or Goddess, because Their sphere of influence makes sense for your ritual purpose, and you want Their help, or you just figure invoking a God is part of your ritual structure so you’re supposed to pick one. So you dig up some ideas about what They like, and you call Them on in. Assuming that because this is Their sphere of influence, They’re going to help you, even if you’ve never contacted Them before. Assuming that because you’ve brought an offering that the books say They like, that They’re going to accept your offering and work for you. I know, this is 101 stuff, but it still goes on and I’ve seen it recently enough to still feel annoyed by it. It would be analogous to deciding that you want to publish a novel, and it would be really cool if Neil Gaiman would help you accomplish that, because hey, that’s what he does, so you call him up on the phone and invite him over to your house and expect him to not only show up, but knuckle right down to help you with your novel. And then saying, “And we’re serving your favorite kind of pie!” as if that seals the deal. Never mind that he’s never heard of you, and you might need to do a little more preparatory work to, you know, establish a rapport with him, maybe have coffee together or something before you expect him to be showing up at your house to hang out with you and fix your problems.

Friends, this is what devotional work is for. Do that first. Privately. When the deity is showing up for you regularly and engaging with you, that’s when it might be appropriate to invoke them in a public ritual.

Invocations.

This might be the big one. I have been to so many rituals in which the invocation is given, and then the ritual just proceeds immediately forward as though nothing had happened (or as though something is assumed to have happened). Someone speaks some poetic words, but always of a comfortable length so that nobody starts to get fidgety. Or maybe a chant is used, and a few rounds are sung, enough to get everybody comfortable with the words and singing, and then the chant is brought to an end safely before anybody might start to get bored, and the ritual moves on to its next planned action. As though it can just be assumed that once we’ve given the invocation, the Gods are there and on board. I can’t help thinking people who conduct ritual this way aren’t really looking for an Other presence to enter the room – what they are really looking to do is to conjure the image and idea of the deity in the minds of the human participants. And I think what that means is the Gods aren’t real to them.

What would we do in our invocations if the Gods were real to us? We wouldn’t just be performing the invocation, we would be at the same time actively feeling, sensing, and listening for the Gods to arrive. We would keep singing, keep speaking, keep calling to Them for as long as it took to bring Them in. We would build our ritual skills toward facilitating passion in participants for this kind of calling, rather than letting the energy die down after one peak when it naturally wants to, and letting that be our cue to end the invocation. We would train our senses to be able to recognize when They have in fact arrived, and that would be our cue to move to the next stage of the rite, inviting Them along with us. We would be orienting our action in ritual at least as much toward communication with the Presences we’re trying to conjure and work with, as toward the human participants. As a community, we would study focus and patience, would be willing to keep the magic rolling instead of getting bored if it doesn’t progress on the same time scale as the plot of a 40-minute TV show. Have you had a look at some indigenous devotional ritual? A lot of those people are willing to sing and dance all night long if they have to. In my experience, if you’re good at your job (and if you did your devotional prep work; see above), it’s not usually going to take all night. But it might take longer than half a dozen rounds of your chant, and if you think the Gods are real you shouldn’t hang up the phone until they answer.

Hospitality

When we call a God into our rite, are we treating Them like a living being we’ve just invited into our house? Offering them hospitality, comfort, respect? I have seen so many rituals where the next step after the invocation is immediately to direct the attention of the deity and the participants to the working of the rite. To me this is the equivalent of inviting someone over, and as soon as they walk in the door, saying, “Great, you’re here. Now get to work.”

What do we do when we have a respected guest in our house? We talk to them. We take their coat, offer them a space to become comfortable. We say “It’s great to see you. Can I get you anything? What’s happening in your world?” before pushing ahead to the business at hand. We should be making the religious equivalent of this a standard part of our rituals. In terms of ritual theory, this means a few things. It means giving offerings when They arrive, as an act of hospitality, not one of propitiation or request. It means making space in your ritual for Them to communicate with you, not just for you to communicate with Them. And making space for that communication to be what They want it to be, not one that you have scripted.

If you’re invoking the God or Goddess into a priest, for all that is holy, don’t give them a script to recite. Let. Them. Speak. Yes, this means needing to be able to rely on the skill of that priest at being able to carry the God and channel Their voice. (Don’t call the Gods into priests who haven’t been taught to do this, and practiced it.) Yes, this means the unexpected may happen. The Gods might decide to take your ritual on a detour to unplanned places. You might have to roll with it, do some priesting-on-the-fly, carefully weaving whatever the Gods brought you back into the ritual. You might have to think on your feet, responding to and engaging with the God that is present with you, instead of the static one in your ritual script. If that idea is terrifying to you, if you are unwilling to allow for the possibility of your ritual changing in the hands of the Gods, then what you’re doing isn’t religion and isn’t magic, but is in fact just theater.

A lot of practitioners don’t do invocation into human vessels. Some for exactly those reasons – fear of the unexpected. Some don’t do it because they don’t have access to appropriately trained priests who can handle doing that. Some don’t do it out of concern that it is dangerous to the priest acting as vessel (it is). Or because they believe that invocation into a human vessel inherently diminishes, filters and humanizes the presence and consciousness of the Gods (it does). These are valid reasons. Polytheist ritual can work just as well without giving the Gods a human voice to speak through. But you still need to let Them speak. You still need to write space into your ritual for the Presences you’ve called in to communicate with you and with your participants, and you need to actively facilitate that communication. You still need to treat Them like an honored guest, tend to Their needs and interests, and make Them at home before you ask Them to work for you.

Reciprocity

I’ve touched on this already, but I think it bears expanding on. Reciprocity is fundamental to all functional relationships, devotional ones included. I think that this idea is fairly common knowledge. But I often see it misunderstood.

A common mistake is to treat devotional offerings as transactional. I offer this God wine and flowers, and in return I get to ask for favors. I’m not saying this doesn’t work at all – it does, to a limited extent. If you don’t mind hanging out in the shallow end of the pool magically and devotionally, you can get by just fine with that. But consider that framing  your offerings in a transactional way tends to commodify devotion. Would that feel good to you? How deeply would you hold your connection with someone who only did something for you if they had a favor to ask? How meaningful would a gift from this person ever be to you? How hard would you run to have their back if they were in trouble?

Try this. Decouple your offerings from work you want to do with the Gods’ help. Make offerings as a regular devotional practice, apart from major rituals. Do some rituals that are solely devotional in nature – just for purposes of communion and worship. Let these practices deepen your relationship with the Gods. Then see what unfolds when the time comes that you do have a need to ask for help with something. Be that friend who was always there, always giving, whose commitment and care is clear and rock-solid, and for whom you would do anything. Be that kind of friend to your Gods. Find deep reciprocity, instead of transactional reciprocity.

Gods with Agency

If I had to boil it down to a core concept, it would be this: if your Gods are real to you, treat Them like beings with agency. Agency: the capacity of an entity to act. In magical terms, agency is something like will.

If our Gods are real, They have agency. We don’t get to order Them around. We don’t command Them; instead we invite. We don’t dismiss Them when we’re ready to move on; instead we say thank you and goodbye.

If our Gods are real, They don’t disappear outside of ritual space. Relationship with the Gods doesn’t begin with casting a circle (or laying a medicine wheel, or marking the Hammer Rite, or whatever you use to define ritual space). If our Gods are real, and They have agency, They are making a choice whether or not to respond to our calls. They are making a choice whether or not to engage, to help us, to be present. We can’t be treating them like a tool you put back on a shelf when you don’t need it, and then expecting Them to come and wield Their agency for our benefit!

What would you do if the Gods were real to you?

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85 Responses to “Gods with Agency: Ritual theory for polytheists”

  1. Hawthorn December 22, 2013 at 2:38 am #

    Thank you so much for writing and posting these thoughts. I have been saying these very things (albeit much less eloquently) for years! However, during that time I have also come to the belief that there is a place for rituals that “… conjure the image and idea of the deity in the minds of the human participants”. Precisely because “… that means is the Gods aren’t real to them”! In my experience exposing people to the reality of the presence of Deity can scare people away if they haven’t had that experience before.

    I used to think that was just fine, but my magical partner has shown me that giving people the time to “… conjure the image and idea of the deity ..” in their minds can (in more cases than my ‘take it or leave’ it approach) open the way to a more visceral awareness of, and relationship with the gods.

  2. Sue Quarto December 19, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    Well said – you expressed what has been a burden on my heart … thank you

  3. Ki December 18, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

    I’ve been experiencing some of these feelings since re-entering “public” paganism-practicing in a group context with people who are either archetypal pagans or …the equivalent of Sunday Christians only in pagan form. They like the holidays and rituals and are nature type people, but they don’t dig too deeply into it day to day and it shows in a lot of ways that make me a bit uncomfortable sometimes. When I was doing ritual for our group I offered wine to the Gods I evoked (I would be insane to try invocation with this group)…ect. ect…but when other people do ritual they don’t offer anything at the time of calling to the gods they are evoking. It seems very apparent to me that a lot of these crossed streams between what I believe should be happening and others do boil down to connections. I have a strong connection with a few deities. Other people have a strong connection with more a universal energy, which doesn’t seem very “human” and it may seem strange to offer that energy creature comforts. I don’t necessarily know if it is a bungle on the behalf of people who haven’t had any “real” interaction with a deity to act the way they do, though I definitely think it is something worth pondering. I especially shuddered when I realized that when I first started I was a great transgressor of the “here are some flowers now help me with my teenage bullshit” variety. On the other hand, when I started going more with the flow and started moving more with my instincts I had an amazing day I will never forget of hunting. I was bored in the woods and started drumming for Artemis and I was very much captured by her for several hours that day. I think we also should consider DOING things that appeal to the deities we interact with on a regular basis and asking them along with us as a type of ritual. Much in the same way that I think fiction can be devotional reading as polytheists I think we have more of an opportunity to get outside the “ritual box” than people who are operating purely on the idea of archetypes and universal energy. energies. …so, yeah. I liked this article.

  4. Joshua Tenpenny December 17, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

    Great article! “Agency” is a very good description of the distinction I see in the polytheist-type view of deity, and other views. With ritual though, I think you underestimate the value of people gathering to honor and praise and celebrate a deity they don’t actually expect to show up and interact with them. You wrote:

    “I can’t help thinking people who conduct ritual this way aren’t really looking for an Other presence to enter the room – what they are really looking to do is to conjure the image and idea of the deity in the minds of the human participants. And I think what that means is the Gods aren’t real to them.”

    I’d say that many of the rituals we do in my group are an attempt to “conjure the image and idea of the deity in the minds of the human participants” and I don’t find that a bad thing. We’ve got an eclectic group, with members honoring a large number of very different gods from different pantheons.

    Often a few people who have a close relationship with a certain god will set up a ritual that honors that god and also helps the groups to get to know a bit about that god. We do call the opening prayer an “invocation” but it is more of an invitation for them to watch and enjoy us honoring them, not a tool used with the focused intent of bringing a specific manifestation.

    When we do rituals with possession, it runs very much along the lines you describe – we offer gifts, we give them an opportunity to address the group and to speak to people individually if they choose, and we do some sort of activity we think will be pleasing to them. But the invoking always happens off-stage at our rituals, with someone skilled at possessory work and small ritual team of two or three people who can maintain a strong focused intent. We’ve never even considered doing that part with the whole group.

    We’d also never call a deity to possess someone in ritual if the deity hadn’t already communicated via some means their desire to show up, and that is unlikely to happen unless at least one of us has a strong devotional relationship with that deity.

    • Morpheus December 17, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

      Hi Joshua, thanks for your comments.
      You said:

      ” With ritual though, I think you underestimate the value of people gathering to honor and praise and celebrate a deity they don’t actually expect to show up and interact with them… I’d say that many of the rituals we do in my group are an attempt to “conjure the image and idea of the deity in the minds of the human participants” and I don’t find that a bad thing.”

      But I have to ask, if you are gathering to praise and honor a God, and you do not expect Them to show up, why don’t you? If you think They are real, that They have agency and free will, and that They can hear you, to me that suggests needing to at least be prepared for the possibility that They show up when you start talking about and honoring Them. And if They do show up, is it not rather rude to be naming, speaking about, and making use of Their imagery for the benefit of your participants, while ignoring Their actual presence? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to at least plan and look out for the possibility that They show up, and act accordingly if They do?

      Ritual aimed solely at conjuring the idea of a God for participants isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if you think of the Gods as archetypes rather than living beings. As I said in my post, I’m writing from the perspective of a polytheist Pagan for whom the Gods are quite real. Ritual that is *about* the Gods, and makes use of Them to create an experience for participants, while ignoring Their actual agency as living beings, is rude from that polytheist perspective.

      • Ember December 18, 2013 at 1:01 am #

        Joshua would also be writing from the perspective that They’re quite real, but I don’t see how assuming They’re real requires assuming that A: They’d take offense at watching a show of honor being offered to Them, or B: That we must always be braced for deity impact.

        But maybe part of the question here is – what constitutes being open to Their input in return, to your mind? You did say not only possession, but you didn’t say here what the alternatives look like.

        -E-

        • Ember December 18, 2013 at 1:13 am #

          Hmm… another thing missing from this is the assumption that everyone – or even most people – can tell when the deity shows up.

          I think a lot of ritual is structured around trusting the gods to show up, because people *can’t* tell, but their faith calls them to trust that the divine would not let them down.

          Mysticism based in experience of direct contact isn’t the majority of religious experience or practice. Believing that the gods exist and have agency doesn’t automatically convey onto a person the ability to detect the gods in their own life.

          I agree with the Protestant and Neo-Pagan assertion that everyone theoretically has that potential, such that nobody should be forbidden from *trying*, and I get that this is the core of faith that underlies the idea that We Are All Priests, but in practice, plenty of people, whether they believe or not, don’t experience the gods that way.

          Unless we make it a requirement that nobody is allowed to have a ritual practice unless they’re sure they can tell when they are being graced with divine presence (which we definitely shouldn’t do, IMHO), I don’t think it’s fair to assume that there’s something fundamentally wrong when a ritual is structured around faith that the gods wouldn’t let you down by not showing, or that the gods will simply watch and enjoy, and that not hearing from Them doesn’t mean you’re failing somehow.

          It is absolutely rude to ignore a guest who you can see and hear and know is there. It’s perfectly reasonable to try and acknowledge a guest that you can’t see or hear is there in a way that doesn’t depend on the ability to see or hear their response.

          -E-

          • Morpheus December 20, 2013 at 11:44 pm #

            Ember, just wanted to say that I appreciate the depth of engagement you bring, including the questioning and debate. You’ve definitely given me some fresh ways to think about some of this. And there are lots of great threads to follow further in this conversation, but I just got too swamped to reply to all of the comments. I’d love to chat theology and ritual with you more some time, and it seems like we have mutual friends so perhaps that will happen soon!

          • Ember December 21, 2013 at 12:02 am #

            > there are lots of great threads to follow further in this conversation, but I just got too swamped to reply to all of the comments.

            No worries. :) And physical life always comes before ‘net chatter, no matter how fascinating.

            > I’d love to chat theology and ritual with you more some time, and it seems like we have mutual friends so perhaps that will happen soon!

            We do have plenty of friends in overlap. We’ve actually met at least once outside of PantheaCon.

            I would love to chat theology with you in person some time!

            –Ember–

      • Ki December 19, 2013 at 10:14 pm #

        I’m not sure about all this rudeness stuff. I work mainly with Loki and He doesn’t seem to take offense no matter what I do as long as it is in His honor and reasonably along the lines of Loving Him. Everything from downing a shot of Jack in his Honor to preparing for Him a feast and a seat at our table seems acceptable. I think He would get a kick out of a group of people having a fun story time in His honor and potentially leaving Him snacks. Of course, He might step in and have some fun with the participants here and there. What I really wanted to say though, was that I agree image building rituals for a deity aren’t necessarily a bad thing, EVEN IF YOU DON’T expect them to show up because they can be a great way for someone to realize a particular deity might be worth investigating or vice versa might be a great way for a deity to connect with someone they’ve been looking to connect with.

        As a Wiccan cum Heathen I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of rudeness, as it ties in directly with Hospitality, and I don’t think it is fair to call someone rude who is actually setting up an honorific for a deity. It also isn’t fair to expect someone who has perhaps had no contact from a deity before to expect it. I think some of the problems you’re discussing step from variances in experiences and longevity of practice.

        Also, on the idea of archtypes-even as a polytheist I still believe in archtypes. As a race we’ve fed into them long enough that I certainly believe they hold their own energy and I certainly believe that they could easily be a mask for another deity, and as long as that energy/deity is treated respectfully and honored respectfully there is no harm or foul there. The deity in question could choose to reveal their identity at some point if it is that important.

        Just some thinky thoughts.

  5. Ember December 17, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    Overall, I agree with your underlying point, and I think this is an excellent post. Thank you very much for writing and sharing it.

    I do have a few quibbles, though.

    The first two I already said in response to you and Lon above:

    1: The problem is not in treating the gods as if They are of service – They have chosen to be of service. The problem in treating those of service as though they lack agency, as though they are merely tools. This is wrong with humans, too, not just with gods.

    2: Some Powers actively prefer a transactional structure. It’s more important to respect the preferences of the individual deity than it is to avoid any particular kind of ritual structure.

    3: Theatre IS ritual. It’s descended directly from religion. It’s just not the same kind. I take some issue with rituals designed to be theatrical being labelled “just theatre” as though that’s not a legitimate spiritual option. It’s just that if you’re going to do ritual theatre, *do it on purpose*.

    4: Rituals can and IMHO should be designed in such a way that the gods showing up is optional – precisely because They should have every right NOT to show up if They don’t want to. I agree. But I don’t that means that it’s bad to design a ritual that therefore doesn’t require Their presence.

    A typical Heathen blot, sumbel, or faining, for example – we invite the gods (which everyone calls “invoking” despite that being a bit imprecise by a Ceremonial standard) to join us, but we’re prepared to offer our praise and prayers whether They have the inclination to show up at that particular moment or not. It doesn’t make our actions any less devotional, or deity-directed, it is merely grounded in an understanding that we love Them every bit as much whether They show up today or some other time.

    But aside from these quibbles, I agree with your underlying point. There’s something wrong with a ritual designed with the presumption of deity presence in mind if nobody has negotiated with that deity to actually show up and do Their part, or taken the time to find out what that deity *actually wants* to have happen at such a ritual. There’s something wrong with not differentiating between ritual structures that require deity presence and those that don’t. There’s something wrong with not differentiating between a guest, a friend, a professional you’re hoping will help you, and a tool you can use. There’s something wrong with treating any two entities as though they are perfectly interchangeable, not just in services, but in essence.

    Treating the gods as people only works if you are in the habit of treating humans as people.

    -E-

    • Morpheus December 17, 2013 at 11:12 pm #

      Hi there – some great points here. Food for much thought.

      On theater being equivalent to ritual – certainly historically, theater descends from religion. I don’t think that means that all theater is religious ritual. I have seen lots of theater that is performance only. I wouldn’t say that ritual theater is not a legitimate spiritual option, but I think it’s something other than worship. It can honor the Gods it is presenting a display of, and it can even include Their presence. It can be a celebration of Them. But if there isn’t space in it for unscripted communication with the Gods, for direct I-thou communion, I have a hard time seeing it as worship. There’s a place for ritual theater in religious life, and my ritual group has used it. I think a lot depends on the nuance – how the Gods are dealt with, called upon or not called, how rigid the script is, etc. I have discomfort around the idea of doing any kind of ritual where a God is called upon or named, but not given a space to communicate with the participants. Like throwing a party for someone, in which you all talk, sing, or perform drama about how great your guest of honor is, while acting like they aren’t there and not letting them speak. THAT is what doesn’t feel like religion to me. That’s what begins to seem like “just theater”. They might not be there, but if They decided to show up (and any time you name a God you have to be prepared that They might) then you’re being incredibly rude. For this reason, fixed ritual scripts, including ritual theater, make me a bit twitchy if there’s no space given anywhere for direct communion. This may be partly just a matter of personal taste.

      I certainly agree with the idea that we be prepared to offer praise and honor the Gods whether They show up or not. The devotional act isn’t less devotional if They aren’t there, so long as the devotion is being done from the place of recognizing Their reality and agency, and from a place of engaging what is actually happening.

      Great discussion, thank you! I love this quote: “Treating the gods as people only works if you are in the habit of treating humans as people.”

      • Ember December 18, 2013 at 12:25 am #

        > I have discomfort around the idea of doing any kind of ritual where a God is called upon or named, but not given a space to communicate with the participants.

        For called upon, I agree, but for named, I can’t. It’s not innately disrespectful to refer to someone, but it’s important to differentiate between invitation and mention.

        Yes, I agree, not all is ritual theatre, and not all theatre is ritual theatre, but I don’t think we’re working from the same definition of Worship here.

        Which is to say, I don’t think Worship and Communion are synonyms. I do, however, agree that if you’re aiming for communion, you’d better actually stop to listen for a response.

        -E-

        • Ember December 18, 2013 at 12:39 am #

          I suspect, also, I have a more secular or academic idea of what the word “ritual” means, as well.

          -E-

      • Joshua Tenpenny December 20, 2013 at 5:32 am #

        I am, as Ember said, coming at this from the perspective (based on personal experience) that the gods are 100% real beings, with agency, with the ability and inclination to affect our world, with the desire to communicate and form relationships with us.

        A lot hinges on what you mean by “showing up”. In my group, there is an understanding that “divine presence” (in various forms) can reveal itself selectively. Just because one person didn’t sense a divine presence doesn’t mean they are ether incapable of sensing it or that it wasn’t really there.

        But we also draw really clear boundaries with regard to ritual possession, which is what we’d mean in my group if we talked about the a god “showing up”. We do not have rituals where we are just generally open to the possibility of possession. We are either specifically planning for possession of a specific person by a specific god/spirit (with a backup plan in case it doesn’t happen) or we are specifically not intending for any possession of anyone.

        Within our community, being welcoming of spontaneous possession in public ritual would be incredibly problematic, and we’ve not found any of the gods we honor are averse to give one of us a heads-up in the days/weeks leading up to a ritual.

        Regarding this:
        “But if there isn’t space in it for unscripted communication with the Gods, for direct I-thou communion, I have a hard time seeing it as worship.”

        In a way, so do I. But one of the things I’ve come to in establishing fellowship with people of very different religious persuasions than me, is that there is a wide variety in people’s experience of deity. So even if it doesn’t “feel like worship” to me, it might genuinely “feel like worship” to them. The book “Six Ways of Being Religious” by Dale Cannon really helped me put that in perspective, and to understand the different ways in which people experience their connection to the divine.

  6. Radish December 17, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

    Thanks for that, I could do with the reminder. With the group I used to work with (a lifetime ago, it seems), we did many things like this. Including possession work for ‘getting to know you’ chats. Literally just calling them down to learn more about them, what they would like (Njord in particular amazed me with a request for, well, taking a ship and it’s cargo, and hinting that a bit of piracy is right up his alley!) We did a lot of stupid stuff as well, essentially jumping in the deep end without looking and learning really, really fast how to swim. But we learned. Now that I am on my own again, I have of late started some on and off devotional work again (after a break of, oh, 10 years?) and it feels like I have to start from scratch. Posts like this remind me what kind of contact I used to have, and that it’s worth the work.

    • Morpheus December 17, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

      Radish, this sounds similar to the way I learned a lot of this too – a mixture of training and jumping-in-over-my-head. Thanks for sharing some of your stories. Blessings on your work.

  7. Valerian December 17, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    Terrific post. Rarely has anyone the fortitude to be so plain. As someone trained in a Trad that practices Aspecting as a central element, I can say that without that essential knowledge that They are very Real and that foundational relationship, ritual resembles nothing so much as community theatre, and with about as much relevance.

  8. RevAllyson December 17, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    A friend of mine pointed me to this article, and I’m glad I read it. I’m Wiccan, and long ago was quite guilty of the formulaic ritual you speak of, where everything happens in cadence with the priestess’s timing. In between then and now, I spent quite a few years as a practicing Hellenic, where offerings are more prevailant. It changed what and how I do things in my Wiccan rituals today.

    You do ask something that I have an answer for, though… at least for me and mine. :) You say, “What would we do in our invocations if the Gods were real to us? We wouldn’t just be performing the invocation, we would be at the same time actively feeling, sensing, and listening for the Gods to arrive. We would keep singing, keep speaking, keep calling to Them for as long as it took to bring Them in.” My answer is, I rarely do ritual without ascertaining my gods are already involved.

    Before I cast Circle, before I “invoke” or “call in” anything… I make certain my mind is in the right place, my ritual is appropriate, and my relationship(s) with my god(s) is already in good stead. If it’s not, I have no right calling on anyone, god or otherwise, to come into my holy space. So in a way, they’re already there before I ever make a call… it’s a formality that I do for the coven, for those who are still learning or those who aren’t feeling it for whatever reason (we all have those moments).

    As an example. for Yule, we will be asking various deities to join us. This past month I’ve been making sure we’re all in a good place with those gods. That’s MY job as priestess. :) While I do teach it to the others, I’m the one who needs to make damn sure we’re where we need to be prior to any ritual. I guide, they follow (unless they’re leading, in which case they guide and I get to relax lol), and we gently move in the right rhythms for the season and time.

    I am in the process of writing a book on pagan/polytheistic/Wiccan/interfaith ritual, and I would very much like to reference this! It’s a fantastic entry. Much needed.

    • Morpheus December 17, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

      Agreed, RevAllyson – the preparatory work you describe is what I advocate for. This is what I mean about the devotional work not beginning when you start the ritual.
      You mentioned referencing this entry in a book – you can contact me via email at morpheus@bansheearts.com if you like about that. I’d love to see your project!

  9. helmsinepu December 17, 2013 at 12:58 am #

    This makes me think of the Egyptian rituals we have translations for. Most are pretty complex and take a long time, like the “Nighttime Ritual of the Mystical Union of Ra with Ausir”, which takes up 18 pages in Reidy’s Eternal Egypt. As part of it, there are 75 sections that follow the form of:
    “Homage to you, Ra, high of power, stouter of heart than those who are in His Following, who orders head into the Place of Annihilation; Truly you are the body of Flaming One.”
    Homage to you, Ra, High of power, who decrees annihilation, who creates breath by means of His forms, the one who is in the Duat; truly you are the body of He of the Duat.” … on and on and on.
    It’s hard to imagine the local pagan group slogging through this, or having even the slightest idea of what’s going on.

    • Morpheus December 17, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

      Agreed. Polytheistic ritual outside of the modern Pagan context seems often to involve more patience and more of a long entry into altered states of consciousness (which is one of the functions of long, repetitious liturgy). I sometimes think that the format of a lot of Pagan rituals at large gatherings, where you’re given 1-2 hour blocks of time for events, has shifted our expectations of ritual toward this idea that it should always fit neatly into a block of time, short enough that nobody will get bored or feel taxed by it. Between that format and TV/movie timing, we have come to develop very short attention spans.

      • Lon Sarver December 17, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

        Not only the short time blocks (which also occur in regular life, due to kids, work, and what-have-you), but because of misapplied egalitarianism.

        Modern Pagans have an egalitarian ethic that we are all priests and priestesses, in that we require no mediation by another to reach our gods.

        This is true, so far as it goes, but it’s often misread to mean that all of us are priests and priestesses equal in skill and talent. From this we often get a lowest-common-denominator benchmark for ritual; asking folks to do anything that feels like it’s beyond the skill, talent, or patience of any one of us is held to be asking too much of a public ritual.

        • Morpheus December 17, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

          Good point about the egalitarian ethos, Lon. I think that’s surely a factor.
          Part of this is that the definition of ‘priest/ess’ is incredibly muddy. I see those terms used to mean a huge variety of things, from “a dedicated worshipper of a God/dess” to “trained channel of a God/dess” to “person trained in leading public worship and pastoral work for a God/dess”. It’s true, no one requires the mediation of another to have contact with our Gods, and if you take priest/ess to mean worshipper, then sure, we’re all priests. But in the more advanced sense, we certainly are not all priests of the same standing.

          There’s also an interesting question about what is too much for public ritual. I’ve been told by many people that they think possessory invocation of the type that I (and others) do, is too much for public ritual. I’ve shifted around to various sides of the question in my own opinions, too. But I think it is instructive to look at traditions where poessession by the Gods in public rituals is quite commonplace – for example, in some ATR/Diaspora traditions, you see this. The difference is that you have a public in attendance at their rituals who have a more common cultural understanding of what is going on there. I think the problem we have is just that we need to better educate the modern Pagan public about devotional polytheism. For this reason, I tend to preface any public ritual where we are doing significant devotional work with a little bit of information about our methods. It seems to help.

          • Lon Sarver December 17, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

            I regularly run a Dionysos devotional which includes non-Pagans (primarily agnostics and atheists) who are there for the fellowship, and see the ritual elements as specialized opening ceremonies. While I find if the balance of Pagans to non-Pagans is too low, it drags the energy down, it never doesn’t work. So there’s definitely a point where “light” devotional ritual works for crowds of mixed skill and interest. It’s a matter of pitching to the group a particular rite is serving.

            I think there’s a definite place for less intense/demanding devotional ritual. But perhaps we’ve, as a community, gone too far that way, and need more open “heavy” devotionals?

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus December 20, 2013 at 7:42 am #

        That’s been a problem at PantheaCon for us, Morpheus…the Invocation of the Obelisk of Antinous takes a few minutes (it can be done in “less than ten,” but still…that’s 1/9th of a PantheaCon session!), and some find it long and boring…but, boy, does it work and work well. And yet, because those rituals are for a general/anyone-can-come audience, a lot of people at them don’t really “get” it or like it.

        I have no brilliant solutions, only a “second the motion” as to how these things can be difficult to engage usefully in some contexts, including those which are the only ones where large (i.e. more-than-twenty people) group rituals are possible for some individuals, like it is with us and the Ekklesía Antínoou.

  10. Aileen Paul December 17, 2013 at 12:28 am #

    I agree totally with what you said about possession. I have done this with The Morrigan a few times for my former coven and it always took a lot out of me. If I had not had the relationship I do with her, this would never have been possible and I think even dangerous. I do not do this lightly or for fun or to put on a show. It is a service I bring to Her and to the coven that I worked with (I left only because I moved).. I would never try it with a diety that I had not formed a relationship with

    • Morpheus December 17, 2013 at 7:46 pm #

      Well put, Aileen. Thanks for your comments!

  11. Sharon Knight December 16, 2013 at 7:12 pm #

    This is an excellent post, Morpheus. I am so glad you wrote it! SOO many rituals fall flat these days. I feel we have truly lost something in interpreting Gods as merely extensions of our own selves or psyches.

    Though I can’t claim to know exactly what Gods are, there is something profound that happens when I interact with them as living, independent beings, that flat doesn’t happen when I relate to them as parts of my psyche. This distinction is worth having, because it suggests to me that Gods do indeed have substance beyond our own psychology.

    • Morpheus December 16, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

      Thanks, Sharon! I agree, it feels qualitatively and forcefully different from interacting with a facet of my own being. (Not to mention, there are those times when everyone in the room responds to signs of a Presence at once, before confirming it with one another.) But aside from whether one believes in Them as real or not, I think there is benefit in practicing as if one did. In fact, historically Pagan religions have tended not to worry about what you believe very much at all, but rather to look primarily at what you do.

      • Shannon December 18, 2013 at 6:20 am #

        This distinction is made explicit in my tradtion, ADF Druidry.

        Hard polytheism is a ritual assumption, in that we address and make offerings to the Gods as if They were separate, individual Beings. But nobody is required to believe anything about Their nature.

        In my limited experience, (I’m a newbie,) I’m finding that the results come from the work… to the extent that I treat the Gods as if They are individuals with agency and identity, I seem to be getting responses that confirm that They are. I am not yet, and may never be, in a position to say that I know what They are… but coming into Paganism from many years of being a strong Agnostic, (“Atheist who knows he might be wrong” is probably more accurate,) I’m not only comfortable with that, I’m OK with the idea that I may never know, or even that I can’t know.

        –Shannon

      • thalassa December 19, 2013 at 7:09 pm #

        In practice I’m a polytheist, I worship distinct gods as distinct entitites. But in my understanding of the nature and existence of the gods, I’ve been all over the map, from hard polytheist to pantheist to agnostic. I’ve never found that the gods cared about what I believe, so much as what I do.

  12. Kat December 15, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    Wow – a friend shared this with me, and it is … awesome. What you said is striking home for me, in an embarrassing way. I’m sorry to say, I’ve become lax in the way I invite Deity into my life and ritual, and perhaps this was the bitch-slap I needed. Thank you. I have a strong relationship with my chosen deities, and maybe this posting of yours is how they are choosing to give me a bit of a wake up call. I dont know who you are, and I’ve never read your blog before this, but I thank you – so much – for this writing.

    • Morpheus December 16, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

      Kat, thanks for your very honest comment! I certainly don’t write articles like this in order to bitch-slap anyone, but if this has been of help to you as a reminder or refresher, then I’m glad to be of service. Blessings to you!

  13. Eilidh Nic Sidheag December 15, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    This is a great post. The part about hospitality really helped me understand something that had puzzled me about ADF ritual – why any workings come almost at the end, rather than being central as they have been in Wiccan rituals I’ve attended. Now I see it, it’s obvious – they come near the end because we only ask the deities or spirits to work for us after we’ve welcomed them, made offerings to them, and talked with them (via divination, in the ADF Core Order of Ritual). That makes so much more sense now that I think of it that way. Thank you.

    • Morpheus December 16, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

      Thanks for your comments, Eilidh. I don’t think I’ve been in ADF rites before, but I think I’ve read some liturgies online, and I do remember appreciating how much effort is given to hospitality to all the Otherworld beings. While I, like many people, had some of my early Pagan experiences in a Wiccan context, for some time now I’ve felt I have more in common with some Druidic and other Celtic polytheist traditions than with Wicca. We all begin somewhere, of course.

  14. Chip December 14, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Thanks for this. In answer to your question– “What would you do if the Gods were real to you?”– the first thought that popped to mind was “Sh#t my pants.” ; )

    That is the one great advantage of practicing alone: the only ritual imperative is to establish a connection with the Gods at their pace. No theatrical pressures, no audience to please.

    But They are terrifying, aren’t They? Viewed from a certain angle, it is a little funny how much effort we can pour into contacting and connecting with the Gods, sometimes lapsing in our mindfulness because the damned match isn’t lighting or the wine cork is being stubborn or some other triviality is creating a distraction, and suddenly a vast presence fills the room.

    I’ve been thinking about this since reading Eric Scott’s guest post on the Wild Hunt yesterday, since removed. I think one of my greatest challenges is to accept that I actually do believe in the Gods. Most of my friends subscribe to some flavor of atheism / agnosticism, so sometimes, I wish I could have an ironic distance from my faith that they would understand. Maybe a functionalist fallback explanation at the very least, along the lines of: I’m religious because being religious has made me a better person. But, no: I devote hours of my life earnestly reaching out to beings whose existence is unprovable. In its own way, that is also terrifying.

    • Morpheus December 16, 2013 at 7:26 pm #

      Hi Chip, thanks for your comments. I missed Eric’s Wild Hunt post before it was pulled, so I don’t have the full context for your comments. But I can relate to the feeling of resistance to approaching the Gods as real. In my very early Pagan experiences, I experienced some resistance to that as well. Generally, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘believing’ in things. To me, that can feel arbitrary and like a kind of faith that belongs to monotheistic religions. I often say that I try not to believe in things I have no experience of. So I’ve got lots of experiences now that confirm for me that there are Gods and They are real and have agency and consequence (to borrow a term from my friend and colleague, the Thracian.) That feels better to me as a recognition that I’m not just acting in faith, I’m actually acting on evidence. But it’s tough, because the world is full of people who either have not had those experiences, or who have dismissed the evidence of their own senses, and who are very uncomfortable with the notion that there are real Gods with agency who are not figments of our minds. It can be awkward to mix with those folks as a polytheist. We often must smile and shrug off each other’s ideas about reality in order to share a dinner table.

    • Rising Moon December 29, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

      Yes, this. Your post just resonates so much with my own experience. I am a lone practitioner myself, and I often complain about having no external endorsements on the state of my Work, whilst OTOH fully enjoying total freedom from theatrical pressure and time limitations in my rituals. I do believe this is just an increasingly widespread plague of our modern world: rush and perennial short of time, and the need to comply with set schedules in practically anything we do. We have learned to worship our mundane commitments, even the most unimportant of them, rather than the Divine – be it in the Deities we believe in or in our own divine nature. Moreso, this disregard is extended even to our own kind: we are, in fact, often unable to relate properly to and to spend quality time with our dear ones, with our families, friends and even with ourselves.
      There are so many strings Morpheus’s deep and accurate post (and plenty of the comments too) have struck in me, and I must express my deepest gratitude, for it was much needed, it’s food I’m going to ponder over and over, to assimilate slowly but, above all, something I’m going to take back with me to my altar room as from today, and starting with my daily devotional Practice.
      Just one last thing: coming from a Catholic background I’m also acutely aware of the hardships one encounters in establishing a personal relationship with invisible Beings. Most monotheist religions actually do anything in their power to discourage their faithful from seeking an active, personal contact with such entities, and even God’s presence (if any), is always mediated by official priesthood, so, apart from prayer, one has no ways or means to reach out for the Divine. And even so, if prayers are accompanied by any sensorial manifestation, this is viewed suspiciously, and treated with mistrust. Visions and the likes are part of mysticism, and mysticism is not something the mainstream, official side of most monotheist cults are generally at ease with.
      I believe this is something we have to conquer back bit by bit, with the humility to confront our own fears (Spirit presences can be extremely intimidating, no matter how benevolent!) and at the same time the default assumption that everything in this world is just here to serve our own needs.
      Yes, Morpheus, I really accused the hit when you mention indigenous people staying up all night invoking the Gods’ presence, if necessary. Most of us, and I put myself on top of the list, are probably overwhelmed by the idea of it, and I realize now that this is precisely why I sometimes find myself resisting the call to get involved in trance work. Perhaps for what you call a lay pagan this might not be necessary (I believe there may be many levels one can establish a worthy relationship with the Gods). But if one intends to become a priest/ess in service to others and not only for themselves alone, this is actually just what it takes.
      In spite of our society making little or no room for total involvement, I believe there’s a great need for intensity and totality of connection. Even for those who are just going to witness it and be part of it in lesser degrees, it’s going to be an immense help to keep feeling that we ourselves are alive and real, just as our Gods are.

      • Ember December 29, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

        > Most monotheist religions actually do anything in their power to discourage their faithful from seeking an active, personal contact with such entities, and even God’s presence (if any), is always mediated by official priesthood

        Actually, no. I mean, yes, that’s very true of Catholicism, but that’s a lot of what the Protestant Reformation was about. Protestant denominations specifically *disagree* with the need for priests as intermediaries, on the grounds that anyone can have direct contact with God. That’s why their clergy are called Ministers and Pastors, not Priests.

        Of course, that’s also why it’s easier to convince an Evangelical Fundamentalist than a Catholic that somebody actually needs an exorcism. I fully admit to being a mystic, but mysticism in *groups* can get really messed up really, really fast.

        –Ember–

        • Sara Amis December 29, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

          Indeed. Not only that, but Pentecostals and other folks who do “speaking in tongues” and the like actively court direct connection with the Holy Spirit, in what is for all practical purposes trance possession. I once had a lengthy conversation on this topic with a Pentecostal, in which we both recognized that we were talking about the same thing and had had similar experiences with both the benefits and the pitfalls. Meanwhile everyone else in the room sort of went like this: o.O

          • Ember December 29, 2013 at 11:11 pm #

            Exactly. :)

            Although the denominations that encourage that level of direct contact are more rare, but they’re also some of the most prominent groups to contribute to the building of American culture (something about not getting along so well in Europe, go figure).

            The whole point of Baptism was to cause a person to be filled with – i.e. possessed by – the Holy Spirit. The Baptism of Water being a mere symbol for the real Baptism of Fire of the Holy Spirit descending, and this was originally understood to occupy a person so completely that they couldn’t be possessed by anyone or anything *else*, which, in an era when a lot of chronic illnesses were understood to be caused by possession by “unclean spirits”, was a promise to keep one healthy, as well as spiritually safe.

            It’s fascinating stuff. I did a report on related topics working on my RS degree.

            But, as Rising Moon noted, this isn’t exactly how it’s promoted now in most churches, and that’s largely because it was determined very early on that if Christianity stayed a religion of mystics, it would be nearly impossible to form sizeable groups and gain the political stability necessary to survive. Paul organized the early church behind a single vision, and discouraged further mysticism, which had the natural side effect of *encouraging* non-mystics to join the movement.

            Which, quite frankly, is what Pagans today are discovering all over again, though usually in less deadly settings – and sure enough, strong mystics come up with a wide variety of visions, and the non-mystics embrace the visions that appeal to them most, forming groups and traditions on the basis of what they can share, and dividing and conflicting when they can’t reconcile contradictory direct experiences.

            Mrrr, I’m rambling and this is not my blog. Sorry Morpheus!

            –Ember–

  15. Jade December 14, 2013 at 8:11 pm #

    Best ritual theory article I have ever read. I’m going to spread this among the Ontario and Quebec Pagan and Heathen communities.

    • Morpheus December 16, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

      Thank you so much, Jade! Glad it is of service.

    • Witch of Stitches December 17, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

      Agree with Jade, an excellent article which I am sharing as well. I have been saying this for years, avoiding, for the most part, open public ritual. Personal devotions, practice, and ritual, or those with a small group of like-minded individuals have always been a more intense experience for me, touching me, and allowing me to touch, more deeply. Thank you.

    • Alexandra December 18, 2013 at 1:05 am #

      Same here! I am actually in the process of teaching one of my newer friends about witchcraft and paganism, and I’m going to print this article for her to read as homework, so to speak. I have been practicing myself for over 10 years, and there were a lot of points I remember doing myself when I was first learning. I eventually developed bringing certain gods into my everyday life to listen to and keep company outside of ritual, and I think that’s very important and very well stated here :)

  16. henry December 14, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    quick question-
    what about the obverse, when the gods tap someone out of the blue to do something for them?

    • Morpheus December 16, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

      It certainly happens, Henry. What about it, then? What is your question about that circumstance?

      • henry December 17, 2013 at 1:24 am #

        First forgive me for not complimenting you on this essay. It hits home for me in respect to a lot of my estrangement with ‘Modern Paganism.’ I think a lot of what you write about is a reflection on how ‘lightly’, as it were, folks use the title of priest/priestess. I was just thinking in terms of the Gaiman analogy and if that situation was reversed. Following that analogy and, it might be facetious,and really more rhetorical, but what if it was Neil Gaiman making the call and would he have the expectation that the person would drop everything and meet with him?(because, after all, he is Neil Gaimon)

        • Morpheus December 17, 2013 at 7:35 pm #

          Hi Henry – In my experience this does happen sometimes. The Gods do sometimes just grab people and incite or demand a relationship, and sometimes also service. It seems that They often *do* expect the person to drop everything and meet with Them. Our relationships with the Gods are reciprocal, but not necessarily balanced, because there’s always a power dynamic in play. But we do have the option to say No to Them, or to set boundaries around our working with Them. It can be hard to hold those boundaries, but it is usually possible.

          • elfin December 19, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

            I had this happen on a trip to India when Kali came to me with a task (to bring something back for one of Her dedicants, someone who I knew in passing.) Kali called me again to do some ritual work with a friend (another of Her dedicants) a year later. Recently, She offered to help with some deep shadow work and one of the friends I helped has come to my aid in return.

            When Kali first approached, I had the strong sense that Freya (who I am in relationship with) had recommended it. It feels like there’s a web of service between many of us here that’s also connected through our deity relationships.

  17. Axiom December 14, 2013 at 9:48 am #

    I am really coming to enjoy your posts and your perspective on things. I was wondering if you can answer a question for me. I am trying to balance the content of this post with the talismans you sell. I have a bit of a shining towards one of them; however, in its description, it talks about calling upon and invoking the power of a Deity in order to create the effects of the talisman. I am trying to figure out what purchasing that talisman means in the context of having, not having, or just beginning to form a relationship with that Deity, particularly in terms of Their agency.

    What does it take (in terms of a relationship with a Deity) in order to create a talisman in their name?

    Also, what does it mean to purchase such a talisman? Does the Deity literally contribute Their power and energy into the talisman, or is it more of a symbolic calling upon their energies?

    Could it be wrong to purchase a talisman regarding a deity you are curious about but have no relationship with? In some ways, you are purchasing something that calls upon them and their energy… without knowing them very well. I wouldn’t want some stranger wearing a locket with my picture inside – that would just be odd. I guess I am somewhat concerned about essentially doing something similar, and I am curious to hear your thoughts.

    In any case, I don’t think I’d purchase one Right Now, but I definitely could see myself purchasing one of these talismans in the future. (They’re quite beautiful.)

    • Morpheus December 16, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

      Axiom, thanks for your comments and questions.
      You asked:

      “What does it take (in terms of a relationship with a Deity) in order to create a talisman in their name?”

      For me, I’m making ones for deities I feel I have an understanding of and relationship with. Since I’m making them not just for myself, but also to share with others, I only feel qualified to create them for deities I feel strong in my knowledge of. On the other hand, I can also imagine someone creating one just for their own use, as an initial act of devotion, which could for them help to establish a relationship even if there hadn’t been one previously.

      “Also, what does it mean to purchase such a talisman? Does the Deity literally contribute Their power and energy into the talisman, or is it more of a symbolic calling upon their energies?”

      I can only speak for the ones I make. I do ask the deities to imbue these talismans with Their power. I meditate on Them and commune with Them while I’m generating the designs, to help ensure that the designs are inspired by and evocative of Their presences. Then after I’ve made them, before I ship them out to individual buyers, I do consecrate each one to the particular God or Goddess it represents. I can’t answer what it means to purchase one – that’s up to the person who purchases it.

      “Could it be wrong to purchase a talisman regarding a deity you are curious about but have no relationship with?”

      As far as I am concerned, picking up an image of a deity is a very appropriate place to begin developing a devotional relationship. When people ask me how to begin a relationship with the Morrigan, for example, I often encourage them to start by setting up an altar for Her, perhaps including an image, and begin making offerings and talking to Her. Picking up and wearing a talisman of a deity is a similar kind of act, in my opinion. It can be a starting place for the relationship. There’s nothing in my experience of any of the Gods I work with that would suggest They would take offense at someone wearing a talisman dedicated to Them, whether that person was wearing it to help spark a relationship, or to honor an existing one. Yes, it would be weird for an individual you didn’t know to be wearing your picture in a locket – but human beings aren’t meant to be worshiped in the way that Gods are.

      What I’m referring to in my post is the practice of invoking a God or Goddess for other people, before you’ve established a real relationship with Them yourself. In other words, attempting to act as Their priest and Their channel to bring other people into relationship with Them, before you have yourself established that connection authentically. This is a different animal than any devotional act you might undertake privately, with the intention of wanting to establish a relationship. In my experience, as long as you’ve done at least a little reading to learn who They are, and as long as you’re approaching in a spirit of sincere honoring, you are unlikely to cause major offense with simple devotions like building an altar or wearing a talisman.

      I’m appreciating how deeply you’re thinking this through. I think you’ll do just fine.

      • Axiom December 18, 2013 at 3:27 am #

        Thank you very much for your reply, Morpheus! Your response was very helpful, and definitely answered my questions. Best wishes to you. :)

  18. MeresAset December 14, 2013 at 2:59 am #

    Great points you touched upon here. Truthfully when I first started praying to the gods, specifically Isis, I wasn’t sure She existed, but then She showed up. We definitely should treat them with respect and hospitality and not purely on a “What am I going to get” mentality. These are the gods, not Santa Claus people. ;) We’d be in better shape spirituality if we developed a friendship with them rather than a business partnership mentality.

    • Morpheus December 16, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

      Hey, are you saying Santa Claus isn’t a God? *can-of-worms*
      I’m just being cheeky. I don’t have an opinion about Santa Claus being a God. I’m sure someone out there does though!
      Thanks for your comments, MeresAset.

      • Sara Amis December 16, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

        My son decided a long time ago that Santa Claus was OBVIOUSLY one of the fae, because he likes shiny things, is a little tricky, and we leave food offerings out for him next to the hearth.

        • Ember December 18, 2013 at 12:34 am #

          Hmm! I’ve been assuming Santa Claus was a mantel sometimes worn by certain gods, rather than a god in it/himself, but the idea that Santa is Fey or equivalent makes all kinds of sense, both historically and in modern practice.

          In the process of considering how I would pass my values and traditions onto my kids someday (if I get to have kids, that is…), I had this unbidden daydream:

          *At the mall, walking with my kid past a Meet Santa display*
          *Child points* “THAT’S not Santa!”
          “Now dear, what have I told you about priests embodying spirit?”
          *Looks down* “Treat the priest as the spirit.”
          “So what do you say to the nice priest of Santa?”
          *contrite* “Hi Santa.”

          -E-

  19. Pixie December 13, 2013 at 7:30 pm #

    Oh my I am so in love with this. I’ve been musing on this exact same topic and wondering how to put the faith back into our faith. Lately I’ve been spending more time in Hindu temples than Pagan spaces and I have learned so much from Hindu rituals and devotion that Pagans apparently forgot. In the puja ritual where we honor/call on/pray to deities we’re doing this symbolic hospitality as if the deity was coming to our homes. Which is sort of actually what’s happening. We welcome them with flowers, offer a seat, give water, food, a bath, clothes, etc. It’s really incredibly beautiful and very Celtic. Last week I was reminded of how excessively theatrical and dramatic Pagan ritual can be when I personally feel that ritual is a way for me to get closer to my beloved deities and experience a connection with them. I don’t know how to bring this sense of bhakti back to Pagans, and I think I need to spend more time living and experiencing it in Hinduism first.

    • Morpheus December 16, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

      Pixie, I agree that we could learn much from traditions such as Puja practice. I actually grew up in a tradition that has its roots in Hinduism, and so Puja-style devotions feel very familiar and good to me. As does bhakti as a way of relating to the Gods. And in truth, as different branches from the ancient root of Indo-European traditions, there are many kinships between practice and theology in Celtic and Hindu traditions. And as you point out, hospitality is a deeply held value in Celtic cultures, and so is very natural to Celtic polytheism. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

  20. Lon Sarver December 13, 2013 at 2:44 am #

    Thank you. Very well put.

    I’ve been thinking about hospitality-based ritual for a while, and I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    One quibble, which I only mention because I think the implications are important: I’m not sure that your example with Neil Gaiman is accurate. It hinges on the idea that getting Gaiman to come to your home and work for you, just for a piece of his favorite pie, is an unjust and insulting imposition–which it certainly would be.

    But it’s an imposition because Gaiman can only be in one place at a time, doing (multi-tasking aside) one thing at a time. To get him to my home, he has to drop whatever else he’s doing, travel inconveniently out of his way, and not get any of his own work done (not to mention forgoing time with his friends and family). That would be a bad thing to ask of him, even for money, much less for pie.

    But when I call on Dionysos (and he comes) I’m not keeping him from turning his attention to others. It’s not like no one else in the world can invoke him for the couple of hours he’s paying attention to my devotions. When I have him present at my rites (well, his rites, but you know what I mean), grapes still grow, wine still ferments, and mad bastards still rant. Thousands of people at hundreds of rituals could all invoke him at once, and (assuming they all have enough people who know what they’re doing) he could appear at all of them at once without ignoring anyone.

    Being a god has its perks. Sorry, Neil.

    It seems to me that the problems with approaching a deity without establishing a devotional relationship first would be things like: less chance that the deity will actually answer, more work to get its attention, less likely that the deity would grant favors (or likely to ask more in return) and, most importantly, less chance for the magician to actually know if they really have the deity’s attention and less ability to understand any communications from the divine stranger.

    Some folks are gifted with a clear spirit sight (or whatever sense works for you), and have no problems knowing when a deity shows up. I’m not one of them; I only know when Dionysos is paying attention to me because I’ve been in a relationship with him for 15 years. I imagine most folks are in the same boat.

    • Morpheus December 13, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

      That’s a fair point about Neil Gaiman being only able to be in one place, Lon. Sure, the analogy has its limits. I don’t think this changes the point, though. In a thought-experiment world in which Neil Gaiman could bilocate and keep doing whatever he was doing before you called him, it wouldn’t be less rude or inappropriate to expect him to come over to your house and help you with your novel the moment you decided to call him out of the blue. The point is that rapport and mutuality have to be established before you can expect that of a being. The problem isn’t that we are inconveniencing the Gods by asking Them to show up, the problem is false/forced intimacy. It fails to recognize Their agency and is thus rude regardless of whether it costs Them attention to anything else.

      • Lon Sarver December 13, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

        Ah, I take your point about agency. I suppose I started from “no harm, no foul” thinking, with an assumption that if the Deity wasn’t pleased by the approach, they wouldn’t answer. There’s also a bit of trying to answer the question, “why is it bad, if I can’t hurt the Deity by doing it wrong?”

        The better version of the answer (which is what I probably should have thought through to) is, “You may not be able to harm the Deity, but you can harm your relationship to the Deity, and to those other powers who are close to that Deity, and thus cut yourself off from a part of the world.”

        • Ember December 17, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

          I think something else is missing from the analogy, though, but partially because it’s missing from the other side of the analogy.

          Asking Neil Gaiman for help if you don’t know him is rude because *helping people with writing* isn’t his domain. Writing is. *Helping people* with writing is not.

          Gods are gods (instead of Jotnar or other equivalent), not just because They have power and perspective, but because They have chosen (or had thrust upon Them, I suppose) a role of service in the world, somehow. There are plenty of other Powers that are akin to the gods in scope, scale, and even wisdom, but who are not called upon to help us mortals, and who the Lore therefore does not call “gods”.

          What we consider service may not be what They consider service, of course – gods of “dark” domains make this unclear to folks with a narrow definition. It’s a lot less inappropriate calling up a professional writing *tutor* you don’t know, and offering them payment for Their service, than it is to call up an *author*.

          Now, you’re not going to get the same service from a stranger, you’re not going to get their best rates, you’re not going to have the same rapport, and they’re a lot less likely to care if you’re getting what you need beyond what you’ve asked for in the moment – all this is absolutely true. And more importantly to your point, they deserve to be treated like someone you’re *asking for help*, not someone who *owes you something*, and they deserve to be treated like a separate individual with agency, preferences, and the ability to turn down your offer.

          But I think it IS reasonable to treat Them as being of service. What’s unreasonable is treating Them as *tools*. The problem is, in our culture, there’s a very classist tendency to treat people in positions of service as though they are merely tools, not people – that’s not a problem in our devotional work, that’s a problem in our basic ethics!

          I think the Afro-Diasporic traditions actually teach us something here. Even the Powers who actively prefer a transactional interaction, even the traditions that focus on those Powers, and thus on a transactional process of divine magic, have a sense of hospitality owed to the one invoked *whether or not They accept your deal*.

          -E-

          • Morpheus December 17, 2013 at 10:50 pm #

            Hi Ember – Thanks for your comments. That’s an interesting point about Gods being of service naturally. I suppose that I don’t assume They have a service role toward human beings as a general case. I think some Gods do more so than others. I think some Gods have a service role in the functioning of the cosmos, in ecologies both natural and spiritual, in embodying forces and processes; but that doesn’t always translate to being available to help humans. And my experiences thus far have also indicated to me that even some Gods who do have a natural service role including humans, sometimes have clannish and guarded ways of relating to us, making it not a good idea to assume that Their help is going to be available to us without establishing that with Them through communication. Even in the analogy of a professional writing tutor, who generally is available to anyone to help in exchange for payment, may have a “reserve the right to refuse service” policy.

            But I also see that if coming from the perspective that sees the Gods as being inherently of service, you’re still advocating for *asking* rather than assuming, so I think in practical terms we’re in agreement about what is appropriate ritual behavior.

          • Ember December 18, 2013 at 12:28 am #

            I think we’re in agreement in practical terms, yes.

            I don’t know that “naturally” is the word I’d use. I understand taking on the service role relative to humanity as a *choice*, not a requirement. But I also understand that it’s that choice that makes one a God, as opposed to the other kinds of beings of similar scope and power who don’t seem at all interested in the welfare of humans.

            I’m NOT saying it’s ever okay to presume you’ll GET help, but I see no reason why it would be rude to ASK.

            -E-

  21. Iris December 12, 2013 at 11:34 pm #

    I will be sharing this with my grove! Wonderfully written and showing where focus needs to be when conducting ritual!

  22. Barsha December 12, 2013 at 9:50 pm #

    Wonderfully written, an excellent article! Thank you :)

  23. Elinor Predota December 12, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

    Amen. And thank you. <3

  24. JoBeth Sexton December 12, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Well written and well stated. This is something that I have given much thought to and have worked for on some level for a long time. Yes, it is a goal. But, also, it is a goal that takes much work to get to in some cases, in my case. Still, your words help define what I have been thinking; that the Gods and Goddesses are REAL. They speak and walk with us. Not just in ritual. But, in life.
    Thank you for posting.

    • Morpheus December 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

      Thanks for your comments, JoBeth! Glad the article is of service.

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