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Gods with Agency, continued: The “fad” question

I am overdue to return to a regular writing schedule here, now that my book is out. I have a file of topics to write about, but today a half dozen different people asked if I have anything to say about whether or not the Morrígan is a fad. So it seems I need to write about that today.

I was tempted to ignore this entirely – honestly, it’s rude and dismissive toward Herself, but She’s a big girl formidable numinous personified force, and perfectly able to defend Herself if She felt it was needed. The truth is, I’m writing because this question keeps coming up. Jason Mankey isn’t the first one to coyly wonder aloud whether the upsurge in people feeling called by the Morrígan is just because She’s trendy. So let’s talk about it.

First, I realize that Jason (and the others who have said similar things) mean no disrespect. However, disrespect it is. A quick inquiry provides a few definitions for “fad”:

“an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze” (that’s Google definitions); “followed for a time with exaggerated zeal” (that’s Merriam-Webster); originating in the term faddle, to “busy oneself with trifles” as in the phrase “fiddle-faddle” (that’s Reference.com).

So yeah. Disrespect and dismissal. Which, of course, you don’t have to busy yourself with dictionaries to recognize. Jason knows it’s offensive: “Put down the tar and feathers, it’s nothing personal against The Morrígan.” I point this out not out of a desire to tar and feather Jason; he seems like a nice guy, and as I said, She doesn’t need little me to protect Her. And he’s not the only one using this language. I am pointing out the dismissal inherent in the language because it signals something else worth looking at. Why do people keep asking if the Morrígan is a fad when they know this question as such offers disrespect? Because they recognize that something is going on, but they lack any better language for articulating what it is than the language of trivial social trends.

You see, the problem isn’t that it’s rude to the Morrígan. It’s simply the wrong question. It’s the wrong question because it’s a shallow question. It is looking at a numinous devotional and religious phenomenon using a purely social lens which only recognizes the action of deities in terms of human behaviors, and only those human behaviors driven by the most shallow of motivations, social popularity. It utterly erases the agency of the Morrígan Herself, and Her engagement with culture, time, and history.

I am sure we can go deeper than this.

Could it possibly be that at least some of the people participating in this “fad” have actually experienced a call or a demand from a Goddess? Could it be that the Morrígan Herself is an agent in Her own story? That something is happening in our time to which She as a Goddess active in war and sovereignty is especially drawn or which calls Her to action in human affairs? Perhaps the global crises we face, the conflicts over resources, sovereignty, justice, human dignity, freedom, the rights of women?

I don’t claim to have all these answers. But I think the kinds of questions we ask about what is going on with the Morrígan say as much about the person asking the question as they do about Her, or those devoted to Her. I want to know what She sees in these many, many people that She is calling to action – what She is building toward. I want to know what it is that so many, many people see in Her, what need or resonance they feel that is answered by such a being. I want to understand how Her powers and Her work and Her agenda and Her communities of devotion fit into the moment in history in which we are living. I want to know how all this relates to other Gods who are coming into greater prominence right now too. Like, what exactly are She and Odin getting up to behind the scenes? I think there are one thousand questions more interesting and more useful than “is this just a trend driven by social approval.”

I think maybe I understand why this fad language keeps coming up, though. I think the idea that  something numinous, historic and meaningful might actually be going on – and that it involves the resurgence of ancient Gods (and maybe some new ones too) might just be a little bit scary. Especially for folks who may be seeing this from a perspective that could leave them feeling like they are on the outside of that big numinous historic thing. It might, on some level, feel safer to reduce that thing in your mind to something pedestrian, mundane, and safely dismissed as trivial: a fad.

I think that would be a mistake. And not, as I’ve said, because it insults the Morrígan. It’s a mistake because in dismissing this phenomenon you risk diminishing yourself. Instead of reacting to that sense of awe by attempting to diminish the thing that is happening around you, to bring it down to your size, what if you could rise to meet it? What if you seized the moment to ask yourself what is this moment in history demanding of me? If you haven’t been called by the Morrígan or drawn toward seeking Her service, then what is calling you? What do your Gods want from you, and for you, at this moment in history? What is the most meaningful thing you can commit yourself to?

Polytheism: The Light in the Window

First, I wish all a blessed Solstice, and may your fires burn brightly and true.

Over the last few weeks, several friends have nudged me to comment on the recent shitstorm debate in the Pagan blogosphere regarding polytheism, archetypalism and humanism in Pagan theology. Up to now, I have not. Not because I don’t have strong opinions, but because frankly I am too busy doing the work of Pagan polytheist priesthood to have time to argue with people about it on the internet – an activity that should always come second in priority to actual religious practice, in my opinion. Honestly, I don’t have enough time to read even a fraction of the heated volumes that have been written about it in just the last month. But I’ll try to add something of value to the conversation.

To start with, I feel there’s a distinction that needs to be made: polytheism is a religious framework, whereas Paganism (as the term is used in modernity to refer to the Pagan movement) is better understood as an ethos or worldview. One of the best definitions of Paganism I’ve heard comes from my friend Jonathan Korman, who wrote in his blog:

The pagan sensibility sees the divine in the material world … and so regards the human as sacred. The pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces … and honors all of those forces.

Thus, one can be Pagan and polytheist; Pagan and humanist; or even Pagan and atheist. Because Paganism is not a theism – it is not a statement of religious doctrine on the existence of Gods per se. It is a broadly spiritual worldview in which the cosmos is alive with powers with which we can interact. Theisms involve the recognition of those forces specifically in the form of Gods. Incidentally, operating from this understanding of Paganism, I tend to see reconstructionists and polytheists of most sorts as inherently Pagan, even if they prefer to distance themselves from the Pagan movement for social reasons.

So that being said, here is my statement of position: I am a Pagan polytheist Witch, a dedicant and priestess of the Morrígan, and a worshipper of other Gods as well. Priesthood is, above all other things, service to the Gods, and you cannot serve something which is an abstract idea or archetype, because abstracts do not have needs. Thus, priesthood inherently contains a recognition of the reality of the Gods as living beings. This is true for me: in my experience, the Gods are real, living beings, every bit as real as I am, though primarily discarnate in their form of existence (which, incidentally, makes them more powerful, not less so).

And I’ll ask you to notice what I’m not saying here – I’m not saying “I believe in the Gods.” For me, it is not a matter of belief. It is a matter of lived experience. I did not treat the Gods as real until I had experienced them. Nor do I expect anyone else to treat them as real, if they have not had experience of them. I recognize that to know the reality of the Gods requires that we trust our sense experiences, including those of our subtle senses – something that many people in modernity find very challenging to do. I suspect this is a big factor in the recent shift toward treating the Gods as useful figments of the collective unconscious. We have a culture that teaches us to mistrust the evidence of our own senses unless it is corroborated overwhelmingly by the observations of other people or of instruments. We also have a culture filled with media images in which the presence of the Gods, or the action of magic, are announced by spectacular displays of supernatural phenomena, which have trained our perception toward the coarse and obvious, and to miss the subtle.  The most powerful and helpful aspect of my training in Witchcraft may be this – it helped me to unlearn this cultural programming, to deeply observe and honor the evidence of all my senses.

This training also taught me that all people can only act from the experiences that they have. We polytheists cannot expect anyone who has not experienced the reality of the Gods to act from true knowledge of their presence. We can, of course, expect our practices and our theology to be treated with respect.

There’s something more I want to say about the Gods, and about polytheism. That is, while it is important for us to trust the evidence of our senses, it is also important to recognize the limits of our sensory frame of reference. This is a matter of fine discernment: the key is to recognize that our sensory experiences of the Gods are not the Gods themselves, because they are inherently greater than our capacity to experience them. Thus, the Gods as we know them are in fact processes of encounter, more than fixed shapes. To quote my friend Jonathan again, “The gods are what happen when the forces of the cosmos interact with human consciousness.” That is to say, what we experience is always a mask or form of the God shaped in such a way as to translate into our consciousness and frame of reference.

This is, I think, where the confusion sometimes arises between Gods as living beings and Gods as examples of archetypes. Those masks or forms can be archetypes, and they do exist as images within the collective consciousness of our species. The difference between the archetypalist perspective and the polytheist one, is that that from a polytheist perspective, those forces taking form as Gods are real, exist independently of us, and can act upon us up to and including physical effects, whether or not we believe that they are real. We don’t, and can’t, create them. In conversation about this recently, I used the metaphor of a stained glass church window, containing an image which is lit and brought to life by sunlight pouring through it from outside. The image in glass is the archetype – it is an image, a symbol, but not in itself alive or exerting force in the world. The Gods are the sun. The church is the human mind. Thus, the experience we have as a consciousness trapped inside the walls of the body is that of an image which comes to life within our experience. It takes the form and shape given it by this inert picture in glass made by the human hand, but its life is real and comes from beyond us; we can feel its warmth on our skin if we stand in the beam. That sun was not made by our hands or minds, nor is its existence dependent on our awareness of it. But without leaving the church (or at least opening a window), what we can know from this about the true nature of the sun is limited.

That last point is important. And it is not the same as skepticism. It is not necessary to question the reality of our sense experiences – we feel what we feel, we see what we see, and those experiences have primacy. But it’s important to practice discernment about how we shape those experiences into a story about the nature of the Gods. It is important to remember that what we have is always and only the nature of our own encounter, filtered through the membrane that separates the full reality of these powers from our embodied experience. It is in this way that we can be both rational and authentic in our relationship with the Gods.

I would like to see the polytheist camp practice this kind of discernment more fully, and I think it would help us in being better understood by the more rationalist/archetypalist folk in the community. Why do I care? Because infighting between Pagans is not only an embarrassing waste of our time, it’s also self-destructive to all of us. While the polytheists and archetypalists are each accusing the other camp of dominionist thinking, there are real Dominionists out there actively working to delegitimize and limit our freedom of religion, and they do not care which camp you’re in. So yes, let us have this conversation about the differences in our theology, and let us bring both our passion and discernment to the table, but let us keep our kinship in mind.