Keynote | Many Gods West 2015
Good evening. Thanks for that welcome.
What I want to talk with you about tonight is the agency and sovereignty of the Gods.
This begins in understanding what Gods are, and how They are distinct from forms such as archetypes. Now, this may sound to you like I will be beating a dead horse here, or preaching to the choir; and it’s true that the differences between Gods and archetypes have been much discussed in our communities. But here’s the thing: we are going to keep returning to this issue because it is crucial for us. Polytheism is relationship to Gods, and we can’t form relationship to beings while we are misconstruing their identities. So this is foundational for us as polytheists, and what I want to share with you are some tools for how to think about this question, so that we can move into a deeper level of engagement with the Gods.
The key, in my mind, to understanding the nature of the Gods and what makes Them distinct from archetypes, is agency. And this is a theme I am going to emphasize a lot here.
One of the reasons I think people do conflate the Gods with archetypes is that in our experiences, they are often coupled together. Archetypes, we know, are images arising from the collective consciousness of human beings which are reflective of essential human experiences or responses, and which may or may not be enspirited with consciousness of some kind. It’s my feeling that if archetypes are enspirited, it is the Gods who animate them, and because of this intimacy between them, it can be hard for some of us to see where one ends and the other begins.
Now, this gets confusing on a number of levels. First, to experience the reality of the Gods requires that we trust our sense experiences, including those of our subtle senses – something that many people in our culture find very challenging to do and which most of us are trained not to do. At the same time, 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.
What I mean by that is that our sensory experiences of the Gods are not the Gods themselves, because They are inherently grander than our capacity to experience Them. Thus, the Gods as we know Them are something more like processes of encounter, rather than fixed forms. That is to say, the presence we experience is always a mask or manifestation of that God, shaped in such a way as to translate into our more limited consciousness and frame of reference.
So people often find it difficult to separate the psychological experience of an archetypal form from a spiritual experience of a God, because the knowledge of how to recognize the difference is a matter of not just subtle awareness, but also trained awareness.
And because they don’t show up for us neatly separated. These masks or forms that the Gods adopt in order to connect with us can be archetypes, and they do exist as images within the human collective consciousness. The crucial distinction to make here is that from the polytheist standpoint, those forces taking form as Gods are real, They exist independently of our experience, and They can act upon us up to and including physical effects, whether or not we believe that They are real.
Here’s a model I’ve used to illuminate this: Imagine being inside a church, and here is a stained glass window. The window contains an image in colored glass, and that image is lit and brought to life by sunlight pouring through the window.
Here, the image in glass is the archetype – it is an image, a symbol, and as we experience it, it can be alive with light and power. But, in truth, it is not in itself alive or exerting force in the world; it is a kind of passive vessel which is being enlivened by the agency of a greater force. That force, the sun that is generating the light enlivening the image, is the Gods. The church, in this model, 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 is taking on the form and shape of this picture in glass which, like an archetype, was conceived and made by the human mind and hand. But – and this part is important – 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, and it will rise and set in its own courses regardless of our awareness of it.
This makes intuitive sense and I think we can see how easy it is to conflate the presence and the image, the God and the archetype, because we are experiencing them together.
Now, let’s go deeper into this. Let’s try another model: What if I suggested thinking of archetypes as clothing that the Gods wear?
Let’s take The Smith. As an archetype, this image occurs throughout many cultures, recognizable by emblems such as the hammer, the forge, the primal elements of fire and metal. To access its meaning, all we need to see are the accoutrements of hammer and leather apron and we recognize this archetype: The Smith. The archetype is understood to represent concepts such as transformation through forging; skill and creative power; the capacity to create material culture or express oneself through art. In the psychological dimension, Jungians speak of the Smith as representing “motivation to manifest the extraordinary”; and of “bringing the creative principle to the earthly realm.”
But notice. All of this speaks to the psychological and cultural functions of smithcraft. The archetype, you see, does not tell us the story of the being who occupies it. To know this, we have to look deeper than the image – deeper than the clothing. We have to ask the being’s identity, their name, their story.
For the Gods have stories and identities like all living beings do. Let me introduce you to Goibniu, one of the Gods who carries smithcraft among the Irish; His identity and His story are different from Brighid, from Wayland, from Hephaestos, from any other smithing God we might name. This archetype that each of these Gods may embody – the apron, if you will, that a smithing God may wear – it only tells us something about Their job. It doesn’t tell us who They are.
This is not to say that you can’t have a relationship with an archetype – you can! But it is inherently a functional relationship, not a personal one. To delve into full devotional relationship, we have to get beyond the blacksmith’s apron. Engaging with Gods as archetypes is something like dealing with your local blacksmith as a customer. You go to him for horse-shoeing, or to get a tool made, or to get a quote on a custom ornamental gate. Because that’s what he is to you: he is the hammer and the apron. There can be reciprocity – you pay him for his work, and this sustains him. You offer attention to the archetype, and this sustains it. But at this level of engagement, what matters is his function: how well he does the job of smith for you.
This relationship doesn’t go deeper until you step outside the realm of function. What is your local blacksmith’s name? How did he come to be here? What does he do after work? Would he like to have a beer with you some evening? Oh, he likes beer? Now we’re starting to connect to him as a real being.
His name is Goibniu, and He likes beer; in fact, it turns out He has a brewing operation out back and sidelines making kickass homebrew for His family and friends. Sure, He’ll shoe your horse, but His passion is really fine embossed spearheads that never rust. He nearly died a while back in a violent forge incident involving a poorly-vetted red-haired apprentice; but He’s doing fine now. In fact, He’s mysteriously resilient; if you ask Him what He does to stay healthy, He’ll just tell you that a good soak in the hot tub can cure anything. He has relatives all over the place and He speaks Irish, Welsh, and Latin, too. He doesn’t talk about it much, but if you stick around and He decides He trusts you, He can teach you some clever charms and spells, too.
These elements of his history and personality weave together to make up who He is; His identity. But notice how much of this is incidental to His role as a blacksmith. If you are only engaging Him as an archetype – The Smith – it doesn’t really matter what kind of beer He likes or His favorite language to recite arcane poetry in. And He probably won’t bother telling you. You don’t have a friendship until those personal details begin to matter to you – and when they do, when He becomes Goibniu to you instead of The Smith, those things will come to matter at least as much, if not far more than His skill at the forge. Because Goibniu has become a person to you rather than a function.
And I’ll offer you another example that illustrates something else about why this matters. It matters because archetypes can lead us astray.
Here is a crone Goddess. She looks like an old lady sorceress, with long, tangled gray hair and a dark robe. She arrives at the threshold of your house at nightfall, leans against the doorway, and peers at you with a piercing eye, and She asks to be welcomed in. She might have a weaver’s beam about Her person.
So this is The Crone, right? You know, the archetype of the wise woman? Jungian teachings say that The Crone represents “the ripening of natural insight and the acceptance of what is, allowing one to pass that wisdom on to others.” That’s definitely who this is, right? She’s old, gray-haired, wearing black; she’s associating herself with night and weaving and stuff. Definitely the archetypa Crone, right?
Well, it turns out that this isn’t your wise grandmotherly sage woman archetype. It’s actually the Badb, and when She adopts this crone form and comes skulking at your doorstep, peering at you through one eye, She’s not there to offer you lessons on the karmic wisdom of the ages. She’s there to curse you into quivering shards until not a bit of you will leave the house except what birds can carry in their claws. Oops. Now what?
So there’s a wrong way to deal with archetypes. And it’s the essentializing that is problematic.
What we did there was to look only at what we think are the essential features – the ones that match an archetypal pattern – and overlook the crucial details that make Her who She actually is. We needed to pay attention to the fact that She was standing on one leg and looking through one eye. We needed to pay attention to the names She gave when She introduced Herself – you know, names like “Stormy”, and “Wasteland”, and “Curse”, and “Bitch.” You see, when we are looking for an archetype – when we are looking for what we think can be essentialized instead of dealing with them as a person, we are going to run into problems.
And notice something else. When we do this to people – when we assume that we know someone’s essential character based on certain identified features, it’s called profiling.
Centering the archetype – that is to say, assuming an essential character based on looking only at the Smith’s apron and hammer, or the Crone’s hair and robe, is actually a lot like profiling. It is treating the clothing and accoutrements as if they are determinants of a person’s identity, motivation, and impact.
And we’ve seen the results of this thinking applied to our fellow humans: this is not that far removed from someone who looks at a person wearing a hoody and makes assumptions about their habits or motivations or behavior. Profiling erases a person’s humanity, their individual character, and their agency. To honor their personhood, we have to be willing to look deeper.
I opened by saying that we can’t form relationship to beings while we are misconstruing their identities. We understand this when faced with human-to-human relationships. When we profile, stereotype, misgender, or in other ways mirepresent or dismiss someone’s personhood and identity, we are refusing relationship with them as a person in favor of relating to them as a symbol.
People with visible disabilities will probably recognize what I’m getting at. If you’ve ever spent any part of your life navigating the world in a wheelchair, people probably related to you as Disability; you’ve been archetyped. If you’re a person of color, especially one who favors urban youth culture in your dress habits, people may have related to you as Thug or some other racially essentialized archetype; that’s being profiled. These are examples where a person’s identity is subordinated to what someone thinks they represent. In other words, the reduction of person to the status of symbol.
We know this is dehumanizing. The denial of personhood. It inherently flattens relationships. You cannot form authentic relationship to a someone you cannot see for who they are.
Now, I know this parallel I’m drawing might seem like a stretch to some of you. And arguably, the impacts of things like racial profiling are more manifestly harmful and cause more suffering than the archetyping that I’m comparing it to. But I think the underlying dynamic is very similar and it’s something we need to look at.
We hear this kind of language with reference to the Gods all the time. It’s everyewhere – in books, in blogs, in conversations: people talk about what the Gods “represent”. The Morrígan represents violence. Badb represents death. Goibniu represents skill. You can see how a person’s – in this case a God’s – identity and personhood is reduced to serving as a symbol for a functional category. If we recognize this thinking as dehumanizing to people, why do we feel like it is appropriate for the Gods?
I’m suggesting that if we treat the archetype as primary then we have written the Gods out as agents of their own stories. They become reflections of an image; we have erased their agency. And this brings me to my central message tonight, something which I think is foundational to Polytheism: the agency and therefore the sovereignty of spirits and of Gods.
Now, because the Internet is a place where anything you can imagine is already there, there exists a Tumblr feed called Incorrect Sylvia Plath Quotes where, as the title suggests, people post sayings and falsely attribute them as having been written by Sylvia Plath. So that’s fun. I’m glad we have an Internet, aren’t you?
Anyway, one of the quotes posted there is this one: “Girls are not machines that you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.”
The lovely irony is that this has been shared around on social media absent its original not-a-Sylvia-Plath-quote context, and therefore has now come to be popularly attributed to Sylvia Plath. Because the Internet is also an infinite perpetual-motion bullshit generator.
But that is neither here nor there. My point is, the quote expresses something true and important about gender and sexism: our culture treats women as beings without agency and without sovereignty over their own bodies. It treats women as machines which you can “put kindness coins into until sex falls out.”
Well, you can probably see where I’m going with this. We’re talking about the agency and sovereignty of spirits and Gods. And I’m saying: now that we’re talking about agency, let’s consider the idea that the Gods aren’t divine vending machines that you put devotion coins into until blessings fall out.
Let’s consider the idea that the Gods are persons. Divine, greater-than-human persons, but persons still; who have identities that matter and are not reducible to symbolic status. Persons who do not exist as an extension of us, or for our benefit, but as sovereign agents in their own stories. Persons whose consent, interest and willingness to participate in relationship with us not only matters, but is primary to that relationship.
It is when we recognize these truths about our fellow human beings that we begin to be able to cultivate real relationships. When we care for someone as a person, rather than as a function or a symbol, we seek relationship not for the benefits that we might get, but because we find that person worthy.
So with the Gods: devotional intimacy begins where we step beyond the archetyping, beyond relating to Them as symbols, beyond asking what They “represent”. It begins where we move beyond treating Them as blessing vending machines and begin offering the coin of devotion because of Their inherent worth. It begins where we step beyond commanding and demanding and into celebration of Their sovereign magnficience. Whatever that brings.
Agency is key. To enter into genuine relationship as one being speaking with another is to recognize that that being has its own history, context, and agenda, independent of our own. Polytheism, as a religious practice of relationship, can only begin when we recognize and honor the agency and sovereignty of spiritual beings. Their lives and life force are not ours to command; Their homes, landscapes, gateways, contexts, and histories are not there for our pleasure or even for our teaching. They live in the world as we do, existing for Their own purposes, pursuing Their own destinies, in sovereign relationship to Their landscapes and contexts.
And that bit about relationship to landscape brings me to my next point. You see, I think the 20th century had it backwards in the prevailing view of Gods and archetypes.
In the Jungian school of thinking, we typically see archetypes presented as images animated within the collective consciousness of humankind, reflecting fundamental human experiences. Archetypes are presented in this model as a sort of perennial image or Platonic pure form, which expresses itself through distinct characters in different cultures. So the archetypal Smith exists first as an archetype in the human soul, and is then expressed in the form of different smithing Gods. Because this is a psychological model, it makes the human psyche the origin of the Gods, painting them as images refracted from these perennial archetypes into distinct cultural forms.
But I think it’s the other way round. I think we got it backwards because the 20th century had already forgotten that the Gods are alive.
I think archetypes are better understood as shadows the Gods leave on the landscape of our collective imagination. Something like the way human life leaves an imprint on the physical landscape, the Gods leave imprints in our interior landscape. Both are shadows which record only functions.
Think of it this way: archaeologists might uncover the remnants of a settlement, showing where people slept, where they worked, what they made. Here we can see there was a defensive fortification, the imprint of a ditch and bank. Here, the postholes from an ancient roundhouse. Deposits of animal bone from feasting. Metal scraps and tools from a workshop. Votive treasures sunk beneath the waters of a lake. Grave mounds with their decorated urns and burnt bone.
These are impersonal; they convey functions: protection, social cohesion, food sharing, skill and craft, engagement with the unseen, funerary honoring. But the names, identities and stories of those who walked and lived there are unrecorded. We can’t see who built the rath, who presided in the roundhouse, who cut the boar at the feast, who swung the hammer, who poured the offering, who wept over the grave mound. Those personal story elements are lost.
If sites like these are the physical remnants of human life imprinted in the landscape, archetypes may be the imaginal imprints left by the Gods in our interior psychic landscape. They are the shadows left on the screen, the imprint of memory showing where the Gods have passed, how the psychic landscape of our species was shaped by Their presence.
There’s a delightful episode from Irish myth that I can’t resist sharing here – speaking of the Gods leaving their marks on our landscapes.
So now I’m going to introduce you to the Dagda. He is a chieftain among Gods, huge, and mighty in both form and appetites, a God who practices druidic magic, and hospitality, and warfare. We see Him wearing a short, hooded cape that extends to the hollow of His two elbows. And a brown tunic is on Him underneath that, which is never long enough to cover His manhood. That is to say, the tunic is of ordinary length. The Dagda… Well, He is extraordinary.
And among His extraordinary possessions is this very mighty club. The stories tell that it is as thick and as long as a tree trunk, and it trails behind Him on the ground. It was said that this mighty club of His is so heavy that it was the work of eight men to move it. So, well, we aren’t surprised when His little tunic fails to cover it, are we? The ancient Irish were not shy about bodies, I’ll just say that.
When He drags this club along the ground, it carves a track that is deep enough to make the boundary ditch that marks the border of a province. And a boundary ditch like that is called “The Track of the Dagda’s Club” for that reason.
And so in this story our mighty Dagda is traveling, and dragging His great heavy club. As He goes along He sees a girl in front of Him, a good-looking young woman with an excellent figure, her hair in beautiful tresses. The Dagda desires her.
Now He’s just come from the camp of His enemies, who have tried to trick Him into violating the protocols of hospitality by making Him eat an entire house-sized cauldron of porridge. Did I mention His appetites are mighty? Of course He ate it all. But now, because of His huge, full belly, He is impotent. And so the girl is mocking Him for His impotence, and they get into a fight. And a very bawdy scene unfolds, and she’s beating Him about, and she throws Him so hard He sinks deep into the earth and makes a furrow, and she’s jumping up and down on Him, until His belly finally unloads all that porridge. I’m telling you, the ancient Irish were not shy.
So, well, He has His potency back, and He climbs up out of the furrow, and He picks her up, and now we come to the sexy part. I’m just going to say it one more time – it’s not demure.
He produces three great stones from his pouch. He sets each stone into the ground before her and says, “These are for my penis and testicles.”… Then the story tells “He bared her pubic hair to his vision. Then the Dagda pierced fiercely against his mistress and they made love after that, repeatedly.”
And there resulted from that a great mark in the land at Beltraw Strand where they made love, and a great pool of His semen from this bulling, and it is said that the place is called the Mark of the Axe of the Dagda from this, or the Pool of Semen of the Dagda, depending how you translate the name.
And after this, she asks Him not to go to battle, and of course He insists that he will.
“You will not go,” she says, “because I will become a stone at the mouth of every ford you will cross.”
And the Dagda says “Yes, but you will not keep me from the battle. I will tread heavily on every stone, and the marks of my heel will be carved on those stones forever.”
And she says, “But I will be a giant oak in every ford and blocking every pass that you need to cross.”
And he says, “But I will pass, and the mark of my axe will remain in every oak of every place forever.”
And people have ever since seen the mark of the Dagda’s axe in every oak, and of His footprints on every stone, and the track of His mighty club that carved the landscape. And the furrow where He fell when she threw Him down, and the place where they made love, are forever marked in the landscape.
This story is about a lot of things, but what we’re looking at here is how it’s a story about the landscape being shaped by the Gods. Even when we think the Gods are gone, Their marks on us remain. We ourselves are a map shaped and carved by Their memory.
But, of course, the Gods are not gone. Modernity has just been ignoring Them, or at best reducing Them to symbols representing functions, to archetypes in the human interior landscape. It has been, to return to an earlier metaphor, talking to the blacksmith’s apron and forgetting to ask His name.
But the Gods are still with us. And what I think is most important to grasp is the difference between the static nature of a symbol or an archetpye, and the dynamic, living nature of a God. And the key to this is story. Living beings don’t just exist, they have stories. They have an origin, they come from somewhere in particular, and they experience an arc of change.
Now, when I speak of the Gods having stories, I’m not just talking about Their mythological stories, like the story of the Dagda I just shared. I’m speaking also of Their journeys through history. That is to say, the Gods have multiple levels of story that are interwoven. Because of course, for some Gods, Their mythological stories do include births, life arcs, struggles, and even deaths. For other Gods, Their mythological stories may tell that They have no arc – Their story may be that They are eternal and unchanging.
But all Gods have a historical story. Meaning, Their engagement with humanity – without which we would have no awareness of Them as Gods at all – that engagement with humanity has a story arc. It began somewhere, in a particular place on this planet, in a particular cultural framework, at a particular time in history.
Gods and spirit beings may not be bound in bodies or even in time, but Their stories still emerge from a place and time, and not vaguely from everywhere. They emerge from landscapes, or landscape features in a particular place; or They emerge from beings or populations of beings who lived and died, in a particular ecology or culture. They emerge from cultural flowerings that took place in a particular region at a particular period in history, shaped by the land and the people who named and worshiped Them. This becomes part of who They are, just as the family, landscape, place, and culture that we each grow in is part of who we are.
So: story as an element of the character of the Gods. This is an expansive concept. We begin to recognize that there is so much more to know about the Gods than what They “symbolize” or “represent”. Yes, we can learn Their mythological stories, but we can also come to know Them from Their journeys through history. Where They first came to be known, where They have traveled, who brought Them, where They stayed and found root. How They have been worshiped, what has fed Them in this place and that place. What languages They have heard and learned. Who They have become through these journeys and movements. What relationships with other Gods They have participated in – and how those relationships have shifted within Their stories and in the long arc of history.
It is an expansive concept. You know that feeling where you’re starting to get to know someone, and you realize how much there is to know about them? Like you could sit and talk and listen for weeks and never get enough? When you want to know where they’ve been and what they’ve seen and what they think and feel about this, and that, and everything else?
It happens when we fall in love, and when we discover a new friendship or kinship, and when we get a chance to talk to someone we admire. You know what that is? That’s what happens when we discover someone’s humanity – when their personhood suddenly becomes deeply real to us. Everything about them, every little detail of their being and history begins to matter.
So there’s something else important here. When we recognize the Gods as beings with identities rather than as symbols, expansion happens. When we recognize Them as agents within their own stories, expansion happens. Greater vistas for learning, and greater opportunities for connection and relationship are opening up. New and deeper questions come up faster than we can learn answers. That expansion, that deepening, is an indicator that we are on the track of something important. I often say that if you’re doing your religion right, it should feel like a bottomless well – the deeper you go, the deeper you discover that you can go. That is what happens when we start to recognize the agency and sovereignty of the Gods.
It’s expansive. It goes even deeper. We can look at the story arcs of the Gods engaging with history, but we can simultaneously recognize that They Themselves may not be bound by time – may exist in a non-linear relationship to these historical journeys we are looking at. Thus, it is conceivable that every form and habit and identity that a God may have undergone throughout history could be simultaneously reachable within devotional relationships.
Imagine if you could contact and talk to and get to know someone you love at every age of their life, in every one of the identities they have occupied. Once we recognize evolution and change as possibilities within the stories of the Gods, it becomes possible for us to engage with any part of Them along that story arc.
So this leads to some fascinating questions. We can recognize the Gaulish Gobanno and the Welsh Gofannon and the Irish Goibniu as having interconnected stories – perhaps representing a journey from an origin hearth into new lands along with the movements of Celtic peoples; or perhaps representing a refraction into distinct personalities from an earlier parent divinity, some ancient proto-Celtic smithing God. Similar questions arise in relation to many deities; for example Cathubodua of Gaul and Her cognate, Badb Catha of Ireland.
Now, when faced with these questions and complexities, our temptation may be to essentialize and begin speaking of an archetypal Smith or an archetypal Crow. But the Polytheist’s response is to recognize that whoever that ancestral deity was, They too were a living God with agency within Their own story. And what we are finding is that we can engage with any part of this evolving complex of divinities from ancient past to present day because all of Them exist simultaneously.
So, for example, I can connect devotionally with Cathubodua from Gaul, with Badb Catha from Ireland, and with the ancient proto-Celtic progenitor within whom these distinct identities dissolve in deep time and whose name would have been something like Bodua – She Who Warns. And I can do this without essentializing any of Them to a flat archetype – I can do this while still honoring and engaging with Them as sovereign beings.
We begin to see how deep it can go, and how expansive it can become, when we recognize the Gods as living beings within their own stories. When we recognize their sovereignty.
And there’s something more that arises from that orientation. Because the Gods are alive within Their stories, we ourselves participate in the unfolding of those stories. We participate in the stories of the Gods in our studies of Them. In our asking and our researching where They came from and where They have been, we add to what is known of Them, and we help to shape those narratives. In our devotional cultus, in the knowledge of the Gods that comes through oracular and revelatory work, we contribute to Their stories. In being another of the peoples that have worshiped, fed and sung songs to Them, we become part of Their stories.
This is what comes from engaging with the Gods on this level. This is true relationship. When someone begins to matter to us as a real person within Their own story, we move beyond seeking what we can get from Them. They cease to be a symbol for something or a source of something and instead They become part of our story. We begin seeking to create a story together, a shared future.
Just so, we know we have begun to engage in deep polytheism when we stop asking “What are you here to give me?” and we start asking “How can I serve you?” We stop asking “What lessons are you here to teach me?” and we start asking “What can we do together?”
We need this expansiveness, this depth. Polytheism is experiencing a resurgance, coming back into its own after centuries of erasure. The Gods are alive and inviting us to step forward into relationship, to enter into the creation of shared history. We are being asked to step into deep relationship, into service, as the Gods draw us toward rebuilding devotional cultus.
But this resurgence is taking place surrounded by and embedded in a culture that constantly seeks to deny the Gods can even exist, let alone have agency and impact in the world. To create devotional cultus that serves the Gods and that is built in collaboration with the Gods, we have to have the courage to meet Them eye to eye and say “Yes. I am with you. What can we do together?”
“What can we do together?” This work is itself expansive, and it will depend upon our courage and willingness to go deeper. We need to be willing not only to explore our own visions of what is possible, but bold enough to ask the Gods what Their visions are, what They wish to build and to create, what paths They want to see forged before us. To go beyond the contemplation of symbol and engage with Their personhood. To go beyond transactional devotion and enter into service. To greet the Gods as sovereign beings, and enter into collaboration with Them. To go beyond seeking experiences and attend to building cultus and traditions that support Their presence in our world.
That is what we are here this weekend to do, is it not? We are here to explore that question – what can we do together with the Gods? So let’s go out there and see how deep we can go.
About the Author:
Morpheus Ravenna is a spiritual worker, artist, and writer, residing in the San Francisco Bay area. An initiate of the Anderson Feri tradition of witchcraft, she has studied and practiced devotional polytheism and the magical arts for about twenty years. Her primary spiritual practice is her devotion and dedication to the Morrigan, within the framework of Celtic heroic spirituality. She co-founded the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood, a Pagan devotional priesthood dedicated to the Morrígan, and she authors the Shieldmaiden Blog. Her earlier work at Stone City Pagan Sanctuary helped provide a space for land-based Pagan community in northern California, shown in the 2010 documentary “American Mystic.”
Morpheus makes her living as a tattoo artist, with a passion for ritual tattoos, folk magic, and tattoo design inspired by historical art and ancient civilizations. She recognizes tattooing as an initiatory art. An accomplished artist, she continues to create devotional artworks in a variety of media including oil and watercolor, ink, metalwork, and more. She also practices medieval armored combat in the Society for Creative Anachronism.
Morpheus can be reached through her website at www.bansheearts.com. The Coru Cathubodua Priesthood can be reached at www.corupriesthood.com.
I had the pleasure of attending your lecture at Many Gods West and enjoyed it immensely. I appreciate your call for us to go beyond shallow forms into the mystery of our gods.
I wanted, however, to say a word or two in Jung’s defense. Archetypes, as he deploys them, are not generic, agency-less ciphers, dropped into place for the ego enlargement of whoever should come along and dust them off. The concept has been horribly watered down by decades of shallow authors,and I think it is these which you are rightfully critiquing. But your characterization of the nature of archetypes is at odds with the way Jung utilizes the term.
When you read The Red Book, you see the profound struggle Jung experienced as he yielded himself up to these archetypal forces that definitely, clearly had their own agendas and wills. He was diving right off the cliff of the inner/psychic/mystic unknown. Whatever their ontological status might be, it is clear that archetypes have power and intentions. Indeed, much of Jung’s work moves towards the same point of this essay, namely that we have to give over to the forces greater than ourselves; they are not vehicles for our egoic agendas, but powers to be honored and worked with as an end in itself.
Jung stated that the concept of archetype was never meant to replace the existence of the divine. He felt that as a psychologist it was not his place to speculate on the nature of divinity, and so limited himself to phenomena of consciousness. In other words, the purpose of proposing archetypes is not to water down the divine but to have humility about the limits of his understanding or competence.
The phenomenological stance that you take – seeing the gods as they present themselves, not as our expectations dictate – runs richly throughout Jung’s work. Even when he draws parallel motifs between different mythological traditions, he is always also meticulous about the particularities. This is what makes the commonalities he identifies so compelling; they do not come at the expense of being faithful to the phenomena.
Indeed, if one agrees with Marie-Louise von Franz, this is a big part of why his focus turned to the study of alchemy, a tradition which highlights the uniqueness and quirks of processes rather than editing them to fit pre-existing mythic structures or narratives. Personally, studying alchemy (particularly Jung’s and von Franz’s writings) has helped me experience my deities in a far more intimate, intense, phenomenologically faithful way, a way that I suspect is very much in accord with your vision for polytheism.
In one passage (I believe in the volume _Alchemical Studies_) Jung argues that the similarity of patterns and structures across different mythic and cultural traditions is simply due to the biological uniformity of the human race. This is a very progressive claim for someone writing in the 1930’s. If it makes it sound like he is reducing spiritual processes to biology, it is worth understanding again the point that Jung’s focus was on psychological process, not the ontological status of the divine. If you think about it, since all humans have structurally similar brains, it makes sense that there might be some commonalities in how we process our experiences of those forces which exceed our own personal ego structures. Yet this says nothing about the actual nature of the gods; nor is it meant to.
Finally, it is worth considering that Jung caused a furor when, in a televised interview in his later years, he was asked if he believed in God. Jung replied something to the effect of “I don’t have to believe; I KNOW God.” Naturally, this caused a terrible ruckus from all the blasphemy-obsessed monotheists. More importantly, it underscores that archetypes are not meant to be a substitute for the divine; otherwise his response would have been something like, “no, I only believe in the existence of mysterious, collective psychic constructs that people mistake for God.”
For myself, I do not speculate on the “true” nature of the gods. Sometimes it makes most sense to treat them as historical artifacts; sometimes as psychic constructs; sometimes as “real” beings (whatever that means – “reality” is one of the most familiar, yet most opaque, terms in the English language). Mostly I just focus on their guidance and building a solid relationship on a phenomenological basis; the more time passes, the more I am comfortable with discarding abstraction and simply working with whatever they see fit to present.
On the whole then, I applaud your intent, your conclusion, your call to the polytheist community. But I felt the need to speak to Jung’s defense; it is not fair to critique an epochal thinker on the basis of his ignorant so-called inheritors. On that point, you might enjoy David Tacey’s book _Jung and the New Age_, which offers a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the point of view I have here presented.
Beautifully-written, deeply-written, moving. Thank you.
I agree completely about the agency and identity of the gods, and I probably agree about sovereignty, though I am not sure how you are using the term (if you mean autonomy and distinct identity, then I agree).
Personally I think, rather than serving the gods in a subservient manner (though perhaps that is not what you are advocating), we should be forming alliances and relationships with them. Since not all gods necessarily have a benevolent agenda towards humanity, or towards all species (some may be indifferent, others might be hostile), I am not going to serve them without question.
Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this, think it is beautifully written, and that there are some really helpful metaphors in it (e.g. the stained glass window, the imprints on the land, and so on).
Very helpful, excellent article. Many thanks for publishing it!