Pagan Paths

Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.

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The importance of ethnicity in Deity depiction

Crystal Blanton, over at Daughters of Eve, recently wrote a very moving blog post called 'Discovering my Inner, Nappy Headed Goddess', about her struggle to come to terms with her beautiful 'black woman hair'. In it, she addresses a sore point for the Pagan community, that I--as a long term polytheist--never understood: the Pagan need to whitewash every God and Goddess. Most deity images--especially those of women--depict the Goddess at hand as white, thin, with long, flowing hair, and wearing an equally flowing dress; even when the Goddess in question is most likely not white, thin, with long, flowing hair, and wearing an equally flowing dress. I quote from Blanton's post:

"My hair got me to thinking about what my image of the Goddess is and what I have visualized her head of hair looking like. While I don’t always visualize the Gods as one image or being, I think it is natural for humans to conceptualize the divine as an image that is similar to the image in the mirror.  What I find to be amazing is the automatic programming that happens unconsciously, leading us to believe that the face of divinity is fair skin and with flowing hair.  It is the conditioning of the Americanized version of “right” that seeps into the mind and implants itself.  It is these same images that infiltrate ethnic cultures and convince them that acceptable American culture means leaving behind heritage for a more mainstream image."


There are entire studies on this, done with children of different ethnicities. Often times, children of any ethnicity will pick the white doll over the colored doll, and draw themselves one or a few shades lighter than their actual skin color. This goes back to research done by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark from 1939 to 1950. Those are the kinds of things that make me weep for society.

Back in the Pagan world, though, there is a subconscious desire to depict any Deity we--especially Caucasian people, like myself--identify with, as white, and as light as possible. This is, of course, bullshit. I admit that the God and Goddess are sun-kissed white in my mind, but the separate Deities of the various pantheons very much look like the perfect specimens of the ethnic group, they are most closely identified with. The Theoi aren't white, Their skin is a beautiful olive hue. Like the modern inhabitants of Hellas, They have strong, full, hair (black or dark brown unless otherwise specified), thick eyebrows and a characteristically strong nose. The women are thin and finely shaped, the men muscular and proud, not because that's the current vision of beauty, but because it was so in ancient Hellas.

While it's perfectly understandable for a Goddess like Brigid or a God like Thor to be depicted as caucasian, the Kemetic Gods--like Isis, Set and Osiris--are most certainly colored (if they represent as humans at all). Deities like the African Asa, Imana, and Juok and most likely about as dark as they come, just like Asian Deities will look Asian (with different traits depending on their home ground). The list goes on.

The ethnicity of the Gods matters. It tells us something about Them, it helps us to relate with Them, and helps us establish contact. Even if you're not a Reconstructionist, social structures still apparent in the modern society these ancient deities were worshipped in, tells you something about the culture in the time when the worship of these Deities was wide-spread. Also, whitewashing is incredibly disrespectful to humans, let alone Deities.

Research shows that children as young as three or four years old can and will discriminate based on skin color. Around ten years old--when peer pressure sets in--children will (re)define their ideas about racism and people of other ethnicities. While never set in stone, it's hard to change these thought patterns after that time. It's not odd we want to paint everything with the racial brush we were handed at birth, yet it's not something I would encourage. There is so much beauty in ethnic differences, and it would be a shame to throw that away over comfort levels, fear or ignorance. Perhaps none of the people who read this will recognize themselves in this post. Perhaps some will. It's a simple reminder of the beauty of diversity, not a lecture. Do with it what you will, but keep it in mind the next time you go through Google's image database in search of images representing Deity, and all you come up with is thin, white, women in flowing dresses, showing too much cleavage, and young, white, men.

Image credit: Karen's Whimsy

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Elani Temperance is a twenty-seven year old woman, who lives with her partner in The Netherlands. She has been Pagan for a little over twelve years and has explored Neo-Wicca, Technopaganism, Hedge Witchery and Eclectic Religious Witchcraft before progressing to Hellenismos. Although her home practice is fully Hellenic, she has an online Neo-Pagan magazine called 'Little Witch magazine' (www.littlewitchmagazine.com) in which she and several co-writers try to cover the whole gamut of Neo-Paganism. Baring the Aegis is also on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BaringTheAegis

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