A Pagan Aesthetic: Paganism Through Philosophy
A Pagan Aesthetic seeks to examine particular topics within Paganism through the various lenses of philosophy.
Before the blog entry proper, Id like to state that the ideas proposed are still in a somewhat incubatory stage. That said, I invite your criticism and thoughts on the topic. Still needing to flesh out the ideas and needing better metaphors, I offer up the discussion here for better ways to express these thoughts. Thank you.
Within the community of Wicca, the trend of perennialism in regard to the identity of deity can, at times, lend itself toward a degree of ubiquity. The near apocryphal catchphrase “All gods are one god” (a mis quote from Marrion-Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon), suggests a near total annihilation of individual identities so deeply typical of any polytheistic religious system. If the quite numerous identities of even one pantheon, let alone all pantheons, are mere different facets of one singular deity, the polytheistic flavor of Neo Paganism seems to taste a little stale and emit a familiar (and to some Neo Pagans, abrasive) odor of Monotheism.
Within Wicca, the primary deities of “Goddess and God” involved serve almost as a “catch all” identity. The goddess is called upon by many names and as various representations of the feminine life cycle: Brigid a Celtic goddess of the hearth, fire, water, and craft skill, Aphrodite, a Greek goddess of sensuality, romantic and sexual love, and the ocean (sometimes), Isis, an Egyptian goddess of motherhood, magic and fertility, Ishtar, Persephone, Hecate, Epona, Selene, Juno, Kali, Pele, Diana, The Morrigan, Athena, only to name a few. How can these various, indeed polar opposite and amalgamate personalities all culminate in one idea of “The Goddess”? Is the goddess a representation of selfless denial like the Virgin Mary (which, however minutely, can be considered within some eclectic practitioners of “Christian Witchcraft” as a Goddess embodiment), or is she the second wave feminist ideal embodied in Lilith? The God in Wicca has slightly fewer disorders in agreeing with his personalities due to the prevalence of gender stereotypes both mapped onto antiquity and the actual gendered attitudes of history present when the gods of antiquity were worshiped, but nor can he escape contradiction. How can a lascivious Dionysus maintain simultaneously a drunken buzz while also functioning under the banner of straight laced Apollonian order? And further, how can our bipolar deity of both reckless abandon and sober medicine then also embody the serenity of Krishnas compassion while also inspiring the bloodlust of Thors followers?
While one might point out that Wiccan ideas of deity can maintain the fact that a) deity is personable, and when explored through the analog metaphor of a mortal personality, people have many different emotions, and b)that deity is a concept much broader than humanities notion of identity and the very human limitation of language is ill apt to describe something so grandiose as a “deific personality” and thus seemingly bizarre combinations of fathomless compassion and righteous bloodlust would not be an anomaly for a personality so transcendent. To this, one can not help but feel like the answers lack depth. With all limitations of language and the (literally) infinite dimensions of the concept of Deity, as human beings, creatures of pattern and logical understanding - and notwithstanding the respect maintained for the mysteries that lie beyond our conscious limitations - can one really maintain the near schizophrenic disorders proposed above?
What needs to be explored then is not simply the idea of all deities essentially serving as mouthpieces for one singular deific power, but what it means to call a personality a god or goddess and then how a working definition of such a concept alters the perspective of the original idea of all deity being one deity. To explain this, let’s propose a deity to whom one might petition in ritual. Let us assume this is a ritual to bring love into one’s life. The petitioner decides to ask for Aphrodite’s blessing and assistance. After performing the prescribed rituals and offerings, the individual finds themselves in a relationship. Yet, six months later, the relationship goes sour, even turns abusive. The petitioner then decides to appeal to another goddess for assistance. To banish the object of their distaste and fear, another ritual follows in which the petitioner asks for Hecate’s cold strength to break the relationship or, going one step further both in drama and into other pantheons, Kali’s wrath to befall the harmful party of the relationship.
What has transpired over these unfortunate events was a shifting of identity of the goddess but not of the idea of what a goddess is to the petitioner. The petitioner asked different personalities for different things but referred to all of the personalities as goddess. A different example of this would be going to a different therapist for different issues. One does not go to a marriage counselor for grief counseling. In this somewhat impoverished metaphor of goddess as counselor, one can start to see the potential for solving the contradictory idea of both Hecate, Aphrodite and Kali as all being “one” in their goddesshood. The essence of the idea of goddess is the linchpin to the adage “all gods are one god”. The essential idea of “goddess” is a feminine identity that serves as a reservoir of certain powers and inclinations. Thus all goddesses are “The Goddess” in that the idea of the goddess is the idea and banner under which all goddesses claim existential identity. The same pattern transpires when seeking the inspiration of “The God” within Wicca.
Having explored the fine print of deific appellations, there is still the question of the colloquial idea of all deity residing within and expanding from one singular deific source. At the end of ritual, was “THE Goddess” or “THE God” (or, if we remain true the the idea, simple DEITY because gendered duality would also simply refer to another manifestation of the singular essence in question) petitioned through the guise of a specific personality and name, or was the specific personality and name petitioned and not the sublime idea of transcendence and timelessness we feebly suggest to name as Deity? For this poignant question, one could suggest the metaphor of humanities attention and understanding of animal communication. Consider and compare the distance of understanding between a knowable and personable deity and worshiper to the relationship between an animal and its owner. Any attentive pet owner can speak of a degree of communication between themselves and their pets. The understanding of the animals needs manifests in the code of body language and vocal expression. A dog is hungry so it barks or begs for food, a cat is displeased with some change in its environment so it performs any variety of acts of aggression towards the new object. To the animal, the actions performed are expressions of some sort of inner communication towards their owners. This proxy would be an example of a personable and knowable deity. Though there may be a barrier between the petitioner and deity, the intention is to express some sort of will to change the petitioners environment.
For owners of reptiles or birds, there is less readily understandable communication between owner and pet. The expression of the animals needs can only manifest in crude actions such as “noise” or “movement” instead of the more noticeable nuance of canines and felines. There is still a degree of communication between owner and pet, but this is drastically lessened in comparison to other pets. This example can function as a petitioner seeking guidance or blessing from “larger” deific personalities like “The Goddess” or “The God”. Finally, people who keep insects like bees, ants, or spiders have only the basest degree of communication with their insects. An individual is in possession of a spider. The individual provides nourishment for the spider. The spider eats the food and considers the very large and unknowable thing providing it food as simply a thing, and not really obtainable or knowable. This would be the distance between a human and the absolute transcendent idea of Deity as ultimate presence or simply “The Universe”, “Endlessness”, or “The Great Mystery” of unknowable deity. This is not to invalidate any specific pet owner, but to merely apply the degree of difference between comprehension of deity and humanity, and the personal interest maintained in such distances.
Yet, even with the example of conscious perspective, the nagging question of deities being separate or different manifestations of one remains. To attempt to answer this question, two suggestions can begin to appease this quandary. The first, less mysterious and ambitious in its logic, is proposed as such: though Wicca is a form of Neo Paganism, it is surely not the only demographic, and further, within Wicca there are various schools and traditions which claim different aesthetics, logic, and epistemologies. For the sake of brevity, the standard of “the Goddess” and “the God” shall function as our subjects of worship within Wicca. If Wicca claims simply “the Goddess”, then she is in fact one more manifestation of “THE Goddess” or the undefinable substance from which all deity emits. The same goes for “the God” of Wicca. The duo is Wicca’s deific pantheon. They are the god and goddess of Wicca and cannot claim authority of their deities over, say, the deities of Thelma, Celtic Paganism, Hellenism, or Norse Paganism. If a practitioner calls upon “The Goddess” in a Wiccan ritual, s/he is calling upon a specific deific identity linked to the theological aesthetic of Wicca and no other. If the ritual names the goddess as one of many incarnations of goddesses from a specific pantheon, then the goddess invoked is no longer the idea of the Goddess of Wicca, but the specific identity tied to whichever name the petitioner invoked. This is a form of what some might deem not only splitting hairs, but inventing hairs and then splitting them, but it is a necessary observation in the attempt to overcome the enigma at hand.
The alternative, while less specific but just as infuriating in its implications, would be the idea that whatever deity is called upon in ritual is indeed only one manifestation of a deific personality incredibly more transcendent than our own, and because of that, limits our connection to the great deity in question. The implications of all gods being one god quietly suggests that no one can have the full relationship with “God”, and so deity divides itself into numerous manifestations to which we can cling to and begin to understand. The remainder of this division of deific personality is the lack of human capacity to understand and connect with different deific personalities.
Though the proposed perspectives above do not fully answer the initial question of “are all gods manifestations of one god or are they separate”, to be frank, one logically cannot propose a complete answer due to the properties of potential falsification. If an answer (or statement) cannot be proven true or false, then the answer cannot be held up to scrutiny or deemed authentic. What this leaves one with is a statement of belief. But, just because a belief does not have to stand up to scrutiny does not mean that it can't be thoughtful and articulate. By thoroughly examining our beliefs, leaving no stone unturned, no perspective unexplored, personal beliefs about deity manifest as more than opulent fantasy, but serious interest and valid expressions of sincere thought. With the possibilities considered above, there was never an intent to deliver a final answer, but to offer deep questions to ask oneself in their personal journey of spirituality.
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