On not talking with the Gods

Note: this post grew out of a comment I made on Erl_queen’s LJ the other day.

I realized a long time ago that I am not going to fit into the mainstream of any religious community, even a Pagan one; as my wife puts it, we’re sort of the “fuzz on the end of the string on the fringe”, wherever we are. I’m used to being too conventional for many Pagans and too weird for most other groups, and to being both too conservative and too liberal (both in the wrong areas) to fully integrate even with the UUs.

I often feel out of place even in semi-Recon environments such as Neos Alexandria, because I don’t have regular ongoing interactions with the Gods or other spiritual beings, and don’t really feel the need to. I have experienced enough to know that They exist, but beyond that I’m just an average householder trying to get through life as best I can.

There are two prevailing attitudes I see in much of the Pagan community, both of which I find distinctly unhelpful. The first is the well-known “soft polytheism” (not that this term is entirely unproblematic) – that the Gods are in the end either metaphors or the concretizations of archetypes, or at most “expressions” of an underlying Unity; but however it’s described, most of the time it winds up basically meaning that They are inside our heads. While this attitude is easy to ignore – why would I bother to worship something I/we made up? – it is annoying and contributes to the general perception that Paganism is a lot of wooly-headed nonsense.

The other attitude that bothers me, which tends to come more from the “hard” polytheist end of the spectrum, is that in order to be a “real” Pagan I should be having tea with half a dozen Gods and spirit guides every Tuesday :). I find this both more problematic and harder to deal with; while I appreciate that these folks generally at least believe in the actual existence of the Gods as real Persons, it smacks too much of the attitude of many charismatic Christians that if you’re not speaking in tongues you must not really believe… and it’s also distinctly anti-historical, particularly for a Hellenist.

True, the literature is chock-full of stories of the Gods interacting with people – mostly kings and Heroes. With the occasional exception such as Baucis and Philemon (and even that is a Roman story) or periodic hotties being seduced by one or another of Them, the Gods did not (to our knowledge!) generally have [edited to add: *constant*] dealings with “normal” people. Certainly there were religious specialists then, as now – but most folks, then as now, just muddled through… and there was nothing wrong with that. It didn’t make them any less or more pious than priests, mediums or seers, just “normal”. Now, as someone else pointed out in the discussion, it’s entirely possible that the Gods talked to everyone, they just didn’t write about it… but I have to go with the evidence we actually have, and my own experience, and both of these lead me to conclude that there’s no particular reason the Gods should necessarily want to talk to me on a regular basis. I have no calling to be a priest, or a mantis, or anything much other than a lay worshiper and amateur theologian.

As I said to Erl_queen, I am saying nothing against those who desire such personal relationships and are blessed to have them – Godspeed and more power to them! But to those who insist that their experience should be the norm for everyone, let me observe that no religion will endure without a large base of laity, folks who just want to be able to worship the Gods, make their offerings and libations and get on with their lives.

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19 thoughts on “On not talking with the Gods

  1. nettle

    ooh, this is a fascinating topic – one thing I too have certainly noticed about modern Paganism is that there isn’t a whole lot of attention paid to the “congregants” – the folks who believe and practice and muddle along, as you say, but have no desire to be high priestess or shamanic healers or faery seers or oracles or whatever – as though we should be a community of all doctors and no patients, if that’s not too inappropriate a metaphor. And the fact that some of these practices are distinctly NOT for everyone, and if we try to make it so that they are they become inevitably watered down… hm. Still at the “hm” stage but this is making my brain work.

    I haven’t read the comments on erl_queen’s post yet, but once I do I might have to do a blog post of my own on the subject.

  2. thehouseofvines

    This is really good and thoughtful, and I have long been an advocate for the place of ‘ordinary Joes’ in the religion. Not only do I believe that a religion needs such a solid core if it’s ever going to thrive, I detest any efforts to make anyone feel like a second-class citizen within their faith, but furthermore, I think there is great virtue in tending the home, raising children, serving the community, etc. stuff that it’s much harder to do if you are a mystic who is always having intense experiences and whatnot.

    However, I’m afraid that I must completely disagree with your assertion that the average person in antiquity didn’t have encounters with the gods, and that this was primarily a thing reserved for special folk like kings and heroes. In Homer you’ve got even lowly swineherds seeing gods. When Apollon decides to set up his oracle at Delphi he chooses random Cretan sailors to serve him. And Dionysos reveals himself to the high and low alike. And that’s just the mythical strain. When you read stuff like Pausanias, Herodotos, Diodoros, etc it’s full of such encounters, and we’re lucky enough to have first-hand accounts via personal letters and votive dedications. People are always talking about this or that dream they had, visionary experiences, random weird phenomenon and sometimes more. I’m sure there were also those who never had such encounters, who just served the gods out of love or because that’s what was expected of them – but ancient religion also had a richness, a complexity, and a messiness that many scholars are reluctant to acknowledge.

  3. nettle

    Oh, that’s a good point too – I am reminded now of the Asclepieia – healing temples of Aesclepieus. The patient would fall asleep in the temple and dream, and the dream would then be interpreted by the priests to direct the cure. The priest/interpreter was needed to accomplish the healing, but the actual solution, the dream, was a visitation from the god. And anyone who had the means to make an offering could go to the temple and do this ritual – no special training or talents required.

    The same goes for magic – all sorts of people from all levels of society would dedicate tablets or make charms. And the mystery cults, which were (apparently) all about divine contact, were open to anyone who could speak the language – no specializations needed. So, yeah, talking with the gods was not especially unusual in a classical context. That’s not meant to detract from your overall point, of course, but I agree with Sannion that it was, in practice, a whole lot messier than it might look at first.

    Just as perhaps it is today. Once again, hm…

  4. thehouseofvines

    Yup! Asklepios is a great example of this. In fact, that brings to mind Aelius Aristides. He was an orator/lawyer in the second century that suffered from chronic illness. In fact, his IBS was so bad that it seriously hampered his career efforts. Well, naturally enough, he turned to Asklepios and sort of developed a life-long relationship with the god. He wrote voluminously about the healings, dreams, visions, etc that he had with the god and the strange diets, baths, and medicinal regimens that Asklepios advised him to take up. Sometimes, you kind of wish that Aristides was a little less forthcoming about this stuff, if you get what I mean. But then again, only some of his writings were intended for a wider audience, the rest being essentially his private journal perhaps never intended to be preserved for posterity. There was nothing great about Aristides, which just goes to show that the gods can show themselves to and care for the little guy.

  5. executivepagan Post author

    OK, you do have a point there… I may have overreached on that aspect :(, but I think my overall point that the expectation that *everyone* has to or should have such experiences – or that *everyone* was always tripping over Gods in antiquity – is problematic, still holds water. I occasionally take recourse to divination myself, as many did back in the day, and usually get an answer… and I’ve certainly seen what I believe to have been omens. And while I’ve never had a prophetic dream that I’m aware of, I’m certainly not saying it’s not possible.

    But while seeing omens, incubation and such is related to what I’m talking about, it’s not the entirety of it. You, for instance, write about your regular mystical experiences, and I very much enjoy reading about them and feel blessed to know someone who has them, and it reinforces my own faith a little… but you never say that people who *don’t* have your level of engagement with the Gods are somehow the lesser for it. My real argument is, as you said, against the assumption that all pagans should be religious specialists or they’re doing it wrong.

  6. executivepagan Post author

    Ah, now magic is an entirely different batch of fishcakes. Since I don’t practice it at all, I don’t really feel qualified to comment… :)

  7. thehouseofvines

    Oh no, I think your point is really excellent, and frankly something that I think needs to be talked about more often. I am constantly getting e-mails from people who say “I do all the stuff you’re supposed to, and yet never have direct encounters with the gods. What’s wrong with me?” Which is just heartbreaking because obviously there’s nothing wrong with such people, any more than there’s something wrong with me because I can’t do calculus or use power tools or bake a cake. “No island is made for raising horses, nor will the soil produce every type of fruit,” as Homer so wisely observed. The gods have seen fit to bless us with different gifts. One isn’t better than the other – just different.

  8. executivepagan Post author

    …some of these practices are distinctly NOT for everyone, and if we try to make it so that they are they become inevitably watered down…

    That’s exactly what erl_queen was talking about.

  9. executivepagan Post author

    I have slightly amended that sentence in the post so that it says what I actually meant… :)

  10. Ali

    I was thinking about this just the other day, firstly because I’ve been working on writing a series explaining exactly the way in which I do experience (an albeit limited) relationship with a polytheistic deity, which is something totally new to me.. and secondly because I just read on someone else’s blog and somewhat obnoxious (I found) suggestion that, like you said, if you’re not sitting down to tea with the gods every day and practicing in a “real grove” out in the woods, you don’t count as really or seriously “Pagan.” Personally, I wouldn’t want to be part of a religion or spiritual tradition that couldn’t be relevant to the laity and the urban-dwellers. That seems awfully… small, in the end.

  11. Pax

    Hello folks,

    So I am thinking that there needs to be more of an emphasis in discussions of Pagan spirituality and practice the same sore of instruction and discussion as I have been encountering in my recently renewed studies of meditation and spiritual practice.

    Sometimes, you will sit in the hand of Goddess, and sometimes you will feel something emotionally moving, and sometimes you will be going through the motions and feeling a bit dorky or as if “Ok am I just deluding myself or what?!” BUT unless you give yourself to the process, daily and regularly, you won’t feel a blessed thing!

    My own words, but the basic attitude is there in a lot of what I have read lately.

    OTOH, I also feel like there needs to be more discussion of WHY structure and discipline in practice and ritual matter.

    Peace and opinions,
    Pax

  12. Pax

    “the same sore of instruction” should read same sort, unless we are talking about Aikido (which I wish to study someday) in which case sore may also apply…

  13. Kullervo

    Amen!

    Are you living a virtuous life? Are you pouring libations and making offerings?

    Then congratulations, you’re a good Pagan. The end.

    Sure, as with any religion, there is an enormous depth of spiritual practices and mysteries and different aspects of belief and worship you can explore. There is lore and myths you can read. There is mysticism and divination and so on. As a living, ancient faith, it has a nearly infinite wellspring of spiritual possibility.

    But you can’t do it all and you don’t have to.

  14. R.D. Hammond

    One of the things that used to baffle me about shinto was the idea that one must strip away illusions to see reality. For the longest time, I always took this as having to give up the illusion of people in the sky who ran the world. As I result, I fought.

    As it turns out, the only thing I had to give up was my particular version. The gods are still there, and always were—but they’re multi-faceted. Athena’s whispers in my ear don’t look like the same thing as a druid meditating in front of a tree, but they are. Tangentally (but similarly), an offering is nice now and again, but not everyone is into micromanaging.

    Honestly, I try not to worry too much about what either people do with their faith. It’s hubristic to dictate to the gods how they wish to be spoken to—and a lot of loses its meaning when it’s taken out of its box, anyway.

  15. executivepagan Post author

    Giving up on the nested replies for the moment, they’re getting too squishy to read.

    Pax – Yes! You have to do the practice, whatever the practice is, or you’ve got nothing… maybe you should write that post on the “why” of it. (And yes, sore is definitely sometimes part of aikido practice! :)

    Kullervo – True, nobody can do it all. I certainly agree that a virtuous life should be the fruit of any properly applied religion, although the particular forms that virtue takes will vary somewhat depending on what one’s religion holds to be most important… Although, as the Jewish tradition says, study does lead to action; and so do the offerings and spiritual exercises of our own faith. I’m certainly not trying to say that doing nothing is a good option, just that no single practice or type of experience will be right for everyone, any more than everyone will feel called to worship the same Gods. Many people, for instance, come to Hellenismos through getting to know Dionysos; but even with my theatrical background, He just doesn’t speak to me (or hasn’t so far, anyhow :).

    R.D. – a lot of loses its meaning when it’s taken out of its box
    If by that you mean (and I think you do) that Gods and worship practices are tied to their traditions, then I absolutely agree. For instance, I have taken to heart Rev. Barrish’s dictum that “if you can greet the rising sun with genuine gratitude, then you are experiencing true Shinto feeling”, and have incorporated that into my own spiritual practice – but I do it with a hymn to Apollon, not bowing and clapping in Shinto style. I learn from the teaching, which is pretty universal; but I don’t try to appropriate the form.

  16. Hrafnkell

    I agree with Kullervo. I don’t think ancient religion demonstrates that intimate personal relationships with a half dozens gods or spirits demonstrates piety. I don’t know that there is any historical evidence for that sort of religion. If as the Romans said, religion is proper and reasonable awe of the gods, then an excess of those things is not religion.

    I consider myself a devout person. I sacrifice, I ask Thor to hallow meals, I try to live a good life through right action.

  17. executivepagan Post author

    I’m looking forward to reading that series! I love hearing about how other people experience their Gods. And as to the “real grove/real Pagan” thing… there’s really nothing to say to that level of willful ignorance. :(

  18. Feral Boy

    Here is a broadcast by NPR concerning magical thinking. Subject of the first segment’s opinion is that books like “The Secret” can have the result of making you think something’s
    wrong with YOU if your prayers aren’t answered.

    http://www.wpr.org/book/090111a.cfm

    — Feral Boy

  19. executivepagan Post author

    That sounds interesting – I’ll try to listen to it tomorrow! Thanks.

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