Note: This series is a follow-up to my essay, “I Don’t Believe in Purification”. In this 3-part series, I offer some additional context for my approach to deity, spirituality, and ritual.
Deities or Archetypes?
In general, but specifically in ritual, I tend to work with deities as archetypes, as stories. I’m a mystic, but I also have a scientific bent. I think about the various stories of the gods, and culture and sociology and how cultures form around their stories, and around their environment. And I think about how deities change over time just as language changes over time. The Greek word Zeus and Latin Deus and Norse Tiw (Tyr) all come from an Proto-Indo-European root word deiwos. I believe that gods changed over time just as cultures spread and changed and became unique from one another. In fact, if you want a great overview of gods that are connected to each other in function, as well as the etymology of their names/language, this is a fantastic place to start.
An example of how gods change over time can be seen in how Egyptian Isis took on aspects of the previous goddess Hathor. And the story of Isis and Osiris changed depending on the time frame, as well as where one lived along the Nile.
For me, the fact that the stories of these gods changed over time doesn’t make the stories any less potent. The fact that the Proto-Indo-European gods became more specific cultural gods as the various tribes spread out and changed over time doesn’t take away the power of those stories. At the core, I believe that mythology and story tells us a lot about ourselves; it speaks to the storyteller, and the culture of the storyteller. Myths tell us a lot about a culture and what that culture considers to be important.
But stories also changes us. And when we rewrite a story, we are claiming our own power and what we find to be important for ourselves.
Personally, I believe that the various deities and spirits from different cultures are energies that are an intermingling of collective thought and natural energy. They may have a consciousness, but it’s not the same kind of consciousness that humans have.
Where Do Gods Begin?
Imagine, our clan has just moved to the foot of the mountain by the sea. Over the years, we come to fear the storms that come from the sea, the way they part around the mountain, the lightning that threatens our village during the spring storms. We come to fear the seasonal waves that steal away the fisherfolk. We tell stories about the lightning, about the waves. We revere the return of the sun and the warm weather it brings after the storms, and the fruits that grow in the warm part of the year.
I can easily see how, over generations, these natural forces became known by names, and those names and stories grew in power as they were told. They had energy inherently as nature, and human consciousness gave them names, forms, stories. And perhaps those stories begin to take on a life and consciousness of their own. Perhaps not.
Given that our own human brains are a couple of pounds of meat and electrical signals that form a consciousness, it’s certainly possible that there are different types of consciousness out there formed out of the interconnected ecosystem of our planet, or a specific place, a forest of trees and plants and interconnected roots. But certainly it’s not a consciousness that operates in the same way as a human brain does. I believe the entire planet may have a consciousness of a sort, but a gender? Probably not. For that matter, the entire idea of gods that have human-like form, and are gendered the way humans are, is part of why I’m an archetypist instead of a polytheist. It means to me that we humans are the ones who shaped the forms and stories of those gods to look like us.
I don’t think it serves to say that we’re somehow “bad” for anthropomorphizing these energies, these stories, in this way. I believe that we cannot encompass the whole of the divine, and our story-loving minds not only want to tell stories about what we see and make meaning out of it, we also tend to work better with concepts we can wrap our brains around. When we think of gods and spirits that look like us, perhaps that’s just a way that we can more easily connect to that larger divine. Perhaps we need that mirror, that gateway. Perhaps the larger divine around us is just too huge to encompass, so we shape it into a face we know well—our own.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that those gods/archetypes/spirits don’t have a consciousness, or an energy.
And, as I said earlier, I’m willing to be wrong. Talking about these nuances of my own beliefs is where I’m the most likely to offend a devout hard polytheist, and that’s not my intention. This is just to offer some of my own theological beliefs, and my general approach to public ritual.
I tend to work with deities as facets, as masks, as pieces. They are larger than a human, vast amounts of energy and thought, vast amounts of story. And those stories have power. There may be an individual consciousness there, but it’s not a consciousness that directly impacts the physical plane. And it’s not a consciousness that requires worship or offerings, or commands us to act in certain ways.
Even if these consciousnesses are just stories, I strongly feel that the power of story is not to be brushed off lightly. Archetype—original story—is some of the most powerful magic there is.
Archetype and Deity in Ritual
Often in ritual, I’ll work with a particular deity or mythological story. Sometimes I’ll use a particular culture’s story, such as the myth of King Arthur, tales of Brigid, Inanna’s Descent, or Isis and Osiris, or fairytales and other stories. In those instances, I refer to the deities by name to tell the story.
Other times, I’ll use the archetypal role to tell the story. Instead of telling the story of going to the cave at the mouth of the Underworld and the Horned One is there, guiding us into the below, I might refer to the Gatekeeper. Or instead of working with Brigid or Hephaestus, I might call the Worker at the Forge. This has the advantage of not excluding people who don’t identify with a particular pantheon, and also has the advantage of being gender inclusive. “Gatekeeper” is inclusive to all genders and allows the participants to use the image/concept/deity that works for them.
However, this is also the place where some polytheists can’t always theologically fit into the rituals I offer. This is why I feel like I’m walking a tightrope as a ritual planner, particularly given most of the rituals I offer are public or large festival rituals, so my goal is to be as inclusive as I can be.
There are times when it makes sense to me to work with a particular deity or myth, and there are times when it makes more sense to work with the archetypes and roles. If I want to explore the story of Arthur pulling the Sword from the Stone, it would be distracting to not refer to Arthur, as it’s a popular story. Similarly, if I’m working with the tale of Isis and Osiris and Horus, it makes sense to use the names.
Some archetypal stories are more flexible, though. I can work with Inanna’s Descent in ritual and work with the Sumerian myth from the ancient text…or I can make it more archetypal and just focus on the descent, on moving down, on passing challengers and gates as we move into the depth of the down below. I can leave the names and the challengers and the mysteries up to the participant to determine. And given that Inanna’s Descent is replicated in a number of different pantheons, it’s easy to make this one more universal. Persephone’s story is another descent, and there are Welsh stories of visiting the Otherworld…Odin sacrifices himself in different ways to gain Otherworldly wisdom…in other words, many pantheons have their own story of a character who goes through a road of trials to gain a particular magic, power, or strength.
Or I can just entirely leave it up to the ritual participant to create the experience for themselves in the way that works best for them.
For that matter, one of the reasons I use open-language trance (meaning, I ask questions instead of making statements about what they see) is that when I ask someone, “What stands before you? What challenges you? What tells you that you cannot pass?”, what they come up with will be far worse, far more intimidating or challenging—and far more ultimately empowering—than anything I could envision for them.
But Those Gods Hate Eachother!
I’ve heard a Pagan urban legend. “I was at this one ritual,” people tell me, “Where the priest/ess told everyone to call whatever deity they’d like. I saw the thunderstorm rolling in and I ran! I got to my car right before the storm hit. Lightning struck a tree right near the ritual!”
Yeah, tell me that one again?
Because I’ve heard the same story from a dozen people, as if they were there. They never mention the group or the tradition. It’s an urban legend with a little dose of overdramatization. A variant is, “She called Freyja and Loki and I just ran!” or “Hephaestus and Aries and Aphrodite were called, those gods were pissed!”
I facilitate rituals like that all the time. If I’m working with archetypes (like the Gatekeeper of the Weaver of Fate or the Guardian of the Well) I’ll often invite the participants to invite in any ally, spirit, ancestor, or deity to be present for them in the ritual, to guide them or support them in their work. Or, if I’m calling in the archetype of the Gatekeeper or Guardian of the Crossroads, I’ll invite people to call out their own deity in their pantheon. People have called Hecate, Legba, Cernunnos, Eshu, Ganesh, and many others.
And I never have had any thunderstorms or other crazy phenomena happen. I can’t speak to gods being pissed off at each other because it doesn’t really function that way in my theology. Though, perhaps this is also related to the kind of agreements I set up before I offer a ritual, and the pantheistic “container” if you will.
It’s not that I haven’t had ritual disasters. I have set a few things on fire, but I call that user error, not gods. I admit I’m a bit of a ritual pyro sometimes.
The point is, I’m working with stories, I’m not worshiping gods or making offerings to them. I don’t do divination on rituals on whether or not things worked. I don’t believe that if you’re trying to light a candle in ritual to symbolize your devotion to ABC or your wish for DEF and it keeps blowing out that this is the divine’s way of sending you an omen. I absolutely do not believe that a thunderstorm raining out a ritual or a flood ending a festival or anything else like that is somehow the gods’ way of sending a bad portent.
If I believed that, I’d have to believe those fundamentalists who believe that earthquakes and tornadoes are because God is mad about gay marriage being legalized.
That’s not to say I don’t believe in prophetic visions. I’ve dreamed the future myself before it came to pass. But hearing/seeing/sensing echoes from the future doesn’t require the intervention of gods or spirits.
To be continued …
The Author: Shauna Aura Knight
An artist, author, ritualist, presenter, and spiritual seeker, Shauna travels nationally offering intensive education in the transformative arts of ritual, community leadership, and personal growth. She is the author of The Leader Within, Ritual Facilitation, and Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. She’s a columnist on ritual techniques for CIRCLE Magazine, and her writing also appears in the anthologies Stepping in to Ourselves, A Mantle of Stars, Calling to our Ancestors, and Bringing Race to the Table.She’s also the author of urban fantasy and paranormal romance novels including Werewolves in the Kitchen, Werewolves with Chocolate, A Winter Knight’s Vigil, A Fading Amaranth, and The Truth Upon Her Lips. Shauna’s mythic artwork and designs are used for magazine covers, book covers, and illustrations, as well as decorating many walls, shrines, and other spaces. Shauna is passionate about creating rituals, experiences, spaces, stories, and artwork to awaken mythic imagination. http://www.shaunaauraknight.com