Gods and Goddesses

At High Valley we don't often refer to specific gods and goddesses in our rituals, with the exception of Brigid at Lammas, sometimes The Green Man or the Horned God at Beltane and Samhain, and Lugh at Lughnasad.

But often we reference different gods and goddesses in other ways. For example, the Demeter-Persephone story is often in our symbolism as the sun wanes and the northern hemisphere is tilting towards fall. Persephone, after all, has to spend the months of winter in the Underworld, hence the winter itself, according to the myths, since Demeter, goddess of the harvest, is in mourning for her absent daughter for those months. So, nothing grows, at least visibly above ground.

Isis and Osiris play a part whenever we talk of the rising and dying god, especially on Samhain. Isis traveled the world seeking her murdered lover, and put him back together to rise again.

Of the gods and goddesses, we rarely mention Mithra, who was a strong competitor to Christ in the first through third centuries. It is because of Mithra, probably, that Christmas is observed on December 25th, since this was Mithra's main holiday. It is also likely that baptism was either adopted, or strengthened as a sacred ritual because Mithra worshippers could wash away their sins with a blood baptism (a bull was sacrificed at great expense, while the baptismal candidate stood or kneeled under the grate below it so that he could be covered in its blood). It must have been awfully sticky. The Mithraic bull sacrifice gave way to Christian baptism not only because it was cleaner with water, and cheaper, but because it was supposed to cleanse you forever, not just the 20 years provided by the bull sacrifice.

The church also adopted another Mithraic institution: confession. It was one of the reasons why Mithraism was popular in the Roman Legions; it provided absolution through the confessional. So, all the terrible things that Roman soldiers did in the course of their wars, they could then ask for and gain forgiveness. In order for Christians to win converts in the armies (critical in those days), they had to offer confession, too.

We also refer to other gods and goddesses: the Sun God and the Moon Goddess when we celebrate either solar or lunar occasions, like Litha, or the Full Moon. In addition, we refer to Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and sexuality; she is a powerful symbol.

Generally, pagans refer to gods and goddesses in ways that are quite different from the worship of Christ, God, Yahweh or Allah. Our various gods and goddesses do not exist in the same way; they are symbols, myths, stories, metaphors for the powers and processes at work in this universe. It is true that when a Hindu worships the image of Kali, or Shiva, he or she is not worshipping the deity in the image, but the idea, or principle, or life-force that the image represents, just as the Catholic does not worship an image of Mary, or Jesus, but God, or his representative as illustrated in that image.

Polytheism means the celebration of many separate gods and goddesses representing the variety of forces in the universe. Polytheism and Pantheism often blur, one into the other. In Pantheism, everything is in some way divine (immanent), and the separate deities represent different aspects of divinity and explanations for different phenomena, like the changing seasons "explained" by the Demeter, Persephone story.

Pagans can follow closely prescribed forms, especially forms of ritual, if they represent some particular tradition (Brahminic Hinduism or Gardnerian Wicca, for example) but there really is no place for True Believers among polytheists or pantheists; it's a very different way of thinking about the world than monotheism, and no one way or story is True in the sense that others are False.

That was one of the compelling aspects I found about Hinduism: it has a variety of creation stories in the Puranas; each one is considered to be both true and a story, but none of them can be literally true if the others are also true: Kali created the world; Shiva created it; Brahma created it, and so on.

On the other hand, (isn't there always an other hand?) pagans can be very parochial; their deities can be very local, or very exclusive. Only those born into Hinduism were considered real Hindus until recently; it is not generally a conversion religion. Neither is Shinto. That is not because all non-Indians, or non-Japanese are considered damned, only that they have their own deities. But those religions do generally exclude anyone not born into the religion. In addition, that kind of exclusive (or non-universalistic) thinking can lead to the kind of xenophobia exhibited by the Japanese in WWII and Hindu extremists now, in places like Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

This inherent exclusivity may also be why Native American religions don't lend themselves to conversion, and why Native Americans are at least ambivalent about non-native people incorporating their religious practices.

This may also be why Wicca, or Celtic Paganism, or the Norse religions are considered more natural for those of us of European stock. Not that we can't borrow deities and symbolism; everyone does. That's called syncretism, and most religious practices these days are syncretistic, even among Hindus, who have borrowed practices and theology from Christians and Muslims. The only non-syncretistic religions surviving would be those inherited pantheistic or polytheistic religions practiced by remote tribes relatively untouched by global culture.

Perhaps they are the true pagans, if there is any such thing.