This article was inspired by the conversation that happened in the comments of 6 Things Neo-Pagans Could Learn from Polytheists.
It is easy for an outsider, or for someone new to the Craft, to assume a specific belief about Deity within Wicca. It really all depends upon what the first Wicca 101 book you read said about the subject. But keep in mind, most of those 101 books are specifically designed to present a “Reader’s Digest” condensed version of theology: a simple working theory of complex subjects so that you have a starting point. Because of the proliferation of such books and the challenge of finding deeper material, it is easy to assume that whichever two dimensional vision of the Divine you have been presented with most often is the one that all Wiccans share. But it’s not so.
Wiccan theology is actually very complex. It is perfectly valid to interpret Wicca as duotheism, deism, polytheism, animism, shamanism, pantheism, panentheism, monotheism, agnosticism or atheism; and I know Wiccans who hold all of these views, often at the same time. But to say, unequivocally, that Wicca is any one of these things incorrectly pigeonholes us. Although we are most commonly interpreted by other Pagans as duotheists, defining oneself by that term is only one of many perfectly theologically sound ways to interpret and relate to our deities. It is for that reason that we often describe ourselves as an orthopractic faith, one more concerned with our practices than our beliefs.
I think some of the problem of communication comes in the Wiccan understanding of our deities and the understanding that others have about those deities. Many of our deities, in particular the “Lord and Lady,” or the “Horned God” and the “Star Goddess,” are syncretic. And They are so by design and choice. Because of this, people who worship more historically documented deities deny Their reality. I think that’s a mistake and I think this is really where Wiccans and Hard Polytheists are ticking each other off. Just because those two Wiccan deities are syncretic, and just because They draw from the myths of other deities and figures of myth, does not make Them less real; nor does it in any way deny the reality, or the independent reality of the deities whose myths They draw upon.
The Wiccan Creation Myth
There are several variations of the Wiccan creation myth. Most of them are variations of the following reductive elements:
- First there was Nothing, then there was Consciousness. That consciousness was the One Source, and that One Source was Goddess.
- The Goddess became lonely and gave birth to a companion (the God); or She became “divided for love’s sake” into the God and the Goddess.
- Together They made love and gave birth to the Universe.
In the Book of the Law, the famous work of Aleister and Rose Edith Crowley, we see what is probably the original Wiccan creation myth. Starhawk wrote another version in The Spiral Dance. But I was surprised to see that the most commonly circulated Creation Myth on the internet is the one accredited to Silver RavenWolf, which you can read here.
This myth can be interpreted in a variety of ways, from the purely symbolic to the absolutely literal. I see Wiccan theological beliefs as a spectrum, with Theism (the literal belief in gods) at one end, and Atheism (the belief in no gods at all) at the other. A Wiccan can embrace beliefs anywhere on this spectrum; indeed, many Wiccans embrace many differing beliefs at once.
All of my definitions are taken from Wikipedia, and are not intended to be the absolutely defining characteristic of any described belief, but to provide a general starting point for understanding and discussion.
Monotheism is defined by the Encyclopædia Britannica as belief in the existence of one god or in the oneness of God. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church gives a more restricted definition: “belief in one personal and transcendent God”, as opposed to polytheism and pantheism. A distinction may be made between exclusive monotheism, and both inclusive monotheism and pluriform monotheism which, while recognising many distinct gods, postulate some underlying unity.
Because everything began with the Source, or the ineffable One, Wicca can reasonably be interpreted as Monotheism. If, ultimately, all deities are emanations of the One, then there is only One God and Wicca is monotheistic. This understanding would probably be not too far off from the Hindu understanding of the Brahman, with all of us, and all “lesser deities,” perceived as emanations of “His” creation. A monotheistic Wiccan might perceive of this One is more of a Goddess than a God (since, in the Wiccan creation myth, She came first,) or as being truly beyond gender but containing all genders, as ritual magicians and Kabalists perceive of JHVH. Dealing with individual deities is, to them, similar to the way in which Catholics deal with saints, who are more easily approached to intercede for specific requests. The role of a Witch is to understand those emanations in a way that fosters ethical behaviour and improves one’s life.
This interpretation often works best for Wiccans coming over from monotheistic faiths. It also works well for those with a vague concept of the spiritual who do not wish to complicate it further. Critics say that this sort of “All gods are one God” view denies the individual agency of “lesser” deities, reducing them to “mere archetypes.”
Dualism (from the Latin word duo meaning “two”) denotes the state of two parts. The term ‘dualism’ was originally coined to denote co-eternal binary opposition, a meaning that is preserved in metaphysical and philosophical duality discourse but has been more generalized in other usages to indicate a system which contains two essential parts.
The most common perception seems to be that Wicca is duotheistic. The Star Goddess and the Horned God were the first Deities, spawning from the Universal source; or, the Lady was formed when the Universe became conscious of itself, and She gave birth to the Lord so that She would have a companion because She was lonely. All other Deities are therefore seen as emanations, or reflections, of the Lady and the Lord, just as angels and saints are reflections of the Christian deity. This belief originates from a particular interpretation of The Charge of the Goddess, which reads, “Listen to the words of the Great Mother, She who of old was called . . . and by many other names.” To duotheist Wiccans, the Great Mother is the Goddess, and the Names by which She is known in different cultures are merely different ways in which those cultures perceive Her. The Horned God is perceived in similar ways by different cultures, or perhaps all non-monotheistic cultures. To them, the role of a Witch is to become closer to the Divine Couple, often by seeking connection through one’s “soul mate,” and to honour the cycle of Life, Death and Love.
It’s worth noting that there are a few different variations of duotheism and a Wiccan might identify with one, several, or none of them:
In theology, ‘dualism’ may also refer to ‘duotheism’, ‘bitheism’ or ‘ditheism’. Although ditheism/bitheism imply moral dualism, they are not equivalent: ditheism/bitheism implies (at least) two gods, while moral dualism does not imply any -theism (theos = god) whatsoever.
Both ‘bitheism’ and ‘ditheism’ imply a belief in two equally powerful gods with complementary or antonymous properties. However, while bitheism implies harmony, ditheism implies rivalry and opposition, such as between good and evil, or bright and dark, or summer and winter. For example, a ditheistic system would be one in which one god is creative, the other is destructive (cf. theodicy). In the original conception of Zoroastrianism, for example, Ahura Mazda was the spirit of ultimate good, while Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) was the spirit of ultimate evil. (This Zoroastrian conception of polar opposition and conflict would later come to influence the development of Christianity as it elaborated upon the idea of the Devil as an ultimate source of evil opposed to the Christian God, an idea that was previously absent in Judaism.
In a bitheistic system, by contrast, where the two deities are not in conflict or opposition, one could be male and the other female (cf. duotheism). One well-known example of a bitheistic or duotheistic theology based on gender polarity is found in the neopagan religion of Wicca, which is centered on the worship of a divine couple – the Moon Goddessand the Horned God – who are regarded as lovers. However, there is also a ditheistic theme within traditional Wicca, as the Horned God has dual aspects of bright and dark – relating to day/night, summer/winter – expressed as the Oak King and the Holly King, who in Wiccan myth and ritual are said to engage in battle twice a year for the hand of the Goddess, resulting in the changing seasons. (Within Wicca, bright and dark do not correspond to notions of “good” and “evil” but are aspects of the natural world, much like yin and yang in Taoism.)
However, bitheistic and ditheistic principles are not always so easily contrastable, for instance in a system where one god is the representative of summer and drought and the other of winter and rain/fertility (cf. the mythology of Persephone). Marcionism, an early Christian sect, held that the Old and New Testaments were the work of two opposing gods: both were First Principles, but of different religions.
I guess I can see why so many people insist that we are duotheists, since we’re actually included in Wikipedia’s examples of a duotheistic faith!
This interpretation works well for Christian Witches, who usually see Mary as the Lady. It also presents a balanced cosmology which is often perceived as gender essentialism, since it does not suggest a place among the (supreme) deities for any but the binary genders. Like the monotheistic model, it also sees individual gods as being reflections of the Divine Couple and therefore can be somewhat dismissive of the deities of polytheistic cultures.
Alternatively, dualism can mean the tendency of humans to perceive and understand the world as being divided into two overarching categories. In this sense, it is dualistic when one perceives a tree as a thing separate from everything surrounding it. This form of ontological dualism exists in Taoism and Confucianism, beliefs that divide the universe into the complementary oppositions of yin and yang. In traditions such as classical Hinduism, Zen Buddhism or Islamic Sufism, a key to enlightenment is “transcending” this sort of dualistic thinking, without merely substituting dualism with monism or pluralism.
A Wiccan could see the Goddess and the God as yin and yang (or yang and yin, more traditionally). This interpretation tends to work for Wiccans who are not convinced of the reality of the Deities as “personalities.” Again, this tends to irritate polytheists.
Polytheism refers to the worship of or belief in multiple deities usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religions and rituals. In most religions which accept polytheism, the different gods and goddess are representations of forces of nature or ancestral principles, and can be viewed either as autonomous or as aspects or emanations of a creator God or transcendental absolute principle (monistic theologies), which manifests immanently in nature (panentheistic and pantheistic theologies).
It is a type of theism. Within theism, it contrasts with monotheism, the belief in a singular God, in most cases transcendent. Polytheists do not always worship all the gods equally, but can be henotheists, specializing in the worship of one particular deity. Other polytheists can be kathenotheists, worshiping different deities at different times.
Polytheistic Wiccans perceive the Lady and the Lord as archetypes, but the gods who are associated with those archetypes as individual beings with agency. To them, the Great Mother and the Great Father are symbolic; but individual deities are seen as separate and complete personalities who fulfill those roles for individual cultures. They might also apply this view of archetypes to forces of nature or concepts (like, say, the Goddess of Love, the Triple Goddess, the Horned God or the God of Death.)Alternatively, they might see the Lady and the Lord as “perhaps slightly more powerful Deities that encompass the traits of many other Deities, but still individual Beings,” as one commentor said in the discussion.
Some confusion can be created when deities cross cultures. For instance, are Mars and Ares the same Being with different names and slightly differing foci, or are They different Beings entirely who are superficially similar? Polytheist Wiccans may take either view. To some, Mars is how this God chose to present Himself to the Romans and Ares is how He presented Himself to the Greeks; which, by extension, means that everyone has their own personal interpretation of a Deity and so differences in those presentations is probably dependent on the perception of the practitioner doing the Working. This is what is being referred to in the blogosphere as “Soft Polytheism.” To others, Mars and Ares have nothing to do with each other and so calling one by the Name of the other is potentially insulting. These Wiccans are usually fairly rigid about not calling on Deities of different pantheons in the same ritual. This is “Hard Polytheism.”
In a way, Wicca might be seen as having its “own pantheon,” with certain syncretic and commonly-borrowed deities from other cultures forming a core network of deities that we tend to deal with. That pantheon might include Herne, Cernunnos, Pan (often syncretized as the Horned God,) Diana, Hecate, Aradia, Hades, Persephone, Aphrodite, Inanna, Nix, Nuit (the Star Goddess,) Isis, Osiris, Brighid, Thor, Lugh, Frey, Odin, Loki, Bast, Sekhmet, Freya, Shiva, Shakti and other deities from a variety of cultures that are commonly worshiped by Wiccans.
To polytheist Wiccans, a Witch’s role is to develop a personal working relationship with one or more Deities, offer devotion, and work towards those agendas. This seems to be one of the more common views of the Divine in modern Wicca, at least on the internet. Atheist Wiccans sometimes regard this view as superstitious and unscientific.
Animism encompasses the belief that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and souls orspirits exist, not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows. Animism thus rejects Cartesian dualism. Animism may further attribute souls to abstract concepts such as words, true names, or metaphors in mythology.
To animists, everything has a spirit. Most Wiccans, if they believe in spirits at all, are at least in part Animists. But to Animist Wiccans, whether or not the Deities are actually individuals is unimportant. They are generally perceived as personified spirits of universal forces (Life, Death, Love, the Sun, the Moon, Fertility, etc.) The names we use for Them are largely created by us so that we can interact with Them and work with Them; so effectively, Inanna, Isis, Astarte, and Erzulie are, in effect, the same “person.” How They present Themselves depends upon the people working with Them and the role They are playing. Some Polytheists view this as an uncommitted spiritual view.
The role of a Witch is that of a Shaman. Witchcraft is all about learning how to walk between the worlds and to intercede between humans, deities, and spirits. These Witches do a lot of inner work and spirit-travelling as well as ritual.
Pantheism is the belief that the Universe (or nature as the totality of everything) is identical with divinity, or that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent God. Pantheists thus do not believe in a distinct personal or anthropomorphic god.
To Pantheist Wiccans, either the Deities are too complex for us to understand in merely human terms, or, with a modern scientific outlook, these Pagans believe that the Universe and the Earth might be living organisms, but certainly we would not understand if they were, because such a “mind” is simply too alien to us. This view can be directly connected to the Gaia Hypothesis. Deities might also be thought of as “ensouled ideas,” such as Liberty, or Justice. Perhaps Terry Pratchett understood this idea better than most.
To them, the role of a Witch is to work to live in harmony with the forces of Nature, which are therefore holy, and to teach others to do so also. These Wiccans tend to be among the most vocal champions of environmental causes. This is one of the most commonly-held Wiccan views of divinity; some people even believe that you cannot be a Wiccan without being an environmentalist (though certainly environmentalism is a common Wiccan ethic; though that likely originates from the Charge of the Goddess, and a Wiccan does not have to be a Pantheist to be an environmentalist.) Critics of this view also believe that this perspective denies the individual agency of the gods. Some Pantheists have a tendency to think that they are the only Witches around, and that every other Pagan shares their beliefs. Obviously that’s not the case.
Panentheism is a belief systemwhich posits that the divine – whether as a single God, number of gods, or other form of “cosmic animating force” – interpenetratesevery part of the universe and extends, timelessly (and, presumably, spacelessly) beyond it. Unlike pantheism, which holds that the divine and the universe are identical, panentheism maintains a distinction between the divine and non-divine and the significance of both.
In pantheism, the universe and everything included in it is equal to the Divine, but in panentheism, the universe and the divine are not ontologically equivalent. God is viewed as the soul of the universe, the universal spirit present everywhere, in everything and everyone, at all times. Some versions suggest that the universe is nothing more than the manifest part of God. In some forms of panentheism, the cosmos exists within God, who in turn “transcends“, “pervades” or is “in” the cosmos. While pantheism asserts that ‘All is God’, panentheism goes further to claim that God is greater than the universe. In addition, some forms indicate that the universe is contained within God.
Thelemic-influenced and British Traditional Wiccans tend to embrace this view, perhaps most commonly echoed in our community in the phrases “As above, so below.” and “Every man and every woman is a Star.” In general, these Witches tend to be the most magickally-oriented and they practice in traditions that borrow a great deal from ceremonial magick. The role of a Witch is to do magick, and through that, to find one’s own enlightenment; though teaching others how to do this is also a secondary role. These Wiccans also tend to be active politically, and they likely view politics as their own form of collective magick. Critics of this view see it as irreverent. They believe that it is somewhat arrogant to think of oneself as “being equal” to the gods. Not all Panentheist Wiccans believe this. It’s just that they believe that a spark of the Divine exists in all things. But some do; or they believe that the goal of a Witch should be Ascension to a sort of personal divinity. And that, too, is a perfectly valid interpretation of Wiccan theology.
Deism, derived from the Latin word deus meaning “god”) combines the rejection of revelation and authority as a source of religious knowledge with the conclusion that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe.
Wiccans who embrace a Deist philosophy believe that the God(s) created the Universe and then stopped messing with it. I hate to use the phrase, but this belief posits an “intelligent design” of the Universe as an observable, scientific truth. In other words, the Creator(s) are real and They are the “consciousness” of the forces of Nature. However, They don’t interfere in our daily lives, so Deist Wiccans would not put much stock into mysticism, magick, or spirit-work. They might accept mystical experiences as Jungian psychology (heavily dosed with confirmation bias and the placebo effect) and ritual as an effective tool for accessing the psyche. The role of a Witch is to put those tools to work to aid themselves and others. Polytheists tend to resent what they perceive as a “dismissal” of the reality of their Deities and their experiences.
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is the absence of belief that any deities exist. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.
To these Wiccans, the Deities are personifications of symbolic concepts and there are no such things as “spirits.” The Deities are anthropomorphic constructs of the psyche, which we use to connect with the wonders of the natural world and to engage in the “magic” of deep Jungian psychology. The primary role of a Witch is to serve as a counselor and possibly therapist, both in one’s own life and in the lives of others when requested to do so; and they may also be ritual and community leaders. They don’t tend to put much stock into mystical experience either, and they can sometimes be dismissive of people who do believe in magick and mysticism. Critics of this point of view believe it is insulting to the gods to deny their reality and that it is arrogant to believe that modern science has explained everything in the Universe. They also tend to resent the dismissal of what, for them, can be powerful and significant mystical and magickal experiences.
Agnosticism is the view that the truth values of certain claims – especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether or not God, the divine or the supernatural exist – are unknown and perhaps unknowable. According to the philosopher William L. Rowe: “In the popular sense of the term, an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God, while a theist believes that God exists, an atheist disbelieves in God”. Agnosticism is a doctrine or set of tenets rather than a religion as such.
In practice, Agnostic Wiccans tend to look a lot like Atheist Wiccans; the difference is that Atheists are convinced that there are no such things as gods, and Agnostics aren’t as sure. An Atheist might be aggressive about it, openly opining that people who believe in gods and spirits are delusional, or they may respect the rights of others to believe in whatever they want, even though they do not share that belief. Agnostics don’t have a firm belief on the topic; and indeed, many believe that ultimately we humans probably have no way of knowing for sure. They are likely to treat the gods as being “real” for the duration of a working or a ritual, and they are also likely to respect the advice and wisdom of more mystical Pagans; or, they may have their own mystical experiences and may choose to simply not weigh in on whether or not these are experiences triggered by tricks of the psyche or genuine Divine encounters.
For Agnostic Wiccans, the role of a Witch is somewhat similar to the counselor and therapist, ritual and community leadership niche of the Atheist Wiccans, but they might also act as magicians and intuitives with a more general understanding of their experiences as possibly being “just psychology.” They also tend to be less convicted in their beliefs about “the will of the gods” and are not prone to telling others what that will is. Critics, of course, see them as “wishy-washy.”
As I’ve said, Wicca can be complex. If I might use a personal example, I would describe myself as a loosely bitheistic, ontological dualist, polytheist-animist with pantheistic, panentheistic, and agnostic tendencies. In other words, I loosely revere the consciousness of the Star Goddess as the Macrocosm and the Horned God as the Microcosm as the creators of the Universe, with “gender” being only a metaphor for the interactive forces of creation, that I believe have a consciousness that we humans do not understand; that there are other such organisms (like Mother Earth) and thought-forms (like the gods and goddesses of various cultures, who may “cross over” in syncretic ways (Horned God/Goddesses of Love/God of Death etc.) but do, for all intents and purposes, have Their own consciousnesses and identities. I also believe that all living (and some unliving) things have spirits, and that the (ungendered) Divine Spark of “Source” permeates all of this and gives everything its spirit. Yet I would not presume to know if these things are just what I believe or if they are actual “physical” things, and so I will not presume to tell anyone else that they are, even as I interact with them on that level.
I maintain that Wiccans are not required to make a decision on their theological beliefs; and indeed, that we may combine elements of many of these beliefs at once. Our beliefs do not have to be “either or”; indeed, I completely believe they must, by nature, be “yes, and.” Accepting one of these beliefs as possibly true does not necessarily negate the others. Indeed, it is my firm belief that being too firmly convicted in one belief or another, without expecting some overlap, is contrary to the nature of the modern Pagan movement. Doubt is, in my view, an essential Pagan value.
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