On a fairly regular basis I hear from someone who expresses fear of the gods. This isn’t the awe and reverence expressed by monotheists and Pagans alike, which is a natural response when encountering a being who is older, wiser and much more powerful than you are. This is a fear of approaching the gods and goddesses of our ancestors and it generally falls into one of four categories. I’d like to explore those fears and what I’ve found to be helpful responses to them.
I don’t know how to begin. Read their stories. Read Gods and Fighting Men and Cuchulain of Muirthemne. Read the Eddas. Read the classic stories of the Greeks and Romans and Egyptians. They aren’t scripture and they haven’t been perfectly preserved, but they’re the best connections we have to how our ancestors viewed their goddesses and gods. Remember these are stories, not historical accounts. Read them, meditate on them, and let them speak to you beyond the literal words on the page.
Read the scholarship about the gods: what history, archeology, linguistics and literary analysis can tell us about them. Look for them in art, literature, and the mainstream culture (days of the week, anyone?). There’s more material for some than for others, but we can usually get a good idea of where and how they were worshiped. That in turn gives us more insight into who and what they are.
Talk to their priests and priestesses. You may have to do a little looking, but they’re out there – and nothing gets a Pagan talking like someone saying “tell me about your gods.” We don’t proselytize, but we love to publicize. I can’t tell you for certain who Cernunnos is, but I can tell you how I’ve experienced him and what he’s asked of me.
None of this guarantees you’ll encounter a goddess or god. What is does is prepare you so that if you do encounter a goddess or god you’ll recognize who’s speaking to you.
What if nobody picks me? Read through the Pagan internet and you’ll encounter priests and priestesses, god-spouses and god-slaves, and people speaking of their patron deity as though she’s their favorite grandmother. It can create the expectation that if you don’t have a close personal relationship with a goddess and you don’t have an ecstatic experience of her at every full moon then you’re doing something wrong. This simply isn’t the case.
You don’t have to be a formally dedicated follower to honor a god in ritual or to make an ordinary request. One of the features of polytheism is that different deities have different areas of responsibility. If you need healing, you can call on Brighid, make an appropriate offering and ask for what you need. It helps if you already know her, but you don’t have to be her priestess to approach her. I strongly disagree with people who advise cold calling a god you just found on the internet and asking for something big (I’ve done it – the results weren’t pretty – won’t do it again), but if you’re familiar with several deities in a pantheon, you should be at least on speaking terms with someone who can help you.
Priesthood is a calling that’s not for everyone. It has benefits, but it also carries obligations you may find annoying, objectionable, or even unworkable. Oaths should never be made lightly. They should be made in accordance with your True Will and in full exercise of your sovereignty.
What if I’m called by someone I don’t like? I call this the “what if I’m put in Slytherin?” fear. As Harry Potter told Albus Severus “then Slytherin House will have gained an excellent student.” I’m still not sure why a primal forest god called a nerdish engineer to be his priest, but the relationship has been beneficial to me, and I trust, to him as well. Sometimes gods call people because they have a specific skill or attribute the god needs. Sometimes they’re preparing the person for future service. Sometimes… sometimes you just don’t know. But you go with it and you do what you can and in the process, you learn and grow.
I haven’t heard a peep from Eris or Loki or any of the many trickster gods. I think they understand I’m too orderly (and as those who know me well would add, too uptight) to be much use to them. They aren’t going to waste their time with me when there’s plenty of people who find pleasure (and even great meaning) in their antics.
What if nobody is there? Now we get to the tough one. Part of our mainstream society insists there’s only one god, while another part insists there are none. Polytheism is a very natural concept, but like so many other natural, intuitive ideas it’s been squashed by people who think it’s primitive or childish or unsophisticated.
As Sam Webster pointed out at the Between the Worlds conference, belief was irrelevant in the ancient world. What mattered was that you rendered due honor to the gods. Whether you saw the gods as individual beings or aspects of The Divine or archetypes or metaphors wasn’t important.
When I am in ritual or in meditation I have no doubt the gods are real, distinct, individual beings. My experience of them is too strong and too meaningful and I’ve done it for too long for me to think otherwise.
Outside of ritual, my skeptical side wakes up and starts offering skeptical alternatives: “it’s all in your head” “this isn’t real” “you have no proof” and “confirmation bias.” And I have to admit that skeptical side might be right. I don’t know.
But here’s what I do know. Since I started diligently following this path, I’m a lot happier than I was. I used to wonder what I was supposed to be doing with my life – now I know. I used to mindlessly accept the mainstream culture’s materialistic idea of success – now I’m awake. I used to fear what comes after death – now I’m confident it will be good.
Are my beliefs about the gods “right”? I don’t know, at least not in a literal sense. But they’re meaningful, and they’re helpful, and that’s good enough for me.
These four fears of the gods are very understandable for someone approaching Paganism from our mainstream Western culture. Like most fears, they stream from ignorance – we don’t know, so we imagine the worst. When we move forward in spite of our fears, we learn and grow. As our ignorance dissolves, so does our fear.
Paganism isn’t for everyone. Polytheism isn’t for everyone. If worshiping the old gods and goddesses doesn’t feel right to you, try something else. But if you feel their call, I encourage you to listen, and respond, and practice, and see where it takes you. Not because you have no fear, but because your desire to experience them is greater than your fear.