Fear of the Gods

Athena Parthenos – Nashville

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.

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  • While this isn’t a topic I might have thought of writing about, I find myself pretty much in complete agreement with the points you make.

    • John Beckett

      Thanks, Ananta – I appreciate the feedback.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    It seems to me that skeptics are people with a fear of being “objectively wrong.” Maybe I’m a little too postmodern for that, but I don’t believe we can ever know what is objectively right or wrong in an absolute sense, and I don’t much care. I care about the direct experience of contact with the divine. As the objective validity of that experience is unknowable it is also irrelevant. Thanks for some interesting thoughts on an interesting topic!

    • John Beckett

      Christopher, I care what’s objectively right or wrong, but like you I don’t think we can know it. Accepting that uncertainty was very freeing for me – it let me follow my heart.

  • Kilmrnock

    I can sort of understand being afraid of the Gods of any given pantheon , they are powerful beings . My aprouch is that of a recon , Celtic to be exact . In the Celtic ways we favor a patron /client style relationship , and also one that is reciprical , a gift for a gift . When we make a request of a given God or Godess we make a offering to them . Another Characteristic of recon faiths is we generaly are dedicated to a singular Patheon , The Tuatha De Dannan for me , whereas we become familiar with just one family or group of Gods , also usualy being ethnicaly tied to these gods as well.These are the gods of my direct ancestors , the TDD.But my point is when you deal with a specific set or tuath of gods familiarity comes with time and also specific relationships with individual gods also can take shape.My personal approuch is to deal with my gods as a loved and respected relative , like as say a grandparent .In the Celtic ways we do actualy believe we are distant relative of our gods , that our gods created the celtic peoples .So in essence we are related to our gods . I love and deeply respect my gods but am not afraid to approuch any of them . And actualy in times of great stress and need my gods have come to me when called apon for love , help and support , as have my ancestors . I won’t elaborate at this time i can only tell you this has happened to me personaly .I believe once a person opens theirselves to their Gods /Ancestors this can happen for anyone .The pagan gods well come to those who love and respect them in a proper way .As john has said tho in most pantheons the gods each are individuals and have seperate aspects one needs to aprouch the appropriate god for a given porpuse not doing so can backfire on you .As long as you aprouch the Gods in a proper way you will have favorable results and relationships with them .

    • John Beckett

      Thanks for the comments, Kilmrnock – I like what you say.

  • Kilmrnock

    One small detail about me , i was raised in the old southern style . I was taught proper manners and to respect /honor my elders and authority figuers from an early age ,police etc .Anyone raised in south my age ,57 btw, will know what i’m talking about . Just naturaly used this same mentality with my Gods .

    • Kilmrnock

      And other thing from my experience , and from talking to other pagans that needs to understood .The Gods don’t come all the time my individual experiences have only happened at times of great need , Once when i was in the Throws of a heart Attack and i felt my ancestors , they communicated with me when my father died . the Ancestors thru a Dream Vision , a few select Gods while i was in trouble at the hospital . Altho i can feel the Gods and Ancestors in ritual, from my own experience personal experiences and talking to other pagans personal experiences are rare . Including being called to my matron godess i have only had a handful of personal experiences and this seems to be the norm .

  • Kilmrnock

    Another thing , sorry mistyped

  • I can relate to a lot of what you’ve said here. I also got put in Slytherin. In my case, I was a tree-hugging, organic gardening, Iraq-war-protesting, college student getting a degree in ecology when my god showed up. And it wasn’t Cernnunos, or Freyr, or anyone who would have made sense. No, it was Odin. At first I had no idea what he wanted with me, and actually resisted for a long time, because I thought following Odin meant I had to be into macho warrior stuff, but that was over ten years ago, and over the years I’ve started to figure out what it is he sees in me. And the beauty of polytheism is I can still have relationships with more nature-oriented gods like the Vanir, without Odin getting jealous.

    I also doubt the gods exist, outside my own imagination. But, like you say, I seem to be happier being a pagan than an atheist, so I guess I’ll just go with it.

    As for fearing the gods though, I actually do get nervous when I’m doing a formal ritual, even if it’s solitary. It feels the same way as when I’m going to meet with some big, important person, like if I had a meeting with the dean of the college I work at. Which is funny for someone who doesn’t “really” believe in the gods! Maybe at least my limbic system does.

    • John Beckett

      Amanda, I’m glad it’s working out for you – and I’m glad you gave it a change to work out.

      That nervousness is a good thing. To me, the gods are like the forces of Nature (and of course, many of them may very well be the personification of natural forces) – they’re beautiful, but they’re so much more powerful than we are. Begin with respect. Not obeisance and certainly not the self-abasement suggested by some of the more conservative monotheistic religions, but with honor and courtesy.

  • “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.”

    This is my favorite quote of your post. Too many people get to caught up in the “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality. I for years tried to fit into a handful of different religions or belief systems before I got to where I am now. Where I am is where I am happiest and where I am the best me that I can be at this moment in time. The place that I am isn’t going to fit everyone out there. There is no “one size fits all”.

    I just posted about theology on my own blog. It is a subject I tend to steer clear of for the most part, but it seems to be the theme as of late of several of the blogs that I follow.
    . . . and I’m a sucker for good conversation.

    • John Beckett

      Thanks, Sean. Accepting that uncertainty is an unavoidable fact of life was very freeing for me. I can’t believe anything I want (as UUs are often accused of) but I can believe what my heart tells me is true, and what my reason tells me is possible.

  • Unsavage

    why fear the nonexistant?…..if god existed, it would have had to come from somewhere…in other words, it would itself have to have been created….do you see vanishing mirrors here? exactly…:) the creator would have had to have had an earlier creator and that creator would like wise “have had to be created”….it would go on forever….something or if you will, “someone” creating the next model of creator. The only thing the clergy can say is that god created itself from nothing….and you can’t get anything out of nothing! It’s much easier to understand that the universe is and always was made up of various kinds of energy that continually change shape and consistency….i.e. energy into matter and over time, matter back into energy….the endless figure 8 or symbol of infinity….energy not being created or destroyed (the law of conservation in Physics) this is easy for me to understand but I can only think for myself….I’ve pretty much given up on the vast majority of mankind to be able to grasp this simple concept….it just proves to me how powerfully stubborn cradle to the grave brainwashing can be….:(

  • Lyne

    I’ve been an atheist for most of my life. I am an anti-consumerism, simple-living woman who admires liberal Quakers and makers of organic granola.

    And now, Abundantia won’t leave me alone. This Roman spirit of abundance and good fortune has permeated my thoughts and imagination. I’ve been trying to reject it, but I can’t help the joy I feel when I think of her. She is not a stodgy spirit, not by any means; she appears to be happy and filled with joy.

    Perhaps she has something to teach me.

  • Fascinating post! And almost equally fascinating responses. Have any of you visited (or been visited by) any Hindu gods? I’m a UU and a scientist who was not raised in any religion. But I’ve been fascinated with the topic of religion, and more particularly spirituality, since childhood, when I read about the Greek gods in a book my parents had on the shelf. I recently retired and compiled several essays written about a scientist’s perspective on spirituality. It’s available on Amazon at: http://www.amazon.com/God-that-Says-Scientists-Meditations/dp/1450549047/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1286802360&sr=1-2

    • Brian Shea

      I was going to add something on here pertaining to John’s doubts as to whether the gods are real and whether he is truly experiencing them. I have the same questions. My experiences with gods, if that’s what they truly were, have been subtle and vague, leaving me with much doubt(I’ve had other experiences with other beings with what I will just call ‘spirits’ for now, but that is another subject). So, that being said, I believe Ganesh and Vishnu(and perhaps Shiva as well) have shown up in my life, mostly in dreams and synchronistic events and experiences. What it all means, and whether it’s changed my life in any major way, I can’t really say(hence my questioning). I do know that I am and have always been attracted to India and Hinduism in a big way. I also believe Oshun has come to me in a dream once.

  • Guest

    I haven’t read Harry Potter, but I get the idea, and I can also relate.