In the 2004 film Alexander, Philip of Macedon takes his conqueror-to-be son into a secluded cave and tells him “None will tell you this but your father: men hate the Gods! The only reason we worship any of them is because we fear worse. The Titans.”1
For all the majestic temples and beautiful hymns that have survived to our times and that speak of people’s love for their Gods, there is a subtext of appeasement and of quid pro quo in much of ancient religion. Life can be harsh now. It was far more harsh in ancient times, even for kings. Alexander conquered the known world (or rather, the world known to him) but died of a fever at age 32. The stories of our ancestors tell of Gods manipulating humans, toying with them, raping and murdering them. If Philip of Macedon did not say that men hate the Gods, it is virtually certain some other ancient father or mother did.
A few weeks ago I wrote about When the Gods Just Don’t Care. Last week I said The Gods Are Getting Impatient. Over the past four years or so I’ve written more times than I can count about how the Gods are not divine helicopter parents. They are not here for our benefit and they do not always have our best interests at heart. Our Gods are not safe.
In an era where the reality of the Gods was assumed, someone might say they hate the Gods. In our era, where only one God is assumed but is still not given much thought in day to day activities, readers frequently ask “why would you work with beings who don’t have your best interests at heart?”
Some say we should become Gods ourselves. Various Gnostics and occultists have proposed that through diligent spiritual practice and transformative initiation, we can rise to the level of the Gods. Others claim we are already Gods, we just need to wake up and realize it. In some of the first Pagan circles I attended, participants would kiss each other in turn and say “thou art God” or “thou art Goddess.” I’m not sure any of those participants knew that line comes from the Church of All Worlds, which is based on the stories of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein.
I have no need to critique those who are trying to become Gods except to point out the obvious: we aren’t. Apotheosis is a real thing, but in almost all traditions it happens only after death. Becoming a God is a wonderful long-term goal (over multiple lifetimes), but as a short-term strategy it isn’t very effective.
Given all this, why should we bother with the Gods? My personal answer is that the Gods have been good to me. I have found great meaning in Their service and great joy in Their presence… and occasionally, great terror. But I also know that answer won’t work for everyone, not even for every polytheist. So I’d like to offer a slightly more utilitarian response for those who are so inclined.
19th century American writer Charles Dudley Warner said “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Warner was drawing from something William Shakespeare wrote over two centuries earlier in The Tempest: “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” The point of both quotes is that when the outcome is critical or when the circumstances are dire, we form alliances with those we might otherwise avoid.
This includes mighty spiritual beings who sometimes enlist us to work for Them for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, who put us into harm’s way, who give us deadlines that are inconvenient if not impossible, and whose response to questions is often “just do it already!”
We are facing climate change and a mass extinction of species, an empire that refuses to respond to a refugee crisis of its own making, constant surveillance and a militarized police force, the gutting of the middle class and the abandonment of the poor to funnel ever-more wealth to the superrich, and the emboldenment of racists and fascists to an extent not seen in years.
These problems are a lot bigger than any of us. So I’m willing to work with anyone who’s trying to address them in a responsible manner. I’m especially willing to work with Someone who has more knowledge, more wisdom, and more power than I’ll ever have. Even if I can’t figure out exactly what They’re up to, I trust that the God of the Forest and the Goddess of Sovereignty – among many others2 – are working toward goals that are in alignment with my own.
I’m trying my best to avoid writing about politics and I don’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole right now. But I do want to say that contemporary American politics has mostly forgotten Warner’s observation. Politics has become less about working with strange bedfellows to get something done and more about advancing a party, even if that means nothing gets done. This ideological approach is spreading into our wider culture, including our religions – including our Pagan and polytheist religions.
This must stop. There are some people who are so toxic we cannot work with them for any reason, but that list is very, very short.
I’ve had a lot of Game of Thrones imagery running through my head lately, so if you’ll indulge me…
Winter is coming. The kingdom is in shambles, petty tyrants and slavers are maneuvering for the Iron Throne, and I don’t see a Mother of Dragons and Breaker of Chains anywhere on the horizon. But I do see a King in the North assembling an alliance of those willing to fight for their sovereignty. So far the army doesn’t look like much, but it’s growing as more and more decide to put their differences aside and fight for the greater good.
The way is unknown and the outcome is unclear, and it is certain that some will fall in battle. But the cause is just, and those who try to stay out of a war are often its most brutal casualties. So I’m going to fight. I’ve formally pledged myself to certain deities and informally allied myself with others. I do the work They give me, even when it’s hard, even when it’s unpleasant, and even when it comes with deadlines I struggle to meet.
The outcome is critical and the circumstances are dire. We cannot afford to reject alliances with those who share our goals, even if we do not entirely trust them3, and even if we do not approve of Their methods.
Some of us have found great meaning in the service of the Gods. If you cannot do the same, I encourage you to make Them your strange bedfellows.
1 I was reminded of this quote by Miguel Connor of Aeon Byte Gnostic Radio, in an interview on last week’s Rune Soup podcast. As a devotional polytheist, I’m on a different path than Miguel, but the conversation was informative and fascinating nonetheless.
2 Needless to say (at least I hope it’s needless) all Gods are not playing on the same team. I intuitively sense that They do not squabble among Themselves as much as in ancient times, but They are still individual beings with Their own sovereignty and agency – They do Their own things for Their own reasons. Those I am acquainted with, however, are working together… to a certain extent… when it suits Their purposes. Strange bedfellows indeed.
3 It is possible the Gods are amused by our inept politics and ineffective leadership and are simply using this to pull us into service toward Their inscrutable goals. Given our circumstances, and given what we know about the virtues of the Gods, that’s a chance I’m willing to take.