Thor, God of Thunder. Zeus, Father of the Gods, God of Lightning. Hades, God of the Underworld. Odin, God of Wisdom. Hekate, Goddess of Witchcraft. Thoth, God of Knowledge. Apollo, God of the Sun. Ra, Sun God. Ishtar, Goddess of Love. Hermes, God of Travellers and Messengers. Brigid, Goddess of Poetry and Smithcraft. Cernunnos, God of Fertility. Demeter, Mother Goddess of the Earth.
We all know these lists, we seek them out and study them and rely on them for quick bites of the deities, to know who may be best to call on in a given situation or who we might like to try to spend more time worshipping, or who might be sending us this sign. I have an entire book devoted to just this sort of thing, an Encyclopaedia of the Gods that lists over 2500 deities around the world and gives snippets of information about Them – their main correspondences and tiny bits of Their mythology, as well as Their origin and such of course.
These lists that tell us what the various Gods represent are helpful and handy things, but they are a two edged sword.
Limiting the Gods
The most troubling thing about such lists is they have the ability to make us think of the Gods as more limited than They really are. The Gods are far more than these little bites of information might suggest. They are real living beings with lives longer than we can imagine, with experiences we don’t even know about.
These lists of information often only give us a tiny part of who and what the deity actually is. Sure, Zeus is the father of the Gods and the God of lightning, but is that all He is? No it isn’t. You could of course try to find a more comprehensive list – but it still won’t tell you everything. It isn’t going to tell you if He likes or dislikes the colour yellow, for instance. It isn’t going to tell you if He likes to have the occasional afternoon nap, or not. It isn’t going to tell you how He feels about what He does – does He even like lightning? Has He ever gotten sick of dealing with electricity like that? Do you know?
The Gods are real, living beings and They are just as, if not more, complex than you and I. Sure, They might rule over this and that and this other thing, but that isn’t the whole of Them. They are more than what They rule over. Just like, I am more than a blogger at Patheos and I am far more than the labels I share in my About Me section. You could look at my self-imposed labels and see what is there, what is not and decide – no, Bekah is all about Paganism, Hellenism, Hekate and Homeschooling. That’s what we must talk to her about. She is not the one to talk to about Skyrim. But you would be wrong, I love Skyrim.
Remember, labels only describe snippets of ourselves – and so it is the same with the Gods. Lists of what They rule over only tell snippets about Them, but They are more than that. Don’t forget it.
The God Of… Isn’t Always the God You Need
So, you’re about to go on a holiday and you’ll be travelling a lot, so you might check to see which deity is best to pray to and offer to in order to have a good and safe trip. Ah, Hermes, of course! So you go about making offerings and praying for everything to go well. But, it doesn’t work out so well, you get robbed, you lose some luggage, you get stuck at an airport for two days because of weather delays. Why?
Maybe Hermes was answering the thief’s prayer for a good haul that day, did you forget Hermes is a thief? Maybe Hermes had to contend with Zeus’ decision to create some bad weather – oh, you forgot to ask Zeus for good weather, didn’t you? Maybe Hermes doesn’t know you, because you have never prayed or offered to Him before, and so He didn’t really see why He should even listen to your prayers, let alone acquiesce to them. Maybe Hermes just doesn’t like you. Maybe you didn’t research things and you offered Hermes something He hates. Maybe.
Who knows? But, it’s pretty obvious, something went wrong somewhere.
Above we spoke about limiting the Gods, well this is one example of how we do so. Here we are limiting the deities by looking at some of Them for only specific reasons, completely ignoring Them at all other times. But, this is also an example of how we might be limiting the Gods we do know, because They don’t “fit” the situation.
It’s fairly common in modern Paganism and related traditions to have a bit of a focus on one deity, or a small group of deities. These are the Gods you worship, communicate with, pray to and offer to on a regular basis. These are the Gods who know you well, and you should (hopefully) also know Them, through research and interaction. The Gods are powerful, not all powerful, but They are definitely more powerful than we are. Just because a deity doesn’t “rule over” a certain things, doesn’t mean They can’t have a pretty heavy influence over that thing. Don’t be afraid to ask a deity you know for help in something They aren’t listed as ruling over.
Make Sure You Don’t Go Too FarThe opposite holds true though. Yes, we should always seek the help of a deity that knows us over a deity who doesn’t know us, whatever their province. But we should also remember to think deeply and not ask a deity for help in something They just aren’t suited to! Our Gods are not all powerful, They are very powerful but that doesn’t mean They can do anything and everything. They can do a lot, and They can each do things we probably cannot even imagine. But it’s also possible They shouldn’t have a hand in certain things.
Consider some of the stories given to us by Aesop. Some of these are considered to be jokes, written for a laugh, but I think they also tell us something important about the Gods. Aesop tells a story about Prometheus in His creation of humans.
“Someone asked Aesop why lesbians and effeminates had been created, and old Aesop explained, ‘The answer lies once again with Prometheus, the original creator of our common clay. All day long, Prometheus had been separately shaping those natural members which modesty conceals beneath our clothes, and when he was about to apply these private parts to the appropriate bodies Liber [Dionysos] unexpectedly invited him to dinner. Prometheus came home late, unsteady on his feet and with a good deal of heavenly nectar flowing through his veins. With his wits half asleep in a drunken haze he stuck the female genitalia on male bodies and male members on the ladies. This is why modern lust revels in perverted pleasures.’” – Aesop, Fables 517
Prometheus was doing something He is good at, and yet in this story He made some mistakes and messed things up. This is a good example of how the Gods are not perfect, are not all powerful. If They can mess up on the things They rule over, what might happen if you ask a deity to help in something They not only don’t rule over, but are kind of terrible at?
Pay Attention, Dig Deeper
It all comes back to limiting the Gods based on basic information. It’s not just about knowing how the Gods can help us, or knowing about what the Gods like. It’s also about knowing what They don’t like and how They can’t help us. It’s all well and good to know a deity rules over fire, but you should probably also know if that same deity is somewhat averse to water. And no, you can’t assume a fire deity will hate water, since some deities rule over both fire and water together.
These lists that tell us what the Gods rule over or represent or what Their symbols are, they are great and can be very helpful. As a starting point, but only as a starting point. Never go full on in to anything with a deity based on what some list tells you – not even just general worship! Because even in general worship we can mess things up and who knows what will happen then.
For example, you might search the internet for a list of generic offerings you could make to Chthonic deities and find that mint is listed in some places as being a good one. But if you happen to be offering to Persephone you’re going to run into some trouble. If you research Persephone and strive to learn about Her, specifically, and not just in list form you might learn that mint is not something you offer to Her. Seriously. She hates mint!
Even in the more mundane areas we need to know what we’re doing. Because even the generic things might be hated by some of the Gods (I can’t imagine Poseidon really likes olives, which are a very generic offering in Hellenism). Even things that seem like they should work, might not work.
Basically, it’s important to be sure of what you’re doing and not just jump in the deep end without some knowledge to back you up. You certainly don’t need a complete and comprehensive understanding to get started, but you should have more than a basic list from the internet or from a book. And you certainly shouldn’t go asking the Gods for favours before you even say, “Hi! My name is…. and I want to get to know you.”