Somebody asked this question in a social media comment on Called by Problematic Gods. I went looking for a blog post where I discussed it and I couldn’t find one. I’ve written plenty about my own callings, what to do when you’re called by a God you’d just as soon avoid, and what to do when it seems like nobody will ever call. But in over ten years of blogging, I’ve never directly answered the question of how you know if a God is calling you.
I guess that means it’s time for me to write about it.
What it means to be called
Before we talk about how you know if you’re being called, we need to discuss what it means to be called in the first place.
Evangelical Christianity says that everyone has to have “a personal relationship with Jesus” or they aren’t a real Christian. That idea was unknown in ancient polytheism and it has no place in contemporary Paganism or polytheism.
A polytheist is someone with a religious regard for many real Gods – being called is not required. If one or more Gods speak directly to you, great. If not, honor Them just the same. Embody Their virtues and help build a world that reflects Their values. It is your actions that make you a polytheist, not your experiences.
Being called means you’re asked – or in some cases, required – to perform certain actions or live in certain ways above and beyond what is expected of those who are not called. The reasons why are not likely to be explained, at least not to your satisfaction.
Being called can be a great thing, but it’s not winning the lottery. It’s not a birthday check from your favorite aunt. It’s more like being drafted into the army – oftentimes the army of a country you didn’t even know existed six weeks ago.
There are three main signs that a God is calling you into Their service.
Recurring imagery. You begin having dreams involving the roles and imagery of a God. Perhaps you dream of stags, you keep seeing deer in various media and maybe even in the wild, where you don’t expect to find one. You keep running into torques and serpents and various animals, all of whom behave in ways that are atypical for them. You may be hearing from Cernunnos.
That last qualification is important: behave in ways that are atypical for them. Animals are sovereign persons the same as we are – they do their own things for their own reasons, reasons that rarely involve bringing “messages” to humans. Before you decide that something in Nature is a sign or an omen, make sure it’s not just ordinary animal, plant, or weather behavior.
But when you keep seeing the imagery related to a certain deity so many times it feels like it can’t be random chance, it probably isn’t.
A persistent presence. If you haven’t experienced this you may not understand it. If you have experienced it you know exactly what I’m talking about.
A voice in your head, except it’s behind your head, not in it. Thoughts that aren’t yours that tell you things you have no way of knowing. Or that tell you things you know are true but have been trying to deny and avoid. The presence of Another, just at the edge of your peripheral vision.
This doesn’t happen once or twice. It happens over and over again. Our materialistic culture tells you you’re making it up, or maybe you’re hallucinating. That is possible, and if we are wise we consider all the likely mundane explanations first.
But if your experiences defy mundane explanations, you may be hearing from a God.
A dramatic introduction. The vast majority of calls involve some combination of the first two signs. But occasionally a deity will make a loud and dramatic appearance that leaves you with no doubt They’re real… and They’re really serious.
It’s more likely this will come later in the relationship. That’s what happened with me, anyway. After several years of working with and for Cernunnos, I had my first experience of ecstatic communion with Him. It was amazing and overwhelming and terrifying and I will never forget it.
But occasionally that happens right up front. In that case, see the link below to the post titled “Am I Hearing a God or Am I Going Crazy?” Because a dramatic introduction from a deity can have you questioning your sanity.
How to respond: listening. No matter what the signs, listen. Listen with all your senses. Avoid the urge to interpret the signs right away. At the least, wait until your current experience is over. If you start trying to figure it all out too soon, you’re likely to miss more signs, and you’re likely to jump to incorrect conclusions.
When the Gods speak, listen.
Who is calling you?
You might think this would be clear, but it seldom is. The Gods rarely announce Themselves by name. Perhaps They think everyone should know who They are, like in ancient times. Perhaps They don’t think who They are is particularly important. Perhaps, like many spiritual beings, They know there is power in a name and They don’t throw Their own name around lightly. Regardless of why, it is likely that you’ll realize you’re being called long before you know who’s calling you.
Is the Forest God you’re hearing Cernunnos, or Herne, or Pan? They’re not all the same. And remember that while the Gods are virtuous, lesser spirits can and will lie. Discernment is required.
How to respond: research. This is where the old saying that Pagans are “the People of the Library” comes into play. Do your homework.
Start with ancient stories and myths. Read scholarly works on how our ancestors understood and worshipped their Gods. Talk to Their contemporary followers – we’re to the point now where pretty much every deity who’s active in our world already as a few priests and devotees. And most of us love to answer questions about our Patrons. Yes, you’ll run into a few flakes. After a while you’ll learn to tell them from the mystics who seem like flakes to the mundane world but whose experiences are shaping the restoration of our modern polytheist religions.
The more you know about the deity you think it might be, the better job you can do of figuring out how closely your experiences match up.
What are you called to do or be?
Once you determine that a God is calling you, the next question is “called for what?” The many Gods do not exist for our benefit – They do Their own things for Their own reasons. But sometimes those reasons involve humans.
Many people assume that if a God is calling them, it’s to be Their priest. That’s certainly one possibility. But priesthood is not the default relationship between humans and Gods. Rather, it’s one specific type of relationship; a formal commitment to a set of duties and responsibilities. It is not to be entered into lightly.
You may be called to be a devotee – someone who honors a God and who performs occasional service for Them, but who does not take on the obligations of priesthood.
Or you may be called to perform a specific task – something They need or want done that you’re particularly suited to do.
And it’s possible you’re simply called into a relationship. If a new neighbor knocks on your door, they probably don’t want to borrow your power saw or sell you band candy. They just want to introduce themselves and see if there’s the possibility of an eventual friendship. The Gods aren’t all about love, but some of Them do love us, for reasons known only to Them.
How to respond: meditation. Particularly in the early days of a call, Gods are not known for being transparent and specific. You know you’re being called, but you’re not sure exactly why.
Meditate. Whatever method works best for you. For me, that’s long walks outside early in the morning. For you that may be sitting in silence, or in contemplation of an image of the deity in question, or some of other form of meditation.
Then when you think you have the answer, meditate on that. See how it fits with what you know and with the experiences you’ve had. If you’ve got it, great. If not, keep trying until you understand what you’re being called to do or be.
How will you respond?
Discerning the call is only the first part. Now you have to respond.
You are a sovereign being – you can say no. Most Gods will take no for an answer – They’d rather go find some else who’s eager to do the work than try to persuade you to do something you’re reluctant to do. Most times, that is. Sometimes They won’t take no for an answer. If you find yourself in that situation, see the link to “Negotiating With the Gods” below.
You may want to limit your commitment, especially at first. “I will do this but not that.” “I will do this for a year and then we’ll re-evaluate it.” “In exchange for this I want that from You.” There’s no guarantee your offer will be accepted, but you never know till you ask. If you’re uncomfortable negotiating, call in outside counsel – find a priest of the deity in question to negotiate for you.
How to respond: divination. Tarot, runes, bibliomancy, geomancy – whatever method works for you. Divination won’t tell you which decision to make, but it can show you what things will be like if you choose one path or another.
Recently I had a spiritual decision to make and I was genuinely conflicted. I saw four possible choices. All of them were doable – none of them were ideal. I broke out my Tarot cards and drew a three-card spread for each option, asking “what will happen if I make this choice?” Two of the options showed unfavorable outcomes – I immediately eliminated them. The other two required more reflection, but as I studied the cards (both the standard meanings and how the artwork spoke to me in the context of this situation) it became apparent that one option would yield better results than the other. So that’s what I did.
The choice of how to respond to the call of a God is ultimately yours. Divination is one tool to help make that decision.