It has become commonplace to ignore or downplay the religious elements within Witchcraft and Paganism. Certainly not everyone who participates in the magickal community is religious or spiritual, but for many of us the religious elements of our Crafts are of primary concern. I became involved with Witchcraft because of deity, not in spite of it. My first act as a Witch was to attach and whisper the word “Lady” in my prayers before settling down to sleep one long ago July night.
For some, the term “worship” seems to conjure up images of submission or purposeful abdication of self-determination. I’ve been in conversations where I’ve heard “I honor deity, but I don’t worship it,” but honor is essentially the definition of “worship.” According to Merriam Webster worship is:
1: to honor or show reverence for as a divine being or supernatural power
2: to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion (a celebrity worshipped by her fans)
1: reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power also : an act of expressing such reverence
2: a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual
3: extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem (worship of the dollar)
In nearly every instance I’ve seen of someone honoring a deity, they have been engaged in worship.
At what point does admiration become worship? Does one have to believe in a higher power to worship it? In other words, when does worship become worship?
Modern scholarship generally avoids the idea that anyone 100 or 200 years ago could have been a Pagan. Writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley are often labeled as “agnostics” or “atheists” by their biographers, despite poetry and prose that suggest they worshipped the gods of Classical Paganism. In a letter to a friend in 1821 Shelley wrote:
“I am glad to hear that you do not neglect the rites of the true religion . . . I ascended alone the high mountain behind my house and suspended a garland and raised a small turf-altar to the mountain-walking Pan.” (1)
Does that not sound like worship? I have also ascended mountains and hills and raised small turf-altars to the great god Pan. For me those altars were most certainly done as acts of worship and devotion. Why not Shelley? Even if Shelley only viewed Pan in the abstract, perhaps as a symbol of freedom from societal norms, I think he was still engaging in worship.
By the middle of the Fifteenth Century CE the Italian Renaissance was in full-bloom, and cities such as Rome were overrun with images from Pagan antiquity. Goddesses and Gods peaked out from behind nearly every street-corner, and statues and paintings featured the gods of Rome and Greece for the first time in nearly 1000 years. If you had walked through Rome in 1550 you would have assumed you were in the middle of a Pagan city, so prevalent were the images of Dionysus, Aphrodite, and Artemis.
Certainly the citizens of Rome in 1550 weren’t going to church and singing hymns to Eros, but I would argue that they were worshipping the gods none the less. To beautifully carve the faces of Zeus and Hera is an act of worship. To paint Venus rising from the waves atop a clam shell in such a way as to become iconic feels like worship. Botticelli probably didn’t whisper prayers to Venus, but he didn’t have to, his brush did the work for him.
In May of 2018 my wife and I visited Athens Greece. On our second day there we hired a tour guide and visited several cites far away from the city center. Our driver noticed that Ari and I had a serious interest in the gods of Ancient Greece, and was amused that two Americans would choose to visit places such as Eleusis. That evolved into a conversation about religion where I admitted that my wife and I were Pagans and that gods such as Aphrodite and Dionysus were important presences in our lives.
Our guide smiled and said that while he was a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, that didn’t necessarily mean much. Nearly every Greek was a member of the church he said, and while he confessed to a belief in Jesus, he also admitted that he uttered prayers to Athena now and then. That urge to pray to Athena made complete sense to me. He did live in Athena’s city; and the Acropolis with Athena’s Temple at the center of it still dominates the skyline of Athens. Does everyone in Athens worship Athena like I worship the god Pan? Of course not, but certainly some people are continuing to worship her, even though they might not call it that.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Paganism was reborn in the 19th and 20th Centuries. I’m not sure gods ever “go away” or “fade into nothingness,” but I think that worship helps to power them. We give to the gods so they can give back to us, if it so pleases them. Their return first in Italy and then throughout the rest of Europe was fueled by the masks, statues, poems, and paintings being created for or due to them. And not surprisingly the energy builds upon its self, and suddenly the gods find themselves invoked in rituals and other rites.
If worship is simply to show “honor or reverence” then any act that reflects those two qualities is worship. One does not need to pray directly to Aphrodite to worship her, a well crafted verse or painting is more than enough. I would go a step further and suggest that simply saying the name of a deity aloud in a positive manner is an act of worship. I remember hearing once that actors sometimes say the name of Dionysus before going on stage (or set). Again, most of those individuals probably don’t consider themselves Pagans or worshippers of Dionysus, but simply invoking the god of theatre feels like an act of worship.
Worship is not something we do simply with words or offerings. Worship occurs when we acknowledge and appreciate the higher powers among us. I worship the gods when I say their names and light them incense. It’s also something I do when I share awareness of them, or wax poetically about them while writing a book.
1. Patricia Merivale, Pan the Goat-God: His Myth in Modern Times, Harvard University Press, 1969, page 153