Delivered to the Parliament of the World’s Religions on Friday, September 3, 1993 on behalf of Covenant of the Goddess.
This lecture is concerned with some aspects of the Wiccan relationship to divinity and to history, and the relationship of Wiccans and scholastic endeavor.
By Wicca or Witchcraft I mean a particular sect of the religion of Paganism. By Pagan I mean that modern religion which derives from European folk religion and Hellenistic religion, as well as any other sources which practicing Pagans identify as informing the religion.
Paganism hasn’t been popular as a Western religion for the better part of 2,000 years. As a result, Pagan religionists today are in a situation which has numerous parallels with other suppressed religions.
In this century, Pagan religious practice has been secret, covert and in the home, with no open Pagan communities to provide cultural or emotional support. In the last few decades hidden Witches and secret Pagans have emerged in semi-public gatherings, and have struggled to create community, to compile histories, and to gain recognition as a religion. I use the term “Re-Paganization” to describe this process.
Wicca (and the religion of Paganism in general) is polytheistic, as mutually exclusive understandings of divinity can co-exist in the religion, with each considered to be equally valid. There is a huge tolerance for diversity, for temporary conflict, for individual expression of belief.
This makes for frustrating explanations when Pagans hold conversations, such as this one, which attempt to outline something of our beliefs. We feel placed under a certain pressure to state, “This is our belief”. Any assertion that this one belief is the true Pagan belief is both impossible and inaccurate. It is possible, however, to outline something of the range of belief.
As an approach this can initially seem to be confusing. Certainly, the many voices describing Paganism can seem to be in conflict. With patience, however, it is possible to perceive a multiplicity of approaches to religion, some of which combine to form a pattern, and all of which fit comfortably together under the Pagan umbrella. Put another way, it is enormously difficult to describe in a linear fashion how Wiccans approach history or divinity, but a general understanding emerges from exploring the topic.
A good place to start is in exploring characteristics of divinity important to Wiccans. These include but are not limited to gender, immanence, and aspect. Here are some examples:
Wiccans generally venerate female divinity. If there is an All, that All is most often–though not always–described with feminine terminology: Lady, Queen, Mother. If there are many deities, at least one will be described with feminine terminology. The psychological impact of Goddess worship has been significantly explored both here by my co-religionists, and by feminist theologians and scholars.
One exception to this use of feminine terminology to describe the All removes gender from the concept. There is an All which has no gender. The All manifests as deities with gender. For example, the All manifests as two deities: female and male, Goddess and God. Here again most often the female is primary: the Goddess came first, or accrues more far-reaching powers than the God.
In one formulation, if there is One Goddess, She expresses Herself in the natural world–that is, She is immanent. Alternatively, if there are many deities, some will be associated with the natural world: earth, sun, moon, sea.
The worshiper, as a being of the natural world, may be described as a particular instance of the informing and encompassing divinity: the Goddess is everything, I am one of the things that make up everything, I am a child of the Goddess, or I am part of the Goddess.
Divinity may or may not be conceived and described as having self-awareness, or human shape. The power or powers of the universe–of the earth, sea, moon, sun–are in and of themselves sacred and worthy of devotion, and the Wiccan worshiper can enter into direct relationship to that power or those powers.
Some believe that if there is an All, and the All is the Goddess, there is a part of the All which is self-aware: “I am the Goddess”, says the Goddess. The Wiccan worshiper enters into relationship with that awareness: I worship the Goddess.
It is also possible for the Wiccan who believes the Goddess has self-awareness to conceive of that awareness as transcending the natural world, which she nonetheless also informs. That is, Wiccans can perceive divinity to be both immanent and transcendent simultaneously.
In another example: There are many Goddesses who form aspects of the One Goddess. Any deity who at any time has been described by anyone as female is an aspect of the One Goddess. Each separate female deity, with specific powers and attributes, amplifies and illuminates the beingness of the One Goddess. Those who conceive divinity in both masculine and feminine terms can similarly describe all the many male deities as aspects of the One God.
Some Wiccans believe, however, that there are a number of deities in the world/universe, some of whom are described as goddesses, some as gods, and some of either gender or other genders. (This particular formulation deals most comfortably with deities of ambiguous gender). These deities may not have a formal relationship with each other. Some things in the world/universe are connected to them. Those things are sacred. Other things are not sacred.
These are examples of the continuum of Wiccan belief, which, again, co-exist comfortably under the Pagan umbrella. I am certain there are other formations of religious understanding which I have not thought to cover here. I am most interested in exploring further here the Wiccan relationship with self-aware divinity and particular aspects of divinity or independent deities.
One of the ramifications of polytheism is that it is possible to have a relationship with more than one Goddess, or more than one aspect of the Goddess. In this way Wiccans come to venerate more of the world, to see more of human experience as especially sacred.
In this envisioning of the divine, and the divine feminine, as multiple, there is a striving for balance. One of the most common understandings of the Goddess is as having three aspects: Maiden, Mother, Crone. Young, mature, aged. Innocent, experienced, and wise. Alone in Herself and learning to move outward, loving and parenting, withdrawing into Herself.
The cyclic nature of this particular vision allows the Wiccan to map understanding of the divine onto the cycle of the seasons, the agricultural cycle, the human life cycle.
Taking first the psychological approach, I can put this most easily in personal terms. The three phases of the Goddess map onto my observations and experience of life:
I was young, with a sense of possibility, of a life not yet shaped. In my late childhood and early adulthood I identified with the Maiden.
I am older, with a lot of responsibilities and relationships, projects I am overseeing and people who look to me for guidance. I am a Mother, entwined in the world.
I have friends who are older still, who have spent much of their adulthood in the fulfillment of responsibilities, and are now limiting their commitments to make time for private reflections. They are Crones, and I am looking forward to that time of life for myself.
Similarly, perceiving masculine divinity as having many powers and attributes, or worshiping a number of male deities, provides Pagans with a number of models of appropriate male behavior. The Pagan priests who reviewed this presentation were eager that I should mention this, and that the models are available to both men and women.
I note here again that this is a relatively psychologized point of view. There is a modern point of view which equates the deities of the ancient world with states of mind or human modes of being. This is certainly one of the multiplicity of views of the divine which Paganism encompasses. In other viewpoints, divinity–or the Goddess–or the Goddess in Her aspects–or the Goddess and the old Gods and their aspects–are perceived as having a powerful reality independent of the human mind. They may be associated with natural phenomena–as in a very substantial number of Wiccans who view the Goddess as a single deity identical with the natural world and the workings of the universe. Or, a multiplicity of deities may simply be understood to be powers in their own right.
Returning to the cyclic understanding of divinity: There are a good many ways of mapping the threefold feminine divinity, Maiden, Mother, Crone, onto the cycle of the seasons (all of which envision divinity as immanent). Any particular pattern I can discuss here will be strictly one example among many. The Goddess, as reflected in the agricultural cycle, can be seen to have a life which waxes and wanes throughout the year. In springtime, with the blooming of flowers and the planting of seeds, She is the Maiden; in summer, with the ripening of fruit, She is the Mother; in fall, with harvest and the end of the agricultural cycle, She is the Crone; in winter, She is renewed, moving from old to new, Crone to Maiden, again.
This simplified cycle only really works in temperate zones. One of the forms re-Paganization takes is this mapping of the triform pattern of the divine feminine onto places on the earth with different climates, calendars and crops.
This is one fairly general way to look at feminine divinity . In addition, the Wiccan can relate to one or more specific Goddesses. A special relationship develops: This is my Goddess. This is Her name. This is what is particularly sacred to Her. I see Her in what is sacred to Her. I see Her in the sun, in the flower, in the depths of the cave.
How does a Wiccan come to relate to a specific Goddess or aspect of Goddess? Modern American culture does not introduce us to Pagan divinities, excepting a brief study of classical Greek deities in high school.
In practice, Wiccans can relate to a deity through formal introduction, through private research and devotional, or because of an experience of the particular deity which is perceived as having been initiated by the deity. That is, some sort of signal or sign happens in a life which the Wiccan interprets as a message from divinity, and the Wiccan may then seek to discover which deity in particular originated the message.
A case of very formal introduction to deity is initiation, a rite recognizing a person as Wiccan. This can be an introduction which is part of an initiation that is also intended to have a social effect–to bring the initiate, the new Wiccan, into a formal relationship with other Wiccans, as well as the deity.
Less formally, introduction to divinity can occur as part of a process of education about the religion, either through teaching offered by a practicing Wiccan, or through self directed study.
Introductions can also occur through events sponsored by a priestess or priest or a group of priestesses and priests, and open to co-religionists. I’m thinking specifically of Pagan gatherings where priestesses and priests organize rites dedicated to particular deities. Sometimes the entire event is dedicated to a deity. I have helped to organize several festivals dedicated to the worship of Dionysus, and several re-enactments of the Sumerian New Year festival, dedicated to Inanna.
It’s important to note, however, that while Pagans, and Wiccans, will introduce one another to the worship of a particular deity, usually Wiccans will say that no priest or priestess is necessary. A reasonably general agreement is that anyone, anytime, anywhere, can establish a relationship with the Goddess or a particular aspect of the Goddess, or with any deity. The deity/human relationship is personal and primary. One way of putting this, which is a very common phrase, is that every Wiccan is a priest or priestess.
One of the interesting effects of this doctrine is that no Wiccan I know has ever claimed a sole relationship with a deity: “Inanna has chosen me as her one true only priestess”. It doesn’t happen. There are a lot of reasons for this: there are so many deities. If you need to find one no one is worshiping, it isn’t hard. If you want to claim a real popular deity for your own, there will be a lot of competition! Wiccans generally do not need someone else, anyone else, to make the connection with deity, and few would tolerate intercession of that nature.
Private research about and devotionals to particular deities form part of the process of re-Paganization. How does this research proceed? There are a number of materials available to the Pagan religionist to support this sort of study.
Modern American Paganism certainly benefits from the friendship of and study of other polytheistic religions and “nature based” religions. This is, of course, true not just of Pagans who worship self-aware and particular deity. It is true for Pagans diverse religious beliefs, especially those who venerate nature as a force.
An important ethical point here, one that many Pagans are at pains to make, is that in such study we must be careful to differentiate what is Pagan from that which belongs to another religion, and to respect other religions on the terms which their practitioners request.
Another source of material for re-Paganization is the work of scholars on European folk religion, Hellenistic religion, all of the Near Eastern and Greek and Egyptian and Roman religious movements which are termed Pagan, etc. The Goddess movement, feminist scholarship, and feminist and liberation theologians of several religions, have certainly popularized the study of Goddesses; for the most part they are the very Goddesses that Pagans are likely to be worshiping.
As an example of this process of study, this lecture arises from a series of lectures I gave last year for a Pagan center, one a month, on a variety of deities and how to approach their worship. The deities included Inanna and Ishtar, the ancient Semitic Goddesses (Asherah, etc.), archaic and classical Greek divinities (Aphrodite and Dionysus, etc.).
This is how Wiccans I know who are interested in particular deities to go about their research:
We go to the library. We find out everything possible about the deity of interest.
Where did the deity come from? What people initially worshiped the deity? What were those people like? Where did they live: what was the geography of the region? What was the history of those people? Who, specifically, honored this deity: men, women, intellectuals, craftspeople, farmers?
What was the pantheon of those people? Where does the deity fit into that pantheon, what are the variations of this, how does this change over time?
What were the deity’s names and epithets? If there were several, why? Was the deity associated with other deities over time?
What animals, plants, stones, natural phenomena, are associated with the deity? We seek the times of day, times of month, times of year the deity was particularly honored. This leads of course into a cross-cultural comparison of calendars: the classical Greek first of the month was not reckoned as ours is!
What, specifically, did people do in the worship of this deity? Offer things? Dance? Were there festivals, and what happened at the festivals?
Some of that specific information allows for the construction of a rite, a devotional, intended to particularly honor that deity: On a particular day or month, with a specific name, with carefully chosen offerings.
Some of the general information allows for the modernization of the rite. A kind of general screening can be done: if a deity is sacred to men and slaves, and I am a woman and an intellectual, I am going to have to work to find a new way to relate to that particular deity. In another example, if a particular item was sacred to the deity which is no longer extant or not available in the local area, is there a local equivalent? The poppies which grew on Crete six thousand years ago are extinct; will California poppies do? If the deity was worshiped in a particular season, what is the local season that is the closest equivalent? Some of the rites to the classical Greek goddess Demeter occurred during a fall planting season. It would be possible to celebrate a similar rite today in March where planting occurs in the spring. My home state, Washington, has a fall wheat planting season, which is very handy.
An entire ritual technology has developed around reconstruction of deity worship. Modern Wiccans fit the list of things that were done into a pre-existent ritual template. That is, whatever happens is likely to occur in sacred space which is structured in the same way for every rite, and the types of offerings will include foodstuffs, incenses, and actions such as chanting and dancing. If an action that a Pagan took in classical Greece would be shocking to a modern Christian, it’s likely to be shocking to a modern Pagan too: We come from the same cultural milieu.
Wiccans do regularly trade information about their experience of devotional to a deity. “Inanna told me X”. This is mostly in personal terms: “This is my experience of Inanna”–rather than in absolute terms: “This is what Inanna is.” There is actually a remarkable congruence in lots of people’s experience of the same deity.
In discussing Wiccan and Pagan research into divinities, I would be remiss if I did not, however gently, broach the subject of tension. There is a certain tension between scholars and Pagans.
I know I’m oversimplifying here. Scholar is as huge a term as Pagan, covering professionals in many specific disciplines. Also, I am aware that these are not mutually contradictory terms, and boast friendship with Pagans who have published, Pagans with degrees, Pagans who work at universities. What I mean is scholars in general, scholars who are not Pagan, have differences of opinion and methodology in dealing with the subject of divinity than do Pagans who are not scholars, or not professional scholars. I’m using the terms “Pagan” and “scholar” here as a kind of shorthand.
Scholars and Pagans have tended to treat one another with a certain lack of respect.
Hellenistic religion, folk religion around the world in the current era, and what modern Pagans actually do, have been lumped in English into the category “magic”, with “religion” forming another category altogether. In fact, the three categories “magic”, “religion” and “science” have been used to define one another for the better part of a century. There is an enormous literature exploring this subject.
The use of the term magic is fading among scholars for a variety of reasons. First, there are enormous differences between what Pagans did and believed two millenia ago, what Trobriand Islanders do today, and what American Pagans do today, and no single word can unify the study of each of these. More importantly, as a number of scholars have asserted, describing some practices as magical denies their religious nature. I find that the practices listed under the category “magic” and those listed under the category “religious”, rather than describing opposites, function more clearly as complementary poles in a spectrum of religious belief and practice.
To give a specific example, one of the defining characteristics of religion has been held by some to be submission to divinity or to divine will (“Thy Will be done”), and one of the defining characteristics of magic has been held by some to be manipulation of deity (“I command you”). In practice, Wiccans engage in a variety of practices which would fall between these two extremes. As has been remarked by others, a bipolar theory does not neatly describe a continuum. I am personally unaware of any Wiccan or Pagan practitioner or congregation who engage in the manipulation, threatening or compelling of any deity. I do know some who submit entirely to a divine will: which deity (and how the knowledge of the deity’s will is obtained) varies, and forms part of the continuum of Pagan practice.
I chose the word “devotional” as reflecting most accurately the majority of relationships on the spectrum. Wiccan priestesses and priests can dedicate their lives to the Goddess in general or a particular deity; can sponsor large celebrations intended to honor the deity and offer many people the opportunity to share the experience of that deity; can make a single rite intended to acknowledge that deity’s force in the celebrant’s life. One of the most touching forms of devotional, to me, is listing names of Goddesses, that they should all be remembered.
Just as scholars have misunderstood Pagans, Pagans sometimes do not offer to professional scholars the respect which their achievements deserve. Enthusiastic religionists may draw generalizations from limited data, from reading one or two books, or from reading only popular books. While this may provide meaningful data to inform religious practice, characterizing the fruits of such endeavors as scholastic devalues the labors and expertise of scholars. Bad scholarship does not necessarily generate bad religion, but it does irritate scholars.
There is another issue that one scholar raised recently: If you can discover all you need to know about the Goddess from inside your soul and inside your mind, why should anyone study Sumerian and Akkadian? Doesn’t the insistence on personal experience devalue the scholar’s life work?
This question compares the religious experience with the product of scholastic study. I don’t see these as being necessarily in competition, but as complementary. Speaking personally, it is vital to my understanding of Paganism that someone read Sumerian and Akkadian. The study of older understandings of the Goddess, of particular Goddesses and how they were worshiped, informs my own practice in ways both specific and profound.
I’m hoping that one of the bridges that will be built in the next few years is a connection between scholars in general and Pagan religionists in general.
One reason I think Pagan experience can be of interest to scholars is that we sometimes reconstruct, and as accurately as possible, some of the Pagan celebrations. There are technical notes we can pass on. I’m not saying that a modern reconstruction of an ancient rite can give direct information about how that rite was performed by the ancients in their own place and time. I do think that there are suggestions of interpretation that can arise from our experience.
These reconstructions, by the way, can be lengthy, involved, and expensive. As a specific example, I have mentioned being involved in a rite to Dionysus. We based our ritual on an understanding of a classical Athenian custom: Landing a statue of Dionysus in a boat and bringing the statue in procession through the streets. We rented a park. A statue was made. A canoe and paddler were commandeered. Dionysus was scheduled to arrive at 11 a.m. on Saturday morning. Dionysus did not arrive on schedule. Estimating the time required for a canoe to be fully loaded and laboriously paddled from point A to point B is an inexact science.
The canoe appeared, finally, a speck on the horizon. It approached. It approached. At last it landed. Dionysus arrived! Those of us insane enough to be maenads waded into the tidal mud flats and retrieved the statue, bringing it in procession through the park to resume the festivities.
Throughout this experience I contemplated the image of several 6th c Attic vases portraying Dionysus in a boat with wheels. There was some scholastic debate about the meaning of the wheels. I was thinking, no one who had witnessed that particular entrance of a deity would have been in any doubt as to the usefulness of a cart: A wagon with wheels on which the canoe bearing the statue could be placed and pulled on dry land and on schedule.
Another reason I think scholars and Pagans form a natural alliance is that Pagan religionists engaged in the process of re-Paganization are scholars’ biggest fans. We’re part of the paying audience, one of the reasons that scholastic works on the ancient world are moving through the bookstores.
One of the ways I suggest that the dialogue between Pagans and scholars can continue is in the recognition of our territories: Where concerns overlap, and where Pagans and scholars must grant one another a unique and autonomous ground of discourse.
I am thinking of a comment Hans Dieter Betz, in his essay “Magic and Mystery in the Greek Magical Papyri” in Magika Hiera, made: That theologians of several religions are sometimes asked to conduct their business on the ground of scholarship, where they are at a disadvantage.
My point here is that similarly, Pagan leaders are asked to explain Pagan religion both in scholastic and monotheistic theological terms, where again the Pagan is at a disadvantage. The theologian claims a certain ground for discourse free from the concerns of the scholar; the scholar similarly claims a ground which is free from theological concerns.
Neither of these terms–theologian or scholar–is adequate to completely describe the person who expands and explains Pagan religion. That term has not yet evolved; I use the term “speaker” to mark the place until one does arise. What I am saying here is that the Pagan speaker can be familiar with both scholastic and theological concerns, while claiming a ground of discourse which is uniquely Pagan, independent of and free from the concerns of both.
Scholars have spent a lot of time defining the terms “religion”, “magic”, and “science”. Each of these terms describe worldviews, ways of looking at the universe of phenomena and human experience. If we understand “magic” as a term used to identify, at least in part, Pagan religious experience, then Pagan religious experience clearly forms one of the native Western worldviews.
What is particularly Pagan is the experience of divinity in a Western polytheistic religious system. Modern Paganism is unique precisely because it approaches our Pagan heritage, not as metaphor or psychology or a mine of useful ideas, but as a foundation for religious experience. A statue of Aphrodite in a museum is not a curiosity to the worshiper of Aphrodite; it is a reminder that others have worshiped this deity, it is an image of the divine, it is a bridge to understanding the deity, it is a source of contact with the power of Aphrodite herself.
We find and make devotionals to the Goddess, to the Goddesses, to the many deities, who are part of our heritage. Put another way: they speak to us. And we speak to them.
copyright © 1993 Brandy Williams