In old ‘high magic’ texts (and plenty of Wicca texts) there was this tradition of having long tables of deity names and their associated properties, often with little to no context. I always found it odd – calling on a ‘sacred name’ without any real context for the name or the figure it referred to… never made much sense. I thought it’d be like going through the phone book, looking for someone with numerology that matched yours, then calling them and declaring that they owe you a favour.
This seemed to be a continuation of an old Roman tradition, where they would liken deities from other cultures to their own – that’s how we get silly statements like ‘the Gauls primarily worship Mercury’, Mercury being a Roman deity… and ‘the Gauls claim descent from Dis Pater’ – another Roman deity. The Gauls didn’t claim anything about Dis Pater – they didn’t know who he was until they met some Romans. They had their own names and their own mythology for their own deities.
Nowadays, we’d see something like this in the light of what it was – the narrow mindset of a colonizer that believed themselves superior; the thought they knew the correct names of the deities, and that only they worshipped in the right way.
We’re starting to see those awkward tables of deities for something closer to what they are; a sort of… awkward political act of appropriation and cultural pillaging. We’re noticing the lack of respect for the people those deities are taken from, the lack of respect for the traditions of those deities, and the alarming historical hypocrisy of it all. Some of us wind up feeling conflicted because those nonsense tables were how we first learned about the different pantheons of the world. They were our tourist’s guidebook to paganism, and now that we’ve moved into paganism permanently, it feels pretty awful knowing that those ‘impure’ and ‘unethical’ sources were what guided us on our way in.
It leaves us at an incredibly awkward place. Many people in Christian dominated countries have little to no clue where they came from (apart from a hint gained from their surname) or what deities their ancestors worshipped – they’re culturally rootless. Others are unwieldy mixes of this and that – I’m Scottish, Irish, Swiss, British, and more. I can tell you what types of Christian those people were, but I have no direct connection to my ancestor’s pre-Christian traditions. I don’t feel like I fit into Christianity, I never really have. I’m not alone. Many people like me respond to that feeling by wanting to reach back towards distant ancestors in search of a tradition that feels ‘right’… but at best, people like me are recreating a painting based on a loose description from someone who only really glanced at the original. I know where my people came from, but I’m still rootless.
So, when I wanted to give thanks for the beautiful sprouts in my garden, the bright colours of the autumn leaves, or a marvellous stroke of luck… what name would I use? Who do I thank? The universe? That’s a little too close to Christian monotheism for me. Way back in the 17th century, Spinoza argued that everything in existence – the whole universe – was an expression of God (though at the time this was deemed somewhere between controversial and heretical – it’s a far more popular point of view now). Perhaps, had I not read Spinoza, I’d be more comfortable with the universe-as-deity idea, but I don’t think so.
Being the purest stereotype of the bookish nerd, I decided that research was the answer. I started reading. Not those ever-so-fun and easily read occult books about this or that pantheon – I went to the source that those texts derived their palatable narratives from. The dry and dusty old tomes scribed out by long dead poets and translated (and re-translated) by more recent anthropologists and historians. The books with all the unpleasant or confusing bits still caught in the fibres of the myths and legends, like so many grass seeds stuck in a woolly jumper. It’s an ongoing process – new finds are constantly being made, and these can drastically shift our modern understanding of ancient people and their cultures. It’s also a slow process. The internet sadly doesn’t have anywhere near as many primary sources available as I’d like (though Sacred Texts and Project Gutenberg are totally invaluable). You have to spend time in real libraries. Even then, real libraries tend to have very little on the topics you want unless they’re attached to universities that deal with those topics.
After quite a bit of reading, I came to a conclusion.
The religions of my ancestors are mostly dead – very little of them survives to the present day. Here and there we have a tiny spark of an ancient pagan rite still practiced in an almost unrecognisable form, but generally, they’re dead. Living religions grow and change, they reform, they adapt. That’s what makes living traditional African religions so appealing to the endless masses of rootless spiritual seekers. But, those religions are often initiatory, or require a specific lineage to participate. They can’t be taken up by people who don’t have connection to the living communities (which is completely reasonable). The remainder of the fairy faith in (mostly) West Ireland is similarly (mostly) closed to people outside the community. We can access parts of it as outsiders, but it’s not complete without the community. I digress. Back to my dead religions;
In much of the world we don’t have ‘kings’ in a meaningful way – there’s no place for a deity of sovereignty. Our presidents and prime-ministers don’t tend to care about things like the ‘spirit of the land’… though perhaps it would be better if they did. With technology like garden sprinklers, refrigerators, and fast-moving vehicles, we don’t rely on favourable weather anywhere near as much as we used to to survive. Fertility deities have lost much of their use – we have industrial fertilisers for ensuring good crops, and machines for planting seeds. Even human infertility has a solution in most cases. When something is out of season, we grow it in a greenhouse, or ship it in from another country. It’s not an everyday concern. There are places where fertility deities are needed, as people suffer famine… but if we weren’t living under such a rubbish capitalist system then that wouldn’t be anywhere near as much of an issue (I mean, what kind of monster sells water taken from people suffering drought? Or food taken from people who are starving?).
Not only are many of the deities obsolete in function, they’re often ethically obsolete. I don’t like the idea of worshipping deities that were OK with slavery, or who thought it was honourable to murder your brother if he insulted you, let alone the ones that saw women as property, or the elderly as a burden best dealt with through death by exposure. I’m not okay with deities that commit rape. Nor do I care for deities that thought it was okay to force humans to do ‘sinful’ things, then punish those humans as an example to others. I find these actions morally abhorrent. I’m okay with deities making mistakes, or doing silly things, but I want to know that they learned from their mistakes, and they will do better next time (I’m looking at you Zeus. When are you ever going to do better?)– I see growth, change, and continual improvement as divine. Stagnation is death.
Times have changed. Our treatment of one-another has changed for the better. Some places are ‘better’ than others, some advance while others regress, some improve in one area and fall back in another – improvement is nonlinear, and not universal. Nowhere is perfect. But, there is improvement.
Of course, none of this provides me with a solution to the problem of the tables of meaningless names, and the lack of accessible living pagan religions with relevant deities. I like the Catholic method of updating saints who became obsolete when their domain fell out of common use – like St. Eligius who was a patron saint of horses, but has since gained the status of patron saint of car mechanics and drivers. Simple enough to update Epona (a deity of horses) to deity of all land-based transportation. But, this ignores a great deal of the stuff that made Epona unique. All her idiosyncrasies. The blessings and curses she would place on those that (dis)pleased her, the specific rites that she liked performed for her. Those aren’t necessarily as easy to translate.
Then, there’s the fact that many old deities were extremely local – they might have held dominion over a single river, or one sacred well. They wouldn’t have any reason to cast their attention to the next stream over, let alone far-off Australia. So, even if they were willing to update from well-deity to water-pump-deity, they might not be so interested in being the deity of all water pumps. This is problematic for people who don’t live in the homeland of their ancestors, and don’t want to ransack the beliefs of the native people in the land they currently dwell for their own personal spiritual needs.
As I did my research, I felt (like so many do) as though I was sifting through ashes, finding tiny bits that might once have been parts of a magnificent whole… but these pieces just don’t fit in a modern world. I knew this, and I still felt like I needed those little fragments to build a place that I could fit myself into. I wanted to have roots, but I’d been cut loose.
So, fuck tradition. I decided to be a dandelion seed blowing on the wind, searching for a good spot to grow my own taproot, and I’m going to bring you through the journey I took in building a pantheon that has meaning in the modern world.