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Know Your Gods


by Estelle Daniels

When you become a Pagan, a whole new set of choices is presented. Perhaps the most important is which God, Goddess or combination will you worship? At first this might seem like a no-brainer as many who become Pagan already have some affinity for some Goddess, God or pantheon. Pantheon is a Greek word meaning "All Gods" and has come to signify a specific group of Deities associated with a certain culture and/or time period, like the Norse Gods or the Greek Gods. Some Pagans come with their Gods already chosen. But many do not, and the task of finding a Deity to call your own can be more than you might expect. Choosing your own Deity, a being that you can personally resonate with is incredibly empowering. What other religion allows you to choose your own Deity?

A disclaimer. When talking about Divine beings there are many terms available, Goddess for divine females, God for divine males, Deity as a generic term, Goddess and/or God, God/dess, etc. And there are Those divine beings whose sex is variable or indeterminate. I have chosen to use Deity as the generic term meaning Goddess, God or Divine entity of variable or indeterminate sex. Occasionally I will use the term Gods, and that will mean all the Deities of a certain group.

Some Pagans never choose specific Deities, but worship The Goddess and The God generically. That is valid, but it is more interesting and fulfilling to choose specific Deities. And sometimes if you do not choose for yourself, the Gods choose for you.

So you are a person newly come to Paganism and are actively seeking some Deity to worship. How do you go about that? The one thing which is stressed by many teachers is "Know your Gods", that is know who it is that you have chosen to worship. One teacher says to know them you have to understand them, know what foods they like, know what jokes make them laugh. This may sound strange, overly familiar or impossible, but it is actually not as difficult as you might imagine.

One thing that is not recommended is choosing a created Deity from media, a book or game. Make sure the Deity you choose is "real", that is that Deity was actively worshipped by a people in a real historical place and time. Created Deities, may or may not be "real" but they tend to be frivolous at least and possibly very dangerous at worst. Trust me on this.

When you choose a particular Deity, you are not just adopting that Deity, the Deity also adopts you. It is a two way street. Some feel the imminence of Deity more strongly than others, but one thing is very common among Pagans, our Gods seem to involve themselves more closely in everyday life than does the monotheistic God. That has always been a difference between the monotheistic religions and the polytheistic ones. Deities evolve in a certain time and place to fit the needs of a set of people in a specific culture. So when you choose a Deity, you are in some measure adopting a culture and mind-set. Some Pagan cultures were never suppressed or died out; The Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and other cultures have flourished for millennia. Other cultures, like that of the Ancient Egyptian Gods, the Netcheru of Kemet, were totally lost and then revived by about 1700 BCE or so.

Even though you may be adopting only one Goddess or God, that Deity is part of a pantheon, and has a set of relationships with the other Gods of their group. So by association you have a ready-made set of allies and possibly enemies with the other Gods of that pantheon. The Deity you choose may have a consort, and you need to find out something about them. It's like having a friend who is married; you may not be friends with their spouse, but you will run into them from time to time and it's easier when the spouse is a person you know and even like, rather than someone you merely tolerate or even actively dislike.

Many of the older pantheons have survived to modern times only as Myths. These are collections of stories sometimes treated in the same category as fairy tales; fantastic, silly and not to be taken seriously. This can be a trivialization of those older Deities, and modern collections of myths have often been translated, retranslated and watered down to fit modern sensibilities. Many of the Victorian translators of those myths were actively contemptuous of the material, and were only translating to prove their prowess in the language.

Myths are a good place to start, but not all myths are eternal. Time and cultures being what they are, many Goddesses and also Gods have had their stories, relationships and attributes changed. This can be due to cultural influences at the time, as the adaptation of many Great Goddesses when the Goddess cultures were conquered by the God cultures with the migrations/invasions of various Indo-European Peoples ca. 2000-1500 BCE. The Great Goddesses weren't eliminated but became subordinate to the God of the conquerors, usually as wife, daughter, concubine or even arch-enemy. When the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam developed, those peoples sought to wipe out all traces of the earlier Pagan religions. So the temples were either destroyed or made-over into churches or mosques, and the populace forcibly converted to the new beliefs. Some Old Gods were adopted as local saints, to help facilitate the conversion of local populations. But their attributes were watered down and altered to fit in with the new religion. Other Old Gods either died out or were worshipped in secret. Everything about them was suppressed or eliminated.

Understanding the culture and a bit of the mindset of the people who worship your deity is important. You need to get some idea of the mindsets your Deity is familiar with, otherwise there may be a culture clash with modern America. And part of the culture is the food. "You are what you eat" is a catchy phrase, but it can help when assimilating into a culture. This is not to say you have to eat only foods of the time and place, but you should be familiar with it because food can be a prime factor in determining how a society lives. Preparing a meal in the traditional way is a lovely ritual for welcoming a Deity into your life.

Another thing to consider is what are that Deity's attributes and specialties? And when and where were they worshipped? Some Deities have evolved over time, changing attributes and specialties as the culture and times demanded. Will you take the Deity wholesale or only those attributes that appeal to you? Warning: when you adopt a Deity you may think you can limit yourself, but those other attributes come sneaking in and you find those issues coming up in your life until you actively choose to work with them. Some Deities have been better researched than others. For a couple of the Celtic Gods, all that is known about them is a name and an image on some artifact. The rest is conjecture. With many of the Western Pagan cultures, we are reconstructing what has been actively suppressed for 2000+ years, so whatever has survived is bound to have gaps. Sometimes it can be helpful to learn the language of that Deity. That's a big task, but some who choose to immerse themself in the culture seem to have a more fulfilling relationship.

At the very least read the myths associated with your Deity, and the rest of the pantheon. Look around for as many versions as you can find. Go for the best translations, and stay away from Victorian authors for there is a lot of bias there. Do some research. Most libraries have good sections on mythologies, and you can say you are researching a school paper if anyone wants to know. The internet is an invaluable tool in this sort of research. Don't forget to search alternate spellings of your Deity's name if there are any. Read a little on the culture. There are many children's books on Life in (whenever/wherever) which can give a really well-rounded look at other cultures and times. Just because it's a children's book doesn't mean the information isn't for you. They can be the most fun, readable and instructive. The illustrations help, and the research is usually excellent.

As Pagans we are not limited to only one Deity, we can choose several, and not all of them have to be from the same Pantheon. Though it might be a bit of a stretch worshipping both Kwan Yin and Quetzalcoatl, you can mix and match. Sometimes they adopt you, and it becomes a treasure hunt finding out about the personality behind the face.

If you do work with a Deity, have their image somewhere. Photocopy a picture at the very least. There are many stores that specialize in reproduction of ancient art, and you can find artists who also do contemporary art featuring ancient Deities. Don't bust your budget, but do have an image somewhere so you can keep them alive in your life.

Getting to know your Gods is like making new friends. Except these are friends in very high places with lots of influence. Treat them with love and respect and they will work with you. Pagans have a much more personal relationship with their Deities, and that is part of the appeal of Paganism today. These Deities can become constant companions and actively involved in your everyday life. They will give you signs and speak to you if you learn to see, listen and get to know them well. 

Blessed Be.

© 1998, 2003 Estelle Daniels, all rights reserved.