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Some years ago, I had occasion to read The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory by Cynthia Eller. Eller, once active in the Goddess spirituality movement, apparently became disillusioned at some point and decided to put her energies into debunking the belief system she had once helped to promote.
The first part of the book is a welcome critical appraisal of the idea that human beings once lived in a more-or-less universal matriarchal (or matrifocal), peaceful, Goddess-worshipping culture. Eller traces the development of this idea through the decades, and demonstrates (convincingly, at least for me) that the concept has little basis in historical or archeological fact. (Her attempts to supply alternative interpretations of the archeological record are less compelling – I think this is an area where we simply need to accept ambiguity.)
The second part of the book, however, departs from critical scholarship and becomes a lengthy polemic on the subject of Goddess concepts and why they are bad for women today. Eller’s contention is that contemporary Goddess worship, like patriarchy, is based on gender stereotypes. Sure, the stereotypes are somewhat more positive, but they are still stereotypes. Eller argues that seeing women as quintessentially nurturing, relationship-focused, and maternal is very limiting for women and holds us back from progressing to a rational, gender-blind Utopia.
Her perspective certainly deserves careful consideration and attention. Modern Paganism uses God and Goddess concepts that tend to be quite specific in form and characteristics. The triple goddess idea, for example, can be seen as imposing a very particular role for each stage of life, and hence creating a kind of age stereotyping, on top of the gender stereotyping Eller warns of.
But trying to strip our concept of deity of all distinguishing characteristics is a problematic project too. There is a joke about a child who asks his mother “Is God a man or a woman?” The mother, striving to be politically and theologically correct, replies that God is both man and woman. The child then asks if God is black or white. The mother again replies that God is both. Finally, the child asks if God is straight or gay. The mother, now very uncomfortable, sticks to her story: God is both. The child, now delighted with having solved the mystery, exclaims: “Oh! I get it! God is Michael Jackson!”
I once believed, like Eller, that social progress would come from seeing all people as equivalent, regardless of sex, race, age, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other group identification. While this is undeniably a desirable goal for our legal, political, and economic institutions, I don’t think the principle can be extended very effectively to the more subjective aspects of culture. I don’t think we can deal with differences in a healthy and intelligent way by imagining that they do not exist. We are all individuals, certainly, but we also belong to groups and categories, and those group identifications contribute to our identity as well.
I think one of the things that makes Paganism powerful for many of its adherents is the opportunities it presents to connect with different archetypes, in the form of Pagan goddesses or gods, animal guides, and other figures of the psyche. Carl Jung conceived of these archetypes as being embedded in the collective human psyche, ready to find expression through whatever forms a particular culture or individual favored. The Mother archetype, for example, might appear in myths and dreams in different guises. She might not even be female in all cases, but can still be recognized by the role she assumes and the essential qualities she symbolizes.
Archetypes and stereotypes are connected, but they are not the same thing. An archetype is a primal psychological or spiritual energy. We encounter archetypes through symbols – the characters in a story or myth, the images of our dreams, or the pictures in church or temple, or a deck of tarot cards. The symbols can and do vary from culture to culture and from person to person, but they are not wholly arbitrary. The benevolent and mysterious guiding figure that Jung called The Wise Old Man may appear as Odin, Merlin, or Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Loki, Goldilocks, or Britney Spears are just never going to be effective as symbols that point us to this archetype.
Whereas an archetype begins as a core psychic energy and then finds expression in symbol or image, a stereotype works in the opposite direction. The image we see creates a cluster of psychological expectations in our mind. A man sees an attractive woman and views her as a potential mate, before knowing anything about her. Students see an older man taking their college class with them and assume he is wise and knowledgeable, before he says a word.
Stereotypes can impede and distort relationships between people. To the extent that we allow our stereotypes to write the script of our interaction with others, we lose touch with who those people really are and shut ourselves off from what they may have to contribute to our lives. Stereotyping, although I doubt that we can ever vanquish it completely, can be rendered relatively harmless simply by practicing open-mindedness. Being open to having your initial impressions corrected by future experience does wonders.
Archetypes, on the other hand, are not so easy to set aside. It is part of our nature to learn about life and ourselves through image, story, and symbol. Our modern, secular society is no less captivated by myth than was ancient Greece or Judea. We may not call them gods and goddesses now, but we still show the same obsession with them, as we encounter them in our actors, musicians, and other icons of popular culture.
In the context of Goddess spirituality and other modern Pagan practices, people are generally quite conscious of the psychological potency of the archetypes they work with. When the Goddess as Great Mother is invoked and explored, it is the Mother archetype that is coming forth. The imagery of a woman of middle years adds a concreteness that helps us to interact with the archetype. Because this image is used consciously, I don’t think there is a great risk of lapsing into stereotyping and believing that all real women of middle years must have children and must act out the role of the Mother archetype. Some people, I suppose, may literalize the imagery in such a way, but I think they are few and far between.
There is a danger that archetypes can become stereotypes, but I think this is something that happens to symbols as they become worn out and taken for granted, at which point they are effectively dead as archetypes anyway.
The archetypes used in Goddess spirituality and other forms of modern Paganism are far from worn out and taken for granted. They are very much alive, they challenge the thinking of mainstream culture, and they help open doors onto new perspectives. The key to getting past our stereotypes, it seems to me, is not to try to imagine that we can experience life through a bland, generic, rational objectivity that is devoid of imagery and symbolism. Instead, the key is to work with imagery and symbolism creatively, consciously, and to continually challenge our selves and our relationships with the archetypes that shape us.
When I first discovered Wicca and Neopaganism, I was somewhat confused by the attention given to the Horned God as consort of the Goddess. I had grown up with classical mythology, so I knew Pan as a rustic minor deity of the Greeks, but I had never before encountered the idea that pre-Christian Pagans had worshipped a God/Goddess pair, with the God connected with the hunt and with wild animals, such as the stag.
Where did this come from? Yes, there is the famous illustration of the horned figure on the Gundestrup Cauldron (usually identified as Cernunnos, although that is conjecture). References to Cernunnos himself are scant, as are references to Celtic deities generally. Alas, there is no Celtic analog of the Norse sagas or the written Greek myths to give us a clear sense of the Celtic pantheon, if indeed there was such a thing. (It has been suggested, for example, that the deities of the Celts were mostly spirits of particular localities, with no unified pan-Celtic family of great gods.) References to the Horned God by other names associated with him in Wicca, such as Herne, are even more dubious. In any case, a figure such as Lugh would seem more central to Celtic belief than Cernunnos.
The answer goes back to a cluster of quasi-Anthropological ideas that were in vogue early in the 20th century. In 1921, Margaret Murray published her influential monograph The Witch Cult in Western Europe, which interpreted the records of the witchcraft trials of the 1600s in terms of a surviving Pagan fertility cult. Modern Pagans who are not familiar with Murray’s work first-hand may be surprised to know that Murray’s original picture of the “witch cult” had very little to do with goddess worship. In Murray’s conception, the object of the witches’ worship was a Horned God. Murray’s work carries little credence among anthropologists today, but she left a lasting imprint on the development of Wicca.
Why did Murray posit a Pagan religion with the Horned God as a central figure, when the historical evidence concerning European paganism suggests that the horned gods in the various pagan societies were minor deities at best? The answer is two-fold.
Murray was interpreting witch trial documents that were written by Christian zealots determined to condemn the accused persons of devil-worship. The medieval Christian image of the devil had acquired some details (horns and hooves) from the Greek god Pan. (This was likely an early attempt to associate Pagan worship with evil. The goat-like Pan made a good target, since he represented the “animal nature” the church was so determined to condemn. Furthermore, even the pagan Greeks regarded Pan with more than a little apprehension – he was not a character you wanted to meet walking through the woods at night.) What Murray did, essentially, was to recast a bit of nightmarish Christian mythology – witches consorting with the devil – in pagan garb.
So a Horned God lined up with the Christian devil-worship ideas that dominated the witchcraft persecutions of the 1600s. But there is another source behind Murray’s ideas: Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Frazer’s thesis was that there was a recurring theme in Pagan mythology and practice, the idea of a king or god who must be sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the land, and who would be resurrected again in a symbolic echo of the seasonal cycles of the agricultural year. Frazer’s point was not to extol the virtues of a paganism attuned with nature, but rather to undermine the status of Christianity by identifying a pagan basis for the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Modern scholarship thinks little more of Frazer than it does of Murray. Although he may have found an interesting thread of symbolism that recurs from time to time in different cultures, there is no reason to see the motif of the dying and resurrecting god as the central tenet of a pan-European of pan-Mediterranean pagan religion. Nevertheless, Frazer’s ideas made Murray’s interpretation of the witch trials plausible on the surface.
What does all this say for modern Wiccans and Pagans? Should we let the Horned God slip back into the murk of medieval Christian mythology and creative Victorian speculation he grew up out of? Actually, I think not. When we work with myth and symbol, the merit of a particular concept depends on its power to speak to us, to get inside us, and to change us. It scarcely matters where the concept comes from. What matters is how it works.
For me, the Horned God is a potent symbol of the wild spirit of life, the burst of will that erupts from the Earth, joins the great dance with passion, and then returns when his time is spent, only to return in a new shape, in some new spring time. He is the freedom of a pair of deer leaping through the forest. He is the force of sexual desire that creates new life. He is the child and lover of the Earth. When we honor the Horned God, we come into intimate contact with something that is central to our own nature as human beings: the fire of being incarnate, temporal beings.
I’ve never felt any special attraction to the anime genre, although I know it has many fans. I guess I mostly favor more realistic art styles, and the conventions of anime tend to feel very formulaic and superficial to me. However, in recent years, I’ve become a great admirer of the films of Harao Miyazaki. Although he’s catered more the expectations of the US market in his later work, he has the heart of a storyteller and a vision that is still in touch with the dreams we all had as children.
Several of Miyazaki’s films draw on the spiritual and cultural vocabulary of Shinto. While Buddhism and Taoism constitute the “high” form of religion in Japan, with their deep philosophies and ethical lessons, Shinto provides the earthy, day-to-day substrate of practice and belief. In Shinto, the world is alive with a multitude of spirits: every place has its own spirit, as do plants and animals – everything in nature, really. Rituals that acknowledge the spirits are a part of daily routine.
In My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), two sisters make friends with a local forest spirit, Totoro. The girls are being cared for by their father while their mother is in a hospital. They move to a new home in the country, where they encounter Totoro and his friends. Their adventures together help the girls find the confidence they need to deal with their mother’s illness.
This film is remarkable in several ways. First is Totoro himself. Like most spirits and magical creatures in Miyazaki’s films, Totoro doesn’t speak. He conveys messages by gesture and expression, and by his movements and body language. Miyazaki seems to understand that children can relate to animals without the talents of an Eddie Murphy or a Billy Crystal to mediate the connection. It is a sheer delight to watch the drawings and animation create the relationship, especially when the relationship is as gentle and nuanced as it is in this film.
This film is also special in its connection with the natural world. Totoro has power with growing and living things, and is totally at home in the elements of earth, air, and water. The landscapes and weather changes in this film are rendered with a loving attention to detail. The tree where the girls first find Totoro is a creature of great magic and power. Its essence and importance is conveyed by the artwork, rather than any gimmicky effects or cliches.
Finally, this is a film whose main characters are young children, and it stays true to that by finding all its drama and joy in the world as experienced by 3- to 8-year-olds. There is no violence, no evil villain out to destroy things, no subplots tossed in to appeal to parents at the expense of the story. It doesn’t need any of that, as its drama comes from things more basic: getting lost when walking far from home, age-based tensions between the two sisters, worry about an absent parent. The joys of this film are likewise uncomplicated: the simple magic of a big furry friend who doesn’t say much but always knows what to do.
Although it is always risky comparing beliefs systems from different parts of the globe, I have always felt that Shinto and western Paganism are expressions of a similar spiritual impulse: the feeling of living in a world that is alive and enchanted in its numerous details; where the sacred is found in the plants and animals and places we encounter each day, rather than in a set of writings or an abstract conception of God. When I first encountered modern Paganism, it felt like I was reconnecting with my true nature, a nature I had left behind along with my childhood. I realized that there had been something profound in those lazy childhood afternoons, lying in the tall grass or watching the caterpillars, or the play of sunlight on water. For anyone who appreciates the spiritual quality of those simple experiences, My Neighbor Totoro is sure to find a special place in your heart. It’s become a solstice tradition in our home.
Readers in the right age bracket may remember The Peter Principle by Lawrence J. Peter and Raymond Hull. The thesis of this witty and perceptive book is that in hierarchies (corporate, military, political, etc.), people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. As long as they can handle their job well, they are promoted. When they get to a level of responsibility they cannot handle, they are not fired or demoted. Rather, the promotions stop and the person is ensconced there for the rest of their career.
It has always seemed to me that the Judeo-Christian God is a good example of this. Yahweh apparently did an excellent job as a tribal storm god, smiting enemies, disentangling the tribe from troubles with the Egyptian pharoahs, and making sure that nobody ate shrimp. He probably held his own pretty well measured against Baal and the other local competition.
Then, around the time of the writer Biblical scholars refer to as deutero-Isaiah (500 BCE or so), the idea of monotheism was taking root. People started to think of God as a universal rather than a particular, a single mind behind the world rather than one of many minds at large within it. The Jews of the time were drawn to this idea, but did not want to abandon their tribal storm god who did the smiting and rescuing thing so well. So they did what any hierarchical society would do: they promoted him to his level of incompetence.
I say that because I don’t think Yahweh has the sort of qualities that work well in the role of Universal Deity. He’s too patriarchal, too judgmental, and too warlike to be everyone’s God. The new, monotheistic theology requires a God who is truly in everyone and everything, equally. If there is a single principle that has made the whole universe and gives it life, it is hard to see how that principle could be inclined to take sides with one part of its creation against other parts. Such a universal God would simply be present as his creation played itself out according to his will or design. How could he possibly feel the need to reward part of creation and smite other parts, unless he was an incompetent craftsman who couldn’t get it right in the first place? Hmm.
Glibness aside, I think monotheism, as it is understood and practiced in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is a very problematic concept. God has been made into a cosmic universal, but worshippers still expect him to take sides and give them particular favors. They expect him to stand for a particular moral code, and to judge people (or possibly whole cultures) as good or evil. They see him as all-good and all-powerful, and so cannot explain why there is so much pain and suffering in the world, inflicted even on newborn children whom even the most judgmental monotheistic moralist could not imagine are being punished for their sins.
The Hindus did a somewhat better job of accommodating the monotheistic impulse into their religion. They recognize a universal deity in the form of Brahman, who is beyond categories and description, while a huge pantheon of particular and specialized gods and goddesses continue to interact with people and answer their day-to-day needs.
Western-style monotheism seems to draw us into one-dimensional thinking. You either obey God (good), or you don’t (evil). There’s not much room for the idea of making a choice between paths that are different but don’t seem to have any obvious ordering on the axis of good-and-evil. Which career should I follow? Do I spend time with family, or work on that novel I’m writing? Do I try to keep up that long-distance relationship, or let it go? Which of the ten worthy causes asking me for money do I contribute to?
Polytheism, on the other hand, gives us a natural framework for understanding such choices. Each god and goddesses expects something different from us. One draws out our romantic nature, another rewards hard work and discipline, a third would have us mind the hearth. Embracing one deity may mean neglecting another. That, it seems to me, is a better model for the complexity of life and its shifts and choices, than is the blunt dichotomy of good vs. evil.
An excellent metaphor for this is the Judgment of Paris, the youth who was asked to choose between Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena. His choice started the Trojan War, but we can’t be too hard on the fellow. After all, any choice would have led to dramatic consequences, as at least two goddesses were bound to be miffed by his decision.
It seems to me that life more often feels like the Judgment of Paris than like the Trials of Job. We choose between multitudes of possibilities, and each path is a mixed blessing. There’s more going on that just “Do I obey God or not?”
I appreciate the insight that the world, at some level, all flows from a single source. But I don’t think that insight is what is usually needed to navigate the particulars of a life full of possibilities, ambiguities, and shifting energies. For the business of living, we also need to appreciate that we partake of many different energies, and hear many different melodies. This is something that polytheism helps us do.
For this reason, I have mixed feelings about some of the Goddess-centric forms of modern Paganism. I’m referring to those who conceive of deity as The Goddess, rather than goddesses. There is value, of course, in retiring the patriarchal emperor God and putting an Earth Mother or similar archetype in his place. But the temptation of one-dimensional thinking still remains. For me, one of the best legacies of our ancient Pagan past is the sensitivity to the many personalities that Spirit or Deity exhibits. We live in a world that is rich with details and purposes that don’t always conform to a single grand plan. As a Pagan polytheist, I embrace that richness.
Gnosticism is an ancient belief system whose basic tenets seem to reappear in many different times and cultures. Gnostics hold that this world is essentially a prison for the spirit. In Gnostic forms of Christianity, for example, the creator god of the Bible is interpreted as an evil demiurge, who built the world to trap us; the real God is on a higher plane entirely, and Christ is our connection to him, providing the possibility of reuniting the trapped spark of spirit within us with its divine source.
For gnostics, our physical bodies are also of the material world, and part of the evil snare that traps us here. Gnostics, therefore, sometimes tend toward asceticism. Although full-blown gnosticism was rejected by the early Christian church, it did leave its mark on the development of Christianity. The notion that material pleasures are sinful, and that life should be about preparing one’s immortal soul for a heavenly afterlife, has a decidedly gnostic ring to it.
The basic gnostic ideas are also present in some eastern religions. In many forms of Hinduism, for example, the material world is deemed to be an illusion (maya) that binds us down karmically and delays or prevents our liberation from the wheel of reincarnation.
Gnostic ideas are also woven into popular culture. The movie The Matrix presents a quintessentially gnostic view of the world, with the ancient gnostic mythos updated into a high-tech futuristic dystopia. The “new age” or metaphysical community, while not tied down to any detailed doctrinal system, nevertheless frequently plays with gnostic ideas, to a greater or lesser degree.
The relationship between modern Paganism and gnosticism is a complex one. On the one hand, many of our metaphysical ideas and magical practices derive from the Western mystery tradition and forms of occultism connected with it. This tradition has always had a heavily gnostic coloring. The “great work” of alchemy and high magic, returning the self to its divine source, comes straight from the gnostic-influenced Neoplatonists of the Hellenistic era. Some Pagans have a spiritual practice involving eastern-style meditation designed to lift consciousness out of an ego-bound and body-bound mode. Many of us would not take issue with the bumper sticker that says “I am a spiritual being having a physical experience.”
On the other hand, I think the core sensibility of modern Paganism is anti-gnostic. We feel at home in this world, and we revel in the physical experience of it. We feel at home with the plants and animals, with the changing weather and the strong earth beneath our feet. We love the pleasures of the body, and embrace sexuality as sacred. For most Pagans, the divine is not a distant light we must struggle to reunite with, but rather is as near as our own breath and flesh.
For myself, I find some gnostic ideas to be enriching. It is good to occasionally step out of my immediate experience and see it as mere “clothing” over a more universal spiritual reality. There is wisdom to be gained by transcending the details of physical life. For me, though, such transcendence is a tool, not an end in itself. It means little to me until I return and engage this life once again, enjoying its pleasures and making the most of my time here. Although I think there is a spark of spirit in each of us that is not bound to this earthly existence, I do not see the earth as a prison or an evil to be denied. Rather, experiencing this world is the great joy and calling of the spirit, it is what I am about.