“There are gods who forever remain elusive, whose identities shift with the landscape, the seasons and the stars. And there are gods so intimate that they are never really absent at all, and meeting them is not a matter of inviting their presence but rather of quieting my own expectations and learning how to listen. There are gods whose presence looms like a mountain range on the horizon, and gods with(in) whom I walk with grace, my footsteps just one more melody in the great pattern of their being. …
“My gods are not always like human beings. Sometimes my gods are like mountains, sometimes they are like mist. Sometimes I seek my gods in the forests, sometimes in ritual space or the beat of the drum. Sometimes my gods are inscrutable or apophatic, and my relationship with them is one of longing and seeking rather than invocation and offering. And sometimes it is the mountains themselves who are gods, and the rivers and trees who speak.”
— Alison Leigh Lilly
What do Neo-Pagans mean when they talk about gods? When a Neo-Pagan talks about the Goddess or invokes ancient pagan gods and goddesses, like Pan or Isis, what do they have in mind?
Neo-Pagans have different beliefs about the nature of the gods. For some they are metaphors for natural processes or human experiences. For others, they are psychological archetypes. For others, they are emergent properties of a complex universe. And for some, they are real beings with independent existence and consciousness.
For some Neo-Pagans, the gods are as real as the earth and the physical universe. Indeed, they are the earth and the physical universe. In The Spiral Dance, Starhawk explains:
“People often ask me if I believe in the Goddess. I reply ‘Do you believe in rocks?’ It is extremely difficult for most Westerners to grasp the concept of a manifest deity. The phrase ‘believe in’ itself implies that we cannot know the Goddess, that She is somehow intangible, incomprehensible. But we do not believe in rocks we may see them, touch them, dig them out of our gardens, or stop small children from throwing them at each other. We know them; we connect with them. In the Craft, we do not believe in the Goddess we connect with Her; through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves. She is here. She is within us all. She is the full circle: earth, air, fire, water, and essence — body, mind, spirit, emotions, change.”
For other Neo-Pagans, the gods are Jungian archetypes, semi-independent forces of the unconscious mind. As Margot Adler explains in Drawing Down the Moon: “The Gods and Goddesses of myth, legend and fairy tale represent archetypes, real potencies and potentialities deep within the psyche, which, when allowed to flower permit us to be more fully human.”
According to Jung, the archetypes are “dynamic, instinctual complexes which determine psychic life.” These ruling powers of the psyche compel “the same belief or fear, submission or devotion which a God would demand from man.” Jung writes that “we seldom find anybody who is not influenced and indeed dominated by desires, habits, impulses, prejudices, resentments, and by every conceivable kind of complex. All these natural facts function exactly like an Olympus full of deities who want to be propitiated, served, feared and worshipped, not only by the individual owner of this assorted pantheon, but by everybody in his vicinity.”
This is not to say that the gods are mere figments of our imagination. When we say that the Neo-Pagan gods are archetypes of the unconscious mind, this does not mean they are conscious creations. Just as we do not create our dreams, but they happen to us, so we do not invent the gods — they, too, happen to us. True archetypes cannot be created intentionally; they grow out of the unconscious and express themselves through dreams, myths, and religious symbolism.
But for many Neo-Pagans, the question of what the gods are is less important than how they function in human life. Whether the gods are in our minds or have some reality outside of our minds, Neo-Pagans believe there is value in interacting with them as if they are real. As Janet and Stewart Farrar explain in The Witches’ Way (1984):
“… from the point of view of the psychic value of myth, ritual and symbolism, the somewhat surprising answer to the question [whether the gods are real] is, ‘It doesn’t matter’. Each man and woman can worry out for himself or herself whether archetypal God-forms were born in the human Collective Unconscious or took up residence there (and elsewhere) as pied-a-terre from their cosmic home—their importance to the human psyche is beyond doubt in either case, and the techniques for coming to healthy and fruitful terms with them can be used by believers and non-believers alike.”