Gods, goods and shadows

The other night we were watching “True Blood” on TV, a series we really like. As part of that episode two of the characters take part in a “Wiccan” ritual in which they call on the “Great Mother”. One of them mentions that really she doesn’t have an easy time with the whole mother thing, on account of how her own mother was. The other (the “Wiccan”) concurs that her mother was not so great either, and that’s why she had to “find the real thing”. I liked the Wiccan, she was funny and cool, and I appreciated what she was saying about finding the real thing in the Divine.

It also got me thinking though, because how many people are turned off the sacred, or blocked from a sense of connection, because of an association in the language? Whether it’s Father, Mother or something else, we think they mean an actual father or mother etc, a biological familial relationship, a literal thing, and some people practically push it that way, to make matters worse. But after watching True Blood (vampire soap satori!) I had a bit of a breakthrough, like something in me said “damn right”. You see, I’ve never been that big on “The Mother”, and my patron goddesses have really never been that momish. It’s always been a bit of an ambivalent area, very fine when it came out right, but easy to lose, and lose completely. But of course thinking about it I realized the obvious: the Great Mother is part of the sacred, part of the Divine before anything else. Not an archetype of physical gender, not an epic female role model, not actually primarily about mothers, let alone the entire sentimental faith in a social institution that seems to get invoked by everyone from gangsters to the Roman Catholic Church to tea baggers. It’s about the Divine first, because the spiritual is primary.

I realized then that connecting with the Great Mother could indeed be very important to me, not just for me, but maybe for healing the mother relationships in my family. My mother was left by her own mother when she was small and I know the trauma of this affected her greatly. My maternal grandmother was a Leo like me, born in early August, and I know she died of TB in a work house. My mother had TB when she was carrying me. Grandmother’s favourite colour was green. My mother couldn’t stand green.

Me and my mother were alike in quite a few ways and shared a good deal (for both good and ill at times). We weren’t sentimentally close, and when she died my main sense was of enormous relief at her being released, really not of loss at all, but certainly of great well wishing towards her. I always appreciated that she was a very un-narcissistic mother; she really didn’t believe in gooey maternal instinct, that was all stuff that you really needed to be taught as far as she was concerned. I think she probably thought that belief in an innate, knowing, mystical maternal instinct was ok for those lucky enough to have had the chance to learn it as children. None of which stopped her from being a good and loving mother. I was very glad she was that smart, and that disinclined to mythologise herself. I genuinely liked her, and there were some quite hilarious memories between us. We were close in parts of our natures, just matter-of-factly similar. In other respects worlds apart. My sister had a more difficult relationship with her, but in any case there were mother issues bouncing around our family, more especially for the women I think. It would be lovely to see those things healed for those people, even if some of them are not here physically any more.

One thing that bothers me with popular neopagan attitudes to Deity – ok there’s a lot more than one thing, but here’s one – and that is the equating of Deity with archetypes, psychological structures, political role models and sociological processes. You know, people say “thou art God” (to men) and “thou are Goddess” (to women), and they bring out the archetypes, and it all gets to be gender empowerment (or critique) and self empowerment, and an aid to right on political activism, and a great big encounter group exploration of issues and growth (this is the nice version). And people are sincere about this, but it’s like it’s flat. An entire dimension is missing, one that could give needed grounding to some things, and set others free.

Never do I see this flatness more clearly than when people deify and justify negative personal qualities in the name of the sacred. Passionate grudges and identifications, passive aggressive demand, nursed hurt and chest beating pride and plain sourness, they all get somehow swept up into a sense of justification, that these kind of things are somehow manifestations of the sacred. You know, the dark face of the god/dess. Now at some level everything is a manifestation of the sacred, but being a bitch is not some crazy-wisdom blessing on the world. Dark face my ass.

What this is doing is indulging in psychological shadow, that compelling part of the psyche where we fail most deeply and consistently. I think the reason people do this is in order to make the spiritual political, because you can’t do politics without doing shadow. At least not politics as commonly understood. Neither can you do manipulation of consensus, nor bullying, its cruder sibling. And for that matter, you cannot do healing without dealing with shadow either. Shadow isn’t something to be avoided, it’s something to be approached with respect, humility, and true intention. And that’s not what I see happening in parts of neopaganism.

This is what we get when we lose track of the core of spirituality. I say that because, no matter how important it is for us to engage in progressive political change, in an aware sociological process, and in group and individual healing, we have to be aware of that part of spirituality which is not politics, not sociology, not psychology, and not even healing. That part of spirituality which is not “enlightened self interest”, not a  calculation of well being, yet upon which well being is dependent. This part I would term “the good”. Maybe we should say “goods”, as reality is multiple and diverse in its manifestations.

As modern Pagans we are often fond of pointing out that Nature is neither good nor bad, but we rather fudge the point, and then go and demonize the “bad guys” all the same. Certainly Nature and the Divine are beyond human, and beyond human capacity to grasp entirely. Our limited ideas of “good” and “bad” are not what it’s about. And while the Divine is most certainly immanent, that should not be confused with a materialist perception of value or causality. I must assert respectfully that spiritual reality is rooted in the good. And our spiritual reality is rooted in a sense of human good, because that’s the animals that we are.

Now when you have need of the Divine, and you think of the Great Mother, the Great Father, the Great anything, please don’t be fooled by shadow processes or disguised materialism. Don’t be fooled by politics or manipulation, or other people’s problems. The forms that we seek the Divine in are important, and they are forms that the Divine is offered in. Remember though that it is the Divine that comes first. Trendy as it might be to think otherwise, we didn’t actually grow the gods out of our needs or social processes. We grew the forms that we could accept out of some of those things in part maybe. But the essence, the meaning came first. So don’t be put off.

Call on the good however you will and it will answer. The good is not for sale or negotiation. It is everyone’s in every form, for the essence is primary. It is free.

Detail of “Nature and Her Followers” by Rubens and Bruegel, electronically adjusted, processed and  solarized. Original image in public domain.



  1. *Whew!*

    There is just so much here that is _excellent_, fabulous, worth multiple re-readings!

    Of course, I especially liked, “Now at some level everything is a manifestation of the sacred, but being a bitch is not some crazy-wisdom blessing on the world. Dark face my ass.”

    (Preach it, Brother!)

    But I think you are onto something deeper, when you talk about how the spiritual is the primary level, and the political and psychological and archetypal are all secondary, and “we have to be aware of that part of spirituality which is not politics, not sociology, not psychology, and not even healing.”

    Not a lot of Pagans are looking at and thinking about this piece yet. I’m really grateful you have.

    Like I say, this one deserves multiple re-readings, at least for me. Thank you for writing it–and I’m so sorry I haven’t got enough brain cells left tonight to engage with it as deeply as it deserves.

    It is awesomeness. *smile*

  2. thanks so much Cat! :0) I really appreciate your feedback, and you made me laugh too :0D

    Sometimes I feel like I am struggling to sort out what ails me as a Pagan, and also what sincerely separates me from a lot of my Pagan environment, and what I can’t help but try and find a way to be true to.


    In the post when I called that core thing “the good” I was cycling down hill mentally, and I have to look into why I used *that* word more deeply, though my intuition tells me it’s a needed word which we don’t use enough.

    More later :0)

    thanks again sister



  3. Credence Dog,

    YES!! and THANK YOU!

    I don’t know a lot about them but I know some of the early Platonic or Neo-Platonic schools of philosophy talked about the Good….


    (I really need to read up on that someday soon…)

    I also know that John Michael Greer’s book A World Full of Gods: an Inquiry into Polytheism he has this whole section talking about how that mystical Unity of all things that so many different Mystics from so many different Cultures and times and Religions, the Ground of All Being, is separate from The Gods in most polytheisms… so that we AND The Gods are all a part of something much more than ourselves….

    I don’t know if this points a sign for your excellently written thoughts, but some of the parts of me that belong to some of Them said “share this” and so I did.

    Pax /Geoffrey

    • thanks Pax! I think I will be looking into a few things :0)

      I don’t know if I would see the mystical Unity as separate from anything exactly, but neither identified exclusively with any one god (or even all the gods collectively). I tend to see us as all part of a sacred ecology. But the fact that polytheisms have their own sense of a mystical Unity is I think very important, and the importance of that unified sacred reality I would not underestimate.

      I guess I could say that being polytheists does not divest us of transcendent spiritualities, and neither does it let us off the hook of the responsibilities that that entails :0)

      thanks again


      • incidentally Pax, on the polytheist tag – I don’t really go with hard distinctions between “eists” so much as I feel the experience is primary rather than the description and classification system, and I think we sometimes get very hung up on that, often nowadays to shore up group identities. Which isn’t to say that the multitude of gods and other beings aren’t real to me. Just my 2 cents.



  4. Pingback: My life with (some of) The Holy Powers and The Spirits | Chrysalis

  5. I think that you are on to something here. eep on posting.

    I. too, found that sentence about being a bitch and all a shot to the heart of plenty of Pagan groups I have known. loved, and done my own crazy wisdom blessings/acted badly on.

    As for Mother Goddesses, it might make a difference Who you get picked by when you are just starting out. I have always found Kali Dark enough to be the Universe and All Mother. But I get that I could not have picked Her on my own.

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