Today we continue our late-winter theme of “Order and Structure” with Rhys Chisnall’s exploration of the role of theistic language in non-theistic Paganism. This post is also the first article of our new column, De Natura Deorum, where we explore the beliefs of Naturalistic Pagans about the nature of deity.
As always, the views and opinions expressed by individual authors on this site do not necessarily reflect those of HumanisticPaganism.com or of all Naturalistic Pagans. Please remember that this site is for constructive expression and dialogue. Comments of a harassing or inflammatory nature will be deleted.
Why would a spiritual tradition and craft that embraces the non-theism of pantheism and atheism use terms such as Lady and Lord, or Goddess and God? Are these words appropriate for those of us that believe that the words divine or numinous are adjectives, figurative as opposed as literal, something seen with the imagination? Are these seemingly theistic words appropriate for those of us who see divinity as a purely subjective experience, just a term we use to describe the way we see nature? Would it be better to use different terms? These are valid questions that deserve careful consideration. To my mind it is a always worthwhile process to examine our metaphors, to see if they are still appropriate and adequately capture our experiences. In other words, are they still apt? As we reflect, we find within these symbols a greater depth of experience and meaning.
Gods, Archetypes, Memes
In the past decade or so, the terms Goddess and God have been criticised by hard polytheists, reconstructionists, and also by some literalists within Wicca itself. They claim that the gods are all individual entities in their own right, agents with distinct personalities with a literal existence, whereas the Goddess and God of the Craft (Wicca) are recent inventions. They are partially right. The Goddess and the God of the Craft are indeed a modern phenomena — although they have historical precedents, such as in the concept of “Natura” described in British Historian Professor Ronald Hutton’s book, Witches, Druids and King Arthur. It could also be argued that in the late classical world, individual goddesses — like Isis who is described by the second century Roman Lucius Apuleius in his story The Golden Ass — were beginning to be considered as universal Goddesses, equivalent to all others. In other words, the classical gods in some of the cults competing with early Christianity were seen as aspects of universal deities. Examples of this can also be found in early Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism. However such an argument is weak, as such a beliefs were not widespread. Also I am loath to make arguments from the past. I am a great believer that, just because people believed certain things in the past, it does not follow that we should believe them now. In any case such an argument is unnecessary if we consider the relevance of these metaphors to us now.
So we shall make the assumption that the God and Goddess of initiatory Witchcraft are relatively new concepts. Ronald Hutton describes the literary sources of the development of both these deities in his book, Triumph of the Moon, which is a must-read for those interested in a scholarly history of modern Pagan Witchcraft. In essence, the Lord and the Lady are relatively modern “memes”, and like all “fit” memes they seem to have spread.
The hard polytheists are also correct in the sense that the gods are different personalities, especially if they are taken to be characters in stories, which after all is what mythology really is. They are different personalities in the same way that Harry Potter is a different personality from Frodo Baggins. From a Jungian perspective, it could be argued that certain gods perform similar functions within the narrative of their myth. For example, Zeus and Odin both perform the function of Kings of the Gods. Other examples are Set and Loki, who perform the function of tricksters or bringers of chaos. Hercules, Apollo, Isis etc. are all perform the function of the hero, in the same sense that Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins fulfill the role of hero in their stories that are archetypal. Archetypes do not lie in the personalities of the characters in the story or myth, which of course are different, but rather in the functions these characters perform. It through these functions that the Jungians see that the some gods as the equivalent of others, in other words “archetypes”.
Where some Naturalistic Pagans would differ from our hard polytheist friends is that we would say that gods have no literal existence and at best serve as pedagogical symbols in myth or metaphors for aspects of the human condition. They may also serve as anthropomorphic symbols for aspects of nature. In that case, it makes very little difference if our metaphors were characters in mythology from 2000 or 200 years ago. While it is nice and comforting to have the weight of tradition behind our metaphors, what really matters is whether they work now, for us, today.
So what do the metaphors of the Lady and the Lord stand for? The problem is that, because they are metaphors, they are hard to express in any other way. Perhaps the best and simplest thing to say is that they are metaphors for certain experiences. In the case of the Lady and the Lord, they point to the experiences of life and death. They are a way to relate to life and death.
For example when we say the word “Goddess” or “Lady” or use a specific name for her in ritual, or when we are speaking with other Crafters, we are communicating a whole raft of experiences, and those experiences are subjective to the person communicating them. It may be we are communicating the experience of the summer months, the feeling we get when we see the hawthorn blossoms in May, crowning the trees in white and filling the air full of their heavy “feminine” scent. The Goddess is the experience of when the bluebells carpet the woodland floor in a blanket of blue, and elsewhere there is the white of ransoms and that wholesome smell of garlic. She is the sight of the buds of the oak and ash which have started to leaf and the sound of a vixen barking in the night to her cubs. She is experienced in the morning air, which is filled with the dawn chorus welcoming the returning sun. She is how we feel when we contemplate the hatching of eggs, when new life comes into the world in the shape of chicks which are fed and nurtured by their parents, and when they fledge to repeat the cycle the following year. She is heard in the hum of insects that dart between the blossoms, transferring pollen in the sexuality of biological reproduction.
She is also a metaphor for how we feel about the growing wheat that stands knee high at midsummer, amongst which is the blaze of scarlet poppies. She is a symbol of the metaphorical blood sacrifice that all life makes. It is a source of wonderment to me that, even in the 21st century we are still reliant on this domesticated grass for food. The agricultural year, although most people are not directly involved in it, still underpins everyone’s life. We all still require food, which all comes from natural sources, no matter how much processing occurs between plant and plate. No matter our socioeconomic status, from teachers to bankers, we still all depend on these prairies of wheat.
She is experienced as the skylark that sings above the fields, leading the predator away from her prone eggs on the ground below. She is the buzz of the bumble and honey bee as they fly from wild flower to wild flower collecting nectar and spreading pollen. She is experienced in the dance of pond skaters that glide so effortlessly across the water surface tension of ponds. She is how we experience the potential of the season ahead. She is our wonder at the productivity of nature as the complex patterns of life renew themselves. She is our wonder at the culmination of life as it moves towards its potential. She is the very potential of life herself.
She is experienced in the bounty of nature, the yellowed corn in the field and the fruits and berries that swell upon the trees. We wonder at how they carry the all the genetic information for the growth of new life. Imagine the acorn, a small nut that contains within the recipe for the pattern that will, along with the influence of its environment, create a majestic oak tree. She is our experience of the berries as they fill the hedgerows and woods with the colours of red, green and black, making a tempting feast. She is that temptation that feeds the myriad number of animals, mammals, birds and insects, powering life through the complex machinery of metabolism, which is the release of energy. She is the experience of life, which despite the second law of thermodynamics, is complexity out of simplicity. She is the experience of the waning year, as the days grow shorter. She is seen in the maturity of the year. She is feeling of the autumn mist of the morning, the sight of damp dew sparkling on the grass and the fruiting bodies of a myriad number of fungi that emerge from the soil, some of which is edible and some deadly.
She she is no bed of roses, or if she is, then they bear thorns. To my mind, the rose is a wonderful symbol for the Lady and for life. It is a metaphor for a metaphor. Its flowers are exquisite and beautiful, as life can be beautiful, but the rose also has savage thorns. They remind us that life has its painful inevitabilities. She is the metaphor of the rose beyond the grave. We do not literally survive death, though perhaps we do metaphorically through our actions, through our children, through what we leave behind, through our influence, and through the minds of others. However, more accurately the metaphor of “the rose beyond the grave” points to how the greater pattern of life in continues once our own individual patterns have gone. The process of life goes on, so we identify with the whole.
The Dark Lord is the experience of the primal roars of the red deer as they proclaim their power to each other in the testosterone driven autumn rut. The experience seems, to my mind, like the stags are calling to the Dark Lord and calling in the coming winter. Poetically, he is the experience of pure raw maleness and the un-tempered power of male sexuality.
He is also experienced in the cutting of the corn which, in the myth, gives up its life so we can eat. He is also experienced in the seed of the grain, which continues within the new generation of wheat when planted the following year. He is the wonder of the secret seed of life through death, the continuation of genes and the continuation of life.
He is the experience of the delight of the changing of the leaves, as the year is in full wane and the temperature drops. The trees are drawing in the chlorophyll from the leaves changing them from green to the autumn colours of russet and brown. He is in the experience of change and the experience of death. He is experienced when we feel the sudden change of temperature as the sun rises later in the morning and sets earlier each day. He is how we feel when we wake up for work and it is still dark. He is the mumbling and cursing as we get up and head for work in the dark. He is heard in the lonely call of the sand piper on the winter mudflats or in the calamitous squawking of high flying barnacle geese as they migrate down from the Arctic overwintering in the UK. They inspired the myths of the Wild Hunt led by the “horned leader of the hosts of air”, Woden the Wild One, riding on his eight legged horse Sleipnir (the coffin with four bearers totaling eight legs). His voice and his wild nature are experienced in the autumn storms that lash the countryside stripping the leaves from the trees and battering the countryside, knocking tiles from roofs and blowing over even the mightiest of trees.
Then he is experienced as the winter. In the midwinter, he is the feeling of the liminal time between the old year and the new. He is the experience of the death of the old year and the still point in-between time, at the moment when he is born again with the new year in the cold and the fire of Yule. He felt in the hard white frost that crystallises like diamonds on spider’s webs and covers the grass that gleams in the morning’s faint light. He is how we feel when we consider the stone cold frost that stops the little hearts of those small creatures that sleep beneath the earth. He is how we experience the transformation of the landscape in those magical times when the snow falls and covers the land. He is seen in stories like Jack Frost, Father Christmas, and Terry Pratchett’s Wintersmith.
The Triple Moon Goddess
The Lord and the Lady are symbols within symbols. They are metaphors that point to other metaphors. For example, take the moon, with which the Lady is often associated. The moon changes as it waxes to full and wanes to dark. She is often seen as a symbol for femininity, although this is by no means universal, as the Japanese and Germanic cultures see the moon as masculine (hence the “man in the moon”) . Symbols can mean different things to different culture and individuals. Perhaps this is because she is associated with that other great feminine symbol, the ocean. The moon rules the tides of the sea, and the sea is the source of all life — and a symbol of the unconscious which if you are of a Jungian bent. There symbols are all associated with the feminine.
The lunar cycle may also be considered feminine because of her association with the menstruation within women. It might be as simple as the fact that the light of the moon is softer, which is seen in our culture as more feminine, than the harsher, more direct light of the sun — though we should be careful in reproducing gender stereotypes. Perhaps it is as simple as some poets see the moon as mysterious and changeable. Maybe these male poets — and I think I am making a safe assumption that they were male poets — see women in this way.
In any sense, the 20th Century poet, Robert Graves, associated the stages of a woman’s life with the phases of the moon. The pre-sexual maiden and the innocence of youth are associated with the waxing phase of the moon and is referred to as the Maiden in Wicca.
Secondly, there is motherhood stage, where the Lady has reached sexual maturity and has reproduced, which is called the Mother by Wiccans. She is seen as the nurturing mother, who cares for, loves, and provides for her children. She is experienced as the first teacher in life and the source of sustenance in our mammalian condition. She is the first environment for newborn life.
Thirdly, she is the grandmother, in the autumn of her years. She is seen as the one with wisdom. Perhaps she is the matriarch of grandmother theory. Like with killer whales and elephant,s she is the one that aids the survival of her offspring with her wisdom and experience of life. She is called the Crone by Wiccans, and for them this makes up three phases of the moon and three phases of the Goddess: Maiden, Mother and Crone. However in initiatory Wicca/Witchcraft, we know that there are four phases of the moon, and so lastly but none the less important, there is the Hag aspect. She is a metaphor for the experience of the point of death, for surely death is also a part of life. She is the stage when our life is done and we await the Grim Reaper. She is the experience of disease, illness, and the end of life, yet she is also change and is associated with the experience of magic.
These mythological symbols are the experience of life. They are the stages of life and even though the symbolism is presented as female, males also pass through the same life stages. She is the experience of youth, maturity, old age and death. The Lady is a symbol for the experience of life, our own lives. What could be more important, more wonderful and miraculous than that? As a mythological character, she provides us with a pattern to life, a map so that we know and can prepare for its inevitabilities. The less pleasant parts of life are just as valid an expression of life and the Goddess as the more pleasant ones. To think otherwise takes away from the power of the symbol, as it no longer gives us useful guidance, and we end up living in a new age Hollywood fantasy. As my High Priestess once said, “Cancer is just as much of the Goddess as anything else in life”. Cancer is a mutation, and mutation is a necessary part of the processes of evolution, without which we would not be here.
The Dark Lord of Death
As the Lady is experienced as life, so the Dark Lord is the experience of death and change. He is experienced in the contemplation of evolution by natural selection. This is the process by which simplicity gives rise to complexity. The process is powered by death, when those organisms whose genetic makeup does not give them the adaptive edge in the environment die without passing on their genes. Through death and sex, the environment feeds back into itself to create increasingly complex patterns. To my mind, the Dark Lord is experienced in the silent barn owl that swoops down to deliver taloned death on an unsuspecting careless rodent. He is seen in the wolf pack that doggedly runs down the deer to bring a cruel and painful death. He is seen in the great white shark that strikes from below in a devastating display of power and razor sharp teeth. He is the experience of the hunter with the high-powered rifle, killing in the name of sport.
I remember hearing the comments of the wildlife filmmaker, Simon King, when he was asked if he found the sight of a cheetah hunting down a gazelle upsetting. He said that he found it a beautiful experience, as it was an example of the dance played out between predator and prey since the dawn of time. This is an experience of the Dark Lord. He is seen in the evolutionary arms race in which sometimes the predator will be successful and sometime the prey will escape. It is the pattern of life and death, which the Dark Lord as a symbol and metaphor communicates. He is the anthropomorphic symbol of the Grim Reaper, the skull face, the moment of death that delivers from the ravages of old age, disease, and pain.
Yet he is seen in other kinds of change, other endings and beginnings than death. He can be seen in the delivery of the sperm to the egg, mixing the genes, which creates a new life. He is also found in the experience of learning, as learning is in itself an important change. He is the experience of being a teacher who facilitates change in the mind and behaviours of their students. He is the change in a relationship brought about by sexuality, changing the relationship from one state to another. He is also experienced as the magician, the master of change. He is the wise man able to weave the patterns of cause and effect to achieve necessary change in the flow of unfolding Wyrd. Life is change, and so is death.
The Gendering of the Gods
The Lord and the Lady represent the concept of femininity and masculinity. Although it is certainly true that most life on the planet is asexual — think of bacteria for example — most humans experience the world through two genders. All spiritual traditions, all religions, all esoteric disciplines are human-made, and as such, they are experienced and perceived through the anthropomorphic lens. Hard polytheists have criticised the Craft suggesting that it does not accommodate the homosexual and bi-sexual experiences of the world. Biologists tell us that the two sexes are not as clear-cut as once believed, so perhaps it would be more accurate to view gender as a spectrum. But, at the very least, we all have a mother and a father who, through the act of parenthood are also experiences of the Lord and Lady.
With all this firmly in mind, Crafters choose to see the world through the lens of two genders. We know that the world is not really spit into maleness and femaleness, just as a French speaking person knows that a table is not literally female, or that a ship is not literally a “her”. It is a poetic expression, assigning certain aspects of the human experience to things. We simply can’t help it. We don’t just see, as Wittgenstein says, we “see-as”. In the culture we live in, informed by our biological underpinning, we do assign feminine and masculine traits to the world about us. As such, the Lady and Lord make wonderful metaphors for this abstract conceptualisation of gender. We experience the femininity of nature, not as a literal fact, but rather as a poetic expression.
This in turn is reflected in the Craft experience of the femininity of women, which is found, to the surprise to our youth-obsessed culture, in every woman in every stage of life. Crafters do not believe in perfection or the so-called “perfect” images of femininity as youthful, pert, and airbrushed. To our minds, these do not do the gender justice. They are fantasies and not a reflection of the realities of life. The Lady is the experience of the femininity of youth, the femininity of adulthood, the femininity of the aged and the point of death. All this is the experience of the Goddess. She is experienced in every woman, for every woman is a part of nature, a pattern within the larger pattern. That every woman represents part of this femininity is a tautology by definition. The Lady is every woman, and every woman represents an aspect of the Goddess. She is experienced in the subjective transcendent experience of the divine feminine that can’t be adequately described in words and is only hinted at in metaphor.
The Dark Lord is the experience of masculinity. He is seen in every man, and as with the Lady, is seen in every stage of life. As an archetype, he is the fool, the youth who begins his journey to adventure. As Professor Joseph Campbell suggested, he is also the experience of the hero and the king. He is experienced in the mentor, the wise man who acts a guide and a teacher in the ways of the world and the adventure. In everyday life, he is seen in the youth starting out in his life. He is the kindly father with time for his children, and the grandfather who delights in his grandkids. He is experienced in the man who puts the needs of his loved ones before himself. He sacrifices his own wants for the needs of his dependents.
However, he is also experienced as the repressed shadow, as the villain, the enemy, and the dweller on the threshold. Perhaps, as Crafters, we prefer to see him in more positive aspects, but life is not always positive. In the end, knowledge of him, to paraphrase Aleister Crowley, is knowledge of death. He is change, and he prepares us for the inevitability of death. The experience of him reminds us to enjoy our time and to act responsibly.
The Lord and Lady as Nature
Our Lady is experienced as Mother Nature. From the birth of stars in the furnace of nuclear fusion which spew out the elements required in the making of life. She is the wonder we feel at the cosmic dance of galaxies as they fly away from each other, as the universe expands, and dance around each other over vast periods of cosmic time. She is also experienced in contemplating the awe-inspiring complexity of DNA as it algorithmically transcribes information into RNA, which is then translated into the proteins that build our complex bodies. She is seen in the complexity of the cell, which is the powerhouse of the organism. She is seen in the process of biological evolution which is the process that blindly leads from the relative simplicity of complex molecules to the mind blowing complexity of higher organisms and ecosystems. She is seen in competition of genes that lead to the extended phenotype, a term used by Richard Dawkins to describe how technologies emerge from a mixture of genetics and environment. She is the experience of contemplating the biosphere herself. This is the hugely complex system of action and interactions operating in a mind-expanding web of complexity of seemingly infinite levels. Everything is finally balanced. Change one thing and it will have unforeseen consequences, making the system unimaginably dynamic.
The Dark Lord is the masculine aspect of Nature. He is seen in the death of stars in a fiery furnace that spews out the elements required for life, or in a collapse into a singularity of a black hole from which nothing can escape. From this violent explosion of stars, new stars and planets form as they did with our own solar system. He is the experience of the power of the sun that feeds the whole of life with its energy (with the exception of deep sea dwelling life forms on geothermal vents). The sun powers the wondrous and complex process of photosynthesis, converting light energy and carbon dioxide into the chemical energy of carbohydrates. These plants are then consumed by herbivores and converted into fats and proteins. In their turn the herbivores are themselves killed and consumed by carnivores, which also eventually die and are consumed by bacteria, fungus and myriad invertebrates. This is the complex food web within which the Dark Lord is experienced as the power of death.
Instead of waxing lyrical in voluptuous purple prose about the awe-inspiring wonder of all these and more, we simply use the words Goddess or Lady and Horned God or Dark Lord. The words are metaphors for the wonder that we experience at the gob smacking complexity and majesty of the Universe. They are metaphors for our experience of the beauty and the horror of nature at all its levels, not least within humanity and within our innermost selves. When we use those words, God and Goddess, we mean our experience and wonder at the greatness of life and death. By the word Lady we mean life, fertility, and love, and all that entails. By the Lord, we mean sex, change, and death, but each is reflected in the other. They are two sides of the same coin. That is what makes these name words of tremendous power, even though we know as non-theists that they do not refer to any literal entities. Its power resides in the experience of what it points to.
For the non-theist, the power of these symbols lies in the experiences that we ourselves have, rather than in any external supernatural agents. So for the non-theist Witch, Lord and Lady, God and Goddess are still appropriate words to use, despite the risk of being misunderstood. But we must also remember that this does not mean that they are the only appropriate metaphors for the experience of numinous.
That was wonderful. I’m no Wiccan, but I’ve come to appreciate it more as I get older. I had a whole post length response planned, looking at it historically and comparing it to other thought systems, but it kinda misses the point of metaphor. Instead here is a quote from historian and philosopher Will Durant that I came across earlier today:
As to harmonizing the theory of evolution with the Biblical account of creation, I do not believe it can be done, and I do not see why it should be. The story of Genesis is beautiful, and profoundly significant as symbolism: there is no good reason to torture it into conformity with modern theory.
Rhys, well done. When John interviewed me recently, he asked what I’d like to see in the next 5 years, and I said more naturalistic exploration of myth. This is just the kind of thing I had in mind, so I’m happy to see it. I like that you are completely explicit about the non-theism here, but that doesn’t hold you back one whit from “waxing lyrical.” In fact, most of this post is poetry. 🙂
I appreciate the thought you put into this but I’d like to point out a few things that caught my attention:
“Biologists tell us that the two sexes are not as clear-cut as once believed, so perhaps it would be more accurate to view gender as a spectrum.”
I think I know what you’re trying to say here, but there’s a distinct difference between biological sex and gender. I know society at large leans toward using them interchangably, but they’re not. So, yeah, indeed both sex AND gender (and sexuality for that matter) can be seen as part of a spectrum. But different spectrums. (and some people are gender-neutral, androgynous, or agendered).
“But, at the very least, we all have a mother and a father who, through the act of parenthood are also experiences of the Lord and Lady.”
This might be biologically true but less culturally so anymore (with non-traditional families)
“With all this firmly in mind, Crafters choose to see the world through the lens of two genders. We know that the world is not really spit into maleness and femaleness, just as a French speaking person knows that a table is not literally female, or that a ship is not literally a “her”. It is a poetic expression, assigning certain aspects of the human experience to things. We simply can’t help it.”
Sure we can help it. Those words we assign to things, people and concept do have power, but it’s mutable, and rather provisional, and we have the power to change it. Or at least to be aware of that. Clouds and rocks and emotions don’t have genders.
There are larger conversation about archetypes to be had there, for sure. And one person’s experience of the numinous? Sure, go for it. But as a declarative statement of how people “do” things, I’m not so sure. As a non-binary trans* person who’s fairly new to paganism, I have to be honest that I found aspects of this post pretty dispiriting.
How would you view these archetypes of Wicca then? This is not a rhetorical question, write us a description from where you see it. I would find that very helpful, and I’m sure many others would as well.
Rhys, you’ve written a fine post. I wonder this: given your descriptions, it seems like the God and Goddess are more than merely psychological constructs – they’re real patterns in the natural world. Of course, they aren’t supernatural humans, and to talk about them as a “Lord” and “Lady” is indeed metaphorical – but the metaphor is mapping onto genuine structure, so it’s not just psychology. – Eric