Who is it we’re praying to?
As I have said, witches’ deities are the Pagan Goddesses and Gods, who were worshipped by our ancestors. But the wildwood mystic needs to understand the term ’Pagan’. It means ’of the countryside’, from the Latin Pagus (country district), and implies beliefs formed from a contact with nature which arose before modern cities, or industry, came to be. This does not mean that city-dwellers can’t be Pagan, for nature is everywhere; we just have to look a bit harder for her in the city. What it does mean is a religious faith in which nature is held to be sacred, not just the abode of the spirit, but even the manifestation of it. Native American Paganism illustrates this clearly. There is not a pool, tree, animal, bird or bee which does not have its own intrinsic spiritual essence and thus its particular natural wisdom, contributing to the balance of nature. Here in Britain, our Native European ancestors believed the same sorts of things, in this respect. And such ideas are still alive today, in modern witchcraft and in all new Paganism.
However, people were burned at the stake for Paganism in the European past. Witches, druids, heathens of all kinds and even Christian heretics were executed in large numbers, for basing their beliefs and rites partly upon the sanctity of nature, and/or for consulting with nature spirits or faeries (as Joan of Arc did). Nowadays, it is safe (and legally protected) to claim such beliefs again, and even more poignant and meaningful to do so, now that no tree is safe from the developer’s axe and no species is entirely safe from extinction. However, many people have been frightened off from having witchy beliefs by the legacy of the great persecution. So why did it happen?
Well, it had to do with the Christian Church’s struggle to establish its own supremacy. It was deemed necessary to destroy the arch-rival — that is, Native European spirituality. All Pagans (and even Christian heretics) were threats to the Roman Catholic monopoly, with its drive towards absolute dominance in all religious beliefs and practices. This was explained as being for the good of all our souls. It also resulted in an extraordinarily large and powerful institution (with a great deal of money).
Another aspect of the burning times was the demonizing of all Pagan deities. Our Gods are supposed to be devils, our Goddesses evil. This message continues to be put across in books, films and anti-Pagan propaganda, to this day. Such a message might well put off anyone from praying to our Mother Earth, let alone to the Horned God, Cernunnos.
Let us be in no doubt about it, evil does exist. Anyone who has ever thought about the cruelty in this world knows there is no uncertainty about that. And it would be naïve to say that no Pagan ever did anything wrong. The ancient Pagan world held every kind of extreme, from the gentleness of the Isian priesthood, who practised pacifism, vegetarianism and sexual abstinence, to the brutality of certain tribespeople, who practised human sacrifice, and who were also often guilty of ill-wishing other people and laying curses. Unfortunately, the same thing has been true of Christianity. Animals have often been sacrificed, for sheer amusement, by many Christians: for instance, the destruction of the buffalo in North America. Humans have been sacrificed in unjust wars ’with God on our side’, over and over again. Christianity has been made the rationale for conquest of the heathen, and invasion and exploitation of other peoples’ countries and natural resources. As already pointed out, there was the torture and sacrifice of Pagans and heretics, for the sake of the Church’s supremacy, in the Middle Ages. All that this means, unfortunately, is that undeveloped human nature is much the same in any religious system. But it would be as absurd to blame the Pagan deities for this as it would be to blame Jesus for all the terrible things done in his name, or to blame Allah for Muslim fanaticism.
Come to think of it, some really evil things have been done by atheists, too. It would appear that no religion is exempt from this charge, and neither are the non-religious.
In other words, evil cannot be overcome by denouncing Pagan deities, or destroying wildwood mysticism. Indeed, enormous damage — in environmental, human and cultural terms — has resulted from trying to do so. It is time, therefore, that witches’ prayers began to be said again; high time that a wildwood mysticism be seen to be necessary, as well as wholesome. Therefore, let us look more closely at what Pagan deities are.
Kathy Jones, in her book In the Nature of Avalon, says the following: ’One of the glories of the Goddess is that she is mutable, ever-changing, presenting different faces to each person who goes in search of her. She is one and she is many, and within each of the many the one is also to be found.’ The same goes for the God. This clears up a potential source of confusion. For there may seem to be a quite bewildering multiplicity of Pagan Goddesses and Gods. This is partly because many different tribes, cultures and nations have had their own name for a Goddess of healing or a God of truth, for example. It is important to remember that, whatever their names or perceived powers, each Goddess or God is simply a resonance of the one Great Goddess, or Great God. This point is made most clearly in Egyptian mythology. For example, in the Heliopolitan Recension (the earliest collection of Egyptian funerary literature), where deities are described as sons and daughters, or grandsons, granddaughters etc. of the original mother and father.
But who are this Pagan mother and father in the first place? Perhaps the best way to describe them is as the spirit that runs through all things — creating, upholding, transforming, evolving life, in both its feminine aspect (the Goddess) and its masculine aspect (the God). They cannot be reduced to rational formulae, for they are mystery. Only a poem will do, or symbolism (as in any art form) to express the nature of Goddess or God.
For instance, we can say of the Great Goddess that she is the vision from which life uprises; she is a whisper of light, like white wings in darkness; she is the tranquility of a whale and also the ocean of deep space, primordial night. She is the Earth’s dreaming self, with images like many-coloured bright crystals. And she is the patient industry of worms, that keep the Earth healthy. And the life and joyfulness of every wild creature. And she is the elements, the voice of rivers and wildfire on the mountain, and wind that blows across Arctic wastes. And she is in silence. She is all time, when it lasts so long that one drop of water from a cave roof would measure a whole aeon. She is memory in a seed. She is the poem that keeps on being chanted in quietness. She is music from which each song arises. She is the continuum.
Life proceeds from all her dreaming, whether that is in the dream-space of the womb, where a child is formed, or in the deep inner space of the soul, where each one of us may hold pure aspirations and visions. She is the sacred, the numinous, giving rise to meaning as well as to being.
She is also a wise love, an inclusiveness. She relates one creature and image to another. She holds all together and is at the centre, and also around it all, containing. She is integration and synthesis, sustaining. She is the ground of all being. Within the furthest star, within the Sun and Moon and Earth and within our spirits.
By a strange paradox, she is not always found by turning inwards. She is also the stillness known beyond the wildest dance and within sexual passion. And she is abundance, the cornfields, the orchards, all forms of life. Whether we call her Brighid, Isis, Mari-Morgan, Aradia, or by any other name, she is eternal.
While she is at the heart of life, originator of existence, the God’s role is different. Not more nor less valuable, but not the same. He is the great catalyst, the changer. He is innovation, magician, experimenter on a cosmic scale. He is the shock of life, working as a portent to disturb our settled conclusions, saying, ’Let’s try a new way.’ He is trickster and magus. He is prophecy, speaking from an oak tree. Life cannot get too settled in the presence of the God, for he will not allow it. He is a breath full of desire. And he is also paradox; ruthless in setting in motion inescapable change, and demanding that we take risks, he is also the protector, defending the helpless. He doesn’t respect a lack of courage, though he understands fear and honours a sensible prudence. But he always says, ’Let’s try a new step in the dance, a new picture, another way of life. Come on, move! I can bring the dream to reality in unexpected ways. Listen, I have a dream too. It’s of an adventure. For I am the faraway landscape, I am the long journey. On the way, we will see and do all you’ve ever imagined — but you’ll have to be daring. I am the dark beneath tree bark and the cave’s phosphorescence and the glint within the goat’s eyes, as well as green leaves and the sunlight and tenderness.’
He is all natural justice, the guardian of nature’s balance — yet also the sudden twist, the wild card, the unexpected. He is both the wise man and the rebel who fights against the destruction of untamed places. And he is the wild places.
He is the sacred acrobat, he is playful. He is that power in all beings.
And whether we call him Manannan, Osiris, Bran, Robin or Cernunnos, or by any other name, he, too, is eternal.
In the end, they are each the sacred mystery, which cannot be constrained, contained or reduced. They are the essence of life and all meaning.
But there is a further way of understanding the mysteries, and different aspects of the deities, within wildwood mysticism. It is based upon shamanic beliefs. Please note, the word ’shamanism’ has a very precise interpretation for academics and scholars, but I am merely using it here in its loose and popular sense: to imply tribal practices wherein a person — man or woman — would work with the spirits, undertaking trance journeys to meet them, in order to heal another person, plant, animal, place or situation.
Using the shamanic model, then, existence has three main divisions, or levels. These are the underworld, middle Earth and the upperworld, perceived as three aspects of an imagined world tree, around which all existence revolves, and all beings live out their lives. This tree, whose trunk is the axis of the universe, has been and still is a part of many Pagan traditions worldwide. In Britain, it is seen as an oak or an apple tree, as the Celtic ancestors deemed it. Or, because of our Nordic forebears, an ash tree. To the Chinese, it was a peach; to the Lakota Indians, a poplar. But the point about this world tree (whatever the species) is that it both delineates and links the three realms of existence. The underworld (life’s roots and psycho-spiritual causes), middle Earth (mortal life in all its glory), the upperworld (life’s aspirations.) The deities of each of these realms can be addressed over matters specific to their domain.
First, we will look at the underworld region. Here are the deities of water and therefore, the depths, profundity, as well as the roots of things, within the dark earth. This is the place from which all things grow, symbolically, and to which they return. It can be seen as both tomb and womb. A very watery place, it contains springs and underground streams and rivers and even oceans (for sea level is below land level) as well as rocks, stones, caves and the soil.
What nourishes and freshens life from its beginnings? What are the most basic causes of what happens? And what are our deepest feelings? All these things are within the underworld, for it sustains and shapes life from underneath. It is about whatever lies below the surface, the roots of all things, the causes. For this reason, it is said (in Celtic tradition) to be the home of those who weave the web of fate — the faeries. And it is not a dismal place. Underneath the land, within the hollow hills, or across the sea on magic islands, there is, traditionally, another dimension. It is a place of great magic and beauty, the faerie realm, and it underlies all existence. The underworld is the repository of what Eastern mystics might call ’karma’ — the things we do which affect and shape our future. It is also the realm where our Pagan ancestors live, the spirits of the dead. All underworld deities therefore preside over fate and the changing or transforming of it, through magic. They are responsible for all hidden causes and deep motivations. They are also concerned with profound healing, and with issues of death and rebirth. We do not have to know any of their traditional names to invoke them, but can simply pray to them as Goddess and God of Fate and the Faerie Realms. They are known as the Dark Goddesses and Gods. This is not because they are in any way evil, but because their realm contains the subtle concealed things, the root causes.
The Goddesses and Gods of middle Earth are much more obvious. These are the deities of all abundant life, of the physical realm we live in. But their domain is not just that of appearances and our manifest bodies, but also of the spirits of all creatures, the nature spirits of rock and tree and hill and pool and fox and hawk and moth and frog and ourselves — everything. Theirs is the realm in which ideas gain form and adventures are not just fantasies, but are lived, fully. They are the givers of what we need to survive, the full bowl and the laden table. It is not their will that some should have and some should not, for they value all, equally. Through them, our plans take on practical shape and creativity is manifested, and dreams come true. Unfortunately, so do nightmares, if what we have given, individually or collectively, to the underworld fate weavers, consists of dubious causes. However, the lady and lord of all middle Earth have a strong magic to rebalance nature, and our lives, if problems should arise. Their methods of doing so may not be what we’d have envisaged, or would have wished; they may even be ruthless, but they will always restore life’s balance. They are, after all, the life force in its manifest form. They are nature’s wisdom. If we honour them, we can have creative lives, fulfilment, undamaged skies, clean seas, real food, a just society, healthy technology. We can have a non-exploitative culture.
The area all around the trunk of this imagined world tree is that of middle Earth’s deities. Everything that is above ground and beneath sky.
Up among the branches is the place of the upperworld Goddesses and Gods. Imagine peering up at the topmost leaves and twigs. Among them, we see the Sun shining or, at night, the Moon, stars and planets. Deities of these, the heavenly bodies, are all connected with cosmic tides and influences, as seen in astrology. Their influence is woven into the webs of fate by the faerie fate weavers, just as sun, moon or starlight are reflected in water. So they are the big picture, the universal perspective. From the upperworld deities, we can receive the highest aspirations and visions. Through them, we can rise above our fears and worries, and sense infinity. Failure to honour them can lead to blinkered lives and to much pettiness. They are the bestowers of a transcendence which helps us attain a greater understanding of life’s possibilities, and allows us to see things in a much larger context. Despite the sometimes amoral behaviour of Gods and Goddesses of planets and luminaries (which is something of a distortion, and not a true understanding of their natures), as depicted in Greek mythology, these are the deities who can inspire a nobility in our goals and our souls. Their influence in our lives only goes wrong when we fail to keep our feet on the ground while looking at them. Then we get out of touch with our reality and our common humanity. We learn that the shadow side of, say, Jupiter or Venus, or any supernatural power, can indeed be destructive but if we remember our psychic roots in the underworld, our lives upon middle Earth, our responsibilities, then we can pray to them for blessings. We then find that they give the sublime moments in life or in ourselves.
The above is what is meant by the world tree and the three realms of deities. To a hedge witch and wildwood mystic, a tree (any tree) will do to symbolize this. For it not only has the three distinct levels of roots, trunk and branches, but is, in fact, one entire entity — just like the Great Goddess or Great God, whose being is all things.