Pagan Theology

September 1st, 2009

Pagan theology short:  graven images

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God – Exodus 20 3-5.

Recently a member of our group got very upset over the loss of one of her owls.  It was a small, black owl that she had used in ritual several times, and now it was missing.  She was inconsolable.  It was as if she had lost a pet or a loved one.

What was going on?  Was she fetishizing an object, loving too much the things of the world and not the spirit?  Or had, through use in ritual, the owl taken on properties of the Owl?  Of Minerva, of the Lady.  Had it become the Goddess?

In the United States we often treat our stuff as an important member of our families.  We’d be lost without all our gear, and Pagans in particular seem to be given over to accumulating a large amalgam of ritual implements and other toys associated with the craft.  Some of that we can blame on the ritual magicians, with their wands and censers and swords, but we can also look back in time and find many examples of images of the Gods and Goddesses being used in worship.  Those toys we keep, particularly those that we connect with the Gods and Goddesses through may, in fact, be more than mere objects.  They may embody the deities themselves.

Idols are the fetishized [1] image or object, and represent an embodiment of deity, magical power, or magical spirit.  There are many different ways to approach a discussion of idols. We can discuss the question of incarnation, of the God or Goddess occupying an object in the natural world.  We can also discuss the creation and construction of magical or blessed fetish objects, such as wands or alchemistical materials.   We can also discuss what happens when we venerate the idol, both to the object and ourselves.    Obviously the book religions have a clear answer about what happens to you when you venerate idols, but those answers are meaningless to us [2].

This multitude of ways to approach the theological question of idols can be reduced to a set of basic questions [3]:

1) What property of the fetish makes it inherently special?

2) How does consecration or creation of the fetish make it different from other objects?

3) What happens differently in the viewer or reverent when they are viewing or interacting with a consecrated fetish, as opposed to a normal object?

This division breaks fetishes up into three components, the object itself, what is done with the object, and how the object affects the viewer or user.

The fetish itself

Is the God or Goddess inherent in their image or sacred object?

The ancient Greeks saw the temple as the place where the deity lived, or naos [4].  During Homeric times it was seen as the dwelling place of a particular God or Goddess, and was often used by the Gods and Goddesses as part of their worldly escapades.  Magical workings often use images such as poppets or dolls as stand-ins for the object of the magical working.  In the Roman lectisternia celebrations the God or Goddess was brought into the house to join in the celebrations [5].  The idea that the Gods and Goddesses join us through their fetish representation is neither new nor particularly radical.  It’s only strange in the context of the religious traditions of the books.

Casually, it is easy to say: “sure, since deity is immanent and exists everywhere, it is naturally in the statue of Aphrodite on my altar as much as it’s in the chairs on my patio.”  That is not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about specific immanence.  Is the God immanent in the image of the Green Man?  Is Cernunnos himself immanent in the stag on the altar?  Are they there?  Are they present?  And does that mean they are not somewhere else?

This is a far more difficult question to deal with than the one that arises from the immanence/transcendence argument.  Instead we have to ask a couple of background questions, the first being whether we believe in the Gods and Goddesses as individual entities at all [6], and whether they represent manifold spirits of a pantheon or are just a form of gendered monotheism [7]?  Because, if we believe in the general idea of the God and Goddess, and they are seen as in the larger world, then of course they are contained within the fetish object, and the function of the fetish object is to simply remind us of this fact.

If, however, the Gods and Goddesses represent a unique group of individual deities, with names and actions associated with them, then the fetish object can be more easily understood as associating with a unique, individual, deity.  This uniqueness provides for idols that become the deity when we consider them, that the deity is “there” and “not over there” when we view the fetish.  I argue this differentiation of the deity in the world, kind of a GPS for deities, is a key function of the fetish object.

The fetish idol or object says to the reverent:  the God or Goddess you seek is here, in here, and not anywhere else right now.  Here is where you focus.

This is of course anathema for book religions where the god is universal, omnipresent, and separated from the world.  Our deities [8], by appearing in idols and fetish objects, transcend the immaterial and the unnatural, and become one with the world.  They also allow us to visualize and work with them not only in the spiritual realms, but the physical as well.

This is the property of the fetish that makes it special, the “here, not there” that it brings to the immaterial.

Creation of the idol

The act of creation of an idol is what separates its function from that of the everyday object.   It is easy to list a series of sacred motions, inscriptions, and formula that are necessary for the consecration of a sacred object.  But fundamentally what all those formula are doing is telling you, and in some cases everyone else, that the deity or magic is “in here” and not somewhere else.  The action of consecration is to dedicate the object to a purpose that has no purpose in the world; instead it is inscribing the object with a purpose in the spiritual.

In this sense consecration of objects moves them, and their purpose, from the “real” world to the world of the super-natural.  And that means it really doesn’t matter what you “do” to consecrate the object, as long as that consecration affects how you view and feel about the object.  This separates consecration from blessing.  Consecrations focus on you and your intent for the object.

The consecration tells you the object is sacred.  Blessings seek to invoke the power of the Gods or Goddesses to establish the object as favored in their eyes.  To remove the negative that exists in the object, or the negative from the viewpoint of the Gods and the Goddesses, and to make the object into something that is positive.  A blessing may precede consecration of an idol, but its effect and nature are different.  Blessings empty, consecrations fill.  Blessings are static and have potential, while consecrations are active and have purpose.  Blessings are, consecrations do.

In the case of blessing the object becomes pure, in the case of consecration it becomes the pure.

Thus objects can become sacred through use, through ritual, or simply through the loving thoughts that we surround them with.  This gives us wide latitude in figuring out how and why we consecrate objects, and which objects we will treat as idols.  As long as we perceive the God or Goddess to dwell in the idol, they do.

The reverent

So what happens to us when we use consecrated idols in our worship?

It can be difficult to visualize the Gods and Goddesses everywhere in their immanent state.  They are spread out like radio waves [9], interpenetrating everything, but separate from everything.   It can be hard to grasp onto something that is everywhere, something that you cannot grab hold of, hold in your hand, feel but at the same time you know is real, is in the world.

Unlike those who wrote the books, we should be able to hold our Gods and Goddesses.  To smell, feel, hear, and taste them.  They are in the world as much as we are.  Idols become for us the houses, the naos, of the Gods and Goddesses.  When we say, “this is our God” we mean that this, this thing, is where our God resides more than any other thing.

By creating a separate place for the Gods and Goddesses we also change.  The material for us has become sacred, deity has manifested itself in front of us, and it dwells on our altar.  We are remained by the sacredness of our objects of the sacredness of all objects.  Because, ultimately, the Gods and Goddesses are everywhere.  Like many things associated with Pagan worship, there is a circle that comes back around for us.  We begin with the unfathomable connectedness of everything through the presences of multiple Gods and Goddesses.  We then bring that infinite macrocosm down to a microcosm of one God or Goddess in one consecrated place.  But what dwells in the microcosm is also everywhere and for all time.   “That which is above, so it is below.”

Idols and other fetishes allow us to relate to the Gods and Goddesses on our own terms, as we would relate to them as friends or colleagues.  We can make offerings to them, we can ask them questions, we can pledge to them, and we can hold them in our hands.  But at the same time the act of consecration, the act of knowing that the God or Goddess dwells in the fetish, reminds us of the sacredness of all things.  That anything we hold in our hands, whether it is person, an idol, or a stone, are the divine.  They are consecrated and they are holy.   And they deserve just as much care and love as if they were the Gods and Goddesses themselves.  Because they are.

[1] We’re not talking about pervy behavior here.  Rather we’re talking about the religious and theological use of the term “fetish” to mean a man made object that is somehow given magical powers or connected to the supernatural and given some form of reverence of deference.

[2] With the image of Christ on the cross, the black stone of Mecca, and the Torah there are any number of objects that sure look like fetishes in the book religions.  We’ll leave it to them to work those problems out for themselves.

[3]  This division roughly corresponds to the “Imago and Spiritus” “Iconoclasm” and “Generatio” divisions outlined in Daniel A. Schulke.  “Idolatry Restor’d:  Witchcraft and the Imaging of the Divine,”  The Cauldron, 133, Aug 2009.  This article literally arrived in the mail at the same time as I wrote my first paragraph.  I took it as a sign that I was at least relevant.

[4]  Walter Burkert.  Greek Religion, Basil Blackwell, 1985

[5] Ramsay MacMullen.  Paganism in the Roman Empire, Yale 1981.

[6] Remember my point of view on this:  the answer is: yes, they are discrete entities with individual, if somewhat complex, personalities, intentions, and existence.

[7] For a good discussion of the issues surrounding neo-Paganism and its relationship to indigenous Pagan belief, and the question of polytheism and idols, see Michael York.  Pagan Theology:  Paganism as a World Religion, New York University Press, 2003, pp. 63-64.  While I disagree with some of his assumptions, the argument is similar to the one I’m making here, and far more closely associated with facts and research.

[8] While I reference deity here it is also just as easy to talk about magical power, the sacred, or alchemistical understanding.  In all cases the object reifies the immaterial, causing it to manifest for us in a physical place.

[9] But for Hera’s sake they are not actually waves, quanta, or energy.  See my previous columns.

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