Elements of a Personal Cult

There is a sense in which the favorite deity has already chosen the devotee, and an early step in establishing a devotional relationship is to examine any unusual dreams or waking experiences that seem to be messages from someone. Think back through your past, looking for experiences that preceded important turning points in your attitude and approach to life. The experiences themselves need not have been unusual in any obvious sense, making their influence on us all the more mysterious. I can remember one morning long ago when I was up at dawn walking to breakfast. I had had a personal disappointment the night before, when suddenly a bright-eyed old lady, the only other person around, looked at me as she walked vigorously by and said “We’re the only ones up!” I am unable to account for why that event has stuck in my memory, but my life seemed to take a different direction after that; I felt healed where I had felt injured within, and my attitude changed to hope from despair.

In some ways a devotee is like a fan of a movie star or rock musician, in a state of enthusiastic identification. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about a Scythian (the Scythians lived in what is now southern Russia) named Anacharsis who traveled widely and came to adopt Greek religious customs. This fellow was a devotee of the Mother of the gods, and when he was back in Scythia, as it was a sacred occasion, he celebrated the mysteries of the goddess in a clearing in the forest, pinning the sacred pictures to his clothes and dancing around ecstatically. A Scythian got wind of him and reported to his local king, who declared he would not tolerate Greek religious ceremonies in his realm and ordered the devotee killed with an arrow. 1

Like a fan, a devotee will put up pictures or an idol of his deity. He will study his deity’s myths and celebrate or mourn them as appropriate, following whatever rituals still survive. He will celebrate the birth of his god or goddess on the appropriate date. He will follow the preferences of his deity if these are recorded in the myths. For instance, in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the goddess comes to Eleusis and is offered a drink of wine, but declines it in favor of kykeion, which was a sort of barley-water flavored with mint. 2 A devotee of this goddess will therefore abstain from alcohol, at least during his re-enactment of the wanderings of Demeter in search of her daughter Persephone, drinking kykeion instead as a sort of communion with the divine. 3

Thus through prayers, offerings, examination of dreams and omens, ritual enactment of myths, assumption of the deity’s preferences and perception of the deity in nature, the devotee seeks to be as close to his god or goddess as possible. The key practice, however, is repetition of the divine name, often with the deity’s titles included. The Hindus call this japam; it might be called a way of taking the color of the deity, coloring one’s own experience with his or her divine presence. That japam was performed in the West as well can be seen from Jesus’ preaching against praying “as the heathen do; for they think that by much repetition they will the more readily be heard.” This of course is a misunderstanding of the purpose and results of japam. Japam is performed at set times, 4 as well as at random moments when the mind is idle. During the set periods, a devotee will often make use of a string of beads or dried seeds as a way of ensuring that a certain number of repetitions are done without bothering the mind with counting. Hindus call these beads rudraksha, and it is so effective an instrument that Catholics have adopted it in the rosary, and even muslims make use of it. Among witches it was known as a ‘witch’s ladder’. 5

Herodotus’ tale of Anacharsis is a cautionary one, and in general pagans thought little of excessive devotion to a single deity, or even to deities in general. Euripides’ play Hippolytos warns against devotion to Artemis at the neglect of Aphrodite, while his play The Bacchae warns against the rejection of the worship of Dionysos and thus of ecstatic religion per se. Here, as always, the Greeks believed in pursuing a balance, in the latter case a balance between religious sobriety and religious intoxication. So whichever god or goddess takes your fancy, be careful to set limits to your devotion. One way to ensure this is to have second and third favorites among the gods, practicing minor devotions to those deities as well as generally attending to all gods, demigods, and spirits. This was common in antiquity, with devotions to one’s special god or goddess balanced out by devotions to family or clan deities or a patron deity of one’s trade. 6

Nor should the pagan devotee expect to be always especially devoted to the same god or goddess. It was a practice since late Sumerian times 7 to switch allegiance to another chosen deity if one felt betrayed or somehow let down by the old one. But even if there has been no let-down, our needs shift as we go through life and Aphrodite will understand if a middle-aged man turns his attention at some point to Hermes or Demeter. In that case, the pious pagan made a special offering to the god or goddess being left behind, signifying a voluntary surrender of his or her divine gifts. Thus, young girls entering on puberty hung up their girdles in the temple of Artemis; perhaps that is where the expression ‘better hang it up’ originated!

Reflecting on my own practice, I have identified five elements that must be present in any fully developed relationship with a pagan deity. These could be called the deity’s

(1) locus, (2) signs, (3) myth, (4) discipline, and (5) occasion for prayer.

The locus is the external dwelling or vehicle of the deity, whether outside or inside. Some deities, like the sun god or goddess, have a single locus (the sun, obviously); others have a generic locus, such as the oak tree for Cernunnos or Thorr and other cognate deities. These would be outdoor loci, whereas an idol or shrine would serve as an indoor locus. The traditional indoor locus for Thorr (judging from 17th century accounts of Lappish religious practice) was the house pillar, which held an iron nail at shoulder height; the head of the household would sit next to the pillar and grasp the nail during thunderstorms, to feel the power of the god. The locus, whether indoor or outdoor, would be the proper place to pray to the god and leave offerings. In case of a generic locus such as an oak tree, the worshipper should select that oak (if any) that seems to contain the most power and direct his or her devotions to it on a regular basis.

The signs of a deity are more ephemeral, being omens or communications from him or her to the worshipper. These can be external (weather signs, sacred birds) or internal (dreams, sudden inspirations, moods). The reading of bird-omens was common among the ancients, the raven for instance being associated with Othinn and Bran, and the dove with Aphrodite.

Dreams were commonly channels of communication with one’s partner god or goddess, and can still be used as such by anyone attentive to dreams and their figures. They are also effective ways to talk with the dead.

Internal psychological events were regularly regarded by the ancients as links to deity, especially at times of crisis. Thus, when Achilles is about to draw sword in wrath against Agamemnon, Athena restrains him; a moment of sober restraint, putting off retribution till the right moment, was regarded as an epiphany of that goddess, as was saying the right thing at the right time, or being inspired with a winning stratagem. Another example would be the sudden quiet that sometimes descends on a gathering, which caused the Greeks to say “Hermes is in the room,” an expression later changed by the Church to “an angel has passed through the room.”

The myth of a god or goddess is often linked to the calendar, and provides special sacred occasions for worshipping a deity and celebrating his or her exploits. Cernunnos, worshipped by Celtic witches as the year-god, has a myth tied very closely to the change of the seasons, with special celebrations at the winter and summer solstices, when he changes his aspect from the god of the waning to the god of the waxing year, and vice versa. The Greek deities each had a ‘birthday’ celebrated on a particular day of the lunar month; some deities’ births were celebrated on the same day. The festive or sacred occasion is a sort of locus in time. Some deities’ myths, such as that of the sun in Tuscan witchcraft, also involved the worshipper’s view or his or her own destiny. The Tuscan witch expects to reincarnate on Earth until reaching a certain stage of spiritual evolution, at which point he or she will go to the astral world of the sun and there be transformed into a being of light, possessing a ‘stellar’ body. 8

The gifts of a god or goddess generally depend on a certain ongoing discipline on the part of the worshipper who hopes to receive them. No amount of worship and offerings to Aphrodite will win her gifts without attention to personal attractiveness, for instance. And if a pagan is already committed to a certain discipline, finding the appropriate deity to serve as its sponsor is an effective way to integrate him or her into one’s religious life. Thus, as Cernunnos is depicted shamanistically on the Gundestrup cauldron, I have dedicated my own shamanic practices to that god, and thank him whenever I am reminded to do them.

Finally, the occasions for prayer and offerings to one’s chosen deity will depend on the other elements and whether they are all present in one’s life. If one’s god or goddess has a locus like an oak-tree, being by the oak-tree will provide an occasion for devotion. The same is true of a special date in the calendrical myth of that deity. Lacking a spatial locus and at other times than festivals, one may select a time of day appropriate to the bodily or mental occasion to pray. For instance, if the devotee holds communication with the deity through dreams, praying just before going to sleep will be an obvious choice, as will praying when awakening in the morning. Occasions when one or more signs of the deity are evident will also serve, such as sudden windfalls for Hermes or inexplicable moments of panic in the woods around noon for Pan.

In addition to elements pertaining to the object of a personal cult, the attitude or posture of the devotee will enter into the character of the cult as a whole. I myself lack an ecstatic devotional temperament, and my relationship to my personal deity is one of pupil to master. From antiquity, the Hindus have recognized five different attitudes one can take towards one’s personal deity, depending on temperament. These are called ?anta, dasya, sakhya, vatsalya, and madhur.

?anta, a characteristic attitude among the sages of ancient India, is the serene attitude. It does not involve intense feelings of love, and for that reason is rejected by the more devotional Hindus as genuine; but it might suit many of us nowadays, and in any case is a logical starting-point for anyone choosing a personal god or goddess. For this attitude, it is enough to know (and bear in mind) that the god or goddess is there.

Dasya is the attitude of a servant towards his (or her) master (or mistress). This is an appropriate attitude for someone who feels a need to accomplish some great work or task for the personal deity, such as organizing a coven, and also comes closest to my own attitude of pupil.

Sakhya is the attitude of friendship. One sits before the idol as one sits with a friend, just hanging out. This is also an appropriate view to take nowadays, as we may not feel love for our deity but may come to like him or her, especially over time.

Vatsalya is the attitude of a mother towards her child. It could also apply to a father or other parent figure. It is protective and nurturing, and perhaps entered into cults of the infant Hermes and Zeus, the latter especially in Crete. One can imagine it being the attitude of a pagan towards little idols and fetishes.

Madhur is the attitude a man or woman has for his or her paramour; it is said to contain the other four attitudes. It is not necessarily sexual (that would be hazardous with the Olympians) but is definitely romantic or, in cases of deities of the same sex as the devotee, is like hero- or heroine-worship. This was no doubt the attitude of Hippolytos towards Artemis, and of Anacharsis towards the Mother of the gods. As we have seen, this last attitude can run into trouble if not kept moderate. 9

I hope these observations prove useful to those who wish to bring one or more deities more fully and intimately into their lives. And one note more: it goes without saying that pagans, being polytheists, will not have time or energy for building cults of devotion to all the gods and demigods in their pantheon. In this matter we do not differ from the pagans of antiquity!


ATHANASSAKIS, Apostolos N., trans., The Homeric Hymns, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

GUPTA, Mahendranath, or ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, New York, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1952.

HERODOTUS, The History, trans. By David Grene, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1987.

NIKHILANADA, Swami, trans., The Upanishads, in four volumes. Reference is to Volume 2. New York, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1952.

1 Herodotus, The History 3: 76 – 77, p. 308.

2 Some scholars also believe the kykeion contained hallucinogenic herbs or fungi, at least during initiation into the mysteries at Eleusis.

3 Homeric Hymn to Demeter, 205, p. 7. See bibliography.

4 Japam may be done mentally, or silently with the lips moving, or aloud.

5 The witch likewise will practice chanting spells, such as the cord-spell, perhaps adding an invocation of the Lady.

6 Scholars have noted that ancient Mesopotamians often prayed to deities other than those whose name formed part of their own given name, suggesting that they began in life attending to a family deity and later took up with one they chose themselves.

7 Around 2000 BCE.

8 A similar myth can be found in the Hindu Prasna Upanishad I:9 – 10, pp. 158-9. See Bibliography.


9 The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 115.