I have called this ‘friendship’ with the gods rather than ‘devotion,’ because pagan religion does not require us to fake emotions the way the biblical religions do. As many of us know, Jews and Christians are commanded “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all thy soul, and all thy mind, and all thy strength.” Was a more impossible commandment ever given? The pagan gods of nature, unlike Yahweh, “in whom we live, move and have our being,” do not compass us round about. They arise from chaos at the beginning of a world cycle and build a new world out of matter in the chaotic state. “Chaos,” which later biblical theologians have mistranslated as a void, meant in Hebrew (and other ancient languages) a devastation, the world left over from its destruction at the end of the previous cosmic cycle.
So the gods build a new world around themselves and live in it as their cosmic house. They create animals, plants, men, and other beings, of gross and of subtle matter (spirit), to share their habitation with them. This is not creation out of nothing; indeed, the idea of something coming from nothing was at first absent from, and later repugnant to, the ancient mind. In the still largely pagan Genesis, Yahweh creates Adam out of the dust of the ground and breathes into him his breath-soul, in Hebrew his nephesh, made out of subtle or elemental air. Odin, Vili, and Ve create the first man and woman out of an ash and elm tree, respectively, found along the shore of the primeval sea.
Thus the gods are our neighbors, as well as, in a sense, our parents and elder brothers and sisters. They inhabit the cosmic world of time and space with us. They live a very long time, but not forever. They perhaps inhabit a higher dimension as well as ours (there is no reason why our cosmic home should not have more dimensions), but they do not inhabit eternity. They are not transcendent in any absolute sense. They are wise, powerful, and generally benevolent; but they are not all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. They are persons like us, if incomparably older and more sublime and powerful.
This means that if I want to become acquainted with some of the gods, I must put myself forward and greet them respectfully, as if for the first time, for it will be the first time, at least for this incarnation. And the same rules of social intercourse that hold between humans hold between humans and gods. To take an 18th century parallel, it is like a country farmer calling on the local squire for the first time. This gives us a clue to how best to approach the gods.
If you were a country squire and a local farmer approached you for the first time, fell on his face and begged for mercy, how would you feel about it? Chances are you would not like it, and neither do the gods. Though, as we know, a few gods here and there do like it, for they are after slaves rather than friends and neighbors. But let us leave them to their slaves and focus on the pleasant gods of paganism.
The story of the Pharisee’s prayer in the New Testament, contrasting the praying of a Hellenized Jew with the groveling of a more orthodox Jewish publican (tax farmer), is informative for neo-pagans inquiring into the right way to approach the gods. The Pharisee, though a monotheist, has learned the temple etiquette of the Greeks. He stands before the altar in an attitude of self-respect and thanks his god for having made him the way he is. He mentions his alms-giving, his fasting, and his other accomplishments. The gospel account presents him as self-satisfied and vain, but notice that he takes no credit for his virtues but instead thanks his god for having granted them to him. Nearby, the wretched publican (who oppresses the poor as a tax farmer) is groveling in the dirt and imploring mercy from his god. The Pharisee notices him and adds thanks to his god that he did not make him like that; in so doing, he is not blaming the publican but assuming he cannot help himself: Yahweh has made him as he is, and the Pharisee thanks Yahweh for making him a different sort of person.
The European pagans, except when in dire extremity from plague or famine, approached their gods in this manner, for they wished to be friends with their gods above all. They also generally prayed when in a light-hearted mood, and this was no doubt very important the first time they made contact with a deity. You would not wish to be friends with someone who pulled a long face the first time he met you. The idea is not to fake cheerfulness, but to wait until you are light-hearted and cheerful before making first contact with a god; and most of your interactions with a deity should be conducted in the same way. After all, the most common reason for prayer is to thank the gods, and in order to do this sincerely we must feel thankful. They are sensitive to our feelings as well as our words, and if we thank them while feeling depressed or deprived they will know it.
Pick two or three deities to start, not all of them great gods, but on different levels. It is good to start with household deities like the threshold and hearth guardians. Then add in the sun and moon, and possibly the night. Night is a great goddess, akin to chaos and fate, and we should salute her when darkness falls. She is the origin and final destiny of men and gods, and it is good to connect with her. We cannot ask her for favors (she is implacable), but a positive relation to her helps us to accept those things in our lives which are fated.
Make a little altar or two to your new friends, and include incense, a candle, a bowl of water, and possibly a dish of salt and/or grain (afterwards distribute these to plants and animals). Light the candle and then address the deity. The usual tradition is that the deity is not present until the candle is lit; it is like putting through a call on the phone. This is convenient, for you would not like the deity to watch you twenty-four hours a day, and the deity wouldn’t like it, either. They have other things to do. This is a big difference with the biblical god, who watches us like a hawk day and night and never sleeps. The gods sleep, and wake, eat and drink and laugh and make love, just as we do.
If you spend time occasionally with your gods you will get a sense of an ongoing friendship with them. They will become part of your personal history, and you will have a small share in theirs, which is their myth. Please don’t think you have to visit with them every day. Give them a break!
They do not seek to become your all-in-all; they are content to check in with you occasionally. But if you ask them for a favor, you must thank them after it is granted. And here you will receive a pleasant surprise. If you do not lame your prayer by adding the words ‘if it is your will,’ you will often find your request granted, though not always in the way you anticipate. Do not ever say ‘thy will be done’! This is one more example of a back-handed compliment paid by biblical worshippers. Of course the god or goddess will do as he or she wishes; you don’t have to remind them that they have free will! Nor need you reassure them of your friendship and continued loyalty if for some reason they cannot, or will not, grant you your request. These practices contain veiled insults to them.
As you continue in your friendships with gods and demigods (daimones, the local deities of house and field), you may find your friendly feelings blossoming into something like love and devotion. That is all right, but it is best to keep it light in your prayers to them. Don’t embarrass them by professing love, for they know how you feel anyhow (when the candle is lit and you are praying to them) and the gap between god and human cannot be bridged in any case; and to put yourself forward in this way would be presumptuous, to say the least. Be content to be good friends.
If you are a good neighbor to your gods, they will reciprocate.