Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Pantheons and Archetypes

Quaker tradition is rooted in, incontrovertibly derives from, Christian tradition. Much of our traditional language was alien to Christians of the time, but likewise much of it was reassuring and familiar, and many Quaker concepts derive directly from biblical sources – albeit rather unconventional interpretations of them. However, especially in the liberal branch of the worldwide Quaker family, we have also added insights, ideas and language from other traditions. Those that, in my experience, have most permeated British Quakerism in terms of language would be from Buddhism. “Mindful”, and words related to it, would seem a key example; these seem to drop from Quaker lips as readily as Christian references, and the practice of mindfulness has Buddhist roots, as well as being very much in vogue in the world of mental health and well-being. Other south Asian traditions get a look in as well, and there's a fair amount of non-specific nature-worship related ideas and language as well.
In this post, however, I will be focussing on the idea of pantheon-based faiths, and what we could draw from them. This isn't an area I hear or read much about in Quaker thought, but it often comes to mind for me. Of course, I live with someone who was massively into ancient Greek and Roman (mostly Roman) culture and mythology when she was a kid, and I have many friends and acquaintances who identify with or practice various neo-pagan faiths, so that may not be a surprise.
This is going to get a bit rambling, but please bear with me – it does all come around to add up to something in the end.
Modern paganism, often referred to as neopaganism (though not always by the practitioners, more on which below), is extremely varied. There are named traditions, which may or may not have a formal organisation or two behind them, and there are many practitioners whose practice does not entirely match any of the named traditions. There are those that claim to be authentic continuations of pre-Christian practices, and others that only claim to be reconstructions or syncretic creations based on such practices; yet others make no claim to historical authenticity of any sort. As such, some work with pantheons, and others don't. Pantheons that are used in recognised, named traditions include those of northern Europe, also known as the Norse or Germanic pantheon, those of Ancient Greece, and those of ancient Egypt. Names for such traditions include Asatru, the Northern Tradition, or Heathenry (for the Germanic pantheon), Hellenism, and Kemetism. Meanwhile, the most well-known forms of Wicca are focussed on only 2 divine figures, the God and the Goddess – and often largely focus on the Goddess, especially in Feminist Wicca, although many practitioners find it useful (or essential) to bring in figures from various pantheons. In Druidry, attitudes to the idea of gods are very varied, though cross-pollination with other forms of neopaganism lead to many recognisable forms. Druids may be focussed on “worship” of nameless nature spirits, ancestors, a Wiccan-style Goddess, or a traditional pantheon (often an Irish or otherwise Celtic pantheon).
The term “neopagan” refers to the fact that the faiths are generally considered, by those outside the faiths, to be modern creations based on often limited understandings of ancient practices. Those practicing Hellenism are perhaps the most likely to insist that they are not a modern creation, but rather an authentic revival of ancient practices, though you will find adherents of all groups making such claims. Critics tend to be sceptical of these claims. For me personally, I don't think it matters a great deal either way; authentic spiritual experience does not depend on authentic reproduction of any particular practice, but rather following the path the Spirit opens to you, and the sincerity of the many pagans I have known (and perhaps the pagan elements of my own belief and experience) lead me to think that the Spirit is with these people in their practices. As such, while studies of comparative religion will often refer to these beliefs, practices and experiences as neopagan, I'll just stick to “pagan”.
Of course, it is not only European paganism in which we find modern experience of pantheons. The Hindu faith has an extensive pantheon, though referring to the figures of the pantheon as separate gods reveals, I understand, something of a disconnect between western language and thought and that indigenous to south Asia. All of the gods are, in a sense, aspects of Brahman, the ultimate reality and godhead of Hindu belief. They epitomise concept of behaviour, ability, preference and so forth, and in a very real sense may be seen as archetypes – but archetypes that their mythology has seen incarnated as avatars, and archetypes that have a structure of relationship with one another, and with other figures of mythology. Trying to constrain Hindu thought to ways of thinking that come readily to most cultural Europeans inevitably loses a great deal of sense and meaning.
So, that's a whistle-stop tour of some modern faiths that feature pantheons. What, analytically speaking, is the role of these pantheons in the actual practice of these faiths? I'm not a formal student of comparative religion, so I can't speak about this with authority. I can, however, summarise some of the roles I've seen or heard of in my own reading and, more importantly, in my own conversations with practitioners of various faiths.
Some see the figures of the gods of their pantheon as literally existing, as having their own agendas, and as interacting with one another and with the world as we know it; in summary, that they behave as theistic deities. Others see them as embodiments of ideas, or ideals; as archetypes that are useful in their practice. For example, a pagan who believes in practical magic might invoke a deity appropriate to their current working; in doing so, they may literally believe there is a supernatural being that they are inviting to assist them, or they may believe that they better focus their mind and energies but dwelling on the figure – or perhaps both!
How, then, can Quakers make use of such ideas in our own practice. If a given Friend believes in the more-or-less literal existence of a pantheon of deities, obviously their own prayer and discernment can invoke them, and if they believe in practical magic they may make use of them in the ways described above. However, it would seem that most Friends, even limiting it to liberal Friends, don't believe in or experience either of those things – or at least, wouldn't recognise them as things they believe in, more on which later.
So, for the presumed majority of liberal Quakers who don't believe in actual reality of multiple deities, pantheon-style, and who don't believe in imposing one's will on the world by ritual or mental exercises that might be called magic, what can we take from the idea of pantheons, and integrate them into our practice and experience?
Well, the example of modern pagans and other polytheists does show us a key form of conception and usage of pantheons beyond the literal, as already mentioned above. They are concepts, archetypes, ideas and ideals. In essence, they can fill the same role as stories. We use stories to shape our thoughts and to communicate. We dwell on the meaning of the story of Penn's Sword, and how it relates to our own experience, our aspirations and failings. We use bible stories, or the stories of famous Quakers. Maybe some day many people will use some of the stories told in my own written ministry.
The figures of traditional pantheons are not simply a collection of characteristics and areas of dominion. They are also part of intertwined sets of stories, such as when Thor, unable to persuade Freyja to go to the a Giant who had stolen his hammer, as if offering herself in marriage, had to go dressed as a woman in her stead (much to his own chagrin, and the apparent amusement of Loki). Then there's the story of Hermes, in which, having been born that morning, he invented the lyre (having spotted a tortoise and gotten the idea; I do wonder about the poor tortoise itself), stole Apollo's herd of cattle, been caught, protested his innocence, and eventually makes up with Apollo by giving him the lyre. More than that, each of them in themselves has characteristics of story beyond simply the set of stories they feature in. They have depth, morality and lessons woven into the very fabric of the conceptual existence.
So, we can use the language of gods and pantheons to communicate ideas, at least with those we share them with – but then, any such stories and language are hard to assume that people share, these days. I recently heard ministry referring to the spirit that came upon the disciples in the upstairs room; if I hadn't happened to read that recently for entirely separate reasons, I would have had no idea what the Friend was referring to – though I might have got it from context eventually. We can also each use them internally, to try to find new ways of exploring and conceptualising our individual experiences. We can use them as another thing to reflect on as we try to comprehend the Spirit, and what it is urging us towards.
We can even use them for the nearest typical Quaker practice comes to magic. It's also generally the nearest a lot of Quakers come to intercessory prayer. However it is you conceive of it, most liberal Friends will speak of holding others in the Light. It is what you do when someone is struggling, when someone is scared, when someone has to do something they find challenging. When they are injured, ill, or distressed. It's a glib phrase that trips off our tongues readily, but – in line with our tendency to brush our differences in belief and experience under the carpet – we rarely talk about what we each mean by it. But what we all mean is that we are doing something by which we hope to, in some way, effect a change in the outcome. Those who believe in one or more deities might be asking it to intervene, but like magic-working pagans who do not believe in the literal truth of their pantheons, those of us who do not believe in one or more gods might use the mental and social “shape” of a specialised god from a pantheon to shape whatever-it-is-we're-doing to focus on the sort of outcome we wish to promote. Apollo for healing, Ganesha for learning and earned prosperity, or UrĂ°r to help someone find the right path forward in their life. That doesn't mean we necessarily believe in the existence of these deities, or are praying to them to intervene, but, by knowing them and their stories, we use them to focus ourselves in whatever-it-is-we-do when we hold someone in the light.
If you don't want to use gods in this way, or learn enough about them for it to be meaningful, perhaps you might think in terms of more psychological or narratological archetypes. The hero, the scholar, the father. Make your own pantheon, if that helps.
Have you ever made use of pantheons in such ways? Do you think you might experiment with pantheons or archetypes in your spiritual practice now? Why not sure your experience in the comments, and we can all learn together.
Follow-up posts to this can be found under the Pantheons and Archetypes label
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