“There is an approach that sees the God or Goddess as “out there”; present in nature and manifest, for example, as a horned entity, or as a woman clothed in stars. There is another approach that sees the God or Goddess as wholly within nature and within ourselves. A third approach perceives the Deity as representational, as symbolic. For most witches, it is possible to believe in all three at once.”Ann-Marie Gallagher, “The Wicca Bible”
If you ask three Wiccans what their views are on who the Goddess and the God are, you will probably get six answers, as the quote above illustrates. This article is going to discuss Wiccan views on who exactly the Goddess and the God are.
A disclaimer starting on this article: this is probably the article that is the most “my opinion” of the articles on this blog, at least so far. Wicca is a religion of orthopraxy rather then orthodoxy- it is a practice-based religion rather then a belief-based religion. But this article dips its toes into orthodoxy. I’m also going to discuss why I have problems with pantheism as a Wiccan belief, something I know is highly controversial. I have edited this article more then probably any other article on this blog as well; even taking it down and reposting it once. My goal is to give my views on what Wiccan views on deity are, why certain views might be problematic in Wicca, and some practical outcomes of our beliefs. I’m trying to hit the balance between “Everything goes in Wicca” and being dogmatic about my own opinion. I’ve tried to show where my opinion is based in fact and in other peoples’ teaching, but there is only so much I can do. And believe it or not, there is not as much written on this topic as you would think. People want to read about magick and spells, but not so much about Gods and Goddesses, at least I think that’s their train of thought when they sit down to write. And they’re probably right. Most beginners want to get to the ‘good stuff’ and not mess around with theology. 🙂
The three major Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) emphasize God’s transcendence. There are several definitions of transcendence, but I think the easiest one to understand is this one:
- “Being above and independent of the material universe. Used of the Deity.”
- Most definitions then send you to immanence, which is: “Existing or remaining within; inherent.” (Dictionary.com)
However, despite the criticism of many Wiccans, the truth is that the major Western religions do have immanence as part of their spirituality. I am not going to speak to Judaism and Islam, being much less familiar with them, but in Christianity, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who dwells within you. You invite Jesus into your heart. God is everywhere. It is true he is separate from his natural creation, but he also cares for it- he says not a sparrow falls to the ground that he is not aware of it. The indwelling of the Holy Trinity is the basis of much of Christian mysticism. While transcendence may be the stronger bent of the religion, it is inaccurate to say that Christianity believes in a God that is solely “out there”, that he has made the world and then left it.
Why am I bringing this up? Because transcendence and immanence are often placed in complete opposition to each other, with the idea that Western religions only believe in transcendence but Wicca, along with some other religions, believes in immanence, and that immanence is “better”. Whether one or the other is better is a matter of personal opinion- there are some benefits to having a deity that is transcendent that you do not have when a deity is solely immanent, and vise versa. I hope to address below why I don’t believe we have to make this choice, and that in Wicca we can experience both immanence and transcendence in our experience with the Divine.
“So are the gods real, sentient, independent entities? Are they masks that humans put on the deity to understand it better, as Joseph Campbell suggests? Are they archetypes- symbols for universal themes that tend to pop up in the same way across cultures? Are they thoughtforms that have taken on energy as people have revered them over the years? Are they simply facets of our own psyches? Many Wiccans would tell you that the gods are all of these things- which are by no means mutually exclusive- and more.”Thea Sabin, “Wicca for Beginners”
“There are Wiccans for whom deities are entities with a literal existence and other Wiccans who view deities as Jungian archetypes or as symbols of the underlying forces of Creation. And many Wiccans share a pantheistic perspective, viewing Goddesses and Gods as personifications of the life force manifested in creation, as embodiments of the forces of Nature and anthropomorphic manifestations of a particular type of energy and power…When I’m asked which view I take, my answer is always ‘Yes’.”Phyllis Curott, “Wicca Made Easy”
Obviously the Goddess and God are present in nature. That is a given for Wiccans. But Wiccans also don’t worship animals, trees and rocks (despite what my cat thinks!). So what do we mean when we say that? Many Wiccans embrace some form or another of animism, which believes that “objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence (Wikipedia).” This essence comes from the Divine, and is part of it. This does not equal identity, but a similarity of source. This belief is often very misunderstood by people from monotheistic religions who believe that spiritual essence only resides in humans.
Some Wiccans do take a pantheistic view of Deity and do believe in a spiritual force that they work with or reverence (worship would not be an accurate term in most cases) that it is and was the creative force but it is not in any way separate from its creation. Wiccans like this do not believe that the divinity has the traits that typically come with divinity. For example:
“In the Craft the Goddess is not omnipotent. The cosmos is interesting rather than perfect, and everything is not part of some greater plan, nor is all necessarily under control.”
“The Goddess is not separate from the world – She IS the world, and all things in it: moon, sun, earth, star, stone, seed, flowing river, wind, wave, leaf and branch, bud and blossom, fang and claw, woman and man.”Starhawk, “The Spiral Dance”
To be fair, Starhawk is not, to the best of my knowledge, Wiccan- I believe she just identifies as a witch. I chose her quotes because her works have had an impact on Wicca and because what she writes here I’ve heard from other Wiccans. It is true that Wiccans believe in true free will. We don’t go around saying “The Goddess loves you and has a plan for your life.” We do not believe in pre-destiny- your destiny is being created now, moment by moment, by your own thoughts, actions, and words. Where I disagree with Starhawk and others who promote this philosophy is the lack of omnipotence. To choose not to use a power is not to deny its existence. If the Goddess and God do not use their power to pre-mold the world, that doesn’t mean that They couldn’t. And it doesn’t mean that They never do. We practice divination, there are Gods and Goddesses of prophecy and fate. The future may not be pre-destined but it isn’t totally up in the air either.
But these two quotes are a perfect example of the view of pantheism. Let us take a look at pantheism:
- the doctrine that God is the transcendent reality of which the material universe and human beings are only manifestations: it involves a denial of God’s personality and expresses a tendency to identify God and nature.
- any religious belief or philosophical doctrine that identifies God with the universe. (Dictionary.com, bolded part mine)
Interesting that even pantheism discusses the reality of the gods’ transcendence. There is a theme here- real entities as well as archetypes, sentient deities and also personifications of the life force. Transcendence and immanence. The doctrine of pantheism is that the God/s and Goddess/s are the transcendent reality and human beings are the manifestations of it. But what if They were both the transcendent reality and the immanent manifestations in the humans and the world that They manifested. Indeed, if you do believe in immaanent divinity, that seems to make the most sense.
Another problem I have with strict pantheism is the way that it basically erases the personality of the Divine, as the definition above states. Anyone who has worked with a specific deity will tell you that the bolded part is utter nonsense, that the Gods and Goddesses of Wicca definitely have personality! There is a huge difference between working with the Morrigan (Celtic goddess of death, war, magick, and many other things) and working with Inanna (Sumerian goddess of love, fertility, abundance, and many other things)- even for those of us who believe all goddesses are one Goddess (something we’ll get to in a minute). Even those who have worked with the Goddess and God only as “Goddess” and “God”, either because they are beginners who do not feel comfortable naming a deity or because they like the namelessness of the generic terms will tell you they are not lacking in personality.
The other problem with this is that a nameless, non-sentient force like this cannot love. It cannot bless. It can not advise, or react in any way. There is a conflict between experience and belief when a purely pantheistic or an agnostic Wiccan states that they experience the love of the Goddess and the God in nature, because in the very definition of that kind of belief is a denial of what makes love possible. For there to be a Goddess and a God, there has to be personality. For love to exist, there has to be some sentience at play there, and there isn’t sentience in pure pantheism. Love is not a force, or an abstract element. Love requires interaction.
Believing that God interpenetrates every part of nature but is not one with nature is called panentheism. To do justice to it is beyond the scope of this article, so I urge you to read here for a good beginner’s explanation. I think many Wiccans who believe the God and the Goddess are manifest in the world and yet still believe they are real, sentient deities actually believe more along the lines of panentheism. Panentheism is not incompatible with believing that Wiccans work with deities. There is no contradiction between believing the Divine manifests in nature and also manifests outside of nature.
So, if Wiccans work with deities that are real, manifest, and sentient, how do they see them? Well, there is a lot of variety. Some Wiccans are almost monotheistic, believing the Goddess and God are manifestations of the Great Spirit that is the Supreme Force in and above the Universe and, being so, is hard for humans to understand, so It manifested as the Goddess and the God so we could “get it”. Then there are duotheists, those who believe in a Goddess and a God. There are what are called “soft duotheists/polytheists” who believe that all Goddesses are manifestations of the One Goddess/all Gods manifestations of the One God. Then there are “hard polytheists” who believe in the existence of these various deities. To a hard polytheist, Zeus in Greek mythology and Tara in Buddhist mythology both really exist. To a soft polytheist/duotheist, Artermis, Theia, and Hecate are all aspects of the same Goddess.
Then there is the issue of how Wiccans see interaction between themselves and their deities. I’m sure many of you have seen this meme:
Many Wiccans see Western religious worship as unnecessarily subordinate on the part of the worshipper, that the gods neither need nor want us to beat our breasts and confess our sins and tell them how we are unworthy without them. It is true that without the doctrine of original sin, we are not seen as inherently corrupted in God’s sight, and our gods are not jealous gods. There is no need to beat our breasts and beg for mercy. Nor are we useless slaves or even unworthy children, but we are co-workers, albeit in a somewhat lopsided arrangement (if I’m moving furniture with a bodybuilder chances are the amount of weight they carry verses what I carry will be a little different. Same kind of thing with the gods). However, this knowledge can be carried too far into an unwillingness to pray and a lack of humility towards the God and the Goddess, whichever belief we take towards who they are. Indeed, I’ve heard and read some almost mocking towards those who pray, as if it’s an act of weakness. Spells are a form of prayer, as many Wiccans will point out. Ritual is a form of prayer. Participatory prayer. When I perform a spell and I invoke the God and the Goddess, and I raise and direct energy towards my goal, I am partnering with them in the co-creation of reality. But that doesn’t mean that prayer isn’t a vital part of our spiritual life at other times.
Prayer doesn’t have to be groveling or overly formal. But just talking to the God and the Goddess outside of ritual can only improve your relationship with them, which will, in turn, have the side effect of improving your rituals and spells. And it’s not wrong to ask them to help you with your needs and wants, especially ones that are either too minor to cast a spell for, too major to do anything about personally, or when you don’t know if you should be working magick at all in that situation. If you’re sitting in a hospital waiting room waiting for a loved one to come out of surgery, sending up a prayer to the Goddess is not only appropriate, it’s a sign of a healthy relationship with the Divine. The book “Living Wicca” by Scott Cunningham has some good prayers if you are looking to dip your toes into praying but don’t know where to start. There are also books on formalized prayer, like for former Catholics who might miss praying the Divine Office or the Rosary, or for Anglicans and Lutherans who miss the readings and such of a liturgical based service.
Then there is the issue of a lack of humility. Even for those Wiccans who don’t believe our gods have any of the “omni” trails (omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.), they are still gods. They are immortal. They have experience, beauty, power…all sorts of traits to a degree that we can’t picture. They are the force behind the creation of the Universe. Everyone likes being praised. Certainly Gods and Goddesses like it! And praising the gods is good for our humility- it keeps us grounded. We acknowledge this in our invocations of the God and the Goddess; we’re just simply taking it outside of a purely ritual setting and engaging in it occasionally at other times. There are lots of ways you can do it; maybe you have a morning prayer dedicated to your patron deity. Maybe once a month you do a ritual just for them. Maybe you read or write out an invocation to them. Maybe you paint their picture with an intention of praise. Praise can take many forms, what is important is that we do it, preferably on a consistent basis. Better a small daily practice then a infrequent huge one.
I’m sure for some of you, reading about the differing views that Wiccans have, the question has come to mind, “Is any of this real? However I see the Goddess and the God, how do I know They’re real?” I love Phyllis Curott’s answer. “You don’t believe in the Goddess, you experience Her.” You don’t believe in the sun. You feel it on your face, you see it in the sky. Belief is reserved for things you cannot experience. Knowledge, on the other hand, is what we gain through experience and information. Knowledge involves a collection of data and arises out of self experience. Belief, on the other hand, is a firmly held conviction based on the opinion of an individual. It can be based on information but it doesn’t have to be. Wicca does not encourage blind belief- instead, you are encouraged to have your own experiences, to meet the Goddess and God for yourself and decide which of these categories of belief you fall into, if any. This is one of the reasons Wicca is a practice-based religion. We don’t believe in belief; we believe in experience.