Friday, March 4, 2011

The Gods Are Not Your Personal Biatches

Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel, 1511
I think most people stumble through life, and religion, as best as we can and usually we do ok. But occasionally I run into a mindset that the deities exist only to help us. I think this mindset is borne not out of malice, but out of accident, misunderstanding, routine, oversight, or lack of deliberation. What an odd notion: the idea of the divine, the mighty and powerful, at our service twenty-four hours a day wanting noting better than to give us everything we want and religion is just a soft-serve self-help service. Excuse me, is that human ego streaking naked and flaming in Times Square?

And then we get angry or frustrated when magic and prayer fail us. Therapeutic religion--engaging in rites and prayers just for our own wellbeing without taking responsibility and without a sense of honor toward the divine--is backwards. This sort of practice elevates us as false gods and denigrates the deities to our personal servants. In an age of “what’s in it for me” it’s ever more important to realize that the world does not revolve around us and the gods are not our personal biatches. Through getting to know our deities, taking personal responsibility, and by making offerings we can establish and nurture our relationships with the deities so that we can be active partners with the divine in our lives.

Magic and/or prayer cannot work well when we fail to establish, acknowledge, and cultivate a relationship with the divine. It makes no sense, and worse it can be seen as rude, to make demands of a divinity without even bothering to get to know the deity’s personality. I would not go up to a wealthy person on the street and demand a couple of hundred-dollar bills to help me pay rent, so why would I even try to pull such a deed with the divine? Calling upon a deity with whom a person has no relationship is like “cold calling.” Worse, it’s like cold-calling royalty. Sometimes a person will get a response, sometimes he won’t, and sometimes he gets a response he didn’t expect or want.

Establishing a relationship with a deity can make all the difference: this way when you call a god, he’ll answer the phone. Relationships strengthen the lines of communication and help a prayer to be heard and heeded. Good communication requires both speaking and listening--take time during daily devotions for a moment of quiet, write down your dreams, pay attention to your conscience, and acknowledge interesting coincidences. Sometimes even snippets of overheard conversations or advertising billboards can bear messages. However, besides prayer and intuition, we must also rely on research.

It is helpful to read up on a deity and the culture from which the deity hails before calling her in ritual, prayer, or magic. By doing so, a person can know whom she’s calling, know what to expect, and know how to demonstrate respect to the deity. Research helps balance intuition: this balance ensures that we are not daydreaming or engaging in self-delusion. This work goes towards forming an alliance, strengthening the deity, and enhancing ritual experience. Forge an alliance with the forces you expect to ally you. When you cultivate this relationship even in the lull times of contentment, relative abundance, and good health, it will greatly help when your needs or the needs of your community are keen.

When you take these extra steps, the pathways in your mind are already established, the relationships are already in place, the lines of communication are open--contact is natural and normal, and therefore more easily made.

In a hectic world, people want a quick fix and we look to prayer for that quick fix. We fall off the bicycle and instead of practicing riding the bicycle so we don’t fall off as often, we want mommy-goddess to kiss the booboo and guide the handlebars--but these expectations hinder our opportunity to learn. By expecting a deity to solve every problem and by neglecting to take personal responsibility for our own affairs or the state of our communities, we stunt our growth as spiritual beings. What’s worse is that many of us expect the gods to micromanage our lives without even a thank-you. We forget that denying personal responsibility and demanding the deities do everything for us actually pushes us into a self-imposed slavery where we deprive ourselves of our own free will. We overlook which part of our situations we are capable of changing. Even as we ask a deity for assistance, we must remember to fix what we can of mistakes or circumstances we’d like to change. In addition to personal responsibility it is important to take responsibility for our communities as well.

Circumstances in ancient times were far from idyllic: life was short and life was hard. To combat this state-of-affairs, people were more community-oriented: giving to the community was less of an altruistic deed and more of a practical deed. Though you helped meet another’s need, one day the need may be your own and the help you gave might very well be the help you receive. Understanding that we are interdependent--not independent, and certainly not co-dependent--helps us to have an appreciation for our roles with other humans and indeed with the deities. It is a holy deed to become the vector through which a deity can act to alleviate suffering.

At least from a Canaanite point-of-view, offerings strengthen a deity’s vital essence and divine power (napshu, "soul, appetite, vitality"). These gifts serve a threefold purpose: they support the relationship between a person and a deity, they bring more strength to the deity so the deity will have more strength to help people who call her; and some gifts can help the deity bring wellbeing to others through your own acts of service and charity. It is a symbiotic relationship.

Offerings can include song; praise; incense; gratitude; good deeds; items given to charity; donations to a blood bank; food left out or buried as offerings; communal feasts in honor of the deities; items or money given for ritual use in a local charity or community groups; help or gifts given to mentors, clerics, or priests and priestesses for their hard work; and payment to teachers for their sweat, time, and accumulated knowledge. Make a silent prayer before giving these offerings alerting the deity that you are doing this in her/his honor, for her/his strength and for the good of the community. Even if you don’t think you are getting a response, realize that this activity is still beneficial: again, the blessings you give may one day be the blessings you receive, and you are starting a cycle of wellbeing. Instead of complaining that the world is in a terrible state, you are doing something to make the world right.

To have a better relationship with the deities, cultivate communication and interaction with the deity on a daily basis, make the time to get to know that deity through study and prayer, take responsibility for your life and your community, and make offerings through words and deeds.


  1. What a wonderful piece, Tess. It comes from a perspective I never gave much thought to, and it is so true. I love to give sacrifices to the gods (I'm a Germanic heathen); it does give me satisfaction. You're right about some people expecting the gods to handle their every need. And also being an anarchist at heart (I must add this for folks who don't know--anarchy does NOT equal chaos!), I hear loud and clear your message about PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I hope everyone who reads your post takes it to heart.

  2. Very good article, and I wish it had been available years ago.

  3. Indeed, reciprocity is vital in forging a good relationship with the Gods. If we neglect the Law of Reciprocity then why would the Gods bother to pay us any attention at all? And thinking that the Gods will just out of the blue manage our lives for us, let alone for free, is quite simply hubris.

    I must also admit the idea of the Gods needing our sacrifices to help us seems quite strange and alien to me (being a Hellenist), and though I can't accept it from a Hellenic point of view (which doesn't mean I disapprove of it, as Natib Qadish is another tradition), I can appreciate the symbiotic nature of that kind of relationship with the Gods :-)

  4. I've observed that some pagans approach religion from the perspective that it is a type of self-help. They go in with the belief that whole point is to improve themselves and/or their lives and see the gods as magic genies to be summoned or teachers that expect no payment for their guidance. This seems rather foolhardy.

    Part of the reason that this religion called so strongly to me was the emphasis on community and service. It takes a lot of the ego and narcissism out of one's religion if the core concepts focus on interdependence. Thank you for this reminder during a time when I've been spiritually floundering a bit.

  5. Wow! So timely. I really resonate with this and may quote it in a scholarly work on Jewish Animism I am working on... :)