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Fred and the Gods

Author: Rhys Chisnall
Posted: June 26th. 2011
Times Viewed: 3,492

The current polytheistic trend in Popular Wicca is a fairly new phenomenon. Since its inception in the late forties or earlier, depending on your point of view, the Craft had until recently only two deities, the Goddess and the Horned God. These two deities came into the Craft through a complex process inspired no doubt by the Egyptologist Dr Margaret Murray’s highly flawed treatment of the Witch Trials, ‘ Witch Cult in Western Europe’ and ‘The God of the Witches’. British historian Prof. Ronald Hutton has very lucidly described the cultural and literary forces which have shaped the perception of the two deities since the romantic period in his classic book ‘Triumph of the Moon’. That being said the Craft originated with two deities representing the two human sexes who were personification of life and death, summer and winter, female and male etc. These in turn were seen as aspects of a pantheistic numinosity. Thus the whole language of earlier initiatory Craft was couched in terms of mysticism and mystical experience.

As far as I can determine, the polytheistic religiosity of popular Wicca began with the books of the Farrars, particularly ‘The Goddess of the Witches’ and ‘The God of the Witches’. Certainly at the time of writing this essay, Janet Farrar is a strong advocate of literal polytheistic religiosity. There may also have been an influence by ceremonial magic which uses invocation techniques of Gods for various occult purposes; however ceremonial magicians do not tend to worship polytheistic gods or necessarily view them as literal as Popular Wiccans do. Wherever the trend started ‘Popular Wicca’ is defined by its religiosity and belief in literal polytheistic deities.

Despite it being extremely unlikely that literal Gods exist, they seem to play a part in some forms of Witchcraft. But how are we to view them? The answer is, of course, as metaphors.
In his book ‘Religion without Beliefs: Essays in Pantheistic Theology, Comparative Religion and Ethics’, Fred Lamond a long standing Gardnerian Witch and one time member of Gerald Gardner’s Bricket Wood coven posed the question “Are the Gods real?” In the book Fred concluded that there were three ways, or perspectives, of looking at the gods.

Firstly as thought forms in which people invest time and emotional energy. He used the analogy of saluting a flag every morning in the same manner as those in the American Military do, investing the symbol with emotion. Fred suggested that the occultist or religionist would be able to withdraw some of that energy banked in that thought-form in times of need. For example the soldier could be inspired by the flag to persevere in order to carry out great deeds in times of need.

Secondly, the Gods could be viewed as archetypes. These are the Jungian concept of the originating patterns or functions that underpins characters in myths and stories. The examples that Fred gives are the archetypes of Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Lastly they may be seen as gateways to cosmic forces. By this rather grand sounding statement, Fred meant that they might be anthropomorphic representations of the forces of nature, for example life, death, sexuality etc. In the chapter he goes onto suggest that individual deities could be encountered at all three different levels, for example Isis may be viewed as the personality in the myth, a thought form that can inspire a person to live up to the ethics she represents. She may be encountered in the archetype of the mother, a function that represents an aspect of our universal ideas of motherhood, or that aspect of our own characters played out in the narrative of ourselves. Or she may be seen as a gateway and metaphor for the experience of life, of reproduction and all that entails. So which level of the Gods do we deal with? It depends, according to Fred, on how one views the deity as to how we encounter them.

To my mind, Fred Lamond has done the Craft and the occult a great service. He has shown that the Gods if you view them from an Esoteric perspective are far more complex and interesting than if they are assumed to be as in the literal religionist’s conception. It rescues them from being seen as literal entities, a position for which there seems to be no more room for in our current understanding of the universe, thus saving them from becoming irrelevant. With this in mind this essay seeks to examine Fred’s idea of the gods in more detail and to determine what, if any, relevance they have to the Craft.

Let’s begin with Fred’s first level of the Gods, as thought forms. What exactly is a thought form? According the coiners of the term, the theosophist Annie Besant and co founder of the Liberal Catholic Church C. W. Leadbeater, a thought form is a manifestation of mental energy. The theosophist believed that this energy was the shape of a thought, a construct of some kind of spiritual energy that would take on the shape of a particular person, a particular object or organise into its own shape. They believed that thought forms influenced the way we used language, for example when we ‘look daggers’ at someone, it is because there are little literal thought form daggers that we direct at the object of our displeasure. Soon their conception a thought form as a deity would be all the mental energy built by people into building up the character of the god or goddess that manifests on some other plane of existence.

It seems somewhat naive to think of spiritual or mental energy manifesting on a different plane or hovering in the aether but perhaps it does have some metaphorical truth, but if so what? It has not escaped the notice of some astute occultists that thought forms seem similar to the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ concept of memes.

Dawkins first coined the term meme in his classic book of Neo-Darwinism, ‘The Selfish Gene’. In the main thrust of the book, he outlines the power of the gene as a replicator, the unit of natural selection. But he also asks the question “is there was another type of replicator on the planet?” Dawkins hypothesized that the units of ideas that make up culture fitted that bill. He called these replicating ideas memes based upon a play on the Greek word mimetismos meaning ‘something imitated and the word gene.

Although hardly without controversy, memetics is the science of how these ideas or units of cultural information are replicated through mimicking. This includes copying other people’s behaviour and ideas, through language, body language, books, the Internet or any other medium of communicating information. The environment in which these memes exist is the human mind which like the outer environment is shaped by physics, chemistry and biology and also other memes (the equivalent to other genes) . In the environment of the human mind some memes do better than others, for example memes about life after death do better in the mind environment that the meme that death is the end.

The psychologist Susan Blackmore in her book ‘The Meme Machine’ has also suggested that memes that spread other memes like mobile phones also often tend to do better. As such memes are subject to their own natural selection pressures from the mind environment and ‘competition’ with other memes. Blackmore argues that every thought you have, every piece of technology you use, every piece of entertainment that entertains you, and even your sense of self are all memes. Memes like genes can group together for mutual benefit. For example the, ‘you must believe in God’ meme comes with the, ‘faith is a virtue meme’. Both memes reinforce each other and so better increase their chances of survival in the mind environment. Groups of memes such as a religion are called memeplexes. Memes have no real agenda; they just thoughtlessly replicate from mind to mind using the human ability to mimic; which is something that makes for a very uncomfortable thought.

This being the case I would argue that we could think of the concept of thought forms as an early groping towards the science of memetics. They may not be literal free floating emotional energy but rather information encoded in the structure of the brain, but they do metaphorically give a shape to our thought and exist in the complex mixture of the physical and informational that metaphorically we call the mind environment. If this is the case then at one level Gods can be seen as memes or perhaps more accurately memeplexes. If as Dr. Blackmore argues that our narrative of ourselves, in other words how we view our own characters, are made of memes, then why not the same be true for the characters of the Gods?

Would the Gods as memeplexes have what it takes to survive in the mind environment? According to Douglas Fox writing in the 27th November 2010 edition of the New Scientist, they would. He writes that the anthropologist Steward Guthrie suggested that anthropomorphism is rife throughout the world’s religion. Most religions have Gods with more or less human characteristics. Even Gods with animal appearances such as Baast and Anubis in Egyptian mythology are endowed with human like personalities and job roles.

The Greek philosopher Xenophanes commented 2600 years ago that people tend to worship Gods that look like them, so black people worshiped black Gods etc. He wondered whether if horses had Gods they would tend to be horse shaped. While Xenophanes observations are not always true, for example Christ always seems to be portrayed as pale skinned even in Southern European countries, it does seem to be generally true. Fox reports that we infer anthropomorphism for evolutionary reasons similar to those described by the anthropologists Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber. Evolution has shaped our minds to project agency onto things and situations where there is none and this is particularly true of situations that are unpredictable and unexpected.

For example we often attribute (though often in jest) agency and personality to our computer when it suddenly freezes. Somehow it feels personal and we wonder why the computer picked that moment of maximum annoyance to let us down. This is a classic example of our tendency to infer human like qualities. What is more the psychologist Nicholas Epley has discovered that people tend to project their own opinions and beliefs onto situations, especially if we are unsure about them or were confused or uncertain. For example we judge how people will respond to rude jokes before we tell them by thinking about how we would respond ourselves. Likewise we imagine that the Gods hold our own moral standards, we project our own beliefs into the void.

This tendency for humans towards anthropomorphism means that memeplexes, characters with human like tendencies are likely to appeal in the mind environment. Added to this is the human tendency derived from evolving in groups towards a hierarchy with a dominant male or female in charge. All this means that god and goddess memes, which naturally play on these tendencies, are likely to be communicated and copied. The mind environment is fertile place for such memes and scientifically we could predict that the Gods memes are likely to do well, as indeed they have.

This I believe has certain practical applications and goes some way to explaining the genuine experiences of invocations and deliberate possessions of religions such as Voodoo. If Dr. Susan Blackmore is right, and she is not the only person to suggest this, as Daniel Dennett makes similar claims in his book ‘Consciousness Explained’, then our sense of self is a collection of memes, it is a collection of stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves. It does not seem to me to be too much of stretch of the imagination that in altered states of consciousness the narratives of the self can be put to one side and the memeplex (character) of the ‘spirit’ inferred by the individual can come through.

Likewise if we have the memes of a god in our mind, especially if we believe that the character of that deity is different to ours (bearing in mind Nicholas Epley) then we may be able to get access through a relationship and ‘conversation’ (via unconscious inference) to a different perspective of the subjective world. In other words we may be able to see the world from the perspective of the God or spirit, which might be a valuable insight and a guide (both for good and ill) to our actions. As Fred suggested in his article they also serve as role models and sources of inspiration. This is something that psychologists may be able to construct an experiment to test and I would love to see the results. Perhaps we could look at it in this way Humans have genes while Gods have memes.

When we talk about the Gods whether in the positive or the negative, we are serving them. We serve them by communicating their memes. But memes need not lead to our benefit. What matters from the memetic perspective is simply that they are replicated and spread. For example, at the Further Education College where I teach there are students who have taken to rasping the skin of their knuckles against the wall to make them look like cage fighters. The meme was detrimental to their health but appeals to minds shaped by other memes about ‘being hard’ and macho. As a result, it spread through a certain proportion of the student body infected by those memes despite the pain it causes. Likewise suppose we have the memes that some evil entity wishes to cause us harm. Remember memes in our mind are not necessarily for our benefit, only their own (metaphorically speaking) and those memes; that represent the evil character and our belief in it could bring us to harm. I have seen this happen to a literal minded dabbler in the occult. This means that angels are as potentially dangerous as demons, as both ‘use’ humans for their own metaphorical ‘agenda’: to be spread from mind to mind. So it is with the Gods.

The next perspective that Fred discusses is that the Gods could be viewed as archetypes. The famous 20th Century Swiss Psychologist Dr. Carl Jung first coined the term archetype. Jung was part of the psychodynamic perspective of psychology whose model of the psyche was somewhat different to that of Freud, though both were within the same broad tradition. What makes Jung quite interesting, if we take on board Dennett’s and Blackmore’s idea of the self as a collection of narratives is that the Jungian perspective (which underpins some of the ideas of Joseph Campbell on myth) is particularly useful in understanding stories. For example, the Hollywood producer Christopher Vogler in his book, ‘The Writer’s journey: Mythic structures for Writers’ suggests that many successful scriptwriters are mindful of the contributions made by Jung and Campbell.

Jung was particularly interested in myths and dreams and from this interest and through a period of intense self-analysis he noticed that certain themes seemed to reoccur. He was not the first person to notice this as the 19th Century the German anthropologist Adolf Bastian spoke about the elementary ideas that underpinned the folk stories and myths of various cultures. However it was Jung who coined the enduring term archetype referring to these reoccurring themes. Jung suggested that archetypes were universal; this means that they are central to the way all humans see the world and themselves. They underpin how we create narratives. Perhaps the best way to think of archetypes is as character functions within a story.

In movies, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter fulfill the archetypal role of hero while Obi Wan Kenobi and Dumbledore fulfill the archetypal role of mentor. Likewise in Arthurian legends, King Arthur or Sir Lancelot performs the hero function while Merlin is the mentor function with Sir Mordred fulfilling the role of the Villain/shadow. In myths you have many heroes in the shape of Hercules, Beowulf, Jason, Balder, Apollo, Thor, etc, etc, while you have paternal king archetypes in the shape of Jupiter, Balder, Osiris etc. Every culture in the world and every person understand the concept of a hero and the function they fulfill in stories. The characters of the individual heroes may be different from story to story but their function is always the same. This applies equally to the archetypes of mother, father, child, dweller on the threshold, mentor, villain, shadow, trickster etc, etc, etc. They are all have roles in narratives. They all influence they way we tell stories about ourselves, other people and the world. Essentially they are the product of our evolution and according to Jung dwell within the collective unconscious. This is the part of our minds of which we are unconscious but whose content is the same as every other member of our species.

Gods are characters and myths are stories, and the roles the Gods play are archetypal. From this perspective the characters of the Gods may be different but Odin has the same function as Zeus and the Buddha (depending on how you wish to look at the story) plays the same function as Mithras who fulfils the same function as Christ. This is important, as the myths are the product of the human psyche and the archetypal functions highlight aspects of the narratives about our own psyches. As such the Gods represent functions within our inner lives; they are part of our semantic landscape.

This has practical applications as by invoking the Gods we activate the archetype in our own narrative influencing our subjective reality. For example, the magician who wishes to bring love into their life may perform a ritual to Venus. Venus a symbol that points to the archetype of love, which means that by identifying with the archetype, we identify with love. By invoking Venus and taking on her archetypal characteristics which changes our subjective view of ourselves increasing the probability, if the archetype is left to do its work, of getting the magician what he or she desires. By using the archetypal god to change our subjective view of reality we can change ourselves from someone who is loveless to someone who is loved.

For Jung, archetypes were important to personal development and individuation, especially the archetypes of the shadow, the anima/animus, the mana personalities and the self. Jung suggested that these archetypes were represented by mythological gods. For example the Shadow is represented by the devil, Aphrodite could represent the animus, the earth mother and sky father the mana personalities and Christ or the Buddha or even God representing the self. By invoking, working with and understanding these archetypes and these God function within the narratives of our self we come to have a more realistic and balanced sense of who we are. We can become more inclusive of all our narratives allowing us to match it to a more congruent view of reality. By accepting this larger sense of ourselves, warts and all, it allows us to deal with the world in a wiser way. We have a truer and more integrated sense of self, leading to individuation, the process of becoming who we truly are. Because the Gods are archetypal, patterns common to all of human kind it is natural to project them onto the divine. And through these archetypes, these myths and patterns, we can like an artist through the medium of canvas or music, reveal and form a relationship with numinous, leading to profound and life changing experiences.

Lastly, Fred spoke about the Gods as ‘gateways to cosmic forces’. He argues that the Gods can be seen “as anthropomorphic images to aid human relationship to cosmic forces”. The example he uses is that Shaivite and Shaktiie Hindus can see Kali in the primordial energy/matter of the universe. As such perhaps witches choose to see the Lady in the processes of life and fertility and the Dark Lord in the processes of death and change. Perhaps we could view the Lady as among other things as anthropomorphic symbols and metaphors for the first law of thermodynamics and the Dark Lord as the second Law.

The first law of thermodynamics states that nature is neither created nor destroyed and the second states that energy has a tendency to move towards entropy (another example of life and death) . It is this level of Gods which is discussed in the chapter, ‘The Lord and Lady for the Non Theist’. This is the level of Gods that Prof. Joe Campbell describes as being transparent to the transcendent. From here, we can go beyond the metaphor, the symbol that is the God to the experiences that it represents. If we are able to do so, then the experience of the divine, the experience of the mysteries is open to us in a way that is forever closed to those who are stuck with on the literal concept of their God. Fred argues that this level is an empowerment source for the Witch, for we are relating to the forces of Nature herself; a source of wonder and of terror, the experience of ‘mysterium tremendum’ coined by the German theologian Rudolph Otto.

Is there a role for the Gods as metaphors in the Craft from any of Fred’s perspectives? From my own viewpoint I prefer the rule of parsimony as laid out by the scholastic mediaeval philosopher William of Occam who said, “Never multiply entities beyond necessity”. The Craft already has two deities which symbolise Nature and the human condition and who act as ‘gateways to cosmic forces’; does it really need more? That answer is up to the individual of course, but to my mind using any symbol takes time and effort to get to know it, to build up the connections in the semantic landscape.

For me, and my personal subjective experience, while I find the myths of all these Gods and Goddesses very interesting, they do not appeal to me living in the modern world in the way the Lord and Lady of the Craft do. All these many mythological Gods seem to me to belong to another time and as such these polytheistic myths appeal to my intellect and academic curiosity but not to my spirituality. That of course is not to say that they don’t appeal to others and bring them a profound sense of spirituality and provide deep personal relationships. For me and my own sense of spirituality, I experience numinous through the metaphors of the Lord and the Lady of the Craft, the Old Ones, in much the same way that others experience numinous through art. Like artists we create that experience for ourselves, through the memes, the archetypes and metaphors of the Gods.

I applaud Fred Lamond, for he and other mystics like him have shown that the occultist and Witch need not look at the Gods in any simple literalist way. To my mind, this makes them far more interesting and relevant than outdated literalist beliefs in supernatural beings; something very difficult to sustain if we want our beliefs to be in some way congruent with how we now understand reality. Fred does ask the question, are they real? He concludes that they are as they sometimes answer prayers and have a real effect on those upon who they are invoked. I would have to agree with him as I have experienced such things myself although my experience is subjective. But such phenomena do not require the existence of literal objective deities as the unreal can have an effect on the real.

So in answer to Fred’s question, are the Gods real? I would have to answer, “that all depends on what you mean by real”.


Rhys Chisnall

Location: Stowmarket, England


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