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The Lord and Lady for the Non-Theist

Author: Rhys Chisnall
Posted: October 30th. 2011
Times Viewed: 3,645

Why would a spiritual tradition and craft that embraces the non-theism of pantheism and atheism use terms such as Lady and Lord, or Goddess and God? Are these words appropriate for those of us that believe that the words divine or numinous are adjectives, figurative as opposed as literal, as something seen with the imagination? Are these seemingly theistic words appropriate for those of us who see divinity as a purely subjective experience; just a term we use to describe the way we see nature as? Would it be better to use different terms? These are valid questions that deserve careful consideration. To my mind it is a worthwhile process to examine our metaphors, firstly to see if they are still appropriate and adequately capture our experiences; in other words are they still apt? And secondly we find within the symbol a much greater depth of experience and meaning; something that would have remained hidden to us had we never reflected, and that in itself is a valuable undertaking.

In the past decade or so, the terms Goddess and God have been criticised by Hard Polytheists such as reconstructionists and also by some literalists within Wicca itself. They claim that the Gods are all individual entities in their own right, agents with distinct personalities with a literal existence, whereas the Goddess and God of the Craft are recent inventions. In a sense they are partially right. The Goddess and the God of the Craft, (although they have historical precedents such as in the concept of ‘Natura’ described in British Historian Professor Ronald Hutton’s book, Witches, Druids and King Arthur) , are indeed a modern phenomena. It could also be argued that in the late classical world individual Goddesses, for example Isis described by the second century Roman Lucius Apuleius in his book The Golden Ass, were beginning to be considered to a universal Goddess equivalent to all others. In other words the classical gods in some of the cults competing with early Christianity were seen as aspects of universal deities. Examples of this can be found in early Hermeticism and Neo-Platonism.

However such an argument is weak as such a beliefs were not widespread. Also I am loath to make arguments from the past. I am a great believer that just because people believed certain things in the past it does not follow that we should believe them now. In any case such an argument is unnecessary if we consider the relevance of these metaphors to us now.

So we shall make the assumption that the God and Goddess of Initiatory Witchcraft are relatively new concepts. Ronald Hutton describes the literary story and sources of the development of both these deities in his book Triumph of the Moon which is a must for those interested in a scholarly history of modern Witchcraft. Therefore in essence, the Lord and the Lady are relatively modern’ memes’ and like all ’fit’ memes they seem to have spread.

The hard polytheists are also correct in the sense that the Gods are different personalities, especially if they are taken to be characters in stories, which after all is what mythology really is. They are different personalities in the same way that Harry Potter is a different personality to Frodo Baggins. From a Jungian perspective it could be argued that certain Gods perform similar functions within the narrative of their myth, for example Zeus and Odin perform the function of Kings of the Gods. Other examples are Set and Loki performing the function of tricksters or bringers of Chaos. Hercules, Apollo, Isis etc are all examples of the function of the hero and the list goes on and on. It is these functions, in the same sense that Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins fulfill the role of hero in their stories that are archetypal. Archetypes do not lie in the personality of the character in the story or myth, which of courses are different, but rather in the functions these characters perform. It is within these functions that the Jungians see that the some Gods are the equivalent of others, in other words archetypes.

Where we would differ from our hard polytheist friends is that we would say that Gods have no literal existence and at best serve as pedagogical symbols in myth or metaphors for aspects of the human condition. They may also serve as anthropomorphic symbols for aspects of nature. In that case it makes very little difference if our metaphors were characters in mythology from 2000 or 200 years ago. While it is nice and comforting to have the weight of tradition behind our metaphors, what really matters is whether they work now, for us, today.

So what do the metaphors of the Lady and the Lord stand for? The problem is that because they are metaphors is that they are hard to express in any other way. Perhaps the best and simplest thing to say is that they are metaphors for certain experiences, in this case they point to the experiences of life and death. They are a way to relate to life and death.

For example when we say the word Goddess, or Lady or use a specific name for her in ritual or when we are speaking with other Crafters we are communicating a whole raft of experiences and those experiences are subjective to the person communicating them. It may be we are communicating the experience of the summer months. The feeling we get when we see the hawthorn blossoms in May, crowing the trees in white and filling the air full of their heavy feminine scent. She is the experience of when the bluebells carpets the woodland floor in a blanket of blue and elsewhere there is the white of ransoms and that wholesome smell of garlic. She is when the buds of the oak and ash have started to leaf and a vixen barking in the night to her cubs. She is experienced in the morning air, which is filled with the dawn chorus welcoming the returning sun. She is how we feel when we see or contemplate the hatching of eggs when new life comes into the world in the shape of chicks, which are fed and nurtured by their parents. She is our experience of when they fledge to repeat the cycle the following year. She is heard the hum of insects that dart between the blossoms, transferring pollen in the sexuality of biological reproduction.

She is also a metaphor for the experience and for how we feel about the growing corn that stands knee high at midsummer amongst which is the blaze of scarlet poppies among the stalks of wheat. It is a symbol of the metaphorical blood sacrifice that all life makes. She is also the source of wonderment to me that even in the 21st century we are still reliant on this domesticated grass for food. The agricultural year, although most people are not directly involved in it, still underpins everyone’s life. We all still require food which all comes from natural sources no matter how much processing occurs between plant and plate. No matter our socioeconomic status, from teachers to bankers, we still all depend on these prairies of wheat.

She is experienced as the Skylark that sings above the fields, leading the predator away from her prone eggs on the ground below. She is the buzz of the bumble and honey bee as they fly from wild flower to wild flower collecting nectar and spreading pollen. She is experienced in the dance of pond skaters that glide to our eyes so effortlessly across the water surface tension of ponds. She is how we experience the potential of the season ahead. She is at the wonder of the productivity of nature as the complex patterns of life renew themselves. She is our wonder at the culmination of life as it moves towards its potential, as she is the very potential of life herself.

She is experienced in the bounty of nature, the yellowed corn in the field and the fruits and berries that swell upon the trees. We wonder at how they carry the all the genetic information for the growth of new life. Imagine the acorn, a small nut that contains within the recipe for the pattern that will along with the influence of its environment, create a majestic oak tree. She is our fascination with the acorn and she is how we choose to see the environment and the influence it contains. She is our experience of the berries as they fill the hedgerows and woods with the colours of red, green and black making a tempting feast. She is that temptation that feeds the myriad number of animals, mammals, birds and insects, powering life through the complex machinery of metabolism, which is the release of energy. She is the experience of life, which despite the second law of thermodynamics, is complexity out of simplicity. She is the experience of the waning year, as the days grow shorter. She is seen in the maturity of the year. She is feeling of the autumn mist of the morning, the sight of damp dew sparkling on the grass and the fruiting bodies of a myriad number of fungus that emerge from the soil. Like the fungus of which some edible and some deadly, she like life is no bed of roses, or if she is then they bear thorns.

To my mind, the rose is a wonderful symbol for the Lady and for life. It is a sense a metaphor for a metaphor. Its flowers are exquisite and beautiful as life can be beautiful but the rose also has savage thorns. They remind us that life has its painful inevitabilities. She is the metaphor of the rose beyond the grave. We do not literally survive death though perhaps we do metaphorically through our actions, through our children, through what we leave behind, through our influence and through the minds of others. However more accurately the metaphor of the rose beyond the grave points to how the greater pattern of life in continues once or own individual patterns has gone. The process of life goes on so we identify with the whole.

As the Goddess is the experience of the seasons of summer and autumn with which she is associated so it is with the Dark Lord and the winter and spring months. He is the experience of the primal roars of the red deer as they proclaim their power to each other in the testosterone driven autumn rut. The experience seems, to my mind, that the stags are calling to the Dark Lord and calling in the coming winter. Poetically he is the experience of pure raw maleness and the un-tempered power of male sexuality.

He is also experienced in the cutting of the corn, which in the myth gives up its life so we can eat. He is also experienced in the seed of the grain, which continues within the new generation of wheat when planted the following year. He is the wonder of the secret seed of life through death, the continuation of genes and the continuation of life.

He is the experience in the delight of the changing of the leaves, as the year is in full wane and the temperature drops. The trees are drawing in the chlorophyll from the leaves changing them from green to the autumn colours of russets and browns. He is in the experience of change and the experience of death. He is experienced when we feel the sudden change of temperature as the sun rises later in the morning and sets earlier each day. He is how we feel when we wake up for work and it is still dark. He is the mumbling and cursing as we get up and head for work in the dark. He is heard the lonely call of the sand piper on the winter mudflats or in the calamitous squawking of high flying barnacle geese as they migrate down from the Arctic overwintering in the UK. They inspired the myths of the Wild Hunt led by the ‘horned leader of the hosts of air’, Woden the Wild One riding on his eight legged horse Sleipnir (the coffin with four bearers totalling eight legs) . His voice and wild nature are experienced in the autumn storms that lash the countryside stripping the leaves from the trees and battering the countryside, knocking tiles from roves and blowing over even the mightiest of trees.

Then he is experienced as the winter. In the midwinter, he is the feeling of the liminal time between the old year and the new. He is the experience of the death of the old year and the still point in-between time, at the moment when he is born again with the new one in the cold and the fire of Yule. He felt in the hard white frost that crystallises like diamonds on spider’s webs and covers the grass that gleams in the morning faint light. He is how we feel when we consider the stone cold frost that stops the little hearts of those small creatures that sleep beneath the earth. He is how we experience the transformation of the landscape in those rare and magical times when the snow falls and covers the land. He is seen in stories like Jack Frost, Father Christmas and Terry Pratchett’s Wintersmith.

The Lord and the Lady are symbols within symbols; they are metaphors that point to other metaphors. For example take the moon with which the Lady is often associated. The moon changes as it waxes to full and wanes to dark. She is often seen as a symbol for femininity although this is by no means universal as the Japanese and Germanic cultures see the moon as masculine (hence the man in the moon) . Symbols can mean different things to different culture and individuals. Perhaps this is because she is associated with that other great feminine symbol the Ocean. The Lunar cycle ruling the tides of the sea and the sea being the source of all life and a symbol of the unconscious which if you are of a Jungian bent is associated with the feminine.

The lunar cycle may also be considered feminine because of her association with the menstruation within women. It might be as simple as the softer light of the moon, poetically, is seen in our culture as more feminine that the harsher more direct light of the sun, though we should be careful in making gender assumptions. Perhaps it is as simple as some poets see the moon as mysterious and changeable. Maybe these poets and I think I am making a safe assumption that they were male poets, see women in this way. Is a good thing for females to aspire to, perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t- who knows?

In any sense, the 20th Century poet Robert Graves with the stages of a woman’s life has associated the phases of the moon. The pre-sexual maiden and the innocence of youth are associated with the waxing phase of the moon and is referred to as the Maiden in Wicca.

Secondly there is motherhood stage, where the Lady has reached sexual maturity and has reproduc, ed called by the Wiccans the Mother. She is seen as the nurturing mother, who cares for, loves and provides for her children. She is experienced as the first teacher in life and the sources of sustenance in our mammalian condition. She is the first environment for newborn life.

Thirdly, she is the grandmother, in the autumn of her years. She is seen as the one with wisdom, perhaps she is the matriarch of grandmother theory. Like with killer whales and elephants she is the one the aids the survival of her offspring with her wisdom and experience of life. She is called the crone by the Wiccans and for them this makes up three phases of the moon and three phases of the Goddess, maiden, mother and crone. However in initiatory Wicca/Witchcraft, we know that there are four phases of the moon and so lastly although not mentioned by Robert Graves but none the less important, , there is the hag aspect. She is a metaphor for the experience of the point of death, for surely death is also a part of life. She is the stage when our life is done and we await the Grim Reaper. She is the experience of disease, illness and the end of life yet she is also change and is associated with the experience of magic.

These mythological symbols are the experience of life. They are the stages of life and even though the symbolism is presented as female, males also pass through life’s stages. She is the experience of youth, maturity, old age and death. The Lady is a symbol for the experience of life and what is more, it’s our own lives and what could be more important, more wonderful and miraculous than that? As a mythological character, she provides us with a pattern to life, a map so that we know about and can prepare for its inevitabilities. The less pleasant parts of life are just as valid an expression of living and the Goddess as the more pleasant ones; to think otherwise takes away from the power of the symbol as it no longer gives us useful guidance and we end up living in a new age Hollywood fantasy. As my High Priestess once said, ‘Cancer is just as much of the Goddess as anything else in life’. Cancer is a mutation and mutation is a necessary part of the processes of evolution, without which we would not be here. Sometimes mutations are beneficial, but most of the time they are not.

As the Lady is experienced as life so the Dark Lord is the experience of death and change. He is experienced in the contemplation of evolution by natural selection. This is the process where simplicity gives rise to complexity. The process is powered by death, where those organisms whose genetic makeup does not give them the adaptive edge in the environment are more likely to die without passing on their genes. Through Death and sex the environment feeds back to create ever more increasingly complex patterns. To my mind the Dark Lord is experienced in the silent barn owl that swoops down to deliver taloned death on an unsuspecting careless rodent. He is seen in the wolf pack that doggedly runs down the deer to bring a cruel and painful death. He is seen in the great white shark that strikes from below in a devastating display of power and razor sharp teeth. He is the experience of the hunter with the high-powered rifle; killing in the name of sport.

I remember hearing the comments of the wildlife filmmaker Simon King when he was asked if he found the sight of a cheetah hunting down a Thompson’s Gazelle upsetting. He said that he found it a beautiful experience, as it was an example of the dance played out between predator and prey since the dawn of time. This is an experience of the Dark Lord. He is seen in the evolutionary arms race where sometimes the predator will be successful and sometime the prey will escape. It is the pattern of life and death, which the Dark Lord as a symbol and metaphor communicates. He is the anthropomorphic symbol of the Grim Reaper, the skull face, the moment of death that delivers from the ravages of old age, disease and pain.

Yet he is seen in other kinds of change, other endings and beginning other than death. He can be seen in the delivery of the sperm to the egg, making the change, mixing the genes, which creates a new life.

He is also found in the experience of learning, as learning is in itself an important change. He is the experience of being a teacher as he or she facilitates a change within the mind and the behaviours of their students. The student acquires new knowledge which changes the way they see the world and hence their reality.

He is the change in a relationship brought about by sexuality, changing the relationship from one state to another. He is also experienced as the magician, the master of change. He is the wise man able to weave the patterns of cause and effect to achieve necessary change in the flow of unfolding Wyrd. Life is change and so it death.

The Lord and the Lady represent the concept of femininity and masculinity. Although it is certainly true that most life on the planet is asexual, think of bacteria or example, we humans experience the world through two genders. All spiritual traditions, all religions, all esoteric disciplines are manmade and as such are experienced and perceived through the anthropomorphic lens. Hard Polytheists have criticised the Craft on behalf of gay people suggesting that it does not accommodate the homosexual experience of the world. However, I am sure that gay people would be the first to say that the human species is made of two sexes. At the very least, we all have a mother and a father who through the act of parenthood are also experiences of the Lord and Lady. Biologists tell us that the two sexes are not as clear-cut as once believed… so perhaps it would be more accurate as stated elsewhere to view gender as a spectrum.

With all this firmly in mind Crafters choose to see the world through the lens of gender. We know that the world is not really spit into maleness and femaleness just as a Frenchman knows that a table is not literally female, or that a ship is not literally a ‘her’… it is a poetic expression, assigning certain aspects of the human experience to things. We simply can’t help it, we don’t just see, as Wittgenstein says we ‘see-as’.

In the culture we live in, informed by our biological underpinning we do assign feminine and masculine traits to the world about us and as such the Lady and Lord make wonderful metaphors for this abstract conceptualisation of gender. We experience the femininity of nature, not as a literal fact, but rather as a poetic expression.

This in turn is reflected in the Craft experience of the femininity of women found, to the surprise to our youth obsessed culture, in every woman in every stage of life. Crafters do not believe in perfection, and so-called perfect images of femininity as youthful, pert and airbrushed, to our minds, do not do the gender justice. They are fantasies and not a reflection of the realities of life. The Lady is the experience of the femininity of youth, the femininity of adulthood, the aged and the point of death. Yet she is also the experience of the negative aspects of femininity, the petulant swearing ignorant youth refusing her teachers instructions, the kid who falls pregnant for the sole reason to get housing, the controlling mother who smothers her children and can’t let go or worse neglects them and becomes a negative role model. She is also experienced in the bitter old woman disappointed in life caught in the indignity, loneliness and horror of lingering pain in a tragically bad death. All this is also the experience of the Goddess.

She is experienced in every woman, for every woman is a part of nature, a pattern within the larger pattern. That every woman represents part of this femininity is a tautology by definition; how could they not? The lady is every woman, as every woman represents an aspect of femininity, the Goddess. She is experienced in the subjective transcendent experience of the divine feminine that can’t be adequately described in words and hinted at only in metaphor.

The Dark Lord is the experience of masculinity. He is seen in every man, and as with the Lady is seen in every stage of life. As an archetype he is the fool, the youth who begins his journey to adventure. As Prof. Campbell suggested he is also the experience of the hero and the king. However he is also experienced as the repressed shadow as the villain, the enemy and the dweller on the threshold. He is experienced in the mentor, the wise man who acts a guide and a teacher in the ways of the world and the adventure. In everyday life, he is seen in the youth starting out in his life, he is the kindly father with time for his children and the grandfather who delights in his grandkids. He is experienced in the man who puts the needs of his loved ones before himself. He sacrifices his own wants, for the needs of his dependents. He is experienced in responsibility.

But, he is also seen in the yob, the abuser and the dirty old man, though we may not wish to see him as such. Perhaps as Crafters we prefer to see him in more positive aspects, but life is not always positive. In the end knowledge of him, to paraphrase Crowley, is knowledge of death. He is change and prepares us for the inevitability of death. The experience of him reminds us to enjoy our time and to take responsibility as best we can.

Our Lady is experienced as Mother Nature. From the birth of stars in the furnace of nuclear fusion which spew out the elements required in the making of life. She is the wonder we feel at the cosmic dance of galaxies as they fly away from each other as the universe expands and dance around each other over vast periods of cosmic time. She is also experienced in contemplating the awe-inspiring complexity of DNA as it algorithmically transcribes information into RNA, which is then translated into the proteins that build our complex bodies. She is seen in the complexity of the cell, which is the powerhouse of the organism. She is seen in the process of biological evolution which is the process that blindly leads from the relative simplicity of complex molecules to the mind blowing complexity of higher organisms and eco-systems. She is seen in competition of genes that lead to the extended phenotype a term captured by Dawkins to describe how technologies emerge from a mixture of genetics and environment. She is the experience of contemplating the biosphere herself. This is the hugely complex system of action and interactions operating in a mind-expanding web of complexity of seemingly infinite levels. Everything is finally balanced, change one thing and it will have unforeseen consequences, making the system hugely dynamic.

The Dark Lord is the masculine aspect of Nature. He is seen in the death of stars in a fiery furnace that spews out the elements required for life, or in a collapse into a singularity or a black hole from which nothing can escape. From this violent explosion of stars, new stars and planets form as they did with our own solar system. He is the experience of the power of the sun that feeds the whole of life with (with the exception of deep sea dwelling life forms on geothermal vents) its energy. The sunlight powers the wondrous and complex process of photosynthesis, converting light energy and carbon dioxide into the chemical energy of carbohydrates. These plants are then consumed by herbivores and converted into fats and proteins. In their turn the herbivores are themselves killed and consumed by carnivores, which also eventually die and are consumed by bacteria, fungus and myriad invertebrates. This is the complex food web within which the Dark Lord is experienced as the power of death.

Instead of waxing lyrical in voluptuous purple prose about the awe-inspiring wonder of all these and more within a ritual or within communication with other Crafters, we simply use the words Goddess or Lady and Horned God or Dark Lord. The words are used as metaphors for the wonder that we experience at the gob smacking complexity and majesty of the Universe. They are metaphors for or experience of the beauty and the horror of nature at all its levels, not least within humanity and within our inner most selves. When we use those words, God and Goddess, we mean our experience and wonder at the greatness of Life and Death. By the word Lady we mean life, fertility and love and all that entails. By the Lord we mean sex, change and death, but each is reflected in the other. They are two sides of the same coin, as gender is in the human experience, and together where the illusions of duality disappear they are the whole: being and non-being with no contradiction. That is what makes the ridiculous labels Goddess or Lady and God or Lord, words of tremendous power even though we know as non-theists that they do not refer to any literal entities. It is in what the symbol symbolises, the experience that it points to in which resides its power.

For the non-theist the power lies within the experiences that they themselves have rather than in any external supernatural agents. So for the non-theist Witch it seems that Lord and Lady, God and Goddess are still appropriate words or metaphors to use despite the risk of being misunderstood. But we must also remember that this does not mean that they are the only appropriate metaphors for the experience of numinous.


Rhys Chisnall

Location: Stowmarket, England


Author's Profile: To learn more about Rhys Chisnall - Click HERE

Bio: Rhys lives with his partner Martika and Tabatha the amazing vomiting cat in Suffolk England.

He has been a member of initiatory Witchcraft for twenty one years and is a member of a long established rural coven in the north of Suffolk. Rhys and Martika run a free of charge training group for those interested in initiatory Witchcraft.

He works as a lecturer with students with special educational needs and is studying for a degree in philosophy and psychology.

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