Naming the Goddess

I’m both a hard and soft polytheist. That is, when I’m not in ritual, I have a hard time believing that the gods are distinct entities–and I don’t feel any particular need to believe it. The gods can be avatars of one presence, they can be archetypes, they can be characters in myth. But when I’m in ritual, I believe in them absolutely. My Younger Self takes over.

But I’ve always had a tendency to over-analyze things, and I find that lately I’ve been falling prey to this perception that not only do I have to decide whether the gods are distinct beings or avatars, but I have to choose which ones I’m going to dedicate myself to exclusively. Now, this is 100% the product of my own anxious mind, but it’s fueled by two common perceptions in the Witchcraft community:

1. One should develop some sort of relationship with a deity before asking them for something.

2. One can have a matron/patron deity if one wishes.

My anxiety distorts these beliefs into the following:

1. No god is going to want to even speak to you, let alone help you in your magic, until you’ve thrown yourself into devotionals for them for years and years.

2. You have to dedicate yourself to one deity (or a male/female pair), otherwise you’re just a dilettante.

Partly I have trouble with these two beliefs because Paganism doesn’t have the wealth of theology of organized religions to draw on. When I feel confused, there aren’t that many sources I can turn to for guidance. The ancient texts often don’t have the benefit of modern interpretations, and the modern texts are crowded out by Wicca 101 books. Another reason I have trouble is that the anonymity of “the Goddess and the God” or “the Lord and Lady” is what turned me off to Wicca. I needed deities with personalities, stories, characteristics. And while I found that in Cernunnos (to me, his imagery tells his story: his animals, his antlers, his torcs and coins), the Goddess has remained frustratingly elusive.

At the core, though, a lot of my trouble has to do with the fact that I secretly have very low self-esteem. Deep down, I don’t believe I’m worth the gods’ time. The idea that they would actually want to help me is something I can’t wrap my head around.

(But when my toddler asks me for help, aren’t I delighted to offer it? When she wants to put her socks on her stuffed bunny, don’t I jump at the chance to do it for her, even though from my perspective it’s ridiculous?)

I think another reason I feel a need to name the Goddess, or worship her as a particular avatar, is that the Whole of Creation just feels too big and abstract to connect with. I have no problem thinking of it as feminine–that’s a huge part of what drew me to Witchcraft–but asking it to join my little circle, inhabit my wee altar? Other people might be fine with that, but it just doesn’t click for me.

And yet no Goddess avatar I investigate feels right. Isis has helped me a lot, and she has been described as “all that is, that has been, and that will be”…but when I think of her, I think of the mother by the Nile, searching for her husband’s body. Inanna and Artemis have their own distinct histories, their own unique adventures. They’re worshipped as mother goddesses, but they’re not all-encompassing. It doesn’t make sense to me to worship any one of them exclusively.

And yet, for some unfathomable reason, I feel like I have to.

When I do my daily devotionals–which, by the way, have changed since I wrote about them, so I plan to write a followup–I start by re-dedicating myself to the Goddess, and follow that by praising specific deities. I have to work through my fear that the deities are unhappy about coming second. Isis, in her original form, never claimed to have created the universe. Every goddess with a name is the daughter of an older deity, whether by bloodline or evolution.

When I get tangled up in this pantheon or that pantheon or this or that reconstructionist practice, I have to remind myself of why I’m doing this. I’m doing it to feel the Earth more deeply. I’m doing it to celebrate the divine feminine. I’m doing it because I crave the sensuality of magic.

What if all the goddesses are worshiping the Goddess just as I am?

I’m curious–has any other witch out there worked through problems like these? How has your practice evolved to temper them? How do you come back to center when you feel yourself getting lost?

May you feel your practice deeply and with certainty, in whatever form it takes.

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My daily devotionals

I know the subject of this post is full of Ds, and this is D week in the Pagan Blog Project, but this isn’t my official D post. I want to stick to the biweekly prompts rather than use posts I would have written anyway, because the prompts help me crack open subjects that might not otherwise occur to me. So, devotionals today, and another D post on Friday!

One thing that really works about Judaism and Buddhism, and is often unemphasized or absent in Witchcraft, is a daily devotional practice. I know plenty of Pagans have daily practices–John Beckett prays four times a day and T. Thorn Coyle wrote a book on it–but overall I haven’t seen many templates or ideas for crafting morning and evening devotionals. So, I took some Jewish and Buddhist ideas and tech and used them to form my own prayer practice.

I found that my spontaneous prayers could be roughly divided into five broad categories: praise to the Goddess in the form of the Sh’ma (the Jewish declaration of faith), praise to named deities, praise to the natural world, lovingkindness meditation, and silent mindfulness meditation. Once I made those divisions, I realized that my prayers could be mapped onto a pentacle. I experimented with assigning each prayer to an element and came up with the following basic structure. Like my invocations, it looks long when it’s written out, but takes only a few minutes to recite. (The parts in bold aren’t included in the prayers.)

Earth: the body of the Goddess
Sh’ma Yisrael, Shekhina Eloteinu, Shekhina Achat.
Hear, O my people, we are the body of the Goddess, the many are one.*
I will do your work, O Goddess, throughout the cycles of the day; I will mark you on my mind and on my hands; I will teach you to my children; I will remember you in my home and on my journeys.

Air: the invisible but present deities; humankind’s creative partnership with the Divine
Hail Inanna, queen of Heaven; Hail Isis, lady of the thousand names and mistress of magic; Hail Cernunnos, ancient antlered God, lord of death and rebirth; Hail Odin, who gave us the runes. (I add deities depending on whom I’m drawn to or working with that day. In ritual, it feels offensive to mix different pantheons together and I’ll probably never do it, but in a personal devotional, it feels okay.)

Fire: an explosion of love for the natural world
Hail earth and sea and sky! Hail moon and stars and sun! Hail trees and grass and desert and animals and birds and fish and insects! (I add anything that calls to me that day–a flock of birds flying by, the bacteria in my gut, some kids walking to school.)

Water: dissolving anger and hate; nurturing compassion
May my loved ones be happy; may my loved ones be well; may my loved ones be free from harm.
May my adversaries be happy; may my adversaries be well; may my adversaries be free from harm.
May I be happy; may I be well; may I be free from harm.
May all beings be happy; may all beings be well; may all beings be free from harm.

Spirit: silence
Silent mindfulness meditation. I focus my attention on the sensations of being within my body: my breath, my pulse, the feel of my clothes against my skin. Or, I focus on my environment: the feeling of being in my garden, the sound of my husband and daughter’s voices downstairs. In any case, I clear my mind of words as best I can and focus solely on experience. When my attention wanders, I gently bring it back. I do this for three to ten breaths.

According to the Kohenet Siddur, Jewish daily prayers can be thought of as a labyrinth, with the deepest part of the prayer in the center. I really liked that idea and decided that, since the Spirit portion is the deepest part of my prayers, I’d recite them in the above order in the morning, and the reverse order at night. That way, I live my day in the center of the labyrinth.

As with every practice, it’s a work in progress. I hardly ever recite my prayers exactly as they’re written above; in the mornings they’re usually shorter. I also find that I sometimes want to switch the elements around and assign them to different prayers. But I like the order of my prayers, and I like my prayers to go deosil and widdershins around the cardinal directions, so that’s the way they’re structured for now.

It took me a long time to figure out why, although I was telling the Goddess I’d do her work twice a day, I was constantly forgetting myself and getting caught up in anger, anxiety, or the lure of the computer screen. It finally hit me just the other day: for all that I talked about her “work,” I never actually articulated what that work was! So I rewrote the Sh’ma as follows:

Sh’ma Yisrael, Shekhina Eloteinu, Shekhina Achat.
Hear, O my people, we are the body of the Goddess, the many are one.
Hear, O Goddess, I will do these things: I will serve the Earth your body; I will practice mindfulness and compassion; I will adore you through acts of love and pleasure. I will sharpen you in my heart throughout the cycles of the day; I will mark you in my mind and on my hands; I will teach you to my children; I will remember you in my home and on my journeys.

It’s a bit long, and still a work in progress. Syncretizing practice is one thing; syncretizing ethics is another. It’s hard to avoid feeling like you’re skimming off the top.

If you’re interested in crafting your own daily practice, I’d suggest the following: lay out a schema that you like–the pentacle, the witch’s pyramid, the hero’s journey, prayer beads, whatever–and see how each part speaks to you. See if you can map prayers you’re already doing onto the schema. I find that a clear structure not only prevents me from forgetting a prayer, but adds layers of meaning that make my prayers more powerful.

As Ruby Sara would say, pray without ceasing!

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* I yoinked this wording from Marcia Falks’ Book of Blessings.