I’ve been thinking, for a good six months now, about the question of benevolence (or malevolence) when it comes to the worship of the old gods. Specifically, I’ve been wrestling with what it means to worship gods who are closely identified with natural and elemental forces that, while they may at times benefit us, may also harm us grievously. In many ways this is almost the druidic version of the question of theodicy: the Christian attempt to reconcile the evils of the world with the existence of a ruling god seen as both omnipotent and omnibenevolent. It doesn’t entirely track, of course — rare is the pagan who proclaims an all-powerful or a perfectly good god — but the parallels are there.
I’ll pin down what I mean in reference to deities I myself worship. Brigid is the lady of fire: that of the hearth, of smithcraft, and of healing. Fire, in both its literal and its metaphorical guises, makes possible the civilization most of us choose to live in: our cooking, our heating, our lighting, the computer I’m writing on right now. And yet I started thinking about this post in April, when that same electric fire escaped its wires and burnt a friend’s house down, destroying most of their possessions and killing one of their cats; they were lucky to have escaped themselves.
I worship Lugh, he of the Long Hand. While he is best known by that epithet, and by his name Samildanach, ‘equally skilled in all arts’, I also follow Alexei Kondratiev (among others) in understanding his very name as symbolic of the quick flash of light, the “lightning-flash” of storms and tempests. And while the storms bring welcome rain to our fields and woods, and I feel Lugh’s powerful and holy presence in each burst of light from stormclouds, I also have little trouble remembering friends and neighbors whose homes have been damaged by stormwinds, and farmers whose crops lay rotting under torrential rains.
And I worship Manannán mac Lir, the son of the sea, navigator and guide, teacher of magic and guide of the dead. And yet the same sea that I hold holy has swallowed countless numbers of desperate souls tempting the waves of the Mediterranean as they flee Syria for the chance of safety, leaving their bodies dead on the shore, or lost forever in the depths. The sea is a sacred font of gifts and knowing, but it is also implacable and cruel.
How can I, as a man of good conscience, worship entities that are so closely identified with forces that can bring great boons to humanity, but may also visit catastrophe?
Scholars of ancient religion and/or contemporary Christian theology often shrug off the question as it relates to the old gods, saying that it was easier for the ancients: gods were capricious like humans, and could as easily punish a human as reward him. Those who suffered calamity were insufficiently pious, punished by the gods. And while I do believe in gods who are fully realized, who do have the capacity and the will to punish humans as they see fit, I also find this explanation wanting: while a druid and a pagan, I am also a man of science. And in that context, to put it crassly, shit happens. It happens without meaning or pattern, to the pious and the impious alike. For me as a mortal to think that my actions or inactions caused flooding in my region is hubristic. For me as a humanist to think that the Syrian dead have been punished by the gods in the midst of their plight… if that is so, then I want nothing more to do with those gods; they aren’t worthy of my attention.
More likely, though, I think that there’s a less flattering, but far more important lesson. Do the gods care about us? Certainly some do, and about some of us more than others. But the lesson I take is that we are simply not that important. We humans exercise an outsize influence on our environment: we transform landscapes, cross vast distances at incredible speeds, enclose the wilderness into seemingly manageable acreage. And yet, we are only one species, one small part of a vast web of life. For all that we anthropocize and see natural phenomena as referenda on our behavior and our presence, we are no more nor less the rulers of our lands than the ants, the trees, or (for that matter) the gods themselves.
We have a valuable role to play in our great earthly drama, but we will best play it in decentering ourselves, realizing that we only rarely take center stage. I’m reminded of a beautiful piece Lupa Greenwolf posted a year ago, “The Forgotten Gods of Nature.” In it, Greenwolf envisions the unknown gods of other species, strange and unknowable almost beyond our imaginings. It’s a moving piece, one which helps me to remember the vast diversity of life on the earth.
I will continue to honor my gods — of fire, of wind and rain and sea, of motherhood and marriage and childbirth and death and transformation — but I also make a place in the altar of my heart for the unknowable and the strange, if only to remind myself to share the earth, my home, with all the other creatures who came before, who will recover it when I am gone.
Header image: “Shipwreck on Cefn Sidan beach” by Catrin Austin/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)