Contemplations on Polytheism and Gods of the Land

This post was originally published July 11, 2010.

There was a lightness of being in my solitary walk to the library this morning, after yesterday’s long-rumbling thunderstorms growling out of the dense haze and heat of the city.[1] For the past two weeks I have been getting up early to hillwalk through the wooded park down the block, and even in the dawn hours everything hung heavy and damp, dark green, sticky, slick with heat, heat, heat. The pond was a low patch of thickening mud, the stream in the ravine a gully of trickling gutter-water between the tree roots. The mulberries from the neighbor’s drooping tree were slowly fermenting on the sidewalk, and giving birth whenever someone walked by to a swarm of iridescent flies. This is not exactly unusual for July around here (certainly not as out-of-character as the hotter weather farther north). But the cloudless domed sky fading to muggy gray on the horizons unbroken for so many rainless days became a little disconcerting in a city centered on three rivers and so near a great lake, where the mountains rising to the east back up the westerly winds carrying their rainstorms over the land. We get a lot of rain here in Pittsburgh, but for the past two weeks it seems we’ve had nothing but hot, thick, hard-to-breate damp — sliced through with burning arrows of sunlight.

So yesterday was a blessing. An early twilight by midafternoon when the storms rolled in, and it was finally cool enough to fall asleep a few hours before midnight for once. For the first time I felt refreshed when waking up this morning, as if I had slept well and without that constant, unidentifiable anxiety that the body seems to absorb and store up from the enforced stillness of long, hot summer days. And the morning is beautiful. During long weeks of constant heat, coolness becomes a kind of abstract in a sun-fogged brain. Jeff and I kept talking about our upcoming vacation in cool, ocean-hedged Acadia National Park, and my trip soon after to Ireland — the misty green lands that my skin and bones remember, like a gift from my ancestors, without ever having been there — but I don’t think I could really believe in these things or imagine them with any kind of realism.

Ah, but this morning I can almost taste the very first hint of crisp, cool autumn, sneaking in just after the high, bright peak of the solstice! Walking down the streets of my neighborhood, I had flashbacks to that feeling I used to get during the first weeks of a new semester back in college, when everything was light and fresh and free, with new classes (and, glory be!, new books to devour!) and new faces roaming campus, and a new year ahead. And in all of this, that special kind of solitude, the aloneness of stepping out and away from home, cut loose from routine or rather in the early stages of a new one when it still feels wide and spacious and full of possibility. It was as if heat had become my home, and I thought it would go on being home forever. It is hard to describe, but I could taste it like gentle sunlight — after two weeks I’d almost forgotten that sunlight could feel gentle and smooth, not always burning and oppressive — and light wisps of clouds that go skipping now from horizon to horizon in a cool lake of blue sky, awash in relief. And I am so thankful that my gods, if I have any, are changeable, full of movement and utterly beyond me.

I’m rambling. I’m rambling because I can write again, my wrist fairly good as new thanks to rest and caution, and because to a certain extent I am tired of all the analytical thought I have been slogging through recently in the heat of these past weeks. As I mentioned earlier, I went through an unexpected shake down in faith last week in the wake of the July 4 celebrations on various Pagan blogs hailing Columbia as a goddess of liberty and personification of the country. This bothered me, deeply, and in two ways. First was this terrible sense of repulsion at nation-worship, which seems to me not only misplaced but so obviously easy to bend to nationalism and racism. Patriotism, that self-loving pride in one’s country merely because you happened to be born there, has always seemed like thinly disguised racism and bigotry to me (in Ursula Le Guin’s book Left Hand of Darkness, a character says: “What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t mistake a virtue of it, or a profession…”). Of the things I have taken away from my Catholic upbringing with gratitude is this notion that the Law of Love, the devotion and care for the imperfect and the seeing of the face of divinity in all beings, makes a mockery of the state, and of all its demarcations and institutions that it guards at so high a price. Which was why this idea of Columbia bothered me in another way, too: that modern Pagans might be so eager, or so desperate, for gods that they’ll make them out of anything.

Ecology of Spirit

Maybe that sounds harsh, or intolerant. But I was feeling somewhat betrayed, honestly. I’ve spent the past few months — and, to a lesser extent, the last few years — seeking out the stories and theologies of Pagans and polytheists in good faith, in an attempt to understand where they’re coming from, to learn to see the world the way a polytheist does. I’ve been sounding the depths of polytheist theology, so to speak, and trying to find my sea-legs, bringing my intuition and personal experience to bear on the philosophy. And though the progress has been slow — and many of the works on “polytheistic theology” have been about as deep as a kiddy pool compared to the complexities and mysteries of Catholic doctrine I grew up with — there are a few things I have learned through the work.

One of the first things that became obvious to me is what I’ve come to understand as the “ecology of Spirit.” Raised Catholic (did I mention that already?), the triune nature of Spirit had always been at the forefront of my theological thoughts, and though I was honestly and truly monotheistic, it was in a One-out-of-many kind of way which made ample room for multiplicity not only at the core of my concept of deity, but in the whole spiritual sphere, with its angels and saints and, though I barely gave them a second thought, its devils and demons. When I began exploring polytheism, I began to understand that the monism underlying some Pagans’ conception of Spirit did not jive with my experiences and observations. If I believed in the intimate relationship between the material, physical world and the spiritual world that was its home and source, it seemed unlikely that the embodied world could be so varied, mottled and marvelously complex if the nature of Spirit was a kind of homogenous, undifferentiated aether or spiritual soup. So the beginnings of my own polytheistic theology was this idea of the many-in-the-One, the “ecology of Spirit.” This was an ecosystem of living and interrelated beings, some embodied in all the unique ways that embodiment brings, and some just as unique without the solid weight of the body to serve as anchor. The stream and the mulberry tree had their soul in them, and the wind, the ancestors and Shining Ones had their souls as well, like the angels and the egregores, the sunlight and the gods.

But this led me to the firm conviction that, just as in any ecosystem you have both the bacteria and the bison, the plankton and the humpback whale, just so in this ecology of Spirit not everything is a god. Which is not to say that they don’t all have Spirit in them, and soul. A human being may have the face of Spirit shining within them, or hidden beneath layers of fear and grime and cynicism. We can treat each other as holy beings of Spirit… but to worship another human being not as God but as a god, to place them up on that pedestal of our longing and expectation, we know well in the human sphere how unhealthy this can be, how demeaning to both the idolized and the idolater. Though my understanding of spiritual ecology lacks the kind of hierarchy found in Catholic theology among the angels and devils, it still makes room for idolatry. What is idolatry, after all, except unbalanced, unhealthy relationship? We might praise and love the stones as stones, and the river as river, and we might honor how they dwell, like us, in Spirit. We might find that, through our attending and gratitude, we come into a relationship with them that is not unlike love and mutual exchange. But part of this love is knowing deeply the soul and being you are in love with, and not mistaking that being for something else, not projecting your own desires for deity or salvation or elevation onto it.

Columbia as Egregore

Now I know, I’m not exactly qualified to say what it is that makes a god a god, not at this point, not with my limited experience. I have a sense of Brigid as most distinctly a deity, a goddess, but in what way? I am still working, waiting and attending to the possibility of articulation on that one. Still, I have some sense that I know when something is not a god. And Columbia — well, the objection welled up in me immediately, with intensity and repulsion. “But she’s not real!” I complained to Jeff, “They just made her up.” While those who worship the gods of Tolkein’s fantasy Middle-Earth or the mythic Klingon heroes of Star Trek may sometimes cause me to sigh and shrug, I feel something a bit more sinister in this praise of Columbia.

Jeff, after some very basic research, summed up the origin of Columbia in a response to one of these recent July 4 posts:

Columbia, a goddess created (or, as [some] say, “revealed”) in the 18th century, was named after Christopher Columbus, the first European known to have enslaved anyone in the New World. Columbus arrived in the Caribbean with the explicit and open intent of capturing slaves and stealing gold, not to mention spreading Catholicism around the world, so it is extremely ironic that the goddess named after him would come to be associated with freedom and plenty. Freedom and plenty for whom?

Phyllis Wheatley, writing in 1776, was the first known person to speak of Columbia as a goddess [...]. Born in Senegal and enslaved at age eight, she was named “Phyllis” after the ship that brought her to America. She was purchased by the rich Wheatley family of Boston, and adopted as their daughter. They gave her an education, and her poetry was read in England and throughout America. She married John Peters, a free black man, in 1778, but he was put in debtor’s prison shortly thereafter, leaving her alone with a sickly infant daughter. In the land of freedom and plenty, she inherited no money from the Wheatleys and, indeed, was legally unable to own property; so she had to set aside her poetry and work as a scullery maid at a boarding house. She died at age 31.

Again, ironic; but I for one am not surprised at how Columbia rewarded her prophet.

It seems blindingly clear to me, with even this small bit of research, that Columbia fits fairly well the definition of an “egregore,” a thought-form created by a group or community which then feeds off of the energy and collective imagination of that group and can likewise serve as a source of energy for an individual tapping into that group consciousness. She functions as a mirror, a reflection that amplifies and exaggerates. In that sense, it’s not exactly accurate to complain that she “isn’t real” — she’s as real as the Catholic Church, or Mickey Mouse. Certainly egregores can be used effectively and benevolently, to establish group cohesion and energy-patterning on a communal level. But the egregore can just as easily give rise to a mob-mentality that overrides rational thought and human compassion, that bends all energies into zealotry and hysteria. To worship an egregore as a god… to me there can hardly be a better example of idolatry, of wrong relationship. To worship such an egregore is, in many ways, to worship a flattened and distorted reflection of one’s own mind (or group-mind) projected outward onto Spirit in a way that obscures with self-congratulation and self-indulgence. You might as well project your old home movies against the low-lying clouds of the night sky, and mistake the sad and silent pantomimes for the glorious turnings of the sacred celestial bodies.

Ignorance and Unknowing

What’s worse is that we, as modern Pagans, know that Columbia is an invention, and we even know to what extent irony, misery and exploitation lurk at the heart of the attributes like liberty and prosperity we would like to ascribe to her. Just look at the poverty and racial inequality sprawling like an ugly shadow away from the shining white marble and perfectly-manicured lawns of the nation’s capital buildings in the “district of Columbia” (the white marble columns and statues themselves, a mock-up of our mistaken belief about what ancient Greece and Rome looked like). We know better these days, with our post-Enlightenment dedication to reason, science and the study of history, and yet for the sake of some imagined, romanticized past we willfully overlook the evidence of our own time in order to imitate the ignorance of our ancestors. No doubt they they came to worship dead but all-too-human heroes as gods, or imagined the egregore of the tribe or the nation into a protective deity with a power and purpose all its own.

Yet what was an ignorance of unknowing then, clean and innocent and receptive, has become willful and self-serving today. While our ancestors may have thrown up lines of worship towards Spirit like those spiraling, zig-zagging webs of ionized air kicked up by storm, those threads of longing and potential that invite the lightning down[2] — too many Pagans today seem to anchor their worship in deliberate blindness, pretending their willful and repetitive insistence on personified abstracts or flat and half-forgotten mythic figures will make them into gods, if only they’re invested with enough offerings, energy and prayer. Of course, this only serves to establish more powerfully those patterns of control, manipulation, irresponsibility and willed idiocy.

Still, we have our own kinds of unknowing today, as clean and innocent and receptive as that of our ancestors. I have heard plenty of Pagans speak of the gods in ways that leave me with no doubt that they have cast their lines into the storm of love and longing and the lightning has answered back. Perhaps the deepest source of our unknowing and ignorance today lives in the land itself, and the movements and rhythms of wildness and wilderness, of cultivation and care. In some ways, long before I felt the touch of Brigid as deity, Mama Earth was my first goddess, and both within and beyond her I feel the stirring of the Many in the way of Spirit. I think maybe there are gods, too, in the mechanisms of human society, in technology and science, lurking in the deep places where we still hesitate to look. We cannot make them or will them into service, but they creep and move around us — in nature, in industry, in land, sea and sky — and it takes a certain foolish courage to call for them, and a certain crippling honesty and of-the-humus humility to let them answer.

[1] For folks living in the Pittsburgh area confused by the next few paragraphs, a note: I began writing this post yesterday but did not have a chance to finish it until today and didn’t feel like rewriting all references to the storm “yesterday” to read “the day before yesterday.” Yes, I am a lazy writer. But not so lazy as to shirk my responsibility entirely! Praise be to footnotes!

[2] This metaphor requires some insight into exactly how lightning works.


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

3 Comments

  1. Swift Rabbit
    Feb 8, 2014

    I can relate to you immediate rejection and sense of wrongness in Columbia as a goddess. When I first heard of her my brain came to a shuddering halt.

    America, for all it struggles to be, is a deeply and painfully flawed. Why religiously would I connect myself to a fickle being Columbia must be?

    But I got further into daily practice and into worshiping deity, and the more I learn about old gods’ myths the more I see them as also deeply flawed and at times fickle. They are beings who I can not completely comprehend in either story or in meeting.

    In some ways I’ve come to see worship or reverence of Columbia as acknowledging both what we as a country hope to strive for: liberty, equality, and justice as well as acknowledging that the white man’s intentions were not originally so noble. She’s a reminder of what happened when we are so sure we know best and our way is the true way and that our people are the superior people. She reminds us that liberty, equality, and justice to me, do not promise prosperity or happiness.

    Contrary to your concern that love of country means hate of others, I think tapping into Columbia is about acknowledging our own faults as well as other’s strengths

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Feb 8, 2014

      Thank you for such a thoughtful reply, Swift. I know that in the years since I wrote this post, the worship of Columbia seems to have both mellowed and deepened since the original excitement (a less kind word might be “zealotry”) several years ago — and for that, I’m grateful.

      For me, though, the primary obstacle to seeing her as a goddess is that — unlike the gods of ancient cultures who developed organically over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years — we know for a fact that Columbia was invented quite recently in U.S. history, specifically for the purposes of propaganda and nationalistic fervor. We also know that she was “revived/revealed” by Pagans several years ago as a reactionary response against fundamentalist Christians, an attempt to beat those Christians at their own game of degrading the separation between church and state, insisting Columbia (rather than Christ) was the “patron deity of the government.” To me, worshipping a figure who has such a history, and who is named after a man who committed genocide, torture, and rape — well, it’s just unethical. It requires a certain amount of willful ignorance or cognitive dissonance that, to me, undermines the purpose of the spiritual life as a journey towards integrity and integration. The worship of a propaganda figure used to justify slavery and genocide is especially offensive to Native American Indians against whom so much violence was directed, a community that still suffers from marginalization and exploitation today. In fact, I’ve never met a non-U.S. Pagan who didn’t think the whole concept was deeply offensive and in very bad taste. This to me says that there’s still a certain amount of American exceptionalism and isolationism going on, that Columbia is not helping her followers to think of themselves as global citizens or to think about how their actions affect (and sometimes harm) others. Your own comment reflects this — you seem to think that these problems (these noble intentions gone awry) are in the past, not realizing that naming a goddess after Columbus is, despite your own noble intentions, an on-going insult to the peoples who lived in this land before colonialism arrived.

      That said, I appreciate the heartfelt call towards a goddess of liberty, justice, freedom and equality, and the desire to see the U.S. striving towards those goals, if somewhat imperfectly. In that case, I’ve never understood why people who hear the call of a “goddess of this land/country” don’t just see her as America. It makes much more sense to me to think of these United States as belonging to her, the land itself (U.S. of America) — especially since “America” is a name which is not explicitly nationalistic, existed before the formalization of this nation-state, extends beyond the arbitrary borders of one particular country, and has multicultural roots. Wouldn’t that be a much more obvious and appropriate name for such a goddess? And unlike Columbia (who fell back into obscurity, largely replaced by “Uncle Sam” as a propaganda tool) — people have been continually working towards the ideals of liberty and justice in the name of “America the Beautiful” for centuries.

      Maybe this seems like nitpicking… but I believe that names have power, and that giving power to a being who would willing take on the name of a murderer is unlikely to lead to anything that looks remotely like “liberty and justice for all.”

      • Swift Rabbit
        Feb 26, 2014

        There is certainly a level of hipster paganism at work in worshiping Columbia. Her reappearance does feel very reactionary and a bit of a hasty choice. I do think a more thoughtful approach to choosing or creating or discovering a National Deity probably would have looked different.

        Then again, as a group pagans seem interested in reclaiming everything that was once used for harm and re-purposing. We, as a group, may still have chosen Columbia specifically because she was the face of assimilation to become the new battle figure against that same rally under Christ.

        The timeline doesn’t bother me because America, as a current nation isn’t particularly old either. We had older myths, quite a few varying traditions of them actually, when the Native Americans ruled the land. Had we as a nation not committed mass genocide of these people but attempted to better integrate with them, our myths, lifestyle and history would probably be grossly different. One thing we’d have land wise that we don’t have now is older gods, probably a better sense of place/connection with the land, and perhaps an older more unifying series of mythology.

        That we don’t have this is what those with privilege have missed out on. Those that we committed these heinous acts to still acutely suffer in ways we may partially witness, but can not really understand.

        There is certainly a deep sorrow in me, and a regret that I can’t wash my hands of in how America in it’s current state was founded. That the first thing I think of when I hear Columbia’s name is the suffering the Native Americans underwent and still undergo, followed swiftly by the thought of the slave trade another wrong we still feel acutely, seems appropriate. I want that pain and oppression not to just be known, but to be in front of any good or ideals there may be. I think it would be inauthentic to celebrate the good in our government body without showing all the skeletons, or in our case probably still rotting corpses Perhaps, specifically because I am not part of these marginalized groups, I need this constant reminder of ugliness in front of me every day to keep driving me.

        There is so much I am grateful for and lucky to have. It would be easy to retreat into a rosy personal world. Calling a God of Land simply America would make that easier for me because in my America so much is good most of the time. It’s overly self oriented, I know, but at least I know myself well enough to recognize the fault.

        That being said, it might not be appropriate to publicly practice to a God/ess of land labeled Columbia, if her name is felt so deeply. It’s also true that often online I see so much praise and lovely portraits of her when there is so much rotten and ugly in her that doesn’t have equal time let alone the right amount of time focused on it.

        Anyway, I really appreciated your original post and your response. It was a very thought provoking read that I enjoyed greatly. Your perspective is very clear and well plotted.

        I copied it to keep for reference and reflection in my collection of personal papers. It should go without saying but your authorship and a link to this original work are of course with the article and it is only for personal reference. If you are uncomfortable with that I can remove your writing. Thanks again for the thoughts

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