Envelopes, Labels, and Gods

People have wondered at the appeal of the Twilight Saga. Especially since Bella doesn’t really have a character. She’s got some blurry qualities, but her personality is amazingly bland (if you leave aside a complete lack of common sense with safety issues). Yet the books and movies have become worldwide beststellers even with a main character who has the personality of a stupid potato.

I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes Bella such a compelling character is her lack of character. She is an envelope into which any fan can slip herself. So the story is, invariably, about someone just like them. Readers aren’t watching her life, they’re vicariously living it. It makes them a part of the story. That’s the draw.

That same appeal, I think, is what makes the concept of archetypes so enduring and compelling. It’s also what makes them so potentially awful.

On the one hand an archetype is dead easy for everyone to relate to. We can see how the Maiden manifests in our lives, or when we’ve set forth on a new journey like the Fool, or fought like the Warrior. Stories and myths using these archetypes are accessible to each of us in different ways, allowing us to relate to the stories individually while still sharing the communal story experience. That can only serve to build community and give us a common language.

But Pagans have taken that a step further. Some actually have shrines to a given archetype on their altar, or hold rituals for them. Even more common, especially in group work, is to invite “all the Mother goddesses!” to a Circle followed by a damn roll call. The archetype concept is used to simultaneously categorize and impose labels on the Divine. Personally, as a polytheist it alternately creeps me out and pisses me the hell off.

No one I’ve ever met worships the “pure idea of the Maiden”. I honestly don’t think there can be such a thing. They worship “the Maiden archetype as defined through my own experience”. That’s a whole different concept altogether. If the archetype is an empty character envelope into which we can slip aspects of our Self. and then we worship that, we’re not going “up”, we’re going “in”. It’s not the Divine we interact with, it’s our subconscious brought out as a playmate.

If that’s what you want to do go for it. Jungian therapy has been doing something similar for years as a psychological tool and many people find it helpful. Just be aware of what you’re doing. The archetype isn’t a deity, it’s a construct in your own head.

I think using archetypes this way is actively detrimental to our practice. Archetypes come from us. A practitioner’s Maiden will never surprise them, or come up with something bizarre they have to cope with. There may be gradual realizations that come about as people grow, but there’s not the give-and-take you get with a completely different personality because there’s NOT one. The “eureka” moments are fewer and farther between because there’s no one outside of yourself to guide you, challenge you, or force you to look into your hidden/scary places.

What’s even worse is that various deities – with full characters and opinions and needs, thank you very much – are shoved into these “archetype envelopes” and left there. All the amazing things that separate and individualize them and yet don’t fit in the envelope are tossed out and forgotten – and once that happens it often isn’t fixed. Arianrhod was dragged into The White Goddess, and for the most part She’s been stuck there since. How many Pagans in the world see Her as anything other than “the Welsh mother/moon goddess”? Despite the fact that the slightest bit of research blows that whole notion out of the water completely? Not very many. It’s frankly insulting to Her.

Unfortunately this problem happens all the time. It’s the exact same issue that underlies the equation of deities with each other. For example, Odin is often called “the Norse Zeus”. About the only thing Odin and Zeus have in common is heading up their respective pantheons. They are two very different gods, from two very different cultures, with two wildly different personalities and experiences. But that’s disregarded completely. They’re both “Father Gods”, right? And since we have a vague idea of what “Father God” means – filtered through modern Western conceptions shaped by Christianity – we think of them both like that despite the fact that it’s wrong. The label on the envelope doesn’t just categorize, it defines. Athena and the Morrigan and other “War/Battle Goddesses”, Loki and Coyote and other “Tricksters”… It’s constant. We don’t see them individually. We just shove ‘em all into an envelope, slap a label on it, think that one label defines the contents, and go about our day.

The danger here is that people are, by and large, lazy thinkers. Using envelopes for our Gods means that eventually the envelope becomes all there is. We’ll forget that Odin gave an eye for wisdom, that Athena turned a woman into a spider for hubris, that Loki is also called the Breaker of Worlds. Once a habit of thought is established it’s difficult to break, and once it’s socially accepted it’s even harder.

There is no difference between treating a deity as nothing more than an imposed label and doing the same thing to minorities. In both cases the one in question is reduced and demeaned to fit in with preconceived notions that deny them their individuality. Most Pagans/polytheists see themselves as socially liberal – how can we advocate better treatment for people while simultaneously disrespecting our Gods? Even our language shows this lack of respect. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Pagans talk about “using a love goddess” in a given ritual. Newsflash: we don’t “use” deities. Sure, those saying it don’t know they’re being insensitive and dismissive – but I don’t think those using casual racism, sexism, or any other –ism in random conversation do either.

Are archetypes as a whole something we should explain to new Pagans? Yes, because they ARE accessible and it IS a common language. Are they handy lenses through which to examine stories and myths for greater understanding? Absolutely. But that’s the line, right there. Using an archetype during ritual, or making offerings to one, or otherwise shoving deities into envelopes further separates us from the Divine – the OPPOSITE of what we’re trying to do.

It also makes my skin crawl. End of.

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5 thoughts on “Envelopes, Labels, and Gods

  1. lisaspiral says:

    Mostly I agree with you whole heartedly. Although I think you might be a little harsh given the breadth of the “Pagan” label, I appreciate your point as applied to Theists and Polytheists. If we’re going to work with a Deity then lets work with a fully present Deity rather than an archetypical idea of the Divine.

  2. Del says:

    I don’t know if it’s in the metaphorical water or something, but this concept – that Gods and Spirits are multifacted things too big for our brainmeats to comprehend – and that working with a Spirit just because it fits the archetype or theme of your ritual seems like inviting a red haired lanky man to your ritual who may or may not even be Pagan, and then asking him to draw down Loki, because after all, he *looks* the part, right?

    I was a part of a possession gone wrong this Samhain. Someone had muddied intentions in singing for Marinette Bois Cherche – a lwa heavily seeped in the Haitian revolution and was burned alive for telling authorities her master raped her. Somehow, the person who wanted this to happen was hoping to somehow “heal” her…uh, what? Anyway, she took me because I’m wired for “hotter” spirits, and then did some things that the group, and especially the individual she interacted with that were totally in character and part of her traditions; however, since the person who wanted her presence did not clearly (or really, at all) state his intent, or even know about Her as a nuanced, multifacted spirit – they got what they called for, but coouldn’t handle it. Now the group is reeling…talking about all sorts of things that weren’t even related, but the one thing that troubles me is this attitude that if a spirit is violent or even emotionally challenging, the guardians will attempt to end the possession.

    I am at a crossroads. I really enjoy working with a group that focuses on trance. Possession, but in my limited time with them, I had not realized that because the rituals have themes, some people put Gods or Spirits on the list who, in an archetype sort of way, fit the theme, but that they or the group no little or nothing about. I mean, I could see this as being okay if everyone accepts that some possessions will be violent, or emotionally/mentally challenging, but they’re so fuzzy bunny about it being “safe space” that I’m starting to think it’s outright hypocritical. I’m taking a hiatus – since at least one person is holding me personally responsible for what the spirit did (which I own – I am responsible for allowing the possession, therefore I am responsible for what happens), but also personally attacking me for bringing “BDSM” into the group, which is not thecase at all.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I just felt like this situation compliments a lot of what you’ve written here.

    • Caer says:

      No, this situation absolutely does relate to what I’m talking about here. Thanks so much for sharing!

      There’s this whole idea that everything spiritual is made out of rainbows. The “perfect love and perfect trust” ideal so prevalent in Wicca has influenced everything remotely connected with it. So many Pagans and polytheists start their journey with Wicca that I think many of the attitudes – including this one – come along for the ride and are never reexamined.

      Which is totally fine when you’re working with archetypes. After all, if archetypes are a reflection of Self then there’s really not much dangerous there at all. If nothing else, archetypes on their own are perfectly safe. Perhaps uncomfortable, if you don’t like the perspective, but not dangerous. It’s when people start treating Gods and shadows like archetypes that we run into problems.

      I think it boils down to a confusion over the power dynamic. *shrug* Archetypes are easy to manage in a Circle, easy to define, and rarely challenging. A practitioner who knows what they’re doing is completely in charge. Mix in deities and other spirits and suddenly control is not guaranteed, and the established power dynamic is in question where before it hasn’t even registered as a potential issue. Yet practitioners continue to think they’re always on top, which leads to this stupid blend of optimism and arrogance that horribly backfires when they’re wrong.

      This whole thing came up because of a question asked in a group I’m in, about how archetypes should be utilized in a group ritual setting. And my short response is that they shouldn’t be. Not because they are useless tools, because they’re not, but because they teach us lazy thinking that can hurt us later on.

  3. Caelesti says:

    An archetype is a starting point, a tool that can be useful at the beginning but has its limits. Another problem with them is the assumption of universalism that goes with it- that healer or warrior or mother etc. means the same thing across cultures. It doesnt.

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