Concepts of Deity

In my teens I thought about deity very much in terms of anthropomorphic personifications. Gods looked like people and could be talked to very much like people. On the whole that seems to be a normal sort of reaction to the idea of gods and goddesses. Our pagan ancestors had largely humanoid god figures, many of whom lived lives that make sense in human terms. The Greek myths read a bit like some kind of divine soap opera at times.

In terms of finding human ways of relating to non-human things, conceptualising them in our own image makes a lot of sense. That doesn’t mean they are like us, nor that we are made in their image though. Whatever gods are, most of them are not human, and never were. There are of course ancestor gods, deities of tribe who very much were and are human, and are now something else – how many ancient pagan gods originated that way I don’t know, but some of them must have.

Gods of sun, moon, sea, sky and earth are ways of humanising very non-human things. It’s a lot easier to relate to Thor, Zeus or Taranus than it is to the might and randomness of a thunderstorm. In the humanising lies some kind of hope, I think, that these forces can be made sense of and placated.

The deities who come to us through stories, garbed in myth and decked out in recognisably human form, it is easy to relate to as such. But what about the sense of deity and sacredness we may find for ourselves in the world? I’ve had a fair few experiences that have filled me with awe and a sense of beauty and otherness. Moments of wonder that inspire a sense of the divine. There are no god or goddess names to call up in response to the golden light of a setting sun turning fields and river into something magical. There’s no deity that I know of presiding over darkness amongst the beech trees, or the bright, crisp vibrancy of an autumnal morning. There are no names to humanise these moments, only me, and the experience.

I’ve lain on the verge of sleep in many places, aware of the land beneath me, conscious of being held by it. Where I’m currently living, there’s such a rich, almost peaty darkness to that sense of land. I feel it keenly as an awareness separate from my own, but it has no name, and I cannot ascribe human form to it. Nor would I try and speak to it – there is nothing I can do but exist alongside it, conscious of the presence and energy. It makes for a wholly different kind of relationship from the ones with Gods who have names and can be addressed with words.

While these senses of deity make for radically different experiences, I don’t think there’s a qualitative difference, or that either sort of encounter is more ‘real’. The named, humanised deities seem to me much more connected with human concerns, the nameless beings of earth and sky are much wilder and far less interested. They are. We are. Sometimes there are moments of connection.

I’d be very interested in hearing about how you perceive and experience deity. Please do post comments.

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