I believe in the gods.
I believe in them as actual, living, breathing entities. (Well... I don't know if they breathe as such. You know.) And this was something I believed upon discovering modern Paganism, Way Back When. This was actually a little difficult for me, because everyone I talked to and every book I picked up believed something totally different.
I remember talking to a friend about rain gods, and whether she knew the names of any. She almost rolled her eyes at me, and said "You know it doesn't matter. Just make up a name. It's all the same." I was affronted. I told her I didn't believe that, and that it mattered to me. But every book was soft polytheistic. Every book was about aspects and names, and that was something I could never really wrap my head around.
Later on, when I started browsing the internet more for information, I joined Covenspace. I don't know what it's like now - I left a while ago, because there were only about three people active on it. (Actually, I see it has changed its name to "witchbook" and changed its style to ridiculously dark. Because apparently black with red pentacles is how you know it's "witchy"...? Paganspace is the same way. I hate this dark theme in Pagan community spaces, it's like they're trying to tap into the 13 year old girl demographic or something. It's hard on the eyes. A little style, please, people? this is embarrassing.) But I had one discussion in particular that sticks in my mind. I had popped onto the page of an older Pagan - one of your general Goddess Worshipper types, middle-aged or a little later. Whatever the conversation was, I piped up and identified as a hard polytheist.
You know what the response was? She said "don't worry dear, once you've been practising a while longer you'll come to realise all the gods are just facets of the Goddess".
I was pretty offended. But I also felt immensely discouraged, because this was a belief that I was very strong on, and there seemed to be very few other Pagans who believed it. No, I didn't take her condescension to heart and start thinking I wasn't enlightened enough (although I did start thinking that someone who had been practising for 20 years should be a bit more enlightened herself, or at least a little less of a rude bitch). But it was one of those things that upset and annoyed me for a good long time.
Of course, this was before I discovered Heathenry. That was a breath of fresh air. Ha, you know, I had been warned away from Asatru by other Pagans I met in passing. The term "Asatru" had taken on something of a dark sheen; apparently it was harsh, the people were mean, and it was tantamount to black magic. It's quite hilarious looking back on it and the idea other people gave me of the religion. Of course once I got into it it became sort of apparent that Heathens are perceived as mean because little shits are horrible about what they hold sacred, and they get cross. But that's neither here nor there... the relevant thing about Heathenry as relates to this discussion was that, glory be, they believed in their gods as individual entities.
By this stage I had more or less gotten past my disgust with the Covenspace brigade and started looking into Traditional Witchcraft. I had rejected the label of "Wiccan" and embraced my eclecticism, and felt freed from the restraints of a religion that had never really fit. I was feeling much more satisfied in myself, and discovering a whole bunch of people who were also polytheists made me feel that much better about things. Variety! Happy days.
Anyway. This is deviating. I'm giving a backstory instead of discussing gods. (By the way, I'm only discussing gods because I can't think of anything else particularly satisfying that starts with the letter G.) But, let's go back to the beginning, because there's something important to mention...
I started out with books that thought, and told me, they were about Wicca. I think most people do. As mentioned, I disagreed with the usual stance of soft-polytheism. But I was still presented with two gods who didn't fit into any other pantheon: a Great Goddess, and a Horned God. The books I was reading (gods curse them) presented a prehistoric origin for these deities, one that had survived underground for millennia. I was already vaguely familiar with the "Matriarchal Pre-history" idea, so this seemed like New and Fascinating information. I took to the worship of these two deities alongside others that I learned of and spoke with.
Learning that this was a lie... well, it did bother me, a great deal, but not in relation to the two Deities. I knew Them and had worshipped Them for a couple of years at this point. It didn't really occur that such a realisation might impact on that. But if I didn't agree with soft polytheism, and there was no "Witch-cult in Western Europe", where did that leave Them? Were They the gods of Wicca?
I'm not sure how long it took me to put proper thought into this. Maybe a long time. And of course I have no way to truly ascertain whether They are the gods of the Wica or not. I strongly suspect They are not, from talking to Wiccans and reading material written by Wiccans, but I'll never really know. Perhaps Wiccans worship Them also, but in a different way to myself.
That hasn't answered the question, though. It only adds another one. If They are not the gods of Wicca, then who are They?
I've always sort of thought of Them as Primal Deities. The Gods who existed before all the other gods. The Gods who speak to us in instinct. Gods of dirt and blood and fire and sex. In a way, like the Protogenoi, but I do not think She is Gaia, nor He Uranos or Eros. I would think of the Protogenoi maybe as "first generation". But this is one of those Mysteries one can only muse over, and never really know.
So... there it is. I am a hard polytheist, but there is also a branch of my religious practice that is reserved for Two Deities only and is in a sense ditheistic.
This leaves me in a strange position. I sometimes frown at people's use of the term "the goddess" as if it is meant to mean something to one. "Which goddess?" is the standard reply. I am never sure who they mean, and vaguely resent the idea that I should both know to whom they're referring and would by default worship the same goddess. But at the same time, I worship a Goddess, one who has no name, or at least no one I've ever been told. To me, She is "The Goddess". Does this make me a bit of a hypocrite? I don't think She is the same goddess these other people are referring to. Maybe She is, maybe She is not, but either way I wouldn't like to assume. So I tend to say "My Goddess" instead of "the", to make it clear I don't assume other people worship Her. Of course, maybe they do worship Her, and they've just not experienced the same Mysteries I have experienced.
The Horned God is a bit of a different thing. Suppose He only appears horned because that is what I expect? Are there dozens of horned gods running around? Or are other people worshipping Him also? On the other hand, I've often suspected that there are a large number of people who try to white-wash the horned god they worship and pretend the nasty bits aren't there, up to and including the blood-stained skin and hard bulging cock (oh my, yes). There are plenty of people who are all about "the goddess" and have very little to do with their corresponding god. Oh, he has as much room on the altar, in many cases, but they always say "goddess bless" and never "god bless". They always talk about their goddess and never about their god. He's pushed off to the side, ignored, and when he's mentioned at all there's a serious attempt to make him "family-friendly". I mean sure he's still "wild", but wild in a civilised way. Everything is done to make him seem less dangerous. This is my perception of a particular group of people, you understand. Still, it makes me wonder. I've read an experience of someone else that corresponded very well with an experience I had with my own God, to the point that I do believe the person in question encountered the same deity. It could well be that many more people worship the same God as I do than the same Goddess.
Then again... someone on Tumblr mentioned a while ago that there are a lot of Neo-Pagans who worship "YHWH in drag". That is to say.... they switch the basic, distant, general "God" shape that was their vague understanding of the god of the bible (rather than, you know, the actual god of the bible) to a generic "Goddess" shape instead. Look at Starhawk, saying things like "when we resurrect the Goddess she has to be in the right shape". As if the gods aren't entities at all, just vague shapeless ideas you can form into whatever you want them to be. This goes further than just those deity ideas - how many prayers have you seen to Pagan deities that are blatant rehashes of Christian prayers? Our Lady who Art in All Things, Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, etc... It's like for a whole bunch of people, Paganism is Protestantism in a skirt. Now your practice is your practice; you want it to be Protestantism: Now With Extra Goddess, OK... but why worship a deity so similar to the one you were worshipping before? And maybe that person on tumblr is quite right.... maybe that woman on Covenspace has never known a deity, and is praying to some distant idea or some general energy rather than a deity. Maybe (and here's the part where I become that arrogant woman who thinks she's Enlightened) they're just scraping the surface of the same Goddess I worship, and if they put in effort and opened their souls, they might understand Her a bit better. But I hate being That Person, and having That Thought. Frankly I find it hard to think that that's the case... really, at this point, I do not think we are worshipping the same entities.
Are a lot of people going through the paces? How many Pagans - even active, practising Pagans - form genuine relationships with deities? and how many are more concerned with archetypes, or spells, or an ill-defined Divine Feminine?
I've never understood soft-polytheism. I didn't to begin with, and I still don't know. I don't really get the idea behind worshipping "aspects" of a deity, rather than just worshipping the deity. And if you're going to worship an "aspect", why is that limited to just the name, vague physical appearance and a few chosen qualities? If you're going to worship Artemis, go all-out and worship Artemis. Wash first to remove miasma, make an offering to Hestia as you start, recite a Homeric Hymn, the whole shebang. Don't couple her up with a male deity in a ritual base taken from Wiccan-inspired materials, as if assuming a sexual relationship between Artemis and any god was just OK. It just seems like a whole heap of work to put in if you're going to be respectful, and if you're just seeing her as part of someone else, why bother at all? Just worship the over-arching deity. I've had someone tell me the specific deities are easier to relate to, but that sort of bothers me more. Instead of shrouding your deity/s in the cloaks of other figures, aren't you more interested in deepening your worship and finding out who these deities you worship really are? Aren't you more interested in peeling back the layers of gauze surrounding them until you understand them? I feel like the worship of "aspects" just adds more layers of gauze.
Of course maybe many soft-polytheists do just that.
This ended up.... very long. And I don't think it's all that clear. It's probably very confusing. I'm pretty confused, but then it's nearly 3a.m.