Learning about a deity

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Just like being open to friendships, or a romantic relationship, we can choose to be open to the presence of a deity (or deities) in our lives. Learning a bit about them is a good place to start.

Where to start?

There are two basic approaches: the first is to take time and explore learning about a range of deities over time: not making a commitment to any of them, but gently and politely learning more. (The same way you might politely learn more about a company you wanted to work at, a school you wanted to go to, or someone you were interested to getting to know better.)

You don’t want to go all stalkerish and assume that that interesting person over there is going to be your best friend forever just because you like the same author – but you might ask a question or two, listen to the answer, and arrange to meet for coffee later.

If you want to go this route, you generally:

  • Begin by focusing on a particular culture or pantheon that appeals to you. (Don’t worry about it being the perfect fit – again, this is an exploration, not a commitment.)
  • Learn about different deities in that pantheon.
  • Learn about how gods and goddesses were honored in that culture – what things did they value in general? What would be a way to show your interest?
  • You might find yourself coming back to a particular deity: if so, learn more about them, their particular interests and stories, and what they value.
  • Once you want to learn more about a specific deity, you might then do some research (see below), do some things to get to know them, and see what happens.
  • If you spend a reasonable amount of time exploring (say 6-12 months) and nothing seems to really resonate for you, you might try exploring a different pantheon, or investigating concepts or images that do resonate for you.

Many people find that a particular culture or pantheon has been of interest to them for a long time. (Don’t worry if you don’t: lots of people don’t have this.)

Some people begin with the pantheon of the Gods of their ancestors (so if your family is from Ireland, you might start with the Celtic gods. If your family is from Scandinavia, with the Norse Gods.)

If this doesn’t work for you, don’t worry: many people find themselves honoring Gods from other places and peoples. You do want to do it respectfully and appropriately, but in many people’s experience, the Gods are quite clear in who they welcome and who they don’t: they don’t need human protection.

If no particular pantheon or culture calls to you, you might look at what you’re passionate about, or what you do for work, and begin by investigate Gods and Goddesses associated with that thing (whether that’s making things, food and cooking, or a particular animal, or many other options.) You might be drawn to a particular animal, element, or type of personality.

One way to structure this:

In my training, we had an assignment to research a particular deity each month (for the initial year of pre-initiation training) from a list of deities that were either important to the tradition, or who came up regularly.

For example, while we didn’t regularly work with Brigid, the Celtic goddess of healing, poetry, and the forge, it’s very common to see her as the focus of a public ritual, especially at Imbolc. Thus, knowing how to honor her, and what she’s associated with and cares about was useful.

I ask students to:

  • Do some research on the deity in multiple sources: both books and online.
  • Describe them and any animals, plants, symbols, or other items that were commonly associated with them (for example, Athena is commonly associated with the owl, the olive tree, a shield and helmet and spear).
  • Retell, in their own words, at least one of the myths or stories about that deity.
  • Talk about what else they were associated with (a time of year, a place, a concept).

There is much much more you can learn, but this is enough to give you a starting point.

I also ask for some kind of creative project that reflects what they’ve learned about the deity – and this turns out to be a great way to get to know them better. ‘Creative’ is very flexible: people have drawn pictures, written music and poetry, done calligraphy and made computer graphics, made things out of yarn, planted gardens, designed scented oils, and much more.

If you’re taking your time to learn about deities in turn, I suggest spending at least 2 months learning about each deity: a month to do your basic research, and a month to deepen your understanding through creative projects, meditation, and some introductory ritual.

The other method of getting to know a deity is when they show up very deliberately in your life. (This is sort of like walking into a room and falling in love, or knowing you’re going to be good friends with someone.) It happens, but sensible people don’t assume it’s going to happen to them. You can build amazing relationships whether or not it does.In this case, it’s more a matter of taking the information you learn about the deity (through meditation, ritual, and more), and doing your best to figure out who they are, what they want and value, and whether you’re interested.

Learning more:

A few pieces of advice about learning more:

Go beyond short summaries.

Don’t stop with the one or two sentence summary many books include. They leave a lot out, including often very important things. (What would people get wrong about you if all they had was a summary that long?) If you’re looking at a relationship or interaction with a deity, it’s worth learning more. 
Once you start narrowing down a culture or deity, dig deeper, and find places to ask for more resources.

Be attentive to where information comes from.

There’s a concept often referred to as “Unverifiable Personal Gnosis” – the things you experience when working with or honoring a particular deity that aren’t supported by historical sources. These things are often very meaningful to us, but they shouldn’t be taken as fact, either. Look for resources that are clear about where their information comes from

If things get confusing, take a step back.

Sometimes, you may find that you hit a dead end, or that things almost line up, but something’s not right. In this case, you may want to explore related cultures, or deities with a particular focus or interest from other places. Asking on an active forum for ideas and resources can often help.

Commitments:

You always have a right to say “Thank you, but no” to a deeper relationship with a deity, just like you d0 with a person. But just like with a person, if you say “No thanks”, it may change some of your options down the road (both good and bad.)

In general, I suggest that people take any commitment to a deity – no matter how they became interested – slowly. One excellent option once you think you might want a commitment to a particular deity is to make a limited one: commit to honoring them, learning about them, and so on for a period of time. Six months or a year are good: they give you enough time to deepen the relationship without committing you long-term to something that may not be a good fit. (Think of it sort of like getting engaged before getting married.)

At the end of the time, you might choose to part, you might choose to extend it for another six months, or a year, or you might choose to pick a longer time. Be extremely careful with very long-term commitments, or ones with no ‘out’ clause: these can lead to miserable outcomes if you realise five or ten years later that you’ve made a mistake, or simply changed in ways that no longer fit that relationship. (And unlike marriage, where divorce is an option, or at least the oath ends at death, a commitment to a deity whose lifespan is far beyond yours is more complicated.)

Some great resources:

Judy Harrow edited an excellent book called Devoted to You, which focuses on the experiences of four priests and priestesses, and the deities they particularly honor: Gaea, Brigit, Anubis, and Aphrodite. Even if you’re not interested in these specific deities, the resources, materials, and process discussed will give you many valuable tools to deepen your own relationships with the Gods.

There are a number of sources for learning some basics about particular deities: the first two don’t give a huge amount of depth, but do help you sort through pantheons and cultures fairly easily.

  • Godchecker is a bit irreverant, but reasonably accurate at least to start.
  • The Enyclopedia Mythica is a bit more academic.
  • And Theoi.com is a wonderful example of how deeply you can research – it focuses on the Greek Gods, but include quotes from ancient writers and much more.

[last edited December 24, 2016]

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