The thing about polytheism is that there are many (poly) gods. And beyond the gods, there are spirits and ancestors. There are a lot of beings, and it can be overwhelming!
So how do you approach the gods and other spirits? Who do you go to in a specific situation? When is a problem better suited for an ancestor or what kinds of rituals would be good for the land spirits? These are the questions we will focus on in the second part of this series. You can find part one, which discusses reciprocity and hospitality here.
Let’s start with a few assumptions. First, I will assume you know how reciprocity and hospitality apply to pagan worship. Second, I will often use “deities” for simplicity’s sake, but most things here can also be applied to ancestors and spirits.
Numinous Beings are not One-Dimensional
Let’s say you want help with your love life. You’ve reached out to Brigid in the past, but she’s a creativity goddess. You figure you can’t go to her. Then you look up several love goddesses. Should you choose Freya or Aphrodite? What if your in the grocery store desperately searching for toilet paper — which god is the toilet paper god, anyway?
Remember: The gods are not vending machines.
In the end, our relationships with numinous beings are similar to our relationships with friends. A stranger probably won’t help you as readily as a friend would.
In the case above, the answer is Brigid. Ask Brigid for help in your love life and for toilet paper. The deities are not one-dimensional. They all have otherworldly power to assist you. Reach out to the deity (or ancestor or spirit) who already knows you.
Keep in mind: you don’t want to be that friend who only talks to someone when they want something out of them. Try to keep a regular practice, where you give offerings just to praise the deities. If the mood ever strikes you, light a candle and tell a deity why you appreciate them. The larger point is to build real and active relationships with numinous beings.
Who to Approach
In part one and so far in part two, we’ve discussed guide posts discussing the logic behind approaching a numinous being. But when would you want to go to either the ancestors, the deities, or other various spirits?
I have discussed the ancestors in more detail here. Essentially, ancestors can be dear friends and family, as well as cultural heroes. Unlike spirits and deities, the ancestors understand us and our human troubles. And if they knew you and cared about you in life, then you already have that relationship built.
You can go to the ancestors if you need wisdom or advice. Should you move? How do you solve a problem between your friends? Each ancestor has their own perspective. But happy ancestors can bring blessings to you and your home.
“Other spirits” can be land spirits, house spirits, as well as the spirits of animals and plants. Historically speaking, spirits are often seen in respect to the location they inhabit. Even for modern animists, the spirit of a plant resides within the plant itself.
If you are doing ritual (or magic) for your home or for your garden, you can call to the spirits who live there. If you are doing a ritual for more rainfall and fewer wildfires in your region, you can call on the land spirits. Work with the spirits if you’re focusing on a specific location. This can include seasonal changes like the high days.
IF YOU LIVE IN THE UNITED STATES: Native cultures know your local land spirits best. The first rule of thumb is: do not give them alcohol. This is seen as highly disrespectful. More practically, alcohol isn’t good for plants and animals, and would not be good to leave for land spirits.
To that end, I want to provide a few resources I have found useful. This map is a visual way to learn about whose land you live on. This non-profit has a collection of lore from various native communities. And these articles here and here are in interesting read (the JSTOR article can be read with a free account).
The deities are well-known by most Pagans. Historically, people called on them regarding wars, marriages, or for important oaths. Many are patrons of cultural traditions or have a role in cultural lore (aka mythology). When something big happens in your life or your community, or even your country or the world, they are the beings to invoke. Generally, Pagans invoke deities for the Pagan high days.
Ultimately, these are generalizations. But they can be a good roadmap to get started. And, of course, you can call several beings at once. If you’re asking for rain, you could call on a storm god and the local land spirits. But if you have built relationships first, remember: you wouldn’t knock on a stranger’s door and ask them to fix your roof.
To Approach or Not Approach a Deity?
Some Pagans say it is best to go to your ancestors or spirit allies for small, daily requests, and not ask our deities for favors all the time. While I know many Pagans like their deities (specifically patrons), I don’t think we should go to them constantly. Hear me out.
If I’m super tired, but I need to clean the apartment, I may give an offering to my house spirits and ask them to help me clean. I don’t need to go to my hearth goddess for that. However, when I praise my home’s allies, my hearth goddess is at the center of that ritual. But why not just go to my hearth goddess for everything? I’ve obviously built a relationship with her.
For anyone familiar with Harry Potter, recall that on Harry’s first chocolate frog card, he received Dumbledore. When Harry looked away and then back at the card, Dumbledore was gone. Ron’s answer was “You can’t expect him to be there all day!”
Likewise, we can’t expect our deities to pay attention to just us all the time. They are not omniscient. They are not all-powerful or all-knowing. Ergo, they have to take the time to be with you at your altar. Many people call to deities, and that will only increase as Paganism grows.
Again, remember reciprocity and hospitality. You are neither a good host nor a good guest when you call on the deities for every little thing. Whenever you call a deity, you should be respectful of their time.
In the case of a patron, you presumably have a strong relationship with them and invoke them often. Even still, with a few strong relationships with ancestors or local spirits, you may find you don’t need to call your patron all the time.
A quick note: Some new pagans are too scared to call the deities at all. But you do not need to fear the gods. We build relationships with deities like we build relationships with people. This is not the same as confessing sins or groveling at their feet. You’re not going to annoy the deities by holding a ritual just to praise or thank them.
A Note on Metaphors
Both in part one and here, I have used metaphors to describe relationships with the deities. Many people find these metaphors useful, which is why they are persistent in the polytheist Pagan community. However, critics have argued that numinous beings are still that – numinous. They aren’t our classmate or neighbor, and the deities shouldn’t be treated like a mortal across the street.
One of the most popular Odinic characters is Gandalf the Grey. In The Lord of the Rings movies, Gandalf is good friends with several characters. However, these characters friendships with him are different than their friendships with each other. The difference is that they also highly respect Gandalf. (And you should respect a Maiar!)
No metaphor is perfect, but our worship is based on building relationships. Just remember deities are not a classmate we’re doing a group project with. (Hence why some Pagans dislike the term “working with” deities instead of “honoring” or “worshipping” deities.) They still deserve our awe and respect.
I hope part two has de-mystified some of the core concepts about how we should conceptualize the deities, spirits, and ancestors. The logos of Paganism is different than the general Christian over-culture, and it takes time to reorient ourselves. Future parts will be more focus on the practicality of giving offerings, versus the theological ideas we’ve discussed so far.
All articles accessed April 2021.
- Kirk Thomas. Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods. ADF Publishing. 2015. Pages 3-30.
- Isaac Bonewits. Neo-Pagan Rites. Llewellyn Publications. 2007. Pages 7-16.
- Native-Land. Native Land Digital. https://native-land.ca/
- “Native American Nature Spirits of Myth and Legend.” Native Languages of the Americas. http://www.native-languages.org/nature-spirits.htm
- Forbes, Jack D. “Indigenous Americans: Spirituality and Ecos.” Daedalus, vol 130, no. 4, 2001. Page 283-300. AMACAD. https://www.amacad.org/publication/indigenous-americans-spirituality-and-ecos
- Aftandilian, Dave. “What Other Americans Can and Cannot Learn from Native American Environmental Ethics.” Worldviews, vol. 15, no. 3, 2011. Page 219–246. JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/43809445 (can be read with a free account)