Presence and Power
“But I realize now that what I am looking for from ‘gods’ is the presence and power, but not the person.” (John Halstead)
The gods may seem like people sometimes. They have desires and preferences, They can love, be angry, kill, have children. They have personal histories, stories of Their lives. But if you have only ever experienced the gods as people, as opposed to presence and power, you have not gone deep enough, not at all.
It is often pointed out that in ancient Hellenic polytheism, there was rather an obvious and sometimes extreme difference between myth and cult. My favorite example is always Pan and the nymphs. In myth, Pan is constantly chasing, hassling and even raping various nymphs. You’d think the nymphs would stay far away from Him, and would never consent to be worshipped alongside Him. And yet, almost everywhere there was a sanctuary of the nymphs, Pan was there, and vice versa. They are nearly inseparable in cult practice. Clearly, the ancients’ actual experience of these deities on an immediate level was different than what the myths portrayed – in other words, the mythic (and human-like) version of the gods was not necessarily the only or even primary way of understanding of Them.
For a very long time, I would picture the gods in my head – sometimes like They stepped off of some ancient vase painting, sometimes in more modern guise, but still essentially like people (even if They might be markedly Other in some way, such as being animal-headed). But eventually I came to know Them (the ones I have deeper relationships with, that is, the ones I have had direct experiences of) as Powers far beyond simple anthropomorphism. Dionysos became the Force of opening and loosening to me. Hermes the Power of liminality. Apollon the Presence in the oracular chamber. When I go to honor the nymphs in the marshes or on the mountainside, I don’t expect to see slim-ankled girls cavorting in a fountain (though it could still happen). Instead I feel the presence gathering around me as I make my offerings, the unique and recognizable feel of those nymphs of that place (as opposed to any others, and as opposed even to other land spirits).
It takes a certain amount of experience to get down past all those stories to the more core natures of these beings, though I don’t think it requires being a mystic, just putting in a lot of time at ritual and prayer and devotion. Slowly, over the years, you begin to get a feel for Them. In ancient times, this was probably an easier process, begun at birth, common even to everyday people. Today we have to work at it, not to mention overcoming certain preconceptions we have from the illustrations of childhood mythology books and much worse cultural influences. The ancients at least received their mythology as sacred story rather than solely entertainment, and alongside a regular dose of ritual and cult.
And none of this is to say the gods aren’t people, in the sense of individual, autonomous beings with very particular personal agendas. Nor that They don’t sometimes appear as people, in the sense of having a certain shape and the abilities and actions that go with that shape. But They are much bigger than people in every way. They are gods. Unique enough that one can easily, with time and practice, know just Who has shown up in one’s ritual or dream or trance or divination, but also powerful enough that They don’t need a human mouth to tell us what They want, or human hands to touch us. When you experience that presence, you know it.