Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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To Goddess

Sometimes in contemporary paganism we're waiting for our language to catch up with us.

Many of the new paganisms are characterized by embodied gods.


So how to talk about this?

Possession. An “outside” word. Its implications of violence and external agency are wholly inappropriate to pagan experience, which explains why we don't use the term.

Drawing Down. “Our priestess draws down Hekate,” I've heard people say. This Wiccan phrase at least has the advantage of being vocabulary from within. There's a noun form as well: a draw-down. Unlike the Moon, though, not all gods are above us. (And even with the Moon, it's only some of the time.) Besides the spatial problems, there's the matter of agency. Is this phenomenon really something that a human being does to a god? Is it something that a god does to a human being? Or is it something that two beings do together?

Riding. New World African traditions describe the experience as being ridden by a god. This has the advantage of being concrete: horse and rider is a metaphor that anyone can understand. (The sexual implications are right, too.) Here the agency is entirely with the god. It's good, but is it ours?


Carrying. I believe this term originated with Wiccan priestess Judy Harrow. It has the advantage of being good, strong Anglo-Saxon. Agency again, though: who's doing what to Whom? To my ear, it makes the god sound weak.

Personifying. This is the term that novelist Tony Hillerman uses to describe the kachina religions of the American Southwest. Those who dance the role of the kachinas in ceremonials he calls personifiers. Myself, I think this is one of the very best ways of describing this experience. It has the advantage of being one of the very few English words derived ultimately from (you gotta love it) Etruscan: phersu, 'mask.' The priestess is a mask the goddess wears. That's nice. Still, all those syllables. It's descriptive, but a little clinical for daily use.

Embodying. This too I like: the priest gives body to the god. Same problem, though: too long, too clinical.

Playing. Is the goddess a role that the priestess plays, as an actor plays a character? Well, yes and no. It's not a bad metaphor, but this one just doesn't seem quite right. As my friend and colleague Magenta Griffith says, Ritual is theatrical, but it's not theater per se.

Goddessing. In the most recent round of coven e-mails discussing our upcoming February Eve get-together, our newest member (a second-generation pagan, the lucky) volunteered to goddess again for the ritual this year. Reading her words, I sat up and blinked.

I've never heard this usage before, but it's a striking one. To god. To goddess. Something about this seems very right to me. (One wishes, perhaps, that more of us would do it more often.) The verdict's still out, maybe, but I'm definitely keeping an open mind on this one.

As new pagans, we're often waiting for our language to catch up with our experience.

To me, this says that we must be doing something right.






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Ian Phanes
    Ian Phanes Wednesday, 27 January 2016

    I tend to use vesselling or dancing.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 28 January 2016

    Teaching me the ropes, my priestess back East used to say: You can't fill a vessel unless it's empty first. Dissociation--self-emptying--is a necessary part of the process. I've never heard this usage before, though. Nice.

    And pagan gods are dancing gods, preeminently.

  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Wednesday, 27 January 2016

    In our Reclaiming Witch tradition we use the term Aspecting - there is a negotiation with Deity before we do that particular role of priestessing (we also use the word priestessing as a verb as opposed to the noun of being a priestess) as to how much of us they are invited to is a co-creative experience....

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 28 January 2016

    Aspect: to "give a face to." How rich we are.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 28 January 2016

    Lizann, does "priestessing" imply ritual action, or does it include a priestess' wider (one might say "extracircular"!) work (i.e. "ministry") as well?

    Gods, what a language. How fortunate we are.

  • Anne Forrester
    Anne Forrester Wednesday, 27 January 2016

    I find it strange that your list does not include "INVOKING". I thought that was the most common term for bringing a deity "within" (as opposed to "EVOKE"; to summon a deity or entity into an idol or something "without").

  • Ian Phanes
    Ian Phanes Thursday, 28 January 2016

    I use invoking to describe the process, and particularly what a different ritualist does.

    I guess it's easiest to list the roles as I see them:
    the human calling the god: the invoker
    the god who is showing up: the power
    the human embodying the god: the vessel
    the embodied union of the power and the vessel: the personage

    So the total process can be expressed as:
    The invoker invokes the power on the vessel, then the personage interacts with those present.

  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale Thursday, 28 January 2016

    My tradition calls it skinriding. That's specifically a term from the Bersakrgangr magical tradition, and isn't necessarily used throughout Asatru or heathenry, although it can be. A god or animal spirit is a skin, and a human being inhabited by a skin is being skinridden.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Friday, 29 January 2016

    Now that's evocative. Is it a recent coinage, do you know? It's certainly well within the ambit of received tradition if so.

    With the skin as with the mask, I suppose: one both wears and is worn.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Thursday, 28 January 2016

    I wasn't attempting a comprehensive list. Since both "invoke" and "evoke" are terms in more general use as well (e.g. calling the Goddess into the circle generally rather than into a specific priestess), I find that the ambiguity can be confusing; so I tend not to use these words in this way myself.

    Also--for aesthetic as well as conceptual reasons--I tend to avoid vocabulary drawn from ceremonial magic.

    Ah, me. Purism is its own punishment.

  • Arwen Lynch
    Arwen Lynch Friday, 29 January 2016

    I have always used "drawing down" because, of course, "my High Priestess told me." :D

    I like "to goddess" as an action. I'm not sure how it rolls off the tongue, but language should change--if only to show that we are evolving still.

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