Pagan Studies

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The Risk of Invocation

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

Invoke (v.): To petition for support; to cite as authority; to conjure.

What does it mean to invoke?

The word "invoke" derives from the old Latin word vocare, meaning "to call" and is related to the word vox, meaning voice. 

All three of the meanings included above are related and involve a form of identity. Essentially, we are calling upon a person or entity with some measure of power/authority to act in our behalf or through us. It is a means of identifying with or even as something/someone that is normally outside of ourselves.

Patti Wigington defines invocation as "a form of voluntary possession. When you invoke a deity being, ... you're inviting it into yourself, and that god or goddess will manifest through a human host."

I've long been convinced that the Hebrew commandment not to take the name of YHWH in vain relates, not to four-letter words, but to the practice of invoking the god's name frivolously. This is serious stuff; even more so because it applies not just to deities, but to things in the mundane world we often overlook or even ignore.

Whenever we identify with something, we are invoking the power of its nature and its definition, applying that definition to ourselves.

It might be a spiritual label; a political party; a product; a sports team or whatever. Identifying with any of these things is a form of invocation. Something as simple as declaring you're a fan of "The Walking Dead" both claims and invokes the power of those words to communicate something about yourself.

Why do successful sports teams have more fans than those that more often post losing records? Because more people are attracted to their power/success and, therefore, identify with them.

Why are celebrities more powerful, in some senses, than lesser-known individuals? In part, it may be because of their personal charisma, talent or skill. But in part, it is because of a bandwagon effect: Others gravitate toward the popular and successful and seek to identify with it in order to share that popularity or success. This then snowballs until the celebrity's status is often (though certainly not always) out of proportion to his/her skill or talent.

Deities are prone to the same phenomenon. The more we invoke/identify with them, the greater their status becomes. Shifting statuses within pantheons offer one example: Zeus may well have supplanted Chronos at the head of the Greek pantheon because more people came to identify with him: More worshipers invoked his name and attributes. Another example is the rise of the Christian god, whose cult overwhelmed older spiritual traditions as it spread. This is, admittedly, a sensitive area. Gods, whether you think of them as literal or archetypal, have their own charisma, talents and skills that attract adherents in the first place, just as celebrities do. But the snowball effect works with deities in just the same way: The more people gravitate toward them, the faster their worship will spread.

Invoking involves not only identity, but authority, as well. By invoking something or someone, one can call upon the authority of that entity to settle a dispute. No one offers a greater degree of authority than a deity, but other sources of authority can be invoked in the same way, whether they be political leaders, religious figures or scriptures. In debate, the strategy known as "appeal to authority" is a form of invocation. One identifies with the authority as a means of ending the debate. (Ken Hay used this strategy in his recent debate with Bill Nye about creationism when he appealed to the Bible as the ultimate authority in scientific matters.)

Appeals to authority don't further debate about an issue; on the contrary, they shut it down. Instead of focusing on the ideas, our attention is shifted to an authority figure who supposedly is the last word on the subject. Discussion ends, people stop listening and, often, one side feels as though it has not been heard. The result is often anger and frustration.

I recently decided to stop referring to political leaders and parties in my online posts, because doing so tended to shut down discussions. When I did so, people often became angry and responded with insults directed toward the leaders/parties in question, rather than listening to the ideas I wished to communicate (which were, ultimately, far more important to me than the individuals espousing them). Suddenly, no one was listening because of what was, on my part, a careless invocation.

The lesson I learned from this is that invocations, whether of deities or other sources of authority, should never be undertaken lightly and should be used sparingly. While the source of an idea can lend it credibility, truth will always be able to stand on its own, regardless of whether a deity, politician or celebrity endorses it.

Last modified on
Stifyn Emrys is an editor and author of eight books. He has worked as a columnist, blogger and educator. He has written both fiction and non-fiction works, including "Identity Break," "Feathercap," "Requiem for a Phantom God" and "The Gospel of the Phoenix."


  • Shawn Bolvi-Singleton
    Shawn Bolvi-Singleton Monday, 03 March 2014

    Something about which to think on a chilly Monday. Thank you for sharing this wisdom.

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