As a pagan, my spiritual framework recognizes both goddesses and gods. Deity finds expression in both, and in fact, one of the most sacred communions in my tradition is the union between the Goddess and the God, what some call the Great Rite. For most pagans, as a practical matter, our reverence and practice of the Great Rite is often more symbolic. That said, it is powerful symbolism that resonates deeply.
It’s important at this point that I pause to acknowledge a few things. The more blog posts I write, the more I realize that this seems to be a regular occurrence, that moment before I dive in proper where I recognize the diversity of both humanity and pagan practice. (Absolutely nothing is 100 percent true for 100 percent of pagans 100 percent of the time…) Yes, the focus on a Goddess and God in the Great Rite is heteronormative and cis-gendered, but nothing in that requires the invalidation of gender fluidity, trans identity, or other forms of sexuality. One of the most exciting things to see in pagan circles in recent years has been LGBTQ+ members of the community exploring pagan practice as it intersects with their experiences of gender and sexual preference. Many of the basic concepts I’m going to cover here become much richer and more nuanced and deeper when you get past the presumptions of cis-het sexuality. I’m leaving that deeper view for others to cover, mostly because my space here is limited, and others are simply more qualified to expound on it than me. I honor that experience and understanding as a valid part of this subject, and encourage people to think of what I talk about here not as the last word, but a facet of a much larger gem with many, many other facets one may gaze into and be enlightened by.
At the heart of many forms of modern pagan practice is the Wheel of the Year, the cycle of Sabbat holidays that not only track the seasons, but are also said to embody the story of the eternal dance between the Oak King and the Holly King rising and falling in tandem and in the attention and affection of the Goddess.
There are some differing opinions on exactly when one king ascends and the other wanes, but the basic storyline is this: each year, the Oak King rises to prominence during the height of the sun, and he defeats the Holly King and sends him to the ground, until the Holly King in his turn rises up again and defeats the Oak King, sending him into darkness until his light too, may return again. Each King in his turn is the consort of the Goddess, and some say that each is Father, Son and Lover all at once. Each in his turn and for a time, dying and being reborn with each new year.
As is often true in pagan practice, things do tend to get a little mixed up. Many pagans will conflate the ascendancy of the Holly King with the old Saxon myth of the Corn King — the King who sacrifices himself in order that the land may remain fertile and the people flourish. Many pantheons contain this narrative — the god who sacrifices himself for the well-being of the people. Osiris and Jesus being two of the more famous male deities known for this practice.
View all of these things together and squint your eyes just a little bit and you start to see a common thread. The Goddess can be (and often is) seen as The Great Mother — endlessly birthing the new season, the new King, in an act of continual creation from gestation. The God, on the other hand, is in a position of continual sacrifice and rebirth in one form or another.
It is interesting to me that despite the prominence of Jesus’s sacrificial nature in Christian theology, Modern American Christo-Patriarchy* does not seem to demand much in the way of actual sacrifice by men in their life on earth. Men instead are told they are large and in charge, particularly of women, whom they are told to see as little better than children to be instructed, or worse yet, property to be acquired and possessed. There is much talk of how women are expected to submit, but not much demanded of men on their part other than to not be too much of an asshole in their role as the “head” of things.
In pagan circles, one of the most famous texts used to reinforce the nature of the Goddess with pagan practitioners is Doreen Valiente’s “Charge of the Goddess,” which she adapted from ritual text by Gerald Gardner sometime in the early 1950’s. There have been numerous attempts at creating a companion “Charge of the God,” but no text has received the kind of widespread adoption that Valiente’s has. The one that has relatively widespread distribution that speaks most to me is from Scott Cunningham’s work, and is called “The Charge of the God.”
I am the radiant King of the Heavens, flooding the Earth with warmth and encouraging the hidden seed of creation to burst forth into manifestation. I lift my shining spear to light the lives of all beings and daily pour forth my gold upon the Earth, putting to flight all the powers of darkness.
I am the Master of Beasts, wild and free. I run with the swift stag and soar as a sacred falcon against the shimmerng sky. The ancient woods and wild places emanate my powers, and the birds of the air sing my sanctity.
I am also the last harvest, offering up grain and fruits beneath the sickle of time so that all may be nourished. For without planting there can be noharvest; without winter, no spring.
Worship me as the thousand-named Sun of Creation, the spirit of the Horned Stag in the Wild, the running wolf, the endless harvest. See in the yearly cycle of festivals my birth, death, and rebirth — and know that such is the destiny of all creation.
I am the spark of life, the radiant Sun, the giver of peace and rest, and I send my rays of blessings to warm the hearts and strengthen the minds of all.
The God is painted as a protector against darkness, and as a master of beasts. But the most critical part is where he announces himself at the heart of Cunningham’s Charge of the God as “the last harvest, offering up grain and fruits beneath the sickle of time so that all may be nourished.” This is the key, central role that he plays in the pagan Wheel of the Year. His warmth drives the fertility of the harvest to “burst forth into manifestation,” his sacrifice is the fulcrum on which the success of the harvest turns, and his rebirth is the hope upon which future harvests is built.
This role of nourishment of the people, of literally offering his own self as a sacrifice so that others may thrive, is the thing that allows for manhood to have sacred meaning in paganism without devolving into the power games of Patriarchy. It is not something we see modeled often in modern Western notions of manhood. The tropes are typically in a couple flavors, none of which completely fit the bill.
The bottom line is, in paganism, godhood is not about how many and who bend their knees to you, but rather who and how many you nourish and protect using your own resources.
On the one hand, there’s the Rugged Individualist, who “lives by his own rules” apart from the community, and comes out of his solitude to right wrongs and save people who need saving. He might, as a part of his journey, learn that he needs a closer relationship to his community, but more often than not, he returns to his solitary life as the hero and savior after the community has been “set right” by his actions. Women admire and often fall in love with the Rugged Individualist, but in the end he is unable to give up his hero role to be in relationship with women. They are not worthy of his full attention, and often end up being mere objects to be saved. This is every John Wayne movie, The Lone Ranger, Batman, Superman, Captain America, Wolverine, most Humphrey Bogart movies, Rambo, Han Solo and James Bond.
Another trope is the Big Boss. This is the hero who ascends to become King of the world or who exists as the (almost) Infallible Leader who must make all the right moves because he’s large and in charge of his community. This journey can be a double edged sword for the man who undertake that climb to glory. Often he is asked to give something up to get to his perch at the top. Often that thing is a love interest. These men are, or become, Kings in their castles, and none may gainsay them, especially not women. This is Al Pacino in The Godfather trilogy, the Wolf of Wall Street, Tommy Shelby of Peaky Blinders, Annakin Skywalker, Captain Kirk and even to some extent Captain Picard, and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings.
A third trope is the Really Smart Guy whose prowess with his brain or in a special area makes him both a critical component to solving every problem, but which makes him so anodyne and without ability to connect emotionally that he cannot seem to get with a woman in any genuine way, even as a partner in hero work. In this category is Sherlock Holmes, Mister Spock, Lieutenant Data, Professor Xavier, and Gandalf.
All of these tropes share a common thread — The Man is at the center, women are peripheral, and being lonely at the top is par for the course, the price of power. And success is measured by the aggrandizement of the man — how many followers he has, how strong he is, the resources that he can command, the scope of the impact he can make with his actions, for good or for ill.
That loneliness at the top, however, is not the same thing as the sacrifice that the Pagan god undertakes as the core component of his identity. The god in paganism is not sacrificing to increase HIS power, he is doing so for the good of his people, who he is responsible for working to nourish and protect. The nourishment part is what offers the highest contrast with western Christo-Patriarchy, as typically the Patriarchal view is that women are responsible for nurturing and nourishing our society, not men. Meanwhile, in pagan practice, the giving of life, the nourishment of it, and the work of sustaining it, is a duty that is not particularly assigned to either god or goddess. Just as female goddesses can undertake aspects of war and death, (e.g. Freya, the Morrigan, Kali), male gods can take up the role of nurturer of life (e.g., Freyr, the Dagda, Osiris). The bottom line is, in paganism, godhood is not about how many and who bend their knees to you, but rather who and how many you nourish and protect using your own resources. And just like in the movie “Ghostbusters,” it is worth noting that when someone asks you, “are you a god?” you say YES. I would also suggest that you may say yes even if you are not male, because the magic of being human is that we are capable of expressing both godhood and goddesshood, irrespective of whether we identify as male, female or something entirely different.
With the US getting ready to celebrate Father’s Day, a holiday invented largely as an answer to Mother’s Day (another invented holiday), it’s not a bad time to take a moment to contemplate the very real nourishing aspect of pagan godhood. It doesn’t hurt that the time that the Oak King is traditionally considered to be at the height of his power Midsummer, is also nearing, Whether you’re a man or a woman, It’s a worthwhile thing to ask at this time — who do I nourish? How? What am I willing to sacrifice in order to see my community grow?
* A quick word here on what I mean by Christo-Patriarchy. Christianity is a religion, and it has its own theology, permutations and leadership who are very capable of defining the tenets of the faith. Patriarchy is a power structure that views the world as being male-centric, and which reinforces the idea that men should be empowered over women, and that a woman cannot expect to be afforded the same rights or status in the world when compared to a man. Christo-Patriarchy is the utilization of Christian religious tenets and practices socially as a way to reinforce Patriarchal power structures. I wanted to give this phenomenon its own name apart from Christianity itself as a means to express my observation as a feminist that Patriarchy has co-opted Christian theology and symbolism to reinforce its power in social settings, while still permitting Christianity as a religion the opportunity to define itself apart from Patriarchy if it can and desires to do so. Whether it actually can or even wants to is not really for me to say, as it is not my chosen path. I leave that question to Christians to answer for themselves.