The God Mask – A Ritual Technique
We had a great conversation at our online video chat in the Facebook Atheopagan group today. Topics ranged, but one that stuck out for me was Glen Gordon’s discussion of his work to create a new lexicon for Pagan and ritual phenomena he feels aren’t well defined by existing words in English.
As I’ve said elsewhere, although an atheist I spent many years circling in ritual with various elements of the Pagan community here in Northern California, viewing the invocation of gods and the conducting of “magic” as metaphorical, psychological processes to influence the minds of participants rather than as literal communications and physically effective influencers of events.
Having now gone public with my Atheopaganism, I can nonetheless still see ritual value and power in the use of the mental images of human-like figures to render phenomena which are powerful in our lives more “relatable”. The problem is that by using the words “god”, “goddess”, “spirit” or “deity”, you haul in a truckload of associated assumptions about worship, a supernatural dimension and a top-down model of the Cosmos which fly in the face of science and which I, a naturalist Pagan, cannot embrace or endorse.
I view the myths of polytheistic gods as anthropomorphic imagined faces we humans placed on powerful forces in order to feel as though we could communicate with them: to bargain, to plead for aid, to placate them so they wouldn’t hurt us. Given the level of knowledge of humans when we first began to do this, it makes perfect sense that we would try thus to gain control of our environment by any means possible in order to enhance survival.
Today, with the state of human knowledge as it is, we are nevertheless every bit as prone to anthropomorphization of our world. As children, we imbue our toys with imagined personalities; as adults, many of us name our cars and think of them as having human-like personalities, etc. We are social creatures and seek to relate with everything we encounter.
In ritual, there is a compelling power in being able to dialogue with a Powerful Phenomenon like Death or Sex or Love or Anger or Trickiness or Playfulness or Ocean or Mountain as if it were a human with particular qualities and powers, even when you know you are pretending. I have experienced that rituals which do this can go very deep indeed.
But as an Atheopagan, I just can’t invoke gods. It’s too easy for participants or observers to conflate what I mean with real gods that have independent intelligence, communicate interpersonally, and exist in some disembodied dimension. And I just don’t believe in those.
We have no term for the mask of a god we put on these powerful phenomena not as a literal identification, but rather as a ritual technique, a conceit we choose to collaborate in. If there were such a term, I might become more comfortable with including “god-images” in my rituals, so long as there is the full understanding that these are but metaphors: masks.
In my region, which is suffering crippling drought, a ritual might include the following:
Ritual leader: We look to the Great Sky, and see it is infinite. It contains all things, including what we desire. Who will wear the Mask of the Great Sky and speak to us?
Pre-selected participant steps forward: I wear the Mask of the Great Sky! I roar in thunder and rage in hail and lightning! Speak to me now: tell me what you want, and why.
When complete, the Great Sky would be thanked for its gifts and counsel, and then this participant would “remove the mask” (literally or figuratively) to rejoin the circle.
A ritual like this makes clear that we are pretending to talk to the Great Sky, but incorporates direct dialogue with it in a manner which can be powerful and moving.
Personally, I would not use the names of mythologically established gods in such a ritual. That baggage is just too much for me, and I do not resonate with myths from other regions and time periods anyway. So I would say “the Mask of Love and Sex” rather than “the Mask of Aphrodite”. But if you’re comfortable with the latter, by all means go for it.
One term we might consider for “mask” could be “prosopon”, the Ancient Greek term for mask (literally, “face”). After all, it is the Greeks who first created ritual theater as a means to tell metaphorical stories of meaning to their people. So we would invoke “the Prosopon of the Great Sky”.
I intend to explore this technique in the near future. I think it will be effective, as it merely makes explicit what I have believed about Pagan “gods” since I joined the Pagan community.
I knew, years ago when I knelt before Hades and Persephone, that I was really talking to two of my friends pretending to be those gods. By invoking not a god but the mask of a Force, a Place, a Natural Phenomenon, I can acknowledge that I know I am pretending, while still doing so and not “breaking the spell”.