Berlin is a city of the dead. You hear them behind the raucous laughter in the clubs, in the space between stones on crowded streets. They’re loudest especially in the time just after sunset, the gloaming, when Berlin seems suddenly to waken into life hidden from view of the day.
You know what happened to Berlin, probably. You know of the great conflagration in the souls of millions which suddenly turned all the minds of many towards the slaughter of a few. The parades through streets celebrating a new thing awakened, the shattered windows and bloodied faces. The seized printing-presses, the new flags adorning old stone. And then the deportations, and then the murders.
Some great Authority awakened into the world, and millions complied with its will.
The Cries of the Dead
Often, it’s easier to hear the dead than it is to hear the gods. Gods don’t leave corpses to rot in alleyways, or journals to account their worlds. We may speak of the gods, and to them, but they exist in the realm of the pre-literate, the Abyss before human meaning. Any words we ascribe to them is mere translation, any relics bearing their name were made or invoked by us, not by them.
The dead, though—they leave books and buildings, papers and clothing, hair and bone and graffiti. Their bodies rot into the soil, feeding the harvests of our present. They leave words and warnings, their echoed screams shape the sense of a place. They plant trees under which we sit decades later, along a canal they built a century ago. Their impassioned groans and throes birthed those whose later orgasmic exhalations called into being the living who jog past me as I write.
The not-human dead are easier to see, though apparently mute. The cows whose skin binds my pants to my waist and shods my feet have not yet decomposed into the Abyss, but they did not in life speak a language I understand. The dead tree whose wood forms this bench upon which I sit may have once towered over villages from which Jews were hauled into camps, but its voice is silent in response to my questions.
It’s from the dead that we even know of the gods, and the dead still speak. But I do not like what they have to say.
The dead keep telling me about that great thing awakened, warning of another.
One dead haunting me a bit particularly has been Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was born in Berlin. Feared more than anything returning there, hid in Paris, then Marseilles, as a nation inhabited by some strange new spirit swept through Europe, building camps into which their enemies were concentrated, then sacrificed. Even climbing a mountain gave him no quarter, as respect for the new religion had spread even to Spain.
The Wotanic Spirit
I use the words spirit and religion without flippancy here, without metaphor. In a speech before the second world war broke out, Jung spoke of a Wotanic spirit awakening in Germany. The God of the German Christians seemed no longer the same God of the French Christians, no longer the same God which held together the imagined community of (Christian) Europe. An older god, an ancestral god, a god of dirt and blood, a god of rage and fear had arisen, dethroning the God of Civilization.
We are always convinced that the modern world is a reasonable world, basing our opinion on economic, political, and psychological factors. But if we may forget for a moment that we are living in the year of Our Lord 1936, and, laying aside our well-meaning, all-too-human reasonableness, may burden God or the gods with the responsibility for contemporary events instead of man, we would find Wotan quite suitable as a casual hypothesis….
Perhaps we may sum up this general phenomenon as Ergriffenheit — a state of being seized or possessed. The term postulates not only an Ergriffener (one who is seized) but, also, an Ergreifer (one who seizes). Wotan is an Ergreifer of men, and, unless one wishes to deify Hitler– which has indeed actually happened — he is really the only explanation.
Jung’s speech has some significant problems, not least of which is his linkage of the German people’s physical ancestry–as well as culture–as a site for the awakening of a god. But the matter of the Ergriffenheit, the possession, mirrors plenty of other writers’ descriptions of the strange spirit which seemed to inhabit those who fell under the sway of the Nazis.
But was it Wotan? Can a god do that? And anyway, what is is a god?
There’s a theory that many of the gods we now know were all once humans. Odin, for instance, is thought to have been a powerful shaman-type figure, Brân was once a chieftain of the Belgii, Ceridwen and the Morrígan and Hecate once renowned and feared witches. After their deaths, their significant deeds were remembered through story, and over generations (centuries) the veneration people from who only knew them through these great tales made them divine.
Such an idea makes a lot of sense, judging from the last few millennia. Plenty of emperors, kings, and spiritual leaders have all been made into gods—often while they still lived. Even into the late 1700’s in Europe, the touch of a royal was though to heal sickness.
In most of these instances, it was the persons themselves who made the revelation, declaring to their followers their true nature. Others, though, were made sacred after their deaths by religious leaders—though saints are subordinate to the God of the Catholics, sainthood elevates them over the realm of mere mortals. Their existence persists long after their deaths, reminded to us by venerations and sacred stories.
Were the Pagan gods maybe the same?
We cannot know when Odin was first known to those who claimed him as a god, nor whether the first to speak his name knew him as a god, a shaman, a chief, or something else entirely. And though this theory itself is neutral as to whether or not the gods-once-human are now gods, it has some uncomfortable implications for anyone who might now claim themselves a priest or mystic of such divine beings, because it’s linked to authority.
Jung may have been aware of this idea, even as he crafted his archetypal theory of the gods. But being no political theorist, Jung does not look directly at the way a State seems to inhabit the people the same way a god might have.
Gods Are Things
I should first explain what I even mean by gods. And for this I must first speak of trees.
Trees are a thing. They exist, as much as anything exists. And they are a thing almost every one of us will experience at least once.
Forget you have eyes for a moment and consider the experience of a tree. If you do not see them, you can still know there is a thing there by listening to the sound the wind makes through their branches, feeling the cool of their shade on a hot day, smelling the earthy decay of their leaves in late autumn or the fragrance of their blossoms in spring, tasting their fruit or their sap. You may even know them even though they are dead, sitting upon a wooden bench or hearing the crinkle of newspaper, tasting alder or hickory on grilled meat or smelling the smoke from winter chimneys.
Trees are a thing you can experience, and probably have already. But how is a tree even a thing at all? Without witnessing the suspension of orange from branch, without seeing chopped wood set alight, how do you connect the ripe flesh of fruit or the warmth of a fireplace to the Tree as thing? A pear is a thing, a pine coffin is a thing, toilet paper is a thing, but how are they then also part of a Tree as thing?
Humans are also a thing. I feel a human when he touches my shoulder, my chest. I smell a human when she is near me, the mix of her sweat and perfume warmed by the heat of her body. I taste a human when he kisses me, when I lick his skin. And I hear humans when I walk through cities, when they shout at me or call my name.
Like a tree, I also feel what humans do even when they are not there. I walk across the cobbles they’ve lain, I sleep on the beds, I eat the food they’ve grown. I choke on the fumes of their cars, I smell the dinners they cook as I pass windows thrown open to the summer air.
My knowledge of humans (like that of trees) comes from my senses. When I hear a human, my ears are resonating with the waves of sound their actions make. When I see them, my eyes discern the patterns of light which reflect off them. My nose and tongue translate the particulates kicked up from their existence, the nerves in my skin explode electric currents to my brain when their bodies press against mine. All this, too, is true for trees.
We walk through a world swirling with the chaos of other things sharing it with us. We’re all said to exist, to be, but we don’t really have a good reason for being certain of that. We mostly just accept it on faith—and then forget there was anything to accept in the first place. We can’t go around questioning our senses all the time. We’d never get around to living.
That acceptance is the gate to the world of meaning, the gate out of The Abyss of the rawest of life. Walking through that gate, we enter a great world enclosed by the earth itself, drenched and soaked in the meaning we weave from all the threads of the material. But we must be clear: it’s we who do that weaving. We are the meaning-makers.
I experience the gods with the same senses through which I experience everything else, and call them things. Sometimes I feel a hand on the back of my neck, breath in my ear. That’s Brân. Sometimes I see a pattern of light on water or the taste of something electric on the wind; that’s Arianrhod. Flames dancing in a certain way, the scent of a home I haven’t known yet, the lightest of rain on bare skin— Brighid. A sudden chill that awakens the body, the heightened alertness when the moon’s a sharp crescent is when I smell Ceridwen, though the pattern of black branches in that same moonlight is Gwyn Ap Nudd.
One sharp taste on a tongue is called Salt, a sweeter one is called Sugar; these are just names, but names we’re all quite insistent upon as being connected to things. Though a Frenchwoman would call the latter Sucre and the former Sel, a German insist Salz for the first and Sukar for the second, we’re pretty attached to those names.
I’m pretty attached to the names I have for the experiences-called-gods, too. Though sometimes I use others. Brighid is the Lady of the Hearth, though sometimes of the Flame, or of Tears, or the Rain. Brân’s the Raven King, and also the Guardian at the Gate of the Dead. Ceridwen’s sometimes the Huntress, and sometimes Gwyn Ap Nudd Hunts too.
Arianrhod’s the Silver Wheel, and a lot of other names I don’t really understand yet. She avoids comprehension more than the others. When a lover bit my nipples until they started to bleed, I understood something about her I still don’t get but feel again sometimes. When I see that pattern of light-on-water, I know a part of my mind awakens and understands. It just refuses to explain to the rest of me.
Gods On Thrones
Gods occupy a space of human meaning. When something strange happens, fortuitous or synchronistic, and when that happens to co-incide with what I generally ascribe to the activity of the gods, I am connecting something to the gods by a thread called Meaning. Light dances on water a certain way and I think of Arianrhod. My consciousness seems to both to expand and yet become more porous into the land around me and I think Brân.
But the gods occupy a different space from other things to which we connect meaning. We usually call that place ‘Sacred,’ rather than mundane or normal. When I pour out offerings to Arianrhod, it’s a sacred thread of meaning, a sort of special category of meaning set apart from all the others. And though we tend to think of that sacred as out of reach of the political, it’s never been the case.
Kings, emperors, chiefs, and other human authorities have always ruled by the blessing of the divine, be that gods, God, or another sacred realm outside the reach of material influence. In the present, governments gain consent to rule by the will of the people; 500 years ago, kings ruled by the will of God and the blessing of the Church; in non-Christian areas, kings claimed to rule through the blessing of the land or the gods.
That authorial space the sacred occupies in political realms is also a realm of meaning. A king derives his power from God not because God grants him that authority, but because those he rules over see God as a meaningful thing. Within a society where God is thought to exist, and where God is a pervasive, inescapable thing of meaning, the King who claims such blessing is now backed up by an entire Order of Meaning birthed by that God. How a king is able to convince the rest of us that God has given him Divine Right is of course complicated, helped along by already-existing institutions who maintain the Order of Meaning at which that God is at the head. Also, violence helps, too.
While a traditional anarchist or Marxist (or even just an atheist) might protest that the God at the head of such an Order of Meaning is merely fictional or constructed, this doesn’t actually change the power of the God. As long as enough people within a society believe that there is such a God, and that such a God also grants sovereignty to leaders, and that others (priests, diviners, etc.) can accurately determine that God’s will, whether or not the God actually exists is utterly irrelevant.
This same mechanism wherein the Sacred sustains an Order of Meaning applies just as much to the Celtic and Germanic ideas of Sacred Kingship as it does to Liberal Democracy’s concept of the consent-of-the-governed. Though it may have been Druids or Shamans or Priestesses declaring what the gods willed before, and though it may be elections and the media and politicians declaring what the people will now, God (or the Sacred) never disappeared as the originator of Authority.
Though many modern Polytheists, Christian Fundamentalists, or Islamic Radicals might use such a knowledge to claim that the Sacred therefore is the true source of Authority (and a source we must return to if we first acknowledge that such a Sacred exists), such a fascistic rush misses another important aspect of the space the Sacred occupies.
While I name certain experiences gods, I do not choose to therefore bow down to them, nor do they demand such a thing. I am aware of Brighid’s presence and say hello, or immerse myself into the world of meaning which opens when she’s around, but I don’t ask her what she therefore demands of me. When something happens which I ascribe to the influence of Arianrhod, I do not kneel or vow to serve her, nor does she ask me to.
It is only certain others, those who teach things about gods–who claim to experience them and draw power from them–who demand that I do such a thing. No god has ever said, “follow me,” no deity has ever asked that I give myself over to them in return for riches or power, no sacred being has ever threatened to punish me if I do not do as they say. But plenty of priests have.
Gods don’t demand obedience, but humans certainly do. An employer may certainly use threats to co-erce me to do more work, a politician might certainly promise fortune if I grant him consent through ballot, a religious leader has absolutely promised great power and magic if I follow them. And in each of these cases, the demand or threat is backed up by an Order of Meaning in which such obedience is derived from a ‘greater’ source. Consider:
- The employer has more money than I, and the hierarchy which sustains Capitalism is clear.
- The politician, once elected, may indeed wield the sort of power that might make me rich, but only because a political system already exists which grants the elected power over the rest of us.
- If I believe in the same god(s) of the religious leader and accept their claims to speak on at god(s)’s behalf, I may decide that my personal autonomy is a fair sacrifice.
That is, gods don’t demand I bow to them. It is others who demand that things be bowed to or accept an Order of Meaning where bowing to things is what you do.
Those who demand gods be served and worshiped often tell us that it is “because they are gods.” This is, of course, no different from a parent saying to a child, “because I said so,” or a police officer stating, “it’s against the law.” In all cases, the reason for the obedience comes from the supposed source of the command itself (parent, god, police). Or, put another way:
Authority must be obeyed because it’s Authority, and an Authority is an Authority because an Authority said so.
The Empty Thrones
Returning to Jung’s theory that a thing like a god had possessed the people of Germany, we can start to wonder why there’s even a space within us to be possessed in the first place. And remembering that the Sacred has always been used by political powers to create an Order of Meaning in which their authority is secured, we need need ask why such a trick works.
The gods may exist outside ourselves, but the thrones upon which some of us put them don’t. Instead, those thrones exist within. Gods inhabit the spaces we make for them in our world, just as a lover inhabits our consciousness. They become not just an outside thing, but an inside thing, taking root in our heart, our dreams, our thoughts.
Put a lover on a throne and their existence is no longer just a beautiful thing to us, but a thing of Order. Put their desires and concerns first above any other, and they no longer just co-create your meaning, they become it. You become subsumed into their existence, a servant, building your life around them rather than with them. It isn’t uncommon to hear someone say of their lover, “they are the reason I exist.”
It does not matter whether the lover desires such a thing at all. Most wouldn’t ascend that throne, if it is to be called love. But it is not really up to them.
A lover might decide I am his ‘all’ regardless of whether I’d want to be such a thing (I don’t), and I would then experience him as a will-less person, too eager to please, too readily disappointed when I do not fully occupy the ascended place he’s made for me.
It seems it is the same with the gods. Perhaps there are some gods happy to have eager servants willing to absolve their own personality (and responsibility) into them. I do not imagine this does those gods well in the end. For instance, the racists and fascists who invoke Odin and the ‘northern gods’ to justify their hatred seem to do Odin no good; he becomes, like the Christian devil, a shadow-pit into which all the blame for evil is dumped. Worse, such followers do precisely the same thing as the followers of the Christian god did, demanding conformity of belief and killing those who won’t submit to their new order of meaning.
The thrones upon which we’d put a lover or a god seem to exist regardless of their desires. And that makes me wonder where such things come from—why, really, would we elevate any other being to a place of Authority besides ourselves?
The answer is probably that we’ve been taught to.
We’re taught from our youngest years to obey, to acquiesce, to comply. Our parents teach this, our elders and teachers. Police teach this, and tax collectors and jailers. Employers teach this, and journalists and bullies.
Elevate and heed the will of your parents, and you will not get punished. Hearken and obey the words of your teachers and elders, and you will not get shunned or go to detention. Fear and listen to the demands of police, and you will not get shot. Work hard, give up hours of your life and discipline yourself, and you will not get fired and go hungry.
It is our societies which carve the thrones of Authority into our souls, and there are too many others willing to sit upon them.
Putting gods upon those thrones instead of human leaders may actually seem an attempt at freedom. If Brighid occupies the highest Authority of my life, one might think I’d be less likely to obey others. But she doesn’t actually fit in that seat, nor does she seem to want to sit in it. The only way for me to keep her there would be to force her into it, bind her to the armrests, chain her feet to the floor. ‘Stay there and be my master,‘ I’d have to say, ‘tell me what to do so I am no longer responsible for my actions.’
I don’t think she’d take that well.
Others might claim she already sits there, that she sits on their own thrones, that she demands this. One sees this often with certain ‘war’ gods like Odin or The Morrígan, but those gods aren’t really much for sitting.
It is probably not possible to destroy the thrones. Perhaps once carved from the etheric stone of our wills, the thrones never go away. Taught from birth that someone must always have more say than others, disciplined while still crawling across the floor that some must always be lower and some must always be higher, maybe we can never unlearn this.
So perhaps it’s best if we sit on those thrones ourselves. I think we usually do anyway, and merely displace our blame and guilt when we do something awful, or something does not turn out well. Afterall, we choose to obey, we choose to submit, we choose to debase our nature before the will of others.
If we sit on our own thrones, we might better resist those who’d coerce us. When others demand we obey their Authority, they’d have to topple us from our own power. When hatred points to the weak and oppressed as the cause of our own weakness, we’d be strong against such designs.
Those thrones are, after all, the very seat of our own power.
The ‘Wotanic spirit’ that awakened into the world during the rise of Hitler is not much different from the great Authorities that have arisen in any other time. The lockstep obedience, the subservience to a greater power, the sublimation of individuality and the hatred of difference has inhabited humans many times before, and seems to arise now again.
Against such a thing, only those who know no other authority but their own might stand. But there would need to be many of us, many more than there are now. All the self-actualization in the world won’t protect us from bullets or bombs, gas-chambers or prison-cells. No matter how liberated we are, without many others likewise liberated we stand alone.
Our liberation is always contingent on the liberation of others.
What would the world be like if more of us occupied our own thrones? Where freedom from coercion and the divine right of self-mastery became the primary values of our societies? As long as those with whom I interact are enchained by the will of others, I could only ever be an actualised self alone, if such a thing were even possible. To become more my self, I need others to teach me how they become their selves. To be free from the coercion of others, others around me must know what coercion even is,
And here’s where the gods, temporarily unseen, resurge back like an immense tide. Beings existing outside our enchainment, needing neither to coerce nor force but merely be–are they not the very ideal of our own freedom?
That we would put them on thrones, enchain their meaning and extract it for own desire to rule everyone but ourselves–the only result of such a thing is rivers of blood running down streets or ziggurats, slaughter and manacles and camps. But if instead they are guides of our liberation, themselves unchained, themselves unmastered and unmastering, they are exactly what we might need to oppose whatever new thing is awakening in our world.
We already have guides for this sort of thing. The women and men who snuck into factories under the cover of night, smashing the machinery of the rich Capitalists, claimed to follow a spectral king. “No general but Ludd,” went their slogan, “did the worker any good.” The Whiteboys of Ireland did the same, following a spectral land-goddess, issuing evictions in her name. Not obedience, not submission, but liberation.
Perhaps our gods, like Ludd, will agree to guide us.
But we must be clear whose hands are unshackling others, whose hammers are smashing the machines, and who’s actually supposed to be sitting on those thrones.
This essay first appeared as a subscriber-only piece at Paganarch
Rhyd is the co-founder and Managing Editor of Gods&Radicals. He also writes at Paganarch.
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