Mixing Pantheons in Modern Pagan Practice

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It has been said by some Wiccan authors that mixing mythological pantheons is bad and should be avoided at all costs. The usual argument given for this admonishment is that each pantheon, indeed each deity, has very specific features and should be treated individually. To equate one goddess with a similar goddess from another pantheon is seen as disrespectful. Each deity, it is argued, deserves to be treated as an individual. Bringing together deities and elements of worship from different pantheons is confusing and results in muddled worship and ritual. 1

This argument appears, at least on the surface, difficult to refute if we want to honor the deities as vibrant, powerful, and alive.

However, it seems the deities themselves are not so hard and fast about the distinctions between individual deities, not as unforgiving when worshippers use different names for them, as we simplistic modern humans would make them out to be. There is a long history of mixing pantheons that goes back to the dawn of human reverence of the divine. There are gods and goddesses that we take for granted today as being individual which are actually composite deities amalgamated in the distant past from more than one source deity. Why should modern reverence of ancient deities force them to fossilize when they were clearly organic and changeable in the past?

Ancient Egypt, one of the oldest civilizations in human record, developed from various groups into the Upper and Lower Kingdoms prior to their unification around 3100 BCE under the rule of the first pharaoh, Menes. This bringing together of peoples into one nation encouraged religious practices to come together, helping to establish ever greater temples and religious dynasties. Deities were merged, which resulted in combined names in many cases. Amon-Re (or Amun-Ra), Ptah-Nu, and Re-Atum are a few examples.2

The merging of local deities into a larger national deity and the incorporation of foreign deities into a specific pantheon were not limited to Egypt. They happened all around the world any time two groups of people with different deities met. In Mesopotamia, lesser goddesses merged into the great Inanna, who under the Babylonians was known by the name Ishtar.3 The spread of Greek culture, largely due to the conquests of Alexander the Great around the fourth century BCE, resulted in the ‘Hellenizing’ of many cultures and religions — that is, making the local religions and cultures more Greek-like.4 With the rise of the Roman Empire, the Greek Artemis became the Roman Diana. Even Christian mythology adopted Pagan deities in a roundabout way, with goddesses like Brigid becoming Saint Brigit.5 Imagine that — a Semitic desert religion adopting a fierce Pagan goddess from the Green Isle!

Walter Burkert describes how ancient Greek society included foreign deities: ‘The Greek pantheon is not immutable. Only a small number of the Mycenaean gods are Indo-European, and Apollo and Aphrodite probably arrived only later. The fact that a fixed group of Greek Gods was established at all is due not least to epic art… [for example] The cult of the dying god Adonis is already found fully developed in Sappho’s circle of young girls on Lesbos… For the Greeks it was well known that he was an immigrant from the Semitic world, and his origins were traced to Byblos and Cyprus.’6

Today, Wiccan practices most commonly draw upon mythology from the British Isles. Despite the geographical separation from mainland Europe, there has been plenty of opportunity for incorporation of foreign deities. John and Caitlin Matthews wrote: ‘As successive waves of influence have dashed against our shores, so has the existing coastline of the mythic dimension been modified and moulded. Yet the persistent retention of certain characters, archetypes and themes is remarkable, revealing the true nature of British myth. Indigenous features, like our weather (which the Irish call ‘soft’ but which tourists find plain wet), form the prevailing climate of our belief. Sleeping kings who will come again, hags who become gift-bestowing maidens, wild men with staves and other-world women with cups, are all part of our composite tradition. Whatever gods and beliefs have been brought to Britain, they have a way of settling in so that the sharp definition of their origins is gradually blunted until it blends into the ambience of the new homeland.’7

Deities from different pantheons were mixed together in more than just the merging of lesser deities into greater deities, or the recognition and often integration of foreign deities into a local or national pantheon. Magickal practices, such as those recorded in the Greek magickal papyri dating back to the second century BCE draw clearly from such diverse sources as Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian, and Jewish mythology to achieve their ends8 Witches, wizards, magickians, priestesses, and priests did not shy away from communing with whatever deities they felt would be most effective as each situation warranted.

For example, a love spell includes the following invocation: ‘I entrust this binding spell to you, chthonic gods, Hyesemigadon and Kore Persephone Ereschigal and Adonis the Barbaritha, infernal Hermes Thoouth Phokentazepseu Aerchtathoumi / Sonktai Kalbanachambre and to mighty Anubis Psirinth… ‘9 Within this one incantation, we find Kore (Greek), Adonis (Greek, adopted from Semitic), Ereshkigal (Assyro-Babylonian), and Anubis (Egyptian) along with others. The ancient magickian who wrote this spell obviously didn’t think it was a bad idea to mix pantheons!

Modern Wicca continues this tradition of eclecticism at its very root. One of the foundation ritual pieces, the Charge of the Goddess, makes this point clear. It starts:

‘Listen to the words of the Great Mother; she who of old was also called among men Artemis, Astarte, Athene, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Cybele, Arianrhod, Isis, Dana, Bride and by many other names.’ Again, we see within a single ritual passage the presentation of goddesses from various different pantheons all together: Artemis (Greek), Astarte (Canaanite version of Ishtar, also adopted under this name in Greek culture), Athene (Greek), Dione (Phoenician/Greek), Melusine (Irish/Scottish/French, possibly Scythian), Aphrodite (Greek), Cerridwen (Welsh), Cybele (Phrygian/Greek, eventually merged with Rhea), Arianrhod (Welsh)… you get the picture.10

Getting to know a particular deity or small group of deities thoroughly through the study of their myths is a good way to get started on an intimate relationship with these particular expressions of the Divine. We should be careful to not allow our focused studies to blind us to the larger picture, though, of how our revered deities and pantheons connect with the rest of the mythological world. As the Greco-Egyptian god Hermes Trismegistus put it succinctly, ‘As above, so below.’ The ecology of myth is the same as the ecology of life on Earth: everything is connected.

References:

(1.) ‘Deity’ chapter, Ellen Cannon Reed’s The Heart of Wicca, Weiser: 2000.

(2.) Introduction to Chic and Sandra Tabatha Cicero’s The Magical Pantheons, Llewellyn: 1998.

(3.) ‘Inanna’s Family Tree, ‘ page ix, Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer’s Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Harper & Row: 1983.

(4.) Entries on ‘Hellenism’ and ‘Hellenize, ‘ Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary, Lexicon Publications: 1988.

(5.) Entry on ‘Brigit/Brigid/Bride, ‘ John and Caitlin Matthews’ The Aquarian Guide to British and Irish Mythology.

(6.) Pages 176-179, Walter Burkert’s Greek Religion, Harvard University Press: English translation 1985.

(7.) Introductory section, pages 12 and 13, John and Caitlin Matthews’ The Aquarian Guide to British and Irish Mythology, Aquarian Press: 1988.

(8.) Introduction to editor Hans Dieter Betz’s The Greek Magical Papyri In Translation, University of Chicago Press: 1992.

(9.) Page 44, lines 335 to 345, editor Hans Dieter Betz’s The Greek Magical Papyri In Translation, University of Chicago Press: 1992.

(10.) See individual entries for each goddess in Janet and Stewart Farrar’s The Witches’ Goddess, Phoenix Publishing Co.: 1987.

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  • Mark Pemburn

    Good words.  Thank you.  I’d like to offer an observation based on 15+ years in the U.S. pagan community: We are a young religion by nearly any standard (despite our historical roots) and, as such, we are still working out our philosophical differences in much the same fashion as was true in the first few centuries of each of today’s established religions.  In addition, our situation is abetted significantly by the growing energy of the Aquarian Age, which will see a increasing tendency toward factionalism.  

    Another point is that the disdain for ‘fluffy bunnies’ in the community is emblematic of a certain insecurity about our own grasp of esoteric knowledge and our spiritual wisdom.  The ‘bunnies’ are, for the most part, new on the path and have not yet experienced the depth and breadth of both joy and sorrow that their more seasoned compatriots have.  Give them time.  Your elders gave you time.  Believe what you believe until it no longer serves you, then learn to change.  Experience will become knowledge, knowledge will become wisdom.  All things have their season.

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  • Lou

    Yes well done, this subject has angered me for many years. Everyone needs to find their own path and work on their spirituality in their own way. I run a Qabalistic based coven and have all kinds of members at all levels, ok I’ve rolled my eyes in my head when someone has talked about opening quarters with fairies or whatever but it isn’t my job to blast them with the blasting rod for being “fluffy” but to guide them on the path. I usually gently suggest that we’ll do things my way in circle but they are free to try it their way at home. 

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