One of my stumbling blocks as a modern Westerner practicing remodeled ancient religions is the stubborn notion that the Gods look too human. This one’s petty and cruel, that one lies, let’s not get into so-and-so’s checkered sexual history. How does a person get comfortable worshiping a bunch of jerks?
A different accusation that gets thrown at modern Pagans, not me so much, is that they see the Gods as merely archetypes and not real energies, or as divine vending machines.
Less often do I see these problems discussed together; but as I’m reading about religions dealing with the Orishas, I think I’m seeing a way in which these living traditions deal with all of those problems together.
The orishas are real energies, real personalities, entities that have been human according to the stories and yet are much more than human. In their human forms, they exhibit all the human failings, just as European gods do. But the point of remembering these stories is to serve as warnings and medicine for the children of the orishas. Each practitioner has particular orishas who are considered their spiritual mother and father, and one of these is said to rule their head. This means that these sets of energies are especially available to that person, and that these personalities are the most likely to appear in that person – whether in positive or negative form. A child of Obatala has the potential to stay cool and rational in dire straits and to render sound judgment, but also has the potential to be anxiety-prone or a drunk. By learning the stories of Obatala and the stories specific to the individual as found in divination, the person gains access to a whole world of information about what blessings and burdens to expect, how best to use them, what to seek and what to avoid, and what offerings to make when things go wrong. This agrees with using the gods or spirits to understand ourselves as we do with archetypes, but goes much deeper by simultaneously honoring the reality on which the archetypes are based.
Is this kind of multivalent wisdom waiting for us inside European myths? Who are Aphrodite’s children, and what kind of lives do they lead? Do they need to offer apples to her? Do they need to eat apples themselves, or avoid them? What problems are solved by going to the sea to receive and dress her?