As you’ve probably guessed by now, there are many, many, many different approaches to deity within the wider pagan community. While it would be impossible to summarize all of these different perspectives in a single blog post, this post contains some common themes and best practices that are more or less universal and can be adapted to fit whatever system you choose to work with.
In my Baby Witch Bootcamp series, I talk about the “Four R’s” of working with spiritual beings, including deities: respect, research, reciprocity, and relationship. However, when it comes to gods and goddesses specifically, I think it’s important to include a fifth “R” — receptivity.
If you’re completely new to this kind of work and want to avoid making rookie mistakes and/or pissing off powerful spiritual forces, sticking to the Five R’s of Deity Relationships is a good place to start. The Five R’s are:
- Respect. It’s always a good idea to have a healthy respect for the powers you choose to connect with, whether you see those powers as literal gods and goddesses or as archetypes within the collective unconscious (see below). While not every ritual needs to be incredibly formal and structured, you should always conduct yourself with an air of respect and reverence when connecting with deity. There’s no need to humble yourself to the point of cowering before the gods (and in fact, this kind of behavior is a turnoff for many deities), but you should strive to be polite and follow your system’s proper protocol for things like cleansing, offerings, and prayers.
- Research. I am of the opinion that you should do serious research into a god or goddess before any attempt to make contact with them. This can be controversial, but in my own experience things seem to go more smoothly when I know what I’m doing. Books are really the way to go for this — the Internet can be useful for connecting with other worshipers and hearing their stories, but it isn’t a good source for nonbiased factual information. I recommend starting with academic sources written by secular experts for a purely historical account that won’t be colored by personal religious experience. Once you have a decent understanding of the basic historical context, look for books by pagan authors who have experience working with this deity. These sources will give you a framework for your own interactions with them.
- Reciprocity. As we’ve discussed before, reciprocity is a core value of virtually every pagan tradition. Reciprocity is a mutual positive exchange where all parties benefit in some way, and this quality forms the backbone of all healthy relationships with deity. While we benefit from connecting with the gods, the gods also benefit from our worship. Upholding reciprocity in your relationships with deity means making regular offerings to show your appreciation as well as living in a way that your god or goddess approves of.
- Relationship. At the end of the day, connecting with a god or goddess is about creating a healthy, fulfilling relationship. Like any relationship, it takes time and effort to keep the connection alive. The gods are living, thinking, feeling beings just like you and me, though on a much larger scale. Just like you and me, they have likes and dislikes and require certain things from those who want to work closely with them. Try to approach the gods as individuals, and connect with them as you would with another person. This will naturally lead to much more authentic and organic relationships.
- Receptivity. To be receptive is to be open and ready to receive whatever comes your way — this is an essential quality for anyone who is serious about connecting with a god or goddess. Connecting with the gods means allowing them a place in your life, whatever they choose to bring with them. It means forming a relationship with them on their terms, and that requires us to give up a certain degree of control. While you should never feel afraid or completely out of control when connecting with deity (if you do, stop contacting that deity immediately), you may very well experience things you did not expect or ask for. Be prepared for these surprises, and understand that when the gods surprise us in this way, they do it in order to help us grow. Let go of any preconceived ideas about what a relationship with this deity “should” look like, and instead let it unfold naturally.
Though there is much more to working with deity than just these values, keeping these values in mind will get you started out on the right foot in your relationships with the gods.
Deity or Archetype?
As odd as it may sound, not everyone who connects with the gods through study and ritual believes those gods to be literal spiritual beings. Some pagans (I would even say the majority of pagans, based on my personal experience) connect with the gods as individuals with their own personalities and agency, but others connect with them as symbols that represent different elements of the human experience. This latter group is working with the gods not as deity, but as archetypes.
The term “archetype” comes from academia, particularly the fields of psychology and literary analysis. An archetype is a symbol that embodies the fundamental characteristics of a person, thing, or experience.
Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung argued that archetypes are powerful symbols within the collective unconscious (basically an ancestral memory shared by all of humanity) that arise due to shared experiences across cultures. For example, Jung would argue that Demeter, Juno, and Frigg all represent the “Mother” archetype filtered through different cultural lenses, reflecting the important role of mothers across Greek, Roman, and Old Norse culture. For Jung and his followers, archetypes allow us to connect to latent parts of our own psyche — by connecting with the Mother archetype, for example, you can develop motherly qualities like patience, empathy, and nurturing.
For comparative mythology expert Joseph Campbell, archetypes represented types of characters that appear in some form in most or all global mythology. In his book, The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Campbell identified the “hero’s journey” as the archetypal narrative framework on which most stories, from ancient myths to modern films, are based. (If you’ve taken literally any high school literature class, you’re probably familiar with Campbell’s work.) Like Jung, Campbell has been hugely influential on modern pagans who choose to connect with the gods as archetypes.
Working with an archetype is a little different than working with a deity. For one thing, while archetypes may manifest as gods and goddesses, they can also manifest as fictional characters, historical figures, or abstract symbols. Let’s say you want to tap into the Warrior archetype. You could connect with this archetype by working with gods like Mars, Thor, or Heracles — but you could just as easily do so by working with superheroes like Luke Cage or Colossus, literary figures like Ajax or Achilles, or the abstract concepts of strength and honor.
When pagans worship a deity, it’s because they want to form a relationship with that deity for some reason. But when pagans work with an archetype, it’s usually because they want to embody aspects of that archetype. In our above example, you may be trying to connect to the Warrior archetype to gain confidence or become more assertive.
The biggest difference between worshiping a deity and working with an archetype is that a deity is an external force, while an archetype is an internal force. When you connect with a deity, you are connecting with a spiritual being outside of yourself — a being with their own thoughts, feelings, and drives. When you connect with an archetype, you are connecting with a part of your own psyche. Because of this, archetypes tend to be more easily defined and behave in more predictable ways than deities, although some archetypes can be very complex and multi-faceted.
On the surface, worship and archetype work might be very similar, but the “why” behind the action is fundamentally different.
If you choose to worship the Morrigan, for example, you may have an altar dedicated to her, make regular offerings to her, speak with her in meditations and astral journeys, and/or write poetry or make art in her honor. If you choose to work with the Wild Woman archetype, it may look very similar to an outside observer — you may have an altar dedicated to the Wild Woman energy, speak with manifestations of Wild Woman (perhaps including the Morrigan) in meditation, and write poetry or make art dedicated to this archetype. However, these actions will have a very different intent behind them. Your Wild Woman altar is not a sacred space but a visual trigger to help you connect to the Wild Woman within you. Your meditations are conversations with different aspects of your own personality, not with a separate being. Your art is an expression of self, not a devotional act. The result is a deeper connection to yourself, not a relationship with another being.
I hope I’ve made it clear that archetype work and deity worship can both be very worthwhile spiritual practices, and that each serves its own purpose. Many pagans, myself included, work with both deities and archetypes.
There is some overlap between worshiping a deity and working with an archetype, and many pagans start out with one practice before eventually ending up in the other. Sometimes working with an archetype leads you to encounter a deity who embodies that archetype, which can lead to a relationship with that deity. Likewise, your relationship with a deity may help you become aware of a certain archetype’s influence in your life, which might lead you to work with that archetype.
Making First Contact
First impressions are important. This is true for making new friends, for job interviews, for first dates — and for your first meeting with a god or goddess. In many cases, the way you behave in your first meeting with a deity will set the tone for your relationship with them.
That being said, don’t overthink (or over-stress) about your first impression. You aren’t going to be cursed or punished if you mess this up — at the very worst, the deity might lose interest in connecting with you, and even that can often be remedied with an offering and a polite apology. While it’s always best to get off on the right foot, don’t feel like you need to be perfect.
So, how do you make a good first impression on a god or goddess? Honestly, the rules are largely the same for making a good first impression on any other person. Make sure your physical appearance is clean and tidy — some systems, such as Hellenismos and Kemetic paganism, have special rules for cleansing before contacting the gods, but it’s always a good idea to take a shower first and make sure you’re wearing clean clothes. Likewise, make sure the physical space you invite the gods into is relatively clean — it doesn’t need to be spotless, but take a minute to tidy up before beginning any ritual. Be polite — there’s no need to be overly formal, but you should be respectful. Don’t immediately ask for favors — how would you feel if you met someone at a party and they immediately asked you to do some sort of work for them?
Beyond the basics, it’s wise to make sure you have an idea of who this god is and what they are like before you reach out to them. This will keep you from accidentally doing something offensive. For example, you wouldn’t want to invite them to an altar dedicated to a deity they have a rivalry with. Likewise, you want to avoid offering food or drink that would have been taboo in their original worship. (Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but when you’re just starting out it’s a good idea to follow the historical framework as closely as possible.)
At the risk of sounding like a broken record: this is why research is so important. Knowing who you are dealing with allows you to deal with them respectfully, gracefully, and competently.
There’s one aspect of deity worship that is controversial in modern paganism: the idea of being “called” by a deity. This is a question you’ll find many, many heated discussions about online. Do you need to be called by a deity to form a relationship with them? Do deities choose their followers, or do we choose them? How do you know what a call from a deity even looks like?
As I said, this is a controversial topic, but I firmly believe that 1.) you do not have to feel called to a deity beyond being interested in them, and 2.) feeling drawn to a deity’s image, symbols, and myths is a form of calling.
Many pagans do feel like they were called or drawn to the deities they walk most closely with. They may have encountered myths of that deity as a child or teenager and deeply resonated with them, or may have always had an affinity for that god’s sacred animals. They may have dreamed of this deity before knowing who they were, or may have felt a spiritual presence around them before identifying it as a god or goddess.
Many people first encounter the gods in fiction, only for this fictionalized depiction to spark a deeper connection that eventually leads to worship. In the modern era, it’s entirely possible for someone who worships Loki to have first encountered him (or at least a character loosely based on him) in Marvel comics and films, or for someone who worships the Greek pantheon to have first discovered them through the Percy Jackson books. As far as I’m concerned, this is also a valid “call” from deity. The gods are very good at communicating with us through the means available — including fiction.
That being said, just because you don’t already feel a strong connection to a god or goddess doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t worship them. The connection will come with time and effort, just like in any relationship.
Dedication, Patrons, and Matrons
In online spaces such as Tumblr and TikTok, a lot of inexperienced pagans parrot the idea that every pagan needs to have a designated matron and/or patron god and/or needs to be formally dedicated to a god in order to have a close relationship with them. Not only is this untrue, but such restrictions can actually cause harm and/or stunt spiritual growth.
Let’s address dedication first. To be dedicated to a deity means to outwardly declare yourself a servant of that deity, usually with a formal dedication ritual — think of it as the pagan version of joining a convent or going to seminary. It is an outward expression of your devotion and loyalty to that deity. Dedicants are held to a higher standard than the average worshiper by themselves, their communities, and the god(s) they have dedicated to.
Dedication can be a powerful and fulfilling spiritual experience (it’s the backbone of many peoples’ spiritual practice), but it should not be taken lightly. Dedicating yourself to a god or goddess should be a sign of your commitment to them and a deepening of your relationship — it should not be the beginning of that relationship.
Dedication is a lot like marriage. Just like you wouldn’t marry someone you’ve only been on a handful of dates with, you shouldn’t dedicate to a deity just because you’ve had one or two positive experiences with them. Like marriages, dedication can be difficult to get out of — ending your dedication to a deity is possible, but it’s a messy, complicated, uncomfortable process that is sure to shift the foundation of your entire spiritual practice, and not always for the better.
My advice to new and inexperienced pagans is not to even consider dedication until you’ve been practicing for several years. As you begin your journey, your focus should be on exploring your options, forming meaningful connections, and developing a practice that works for you and your unique spiritual needs. Now is the time for experimentation, not lifelong commitments.
But let’s say you are an experienced pagan, and you feel like you are ready for dedication. How do you know if you should dedicate to a given god or goddess?
Dedication may be the logical next step in your relationship with a deity if:
- This deity has been an active part of your spiritual practice for at least 2-3 years, with no major gaps in contact with them
- You are comfortable upholding this deity’s values for the rest of your life — and are willing to face consequences if you fail to do so
- You are willing to dedicate a significant amount of time and effort to the service of this deity
- You are willing to face major changes in your life outside your spiritual practice — dedicating to a deity often leads to major shifts that may affect our career, family, and/or relationships
If you answered “yes” to all of the above, dedication may be appropriate. This may seem overly cautious, but remember that dedicating to a deity is a serious, lifelong commitment akin to joining the clergy. For context, it takes at least five years of study and practice to become a Catholic priest, a similar amount of time to become a Jewish rabbi, and three years to become a high priest/ess in Traditional Wicca. If you don’t have the patience to maintain a relationship for a few years before dedication, that is probably a good indicator that dedication isn’t for you.
If you are dedicated to a deity or are planning to dedicate, you may actually choose to attend seminary or receive some other formal religious training. This training will help you to better serve your deity in a public capacity, as you will learn skills like religious counselling, leading ritual, and building community. If your program of study includes ordination, it will also allow you to perform legally binding religious rituals like marriage ceremonies. Depending on your path, attending seminary or training may be your act of formal dedication.
Finally, let me make it clear that dedication does not make you a better pagan than someone who is not dedicated. The choice to dedicate or not dedicate is only one element of your spiritual practice, and it is possible to have a fulfilling and life-affirming practice without dedication. Some of the people who do the most work in the service of the gods are not dedicated to them. You may be one of these people, and that is totally okay.
Patron/matron relationships are a specific type of dedication.
The concept of patron deities comes from Wicca and related neopagan religions. As we’ve previously discussed, Wicca is a duotheistic system with a God and Goddess, whose union is the source of all creation. However, because Wiccans believe that all gods are manifestations of the God and all goddesses are manifestations of the Goddess, some covens choose to work with the God and Goddess in the form of other deities (say, for example, Osiris and Isis), which are referred to as the coven’s “patron” and “matron” deities. In these covens, initiation into the coven’s mysteries (traditionally in the form of first, second, and third degree initiations) typically acts as a form of dedication to these deities.
As Eclectic Wicca has gained popularity in the last few decades, there has been a growing trend of individual Wiccans and eclectic pagans choosing personal patron and/or matron deities. Some Wiccans will have a single god or goddess they are dedicated to, while others feel that it is very important to be dedicated to exactly one masculine deity and exactly one feminine deity. This second model is the one I see most often in online pagan spaces, especially Tumblr and TikTok.
The patron/matron model can be useful for some pagans, but it is not one-size-fits-all. As I mentioned, this model of dedication comes from Wicca, and is a very modern concept. In ancient pagan religions, most people would not have been dedicated in this way. That does not mean that this isn’t a valid form of worship (it absolutely is), but it does mean that those who practice reconstructionist paths may not be inclined to interact with deity this way.
The guidelines for patron/matron relationships are similar to the guidelines for dedication in general, but these relationships often (but not always) have a more parental nature. For some people, having a divine mother and/or father figure is ideal — especially for those who are healing from parental trauma or abuse. If you feel drawn to this type of deity relationship, I encourage you to explore it.
On the other hand, you may not have any interest in the patron/matron model, and that’s totally fine! It’s called polytheism for a reason — if you prefer to maintain less formal relationships with many gods, you should feel free to do so.
I hope this post has helped clarify some of the murkier aspects of polytheism and deity work. Obviously, this is only the tip of the iceberg — I could write a book about this topic and many, many authors already have. However, I think the information here is enough to get you started, and I hope that it will provide a first step on your journey with your gods.
- Wicca for Beginners by Thea Sabin
- A Witches’ Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar
- The Spiral Dance by Starhawk
- Where the Hawthorn Grows by Morgan Daimler
- The Way of Fire and Ice by Ryan Smith
- Jessi Huntenburg (YouTuber), “Dancing with Deity | Discovering Gods, Goddesses, and Archetypes,” “Archetype, Deity, and Inviting Transpersonal Experience,” and “10 Ways to Bond with Deity”
- Kelly-Ann Maddox (YouTuber), “How to Have Deep Connections with Deities”
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