One of the Frequently Asked Questions I get when I tell people I’m pagan is “Do you really believe Odin rides a horse around the skies and Thor’s hammer really does make the thunder and lightning?”
The answer I always give is as follows: “Yes and no. But the point is that it doesn’t really matter if the myths are literally true, does it? The fact that I treat them as real makes them real because my belief in the gods causes me to act in the world as if they are real. I am influenced by them, thus making them active forces in the Universe. Whether or not Jesus is real doesn’t really matter. Jesus is real and hugely influential simply because, whether he’s objectively real or not, his millions of followers push his ideals onto the world.”
I’ve talked before here about reality and imagination, and how imagination is a tangible force in the world, and how I wish people would respect that about our own imaginations.
So yes, on the one hand, I suppose that answer means that I don’t literally believe in the gods. Or at least it probably sounds that way to some people. But I find that it’s a much better answer than a simple “yes” or “no.” If I say “yes,” then my viewpoint is often ignored because people think I’m crazy. It’s not exactly culturally approved to literally believe in Freyja and Thor. If I say “no,” then people are confused as to why I consider myself a pagan. The answer I give usually gives my audience a quick window into the fact that I am thoughtful about my faith, and that I have reasons for believing as I do. It makes them listen to me as if I have a valid viewpoint, which is refreshing.
But anyway, back to whether I believe the gods are literally real. It still comes down to “yes.” and “no.” I believe that they act in my life–I have seen it more than once. I believe that when I see a particularly beautiful bunch of flowers, or a falcon flying freely in the sky, or even a strange cat that comes up to me to snuggle, that I am literally interacting with my Lady. I believe I can literally hear her speak to me in my dreams.
On the other hand, I don’t think these deities exist in any kind of literal, objective way. Asgard will never be found no matter how deeply we look into the heavens across wormholes to the Rainbow Bridge from the recent Thor movie. It’s not a real place in the physical universe. It exists in a parallel and immeasurable world to the physical world–the world of the imagination. Until you (and I mean the general you, not necessarily you, reader friend) understand how powerful and important the imagination is, you will never understand that gods who live in the world of the collective imagination (for as a pagan I am a bit of a Jungian) can be real and true and immediate even if their bodies occupy no physical space beyond the brief moments they inhabit cats and pigs and trees and sunsets. If I only ever see them in my mind’s eye or the world of the dream, they are nonetheless real.
The other part of the issue, that I don’t get into with people who ask me this question, is animism/pantheism. I am a lot of a pantheist and a bit of an animist, too. Well…maybe I’m just a big animist, which means the universe herself in her infinite grandness has a spirit just as much as the shamrock plant sitting on my desk at work. A philosophy of animism does mean that I literally believe in the spirits living inside everything. But it’s not really like there’s a little elf living inside them. It’s more like I respect their agency in the world. I don’t think the shamrock is an object sitting on my desk just to make it prettier. It’s more like my desk is the habitat for a plant who I have to help because it keeps knocking itself over reaching for the sun. I watch that plant grow long toward the sun, and I keep rotating it and it keeps getting away from me in its endless search for its beloved sun. And it falls over and some of the leaves die because it has become too consumed, or because I have forgotten to temper its passion by turning it away from the window. This plant has a spirit, and it has desires.