OK… a few thoughts. Maybe it’s the new wonderful artwork by Mike for MOTO’s header, maybe it’s the season, maybe it’s something else, but I have been thinking a lot about images recently. In the GD and magic we use images extensively to connect us with the divine beings and powers – so really I have been thinking more about imagery.
Though I am likely to invoke the wrath of a few anti-Christian nutters out there, it is quite clear that the sources for modern western magic developed within the Christian milieu. The background and backbone of many modern traditions, Rosicrucianism was started by heterodox Christians and is replete with Christian imagery and mysteries. This is a different thing to saying modern western magic is Christian.
One of the features that distinguishes Christianity from its main parent, Judaism is its use of religious imagery. Judaic (and Islamic) aversion to representations of divinity and divine presences, technically aniconism, is absent in most (modern) Christian traditions. This difference is often explained in terms of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, the ultimate Godhead taking physical form, therefore the physical icon being a fit and holy representation and method to connect with Christ as the One.
Magic with its heterodox Christian, Hermetic and Pagan inspirations often uses images with gay abandon and nary a thought for the spiritual principles behind aniconism. The main applicable principle is that any representation of the divine, the One Thing, must be incomplete and therefore inaccurate and misleading, even offensive. The Hermetic, Christian and pagan approach is different, viewing the images as links to the mystery. Just as a Godform is both limiting the unknowable One and a method of connecting to the One, so too are representations of the Gods and divine beings. This explains the use of magical images associated with Sephiroth in Hermetic Qabalah, something that marks its break from traditional Jewish Kabbalah.
All well and good. However, one of the other concerns of aniconism is that any image, any representation must by necessity involve the human imagination, effort and mind. Since these are limited, the representations are limited and therefore can limit the observers of these images. A specific example is this image of ‘the Horned Lord’.
Now the deity in question has only been around a couple of hundred years at best, being a modern western expression of an eternal reality and presence. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, it is clear that this image is temporal in nature, extolling those virtues of masculinity – rugged good looks, a six pack abdomen and sculpted muscles – found in those stereotypes of ideal manhood beloved of Hollywood and men’s magazines. There is no doubt he’s well hung too.
Look also at these images of Isis and other divine or spiritual female beings. They represent modern sexual and physical fantasies of the ideal woman, thin waisted, size 8 with non-saggy tits, as much as they do the Goddess.
When we worship and commune with eternal mysteries and presences via temporal images that are pretty much (apart from the horns and embellishments) the same as we see in sexualised magazines, I think there may be problems. This is not because sex is a problem, not because physical beauty is a problem, or even the abs. It is because we mix the realms – being conditioned to respond in a certain way to sexualised and perfect images of the human body, we will respond in the same way when we worship via these images.
Now we can argue it is fine to be sexually aroused and interested during our worship, and that is all right. However, the point is that the sexual impetus is instigated from culturally and temporally conditioned factors, not from a personal and inner connection with the divine. There is a big difference; one locks us into a limited time-space approach to the divine, and the other allows the Gods to inform and inspire our reactions. We should remember that what we see as beautiful and sexy today was not so throughout all history. Ancient Greek depictions of penises were often small because a large penis was considered a sign of barbarianism and a small penis a sign of civility. Skinny women were not considered sexy only a hundred years ago.
I am not only saying that divine images date themselves, but that if we are not careful we make the gods in our own image. Of course, as I mentioned with the Horned Lord, we as a culture do that, and have always done that. However, to use images, attributes and ideas associates with sexual attraction and beauty we are risking making the Gods simply larger, divine images of our pin-up models. There is a (now old) joke that it is telling that Wiccans refer to their deities by the same title they give to their priesthood, Lord and Lady. This is not having a go at Wiccans, simply pointing out how we need to consider our images of the divine very carefully.
The Hebrew word translated as ‘holy’, QDSh or Qodosh has roots that mean to ‘keep separate’, ‘apart’, to ‘make holy’. This is a principle I personally use in my practice. Any images of the divine are separate from those I see in my daily life. The words I use for Christ are Hebrew and Aramaic, to avoid linkage with jokes and blasphemy about ‘Jesus’. This Qodosh principle is used extensively in western magic and modern Neo-paganism, apart from it seems our images of the divine. Why do we keep our tools, robes and talismans separate from the herd, but not our images? Now, I know there are some traditions that use ‘what’s at hand’, and seeing a traditional cunning man literally pick up what’s in the kitchen and work the deepest magic, I understand this. But this is a completely different approach from magic and modern paganism.
Representing the Image
The images we have of divinity naturally affect how we imitate, represent and worship divinity. Traditional religious dress is almost uniformly, regardless of culture and time, a uniform itself. Tibetan monks wear the same robes as other monks. Christian priests wear the same outfit as others of their sect and/or order. Nuns all looked, once upon a time, a little like penguins. The idea of course is to transmute and translate individuality towards a universal transcendent reality, be that God or enlightenment. This is not to say the robes and clothes themselves do not have meaning and symbolism, they most certainly do, only that the meaning is determined by the collective, not the individual.
Again, this is something that many modern Neo-pagans and some magicians have moved away from. Individual robes are often well, just that – individual. Heck, I once wore a paisley satin robe to a Wiccan conference (don’t ask why) 🙂 This expression of individualism is probably very good … I think… in some ways. However, I do worry about it, as the cult of the individual in the west has all sorts of nasty side effects. I am sure we can surrender and transmute our individual nature wearing individually chosen togs, but if they are chosen for lower self reasons, I think we hamper ourselves.
I once participated in wonderful weekend workshop with the Druid Priestess Emma Restall-Orr. I loved the workshop and learned a lot. During the weekend she referred more than once to how she would start her discussions on paganism, with groups like schoolchildren, by writing the question ‘do you think religion should be sexy?’ on the blackboard. Naturally this would get the audience’s attention and deliver a winning blow to any vicar she was competing against. All very good, but when she arrived on the last night for the main ritual she was dressed in robes clearly chosen for their glamour and sex appeal. She walked past, swirling her skirts/robes in a very powerful gesture. My Druid friend, a straight man, was obviously effected and later said for him this display meant ‘the Priestess had arrived’. So, a good thing, I guess … but I still wonder if a mature Dion Fortune, the Priestess of the 20th century, had ambled by, if the same affect would occur. And on that note, take a look at two other Priestesses whose power could roast chestnuts…
It seems in some way that where Neo-Paganism has gone, the Church may be following. How else do we explain this report on the latest clerical fashions for the Church of England, allowing Vicars to personalise at will? :). It all seems like a bit of window dressing to me, just like making the pulpits ready to dock the Vicar’s iPad. Give me an old fashioned cassock and King James Bible any day 🙂 Thanks for listening…