Welcome to the first in a new on-going column, ev0king the Question. Here, we invite regular ev0ke contributors and guests to share their thoughts on a particular question. Sometimes, it will be silly. Sometimes, it will be serious. Sometimes, a little bit of both.
Below, find this month’s question, and answers from Pagans and polytheists from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. Do you have thoughts of your own? If so, please feel free to share them below.
The question: Are there “good” Gods? Are there “evil” Gods? Do the Gods possess a morality understandable to humans? Can/should humans apply our morality to the divine?
Laurelei Black is a Traditional Witch and a Priestess of Aphrodite. She is the author of several books, including Aphrodite’s Priestess, Cult of Aphrodite, and The Witches’ Key to the Legion. Find her on YouTube at Blade and Broom.
The way one approaches this question will at least partially depend on which “Model of Magick” one subscribes to. Adherents of the “Psychological Model” might argue that the Godds are simply expressions of our own psyche, and therefore they are no more or less evil than the societies who created and continue to honor them. If there is evil in people, then there is evil in the Godds.
I live and work within the “Spirit Model,” though, which means that I recognize and honor the many expressions of the Divine as separate individuals, not entirely reliant on human reality or perception. Furthermore, I see Divinity in all things, including myself and the physical world around me (including those things that I can’t see and know nothing of).
The Godds, then, are powerful, often immensely ancient beings who operate according to their own rather idiosyncratic rules. Their actions are interpreted through the lens of a given society’s current moral filters, but those filters are subject to change and reinterpretation along a very wide pendulum swing. Issues whose morality can seem really clear-cut in one generation (or millennia) can be ambiguous in another — and clearly at the other end of the morality spectrum in yet another.
No, I am not going to dive into the murky and problematic waters of examples. You can undoubtedly think of plenty. And while I agree that it is very easy to say, “Okay, I recognize that X was done in the past, but it was inherently evil,” I would urge you to look deeper. “Evil” isn’t a fixed place in the natural world. Neither is “good.” When we journey along that line of thinking, we come to the Neo-Platonic dichotomies of the Greatest Good (highest high, whitest white, etc) and the Vilest Evil (lowest low, blackest black, etc). That is the same continuum from which the Abrahamic JHVH and Shaitan (Adversary) were drawn.
Moreover, it is we as humans who place ideas and beings (and feelings and experiences) upon that spectrum in our attempt to categorize and understand them. We decide what we believe is evil and what we value as morally good. Here’s a thought to ponder: For every evil that we have perceived and overcome in our forebears, we have uplifted an ideal that they would have perceived as evil or immoral in us. Their laws and customs would have deemed us as a whole society to be licentious and perverse — and us as Pagans/Witches to be heretical.
It is for all these reasons that I am unable to see the Godds (or Spirits) as either good or evil. What I have experienced, instead, is that some are more or less aligned to my own moral compass. I can also see that of these, some are more (or less) aligned to the moral compass of my peer group. Hardly any, if I am looking critically, are well-aligned to the morals espoused by the American majority. Almost all of our Godds look scary (and “evil” on some level) to people like my mother and grandmother. Does that actually make my Godds evil? Not at all. Does my alignment with them (or theirs with me) make me or them “good?”
“Good for each other,” I say — and I consider that very, very good, indeed.
December Bryant-Fields (they/them) is a polytheist witch and alchemist living in the woods in rural Tennessee with their partner, child, and stubborn dog. You can learn more about them and their work at avelvetpath.wordpress.com or on twitter @thevelvetpath.
To the question of whether some Gods are good and others are evil, the very short and sweet answer is no. Such a simplistic binary morality doesn’t exist in nature or the universe.
Before someone runs off and says some witch declared there is no evil in the world, please allow me a moment to expand my answer.
Often this question arises when a modern reader refers to myths wherein a deity abducts, rapes, dismembers, or does some other horrific thing to either another deity, creature, or a human. Such acts are, like I said, horrific and very easy to label as evil on the surface level. However, all mythology requires the reader to have context and nuance, something that is lacking in a lot of today’s media, sadly. I could go on for days on allegory or how some of these myths were written as propaganda or were adjusted by later religions *cough* Christianity *cough*. Whole books, seminars, and courses have been written on these literary, historical, and religious topics. I highly recommend looking into them if you want to read mythology in general but especially if you are studying the myths of your spiritual path.
That said, another side of this is to consider our own definitions of good and evil. Good is defined as “that which is morally right; righteousness.” Evil is defined as “profoundly immoral and wicked” as well as “harmful or tending to harm.” Both of these definitions require understanding of the concept of morality. Moral as an adjective is “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character” and as a noun is “a person’s standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.” Notice the use of the words human and person in these definitions and not the words God or Deity or Spirit.
Morality and the lines between good and evil are human constructs created to keep humans in line and reduce harm. Now what constitutes as harm changes from culture to culture, government to government, and time period to time period. In America today, we have Christofascists who would happily drag us to those dark ages where they can enslave, terrorize, and so on based on their concept of good and evil, so we can see how precarious that line is. However, there are some very basic things we can consider evil that should be universal. Things like child abuse, rape, and so on. When we discuss things like free will and community, these are left to us to work out, abide by, and deal with in accordance with our human principles.
That said, are there entities that we might call spirits or even Gods that are harmful? Yes. Of course there are. But it’s not up to us to decide on the moral grounds of these entities any more than we can decide on the morality of a hurricane or a predatory animal. Do we declare dolphins evil because they kill their young in order to mate and the young of other animals for fun? No. We take measures to ensure the safety of ourselves and other creatures when we can, of course, but these are not moral questions. We cannot begin to fathom the morality of something we can barely communicate with, whether spirit or dolphin.
I could write all day about morality and these concepts, but that isn’t particularly helpful if you only leave with word salad. So, let’s look at a practical application.
If you are a polytheist and you are interested in a Deity and are wondering if this Deity is good or evil, there are some things you can do.
First, ask yourself why you might think they are evil, as this is usually the concern. I don’t see a lot of witches and polytheists wringing their hands over if a Deity is benevolent, but feel free to work this out asking that question as well.
Are you concerned about their mythology?
An example that I see often is Hades. He’s the God of the Underworld. He kidnaps and rapes His niece according to the myth of Persephone. Yet, many folks, especially AFAB witches, are drawn to Him. Perhaps even chosen by Him as devotees. Some will say that the myth is wrong and draws on modernized tales and outright fiction about the divine couple wherein Persephone is a willing lover of Hades or the abduction was a misunderstanding or … well, you get the idea. The thing is, there is a better way. Look at the concept of Allegory. Look at the Eleusinian mysteries involved in these myths. Look at the propaganda work involved in ancient Greek and Roman plays and writing. Treat mythology like a puzzle, a secret code. The Divine truth and initiatory wisdom therein can greatly help your spiritual development.
Second, ask the Deity themselves. The spirit work, divination, and ritual practices to speak to the Gods are not just something our ancient ancestors did. You can talk to them too or ask a trained and experienced spirit worker to do so for you. (A side note: please consider financially supporting your spirit workers in your traditions.)
I personally struggled not with the concept of an evil God but with a Deity that I had the wrong impression of for a long time. I ran from Odin for years until He got tired of me listening to dude-bros in horned helmets talking about how they’re going to Vahalla. (You’re an accountant, Ned. The only battle you might die in is against the printing machine.) Through years of divination, spirit work, and more I learned there is so much more to Odin and that the bullshit spouted by misogynists, racists, and the early Christians who killed Norse polytheists never would be able to convey His glory … or hide it for that matter.
Third, ask yourself what role the Gods play in your practice and in your life. Do you rely on the Gods for daily decisions about your own morality? If so, perhaps you should sit with yourself and decide on what you believe is morally good and evil and set those boundaries for yourself. Give yourself permission to set and keep those boundaries. You do not need permission from the Gods to say “No. This is wrong. I will not do evil things or permit you to do evil things to me.” You do not need a Divine Calling to do good in the world like helping those who cannot help themselves, fighting against ill treatment of people or nature, and more. Is it cool to have a sign or dream or direct communication from the Divine regarding activist work? Sure. Is it beneficial to pray and do ritual or spell work to provide strength in your work? Heck yea. It is also good to remember that we are specks in eternity to the Divine. Our problems, even horrific problems that outlive us, are not necessarily Their problems. Our beliefs are not necessarily on Their minds. With this in mind, do not feel lesser-than if the Deity you devote yourself to doesn’t “show up” for every moral battle you fight in your life. There is something to be said for proving yourself worthy, if not to the Gods and ancestors, than to yourself.
Stefanos Chelydoreus is a witch, writer, theologian, and mystic.
These are complex questions that have been a source of much contemplation, debate, and philosophical struggle for countless people throughout history. My answers, subjective as they are, arise from the perspective of a “praxis theologian”; that is, a theologian focusing on the “how” and “why” of practical and cultic matters and topics, as opposed to pure religious philosophy, metaphysics and so on. While the latter topics also play a role in my approach, it is a limited one, as I concern myself more with the practical side of things. Onto the questions themselves though.
First, I must clarify that terms such as “good” and “evil” in religious (polytheistic) understandings and schools of thought don’t necessarily refer to the way we understand those terms in our every day life and common vernacular. Instead, what should more accurately be called “philosophical good” and “philosophical evil” are universal, ontological concepts from which the ethical versions (moral good, moral evil) originate in a form of human imitation. In other words, when religions say God(s) is Good, they mean God(s) is the essence of the concept of “good”; that good is the Platonic idea of goodness, the perfect origin and template of all other iterations and interpretations of “good”. Likewise, philosophical evil is the essential absence of that archetypal good, and theologically it often denotes distance or separation from divinity. It’s not a moral kind of good or evil, where the things we do or think are “good” or “bad”, but a matter of how things are on a fundamental basis. Moral good and evil are a socio-cultural way to instill those archetypal values into something that can enrich and shape civilization – being human imitations based on those archetypal values, they are flawed and limited (i.e. philosophically evil!).
But how does this apply to the Gods in my theological approach? In all honesty, it doesn’t. I don’t actually subscribe to notions of good and evil on an ontological level, since the slippery slope of moralizing them is too common and too damaging. Since I am not a Platonist of any sort, I don’t subscribe to this entire system of ideas, essential templates, and similar concepts, therefore the question on the (philosophical) goodness or evilness of Gods is inapplicable in my theology. I included the clarification earlier because, whether I personally agree with it or not, Platonic thought is a major influence in polytheism, both ancient and modern, and colors much of what has been written about Gods. A big reason for my rejection of that entire perspective is related to my answer to the last question: “Can/should humans apply our morality to the divine?”. My answer is categorically “no”. And since I personally believe the aforementioned system of ideas and values is actually a human imposition on an ineffable reality (to quote a friend and fellow polytheist: “Neoplatonism is a very good system for explaining apparent reality in a systematic way but not as good a guide for what those universal principles actually are.”), doing the same with even baser – compared to the Gods – concepts like human morality, is a mistake. We can hardly apply one culture’s or society’s ethics to another, and we already know we cannot apply human morals to animals, so why would or should we do that to something equally inhuman but on the other, “higher” side of things? If a cat cannot be judged based on human morality, why should a God? How could such a thing be applied to a God at all?
Now, whether Gods possess a morality of their own is another matter, and one we sadly cannot answer in any concrete way. We can only barely understand the Gods in the limited extent they reveal themselves to us. Deeper, more extensive revelations of their truths are ineffable and inconceivable enough that we have denoted them mysteries and transcendental experiences. We cannot even normally conceive, let alone express or understand those and they’re far from the totality of a God’s nature. So while we might infer, based on how Gods interact with their followers and domains, that they might have some kind of system of values inherent to them, like we have morals and ethics, we have no way of figuring it out or understand it at all. As the saying goes, “God works in mysterious ways” (and as the Greek equivalent says in literal translation: “God’s will is unknown”). Forgive the Christian-centric figure of speech but it is quite apt in this case.
In conclusion, my own theological approach is that questions of morality in regards to the Gods are either inapplicable from a perspective that doesn’t rely on philosophical ethics as a basis for theological ontology, or outright unknowable if it hinges on considerable understanding of the Gods.
Taylor Ellwood is a magician, and an author and editor with Immanion Press.
The question of good and evil and whether gods are good or evil is a question that draws on a simple dualistic morality that we try to impose on the world around us, in order to understand and categorize that world. We also apply it to the spirits labeling and categorizing them in a specific way, often based on knowledge that has been handed to us from a dominant religious perspective that is antipathic to anything that doesn’t fit within its narrow views of good and evil.
A more nuanced perspective would be helpful to cultivate. A given spirit may not be friendly, but that doesn’t mean it’s evil or good. It simply means that it’s not friendly and it may have specific reasons it’s not friendly. Nonetheless the spirit performs a specific function or inhabits a specific reality that is essential and a consideration of that aspect of a spirit can help us connect with the spirit carefully and respectfully.
A given deity has multiple aspects to it and those aspects play a role in how it relates to us and the world around us. What seems good or evil may simply be the realm of influence the deity is attached to and represents, and yet the deity may be perceived as good or evil simply because of how we think of what they represent, and the fears and hopes we have around such things.
For example a fear of death may cause a person to perceive a death deity or spirit as evil, but another person in terminal pain may see such a deity as good, because of the relief that will be offered when they die. Either perspective is valid, but also subjective, interpreted through the lens of our experiences and needs that influence the way we interact with the world around us. Another example would be a love deity, which may help someone find love, but could also create upheaval in the lives of people around them.
If deities possess a morality that’s understandable to humans it is still something that is filtered down to our expectations and experiences. In a very real sense the deity meets us where we are able to meet them and goes no further unless we are able to go further. Yet this also happens because we apply our own morality to the deity, wanting the deity to show up in a specific way. To a certain extent the deities will show up to accommodate us, but they may also push in ways we don’t expect and yet may be necessary precisely because we need to learn something from them that pushes us out of our comfort zone.
I think initially the way we connect with a deity or any other type of spirit is necessarily informed by the filters we put into place in order to understand and approach the deity or spirit. However the relationship can change over time both through the fact that any relationship changes and evolves and also because the way we connect with a given spirit can change as we learn more about it and are open to stepping out of our comfort zone to connect with the spirit.
The relationship you have with a spirit is the real determinant of how you understand and experience the spirit.
Want to learn more about my approach to spirit work? Check out my book Walking with Spirits and visit my website, Magical Experiments.
Ashley Nicole Hunter is a founder, editor, and writer with ev0ke.
When you trim a broken tree branch that threatens to crash down and harm others, is it evil? If you catch a fish to eat when you are hungry, is this malice? If you kill an intruder who means to harm your family, have you done wrong? True evil, I believe, is taking an action specifically to cause pain to another when other options were available to you. True goodness, on the other hand, is more complicated, and necessitates viewing the “big picture” sometimes and making complex judgment calls.
The gods are known for their view of the “big picture”. We see, again and again in our sacred stories, the gods extending Their hands to shift the course of history, setting a hero on their path or preventing the destruction of a city. While we cannot view such stories as literal, it does suggest that the gods take an active part when They see fit.
In my personal religious views, I see all of existence as being very similar to an egg in the womb, its cells changing and springing into life to work towards the creation of something bigger. While I cannot know what will eventually be birthed, I believe the gods, like ourselves, like all life, have a part to play in this creation. While I believe it is the job of humans to act as gardeners, tending the lives that exist, I believe it is the job of the gods to oversee the work of those below them and to correct things as necessary.
Sometimes, a tree limb will be trimmed. Sometimes, a fish will be eaten. These are never done maliciously, and many more times over I believe a tree will be planted or a life will be protected. But the gods, ultimately, act with the best interests of all creation in mind, and for this reason cannot be regarded as anything other than wholly good, even when Their goodness does not align with our own wants or values at that time.
Irisanya Moon is an author, witch, and initiate in the Reclaiming tradition.
One of my most prized possessions as a child was a prayer book. It was the kind of book that had a foam-lined cover, so it would squish when you pushed at it. And it was shiny and perfect in my eyes. This book contained the outlines of Catholic masses and the ways they should be done, including red ink for when the priest was supposed to talk.
Within those pages were the correct ways to do things. And within that faith, I knew how to act and how to be good. All I had to do was do what I was told and avoid what was bad. Easy enough, right? To a certain extent, I miss the clarity of it. What I don’t miss is the lack of critical thinking or the application of this divine love to all, no matter their actions.
Morality is a dynamic concept, one that shifts in relation to those examining it and applying it in their lives. What I might consider right or good may not align with someone else’s definitions. Life becomes a series of moments of choice. What do I choose to do? What do I think is the way? Who do I serve in this choice? Who do I leave behind? What have I learned? What could I do in a new or better way? What is my impact?
I left the church in small steps. Lying about going to mass. Bringing home church bulletins to prove I had made it in the door. Spending the time I was ‘at church’ drunk in the back of the place I worked. Or wandering around slightly buzzed at the local grocery store until it was time to go home.
I share this because I imagine it brings up different reactions. It might sound like the ‘right’ thing to do. Or it could also look like I’m a ‘bad’ liar who should have just said I was done with Christianity. When morality is applied, it is applied unevenly. It is applied with the technique you learned from your family, your friends, your faith, and whomever you trust and listen to.
When I moved into paganism and witchcraft through the new age crystal gateway, I recognized the godds (I use this spelling to offer a more gender-full experience) as beings of complexity and of myths translated by those who wanted to tell their stories in certain ways. Because the muscle of Christianity was still well-defined, I placed godds into ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ columns. And I wanted all the ‘hard.’ I wanted the godds who would dare me, challenge me, and make my life difficult in the name of my growth. Now I see this as thinly-veiled good and bad assignments.
It makes sense to want to codify the ways things are, even deities. To arrange them so that it is simpler to understand my role and the actions I should take. To decide who is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to me so I do things right. (Who doesn’t want to do things right? At least, some of the time.)
Landing in the liminal and in the gray is a harder life. It comes with making decisions based on what you have learned and what you have experienced. It comes with taking actions to align with what is in integrity for you — and often stepping away from some individuals and groups. Others you thought would be beside you forever.
But over time and my practice of witchcraft, I came to understand and believe that I am divine too. I am divine in all of my mistakes and missteps, in all of my achievements and all of my celebrations. I am just as gray in the way I exist, and my values have changed. From there, I moved into how the godds are divine like me (mistakes and all) and that they are not beings I put onto pedestals. Those places that are so easily judged and measured from afar.
I also recognize and acknowledge that stories are told of godds by those who translate original texts. Those translations come with biases, omissions, morals of the day, and the ever-present white guy academic. I don’t read the stories as full truths, but stories to inspire and inform — stories that do not offer absolutes. (Which is wobbly, to be sure, but also exciting.)
I stopped placing deities above me, which reduced any lingering ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ Just as people in my life can exist in the ways they do, godds can exist in the ways they do. Whether I choose to interact with them is my choice. Whether I agree is my decision to make. Whether I like the way they have lived in the stories I know is up to me, but not for me to judge.
(And honestly, as someone who works with Greek and Norse deities, primarily, these are flawed and complicated beings. But also beings of their time and place.)
What I put up with, loudly or silently, is up to me. My morals are not necessarily placed on others. My morals stand at the gate of access to me, asking a lot of questions before letting anyone in. And changing permissions as people (and I) change.
I think the godds are beyond the human definitions of right and wrong. They are wider in perspective and seen in different forms, depending on the eyes that search for them. Depending on the times in which they were initially discovered and revered. Depending on the circumstances of their worship and their downfall. There is so much more to every story.
For me, it is in cultivating a relationship that I can begin to see if my values align with what I know of a deity. If I don’t know someone or their background, I don’t have a full picture. I don’t have context. I am using my interpretation as the magnifying glass, more often burning a hole in it all before seeing anything clearly.
I hesitate to say ‘should’ to anyone in their magickal practice. I would only offer that if you find yourself in these binary places, the either/or spaces, take a breath and ask where that comes from. Who told you that someone or something was ‘bad’ or ‘good’? Do you actually agree? What does it mean? And how does it affect others?
Somedays I wish there was a small book with a shiny, squishy cover that would tell me what to do and how to do it. When to speak and when to be silent. But I am writing that book every day based on what I have experienced and what I have learned from the experience of others.
And I will continue to rewrite as needed.
Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa is the creator of many sacred icons of the gods, as well as the author of the book Sacred Verses: Entering the Labyrinth of the Gods, which is available on Amazon and Lulu.
Morality is a subjective framework of values that changes from society to society, era to era, and reflects how human beings relate to one another within their social structures at any given time. The Gods are not human beings, are not members of our society, and for that reason do not fit within our subjective frameworks. The Gods are not good or evil. They transcend these moral indicators, which belong to human communities and human social values.
One cannot comprehend the Gods in Their fullness. The most we can do is comprehend those parts or aspects the Gods choose to reveal to us in any given moment. This comprehension is best achieved via direct engagement in sustained cultus over time.
The Gods aren’t only in shrines, icons, and elaborate rituals, but are with us in our joy and triumphs, in our tears and suffering, at the bus stop and in the grocery store. We should begin to see that every aspect of life is part of the Gods and within Their sphere of influence.
There’s nothing wrong with you because you have doubts, because you struggle, because sometimes you’re angry with the Gods or fed up with life’s challenges. The Gods aren’t going to punish or abandon you because you’re human.Most often we need to learn kindness towards ourselves.
I’ll admit to having unrequited love for humans, having my heart smashed a dozen times, but I’ve never experienced unrequited love for the Gods. They are much more loving and generous than I could ever be. They will never be outdone in love. They make hearts, not break them.
Once you recognize your very life and activities as extensions of divine life, then you can see your whole existence as part of the Gods. You see that every event in your life is part of walking with the Gods. You are never without Them.
These statements originally appeared on the author’s Twitter account and have been republished here with their express permission.
Ed Vanderjagt is an author, game creator, and Sumerian polytheist. You can find him on Youtube.
The religion of ancient Mesopotamia does not have gods of evil. There are no forces that are inherently evil. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t evil. The ancients just looked at the subject a little differently than we do today. Evil was that which harms. To a chicken the fox is evil.
What you see a lot more of is a struggle between order and chaos. The gods created this tiny precious island of civilization surrounded by a sea of chaos. Slowly, over many centuries, this seed of civilization spread to bring order to all who could benefit from it.