The God Mask – A Ritual Technique

We had a great conversation at our online video chat in the Facebook Atheopagan group today. Topics ranged, but one that stuck out for me was Glen Gordon’s discussion of his work to create a new lexicon for Pagan and ritual phenomena he feels aren’t well defined by existing words in English.

As I’ve said elsewhere, although an atheist I spent many years circling in ritual with various elements of the Pagan community here in Northern California, viewing the invocation of gods and the conducting of “magic” as metaphorical, psychological processes to influence the minds of participants rather than as literal communications and physically effective influencers of events.

Having now gone public with my Atheopaganism, I can nonetheless still see ritual value and power in the use of the mental images of human-like figures to render phenomena which are powerful in our lives more “relatable”. The problem is that by using the words “god”, “goddess”, “spirit” or “deity”, you haul in a truckload of associated assumptions about worship, a supernatural dimension and a top-down model of the Cosmos which fly in the face of science and which I, a naturalist Pagan, cannot embrace or endorse.

I view the myths of polytheistic gods as anthropomorphic imagined faces we humans placed on powerful forces in order to feel as though we could communicate with them: to bargain, to plead for aid, to placate them so they wouldn’t hurt us. Given the level of knowledge of humans when we first began to do this, it makes perfect sense that we would try thus to gain control of our environment by any means possible in order to enhance survival.

Today, with the state of human knowledge as it is, we are nevertheless every bit as prone to anthropomorphization of our world. As children, we imbue our toys with imagined personalities; as adults, many of us name our cars and think of them as having human-like personalities, etc. We are social creatures and seek to relate with everything we encounter.

In ritual, there is a compelling power in being able to dialogue with a Powerful Phenomenon like Death or Sex or Love or Anger or Trickiness or Playfulness or Ocean or Mountain as if it were a human with particular qualities and powers, even when you know you are pretending. I have experienced that rituals which do this can go very deep indeed.

But as an Atheopagan, I just can’t invoke gods. It’s too easy for participants or observers to conflate what I mean with real gods that have independent intelligence, communicate interpersonally, and exist in some disembodied dimension. And I just don’t believe in those.

We have no term for the mask of a god we put on these powerful phenomena not as a literal identification, but rather as a ritual technique, a conceit we choose to collaborate in. If there were such a term, I might become more comfortable with including “god-images” in my rituals, so long as there is the full understanding that these are but metaphors: masks.

In my region, which is suffering crippling drought,  a ritual might include the following:

Ritual leader:  We look to the Great Sky, and see it is infinite. It contains all things, including what we desire. Who will wear the Mask of the Great Sky and speak to us?

Pre-selected participant steps forward:  I wear the Mask of the Great Sky! I roar in thunder and rage in hail and lightning! Speak to me now: tell me what you want, and why. 

When complete, the Great Sky would be thanked for its gifts and counsel, and then this participant would “remove the mask” (literally or figuratively) to rejoin the circle.

A ritual like this makes clear that we are pretending to talk to the Great Sky, but incorporates direct dialogue with it in a manner which can be powerful and moving.

Personally, I would not use the names of mythologically established gods in such a ritual. That baggage is just too much for me, and I do not resonate with myths from other regions and time periods anyway. So I would say “the Mask of Love and Sex” rather than “the Mask of Aphrodite”. But if you’re comfortable with the latter, by all means go for it.

One term we might consider for “mask” could be “prosopon”, the Ancient Greek term for mask (literally, “face”). After all, it is the Greeks who first created ritual theater as a means to tell metaphorical stories of meaning to their people. So we would invoke “the Prosopon of the Great Sky”.

I intend to explore this technique in the near future. I think it will be effective, as it merely makes explicit what I have believed about Pagan “gods” since I joined the Pagan community.

I knew, years ago when I knelt before Hades and Persephone, that I was really talking to two of my friends pretending to be those gods. By invoking not a god but the mask of a Force, a Place, a Natural Phenomenon, I can acknowledge that I know I am pretending, while still doing so and not “breaking the spell”.

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14 thoughts on “The God Mask – A Ritual Technique

  1. *nods* I made one of these for a ritual for Samhain ’06 which was supposed to represent Earth, but which I always thought of as the Face of the Forest. It was one of the more powerful rituals I’ve been a part of, despite the mask actually just sitting on its stand throughout. It still hangs in my house, though not as shiny as it used to be. http://photos.communityseed.org/content/66126629/r/s_82772663.jpg

    It’s interesting how much easier it seems to deal with natural forces when they are anthropomorphized. Could be why so many people did…

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    • Yes, which is why I think it’s a neat trick to find a way to do that anthropomorphizing, while at the same time stating explicitly that that’s what you’re doing, so there is no mistaking that this is ritual psychodrama, not talking to “real gods”.

      The “masks” can be virtual, as well–simply stating “I wear the mask of the Great Sky” doesn’t necessarily involve putting on a physical mask (but if you have one, it’s even cooler).

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  2. I like the term prosopon! it is very discriptive of what is being done in ceremonial space. I think the implimintation of masks in natrualist cerimonies could be very powerfull and help to emphesize the playfull theatrics of cerimony.

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    • Hi, Bart–personally, I avoid it because I know that a great many people use Gaia to mean an intelligent, interpersonal godform. It’s great as a metaphor but I avoid using deity names so it’s clear I’m talking about a metaphor and not an actual self-aware *entity*. As I say in the piece, though, if you’re comfortable with it, by all means use it.

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  3. In my own ritual approach, I’m a pantheist/archetypist. I’m barely a theist; I have had mystic communion experience with the divine, and specifically, with deity forms, but I see these very much as masks/filters/lenses through which I’m connecting to that larger/incomprehensible whole. I see the archetypes/deities/heroes as stories with a certain amount of invested energetic power. As part of that larger whole. I can’t quite call myself an atheist, but it sounds like I approach deity/ritual in a similar way to what you describe above.

    When I teach ritual facilitation, I almost exclusively focus on logistics and techniques. I use ecstatic techniques because they work. Singing, dancing, breathing, drumming…these evoke a trance state. It’s just science.

    When I facilitate rituals, I refer to gods and deities, but I usually make it clear before the ritual starts that I don’t really care what someone’s theology is. People can join my rituals if they are polytheists and believe in them as distinct gods, if they are pantheists, if they are atheists who just see them as archetypes. I’m still going to use the word gods for ease of use. Well–unless it’s a hero story like King Arthur, etc. Essentially, I’m comfortable using the language of myth and deity because it’s effective. For me, it’s important to let people know that I’m not really trying to teach theology. When I lead a ritual, I’m just trying to get people to “the door,” as it were. I’m not there to tell them what’s past the door, what it looks like. I’m not there to preach my own theology. I’m just trying to help them get to a state of consciousness where they can have a potent experience.

    There are several terms for the function of invocation as you describe. They have slightly different nuances. There’s drawing down or invoking, there’s trance possession, and there’s aspecting. Some of these terms have slightly different connotations. Aspecting is a term more often used by Reclaiming, and some other traditions. Aspecting holds the connotation that the human aspecting the deity is in control of the process, and that they aren’t being fully 100% possessed. Whereas trance possession holds the opposite connotation, that the human doing the “horsing” is blacking out and not going to remember what the deity did while in their body.

    There’s another word I sometimes use, “Embodying,” which is a lighter version of aspecting. I use this when I mean that someone is either doing a light aspect of a deity, or even just speaking (in first person) in the voice of the deity. And, this is something I do for deities (like Hephaestus or Brigid) or more gender-neutral archetypes (The Worker at the Forge) or for hero/story characters (King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake, Merlin).

    Terminology is difficult. Even the word “invoking” has different meanings depending upon tradition. The way I learned it through Reclaiming and Diana’s Grove, “invoking” just meant “inviting that spirit/deity/energy into the ritual space” vs. horsing the deity/spirit in someone’s body. We called that aspecting.

    I see where you’re going with this, but the challenge with the game of “let’s pretend” is it doesn’t work very well, and loses a lot of its power, if you keep reminding people they are pretending. One of the most powerful pieces of ritual technique is engaging a trance state, and if you keep reminding people that this is all pretend, you’re going to keep yanking them up out of it.

    There’s a ritual axiom I use; don’t use transitions like, “And now we’re gonna raise energy,” or, “And now we’re gonna talk to the mask of god that isn’t a real god, just a mask,” or something else that takes people out of the groove. I personally think that it’s sufficient to lay my own theology out on the table before I facilitate and empower people to make their own choices about how they work with gods/archetypes.

    Because, you’re absolutely right–the anthropomorphization of deity, and connecting to those huge forces via a proxy/mask in ritual is incredibly potent. It’s why we have statues and paintings and shrines to deities. It’s why we have ritual theater, it’s why we have aspecting and drawing down in ritual. It’s potent to make that connection, even if it’s just “let’s pretend.” The science of it is in trance work. When you close your eyes and imagine an experience, your mind can make that experience very real. Hypnotherapists can use this to help people re-imagine and re-remember an old painful memory but with a different outcome. It’s transformative. It’s not woo-woo at all.

    I’m not sure that a different word is needed for this function in ritual other than the spread of terms available. Perhaps the word “performing” might work for your purposes better than aspecting or embodying, since it has a more secular context but is still used in ritual.

    Thanks for giving me ritual-y things to ponder 🙂

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    • Thanks for a thoughtful and lengthy comment!

      I think that the “mask” technique doesn’t have to be belabored (thus letting all the air out of the balloon) in order to work. In a ritual I’m planning now, we will invoke the “Mask of Compassion”, and then Compassion will speak and act. It may take a little getting used to, but I’m confident that this won’t be an empty or powerless ritual.

      We connect best to other beings which are like us–which think and talk like us, and have emotions and motivations we can comprehend. To the degree natural phenomena can be so characterized, putting a human face on them helps us to feel as though we are engaging with them directly. It sounds as though you are working on more ecumenical rituals which sidestep the question of the participants’ cosmologies; what I’m doing here is trying to chart a path forward for those who are somewhat (or entirely) clear that they don’t believe in gods, and for which the invocation of gods actually undermines a ritual by making it obviously “hokey” or divorced from reality. As a friend of mine in the Pagan community said after I published “How I Became an Atheopagan,” “At long last: rituals where I don’t have suppress rolling my eyes!”

      Those who can “go” with the pretense of “real invocation” may be more easily drawn into deep and effective ritual than those who can’t, but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to create it for the latter group. I’m doing my best to offer tools, resources, ideas and principles that can help those of us who have been metaphorically rolling our eyes to have powerful and meaningful rituals within the context of our naturalistic beliefs.

      Of course, when circling in a diverse group, I just go with whatever the organizers created; if it stretches too far for me, I leave the circle. But I have found that I actually have less impatience with what strikes me as superstitious and magical thinking than I did previously, knowing that now there are a path and a modality and a community, building a tradition that fits me to a T.

      Again, thanks for your very thoughtful comment.

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  4. I must say this is a rather fascinating conversation. I’m a former devout catholic whose faith collapsed, and I only recently stepped into atheism. As you know catholics use a LOT of ritual, so I’m the process of trying to strip it *completely* out of my life. I’ve never considered the perspective of those who have never had ritual, and who are trying to create some. I’ve not read much of your blog yet, but I’m curious as to what the benefits of creating ritual are? Is it like a meditation of sorts, that calms and relaxes you, or do you feel it opens your mind? Of course catholic ritual was used to connect us to god, but if you don’t believe in a god it’s just a meaningless series of actions. I’d love if you could direct me to a post or tell me how ritual enriches your life. I hope this comment does not come off as patronizing…I’m really just interested to know!

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