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On Patron Deities
Copyright 1997 by Lynna Landstreet. Previously
unpublished. Some portions of the material in this essay come from the
Wiccan Church of Canada's
public class on patron deities, as taught by Tamarra James, but most of
it is my own.
The concept of patron deities is not unique to the Odyssian tradition, but neither is it universal to Wicca. Essentially, it is a statement of what aspect of divinity an individual relates most closely to, and has far-reaching implications for one's spiritual practice and day to day life. It is not a topic to be approached lightly.
By and large, most Wiccan traditions hold to Dion Fortune's dictum that "All gods are one God, and all goddesses are one Goddess, and there is one Initiator." (The term Initiator in this context can be taken to signify what we usually refer to as the Source -- the ultimate, nameless divinity that many see as lying beyond individual godforms.) Some people choose to end the statement more plainly, with "...and the two are one." Either way, it is essentially the same concept: one unitary divinity, perceived as containing a masculine and feminine polarity, which in turn are seen as having many different aspects -- all the gods and goddesses of mythology.
However, ultimate nameless divinities, whether polarized by gender or not, are difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a personal relationship with. Wicca is a devotional religion, centred on the creation of an intimate personal bond with divinity. This is much easier to do with individual deities, who have distinct personalities and essences of their own with which one can bond much more readily and closely than one can with the more abstract and conceptual God and Goddess. The distinction is similar to that between the focussed, personalized love you feel for a lover, parent or close friend versus the more diffuse and generalized love a compassionate person may feel for all creation.
Of course, different Wiccan traditions, and different individuals within those traditions vary in the extent to which they emphasize duotheism versus polytheism in their belief and practice. But for many traditions, and certainly for the Odyssian tradition in which I have been trained, the formation of close bonds with a personal patron deity or deities forms a key part of one's personal spiritual development.
The concept of patron deities -- that each individual should serve primarily one deity -- is found in some ancient cultures, but not all of them. Specifically, it has a Graeco-Roman base, and a parallel in Egypt where each nome, or province, had its own primary deity and mythos. It was a less prevalent concept in other cultures, such as Norse or Celtic. There, at least to judge from the surviving tales, an individual might have a particularly close relationship to one deity, but this was not always the case.
The concept of patron deities survived into Christian times through the vehicle of the saints, who parallel in many ways the ancients' demigods and heroes. These were people who dedicated their lives to becoming like their patrons, and were deified through their work. In Graeco-Roman mythology, a person who was said to be half divine had usually been a living person at some point, who had attained such a degree of excellence that she was deified. A differentiation was still made, in most cultures, between demigods and the actual Gods themselves. Roman emperors, Celtic kings, and the Egyptian pharaohs were all deified to varying extents. Most royal houses can trace their lineage back to a deity.
Within a Wiccan context, it provides a way of reducing the often-confusing jumble of deities from different pantheons to a manageable few, and provides a spiritual anchor, as well as setting the tone for much of the individual's spiritual development. However, it is not mandatory. Not all Wiccan traditions have individual patrons. Some expect people to explore relationships with a wide variety of deities, and some have specific deities who act as "patrons," in a sense, to the entire tradition. The older, British-based trads such as the Gardnerians and Alexandrians follow this pattern. They acknowledge all deities as aspects of the one God and Goddess, but they also have specific names for them that are particular to the tradition. These names are not given out to non-initiates, and are part of the material initiates are oathbound to keep secret. Some covens, in those and other traditions, will similarly have secret names for the God and Goddess that are not given out to non-members.
The emphasis on individual, rather than group or tradition, patrons within the Odyssian system reflects the value we place on individualism. We take our name from the Odyssey, in recognition of the fact that each individual has his or her own spiritual journey to make, and that we are there to facilitate this journey, but not to dictate its direction. The emphasis on finding your own relationship to divinity is a part of that.
No matter what you may hear, individuals within this tradition (Odyssean)
are encouraged, not required, to form close relationships with
specific deities. There is no law stating that you must have a specific
patron. There does generally come a time, if you pursue your studies
far enough, when you will find one, and when that happens, you will
know. But this may not be for a long time, and it should not be forced.
Unfortunately, there is a tendency for peer pressure to come into play
-- "Gee, everyone else has a patron, I guess I should have one
too!" Try to resist this -- the relationship between an individual
and deity will form as it will, and should not be forced out
of a desire to conform to perceived social norms.
There are many ways that a patron relationship can form. This event is intensely personal and is never the same for two people. Often, when studying ancient times, a student will find herself drawn to one culture particularly strongly. Upon researching this culture, she may find a Goddess or God with whom she will feel a special kinship. The process may begin quite gradually, with the student's interest developing as he learns and studies in depth those deities with whom he feels a kinship. On the other hand, it may be more dramatic. Sometimes the person will actually see the Deity, in ritual, in a dream, or during astral projection. Other times, it is simply a gut feeling; a name in a book that seems to jump out at you, or something similar.
It is useful to study mythology, and try to find the patterns in which deities attract you and which do not. Even if you do not find a specific patron this way, you will learn about yourself and your concept of divinity. Many books on mythology are written in a fairly "dry" way, because they are geared towards academics and folklorists, not to people seeking to form a living spiritual connection with the deities they describe. Use the mythological texts as a starting point, and for reference, but understand that they in themselves will not provoke many spiritual revelations. Look to more creative works: to music, artwork, poetry, fiction and ritual, which deal with the same deities in a more intuitive and spiritual way.
It is likely that you will find a number of deities with whom you can feel at least some degree of kinship; do not be too quick to name any one of them as your patron. Who you feel closest to will often change as your needs, your sense of spirituality, and the pattern of your life does. The deities you work best with may be predominantly from one culture, or they may be from many different ones. It is a good idea to pay particular attention to the culture(s) that form your own ancestral heritage; you will not necessarily find your patron there, but you will find a sense of your own roots.
With each deity you feel a connection to, try to consider what it might mean to have Him or Her as your patron. How could you best honour this deity? How would you strive for excellence within His or Her realm? In this sense, a patron is like a role model. Every act that you do, you do in your patron's name. Your patron also reflects you concept of the divine, of what you hold sacred, and your spiritual path will reflect this concept. A child of Danu will walk a very different path from a follower of Ares, and a worshipper of Sekhmet, Odin or Arianrhod a different one still. This is why the forming of the patron relationship should not be rushed, or approached impulsively. It will guide your spiritual development throughout this life.
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