Now, however, I want to turn to what is, for me at least, an extremely uncomfortable topic. I want to talk about what happens when gnosis goes bad.
**If you have had this sort of experience, this is your trigger warning. If you have had a bad experience with a deity, or if being confronted with the possibility of this sort of thing will be distressing to you, I urge you not to read any further **
What does it mean when deities appear to be hounding, stalking, and abusing people?
First of all, yes, this does happen. People do have powerful, negative experiences of deities. I personally know at least half a dozen people who have had such persistent, negative experiences. They are otherwise sane and stable, but had the perception that they were abused, attacked, even mentally violated by a deity. Indeed, the phenomenon seems to know no religious boundaries. Pagan author Sam Webster speaks of having this experience with the Christian god, while other writers describe being burned by Greek, Babylonian or Norse deities.
The fact that people can experience our deities in this way brings up a lot of difficult questions for us, as followers, that we’d rather not even think about. Is this what our gods are really like? Could this happen to us? If this was the best answer the gods could come up with for this person, how can we look to them for spiritual guidance?
In this article, I will explore the cause of bad gnosis, its meaning, our responsibility to people who have a negative experience of a deity for which we are a priest or priestess, and what you can do for yourself, or someone else, if a problem like this strikes closer to home. Hint: “Getting Grounded” or trying to shut down second sight may be the worst thing you could do.
What It’s Like: Understanding The Damage
Gladia was a quiet, deep-thinking person who preferred an intellectual approach to religion. She was excellent at research and analysis, and truly had a gift for making sense of ancient texts. She was bright, circumspect, and had a wonderful sense of humor.
Gladia started having visions. Gladia was distressed. Previously a quiet, reasonable sort, she became irascible, and difficult to get along with.
She asked various people in her community, “How do I make this stop?”
Her question was met with disbelief and anger. Responses were varied, but consistently unhelpful. Some of the worst:
“You can’t just tell your gods to stop. If they’ve chosen you as a seer, you can’t just shut them out.”
“You’ll anger them. You’ll bring miasma down on all of your friends.”
“Stop making things up. The gods would never do that.”
“I asked them, and they said that they aren’t really talking to you.”
“I asked them, and they said that you have to stop ignoring them.”
“If it bothers you so much, why do you keep opening to the astral?”
“If you really have this problem, then you should feel honored. Some of us never hear the gods at all”
Gladia, however, was not making things up, and she did not feel honored. She was not trying to listen, she simply heard. Gladia started drinking heavily because of the stress of the revelations, which were constantly crashing up against her own deeply-held values, ethics and philosophy. It was literally tearing her psyche apart.
The thing that disturbs me so much about this story isn’t even so much the question of how deities could do this or allow this to happen, and it isn’t even the fact that we, as a community, had no idea how to minister to this person. What disturbs me is the people that reacted with anger to the fact that this person was suffering.
Let me start here: Not all people are the same. We have different skin colors, different shapes and sizes, different dietary needs, and different spiritual needs. Some people need lots of fruit to maintain a healthy weight, and others need to completely avoid it. Not everyone wears the same dress or suit size. The same religion isn’t right for everyone. Some people legitimately NEED gnosis. Other people are happier, healthier, and simply put, better off without it.
Another thing that needs explaining is that some people have to use ritual techniques or meditation to receive gnosis, or to notice a manifestation, and others do not. The latter group does not need to make any effort at all to hear or see the gods. This might, at first, seem enviable, but it means that when the gnosis goes bad, the person can’t just turn it off. The person cannot opt out, even if they are the sort of person whose spirituality does not benefit from it.
For those who do not need or want gnosis, receiving gnosis can be a disturbing interruption in the flow of their thoughts. It doesn’t mean that they are psychologically flawed, or that they just need to “let go and let gods.” Rather, their minds are calibrated to work differently, and their spirituality comes from a totally different place. Those people who have happened across my path with this problem felt like they were losing their minds, not because they had problematized the phenomenon of gnosis itself, but because, for them, side effects included distractibility, forgetfulness and confusion.
A word that frequently came up, in my conversations with these people, was “violated.” They felt that, when the deity spoke to them, like they were prisoners in their own minds, having lost control of the flow of their own thoughts.
Once the person feels overwhelmed and upset about the contact from the deity, they can develop negative thought forms surrounding them, which can turn things from bad to absolutely nightmarish.
In Gladia’s case, the more she asked the gods in question to leave her alone, the more threatening and invasive the manifestations became. You might say that she was suffering from schizophrenia, but after leaving her religion, and cutting ties with the deity in question, Gladia went on to fully recover without psychiatric intervention.
Why I Do Not Believe That It Is Divine Punishment
I’ll admit a personal bias in my thinking. It is my contention that humans have turned, for many thousands of years, to deities for spiritual guidance, and for help with discerning between the good and the bad. It is either the case that deities understand the difference between the good and the bad moreso than humans do, or else it is the case that humans are misguided in worshipping them.
If the choice was so misguided, it would have led to no good, and consequently would have been abandoned before very long. Rather, we observe that civilizations practiced these religions, and that in the case of Hellenic Polytheism, it led people to humility and hospitality, and many other virtues besides. I therefore posit that gods must be better at solving problems than we are, better at distinguishing virtue from vice, better at knowing the good from the bad, and generally more spiritually enlightened than we are. It therefore follows that a deity should be able to think of a better solution to an insolent mortal than cursing or torturing them.
Deities causing harm to mortals, however, is a thing. It happens not only in Greek mythology, but in every mythology on the planet. Think about the story of Job in the Bible. Then consider just about every dude Ishtar ever slept with, and how that ended. Now let’s think about Cassandra and Orpheus. The myths tell us that in each case, the mortal deserved it for some reason, but what else would the myth makers say? Let’s look beyond fault to simply pause and recognize that people do have gnostic experiences that are destructive, and that this has been happening for just about as long as mortals have interacted with deities.
I’m going to set aside the part of me that wants to believe that gods are always virtuous, for a moment, to ask some needful questions that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to ask.
1. Is there any possible benefit that a deity could receive from hounding, threatening, cursing or violating a person’s private inner space?
I’ve said this before, and I’m going to say it again. If deities did not want to be loved and honored, they probably wouldn’t interact with us at all. Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s pretend that I am coming to you as a door-to-door proselytizer, and that you are the sort of person who enjoys having people show up at your house to try to sell you their religion, and not a normal person who sees a person in a suit with pamphlets and pretends that they are not home.
Me: Hello, how are you today? Would you like to worship Zeus?
You: Maybe. My current religion offers me an infinite forgiveness plan, and only requires that I show up to a place of worship for an hour and a half every week. Also, they have cookies.
Me: By worshipping Zeus, you will be subscribing to one of the oldest and best documented religions on Earth.
You: That’s really cool, but what if I make mistakes?
Me: Well, then, Zeus will probably beat the crap out of you every day forever.
You: What if I repent?
Me: Uhm… maybe that will help? I dunno, I totally know some people who the gods have hounded and misused for years, and none of us really know why. Probably they did something.
You: Oh, do you mean that they got sick? Lost their jobs? Sometimes bad things just happen.
Me: No, I mean that they had visions every day where the deity threatened them, or they were possessed against their will.
You: Uhhh… Say, I have a Doctor’s appointment in an hour, and I really need to take a shower and get going. See ya!
Let’s get frank. A religion is only as powerful as its marketing, and there is no marketing more powerful, especially in the era of all things viral than word of mouth. In order for a deity to put himself or herself in a position where they had the appearance of mistreating a mortal, they would have to not give even half a crap about whether or not they had followers, be profoundly stupid or else there would have to be some moral imperative stronger than their desire for a functioning religion.
That brings us to my second question…
2. Is there any possible benefit that a mortal could receive from being hounded, threatened, cursed or having their private inner space violated?
Firstly, is there a scenario where we could imagine a deity saying, “You know, normally I wouldn’t torture a mortal, for fear of being seen as that kind of deity, and I know it is really unfashionable, but having considered all available options, I’ve decided that the best thing for this mortal is for me to just go medieval on them.”
I could see a human being saying that, at least. There are, for sure, plenty of people who think that bratty children should be spanked, for example.
This article on CNN.com put it better than I ever could: “[physical] punishment teaches that violence is an appropriate response to problems or frustrations with people — and that can lead to a cycle of violence and victimization in the child’s future relationships.”
A growing number of educators and an ever-increasing body of research indicate that punishment does not actually teach people to be better people. Rather, human beings are attention-seeking creatures. Whatever behaviors are attended to increase in frequency. Punishment or reward causes a person’s self-concept to be weighted toward whichever attributes led them to do the thing they are being rewarded or punished for.
After several thousand years, you are going to tell me, the gods never noticed this trend?
The answer is no. It is never in a mortal’s best interest to be tortured, beaten, harassed, hounded, violated or otherwise abused by teachers, parents, or deities.
You want to tell me that deities aren’t omni-benevolent? Fine. Will you really argue, however, that they understand nothing of how human beings function, on a psychological level?
As surely as dropping an egg on the floor results in a broken egg, having a habit of bullying mortals for not agreeing, not being obedient, or not evidencing virtue is a perfect way to turn a community of followers into a cesspit of self-identified heretics and proud fundamentalists who think that the objective of religion is to beat anyone who disagrees with them into submission. The fundamentalists are intimidating to the neutral parties that might otherwise join the religion. The heretics will never stop being heretics as long as it is their heresy that is attended to, and not their piety.
Conclusion: It is not rational for us to assume that the deity intended for this to happen. If they had their way, it most certainly wouldn’t have.
Might Ritual and Informal Mythology Be To Blame?
When I asked god-hounded individuals to tell me when these problems began, one disturbing similarity emerges.
In each case, the trouble began not with a heretical thought, not with a sin for which they felt guilty, but rather, with some sort of mystical ritual.
Sam Webster describes his negative experience happening at a Pentecostal church during proceedings to call down YHVH. Another individual was practicing “dangerous ritual magic” with a friend, yet another experienced a laying on of hands (for the purpose of opening the person to the deity) and the trouble began after that.
Moreover, I asked, “Do you think what you percieved is consistent with the deity’s mythology?” Most of them answered that it was, and were able to cite relevant mythology to support their case, as well as quote the words of clergy — most commonly those clergy in charge of said rituals — in support of their experiences.
Let me share with you another, seemingly unrelated observation: when I have seen human beings aspecting as deities, those manifestations curiously tended to echo the deeply held beliefs that the priest or priestess held about the deity, piety, and the world.
If we look into ancient mythology, we see something similar. Deities are depicted differently from region to region. Mythologies are presented and recounted in different ways depending on the values of that society. In turn, the stories that were told shaped the manifestations of the deity that people perceived.
The community-talk about a deity forms an informal sort of mythology, and this is often steered by the people who represent the deities.
Preconceived notions can color how we hear and see other mortals. How much moreso our gods, with whom we speak using only our minds. Look at the way you talk about your deity, implicitly and explicitly. Consider the way you paint those who are favored versus those who are not. Is the logical conclusion that the deity is petty and wrathful? Disrespectful of a mortal’s privacy? How many times have you heard someone say that their deity chose them, and that they did not have a choice about whether or not they became a priest, priestess or follower of that deity? How many times have you heard someone in your community imply or outright say that a person with whom they did not agree was deserving of divine wrath? We use words like “god-bothered” when what we mean is “blessed with a connection.” We describe our feelings of awe as helplessness. We imply that we cannot help when the deity horses us, when in fact those who are horsed spend years studying how to do just that. Imagine if someone’s unconscious mind decided to take those statements a bit too literally! Could a deity’s friendly overtures be spun into a nightmarish parody, echoing the worst possible interpretation of our community lingo?
Ritual, combined with our sub-cultural response to ritual, creates the context in which for manifestation to occur. It filters the complex energies of a deity into a simplified form that makes sense in terms of a group’s informal mythology. It tells us what to expect.
Ritual techniques can boost the signal, making whatever manifestation you get stronger. It is possible to inadvertently jack-hammer a person open and jam a connection to a deity where the moon don’t shine. If the manifestation in question and the mortal do not mesh well, the result could be psychologically disastrous.
Could A Mortal’s Unconscious Issues Be The Culprit?
Take a moment to think about the things about which you are now aware. Perhaps you notice your body, or a few memories from your day, or even your childhood, might spring to mind. Maybe you think about what you will do tomorrow. In there, somewhere, might be a few labels that you use to identify yourself, probably limited to your sexuality, gender, dietary preferences and religion, if you are anything like most people in our culture.
Consider the size of that awareness, and compare it to the relative size of every experience you have ever had, whether you were aware of it or not, the things you hide even from yourself, the memories that terrify you, and every bad dream that you never want to think about ever again.
Your soul is a vast and awesome place full of unconscious bigotry, emotional baggage, unprocessed experiences, and every feeling you never wanted to feel.
What makes things worse is that an underlying assumption in Pagan practice is that the unconscious mind is this magical place where all of our insight comes from. Continually affirming our implicit assumption that all of our gnosis must be filtered through the unconscious mind, and our repeated attempts to formulate rituals based on that assumption, may be the singularly worst thing that we do to our ability to perceive deities accurately. It inherently forces our experiences of deities to be mixed in with our psychological issues in a diabolical gumbo of truth, lies, desire, insight, fear and pain. That’s the cauldron, and people with bad gnosis are boiling in it.
As I recently blogged about my easily misunderstood conversations with Dionysos, I am quite aware of how, “Hi, how are you?” might be misconstrued as, “I will kill you and devour your corpse.”
As it is, I catch myself projecting my issues with my mother onto female deities. I can well understand that someone who had pent up anger and guilt about religious dogma might feel that Themis (or the Christian God) was out to get them, or how someone with repressed sexual identity issues might feel hounded by Dionysos, Eros or Aphrodite just for looking at them funny one time.
How Can We, As A Community, Help?
The first thing we can do is to recognize the following:
– Rituals that generate gnosis may be damaging to some people
– People who have bad gnosis are suffering, and we need to help them.
– We need to be particularly careful with individuals who report gnosis without technique; if their gnosis goes bad, they will be in a world of hurt. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t invite them to rituals that have gnostic aims. Rather, it means that they need to be treated to a little extra after-care to make sure they do not have anything jammed open that shouldn’t be jammed open, and that the energies they carry out with them are at least as pure as the ones they had going in.
The next thing we need to do is to develop solutions based on the two fundamental causes of bad gnosis. These are poorly administered rituals with gnostic aims, and negative talk about deities. As preventative measures:
– If you feel angry at a deity, you shouldn’t conduct a ritual for them.
– You should not say things about your deity that could cause others to think poorly of them. This includes depicting them as wrathful, closed-minded, incapable of dealing with being questioned, or oblivious to the fragility of smaller beings.
– Always remember that you chose your faith. A mortal’s right to choose their religion is sacrosanct.
– Make sure that others know and understand the nature of your relationship with your deity before you open up a conduit and share that relationship with others. It may just explain a few things later on.
Once the problems develop, we need to understand the dynamic. Is the problem psychological, or is it etheric? If it is psychological, we should by no means try to treat it. That sort of thing requires a professional psychologist. How can we tell? We should assume the problem is etheric, and if etheric curatives have no effect, we will know that the problem is psychological, and needs to be seen to by a pagan-friendly counsellor.
So, here is the skinny on blocking and grounding.
I’m going to out myself as a bit of a New Ager, and talk about Reiki. Reiki is one of those deals where the practitioner is connected to a limitless source of energy. If they do not start projecting Reiki, no Reiki flows in. Likewise, the more Reiki energy they project out, the more Reiki energy flows in. Follow me so far?
Imagine, though, that it isn’t healing energy, but a sort that the person is allergic to. The more of that energy flows out, the more flows in. The more throughput, the more that energy influences them, and the greater the damage.
When you ground, you are connecting to the Earth, and allowing energy to flow out.
People with bad gnosis are often found with blocked root chakras, if not many other sorts of blocked chakras. Why? In self defense. They need the energy from the deity to stop flowing in. Like a straw in a bubble tea with a tapioca pearl jammed into the bottom, once the root chakra is blocked, it no longer matters how much energy is poured in, how jammed open a conduit might be, or how big the straw is. Everything will just roll down the outside.
The person will ground, the experience will be heinous, and then they will reflexively block their root chakra again. It doesn’t solve the problem.
What we actually need to do is to shut down the person’s connection to the deity in question so that they can heal, both psychologically, and energetically.
“Get off the astral,” is not helpful advice. That is like telling a person with incontinence to “stop peeing so much.” If they could easily avoid the deity, they’d do that, believe me. Blocking sensory chakras will alleviate the problem to an extent, but is by no means a permanent solution. The false idea of the deity is still festering in there, somewhere, and will eventually need release if the person is to fully recover.
What was finally helpful for Gladia was that someone actually invoked the deity she was having trouble with in her presence, told him that his presence was hurting her, begged him, in the spirit of humility, to cut any ties with her that he may have formed, and lay hands on her to facilitate this. Then, using a metal athame dipped in pungent oil (in this case, strongly scented with valerian and lime), cut any rays connecting Gladia to any other being. She was then purified with water and smoke.
Now, it may just be that someone took the time to treat Gladia’s problems as real, and it was this that gave her a sense of closure. However, I did remark that cutting with metal and dispersing with strong smell are two very potent ways of breaking up thought forms. Thus, the ritual called the true essence of the god, asking him to help banish the false manifestation, and then broke up the remainder.
Regardless of the mechanism, this approach worked, and two years later, Gladia was back to her old self… minus being Pagan.
If you are like Gladia, there is hope, but you’ll need a competent priest or priestess to help.
If you know someone like Gladia, connect them with resources that can help them to recover.
It may just be that, with a little preventative care, and a bit of knowhow, we can prevent a lot of suffering, and keep those with gnostic talent healthy, whole and sane.