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The Empty Bucket

Recent conversations with Pagans, in person and online, are bubbling up for me this morning, bringing with them troubling thoughts.

Do we care more about our rituals than we do about our gods?

It's happened more than once, lately, that the response to some concern expressed among us has been a rather pat, "I wrote a really good ritual about that, once."  As though the authorship was the main thing; as though the performance of a ritual script was enough to settle whatever questions living posed us.

I'm not knocking a good ritual.  But surely, the point of ritual is communion, relationship, and change--not carving a notch on a staff or athame.  We seem to think that rituals work if they're good theater, if they move a human audience.

We rarely ask if they are of any interest at all to any other audience.  Indeed, I've heard Pagans go on at length about how nothing any individual one of us can do would ever attract the attention of a god, and that those who think otherwise are fools or deluded... and lucky, as the attention of a god would simply destroy our minds, blow open our psyches and leave us gibbering in a corner.

The gods don't care, the reasoning goes, or if they do, we're unprepared to encounter them in any case.

As for me, I don't see a lot to choose from, between gods who don't care or are unavailable to us, and gods who don't exist.  That polytheism that denies the possibility of a relationship with our gods seems sterile to me, pointless.

Incidentally, I don't feel that way about non-theism.  I know plenty of what might be called "juicy" Pagan non-theists: they may not have much use for gods or goddesses, but their lives are spent in communion with spirits on every side: spirits of ancestors, trees, animals, and places.  Their rituals are not merely theater for their own entertainment, but doorways.

Doorways that lead somewhere.  Wells that bring up water.

Photo by Zserghei
Sometimes I think that, for many of us in the Pagan world, we found a well that gave us water once, but when it ran dry, we neither searched elsewhere for water nor attempted to dig the well deeper, but instead sat down and worshiped an empty bucket.

Too much of the conversation I hear among Pagans strikes me as an invitation to worship an empty bucket, and that makes me sad.

The gods are real, and there is good water everywhere, if you know--not so much how to look, but that looking is a possibility.


natcase said…
This is true of any theater: if you're doing it well enough for whatever human audience you get (or think you'll get), you end up cheating them and yourself. Do it for a household god, do it for the Big Universal, do it for your imaginary friend... but you need to do it for something bigger than what you see in front of you. Thanks Cat.
Scylla said…
The Empty Bucket has often been my experience with public, pagan, ritual. There seems to even be a fear of the "Water" and the "Well" and sometimes the "Bucket" too, to carry the metaphor.
Nicole Youngman said…
I'm probably close to one of the "non-theists" you mention in my perspective. For me, being a pantheist makes these kinds of things much easier to deal with. I don't really make a distinction between "the gods" and the basil (although aphids are clearly of the devil ;)). Rituals ARE for the humans performing them, in my view, but they do serve to help us to connect with what's bigger than us.
What Nicole said.........
TPW said…
What you describe sounds more like therapy than a religion, but that's not surprising. The momentum of our culture had been towards secularization since before Rome was Christianized - maybe watching their old gods get replaced by watered-down versions of the Greek ones jaded the Romans before anyone else started to question the forces of the divine.

No matter the reason, it was happening before Christianity got big, and it is implicitly assumed to be part of so-called "civilization." I told a friend recently that I worship the literal Greek gods, not a metaphor, and his eyes almost popped from his head and rolled out of the room.

Pagans are not immune to this tendency, because no one wants to feel stupid. The risk of being laughed at is just below the surface for most of us, and it shapes our theology. Because it's a minority view it's all the harder to believe it.
Kathleen said…
This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, "We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves..... Margaret Fell's version of finding herself in that empty bucket, perhaps?

Thank you for these words that speak to me to the heart of an important place of wisdom, regardless of its naming or theology. May we all reside wherever we are intentionally, and experientially, as we continue to seek that Water.
Anonymous said…
there seems to be a great deal of judgement, and concern for "credibility" in parts of popular Paganism, which is a great waste, and doesn't by any means lead to greater realism. Yet it seems to me that so much of modern Paganism hinges upon individual direct experience for its appeal and value. I too have heard people put down others for their experiences of gods, and their relationships with their gods. But who can judge? It is a strange performance then, like someone arguing over whether water exists, or if anyone could drink it and not go mad. I'm sure Rumi must have written about this kind of thing somewhere. Taste the water I am tasting, then talk about wetness
Steve Hayes said…
Christians seem to have a smilar problem, where for many "worship" has become a synonym for "musical entertainment".

Perhaps it's the Zeitgeist.
dburns2 said…
I agree with you completely...this has bothered me also. I wish you could come to our rituals...we do not worship "an empty bucket".
I relate to this post. I don't tend to be good at rituals, due largely to being dyspraxic. It is a problem, and was indeed when I was trying to follow Christian traditions.

I tend to choose a meditative, prayerful style of worship. I do feel that I make a genuine connection with the goddess Rhiannon, and have felt her power in my life. I sometimes become very disillusioned and feel inadequate and as if I shouldn't call myself "Pagan" - but that is when I have lost sight of my personal relationship with the gods, and the true meaning of my faith. It surely isn't all about complex spells and rituals. It is about trying to achieve an authentic relationship with The Divine.

I certainly struggle with the issues myself. Please see:, where I have often talked about the complexities of my own faith.
Anonymous said…
My ceremonies tend to be so subtle people don't recognize them as ceremony. Leaving bread offerings near treas in the park for example. I have noticed this tread you write about for years in paganism and is one reason I tend to exist on the fringes doing my own thing.

My views of deities is not of persons I have relationships with but are relationships themselves. I don't have gods from cultures that are not my own, which includes ancient European deities from places where my genetic progenitors came from. Instead my gods are love and life, I am big on the atmosphere, the laws of physics, that sort of thing. In essence I try to work with the here and now on a trans-personal level not an interpersonal one. I call my self a naturalistic polytheist.

The trend to focus on ceremony bothers me, and I think the other commenter make a good point that the meaning gets lost in the theatrics. For me ceremony is a form of communication with a trans-personal reality. So, I really don't understand the interpersonal relationship with deities; I tried it once and I felt like I was talking to my self.

With that said I like what you have to say, and find the Quaker influence interesting, having a passing flirtation with Quakerism myself. Being that my form of private and public worship parallels that of un-programmed meetings.

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