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The Paradox of Evil in Wiccan Theology

The Paradox of Evil in Wiccan Theology
Copyright 1997 by Lynna Landstreet.
Wild Ideas

“The Problem of Evil” is a challenging question for any religion, but perhaps especially so for Wicca. And for Wicca, perhaps uniquely, “The Problem of Good” could be said to be equally challenging.

Unlike the monotheistic religions that predominate in our society, Wicca does not have, on a theological level, a polarized concept of good and evil. Christianity and the other major monotheistic religions tend to envision their God as the epitome of good. This necessitates a counterbalance in the form of Satan, as the epitome of evil, if the presence of phenomena which go against the prevailing definition of good is to be explained. Thus, evil, for these religions, is a conscious, directed force in opposition to the force of good personified by God. Even those adherents of mainstream churches who do not believe in Satan as a literal entity still view evil as that which is opposed to God.

For Wiccans and other neo-pagans, this paradigm does not work. The ancient polytheistic religions from which we draw our inspiration did not, in most cases, have a polarized concept of good and evil. They had a multiplicity of deities, representing many different facets of nature and human nature. Certainly there were deities in virtually every culture which dealt with what could be termed the “darker” side of existence — war, death, disease, chaos, vengeance and other unpleasant things — but these were not generally regarded as “evil” in the sense that the Christian devil is. They were — and are — gods and goddesses, divinities in their own right, not anti-gods or counterbalances to an all-good divinity.

This point is further brought out by the tendency of modern Wiccan theology to consider the many gods and goddesses of mythology as aspects of one God and one Goddess, who are in turn seen as the male and female aspects of the one formless all-divine which we in this tradition refer to as the Source. If the dark gods and goddesses are aspects of the same Lord and Lady as the bright ones, then surely they are equally divine. I have heard this belief expressed by some Wiccans as “Our gods are not good or evil, they simply are.”

However, this leaves Wiccans and other polytheists in a problematic position, theologically, morally and personally, when it comes to dealing with the harsher side of life represented by those deities. We may not consider their domains to be evil as such, but neither do we consider them to be exactly desirable. We may pay homage to Hades, Arawn or Erishkegal at Samhain, but we are not in a hurry to visit their realms ourselves, and we tend to take as dim a view of sending others there prematurely in the form of murder, as do other religions. But what theological grounds do we have for making that judgement? If death is as sacred as life, how can it be wrong to kill?

We can, of course, invoke our belief in karma. If we do not wish to be killed ourselves, then we should not kill others. But again, if death and the deities that embody it are as holy as any others, on what basis can we say that dying is undesirable? Does a desire to stay alive, and corresponding obligation to respect others’ desires to do so, mean that we are disrespecting or neglecting the deities of death? We can also point to the Wiccan Rede: An it harm none, do as ye will. But where is the theological basis for the Rede? If the deities presiding over various forms of harm are legitimate aspects of divinity, how can harm be wrong? If Hades is a valid a deity as Hephaestus, then why is being a serial killer any morally different than being a blacksmith?

On an intuitive level, these questions will, of course, seem absurd. The vast majority of Wiccans do not, in practice, profess anywhere near the degree of moral neutrality that our theology would appear to imply. We are quite confident that we know the difference between a serial killer and a blacksmith, and would probably consider anyone who did not to be a clinical psychopath. But while it may be reassuring to know that our fellow Wiccans do in fact have a standard of ethics that would disallow their taking up careers as serial killers, it is nonetheless unsettling to realize that there appears to be no basis in our theology for that ethical standard.

Perhaps, then, we need to look at our theology at a deeper level — not just the nature and domain of the various deities, but the question of what divinity in itself is to us, and how we perceive it as manifesting in our lives. One aspect of this that has been cited by some neo-pagan writers (notably Starhawk) as being a basis for a uniquely pagan standard of ethics is the concept of immanent divinity. While not all pagans view divinity in precisely the same way as does Starhawk, some notion of divinity as immanent within the natural world, whether or not combined with a belief in transcendent divinity as well, is common to most branches of Wicca and many other forms of neo-paganism as well. And this, at first glance, would appear to offer a solution to the problem of evil: if every living thing is a unique manifestation of divinity, then surely it is wrong, evil even, to harm or kill living things. Any harm done to any living being is a harm done to the gods themselves.

However, this line of thought poses its own problems. The biological nature of animal life, including human life, is such that each animal must feed on other living things, be those plants or other animals. As Starhawk herself notes, life feeds on life. [1] Everywhere in nature, living things are destroyed by other living things, and often in singularly painful and unpleasant ways. The psychologist Ernest Becker wrote in 1973:

What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types — biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue…
Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures.

Freud gradually came to see that the evil in the world is not only in the insides of people but on the outside, in nature — which is why he became more realistic and pessimistic in his later work.

Whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. [2]

While Becker’s description of the world could perhaps be called overly melodramatic, it nonetheless underlines why the view of divinity as immanent within nature is no less morally problematic than any other. To state that all life is divine, and yet that is natural for some parts of the divine to destroy others, leaves us in the same moral void as before.

How then, are we as pagans to find a moral compass to guide us through this “nightmare spectacular” that is firmly rooted in our theology, unfailingly backed up by the authority of the divine? While other neo-pagan traditions will need to find their own answers to this question, for us as Wiccans I think the answer may lie in the key theological concept and ritual symbol that lies at the heart of our specific religion: the model of polarity expressed by the union of the God and Goddess.

While this polarity can be viewed in many different ways, at the deepest level it is the union of life and death, creation and destruction, eros and thanatos. We see it expressed in each ritual in the form of the wine blessing, in which a knife, which in other circumstances could be an instrument of death, is conjoined with a cup representing the womb of the goddess, the primal sea from which life first arose. It is this union of the life-force and death-force that provides the key to the paradox: that the path of morality, of right action, for Wiccans, lies in balance. Rather than conceiving of morality as a simple linear scale from good at one end to evil at the other, we might choose to imagine a circle, wherein the two ends of the scale meet, since unbounded creation ultimately results in destruction, whether that be in the form of cancer, or the endless growth ethic of industrial society.

If the terms good and evil are relevant to Wiccans at all, then good lies in the balance of life and death, and evil is that which neglects or breaks that balance. Wanton destruction is evil, but so is the obsessive focus on growth and gain and increase that we see so much of in today’s society. Morality, and sanity, lie in the acceptance of both the limiting influence of the death-force and the burgeoning fertility of the life-force, both the binding and controlling force of order and the freeing, transgressive force of chaos.

Does this leave us with an absolute, incontrovertible, moral standard, an easy set of rules by which to judge the morality of any given action? No, it doesn’t. But perhaps those seeking absolutes and easy answers should not be practicing witchcraft in the first place. For our path does not lie in the harsh light of day or the impenetrable blackness of night, but in the shadowy twilight between. We live between the worlds, walking a winding path through an ever-changing landscape, and it there that we must find our answers, not in a set of artificial absolutes or false certainties that ultimately have no relationship to our lives, or our lives, or our Gods.

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979, p. 162.
Becker, Ernest.

The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973, pp. 282-283. Quoted in Roszak, Theodore. The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology. New York: Touchstone, 1992, p. 59.

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